Word of the Week

Such is a question that many are asking these days. Especially as the influence of denominational bodies around the world continues to shrink:

Does it really matter that you were baptized a Presbyterian then raised by a United Methodist and then settled on an a non-denominational church in adulthood?

Does it matter if you worship with smells and bells and refined liturgy or just follow the words on the screen?

Does it matter if you really believe all the teachings and reverence all the history of the name of the church on the door where you worship?

So many of us are saying no.  Many of us are coming to view our church loyalty to a much more ecumenical home.

This is why you see so many churches offering:

But, even still there are values that make one church group different from another. And some traditions really like to keep up with their rules!

As a pastor, this is what I've observed: so many of us don't know why we land where we do and what actually we agree with when it comes to the place we choose to worship.

For this reason, I'm thankful for my writing colleague, Ed who put together a collection of posts over at his blog  called the "Denominational Derby."  Each week or so he's exploring a different denominational tradition and bringing voices together of those who are of that particular family.

Today, I was asked to contribute from the perspective of the church of my ordination: The American Baptist (USA). If you want to learn more of my story of how by exclusion I landed in this inclusive group here's how the story begins--

When I was 14 years old, I knew that God called me to ministry. One Sunday morning in the mountains of Tennessee, heard a compelling talk from a missionary preparing to leave America. She wanted to help people know the love of Jesus. Something tugged at my heart too saying, “This life is for you.”

When I told my Southern Baptist Church of about this spiritual prompting, they had one question: “Do you want to be a home or a foreign missionary?”

Honestly I had no idea.

What kind of question was this for a young girl who hadn’t even picked a college?

But, for women called to vocational ministry in Southern Baptist life “mission work” is the only option and preferably with a husband.

Want to read more: check it out here.

Furthermore, if you want to learn more about the uniqueness of Protestant denominations, at least from an American perspective, go on over to Ed's blog and sign up to receive his weekly emails for the Derby! 

And let's keep this conversation going.

In my life, I've seen the pastor/ congregational relationship from many different angles:

In these situations, I've heard a lot of stories that begin: "Please don't be like our last pastor that . . ."

I've heard a lot of "Well, I'm not sure why ___ went into the ministry."

I've heard silence from pastors who I reached out to pastor me, pastors who didn't return my emails or remember my name during the 10th time I introduced myself to them.

Though we often say (especially in the free church tradition) that all members are ministers, who the pastor is really does matter.

Pastors shape the character of local congregations. Pastors set the tone for congregational life.  Pastors can define and easily create conflict in communities where there was none.

So, in the spirit of the good work of pastors going forth into the world, here's 4 things that I believe every congregation needs from his/her pastor. He or she must:

1. Love People

When a pastor is called to a local church, he/ or she needs to love its people (or learn to love them) quirks and all. Pastors model unconditional love to all kinds of people:  the homeless man on the steps, to the woman dying of cancer in hospice, and the loud mouthed teenager we'd really wish didn't sign up for the overnight retreat.

Of course, there are some days we won't like the people in our mix. But as in a marriage, we always end the day in love. Love that hopes. Love that protects. Love that believes the best is still yet to be.

This is what I most want to say: congregations KNOW when we don't love them. And, no amount of god-speak can cover up lack of true emotional connection. So, if we don't have a heart that wants to grow in love of people in particular place, we really don't need to find another job.

2. Practice Pastoral Care

It always amazes me when people become pastors and then are shocked to learn that visitation is part of the vocation.

"Oh, I really have to go visit shut ins? Oh, I really have to make hospitals? Oh, I really need to call regular visitors to introduce myself?"


Pastors are care-givers of people in ordinary times, in joy and crisis.

In my experience, congregations will forgive a multitude of boring sermons and missteps in committee meetings, when they've seen us around their supper table.

3.  Show Some Preaching Effort

Sermons are holy moments, folks. We shouldn't take our opportunities to climb into the pulpit on a regular basis lightly.

Where else do a group of committed people gather in community weekly to hear a word about an ancient text? Few places other than the church! And, people don't just come to church anymore to check a box. Most people who give up sleep on Sunday mornings, want to hear something of meaning from the proclaimer.

So why do we, as pastors, think that we can serve up ill prepared homilies week after week after week with nothing more than cute stories or pre-packaged sermon fodder we found on the internet?

Sure, not every pastor's strength is the proclaiming moment. And this is ok (see point 1). But every pastor can try. We can honor calling by starting our sermons preparation earlier than the night before. Every pastor can make an effort to present something of value.

4. Live the Life, Not Just Talk the Talk

Of course, we as pastors aren't super humans. There will be times when will disappoint. Maybe even lots of times . . .  We'll forget somebody's birthday. We'll offend the church council member with the most seniority. We'll forget to make an important phone call. But, even in our imperfection, we need to be known as leaders who follow through with our commitments, more times than not. Basic curtesies like:

Answering emails.

Having conversations, even the hard ones.

Sending thank you notes.

Most of all, people need to see that we're the real deal. We love Jesus. And out of our love of Jesus, we do what we do.

What things would you add to the list?

My favorite Sunday of the year is hands down: Pentecost. I loved having a chance to preach it this year at this church.

Who doesn't love an excuse to wear red, adorn the church with colorful banners and have a birthday cake at coffee hour after worship?  And personally, I love having an excuse to buy Pentecost shoes (an annual tradition).

But then it's one day. And, it's over. We pack away all the red till next year.

And in the same way, it seems that our "Spirit-filled" language seems to cease too.

(Unless we are Christians who are members of a Pentecostal denomination such as the Assemblies of God, Four Square or a non-denominational congregation).

Especially in the mainline church, where I spend most of my time,  we don't talk about the Holy Spirit all too often.

Maybe we think we're too busy with other things? Maybe because we believe one Sunday does it all? Or maybe we're just afraid.

If I got to vote, I'd say the mainline church is afraid. We're because the Spirit is not something we can control or put into a pre-planned and printed order of worship. We're afraid of the label  "Pentecostals." We want our worship to be respectable, intellectual, and in the pews with appropriate space from our neighbors.

But, might there be another possibility, even for us "frozen chosen" or "back row Baptists" or "contemplative types?"

This past Sunday at the church I've been attending in Oklahoma City, we had Pentecost day round 2.

It was a bit strange at first. After checking out the bulletin as the prelude played, I leaned over to Kevin and commented, "Don't they know that Pentecost was 2 Sundays ago?" Maybe they just forgot?

As the service continued, we heard the same scripture from earlier in the month (Acts 2). We sang Spirit acknowledging hymns. The preacher preached with a red stole around his neck.

But there was point. As the proclaimer started his remarks, he started with this claim. We are all Pentecostal people.

Like those gathered in Jerusalem on that first Pentecostal day, for us as followers of Jesus, it doesn't matter our country of origin. It doesn't matter our language. We can understand each another because of the Spirit's presence among us.

The proclaimer said, the diversity of those in the congregation that first Pentecostal day was the message. The kingdom of God would always be lived out in community. The kingdom of God would always be lived out with different colors, accents and ways of worshiping present. We need not be afraid of the word Pentecost. For if we are followers of Jesus, we are all Pentecostal people.

Pentecost was not a day but a way of life.

So, in the spirit of this exhortation and something that has been on my mind for a while, I'm happy to announce that for the next several Thursdays, Preacher on the Plaza will be hosting a group of diverse guest bloggers.

They'll be musing about: what does it mean to walk in the Spirit today? How have they come to see themselves as Pentecostal people?

All of this comes with the hope that this summer will be a time for  new dreams, new visions, new words to describe our collective journey of faith. That though the church we worship in might be Baptist, Catholic or Reformed, we'd be ok with acknowledging our shared Pentecostal faith.

Joining the conversation next Thursday will be the fabulous, Rev. Abby Thornton Hailey and her experience of preaching Pentecost in another culture other than her own. Stay tuned.

Here's to hoping your weekend is full of Pentecostal possibilities!

(If you'd love to join in this series with a blog to share, contact me. I'd be glad to include your voice too!)

“Imaging a New World” Sermon Preached at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, Hyattsville, MD

Acts 2:1-21 with Genesis 11:1-9

Can you remember the last time or anytime you were in an environment where you spoke a different language than everyone else?

It could have been on an international trip either to the US for the first time or abroad, even something as simple as getting someone to clean your house or mow your lawn who originated from another place.

What did it feel like? What did you wish for? What do you still remember about such a time?

Over the past two years that my husband, Kevin has served as the President of an international relief and development organization called Feed the Children—a non-profit working in all 50 US states and in 10 countries around the world, we’ve done a lot of traveling. I mean A LOT of traveling! We’ve visited education programs and dedicated new feeding centers and built relationships with new friends all over the world. We’ve become the outsiders in communities.

The experiences no matter where we are in the world are similar. As we approach a community in need where Feed the Children has a school or a water project or a health clinic and begin to meet with parents and kids, it is a paralyzing feeling. Most of them, English is not spoken at all. And as for me, I can’t communicate beyond the basics of “Hello” “Good Morning” or “Nice to meet you” in the language of the community (if that!).

Not only this, but later when we sit down for lunch, I don’t know what I’m ordering on a menu. I don’t know what others are saying around the table. I don’t know how to tell new friends that I’m so impressed with the strides they’re making to help all the kids have brighter futures.

I rely on smiles, handshakes and hand motions--- all geared toward making a point the best I can with my body language. I hope that this finds a way to communicate love somehow.

I do the best I can. But it is frustrating nonetheless. I wish I knew Spanish. I wish I knew Swahili. I wish I spoke French.

As we begin to study our Old Testament lesson this morning, we read an experience of completely different proportions. Those gathered on the earth at this time had never experienced such a problem. They all spoke the same language. They gathered together as one.

It was a glorious time in human history. Translators were never needed. Everyone got along so well.

But the problem came when those gathered became a little too confident in their unified powers. They believed, Genesis 11 tells us that “they could make a name for themselves” by building a tower high in the sky with bricks and mortar. They wanted to be the ones completely in control of what came next, not God.

From what we know of God, we can imagine how well this went over . . .

In response, the Lord says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” You see, God said such hubris would not do. Their punishment became separation from their human brothers and sisters. No longer would everyone speak the same language.

Folks began migrating, scripture tells us, from this moment on in groups of those who spoke their same language. Colors and skin tones began to divide from one person from another person. “Where are you from?” became an identifier making one person different from another. The world became full of not only different languages, but also different tones of voice and accents that continue to this day.

Ever gone to Mississippi or Boston or even Detroit and have a problem understanding what they’re saying?

Two weeks ago, for Memorial Day I visited my in-laws in South Georgia and was asked at 11:30 am to come to the dinner table and had no idea what was going on. Wasn’t it the middle of the day? South Georgia translation: dinner = lunch. Even if our official language is English, there are still a thousand ways that we can be DIVIDED in speech from one another.

But was this the way that God intended for us to live? Was the Tower of Babel and all that went down there the end of the story of language and how we live together in community?

It wasn’t. And to begin to understand God’s vision for our world, even as human pride sought to destroy every good thing that God intended, we must go to Easter—that liturgical season we just ended last Sunday with the celebration of the Ascension.

For it was on Easter, the day of resurrection, that Jesus, yes, Jesus ended his journey on earth with complete hope. No longer did division have to be the final word. When the women at the tomb heard from the angel that “Jesus was risen just as he said” it was a NEW day on earth. All were now welcome into God’s family, not just those who followed the practices of the Jewish faith.

This was the earth shattering truth: Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed).

But with any MAJOR life changing revelation, it needed fleshing out. It needed time to settle into human hearts and minds. It needed a season or what we call the church, Eastertide—50 days from then until now.

And this now is our reading from Acts 2.

The day started out pretty normally other than the fact it was a festival on the Jewish calendar and everyone was gathered in Jerusalem for worship and celebration. The disciples of Jesus, in particular were all together. They were still trying to figure out what to do with their lives, what would be the next steps for them in this post Jesus world. But then, verse 2 of Acts 2 tells us that, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

What could it be???

I could imagine that the abruptness of this interruption was frightening.

But even more what could be named, qualified or even described, the Spirit of God was on the move and the world would never be the same.

Scripture even has a hard time describing it using vague language like, “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”

As the people gathered tried to describe what was going on were their actual tongues? Was there really fire? Probably not, but the author of the book of Acts knew only dramatic image would do because of what came next. Verse four tells that that all of them, “began to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them.”

And though we in the church world can easily get caught up in verses like this wondering, “What is tongues?” “Does this mean we are to speak in tongues?” “Are those believers in Jesus who say they’re speaking in tongues today more holy than the rest of us?” (All of these questions are best saved for a Church History class).

What is truth is this—the Spirit came and those who received the Spirit understood one another in ways they’d never had before. Suddenly, you see, it became a world where LANGUAGE was no longer a divider.

Through the Spirit people heard one another in ways in which they NEVER had before!

About a year ago, I journeyed to Guatemala alongside the Feed the Children staff from the home office based out of Oklahoma. It was my first visit to this country and I was eager to see the beauty of the place I’d only read about in textbooks years before!

As the week came to an end, I was notably aware of the language divide. Many of the rural communities that we visited were full of residents of Mayan decent (many of whom live on less than $1 US dollar day, by the way and have not completed a grade school education). Thus, at each stop, the mothers and children spoke a different dialect of a tribal language unique to their Mayan heritage.

The Spanish-speaking Guatemalan staff did not even understand what was going on! Together we relied on the Mayan children who’d learned Spanish in school to translate their tribal language into Spanish. Then the Feed the Children staff that spoke Spanish and English translated for Kevin and I. While it was good to be among these beautiful and hospitable people, the communication was exhausting. Double translation as you might imagine took a lot of time.

la foto (1)But, when it came time to say goodbye at the airport to the directors of the program, Altagracia and Ricardo, non-English speakers themselves, but leaders full of kind hearts and deep love for the children of their nation, I found tears rolling down my cheeks. Though we’d never spoken directly from native language to native language, I knew these the hearts of these two. I knew they loved God and sought to serve the Lord in all they did. They loved and appreciated me and wanted me to know how happy they were to have my visit to their country. I felt the same about them.

Together we stood on holy ground.

And the frustrations of communication that we’d experienced over the last seven days seemed to pale in comparison to the hugs we exchanged and the smiles that beamed across all our faces. It has been good to be together in partnership and we all knew it. God had done a work among us—a work that was changing and is changing children’s lives in Guatemala forever!

Such was a moment of the Spirit transcending, resting upon us, and interceding for us if I’ve ever experienced one.

For while my friends did not suddenly understand English and I did not suddenly understand Spanish, something about our hearts connected in ways that could have only come from God. Something opened that had been previously closed before.

Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright has said: “Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God's new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.”

Or, as I like to think about it, on the day of Pentecost a new world comes to be. Heaven really does come to earth!

A world where the words I speak do not keep me from my neighbor, but can join us together. . . .

A world where it matters not where I came from, but only where I am willing to journey in the future . . .

A world where the color of my skin does not make me better than or less than, but merely a beautiful part of God’s brilliant mosaic . . .

They call this day in the liturgical calendar we follow, the birthday of the church. Or in some churches a good excuse to have a cake at coffee hour after worship . . .

It’s the birthday of the church because with the giving of the Spirit, all of us were given the tools we need to make our community life together possible. You see, in Jesus, we are given the purpose. Remember the message of Easter. Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed). But with the Spirit, we are given the means to share the message.

I want to ask you this: when is the last time you sat in a church committee meeting or a Bible study and thought to yourself, how in the world do I go to church with these people?

I bet all of us could relate.

Church, in our modern expression is a crazy thing. People of all kinds of backgrounds and cultures and ages and opinions and education levels and life experiences and on and on gather because we love Jesus and want to follow Him, but in actuality, living it out can be one the hardest thing that we’ve ever tried to do.

And if you’ve been around church for any length of time, you know what I mean. We naturally are going to disagree. We’re going to go through seasons when we don’t get along. We are going to even fight with our words from time to time (and hopefully not with our hands!)

We may want to walk away from church sessions and throw up our hands and say, “What’s the point?”

But, today we remember the gift of the Spirit. We remember the great tool God gave us in the Spirit. We remember that the Spirit is what enables us to come together as one, as Jesus prayed that we would be.

Lauren F. Winner, one of my professors from Duke Divinity School and author of God Meets Girl writes, “The Spirit is the reason we can build a church and have confidence that we will get it at least a little bit right.”

Because of the Spirit, you see, we can imagine a new world. We can imagine a new community. We can re-imagine this community and the next chapter that God has in store for it in all its potential.

We don’t have to let our language divide hold us back—whether that be actual spoken languages as God brings non-English speakers to our front doors. Or when God brings us folks who hail from different parts of our country with strange ways of doing things or even when the different “languages” of our hearts seek to divide us.

For today is the day of Pentecost. Today is the day of new winds of the Spirit. Today is the day of the color red—the color of the refining fire. Today is the day of imagining a world where we are all not only welcome at God’s table, but heard and understood.


While recently attending a writing workshop, the presenter offered some advice that hasn't left me since I first heard it. "If you want to write well, if you want to connect with your audience," she offered, "You always must tell the truth. There's nothing that can spoil a good story faster than a character who the readers know is not forthcoming in their words."

Similarly, when I think of the local church and what its hopeful future means to so many of us, I can't help but think of my writing teacher's advice. In the age of decline, division and discord of modern Protestant life, we also need to tell the truth.

How many times have you heard such whispers in church life: "I am not sure my church is willing to invite a woman to be senior pastor yet" or "Could you please not mention gay people when you come speak at the conference?" or "Could you not bring that loud music into my worship service?"

And then the conversation goes on: "You just don't understand how things are. You can't ask me to change that right now even if I wanted to . . . "

But this is what I wonder: is the real problem our biblical understanding of a women's place in ministry? Is our real problem with what God thinks of gay and lesbian people? Is our real problem standards for what meaningful worship looks like? Or, is this all about what makes us afraid?

This is what I think is true: we are afraid. I know because I was once afraid of all of these things too.

We're afraid of what the church might look like if more women, especially younger women, started preaching from our pulpits, dedicating our babies and baptizing our children. All that estrogen in church council and deacon meetings might just lead us in unknown directions of ministry.

We're afraid of the new paradigm that would come from sermons in higher pitched voices or the need to create pastoral maternity leave policies.

Some of us fear what the church might look like if we openly welcomed gay and lesbian members into our congregation. For, without that "sin" to label as most hated in the eyes of God, we might have to look deeper into our own hearts and see that we too have fallen short of God's best.

We're afraid of how we might feel if we were wrong about God's inclusion policy.

Some of us fear what the church might look like if we lived more authentically with one another. Instead of blaming the change in the church music program for causing a scene at choir practice or making us unhappy, we'd actually be able to say, "My marriage is in trouble," "I don't know how I am going to get through the teenage years with my son" or "I think I am going to lose my job."

We're afraid to let people see the broken parts of us, the parts that make us human.

But, do we want our fears to stunt our growth as communities of faith?

Do we want our church families to be even more divided simply because we are afraid to listen to something new?

No matter where ongoing discussions about "What is the future of the church?" take us in all the places we are having them, I hope more spaces are made available for us to be honest.

We need to "Tell it like it is," as my grandmother used to say.

We need to speak our fears aloud what we are questioning or searching for answers about without fear of judgment.

We need to know that change is hard and doesn't happen overnight, but at the very least we have to start by listening to each other, listening to what is underneath what we are saying, and make space for one another to be heard.