Friday, September 11, 2020

Do You Want to Be Made Well?

In John 5, Jesus encounters a man who has been paralyzed for 38 years. He lies by a pool each day along with the blind, the lame, and others who are paralyzed. When Jesus sees him, he inquires, "Do you want to be made well?" The man responds by saying he has no one to help him get into the pool and how when he tries to get there, others get there before him.

Jesus listens to his story (or his excuses) and tells him to stand up and walk. He's healed in an instant.

"Do you want to be made well?"

It sounds like such a simple question. But answering it requires that we admit we are in need of healing--that we are actually not well.

To say this season has taken its toll on me is an understatement. While COVID hasn't yet touched my body, it has nearly robbed my passion, my joy, my zest for life. I have yearned more than once for an opportunity to hide away and do nothing until the storm passes.

I realized today how much I have in common with the man in John 5. I know where healing can be found. I could see it and sometimes taste it. But I allowed myself to be paralyzed from receiving it. "Let me just lie here."

Two weeks ago, a doctor didn't ask me if I want to be made well. She got straight to the point, instead, with an admonition to get a handle on my stress.

In the last two weeks, I've gotten a massage. I've also returned to the gym where I hire someone to push my body harder than I would ever push it myself. I've been reminded in three sessions of how strong I am and how satisfying it is to be pushed outside my comfort zone. I had forgotten that I can, indeed, do hard things. I actually love hard things.

But today, I remembered something else that happened on the day after I saw the doctor. I had gone to a large country market with a friend where we loaded up on fresh vegetables and delighted in abundance. At the end of a row of tables, a group of men were distributing information on faith. I would have easily turned away. But my friend stopped when someone said, "Can I pray for you today?" The man introduced himself as Bob. I think he then asked if we knew Jesus at which point my friend said yes, "I'm in seminary, and she's a pastor." I wanted to run. But my friend was willing to engage, seeing sincerity in his offer. I reluctantly lowered my head as Bob prayed for us. He asked God to meet our every need, to bless us.

I have lots of people say, "I'm praying for you." But I cannot remember when someone simply wanted to pour blessing and healing into me and made me stop until I accepted their gift of prayer.

What if Bob's prayer is what has actually changed things for me--lifting my spirits, pushing aside my anxiety, giving me strength for whatever challenges are to come?

What if his faith is what God used to make me well again?

And what if God has been here all along, eager to heal me, while patiently waiting for me to ask for what I really need?

Do you want to be made well?

Ann Brown

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Gates, Walls, Division, and Love

The congregation where I serve as pastor has a history of building barriers. It's the very foundation of our existance. We began after an 1844 split in the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery. Slaveholders and their defenders believed a "representative church" was needed in the city of Washington, and fifty of their friends formed our church in 1850. White supremacists tattooed their label above both entrances to the "grand" edifice they labored to build for decades with enough funding in place to lay the cornerstone in 1917. The words, "Methodist Episcopal Church South" must be confronted each day by all who enter or walk by. We sought to finally deal with the sin of our past through a service of repentance in October of 2017. While the congregation's beauty and diversity changed much in those 100 years, it took a century to faithfully confront the sins of our past.

When I arrived as the pastor in 2005, I was greeted with these gates. They were installed by trustees consumed by exhaustion for clearing the porches of people and possessions. This particular set of gates, on Massachusetts Avenue where thousands of people pass each day, remained locked. I never saw the barrier to entry opened with even a small crack until the gates were completely removed as part of a building restoration in 2008.

The majority of the 864 delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church didn't appropriate funds to follow President Trump's lead and build walls around our churches. But I dare say the actions taken in a 438 to 384 vote are more damaging than any physical barrier that could be installed.

In approving the Traditional Plan, delegates--largely from outside the United States--voted to not only keep the current discriminatory, outdated, harmful language about LGBTQ+ people, but also supported the creation of standard, punitive measures for pastors who officiate same gender weddings and clergy who admit or are found to be "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." I can barely stand to type the words, let alone say them out loud.

In approving the Traditional Plan, delegates to General Conference propelled journalists from the New York Times, Time, NBC, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and countless other news outlets to write about our church last night. The headlines have nothing to do with who Jesus is, the grace Jesus gives, or the love he embodies. Quite the contrary, the Wall Street Journal reads, "Methodists Reject Plan to Open Door to Gay Marriage" with another headline reading, "United Methodist Church Leaders Vote Against LGBTQ Inclusion." Barriers, walls, divisions have been fortified between our church and millions of individuals outside the church who only know the church to be judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay. The barrier is fierce, and it will take consistent, focused effort from countless disciples of Jesus to tear it down by embodying a different way.

We removed the metal gates installed at our church and quickly learned what happens when the barriers are no longer present. People move in. Individuals with nowhere else to go constructed desperate measures to stay alive just outside the doors of our sanctuary. It was messy. It was heartbreaking. And it was a call to action for our 2015 trustees who knew something had to change.

The gates would not be reinstalled, but new guidelines were created along with a ministry that sought to gather with the current group of residents on our porch. Great efforts were made in an attempt to walk with people out of unemployment and into employment, out of homelessness and into housing. More people started to show up each week. New conversations were shared. Divisions within church leadership emerged over our role, expenditures, and limits. Some people left. Others came. Lessons have been learned. Beautiful friendships have been formed.

The image of the makeshift home rattles me every time. Individuals with nowhere else to go constructed measures to stay alive--on our porch--of a church. Where are others desperately trying to stay alive? How many LGBTQ+ people are trying so hard to get to the place where they hear a word of love, a word of welcome, a word of pure acceptance with no strings or barriers attached!

How many people are longing to get to the other side of the wall the religious institution first constructed in 1972--and then fortified with broken glass at the top to cut the hands, inflicting literal pain, on all who might dare to cross over through its actions yesterday afternoon.

I can only imagine who might have showed up in our sanctuaries this Sunday if the headlines read, "Methodist Church Welcomes All People," or "United Methodists Get Over Deep Divisions to Stand on the Side of Love," or "The Church Finally Stopped Arguing," or "LGBTQ+ People Have Another Church to Call Home." Can you imagine what might happen if every newsstand was filled with papers stamped with these words! These words are the good news of Jesus, the overwhelming message of his gospel, the spirit of the red letters found in scripture.

Countless colleagues have made statements over the last 14 hours about standing with LGBTQ+ people, ensuring that our churches will welcome all people. There is still a big barrier between our open arms and open doors, and the official stance of the religious institution. If we fully welcome LGBTQ+ people, then we cannot treat them as second class members of our churches, offering blessings to some members while withholding them from others.

I do not know what the future of my beloved church holds. I was baptized by my grandfather in United Methodist Church. I am a lifelong United Methodist with the exception of a hiatus in high school and college. I love our church. Our Wesleyan theology is second to none. It will not be robbed from me by people who stand for anything and everything but grace and love.

I vow to do all I can to not only welcome all people to the church where I am privileged to serve. But I also vow to do all I can to notice, name, and nurture the gifts of all people who God is calling or has called to ordained ministry. And, I will faithfully stand with and bless the marriage of any active member of my church. For me, anything less continues to construct a painful division that is not of God.

My first meeting at MVP was in May of 2005, just prior to my officially becoming their pastor. On that night, I met Mabel, our then 97-year-old chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee. A genteel woman from North Carolina, Mabel looked me straight in the eye at the end of the meeting and offered these words, "Donna, Mount Vernon Place is in the city of Washington. Washington needs Mount Vernon Place. Mount Vernon Place needs you. Don't you ever forget you have the best job in Washington."

I'm convinced more than ever today that Washington needs Mount Vernon Place. We have an incredible role to play in this city with people who have already come inside and those who might be trying to get closer to the doors before finally coming in, longtime residents of our city and hotel guests who stay across the street or down the block, folks who have seen the best of the church and especially people who only know yesterday's headlines. I vow to do all I can do embody the very best of Methodism while also working for its newest expression to emerge.

In the meantime, I pray the Spirit of the living God falls freshly upon each LGBTQ+ person, boldly reminding them of their belovedness. I am so sorry for the pain the institution has caused, the harm inflicted. I see you. I love you. I stand with you and for you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Giving In on Giving Tuesday

I finally responded to one of countless emails received today. It was an email from Duke Divinity School that got me to finally remove my credit card from my wallet. I made the contribution after talking on the phone with my favorite professor earlier today--the person who has most changed my life as a student, pastor, and disciple. The fact that his call came today is a coincidence. And yet, it still brought about much gratitude.

My wallet has been returned to my purse. The gift receipt has arrived in my email inbox. But my experience of giving isn't over.

I now find myself praying for the student(s) who will be impacted by my gift. Perhaps they will be transformed on that gothic wonderland in the same way I was. Maybe they will discover a deep love of God and Duke basketball before learning how the only group of people it's appropriate to say "go to hell" to is Carolina. They might leave more passionate about the church than when they first entered. And, prayerfully, their debt will be reduced a bit, enabling them to freely serve wherever God is calling them to serve.

It's been a powerful time of prayer.

Why don't I pray every time I write a check that is a gift? We pray a corporate prayer of blessing in worship on Sunday -- but what about me as an individual?

I don't write many checks as I choose to make transformational gifts rather than transactional gifts, giving more money to the places or institutions that mean the most to me, instead of a few dollars here and there without really thinking about it. When I write a monthly tithe check to Mount Vernon Place, I always write, "Thank you, God," on the memo line as a way to remind myself that all I have is a gift from God--I'm simply a steward of it. But I'm now going to pray for the people whose lives might be impacted by my gift.

The prayer might go something like this, depending upon the month or season.

"God, our children will gather again tomorrow. Some of them are teased all week or quick to name the bullies in their classroom. Will you help them hear of and embrace your deep love for them? Will you use this money to help our church buy solid curriculum or music that helps them grow in their faith and knowledge of you?"

"God, there is a large convention in town. I don't know who will show up tomorrow. But I know how guests to our city have been beckoned into our beautiful building before, thinking they are taking advantage of an opportunity to see stunning stained glass, only to find themselves in awe of the Spirit's movement. Please use this money to make sure the heat is on, the coffee is brewed, and the space and people are ready to welcome whoever comes in."

"God, dozens of people will show up to shower at the church this morning. Will you use this money to buy towels that convey how we believe poverty should never rob anyone of their dignity?"

"God, we are in a city where it's easy to be defined by whatever one's business card says about them. Will you use this money to strengthen our small group ministry, providing everyone with a place of belonging while also embracing their truest identity as "child of God," an identity that can never be taken away from them."

What do you pray when you give money away?

How might you ask God to take, bless, and multiply whatever you give?

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Help Us Live as Those Who Are Prepared to Die

A colleague shared her CaringBridge site a week and a half ago, and her photo drew me in. There she was, a woman who appeared to be about ten years younger than me, smiling with her four-year-old twins, another child and an adoring husband. I clicked on the link and learned she was a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota who was recovering from a routine procedure when she fainted on August 26. After being rushed to the hospital, it was discovered she had a major blockage to her heart and then a brain bleed. I've returned to her site many days this week, joining the multitude of parishioners and other people who prayed whenever their breath was no longer being held. There were two posts on Thursday. One celebrated the power of a medical team and success on a heart bypass machine. The other reported she had died at 11pm on Thursday night, a beloved child of God. 

I didn't know her. But I cannot stop thinking about her--this clearly gifted pastor and doting mother of three young children who was carrying on with life as usual only to tragically die before her twins start kindergarten. 

I wonder if she was prepared to die.

More importantly, I wonder if we--you and I--are prepared to die.

Our nation's attention was captured last weekend as two powerful lives were celebrated. Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul, one whose music made our hips sway and our souls ignite. Her funeral was over eight hours long. And while some people are still talking about some of the musical performances, most people are talking about their disappointment with the pastor's homily or the placement of another pastor's hand. It's now reported that Franklin died without a will. She made no plans for how her life could continue to live through her $80 million estate, leaving her heirs headaches and possibly heartaches.

On Saturday morning, the television cameras took us to the National Cathedral where we watched the most beautiful display of bipartisanship since Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed unanimously. Senator John McCain left a final letter which was read in advance of his service. He selected the song, "Danny Boy." He named the men who would accompany his casket. And, he called two Presidents--one Democrat and one Republican--long before he took his final breath to ask if they would honor him by speaking at his funeral. I watched the entire thing before asking God for some of Meghan McCain's prophetic courage.

Senator McCain was prepared to die while one is left to wonder if the Queen of Soul imagined she could live forever as she put off incredibly important details.

What about us?

Have you confronted the fact that death is one of the few guarantees in life with the other being taxes?

Do you have a plan for how your life can continue to live beyond your death?

Two former members of our church have powerfully demonstrated how one's life can continue to live through how they planned for their assets to be distributed. I never met one of them as she died several years before I became the pastor at Mount Vernon Place. But every December our church receives a check from her family foundation in the range of $18,000 to $22,000 depending upon the market performance. The check is accompanied by a letter from the chair of their family foundation that informs the church how a similar check will continue to come until all assets are depleted. I don't know how much this woman gave to the church when she was living, but I suspect this allocation has more than continued her tithes and offerings. The check is an extraordinary gift that makes a profound difference in our church's ministries every single year.

A man named Howard taught me the most about how one's generosity enables one to continue to live long after they die. In his last year of life, his sons worked with me to create a paid internship at MVP. Every three years, I have the joy of selecting an incoming student at Wesley Theological Seminary to serve at our church during their time in seminary. We call the student the "Howard Martin Ministry Intern." His name is in our bulletin every single week. He's now played a role in forming and shaping a handful of students who are serving the church in different ways. It was Howard's example that motivated Craig and me to make plans to create a similar scholarship at my seminary upon our deaths. I want my life to keep living--to keep making a difference--to play a role in someone's transformation--even after I die. 

(Howard is second from the left. This pic is the weekly Bible study in 2006. How things have changed!)

What about you? How will your life continue to live?

And what about your funeral? I want my seminary friend Manisha to preside at my service and my dear clergy colleague Alisa to preach. I long for people to sing "Blessed Assurance" and "Great is Thy Faithfulness" with gusto. I would love for people to feast at a table prepared for all. My service can be at whatever church I'm serving or the one where I am connected at the time. And, I'd be more than okay for my body to be interred at the natural burial sites at Holy Cross Abbey where I have retreated annually for more than 15 years. 

I don't know when the time will come. But I long to live as one who is prepared to die--by maximizing every single day, always seeking to faithfully follow God's call on my life, embodying generosity as a spiritual discipline, trying to be more patient, and allowing my light to shine--the light of Christ--wherever I am. 

What about you?

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Rediscovering the Hunger of America

I spent the summer pondering hunger. The Revised Common Lectionary assigned passages from John 6 several weeks in a row. It's a chapter that begins with Jesus transforming a young boy's five barley loaves and two fish into enough food to feed 5000 people. The chapter continues with Jesus referring to himself as the "bread of life" before promising that all who come to him will never be hungry. 

I love Jesus. I've sought to give my life to him through faithful service to the church. But I still hunger...a lot. I hunger for things whether it's the new iPad purchased yesterday or the great fall dress hanging in my closet. I hunger for success and for the voice that sometimes says "you're not good enough" to be silenced. I hunger for community and connection.

What about you? 

For what do you hunger? 

It's the very question I have asked many people this summer, both in the congregation I serve as well as one where I had the privilege of guest preaching. But preaching does not afford space for people to respond. While I have a sense of what people hunger for in my congregation, I don't know everyone's answer. And yet, I am convinced that a portion of America's hunger was uncovered this week.

Thousands of people lined up outside the Capitol building yesterday, battling sizzling heat to wait their turn to pay their respects to Senator John McCain. One person was quoted on the radio saying, "I'm an atheist but I found myself praying in the Capitol rotunda." Still others lined up today outside the Vietnam War Memorial while others waited along Wisconsin Avenue for a glimpse of the hearse carrying his flag-covered coffin. Three former Presidents and three former Vice-Presidents attended the funeral along with a few notables from Hollywood. Thousands of people traded the typical Saturday morning routine for time in front of the television, savoring every word spoken by his prophetic, truth-telling daughter, Meghan, Presidents Obama and Bush, and a dear friend from the Senate. News reporters were heard saying they have not seen anything like it since Robert Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago. 

What is it about Senator McCain's death that has touched the hearts of ordinary Americans so deeply? Why were people crying as they watched his family enter the National Cathedral or listen to the words spoken or sung?

Senator McCain's death--and more importantly, the way he lived his life--gave me a better answer to the question "What are you hungry for?" than I have had in a long time. I suspect the same might be true for you and thousands of others in our nation.

I'm hungry for people who don't see leadership as a platform that magnifies their needs and desires but rather one that might reveal how there are some things in life that are worth risking everything for.

I'm hungry for a city filled with communities and even congregations that are not separated by aisles but rather united by a deep willingness to see how we are all on the same team.

I'm longing for elected leaders to embody what President Obama described as principles that transcend politics, and values that transcend party. 

I want to live in a nation where people are quick to defend the content of one's character instead of using cheap shots formed through 140 characters on Twitter. 

I'm hungry for children in our nation to grow up with examples of leaders who understand how the power entrusted to them through an election is a sacred trust that demands honesty, humility and sacrifice.

I didn't realize how hungry I was until half past noon today as the casket was loaded into the hearse outside the Cathedral. But now that I've felt this hunger in the pit of my stomach, I'm convinced I cannot ignore it. 

I want to do everything I can to continue to help people hear and respond to a call to public service. I want to do everything I can to ensure people who understand the power of sacrifice, duty and honor run and are elected for office--whatever the office might be. I want to demand something different than the example coming from the most notable person not invited to the funeral today. And, I want to pay attention--close attention--to God's call on my own life. I've long known what an extraordinary privilege it is to serve in Washington. Today that privilege feels even more precious.

Thank you, God, for John McCain. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. And may you use this week to inspire a new generation of public servants to lead in ways that unite all who are divided, silence those who rule by fear, and help us see how we really are all on the same team. Amen. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Changing the Pace

"Are we in a hurry today?"

This very question is often posed by my husband when we are running errands on Saturday afternoon. The point of the question isn't to determine how much we can fit into one day or what the schedule holds. Quite the contrary, the question is an invitation to slow down, to not drive aggressively, to embody patience.

Patience is a virtue that doesn't come naturally to me. Unlike the men who are sauntering in this photo taken in Paris while on sabbatical five years ago, I walk at a pace that often leaves blisters on my feet rather than allowing my soles to feel the cushion beneath them. My DISC personality profile points to a person who can sometimes be experienced as a whirlwind as I seek to accomplish a certain amount of work each day. 

And then Friday comes.

And I'm faced with the choice to choose sabbath, rest and re-creation or keep going, multi-tasking, checking my email, running full speed ahead. 

Which choice do you make most often? 

Do you seek to hear the voice that beckons with an invitation to stop and trust that enough has been done for this week? Or do you feel guilty if you don't keep working, keep responding, keep producing?

Jesus extends the invitation, "Come away with me. Let us go alone to a quiet place and rest for a while." We hear the words and start to remember that keeping the sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments, on par with truth-telling and not murdering. Is reading the words enough to get you to stop? Do you have enough trust that everything will be okay without you--for just a bit?

A sidewalk artist gave a gift to our neighborhood at the start of this week. "Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience" are the words that greeted me Monday morning on a foot bridge that leads me to the gym. The invitation was there again on Tuesday and once more today since rain has not fallen this week. 

I wonder how many people have slowed down, greeted their neighbors passing by, even stopped to smell a rose or two, as a result of this artist's offering?

What if this artwork is meant to be a means of grace, a way God comes to us -- entering the ordinariness of life and making it extraordinary?

I wonder what might happen if I adopted nature's pace, sauntered a bit, refused to check my email again until Sunday and trusted that everything will, indeed, be okay?

How might God be trying to get your attention today--whatever road you travel?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Place at the Table

I got my hair cut by a new person yesterday afternoon. I arrived at the appointed time, settled into the chair, and listened to a glimpse of his story. He’s a new dad of a child born with a surrogate mom, a child who has two dads. 

I shared how I’m the pastor of a couple whose deepest prayer was answered through surrogacy. 

His mouth dropped. 

He literally stopped. 

I wasn’t sure he would continue. 

I finally said, “You, your partner and your child would be abundantly welcome at my church. I’m a pastor - but of a fully inclusive church.” 

We then had a conversation on hypocrisy and judgement as he asked why people hate his family. I’m still not sure he believed me when I said they would be welcome at MVP.

I then met my dear friend, Alisa, for coffee at Barnes and Noble. Anyone who knows Alisa knows she is a person of prayer - a woman who I have seen get down on her knees and pray on a rooftop of a restaurant. It came time for our conversation to end - but not without praying together for each other and the responsibilities we have this week and on Easter. Alisa took my hands and held them across the table. I said, “Everyone will think we are a cute, lesbian couple.” Alisa repeated my words, and a man looked upon us with horrid disdain and fierce judgement in his eyes. 

It was another wake up moment for me about how many deeply committed couples are unable to share expressions of love in public without facing hatred or judgement.
Last night, I vowed to again do all I can to build a community where all are welcome, where love is celebrated, where the church is known for what it is for instead of who it is against, where “all” truly means “all.”

Will you build this community with me?