Monday, July 28, 2014

The Power of a Blessing

The wedding on Saturday evening included every possible element in the liturgy - a processional with a cross and Bible, three scripture readings, long and incredibly beautiful vows, and the sacrament of communion during which guests had a choice of grape juice or wine. I led the congregation through the Great Thanksgiving, broke the bread, lifted the cup, and asked for God's Spirit to be poured upon the bread and wine. I then offered the invitation I offer every communion Sunday:

This table does not belong to me. It does not belong to Mount Vernon Place. It is the table of our Lord and Savior. On the night he first sat at this table, he invited his disciples to join him. He knew one would deny him and most would disappoint him. Still, he chose to eat with them, and I believe he continues to choose to eat with us. The table is open to all people. All of you - everyone here - is welcome to come. You are invited to come with your hands extended as you remind yourself that grace is something that is never taken but always freely given to us. One of the servers will put the bread in your hand. Please then dip it in the cup, and return to your seat. Again, all are welcome. However, if you do not feel comfortable receiving the sacrament, please come forward anyway. I'll be on the side of the sanctuary, and it is a deep privilege to place my hands on your shoulders and ask God to bless you and fill you with God's presence.

When the servers were in their place on Saturday night, I stepped to the side, expecting something similar to a Sunday morning in our church. Several people come for prayer, but few people come forward to receive a blessing. I noticed one person coming towards me. I asked for his name and placed my hands on his shoulders before saying, "Thank you God for Mark. Thank you for who you have called and created him to be. May you reveal yourself to him in a powerful way, enabling him to see how much you love him, cherish him and adore him." I then said "Amen" and lifted my eyes to find a dozen more people waiting for a blessing. I repeated the prayer for men and women in different life stages, getting the words to form exactly as I wanted for some people and stumbling through others. Each person was different, but the smile was inescapable as each one lifted their head and started to walk away.

The simplest definition of blessing is "God's favor and protection." There's something incredibly powerful about someone asking for God's favor and protection - for God's presence to be made real to us - about someone reminding us that God is with us and not only loves us but adores us. We all need to be reminded that God is not only with us but cheering us on.

The church has blessed me at numerous pivotal points throughout my life. My grandfather held me in his arms as a child and baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, sprinkling my tiny head with water and reminding me of my belovedness, God's forgiveness, and my place in the community of faith. I was confirmed as a teenager by a pastor who reminded me of God's love when friends at school named my flaws instead of my gifts. I was blessed by a pastor as a twenty-something in Washington who needed to hear God's voice leading me in new ways. I was blessed at my ordination when a bishop asked the Holy Spirit to be poured upon me as a servant set apart for God. Craig and I were blessed by three clergy persons who represented the Catholic and United Methodist Church and a host of friends and family at our wedding. And, there have been countless church members who have offered prayers spoken and written in cards and emails that have been just as significant as these pivotal moments in life. It's an extraordinary thing for God to allow us to be the vehicles through which others experience a word of assurance that God is with them, loves them, and wants what is best for them.

When a couple chooses to be married in a church or by a pastor, they are asking for both the blessing of God and the community gathered to witness the establishment of their covenant. They want not only a reminder that God is with them but prayers that God will continue to be with them along with the people who are gathered for their wedding. We show up at weddings to offer our blessing.

I'm so incredibly grateful that I've never been denied a blessing. As I reflect upon what happened Saturday night, the image of people lined up to receive a blessing, I pray I continue to open myself to all the ways God wants to use me to both be a blessing and offer a blessing - that I never deny God's love and grace to anyone who is lined up ready to hear that God is with them, that God loves them, and that God wants to journey with them, offering favor and protection along the way.

One of the greatest gifts I've been given as a pastor is the privilege of blessing people. It's extraordinary!

Why does the church so often deny this gift instead of offering it freely and abundantly?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Are You a United Methodist? - Guest Post by Rachel Keller

While countless individuals talk about leaving the United Methodist Church or splitting it in two, seminary students at Wesley Theological Seminary are being invited to (re)examine the greatest gifts of our denomination. In the following essay, Rachel Keller, our MVP ministry intern, shares why she's committed to continuing to find her place in the United Methodist Church.

8 Reasons Why the UMC is the Place for Me 

I dont remember a time when I wasnt a part of the United Methodist Church.  At two months old, my father, a United Methodist pastor, baptized me in my familys first parish. At age 14 I was confirmed and havent changed my denomination since.  I was raised in a home where Sunday mornings were only for church, no exceptions. I never questioned why my parents chose to raise my sister and I in the United Methodist church. I knew who John Wesley was, but I had no idea what he believed or why I was following his beliefs. Then I dated a guy in college who was a fellow United Methodist pastors kid.  He loved the concept of prevenient grace and would be shocked and disappointed if a Charles Wesley hymn wasnt played on a Sunday morning.  I was surprised that we had similar upbringings, yet he knew so much more than I did about our church. But Ive never left, because its home to me.  Over time (and with the help of theological education), I learned why I had chosen to remain in the United Methodist Church and why I am still there today.

8 Reasons Why the UMC is the Place for Me (With the help of John and Charles Wesley):
1.    We believe the Bible shows us how we can be in right relationship with God

How do we know if something is the truth or not? Who or what holds the ultimate authority in the truth? How much truth does the Bible hold? Christians stand on many different sides of this issue.  In his sermon on The Means of Grace, John Wesley talks about the importance of the scriptures in helping us find the truth:

And, in fact, (God) hath not left us undetermined; he hath shown us the way wherein we should go. We have only to consult the oracles of God; to inquire what is written there; and, if we simply abide by their decision, there can no possible doubt remain.(109)[i]

Wesley believed the most important truth is how to be in right relationship with God, and that the Bible holds this truth.  Today, I appreciate how the church also carefully uses Christian tradition and our own human experiences to find truth, but the Bible is our ultimate authority.[ii]
2.    We love free will

Does God choose specific people to love, only predestining certain people to salvation?  United Methodists would undoubtedly answer this question with a resounding NO!  God desires relationship with every single person in this entire world.  However, God also created every human with free will.  God never forces us to love God back.  We have every right to reject Gods love toward us.  If we accept Gods love, then we continue on in becoming closer to God. If we reject Gods love, we will feel distant from God.  But, God never stops loving us.[iii] 

When we have those days when we feel like were not good enough - God is next to us, accepting us where we are, ready to forgive and keep loving us even when we feel unloveable.
3.    Grace

This free will fits in well with our view of salvation as it relates to Gods grace. We may know Amazing Grace so well we could sing it in our sleep, but what does grace really mean?

As I said before, God longs to be in relationship with us. Grace is Gods favor on our lives that draws us closer into that relationship. While there are not different types of grace, John Wesley found different ways to describe grace and different names for grace. So heres a run down of four different ways that we describe grace:

Prevenient grace: Gods love that comes to us before we know or understand God.  Therefore, prevenient grace is bestowed on everyone, believing or unbelieving.  It shows us the love that God has for each one of us and the desire that God has to be in relationship with Gods creation. This grace leads us to the knowledge of our sinful hearts and our need for Gods love and forgiveness. It pushes us to repent so that we can be in right relationship with God.

Justifying grace: grace that puts us in right relationship with God when we acknowledge our need for Gods love and forgiveness

Sanctifying grace: grace that enables us to grow in our relationship with God as we strive to continue on in right relationship with God[iv]

Grace doesnt always work in everyones life in an orderly fashion like it is listed above. We may feel prevenient grace pushing us to repent after weve already been justified.  All of these types of grace work together and even simultaneously for our ongoing salvation.
4.    Our salvation isnt just about what happens when we die

 One of the reasons I love Wesleys view of salvation is because its not just about what happens when we die, its about restoring us back to who we were created to be in this life, right now. As one of my past professors, Scott Kisker, once said, God is extending Gods love to us, not so that the Trinity will have more company in heaven. God extends Gods love to us so that we might grow into the mature character of the free love that has embraced us.[v]

Salvation is not a one time thing, or a once saved always saved type of deal.  Salvation is a lifelong process and part of our relationship with God enabled by grace through faith.  We never outgrow our repentance, but as we repent, we come to depend more and more on God, and we desire to live in communion with God and in service to others. This gives us a great assurance of peace.[vi]  Charles Wesley describes the change that happens in our heart when we receive salvation in his hymn, How Can We Sinners Know:

We who in Christ believe that he for us hath died, we all his unknown peace receive and feel his blood applied. Our natures turned, our mind transformed in all its powers, and both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.[vii]
5.    We love community

Methodism started as a very social movement. Before there was a traditional denomination, the people called Methodists were organized into small groups called societies, which helped them to grow in love. In 1743 John Wesley wrote about the first society formed in London:

Such a society is no other than a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.’”[viii]

The societies kept general rules that are still used in the UMC today. The three basic rules are: do no harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God. Attending to the ordinances of God means keeping key practices and Christian disciplines that help us grow in our life of faith. United Methodists still strive today to hold one another accountable to these general rules through community and small groups. I love being part of a church that recognizes the need for each other as we strive to grow in our faith.

Charles Wesley describes church community in the hymn, Jesus United by Thy Grace:

Help us to help each other, Lord, each others cross to bear; let all their friendly aid afford, and feel each others care.[ix]
6.    We have 2 sacraments that bring us closer to God and closer to each other

Methodists celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion.  We believe that baptism is an outward sign of Gods grace that claims us before we are even able to comprehend Gods love. Baptism is an initiation into the body of Christ, the church. Because of this initiation and grace that claims us before our knowledge or understanding, the Methodist church traditionally practices infant baptism.  The congregation makes a beautiful promise to love and support the infant and to do all in their power to help raise the child in a life of faith. When the child is older and mature, they can make the choice to respond to their baptismal covenant through a life of Christian discipleship.[x]

The sacrament of communion is also an outward sign of Gods invisible grace. Wesley saw communion as a means of grace, and as such should be taken as often as possible. To refuse communion is to reject Jesus Christ and the grace that is available through communion.  In his sermon, The Duty of Constant Communion, John Wesley wrote:

If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lords Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us.[xi]

Methodists also practice an open table; we believe that God can work through communion to change the lives of those who partake, so it should not just be for those who have been baptized or those who believe. As a means of grace, communion is all about what God does for us, not what we do.
7.    We all are called to serve

Our Book of Discipline states,

Ministry in the Christian church is derived from the ministry of Christ, who calls all persons to receive Gods gift of salvation and follow in the way of love and service. The whole church receives and accepts this call, and all Christians participate in this continuing ministry.[xii]

We believe that clergy and laity are of equal importance in the church. I love being part of a church where everyone plays a part and everyone is called to serve! The church is the people, not the pastor.
8.    We have hope in the future that makes us want to work now

We place a large emphasis on living in hope for the new creation. Our central affirmation is that God offers full redemption to all of Gods creation. But we dont have to wait until the Second Coming to receive that redemption. We are called to live in the Resurrection now and work for the Kingdom of God on earth. Through the Holy Spirit we can begin to embody the redeeming work of Christ now, and the Holy Spirit can work through us to bring about change in the world.[xiii] Our hope is here now and in the future.

Charles Wesleys hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Singdescribes this hope in the last verse:

In Christ, your head, you then shall know, shall feel your sins forgiven; anticipate your heaven below, and own that love is heaven.[xiv]

[i] Campbell, Ted, ed. A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley. Dallas: Tuckapaw Media, 2008. p.109
[ii] Campbell, Ted. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials. Nashville: Abington Press, 2011. p.36-37
[iii] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 4, Scott Kisker
[iv] Campbell, Ted. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials. Nashville: Abington Press, 2011. p. 60-65
[v] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 4, Scott Kisker
[vi] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 7, Sondra Wheeler
[vii] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.372
[viii] Campbell, Ted, ed. A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley. Dallas: Tuckapaw Media, 2008. p. 96
[ix] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.561
[x] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 9, Henry Knight
[xi] Coyle, Jason, ed. Sermon 101: The Duty of Constant Communion. The Wesley Center Online. Wesley Center for Applied Theology, 1999.
[xii] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012. Paragraph 301.1, p. 217
[xiii] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 12: Randy Maddox
[xiv] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.57


Monday, July 07, 2014

Remembering Lois - Give 'em Hell in Heaven

I realize that one of the cardinal rules of pastoral ministry is to never have favorites. But in full disclosure, I lost one of my favorites today. 

It was not always the case. She could not stand me when I was first appointed as her pastor, and she was not quiet about her dislike. I'll never forget the day she arrived late for a meeting and made an announcement before sitting down, "You'll have to excuse me for being late. The nurse wouldn't let me leave the home. My blood pressure was too high since I was about to see my pastor." Or there was the time when she was presenting the budget and said something along the lines of, "If we run out of money this year, it's not my fault. It's because we're giving the pastor a raise." 

Lois was the the 92-year-old chair of the Finance Committee as well as the coordinator of Christian Social Concerns when I arrived. She did not trust me or the District Superintendent who brought me to Mount Vernon Place. "You and your friend, Argo," she would say repeatedly while shaking her finger at me.

I loved Lois, though. I could not stop loving Lois. And Lois finally decided I was not going anywhere so she might as well learn to like me, too. She eventually learned to love me. She made her way into a huge crevice of my heart - a heart that is broken today as Lois entered the church triumphant a little after 7:00 this morning.

Lois was part of a group of saints at MVP who taught me a million lessons about the church, ministry and life. She never missed worship until just a few months ago. She was always at weekly Bible study - when it was at the church and later when I traveled to her place of residence in Northern Virginia. She embodied generosity when it came to giving of her time and resources. And she had an uncanny ability to make you laugh.

She and Howard were the best of friends - longtime church members at MVP who also resided in the same place. Both of them lived more than a century. I'll never forget going to visit Howard when he was sick, and walking into his apartment with Lois. There was a near empty box of Cheez Its next to his chair. Lois picked up the box, gave it a shake and said, "No wonder your stomach hurts, Howard." 

I loved hearing Lois tell the story of the night Howard's dog came back to life. Rebel was Howard's constant companion in life - more fur than body and a very loud bark. Howard was very sad one day when he arrived at Bible study, "I'm not sure what's wrong with my little dog but he has not been himself all day." We went down to Howard's apartment and walked in the door. Rebel would have normally been barking like crazy and nipping at our ankles. Not this time. Rebel was still as could be, flat on his back. I suggested we pray for Rebel. I got down on my knees, put my hands on his little body and prayed. Soon Rebel was up, running around. "You brought that damn dog back to life," Lois would say. 

There was also the time when I was visiting Lois and she took me to the library to see their new computer lab. A woman was there setting up the computers. Lois introduced me as her pastor, pointed to one of the screens and said, "Do you know my pastor got a man from one of those?!" She could not quite figure out how I met such an amazing person through the computer, but she adored my husband and loved to flirt with him.

Lois never turned down an opportunity for a martini with her lunch. I remember the first time I decided to have a martini with her. I ordered mine dirty. "How did you get to be so sophisticated?" she asked.

But Lois' impact is so much greater than memories that make me laugh. She had the ability to be prophetic with her words and her actions.

I'll never forget the day she shared during joys and concerns about Metropolitan UMC becoming a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network. "I was reading my paper yesterday," she shared. "And I noticed that Metropolitan, our National Church, became a Reconciling Congregation." "Our National Church!!! They are welcoming everyone. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" she asked. "Shouldn't everyone be welcome in God's church?" She would later be present the day our congregation voted to become a reconciling congregation. She even went to Mr. Henry's with us following the meeting to celebrate.

When our church was vacating its property in preparation for a property redevelopment, we had a beautiful chapel filled with everything needed for a small church. It was not long after Hurricane Katrina, and we located a church in Mississippi that was being rebuilt after losing everything. Lois paid to ship all of the contents of our chapel to Mississippi - several pews, a baptismal font, Bibles, hymnals - everything needed to set up church. We later received a photograph, and everything fit perfectly in the church. Lois was so proud of her contribution. I am, too.

But the biggest impact Lois made is that she let go, and she encouraged others in our church to do the same. She was first adamant that her church was going to close. "Pastor, we voted to spend the endowment. It's our money. We are going to spend it and just turn the keys over to the Annual Conference," she said over and over again. But she learned to trust God who is always capable of doing a new thing. She also learned to trust her young pastor. 

So many things about her church have changed. There have been significant staff changes. Our congregation has become more diverse in every way imaginable. While the congregation used to be mainly peers of Lois, the congregation today is predominantly young adults. Lois took delight in what God was doing in her church. She loved telling others about how our church was growing again. 

Lois, I hope you know how much you're responsible for the growth. I pray you know that it would have never happened without you - without your commitment to providing leadership in our church for decades, without your willingness to constantly show up and give even when you were not happy with the changes, without your ability to let go and see what God could do, without your talking back often during church and making laughter a normal part of Sunday worship, without your standing up for justice and equality, without your taking delight in the new people. Thank you for making me a better pastor and a better person. I'd give anything to share another martini with you today. Instead, I'll raise a glass later and close with the words of a church member, "Farewell spitfire. Give 'em hell up in heaven. I'm deeply saddened, but all our lives are fuller because of you."


You'll always be one of my favorites. Please be nice to Jesus.

Until we meet again...

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Facebook Kind of Birthday

I'm convinced that everyone needs to be on Facebook. While it's robbed hours of my time and taken the attention off my husband more than he would like, Facebook has reconnected me with people from every chapter of my life, enabled me to share how God is at work in my life and the life of our congregation, and assisted our church in telling its story to a wider audience. I love Facebook. And I especially like Facebook on my birthday.

In no other year of life have I heard from over 250 people on my birthday. Countless individuals posted on my wall. Others sent a message through Facebook. I found myself captivated throughout the day on Saturday, rejoicing in each greeting I received. While most messages were a simple, "Happy Birthday," some posts conveyed something more specific. I took special delight when friends took time to add something to the words, "Happy Birthday," - a reminder of why I'm appreciated, the naming of my gifts, a word about how I've made a difference, or a specific blessing for the new year. I pondered these sentiments throughout the day, savoring each one as a gift from God.

I've made a promise to myself since Saturday to be better at saying "happy birthday" to others who are on Facebook - to write a similar word of gratitude or blessing to them. I've also wondered if I made a huge mistake when I stopped writing birthday cards to church members. I used to send a stack of cards each week, taking time to share why I appreciated each person and affirm their gifts. I stopped last summer when I went on sabbatical, and a group of laypeople have continued the practice on behalf of the church. But I have been reminded of a powerful gift I can offer to people - letting people know exactly why they are appreciated, the difference they have made in my life and the life of our church, and why I celebrate their life.

Why don't we do this more often?

Why is it that we don't seize every opportunity to tell someone that they make a difference - that their life matters and the reasons for why they matter?

What might happen if we made a point to write someone a note every single day - or regularly sought meaningful opportunities to remind people of their gifts?

Greg Jones, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School, says that we all needs holy friends. He describes holy friends as people who are not afraid to name the sins we have grown to love and the gifts we have been afraid to claim. My holy friends are largely responsible for who I am today - it is through their voices that I have regularly heard the voice of God.

Earlier this summer, a colleague serving a United Methodist Church in Idaho took a picture of a report at his annual conference that showed how they had no candidates for ministry being commissioned or ordained. His picture told a thousand words. It broke my heart. I have since learned that his annual conference is incredibly small with only 150 churches that average 67 people in worship. And yet, I cannot help but wonder what could be done differently - not only in his annual conference - but in all of our churches.

What might happen if we regularly took time to affirm the gifts of others? What might happen if we intentionally looked someone in the eye and told them the difference they make in our lives and/or in the lives of our churches? What might happen if we provided our church members with every opportunity to use their gifts and explore their passions, affirming them each time? What might happen if we intentionally talked about God's call more often - and how God is still calling people? What might happen if we went out of our way to make sure everyone experiences a Facebook kind of birthday?

Thank you, precious people, for affirming my gifts - the ones I was willing to claim on my own and the ones I could have never claimed without your naming them for me first. Thank you for making me feel like one of the most special individuals in the whole wide world. I cannot be fully alive without your being fully alive - and you show me what fully alive looks like all the time.