Friday, December 25, 2015

Changed by a Child - a Homily for Christmas Eve


            “Dear Max,
            Your mother and I don’t yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future. Your new life is full of promise…
            Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today.”
            These words begin a letter written earlier this month by the parents of a baby girl named Max, a child who has already changed them. The letter goes on to describe how life is different today than it was for her parents when it comes to health, poverty, technology and knowledge. Max’s parents then make a vow to play a vital role in improving life – not just for Max – but for children around the world.
            The parents then write, “As you begin the next generation of (our) family, we also begin the Chan Zuckerberg initiative to join people across the world to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation…We will give away 99% of our Facebook shares – currently about $45 billion – during our lives to advance this mission…We want to do what we can, working alongside many others.
            Love, Mom and Dad”
            The birth of Max is a game changer.
Max had been in this world barely long enough to catch her own breath when her parents realized they were called to play a role in helping a world of people keep their breath. Max’s birth birthed fresh hope, bold visions, extraordinary generosity, and deep retrospection in two parents whose gifts can now touch and transform the lives of thousands of people.
A tiny baby his father swaddled in a brown robe, dressing her up as a Star Wars Jedi last week has made a profound impact.
            “Your mother and I don’t yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future. Your new life is full of promise.”
I cannot help but wonder if the same words may have been pondered, penned or prayed in a borrowed barn in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago as the child who provides more hope than any child ever born on earth came to a young, unwed, poor mother, part of God’s plan to transform the world in ways that even $45 billion cannot buy.
We’ve gathered tonight as people who may not be expecting to see or hear anything new. People flock to churches all over the world on Christmas Eve in hopes of singing the same songs we sung last year, lighting the same small candles, and hearing the same words of scripture about a young family making a journey to pay their taxes only to find there is no room at the inn. Many of us know this story by heart. There are images of it in some of the Christmas cards currently stacked on our kitchen tables and in manger scenes we remove from their boxes every December, placing the Marys, Josephs, and baby Jesus’ on a shelf with a couple of cattle nearby if we purchased a deluxe set.
And while we may not expect anything unusual to happen this night, I’m convinced that God has another plan. The parent of this child wants everything to be different – changed – touched – transformed because of his Son named Jesus. This child is meant to be a game changer.
While some of you here may be able to recall moments in our nation’s history where people were acutely aware of the power of war, racism or a downward economy, I cannot recall a time when I proclaimed the good news on Christmas Eve while feeling the heavy, nearly paralyzing weight of our collective fear as a nation and world.
Uncertainty lingers in the form of unbridled gun violence. 
“Black Lives Matter” is now a mantra that is not spoken because of one particular incident but because of numerous incidents that tragically keep on occurring in cities across our nation.
Darkness fills a tiny country in the Middle East where archaeologists and scholars once flocked to see incredible ruins while pilgrims went to walk down a Damascus street where God caught up with Saul and transformed him into Paul, but where Syrians now flee in hopes of finding light and life in another land.
And you and I live with the reality that even a holiday party at a center for people with developmental disabilities is no longer off limits when it comes to terrorists and their tricks.
The rod of oppression is real whether it’s the awareness of how many people in our city have no place to call home or how the family who sat behind me at a downtown Cosi is no longer welcome by everyone since the mother and two of her daughters were wearing a hijab, making them known as Muslims in the same way the crosses around our necks mark us as Christians. But we are not the target of a presidential candidate who believe anyone professing faith in Allah may be a terrorist who must have every aspect of their background checked before they enter our country.
Is there anything we can do to stop the violence, the racism, the oppression, the terrorism, the madness?
A clergy colleague has felt a tugging on her heart recently, a sign that indicates God may be calling her to new places. She can articulate a call to do something about gun violence, and she keeps talking to different people about what role she might play. But she came into my office earlier this week to share how people are not sure there’s anything she can really do. We may be past the point of no return.
But what if the child whose birth we celebrate tonight assures us that nothing is past the point of no return – no person, no amount of violence, no amount of darkness, no amount of sadness, no amount of oppression, no amount of terrorism, no amount of burden no matter how heavy the burden might be because one has come who has increased our joy. A child has been born for us, a son given to us, and his name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Jesus was brought into the world by a Father who knew his son could provide hope for the future.  This child’s life was full of promise! Prophets foretold how he would advance human potential and promote equality in a way that none of us can, no matter how gifted or resourced we might be.
What would it mean for us to lay our eyes on this child tonight as though we were seeing him for the very first time?
Imagine taking him into your arms, and allowing his beauty to take your breath away, getting a hold of your heart.
Imagine being convinced that he has been born into your life – a gift of God given to you.
A child disrupts every sense of order or schedule a family may hold.
What if this child is to do the same for us – to awaken us in the night – anytime we see pain that we can actually play a role in alleviating; to force us to feed someone who cannot feed him or herself; to push us to embrace someone who can experience healing by the power of being held by another; to tell someone we’re not going anywhere – that we’ll sit with them through the night until everything is okay again, until the scary thing that has entered our room is finally gone.
One of the greatest gifts offered by a child is that a child helps us see that life is no longer about us. Our priorities have to be placed aside as we care for a tiny person in our midst.
But that’s also the greatest gift of this child whose birth we celebrate tonight. Jesus teaches us how to give ourselves away more than any other person or thing can while helping us learn that the more we give ourselves to others, the more we experience life and light in the midst of darkness.
We may even hear the rod of oppression being broken with our own ears!
Will you allow his birth to change you, perhaps even transform you?
Will you allow a child to push you to give away some of what you’ve worked hard to amass – your time, your talent and your resources – because you now see how you are called to be a part of healing the brokenness of the world around you?
Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression shall cease.
Let it be so.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Boxes of Comparison

I was recently reintroduced to this box at the gym. It's not too intimidating of a picture, but seeing the real thing can cause my heart to beat faster, especially if my trainer is placing it on the floor in front of me. It's 20 inches high, and the invitation always starts with the same words. "You're going to place one foot on top and step up." These words are sometimes followed with, "while holding this kettle ball" or "and then lift your other knee straight up as high as you can before putting your foot back down on the floor."

It's an exercise that requires balance and determination. My legs haven't always been strong enough to pull my weight on top of the box, let alone get my other knee high in the air, too. 

But I did it yesterday. And, I was doing really well with my balance and form...until I started to watch what another woman was doing on a box a few feet away from mine. Her kettle bell was much larger than anything I'd taken on top of the box with me. And I started to get intimidated. I started to compare myself to her until I forced myself to stop and turn my body away from her so I could not see her anymore.

I spend a lot of time telling other people to live their story - to stop comparing themselves to others or yearning for talents and gifts other people have. But I still got caught up in the similar cycle of desire yesterday morning. 

And I'll need to work hard to avoid the trap of comparison today.

It's a day where countless colleagues are posting the schedules for their Christmas Eve services. The largest of our denomination's churches started celebrating Christmas Eve a few days ago in order to accommodate the masses who will flock to their spaces to sing, "Joy to the World." Another colleague who I don't even know posted a schedule of eight services scheduled for today, and he'll preach each one - in different locations around a city in the Midwest. I see these schedules and am suddenly reminded of my context. 

There may be more people showering in the church building this morning than worshippers in the sanctuary tonight. More than half of our congregation has gone "home" - a place far away from the city of Washington. Many restaurants will be closed around us. Traffic will be at it's best. I'll never forget one colleague's statement following his first Christmas Eve in a Washington church - "That was the most depressing thing ever." He was used to overflowing crowds instead of being in a place where people often go somewhere else for the holiday.

But I am filled with anticipation for the joy of preaching tonight. I'm utterly delighted with the words that have been crafted and will be ready to share. I cannot wait to light the candles, to offer an invitation to the table, to gather in the midst of a beautiful sanctuary with people who have come to receive the bread that has been prepared for them. My heart is beating faster as I think about the harp music that will play from the balcony, and images of children coming forward to learn the stories of Jesus, the bread that will be broken, the carols that will be sung.

I cannot imagine driving around a city in the state where I went to college in order to preach eight different times. That's not the box I've been called to stand on. So why would I even be thinking about that box?

What about you? How much time are you spending looking at someone else getting on their box instead of seizing the life you've been given? 

Come to think of it, I'm utterly delighted I got this body on top of those 20 inches in the first place.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Gift of Letting Go

My father recently delivered a half a dozen plastic bins that have been sitting in my mother's basement for 20 years. She has asked me when I would get them at least once a year for the past ten, but it took my dad delivering a piece of furniture over Thanksgiving to ensure that the transfer of belongings would actually take place.

We brought the bins inside one by one, and I untaped a few to allow my eyes to behold a homemade Cabbage Patch Doll created during a Christmas season when Wal-Mart shelves were barren, a large rag doll that used to sit in a rocking chair in my room, and a Fisher-Price ferris wheel whose appearance quickly revealed my age. These bins were the easier ones to open. They were quite delightful. 

But other bins brought memories I wasn't quite ready to relive.

While there were several plaques reminding me of first place wins in public speaking and writing contests, there were even more plaques with the words "second" or "third" engraved on top. While there were pictures of a high school best friend, there were diaries with pages that reminded me of how alone I often felt as a teenager. I regularly say you could not pay me to go back to high school - or perhaps even get me to a high school reunion today. But those boxes took me back in a way I had not experienced for years.

And I wonder. 

I wonder how many things we take with us that we should let go of all together. I wonder how many things we carefully pack and store away in case we want to look at them again someday. I wonder what's begging to instead be taken to the dumpster - the very place I took my high school yearbooks week before last.

We're in a season where so many people are separated from loved ones because they have allowed events of the past to be carried into the future. A family member hurt you years ago, forcing you to pack up the pain and carry it with you every year since. Memories of disappointing moments have been placed inside boxes that you have not been able to let go of yet. One person will prevent you from stepping inside a particular New Year's Eve party because she betrayed you years ago. And so you keep moving, but at a much slower pace, because it's hard to move forward when you're attached to so many chains. 

Howard Thurman, in his extraordinary book, The Mood of Christmas, offers an invitation to receive and give the gift of grace at Christmas. He suggests that if we want to experience the meaning of Christmas, then we need to seek reconciliation with any individual with whom we have "a ruptured or unhappy relationship." He writes, "During the year that is rapidly coming to a close, you have perhaps had many experiences with many kinds of people, those with whom you live, those with whom you work, or those with whom you play, and in the course of these going-ons there have been times when the relationships heightened and were thrown out of join, and a desert and a sea developed between you and someone else. And you were so busy with your own responsibilities, and perhaps so full of hostility yourselves, that there was no time to give to the business and the experience and the grace of reconciliation. So will you think about such a person, find a way by which you can restore a lost harmony, so that your Christmas gift to yourselves will be peace between you and someone else?" (page 47).

What would it look like for you to let go of whatever pain or resentment you're carrying? 

How might you let go of the pain, not by tossing it into a ten-foot high dumpster where it will be taken away once and for all like I did all my second place plaques and ridiculously painful journals, but by picking up the phone or writing a note or inviting someone for coffee...all in an effort to say, "I'm sorry. I'm ready to let go."

Tell me, what's locked away in your storage closet that you've been carrying too long? 

Monday, November 02, 2015

A Simple Invitation

I reached my tipping point.

It happens every year about this time as the fall craziness ushers in forms to be completed for Charge Conference, thoughtful letters to be written to each member as we invite them to ponder how to embody generosity in the next year, new classes to lead, leadership to select and equip, and general planning.

Last week was extraordinary on so many levels. There were meals with members, meals with new students, and a meal that brought together people from three institutions who are trying hard to work together. There were thoughtful conversations and helpful training sessions and exciting planning. So much happened, and I kept on going. Like an Energizer bunny, I filled myself with coffee each morning while allowing the devotional book and Bible to remain closed. I did whatever it took to make it through my to-do list and scheduled appointments, came home, crashed, and got up to do it all over again.

I then arrived at the church yesterday morning in what I perceived to be plenty of time only to learn how much time it takes when a room isn't quite ready for a meeting and when the plan for the All Saint's candles doesn't really work. I rushed through my preparations for a small group and prayed my sermon would flow.

I then showed up to facilitate a class where someone came who I knew didn't really want to be there because a session centered on the Holy Spirit can be both confusing and intimidating. But she came, arriving with her baby as she has each week.

The baby smiled for the first 30 minutes, and then he made a fuss, struggling to find comfort until she placed him in the Bjorn up against her chest. And it was this image that arrested me - this image that came as an invitation to me - this image in the midst of so many other powerful images from yesterday - that reminds me what God most longs for me to receive - to share with us.

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. (Matthew 11:28-30).

Why do we have such a hard time accepting this invitation?

What would we need to do to stop for a moment - stop whining, stop working, stop planning, stop doing, stop being restless - and simply crawl into the arms of God and allow ourselves to be held for a while?

Friday, September 25, 2015

God is Still Speaking - Even to the Speaker of the House

Washington has been rocked this week.

Traffic patterns were redefined. Barriers were constructed. So many people teleworked that Metro's ridership was down by 18% on Wednesday. Tourists have arrived by bus, plane and rail. And joy has come in ways I've not experienced before. Police officers were going out of their way to say "Good morning," yesterday. Many people seemed to be smiling even as they had to wait an extra 20 minutes to cross the street.

Some people say our city put on quite a show. Indeed, it seems that everything about the Pope's visit went smoothly, just as planned. But it's now clear we were not really ready for the Pope. We were not ready for him to actually change us.

Our city is used to labels. Progressive people sit on the left while conservatives sit on the right. Some people wear blue and others prefer red. Some of us have elephants in our offices and others have donkeys in our front yards. Each thought, stance and person is to be labeled either "Democrat" or "Republican." Even the Washington Post could not stop from including the word "politics" when describing the Pope's first full day in our city. 

The problem is, the Pope doesn't fit neatly inside either box. And his words yesterday cannot be labeled "progressive" or "conservative" no matter how many newscasters sought to say something like, "And just as the Republican lawmakers were settling into their seats, the Pope gave them something to stand up for when he talked about the family." 

The Pope did not come here to win people to one side or the other. He did not come espousing conservative values or progressive ideals. He came preaching the Gospel. He came to talk about God who created the world, called it "good," and wants us to treat it with the same reverence and respect. He came and reminded people that God weeps whenever life ends - whether it's in the womb in a clinic or on a table in a penitentiary. He came to talk about the gift of wealth used rightly and the need to care for the vulnerable in our midst including children and the elderly. He came to talk about weapons and peace. And he then showed us how true riches can be found not in breaking bread with the "powerful" on Capitol Hill but with those who have an even more powerful way of showing us the face of Jesus in a nearby church's lunch ministry. 

We were prepared to move the Pope through our city. But we were not prepared for him to move past our labels. We were prepared to sacrifice hours in hopes of getting even a quick glimpse of this gentle man. But we were not prepared for his words to move us, and certainly not the powerful amongst us.

Countless people have mocked the image of Speaker John Boehner's crying in the Pope's presence yesterday. We saw them sitting together, joking about a green tie, sipping cold water. But we were not prepared for the decision made today.

The Speaker who cried yesterday announced his resignation today. People are quick to point to the politics, sharing how he won the seat by a narrow margin. But I think otherwise. You see, I've heard God speaking. I know the voice of one who says, "Will you come and follow me?" I know the joy that comes when one seeks to relinquish the treasures of this world in exchange for something far more powerful: treasures of the kingdom.

What if John Boehner not only met the Pope yesterday, but heard Jesus in a new way? What if he experienced a call to be reconciled, to live as one? What if he received a message to care for the poor and vulnerable around us? What if this humble, loving man renamed Francis showed him the way to peace, and how we might be more faithful instruments of his peace in other places? What if Jesus' friend name John experienced Jesus leading him to places where his gifts can be used in ways that will reap far more benefits than even being number three in line for the presidency?

My favorite definition of politics is "the ability to produce intended and foreseen effects upon others." If these words are true, then I bring politics into the pulpit every time I open my mouth because I long for lives to be changed through what I say. Ask any preacher if the same is true for her, and you're likely to hear a resounding "yes."

I cannot imagine the Pope coming to our country without praying that God would use him in a powerful way. I cannot imagine him coming to our country without praying the words Speaker Boehner reportedly prayed last night,

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life. 

It seems that prayers are being answered in powerful ways.

Imagine what might happen if every person with power sought to pray this prayer and then become the answer to it?

God is still speaking. Praise be to God! God is still speaking!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Waiting for a Pope

Our city is filled with a sense of expectation and excitement that I have not experienced in a long time. Some of us are glued to our televisions, and others have been standing outside since 4:00am, eager to get a glimpse of the Pope. Many of us have adapted our work schedules, heeding the advice of television newscasters offering insights on proposed traffic nightmares. And while I'm sure people are complaining at the disruptions, I've not heard the grumbling. Rather, I've heard an extraordinary sense of gratitude.

And I cannot help but to wonder how long we've been waiting for a Pope like Francis.

Gone are the Prada shoes and the palatial palace. But that was just the beginning. We have since watched the Pope cross one barrier after another. We have seen him prefer to touch the common person over spending time with the powerful. We have observed him being like Jesus. He's regularly stopped to notice those whom others cannot see. He has touched those once deemed untouchable. He's brought healing to his church - and to my church.

He's said things we need to hear about mercy, justice, humility, compassion and equality.

But he's not simply preached. He's done what St. Francis of Assisi said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."

And while we have learned much from Pope Francis, we've also learned that our world is desperate for the people who say they follow Jesus to act like Jesus. People want to see others befriending the poor, touching the untouchable, healing the brokenness, and making the world one.

My prayers are with Pope Francis as he prepares to offer his first words to our nation this morning. May this prophet speak prophetically, and may the eyes and ears of all who see him be opened in such a way that we long to follow Jesus with what we do and how we spend the enormous resources God has given us. We are a nation in great need of healing.

Speak Francis. Speak loudly. Speak clearly. And then please keep loving extravagantly in such a way that the church and our nation cannot help but do the same. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lessons in Hospitality

"Tell me, what do you like about your new church?" I asked him. "Everyone is excited to see you when you walk in. They all go out of their way to welcome you. It makes me look forward to going each week."

I had a similar experience of being welcomed and received recently. But it was not in a church. Rather, it was in a restaurant.

Craig and I arrived ten minutes before our reservation, but the restaurant staff was still waiting for us, ready to receive us and show us to our table. When we sat down, we were quickly greeted by each staff member passing by. Our server then came to the table to introduce herself and describe the evening specials in a way that assured us she would be caring for us. But everyone - the entire staff - kept serving us. No one was assigned to a specific area in the restaurant. Rather, our water glasses stayed full the entire time as every staff person was looking out for the entire restaurant instead of keeping to his or her assignment or assigned area. When a large table behind us was ready to be served, ten staff members surrounded the table so each guest could receive their sizzling steaks at the same time. When it came time to leave, each person we passed said "Thank you for coming." The restaurant owner then saw us and immediately remembered that Craig had checked a jacket. He brought the coat to us and said, "Can I treat you to one more thing. How about a shot?" And three days later, when we returned home from our vacation, the photographed note was waiting for us in our mailbox - a thank you - from our server!

I've long been convinced that the hospitality industry has much to teach the church. I once questioned what might happen if our churches were reviewed on TripAdvisor. But now I'm wondering what we can learn from this specific restaurant. I'd recommend any business working on building a team go at least once. But even more, what are the lessons for the church?

What if every member of the congregation saw that part of their responsibility was to greet each person they see inside the church building and express hospitality in a way that makes every person know they are cherished? What if we did not rely upon the greeters to say "Hello, I'm so glad you're here" but all saw ourselves as greeters?

What if every member of the congregation went out of their way at the end of worship to look for someone new and say, "Thank you so much for coming today. Want to join me for coffee hour?" instead of concluding that the new people don't really want to go or can find their way on their own?

What if every member of the congregation stopped to pick up the piece of trash just outside the door or tell someone that we're running low on paper towels in the men's room instead of assuming someone else will take care of it?

And what if we all sought to make a meaningful connection each week that led to our getting the email address of someone so we could follow-up with a message, "It was so good to meet you on Sunday. I'm involved in a small group that gathers on Wednesdays. I'd love to have you come."

It is the little things that make the largest difference when it comes to building the church or getting a person to return to a restaurant. My friend who told me about his new church shared how the pastor didn't really preach that day. The elements we pour so much time into are not always enough to hook someone or lead them back into your doors. But the people in the pews are. We are all craving meaningful relationships. We all long for proof that places still exist where everyone knows our name.

I'll go back to Hall's if I'm ever in Charleston again - not because it was the best steak I've ever had. I'd go back because I've never been so welcomed in a restaurant before.

Friday, August 07, 2015

What's Your Legacy?

I've been thinking a lot about my legacy in recent months. The conversation was ignited last year through an Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising course I took through the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving which inspired me to start imagining how my life will keep living and giving long after my death.

How do you want to be remembered?

Have you made any plans that will ensure a legacy that continues to make a vital difference in the lives of others even after you've died?

And how is your life making a difference now in such a way that others can see your imprint in both the world and in the lives of others?

It is this final question that gained new inspiration last night when I watched my teacher, mentor and friend, Peter Storey, preach at the Reconciling Ministries Network conference in San Antonio. Listen to his words that begin at 1:32.

As I listened to his sermon last night, I thought about the ways in which his faith, courage and conviction made a vital difference in the apartheid years in South Africa. I thought about how he put his life on the line time and again in response to his baptism vows to resist whatever forms of evil and oppression present themselves in the world. I thought about the witness of his dear wife who was remembered by saying, "I never asked God to keep him safe. I always asked God to keep him faithful." But then I kept on thinking about how many people his life has inspired to live in a similar way.

How many people are willing to bravely resist oppression in the church and the world because of him - his life and his witness?

And then I decided that I'd love to be remembered for being courageous, faithful and brave...all because of Jesus.

What about you? How do you want to be remembered? What will your legacy be?

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Monastic Life

I spent the last five days in silence with seven other people at Holy Cross Abbey. I make the journey to Berryville once a year, craving a break from the city, from a home in which the television is on way too often, from the demands of life, and from a life that is patterned after these demands.

And I've fallen in love again.

I've fallen in love with mountains that call me to prayer as I lift my eyes to the hills, lush greenery on which the cattle graze, sunflowers that have grown taller than me, an image of a tree planted near water that makes me long to be where it is, and God - the One behind every good and perfect gift, the One who causes the sun to rise at day and illuminates the darkness at night.

I've also fallen in love with the vision of community that the monks make real. Their life together is beautiful, sacred and compelling. They make me imagine growing old in community. I can taste and see the goodness that comes when you are living with people who share food and resources, who take you to the doctor and get your medicine, who labor together with the one goal of providing enough for the community, and who pray together six times throughout the day starting at 3:00 in the morning and ending at 7:30 at night. 

While many of us are filled with fear about what ISIS could do in our country today, the monks have been praying, naming the reality of evil and a God who can overcome evil. While I tossed and turned in my bed last night, dreaming about not having enough food at Vacation Bible School this week, I realize that I slept peacefully each of the four nights I was at the monastery, tucked in with prayers of the Abbot who asks God to bring a peaceful night's rest and a peaceful death upon all his brothers before sprinkling each monk and guest with holy water whose drops soak me with remembrances of my baptism, my belovedness. While I purchased way too much food at the new Wegman's yesterday, I realize I had more than enough while at the monastery when three dishes were served at lunch and another three at supper. 

I've drenched myself in the rich gifts Paul describes in Ephesians in a way I've never allowed myself to be before. I've sought to fully receive the spiritual blessings Christ offers each day, to ponder anew what it means to be holy and blameless before Christ in love, to think deeply about words and phrases like "good pleasure," "freely bestowed," "riches of his grace," and "lavished on us." I've never understood Christ's "good pleasure" so powerfully before. 

And I've fallen in love with good books. I read "My First White Friend," a book I picked up after being so touched by Patricia Raybon's workshop I attended at Princeton in early June. I continued with "The Book of Forgiving" and am convinced that every person needs to read this book - especially if you're struggling to let go of the pain caused by another. I consumed "Being Church" and can hardly wait to share insights during our September sermon series. I skimmed "Simplify" and started David Brooks' new book as well as the novel, "All the Light We Cannot See." My mind has been renewed and transformed.

Are these gifts - these good and perfect gifts - only available within the monastic life? Must I flee from the world's demands to soak up Christ's good pleasure? Do I need to make a quarterly reservation at the abbey?

I pray not.

What I pray instead is that the community formed on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts will continue to share life together in a way that promises no one is living alone (whether we have roommates or not). I pray each person in our community has someone who can drive them to the hospital when they're having a test, who can bring a meal when they're in pain, who can visit when they're feeling alone, who can hold their hand when they're breathing their lasts breaths, who can pray in a way that reminds us who we are and whose we are. I pray we can hear and study the gift of scripture in a way that makes us crave the capacity to know Jesus even more, to be holy and blameless before Christ. I pray that our minds can constantly be renewed and transformed as we desire to be in small groups that study God's word together, allowing it to shape and form our lives. I pray that we will see what enough is for us and generously share with others. I pray that we will show up throughout the week, not coming to church on Sunday but being church all the time.

And I pray that I'll pattern my days after first seeking God's will while continuously seeking God's direction throughout the day. I pray I can remember to ask God to tuck me in at night, to not forget my belovedness no matter how much pain or comparison or incompleteness a day might hold. 

Plant me by streams of grace, mercy and love, dear God. Help me drink from your rich gifts on all my days. And thank you for an amazing week away. Amen. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Unusual Company

When Mount Vernon Place was given the opportunity to redevelop our property several years ago, a vision emerged for a facility that would be used by a wide variety of organizations throughout the week. On any given day, there might be a theatre group performing in the Undercroft Auditorium, a community meeting in a classroom, a jazz group rehearsing in the Community Room, and a training in the Fellowship Hall. It's a beautiful example of what can happen when space is always seen as mixed-use verses having a huge building that is used twice a week.

We have a full-time Director of Operations who oversees the facility, and he's been fully entrusted to make decisions and work with different users. As a result, I don't always know who is here on any given day. It was other people who emailed me last fall to let me know that the Institute for Religion and Democracy was using our space. Two of my colleagues were utterly offended. I, however, had not given it a second thought. It wasn't the first time they had used our building.

We've taken the same approach with our facility as we have with our congregation - all are welcome here. We have always sought to be the kind of place where hospitality is extravagant and the doors are open as wide as we imagine Christ's arms to be. The signs in our bathrooms seek to convey our welcome to those who are in the building for purposes other than worship or church small groups.

But the most recent IRD lecture, held in our sanctuary because our auditorium was previously booked, sparked a new conversation. Were we doing harm or doing good to host such a lecture? Our Council came together and faithfully discussed the matter for more than an hour. I shared the thoughts of a mentor who invited me to imagine someone coming to our church in need of a sanctuary one evening. "Is the lecture one hears that night in lines with what one might hear on a Sunday?" my professor asked. Are there times when hospitality might cause more harm than good? What does it mean to offer space to a group that regularly criticizes churches like ours and pastors like me? In the end, our Council concluded that our church would no longer allow the IRD to use our facility. I'm still not sure it's the right answer - but I pray it's faithful.

I was praying the conversation would end there - that the IRD would not contact us again. However, a similar space request came a few weeks ago. My colleague responded, letting them know the church would no longer be able to host them. And I got an email from their President, inviting me to lunch.

I accepted the invitation immediately and then almost cancelled today. I'm a person of strong convictions. I almost stopped giving money to my seminary when I saw several faculty members photographed on the cover of a magazine associated with the Good News Movement. When my mentor, one of the more progressive voices at the seminary, went back to South Africa, I wondered aloud who was teaching students about Christ's wide welcome. I cannot stand what the "other" says when it comes to homosexuality and the church. I get furious, in fact. And Mark has written a few articles that have made my blood pressure rise.

How could I share lunch with him?

He was five minutes late, I almost walked away. But I didn't. I waited. I shook his hand. I sat down with him. I asked God to bless our meal and our conversation. I learned he first worked for the CIA - (no wonder he's so good at spying on other churches!). I heard how he first got involved in the United Methodist Church and how he's struggled to find a church for him. I know he's single and that he's married to his work. I know about his family, how he gets to share a meal with his parents almost every Sunday. I know how he feels about scripture and how his work is a calling. I know some of his heart. And I also know our differences - I'm more focused on embodying Christ's kingdom here and now than getting people to heaven. I don't believe scripture is infallible (even though he's sure Wesley did). I view marriage in a different light than him. I read scripture differently - and don't fully understand his lens. And still, we share a huge desire for the United Methodist Church to be faithful in its capacity to reach people, to have our sanctuaries overflowing with young people who need to experience the love and grace of Christ, to see churches play a significant role in the lives of individuals who are desperate for community, to proclaim our beliefs in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

I don't agree with Mark's position on many things. But I cannot look at Mark as the enemy - because I begged him not to see me and the kind of church we're seeking to embody at MVP as his enemy. I cannot put him aside because I know he's a child of God, too, and I believe, perhaps, that the United Methodist Church is big enough for both of us. And I know that if our church is to stay together, then it's going to take a lot more lunches like the one I shared today to make it happen.

I invited Mark to worship someday. I'm not sure he'll come. But he'll be welcome here. And in the meantime, I'll keep praying for him and his organization - and hoping that they'll figure out how to do their work in a way that enables them to lift their beliefs without having to constantly criticize and put down others who disagree with them. And I hope he'll pray for me and the ways in which Christ is at work at MVP, too.

I'll also keep thinking about who I need to invite to lunch. What about you?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Let's Cross Over to the Other Side

I did not need an alarm clock to awaken me this morning as my spirit started to stir a few minutes after 5:00. I had finished 75% of my sermon on Tuesday. But my heart had one question as I opened my Bible this morning.

Is there a word from the Lord?

What would God want to say to my congregation this week? How would Jesus respond to the horrific massacre that occurred in one of his churches?

Is there a word from the Lord?

The Gospel lesson appointed for this Sunday is Mark 4:35-41. It's a miracle story about Jesus calming the wind and the sea. My focus was on fear and faith all week....until this morning when I started to see verse 35 in a new light.

"Let's cross over to the other side of the lake," Jesus says. It seems like such a small thing to say and an insignificant part of the story. But Jesus and his disciples have to leave the crowds behind if they cross to the other side. Jesus' popularity has been skyrocketing. People have seen his ability to heal the sick and cast out demons. He has dozens of people willing to follow him. And yet, he's willing to leave them all behind.

"Let's cross over to the other side."

As preachers, we are regularly caught in a desire to please people, grow our churches so we can report impressive numbers to our bishop, and hear words about how great our sermon was. We want people to like us. The more people who come, the larger our egos, our salaries and our next church.

But what if Jesus is instead inviting us to cross to the other side - to leave the crowds behind?

What if Jesus is inviting us to share the fullness of his message, including the words we wish he would have never said because they make us so uncomfortable, painfully stepping on our toes?

Nine people were murdered in a church this week. Nine African-American people were killed by a white racist during the middle of a prayer service in a church this week. People came to church to pray and ended up being killed.

Is there a word from the Lord?

If you want to be popular, then you may not want to say a word this week about racism or gun violence. How many times have I heard my dad tell me he listens to Joel Osteen because Osteen makes him feel good about himself? Don't people come to church because they want to feel better - to see some light in the midst of their dark lives?

But please, preachers, don't be silent this week. Please don't seek to please your congregations. Please don't seek to turn the service of worship on you.

Rather, stand and name the sin of racism. Stand and share words about the Prince of Peace. Stand and talk about our nation's addiction to guns and the false sense of security we keep offering each other. Invite the congregation to ponder what symbols are still dividing us, causing pain in the lives of others. Take a cue from John Stewart and name the truth of where we are as a sin-sick nation that has not come close to healing our racial divide.

Some people - perhaps most people - don't really want to be moved out of their place of comfort. Crowds flock when there is good entertainment and a word that supports our way of life instead of challenging it.

But other people are depending on us to say something - to rise up and call people to action. Let us name the truth. Let us invite people to work for change in this land. Let us be instruments of peace and reconciliation in a deeply divided nation.

Is there a word from the Lord?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Saying Thanks

A seminary friend reached out to me last week with a question. "You seem to have been able to develop many mentors in life. How do you do it?"

It's a question I've never pondered before, and I did not have an immediate answer. While I can name the people who have mentored me in the past, and the individuals who I perceive as mentors today, I'm not sure how they came into my life. As I imagined the individuals from whom I've learned, the people who have journeyed alongside of me in important ways, one thread rose to the top, however. Gratitude - the power of saying thanks. With this awareness, I started to answer her question.

"I'm fully aware of what I don't know. I love being with people who are smarter or more gifted than me. And when they share part of their knowledge with me, I seek to always say thanks."

When I graduated from seminary, I wrote the dean a multi-page letter telling him all the ways Duke Divinity School had shaped and formed me, expressing gratitude for each gift. That letter was mentioned as one of the reasons I was invited to come back and join the staff a year later.

When I've had an influential class, I have sought to write the professor to name the ways her teaching made more of me before asking more questions.

When a bishop took time to get to know my story and why I was excited about being in downtown DC, I was quick to say thanks and ask more questions.

When another professor allowed me to journey to his homeland not once but twice in order to see the pain and hope of his ministry, I did everything I could to say thanks, to affirm his ministry, and to keep asking questions.

And I sometimes wonder if our expressing gratitude in tangible ways is a lost discipline.

We are in the process of filling a position on our staff at the church and have interviewed multiple people over the phone and in person. The professor who taught Business Communications at my college told us the importance of showing up the next day with a letter in which you sought to say thanks, name the ways your gifts are a perfect match for the position, and let people know how much you want the job. We delivered those notes - on fancy paper that required an extra trip to Staples. Yet in this round of filling a position, out of all the people we have spoken with, only one has taken time to express gratitude -- through an email. I've been amazed at how little we do to both express gratitude and sell ourselves - allowing our light to shine once more.

I'm also amazed at the power of a thank you note. I have dozens of them in a file labeled "happy folder" in my office. They are notes that remind me who I am, what roles I've played, and affirm my call to ministry.

Do we not all need these reminders?

Are we not all led to offer more of ourselves to those who have the capacity to remind us who we are and what we do well? Are we not more inclined to invest in their lives in a similar way that makes more of them (and us) in the process?

I'm off to write some thank you notes.

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Demons of the City

We are in the midst of what has been a powerful sermon series for me at Mount Vernon Place, one that has spoken deeply to my soul, on "What's My Purpose." We turn this week to how the pain of the world, what captures our attention and causes our hearts to break, can be used by God to help us discover some of our purpose. Our text this week is Mark 2:1-12, one of my favorites as I think about who God calls us to carry on top of the roof so we can dig through that roof and literally lower what needs to be healed before Jesus. I'm now sitting with these words by Ched Myers that were inspired by this text.

Jesus relentlessly critiqued the purity and debt systems of his day because they tended to segregate and exclude rather than to integrate and restore. The symbol of his confrontation of these systems was public exorcism.

In the public discourse of the modern world, demon possession is rarely acknowledged and evil is rarely evaluated with appropriate seriousness. Yet we live in a world in which a dramatic confrontation between good and evil continues daily on a grand scale. It is more visible in some circumstances than in others; some demons can be named quite readily, while others cannot. Demons are players in our own stories, too. They have shaped our attitudes toward others, our capacities for moral and ethical discernment, our 'habits of the heart.'

Let us consider racism and its partner, poverty, as examples. The scene these days in almost any inner-city neighborhood in the United States could invite exorcism: the National Guard in camouflage, shining spotlights from hum-fees, trying to push back the violence, drug dealing and violence around the edges of and crisscrossing through neighborhoods that are trying in heroic ways to survive; gangs attempting to fill the void by absent family and community, kids, overgrown into men, with nowhere to go, hanging out all night and all day...

These are the impoverished places where dramatically disproportionate numbers of African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities live - not by choice, but by the normal functioning of a system that perpetually excludes them. They are gathered into ghettoes by a form of cultural evil in which the skin color of a person determines his or her access to opportunity...

Demons, we see, threaten our personal and family lives; but they operate adeptly in social structures and systems as well. 
- Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark's Story of Discipleship, Orbis, 1996, 18-19.

The protests that erupted in my home state of Missouri not long ago are now just 30 miles away in the city of Baltimore. Another black man has died too soon. Another life has been taken instead of having the opportunity to reach its full potential.

But can we name the demons?

Do we know the demons within each one of us that have shaped our own personal habits of the heart?

Can the church still invoke Jesus' power to cast out the demons?

What will it take for the church to lead such an effort?

How can we not only name racism as a sin but lead the way in healing the brokenness caused by centuries of systemic racism?

O God, this time seems ripe for the Spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words. And yet, I'm longing for a word - a powerful word, a healing word, a penetrating word. I'm longing for prophets to stand up and ignite a movement that does not simply bring about peace in the midst of a city in flames but continues until the broken systems that abound across this nation are healed. Come, Lord Jesus. Come and help us be disciples who speak like prophets, and people who have the courage to step across boundaries, and congregations that will do anything to tear through evil systems until what is in need of healing is lowered before Jesus. Amen.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Leadership on the Court

If a picture paints a thousand words, then this photo paints my description of leadership. It is a portrait of a coach, one of his assistants and three of his players. But Coach K's action of reaching over a coach and another player to hold the hand of Jahlil Okafor speaks powerfully to me. This action conveys a clear message, "We are in this together. I've got your back. Whether we win this game or lose this game, we do it together. But I need you, and I believe in you."

Who has been this kind of leader or mentor to you?

I think of a senior pastor who did everything he could to enable me to flourish as his associate in my first year after seminary, pushing me into places where my gifts could be fully utilized.

I think of a seminary dean who listened to my vision for a new recruitment strategy, heard my heart, and doubled my budget, enabling me to put together pieces the school had never used before.

I think of a district superintendent who stood by my side and built me up when the most vocal people in the congregation were tearing me down.

I think of a bishop who stopped by the church one day to see the new construction, but then heard my heart, prayed for me and presented an offering with the words, "I just want to encourage you."

I think of a 97-year-old church member whose church was in serious decline, closer to closure than new life, who looked me in the eye and said, "We need you. You can do this. You have the best job in Washington."

I realize I would not be half the person I am today without leaders and mentors who have invested in me - individuals who have not only said "I support you" but who have genuinely walked alongside me in real and tangible ways.

What would it mean for us to be this kind of leader for others? What would we have to stop doing so we could invest more time in the people we are privileged to supervise, mentor and manage? What if the future of the church depended on this kind of leadership? And perhaps not only the church but every organization that is needed by society today?

God, help me be this kind of leader, this kind of mentor. Amen.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Power of our Promises

Easter Sunday is a pastor's dream. Extra people fill the pews as guests come for the first time and others return after a long time. People come with anticipation and excitement. The smell of fried chicken makes its way over from the fellowship hall. Children laugh and bring you delight as they look for their eggs on the church lawn. And we get to preach the most amazing good news of all time. Add a baptism of twins into this life-giving mix, and my heart is already beating a different sound. 

I cannot wait for Easter Sunday.

I'll have the privilege of baptizing twins on Sunday morning. It's my first time baptizing twins, and I paid careful attention to the liturgy when preparing it yesterday afternoon, making sure all the singular pronouns were turned to plural. I then typed these words about the kind of community we promise to be every time a person is baptized:

"We will surround Emily and Olivia with a community of love and forgiveness that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life." 

We promise to be a community of love and forgiveness, a community of prayer, and a community that accompanies a person on the path that leads to life. How many such communities do you have in your life right now? How many organizations, circles, committees, or clubs to which you belong are places of love and forgiveness? How many groups are you a part of where the people are praying for you in your journey through life? Who is accompanying you on the path that leads to life?

Perhaps these words describe church at its very best - that place where people are not holding grudges but seeking to live in peace and reconciliation with one another. Church at its best is a community where the people are known for their love and inclusion, not their judgment and exclusion. Church is a place where we learn to love, using Jesus' all-encompassing love as our example. Church at its best is a community of people who constantly remind you that you are not alone. Church at its best is a group of people in which you have holy friends - people who are not afraid to name the sins you've grown to love while pointing out the gifts you've been afraid to claim.

We will make these promises to Emily and Olivia on Sunday morning. But I pray that we are always seeking to be this community to all people in our midst. I cannot recall another group of people who have ever made these promises to me. It's another reason I need the church - perhaps, even, the most important reason for why I need the church.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

More Than A Meal

"I placed a bag of food by your chair. It's chicken and dumplings. I made them this morning to take to a family who just had a baby but made a double portion. Please take the rest to someone who needs a meal." These words ushered me towards a small brown bag while igniting a bit of panic following worship on Sunday. The hours of the day were scheduled along with most of Monday. "Do you think the food will still be good on Tuesday?" I inquired, after expressing my gratitude for the gift.

I grabbed the bag while exiting the sanctuary, sat it down on my desk and glanced at my phone where a message was waiting. The recorded words were drenched in tears, a woman's voice asking me to please come as she did not think her cousin, a beloved older member of our church, would make it through the day.

Plans were set aside as I again picked up the bag and headed to my car in order to drive to the retirement community where our beloved member resides. I walked into her home and was immediately greeted by the cousin who had called, informing me that the woman had finally gotten out of bed and was coming to the chair. 

"I have food for you, homemade chicken and dumplings prepared by a church member this morning," I called out, not sure if my offer would be accepted since I had been told she was not eating much. "That sounds wonderful," she responded as I started to fix a plate.

With my heals slipped off, I lowered myself in front of her and started to feed her, placing one bite into her mouth and then another. Each bite was received in gratitude and something began to happen. Ordinary food became an extraordinary offering. The church was made visible as it came to one who has not been in our building for years but reads our bulletins and sermons each week. The new life I often describe to this lifelong member entered the apartment in the form of a brown paper bag still warm to the touch. The church showed up in real and powerful ways.

And I cannot stop thinking about it.

We live in a city where we can order anything for delivery. Dominos can arrive in 30 minutes and pretty much everything else can come within an hour or two including office supplies from Amazon. But sometimes what we really need is an assurance that we're not alone - that we're not fending for ourselves - that someone is willing to show up. When we're hurting or filled with anxiety, we want more than a meal. When we're depressed and ready to give up, we want more than a meal. When we're overwhelmed with a new baby or discerning a new schedule after a hospitalization, we want more than a meal.

I'm regularly reminded of how Jesus shows up in ordinary things: a sunset, a little bread, a sip of wine, a child's laugh, an unexpected phone call. I experience God coming to us through simple gifts every communion Sunday. But I was reminded again on Sunday afternoon about how Jesus can show up any time bread is brought, blessed and broken. What you might think is an ordinary crockpot recipe can become an offering that touches one in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

I called the older member's home this afternoon to ask how she's doing. Her cousin answered the phone. "It's Pastor Donna," I said. "Oh Pastor Donna, you really lifted my cousin on Sunday. I really thought she was dying," she said while I heard my church member say, "Please tell her I just finished the chicken and dumplings."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Friend, Elizabeth

My friend, Elizabeth, died this morning.

Elizabeth taught me to love sliced avocados on my salad but would not allow me to eat too many slices because she worried about my weight.

She stopped me several times to make sure I noticed something - a flower growing, a person hurting, or beauty I was about to miss.

She would often say "Oh Donna!" in a way that reminded me that she was delighted with me at times and aggravated with me at other times.

She showed me what it's like to be in your 70s and have a childlike crush on Neil Diamond as I watched her swoon in delight at a concert on the Capitol lawn two years ago.

She taught me about Jesus and how he comes to us through ordinary things like bread and wine - but especially how Jesus comes to us through those who are poor, on the margins, or struggling in some way.

Elizabeth taught me what it means to stand by your partner in ministry. While most of us think itineracy is difficult on our spouses, Elizabeth knew firsthand how God's call may take you and your family to places that feel more like the desert than still waters. Elizabeth stood by her partner's side as he worked tirelessly in the struggle to end apartheid. She would not allow anyone to put him on a pedestal but would rather point to Jesus at work in him and in the world around him. She was always by his side whether he was ready for another day at sea or longing to come back to the States for a few more semesters of teaching. She seemed to know how much his ministry cost, and she longed to see him filled with joy when the struggle was over - to somehow get back a sense of what he gave.

But Elizabeth taught me the most about ordination.

While most of us focus on trying to remember birthdays, Elizabeth always reminded me that it was the anniversary of my ordination. She rarely let a June 7 pass without sending an email in which she sought to give thanks for God's call on my life. 

Elizabeth seemed to know that my fullest possible life started on the day the bishop laid hands on me, asking God to pour forth God's Spirit upon me. She knew that moment would bring with it some of the greatest blessings but also the heaviest burdens of my life. She knew that ordination was a gift that came with a tremendous amount of responsibility. While we often remember our baptism in order to remember that we are loved, incorporated and forgiven, Elizabeth helped me remember my ordination in a way that came with words like, "It's not always easy to follow Jesus. Jesus takes us to places we don't expect to go. You might get hurt. You might lose something. But being with those who are hurting and in need of Jesus, those who are facing oppression and in need of being set free, those who Jesus regularly befriends - yes, that's the meaning of your ordination." 

I have regularly said that Peter is known as the prophet but you should listen for Elizabeth's voice because when she speaks, she always has something to say. You did not get to share your voice as widely as many in your family, but your voice reached me often, Elizabeth. Your words sunk into the depth of my being often. You shaped and formed me in ways I wish I would have taken time to tell you about.

Thank you for putting me in my place at times - especially in the place of what it means to be set apart to follow Jesus, serve like Jesus, live like Jesus and love like Jesus. I'd give anything to hear you tell another story over a maple donut and cup of instant coffee. For now, I'll promise to remember my ordination in the way you wanted me to remember it - as a costly, sacred gift that should always take us to places we never imagined we would go but places we have to go because Jesus is there. 

Well done, thy good and faithful servant. You are loved, and you will be deeply missed.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Re-Examining Hospitality

The building committee that designed the grand structure to hold the congregation known as Mount Vernon Place Methodist Episcopal Church South spared no expense in constructing a monumental building in downtown Washington. They wanted thousands of church members to ascend the grand steps, walk between the commanding columns, enter an impressive narthex made of marble, and then have their breath taken away upon entering the sanctuary (if it wasn't already removed from climbing the steps). They must have felt immensely proud of their efforts when they stood on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts on the day the building was dedicated in 1919.

The building has housed the largest Methodist Congregation in the Northeastern Jurisdiction when the membership grew to over 4,000 people in 1960. It has housed dozens of Sunday school classes with rosters holding more than 100 names. It has provided space for a church theatre group and choirs that recorded their own albums, all with the name "Mount Vernon Place" associated with it. It's provided an impressive list of services to people with real needs to be met through its social work department in the 1960s and 70s. And its porches have housed dozens of people through the years.

The space that was designed for people to gather while they waited for one worship service to end and another one to begin has for decades been a place for people to put down their belongings and rest for a night. So many people started to gather that the church once believed the only proper solution to the dilemma was to place ugly gates across the entrance. These gates were still attached to the stone when I arrived nearly ten years ago. I knew the moment I saw them how much I wanted them to come down. They came down as part of our building restoration and redevelopment, and it did not take long for people to return to the perceived safety of the porches.

Two summers ago, a task force from the church met and created policies to accompany the porches. Guests were invited to stay from 10:00pm to 7:00am. There was to be no drugs, nudity, urinating or violence. No belongings were to be left on the porch. But I'm not sure there has been a single night in which all guests have obeyed every single rule. Where does one go to the bathroom in the middle of the night when there is no open bathroom nearby? But, what we were doing seemed like hospitality.

Is it not better to welcome people to stay - even though it's outside - than to turn people away?

Are we not offering hospitality and being like Jesus?

It seemed more faithful to respond "yes" to these questions than to turn people away. 

But the weather turned bitter cold two weeks ago. The doors to hypothermia shelters were flung open across the city, and the vans started to creep across streets, looking for people who were ordered to come in for the night. It did not warm up much the next day. The temperatures were cold enough that my colleague and I went outside to make sure no one was sleeping through the bitter cold. There were no people on the porch when we went out. But what we found was enough to take my breath away even more than the first time I saw the sanctuary as I saw a carefully constructed shelter that conveyed a strong sense of desperation to stay warm. I was left with heartache, sadness and dozens of questions. How could we allow people to sleep there at night - with temperatures in the 20s and frozen urine just a few feet away? Would Jesus ever allow anyone to remain there? What are we called to do as people who seek to follow him?

We wrestle with the concept of hospitality all the time. The church has a tendency to open the door to everyone and then say, "Oh wait. You're not straight enough, clothed appropriately enough, sinless enough, or like us enough to come in." My denomination can convey a message along the lines of, "Sure, you're welcome to be a member here even though you're gay. But don't ask me to offer you the same blessing I can afford my straight brothers and sisters when it comes to marriage or ordination." Sometimes we open our doors for people to come in while allowing some people to leave without ever being noticed, welcomed or embraced. We say we want new people but sometimes have no idea how to fully welcome new people if it means letting go of some of our preferences or priorities. 

I've been struggling for years to discern what faithfulness looks like when it comes to people sleeping on our porches. It's only in the last two weeks that the image I snapped that day has forced me to fully wrestle with hospitality - hospitality with our unhoused neighbors, hospitality with people who are not always like "us," and hospitality in general.

When I googled the word hospitality this morning, this definition filled my screen, "the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers." Hospitality is not simply receiving guests. In order for it to be hospitality, it has to be friendly and generous - not in the lines of Martha Stewart, perhaps, but in the lines of Jesus whose arms were always extended wide open and whose voice regularly offered an invitation to "follow me" into a changed life.

Our Stewardship of Resources Committee gathered the week after the coldest temperatures of the year to once again discern a faithful response to keeping people safe, caring for our vulnerable members, and providing hospitable and clean space to all who come to the church no matter why they come. The group listened faithfully to one of our building partners who has more experience and expertise in housing people and working with those who are currently unhoused than any of us. We listened to her words about what it means to truly offer hospitality and her warnings about the harm we could be doing by continuously allowing people to sleep on our porches vs. limiting that space and turning our efforts into walking alongside of people to a different life. At the end of the meeting, these faithful leaders voted unanimously to prohibit sleeping on church property starting March 1. But the efforts don't end there, we're also seeking to walk aside our "residents," to do everything we can to get them to a place where they have a key that can unlock and lock the door to the place they call home. We're stepping out in faith and asking God to help us be part of new miracles in our midst. 

In the meantime, we'll keep focussing our efforts on things we do well when it comes to providing a friendly and generous reception - receiving people fully into our space. The doors to the shower ministry will remain open three mornings a week. People will be welcomed inside for a meal once or twice a month. Prayerfully, we can even grow these ministries as our congregation continues to grow. And all people - ALL PEOPLE - who walk inside our doors will be prayerfully given the same welcome, the same sense of community, the same blessing that we as a church can provide. 

I find myself praying the words of Thomas Merton often these days, "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end...and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always... Amen."

Our first meeting with the community on our porches is scheduled for this Tuesday morning. Will you pray for us? Will you pray for the people who currently sleep outside? Will you pray for the day when all of God's children will have a proper place to call home? And if you feel the heavy burden of responsibility and live nearby, then come join us.