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. 


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?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In Defense of Marriage

Thousands of ears and eyes are focused upon the Supreme Court this morning as we await their decisions on two cases of equality. Two appeals are testing whether the fundamental constitutional right to marry is for all couples or only couples where one person is a man and the other is a woman. What the court does today could change the lives of thousands of people in our nation - the 120,000 legally married same-sex couples in our country and the thousands of additional couples who are or will one day seek the same gift.

I remember well when the Defense of Marriage Act was making its way through Congress. I was on the staff of Senator Tom Harkin at the time, sitting next to the person who was responsible for responding to letters from Iowans who wrote on this issue. I can still visualize the stack of letters sitting on Kim's desk 17 years ago. But I don't remember having an opinion about marriage other than the fact that I knew I would one day marry, have two children and live in a four-bedroom house with a garage. I knew what my life would hold (not that things always turn out the way you thought they would - thankfully!) - but I did not have any inclination to become involved in a conversation over what the lives of others could hold.

Seventeen years later I find myself as one of many voices of dissent when it comes to both the Defense of Marriage Act and the laws of the United Methodist Church. I believe with my whole heart that marriage is a fundamental right that enables two people to experience life and happiness to the fullest possible extent (when done well). I believe we are withholding a gift from God and a fundamental right when we say that only heterosexual couples can be married in our churches and by our pastors.

Last fall I married a couple who came to the altar with few people supporting them. Never before have I received so many nasty phone calls and threatening messages from "friends" who wanted to do everything they could to prevent the marriage. "She's making a huge mistake," they would tell me. "You're not going through with this are you?" "How could you possibly be a minister and bless their relationship?" I have never heard so much hate mixed in with any other experience as a pastor, and the voices caused me to pause and scrutinize this relationship, going through the steps of the premarital counseling curriculum as though it were a UN peace negotiation.

People were upset not because of the way this couple treated each other or the depths of their love. They were upset because of the age difference. How could a 59-year-old man possibly love a 90-year-old woman?

After much prayerful conversation, I determined that both of these people were in for a blessing. It would be her third marriage, and she's the biggest lover of love in my congregation. It would be his first. He was ready to care for her, to do everything possible to keep her in her home the rest of her life (no small gift when one does not have any children or close relatives). She was ready to make space for him in her home, to share life together, to be in real community (no small gift when one lives in a rented room with family thousands of miles away). How could I withhold a blessing? How could I say "no" when it seemed like God was answering countless prayers through this relationship?

Craig and I have not yet conceived a child. Sex does not define our marriage. The greatest gift of our marriage is companionship - knowing that beyond a shadow of doubt, no matter what happens in this life, it will be a moment spent together. I know that if I am in the hospital, Craig will be by my side. I know that if I die, Craig will take what resources we have and share them in the same way I would. I know that if I am crying tears of happiness or sadness that a tissue and a shoulder will be waiting. Our marriage is far from perfect but I am a kinder, more gentle and loving person because of Craig. I experience life through what God does in our midst as a married couple.

The piece of scripture we regularly turn to at marriage ceremonies is found in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians where Paul defines love for us. "Love is patient, love is kind...." It reads like a romantic kind of puppy love so we put the words on pillows and cross-stitch them to hang on our walls. But the words are anything but easy to embody and rarely lived out to their fullest in marriage. They are not a description of love between man and wife. They are the words that define the love of Christ - a love we are to embody.

Rarely is this love lived out when we are defending anything.

Defense requires walls, divisions, fences and arguments. Defense requires me to tell you why what I have is better than what you have and why you are not worthy to receive it. Defense rarely includes Christ who was constantly tearing down walls, making things even, and putting people on equal playing fields. We cannot defend something without leaving others out whether it is defending our wealth instead of sharing it, defending our borders instead of allowing people to cross, defending our table as though it is ours instead of saying it is Christ's table who bids all to come, defending our marriage instead of seeing how others could be blessed in the same way despite their age or sexual orientation. People who spend their lives defending what they have are some of the ugliest, nastiest, stingiest people I know. A church made up of people who are constantly defending their time or their resources is a church that is not going to have its arms and feet go far in the name of Christ.

I'll defend marriage as one of the greatest gifts God has ever given to me. I'll defend marriage as a blessing God first gave when God noticed in the garden that it is never good for a person to live alone. But I'll never defend marriage as something that is to be shared only between a man and a woman.

It's time to head to the Supreme Court with lots of prayers and anticipation for what the day will hold.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rescue Efforts

"I praise you, O God. I bless you, O God. You have rescued me."

We chanted the words over and over again during an evening service at Glasgow's St. Andrew's Cathedral just moments after becoming annoyed with each other at our inability to find the church after seemingly walking all over the city. It was our first and only night in Glasgow, and there were a million places I wanted to be other than sitting or kneeling in a Catholic Church - the church where I am normally made to feel unwelcome, the place where I cringe when I am not invited to a table behind which I normally stand and invite all to come. But it is in this church - this place I did not want to be - where I felt myself paralyzed by grace for the first time in what is labeled a "Summer of Deep Engagement."

I've sung the lyrics before, "Do not be afraid I am with you. I have called you each by name." But the song continued with words that stung me, words that crept into each crevice of my heart. "I praise you, O God. I bless you, O God. You have rescued me." My search for rescue, a search I did not envision to be part of this summer of deep engagement, was ignited with these words.

I was one week into sabbatical and already aware of a need to be rescued. I've developed some rather unhealthy addictions that are preventing me from experiencing the fullness of joy that comes when one is in the presence of the Lord. I'm addicted to success over faithfulness, growth in numbers over growth in discipleship, and dare I say a devotion to the church over a devotion to Christ. I've gotten caught up in doing instead of being - because there's been so much to do and expectations placed upon me that have added pressure to the doing.

I need to be rescued. I want the first question I ponder at 2:00 on Sunday afternoon to not be "How many people were in worship today" but instead "How did God work in people's lives today?" I need to be rescued from the hold of an institution that asks about numbers more than transformed lives. I need to be rescued from my tendency to "do, do, do" so that I can be - be with God, be the person God has created me to be, be alive, be filled with joy.

The rescue efforts have started.

O God, I do praise you. I do bless you. You are rescuing me.

And when the service was over, the priest stood and offered this benediction, "Go and announce the Gospel." These words are becoming my prayer - that I'll be the kind of person who is constantly announcing the good news - and that the congregation where I am privileged to be a pastor will do the same. Let's be rescued from whatever it is that is preventing us from this one task: announcing the Gospel through the very lives we live.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thin Places

I've taken a plane, a train, two ferries and an hour bus ride on a one-lane road to get to the thin place known as Iona. It was Geroge MacLeod, one of the original members of this community, who applied this phrase to the tiny island in Western Scotland, believing that only a tissue separates heaven from earth in this spot of God's creation.

And certainly it is beautiful.

My eyes have beheld cattle and sheep, ocean and mountain, greenery and flowers. It's a gorgeous place filled with beautiful people. I've taken time to praise God here. But I'm not sure I feel any closer to God in this place than I do other places. In fact, I've been reflecting upon the other thin places in my life, and I've concluded that thin places can be found whenever we make room for God.

Certainly we make from for God when we journey long distances with the expectation of seeing God. But I also know God is near us - all the time. We just have to let go of all the stuff that makes the tissue thicker than it needs to be - the desire to please others more than our desire to please God, our stuff we accumulate, our need for success, the noises that come from television, radio or city sirens, our constant rushing instead of just being - alone, with God.

There are two women who are members of our church who I now visit since they cannot get to church. They greet me at the door before welcoming to their table where tea, sparkling water and dessert are shared. We talk and then pray together before I leave. They then follow me with their eyes down the hallway, waving and smiling until the elevator comes. Each visit to them is a thin place, a space where I know God dwells, a spot where I can hear God calling my name.

There are mornings when I rise early and position myself squarely on the couch before doing anything further. I open myself to God's movement during the day, ask for forgiveness and know God is with me. It's in my living area, on a piece of furniture I'd love to get rid of, but it is a thin place because I know God is present.

There are times when I am leading worship and I realize it is God who is speaking and not me. That is a thin place.

There are mements when I'm invited to pray with someone, allowed to peer inside dreams that are not realized or hopes that are not yet materialized. That's a thin place.

What I'm learning this week is that it's a incredible gift to be able to travel to a far-off place to encounter God. But God is not in this place more than God is in Washington, D.C. God is Emmanuel, God with us. God is everywhere. Our task is to reduce the layers we have accumulated between us and God until we see that God is both all we have and all we really need.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Last Chance

It's a gift to step away from your congregation with the knowledge that the people who are covering you are better at your job than you are. My mentor and friend Peter Storey is now covering our pulpit until July 7. Peter brings many gifts that I don't have. His voice brings a message that places people in the Spirit's direct line of fire. His journey is one filled with risks taken in the name of Jesus. His love of Jesus and his message far outweighs his desire or need to satisfy the expectations of the religious institution that requires us to report numerical statistics each week. Peter knows Jesus better than most people in my life, and I love hearing Peter tell the stories of Jesus.

I gathered with a small group on Sunday evening to listen to Peter's first teaching session with our church. Many of the things he said are things I heard when I was his student at Duke Divinity School. But the lesson entered my heart differently this time as my context is radically different. What he said matters in a way it did not matter before.

"What we saw this morning is God's best, last chance at healing the world," Peter said, referring to the 124 people who filled the pews on Sunday morning.

Wow. Crap. How can it be?

How can we be God's last chance at healing the world? How can we be the vehicle God most wants to use to bring about healing? God, surely there is another way for you to end homelessness in Washington, to bridge the gap between those who have and those who have not, to make sure every child receives a quality education, to fill bellies that are empty, to provide community to those who only know the emotion of loneliness, to end violence on our streets, to welcome the outsider whether they are documented or not, to bring together that which is separated. Do you really expect us to do these things?

Peter then shared how God is more interested in verbs than in nouns. Our God is a doing God, and the church must be a people who do - a group called into action - out of the pews and into the world.

The church is called to do four things well: proclaim, teach, live the true community and serve.

We must tell the story in a way that arrests people who hear the story of Jesus. We must speak prophetically into current situations. We must proclaim the good news at every opportunity with our words, our actions and even our buildings.

We must teach in ways that grow people, challenge people, transform people and mobilize people.

We must live the true community by demonstrating the transforming and reconciling presence of Christ in the lifestyle of the community, loving each other in a way that commands wonder, love and joy.

And we must serve Christ where we meet Christ - in the suffering, pain, oppression and need of his brothers and sisters - those whom we see as "the least of these" in the world.

God is rather serious about the church - the body of Christ on this world. We cannot simply show up for one hour each week and then go about our business as if we matter most. Our faith is one that should fill not only our souls and spirits but our hands, our feet, our mouths, our ears, and every resource God has entrusted to our care.

All of this learning is from the first night. Imagine what he will share on the remaining five Sundays.

Almighty God, thank you for the amazing people who you have sent to share your good news to Mount Vernon Place this summer. We are grateful for the prophets in our midst and pray you would use each one to help us be ready to proclaim, teach, live the true community, and serve. Help us to fully comprehend what it means for us to be your best, last chance at healing the world. There is so much pain in our city. There is much that is broken and in need of being fixed. Let us not shy away from the opportunity to be part of your efforts to heal. Let us be prophetic. Let us be faithful. Let us be a people who are mobilized to seek your kingdom before any other thing. Bless your people who gather at the corner of 9th and Mass. Enable them to have a summer of a lifetime so that others might be able to experience life more fully. Amen. 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Keeping the Faith ... In Community

Each day this week I have taken time to post something on Facebook that describes the highlight of that day as a way of marking my first week on sabbatical. I've posted about a massive housecleaning that resulted in a generous pile of stuff left at Goodwill. I've shared a photo of Great Falls National Park taken during a journey with a friend yesterday. Today's highlight is undoubtedly time spent with a group of women who have come to be gifts from God in my life.

Brought together by a grant through Austin Presbyterian Seminary, this group has gathered monthly for more than a year now. We've played with clay, hiked through the forest, sat by a pool, discussed what Sandberg's book "Lean In" means for each of us, learned from a great preaching professor, and shared laughter, sorrow, hopes, dreams, food and cocktails in our time together.

When I posted the image above after Annual Conference last week (missing our friend, Ginger), one person shared it on Twitter saying "these are the woman who help me keep my faith."

Rachel could not have described the gift of this group any better.

Each additional step through discipleship convinces me that the journey is not meant to be a solo flight. I'm not sure any of us are capable of keeping the faith - whether it is faith in God or faith in the church or even faith in ourselves - on our own.

We need each other.

We are called to be together - to reveal Jesus to one another when Jesus is seemingly absent, to pray when we have lost the ability to pray, to name our gifts when we have convinced ourselves we have none, to have faith when faith is hard to find, to cheer us on when everyone else is trying to cheer us out, to be present when what we want to do is walk away. In the words of my former colleague, Greg Jones, we need holy friends who are willing to point out the sins we have grown to love, name the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we would never dream on our own. My group of clergywomen remind me often of why everyone needs the church - and especially a church where authenticity is embodied and spaces for vulnerability abound.

Not long ago a seminary student made an appointment to see me. We had barely sat down with our cups of coffee before tears started to flow. It had been a difficult academic year. The voices that propelled him up the East Coast to the Nation's Capital were not as audible in May as they were in August. The call of God that once seemed so clear was more like muddy water. Seminary was no longer a gift but more of a burden. When I asked him about his church - about the community in which he had gotten involved in this first year of formation, I was told there really had not been much time for that. "I've visited a few places but don't really have a place to call home."

I left that conversation with a deep amount of sadness at this person's inability to see their pure beauty and remarkable gifts. I also left knowing that if they had just come to our church - if they had just allowed themselves to be received by our community and opened themselves to serve Jesus in our midst - that they would be in a different place. I believe we would have kept naming his gifts.

We all need community - real community.

Even more recently I shared time with a dear friend who is between two church communities. One community is closer to home. The other is more of a drive but comes with a sense of greater familiarity. This friend is an amazing person of faith - someone who has regularly brought Jesus to me. But he's not sure about Jesus now. He prays - but he's not sure who he's praying to when he offers different words of gratitude or petition. The conversation was enough to convince me again that we all need a church - a real place where we can come with our real selves and engage Jesus in real ways. We cannot keep the faith alone.

Jesus was capable of anything. He healed the sick, turned water into wine, cleansed the leper, told the paralytic to get up and walk, and changed tax collectors into devoted followers who gave away their wealth. He had so many powers and was constantly applying these powers in real, tangible ways. And still, Jesus needed community. He called a group of twelve disciples to follow him and made the one who was constantly making ridiculous comments or failing to get with the program "the rock" - the one upon whom he built his church. Even Jesus needed community - an imperfect community of travelers who would journey with him to hard, rewarding, exciting and challenging places.

Are you struggling to keep the faith? Why not allow a community to keep it for you - to hold for you what you've been unable to hold on your own.

Are you struggling to know who you are - not what your business card says about you but who you really are? Why not allow a faith community to name your gifts for you - those gifts that enable others to see God at work in the world?

I'm so grateful for these women in my life who help me keep my faith - in Jesus, in others, and even in the United Methodist Church - while seeing God actively at work in the world around us.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Letting Go

A colleague of mine embraced Sabbath with her words on Facebook yesterday morning. She shared in a post how the laundry was piled high and life maintenance errands were needing to be done, before letting folks know that she would be embracing the good gift of Sabbath. I read her words in awe and wonder as though reading a travel book for a place I longed to go but had not yet been before.

I've never been good at keeping the Sabbath.

I'm good at not coming into the office on Fridays. My voice mail at church tells everyone that Fridays are my Sabbath. I start Fridays in prayer before proceeding to the gym. But I rarely make it through a Friday without running at least one errand and checking my email ten times.

I've never been good at keeping the Sabbath.

I believe with my whole heart that the Sabbath is a gift from God. It is a day when God beckons us to crawl into God's arms like a child climbs onto her mother's lap. It is a day when we can allow ourselves to be fully loved by God as we trust that God will tend to whatever it is that we normally do. There is something powerful about stopping and trusting and being still.

But I've never been good at it.

And yet, here I am on my second full day of clergy renewal leave. I have been given the good gift of a generous grant to do what makes my heart sing. For three months, I get to take absolute delight in stepping away from the demands of pastoral ministry in order to travel, read, write, exercise, play, pray, worship and stay up late on Saturday nights. I've done my very best to prepare our congregation and staff. Hundreds of emails have been crafted and sent with detailed instructions on how to continue the work of the church. A gifted ministry intern knows what to do if a pastoral care emergency arises. A minister emeritus is on call, too. My task now is to embrace the gift of extended time away.

The Psalmist reminds us to "Be still, and know that I am God!" It's not a sentence that ends with a period. Rather, there is an exclamation point at the end. God is serious about our being people who allow God to be God - God who is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer. God who can calm the storms and provide a way out of no way. God who is almighty and all powerful.

Why is it that we have such a hard time letting go of our control and accepting God's desire to lead, shape, form and reform our lives? And why is it that we believe we know what is best for the church when it really is God's church? And who taught us that the church cannot possibly thrive without us? And why is it that we fail to receive one of the greatest gifts God offers - rest and renewal accompanied by a promise that God will take care of us?

I'm trying hard to listen for God's voice which requires me to quiet myself down and let go. I'm seeking to be still. I'm praying to find that space and place where I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is God's movement in my life and in the life of our church that is the most important thing.

I'm learning to slowly let go. In the meantime, I am caught up on my errands, have cleaned out the closets and gone to Goodwill. I've purchased a cute dress and paid some bills. I sent enough emails yesterday to have a church member tell me that "you suck at sabbath leave."

It's hard to let go. Very. Hard.

Be still, and know that I am God!

I'm trying God. Lord knows I'm trying.