Archive for June, 2011

June 24, 2011

The Conversation No One Wants to Keep Having

Today, the Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM) came out with its annual report on the state of women in Baptist life at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meeting in Tampa.

In it, they reported that there have been some positive changes of women accepted into Baptist pastorates in the last year, yet the numbers are still staggering. While Baptist churches are willing to call women to second chair positions (not that there is anything wrong with associate positions as long as the woman is called to this job), few are still willing to accept women into solo pastorates or even co-pastor positions.

The recent study found that in 2010, there are only 135 women across the country who are leading Baptist churches. I feel blessed to be one of them and upset that it has to be such a big deal. There are so many sisters of mine who are willing, able and ready to be in positions like mine.

I’m not one who is normally on the “women in ministry train” because my thoughts are that when women work hard and just do a really good job at what they are called to do, the right doors will open themselves in due time. Our preaching and leadership abilities will speak for themselves. And, talking about the difficulty  just makes “us” seem bitter, and no one is served well by this.

But hearing this report today reminded me again, that the conversation of women in ministry is one that needs to continue to occur. There is much progress still to be made and many churches who have the power to make greater strides in letting there be no distance between what they believe and what they do. 

I look forward to the day when no young woman feels any discouragement toward entering ministry based solely on her gender.

I look forward to the day when young female seminarians aren’t told the only way they can be pastors is to “start their own churches.”

I look forward to the day when women in pastorates don’t serve churches in fear– believing that if this doesn’t work out, no other church will ever consider them– for there aren’t second chances for them.

I look forward to the day when organizations like BWIM don’t have to write annual reports about how amazing it is that a couple of more women got pastorates in the past year.

Though it is the ridiculous conversation that I can’t believe we are still having within the Baptist family of faith, I believe it is one that we MUST keep having if we want to be open to the voice of God in our pulpits– not just the male voice but the female voice of God too. This collective voice is what our ongoing becoming needs if it desires to speak a prophetic word to the faith seekers of today and tomorrow.

June 20, 2011

A Small Church

Recently while attending the Lewis Fellows Reunion at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, I heard much conversation about the growth of ‘small  churches’ (those categorized as under 150 active members/ attendees) in the mainline tradition. (Shocking, I know!) The theory being that as our society continues to grows to be more and more impersonal and social networked focused, there will be more and more people seeking to attend a congregation where they can be known and loved, rather than a number in a multi-service mega church setting. ” The ‘small church’ that intentionally practices community, is serious in theological reflection with scripture and regularly participates in and encourages missions and justice work is meeting great needs,” says those marking trends.

I never really attended a small church before I became a pastor. The church where I spent most of my childhood had an average attendance of over 200. In college I attended a larger congregation that worshipped around 400 in two services and I previously served a congregation as an associate pastor that had three full-time pastoral staff persons and over 300 in worship regularly.

And, then I came to Washington Plaza– what many would call a small congregation, and it has been an adjustment. My first shock upon arriving here was something as simple as finding no stamp machine to put my letters in that I wanted to mail. Small thing of course, I don’t mind getting my own stamps, but a reminder that pastors in small churches have an endless job description that pastors in multi-staff settings would never experience. The small church: it’s a generalist’s dream.

There are days that I miss the opportunities for greater reach of services in the community that came in the form of budget line items, I miss the interaction with a larger staff– being alone in the office is not always that fun, and most of all I miss having colleagues to depend on to share the load of ministry with so that you never quite feel alone.

But, the longer I am in a “small church” the more I see its great gifts. You can certainly “do” church with a lot less hype and money than you think you can. 

Small churches may not have a specialized program or class to meet every need of the congregation, but they do have access to people through real conversations who can often point you to resources that can be helpful.

Small churches may not have the ability to support all of the good works in the community that they feel called to encourage, but they do have the life-changing encounters to partner through friendship with other organizations and churches to do some extraordinary things that big churches can’t handle.

Small churches may not have a program budget in the millions, but they are places where you know your giving (however great or small of an amount) matters a great deal to everything the church seeks to do. Stewardship is something everyone must learn.

Small churches may not have the financial resources to hire the number of staff they would like to strive for excellence in discipleship, but they do have the chance to encourage young leaders or those who feel passionate about vocational endeavors in other settings.

Washington Plaza, and other churches of a similar size, are dangerous get involved in if you aren’t ready. If you join one, you must be ready to have folks know your name, ready to have a mirror reflected back at your face and loved all the same, and ready to truly understand your brothers and sisters in Christ as real members of your family; for this is what the congregation becomes for you. For some this may sound too much like their own family or like an impossible dream of utopia, but truly such is the gift of a small church. You engage who you worship alongside, you have a relationship your pastor, and you get to openly share your ideas and energy in the church’s becoming.  It can’t move without everyone doing their part.

So, just because a church is “small” don’t assume it is dying. It’s a form of specialized ministry that is the wave of the future!

I’m excited that those who study patterns of church growth are growing to be more excited about the possibilities for the mainline small church. I know we are up to something good here and I’m eager to see who finds their way to join us in our continued growing-up, small church style.

June 19, 2011

What God Thinks of You

What Does God Think of You? Genesis 1:26-2:4

Trinity Sunday 2011

If there is one story that is repeated over and over in our lives both by us and those closest to us, it is the tale of our birth. Begin any conversation with a new acquaintance about their upbringing, and usually it will begin with the statement, “I was born in . . . “ (I would invite you to take a minute and share with someone seated next to you know, your answer to this question).

My maternal grandfather, a life-long southerner and resident of Kentucky, regularly recounted to my cousins and I the story of how he came to be as a northerner—an unusual fact for his 1930s upbringing.

His pregnant mother accompanied by his father was aboard a train heading home from visiting friends in New York when she began to get contractions while the train was rolling through in Pennsylvania. The contractions got worse and worse near Altoona, PA.  The parents to be got off as quickly as they could and minutes later, George Ellis Duncan came to the world.  And in a couple of hours, they were back on the train so that the rest of his first day of life could be spent in his home state. It was epic entrance at best, especially the way my tall tale storytelling granddad lined up all the details that marked his birth as an occasion of great triumphant.

There’s something about birth stories, whatever they may be that define us that hold an exalted place in our lives (in most cases) when everything was good.

One of my favorite movies that I watch every time I need a good cry when it’s playing repetitively on cable is the Julia Roberts/ Susan Sarandon 1998 film, Stepmom. If you haven’t seen it the basic premise is that divorced mother of two, Jackie Harrison finds out that she has cancer about the time that her ex-husband, Luke has proposed to Isabel, played by Julia Roberts. The family deals with the tension of the illness, the changing family dynamics and the ups and downs of raising young children.  

As you might imagine with the idea of death on the mind of Jackie, she savours much of the conversation time she can gather with her kids, Anna and Ben. Especially, with Ben, he frequently asks Jackie, “Can you tell me again about the time when I was born?” Ben, as a curious seven-year old, want-to-be magician, loves to hear the story of his arrival into the world. He adores hearing how he looked like a little magician as soon as the blanket was wrapped around his newborn skin—the blanket became like a cape!   And, then, Ben wants his mom to go on to tell him, what the nurses and the doctor who attended to his birth, and all the visitors said about him as they looked into his deep brown eyes:  he was the most spectacular, handsome baby they’d ever had in the hospital.  He was strikingly made in the image of his parents with the world of amazing possibilities ahead of him!

Though Ben was not old enough to articulate why he loved hearing his birth story so frequently, I can imagine later that he would say that upon hearing it, he gained confidence not only in knowing how beautifully he was received into the world in which he came, but that he had a relationship with one of the two persons who welcomed his creation into being. And, it was a moment when all was right with the world—no pain, no hurt, no sorrow.

In our Old Testament lesson for today, taken from the Torah, one of the five most sacred books in the Jewish faith, we find a birth story—a creation tale that has been exalted too, a tale that speaks of the relationship between a Creator and the created. God, Creator, seeking to tell us something about our human birth story.  . . .

Though countless teachers and scholars—maybe even some that you have had have sought to make this story about science—proving or not proving some theory of creationism or evolution, the long day or short day theory, I beg us to take a different route to understanding this text this week. Considering Genesis 1 and 2 as a love story, as a birth story given to us by our Parent for us gathered around this community table asking again our heavenly Father, “Tell me about when I was born.”  

And in doing so, answering that burning question as we dive into it a bit more this morning in the back of many of our minds, “What does God think about me? What does God think about us?”

As many of you know, there was a group from Washington Plaza Baptist who had the opportunity to share the good news about our loving and welcoming congregation last Sunday afternoon at the Capital Pride street festival. Some of your might have already heard about some of the remarks we received while passing out info and stickers about our church at the booth, but for the sake of all of us, I’ll share it again:

On numerous occasions, I observed gasps as people walked by our sign that included the word “Baptist” and “accepting” in the same sentence. 

“I had no idea that churches loved people like me,” one woman whispered across our table. 

While another said, “I attended a Baptist college for four years. That was enough church for me. I’m through with you people.”

Such comments were a good reminder to me as to why the presence of the church, a representative of the Divine, has gotten such negative ideas into the heads of many of what God thinks of us.  Damage has been done both in the larger secular landscape, no matter if you a part of the gay community or not, when we as worshippers of God have painted a picture of an angry God, who lords over those of us who make bad choices, more often than not.

We have created structures for telling faith story that involve things such as “Thou shall not or thou shall get out” or “God only rewards those who always cross their t’s and dot their I’s.” Somehow grace has gotten completely out of the picture.

But when we go back to Genesis and consider again why this text was written in the first place, what we discover is that the confusion of identity—who is God and how does God really feel about humanity—is nothing new under the sun. For in the time of the Genesis author, while his culture highly influenced by Babylon saw God as bloody, violent and utterly against humanity, there was another tale to be told: a good one that did not begin with specific conditions of behavior.

For in fact, scholars think that “Genesis one was written as a statement of faith in the midst of horrific times, NOT as an answer to the question of how God created the world. The time was either exilic or immediate post-exilic period. Jerusalem, the temple, and the major cities in Israel had been attacked by Babylon and its leaders had been taken off into exile.”[i]

It was the time when the children of Israel needed to know some things for sure. They needed to know what God thought of them. Did God look upon them with any joy, any pride, or any protection when everything they had trusted around had long fallen away?

Or, as Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor describes the story, it’s a “counter cultural protest of the people of Israel against the creation story of their Babylonian captors. While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story, a story rooted in goodness and blessing.”[ii]

Rather then, believing that the world was formed in disorder and humanity was nothing special, we read in verse 26 of our text that the crowning moment came when God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  That in the beginning, God thought of us, as part of God’s very own self, different from the rest of creation, we were given an image of the divine light!

Today is Father’s Day and on an occasion like this, when we remember, give thanks for or even bemoan a little  the person who gave us half of our DNA, it is easy to channel these personal experiences of our own lives and think that this is all there is: that our story is isolated and is based solely on the luck of the draw as to what kind of Father and how long he was with us on earth. We think of our story of coming to being only in terms of our biological families or those who have chosen to raise us.

It has been said in countless circles that if you want to know what a person thinks of God, then ask them about their father. Was he kind? Was he loving? Is he hateful? Is he rude? Is he forgiving? Was he actively involved in his children’s lives? And, with the answers to these questions, you paint a picture of what a person believes God thinks about him or her.

“My daughter: why did you get a C on that paper? If you had just studied harder, you would have gotten an A. I always thought of you as the smarter child: just do better.”

“My son: why in the world did you marry her? You could have done so much better? I always knew you’d be the one to make bad choices.”

“You need to lose 50 pounds if you ever think you are going to get a date! Why don’t you think about growing out your hair.”  “You’d be prettier if you did.”

Yet, with all of this true in our experiences somehow, how much more do you and I need the message of hope from Genesis 1.That there is a larger story of our own versions of “in the beginning” and there is a heavenly Parent whose looks at us and says with great pride and joy, “It is good. It is very good” and continues to tell us this without end.  To go back to this place of the beginning helps us remember the original intentions of God for human life before the poor choices humanity made, kept us from being able to see this truth clearly.

Such a journey of truly believing what God thinks us of us is a tough one to take: for it is a lot easier to receive all of the natural, negative messages that bombard us every day in our culture (no matter who tells them to us): that we are too tall, too fat, too thin, too old, too young, too flamboyant, too smart and the list could go on. 

Yet, if we are going to claim our identity as children of God, then, we are going to have to commit to surrounding ourselves with voices that remind us of what God thinks of us: beloved, yes, beloved no matter what happens our life through.  And, such voices, I pray can come from this community for each of you—a place you can come each week to hear the good news of this God and to be received in loving fellowship by your brothers and sisters in Christ.

But, as we do, I hope that we do not fall to the temptation that we are the best thing since fried chicken either. For just as we are created in the image of God, so is everyone else around us too.

Popular author, Marianne Williamson writes about how we understand our own belovedness in the context of the rest of creation this when she writes: “We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. . . .”

If you’ve ever walked the streets of Las Vegas as I did several months ago with a group of my pastor friends from seminary (strange, yes, I know), you know that the diversity of creation certainly doesn’t hold itself back in Vegas. There you find people of all kinds and I really mean people of all kinds. It can be mesmerizing especially if you people watch.  While on our way to dinner, one of my colleagues leaned over to me and said, “Have you ever stopped to think that all of these people are made in the image of God?” And, I was caught dead in my tracks. Of course she was right but it was completely shocking in a setting like Vegas to think about this. But, so true: all of these people were made in the image of God. And, wow, our God must be pretty amazing!

So, today, people of faith gathered here as beloved children of God at Washington Plaza do you know what God thinks of you? Do you know how amazing our God truly is? Do you know that you were born to manifest the glory of God? Do you know that there is nothing you can do to change the fact that you were created, named and cherished as good, very good? Do you know that by believing truth about yourself it gives others permission to believe the same about themselves?

So, this morning, let us exalt the name together of a God who thinks of us and does nothing but smiles. Yes, smiles when the birth story is told time and time again to the heavenly choirs. So no matter what this day hold for you and whatever type of relationship you have with the parents who birthed you, know that you are cherished by a parent who is longing to tell you over and over again, “In the beginning, I created you in my image.”





[i] Beth Tanner “Genesis 1:1-5: Commentary on First Reading” January 11, 2009

[ii] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “June 19, 2011: Trinity Sunday”


June 14, 2011

No Distance

“Let there be no distance between who you are and what you do.”

Such was a quotation from some of my sermon prep reading that I stirred by in writing my Pentecost sermon this year. I began to think a lot about the local church where I serve and how we fare in the mix of this and found the end of my sermon going in this direction. I asked the question of how are we as a congregation living up to the fresh wind of the Pentecost spirit? 

 A visitor remarked to me after the service, “I liked how you worked in your administrative goals into the sermon.” Though I was taken back by this at first, I later saw this as a complement. The thing about Pentecost is that it’s all about the church– who the church is, what it exists to do, and how a local community of faith can be in touch with the larger movement of God’s Spirit in the world. So, yes, what a perfect day to lead through preaching about what I most hope for Washington Plaza: no distance between who we are and what we do.

Here’s a portion of my sermon from Sunday:

If many of you were asked to describe this church, as I am often, in one word, the word most of us would choose is: welcoming. Am I right? We believe the Christian message has invited us to be welcoming to all, especially those for whom the average (in my opinion boring) church is not for—those who have been hurt by the church, those who believe the church isn’t for them because of something that has happened in their past, and others who are fed up with the fake and impersonal relations they have at other faith communities.

We are a community that prides itself in being welcome to those who are on different points of their spiritual journey.

We are a community that prides itself in offering some greatest home cooked food every Sunday to those who wonder downstairs for lunch.

We are a community who has no problem supporting issues that might be controversial to some including being very upfront about the fall that the gay and lesbian community is fully welcome here.

But, with all of this true, is there any difference between who we are and what we do?

Think about this—if our mission as a congregation is to be the welcome of Christ to those in whom have rarely if ever experienced it before—does EVERYTHING we do show that this is our intention? Would the average person passing by on the street get this message from walking by or being in our midst on Sunday?

Would the handicap person be able to get in our building or even know how to get in if they arrived in a wheel chair?

Would someone who typed the church’s address in their GPS be able to find us?

Would someone who walked by the building during the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings know that this building is a place of worship and feel invited to come in based on what is our sign?

Would someone who walked in this sanctuary for the first time clearly hear the message that “God loves them and we do too?”

Would someone whose primary language was not English understand what was going on here and feel the welcome of Holy Spirit if they didn’t catch every word?

I can imagine like me, the answers you thought of in your head to these questions showed growth areas for our community. Because what we might realize is that our actions show: “All those who are able are welcome” instead of “All are welcome.”

The Pentecost message asks us as disciples of Christ to stop just standing around ALL the time—thinking that God’s grace is going to cover us no matter what we do—that indeed we have to be a part of the something the Spirit wants to be up to in our midst. For, our formation together as a Christ followers is not just something we do when a better offer doesn’t come up for Sunday brunch, or when we like the music that we’re singing in choir, or even when we just feel like it. Hear me say loud and clear today: being a Christian is not something we can set out to do with half way commitment. It requires all of who we are it is going to mean something to us and mean something to those around us who are eager to hear some good news.

It’s really serious and important work that we are attempting here together, my friends:  raising up more and more “Peters” among us every year in our gatherings to lead us, getting the message of God’s love out to more and more people through community events like Pride this afternoon, doing the work of interpreting the Holy Scriptures together on Sunday mornings. For, in all of these things, we are ushering in the Spirit’s power to change lives. We are being the church.

So as we as a church become more focused in the weeks ahead about how we can be welcoming to all (attend the Tuesday night discussion and dinner group next Tuesday if you want to discuss more about today’s sermon), let us remember that the gospel’s counter call always includes the fact Jesus says to us, “Don’t just stand there; do something.”

The Spirit of God—promised to each of us by Christ himself—is with us and will instruct us in all things as we go. So, let’s get to it, church. Let’s do something.

June 13, 2011

Pride Week: Baptist Preacher Style

The way I see my job– its role is often to take the mission of the church into places where it might not otherwise go especially when it comes to hanging out with folks who have few (if any) positive experiences with a church or a pastor. It’s an area of ministry that I find myself doing more of than I would have ever imagined six years ago when I graduated seminary but I love it!

This past week, being Pride week in DC, I had two opportunities to do just this. Pride week, for those of you who might not be familiar, it’s a week of celebration. It’s a great opportunity to rally, gather affirmation and to bless a group of people who have often been bullied, alienated and not given the respect they deserve for their contributions to our society.

Even more so, in a faith context, when so many literal interpretations of scripture have been taken out of context to encourage a message of hate or even worse the standard, “hate the sin, love the sinner” motto toward our LGBT brothers and sisters, there’s so much peace work to be done by churches. It’s a wonderful outreach opportunity to say that not all churches are what you think!

So, when I was asked by Kharma Amos, the pastor of MCC Northern VA to speak a word about progress made in the Baptist church toward the LGBT community at the Northern VA Interfaith Pride service on Wednesday night, I was glad to attend. Such would be a new experience for me, and I wondered if a Baptist pastor had ever been asked to be on the program before?

Though the style of prayer and worship was a bit different to what I am accustomed and I was astonished to find that I was the only clergy who was willing to say the name “Jesus,” (really what is so bad about Jesus, I wondered? He’s the most inclusive loving guy I know), I enjoyed making new friends in the gathering. It was wonderful to be warmly received.

When time came for me to give my remarks about what Baptists are doing in the area of equality for the LGBT community, I could simply talk about my own experience. I told about how an internship at an open and affirming Baptist church helped guide me to seminary many years ago. I told of how some Baptists have been united in the welcoming and affirming movement for years, especially those found within the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists to which Washington Plaza is a supporting congregation. I talked about how having an “all are welcome” stance has been such a blessing to our local church both for the gay and straight members– for it is good to simply be together and realize we have more in common than we might first think. Being gay is just a non-issue.

The shock of all shocks were the looks of disbelief I got from the crowd when I talked about a church open to gay members in Reston, Virginia of all places! It was as if I was speaking about something that folks never thought possible and my good news was that it had already happened. One woman was crying.

After the service, countless folks came up to me and wanted to share stories about “when they used to be Baptist” or “when the Southern Baptists went crazy” and in receiving all of these words of encouragement, I looked at our music director also attending gathering and said to him, “You’ve been right all this time. There’s so many people out there who have no idea that we exist and are elated to know!”  I ran out of business cards because I was passing out so many!

The same sentiment was true when a group from Washington Plaza hosted a booth at the Capitol Pride street festival on Sunday downtown DC. Though our booth somehow got mixed into the “children’s area” away from the main traffic of Pennsylvania Ave. we met with a steady group of participants as we gave them our sticker: “Whosoever Means You” with our church name and website. There were several folks with the same blank stares on their faces as they saw the word, “Baptist and Accepting” in the same sign. Such began some interesting conversations for sure.

I’m so proud to be a part of a congregation which isn’t afraid to say that you can be Christian and gay at the same time, saying the good news of Jesus is not exclusive. I’m proud to be the pastor of a Baptist church whose desire is to learn how to welcome any who find us and those who don’t know they need us quite yet.

I look forward to the day when churches like WPBC, are not unusual, but the norm.

June 10, 2011

Too Much

My world is the fast paced, traffic filled, takes you 45 minutes (if you are lucky) to get on the other side of town environment of DC. It’s a world of people who are savvy and excited about enjoying life. It’s a world of independent, overachievers who want to make a difference in something that they believe in. It’s a world where at every point you turn around you’ll find a room full of overcommitment people multitasking. (Seen anyone at dinner with a cell phone in hand lately?)

The energy that surrounds my city is contagious.  Not only is DC a populated urban area, but politics is a part of life in everything that happens around town. It draws you in quickly and invites you to join its own rhythm as it did for me the first time six years ago in the summer of 2005.  Living in a city and region such as this is truly exciting, no matter what party is in office! There’s always such fun things to do. There’s always such fun folks coming through town. It’s a great place to live . . . don’t get me wrong.

Yet, with all of this being the case, I’ve been pondering lately how the lifestyle of “every weekend booked weeks in advance” “working every night until 8” and “a day off, what is that?” is simply too much.

This spring I’ve had the opportunity to travel more than normal– both for professional events and vacation– each of these trips which just happened to be in peaceful places: Sedona, AZ, in the mountains of Ashville, NC and then recently to Harper’s Ferry, WV. Being in a place where you can hear the birds and see the rich colors of the trees and stare up at the brightest blue sky, has slowed me down to the point of being reminded that DC culture of let’s out achieve everyone else is just not normal. And, it might be too much.

From the pastoral lens that I see life through, I know that God has called each of us to life that is abundant. Not abundant in the sense of getting everything we want like some tv preachers are frequently speaking about, but having a life that is rich in relationships, rich in quiet time, rich in jubilation, rich in contributions, and rich in time to process life’s harder moments. But, finding balance in all of this and being in an emotional and spiritual place to receive it, takes having “time out” days that grow into “time out” lifestyles. For simply learning part of what it means to be human is realizing our limitations.

Limitations is not something that the idealistic crowd and the churches that pastor such folks often want to hear, but it is true. Unless you or I woke up this morning and found out that our name was God, the truth is that we can’t do everything our heart desires even if the desires are seemingly good. 

So many folks in this town take to heart the words of Gandhi who said, “Be the change that you want to see” thinking that this means we have to be EVERY change we want to see and then proceed to tire ourselves out with more than we can really do that well anyway. Yet, does it have to be like this?

Based on our life situations and personalities, all of us have a pace that is comfortable for us, even if our employer, family or friends seek to run faster, longer and harder than we ever could.  A focused life of simplicity is a courageous choice and comes as we are ok in running our race differently. Are we able to seek out our own abundance even as others might look at us at committed, lazy or unavailable?

Because in the end, we might just realize that in answering invitations to go and do by saying, “No, it’s just too much for my week” we find the freedom to actually enjoy the life we are currently living.

June 7, 2011

Building Stronger Communities Interfaith Style

On Sunday afternoon, the folks of Washington Plaza Baptist Church, Oakbrook Church (an evangelical non-denominational community), Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation and the Adams Center (All Dulles Area Muslim Society), began a conversation about “Who is my neighbor?”

Such a conversation, though new endeavor, was a part of an ongoing discussion that the clergy of all four of these communities had been shared for almost two years now. What took place on Sunday was a dream come to fruition.

It began with Imam Magid and Rabbi Nosanchuk having a idea– an idea of a Jewish clergy and a Muslim clergy, who were very dear friends traveling together to the Holy Land as a symbol of peace and reconciliation for a region with much division. And as the conversation continued, these two good friends realized that it might also be nice to invite Christians to come as well.

Soon John Moyle, the pastor of Oakbrook and I were in too and began meeting regularly with the Rabbi and the Imam. Countless coffee dates and conference calls were shared between us. Our collective vision became a trip to Israel together, united as children of Issac and Ishmael saying through friendship peace is possible.

The time of our journey together came and went in January. (If you want to read more about it, click here). It was a wonderful adventure of travel and relationship building that was sad to see end.

Yet, the intention of our trip was just the beginning. We knew if the Israel adventure was just four clergy taking a trip, the impact, though meaningful to us, but small reaching. We knew the God we all worshiped was up to something greater. Soon plans were in the works for a gathering that would re-unite us, not just as a clergy but as congregations. June 5th would be our date to work toward.

How happy we were, as Washington Plaza folks, to be invited last Sunday afternoon by the warm welcome of the members of Oakbrook Church to their facility. As the program began, it was soon apparent that this gathering was more than about a group of four clergy going to the Middle East. Rather, it was about a deep desire of four particular congregations to find a way to build a stronger community together over the long haul.

Thinking of one another first as friends, rather than that faith with the “strange” practices.

Thinking of one another as allies, rather than a part of a group that doesn’t love America as much as the other.

And most of all realizing that stronger communities are built when parents and grandparents model for their children patterns of loving their neighbor even when their neighbor covers her head, eats kosher, or likes to worship God with a band instead of with a hymnbook.  We could find ways to love each other well.

Part of the program included a response activity at the conclusion (it was from the walking the aisle tradition of the Baptists, of course). Participants were asked to join a dinner or dessert group with people of a faith different from them, join in a summer book club discussion or suggest ways they saw all of us meeting together again. So, in a way, our desire to foster education, understanding and peace has only just begun in Reston. I’m excited to see what is next and I’m so proud of the willingness of my church peeps to being a long for all that awaits us.  

And, of course there was food. When all else fails, it’s good to at least learn to eat together. As you can tell from the food spread, mission accomplished!

June 6, 2011

What Are You Doing? Just Stand There!

Ascension Sunday 2011: Acts 1:6-14

What Are You Doing? Just Stand There!

Ascension Sunday has been called the most popular liturgical holiday that nobody knows what it means.  And we are Baptists after all. Isn’t it a Catholic thing? Why should we care?  

For me, it’s a question I seem to try to answer for the staff every year when we’re in the process of putting together the bulletin for this particular Sunday. It’s a question I often get asked of you by your wandering eyes (like just happened a few moments ago at the beginning of the service) when I announce that it is Ascension Sunday and you look at me like I’m crazy. And, it’s a question I often scratch my head and ask myself too. And, honestly answering that I just don’t have a clue—really.

But, yet, because I’m a pastor and it is my job to say something, usually my answers go something like this: It’s a liturgical holiday that is normally celebrated 40 days after Easter. Such is the time period Jesus was said to have re-appeared on earth after his resurrection—which actually occurs on a Thursday (i.e. three days ago). Yet, many churches wait until the Sunday after to celebrate.

The Ascension celebrations exist as a remembrance of Jesus’ departure from earth and going back to heaven. It’s the time when Jesus says his last famous words that every evangelistic loving Baptist youth in the south is seemingly forced to memorize, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  Furthermore, it’s the story that is found both at the end and the beginning of Luke’s two part volume of tales about Jesus’ life, in the gospel of Luke AND in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s a feast day for many churches that was begun with the tradition of St. Augustine himself back in the 5th century. For it is when many churches are reminded why they say the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed on a regular basis—for the phrase about the ascension “he sits at the right hand of the Father” is a key point in found in the theology therein.


But, yet with all of this true as we seek as a people of God in this place to be connected to the larger ecumenical community of faith AND the unending song of the faithful throughout the centuries, we still may not really understand it or find the personal connection.  In fact, our Pastor Intern, John Luft and I were having lunch this week and if you’ve gotten to know John at all over the course of his time with us—you know one thing about him—he loves his formal liturgy and formal church traditions (including the outfits)—yet I was shocked to even hear him say, “I just don’t really like the Ascension.” What??

Because the Ascension after all just seems like a mystic event of another divine light show, much like the transfiguration (the other liturgical Sunday that is often misunderstood). For as the tale goes, we find Jesus teaching and talking to his disciples and all of a sudden as verse nine of our text tells us, “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud him from their sight.” And, as Pastor Danielle Shroyer writes of this event, “there are just some stories in scripture that veer into the ‘fringe’ territory; unknown supernatural stuff we don’t have names for except to say that they are strange, and we don’t know what to make of them. Welcome to the Ascension, where that kind of thing happens.”[i]

But, maybe the “strangeness” of this encounter is exactly the point. Maybe, if we stick with this day just a little bit longer we might see. . .

Imagine the whip-lash for it was for the disciples during this series of emotionally disruptive events. First, there was the crucifixion—the horrible death of their beloved teacher which they didn’t expect. Then, three days later, there was the resurrection—the surprise of Jesus’ return which they again did not expect. Then, there were the various post resurrection day appearances—in the upper room, along the sea-side among many others. As soon as the disciples thought they understood what Jesus was up to It that he was back with them (even if he kept disappearing every now and then), Jesus was gone again.

There would be no figuring out or logically reasoning this series of events. And even though, yes, the events of the resurrection had meant that salvation had come into the hands of the people—that God’s work was finished and now the possibility of new life was for all, this new twist at this moment in the ongoing story was a huge game changer.

The relationship dynamic between God and all human kind would always include a reminder of Jesus as Lord or another way of saying, “I’m God, the one in charge, I lead in this world not you.”  For as much as being a follower in the way of Christ would mean action and doing and learning and going, it would also mean a whole lot about surrender and the word that most of us have despised: waiting.

Look with me at verse 10 of our text as it speaks of the posture of the disciples after Jesus has left the earth: “Suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them, ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go to heaven. “ And, the story goes on, “They they returned to Jerusalem . . . they all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women.”

So this is what the disciples knew: 1) Jesus was gone 2) he would come again 3) they needed to do something in the meantime and it might be best to follow the request of Jesus for them—if we go back to verse 4 of the same chapter we learn that Jesus told them specifically, “Do not leave Jerusalem.”

For as much as they wanted to do something—call down the fires of heaven and try to bring Jesus back or start immediately on their 5 point evangelism plan to tell their buddies about the great things Jesus had done—the request of their Lord was to WAIT. Their calling was to stand there and remain faithful to the disciplines of faith that they knew. Specifically they were to pray. Just pray. And in prayer be mindful of what would come next.

I don’t know if you are from a family of “fixers” like I am, but I’ve learned through the years never to pose a problem to my parents or others, unless I am ready to hear an unsolicited opinion about the 10 things I need to try to solve whatever is troubling me. At the mere mention of symptoms of an illness, for example, there’s a package in the mail with my name on it with samples of remedies that I should try from my nurse mother.  Everything I need to get better as soon as possible is found within. For her and others like her, there’s no end to the conversation until a solution is suggested—there must be a solution and solution soon.  Just stand there? This is not acceptable.

But according to the instructions of Jesus, such kind of “immediate gratification” attitude was not going to work if the disciples were going to keep following in the way of Jesus. Because sometimes they were going to have to be ok with the unknowns of just standing there, living through the discomfort, enduring the unknown, yet keeping an open mind through prayer to the new life and possibilities just around the corner given by God to them.

I don’t know if many of you are familiar with the meditation tool, the labyrinth, whose origins date back to Greek mythology or have had a chance to walk on one any time recently. A labyrinth is a maze like path that is used as a centering tool when one is seeking to clear your mind or seek direction about a specific topic. Churches of all kinds are often these days painting or creating them in their wooded lots or asphalt of their parking lots as an ancient modern renewal of a spiritual practice. Often prayer retreats include a trip to a labyrinth of some sort during the course of the weekend—for many often find them as the only place where they are able to center themselves and find God.

On Thursday evening in Georgetown DC talking a walk by the Potomac River, I was surprised to find a labyrinth painted on the ground in the park. (I’m always amazed when the spiritual invitation shows up among the secular). I wasn’t really in the meditative mood to walk it myself, so I found a bench and observed others going through it: some with great intentionality, others not.

Yet, most moving of all was watching one young man about my age walking through the labyrinth with his cell phone in hand.  I’m no labyrinth expert, but having a cell phone in tow seemed to be breaking the rules. Yet, if this was not enough, soon thereafter, I saw this same guy texting as he walked.  Soon he was stumbling over a five-year old girl seeking to walk it with her mom simply because he wasn’t paying attention.

What a picture of modern prayer life, I realized. That yes, while most of us realize that there are times in our lives when we are hit in the face with crisis our response looks a lot like texting while trying to walk the labyrinth (or whatever your modern form of distraction is).

Yet, the problem with all of this become we are denying ourselves the focus that spiritual formation could bring us,  so that our “just standing there” waiting periods in our lives become for us as frustrating as they can possibly be. For, not only are we a bit lost and bewildered because of the situations on our path, but we are left without any tools that actually help us. We think that our grasping, our striving, our actions of trying to fix our problems will somehow get us somewhere as if we were the One who created the universe and spoke it into being in the first place.

The gift of this strange story called the Ascension becomes a reminder that we are not God and because of this the journey of our lives, just like it was for the first disciples is going to include waiting. So that we find ourselves enduring one of these “Just Stand There” times in our lives, we can take heart knowing that it is all a part of the formation process.

 No we aren’t crazy. No we aren’t as lost as we feel. No all our hopes and dreams for a good future aren’t to be trashed . . . but to the contrary, when we get sent back to our Jerusalems, our hometowns, our home bases to wait, watch and pray as to what comes next there is great purpose in this time.

Such time is not to be overlooked. It is not to be avoided. And certainly, it is not to bring out the “how to fix-it” tendencies in all of us. Rather, as we stand there, we are to develop mindfulness, a connectedness, a patience that no other time in our life can offer us. 

In times in our lives without clear direction, we are to return to our community: loving and being loved dearly by those close and accessible even in our confusion.

We are to return to practices that ground ourselves in the present tense: taking care of our bodies through eating well, taking more walks than sitting on the couch, stopping to notice the flowers in our yard, and always remembering to breathe.

We are to pray: to pray not only in the formal ways that we hear in church, but in spoken and unspoken words of a life lived. Prayers like that of writer, Anne Lamott, “Help me, help me, help me.” Or, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Or, praying through the act of doing the dishes, changing the sheets on our bed, or washing our faces—remembering life’s simple rhythms of work and play.

For the real good news is that God does not ask us to be completely idol in our “just stand there” moments. There’s work to do in the waiting. Not work in the sense of causing something to happen, but preparing our lives to recognize and channel God’s work through our very being when it comes. For yes, eventually, yes, there will be a time for the words we like the best “solutions” “actions” and “resolution” but God knows, I think, we won’t have eyes and ears to see and hear what is coming up if we don’t just stand there first.

So, this morning as we prepare our hearts to come to receive at this table, I would invite you to just stand here first . . . to remember and to gaze upon the elements that remind us of the power, and love and grace of our Lord, so that when you taste them, you’ll be ready to receive.

Thanks be to God for the gift of just standing here in this communal place of worship.




[i] “New Testament Reading: Acts 1:6-14 For Sunday, June 5, 2011 Year A- Easter 7”

June 1, 2011

What Does a Pastor Do? Take 2

Recently a blog of mine was reprinted by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Seminary which sought to answer the question of “What does a Pastor Do?” 

Upon hearing feedback from a wider audience about this post, I was amazed at how normal everything I wrote about sounded, but of great insight for especially lay folks. There’s still this idea that pastors work on Sunday and do nothing else during the week that still can’t be shaken with time. . .

Thus, when someone writes about what they actually do as a pastor, it seem that a lot of light bulbs go off. That yes, pastors might in fact, be some of the hardest working folks some people know in fact with the “always on-call” expectation from congregants! 

Yet, today, I want to add to the conversation here and explain that what a pastor does if he or she is being true to the calling of the gospel might very well go outside the bounds of caring for their individual congregation members and staff. When a church employs a pastor in the full-time vocation of ministry, what they are doing is making a way for ministry to happen on a much wider scale. My ministry of writing on this blog is one example.

The way I look at is that when the church pays my full-time salary what they are doing is supporting my presence at many events and functions of service that I would not otherwise have the time to participate in.  These are events and functions where folks have the opportunity to meet me and hopefully learn that pastors/ church/ talk about God isn’t as scary as it seems. It’s the ministry of planting seeds about the gospel.

For example, last Thursday, the schedule of my week suddenly changed (as it frequently does) because of a crisis situation in the local Reston/ Herndon community. A teenager had committed suicide . . . and a family without a church or a pastor needed someone to lead the service. Through a relationship I have with a local funeral home, I was the first one to get the call on this. The word from the director was, “We didn’t want one of the old guys to do this. Could you come?”

Of course, I could come. With this phone call, I entered a world of deep sadness without many spiritual resources and sought to bring some.  Though I didn’t have the opportunity to meet this young girl personally, I talked about the gift of God’s love: that we are all precious in the sight of our Creator and how our purpose in this world is both to come to know of God’s deep affection for us and then be able to share such love with one another. I sought to spur the congregation gathered on to consider how the deceased didn’t believe how truly loved she was, but yet that we could honor her memory by seeking to believe this truth about ourselves.

More and more these days, I’m finding myself in the middle of situations like this one where I am able to come into relationships with folks on a spiritual level in the most unexpected places like in the nail salon, while out to dinner with a group of friends on a given night in the city, or among my husband’s friends or co-workers. These folks might never come to my church or yours, but they are willing to talk about issues of faith and life in an informal setting. And, I seem to be the only pastor some of these folks actually know.

The work of a pastor is more about “running the damm church” (as Eugene Peterson’s new memoir: The Pastor speaks of). It has and always  will be about listening and being open to the Spirit of God’s calling. It’s about your and mine unique personality and living our life abudantly. And, then encouraging the people with whom you have been entrusted to do the same.

My prayer is that my own congregation continues to value this aspect of “What their pastor does?” and will continue to be patient with my schedule and meaningful relationships with folks outside our walls. It’s what a pastor does during the week, after all.

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