Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Seeing George W in a Different Light

George W. Bush reemerged in the spotlight last week with the dedication of his library on the campus of Southern Methodist University. As I watched highlights of his presidency on the evening news, a picture emerged that I saw in a whole new light.

It's a picture of his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, telling President Bush about the first attack in New York City on September 11. When the scene is playing live, we watch President Bush look like a deer caught in headlights. He seems confused. He's clearly not sure what to do. He's caught between one commitment to children listening to the President of the United States reading to them and the rest of the country watching to see how he will respond.

When I saw the image last week, I had sympathy for George W. for the very first time. As I watched the events of that horrible day unfold once more, I saw the incredible weight of leadership.

Only five living men know the weight of the Presidency - what it's like to be the leader of the United States with all the world watching your every move. While we cannot relate to the heavy load of their role, many of us know what it's like to be the one making decisions with countless people watching to see how we will act, ready to criticize our every move.

We do not have cameras rolling on us, but we know what it's like to be in the middle of one commitment when we hear something that demands our full attention.

We know what it's like to be called to calmly shift our attention from one focus to another hoping that we will not let down the people we are turning away from.

We understand how paralyzing it can be to have people waiting to hear a word from us - as we pray our words will make sense and be received with power and conviction.

George W. Bush had his leadership put on the line. We criticized his every move. We wondered why he did not stop everything and start acting that day. Why did he not excuse himself immediately and go lead our country through crisis?

The more I understand how hard leadership is, even leading a church with 150 members, the more I sympathize with George W.

Leadership is an incredible gift and a daunting, humbling responsibility.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Different Kind of Week

It's been a different kind of week for our nation. We are people who regularly go through life without being afraid. We show up for races to cheer on thousands of runners who are checking an item off their bucket list, making a dream come true, reaching another goal. We send our kids off to school on yellow buses and then go about our business until it's time to meet them on the corner a few minutes after 3:00. We walk the streets at night and day. This place we live is America, after all.

Bombs aren't supposed to go off near the finish line.

Entire cities are not supposed to be on lock down.

Plants where our family members have worked for decades are supposed to be safe.

Armies of police with fingers on the triggers of massive assault weapons are to be seen in Israel or Jordan or countless other countries - but not in quaint New England communities.

It's been a different kind of week.

I've watched more CNN than I have in months.

I've found my spirit in a funk as my heart has grown heavier instead of lighter.

There's no way we can make sense of it all. Nothing makes sense when two brothers create enough terror to paralyze millions of people. Nothing makes sense when hatred is lived out in such tangible ways. Nothing makes sense when fertilizer plants explode, wrecking havoc and pain upon an entire community.

But we can gather. We can pray. We can be - be together and with God. We can breathe - deeply and as a community.

We are in the third week of our sermon in the series, "Faith, Politics and Policy." This Sunday's sermon is titled "God's Garden." It's designed to talk about why people of faith should care about the environment and climate change. More importantly, it's focus is on what kind of world we want to pass down to our children. There will be time to talk about guns and violence next week - on April 28 - as previously scheduled.

No matter how much darkness there is in this world, there is a significant amount of beauty that is worth passing on. Even the words of an uncle were filled with hints of light as he asked his nephew to please come out and seek forgiveness before also sharing how he wants to be on his knees in front of those who knew and loved the victims, begging for forgiveness.

There is plenty of evil in the world. But there is also an abundance of good. There's a lot of darkness. But there is even more light.

You're invited to join us on Sunday at 11 at Mount Vernon Place. You can wear whatever you want. Jeans or shorts are fine. Even yoga pants will do.

Step away from the images of terror that have brought about so much fear this week. Turn away from CNN and stories filled with pain. Turn instead towards a community centered on one who came so that we might have life and life abundant. He never promised life without pain. But he said he would be with us through the pain because he is Emmanuel, God with us.

We don't have any answers to why things happened the way they did this week. I'm not sure there are any answers or explanations to offer. What we have are love and compassion to share. We have prayers to lift - for people who are mourning in Boston, in West, Texas and around the world. We have community to embody - an authentic place where any masks behind which people are tempted to hide can stay outside. We also have faith in one who promises that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome the light.

Bring your full self - your fears, your hopes, your pain and your questions. It would be a privilege to be with you on Sunday.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

For Goodness Sake

I see a lot of goodness in the world.

I saw it last night when an older couple in our church made the 15 or so mile commute to be present at a meeting. She took in every word of the conversation, reminded us to please be sure that we are building the strongest children's ministry possible, commented when she could. He sat just outside the meeting room and waited for her the entire time - until nearly 9:00 at night.

I see goodness in the patience and dedication of men and women who rise before the sun in order to make hot coffee, set out donuts and other baked goods on a platter, and then open doors so unhoused neighbors can come in and start showering before receiving clean undergarments beneath the sanctuary of our church.

I see goodness when someone stops to help a family standing on the sidewalk in DC with a map in one hand and puzzled looks covering their faces.

I see goodness in the way a man in our church cares for his wife who has limited speech skills and sometimes becomes agitated in worship.

I see goodness in people who stop to buy a copy of Street Sense on the streets of Washington.

I see goodness when people smile and say "good morning" in a city where most people keep their focus on their next destination.

I see goodness in children who innocently play, laugh and find delight in new things.

I see goodness in tulips pressing their way up through the depths of the ground.

I see goodness in people who give to an Easter fund at our church, allowing our church to help when people are hungry or in need of a prescription or facing a challenge.

I see goodness in thousands of people who have rallied behind a woman and her family who just lost a 5-year-old son.

I see goodness when people take time to write a note or make a call, just to let someone know they are thinking about them.

I see goodness every single day.

With so much goodness in the world, how can there be so much hate?

How could anyone devise a plan to hurt as many people as possible at the finish line of a race that involved over 24,000 runners who have trained for months?

How could anyone create such devastation at a place where people stricken by loss at Sandy Hook Elementary School were also gathering because many runners ran the race for them?

How could someone carefully craft and execute a plan and then wake up today with a capacity to see their plan as successful?

On mornings like today, I find my faith in the words of John, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome the light."

There is a lot of pain wrapped around the light. There are pieces of barbed wire that one must be careful not to touch. There are reminders of hatred and brokenness. But the light still shines.

The light also shines in us.

Goodness is always stronger than evil.

How can we be light in the midst of so much darkness....for goodness sake?

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Gift We Give

Not long ago a colleague asked a question of his friends on Facebook. "What do you give to people who join your church?" Several colleagues quickly responded with suggestions ranging from a new Bible to a financial pledge card.

We don't give our new members a gift wrapped in pretty paper.

I pray, however, that what we give to everyone who walks in our doors is a gift that can be hard to purchase and sometimes even harder to locate in the city of Washington.

I pastor in a city where words are carefully crafted and somehow empty. Our church is located less than a mile from the Capitol - a neighborhood in which the most popular question asked is not "How are you?" but "Who do you work for?" In our city, we are easily defined by our business card. We allow the words embossed below our name to tell others who we are while being fearful of what might happen if people found out who we really are.

I'm also a pastor. I am in a profession where colleagues shy away from telling each other the full truth of our lives. We are required to fill out a weekly online form that tells our supervisors and other colleagues how many people were in our pews last Sunday and how many people came for small groups. We boast about how much our churches are growing and try hard to explain why when the opposite is true (and sometimes we even stretch the real truth). Rarely do we tell others how we really are.

Vulnerability is not a state we ascribe to attain or embody in the city of Washington or in pastoral circles. It's much easier to present a different front.

If I could give one gift to the people who join our church, however, I would give them a community where vulnerability is tangible - raw - naked to the eye. If I could give new members one gift, I would give them a community where people expect the truth - the full truth - and nothing but the truth.

Brene Brown describes the gifts I long to offer people in our church in a TED talk. She names for us our strong need to be connected. She knows what we in the church know - that God created us to be in community with each other. And she also spells out the fear we all have of what might happen to our connection - how the connection might be broken - if people knew the truth of our lives - our fears, our failures, our dreams, our heartaches, our insecurities, our pain.

Brown speaks about the courage that is needed to tell our whole-hearted truth. The telling of this truth requires that we let go of who we think we should be in order to be who we really are. We are at our best selves when we allow ourselves to be deeply seen by others - when we know that we are enough.

I see glimpses of this truth in the church I serve regularly.

At the same time, I see how far we have to go.

I don't think "fine thank you" should be an acceptable response in a faith community or in a gathering of clergy. As Brown reminds us, we live in a vulnerable world. We try hard to numb ourselves from this vulnerability. But the best way to deal with it is to allow our own vulnerability to be brought to the light of day in a community where people are willing to love us in spite of who we are.

I say every Sunday morning as worship is starting that we are welcome in our church by a God who longs to encounter us just as we are "no matter where we have been or where we have failed to be, no matter what we have said or what we have failed to say, no matter who we love or who we fail to love, and no matter what we have done or failed to do." I believe God loves our whole-hearted selves no matter how many flaws we might be able to see or are trying to hide. God longs for us to bring our whole truth into our community of faith.

While we may loathe admitting it, the truth is that most of us feel like we are hanging by a string that could break at any time. We have great jobs but aren't sure how best to lead. We have relationships that are falling apart and wonder how to bring what has been separated back together again. We are battling depression, seeing more darkness than light. We have beautiful children but wish they came with an instruction manuel. We are behind on our rent, praying that payday will come before the eviction notice is served. We have seen a rash where a rash should not be, and are hoping the doctor does not have to also learn about the night that should have never happened. We have been taking care of the pain on our own and realize how we now cannot sleep without at least two glasses of wine every night. We have a thousand friends on Facebook but no one to turn to or go out with on Friday night.

If I were to tell my colleagues the whole truth, I could name 100 things I'm afraid of, at least a dozen insecurities, and the feeling of being exhausted often because there is just so much to do and so many people to tend to - and how I regularly feel like a failure when people don't get visited or calls don't get made or cards don't get sent.

What gift do we give our new members? I pray we give them a place that longs to know the truth and then accepts the truth, loves the life in which the truth dwells and then does its best to live together in community. I pray we give them a real community that knows how the most faithful pathway to healing is providing space to bring our whole-hearted selves - every pocket and especially the place where our vulnerabilities dwell. That's a church worth getting up for on Sunday mornings, propelled by a God who is worth glorifying.