Monday, November 07, 2016

What Makes You Fully Alive?

I've reached my mid-life.

This knowledge didn't come progressively. Rather, it seems to have taken hold of me in the night.

A peaceful night's rest became consumed with one line of thinking, "Holy cow! I'm 44. How did this happen?"

I realize some people mark this milestone with a new sports car. I'm still content with my Honda.

Others might tip-toe into other forms of temptation. I've thankfully kept my feet planted.

But I am asking a lot of questions these days.

How do I want to spend this one, perfect life?

What mark do I most want to leave on this world?

How are my 24 or so remaining professional years to be most faithfully shared with the world around me?

I have come to realize that the more time I ask myself these questions, the more alive I become. There's something extraordinary about inviting your heart to ponder what makes it beat and sometimes skip a beat while asking your mind how much it's currently being stretched and how far you want to stretch it.

In the midst of my questions, I have also been reminded how many people around me are asking similar questions.

One of the early questions we ask children is, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We find delight in their responses that seem to include every possibility under the sun.

When we are in high school, we talk with high school guidance counselors and complete different surveys designed to help us find the right place or forum in which to continue our education.

Some of us then go to college where we enroll in a few courses in hopes of being exposed to conversations that will help us select our major. We meet with an advisor, some of whom are more gifted than others, who helps us chart our class course.

But many of us found our first jobs by luck or circumstance and not any of the above.

For me, it was meeting Mrs. Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992, an interaction that led me to Washington as a White House intern in 1994 and then as a Congressional staffer. Few courses, if any, prepared me for this journey.

But life and its interactions did.

I love leadership. I love making a difference in the lives of others. I love politics - probably more than policy. I love being in the city. I love diversity. I love people. And, I love helping people become more fully alive.

These loves led me to accept my next invitations - personally and professionally - as I got more involved in my local church on Capitol Hill and then continued to apply for different jobs in Washington only to find myself later enrolling in seminary. A love of my seminary led to my returning to become its Director of Admissions. And then a conversation with a mentor opened the space for me to return to Washington to become the pastor of Mount Vernon Place.

It doesn't matter how old we are. Life continues to happen - in strange and hard, obvious and glorifying, routinized and transformational ways. Why, then, do we stop talking about vocation as we grow older? Why do we too often assume that people who are in one vocation at age 30 should remain in that same field at age 50? While some stories of God's call that are recorded in scripture happen when a person is a child, many of them take place when a person is at work, doing their thing, only to find God leading them in a new way.

Abraham Heschel wrote that we should "Live your life like a work of art."

Iranaeus of Lyon said, "The glory of God is manifest in a person fully alive."

Fredrick Beuchner suggested, "The place God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." (All of these quotes are taken from Mark Yaconelli's book, Wonder, Fear, and Longing.)

How is your life a work of art? How is it bringing beauty to the community?

What makes you fully alive? How much time are you spending doing what makes you feel this way?

What is your deep gladness? What deep hungers do you see in the world around you? How can you combine the two?

As a pastor, I'm recommitting myself to providing space for such conversations in our congregation. I know this intentional journeying with others is a part of my call that I have been neglecting and also something we need. I'm also committing to letting go of some things so I can invest more fully in what makes my heart sing and has the biggest impact on our community.

What would you do if you could do anything with your one, precious life?

What would make you more fully alive?

What's stopping you?

Monday, October 31, 2016

I'm With Him

"What does it mean to be a disciple?" I first asked to a group of new people at our church. People waited about 15 seconds before several responses were vocalized: faith in Jesus, love of neighbor, wanting to make a difference.

"Who do you look up to when it comes to being a model disciple of Jesus?" I later asked, expecting to hear beautiful responses about lives well lived. But the room became silent. People looked straight ahead or down at their workbooks, but no one spoke. 

After a few moments of silence that felt more like an eternity, one woman spoke up. "I've seen too much dichotomy between the pulpit and a person." Another person chimed in, sharing a few of the ways she was hurt by the church, feeling excluded instead of included. Others nodded their heads before someone asked me who I look up to as a model disciple of Jesus.

It didn't take long for me to start naming certain aspects of one's life. I described my Grandma Ivy as a person of prayer. Grandma was a regular viewer of shows like the 700 Club or the PTL Club. The television was set up in the kitchen, and if Grandma was not cooking, she was sitting in front of it praying. If someone prayed on television, she insisted that the room be silent and people pray along. There is something about her prayer life that moves me today as I realize how often I heard the language of prayer flow from her lips but cannot remember a time when slander or abusive language came from the same lips.

I then shared a glimpse of a dear clergy sister's prayer life. While other people regularly say, "I'm praying for you." My friend, A, will ask me a week later about the particular person or situation that was weighing heavy on my heart in a way that reminds me she was praying all week long, lifting my burden before the Lord.

And then I talked about a few people in our congregation who see serving others not as a practice but as a way of life. I offered a brief description of how our ministry with our unhoused neighbors has been strengthened by those who constantly show up for others, or give generously while naming that their family is larger than the people who live in the same house or have the same name. 

The more I reflected, the more it became clear that a model disciple isn't born that way and isn't perfect. Rather, they have taken on a series of characteristics or practices they seek to embody on a regular basis. They are people who understand how God has given them a powerful light that is not to be hidden under a bushel but rather shared with the community around them. 

We are in a season when many people have purchased t-shirts or bumper stickers with the simple words, "I'm with Her." They are words that proclaim who a person is voting for without even naming the candidate. When one wears such a shirt, one could conclude that the person is many things: a feminist, a Democrat, a supporter of Hillary, a liberal and so much more.

But what does it look like for us to live lives that point to our being with him - to our following Jesus in such a way that others can see who we are with by the lives we live? How is it that others can see who we follow not by what we wear, or the cross we place on our bumpers, but by what we say, what we do and how we love? 

Paul writes to the Colossians, "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts..." (Col. 3:12-15). 

Few people in my life have all of these characteristics. But countless individuals in my community have a combination of them. Perhaps striving to exhibit one or two of them is a good starting place to show others that, "I'm really with him."

Let it be. Let it be. Let it be. Amen. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Yesterday's MVP Moment: A Testimony from an Incredibly Courageous Young Woman

One of our newest members shared these words in worship on September 18 and has given me permission to share them with you here. May they call you to prayer and deep reflection as you read them. And may we all seek to be part of a community that is showing up for each other in real and powerful ways. 

As many of you know, my life was turned upside down in January of this year when I was diagnosed with Stage III Inflammatory Breast Cancer.  It’s been hard to find the words to explain what it feels like to be told you have cancer at such a young age.  I know some of you have lived it, you don’t need me to tell you what it feels like.  But here I was, i the middle of all my plans, being told that life had already happened, that this might be all I get.

The best description I’ve heard comes from Kate Bowler, a Professor at Duke Divinity School fighting cancer.  She describes the moments after learning about her diagnosis as feeling like she was behind a pane of glass, and everyone she loved was on the other side.

Cancer is so isolating.  A lot of people just don’t know how to talk about it, so we don’t.  There aren’t enough words in this language or any other to explain the pinch of the needle or the rush of the dangerous radioactive drugs through your veins.  There aren’t enough words to describe the headache and the fog.  There aren’t words to explain the burn on your scalp when your hair starts falling out in chunks or the indignity of taking a lint roller to your head in the mornings in a vain attempt to contain the mess and pass for normal, healthy.  There are not words to explain to your 35 year-old friends what it feels like to be in chemically induced menopause, and there are no words to explain to your 50 year-old friends what it feels like to be 35 and know this.  There are not words to explain what it feels like to stand in a hotel room alone, unable to open the individual serving coffee or the tiny conditioner bottle, because the drugs have pushed back the cancer, but they’ve taken the feeling in your fingertips and your dexterity with them as they went.  And I really, honestly don’t have the words to describe the excitement and the fear of knowing that in a few short days, they will cut out the cancer and the rest of my breasts with it, and that my body will very clearly never be the same again.  But it doesn’t really matter if there are enough words, because even if there were, I’m too exhausted to explain it, too exhausted to answer the phone, too exhausted to carry on a conversation.  And anyway, no one wants to hear the messy details.  It’s awkward, and private, and gross.

But this place.  You people.  You have repeatedly broken that plate glass between us.  You knew that it was messy and ugly and private on the other side, and you kept breaking that glass anyway.  I protested, and I hid, and I didn’t answer the phone.  It was so hard to accept help, over and over again.  I mean, I wasn’t even a member for goodness sake, I wasn’t in your small group, I may not have even known your name.  And yet you kept knocking on that glass, with tiny rocks, and giant bricks, and sledgehammers.  And I didn’t feel so alone.  I was able to see a small glimmer of hope.  When the offers to help died away and everyone else was tired of talking about my cancer, you kept showing up.

When Donna talks about God living within you so that others can know Christ…this is it.  I get to bring my whole cancer-ridden, out of control life in here every week.  I don’t have to stop outside the door and pull myself together.  I don’t have to tell you everything is going great.  You don’t want me to sugar coat it for you.  You want to stand next to me in the mess and hold my hand.

And for that I will be forever grateful.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Politics of Jesus: Land of Plenty

Land of Plenty

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and Luke 9:10-17

            How much is enough?

            I wonder when you find yourself asking this question.

            Perhaps you asked it last night when you left a tip for your server after finishing your last bite of dessert following a fabulous dinner. You may have examined the total amount charged and pondered for a moment whether to tip on the pre-tax or the post-tax amount, especially since the food and beverage tax in Washington is 10%. After making this decision, you had to decide whether to tip 15 or 20% of the amount charged. And while these decisions take only a few minutes to make, there are many emotions that float through our minds while making them.

How much is enough for me to express my gratitude to this person who went out of her way to keep my water glass full?

How much is enough for my date to not think I’m cheap?

How much is enough to have in my wallet after leaving the tip since we’re going to get drinks next?

How much is enough for the server’s needs, given that this tip is part of the source of her livelihood?

What is enough?

How many of us have enough?

How many of us have more than enough?

How many of us do not have enough?

What would it take for every person to have enough?

People have been prone to taking more than enough, testing God’s definition of enough since the beginning of time.

In the Old Testament lesson read today, the Israelites have left Egypt and are on their way to the Promised Land when they start complaining and questioning God. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3).

The Lord hears their complaining and then makes a promise through Moses, stating how bread from heaven will soon arrive. And sure enough, the Israelites wake up to a fine, flaky substance covering the ground. Seeing the manna, Moses repeats the Lord’s commandments to take “as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person… all providing for those in their own tents” (Ex. 16:16). God has provided enough. The people simply have to take what they need. Still, many people fail to follow God’s instructions by taking more than they need for that day, and everything they take and do not consume breeds worms, becomes foul or melts.

God tests the Israelites. And the Israelites fail the test when they take more than enough. Indeed, much of what God gives provides an occasion for temptation – temptation most biblical characters cannot resist.

While I refuse to believe that God tests us with adversities or bad things to see how much we can handle, I cannot help but wonder if God tempts us with good things or tests us with abundance in order to see how we will respond – if we can handle the admonition to take just enough.

Does God watch to see if we have taken our fair share, the exact amount we need, while looking even harder to see what we do with our excess?

And I wonder what God thinks about the current state of our city where the persistent income inequality is one of the widest of any other major city in the nation?

According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, “The average household income of the top 5 percent of District residents is $487,000” just under a half a million dollars, which is the third highest amount among large U.S. cities. At the same time, “The average income for the poorest fifth of DC residents fell to $9,300” in 2014.[1]

How many of us can imagine living on less than $10,000 a year? Twenty percent of the residents of our city are doing just that.

But the racial differences are even more striking. “DC’s lowest-income residents are overwhelmingly people of color, and nearly half were born in DC, compared with just 17 percent of other residents.”[2] While our economy is growing and many of us love all the changes in our city, long-term residents of color are being left behind. And in a city with rents rising rapidly to an average of $2,133 a month for a one-bedroom apartment,[3] roughly 45% of our households have incomes below $50,000.

While we cannot see everyone’s struggle to make ends meet, most of us see poverty every single day. And if the truth were told, there are times when I loathe walking to Chinatown because I don’t want to see the real need, the pain of it all.  

Shane Claiborne writes, “It’s really, really difficult to understand that there is a God who is good when everything around us is so ugly and broken. And it’s hard to understand that there is hope and life after death when so many people are going, ‘Well, is there life before death?’ and ‘If God really loves me, then why are my kids starving to death?’ And the incredible thing I think a lot of us have felt is….’ God why don’t you do something?”[4]

            Why is it ugly?

            Why is it broken?

            Why does God allow it?

            Why do I allow it?

Have we been seduced into thinking, “That’s just the way things are?”

Or are we willing to work towards a different reality?

            What would it take for us to embody and work towards an economy of love? It’s the economy God put in place in Exodus. In fact, God commands the Israelites to not take more than they need for each day before God even gives the Ten Commandments. Details regarding God’s economy, policies about what people are to do with what God has provided, fill the pages of scripture. Instructions about gleaning are found in Leviticus where people are told to leave fruit and vegetables from their crops on the edge of the land and avoid going through the fields a second time to get additional food but rather to leave this food for the poor to come and gather.[5]

            Words about how to practice jubilee are also found in Leviticus. Debts are to be forgiven every seventh year. Land is redistributed. If things have gotten too far off balance, then the inequality was dismantled at least once a decade.

            God teaches people how to handle what they been given. How, then did we get to the place where we are tempted to believe that theology, the study of God, is only about the internal life – things like meaning, purpose and value – and not what we do with our possessions as individuals and as a nation?

            One of my favorite interpretations of the Luke passage read today questions whether the miracle was in Jesus multiplying five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed 5000 people or whether the miracle is people seeing the power of community. The disciples want to send the crowds away to fend for themselves through private means. But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples see scarcity, and Jesus sees abundance. The miracle happens when Jesus invites people to sit down in groups of 50 each. Soon all are fed, and there are 12 baskets of food leftover.

Is the miracle multiplication, or is the miracle people seeing each other and wanting to care for each other?

Is the miracle multiplication, or is the miracle people taking a smaller portion so all can be fed?

Is the miracle multiplication, or is the miracle people admitting that they have a little food in their backpacks and are willing to share it now that they know one another?

What could we do to embody this miracle today?

One theologian has suggested that if every Christian in North America tithed, the church could feed every hungry person, fund basic education for all the world’s children, and have enough left over to fund the evangelistic ministries of the church.[6] Hundreds of individuals are then trying to figure out if this person is telling the truth by participating in an organization called the Relational Tithe. Participants give 10% of their income to meet the real needs of people with whom they are in community. Similar to what happen in our gospel lesson today, something powerful happens when people live and give in community. In the short period of time people have been embodying the relational tithe, one specific group has “provided sustainable job creation in Philadelphia, basic food needs in the Caribbean, transportation for a single parent in California, housing in Cairo, microenterprise development in Nigeria…health care in North Carolina, and a proper funeral for a thirteen-year-old Sudanese refugee from Nebraska.”[7]

I’d love to be part of such a community on a micro level, expanding my notion of family to include so many more people.

But what do we do on a macro level?

Douglas Meeks explains how the Greek word oikonomia from which we derive the word economy, is a compound of oikos which means household and nomos which is law or management. Economy is the management of the household, a group of people living together, a community. The care of the community is central to how God sees the purpose of the economy. But today, the care of the community is no longer the center of our economy. Instead, “Accumulation of wealth and exchange have replaced livelihood as the center of economy,” writes Meeks before adding, “The values of our economic organization are often held higher than human dignity.”[8] Furthermore, most people view the economy through the lens of scarcity, the never enough syndrome, instead of believing there is more than enough. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove hits the nail on the head when he says, “People are rich and people are poor, but no one is satisfied.”[9]

But God says something completely different. The story of our faith is a story that believes there is always enough to go around whenever God is present. We have a foretaste of God’s economy each time we come to the table, a place where all are welcome and no one is turned away. It is this table where all are fed the same amount of food and drink and where all are satisfied. And while we have run out of fried chicken at a potluck anytime someone does not give each person one piece of chicken at a time, we have not once run out of bread at this table.

There is always enough at God’s table.

There is always enough in God’s economy.

Parker Palmer suggests that one of the essential habits of the heart for sustaining a democracy is the belief that we are all in this together. We are dependent and accountable to one another.[10]

God has provided more than enough. The instructions we have been given are clear. God says “Take what you need” in the Old Testament passage, and Jesus says “You. You give them something to eat” in the gospel. In both cases everyone is fed, and everyone is taken care of.

What would such a life look like if fully practiced not just in our families and sometimes in our church but on a local, national and international scale?

How can we get there because that’s the politics of Jesus?

[4] Shane Claiborne and Isaac Anderson, Economy of Love (Relational Tithe, Inc. 2010), 18.
[5] Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22.
[6] Claiborne, 89.
[7] Claiborne, 111.
[8] Douglas Meeks, God the Economist (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 4.
[9] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, God’s Economy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 45.
[10] Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 44.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Politics of Jesus: Why it Matters

Psalm 146 and Luke 14:1, 7-14
August 28, 2016
Mount Vernon Place UMC

            It might surprise some of you to hear what I’m about to say, but I need to tell you anyway. I’m a rather opinionated person. I have strong opinions on the church and the kind of leadership it needs for the future. I have strong opinions on politics and policy making. And, I have all kinds of opinions about other peoples’ opinions! 
            I suspect that if we were to all share our opinions with each other on the church and politics that many of you would leave the room and never return – as you should. I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. I do not believe the church should endorse any candidate for political office. And I have worked hard to keep patriotism whether sung, spoken or symbolized outside the sanctuary. What we do here is to worship God, learn more about God’s ways, and discover what it means to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And that is my hope and prayer for this new worship series called "The Politics of Jesus."
            I was taught in my introduction to political science class that politics is “the ability to produce intended or foreseen effects upon others.” It’s a definition that resonates with me as I think about what candidates, elected officials and lobbyists say and do to get people to vote for them or to move a piece of legislation forward. We are in a city that is overflowing with people who want to produce intended or foreseen effects upon others.
            But Parker Palmer, whose work Healing the Heart of Democracy will be used throughout this series, defines politics with these words: “the essential and eternal human effort to craft the common life on which we all depend.”[1] While I was taught that politics is about me getting you to do whatever I want, Palmer reminds us that politics requires that we take account of everyone around us, and seek to weave “a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend.”[2]
            Palmer says we cannot enter into politics without making sure our hearts are front and center. He reminds us of the original meaning of the word “heart” which “comes from the Latin cor and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge.” But cor is “also the Latin root from which we get the word courage.” He writes, “When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know.”[3]
            How often do you hear people start with the heart when talking about politics?
How often are political decisions dictated first by the heart and second by deeply held convictions that we have refused to allow anyone to challenge or even question ourselves because it’s the way we have been taught to believe?
            Only when the heart is front and center can we imagine politics as what Palmer describes as “the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate, and justice and mercy can have their day.”[4]
            What would it take for such a vision to become a reality in every place where people are making decisions that impact others?
            Perhaps it starts with the posture we take when approaching “the other” whoever the other might be.
            Jesus often uses the table as a key place of learning and especially in Luke’s gospel. In fact, former professor of preaching Fred Craddock explains how “Nothing can be for Luke more serious than a dining table.” [5] The dining table is where Jesus is most revealed. It’s where we celebrate the Eucharist. And, it’s where Jesus gathered all kinds of people to teach and reprove.
            It’s at the table where today’s lesson occurs, and not just any table, but a wedding feast. In ancient Palestine, male banquet guests would have gathered around the table in reclined seats with a particular order to the seating. The center table at a wedding banquet in Palestine was reserved for whoever the most prominent guests were in attendance. The people in the center were people who had the most wealth or power. They got the center seats because of the office they held. In our day, you can imagine the President, Members of Congress or CEOs sitting in the center, something that does, in fact, regularly happen.
            But Jesus challenges the seating arrangement. He watches people choose the seats of honor, and he admonishes them to instead take a lower seat. Don’t go for the place of honor. Rather, assume your place is somewhere else in the room. Sit down, and wait until you’re invited to a different table. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[6]
            If you receive the weekly email, then you may know that I invited you to try to imagine our two presidential candidates seeking the lower seat, and not just the lower seat, but I took it a step further. Imagine for a moment Donald Trump sitting below Hillary Clinton and asking her for wisdom or even for an explanation of why she has the views she has. And then imagine Hillary Clinton doing the same thing – assuming a posture that demonstrates how she doesn’t know everything but rather might learn something from Mr. Trump. And then imagine what might happen if these two individuals actually shared a meal together where they could look one another in the eye and be vulnerable enough to share their hearts, asking each other questions about what makes it beat, what robs its joy, what breaks it in two. Would they be able to leave that meal and proceed to demonize each other on the nightly news? 
            And what about us?
I’ve heard more people say this year that they are voting for “the lesser of two evils” for president than any other year.  How regularly do you call someone evil? Some of us may not be able to remember the last time we referred to someone as evil other than Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump. But do we really believe they are evil, that the devil is actively working within them? And what does our saying they are evil or our constantly putting them down say about us – myself included?
I cannot begin to count how many times I have cursed at the television when a story comes on about this year’s presidential election. I’ve taken my disappointment to social media. I’ve allowed these two people to get to me, one more than the other, and bring out words that are not exactly words I’d like Jesus to hear me saying. I’ve shouted at the television more during this presidential election season than I have shouted at the screen when Duke was playing in the Final Four.
And I thought it was all perfectly acceptable.
But this week I’ve been challenged to behave differently.
            I believe God cares deeply about nearly every issue we refer to as "political" - and not just the issues the church regularly gets involved with like abortion or marriage -  whether it’s the environment, the economy, war, peace, guns, immigration, and so many others. But what I realized as I read, studied and prayed this week is that God cares even more about the status of our hearts!
            Jesus constantly used the ordinary, everyday life activities as examples in his teaching. He used the “home and marketplace, farm and fishing boat” to reveal what life looks like in the kingdom of God – the place where God’s presence is tangibly seen through the ways people live.  The Greek historian “Plutarch once observed that it is in the small, apparently trivial act that character is most accurately reflected.”[7] What, then does our political life – the stances we have taken, the words we have spoken, the judgments we have made, the demonization we have contributed to – say about our character? What do our words and actions say about our love of God and neighbor?
            Palmer offers two words that most summarize the habits of the heart American citizens need today in response to our current conditions: chutzpah and humility. Chutzpah is the recognition that we have a voice to share, one that needs to be heard as well as the right to use this voice. Humility is “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all – so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other.’”[8] While we may think there is plenty of chutzpah to go around, there are many of us who have forgotten that we are all called to speak up and participate. Politics is not meant to be a spectator sport, and we are not called to be complacent. 
But humility – that capacity to always say something with the recognition that I might not be right – goodness that’s a hard one to find and embody. And it was certainly lacking over a recent family vacation when I was stunned to learn that my father is not just supporting a candidate but actually giving him money. Imagine if all of us had an equal amount of humility to match our chutzpah!
So where do we go from here?
One theologian recently suggested that we use the next 70 or so days separating us from the election to only post positive things on Facebook instead of participating in the demonization of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. I’m trying to follow her advice.
Perhaps we seek out someone whose views are different than are own and share a meal together in hopes of seeing a glimpse of their heart, making sure we give them the seat of honor in the process.
Maybe we try to daily pray for both Donald and Hillary by name, asking God to bless them and give them wisdom, guidance and grace while remembering how both of these individuals are created in the image of God.
And all of us need to remember who really is in charge. I recall when President Obama was running for office how many campaign posters had his image on it as well as the word “Hope.” It was as if we had never heard the word hope before and were ready to usher in a new savior of the world. But President Obama did not bring hope to this world. Jesus did, and Jesus still is.
Just as no political candidate is Satan, neither is any political candidate our savior. None of them can fix every obstacle facing our nation and our world.  The Psalmist teaches that our praise should never be aimed for princes or presidents who are here today and gone tomorrow. We should not believe that our help is in policies no matter how just-filled they might be.
Rather, there is one who came so that we might have life and life abundant.
This one is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.
This one executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoner free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over the strangers, upholds the orphan and the widow.
And this one does not do it alone but rather calls and equips the church, ordinary people like you and me, to join in extraordinary work that can change and transform our city and God’s world.
May our lives be filled with praise and be worthy of praise – our church lives and our political lives. May our lives be overflowing with chutzpah and humility. May we embody a politics that is not only worthy of the human spirit, but one that is worthy of God who created us, called us and invites us to join God in the redemption of the world.
Thanks be to God.

[1] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) 6.
[2] Palmer, xii.
[3] Palmer, 6.
[4] Palmer, 8.
[5] Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 175.
[6] Luke 14:11.
[7] Craddock, 176.
[8] Palmer, 43.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Who Do You Influence?

My summer started with my heart being shocked back into place. I wasn't sick. I wasn't being monitored. But I had placed aside some of what matters to me and keeps me going. I went on retreat with my clergywomen's group where I quickly realized how much I needed the daily rhythm of prayer and Bible study. As we gathered together for morning and evening prayer, my heart was quenched, saturated with grace. I returned home and ordered one of the books used daily by a woman in our group, and Celtic Prayer has been speaking to me each morning ever since. It's quickly become my favorite devotional book, and I highly recommend it to you if you're looking for light on your path.

Today's reading has captured me. Words from Iona are the assigned reading for this week in August. We read briefly about Columba's journey to the isle of Iona yesterday. Today, these words opened this part of the devotional: "Columba and his brothers lived in simple huts, praying for each other, and for all those far and wide whose lives they were to influence."

Columba prayed for all those whose lives they were to influence.

Whose are you called to influence?

Who am I called to influence? In what lives do I seek to make a difference? These questions stirred the depth of my soul this morning. Who am I to influence today? And next week? And next year? And in my lifetime?

I long to influence the people who gather at Mount Vernon Place UMC, a surprising and beautiful congregation in the heart of Washington. I want to influence this congregation to make a profound difference through their love, their generosity, their ability to see people no one else sees, their service, their faith and their thoughtfulness. I want to influence them to love our children, our unhoused neighbors, our people who allow themselves to be defined by their business card, and anyone who has 1000 friends on Facebook and no one to call on Friday night. I want to influence them to think about the power of their light and how this light shines all the time wherever we are. I want to influence them to think faithfully and theologically about how they use their time, their money and their talents. This morning I pray for Mount Vernon Place.

As we near the completion of our book manuscript currently titled, "A New Day in the City" to be published by Abingdon in the Spring of 2017, I long to influence pastors and congregations who are in places where words like "decline" or "tired" are spoken more often than "growing" or "vibrant." I long for the stories and wisdom that Roger and I are seeking to share to touch people, to cause them to think, to motivate them to take risks, to step out more often in faith, to embody excellence, to be true to themselves instead of stepping into someone else's clothes to reach new people. I long for us to influence a conversation about how God can and still is putting new flesh on dry bones. This morning I pray for every person who might feel led to read this book and the conversations that will prayerfully be inspired by it.

I long to influence people who love the sun more than sunscreen.

I want to influence individuals to think faithfully and theologically about what it means to love God and neighbor in this election season when the stakes seem so high.

I want to influence men and women who are discerning a call to ministry or those who have already answered this call, prayerfully showing them how incredible pastoral ministry can be.

The invitation to influence is everywhere! And it's daunting and life-giving at the same time to respond to such an invitation. 

Who are you called to influence? 

How are you praying for them? 

God, will you please show me how to use what has been entrusted to me to faithfully inspire, open, guide and influence individuals in my midst? Will you help the congregation I know and love best to see the power and possibility of their influence? Remind us again of how our lives are always speaking. May all I say and do be an offering to you as I seek to humbly follow you and make a difference in the world around me. Amen. 

Friday, July 01, 2016

The First Day

Eleven years ago today I pulled my Jeep into a small parking lot off K Street, rang a doorbell, and was greeted by a chain locked door that would not open. The building engineer soon came down, helped me unload some boxes of books, and showed me to the church office. I opened the door to the sound of window air conditioning units blowing and the smell of Wendy's french fries. Two women sat at the two desks eating their lunches. They kindly looked up and said "hello" while the engineer led me into a large office. These memories of my arrival are etched in my mind. A first impression quickly enabled me to see what was waiting for me.

It was in the middle of my first week when I gathered with our Staff Parish Relations Committee. The chair was a 97-year-old, incredibly classy and kind, nearly lifelong Washingtonian named Mabel. She led the meeting with a table of older adults who seemed to be filled with suspicion around who I was, what led me to their church, and how I was going to change them. But at the end of the meeting, Mabel looked me in the eye and said, "Donna, Mount Vernon Place is in the center of the city. Washington needs Mount Vernon Place, and Mount Vernon Place needs you. Don't you ever forget that you have the best job in Washington." 

I listened to her words that night and quickly concluded that I had just left the best job available when I emptied my office at Duke where I had served as Director of Admissions for the Divinity School for four years. Did Mabel have any idea how I felt after only five days as her pastor? Did she understand how big the task was before us?

It's been 11 years, and I can now easily say I have the best job in Washington. There was little about the first two years that was easy, however. We sometimes went six weeks without a single first time guest in worship. It took more than a year to attract a new member. There were no baptisms in the first couple of years but many, many funerals. It was tempting to quit at times. There were several weeks when I could not wait for the Christian Century to arrive so I could read the job postings, praying there would be something there for me. But God's grace and faithfulness prevailed, and the Spirit showed me how she was at work often. 

In the last couple of weeks, several people have reached out for advice for what to do first in their new church as the appointment year begins in the United Methodist Church. There are a million things I could say and a few things I would have done differently. But the most important thing is to follow the example of Jesus.

Luke tells us that twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem while his parents returned home. They assumed he was with them only to later find that he was in the temple where he sat among the teachers, listened to them, and asked questions (Luke 2:46). Our learning is never over. When I first arrived at MVP, two Baptist pastors generously invited me to join their weekly conversation at Starbucks. They had both led change in their downtown congregations and were willing to instill wisdom within me while also offering constant encouragement. Please try to find teachers who you can sit with and ask questions. Imagine yourself a constant student who has learned much with even more left to learn. 

Jesus then begins his ministry. He is baptized and hears the words, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22). Try to never forget either part of this statement. You are God's child, God's beloved. God adores you. God is also well pleased with you. Your congregation will not always be pleased with you. Not everyone will like you. In the times when you are told who is against you, seek to remember the one who is for matter what.

Jesus is then tempted in the wilderness but is able to escape without giving into the devil's desires. There will be numerous temptations on your way - to sin boldly, to make more money, to have more success or power, to believe it's about you. Spend time in prayer every day. Seek to be filled with the knowledge of scripture that keeps your feet on a steady path.

We then find Jesus returning to Nazareth where he enters the synagogue and stands up to read. He proclaims a word from the prophet Isaiah about how the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus then announces that the scripture is fulfilled in their hearing on that day. Jesus quickly makes it clear what he is there to do. He has an agenda, a calling to fulfill, work to be done. 

On the first day of an introduction to political science class while in college, I learned that politics is "the ability to produce intended or foreseen effects upon others." Preaching should have the same goal. Every time we proclaim God's word, we want people to be changed - to be filled with hope, to know they are beloved, to know who Jesus is and was, to understand God's call on their life, to be moved into action, to be given the courage to work to set the oppressed free, to understand how they have a light to shine, to be called to embody generosity, to practice and receive forgiveness, to love God and neighbor, and so much more. Please never forget how God uses your words to shape and form people. Take time to create a plan for your preaching. Go away for a week each year to sketch out where you seek to lead your people in the coming year. God is ready to speak through you.

Jesus then quickly surrounds himself with a group of disciples who will share in his ministry. He calls ordinary people to join him on the journey. You, too, need to call out the gifts of others in your midst. You need to invite people into ministry with you and allow people to see how they can make a difference in serving others both inside and outside the walls of the church building. But you also need to surround yourself with a group of people who can fully understand what you're going through.

Nearly five years ago, six clergywomen were granted money from the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Seminary to learn how to love God and neighbor together. The funds lasted two years but five of us are still gathering. We seek to meet monthly, and the space is always made safe to share whatever is bringing us down, causing us joy, or challenging the depth of our being. We seek to help each other become more faithful disciples, better pastors, better wives, and better mothers (for three in the group). These women provide accountability, encouragement and bread for my journey. Please do not look to your church members to be your support or your friends. Find people outside your church to journey with you and to know you fully. 

Finally, learn how to shake the dust of your feet and move on. People will leave your church, and their leaving can cause significant pain no matter who they are or why they leave. But remember that it's not all about you. Your role is to help people grow in their faith and experience God. People may realize that your congregation is not the best community in which this growth can happen. They may get frustrated with you and see your shortcomings more than your gifts. Listen to their concerns and do everything you can to find common ground. Apologize often if you have made a mistake. Make room for conversations in which you seek to learn as much about your shortcomings as possible. But do not believe you are there to please everyone, and do not hold the criticism for long. When the criticism comes, pull out your email folder and the folder in the filing cabinet that is labeled "HAPPY" - the files you have filled with notes of gratitude affirming your gifts. Remember who you are. Beloved. Precious. Child of God.

Oh, and one more thing - perhaps the most important thing. Love your people - the ones who love you and the ones who don't yet like you. Show up in their lives when they are hurting and when they are rejoicing. Write notes to them filled with gratitude for who they are and how they are offering their gifts or allowing God to shine through them. Pray for them often. Tell them regularly how much you love being their pastor. Don't let them forget that you believe you have the best job in Washington - or wherever you might be.

I'm praying for you and with you as your time begins. Being a pastor is a joy for which none of us is worthy. Don't take it for granted.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I Want to Live Like This

It's my birthday! Today I celebrate 44 years of life. And since the entire weekend has been a celebration as Craig and I spent time with his family in New Jersey, today has been a day to rest, reflect and do a few things I love. I've gone to the gym and allowed my body to be pushed by my personal trainer. I've journeyed to the grocery store to select several of our favorite foods including ones for a special meal tonight since it's also our 8th wedding anniversary. And, I've watched my Facebook Timeline be filled with greetings from individuals representing every chapter of my life. 

Facebook is an extraordinary means of grace on one's birthday as people take time to share birthday wishes. While many posts include the traditional words, "Happy Birthday," there are a few posts that have named my gifts or shared a particular memory. There is another post that suggests I party like a rock star - something I've certainly done before or perhaps even this weekend when I tasted Hendrick's Gin for the first time and decided one time was not enough. And there are other posts that invite me to enjoy the "best year ever." 

It's quite an invitation to ponder what the "best year ever" would entail. What would I do if I was to live the best year ever? How would I pattern my days? Would my budget or schedule change? Who would I seek to spend time with or call out of the blue? What would I stop doing because it no longer mattered? I've been pondering these questions all day as if it's New Year's Eve, and I'm ready to make some changes.

I want to take better care of myself. While I treat my two weekly sessions with a personal trainer as though they are bread from heaven, something I would not dare miss, I've yet to master the art of getting to the gym five days a week or even eating five fruits and vegetables for seven days a week. I want to grow old with knees that can hold my weight and legs that want to wander all over the place. I want to be able to feel good in whatever I select that's hanging in my closet.

I want to be a better friend. There are so many individuals who I say mean the world to me but who I rarely call. I have a box of birthday cards that don't get mailed on a regular basis. There are several people who see me and say, "I know you're really busy, but...." But I don't want to be too busy for friends. I want to spend more time cultivating longtime friendships and making new ones.

I want to be the most faithful pastor I can be. I want to be filled with gratitude and thanksgiving. I want to make a difference in the lives of whoever God puts in my path. I want to know that what we are doing in downtown DC matters to people inside and outside our doors. I want to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

And I want to seize opportunities to experience new things that lead to wonder, surprise, joy and delight. We spent yesterday at the Jersey shore. We delighted in Manco & Manco's pizza, stopped for a custard from Kohr's, went in and out of different shops, allowed the sea breeze to kiss our skin, and listened to the sound of the ocean roaring. We took delight in watching our cousins, niece and nephew ride different rides at a small amusement park at the end of the boardwalk. And an hour later, with ride tickets remaining, I accepted an opportunity to enjoy a ride with my husband, brother-in-law and cousin. I hiked up my dress, climbed inside a log, and waited for the Canyon Falls Log Flume to take off. I knew we would get wet. I even hesitated to sit down on the wet bench. But I did it, and I cannot begin to tell you how much joy I get when I see the photos of the experience!

I want to live like that!

I don't want the potential of getting wet or hurt or bruised or exhausted to stop me. I don't want to worry what other people are thinking. I want to seize the moment and take advantage of whatever new experience awaits me. I want to relish in the adventure instead of clinging to the routine. I want to take faithful risks. I want to try new things. I want to experience pure joy every single day.

A friend who lives in Germany shared with me today that I have "a wonderful Herrenhut Watchword" for my birthday. It is Isaiah 55:12 which reads, "For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace." It then continues to describe mountains and hills bursting into song while trees clap their hands. The tradition in Germany is for families to read the watchword every morning and then reflect on how it has come to fruition throughout the day when evening comes.

I'm more than okay with a year of going out in joy before being led forth in peace. I find it rather delightful to imagine how I might beckon the trees to clap their hands before joining in.

So who wants to go on a ride with me next?  Disney, anyone? I cannot promise that we will stay dry, but I can promise you loads of laughter and joy.

To life! For life is extraordinary and such an incredible gift. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

I'm Going to Church Tomorrow

It's Saturday night, just before 9:00pm. I suppose many of you are sliding into a cute pair of heels and applying a bit of lip gloss, ready to see what might be waiting for you at a bar downtown. Others of you may be halfway through a Redbox movie, still waiting to see if you're going to be glad you spent $1.50 to rent the film. Or maybe you've just poured yourself a glass of wine because the kids are finally all in bed. It's now time to start thinking about what tomorrow will hold. Will you set the alarm or sleep in? Will you go to brunch or the farmer's market? Will you brew coffee at home or take the Washington Post to the nearest Starbuck's?

These decisions are not ones we have to make in our house. In fact, I've had my pajamas on for over an hour. Saturday night is an early night at our house because we always go to church. It's the highlight of my week professionally, and my husband is a devout Catholic who never misses mass. And yet, on this night, my heart can hardly wait to to go to church tomorrow. My spirit longs to be in a sanctuary filled with a community of people whose stories I know, whose lives intersect with mine. But I also desperately need to be reminded that there is something more to this life, that God is with us in the pain, that the light shines in the darkness.

I've cried twice today while reading the words of two friends, two mothers whose hearts are hurting. One is the mother of an 11-year-old daughter who was believed to have beat leukemia. Their lives were returning to normal when strange symptoms appeared early this week. Tests revealed the worst possible news. The leukemia is back. Rather than starting summer at the pool with friends, this child will spend 28 days in the hospital with needles pouring chemo into her body. Another friend is facing Father's Day for the first time without her husband who died five months ago. She and her three young children have made plans to skip church, eat donuts and watch television because there are no Hallmark cards with instructions for what to do on the first Father's Day since Daddy died.

And then there is Orlando, and all these incredibly sad stories about lives being celebrated much too soon. It was this time last week when outfits would have been selected, plans would have been made, drinks would have been poured. "Let's go dancing." "I want to go to Pulse." "Our community will be there." But lives - so many lives have been shattered.

I need to go to church tomorrow. I need to go because I'll be reminded of a light that shines in the darkness. I need to go because there are times when just sitting in the sanctuary and looking at stained glass windows is enough. I need to go because there will be people there who know my name and glimpses of my story. I need to go because the sermon is one I need to hear even as it will flow through my lips - the importance of cultivating self-compassion and letting go of perfectionism since perfectionism is almost always tied to impressing others, bringing about a sense that you're better than you really are. I need to go to church tomorrow because I believe God is still speaking and there will be a word for me. It might come from a child who embraces me or brings me a note. It might come from a first-time guest who tells me how welcome they felt. It might come from the scripture being read even though I've read it dozens of times this week. Or it might come when I bow my head and intercede on behalf of so many people who are hurting - those I know and those I don't know - people who know how complicated Father's Day can be, people who have lost a loved one and know the sting of grief, people who are experiencing an overwhelming medical diagnosis, people who are wondering what the future will hold, people who are longing to not feel so alone. It's only an hour or so, but it's an hour filled with moments, words, stories, songs, rituals and people I need.

Plus, the Washington Post will be waiting for me when I get home.