Archive for December, 2009

December 26, 2009

The Day After Christmas

This is how your pastor feels (no matter who they are or where they work) the day after Christmas. 

Thank goodness activity around the church seems to slow down between Christmas and New Year’s. It is a good to claim these days as family time, so that everyone can get some rest and gear up for all that lies ahead.

December 24, 2009

When the Time Came

One of the parts of the Christmas story that I have clung to this season comes from Luke’s gospel. The Christmas story includes this important detail:  “When the time came” or as another translation puts it: “When the fullness of time came . . . for the child to be delivered.”

It was a profound statement about how God views time.

Our Advent theme in worship this season has been “Hurry up and Wait.” It has been a theme which has challenged us to thinking about the “hows” and the “whys” of our waiting.   It has asked us the questions: “Do I need to speed up the pace of my waiting or slow it down? And how might I need to re-posture my life so that I can receive more hope, more peace, more joy and more love?”

But now that it is the eve of Christmas Eve, what will it mean to say that Christ is here in a few short hours?

While our goal tomorrow night will be to celebrate the chosen anniversary of Christ’s birth, I believe the night is about so much more.

Christmas Eve is a night of encouragement for all our hoping. Our hoping for a better year than last . . . our hoping for healing for ourselves or a family member . . . our hoping for a new relationship . . . our hoping for peace where it has been so long gone . . . . our hoping for meaning in our lives. It is a night to remember again that “when the fullness of time comes” God’s promises for these things will be fulfilled.

The hard part about this encouraging word is the vagueness about specifics. When was the fullness of time exactly? What does it mean?

In the Greek, this type of time is called kairos which is speaks of the right or correct moment. Kairos is different from the type of time we usually associate with the moving hands on clocks. Kairos speaks of God’s sense of timing– a timing that is wrapped up in what is “beyond all comprehension or understanding.”

It is type of time where a teenage mother carries the Son of God.

It is the type of time when an elderly woman can become pregnant.

It the type of time when unknown shepherds take center stage.

It the type of time when joy springs forth from the darkness.

It’s never predictable. It’s never explainable. It just is.

So if you find yourself continuing to wait for the desires of your heart this Christmas Eve, do not grow weary. Though it can be frustrating. Actually, very frustrating! Frustrating not to know how the plans of your life will come together. Yet, my hope for you is that you’ll  find the strength to trust in the promise that “in the fullness of time” all will be made well.

This is the good news to sing about on Christmas Day.

Blessings to you and yours this weekend!

December 23, 2009

I am Because of You

Getting more into the rhythm of preaching every week has caused me to pause recently, thinking about the voices that have shaped and strengthened my preaching.

Growing up never hearing a woman preach until I was 21, I didn’t exactly start taking notes early on in life. So, most of my influences (that I can recount) have been in the past several years. Influences that I would not be the preacher I am today without.

Some of these people I know personally. Others I do not. I mention specific names because of how each individual opened doors for me for a new particular understanding that I did not possess until my path crossed with theirs. The following is the make-up of my preaching cloud of witnesses, if you will: 

From Carl- the need for a good illustration to make your points clear. Without it, you just might be wondering in the wilderness for a while.

From Turner- “Ask me the hardest sermon I ever preached and I will tell you: it was last Sunday!”

From Bruce- “Most of preaching is about presence, not even the words you say. Do you really believe what you are preaching?”

From my dad- The beauty of the pastoral phrase: “My friends”

From April- “Yes, Virginia, women can preach and do it quite well.”

From Abby-Wrestle with the text, wrestle with the text and wrestle some more and there you will find God!

From Jim- It is all about solid exegesis and the hook. Can you draw people in at the beginning? Then, you are on your way to having a good sermon.

From Jerry- There is a difference in the gift of teaching and preaching. Whatever is your strongest gift, go for it with gusto.

From Amy- The importance of a clear sermon title. It focuses you and the congregation.

From Joe- Sermon themes aren’t so bad after all. Preaching from them might actually help the congregation be more energized about what you are trying to teach them over a period of time.

From Anna- Always stay with the text. Write the text. Think the text. Trust the text to speak to you and then use your OWN words to talk about your experience with the passage, even if commentators disagree.

From Jeff- Sunday is coming always. So you best be prepared. Always be thinking ahead.

From Susan-Prooftexting in a sermon is not exactly the best way to go about things- when in doubt just preach ONE passage

From Barbara- Manuscripts aren’t a crutch; it is a thoughtful presentation of carefully chosen words.

And, as these lessons continue to stay with me, my hope is that I don’t stop learning or being shaped by new voices. While it is more difficult to do this week to week without an associate pastor (as I am doing most of the preaching), I look forward to going to more professional events in the New Year in my field. I look forward to several more opportunities the church budget is making available for us to have guest speakers (so I can benefit from them too). And, there are always opportunities to listen to good examples of preaching through the technology of podcasting.

Even with the challenges that have and continue to face me as a non-traditional clergy person and the work it takes to continually improve your craft, I am most energized by the fact that future generations of preachers (especially women) might be able to say one day: “I am because of you.”

December 22, 2009

End of the Year Photos

As the New Year inches closer, I thought I would share some of the photos recently taken around Washington Plaza.

I hope for those of you cheering us on, these glimpses into our community life will encourage you. 

We are grateful for those new people God has brought our way this year but also equally thankful for those who have been long time members. These persons are such beacons of support and mentorship to those of us who are new.

From my perspective, at least, I say, “It has been a fun year!”

This final picture is the Pastoral Relations Committee (or formerly known as the Pastor Search Committee). They agreed to stay together and walk me through this first year. They are a happy bunch who have done very well to make this transition a smooth one for me and the church.  Washington Plaza folks, be sure to thank these folks for their hard work and dedication over the past several years!

December 21, 2009

Snow, Snow and More Snow!

It is a unusal day in the Washington DC region. We got more snow than anyone ever predicted or this region had seen in many years, close to 20 inches in all.  From Friday night at 9 pm until Saturday night around midnight, it snowed and snowed and snowed so more. The Metro was even closed in some places (which rarely happens due to weather).

 There was plenty of time to sing the Christmas favorite: “Let It Snow” and then say enough already!

And in a unpresidented move, we called off church for this morning.

I have to say that my body feels out of wack a little.

When do I ever get an unplanned Sunday off?

When do we get so much free time in a weekend that is to be the busiest shopping time before Christmas?

Spending so much indoors, our family had time to do things that we never do like re-organize the pantry and not only do the laundry but fold it AND put it away.

I was able to sleep in this morning with no visions of sermons to preach in my head or the need to hurry out the door to work.

I have had many moments of “pause” this weekend to not just hurry my way through to Christmas but to just BE and enjoy the gift this time of year truly is.

While I missed celebrating the fourth Sunday of Advent and being with my dear ones at Washington Plaza, I have to say that I enjoyed the snow.

It has been a nice addition to this Advent season– some really lovely moments to wait and remember that as much as we plan and prepare (a.k.a. the sermon I wrote but didn’t preach), we just aren’t in charge of our world. There are purposes and plans beyond our comprehension.

And, though, frustration can be the name of the game during times like this– being stranded on a road or an airport, long lines at the grocery store, or it taking twice as long for us to get where we really want to go, I think it is ultimately good for us. When else would we learn such important lessons about “Being still and knowing that I AM God?”

However, with this being said, I’m really hoping that enough of the snow melts by Thursday night so that Christmas Eve services can go on as planned and Kevin and I can have opportunities to visit with family. (My two Christmas wishes!)

December 2009 will definitely be one to remember- snow, snow and more snow!

What about you DC folks? Any good snow reflections?

December 16, 2009

Just Some Spare Change

As part of our Advent Vesper’s service last Wednesday night, we collected an offering.

I know this sounds like no big deal. Isn’t that what you do every time you go to church? Well, not usually during study groups.

Considering it was the week of our Advent study where the conversation turned to peace (and the places around our world that are in need of large doses of it), I challenged everyone to play a “game” with me.

I asked everyone to take out their purses, their wallets or look in their pockets for any spare coins they might have. Though I got a few strange looks at first, everyone agreed. It was fun to see people digging through their purses and finding dollar bills they forgot they had. Then, we began passing the offering plate as I told the story of a ministry in Darfur that is working to end the cycle of violence through a very practical item: a stove.

The Darfur Stove Project is designed especially to meet the needs of those in war-torn Sudan by some committed humanitarians and scientists working together.

Here’s some info about it:

The Berkeley-Darfur Stove® is an innovative appropriate technology that requires only one quarter the amount of firewood needed to cook using traditional three-stone fires. Because of its fuel efficiency, use of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove® limits the amount of time women in Darfur need to spend outside the safety of the displaced persons camps to gather fuel for cooking. This decreases exposures to violence for Darfuri women while also limiting deforestation and the release of toxic indoor smoke. . . . Conflict in Darfur has claimed the lives of at least 300,000 people and created more than two million displaced persons within the region. Many of these displaced persons now live in large IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps throughout Darfur.

The Darfur Stove project is seeking to raise money for donations of stoves for families at the cost of $30 US per stove.

Through our “spare change” the group of about 17 raised $41: enough money for a stove plus some more.

And, I called this our act of peace for the evening.

It was an act of peace that took such little effort! I dare say it didn’t hurt anybody’s wallet either. One more family in Darfur now has a stove that will not only make their lives easier but might even save them from harm.

To me this is what the Advent season is all about. Considering in our waiting period of how our resources, our energies, or funds have gotten a little off tract. And, restarting in ways, no matter how small that make impact for the good of God’s love going forth into the world.

Looking forward to sharing in our discussion of the week of JOY tonight!

December 14, 2009

The Annual Report

This weekend, I sat down to write my annual report for the end of the year business meeting we held this afternoon. It was a huge task to try to sum up this year in a page or less.  I share the print copy here for those of you who missed the meeting– from my desk to yours.

Church Family:

This year has been an exciting time of growth and new life in Washington Plaza Baptist Church.

Among our big accomplishments: we’ve celebrated three baptisms. We’ve welcomed 17 new members—some brand new to the church and some long time attendees making their commitment to the congregation “official.” In a year of economic decline in our country, we’ve set a different tone—increasing our giving, increasing our pledging by 40% for next year, and giving cheerfully to mission efforts as they are presented to us. And, we’ve enjoyed the warm fellowship of being together along the way. Doing what WPBC folks do best: eat and talk!

Other notable moments for us have included: welcoming over 100 folks in our sanctuary for Easter, purchasing new baptismal robes (because yes we believe that more of these services are going to occur in the future), securing a new more colorful sign for the front of our building, hosting our Reston community again for special Good Friday services, celebrating a joint worship service with our Hispanic friends from Igesia Mission Cristina, celebrating three community based children’s events on the Plaza called Family Fun Night, welcoming new beautiful altar cloths for the seasons of the church year, receiving more community notoriety through the concert series in our building and the efforts of the choir to participate in community concerts too. And the list could go on. It has been a busy year!

We are church that lives on in this community to say that we are here and have much to give to our community. It is a time of renewing our vision to God’s best for this particular community of faith.

 You know that I sign all of my correspondence by saying that I am proud to be your pastor. The same is true as I reach the end of 2009 as it was when I started. I eagerly look forward to sharing the joys, sorrows and new opportunities for growth in 2010 with you!

In a sermon titled: “The State of the Church” that I will give in January, I will share more in-depth observations I have about where we are as a community and where I see us going from here. It will be a great service to mark the beginning of my second year as your pastor and a time for us to have a conversation about what this second year of our time together might mean.

However, I want to give you a preview right now, encouraging you that the reports you will hear from the Community Needs Assessment team, the Finance Committee and the Church Council are all a part, I believe of God’s vision for us in 2010. There are some exciting challenges laid before us in these recommendations but, these are challenges we can meet! I see us thriving even more as a community when we increase our focus even more on outreach and attending to some needed administrative functions within our own building.

In particular, I am excited about the possibility of being supported in my pastoral duties by the spiritual leadership of deacons in the coming years. I am excited about the continued growth of the young adult and youth representation in our church. I am excited about us all continuing to be strengthened spiritually by even more opportunities for study and spiritual formation through classes.

For these things and many more blessings that I am confident God will shower on us in the coming year, I give thanks first to God and then to you for this gift of being your pastor.

Sincerely yours!

Pastor Elizabeth

December 9, 2009

Religious Shopping Anyone?

Today is a day when I am cleaning off my desk and the papers that surround it. In doing so, I found this article from the Washington Post which a congregation member brought me several months ago. I thought its words were worth sharing here.  I am reminded yet again that there is  great purpose churches like Washington Plaza after reading this (especially as the type of person listed in this article are part of our target group of those who would find home at our church)! We are a place for spiritual seekers to come and feel welcomed as they search.

Saturday, May 2, 2009
A study of why people change religious affiliations, released this week by the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life, found that more than half of Americans have changed faiths in their lifetime. Sixteen percent of the population is not affiliated with a religion, according to the study, but many respondents said they had not found the right religion. Washington Post reporter Jacqueline L. Salmon interviewed one of the study’s researchers, John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum. Here is an edited transcript.

 Q:What does the survey say about us as a nation? That religion is now a supermarket for us: We pick one of this and one of that, and if we don’t like it, we go someplace else?

 A:Certainly, Americans believe in choice — whether it is in politics or in goods and services or in religion. People look for the religious organization that serves their needs. Now, some of that change is no doubt because of life cycle changes: The spiritual needs of an 18-year-old are very different from the needs of a 60-year-old. But some of these choices may reflect the fact that it also could be because religious organizations are sometimes ineffective at meeting people’s spiritual needs. Our findings do suggest that the more successful religious organizations — those that maintain their numbers and recruit new members — are those that are especially attentive to their members’ needs.

 A lot of people react negatively to this market model because people think of religion as being about eternal truths and about ultimate values. But the image of a marketplace is very useful in understanding American religion. When people make such religious choices, they may not be making them for light or trivial reasons. They’re really seeking fulfilling spiritual lives, and they have a lot of options in America to look for that kind of fulfillment.

 What are the messages in these study results for religious leaders?

 One is that there are a lot of options for their members. People can pick up and leave pretty easily. That puts some extra pressure on leaders to make sure that their organizations are meeting the needs of their members — that they are attuned to changes, that they understand that leaving is an option.

 For people who are trying to run institutions, this produces a real challenge. Their congregations or denominations are always going to have a high degree of flux. There is always a lot of instability. But, on the flip side, it also suggests there is a lot of opportunity. Even among the unaffiliated, there are people who have spiritual needs and who are open to outreach if the organization can figure out how to do that and how to do that effectively.

 From the point of view of religious leaders, you have good news, bad news. The good news is that a lot of people are not giving up on religion. The bad news is, there is a lot of things about religion they don’t like. They’ll leave, but they could be brought back to faith if they found the right organization.

Among the unaffiliated, two-thirds have changed faith at least twice in their lives. Those are real supermarket shoppers.

The unaffiliated are a good example of religious choice. Most have left their childhood faith. A significant percentage of the unaffiliated were not hostile to religious belief. In fact, they told us they just haven’t found the right religious organization. They might try out the Baptists for a while and may not like it and may try the Pentecostals for a while and then they try another group. People in the unaffiliated category were particularly given to multiple movements. We use that analogy of the marketplace. These are serial shoppers, and they just keep going. Perhaps at some point, they will find an affiliation that really works for them.

 So it belies the idea that these unaffiliated are secular atheists.

 Exactly. The unaffiliated category is large, and it is growing, and it is very important for social and political reasons. But that group is not monolithic, and it has within it a variety of different kinds people in it. The secular atheists are one group — an important group — but not everybody who is unaffiliated fits that category at all.

December 7, 2009

The Mood

I can usually tell how worship is going to go from the first couple of minutes I go downstairs and observe what is happening in the foyer each Sunday morning.

It is what I qualify as the mood.

It is that intangible thing in the air that tells me where people are in their presence at church on a particular morning: whether or not they hurriedly came, whether or not they have heavy burdens on their shoulders, whether or not they got into a fight with someone in the kitchen before the service started, or whether or not they couldn’t think of anything better to do with their Sunday morning than to be at church.

And, though, I can try to do everything I can to alter the mood when the worship service begins, being extra energetic, whispering a quiet prayer for help, etc.  the mood marches to a beat of its own drum.  

If the mood is celebratory and lighthearted, jokes that I don’t think are funny make everyone roll on the floor with laughter.

If the mood is sad, I look out on the congregation and see glazed over eyes no matter what anyone says.

If the mood is fueled by the distraction of snow, too much to eat over the weekend or even latecomers walking in, I almost rather close down shop and say “let’s try again next week” because it feels like the hard work of those who have prepared for worship is wasted.

If the mood is exciting, I wish there was a way to capture it in a bottle and save it for Sunday of a holiday weekend or one when the weather is too hot or cold.

“Mood” is something I never learned about in seminary, but am coming to realize that it is singlehandedly the one aspect that controls how Sunday mornings go. I wish I could understand it. I wish I had superpowers to change it (especially mid-way through the sermon some weeks). I wish I could control it.

But, alas, “mood” has a mind of its own. It just is what it is.

Maybe this is why the writer of Ecclesiastes writes: “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future” (7:14).

Yet, with this being said, I want to do everything I can as a worship leader and as a pastor to make everyone’s experience of worship meaningful each week.

For this reason, I look forward to days when baptisms are performed (you can’t help but smile during one of these).

I look forward to Easter every year– it is a joyous day and the larger crowds of church goers always help things too!

I look forward to our congregation growing spiritually and numerically so that distractions of who is there and who isn’t don’t seem to cause such shifts in mood.

In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for a way to bottle the mood of those high and holy days and keep my head up on those days when I’m ready to hit the “do-over button” by 11:30.

Who said being church wasn’t an adventure?

December 2, 2009

Making Room for Advent

Tonight, we begin a new series of spiritual formation at Washington Plaza. We’ll be gathering at 7 pm for an Advent Vesper’s service to have a time of prayer, quiet mediation and discussion about how we can live more fully into the Advent way of life. The book, The Uncluttered Heart will be our guide.

I love how the book by Beth A. Richardson from Upper Room publishing frames its work around the readings for year C lectionary. I am excited about how it is going to be such a great tool for connecting small group discussion to our Sunday morning worship time.

This was the quote I especially liked from Monday’s reading for this week. It is by Heather Murray Elkins: ” A willingness to hope is a willingness to enter the wilderness. Hope is not a domesticated state of mind. It seems to camp out in odd places, crops up at the worst possible times. Just as we resign ourselves to the minimum wages of life with no benefits, hope whispers that we shouldn’t settle for despair’s bottom line. Hope thrives in the barren places of our lives.”

If you are in Reston, I hope you will join us Wednesday nights this December for this great opportunity for practicing Advent. Maybe together we can learn to HOPE anew!

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