Friday, June 27, 2014

Tell Me, Why Are You Here?

 "I read your blog last night," he said as I stepped onto the front porch with my book. "And I just cannot figure out why a United Methodist pastor like you would want to spend a week at a Trappist Monastery. Don't you have United Methodist retreat facilities?"

I paused for a moment before responding. I could not tell from the tone of his voice if he was offended by something in my blog. Did he think I was too progressive in my thinking to be spending the week at the monastery? Or was he just curious?

"I really appreciated what you wrote," he continued as I breathed a sigh of relief. "And you'll have to forgive me, as I noted your name on the board and looked you up."

I then started to respond to his question.

Something happens to me every time I turn right onto Cool Spring Lane, the monastery's driveway. I started coming to this place several years ago, not long after I had first been appointed to my church. The monks start most of their services in the chapel with the words, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." These words have held many meanings for me.

In the early years of my appointment, I was longing for any kind of help. I was seemingly wandering in the wilderness with a task so great that I was desperate for all the help I could get. I had been appointed to turn around a church that was close to closure and had no idea where to start. I came to Holy Cross to pray, to find a sense of normalcy in the pattern of the days, to hear God's voice.

It then became my practice to travel to Berryville every Lent. I would come the week before Holy Week. The same prayer would be spoken, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." During these times, I was desperate for a rockin' Easter sermon that would mesmerize the Easter crowds. I would devour books by NT Wright and carefully craft sermons for Holy Week and Easter.

There have been other times when I've read six books while here (I read four this week) and then planned an entire year's worth of sermons (I also planned sermons through July 19 of next year!). The prayer is still the same when the object of my time is such a task, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me."

My time at Holy Cross became such an important rhythm of my year that our Staff Parish Relations Committee held me accountable to coming. They even made me come just before marriage - making sure I was led beside still waters as a way of preparing me for such an important covenant.

This week is a little different. I came here this week to actually write a book. I used to describe myself as  "Writer Wanna Be," and I'm ready to write. I'm ready to make the dream a reality. I have stories to tell about the journey I've been on with my congregation during the last nine years. The book will read like fiction - sad, funny, honest and heart-filled - but it will all be true. My prayer is that it can be both a companion and a resource for pastors and congregations who are being led to dream a new dream for God's church. I thought I had a clearly marked path for my time at the monastery this week. I've written three chapters, something I now realize is like birthing a child - it's hard and painful. And yet, God had different plans for my week.

God knew we needed to fall in love with each other all over again.

My heart and soul have been the stage on which an intense battle has been unfolding between my ego and God. My ego has done everything possible to put God in God's place, to lead me off into the sunset where life is more about me than anything else - where my dreams of becoming a respected writer and speaker are fulfilled. I still believe God is going to use me in this capacity. I believe writing is part of my vocation - that it needs to accompany my first vocation of pastor. But what God has showed me this week is how God has been longing to hear the very same cry coming from my lips, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." God has been longing to take over the battle - to show me that it's not one in which I need to be involved but rather one I need to let go of completely. God has been doing everything possible to show me in a million possible ways of how God is at work in my life and in the life of our congregation. And so I'm preparing to leave - but only after rededicating my heart and life to Christ. I'm ready to journey again knowing that my soul desire is to be used - an empty vessel ready to be filled and then poured out for others - that they might know the joy I've found in Christ.

I've never been to the monastery at any time in the year other than Lent. The scenery is fully alive. Every living thing seems to be proclaiming the glory of the Lord - from the sunset to the bunny in the yard to the little white skunk found along the fence last night. It's a rather gorgeous thing to proclaim the glory of the Lord - don't you think?

I'm ready to go and do the same.

One thing I know for sure - God always keeps God's promises. Thank you, God.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Thank You for Feeding People

Last Sunday was an incredible day at Mount Vernon Place as we welcomed a large youth choir from Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta as well as surprise guests from Saint John's United Methodist Church in Albuquerque. It was one of those sweet days when you know the Spirit showed up - not only in worship when the youth choir sang so beautifully - but also at lunch as the congregation did everything they could to feed people. Sunday was the tip of the iceberg in a weekend that involved a lot of bread - manna from heaven.

I sent the following email to several people in our church on Monday morning. I'm still thinking about their ability to feed people several days later. It's an extraordinary gift to feed people. I pray we'll continue to do more of it.

Dear Friends:

In the Gospels, Jesus is made known often through the breaking of the bread. He’s regularly gathering around the table with people. He eats with folks others ignore. God shows up at meal time – in rich and powerful ways.

You fed a lot of people this weekend, and I am beyond grateful.

It started Thursday night with one of the largest groups we’ve had for dinner and a movie night. I counted right at 50 people before I left. There was so much joy in the air, and the Renaissance staff prepared a feast with so many people filling up on burgers, hot dogs and all the fixings. It’s an incredible partnership being built with the hotel, and I am grateful. Thank you for welcoming people with beautiful hospitality and for your extraordinary generosity of food and time.

On Friday, we had the most successful Jazz on the Steps to date. The yard signs helped draw people in as several people told me they passed earlier in the week and made a note of it. Susan then made sure no one walked by without being invited in. Many of our neighbors came – housed and unhoused. You helped feed over 100 people, and it was incredible. There were also glimpses of community, and I believe we are now called to continue to strengthen the communal aspects of an evening like this one so that everyone not only feels welcome but also that they met someone and got a truer taste of MVP.

On Sunday, you were prepared to feed those in our congregation plus 50 youth and their chaperones who came from Atlanta. Another youth group of 40 people from New Mexico then showed up unannounced, and you made sure all were welcome at the feast. And it was a feast!! There was more than enough food and lots of leftovers which were then shared with people on the porch last night through JR. Thank you for your quick thinking after the other group arrived, your ordering pizza, lending your credit card and enlarging the banquet. I cannot imagine many churches being able to do what you did so quickly. The fried chicken and other things from Giant were fantastic, and your staying to clean up is a gift.

You then sent me with dishes for a family that is deeply grieving. My prayer for this family is that they feel the love of God in powerful ways as they mourn the loss of a son they lost five months into the pregnancy. It was a gift to show up with meals for a couple of nights and dessert on top of it all. Thank you. Please continue to pray for them, too.

We were blessed with 213 people in worship yesterday – something that always makes my heart sing. But I think Jesus is taking delight not in the numbers but in the fact that we fed people – hungry people, hurting people, visiting people, gifted people, old people, young people – all kinds of people.

Thank you for the precious privilege of being your pastor.

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Standing at a Crossroads

"Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." Jeremiah 6:16 (NIV)

I've been standing at a crossroads since Easter. There are two paths in front of me. One path is marked with the sign, "It is enough." The other path is marked with the sign, "It is never enough." Each morning I set out at the dawn of a new day, and I know which path I should take - which path God longs for me to take. But I've too often settled for the path, "It's never enough."

It started Easter Sunday when we believed we would have the biggest crowd to gather in our sanctuary in the last ten years. We printed enough bulletins and newsletters to make the ink run dry in the copier. We positioned extra greeters at each door. We were ready to welcome the multitudes. Dozens of people came. It was a joyful celebration that included dancing to "Happy." But it was not enough - at least not in my mind because there were less than 300 people in the pews.

I've continued down a path of brutal comparison since Easter afternoon. I've looked at where we are in comparison to other congregations. I've watched dear colleagues advance to large churches where their gifts are breaking glass ceilings. I've received extraordinary notes and emails about how God has used our church to touch and transform people. I've felt the Spirit work in real, tangible ways. I've taken risks in the name of Jesus and heard stories about lives being changed as a result. I've baptized several children and welcomed many new members. A rich complexity of emotions and experiences have filled my head and my heart, making the decision more difficult on some mornings when I'm deciding which route to take. And still, somehow, I keep being led down the path marked, "It's not enough."

I understand how Vital Congregations may be necessary for some pastors and some churches - how a system of accountability that requires churches to enter the number of people who were in worship, the number of people who participated in small groups, and the number of people who served in mission each week can be helpful for some congregations. But Vital Congregations has robbed my joy more often than not. I can set out on the path marked, "It is enough" and sometimes the one marked, "It is more than enough" at the start of a Sunday only to change course after seeing a number recorded in a tiny notebook in the back of the sanctuary that holds the data for each Sunday worship service. Somehow this little number regularly leads me to walk down the path marked, "It's not enough."

I'm tired of the scenery on this path. I don't like the darkness that fills the gaps on this journey. I much prefer the joy and light along the path marked, "It is enough" and "You are enough." And so I'm seeking to learn a few new holy habits. I'm standing at a crossroads this morning and eliminating the sign marker that reads, "It's not enough."

Spiritual direction with Father James this morning gave me new language for my crossroad. Father James reminded me of the choice I have each day to learn new holy habits. On the edge of turning 42-years-old, it's time to uncover new emotions buried within me - emotions that say you are more than enough. You are good. You are bright. You are funny. You are faithfully successful. You should be at peace. And it's time to purge the emotions that lead me to compare myself to others, to believe that success is related to numbers, and to evaluate myself by worldly standards instead of Gospel standards. Father James reminded me of the heart of the Gospel - a story of our savior who had just one of his disciples make it all the way to the cross with him - just one!

Father James listened intently as I described the fruits of the last nine years. He heard me share how I was able to incorporate the fullness of my heart on Sunday when I compared myself to Sarah - one who got everything she asked from God and then bitterly said it was not enough until Ishmael and Hagar were gone. Father James looked me in the eye and said, "It's not a bad price to pay to remain in such a place filled with so many signs of God at work and a congregation that you can be so transparent with." He's so right. What a gift I have! Morning my morning new mercies I see!

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is using me. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is at work in real and powerful ways at a church called Mount Vernon Place. I know what God's call sounds like, and I know what my ego and the world's standards sound like. I've heard both loudly this season. But I'm choosing to listen to God - to one who has said nothing about leaving and countless words about why I'm called to continue to serve this remarkable, diverse, beautiful, risk-taking, healthy congregation. And all of this, my friends, is more than enough.

Dear God, thank you for this complex journey we have taken together. Thank you for the ways you have used a painful season to enable me to learn more about myself and about you. Thank you for reminding me that I am always enough in your eyes. Give me the strength and courage needed to resist comparing myself to others. Help me to smooth the edge of my competitive nature. Show me, God, what a life entails with the Gospel at its heart. I want to be faithful. I want to see that I am enough - and that what we are doing together is more than enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.