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.