Welcoming the Stranger

  “Refugees la Sagrada Familia” by Kelly Latimore. Used by permission.

“Refugees la Sagrada Familia” by Kelly Latimore. Used by permission.

“The Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” 
~ Deuteronomy 10:17-19

I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 
~ Matthew 25:35

When the Administration announced in April a “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to the separation of children from parents, the response of the global religious community was immediate and emphatic. Interfaith groups from all points along the theological spectrum, including Orthodox Jews, the Islamic Society of North America, The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention (among many Baptist groups) condemned the practice, and faith leaders from Pope Francis to Franklin Graham repudiated attempts to justify such actions from Scripture.

Anyone who thinks the immigration issue is simple is not paying attention. This is a complex, difficult challenge for which there are no easy answers. Immigration has always been fraught with complication. The Israelites were “illegal aliens” when they arrived in the Promised Land. The pilgrims who came to America in 1620 didn’t have “documentation”. As someone has said, we are all immigrants—some of us just got here sooner.

Our country is filled with of people of boundless imagination and towering compassion and yet, as a nation, we are in danger of losing our capacity for honoring the humanity of one another and especially "foreigners". Even Christians, who at the moment are rightly denouncing the separation of immigrant families at the border, offer a surprisingly tepid response when it comes to welcoming even the world’s most vulnerable ones—refugees who are fleeing danger and persecution and are seeking asylum within our borders. The Pew Research Center indicates that 51% of Americans agree we have a responsibility to accept refugees. The group least supportive of welcoming refugees is white evangelical Christians (only 25% affirm) and just 43% percent of white mainline Protestants and 50% of Catholics agree the U.S. should embrace refugees. The most welcoming of all Christian groups is black Protestants (63%). (Pew Research Center, May 24, 2018)

But this is the most cringeworthy statistic in the Pew report: the religiously unaffiliated outpace Christians of every category in their affirmation of America’s responsibility to welcome refugees seeking safety within our borders (65%).

How we treat the foreigner and the stranger says a lot about our understanding of God. The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. The Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25: Every stranger you see, especially the least of these, is really me. He promised that one day we’d hear him say these words: Whenever you welcomed the stranger you were welcoming me. Whenever you turned away from a stranger you were turning away from me.

When considering the issue of immigration, Christians must begin by asking what our faith teaches us. What happens in our minds and hearts when we consider the issue in the spirit of Jesus? How does our perspective shift when we see the immigrants and refugees not as statistics but as children of God?

What is the Spirit saying to you?

Peace and grace,

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Baptists and Exclusion: A Tale of Two Groups

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On May 22, 2018, after more than a hundred years of affiliation, the Southern Baptist Convention officially severed ties with the D.C. Baptist Convention over its refusal to exclude from membership the historic Calvary Baptist Church, a 155-year-old D. C. congregation founded by abolitionists. At issue was Calvary’s decision in 2017 to call Rev. Maria Swearingen and Rev. Sally Sarratt, a married lesbian couple, as co-pastors.

For more than a century, the DCBC has seen itself as a bridge between Baptist groups, remaining dually aligned with both Southern Baptists and the American Baptist Churches USA. In 1997, the DCBC widened its affiliation by uniting also with the predominantly black Progressive National Baptist Convention, and later with the Baptist World Alliance.

The SBC Executive Committee first communicated concern about Calvary early in 2017, just days after they called their new pastors. In February of this year, Dr. Robert Cochran, Executive Director/Minister of the DCBC (and a member of our congregation), flew to Nashville to meet personally with members of the SBC Executive Committee. Shortly thereafter, the Committee issued an ultimatum that the DCBC cut ties with Calvary within 90 days or face expulsion from the Southern Baptist Convention. Robert requested a conference call with SBC leaders so that a way forward might be negotiated, and relationship preserved. The Executive Committee declined Robert’s request for conversation, choosing to communicate through an attorney who informed Robert by letter that he had “too many things to tend to that have a higher priority” and advising DCBC leaders “to work toward excluding the errant church from your fellowship by the date of May 20th.”

Southern Baptists’ fixation on exclusion has been a sad reality for decades. Since the 1970s, the SBC has established meticulously orchestrated, fiercely defended systems of exclusion that have done immense harm to churches and individuals.

The DCBC Board chose a different path.

The day before the SBC Executive Committee’s May 20 deadline, I sat in a circle with other DCBC board members and staff who had gathered to talk and pray together about this matter. There was a spirit of kindness in the room. We began with a devotional led by board President Paula Moustos who read from Romans 14: “Why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister?... Each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.”Everyone was asked to share from his or her perspective about the matter at hand. I shared from my own personal relationship with Maria and Sally, two of the finest pastors I know. There was diversity of thought, as many board members come from the black church tradition which has been historically reluctant to welcome the LGBTQ community.

What unified the group was our commitment to the bedrock Baptist principle of autonomy of the local church. “My church would not make the same choice as Calvary in calling our leaders,” said one board member. “But they listened closely to the Spirit, and who are we to say otherwise?” It was then pointed out by another board member (to a chorus of “Amens”) that Calvary was the first Baptist church in the District to welcome black people into membership in 1954. Calvary’s prophetic voice and their commitment to justice were acknowledged and affirmed. In the end, those present voted unanimously to reject the SBC’s demand to exclude Calvary Baptist Church from membership in the DCBC, even if it meant being excluded ourselves by the Southern Baptist Convention. While there was sadness for some over the whole situation, there was a sense of peace, too.

I was honored to sit in that circle of fellowship and discernment that Saturday morning in May. I’m grateful for Robert Cochran’s leadership, and that of the board. Mostly, though, I am grateful for the Holy Spirit, who continues the hard and holy work of knitting us together in the body of Christ.

Peace and grace,

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Good News to the Poor

There came a defining moment for Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. Showing up one sabbath day at his boyhood synagogue in Nazareth, he read to the congregation from the prophet Isaiah and, in that moment, declared his own agenda:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, 
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind, 
    to liberate the oppressed, 
 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Did you catch the agenda? It’s pretty short: good news to the poor; release to prisoners; sight to the blind; liberation for the oppressed; and announcing God’s favor on everybody. This past week, two different gatherings caused me to think of Christ’s agenda and of the different opportunities we have to embody good news:

Through acts of compassion:

Last Friday night at the Christ House volunteer appreciation dinner (which we hosted), I found myself thanking God for the chance to partner with an organization that offers healing and hope to men who are both sick and homeless. Did you know:

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  • Christ house (CH) offers 24-hour medical care.
  • The average length of stay for a CH resident is 41 days.
  • In 2017 CH served over 195 patients. Case managers assisted patients in obtaining benefits, legal documents, and referrals to mental health services, transitional living programs, and vocational training programs.
  • In 2017 CH provided over 50,000 meals and offered 330 classes and activities for the residents, including substance abuse recovery, educational activities and health promotion classes.

Through advocacy:

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At a meeting I attended with D. C. Attorney General, Karl Racine a week ago at First Congregational United Church of Christ, along with Ken Ellison, Rob Marus and Kate Campbell I found myself wondering what “good news to the poor” might look like in D.C. with regard to housing. Did you know:

  • There are 40,000 people on the waiting list for DC public housing.
  • The 2001 zip code is the second most rapidly gentrifying zip code in the country.  
  • The D. C. Zoning Commission recently tripled the size of the downtown but has failed to require developers to build any affordable housing under Inclusionary Zoning as they must do elsewhere in the city.  
  • The proposed DC 2019 budget for homeless housing falls short by $30 million, while the Council has recently voted to subsidize development at Union Market at a cost of $82 million.

Sometimes good news to the poor looks like cup of cold water (or a hospital bed) offered in Jesus’ name. Sometimes it sounds like a voice advocating for policies that look out for the most vulnerable. What’s your piece of Christ’s agenda? What’s our collective piece together?

Pondering good news…

 


 

The 8 Deadly Sins of the Church

 Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

“What is your primary reason for being?” This is the first question my friend Bill
Wilson
, Executive Director of the Center for Healthy Churches, asks when assessing
the health of a congregation. Bill, who is in fifth decade of church ministry and
leadership, contends that “All organizations, including churches, have a reason for
being. Only a few actually know that reason and articulate it and live into it.”
He wrote a blog in March titled The 8 Deadly Sins of the Church. In it,
he names eight common congregational mindsets in declining and dying churches
across the country:

  1. Building-centric
  2. Denomination-centric
  3. Doctrine-centric
  4. Laity-centric
  5. Money-centric
  6. Pastor-centric
  7. Program-centric
  8. Staff-centric

At the end of the article Bill offers a healthy alternative to the eight scenarios above,
which he calls mission-centric: seeking to align congregational life with the mission
of God as articulated by Jesus: To love God, to love our neighbor, and to make
disciples.


Do we know why we exist at First Baptist Church? What’s your “elevator speech”
about our identity and purpose as a congregation? What would a newcomer assume
is our main reason for being, if she or he were simply to observe us as a community?
Let’s keep talking about this together.

Peace and grace,

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Holy Week: Pausing Before the Resurrection Party

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What’s not to love about Easter? Blossoms everywhere and hallelujahs hanging in
the air like pastel cherubs. All that resurrection radiance pouring into our Lent-weary lives. Who wouldn’t want to sprint to the empty tomb?

But sometimes a gift is given in the dreary moment. The heavy sigh. A poet whose
work I have come to love, Tom Hennen, puts it this way:

It’s easy to love a deer
But try to care about bugs and scrawny trees
Love the puddle of lukewarm water
From last week’s rain.
Leave the mountains alone for now.
Also the clear lakes surrounded by pines.
People are lined up to admire them.
Get close to the things that slide away in the dark.
Be grateful even for the boredom
That sometimes seems to involve the whole world.
Think of the frost
That will crack our bones eventually.
1

Until I was in my mid-twenties, the Baptist churches I belonged to bypassed Holy
Week altogether. On Palm Sunday we’d sing Hosanna! at the beginning of worship
and The Old Rugged Cross at the end, then go home and start planning the menu for
Easter dinner.

But those who are willing to postpone singing Christ the Lord Is Risen Today long
enough to experience the gathering gloom of Holy Week will find God whispering in
the darkness: “I am here for you.” This week I invite you to trace with me the steps of
Jesus in his darkest hours. I promise that your alleluias will be all the sweeter come
Resurrection Sunday.

Lingering awhile,

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1 Tom Hennen, Love for Other Things, Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems.

Spiritual Practices for 2018

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A friend of mine, Episcopal priest Winston Charles, says one sage piece of advice given to him early on was, “Don’t join a fitness center in January… Wait until February, when yet another gaggle of New Year’s resolutions has turned cold.” New Year’s resolutions that pertain to our spiritual practices can fizzle quickly as well, leaving us feeling defeated, disappointed and guilty. Even so, the beginning of a year offers rich opportunities for fresh starts.

As you begin 2018, along with the timeless spiritual practices of worship, prayer, Bible study, contemplation, journaling, etc., I want to recommend three more:

  1. Lower your Mask
    In a church, this often happens best in small groups where deeper connections can be made and authentic community can take place. As we lower the masks we wear and give permission for others to lower their masks; as we pray for each other and risk some vulnerability; as we share our life and faith stories, including our questions and doubts, something extraordinary gets born that can only be described as a work of the Spirit. New small group opportunities are coming this year at First Baptist. Our Faith Formation Team and pastoral staff are working on these and we welcome your input.
     
  2. Be a “Breach-Mender”
    The ancient ruins will be rebuilt,
    You will build on age-old foundations,
    You will be called “Breach-Mender,
    Restorer of ruined houses.
    ~ Isaiah 58:12

    Practice restoring the places around you in which God’s presence has become hidden or misrepresented.
     
  3. Practice Presence
    You cannot not be in the presence of God. As Richard Rohr puts it, “All spiritual teaching—this is not an oversimplification—is about how to be present to the moment. When you’re present, you will experience the Presence. But the problem is, we’re almost always somewhere else: reliving the past or worrying about the future.” Pay attention to “this moment” unfolding around you. Just try to keep your heart open and tender, your mind receptive, and your body aware of where it is and what it is feeling experiencing.

Peace and grace,

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thankful

Thanksgíving  n  1:  the act or occasion of giving thanks, especially to God.

I’m so happy for the chance to name out loud here just a few of the many reasons why I’m so very grateful to be part of the First Baptist DC family:

I’m thankful for the gift of walking these days beneath trees the color of scarlet, cinnamon and butterscotch on my daily commute. I’m thankful for children who sprint up the aisle with the offering plates, and for the sound of Erik and Clark calling us, at the end of worship, to Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! I’m thankful for our splendid choir. I’m thankful for the faithfulness of Harry, Mike and Paul N. who open our sanctuary at noon each weekday for people seeking some soul space. I’m thankful for spontaneous laughter at every Faith Formation Team meeting. I’m thankful for dependable offering counters: John, Mary Jane, Joseph, Stan, Ellen and Mike. I’m thankful for lovingly folded cloth napkins at our Wednesday night suppers. I’m thankful for Tim’s Sunday morning garage ministry. I’m thankful for the way Carolyn, our CDC director, stops by my office for prayer.

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I’m thankful for Ellen, who has deepened and inspired the faith of dozens through Education for Ministry. I’m thankful that Steve knows our buildings like the back of his hand. I’m thankful for Ramona and Janice’s joy in preserving our church’s story. I’m thankful for Mike’s way with numbers and Doug’s way with a camera. I’m thankful for Becky’s empathy and Steve N.’s encouraging notes; for Ron D.’s humility and Violet’s hospitality; for Gordon’s smiles and Lucy’s smarts. I’m thankful for Ken’s sense of humor and Rob’s wordsmithery; for Bonnie’s compassion and Adrian’s computer savvy; for Kate’s leadership and Didier’s laugh.

I’m thankful for Rochelle who—every Saturday—takes senior adults grocery shopping. I’m thankful for Lon, whose genius is matched only by his generosity. I’m thankful for Marvin and Patty’s warm hello! in the sanctuary each Sunday, and for Dinh who is the beating heart of our Christ House ministry. I’m thankful for Rod’s dry wit and Sadye’s deep wisdom; for Paul N.’s kindness and Chelsea’s culinary gifts; for Bill B’s zeal and Shirley’s joie de vivre. I’m thankful for Melvyn’s tenderness and Ann’s tact; for Zena’s warmth and Kelly’s way with words; for Dennis’s scholarship and Reneé’s sincerity; for the Kirbys’ vision and Amanda’s voice for liberty.

I’m thankful for the Whatleys’ gorgeous banners. For gini’s honesty and Ron A.’s attention to his family. I’m thankful for Wil, Charlotte and Helen, who are planting biblical truth in our children (and making it fun!). I’m thankful that Allen loves committee meetings. ☺  I’m thankful for children who show us what wide-eyed love for Jesus looks like, and for teenagers who know more about the Bible than most adults. I’m thankful for Dave’s encouragement and Cindy’s artistry; for Alexandria’s courage and Paul C.’s candor; for the Yoders’ perseverance and the Suttons’ positivity; for Denny’s HR acumen and Leslie’s eloquence. I’m thankful for Lilia’s spunk and Alyssa’s spontaneity; Ping’s constancy and Kathie’s caring devotion; for Rose’s moxie and D’O’s encyclopedic memory; for Charlie’s calm and Ernest’s creativity.

I’m thankful for Brenda’s therapeutic insights and Elnora’s entrepreneurial spirit; for Ed’s steadfastness and Mel’s servant heart; for Julie G.’s missions-mindedness and Sarah’s institutional memory. I’m thankful for the Cochrans’ gospel passion and David H.’s good humor; for Matthew’s playfulness and Wilma’s peacefulness; for Jacqueline’s amiability and James’s poetic elegance.  

In short, I am sincerely thankful for you, my FBC family. I could fill pages and pages with examples of how you show me regularly what it means to be a Christ follower. And of course, I’m over-the-moon grateful for Tim, my companion for the journey, and for Taylor and Lucy who are God’s happy gift. For all of this and so much more…

Thanks be to God!

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What is Spirituality Anyway?

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On July 11, I joined ten pastors from up and down the Atlantic seaboard for a 7-day clergy retreat guided by leaders from the Shalem Institute. Thank you, church family, for supporting my participation in the 18-month Shalem program, Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life & Leadership. For seven days my new friends and I “leaned back into our spiritual hearts” as Tilden Edwards puts it (Tilden founded the Shalem Institute in 1973 and has served as a spiritual guide for thousands of men and women). We prayed in silence. We prayed aloud. We walked slowly. We woke early to greet the sun. We payed attention to the sounds of crickets; the sight of deer in the meadow; the steady rhythm of our own heartbeat. All of these felt like gift.

Talk of “deepening our spirituality” often raises this question: 

What is spirituality anyway? Aren’t we offering it through our church programs and worship?  

Well, in a way, yes. And in a way, no. Spirituality is a about relationship. It’s about having an opportunity to experience God’s presence. Many churches offer opportunities to increase knowledge about God and a better understanding of belief systems, along with programs to support these systems. This is not to say that people can’t experience God’s presence through a study of theology and Scripture. But often these experiences remain in our head without ever making it down to our heart.

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Spirituality is not focused on information gathering. Mostly, spirituality is about learning to pay attention. It’s about learning to be fully present, moment by moment, to the God who loves us. We can be present with God in any place at any time.

It’s not so simple to live a simple life. Since the mid-1900s the pace of living has increased exponentially, with an ever-increasing emphasis on speed, rapid delivery, multitasking and constant availability. Our spiritual equilibrium, which depends on our deep, continual grounding in God, is under daily, even hourly, attack. As a result, there seems to be a steady reaching on the part of churched and unchurched people for the things that nurture the spirit. 

I would love for you to join me on this pilgrimage. In the months ahead I hope to help us create new opportunities for addressing our individual and collective hunger for God. I can’t wait to see what the Spirit will do.

Peace and grace,

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Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life & Leadership

Dear FBC family,

I’m grateful to you for offering all of our staff time away in order to refresh and recharge.
Today I leave for the Retreat Center at Bon Secours in Woodstock, MD, where I’ll join ten
other pastors from around the country for a 7-day retreat, guided by leaders from the Shalem
Institute
here in Washington. As you may know, earlier this year FBCDC granted my request
to participate in an 18-month Shalem program called Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life & Leadership.

For about 15 years now, I have felt myself drawn more and more toward contemplative
prayer, silence, periods of solitude and the writings of contemplatives like Richard Rohr,
Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, Mirabai Starr, Eknath Easwaran and Thich Nhát Hanh. My
desire to participate in this clergy program is connected to a deeper longing which I am still
trying to name. At the heart of things, the longing is for a deeper intimacy with God.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), our church is on a similar path. At our leadership retreat last
October, “Intimacy with God” was the number one expressed desire for our church. I believe
this Shalem experience will provide a helpful foundation for me as we initiate together new
and expanding channels of connection with God. On a personal level, while I have gained a
fair amount of leadership experience over the past thirty years, I desire to lead more from my
spiritual heart than from a corporate, outcome-driven model.

So thank you, brothers and sisters, for supporting this opportunity. Upon returning from the
Shalem retreat I will take some time for vacation. I look forward to joining you in worship on
July 30th and am happy that you’ll have the chance to receive spiritual and biblical nurture
from Amanda Tyler and Charlie Fuller these next two Sundays. I am holding you in my
prayers while I’m away.

Peace and grace,

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Baptists & Religious Liberty in America

Q:  Name the place where the following law was enforced: those not attending religious services twice daily were subject to whippings and imprisonment.

A:  Jamestown—the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, in the colony of Virginia, where the Church of England was the established official state church.

Q: Name the place where this practice was enforced: only church members were eligible to vote in public elections. Those who did not belong to the Church were not citizens, only inhabitants. In this place some dissenters were hanged.

One piece of our Baptist identity we can be proud of is this: our unwavering insistence upon religious liberty for all people.

A: Massachusetts Bay Colony, 17th century America.

Q: Where did the following take place? In 1651 three Baptists—John Clarke, John Crandall and Obadiah Holmes—were arrested. The charge: conducting an unlawful worship service. They were placed in prison and were fined, with the provision that if the fines were not paid, they would be publicly whipped. Two were freed when friends paid their bail without their knowledge, but Obadiah Holmes was given 30 lashes with a 3-corded whip, the same sentence given to violent criminals. 

A: Boston, Massachusetts  

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America finally won our independence from England. But the Constitution that was approved in September of 1787 included no guarantee of religious freedom. It was the Baptists, inspired by the Scriptures, who lobbied government leaders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to add a Bill of Rights. It was largely because of the influence of Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland that James Madison pressed for the First Amendment to the Constitution, forbidding the government to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Baptists are known for a lot of things in America, some of them rather embarrassing. But one piece of our Baptist identity we can be proud of is our unwavering insistence upon religious liberty for all people.   

Methodist historian Frank Mead paid Baptists this compliment: “They are God’s patriots—putting allegiance to Him always above allegiance to Caesar. Freedom of conscience and complete divorce of Church and State! How they have suffered for that! They have faced mockery and mud, fines, whippings and iron bars; they have been burned at the stake and pulled on the rack, but they have held to it.”  (Frank S. Mead, See These Banners Go (New York: The Bobs-Merrill Company, 1936), 97.) 

So as you watch fireworks light up the sky next Tuesday night, let yourself breathe a prayer of gratitude to God for this brave, steadfast, insightful tribe to which we belong.

Peace and grace,

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Leadership Workshop Leads to Action Steps for FBC

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On Saturday, June 3, twenty-five leaders at FBC gathered in Fellowship Hall for the second of two workshops, facilitated by Geoff Abbott and Mark Nishan, designed to help us clarify our vision and mission. Participants included 9 deacons, our Deacon Chair, Moderator and pastoral staff, as well as representatives from our support staff, choir and every committee at FBC. The group participated in a variety of exercises aimed at describing our present state, clarifying our desired future state, and identifying action steps as we move forward. Here is a summary of outcomes:

What we want to be known for:

  • A vibrant church in which lives are transformed
  • A reflection of the kingdom of God
  • Hospitality; openness and visibility in our community
  • Service
  • Joy
  • Being missional; participation in our community
  • Love

Commonly-Held Values

  • Biblical grounding
  • Communication/Authenticity/Healthy Conflict Resolution
  • Hospitality/Love of Christ/Diversity
  • Creativity/Risk-Taking
  • Strategic Service/Teamwork/Intentional Apprenticing
  • Intimacy with God/Spiritual Growth/Intentional Worship

“Critical Few” Action Steps for the near future

  • Each week--FBC folk intentionally engage at least 1 person at church whom they don’t know
  • Identify gifts and talents among the congregation
  • Create a newcomer hospitality team
  • Continue to refine and simplify governance to help us live by our values
  • Plan three new opportunities for spiritual growth/biblical grounding for this fall
  • Broaden our missional footprint; find ways to participate in or support creative missional endeavors
  • Get to know our neighborhood and help them get to know us
  • Promote intentional apprenticing by encouraging committees to elect now a chair for this year and a chair-elect for next year
  • Embed FBC values/aspirations into the work of all committees, teams, ministry groups and staff

Sincere thanks to Denny Austin who first suggested these workshops in the spring of 2016, and recommended his friends, Mark and Geoff. And thanks to all who participated in one or both gatherings. Our two days together are already yielding fruit. I’m eager to see what else grows at FBC in the months and years ahead.

Grace & Peace,

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We're Glad You're Here: Hospitality as Lens

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I’m still smiling as I think about Sunday’s Annual Meeting. From Lucy Plovnick’s superb leadership (as always), to Didier Ahimera’s God story, to the fun door prizes and the sight of a bunch of Baptists dancing (as well as some dignified swaying) in Fellowship Hall—this year’s laughter-filled Annual Meeting was full of gratitude for our present and anticipation for our future, under God.

During the gathering I made a proposal for the coming year which the congregation affirmed with a supportive “Amen”.  Here is the crux of my message:

I propose that in the year ahead we view hospitality to newcomers as a chief priority, especially people for whom God and faith and church are a bit of a stretch. And since, for us, the most energetic, participatory moment of our week is Sunday morning, I recommend that we marshal more of our energies and people power and resources toward “lifting” the entire Sunday morning experience at FBC from beginning to end—and that our focus, as we do, be people on the margins of faith.  

What will that mean for us?

-    Making an intentional effort to chip away at whatever barriers (programmatic, aesthetic, liturgical, logistical, etc.) may be hindering newcomers from connecting with God and Christian community here.

-    Evaluating everything we do, especially Sunday mornings, through the eyes of a 21st century spiritual seeker.

-    Asking every committee, team or group—including our deacons, Church Council and staff—to ask, every time we meet: “How are we doing at making our particular piece of FBC’s mission more accessible to newcomers and people on the margins of faith?”  

-    Rather than another program, hospitality will serve as a lens through which we see ourselves; a lens through which we evaluate our programs, ministries, worship, mission and vision.

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On Sunday I pointed to John 12:20ff., which tells about a pivotal day when some “outsiders” showed up, asking if they could see Jesus. It was precisely when a door opened to engage those outside the circle that Jesus said the hour had come for the Son of God to be seen in the world for who he is. I’m excited as I think of our opening more and more doors together at First Baptist, and becoming a spiritual home for many more who are seeking God.

Peace and grace,

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I’ll be somewhere else for Christmas

After fruitless rounds of chemotherapy and gamma knife treatments, Dad had a hunch that this would be his final Christmas. So a week before Dec. 25 he announced to my mother that he had decided to take a road trip. “I don’t know exactly where I’m going,” he said, “and I can’t say for sure when I’ll be back — I just know I need to do this thing.”

Elections and earthquakes: Discovering the unshakable

My husband and I had just begun our second year of marriage in the oh-so-great city of San Francisco. The evening of Oct. 17, 1989, was brilliant, clear and unusually warm. Tim hadn’t arrived home yet from work and I was alone in the house, preparing snacks for game two of the World Series — Giants against the A’s. At four minutes past five o’clock, it hit.

Calling our people into stillness is a subversive act

Five minutes later I punched the key code on the door of the Brookland Pastoral Center and raced up the stairs, rattled and out of breath. My spiritual director was waiting for me in her simple, cozy office. Charlotte, who for decades has been trekking with people on their path with God, is a lovely combination of spirit and spunk. Mother Theresa meets Mrs. Doubtfire.

Good Friday With the Methodists

 This carving, called "Ecce Homo" by Benjamin Lopez, is found in the Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico.

This carving, called "Ecce Homo" by Benjamin Lopez, is found in the Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico.

I estimate forty of us—
spread like thin gravy
over the dim sanctuary.

My own Baptist flock
honors the noontime
crucifixion, so tonight
my son and I are free
to join these Methodists
who have hired four
Gregorian chanters from
the Catholics up the road.

My son was attentive
at first, but is now
rifling through items
in the pew rack:
offering envelopes
prayer request cards
"What Methodists Believe".

The tiny choir is giving it
their all with Dubois’
Christ, We Do All Adore Thee
but are hobbled
by a soprano whose high G
doesn’t quite clear the bar.

The man across the aisle
is fighting to keep awake,
his head swinging
like a censer.

What a pitiful clot
we are, curdling
beneath the cross.
We chant our confession:
We love darkness rather than light
and I reckon
my own brambly heart
as exhibit-A.

For on this night of nights,
as sorrow and love
flow mingled down,
I'm still fuming
at the seminarian who,
just yesterday,
misspelled “Maundy”
on our church marquee
and whom I (rightly)
castigated just before
the foot-washing.

Yet now,
in the cover
of this half-light,
the memory
of his wounded face
pierces me.

The choir is lumbering
through the Palestrina
Kyrie while the man
across the aisle
softly snores.

~ Julie Pennington-Russell

(published on Baptist Global News website)

Ten Questions for 2016

Peter Drucker, writer, professor and business consultant hailed by BusinessWeek as “the man who invented management,” once said this: "My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions." Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” 

Last fall, as I met with FBC’s Pastor Search Committee, I sent them some questions I had about First Baptist. There were 63. (Okay, I’m a curious sort—in more ways than one.) Over the past ten weeks, as I’ve begun settling in here with all of you and getting to know you better, I’ve culled that original list of 62 questions down to 10. I shared them with the deacons last Sunday and want to offer them again here the rest of you. I don’t have a blueprint for asking them, but I’m convinced that if we let ourselves keep gravitating back to these—in our committee meetings and Sunday morning classes and at Sunday brunch together, the way forward for First Baptist will continue to unfold: 

  1. Can you talk about the movement of the Holy Spirit at First Baptist? How do you see God at work these days?
     
  2. What is FBC currently known for in Washington DC and beyond? If God were to do everything you are asking God to do in and through FBC, what would our church be known for in DC five years from now?  
     
  3. If Jesus himself were to plant a new church in DuPont Circle, what do you think it would look like? 
     
  4. How would you describe FBC’s present culture—the DNA of our church? What’s the desired culture/DNA/future? 
     
  5. Is FBC’s prevailing mission and vision widely shared among the congregation? Would you be able to communicate these in an elevator ride at work? If you were someone on the margins of church life, would FBC’s stated mission and vision capture your imagination and make you want to plunge in deeper with God and this community of faith? If so, why? If not, why not?
     
  6. How are these four major areas at FBC—finances, facilities, staffing and structures (team & committee structure; governance structures, disciple-making structures; decision-making structures, etc.)—supporting and/or hindering our church’s prevailing mission and vision?  
     
  7. How are we going to address together the reality that young adults today, as well as the “Nones” and “Dones” are less inclined to desire involvement in the often complex inner-workings of a congregation than those of past centuries? (Because of this, increased attendance doesn’t necessarily mean increased participation in committee work, business meetings, etc. Hardly anyone joins a church with the prevailing hope of one day being able to serve on the Church Council. Most people are desperate for God and for community, not for institutionalism. Most thriving churches are drastically simplifying their structures so as to remain nimble and able to focus on gospel priorities.)
     
  8. How are we going to create more opportunities for people (especially newcomers) to experience authentic community at FBC?
     
  9. How are we going to practice intentional leadership development at FBC, especially with our young adults?
     
  10. How are we going to practice the ministry of faith formation among people who are brand new to faith, or who’ve been away for a long time? 

You have good questions of your own. Share them. Ask them. I’m ever so glad to be living the questions here with you…