Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - A Year in Review

It's been a rather remarkable year.

I've learned the power of prayer as my father was quickly scheduled for open heart surgery, and I became the one begging for prayer instead of showing up to pray as a pastor often does.

I've been on the receiving end of extraordinary generosity through the Lilly Endowment's National Clergy Renewal program. The grant enabled me to have an extended time away from the church in which I traveled to the tiny island of Iona in Scotland, revisited the city of London where I had not been since college, and smooched my husband in a park in Paris. I had time to go to the gym regularly and work out with my trainer. I took a bus to New York City by myself and saw three Broadway shows in three days. I went to Missouri to be with Dad following his surgery. I took my niece to South Africa where we encountered people who opened our hearts in powerful ways before beholding the beauty of the land at a game reserve. I've learned the importance of time away and am profoundly grateful to have had a summer with funding to do what makes my heart sing. The summer changed my life in real and tangible ways.

I walked on to the floor of the United States House of Representatives, journeying into space where I had not been since I left the Hill to go to seminary in 1997. This time, rather than giving a tour to constituents, I stood behind the same podium where the President gives the State of the Union in order to open the House in prayer. The prayer was composed of the most carefully crafted 150 words ever, and while there were hardly any people there with Congress away, it was a great gift to have my former Washington life collide with my current Washington life. I loved it!

I've watched Emmanuel, God with us, show up time and again in the church where I have been privileged to serve for the last 8.5 years. When our congregation made the decision to become a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network four years ago, we knew it was important to do everything possible to welcome people who are often turned away from the church and specifically LGBT people. What we did not know then is the fuller picture of the difference a wider welcome would have on our church. This wide welcome has created a beautiful picture of the kingdom of God as we grow more diverse in every possible way - housed and unhoused, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, white and black, US born and immigrant. God has done and is doing a mighty thing in this place. I would not trade it for anything and am humbled and thankful to be the pastor at this place where people are regularly struggling with what it means to be faithful in downtown Washington.

I've fallen in love with Craig all over again. My father regularly says he could not live with either one of us but he's glad we've found each other. In Craig, I see what God meant when God first called us to live in community in the book of Genesis. Craig is my biggest source of support, my loudest cheerleader, and my partner in life who brings pure joy through sharing the ordinary tasks of life. Our family is not as big as we imagined it would be when preparing for marriage, but we are so grateful to have each other.

There is a bit of sadness as this year comes to a close as so many hopes and dreams have come to fruition in the last twelve months. And yet, I also eagerly anticipate 2014 because I know God is with us and working powerfully in my life. There is a clear sense of being on a journey, and I cannot wait to see where the journey leads.

It's a rather wonderful life, I do believe.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What If....

What if we woke up every morning and said "thank you?"

What if we regularly expressed gratitude to friends and family for the gifts of their love, generosity, acceptance, or for simply showing up when we need them?

What if we thanked God for warm beds, ample food, hands, feet, minds, health insurance or any of the things we so often take for granted?

What if we wrote at least one thank you note a week?

What if we started each meal with a blessing, never taking a bite without saying "thanks?"

What if we looked every employee of the coffee shop, dry cleaner, grocery store or gas station in the eye and offered heart-felt gratitude for their labor?

What if we climbed in bed each night and sought to recall all the blessings of the day?

What if we thanked God each day for passionately pursuing us, loving us and forgiving us?

What if we treated every single day as though it were Thanksgiving?

Psalm 100 
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth. Serve the LORD with gladness; Come before God with joyful singing. Know that the LORD is God; It is God who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are God's people and the sheep of God's pasture. Enter God's gates with thanksgiving, And God's courts with praise. Give thanks to God; bless God's name. For the LORD is good; God's lovingkindness is everlasting, And His faithfulness to all generations.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

What Did Not Change This Week

Dear Beloved Mount Vernon Place Congregation:

The United Methodist Church has been making the news a lot this week. Our beloved church has garnered space just inside the front page of the Washington Post and countless other newspapers. We have been mentioned on the television news far and wide. We've made quite the splash, garnering attention that we have not received for a while. But the attention is not because of the good we are doing. None of the stories mention how much we donated for relief efforts in the Philippines last week. I've not seen anything on what we are doing to end hunger or homelessness. Rather, I, along with many of you, have read stories and accounts of a trial in Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, my colleague, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, pastor of the Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, was found guilty of performing a same sex wedding and not upholding the discipline of the United Methodist Church. The trial was the result of complaints that were filed several years after Rev. Schaefer presided at the marriage of his son in Massachusetts (by the son of a former disgruntled employee of the church). On Wednesday, a thirteen person jury punished Rev. Schaefer with a 30-day suspension during which he must decide if he can fully embrace the entire Book of Discipline or surrender his credentials - giving up his ordination. I don't know of any parent of three gay children who could possibly say "yes" to what the church is asking of Rev. Schaefer. When many of us will be welcoming guests and members to our Christmas Eve services, there is a chance that Rev. Frank Schaefer will be Frank with no "Reverend" in front of his name.

There is nothing good coming out of this trial. I'm not sure there is ever anything good that comes from a church trial. When the church is so broken that we "try" ministry in the same format that criminals are tried in our communities, there is no chance of anyone winning. While the Good News movement may claim victory in this trial, everyone lost. Our denomination is losing - losing faithful pastors, deeply committed members, and the chance of being in ministry with and to hundreds of thousands of people around us who cannot fathom being part of such a judgmental, broken body.

Some of you have spoken out on Facebook, questioning your involvement in the United Methodist Church. Others of you have sent me emails making sure that I am okay in the midst of all that is happening in our church. I want to assure you that I am okay. I also want to assure you that we are okay. Mount Vernon Place has not changed.

If I have one message to proclaim - one sermon to preach - it is the sermon that we are all deeply beloved by God. The God I know and seek to follow is one who is foolishly in love with all of God's creation - one who goes to great lengths to capture our attention and woo us until we finally give in to God's relentless desire to be in relationship with us. This God longs for us to live lives that are different as a result of God's presence in our lives - lives of generosity, service and sacrifice - lives in which we seek to fully love God and neighbor. The trial in Pennsylvania did not change this message.

A specific prayer led me out of my role as Director of Admissions at Duke Divinity School and back to the local church: "God, take me out of my place of comfort and success. Give me a heart for hurting and broken people. Make me more prophetic." In my 13 years of professional ministry, I've had more conversations with gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have been hurt by the church than any other group. I've never seen the church work so hard to keep a person or people away as we do individuals who are gay or lesbian. My heart hurts for the message conveyed to my LGBT brothers and sisters and now re-conveyed by our Council of Bishops and the jury in Pennsylvania. The trial in Pennsylvania did not change my heart for hurting and broken people.

We are part of a church with a wedding policy that states that any active member can be married in our church by our pastor. We wrestled as a congregation over how unfair it was for a couple with no connection to our church to be able to pay to get married in our sanctuary while saying "no" to same sex couples who faithfully live out their discipleship through the ministries of our church. I have wrestled with how many couples I have married who had no business getting married while being told by my denomination that I cannot marry couples with relationships that have stood the test of time - couples who adore each other and have Christ at the center. The trial in Pennsylvania has not changed our policy as a congregation or my call to be a pastor who offers the same blessing and pastoral care to all of our members.

We begin every Sunday morning with the words, "No matter where you have been or where you have failed to be, what you have said or what you have failed to say, what you have done or what you have failed to do, or who you love or who you have failed to love, you are welcome here." The trial in Pennsylvania has not changed this welcome. In fact, it's made me want to fling open our doors even wider. All are welcome at Mount Vernon Place. Nothing about this welcome has changed.

We have an important role to play as a Reconciling Congregation. We are called to actively seek change in our denomination. We are also called to be the most faithful expression of Christ's body in downtown Washington that we can be. There is much hurt and pain around us. God can use us to heal this pain. I believe with my whole heart that we can play a role in ending child hunger, homelessness and sex-trafficking in our city. I believe with my whole heart that we can be a real, authentic community for people who have 1000 friends of Facebook but no one to call on Friday night. I believe we can make a difference. May we be this church - as faithfully and as fully as we can - with as many beloved children of God in our midst.

See you tonight for Charge Conference and on Sunday for worship.

Thank you for the precious privilege of being your pastor,
Donna

P.S. If you're reading this blog and not part of a church, you're abundantly welcome to #MeetMeAtMVP on Sunday @ 11. I love our church - a lot.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Luggage and Simple Roots

 
There were many times when I complained about going to their house. I was and am a city kid, and they live on a farm. They did not love me in tangible ways like my other grandma who always tucked me in at night. They gave me an antique bed once, and a few quilts at other times, but they never spoiled me with surprises. I never heard the words, "I love you," until just a few years ago. When my parents went through a divorce I wrongly concluded that I did not need them in my life, and I kept distance between us for ten years - creating a gulf that was wide enough to promote the sale of the bed and prevent even a phone call.
 
I then preached my first sermon, "I Never Knew How Heavy It Was Until I Stopped Carrying My Luggage" - a sermon on forgiveness. I was going off to seminary, getting my life in order, and the sermon was inspired by them. I had carried around all kinds of hurt and resentment for years, and I knew I needed to be reconciled with them. I knew I needed to stop turning away from them and somehow turn back towards them. And like a prodigal child, they welcomed me. No questions were asked. No fingers were pointed. They simply welcomed me, and then they started loving me - even telling me that they loved me.
 
We celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary two years ago, and they sat on a swing holding hands as if they were newlyweds. And as I look at these pictures I realize again how simple they are as they are each wearing the same shirts in different photos taken on different days. I wonder if they ever owned more than five shirts at a time, come to think of it.
 

Grandpa Archie died on Monday after a battle with Alzheimer's and the pain of shingles. I shall miss his one-of-a-kind voice and remarkable sense of humor. But I am at peace. I know that what was once separated was brought together. I know that what was broken was healed. And I am thankful.

Thank you, Grandpa Archie, for the million memories you gave to me. You told me the world was going to hell in a hand basket before telling me to always vote Democratic. You made me love the FDR Memorial more than any other memorial in Washington because he was your favorite President. You have made me smile when I see cigars because you often had half-chewed cigars all over the house. You instilled within me a love of the newspaper and a hot cup of coffee with a cookie on the side. You helped me to appreciate the land and know the gift of just enough rain mixed with an appropriate amount of sunshine. You gave me permission to splurge every once in a while because only God knows how much you spent on collecting antiques and baseball cards. And you taught me the gift of holding on to your partner for life, even making sure that she was still sitting right by your bed 72 years later holding your hand through the night because you did not want to be alone in the end.

I did not always understand you, and I certainly did not always appreciate you. But I now appreciate you more than you'll ever know. You've taught me a lot about the good life.

Well done, thy good and faithful servant. May you rest in peace and rise in glory. I promise to try to call Grandma more often until you're together again.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A New Level of Awareness

We are told all the time to "be aware." Be aware of who is walking down the sidewalk with you. Be aware of who might be around you when you unlock the door to your car or home. Be aware of how people are driving around you. Be aware.

There are other times we are told to be aware of our actions, words or behavior. Be aware of how you externally process things before you process them first internally. Be aware of how your dress projects an image you may not want to project. Be aware of how your inability to keep your mouth shut can hurt you. Be aware.

I consider myself a rather sympathetic person who does a good job of being aware of who or what is around me. I like to think of myself as one who walks softly when there is fear or sadness in a room. But I've recently come to realize how totally unaware I can be.

Having reached the age of 40, I now know I am to schedule an annual mammogram. I showed up at the appointed time earlier this month and walked into a waiting room filled with nearly two dozen women. Almost everyone in the room was quiet.  Many women had their faces half covered by a magazine. Others were watching the Cosby Show on the television set. I walked into the room without a care in the world, taking a seat until my name was called, at which point I went to another waiting area where a half a dozen women were seated with a hospital gown replacing whatever shirt or clothing they were wearing. I thought nothing about it. It was a routine appointment for me, and surely for everyone around me as well.

But I went back into that waiting room on Tuesday morning with a different level of awareness. I had been called back after being told the first results were inconclusive. There was something on my left breast, something I found for myself in a matter of moments last Thursday evening. I had spent the weekend planning for the worst, pondering how on earth I would fit in radiation or chemotherapy treatments in an already full schedule, deciding that I'd give up my breasts over my hair in a heartbeat, wondering if my early premonitions of being one who would die young were actually coming true. And, I became totally aware of who was in the room with me on Tuesday morning. I sought to observe every cue around me, taking note of the woman who told the receptionist that nothing had changed with her insurance since she was there last week. I prayed for the woman sitting next to the only man in the room, assuming she needed a partner or a friend to be there for her in the event of receiving challenging news. I looked to see who had eyes that were puffy like mine because we could not contain our tears as we made our way to 21st block of K Street. The room was a completely different place than it was just 13 days before. There was nothing routine about it.

I left the office last Tuesday with a lightness in my step upon hearing the news that I have what the doctor called a "beautiful cyst." But I cannot stop thinking about the other women in that room - or similar rooms where my journey takes me each week.

I've thought a lot about who comes into the room known as the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Who is here today because they have run out of options or places to turn? Who is here because they are desperate to find shelter for the storms of life? Who is here because the adversity of life is piling too high? Who is here because their spouse left them, their partner cheated on them, their job was eliminated, they've been told they are non-essential, they have recently come out to their parents, the bill collectors keep calling, the house is being foreclosed, the job they really wanted is going to someone else, the promotion did not come through, no one seems to care, a scary diagnosis has just been received, the medical tests are inconclusive, the knot in the breast seems to be growing, the pregnancy test turned out negative again, the third miscarriage has been endured, the child cannot stay out of trouble, and the list goes on. We often assume we know what's happening in the people who are close to us, but rarely do we really know. And we are often surrounded by people who are going through something so challenging that we would quickly change our demeanor towards them if we knew. But we are unaware.

The Cleveland Clinic posted a powerful video about all the scenarios that can be present as one walks through a hospital. The video starts with a Thoreau quote, "Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?"

I pray each day to be the kind of pastor who not only sees pain but shows up in the pain. I pray our congregation is one that can take note of who is around us, sometimes moving closer to sit next to one who seems alone, is softly crying, or one we know to be going through a challenging time. I pray we will be people who silently pray for the people in the pews with us, understanding that many people return to church or come for the first time because something is missing, or life is just downright hard, or they need real community.

What would it mean for us to look through each other's eyes? What does it look like for us to seek to be aware - not out of a place of fear or self-improvement - but out of a real desire to be fully present in the pain around us?

God, continue to raise my level of awareness.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Where Are You in the Pain, Church?

 I've spent most of August as a pilgrim in South Africa. It was on a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope to South Africa in 2004 when I experienced a new call upon my life. I was in what some would say the height of my career as the Director of Admissions at Duke Divinity School at the time when I journeyed around the world to allow my eyes to see more pain, racism and poverty than they had ever seen before. I returned home from that journey with a very specific prayer on my lips - one I would never have had the courage to form on my own. "God, take me out of my place of comfort and success. Give me a heart for hurting and broken people. Make me more prophetic."

After praying this prayer for a few days, I found myself making an appointment with the Dean of the school and letting him know that I knew God was leading me back into the local church. God then answered my prayer with a call to come to Washington in 2005 and enter a new wilderness that was pregnant with possibility.

I've now returned home from South Africa with a different prayer on my lips and a myriad of thoughts to ponder. I realize more than ever that my relationship with the church is a mixed bag. I adore the church for who she can be when she really is living, loving and speaking like Jesus. I can hardly stand the church when she is failing to show up where needed or pushing people outside by condemning some, particularly for who they love. There's little about me that is lukewarm when it comes to the church. I'm either hot or cold.

Once again, a portion of our time in South Africa was spent in the margins with people who have so little that I'm not sure I can even begin to understand or relate to their lives. We passed dozens of informal settlements like the one pictured here. We stopped to journey and spend time with people in two of them, opening conversations that provided two of the most meaningful days in the country. And one question kept emerging. It's a question we asked. It's a question the person we were journeying with asked. It's a question we both asked of a current bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

Tell me, where is the church in the midst of informal settlements?

What kinds of ministries are emerging through the church in the midst of so much dire poverty?

Where is the church when it comes to communities that are emerging because they have nowhere else to go?

We never got a satisfactory answer from anyone though it was a courageous pastor who led us into an informal settlement with a church member who lives on the edge one day and a courageous woman whose ministry is part of a Methodist Church who took us on another day to see a school that ministry is leading in another settlement. (Yes, the picture above of the one building with the door open is a preschool where kids are learning from a remarkably gifted teacher who is funded by the UMC).

But I wonder what kind of a response my own church would offer today if people came from far off lands to ask similar questions in Washington or North Carolina, Texas or California?

Tell me, where is the church when it comes to pain, poverty and brokenness?

Why can we not see more of the church at work in these places?

When I arrived downtown to worship last Sunday morning at a nearby church, I arrived early enough that I did not want to go in quite yet so I sat in my car and looked around. I was next to a park where some eight people were still covered in grey blankets distributed by the city. I had already passed dozens of additional people sleeping outside including a child lined up on a sidewalk.

Two days later I heard a news story with interviews of teachers and principals sharing how many of their students are coming to school hungry. The majority of our teachers in this city have at least one student who is hungry when she or he arrives to learn. Many children have lost a significant amount of weight during the summer because they have not had access to school provided meals.

Where is the church in these places?

What are we doing to end homelessness in Washington?

What are we doing to feed hungry kids?

The congregation of which I am privileged to be a part has done some amazing work this summer. I've just received a final report from a task force that was established to think and discern what our response should be when we have so many people sleeping on our porches at night, using the corners of the buildings for bathrooms, and storing loads of stuff on the edge of the property during the day. There are no easy answers. The group has dreamed big about adding lockers and portable potties to the property while also thinking about what it would take for us to start providing some shelter and hiring a staff person to help people get out of homelessness. The report even includes a statement about how our Stewardship of Resources Committee is committed to funding these things.

But I wonder if we as individuals are committed to making these things happen.

If the church is merely a body composed of many members, what role are we as individual members willing to play? Are we willing to give up more of our wealth and allow it to be redistributed through the church? Are we willing to mentor someone in resume writing, interview skills or basic life skills? Are we willing to open a spare bedroom in our home for a week or a month or a year at a time to allow someone to have a good night's rest and a warm shower every day of the week? Are we as individuals willing to let go of some of our abundance in hopes that others will finally be able to live more abundantly?

It's easy to critique the church while ignoring our own commitment or lack of commitment. It's easy to point fingers while failing to show up ourselves. It's easy to say we believe in something while failing to really get behind something with those things we prize most - our money and/or our time. But it takes  all that we have been given to make a difference. And every single one of us can make a difference - a big and needed difference.

As I prepare to come back a week from today, one thing is for certain. The church does not exist in order to get as many people as possible to worship on Sunday. The church does not exist in order to maintain beautiful buildings where space sits empty most of the week. The church does not exist for the world to constantly have a voice of judgment. The church exists because we are God's best, last chance at healing a broken world - at providing food for those who are hungry, a place to live for those who are homeless, freedom for those who are held captive, justice for those who are oppressed, peace in the midst of war and violence, and love for those who have been led to believe that they are unlovable.

Perhaps I have a dream, too.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Courageous Women

The four women pictured here have left a mark on my spirit and heart. I don't remember hearing their names before. While their story may have been on the curriculum of a seminary class on South Africa, I don't recall it. But now I can't forget them - their witness, their courage, their ability to help a nation lean in with pressure on an oppressive government.

These four women - Rahima Moosa, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Sophie Williams - organized a movement of some 20,000 women who came to Pretoria from every corner of South Africa on August 9, 1956. These four women with different backgrounds and skin colors knew that the government's efforts to require passes for people to move through certain areas was a policy that put people into prisons of oppression instead of allowing people to move free. These four women brought the signatures of 100,000 women to the doors of South Africa's Prime Minister, begging for change. And then, at the suggestion of Lillian Ngoyi, the entire crowd of 20,000 women went silent for a full half an hour. Women showed their nation that they would not be confined to the home or seen as people without any political power. Rather, they showed their country that "when you strike a woman, you strike a rock."

There is now a national holiday called "Women's Day" in South Africa every August 9. The holiday remembers the courage of these women who made a difference. I had the privilege of preaching for Women's Day twice while recently in South Africa, immersing myself in their story. I'm convinced that these women could even teach Sheryl Sandberg a thing or two about "leaning in."

But there is another group of women that is having a similar impact on me.





We met these women outside the city of Durban. They are grannies who have raised their own children and are now raising anywhere from one to six children whose parents have died of HIV/AIDS. They live in what most of us would consider a shack on less than $130 a month (that's less than $20 a month per person for some of these homes). They come together every other week to participate in a Self Help group. Each week they bring 2 Rand which is the equivalent of 20 cents and put it into a group account. The treasurer of the account changes each week in order to build trust in the group. When there is enough money in the account, they invest the money in seeds. The seeds will soon produce vegetables that will be taken to a local market. The proceeds will then be distributed amongst the women and shared with other poor people in their community. While these women are all very poor, part of their responsibility is to always help others while they learn life skills through an employee of a church organization who comes to strengthen their skills on a regular basis. These women provided a tangible embodiment of Acts 2 where we are told that the early disciples come together with glad and generous hearts and make sure there is not a needy person amongst them.

What do we believe in so strongly that we are willing to put everything on the line - including our lives - like Rahima, Lillian, Sophie and Helen did on August 9, 1956?

Are those of us with privilege and freedom willing to march today on behalf of those who are oppressed?

Why is it that we who have so much are often reluctant to share with others, believing instead that we deserve what we have been given or earned through God-given skills and talents?

What would it take for all of us to share an equal portion of what God has entrusted to us with those who have less than we do?

Where is Acts 2 being embodied in our nation?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Do You Love the Place?


I finally saw “The Book of Mormon,” the musical filled with religious satire that has garnered sold-out audiences since its March 2011 opening on Broadway. It’s a show I’ve heard much about. I know some of the music, and I’ve seen video clips. I was prepared to be offended, and there were certainly times when I was not sure if it was appropriate to laugh or remain silent. It is not a work for children, and I would not organize a church group outing to the Kennedy Center to see the musical. However, there is a lesson inside that we need to hear.
How much do you love the place?
Elder Price, one of the main characters, is the substance from which bishops are made. He’s articulate, he’s attractive and he believes he is the one who will change the world. He longs to be assigned to Orlando for his two-year mission but finds himself partnered with Elder Cunningham in Uganda. What Elder Price is, Elder Cunningham is not. Elder Price plays by the rules, knows the Book of Mormon well, and longs to convert people. Elder Cunningham admits that he has not even read the Book of Mormon and comes with countless personal issues. Within days, Elder Price is ready to go home because Uganda is dangerous and no conversions are taking place while Elder Cunningham starts to adapt the Book of Mormon to fit the needs and desires of the Ugandans to whom he is preaching. Elder Price loves the idea of being a successful missionary who is known for the number of people who join the church and are baptized. Elder Cunningham starts to love the place – the place Ugandans have told him everyone simply leaves after two years.
How much do you love the place?
Are you serving where you are because you love the idea of conversions and baptisms and evangelism awards or are you serving where you are because you love the place? Do you love your place as much as you love your people? And what comforts or possessions are you willing to let go of to prove your love of the place?
It is these very questions that I have been wrestling with as one who has taken a few steps away from the local church in order to savor a summer of clergy renewal. I’ve learned that God speaks to me most clearly when I am most removed from my familiar surroundings. I know there are risks involved in going away this summer – that the end result could be a call from God to go somewhere new. And I returned home from the first leg of the journey with tears in my eyes as a wise mentor pushed me to reflect aloud about how I was experiencing God’s call on my life.
“Are you prepared to return to this place?”
“Is God still calling you here?”
I responded by letting my mentor know how much I love the people – how much I adore the congregation that calls me pastor.
“But do you love the place?”
A place is so much bigger than the people. A place extends beyond the familiarity of what is inside to include all that is on the outside. In the place called city there are deep factors to consider when pondering passion for a place – people who are housed and people who are unhoused, the rich and the poor, traffic and busyness, powerful and powerless – all right outside the church door.
Do you love the place?
Elder Price was quick to love the church and the accolades that could come to him if he grew the church. Loving the place where he was sent proved to be a much greater challenge. The Ugandans had great needs they were not afraid to name including people dying from HIV/AIDS and children being raped and abused. A simple telling of stories was not enough for these people who had watched too many young Mormon missionaries come and gowithout making a difference. They wanted real change in their community.
If we are going to make a real difference in our communities, we must first love the place where we are privileged to serve. We cannot possibly love the place if we believe our ministry is centered on what happens inside the walls of the church. Loving the place means developing deep relationships all over the place. It means expanding our love of our people to include all the people around us – and especially the people and problems beyond the church doors.
In his new book, “Center Church,” Timothy Keller writes, “All churches must understand, love and identify with their local community and social setting, and yet at the same time be able and willing to critique and challenge it.”We must love and identify with the city rather than be hostile or indifferent to it. Keller tells countless stories of how many church leaders come to him asking for insights and recipes on how to duplicate what has happened with his church, New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian, in places across the country. Keller’s book is an attempt to answer this question – not with proven church growth strategies but with lessons on how to know, love and contextualize your own context.
Do you love the place?
Throughout the gospels, Jesus enters cities and towns. When he enters, he does not go directly to the house of worship to see how many people are inside. He does not attempt to convert those who appear to be easy targets.Rather, he encounters the people on the outside. He seeks to meet the needs of whoever is in his midst – healing some, forgiving others, providing water from a well that never runs dry. Jesus’ ministry is never limited to one location in the city but rather extends throughout whatever community he is in.
It’s easier to love my people than it is to love my place for it is a place where more than a dozen people sleep on the church porch at night while people whose offices are a few floors above the church office can bill for $500 an hour in their law firms. It is a place where senseless violence occurs. It is a place where visitors crowd the sidewalks on their way to a convention and where cars line up three lanes deep while waiting for a light to turn green. It is a place where flowers grow alongside the smell of urine because there are few public restrooms for people to go who have nowhere else to go at night. It is a place of power and poverty. It is a place where I see victims of sex-traffickingwaiting for pimps to pick them up just before 7:00 in the morning. It is a place where it is easy to be defined by what your business card says about you. It is a complex place with more questions than answers. And yet, there is no where else I’d rather serve than the city – this place that regularly calls me to respond to the questions Jesus asks about meeting basic needs, offering hospitality to strangers, and seeking to be part of God’s efforts to bring about signs of God’s kingdom on earth – in the city – as it is in heaven.
Yes! I really do love this place. And that means we have a whole lot of work to do – work that cannot possibly be finished in just one hour on Sunday mornings.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Getting Fit

Last week she was climbing a rope to the top of the ceiling in record time. The next day she was pushing a tire down the length of a gym. Yesterday she was in the midst of a rotation that included the stair master, rowing machine and free weights. She spends a lot of time at the gym. She's one of the trainers, an employee who works with several clients in an effort to help them achieve their goals. But I see her working out - I watch her working hard to improve her own body - just as much as I see her training and encouraging other clients. She has ripples in her arms and across her back. She's incredibly lean and strong. She has a body that I'd like to try on for a while. But she's also provided an example of the changes I want to make in my life as a result of this summer.

We all had to memorize and teach a story as part of Godly Play training two weeks ago. I was given the story called, "Ten Best Ways to Live." When using Godly Play, you don't just tell the story with your words. You use objects - a desert box filled with sand, a large rock upon which Moses receives the Ten Commandments, small people who you move across the sand, and pieces of a puzzle in the shape of a heart that inform all your listeners about the ten best ways we can live. The teaching method is captivating, and I had so much fun telling the story, putting my hands in the sand and saying "The desert is a dangerous place." I cannot wait to tell more stories.

After we told our assigned story, our classmates took time to share their observations - the things that worked well in our storytelling and the things we might want to consider changing the next time. Several questions were asked. One is still penetrating my mind, "At what point did you find yourself in the story?"

And that's my very problem.

I am so tempted to do ministry, to memorize the most important parts of a sermon, to get through my visitations, to write what needs to be written, to report what needs to be reported, that I often fail to allow myself - ME! - to get caught up in the story. I regularly forget that I am in the midst of the very same story I'm encouraging others to be part of - that God is at work in my life just as much as I am telling you God is at work in your life.

The trainer at the gym does not let me forget how important fitness is to her - not just to her clients. She regularly demonstrates what it takes to be physically fit. She's taught me this - and she does not even know my name or the impact her example has had on me.

I want to be like that. I want others to not just hear the story from my lips but to see the story through the very life I live. I want people to observe God at work in real and tangible ways in my life. I want people to watch me loving God and neighbor as I love myself. I long for people to see me seeking first the kingdom - and not just the things that have to be done at the church.

I went to worship recently and noticed what it looks like when one is going through the motions instead of getting caught and tangled by the story. The sermon was preached by his colleague and was an incredible sermon on prayer. But when it came time to pray, the words were so formal that one knew the prayer was written and read instead of coming from the heart. When it came time for the announcements, there were enough funerals announced that you knew the pastoral team had to be exhausted. But this exhaustion came through - this lack of energy was tangible. The beauty and gift of prayer that was described in the sermon was hard to see practiced. The awesome power, grace and mercy of God may have appeared in the liturgy - but it was hard to see in some of the living examples around me.

I believe with my whole heart that a relationship with Jesus can and should be the most life-giving relationship we have. I believe that Jesus is passionately pursuing us at all times like a woman who turns her house upside down to find a missing coin or a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to find one who is missing. I believe Jesus is far more ready to hear from us than we are prepared to turn to him in prayer. I believe Jesus loves us so much that there is absolutely nothing we can do to make him love us less. And I believe Jesus expects much from us - that he regularly calls us to work for a different kind of kingdom to emerge on earth as it is in heaven. But I don't want you to simply read these words on my blog or hear them preached from the pulpit. I want you to see me live them through the things I do, the choices I make, the people I love, the things I let go of, the very life I live.

And that's exactly why I'm working hard to get fit - not just physically but spiritually, too.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Guest Post from My Niece Kayla - Ready for Departure


My niece, Kayla, and I depart for South Africa tomorrow. Kayla's 18-years-old, just graduated from high school, and is wondering what's next in her life. She's always had an amazing heart. Here she allows you to look inside before we depart for a three week pilgrimage of pain and hope.

After pondering the thought many times, it’s taken so long for reality to set in that I’m actually going to find myself standing on the grounds of South Africa. I have been trying so hard to tell myself that I’m ready, I’ve been questioning whether I really deserve this trip, and I’ve been worried about leaving my family when I have so many duties at home. I had been preparing, questioning, and worrying so much that I had given myself anxiety and extremely heavy burdens. So I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed. God had given me three questions to answer on my own: What is “ready”? Is there a difference between what we deserve and what we don’t deserve? And finally, what is your life long duty? I had to come up with the answers.

So, what is “ready?” Well, you can look it up in the dictionary and it says ready: completely prepared or in fit condition for immediate action or use. However, to me, all I could read was the word “prepared” and as far as preparation all I could think of were materialistic things. My suitcase is packed, our snacks are all laid out, and the books and electronics are all set for our flight. So I read the definition again and the next words that stood out were “fit condition.” This time all I could think of was my physical condition. A couple weeks ago I went to the Children’s Hospital for my annual check up and received wonderful news that I’m currently beating my Muscular Dystrophy. I remembered that blessing and I thought maybe I was about to hit the nail on the head. But no, I still couldn’t get to what God was trying to tell me. Finally, the last words “immediate action or use” hit me. Our heads, our hearts, and our emotions act immediately and are used on the spot. We can’t prepare for when our heart races or when our stomach drops. We can’t fight emotions because they happen on the spot. We can’t control thoughts that instantly pop up. That was it. You can’t be ready for the next day until the next day is here. It’s when that very moment comes, when your heart races, you may cry you may smile, and your thoughts run wild. You have no choice other than to accept yourself in the situation mentally, physically and emotionally. I finally came to the conclusion. We can’t be ready until it’s time to face a situation and we as a whole are ready.

Well that was one piece to the puzzle. The next question was such a blur. Is there a difference between what we deserve and what we don’t deserve? Well of course there is. I don’t think good things just happen to good people and bad things happen to just bad people. However, I do believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that when you choose an action you choose a consequence. So we get what we deserve but often times we forget something. Just because something bad or painful happens doesn’t mean it wasn’t God’s plan and it doesn’t mean he’s punishing us. We forget that he always knows the outcome and he always has something better in store. When I first told my friends about this trip, all anyone had to say is that I was lucky. I don’t even like the word lucky but it got me thinking. It had me thinking about how top notch this trip really was. I had to be honest with myself, my choices, the mistakes I made in the past couple of months, none of it added up to deserving this getaway. Only three days ago, a day before my flight, had I decided that I needed to clean up my lifestyle and build back up my relationship with Christ. I don’t deserve to get on a big fancy airplane and watch movies the whole time and eat nice dinner. I don’t deserve to stay on a game reserve where not many people get to go. The list went on and on. Sure we’re all sinners, but I’m so hard on myself when I mess up. When I reach out to God all I ask is simply that this trip change my life. That’s all I’ve prayed for. Once I got to Washington, D.C. my Aunt Donna really start putting it in my head that this wasn’t for vacation. She talked about how it was to work on our hearts. All I could say to myself was finally! Someone else saw it in the perspective I did. It was no longer about the actual trip it became clear to me that what I deserved was the experience. I realized that the experience also wasn’t going to be so easy. It’s going to be brutal on my eyes, I’m going to have many empty thoughts, my heart is going to break, my emotions are going to be heavy, and I am going to feel some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. It’s going to hurt but this is not the Lord’s punishment, and he most definitely hasn’t forgot about me. He is giving me the desires of my heart. That is what I deserve.

I know when I’ll be ready, and I know what I deserve. The last question revealed such a fulfilling answer for me. What is my life long duty? When I think of duty, for some reason the only thing that crosses my mind is the military. Then, I realized how much I had fought for in my life and I realized why I was so worried to leave home. I’ve fought for relationships, I’ve fought for my rights, I’ve fought school systems, I’ve fought to keep a roof over my head, I’ve fought to keep money in my wallet. Finally, I put it together Sunday morning during church when the kids’ choir came up and I remembered singing in church when I was younger. The song “I’m In The Lord’s Army” immediately popped into my head and played over and over and over again. I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery. I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army. Yes sir. My life long duty is to be a better soldier of faith.

I searched in and out to find the answers before I left for South Africa. I no longer ask myself if I’m ready but am now anxiously awaiting every moment from when I board the plane to my first steps on the ground. God never gives up on me so I will never give up on his plan, I pray that he turns me inside out over the next few weeks. My duties at home will be there when I get back, but my duty every day is to be a better soldier of faith. I plan to march right through South Africa, I’ll say it loud and I’ll say it proud, Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Crossing the Threshold

It's incredibly hard to walk into a church as a visitor. I've visited more than a half a dozen churches this summer, and each visit starts with a familiar routine. I look at the website to double check the time of worship. I look for instructions on parking. I leave my house extra early. I park as close to the church as possible, often with at least 20 minutes remaining before worship starts. I then watch as people are going in, making mental notes of what doors they are using and how they are dressed to make sure I'll fit in upon my entry. I then take deep breaths and start to make my way to the entrance.

When I finally get to the door of the church, I often discover that churches are very lonely places. It is a place one goes with the belief that instant welcome will be offered. The church is the location in the city that is to be the friendliest of all. Churches have specific people assigned to stand at the door and welcome people. But I've learned this summer that Wal-Mart has a clear leg up on the church when it comes to welcoming guests.

I've waited for the greeter to welcome me and hand me a bulletin in one place only to finally walk around her conversation with another church member and pick up my own bulletin.

I've walked through a long hallway at another church where one person looked up to see who was passing by while nine others kept their heads focused somewhere else.

I've journeyed through a church building in search of a bathroom before worship, passing several open offices in my route and discovering that none of the staff members inside said a word to me.

And I've entered another place where the pastor immediately introduced me to someone who gave me a tour of their church while another person showed me exactly where to go and yet another made a point to tell me how grateful she was that I came that day. This Sunday is the Sunday I remember the most this summer. I don't remember exactly what was preached but I remember the welcome - the authentic hospitality given by several people.

I think we mean well. We regulars cannot imagine anyone not being able to find their way inside our doors and have a harder time imagining someone walking in and not feeling welcome when we sit amongst familiar friends and faces. We are so comfortable on Sundays.

And that's the greatest challenge.

We forget what it's like to be a person going to church for the first time.

"In Godly Play, we have learned that children need two central things. They need to be noticed, and they need to be blessed." These words provided the foundational teaching of a three-day course in becoming a Godly Play teacher last weekend. The words were then immediately put to practice as we lined up in a hallway before entering a room. Someone at the door greeted us by name and told us how glad she was to see us. Another person was waiting inside the classroom to welcome us and learn our names. And when the lesson was over and the meal was shared, we all were called up one by one for a blessing - for twenty seconds of someone looking us in the eye, calling us by name, and telling us how glad they were to see us and how they hoped we would have a good week.

We all need to be noticed and blessed. Not just our children.

What would it mean for every church member or regular attendee to arrive on Sunday mornings not just to worship God and be fed with a bit of spiritual food but to also give the gift of noticing others and blessing them? How can we become congregations of greeters and givers of hospitality - not leaving this task to the people at the door? As a visitor, I've found that the pew is sometimes more lonely than walking in the door - especially if everyone around me seems to know each other and carry on their conversations without noticing me. How could we make the space that separates people sitting in the pews smaller than a great divide?

The folks at Godly Play call it crossing the threshold - moving from that space where you are with your parents or playing in order to enter another space where you'll soon turn to wonder at the power and presence of God. God shows up at the front door through the ways we welcome a stranger. And sometimes God is so visibly absent at the front door that I wonder if I'll ever be able to find God on the inside. I literally wanted to leave a church recently because of the lack of hospitality between the main entrance of the church and the sanctuary.

Sundays can be very lonely days. Churches are some of the hardest spaces to enter when you are alone or coming for the first time. Will you please do your part in helping people cross the threshold and find a different kind of community where God is visibly seen? I believe with my whole heart that we all need to be noticed and we all need to be blessed.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Look Ahead!!

As part of my renewal, I'm taking time this month to visit the three places where God has spoken to me most clearly. One of them is a church to which I belonged when I first experienced my call to ministry. It is from their pulpit where I preached some of my first sermons and had my gifts named and claimed. It is this congregation that sent me off to seminary with dozens of cards, some cake and lots of prayers. It is this church that had a pastor who saw gifts in me that I thought were fit for political service but he deemed fit for the church and kept opening doors for these gifts to be put to use.

This morning I'll board a bus to Manhattan just as I did as a chaperone of a high school youth trip to the United Nations in 1996. I'll go to this city not surrounded by youth but as a solo traveler with eyes wide open and a heart that is excited to experience lots of theatre and good friends. The first time my eyes saw New York, something happened within me. My journey through the city opened me to new possibilities in life. It was on a bus departing New York after a wonderful weekend with youth in 1996 where I knew God was calling me to ministry. It was on a bus coming home where I spent four hours talking with people about seminary and the process to ordination. I've met God in New York.

Two weeks from tonight I'll board a plane for a long journey to South Africa. It is in this land where I have sensed a God who asks hard things of us. It was on a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope to South Africa in 2004 where I met a God who reshaped a prayer on my lips, "God, take me out of my place of comfort and success. Help me be more prophetic. Give me a heart for hurting and broken people." I came home from that journey and told the Dean of Duke Divinity School that I would finish that year with joy but would then resign from my position as the Director of Admissions in order to return to the local church. It was in South Africa where God gave me the courage to embrace all the challenges that first came with being appointed to Mount Vernon Place and the city of Washington.

Perhaps I was romanticizing these return visits. Maybe I thought I would see and hear God as powerfully as I have before in these very places. I'm not sure what I was expecting but I did not find it when I walked back into my old church as a visitor who had not been there in years. The place has changed as every church should change in the course of a decade. Only a handful of faces were familiar. I left with the knowledge of how lonely it can be to walk into a sanctuary as a visitor.

But perhaps I needed exactly what I got that morning - a fresh reminder that so often we go looking for Jesus where we have last found him just as the women did on Easter morning. They assumed that Jesus' body would be exactly where they laid it. They then hear a voice asking, "Why look for the living amongst the dead?"Jesus has been on the move ever since - just as he was before.

We are tempted to believe God dwells in sanctuaries and holy temples. We so often limit the movement of Jesus to the places we have experienced him before. But our God is not bound by memories or church walls. Our God is always on the move. The winds of the Spirit blow throughout the world - touching our lips and anointing us with new words, speaking fresh challenges into our hearts, showing up just when we need to be reminded that God is Emmanuel - God with us, and causing us to go to places we once never imagined only to find that God is also there just as much as God was back there.

It's a wonderful gift to go back - to see places that have shaped and formed you. I'm incredibly grateful for these opportunities to journey. But I go now not expecting to find God exactly as I found God last. Rather, I go into each day longing to hear the voice of God and see God's hands at work. In God we live and move and have our being. That means God is everywhere - as close as your next breath and as dynamic as someone who will be kind or thoughtful to you today - showing up just when you need someone to show up.

There is fullness of joy in the presence of the Lord - and that presence is everywhere. Thank you, God.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Come and See

Reviewing the call accounts of the disciples this morning, I realize again how remarkable it is that Jesus' invitation to "Follow me" was so compelling that Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets to follow him before encountering James and John who leave their nets, their boat and their father behind in order to follow Jesus. This call is the one recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. There is little dialogue between Jesus and the disciples - just a leaving behind.

 I've found that my call is a bit more like the one recorded in the Gospel of John where Jesus has to keep encouraging the prospective disciples to "come and see." Each step leads to a closer bond between Jesus and the men. They keep questioning but Jesus keeps saying, "Come and see." It is one step at a time, with something left at each step.

I'm spending my summer in response to this invitation of "come and see" as I seek to engage more deeply with Jesus. We started on the Isle of Iona, a place George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community described as being a "thin place" where "only a tissue paper" separated the spiritual from the material. Our journey to Iona took a plane ride to Glasgow, a three-hour train ride to Oban, a 45 minute ferry to Mull, a one hour bus ride across Mull and then a 10 minute ferry ride. The journey was a response to "come and see" in and of itself!

We then continued to "come and see" as we made our way around the isle. We climbed mountains to watch the sunset, clung to the side of a cliff to make it into a cave, wandered until we found Puffins, gathered rocks near the sea, gazed at cattle and sheep eating their fill of food, sat in the ancient abbey for morning and evening prayer, and marveled at the dozens of pilgrims getting off the ferry each day. It was a journey that stretched us physically as well as spiritually. Craig and I did things we don't normally do, stepping out of our comfort zones.

While on Iona, I picked up a book, "Around a Thin Place." It is a guide for those wanting to take a pilgrimage around the isle, something that is offered by the community weekly. The book starts by describing what it means to set out in the first place. Dom Helder Camara writes,

"Setting out is first of all getting out of oneself. Breaking through the shell of selfishness hardening us within our own ego. 

To stop revolving round ourself as if we were the centre of everything. 

Refusing to be ringed in by the problems of our own small world. However important these may be, humanity is more important and our task is to serve humanity.

Setting out is not covering miles of land or sea, or travelling faster than the speed of sound. It is first and foremost opening ourselves to other people, trying to get to know them."

Camara then described how this task also means getting to know people who disagree with you, "Happy are they who understand the words: 'If you disagree with me, you have something to give me.'"

He then continues, "If those who are with you always agree with you before you open your mouth, they are not companions but shadows.

When disagreement is not a form of systematic blocking, when it rises from a different vision, it can only enrich us."

Camara next writes how one can journey alone but how a good traveller always understands that the journey is "human life and life needs company...Happy are they who feel they are always on the road and everyone they meet is their chosen companion."

I believe Jesus knew the gift of pilgrimage - that he is the first author and teacher of what is written in this essay. Jesus found a companion in most people on the road. He was rarely bothered by a disruption even when he was on his way. He saw the gift of disagreement and kept on extending an invitation whether it was a woman at the well who could not figure out why he was talking to her or an encounter with Zacchaeus who wondered the same thing. Jesus knew that we rarely grow when we are surrounded by people who are just like us.

And Jesus always knew that life is better when spent in community. While he took time to be alone and get away from the crowds to recenter himself on God, he knew that his best work was done with the company of twelve ordinary men who were willing to leave behind their past and embrace the future with Jesus.

What would it look like for us to reclaim these teachings and embody them daily - to see each person as a gift, to embrace community whether we have chosen it or not, to let go of ourselves - what we hold most deeply (our agendas, our schedules, our time, our stuff, our success, our failure, our goals, our power, our prestige) in order to see the new thing God might be doing in our lives?

What would it look like to be so selfless that we can always see the needs of others in our midst?

What do we need to leave behind in order to more faithfully follow this day?

Towards the end of his writing, Camara states "To travel for the sake of travelling is not the true journey. We must seek a goal, envision an end to the journey, an arrival."

The goal of my journey is more of God in my life. I want to be formed and reformed, shaped and reshaped. I want to let go of me so I can accept more of Jesus' life within me. I want to step out into familiar and unfamiliar territory - to "come and see" what God is doing in my life and especially in the lives of others near and far. I want to be more ready to serve all with needs in my midst - those who I know and those who are waiting to be known.

I'm ready to go deeper - stepping out in unfamiliar territory.

Friday, July 05, 2013

(Re)Finding My Way

I spent last night on the balcony of the home of a member of our church where our visiting preacher in residence is currently staying. The home is located one block from our church and provides an outstanding view of the building created through the sale of church property in 2005.

It was my first year as the pastor of Mount Vernon Place, and I spent just as much time in meetings with architects, developers and city officials in those first two years as I did visiting people, writing sermons, preparing for worship and doing other typical pastor duties. There were many weeks when I used my hard hat more than I used my Bible.

Last evening, when the sun began to go deeper into the night, I found myself being captivated by the building in the background. I could not stop looking at it. My gaze last night provided tangible evidence of some of my labor. I looked upon the building and remembered tough negotiations that sometimes left me in tears, sleepless nights when our developer was changing, and lots of decisions that had to be made (some of which I'd like to do all over again). I could see the fruit of my labor in the background - a gift.

I know how to do a property redevelopment. I'm a rather fierce negotiator. I can pick out furniture and carpet and hold people accountable. I got a tough New York city developer to let go of our project when we discovered quickly how we were not the perfect match for each other. There are moments when I dream about a vocation in real estate.

But if the truth were told, I'm struggling a bit with what it really means to be a pastor.

So much of my time and energy during my first eight years at MVP has been focused on building - building a physical structure and rebuilding a congregation that had been in decline for 50 years. The words "maintain" and "sustain" were not part of the vocabulary of my call when I accepted the invitation to move from North Carolina eight years ago and be appointed to MVP (and I don't think these are words that should be part of any pastor's vocabulary for that matter). There's little about me that can put up with the status quo, and so I've spent a lot of time strategizing, thinking about catchy sermon series, and trying to figure out how to get people in Washington to see how much God loves them and longs to be in relationship with them. And my efforts to build the church have come at the expense of building my own relationship with Christ.

The building is finished, and we now have a critical mass of people each Sunday morning, the majority of whom are young adults. We've come a long way. I do not take anything for granted, and I am more than grateful for the privilege of serving in this place. There is no doubt in my mind that my call to Mount Vernon Place is as clear today as it was eight years ago.

But, if I've learned anything in the first month of my sabbatical, I've learned that I need to relearn some of what it means to be a pastor who is not a developer of property but one who is a developer of lives. I need to find my way back to being a shepherd who leads one to still waters and fullness of joy by helping others find the presence of the true Shepherd in their lives. I need to find more moments to be in God's presence. I need to come back to my creator, redeemer and sustainer.

I've stocked my Kindle with books by Eugene Peterson this morning. I'm using this precious gift of time to rediscover what God is up to in my life and how to make more room for the sweet Spirit who longs to make more of me. What a blessing.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Place for Doubters

 This picture was taken just outside the Museum of London and is known as "The Aldersgate Flame Memorial." The date at the top reads "Wednesday, May 24, 1738," and the inscription continues, allowing one to read the words printed in John Wesley's journal on this particular day.

Mr. Wesley is the founder of Methodism - the one whose image is reproduced in stained glass windows in our sanctuary and whose bust appears throughout the world as a man of deep faith. His mark is felt in churches of all shapes and sizes. His teachings have had and continue to have a profound impact on countless people learning about the way of salvation or experiencing grace that comes to us long before we hear the name of God spoken aloud.

But Mr. Wesley was not always filled with faith. In fact, he wrestled with doubt for a significant portion of his life.

In his journal, Mr. Wesley wrote how he opened his Testament to 2 Peter and then walked to St. Paul's where he heard an anthem, "Out of the Deep have I called unto thee...If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amif's, O Lord, who may abide it? But there is Mercy with thee." After printing the words of the hymn, Mr. Wesley continued to write:

In the Evening I went very unwillingly to a Society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a Quarter before nine, while he was describing the Change which God works in my Heart thro' Faith in Christ, I felt my Heart strangely warm'd. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my Salvation: And an Assurance was given to me, That He had taken away my Sins, even mine, and saved me from the Law of Sin and Death.

Mr. Wesley was an ordained clergyman who was preaching regularly and leading people to have faith in Christ. He was born into the church, the child of a pastor who could be found on the front pew. And yet, he did not have faith. He was 35 years old when he wrote these words. He could have easily given up and left the church but he kept heeding to the advice of a friend who suggested that he "preach faith until you have it."

We in the church regularly speak of faith as something that is easy to find. We talk about God with words that can lead others to believe that we have seen God with our very own eyes, never mind the belief that even Moses could only see God through a burning bush.

But what if faith is a gift - a present that some of us are given at an early age while others have to wait decades to receive?

What if our seasons of doubt can lead to the richest seasons of faith imaginable?

What if you are not the only one who is doubting? What if the person preaching in the pulpit is preaching until she or he has faith again?

What if the best thing to do when we are doubting is to keep showing up - keep going to church - keep searching the scriptures - keep trying to pray even if we do these things "very unwillingly" like Mr. Wesley did?

Perhaps we in the church need to make as much room as possible for doubt, believing that God is still at work whether our picture of God is clear or blurry - whether we know God to be alive or believe God is dead - whether we have experienced the gift of a heart strangely warmed or have determined that we can live without faith in God?

It takes a long time for some of us to get to the Amen Corner. That's why we keep going - even unwillingly - to places like the Society at Aldersgate.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Tell Him I Believe in Him

I could not stay away from Mount Vernon Place last night even though I'm on sabbatical. I noticed a tweet at 5:32 p.m. informing me that my mentor and hero Peter Storey would be using the Sunday evening session to talk about Nelson Mandela. With a pilgrimage to South Africa just four weeks away, I knew hearing Peter talk about former President Mandela was something I did not want to miss - something that would make my heart sing.

Peter spent an hour telling us about Mandela's place of birth, early years of life and his time as a political prisoner on Robben Island before sharing more about Mandela's mark on South Africa. There are dozens of stories written down in my journal told by Peter last evening - stories I don't want to forget.

One story that keeps surfacing in my heart provoked tears in the eyes of many who listened last night. Peter shared how it was once discovered that one of Mandela's bodyguards was a member of a racist Nazi group. People went to the President with fear for his life, advising him to please fire the young man or at least remove him from such close detail. Peter shared how the President thought for a few moments before responding. "You know, I was once a hot-headed young man, too. Give the young guard a chance. Tell him I believe in him. Tell him I trust him."

Tell him I believe in him. Tell him I trust him.

No doubt these words changed the life and heart of the young guard. Can you imagine your dirt being aired - the feelings of hatred within you being exposed - only to discover that the one you were taught to hate actually believed in you - trusted you - wanted you as part of his team?

I wonder how often God seeks to say the same thing to us?

How often are we allowed to be part of something that we do not deserve?

When have we been given a second chance in spite of ourselves or the hatred and revenge burning within us?

When does God see our very best and expose it to all around us even when we're rather ugly on the inside?

What an amazing life Nelson Mandela has shared with the world.

And what an amazing God we have who calls us, claims us and names us...in spite of ourselves.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Five Years!

 It's been five whole years! Five years ago today I was waking up to birthday mimosas, buttoning a shirt I could easily take off without ruining my wedding hair, and preparing to head to Duke Chapel. It was undoubtedly the best day of my life. Our wedding day is one I would do again and again if given the opportunity.

What have I learned in five years?

1) Sitting at the table for dinner with the television off is essential if couples are going to continue to grow together.

2) Hearing Craig thank God for me in prayer are words I could never grow tired of hearing.

3) An annual vacation and other times away can rekindle whatever sparks have gone missing.

4) It is possible and actually delightful for a United Methodist pastor to be happily married to a devout Roman Catholic. Our worshipping in separate places and having separate days to call our own are huge gifts.

5) Setting clear boundaries at the church by restricting meeting nights to no more than two a week is hard but necessary for our marriage to flourish. Being a pastor and being a wife are both callings from God and both need to be cultivated.

6) Marriage is a means of grace that enables one to see and experience God more often.

7) Forgiveness and letting go are essential.

8) Marriage is a gift that causes me to thank God for the quick realization God made when it was discovered how one should never be alone - how life is to be shared with a helper by our side.

9) Having separate checking accounts could be a sign of strength in a marriage and not weakness.

10) Being married to someone who constantly makes me a better person is a gift to everyone around me.

"The best thing you ever did for me was to help me take my life less seriously. It's only life after all." Thanks, Craig, for five great years of making me laugh, dance and enjoy life - together.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Can I Help You?

While we did not need a map on Iona (even though we bought one), this scene played out dozens of times during our journey in London and Paris. Armed with maps and travel cards for the subway, we set out in search of a restaurant, shop or museum. There were times when we found our intended destination without much trouble, and there were other times when we felt tempted to bury our faces in the map once more. There were times when we felt certain that the route we took was the most direct route available, and there were other times when the blisters on our feet proved a detour or two had been in the making.

Near the end of our time in London, our feet were especially tired, and we were also reaching the point of being tired with each other when Craig asked if we could just take a bus home. "We don't know the bus system," I replied, "and we don't have a bus map." Craig pouted a bit while I pulled out the London Underground map once more, at which point a woman approached us and said, "May I help you?" "No, thank you," I quickly said before she asked where we were going. Craig told her the name of the hotel and she said, "Did you know there is a bus that will pick you up here and stop directly in front of your hotel?"

It was like a scene from "Touched by an Angel." I've never felt a prayer answered so quickly - even though I failed to ask Craig if he was praying or cursing that day. And I almost missed the blessing. Had this woman who was paid by the city of London to help tourists find their way not insisted on helping us by asking a second question, we would have walked several more blocks to get the Tube and then several more blocks from the Tube to our hotel, likely needing another Band-Aid.

Why do we so often refuse help when it is offered?

Why do we have a hard time accepting the assistance people long to give?

And more importantly, how often do we tell God "No thank you - I've got this," when God keeps promising to help us?

In Matthew 11, Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

Jesus promises help. 

Jesus longs to take our burdens. 

But we refuse his help more than receive it. We convince ourselves that if we rise a little earlier or work a little later that it will all turn out fine. When we are most stressed is when we are most likely to skip prayer or time devoted to listening to God. The times when we need God the most are the very times we fail to receive the good gifts of God. 

Why?

I saw a similar picture being played out yesterday morning as I was walking along the Union Station corridor. Three men and one woman all dressed in business suits were standing looking at three different maps. I heard one man say, "There's the Capitol so it must be around here." I stopped to ask, "Can I help you find something?" "No," one man quickly snapped. I walked a bit further and then turned around to see them still looking at a map. "They should have accepted my help," I thought to myself (okay, maybe I called them idiots for not receiving my help).

And then I wondered how often God says the very same thing.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own insight. In all ways acknowledge God and God will direct your paths," the writer of Proverbs shares. Why do we have such a hard time trusting - accepting help - receiving assistance?