Word of the Week

IMG_1176These are busy days around our household for as many of you know in addition to having a new baby around the house and putting the final touches on launching my book, Birthed, I've been serving a short-term pastorate at North Chevy Chase Christian Church in Chevy Chase, MD.

I began there in July and will serve as senior pastor on a part-time basis till October when this congregation's minister returns from her Sabbatical.

It's the first Disciples of Christ congregation I've served since becoming an officially endorsed minister within the Disciples of Christ earlier this year (while keeping my American Baptist credentials from my ordination as well).

If you aren't familiar with this denomination, read more about them here. It's a great fit for my progressive leaning, yet still Jesus loving self. And I'm so thankful for the Capital Area Disciples for welcoming me so warmly since I moved back to DC last year.

It has been fun getting to know North Chevy Chase folks and most of all to be designing and leading worship with them each Sunday.

At heart, I'm really a series preacher. I love taking a topic or theme and staying with it for 4-6 Sundays. It's a great way to LEAD through preaching, helping the congregation get their head around a big idea (and I love big ideas!) But when you're a guest minister (which is what I do a lot of these days) you don't have the opportunity to always carry a series out. So, I've cherished this special experience.

Over the past couple of weeks, we've gone off the lectionary texts and focused our attention in worship on the theme of "Excuses, Excuses." What are the excuses we offer God which keep us from living abundantly? Dollarphotoclub_75730115

Someone came up to me after church yesterday and said this series really surprised her. "I thought you'd just be guilting us as to why we aren't this or that, but instead what you've given an opportunity to look inward and find out what keeps us from close relationship with God. I've needed this time, pastor!"

Right on! (It's so fun when people get what I'm trying to do!) 

First we tackled the excuse of "I'm Afraid" taking our cues from the courage of Esther's story in the Old Testament.

Next we examined the excuse of "I'm a Defect" looking at the encounter Jesus had with the Syrophoenician woman-- championing her boldness to not let the challenges of her life define her. 

Then, this past Sunday we stuck close to the excuse of "I've Made the Unforgivable Mistake" by reading Psalm 51 and thinking about the tale of David and Bathsheba from the book of 2 Samuel.

And I have to say that this Sunday was one of my favorite experiences of worship in a long time! I realized once again that so many of us (if not all of us) hold things inside, believing the worst about ourselves, and rejecting God's sweet forgiveness.

It was so great to say: "There's nothing you (and I) can do to separate ourselves from God's love" over and over again. We all need to hear it.

In response to the sermon, I invited the congregation to write down on the post-it note in their bulletin something in their life that they felt like was "the unforgivable sin." Then, as we all sang together, one by one everyone came forward and placed the post-it note in a paper shredder as a sign of God's forgiveness.

I stayed at the pulpit watching this all play out until the line reached the end.

And I have to say, that I fought back tears as I heard the shredding sound over and over again.

It was some of the most beautiful spiritual music I'd heard in a long time. For with each post-it note going into, it was a sign of God's unconditional love and forgiveness for a person, and then another, and really for us all. What amazing grace! (And it's something you can try at home... go find your paper shredder too!).

A man came up to me after worship and said, "I'm not one to be writing sins on pieces of paper and bringing them to the front of the church, pastor, but today, reminded me of God's love again."

For this response and the others I will never know about-- I say thank you for the gift of preaching, of leading and of being a part of a particular community. It's the best stuff interim ministry is made of!

And in case you're curious . . . next week's excuse is "I'm Spiritual But Not Religious." Stay tuned . . .

For all of us whose lives are firmly planned in the church, there's one week of the year that exhausts us more than any other. And it's this one.  Holy Week.

Extra services to plan.

Extra crowds to usher.

Extra bulletins to print.

Sadly, it's the time of year that clergy complain most about.

Or church administrators talk about "getting through."

And when it's all said and done, the Sunday after Easter is one of the lowest attended services all year with the excuse "We're all too tired to come back." (And we really are).

Sometimes it's hard to think the "extra" is worth it.

I heard a clergy friend recently say, "I worked so hard on my Maundy Thursday sermon last year and only 10 people came. What's the point?"

I sat in a church council meeting a couple of years back when the leadership debated whether or not to have both a Maundy Thursday and/or a Good Friday service. The consensus was, "Oh that's too much to ask folks to come to! We possibly couldn't do both!'

I heard a member of a worship committee once offer about first time guests on Easter: "If the people really cared about church and God, they'll come back another week on their own. We don't need to do anything special for them!'

These encounters are full of frustration, annoyance and even anger, aren't they?

These leaders didn't want to give any more to Holy Week than necessary! If their efforts in previous years weren't acknowledged, appreciated or supported (or resulted soaring attendance numbers the next month), then why bother?

But to all of this my church loving friends, put your best foot forward. BestFootForwardMain

I want to remind all of us that Holy Week is our week if there ever was one.

It's our week to show up.

The story of a triumph, the clash of money and power, service, betrayal, denial, death and new life is our faith!

Where would our narrative be without the Upper Room, the cross, the tomb and the resurrection?

How would we have anything to say the other 51 other Sundays without the message of Easter? The themes of Holy Week are what we believe!

So why not go for the gold this week and show up every time your church doors open? Why not plan and offer the best possible worship experiences we can muster up?

Why don't we roll out the red carpet for our guests-- even if we don't see them again till Christmas?

Really, why not?

I know it can be exhausting.

I know it might be thankless.

I know you might want to crawl into your cave on Sunday afternoon and not come out for awhile when it's over.

But do it, church! Embrace your week.

Preach your best sermons.

Show up on Thursday night, sunrise and Easter am too!

Love on your visitors.

Claim it. Name it. Own it.

Put your best foot forward, church. If you don't who will?

And P.S. If you live in the Washington DC area and don't have anywhere to go in particular this Holy Week, join me for services at Palisades Community Church. Learn more here. 

photoAt a dinner party recently I was introduced to a group of people gathered around cocktails as "Kevin's wife."

Not Elizabeth (or Pastor Elizabeth like I used to be at the church).

Not even by my title at Feed The Children (yes, I have one. They've starting calling me the Ambassador of Social Advocacy).

But I was called Kevin's wife. And it took a few minutes for such words to settle in. Were they talking about me?

It's not that I don't enjoy being the wife of Kevin. Kevin Hagan is a wonderful man. One of the best decisions I ever made was to marry him. But to be called "Kevin's wife" as if I didn't have an identity of my own was a whole new ballgame.

I am in a phase where I go and what I do has a lot to do with my husband's schedule. I plan personal out-of-town trips through Kevin's assistant to make sure he isn't already booked. And everything about the our daily routines has something to do with Feed The Children-- when we travel, when we eat, and what we look forward to in the future.

It has been quite a transition for our household to function in this way! We were such simple people before.

If you know anything about me from these posts or from time spent in ministry together, you know how hard this transition has been for me. It is not one that either one of us expected when Kevin took the job as CEO of Feed The Children over a year ago.

I planned to stay pastoring in a local church.

I planned to live in one city, not two.

I planned to always contribute a sizable income to our household.

But, my plans are not the plans for now. Here I am in the life I never asked for supporting an organization that feed over 350,000 every school day Attachment-1internationally.

I am no longer a leader in an organization where I get to speak my mind as I choose. Rather I have to remember that everything I do and say is a reflection on Kevin.

I no longer get to assume that people are befriending me because they want to know me-- some people are simply "fake" kind because they want something from Kevin. (Though there are a few gems of people who have truly become friends in this journey).

I no longer get to deposit a paycheck into my bank account from my place of my employment. (Though I work for Feed The Children, I am not allowed to be paid).

This is what being the CEO's wife is all about these days.

I am a feminist. Really I am. There are so days when all of this inequality makes me angry. But, the more we struggled and wrestled with all sorts of vocational and geographical possibilities that would keep our marriage strong, this kind of non-traditional life is where we landed. There's so much work to do at Feed The Children in line with what I can offer.

And this season of life is not without its gifts.

Who would have thought that a way would be made for Kevin and I (with our very different personalities and interests) to serve together? Who would have thought that my background in religious studies would prove to be so helpful in Kevin's business ventures at non-profit with strong Christian values?

Who would have thought that we'd get to become surrogate parents to thousands of children around the world that daily depend on Feed The Children's services? Who would have thought we'd get to travel the world regularly and spend time with such children?

Who would have thought that I could have an avenue to build relationships with so many amazing saints around the world-- a much larger congregation than I could have ever imagined? Who would have thought that I'd get to preach and pray in places like Kenya and Honduras every year?

Being the CEO's wife-- it's me these days.

But in this "title" I need to say that I still have a voice.

Kevin belongs to me as much as I belong to him.

I still have my own strong opinions on most everything (just ask!).

I still believe in women's leadership in the church, though no church in Oklahoma will hire me (Sigh).

304305_10151240270714168_178293183_nI still work as hard as I did in official "full-time ministry," though I don't get paid.

I really don't like cocktail parties in the first place where this whole mess began.

Really, if you'd like to get to know me, I'd rather sit down with a cup of coffee with you-- human being to human being.

I hate the CEO glam. Really, I'd rather spend my time in one of our field programs in Kenya or Guatemala loving on babies and encouraging mothers, than networking at a party.

Most of all, I'd would love you to see my heart.

And if you did, I believe you'd see that I was nothing that extraordinary, just a person following my calling the best I can as I understand it.

I am very much just Elizabeth.

Yesterday, we held our second deacon ordination service in the tenure that I've been pastor here. It was a great celebration service to welcome Marie Mercer onto the deacon ministry team, and a good opportunity for us as a congregation to remember why it is that we call servant leaders out in our churches. When we held our first deacon ordination service (in over 20 years!) in November 2010, the church body as a whole was a bit skeptical, I believe of this type of ordained leadership but I think what the congregation has experienced since is delightful surprise. We are blessed by our deacons at WPBC!

Acts 6:1-9: Deacons Needed!

There's nothing like a good church fight to get God's plans for a community moving in the right direction, isn't there? Well such was the case as we look into our Acts lection for this morning. The beginning of the first deacon ministry came out of a church fight.

Though when many of us think of the title of deacon, nice and hallowed images come to mind of saintly folks who serve in leadership positions in churches, the role of deacon within the church community evolved out of a conflicted situation that only some attention to administration could fix.

The church, as it began, was centrally located in Jerusalem and new believers to the family of faith emerged almost daily. Everyone shared their possessions with one another. Powerful healing and teaching regularly existed as part of daily life.  Yet, found itself at a moment of crisis: not everyone got from the community what they most needed.

When communities of faith are filled with diverse people, we know that conflict is inevitable. And, the community of believers in Jerusalem had never been homogenous from the start. Remember that the day of Pentecost occurred on a day, afterall when faith Jesus gathered from all parts of the known world at the time, speaking more languages than just one. In summary, some members of the community spoke Greek, others Aramaic. Natural barriers led to patterns of poor communication, mismanaged expectations, and unspoken resentments. Specifically, the widows who lived outside the city center of Jerusalem felt they weren't receiving the same treatment as those who lived closest the 12 apostles.

And so the murmurings of complaints became so loud that a church hall meeting was necessary. What were the apostles going to do to fix this problem? The crowd of believers demanded to know.

Together, they discerned the answer: the birth of the diaconate: a group of selected, training and ordained believers who felt a call by God to the service tasks of the community including but not limited to: caring for the often neglected widows, orphans, the powerless, the destitute. And though the word "deacon is not specifically mentioned within this text, it is a word used in other places in scripture. Deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos which means servant or helper.

For what was going on in Acts 6 was THE development of how Jesus-centered community life could flourish in the long-term. It was about an organization with an "ineffective infrastructure" that needed rebuilding before it could move forward to the next level of God's best for it. And this was the discernment process: would the church be ruled by a few with assumed superpowers to do EVERYTHING or would the church be a place where gifts of service of ALL people could be celebrated and utilized for the community's edification?

Depending on what church background we were raised in or experienced before coming to this church, we might not be on the same page with the word, "deacon."

If we came from high church traditions, like found within the Catholic church, we might imagine deacons as those who serve in official capacities under the ordained priests-- preaching assisting with communion preparation, wearing vestments, etc. Deacons often as those who are set aside as a "pre-cursor" to the ordination of the priesthood, a position which is set above the congregation in terms of personal calling and expectations of spiritual leadership.

If we came from traditions within mainstream Protestant life, deacons are often present within the fellowship of the church, but you often don't know they are even there! The care for members of the congregation when special needs arise. Many times, deacons receive theological education in form of a seminary degree or attending a lay leader institute. They are often ordained, but never for administrative tasks-- only for service.

If you grew up as I did in a traditional, low church tradition, you experienced a deacon in more of an elder role-- serving as an administrative leader alongside the pastor (often hiring and firing the pastor!). In this context, sometimes deacons are asked to administer the caring ministries of the church, but most famously the deacons are those who emerge in all their glory on the day when the Lord's supper is served. Deacons in churches like these are only allowed to serve communion to the congregation, a long with their pastor.

While I celebrate the diversity of church tradition and interpretation of this scripture text, what REALLY were the first deacons asked to do?

Despite all of the modern-day confusion, the first deacons, as we can tell weren't asked to sit on the church council or serve as protective lawyers of the church's assets.

The first deacons weren't asked to make theological statements of doctrine about who was in the community and who was out.

The first deacons weren't asked to pick out what color the altar table would be or if they'd sit in comfortable pews or hard ones.

The first deacons weren't asked to be scholars in theology before beginning their time of service.

And most certainly, the first deacons weren't given special clothes to wear.

The simple answer is that deacons were asked to serve. They assisted the apostles so that they could get back to the preaching, teaching and healing ministries of the church and not get bogged down in who did or didn't get enough rice that month.

What were the qualifications of these persons. Deacons were to be of good standing in the community, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.

Notice what part I left out-- the qualification of gender. While the cultural practice of a particular time and place revered men only, a better interpretation of this text for our time readers, "select for yourselves seven individuals").

In a nutshell, deacons were to be the persons who lived their life in such a way that their sound character shone through first. And so today, it is our honor to ordain this one whom our deacon body has called out for service, Marie.

Our prayer for her this day and for all of us who will benefit from her ministry in this church is that through her service, more of us might come to know Jesus more.

All of us are given, as followers of Jesus, a calling of service. To some of us we may not be deacons, but there will be other talents God wants us to use in this place too. May we take a few moments as we watch and observe the laying on of hands of blessing for Marie-- that God has called each of us to both serve and be served. This is the BEAUTY in the body of Christ!

Thanks be to God.


Editor's note: back by demand, here's a post I wrote several months ago on another site. I thought it would be a great conversation to begin again.

Several months ago, our church moderator came to me as I was trying to make a difficult decisions about whether or not to attend a normal church event or to take some needed time with my husband. I was struggling. I really thought I should be at church. It was really hard for me to embrace the fact that it was going to be ok if I was not there.

And then, the church moderator, came and boldly addressed me. She said the problem was that I had the "Baptist Women Syndrome."

I was quick to ask what in the world she was talking about? I'd never heard of such a thing.

"Wasn't I doing a good job? Didn't she see how hard I was working being attentive to the details around the church? Didn't she see that I was trying to keep all my responsibilities covered at work, home and in life?"

And her reply went something like this: "That's exactly the point. You are a Baptist woman what you've just described is exactly what you do."

She went on, "You've worked so hard to get where you are. You've had to perform 10x faster and higher than your male colleagues to even be considered for ordination. There are hundreds of women who would kill to have your job . . . . Your syndrome is that you think if you stop for a second or show weakness or humanity, it will all be taken from you."

Though these words were hard to hear, the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was completely right. I do have the Baptist woman syndrome. And, I know there are sisters of mine out there who have it too.

For it is true, being a Baptist woman in ministry means that you always have to have your act together. You always have to know your stuff. You always have to preach better. You always have to present yourself well.  You always have to be thinking of how to get a higher education degree. You always have to be ready to be the token female at any Baptist association meeting. You always have to be ready to talk about I Timothy. You always, always.

Though we trust our congregations called and choose us because they believed in what we could offer them as a leaders, there is something in the back of our head that says, "Beware: this can all be taken away very soon."

The problem with all of this nonsense is that it leads us in patterns of behavior that are less human. We work longer hours even when we are part-time staff. We work for less money with a smile on our face because we have a job. We take on extra denominational responsibilities that our male colleagues don't want. We take the youth on one more outing even with the weekend away from our children.  We don't ask for help when we are on the edge of burnt out, sick or overwhelmed.  We don't complain. We show up, we do, and we keep going until we have to take drastic measures to change things because we've been doing it so long that we don't know how to stop.

A colleague shared this quote with me today from Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, "The call to serve God is first and the last call to be fully human."

I fear my colleagues and I have kept putting serving God and the church so high up on the priority list that we might just be becoming less and less human every day.

If we are going to have to get over our syndrome, my ministry sisters, then we are going to have to keep taking courageous steps to keep remembering we are more than our jobs. We have to take vacations and turn our cell phones off. We have to audaciously trust God to bring us ministry opportunities to us that help us to be who we need to be in all areas of our lives. We have to trust our moderator when she says, 'Chillax and take the Sunday off."  And, I'm learning to say: "Thanks be to God."