Can You Go Home Again?

I Will Be Discovering One Answer

Everyone has to leave home eventually (although I do know one fella who never did, he just outlived his parents!). Perhaps what differs is the manner in which we leave.

What was it like when you left home? Did you launch happily, feeling supported and connected, or did you burn rubber on your way out? In my case, an unfortunate event — or yes, a series of them — catapulted me into the ether and sent me into free-fall.

Perhaps some of you have a story similar to mine — you found yourself loving Jesus, but not the church that introduced you to him, and you had to escape. (more…)

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“Thirsty? A sermon on the Samaritan Woman at the Well”
by Rev. Ruth Everhart


The text is John 4:5-42, the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman at the well in Sychar.

Thirst is real, and water is a justice issue. When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, he implicitly challenged every cultural assumption about who is worthy of his time and conversation. But this shift has been slow to percolate through the cultural layers of church and society. Rev. Ruth Everhart considers the Samaritan woman’s story in tandem with her own, because gender still shapes a woman’s world. How did living water trickle through the layers of an oppressive church system and the horror of rape at gunpoint? Because the living water is still available, and still ever-fresh. (Year A, Lent 3)

Preachers, Please State the Obvious

what to do if there's a Confederate battle flag flying outside your sanctuary

Over the holiday weekend, my husband and I went on a road trip into the Shenandoah. We’ve explored Staunton before, so this time we headed a bit further south, to Lexington. Those thirty extra miles made a huge difference, dropping us from northern Virginia into southern Virginia. Or perhaps it was the timing of our visit.

Uppermost in our mind was the federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But it turns out that the Lexington area simultaneously celebrates a state holiday called Lee/Jackson Day. We were clued in by seeing a group of people marching and waving flags — the battle flags of the Confederacy. It was a disturbing sight.

The corner where they were marching happens to be the site of the Lexington Presbyterian Church. (Being church geeks we slow down and read the sign of every church we pass.)

On Sunday we returned to that corner to worship at that church. The congregation is obviously a strong institution doing many things right. The greeter and other worshipers gave us a warm, but not obnoxious, welcome. The music featured a gorgeous organ. The texts for the day were taken from the lectionary, and the preacher had a fine sermon based on the passages from Isaiah and First Corinthians.

But something basic was missing. During the service, not a mention was made about either holiday, or what they mean. Perhaps living with institutions like Virginia Military Institute and Washington Lee University inure a person to certain historic realities. Whereas I was still catching up with some basic facts. I hadn’t realized, for instance, that Lexington was the burial place of Stonewall Jackson, or that Robert E. Lee had actually served as President of Washington Lee University. (DUH. I know.)

Still, if I were a visitor with no ties to the Presbyterian church, I would assume that the church didn’t say anything about the matter of racial equality because it has nothing to say, even on the confluence of these historic days. That grieves me.

Please, my preaching friends, let’s take time to state the obvious. Because to too many people — even fellow Christians — certain things are no longer obvious.

As Christians, we stand against racial injustice, in its historic forms, and in its present forms. We stand with Jesus for the full equality of all humans. Racial inequality is sin.

As church leaders, the question is: How does that stand drive our church’s mission? The answer will depend on context. I’ve never pastored a church in the South, so perhaps I’m missing some foundational fact. But it seems to me that when you stand in a place that waves confederate battle flags on Saturday, the church needs to have a clear message against racial injustice on Sunday.

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Benediction: Christian, Jew & Muslim @NationalCathedral

My footsteps echoed in the marble chamber so I lifted my heels to keep them from hitting the tile floor. In the transept, the “great choir” was singing Evensong. The unaccompanied voices drifted through the nave like wisps of pure music, beyond words.

liturgyI was in the National Cathedral to attend an interfaith prayer service held in the War Memorial Chapel. The National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF) was beginning its annual conference this new way last Monday evening, and I attended as a visitor.

At the service, sacred scriptures were read by three military chaplains: a Christian pastor, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim muezzin. There were prayers and liturgical responses. There was also a meditation by a Christian professor-type, who talked about the three reasons that military chaplains are indispensable. To close, the three faith leaders put arms around shoulders and each gave a blessing from their tradition.

I was glad to be able to worship in this venue. The War Memorial Chapel is a significant location, bearing testimony to the unique relationship between our nation and its religious life. This is an Episcopalian place of worship, but one dedicated to be a house of prayer for all people. This was the place where the names of all 58,000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam were read — a service that spanned 5 days — as a prelude to the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982. There is a National Roll of Honor housed in the chapel. Various works of art each bear history. Of particular note is the cross made from pieces of the Pentagon in the wake of 9/11.

As an outsider, and a “religious professional” it would be easy for me to point out some mis-steps of the experience. Outsider eyes always notice the inconsistencies and the just-missed. But I have no interest in being critical. Instead I cherish and applaud the good effort I experienced.

As I sat in the War Memorial Chapel, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a difficult undertaking freedom of religion is. What a perilous thing it is. What a crazy experiment that democracy itself has proved to be. No wonder it is so stressful for our nation. How can we expect to pass this “way of life” to the whole world — this vision of freedom and harmony — when no single faith group seems able to embody it?

I sit down to write about this experience a few days after it happened — and in the meantime news of a fracture within the Episcopal Church is in the news. The Anglican Church (worldwide) has sanctioned the Episcopal Church (United States) for the next three years, over disagreements about same-sex marriage. The news was shocking, and in hindsight, not surprising at all.

In truth, trying to stay in fellowship with people with whom you disagree is difficult. Religious precepts always feel fundamental, so to hold those precepts loosely enough to stay in dialogue is asking a lot of people. Maybe the only way forward is baby steps like the one I experienced Monday night. When a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, arm in arm delivered a benediction in our nation’s Episcopalian “National Cathedral.”

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The Body of Christ: Tough & Fragile

When I was in seminary I was taught: Small churches are tough. You can’t beat them to death with a stick! 

I believed that truism, and repeated it to others. Now I have fresh experience that allows me to see the backside of that truism, which is also true: Small churches are fragile.

So far in my career I have served two small churches as solo pastor — six years at Rock Creek Presbyterian (in a rural area outside Springfield, Illinois) and ten years at Poolesville Presbyterian (in a surprisingly rural corner of Montgomery County, Maryland).

Both of those congregations had long histories and many strengths. But both congregations also had serious weaknesses in three pivotal areas: histories that included conflicted relationships with previous pastors, inadequate buildings, and very few financial assets (less than $20,000 total savings). In some senses those weaknesses functioned as strengths because they had gotten everyone’s attention. The lay leaders knew that their churches were on the brink of failure and were ready to work hard — and perhaps even take some risks — to save them. Accordingly, I was able to enter into a robust partnership with the lay leaders and have fruitful ministry.


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130 Years of Ministry

Faith Chapel, Lucketts VANext Sunday, this church door will close.

After 130 years of ministry, Faith Chapel Presbyterian Church (Lucketts, VA) is closing. I’ve been filling the pulpit for a brief time and will preach the final service on December 20.

I anticipate a modestly sized gathering that focuses on celebrating the life that has ended. In many ways, Sunday’s service will echo the many funerals that have transpired within these walls over the last 130 years.

Even during Advent, Christians are an Easter People, believing that new life comes out of death.

Our service includes a Statement of Intent such as this:

As we gather for worship, let us acknowledge with solemn joy God’s gift of this place, remembering with gratitude all who have worshiped here, the faith professed at this font, the gospel proclaimed from this pulpit, the assurance received at this table. Let us be grateful for God’s gifts, honest about our sorrow, open in our love, trusting in Jesus Christ, the only head of the church. The service today marks a passage for this congregation. A ministry is coming to a close; something new is about to be born. God is calling the members of this congregation to new ministry. Congregations are formed and congregations are disbanded but the Lord our God reigns forever.

If you’re a praying person, would you lift up a prayer for the Faith Chapel Presbyterian Church as it closes?

Advent 2015, Faith Chapel Presbyterian Church, Lucketts, VA

Advent 2015, Faith Chapel Presbyterian Church, Lucketts, VA


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Final Words

About two months ago we celebrated my father’s 90th birthday. When I arrived at my parents’ home the night before the event, my mom handed me a typed page that said at the top: “Dad’s Final Words.” It was rather startling. I wondered if I had missed some family news!

What the page contained were Dad’s remarks for his birthday celebration the next day, which he intended to be the “final words” of the event. He asked me to edit them, which I was happy to do. Before I began, I asked him his goals in the remarks, and he quickly listed three of them: 1) to express thanks and gratitude to everyone in attendance; 2) to make a Christian testimony, especially as he experiences cancer which has spread to the bone; 3) to express a lighthearted tone. Knowing his intentions, I was able to help him tighten words here, and add words there. The end result pleased both him and my mother.


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A Peculiar Energy

For the last few Sundays I’ve filled the pulpit for a small church that has lost its critical mass. Attendance has dwindled to a faithful few, all of whom are running out of energy. Not a happy situation. Still, when I enter the church building, I feel a sense of welcome and warmth from the folks who are keeping the place afloat.

Faith Chapel, Lucketts VALast Sunday we had visitors, an older couple, tall and friendly-faced. They arrived early to get a seat (God bless them!). They were the first ones at church, other than myself, the organist, and the person tending the coffeepot. We chatted and I discovered that they were from out of town and just passing through. Eight more people showed up for worship, bringing us to a dozen.

Because the numbers are small, I’ve been informal. Before reading the scripture and sermon, I’ve tried a “Sharing Time” to help us engage a different part of our brain before hearing the Word. On this Sunday, our theme was Treasure. “What do you treasure?”


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1001 Worshipping Communities, “By Zombies”

If you are following the story about the missteps at the PCUSA’s 1001 Worshipping Communities, you may want to read A word of regret and hope from Linda Valentine. Linda is the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

I have no knowledge beyond what’s in the letter and I have respect for Linda Valentine. I do believe this is a learning curve for our denomination as we try to do church differently.

On a purely linguistic level, I wish the letter-writer had omitted a single sentence: “Mistakes were made.” That is just a lousy sentence. It sounds like obfuscation even if it isn’t — because it’s in passive voice. Here’s a way to tell if a sentence is in passive voice: You can add the phrase “By Zombies” at the end and it makes sense.

Not that zombies made the mistakes, of course. People did.

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1001 Worshipping Communities: Missteps

Every institution needs an interested but detached observer. Today (Nov 7) the Presbyterian Outlook, which is that eye upon the PCUSA, published a story titled Investigation finds four PCUSA employees committed ethics violations. I encourage you to read the article in full. Kudos to Leslie Scanlon for her reporting.

The story focuses on the creation of an entity to handle funds for 1001 Worshipping Communities, an initiative begun in 2012 for the purpose of making it easier to birth new worshipping bodies. As a pastor who desires to see more churches, and healthier churches, I applaud this initiative. The gospel of Jesus Christ can spread in a myriad of ways, both traditional and non-traditional. New bodies are perhaps the best way to make new disciples. Yes, “1001” is the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a Presbyterian.

The article doesn’t suggest that any denominational employee intended malfeasance. Rather, they bungled. Nevertheless, it’s my understanding that in the corporate world, some of these persons would be out of a job. Some people would argue that the church is different; the system should be more merciful. What is your opinion?

I confess that I am a bit jaded about the fiscal/legal ignorance of well-meaning people. That ignorance negatively impacts the church’s ability to conduct business, both in reality, and by diminished reputation. It’s an unfortunate fact that in recent years my presbytery has wasted huge amounts of money through poor fiscal choices that boxed us into corners. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. But having good intentions does not offset the reality of poor preparation and lack of savvy.

My lens is that of a small-church pastor. (Rock Creek Presbyterian, Tallula, IL 1993-1999 and Poolesville Presbyterian, Poolesville, MD 2002-2011). Both of those churches did unexpected things and even took financial risks. They are still in existence. Many such churches have closed down. I understand how “close to the bone” many churches operate. Perhaps that is one reason that mismanagement in church bureaucracy is particularly galling to me. I can’t help but think how much good small congregations can do with even a few thousand dollars.

It is/was one of my theological tenets that the church is a mission outpost and should therefore operate at the edge of its resources. I certainly don’t mind when church leadership (both clergy and lay) takes risks. Often that is the faithful path. I do mind when church leadership tries to play in a corporate world and simply doesn’t know what it’s doing. Those kinds of missteps damage the reputation of the Body of Christ. That damage should concern all of us.

I’m glad that this misstep is not being ignored or hushed up. Hopefully 1001 Worshipping Communities will be back on its feet, and the lessons learned will work to the good.

I intend to hold my denomination in prayer with special vigor this weekend. I invite you to do the same, whether that’s the PCUSA or some other body.

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