Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Journey to Belief

One of the deep gifts offered on Easter morning was a testimony shared by a woman who also joined our church on Sunday. I have known Julie for years as someone who used to visit our church a couple of times a year. I have then been given the holy privilege of walking with her through her grief over the last ten months. Her words were powerful, and they touched many people. She gave me permission to share them here. May they also bless you, cause you to think, and perhaps help you to look for signs of God's presence in unexpected places this day.

           Good morning.  My name is Julie.  For those of you that attend Mt. Vernon Place on a regular basis, you may have noticed I am a somewhat newer face here over the past year.  For those of you that I have gotten to know, you might also know that I lost my husband almost a year ago.  Doug and I attended Mt. Vernon Place on an infrequent basis – we weren’t even Christmas and Easter people, we were Easter and Mother’s Day people, because if mother was in town, we had to go to church.  (My mom is here with me today, and mom you’ll be happy to know I am attending church a little more frequently these days.)
            Doug was diagnosed with a very rare form of lymphoma in June 2014. His diagnosis and thus his potential treatment plan was difficult because he didn’t even exhibit the typical symptoms of this type of lymphoma.  In fact, if you knew Doug, there were some days when you would not have known he was sick at all.
Ultimately, it was decided that Doug needed a bone marrow transplant.  The plan was to give him two rounds of chemo to knock out any sign of the lymphoma, and then go to transplant.  He had his first round of chemo mid-March of last year, and for a couple of weeks, everything was fine—he started to loose some hair, but his attitude was “let’s get this over with so we can start living our lives again.”  We had even planned a trip in September of last year to go to Scotland, a celebratory trip of getting through the transplant.  “Lindsay,” as you might guess, is Scottish, and Doug had always wanted “to go back to the homeland,” as he would say. 
            Unfortunately, it was Easter weekend of last year when things took a turn for the worse, and it never got better. We checked into Johns Hopkins on a Friday, as they were going to try another type of chemo. On the following Sunday morning, the doctors came in and told Doug and I that the lymphoma had taken control and there was nothing more they could do, and we just needed to focus on keeping Doug comfortable.  I asked how long we had, and they said a week to 3 weeks.  When they left the room, of course I was sobbing, and I said “Doug, you can’t leave me.  What am I going to do without you?”  He said “Julie, I will never leave you.  I will always be with you, and I am going to come back and thump those kitties between the ears.”
            Now, before you think there was animal cruelty involved here, Doug and I didn’t have children—but we have two cats who were our children.  Doug was in sales, so he traveled a lot, and he would often call me on his way home on a Friday and say “I’m comin’ home, and I am going to thump those kitties between the ears!”  He played with them all the time, or “terrorized” them as he would say.  So, that was on Sunday morning and by Monday afternoon, May 4th, Doug was gone.
            Billl Hilligeist is an active member of MVP and lives in our building.  When he found out Doug had passed, he let Donna know, since Doug and I had come here a few times.  Donna reached out to me, and we got together shortly thereafter.  My first questions to Donna—and my first questions generally—were “Is there really eternal life?  How do I know Doug is ok, and he is not just dead?”  Donna said that there were many things that she had questioned about her faith, but she had never questioned eternal life—God is so incredibly good and loves us so much, and life can be so incredibly hard, that this can’t be all that there is.  There has to be more.  I was like “ok”—I was raised in the Methodist church and this was all consistent with what I had learned, but I will be honest – I had always questioned it, and particularly when it was the love of my life that was no longer with me.
            A week or so later, a work colleague was going to take me out for lunch.  I was getting ready in the bathroom, drying my hair.  One of our cats, Max, came into the bathroom and just sat there watching me.  I looked at him and said “Max, do you miss daddy?”  (Yes, we called each other mommy and daddy.) I said “I miss daddy, I miss daddy very much. But daddy said he was never going to leave us, that he would always be with us.”  And just then, Max’s little ear goes {twitch, twitch}.  I turned off the hair dryer, and point blank looked him and said “Max, is that daddy?”  And his little ear goes {twitch}.  Tears welled up in my eyes, but the biggest smile came over my face and I can’t tell you the sense of comfort I felt.  I saw Donna again shortly after that, and she said “You know, I was thinking more about your questions about eternal life,” and I said “Nope, I got it.  All good.”
I ended up taking that trip to Scotland last fall, and I took some of Doug’s ashes with me.  I had identified a place where I wanted to spread his ashes—in Loch Coruisk which is in the Black Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye.  The morning my tour group was supposed to go there, the weather was not good, and our guides were told the ferries would not be going that day.  About an hour before we were supposed to leave, the sun came out, and we were able to make the trip.  It was a beautiful day and I was able to spread his ashes in the Loch.  After I spread the ashes, as I was sitting there, a little fish came swimming up—it was the only fish I saw in the Loch the entire time I was there.  I thought “Oh great, I am literally going to watch Doug become fish food.”  But it didn’t do anything—it just hovered there for about an hour, and as I got up to leave, it swam away.
I tell you all this as I firmly believe that Doug, through the Holy Spirit, is letting me know he is ok, and that I am going to be ok, as he really is still with me.  One thing I have learned is that, as much as we might like, there aren’t burning bushes, or clouds parting with voices thundering from above, as evidence of God or eternal life.  For me, it’s been as simple as a cat’s ear flip, an unexpected beautiful day or a little fish.

MVP has been incredibly supportive of my journey, and I am so thankful to be part of this community.  I joined the Tuesday night small group and we recently completed a study on the Gospel of John, including Christ’s death, resurrection and eternal life.  Two passages from our study materials really struck me, and I wanted to share them with you today. The first is “Easter transforms our sorrow into joy and hope, our fear into peace and courage.”  The second is “…the Resurrection declares that the worst thing is never the last thing.”  Before I watched my husband take his last breath, I was scared to die.  Now I realize that death is by no means the last thing.  On this Easter Sunday, while I still miss Doug terribly, I can honestly say I know he is still with me, and I will get to see him again. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Shame

There were times when I would literally sit and count the number of people in the photos friends were posting of their church on Easter.

There were times when I completely forgot all that did happen on Easter morning because all I could think about is how I felt on Easter evening.

There were times when I dreaded having to hear colleagues talk about how many people came to church on Easter.

There were other times when I was fully aware of how many more people we had in our pews this year than we did the year before. But I would still see emptiness when I looked at the pictures of our space.

There was never enough. No matter how many people were in our pews, it was not enough.

But something changed yesterday. There was enough. There was more than enough people, more than enough food, more than enough passion, more than enough joy. When I looked out from my seat up front, I saw more people gathered in our sanctuary for worship than I had ever seen before. There were even people in the balcony, something that typically only happens when someone is wearing strong perfume below. 

Brene' Brown has powerfully named my standard Easter emotion. She calls it the shame-based fear of being ordinary, a fear that may be more powerful in my life than any other fear I know. It's what she describes as the "fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose" (Daring Greatly, page 22).

While I have always known that I am a beloved person with a powerful sense of purpose, I've regularly feared that I am not extraordinary enough. This fear pushes me to often compare myself to others which regularly only helps me see my own sense of inadequacy. And there is nothing faithful about such feelings.

Brene' has helped me see that scarcity is a great lie. It is even more so for people of faith who believe we worship a God of abundance - a God who says there is always more than enough, and that we are more than enough just as we are.

I'm trying hard to live wholeheartedly. Wholehearted living, according to Brene', includes ten things. I offer my five favorites below:

1. Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and "Supposed To"

Imagine how different the week after Easter would be if we sought to do the hard work of cultivating these gifts within us. Imagine how different we would feel about the gifts God brought on Easter if we refused to compare our church with any other church, our sermon with any other sermon, our music with any other music, our size with any other size.

I've come a long way.

I still have a way to go.

I'm going to try again.

What about you?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Not a Rolled-Away Stone, but a Carried-Away Church

I was getting ready to leave the church today when I crossed over the glass bridge that connects the office suite with the sanctuary. I heard music as soon as I opened the office door which puzzled me as I thought I was the only one still in the church part of the building. I then looked down and saw someone sweeping. Michelle, a first-year seminary student who lives upstairs, was sweeping the floor that was earlier covered with tables overflowing with food from our community potluck.

"Michelle, what are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm sweeping," she responded.

"But the floor will be swept in the morning," I said.

"I know. But I went upstairs and I couldn't stop thinking about the mess that was made. I didn't want our Easter joy to be someone else's burden," she explained.

Leadership comes in many forms. Michelle showed me an extraordinary form of it today. I was nearly rendered speechless, humbled to my core when I heard her words about the remnants of our joy possibly becoming someone else's burden. We had just celebrated the resurrected Jesus but Michelle was a powerful picture of Jesus to me today - Jesus who serves, Jesus who remembers that someone else may have to carry the burden we create, Jesus who quietly cares for others when no one else is watching. I'm still utterly amazed by her actions.

I later noticed this quote from Clarence Jordan posted on Facebook, "The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church."

At the end of this Easter day, I realize again that I have the extraordinary privilege of being part of such a place. Our Holy Week has been powerful and transformational because countless people in our spirit-filled fellowship have gone the extra mile to share their gifts. A colleague at Duke used to refer to a group of gifted people as "an embarrassment of riches." I've seen an embarrassment of riches at work this week in so many ways from a person who memorized a script for Palm Sunday to a woman who vulnerably shared her heart today through a powerful testimony, from people who sang incredible music to an individual who created the worship slides, from people who opened the doors of the shower ministry this morning to those who picked up trash in the front lawn yesterday, from those who came early to greet to those who carefully ensured there would be just enough food at the potluck, from those who created prayer stations on Good Friday to the one who preached on Maundy Thursday, from those who counted every single person in worship today to those who were willing to miss worship to care for our children, from those who took down every table and chair following lunch to those who have created a communications team and posted all kinds of clever things this week, from those who did not get to sit in their normal pew today to those who scooted over to sit closer to someone who was moved to tears, from those who hid eggs for our children to find to those who took the trash out after lunch, and from every person who showed up and said "hello" to someone else, making them feel welcome but also becoming the answer to our prayer that no one show up without being noticed in some way.

It's been an extraordinary Easter because of the sacrifices of many people. My heart is overflowing. May Christ continue to transform our hearts, fill our fellowship with the Spirit, and carry us away in powerful ways.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Where is God?

I'm normally one of the first people to arrive at the abbey. I want to get here when there are still spaces available for spiritual direction with one of the monks since there are typically only 6 sessions available for a dozen or so retreat guests. For years I'd come to meet with Brother Mark who started to recognize me the moment I walked into the small room. I would settle down in my chair, and he would begin the conversation.

How can I help you?

It would take a maximum of two seconds before I started to respond. I cannot find God. I try hard but I cannot seem to get close to God. Where is God?

Brother Mark would then usually ask, Is this not the same question you asked last year?

Yes, it's me again. I'm working so hard. The congregation I serve is growing. But my relationship with God has dwindled. I have purchased dozens of devotional books. Some feed me for a few weeks and then I'm back where I started. I cannot seem to stay close to God.

But something is different this time.

I didn't feel compelled to be one of the first people to arrive. I didn't sign up for a session with one of the monks. In fact, the more I've been at the abbey this week, the more I realize how different my relationship is with God than it has been in years past. While I'm not sure I can put my figure on it, I know things have changed.

I'd not been here half an hour when I noticed God at work in the field outside my window. I saw the cow and her baby the moment I opened the blinds. I then realized that the calf was newly born and just learning to use her legs for the first time. She would stand up and then fall and then stand up only to fall over once more. But the mama cow never left her side. Instead she kept licking her, nursing her and nudging her. And the closer the mama stayed, the more it seemed that the calf had the courage to try to stand once more.

The view completely seduced me. I could not stop watching the action outside. I also could not stop thinking about how God does the same in our lives. God cleans us up, nudges us, seeks to nourish us, and then stays close when we have fallen and are trying to stand again. We have no idea just how much God loves us and cheers for us. If only we could hear the voice of God!

The cow and her baby have not been seen again since that first day. I don't believe we are puppets on a string, our every move controlled by God. But I believe the cow and calf were a gift given to me upon my arrival. 

With God's presence so tangibly close, I turned to the task at hand and started to choose from the dozen or so books in my bag. I first read a beautiful book of a woman's journey through grief. I'd recommend Comfort to you - as long as you have a box of tissues at hand. I then continued to sift through books on leadership, the church's current reality, and mission. And then I found a book that helped me see why God may be so close in this season of my life.

While the cover may likely not win an award for design, the treasure inside Samuel Wells' book, A Nazareth Manifesto, is not to be missed. It's not often that I pick up a theology book that I cannot put down, but Wells has achieved such an end with this masterpiece. 

The argument for the book is found near its beginning, "...while there is a place for working for, working with, and being for, it is being with that is the most faithful form of Christian witness and mission, because being with is both incarnationally faithful to the manifestation of God in Christ and eschatologically anticipatory of the destiny of all things in God" (p. 23). Wells sets out to demonstrate how much ministry is done for other people - something I've experienced often.

I went to a meeting last week designed to ignite a movement to make sure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are realities for all people in this nation by 2026, the year we'll celebrate the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But I quickly realized that the people we wanted to do something for - the people we were talking about - were not in the room. They had not been invited to be part of the conversation.

We feel good when we show up to serve dinner to people or write a check to our favorite charity, or even take a load of clothing to Goodwill. We are doing something for others! But Wells has helped me see ministry in a different light. He's helped me discover why I am journeying through this current season with a lens of abundance instead of scarcity.

As I look back upon my annual pilgrimage to the abbey, I see how often I have come here with a feeling of there not being enough. There are not enough people in the pews, not enough members, not  enough leaders, not enough resources, not enough money, and not enough time. Furthermore, I was not a good enough pastor, a good enough leader, a good enough preacher, a good enough wife, a good enough friend. I was never fully satisfied with the here and the now (and perhaps I never will be - which is not an entirely bad thing). 

But I realize now how much of my life includes abundance. I also know why I often show up for our Tuesday morning Hope 4 All group that is seeking to journey with people from homelessness into housing. It might be easy to see scarcity in such a group. Our city does not seem to have enough housing for everyone who needs it. But I have yet to show up at 7:00am on a Tuesday without seeing abundance in ways you might not expect.

Wells quotes John McKnight and Peter Block who write, "Gifts are inborn and not subject to management. Gifts don't need to be trained into us; they are inherent. They are who we are and they cannot be taken away. They are also nearby, though often unseen. Since we cannot manipulate the gifts of another, they are not subject to external management, and therefore they are an antidote to system life" (253).

We all have gifts. They are inherent within us. They simply need to be nurtured and named. Wells writes, "Well-being is about overcoming isolation and finding ways to make material limitation a source of mutual interdependence" (254).

There are not only gifts at the table on Tuesday morning, but there is an embarrassment of riches. And the riches have been uncovered as we have sought to provide space where isolation can be overcome and mutual interdependence can be shared.

Lorne has taught me about the power of not giving up. We nearly offended him on his first day when a facilitator of the group shared how his first place may be "a crappy room somewhere." But he kept coming. He signed a lease on a room that was not ideal. And he's showing us how to smile in the midst of adversity.

Greg could complain about a million things. He spent more than 23 years in federal prison. He's learned that the halfway house was an easier place to live than the streets of Washington. He regularly makes me think about the Shawshank Redemption film. He's working hard to get a commercial driver's license. I've rarely heard him complain. He seizes the abundance that he has and keeps moving forward one step at a time.

Richard has been coming to worship every Sunday in recent weeks. His face is overflowing with joy as the smile seems rather permanent. He first couldn't wait to tell me about his room in a group house. He now cannot stop talking about how he has his own place. I HAVE MY OWN PLACE!!!!

Wells writes, "Generosity is the virtue of abundance. Unlike charity, which assumes scarcity and 'is really an unstable and false generosity because it is oriented around the needs and deficiencies of just one party in the transaction' and is thus demeaning, generosity assumes abundance by investing in the still-not-fully disclosed gifts of the other" (255).

I've come to realize how often I'm the poor one, especially when my eyes are only capable of seeing scarcity - in myself, in others and in our community - instead of the abundance that is always at hand whenever we sit down and see another person, hear another person, and then give them an opportunity to see and hear us in such a way that we all walk away with a keen awareness of our abundance.

Wells quotes Albert Schweitzer who used to say that when we ask God, "'Where are you staying?' God's answer is, 'I'm staying with you'" (259).

I'm so incredibly grateful that God has chosen to take up residence in me and in you. And the more I see you, the more I realize how much abundance there is all around - particularly when we refuse to accept isolation as the norm instead of the exception.

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. Thanks be. Thanks be. Thanks be. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016


Three weeks.

It was three weeks ago this morning when I settled into my favorite chair with a cup of hot coffee on the table next to me and opened the pages of the Washington Post. It's my favorite routine for a Saturday morning, one that normally encourages the calmness we seek for our only day off together. But Saturday, February 20 was different because rather than reading about another homicide in our city on the front page of the Metro section, I was actually reading about someone who was once part of my community.

I know Clifton as someone who came to our church's shower ministry a few years ago and then to our Tuesday morning Hope 4 All group. Our church paid for a bus ticket so he could go home and be with his mother in Atlanta. Along with another church member, I took him to lunch on his birthday. I served communion to him on Christmas Eve. And I not only knew Clifton, but I also knew one of Clifton's roommates - the person who was not home on that day. He, too, had been a Shower Ministry guest and then a Hope 4 All guest. He came to the church to see me in mid-December immediately after signing his lease to the same house where Clifton lived. He wanted to not only show me his keys but actually show me the place where he had signed that he had access to a room of his own. It was a celebratory moment filled with hope being born anew. And so when I first read about Clifton's death, my mind also immediately went to this third roommate who we prayed was still alive. We located him a couple hours later, and he's now staying in the home of a colleague of mine until he can find another place to live.

But I'd never known anyone who was murdered. I've never read about a homicide that includes the name of someone whose story I know well. How could this be?

The waves of pain and anger came crushing in again on Monday night when I got a message saying, "Ivy died." Ivy? How could Ivy be dead? Ivy is one of the reasons we started our Tuesday morning group. I first met her on a cold January day in 2015 when I went outside with a colleague to make sure everyone was okay. The temperatures were cold enough to kill someone. But we had no idea what we would find that day. When we pealed back the layers of green tarp and blankets, we found a cozy communal space holding a few prescription drugs, some food, and lots of clothing all covered with more blankets. It was Ivy's space, Ivy's belongings, Ivy's temporary home. And it was this image that captured our congregation's attention enough to figure out how we could offer hospitality in a different way.

Since our change in policy, a group of individuals have gathered every single Tuesday morning with the exception of one. There are some mornings when there are 15 people at the table and other mornings when there are three or four people. Each gathering starts the same, with an invitation to tell us who you are and what you have done in the last week to get closer to housing and/or employment. Every person's answers are recorded so we can hold people accountable the following week. If someone has a barrier whether it be transportation or clothing, then we try to remove it. We've loaded dozens of Metro cards, purchased new shoes for an interview, solicited new suits for men to wear to a meeting, paid for licenses and school fees, and countless other things. All of these expenses are met through a fund that was established in 2007 when our congregation let go of inviting people to give Easter lilies in honor or memory of someone on Easter and instead give life through the purchase of a share in the Harry McLean Life Fund. A list of all who give is included in the Easter bulletin, along with the names being honored or remembered. It's just that while lilies often die a few weeks later, these gifts have produced new life in the form of food, gift cards for medication, and help with housing and job expenses. We have learned that someone being moved from homelessness into housing is nothing short of a miracle. And still, we've had front row seats to some 14 different people who have been able to make this incredibly large step in the last year.

Two of them are now dead.

First Clifton and now Ivy. While it would not have surprised me to learn that Ivy had died several months ago - her body was so frail - Ivy was doing incredibly well. She'd put on at least 20 pounds, looked healthy, and had returned to our group a few weeks ago to start offering encouragement to others. She had a housing voucher. She was housed - but she came to tell others they could do it. Just two weeks ago she sat next to me. I can still hear her saying, "You came!" to another participant. "I'm so glad! You can do this." When it came time for her to share, she joyfully talked about her relationship with her son, describing how big he is and how much she's enjoying him. She shared how her longtime partner was finally in treatment and that they were committed to getting married one day. She was overflowing with goodness and health and wisdom and triumph.

So, how could Ivy be dead? That was the question that kept going through my mind last Monday night only to later see this article being shared by another person from our church. Ivy had been shot in broad daylight. The one who was rebuilding her life one painful step at a time had everything robbed from her in the blink of a bullet.

I've never felt this kind of pain when it comes to knowing someone has died. The tears of grief started to overflow on Wednesday morning after I successfully kept them tucked inside on Tuesday. How could someone who finally had so much going for them be killed on a Sunday afternoon? Good God Almighty, can you help us? Can you hear us? Can you prevent this from happening again?

I soon started to ask how we begin to move forward. How long will we wait before reading about someone else we have grown to love? Who else from our community will have their life robbed from them in an instant? Where are you God?

My mind then turned to an anonymous note left for me at our Ash Wednesday worship service. The individual was taken back by signs that say, "No Sleeping. No Storage. No Loitering." They were bright orange and quite loud. Our practice was to always take them down before worship begins but we forgot to take them down for a midweek service. The signs have since been redesigned with information on how we are trying to be in relationship with people who need places to sleep and store their belongings. There are invitations to come inside for a shower or join us on a Tuesday morning. The person who wrote this note helped us see the impact of our signage. But I'd love to have a conversation with him or her.

I'd love to have a dialogue about how our understandings of mercy and justice have been transformed. Opening a church's porches for people to come and sleep outside is not hospitality. There is nothing merciful about thinking your church is doing someone a favor by letting them sleep outside. Have you ever invited someone to come and visit you and then given them a pad on your porch?

We are so quick to judge one another.

Our church and I were judged harshly on Ash Wednesday.

But I've also been so quick to judge people.

"Can't these people get a job? Can't these people get a home?" These questions have gone through my mind dozens of times when I have found myself cleaning our front porch or picking up someone's belongings.

I've learned that the answer is sometimes "no" and often "yes." Many people can get a job, and many people can get housing. But it takes a village. It takes people who are willing to not do the easy thing, like saying, "Well, at least we're giving them a place to sleep where they don't get wet by rain." But rather it takes people who are willing to do the hard work of showing up, of providing people with some basic resources, of letting folks know we are together on this journey, and of holding people accountable. I was reminded this week that it also takes people who are willing to allow their heart to be broken.

My heart may always be shattered a bit - not like the bus stop where Ivy was killed - but by the weekly reminders of how broken our community is. But my heart can also be overflowing with joy when I see how much healing can occur when people who have so much start to share a little, when individuals can muster the capacity to give a second chance even when they see the words "convicted felon," and when we wrestle together to figure out what would Jesus really do.

Our nation is also deeply broken by our addiction to guns. Lives and families and communities are being shattered. The madness needs to stop. Changes in policy are needed.

Will you pray for us, please?

Ivy changed my life. I pray her memory is one of the last things I forget and that it also propels me to encourage our congregation to do everything we can to journey with people and prevent further lives from being robbed.