Archive for January, 2012

January 30, 2012

God Calls You to See What Others Don’t

God Calls You: to See What Others Don’t  I Samuel 3:1-10; Romans 12:1-8

Several years ago while participating in the Lewis Fellows Young Clergy Leadership program, our group of 30 pastors gathered in Atlanta, Georgia for 3 days of workshops. One afternoon, our discussion sessions suspended and we were all encouraged to walk from our downtown hotel to the historic district of the city known as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home. Because we were studying leadership, it was important, we were told to get to know the culture and surroundings which shaped the greatest American civil rights leader of all times.  Those of us who had not been to this site were eager for the opportunity to visit and absorb as much as we could.

As we began to walk around MLK’s childhood home, it became apparent that one of the greatest  influencers we learned upon Martin’s life was his father. Though raised in separate but not equal segregated Atlanta schools– his Martin Sr. was known to push his son to not become complacent in his studies or in his life.

One historian wrote: “Martin Luther King, Sr., quite often referred to simply as “Daddy King,” served as the first role model for young Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the principal influences in molding his personality. . . . He assisted in the organization of voter registration drives, participated in the NAACP, and sat on the board of Morehouse College. As pastor of the local church, he embedded strong religious ideals in his son and linked him to the church. The lectures from both King’s parents on the subject of racial harmony stuck with Martin and armed him against all forms of prejudice.”[i]

As the national park service guide concluded the tour, he summed up our experience in the home by saying, “If it wasn’t for Martin, Sr. paving the way– calling out academic and spiritual gifts in his son, we might not be standing here today talking about this man who did so much good for our country and the racial equality of all humankind.”

Similarly, today, our lection for this morning directs our attention to one of the greatest priest and prophets of all in time found in the Old Testament: Samuel, who would begin his life of service at a young age through an apprenticeship.  Samuel, who would become a spiritual leader for turbulent times of transition in Israel’s life together– guiding and anointing the first two kings in the nation’s history.

But, as we know, we don’t just arrive in life without being under the influence of someone who teaches us. Who was the influence behind the spiritual upbringing of Samuel, like Martin Luther King Sr. was to his son? The answer arises in our lection for this morning.

In Samuel’s childhood, Eli served God in the temple as the head priest. Though not his father, Eli had been in relationship with Samuel from his toddler years. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who struggled to conceive, prayed hard for Samuel’s arrival. Eli was there to give Hannah a word of encouragement that God heard her prayers and one day she’d have a child. And, when Samuel was born and once weaned, Hannah dedicated Samuel to God in the temple for a life of service. Eli became his guardian.

Yet, while this story sounds beautiful from its beginning, it is important to note that all was not perfect. There were great problems in the land.  Historically, since Moses and Joshua lead the nation of Israel to the Promise land, the people weren’t very good at listening or paying attention to God’s plans for their lives. The leadership system in place of judges did not receive wide-spread support from the people.  The spiritual foundation in the land became increasingly far off-center of what God’s presence in their lives looked like. 

Furthermore, in a culture were religious leaders passed from generation to generation, Eli’s biological sons were not up for the job. The son to son business of serving in the temple would stop with Eli. In fact, prophets had already showed up at Samuel’s doorstep foretelling the consequences of the sons’ corrupt behavior.  Personally, I can imagine that Eli grieved the sadness of unmet expectations on part of his family– they were not the family he wanted them to be.

So with all of this true, it didn’t exactly seem like a moment in time when God would show up . . . when God would do something new… when God would bless.  

Yet, if we know anything about our God we know that when we least expect is the very time that God does begin to move.

And, Eli emerges as the natural first choice. But, Eli, what? What was God thinking in picking him to begin this new movement in Israel’s history that would begin with the call of Samuel.

This is what we know: Eli probably thought his moment in time of doing anything significant with his life had passed.  It was his time to retire– to kick back and enjoy life a little. And, physically, his health is failing. He’s going blind in fact. Look with me at verse two where we are told about Eli, “whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see.”

Again, let me reiterate that seems completely unlikely that Eli would be the one to SEE anything significant. He couldn’t see.

But, he does see.  In the paradigm of how God works in the world– using the most unlikely of us for the most unlikely of tasks, God calls out Eli to use his gift of prophecy or discernment to SEE things for Samuel.

In our New Testament lesson for today, we heard the words of Paul that we’ve stuck close to all weekend if you’ve been around for our chili cook-off and special Bible study sessions this morning. We’ve learned that we all have spiritual gifts. And these gifts are meant not for ou r own good, but to build up the Body of Christ. And, most of all, we’ve learned that using our spiritual gifts is how we move in and through our corners of the world with SIGHT bigger than just what we know.  Offering our gifts to God is how we worship the Lord with our daily lives.

If our gift is service, we will see things that need to be done and do it–  we’ll see when the kitchen needs to be cleaned, the paper products to be refilled in the bathroom, the food collected here to be taken over to the food bank. And, we will do.

If our gift is mercy, we will see the hearts of the hurting and broken– offering a listening ear, a tissue, or simply being a presence.

If our gift is encouragement, we will see the bigger spiritual picture of individual and groups concerns– offering a word of motivation, placing a meaningful book in a person’s hands at just the right time, or offering to share a testimony in worship of where we see God at work in our lives.

If our gift is teaching, we will see the deeper truths in the texts of scripture and other literature that are meant to grow others in wisdom and knowledge– enjoying the research process of preparing to teach as much as the teaching and watching the joy come to folks eyes when they get a new understanding.

If our gift is giving, we will see how our momentary resources can be used for the good if managed well– being ok with less new things so that more funds can be directed to mission organizations, being ok with not getting credit for making donations, actually preferring it this way, and being blessed by seeing the fruits of their personal sacrifices bless the community at large.

If our gift is leadership, we will see the bigger picture of how to position just the right people in just the right places to bring transformative change in the administrative life of a community– being the one who steps up and says a word, being the one who coaches others to claim their callings too, being the one who inspires vision in practical ways.

And, if our gift is prophecy, we will see the possibilities of what God can do that may not seem clear in the present moment– using our voice to say yes to God’s leading and helping others do the same.

And such was Eli’s gift. When Samuel came to Eli twice in the middle of the night thinking that it was him who was calling his name, “Samuel, Samuel,” Eli redirects him back to bed. By the third time Samuel hears a voice calling his name and still comes to Eli thinking that Eli was trying to tell him something, Eli sees the situation clearly. It was the Lord doing the calling. And because this was true, it was Eli’s job to help Samuel recognize this and respond accordingly.

In verse 9, we hear Eli’s prophetic word: “Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord for your servant is listening.”

Though it might be easy to be critical of Eli– talking about his failings throughout his life and most certainly mentioning that he raised poorly behaved sons– I believe that in this moment in time Eli fulfilled God’s calling upon his life to see what others (aka Samuel) did not.

You see, with all the life-changing, spiritual game changing, Holy Spirit filled moments that Samuel would soon lead within the nation of Israel, it was Eli’s six words that helped this boy who had not yet known the Lord to SEE the Lord for the first time. Using his discernment gift, Eli became the influential person who help Samuel think about the inconceivable plans that God had already prepared for his life.

It might be easy at this juncture of the sermon to think that calling to use your spiritual gifts is just for professional Christians or “those important” people (whoever those people are). But need I remind you that God places a calling to use our gifts on ALL of our lives. No one who desires to be used by God is left without a gift. No one.

Over a year ago now after a series of sermons, Sunday School lessons and discussions in Church Council, we agreed as a church to begin a deacon ministry again. And, so we asked for names from all of you of folks you thought had the gifts to do this job full of the gifts of mercy, service and encouragement. And, with my list given to me by the Congregation Care team of who your recommendations were, I began to make some calls to several of you.

While a few said “yes” eagerly right away, most of those I called were quite shy. “Who me? No, I can’t be a deacon in this church?” (And you’d go to tell me the reasons why we shouldn’t pick you).

But then after some time had passed, several of you came back to me and said, “Well if you believe in me and congregation see these gifts in me, I think I need to give it a try to serve.”

And such an experience is not isolated to merely the deacon ministry. Countless times, I’ve seen the same situation played out in our community life together. Many of you have found yourself in positions of service, leadership or care that you never in a million years imagined you’d be. But, you’re the ones signing up now to be being the liturgist, leading one of our ministry teams, helping out in children’s Sunday School or serving in our hypothermia project because why? Someone used their gifts to encourage you to use yours.

This is the big picture my friends– God wants God’s body on earth to be blessed. God wants us to have every gift we need for the kingdom building that awaits us. And so God gave us each other. But, not just so we could bump shoulders and see someone sitting beside us in the pew. But, so that by using our calling– seeing God through OUR particular lens of giftedness– we help others see what they might never see if it weren’t for us.

I dare say if Martin Luther King, Jr. was not taught serious study of the things of God from his father, we would not know his name today or have freedom in all the corners of our land where it exists today.  If  Eli hadn’t told Samuel to go and respond to the Lord when God called, we wouldn’t have known King David and all that he would teach us about praising God’s name through song.

I dare say too that there are countless new stories ready to be written in our community if only we each use our gifts to help others see what they could not see without us recognizing it first. 

In 2003, I attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC where seminary professor and social advocate, Tony Campolo spoke. It came time to give the offering for missions after the sermon. And, the gentleman guiding the program asked Tony to pray before the ushers came forward to receive the offering. Seemed like a very normal churchy thing to do.

However, to the shock of many, Tony refused to pray. “What?!?” we were all thinking in our seats. Instead he said something like this: “We don’t need to pray for the offering tonight because this is what I know about God. God has already given each us in this room enough resources to meet our $15,000 offering tonight. All we need to do now is to give. So, I’ll start by emptying my wallet with the cash in it and maybe some of you could do the same.”

And, just like Tony said that night, we got our $15,000 plus mission offering plus some in that very room.

Rest assured I’m not asking you to empty your wallets this morning . . . . though I am sure the trustees wouldn’t mind.

But, what I am saying, like Tony Campolo said about giving, is that in this church, just like other local communities of faith, God has given us every resource we need to do what we are called to accomplish.  God has given us teachers. God has given us servers. God has given us encouragers. God has given us leaders. God has given us those who can show compassion. God has given us givers. God has given us prophets.

This question then just sits on our shoulders: are we going to all God to use our gifts so that others can be blessed through us? How are you going to make God known by seeing what others don’t?


[i] Gregg Blackely “Formative Influences on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Peace Magazine.

January 24, 2012

When I Grow Up I Want to Be . . .

 . . . a writer like Anne Lamott

She recently said this about writing: “I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness — and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.”


Like Lamott these are the kinds of books I like to read, and I’ve been dreaming one day to write too. I want to use my writing to cut to the heart of the way things really are. I want to encourage readers to have hope. I want to touch the depth of the human experience that somehow connects us all.

For my first full-length project I’ve got six chapters down and who knows how many to go? And revisions after revisions after revisions to go.

This is what I promise you future readers: each time I sit down to write I will tell the truth the best I can. Such is a scary writing proposition, but I know in the end it is going to be good. The draft after draft nights will be worth it. I just know it!

January 23, 2012

God Calls You to “Those” People

God Calls You to “Those” People: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

When I was in seminary, a peer of mine, who later became a dear friend, realized one important truth the first day of Old Testament class. Brad did not know the basic stories of the Bible. He knew little to nothing about Abraham, Moses, the 12 tribes of Israel, King Saul, David and the like.  Brad was so lost in Bible class that on first pop quiz our professor gave us on the Torah– otherwise known as the first five books the Hebrew scriptures, he got an F.

You may wonder what a guy like this was doing in seminary. We all wondered too. But then later learned that Brad’s upbringing came in a open and accepting denomination like our flavor of Baptists. And, growing up in his home church, Brad said, youth group taught him how to plan service projects and how the gospel of Jesus was all about loving people, but never really learned much about the Bible.

As you can imagine, Brad desperately wanted to bring his grade average out of the failing zone. Brad informed our study group that he’d recently purchased, “Bible for Dummies.” And, our group protested his use of such a book for a seminary student. We’d be glad to help, especially the lifelong Bible drill Baptists, my friend and I who probably knew more random facts than we really needed to.  

So, operation Bible 101 for Brad began. As a group we gave Brad extra reading assignments every week and sometimes even make up our own quizzes to give him to track his progress. We also found another great teaching tool for our Bible novice– and this was the series of children’s DVDs called the Veggie Tales.

I don’t know if you’ve ever viewed a Veggie Tale movie before but the premise is simple: to make the great stories of the Bible accessible to children through slight modification of the setting. Instead of the characters being played by human characters, the animated actors are all vegetables led by Bob the tomato and Larry the cucumber.

So, Brad began to watch Veggie Tale episodes faithfully as they corresponded with the lessons. One problem arose though when he watched the Jonah movie, which features our lectionary reading for today. However, Brad walked away with the understanding that Jonah, played by a disobedient asparagus,  hated the Ninevehites because they constantly hit one another in the face with fish.  Additionally, Brad also asked us why the members of the ship sailing to Tarshish instead of Nineveh (when Jonah was running away) played the card game of “go fish” to figure out whose live was not right with God and had to get off the ship.

We had to remind our eager and sometimes gullible friend to always actually READ the text.(Because such details in the movies were added simply to keep the young viewers entertained).  

And though such details in the Veggie Tale version of Jonah’s tale seem laughable, if we stick closely to the entire book of Jonah, they might as well be included. The entire narrative reads like one of Aesop’s fables. We find very few details of Jonah’s life or his previous prophetic activity. He just appears out of nowhere. Furthermore, as the story progresses, we are given no details about how in the world it would be possible for him to survive for three days in the mouth of a fish and miraculously be dumped on dry ground when his “punishment” is over to have a second chance at delivering the message.

While Jonah is often referred to as “Jonah and the whale” as a story meant for kids, I propose today that it is not a story for only for the kids, but an adult tale meant to grow our understanding of God and God’s plans for us in the salvation stories of our lives. A story that invites each of us to take a second look at our feelings about the bounds of God’s love for those we consider to be “those” people.

It is good to first consider the who and what of Nineveh and why God’s message to go preach there was completely out of the question for Jonah.

 Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. It was a city with a strong military base, the seat of all things powerful in the ancient world. If you were a small nation, you feared any contact with Assyria.

Furthermore,  Assyria was more than an enemy. This nation was THE enemy to end  all enemies to the nation of Israel that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (10 of the 12 tribes) and held the two remaining tribes of Israel, Judah and Benjamin in fear for over 100 years! Years and years of history included brutal treatment, occupation, and taking from Israel their human rights.  Previous prophets were clear about God’s judgment on this land which repeatedly mistreated God’s beloved people.

But then, a new message came on the scene illuminating a compassionate God. A God who loved even the Assyrians. Yes, there was a time for judgment but there was also a time for love of all the nations, included the much despised.

In Jonah chapter 1, the Lord gets right to the point saying to Jonah in verse two: “Get up and go to that great city of Nineveh! Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are!”

So not only is Jonah going to be asked to go to a faraway place, but to the dreaded enemy! And, Jonah is told when he gets there to give a message of repentance. He doesn’t even get to say something nice . . .

It would be like a solider crossing enemy lines not with the white flag of surrender, but saying to those on the other side: “God wants you to repent for you’ve done really bad things.” (Not exactly the words that usher in hospitality from Assyria, wouldn’t you agree?).

One commentator defines the situation presented to Jonah as the original mission impossible.  And goes on to write about why this was such a hard thing for Jonah to do saying, “Jonah was from a strip of wilderness that the rest of the world passed through as a way station to somewhere else, kind like 1-95 running through New Jersey. Jonah had no credentials for such an act of international diplomacy. He would get less respect than Ambassador of Palau would get in [here in] Washington D.C. (You get extra credit [for listening to this sermon] if you actually know where Palau is!).” [i]

So, of course with all of this true, Jonah was afraid. Of course, Jonah doubted if this prophetic word was really the Lord who was speaking to him. Of course, Jonah thought it was time to change careers, take a vacation and find his way to the other side of the known world. Because if his previous vocation required speaking for God– a God who would now send him to Nineveh, then it was time to get a new religion or no religion at all for that matter.

We sympathize rightfully so with Jonah at this juncture, don’t we? We could see ourselves in Jonah’s shoes will all of the evidence of filing a complaint against God with just cause to do so.  We’d run away too, wouldn’t we if God sent us to a place in the world that we hated as much as Nineveh with news bad enough to get us killed?

But what happens if a call of God emerges in our life that no matter what we do to try to run from it, avoid it or pretend we never heart it– what happens if it doesn’t go away? What happens if we are called to be with “those” people and God just won’t let us forget? What happens if we find ourselves in the shoes of Jonah?

Around this time last January, Kevin and I sat on a bus heading from West Jerusalem into East Jerusalem in the area of the country known as the “West Bank.” We traveled alongside an American Imam, an American evangelical pastor, a Palestinian guide, an Israelite guide and an Jewish Rabbi– from the United States too, but who had spent extensive time living and studying in and about Israel. 

Though every day of this 10 day Interfaith adventure held new challenges, it was the sixth day of our journey which stretched each of our understandings of Jewish/ Muslim relations within this compact geographic region the most.

Rob, the Rabbi, with us, while having spent time on numerous trips all throughout the region, even some journeys into the West Bank, had never been to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. This sight sat in the Palestinian “capital” city of Ramallah. As we walked around the plaza area and viewed the memorial, our group was asked to take a picture beside the mosque on the property with couple of the guards. I was watching my friend Rob become increasingly more and more uncomfortable.

Years and years of politics, persecution and distasteful words shared between the people of Israel and those of the Palestinian territories  and in particular by Arafat brought great caution to his presence here. It wasn’t about this one man: it was about thousands of years of history.

Rob didn’t want to be in the group picture with the rest of us. And, in retrospect, I understood why and respected my new friend’s authenticity.

He later wrote on the group blog: “Yet somehow I must confess: as a Jew I am scared, not just of the possibility of what can happen to a Jew in Ramallah, but for what can happen inside this Jew in Ramallah. I feel a chill down my back. And I’m ready to board the bus as quickly as time will allow.” Rob knew, you see, cost of either the hatred or the love– whichever path he chose– in this place. If this change of love sipped into him for this place, his faith he lived out in a community of other Jews like himself might have to shift. If he hated in this place, his heart might grow hard in the great cost of bitterness.

As we continued our journey in the West Bank, our schedule allowed a trip to the University of Berzit. I was still learning about all of the history, but to Rob, this stop was a place that continued to challenge him. I could see it all over his face.  “Jews just don’t come to Berzit, we learned,” from one of our guides. “We are told that it is a breeding ground for terrorism education.” 

But Rob and our Israelite guide bravely, along with the rest of us, began our tour at the university regardless. And to all our surprise we found Muslim and Christian students eager to meet us and share experiences. Who knows what a terrorist looks like at school, but these kids looked as normal as they could be. Two of the girls we chatted with briefly on the steps of a lecture hall told us that “they’d never met a Jew before.” To which Rob chimed in quickly and said, “Now you have.” Rob was moved to reconsider again what he’d always thought about Berzit and the people of the West Bank.

Rabbi Rob, along with the rest of our group that day, received God’s challenge to us there. Even if we think we know “those” people and centuries upon centuries of ill has been done– God remains steadfast in love for all the nations. All people.  All people we like. All the people we don’t. And because this is true, God calls us to lay down the walls of “us” and “them” which inhibit us from relationship.

Rabbi Rob went on to write about his transformative experience that day saying, “I am humbled as I admit: I am praying for peace for Israel and all nations of the world. . . . Still I pray: may the maker of peace in the heavens cause peace to descend on us, on all Israel and all who dwell on the earth, Amen.”[ii]

And, like the Rabbi if we are going to take our call seriously to see all people of all nations of the world, then we too are going to find ourselves in positions as unique as being a Jewish Rabbi at the tomb of Arafat.

Consider this: our public policy and our leadership in policy as a nation, has a long way to go in support of all of our neighbors of the world. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to use OUR voice?

We, as socially conscious people of faith, have a great calling to see those hated neighbors among us, just as God sees them, in the eyes of love and to just the power of our voice to bring our nation’s leaders accountable to peace making  . . .

To ask our President to think carefully about the new global policy inanities he makes and to consider all people in the nation of Israel.

To ask our Virginia governor and legislators to consider who our social service and social laws are leaving out– and ask them to include all of God’s children in key decisions when it comes to issues of marriage, healthcare, and opportunities for employment.

To ask the leadership in Fairfax County about our tax structure and why there is not more being done in one of the wealthiest counties in America, to deal with the systemic problems of homelessness and poverty.  And this is only the tip of what could be asked of us.

But, even more personal than this– I am sure that you like me have your fill in the blank when it comes to who “those” people are in your life. You have someone at work, someone in your neighborhood, or even someone in this community that really just pushes all of your buttons and you feel like if this person or persons simply opens their mouth, you’d explode. Whoever is on your list of “those people” I invite you to reconsider the journey of Jonah. To come and get to know this God you have chosen to follow all over again and realize that yes, those people are included in God’s family too. And yes, you and I have a lot to learn from even them . . .  

It’s a hard edge to sit with this morning. It’s a hard, hard edge that may make you and I question everything we thought we knew about what is true about justice, war, and foreign policy, but the way of relationship, the way of community building IS the way of our God.

Today God calls you. God calls you to all people. Let us get to loving in word and deed.


January 23, 2012

Say What You Need to Say

“What brings you deep joy?”

“What stirs up in your happiness that is long-lasting?”

“How do you feel God has gifted you for service in the Body of Christ?”

Such have been questions our adult Sunday morning class has been considering over the past two Sundays in our “Congratulations, You Are Gifted!” class. January in worship and in all aspects of church life is focused this year on calling and spiritual gifts. We’re even having a special community gathering on Friday night (and Chili Cook off too) to talk over all of this in an informal setting. We’re claiming that the life of discipleship is all about first knowing ourselves and in the authenticity of God’s gifts to us serving others accordingly. Biblical texts such as I Corinthians 12-14 and Romans 12:1-10 have been keys to this study.

Yet, what I have found in teaching is many folks really don’t know what brings them deep joy and some have never studied spiritual gifts before. So, we’ve been starting with the basics. Beginning with detecting clues about what makes each of us tick, what moves us and what our aspirations for our future might be.

We began the discussion Sunday with everyone sharing their answers to some fill in the blank questions. One of these was: “Movies, songs, books, art, experiences that have touched me the most are…”

Though I didn’t answer it in class, if I did, I would go to first to the song, “Say”  sung by John Mayer. It is a ballad I sometimes listen to on Sunday mornings in effort to gear myself for preaching. It is good not to be afraid to say what I need to say. It is good to be filled with confidence that no matter what God will find a way to speak through me. I’m sure Mayer was not thinking of the preaching task when he recorded this, but for me, he is:

Take out of your wasted honor
Every little past frustration
Take all your so-called problems,
Better put them in quotations

Say what you need to say [x8]

Walking like a one man army
Fighting with the shadows in your head
Living up the same old moment
Knowing you’d be better off instead,
If you could only . . .

Say what you need to say [x8]

Have no fear for giving in Have no fear for giving over
You’d better know that in the end
Its better to say too much
Than never to say what you need to say again

Even if your hands are shaking
And your faith is broken
Even as the eyes are closing
Do it with a heart wide open

Say what you need to say [x24]

I look forward to what the next two sessions of our “Congratulations, You Are Gifted” class will offer all of us. My hope is that all of us find a way to “Say what we need to say” about our own lives and begin to live into our calling and spiritual gifts as a community.

January 19, 2012

Something to Celebrate: Deacons

Any leader is only as good as their team mates and back-up support on call. This is what I know from being a pastor.

When I first came to Washington Plaza, as the pastor, with only two other part-time staff members to help carry the load, I had no pastoral back-up. (Not even a retired minister in the mix). I worried a lot when I was away for conferences or vacation about what might come up. (My plea to those ill: Please wait to die until my vacation is over).  

Furthermore, to expect the pastor to be and always do all of the pastoral care, I knew was unhealthy and unbaptist (we love the priesthood of the believers after all).

So, I inquired of the church leadership why we did not have deacons. No one really could give me a good reason. My response became: “Why not?”  (It all went back to the previous pastors’ preferences, it seemed). Not only would deacons help me, but I knew it would be a blessing to the congregation. It would be a great opportunity for some very kind and spiritually aware members to live into their giftedness. A win-win!

So, in 2010, we engaged in a year-long study of the visions of what deacons would look like in the congregation– the Washington Plaza Baptist way– and came up with a plan. We’d follow the model of the early church and elect deacons to be spiritual leaders and servants among us. We’d call out those in our community who we felt had the gifts and interest in this kind of service through a nomination process. And, then we’d ordain each of them in a formal service of blessing their future ministry as pastoral care givers in our midst. To give the deacons the support they’d need for their 3 year term of service,  we’d pledge to meet monthly as a deacon body to share joys and concerns of working alongside the families we’d been given to look after. And, no, the deacons, contrary to the standard in many Baptist churches, would not serve in an administrative capacity. We’d leave this to the Church Council.

November 2010 marked the first deacon ordination service in over two decades at Washington Plaza.  It was a joyous day as you can tell from this previous post. It was one of those days as a pastor when I felt like God’s spirit was especially cheering us on saying, “You are moving in the right direction as a congregation.” Who says an ancient tradition can’t be re-born in fruitful ways for the modern context?

This month, the official one year anniversary of our first deacon’s meeting, we did some self-reflecting as a group. Though we’ve had a lot of learning to do over the year, I’ve been so proud of the ministry I’ve watched our deacons provide in their service to the church.

One of our current co-chairs wrote this piece to share with the congregation more about what the deacons have been up to in the last year. I thought I’d share it here so you could hear more of this co-labor of love.

Dear Church Family:

It been a little over a year since the deaconate was re-established at WPBC, and thus it is an appropriate time to update you on what we have been doingand plan to do.  You installed Rainy Barsella, Leomia Brunson, Kevin Hagea, Don Mohl, Shirley Rees, Carolyn Rieth, and Jeffrey Thigpen as deacons; personal commitments prevented Jeffrey from continuing active service, and Richard Williams agreed to serve in his stead at mid-year.

First and foremost we are all committed to our role as helpers to the congregation and the church.  It has been our goal not to be noticed, but rather to quietly walk among you and provide support as needed.  We see our primary task as being there for each of you in all the seasons of your life.  It is this role that has motivated us to undertake a year-long study of pastoral care and spiritual direction using Jean Stairs’ book, Listening for the Soul.  The study has added depth to our ministry which we hope to grow into fullness in the coming year. 

As the first step in this we have begun the practice of “shut-in” communion.  Each of us who has participated has been moved and sensed joy in the expansion of fellowship to those who are unable to join in our services. It is this area—strengthening the ties that bind the WPBC community together—that will continue to be the focus of our ministry.  It not our task to be substitutes for Pastor Elizabeth, but rather to be aids in ministry, tasked to insure that at no time does a need of this community go unmet.  In this context, we encourage you to share with your deacon who stands ready either to directly help, or to seek spiritual or physical help as needed; for we believe that each one of you is most precious to God and to WPBC.

January 17, 2012

God’s Calling to Take Care of Yourself

God Calls You to Take Care of Yourself

I Corinthians 6:11-20

Today we begin a series of messages in this season of Epiphany all about God’s calling to us. It’s the time of year that the Christian calendar asks us to do some consideration again about this life of faith that we’ve committed to live in. It’s the time of year for us to hear from scripture again some of Jesus’ hopes for our becoming as people called the Body of Christ. And, today’s “God Calls You” blank inserts the words “To Take Care of Yourself.”

As I was preparing for this sermon this week, I thought back to previous studies I’d heard on the Corinthian text and the topical sermon series I’d heard or preached before. And, I realized this. I’d never heard a sermon or preached one for that matter on caring for self. Not one. I wondered why?

It seems we tow a good line as leaders and faith seekers in Christian community on the topics of self-sacrifice, selflessness and extending beyond the bounds of our own natural abilities so that God can work mightily through us, but rare it seems that we ever talk about care of self.  While we are eager to talk about becoming something “more:”  more loving, more giving, more serving, more faithful, it is rare that we talk about the physicality of a body from which all of the loving, giving serving and faithfulness comes or do we ever talk about our limits of care.

I don’t know why this is, other than generations of doctrine and preaching and study has seemed to do a great job disconnecting the body and the soul. Because of humankind’s fall in Genesis 3, we learn we’re condemned to a sentence of bodily suffering, pain.  The body is bad and will die while the soul is good and will abide in the presence of God forever, if redeemed.  Yet, we have forgotten that God previously said over the words of our birth that we were made in God’s very own image and called “very good.”

As a result of all of this confusion, we easily think us regular church going people, what’s the point when it comes to our own health and well-being? If we really need rest or a day of solitude and someone from the church calls us to do something, then the “godly” choice is always to say yes to others and to the church. Furthermore, if we want our lives to be pleasing to God, then we’ve got to learn to give up beauty, give up pleasure, or even lay our own medical problems on the altar of denial, so we have time for everyone else other than us.  Though we are taught all along about love and grace and all that jazz, we believe the only way God will REALLY love us is we die to self by putting ourselves last.

There’s a poem about JOY which you may have heard. It is the acrostic for the word JOY: Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last.  I remember my father saying to the children in Vacation Bible School once that “If you really want to be happy in life, you’ll learn to love Jesus more than anyone else, even yourself.” As I grew older and had the ability to consider the deeper meaning of this saying I saw so regularly, I doubted the claim of “I wasn’t really loving Jesus if I was loving myself.” 

Is this what Jesus’ own ministry modeled for us? Did Jesus never eat, sleep, take retreats or be quiet from time to time? But, Christian culture seem to teach me and my peers–  loving yourself was a bad thing. It you took a mental health or catch up on your sleep day, you just didn’t talk about it.

But, is this what our epistle lesson from this morning is seeking to say about care? Deign it? In the eyes of Paul, do our bodies matter?  How might our calling be to care for ourselves be the foundation of all our care for others?

We find our lection for this morning found smack dab in the middle of a long series of instructional teaching from Paul to the church in Corinth, a church we know that Paul helped to found and nurture in its infancy.  Paul sought to teach this gathered community– new coverts to the way of Christ– what living out their baptism (as we were talking about last week) would look like in the practical every day issues in a particular context. 

(As an aside, this is often why, we as modern readers have a hard time with the epistle scriptures. While there is much to learn from the “big ideas” of these letters, we often reach dead ends of frustrating fundamentalism when we take the directives of Paul too literally).

 In the verses previous to and after our lection we hear Paul describing his concerns for order in the church, legal matters, marriage and the process of worship.  So, with this understanding, it seems less random these verses about sexual morality and food before us today which say in verse 13: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” or in verse 18: “Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.”

It’s like we are listening into a thousand plus year old conversation, though one-way, about food and sex morality’s place in the life of faith. Paul wanted the church at Corinth to know that even as he taught much about “freedom in Christ” and the truth that being in Christ meant they were no longer bound to laws about this and that behavior– still limits existed.  “All things are lawful for me,” Paul reminds them but adds, “not all things are beneficial.”

It’s his way of saying, in the story of Christ’s grace, we are not left out of the family of God for what we do and our actions do not change the way God looks at us or thinks of us, BUT freedom in Christ has limits. The limits are meant for our good.

Such is summed up when we reach verse 19, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body.” 

Like a young child who will not take instructions without their parent or caregiver answering their thousand, “Why?” questions, Paul gives the whys for his considerations for this particular community about how they partner sexually and what food they put in their mouths. 

Their bodies are not bad. Their bodies are not just flesh and bones with nothing to do with their souls. Their bodies gave life and thus were a part of God’s very own Self.  Therefore, a call resounds to care for their bodies. 

I wonder how many of us in this room made New Year’s Resolutions? (Raise your hands)  And, among all of you who made resolutions, I wonder how many of your stated intentions related in some way to your body or health.  (Any brave souls to raise your hands?)

If you raised your hand, you are in good company of your peers. A recent article about our New Year’s Resolution practices in one US city[i] states that the top five resolutions made this year included to:

1. Spend more time with friends and family

2. Become fit in fitness

3.  Lose Weight and tame the bulge

4. Quit Smoking

5. Quit Drinking

No matter that social studies say that 80% of New Year’s Resolutions fail by January 20th (that’s only 5 days away in fact), there seems to be a compulsion in most of us to improve our satisfaction with our bodies and an equally strong compulsion to not.

According the National Center for Heath and Disease Control, nearly 2/3 of adults and children in the United States are overweight; nearly 1/3 are obese.  And, if we single out the church going crowd the statistics are worse. A recent study by a Purdue University sociologist “found that religious participation in the United States specially, participation in the Christian denominations (for which the Baptist church was highlighted as a chief offender)– correlates with status as overweight or obesity.[ii]

At first reading of this I wanted to shout, “Oh come, on, so not true!” But, sadly I think the statistics tell our story. Our relationship with our bodies is out of control. Our disconnectedness of body and soul is out of control.

Have you been to a church dinner lately? Have you met a group of pastors lately? Though our church and its leaders might be able to say that we’ve cared for the sick and dying and we’ve given good weddings and funerals, when it comes to taking care of our own health, our own well-being, and our own mental peace, we do a really lousy job of it. We don’t really think our bodies matter that much.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at clergy gatherings where fellow colleagues have boasted of “never taking their vacation” or “working from sun up from sun down.” I can’t tell you how many pastoral encounters I’ve had in homes when a piece of cake or pie has been shoved on me though I really keep saying, “I’m full.” I can’t tell you how many times the sin of gluttony has been ignored in church life as if it is ok to eat and eat and eat some more and the sin of lust has been ignored and we all know what happens when that comes out . . .  We as the church global have problems with God’s call to care for our bodies.

All of this talk this morning is not meant to knock those of us who in the midst of a life-long struggle with body image, time management and finding ways to love exercise (though we hate it so), but it is this text that asks us to stop and ponder what IS God’s calling to our bodies again. It’s our time now to ask us what God’s calling to “glorify God in our bodies” looks like?

In my early years of faith, I heard a lot about salvation as the process of being made right with God. Salvation as making a stated confession to a community of my sin, repentance and faith in God. Salvation amounted to a prayer of confession and a lifetime of service in the church, hoping to lead as many others as possible in this prayer of confession too.  It was such a big deal that people would ask, “What was the day that you came to Christ?” And, when you appropriately answered, your salvation story was complete.

But, even as my understand of salvation began to change over the years, a class during my 3rd year of seminary, shifted my theology in a completely different direction. Salvation was not, as Dr. Esther Acolotse, put it in pastoral care class one afternoon about a moment or a limited engagement experience. Salvation, she suggested was about become a human being– the human being God designed each of us to be at creation. Salvation was about a journey to be made whole.

Such words lingered with me long that day after class and have stuck with me until now. That, yes, God calls us to take care of ourselves because our salvation depends on it.

But, what does this look like, you might wonder? I’m still trying to figure it out, of course, but what I’ve learned is that there is no way that I can act on God’s calling for care of self if my schedule is out of balance.

If we try to over work or under work, if we say “yes” when we should be saying “no,” we wind up cranky, drinking too much caffeine, and eventually physically ill.

But, if we remember when we look at the week ahead that it is good to care of ourselves– the time we need to cook meals at home, the time we need to go on walks, the time we need to decompress– as much as we say “yes” to other things, a funny thing happens.

We feel better. We might just sleep better. We enjoy my life more, and we exude the joy of being exactly the person God created us to be.  And, sure there are always times in your life and mine when we need to go more than others, but afterwards we always must remember to take a step back and not let this constant rush be our norm.

So, let me be clear with you today. Hear this calling of the Lord– take care of yourself. Spend time with people who make you happy. Eat foods that your body will smile about when receiving. Take naps on your days off when you are tired. Stay at home some nights and do something that has no other purpose than enjoyment.  Consider the long-term consequences of who is in your bed– make your bedroom activity a place of beauty and not conflict.  And, above all, know that these activities like eating, drinking, sleeping, walking are not unspiritual– we are in fact by engaging them, glorifying God through and with and by our bodies. We are saying the image of God is in us! We are saying to our Creator that the craftsmanship of us is good!

The stakes are high with this calling, my friends, for you and I get into more trouble than we can ever know now if we don’t live into this. Not only what we first might think– facing life with preventable health concerns dragging us down– but in our community relations with one another. If we are ever going to be the presence of God to one another as other callings upon our life will ask of us– we must first start with ourselves.

After all St. Teresa of Avila once said to her community:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.

So, what are you going to do to care for yours? AMEN

[i] Top Ten New Years Resolutions. Albrecht Powell.

[ii]Mary Louise Bringle. “Eating Well: Seven Paradoxes of Plenty.”

January 9, 2012

Write On!

Recently I have found myself being asked more about writing. Such as: “How do I find time to do so much of it?”  “How do I decide what to write about?” “Why write a blog when you don’t know if anyone out there is really reading?”

I giggle a little to think that someone would ask me such questions because only in the past six months have I been able to confidently say that I am a writer as much as I am a pastor among other things.  Yet, the truth of the matter is that I’ve been steady at the discipline of blogging since 2006– back before it was a cool– and have loved every minute of it.  If you want to make me smile, let’s have a conversation about writing.

If you want to know why I blog, check out the “About Elizabeth page.”  For the rest, here’s my in the process of learning list for today:

1. You must write and write a lot to get better at it. Sounds un-profound, but it’s true. There is no magic formula to being a writer.  As much as you might have a natural inclination for words, you have to learn the craft. Blessed be the friends who read you stuff even when it is bad and don’t tell you how bad it really is– these are the people you need in your life cheering you on believing in the fact that it will get better. They’ll be plenty of editors or critical blog commenters who will tell you the truth!

2. If you are going to be a writer, you need to know when is your time of day when ideas come. For me this is annoyingly the moment I put my head on my pillow at night. I lay there and my head floods with topics for new blogs or ideas for how I want to arrange the chapters of my upcoming book project. I try to fight it, telling myself to forget until morning. But, usually such a declaration doesn’t work. So, I say, if creativity calls, run with it. (Just don’t publish a blog after 11 pm. Most I know are usually sorry for this in the am).

3. Write with heart. Again, not profound. But often, I’ve found readers forgiving me for a multitude of grammar sins if they know I believe and am passionate about what I am trying to say.  Especially in persuasive writing (which is what I mostly do– sermons and op ed type pieces), readers need to know you personally care about what you describe. There’s nothing worse to read, I think, than a journalistic type writer trying to give you the facts and then expecting you to care when you have no idea if the writer cares first! Caring of course don’t have to explicit. People know if you do or don’t implicitly.

4. Make friends with other writers.  Non-writers just don’t see prose they way a writer does.  My mom or my husband, for example, will read my stuff and will often comments in helpful ways, but their feedback is never as a good as that of my writing friends. Fellow writers will tell me that I had “a nice turn of phrase” or “this theme connection really made the essay work” or “I didn’t start liking you as a character until half way through the chapter.” Other writers speak your langauge and so you always need to stick close to them.

5. Do not be afraid of the delete button. In the beginning of my weekly writing career, especially with sermons, I was really anxious about cutting large chunks of the piece out.  I had worked so hard! It was so sad to see a paragraph go that I would cut and paste it into another word document hoping to come back to it later. The funny thing is that I NEVER would need it.  Sometimes the delete button can be your writing project’s very best friend. Though a tear may be shed, the best thing is to just go with it. Tear the band-aid quickly though and you’ll feel better for it.

And, most of all read about writing. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is one of my favorites.

January 8, 2012

State of the Church Address: Remember Your Baptism

State of Church Address 2012: Mark 1:4-11

It’s hard to believe that a little over three years ago, I stood in your midst in this very spot on the first day as your new pastor. When I look back at where I was then and where you were then, I stand amazed at what God has done in me, growing me up to be the pastor that I believe you need and amazed at who you have become as we’ve collectively followed Jesus.

For starters, I’d ask you to stand this morning if you were a regular attendee or member of Washington Plaza Baptist Church in January of 2009. (You may sit down). Now, I would invite those of you who began attending or have joined the church since January 2009.

The visualization just before our eyes is one of the many gestures that reminds of the great time of change the last three years we’ve experienced in this very room. Some beloved friends are no longer with us because of job transfers or moves, deaths, or because they’ve decided that we are not the community that is best for them.  But, along the months, equally more have joined us too– eager to see what this “first church in Reston” or “that community in the middle of the Lake Anne” or “that church in the strip mall” (as I heard someone call us this week) are all about.  We have much to celebrate as a community including the fact that we unique to our core. This is not the church, nor never will be the church, if you want to come and pretend.  

 Though the faces may change in worship, the spirit of Washington Plaza has stayed the same throughout. “There’s something in the air here,” a recent visitor told me, “I just knew I felt welcomed and loved just as I was from the moment I first walked in the doors.”

I am proud to be the pastor of a church that welcomes people. Washington Plaza is never a place to come where your doubts or questions will be trivialized– which never ceases to amaze me, even after all this time. Though seemingly a small thing, it’s not. 

Even as your pastor, I feel spoiled when I visit other churches because I often don’t get the same feeling of knowing I’m accepted and valued with unconditional love.  And, I’m proud that we’ve done a better job at welcoming our neighbors this year. Times like the Black History month program we hosted last February in this room alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church, when our choir brought the house down with “I Love the Lord” and we sang “We Shall Overcome” together. Or, when we hosted neighborhood kids from around the Plaza in our Fabulous Fridays ministry this summer. These were stand-out welcoming moments for us!

In the same way, I am proud of our growth in intentional Interfaith partnerships. 2011 was a great year of learning more about Israel and Palestine from an Interfaith perspective and getting out in the community and talking to our neighbors of other faiths through discussion groups, special programs or shared mission projects. It’s exciting to see where our friendships with our Jewish, Muslim and other Christian friends might take us in the months ahead.

 I am also proud to be the pastor of a church that hosts a booth at Gay Pride each year (even if our booth is stuck down in an ally so that not as many people see us as we like)– for our presence at events like this says a lot about the loving people we all. We proclaim loudly by simply being at such events that all Baptists are not like the hateful ones you see on tv.

I am proud to be the pastor of a church that is willing to try start and embrace new traditions. We’ve done a lot of work in the past year as a Church Council and in particular the worship ministry to make the high holy times of the Christian calendar to be special spiritually focused events for all of us.

 Easter in 2011, was a fun day of welcoming neighbors in worship during our outdoor service (dogs were included too), hosting children for an Easter Egg hunt on the Plaza and celebrating triumphantly in song led by our choir and other guest artists in our 11 am worship gathering. I look forward to how we can make Easter just as meaningful and spiritually uplifting this year as we did last.

In the same way, we’ve built up the traditions of Advent in our community life– setting aside four Sundays at the end of every calendar year for reflective thinking about how we can usher in more peace, hope, love and joy into our lives. I love the eager anticipation that many of you are growing to feel about Advent in “getting” that Christmas is not really Christmas if we don’t prepare spiritually for it first.

We’ve got a lot of good momentum we’re heading into 2012 with as a community.

But, with all of this true, our race is not complete! There is more work to be done.

How appropriate then for this Sunday, the day we always set aside in our church for some thinking and dreaming about what we’ve accomplished and what we want to accomplish in the coming year to read the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s the one huge moment of “beginnings” for Jesus– the time when he put aside the past and looked to the future with great purpose and focus.

As Jesus’ cousin John becomes a preacher in his own right, gathering the crowds along the Jordan River and baptizing them in the waters of repentance, Jesus makes his move. He too, comes to John and asks for baptism. Though this was much to John’s surprise, feeling unworthy to even untie his sandals, Jesus insists. “You must baptize me!” Jesus says.

And in receiving the waters of baptism, Jesus proclaims with this simple, yet profound act what his life’s mission was going to be all about: obedience to the God’s plans for him. Furthermore, Jesus’ baptism would be the event setting his eyes on the cross where he would give even his life in service of all people.

However, I think when you and I picture baptisms, as we’ve witnessed them as services for others, often associate them with the word “nice.”

 If we’ve watched infant baptisms, we might remember oohing and wooing over the beautiful dresses on the soft faced babies standing beside admiring parents. If we’ve watched baptisms of older children or teens, we have memories full of the same sentiment. “Isn’t it great that they are giving their lives to God?” we might say. Or even when we see adults being immersed in the baptismal pool, which is usually what we see here at Washington Plaza– we also might feel moved through the sincerity of commitment in fully accepting their Christian faith.

 But, is this what Jesus’ baptism was all about? Is this what our baptisms are about? A nice symbol?

If we stick closely to Mark’s reading,  then we realize Jesus’ baptism was much more dramatic than a pretty religious ceremony for mothers to cry at and snapshots to be taken of cute religious devotees. This symbolic act was all about conversion to a whole new way of life.

In verse 10, just as Jesus was coming out of the water, notice what happens to the heavens in response. They were “torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on [Jesus].”

Interestingly, the verb choice of “torn apart” is exactly the same at the end of Mark’s gospel when the temple curtain is “torn apart” when Jesus dies.  A “violent” and striking verb here in both places flags us to see EVERYTHING was about to change for Jesus and EVERYTHING would change for us too if we let our baptismal vows of Christ as Lord wash over us and over us again well past the day our head first touched the holy waters.

In Marcus Borg recent book: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, describes the conversion experience  of baptism in this way:  it’s “more than changing religions or joining a new church. It can also mean [and should mean] ‘a process, whether sudden or gradual, whereby religious impulses and energies become central to one’s life.”[i]

Baptism, thus is not something that we do, or is done to us, or gets us into membership at the church (as many might think), but the first step in our process of formed in a completely new way of thinking and being in the world than is natural to us.

Baptism is a covenant– which just is a fancy way of talking about a relationship with God.  Baptism is a covenant  which bids us to come and let loose of the past and allow God to raise us up in our death to new life. And, most of all, in this covenant, we are bound not only in relationship with God, but in relationship with our family who agrees through their baptism to be in relationship with us as well.

What are the two questions I ask any at their baptism? (Who is Jesus to you? And, will you commit to be a part of church community like this one to see your journey through?) It is not coincidence that such questions are asked of any baptism candidate here.

A colleague of mine from seminary, Enuma Okoro who recently published a spiritual memoir about her  search for spiritual community in which she writes about her own infant baptism saying, “If I had really known what I was getting myself baptized into, the life and death of Christ, I’m not sure I would have signed on the dotted line.”[ii] And, maybe, if you and I really knew what our baptism would ask of us, we wouldn’t have gone into the waters either. But, the last time I checked, this room is full of lots of baptized persons. So, what does this mean for us as we look toward strengthening the state of our church in 2012?

It would be easy for me at this point to talk numbers– to say that we need to start more Sunday School classes for children or offer more community welcoming Bible studies or give more money for our building fund or that we need to be together more often than Sunday mornings if we are going to grow in fellowship with one another.

And, even if all of this is true (and it is), such specific topics and goal oriented numbers would really cut short the blessings of what it means to be a baptized body of believers called the church at Washington Plaza if we don’t start we don’t start with first things first.

So, this is my charge to you as a church. The following is what you need to do in 2012 if you want your church to growth, thrive and prosper in the New Year. Are you ready? Live into your baptism. Simply live into it.

For some of you this means actually being baptized for the first time. You’ve been attending church here for a while now and you feel God’s presence and you are eager to grow, but that huge tank of water in front of people thing scares you. (I assure you I’ve never dropped anyone yet).  In the waters, my friends, it is the only way to begin– to submit yourselves to the washing away of the past and rising again, in the footsteps of Jesus. For all of you who haven’t yet been baptized, the waters are waiting just for you!

For some of you, living into your baptism means moving from a “spiritual” person to a “faith-filled” person. Being spiritually minded in your daily life is wonderful (which I know many of you are)– recognizing  moments divine intervention, seeing God’s presence in the small signs, and praying for those in distress,  and I applaud you if this is how you describe your life.

But, to all you spiritually minded folks, I say there’s more. Your baptism asks for more than to be spiritual.  Rather than being a compliant participant in the unseen things of this world, I challenge you to be a facilitator of faith. Move from responding to God questions to asking God questions of others, move  from showing up when you are asked at church to volunteering to serve at church, and move this day  from praying in crisis mode to praying with an eye on the future mode. 

And, for still some of you who are already faith-filled in your life steps, living into your baptism might mean today even more death so that there can be even more life.  Just because you died once or twice in your life to self, doesn’t mean in the kingdom of God that you will never be asked to do it again!

And so,  living into your baptism will be doing something as crazy as applying for a new job where you feel called to serve but the pay is less,  moving to a new space where you can be more deeply connected in community, reconciling with a family member you’d said you’d never speak to again or as we talked about in the deacon’s meeting yesterday, making room in your heart for hope to be born again.  Only the Spirit can clue you into the specifics– but what I can tell you is this, your baptism might just lead you in directions for your life that you absolutely in a million years never planned (and this is a good thing, I promise!).

So, are you in? Are you ready to remember your baptism?  It’s our high calling a people set a part to usher in through our lives more and more of God’s presence on earth.

So, today, church, just as we are about to prepare our hearts to come to the Lord’s table, we’re going to remember our baptisms too. We are going to remember our deaths so that all God’s new beginnings in this New Year can bring us new life too. So, no maybe this isn’t the journey for you, but maybe it is and maybe today is your opportunity to say again to our Lord: “I want you in my life.” I can’t think of a better way to begin 2012.


[i] Quoted in Kate Huey, “Weekly Sermon Seeds: Mark 1:4-11- New Beginnings”

[ii]  Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community. (Nashville, Fresh Air Books, 2010), 38.

January 1, 2012

2011: A Year in Review

As I consider the fact that today is the last calendar day of 2011, I feel much gratitude for all the many people and places and opportunities that have made this year so memorable for this Preacher on the Plaza. Tomorrow I will begin my 4th year as Washington Plaza’s pastor (though I’m still on Christmas vacation and won’t be at church).

January 2011 started with a bang. Not only did the dawning of the New Year come with such high hopes for me personally and professionally for wonderful things ahead, but a life-changing trip to Israel was on the horizon.  Traveling with an Imam, a Rabbi and another local Reston area pastor over MLK weekend, Kevin and I entered into the world of Interfaith dialogue like no other experience could have given us.  And, so did Washington Plaza. We hosted a series of conversations about Israel in our joint adult Sunday morning Bible Study hour each week in January. And, we gathered together as Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike in Reston for a community forum in June. All of this is what we hope is just the beginning of a long relationship of partnering together.

In February, I celebrated my 31st birthday in the quietness of few dear friends and got these fabulous gifts. And, our pastoral intern– a first in a long time at WPBC– John Luft got settled into work with our growing children’s ministry. And, I learned how old I felt when John regularly wanted to call me “ma’am” or “Rev. Hagan” though I kept telling him that we were colleagues and just “Elizabeth” was fine with me.

As Lent rolled around (late this year), a new worship series was a big hit. We spent the six Sundays leading up to Easter exploring “Characters Welcome” and had wonderful extra worship participation from members of the worship ministry offering testimonies, song and even especially designed art for the altar. This was one of my favorite sermons from the series that took a different look at the woman at the well– maybe she wasn’t so evil after all?

Easter, was one of the best yet at WPBC. We hosted an outdoor “sunrise” service (if you consider 8 am early) followed by a big pancake breakfast thanks to Holly, Bobby, Brad and the rest of the cooking crew and a wonderfully joyful Easter celebration service that Ken and the choir arranged for us. I remember feeling spiritually moved this year, more than previous years– a sign of the Spirit among us. Easter was not show as it had seemed in other churches where I belonged previously: at WPBC this year, Easter was powerful worship of a living God.

May was a month of personal and professional travel for me. I spent the week after Easter rediscovering at the spa with a dear preacher friend in Sedona (with two years worth of funeral and wedding money saved). I did a lot of thinking about life there, especially as the scenery outside my window each morning was just too beautiful not to put me in a happy place. At the end of the month, I traveled to the mountains of North Carolina for the annual girl preaching retreat (with other Baptist females who were also senior or co-pastors). Being with kindred and kind spirits was a source of great inspiration for the long days of summer ahead. I wrote about the experience of gaining collective wisdom from this group in this post.

Over the course of this year in many ways, I’ve seen my sense of vocational calling refined. If you now ask me what I do, I would tell you that I am a pastor writer and maybe one day I’ll be a writer pastor (who knows?).  Such a revelation has been one that has taken much time to have the courage to say– for writing can be one of the most vulnerable things you can do– but one that I’ve claimed more deeply throughout the year beginning with this post in May, and then applying and being accepted to the summer workshop at Collegeville in Minnesota. Being a writer, has been a calling that has bubbled up much joy in me so you can imagine how much I loved spending a week thinking about and practicing the art of writing alongside 11 other pastors. It was heavenly as you can tell from this post from my time there in August. I am blessed that the leadership of Washington Plaza supports my growing vocation as a pastor writer. They were so happy to celebrate with me when I found out in November that I received a grant to do some more writing through a grant from the Louisville Institute, even though this means I’ll be taking some extra time off in 2012 for research purposes.

In the dog days of summer at church, we took at Sabbatical from our sanctuary and explored a new kind of informal worship around tables in the Plaza Room. The word around the water fountain about this series was “It was like coffee-house church.” Though the jury is still out if we will do it again, it was a nice change for all of us I think from the regular pace of church. We also hosted our first ever “Fabulous Fridays” as a weekly community outreach to children in the month of July. I’m not sure had more fun– the kids or the adults– as you can tell from the pictures. But, it was a great learning lesson for all of us that in relation to children’s ministry “if we built it, they will come.”

I also explored how controversal blogging can be with the mixed responses to these posts about gay rights and how the church needs to get on board, women in ministry, the future of denominations. In the end, I’m glad to have been a catalyst of the conversation and am glad to be writing, even if not everyone agrees (though I’m sorry often times that blogging does not lead to more face-to-face meetings which is the best communication and transformation tool after all).

This fall, I explored some difficult topics in worship in worship especially after being called upon to do a funeral for a 1 month old that broke my heart in ways there are no words for. We went “back to the basics” in September talking about grace, forgiveness, community life and authority. I got a lot of feedback to this sermon on forgiveness. And, as the preacher, I realized again, how much we struggle as human people with giving and receiving the “I forgive you” that happen throughout our lives.

I got a much-needed mental break of a couple of days on the beach in September with Kevin and two of our very dear friends though getting home from this trip turned into a nightmare, but also a great sermon illustration. I really do love my church peeps and am proud to be their pastor– and not just because this is what Lovett Weems taught me to say🙂

I also participated in two funeral services with connections to my days at First Baptist Gaithersburg for two saints of God in their own regard. Joseph Smith and Tom Hobbs are two amazing men that I miss every time I think of them. It is too sad that the good die young (and I still consider 70 young).

But, in all honesty, as much as I see so much good in 2011, it has not all been roses. I feel a great sense of sadness for the hopes for 2011 that could have been but simply are not.  (If you are interested in reading more about this, be watching for a spiritual memoir about grief coming your way. It will be my first book and I’m really excited!). This fall, I was blessed with an invitation to join a preacher writing group that includes wonderful writers like her and her and her (so much fun!) that will  continue into the New Year. It’s the peer pressure I need to keep writing and seeking to write well.

I also grieve for how there have been times in our church life together when individual members have chosen a path of separating themselves instead of being bound together in community. There are some folks with whom I began the ministry as pastor of Washington Plaza with who are now no longer in church because of various reasons. I grieve what more we could have done as a church to welcome them in and meet their needs, but also take a dose of realism too believing that the church and I have done the best we could. I can’t make people want Jesus or Christian community or even understand the path we are on as a church. For those who have decided not to journey with us in 2012, I say, it is their loss. For, I still believe about WPBC that the best is yet to be!

Personally, I have dreams to keep going in 2012 because of the amazing faithfulness of this life partner and various communities of colleagues, friends and virtual supporters (such as you who are reading right now) who keep me encouraged to believe in the mystery of hope. There are times when this life and vocational calling seems more than I can handle, but then just the right person or word or moment to breathe deeply shows up and another day comes as the sun rises.

So with all the good and bad: cheers on this last day of the year to the old being gone and the new to come! I am not so secretly excited about what is to come that I know not yet. What about you?

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