Friday, October 26, 2012

Enough? vs. Enough!

I consider it a privilege to serve in the center of the city of Washington. I love urban ministry. I take delight in living in the midst of the city where one can walk many places or rely upon public transportation, interact with a wide range of people on a regular basis, and have a mind that is constantly inspired to think.

But there are times when I loathe living in the city.

I get tired of people always asking me for something.

There are many days when I am tempted to put my head down and walk or drive in autopilot instead of allowing my eyes to make contact with the eyes of a person in need.

But something recently happened that is causing me to think again. It is a story I shared in my sermon on Sunday morning and one I am still reflecting upon.

I was riding in the car with my colleague, Alisa. We had experienced a magnificent morning of prayer practices, connecting our bodies with our spirituality through the gift of a Paulist priest and a grant given to six clergywomen in our annual conference. Our morning of stretching, twisting and praying was followed by a delightful lunch on the sidewalk of a neighborhood pizza place where we were all encouraged to order our own individual pizza only to discover that our table of six women needed three pies instead of six. When our bellies were filled and our souls satisfied, we had our leftovers wrapped in foil that concealed the pizza we planned to bring home to our partners. The shiny packages were placed in our bags as we hopped in the car and made our way home.

The car had stopped at a busy intersection where I am trained to keep my focus straight ahead instead of looking at the people on the sidewalk who regularly approach cars waiting for a green light. I did what I always do - look ahead - while Alisa looked outside the window - my window.

Are you hungry? I heard her ask as I turned my gaze to match hers. I don't know what exactly transpired next but I remember reaching into my bag while saying out loud, "We have food!" A moment later I was rolling down the window and handing over our two packages of pizza. We then watched....and learned a lesson.

The man took the two packages and immediately handed one to a friend waiting on a bench. They both sat down and started to eat with a pace that confirmed that the answer to Alisa's initial question was, in fact, "Yes." They were hungry. The two pieces of pizza in each package were consumed before our light turned green.

The man who gave one package of pizza to a friend never examined the packages before handing one over. He did not peek inside to see if one package had something he liked better than the contents of the other package. He did not hold the packages up to see if one weighed more than the other or if one had three pieces while the other had two pieces. He received two packages and immediately gave one to someone with a similar need to be satisfied.

How often do we do the same?

Do we ever give without first evaluating whether we have enough? How often are we given the equivalent of two packages of pizza and quickly consume them both when we could have been satisfied with one, allowing someone else to be satisfied at the same time? How often do we give joyfully because there is a need without asking how our giving might negatively impact us - whether it is our time, our talent or our resources?

The man was hungry but he revealed one of my hungers as he took our leftover pizza.

I long to live a life where the word, "enough" has an exclamation point behind it - a life where I can always see the abundance God has given to me - instead of being in a place where I am regularly asking, Is there enough? or Will there be enough for ME if I share what has been given to me?

God goes to great lengths to help the Israelites see the power of taking just enough when God rains bread from heaven, providing manna in the wilderness. The Israelites then learn what happens when they take more than enough - the leftovers spoil.

In what ways are we being invited to share?

The words are rather beautiful. Read them once more. "I have enough!"

Friday, October 19, 2012

What Would Make Your Heart Sing?

What would make your heart sing? 

I was first exposed to the Lilly Endowment's deep impact upon seminaries, churches, pastors and other organizations while serving as the Director of Admissions at Duke Divinity School. The Lilly Endowment funded unique scholarships and fellowships that attracted the best and the brightest to our entering class. Students were able to serve in exceptional congregations around the country for a summer, growing in their pastoral formation in transformational ways. I have since benefited from the generosity of the Lilly Endowment in other life-giving ways - through my work with the Fund for Theological Education, a summer writing program at the Collegeville Institute, and now with the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Seminary. The Lilly Endowment has had a profound impact upon the church - and upon my life.

And it is the Lilly Endowment that has caused me to ponder, dream and reflect upon what would really make my heart sing. A creative and passionate team of people was pulled together last spring to help clarify my response while asking the same question for our congregation. Together we dreamed of a summer of deep engagement - intentional time to engage deeply with Jesus, deeply with our city and deeply with each other.

We dreamed about what would enable our congregation to take additional risks in their discipleship while also going away to escape the fumes and demands of city life. We dreamed about our children and how to bring more vitality to our ministry of sharing the love of God with them. We dreamed about how we can better see and experience Jesus by going to the places where Jesus most tangibly dwells in our city. And we came up with a plan.

We would invite my teacher, mentor and friend and his wife to spend six weeks with us, filling the pulpit and leading an evening session of learning. We would seek to learn as much as we can from the Church of the Saviour and their ministries in our city. We would go away for a weekend on retreat. We would do yoga together and create some pottery or paintings. And we would enjoy a grand morning of music.

At the same time, my dreams for a summer of deep engagement started to become clearer. I would travel to Iona with Craig, a thin place where I have always longed to encounter God. I would go back to London, a place where I lived as a college student but have not returned to in nearly 20 years. I would develop deep rhythms of life in Washington - starting with putting my health in the first priority by working out with a personal trainer four days a week and then seeking to offer myself to different organizations in ministry with the poor in our city. I'd take an acting class, get a few massages and read books because they bring me joy and not because I need a great sermon illustration. I'd go to New York City with Craig for a weekend, stay out until midnight on Saturday night and perhaps go to Mass and Sunday brunch with him, relishing the gift of a Sabbath together. I'd go back to South Africa - to the place where I experienced my call to let go of success and comfort in order to return to the city and take on a church that was close to death instead of exhibiting signs of life. I'd visit the places of pain and hope that turned my world upside down. I'd see the church in action. And, I'd look for God's creative touch up close and personal through a safari.

Each piece of the application was carefully crafted, printed and placed in an envelope last May. Postmarked to Indianapolis, I said a prayer in the Post Office while asking for a return receipt. We then waited...

And then we learned that some dreams come true.

Monday, October 08, 2012

I've Been There

The food was quite different, forcing a constant craving within me for Chinese dumplings. The preferred method of eating was with chopsticks instead of silver forks. Traffic was far more intense than the height of a Washington rush hour. And yet, there were many things that were the same.

Starbucks was easy to find. M&M candies and Snicker's chocolate bars were sold in most stores. The weather remained within five degrees of what was forecasted in Washington. And, I never had to change my watch. When we landed in Beijing at 2:20 in the afternoon, my body said it was 2:20 in the morning. Still, I sought to quickly fast-forward my body an entire twelve hours.

When I was arising the next day at 6:00 in the morning, I thought about how my husband, Craig, was likely preparing to leave work. When I was preparing to go to bed at 9:30 at night, I thought about how Craig's work day was just beginning. My prayers started to take on a new shape and form as I interceded on behalf of the people at home - those twelve and thirteen hours behind.

"God, it's been an incredible day. Thank you for all of the people we have encountered and the sights we have seen. As I reflect on the goodness of this day, I pray that you would give Craig an equally wonderful day as he goes to work and then spends time with friends."

On Sunday evening, my prayer went something like this, "What a joy it was to see so many people in church today. Thank you for the witness of strong women leading the church. Thank you for the songs that were sung and the people who welcomed us. Please be with my people as they prepare to gather. Bless James who will preach in my absence today. Be with Rachel as she leads the people through the liturgy. Help all who have gathered to receive a blessing."

There is something powerful about going through a day before the people you love start the day. There is something really profound about reflecting upon the gifts of a day and wanting the same gifts for the people you love at home.

I'd like to think that God has similar desires for us all the time.

In the book of Deuteronomy, when God is making a leadership transition near the end of Moses' life, God speaks through Moses, telling Joshua to be bold and be strong. Moses then says, "It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed: (Deuteronomy. 31:8). What an amazing gift - to know that God has gone before us - that God is ahead of us - that God knows where one is going and that no matter how many obstacles stand in our way, God has already crossed them.

We receive this same gift from Jesus. We believe God was incarnate in Jesus - that Jesus was born in a borrowed barn, tempted in every way, and that he knows suffering and joy. God knows the exaltation that comes with a hug, the pain that accompanies sore feet or the piercing nuisance of a headache. God has been there, done that, felt that, experienced that.

I'm not willing to preach a sermon about the marriage of Jesus. I know several people who had their feathers ruffled by the recent discovery of a papyrus that mentions the wife of Jesus. We much prefer a faith that is figured out instead of one that is changing. But if Jesus was married, then he's gone before us in one of the biggest blessings and challenges of life, too. Marriage is a source of constant joy, laughter and blessings. At the same time, it requires an unlimited supply of give and take, confession and forgiveness, grace and patience. Not all dreams for marriage come true whether it is the children who have been named during an engagement but are never conceived or the multiple anniversary celebrations that do not come to fruition because a partner becomes unfaithful. If Jesus was married, then I can only imagine how much he intercedes on behalf of my marriage and every other married couple. There is something about this thought that is rather delightful to me - no matter how unorthodox the thought might be.

What kind of pain are you experiencing right now?

What is it that causes you anxiety when you are longing for peace?

What situation in life is weighing you down?

Imagine a God who has been there - one who knows exactly what you are going through. Consider the weight of your pain, and know that God is not only with you but God has felt that pain, too. And think about a God who knows the greatest joys and blessings of life and longs for you to have the very same joys and blessings.

I think God is like that.

I'm grateful that God has been there already.