Pastor Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy

A Note from Eliza

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March 2015

Is not this the fast that I choose... to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

The Ash Wednesday text from the Prophet Isaiah pushes us, none-too-gently, into Lent: a time of fasting and prayer; a time of preparation for our own discipleship in a post-resurrection world.  What is interesting is that it's an awfully familiar text.  It sounds a lot like a bit from the Gospel according to Matthew, about how we should treat one another all the time.  Matthew's text tells us outright what Isaiah only implies: our kin is the Body of Christ, which is hungry, and homeless, and naked, and cold. 

Lent - for all we treat it like a weird, parenthetical time of the church year - is a time to hit the reset button.  It's the time to remember what we're supposed to be doing as disciples all the time.  It's a time to recall that mostly, we've been tempted away from our responsibilities; we've been distracted from our work.  Lent is a time to remember that all our excuses are vain and empty, when there is so much suffering around us; it is a time to begin anew the loving relationship we are called to have with one another, and to continue that work past the celebrations of Easter, through the fun of summer and the beauty of fall. 

It's not a parenthetical time if we don’t let the parentheses close.

This is the perfect time to do some of the work that the church is working on right now: stepping up our feeding of hungry neighbors through an expanded food pantry.  Reaching out in a more mindful way to those who are not adequately warmed in mind and spirit - those who have been told that they are not our kin, not the Body of Christ - inviting them in to our community, sometimes wrapping them in prayer shawls.  Warming, as well, the bodies of our neighbors, with clean socks, hats and gloves given out to those in need; with hats sent to the Oncology Center at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.  This is the perfect time to be educating ourselves about the ways, both large and small, that we can grow as the loving, welcoming community that we are called to be; in Thursday evening films, gatherings like New Horizons or Convergence, Bible Studies or shared meals and meditation. 

March may seem far too early to plant seeds, here in New England, yet Lent is the perfect time to plant the seeds of love and compassion, to nurture them in prayer and study, so that they may flourish throughout the year.  Lent is the perfect time to remember that doing more for others is not a burden, but a privilege of discipleship.  Lent is the perfect time to reorient our priorities, and not just for a few weeks. 

Lent is the perfect time to consume a little less ourselves, so that we have more to share with our neighbors... and to realize that we are all less hungry for doing so. 

I wish you all a blessed Lent, and that the blessings of this season may remain and grow in your hearts throughout the year.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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February 2015

Well, that was a longer Annual Meeting than we expected, wasn't it?

What will come of the suggestion that we begin moving from two services to one?  Quite a lot, I would imagine…most of it having nothing to do with worship times.

In some ways, a lot already has come from the beginnings of this conversation.  Honesty, for one.  I give thanks for everyone who spoke during the meeting, and who felt safe enough in that setting to share their feelings about this church.  Although some of what was said may have been hard to hear - the sense that we are two, divided congregations; the sense that one worship service has been prioritized over another; the fears of losing the particulars of a worship time that we cherish - it is worth noting, as Kenn did that night, that all of the deep emotion expressed is a sign of our love for this church.  It is a sign of our trust in one another, that we can pour out our grief, our fears, our love into one another's keeping. 

In many ways, the honesty of that night's conversation - as hard as it was - demonstrated that we are not as divided as we might sometimes feel. 

And the conversation continues.  A task force, comprised of Madeleine Goodwin, Deb Allard, Kay-Lee Waters, Gayle Richards (representing Spiritual Nourishment), Sharon Reed-Erickson (representing Faith Formation), Bill Sammis (representing Outreach) and a member to be determined (representing Stewardship), as well as ex-officio members Dan Harkinson (moderator) and Roger Burkhart will soon meet to discuss the many practical and emotional considerations of how, when, and where this church worships.  We will meet again as a congregation this spring, to hear from that task force and to consider - as a church - how best to move forward. 

I hope you will join me in praying for the task force and for the church, during this time of discernment and discussion.  Let us hold in prayer all of the history that tugs upon our hearts, all of the time and energy that we have devoted, over the years, to this church and this congregation, all of the hopes we have for our future.  Let us pray that we may continue to trust one another, and enter into all of these conversations in good faith for the life of this community.  Let us pray for the openness of heart and spirit to try, in good faith, the ideas that come out of these conversations, whatever our initial position on the issue. 

Above all, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will be present in all of our speaking and all of our listening.  May God's love fill our hearts and open our ears, so that these sometimes-difficult conversations might only bring us closer together as a church.  In this and in all we do, may we bear witness to the constant and abundant love that God pours out upon as we do the work of relationship and community building. 

No matter when or where we meet, may we be God's church, may we be Christ's body, united in love.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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January 2015

For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

Familiar words to us, especially at this time of year.  Especially so in the voice of Linus, perhaps, as he reminds us that "that's what Christmas is about." 

Yet the words are so familiar that they lose some of their sense of awe.  Unto us is born the Christ. 

Christ is born.


Like any one of us.  With about as much fanfare as any of us; Christ had angels singing to shepherds, we have emails and Facebook posts to friends and family. 

It's just another part of the story, the birth of this baby whose life and teachings we know. 

But it's not just an add-on to the "important part" where we learn to be good disciples. 

The birth narrative isn't just a sweet back story; it speaks to more than just our desire to see cute toddler pictures of our favorite celebrities. 

Jesus was born, like all of us were.  Mary swaddled him, as many of our parents did, because it calms and soothes babies to be wrapped tight... and it should mean something to us that Jesus needed to be calmed and soothed, like any of us.  That Jesus knew hunger, and teething, and growing pains, and the awkwardness of puberty.  It should mean something to us that Jesus knew the love of family and friends, the grief of loss, the uncertainty of day-to-day living.

It should mean something to us that Jesus, like us, had a body - with all its feelings, all its failings - a body that needed to be cared for, with all the same things that our own bodies need.

It should mean something that Jesus was born, God incarnate.  God made flesh.  God, looking like us. 

But the incarnation should not simply mean something to us during Christmas and Epiphany, as we think about the infant Christ.  God-in-a-body is not an idea we should confine to the baby Jesus in his manger - although that is a comfortable, adorable thought, and it is easy to see God in the face of a tiny baby.  God was not only in a body when that body was cute and snuggly and full of new-baby smell. 

God was still in a body - still incarnate in Jesus - feeding the thousands on a hillside with a couple loaves of bread and a few fish.  God was still incarnate when the blind man was given sight, and the paralytic walked, and the bleeding woman was cured.  God was still incarnate when the disciples were told to feed, and house, and clothe, and visit "the least of these" - as though they were feeding and housing and clothing and visiting God's own incarnate self: the self that still required food, and shelter, and warmth, and company. 

Bodies matter to God - to the God who has had a body, and knows what it is to be in a body.  Bodies matter, not just when they are infants, but at all ages, and in all forms.  Bodies matter, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.

As we move away from the Christmas season, and Linus' words recede in our memories for another year, let us try to keep our focus on the incarnation; on the recognition of God's incarnation and Jesus' humanity.  Let us try to keep our focus on caring for one another, not only in mind and spirit, but in body.  Let us comfort one another, as Mary comforted her baby.  Let us care for one another through the difficulty and awkwardness of growth and transition.  Let us feed one another, and shelter one another, and visit one another. 

Let us continue to care about the incarnation. 
Let us continue to care for the bodies that surround us each day. 
Let us continue to care for the Body of Christ, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year. 

 Peace and blessings, Eliza

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December 2014

"A voice cries out, 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord...'" - Isaiah 40: 3

We are already into this season of Advent, this time of preparation for the promised Light, the promised presence of the divine walking among us.  We are in this time of darkness - and for us in the northern hemisphere, that darkness is not metaphorical.  In this time of mid-afternoon sunsets and long cold nights, preparing for the light seems entirely natural.

Yet often, we seem to prepare for the coming of the light by illuminating our world all the more.  Not only do we turn on our living room and kitchen lights, but we run lengths of twinkling bulbs along the outsides of our homes, we put real or electric candles in our windows, we add illumination to our streets and public venues.

I wonder: when the light comes into the world, will we even notice? 

The old proverb holds that a journey of a thousand days begins with the first step.  What is that first step for us, as we begin to prepare the way of Advent?  What is the first step, as we get ready for the coming of the light?  Perhaps it is simply to notice where we are; to recognize ourselves in a darkened world. 

I would invite you, during the coming weeks, to be more aware of the darkness, and how you respond to it.  Where possible, lower the lights in your house - use dimmer bulbs, or take one or two out of a multi-light fixture.  Eat one or two meals per week by candlelight.  What do you notice about your pace, about your comfort?  Are there new shadows, or sounds that are more noticeable?  If you live with others, does the increased darkness change how you relate to one another?  What is it like to live with more darkness?  What is it like to wait for light? 

Of course, the light which we await is not a physical one.  Yet the practice of noticing the darkness, of understanding our reactions to it, can make us more aware of the other areas of darkness in our lives and in our world.  The practice of awareness reaches beyond our daily lives, into the practices of our community and our relationships to the world.  May our preparation in physical darkness turn our hearts to the preparations we make in spiritually- and emotionally-shadowed places, and make us ready for the divine light that has come, and that will come, to illumine our way. 

For "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shined." (Isaiah 9: 2)

Let us prepare, let us be ready for the light, for the presence, that will soon be with us. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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November 2014

Let us give thanks!

Sometimes, November is a hard time to be thankful, at least for those of us in northern New England.  November loses the bright beauty of fall, and reminds us that the long, cold winter is soon upon us.

And still: perhaps this makes it the perfect time to reflect upon all the reasons we have to give thanks.

For me, this inevitably starts with the church.  No, really.  For the blessing of being able to look out, on a Sunday morning, or a Monday or Tuesday evening, and see your faces – the sight inevitably makes my heart swell with joy.  For the many simple, quiet acts of kindness that exist among you - we've heard about some of them in our Stewardship moments on Sunday mornings, but there are so many more that probably even I will never hear about.  For the care that you take of one another in times of need, the immediate response to crisis that nearly always finds a way to help.  For the prayers that you lift every Sunday, that demonstrate time and again the love you hold in your hearts.

But I give thanks for more than just who you are.  In the past weeks, there has been rich discussion in the church around the hopes and dreams we have for our community, and I find myself giving thanks for who you see yourselves becoming.  I give thanks for the hearts and hands and minds that seek to extend the love of God beyond the walls of this building.  I give thanks for the understanding that Church is not necessarily a building, but the presence of disciples, doing God's work in the world.  I give thanks for the many ways that we do use this church building for ministry, and the care with which so many tend our property.

Let us give thanks, for these and so many other reasons.  Let us recognize the great good that this church does.  Let us recognize the love that is present in this faithful community.

Let us give thanks, and let us respond appropriately.  Let us acknowledge all that First Church is; all that it is called to do and to be... and then let us put our hopes and dreams, our thoughts and our prayers, into action.  Let our thanksgiving, our gratitude for love and ministry, prompt us and encourage us to continue and increase our ministry.  Let our thanksgiving - our gratitude - push us to a faithful and loving response for all we have received, and all that we might still do.

Let us give thanks, and in our thanksgiving, hear again our call to be the Church: to make our prayers, our dreams for ministry, a reality.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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October 2014

It's been an interesting month in my family.  For the first time, we're having to juggle two jobs and two children, and the associated childcare needs.  This will get easier, as the routine gets established, but we spent the better part of several days on the phone, figuring out the gap between the start of a job and the beginning of formal childcare.  Which family members could come in for a day, or two?  Who could be on-call, just in case?  Who will do the school drop-off, who'll do pick-up? 

It's a lot of details, made harder by the importance of the task.  Our children are precious, and we want the care they receive to be good, even if it's just being walked to school. 

We are lucky.  Our families are able to fill a lot of these gaps, in the next days and weeks.  But it's also reminded us that "family" is not necessarily a designation of blood or marriage.  Family is love, and trust, and community. 

And sometimes, as a member of this congregation recently reminded me, it's church.

This church is much like a family, for better or for worse.  We joke and squabble with each other.  We offend and forgive.  Sometimes we appreciate one another, sometimes we put up with one another.  Sometimes old hurts rear their heads in new situations; sometimes old offenses get inherited.  But we are there for one another - we all see it, time and again.  In illness, in grieving, in rejoicing, in celebration, the church shows up.  For funerals and baptisms, the church shows up. 

We show up because we are family, despite everything.  We show up because we are church.

But sometimes we need a reminder.  Sometimes, showing up feels like work - supporting each other, being present with each other, takes effort and time.  To take the time to write a note to the member you haven't seen in a while; to make a phone call when you know it will probably make you cry; to make arrangements to bring a meal, or to take someone to an appointment... all of these take precious time out of our already busy days.  To show up for other people's children - working in the Nursery or helping in the Sunday School - takes us away from the corporate worship that so many of us value. 

It's easy to say, "Oh, I don't know her all that well," or "I wouldn't know what to say on the phone," or "Well, it's not my children in Sunday School."  All of those statements may well be true.  But we are still called to show up.  We are still called to be family.

We show up, because somehow, it is enough.  It is enough to be present, telling people how valuable they still are - even though they are absent from church, even though we do not know them well, even though they are still children.  It is enough to use our gifts - running errands, sending notes, making meals, doing crafts - and to bind ourselves again in the love that makes us family.  It is enough to show up, for those who are not related by blood, but who are equally God's children. 

I would encourage you, as the momentum of the church year builds and our routines become established, to take a good look at how we are present for one another in this church.  How are we being family to one another?  How are we caring for one another?  Who is writing notes to those on our prayer list?  Who is caring for the youngest members of our community, teaching and helping and playing?  There will be a lot of details and it may take a lot of work.  But our children are precious.  Our family – our church – depends upon us.

I would encourage you - and all of us - to show up, whether or not you think you know what you are doing.  And by God’s grace it will be enough.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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September 2014

Sometimes, it's wonderful and easy and comforting.  The days when it's pancake breakfasts and awesome choir music and the chance to spend time with cool people.  The days when we're in need of grace and love and kindness, and know that we'll find it in this community.  The days when it's familiar Christmas carols and joy-filled Easter on a frozen hillside and laughing as the pastor gets stumped one more time by a Children's sermon.

I love those days.  Even the stumped-by-a-kid-during-worship part.

I love those days because those are the ones that get us through the times that aren't easy.  The times when we are called to speak and act in ways that go against the prevailing culture - to speak out for non-violence, to speak out for fair working conditions and living wages, to welcome into our community the stranger, the outcast.  The times when we come face-to-face with uncertainty as to how to proceed: when we struggle with financial decisions, when we consider changes to our worship services, when new ideas spring up for mission or outreach.  The times when we disagree with one another.

Christianity is hard, sometimes, because it asks us to live in community.  Even when we are unsure. Even when we disagree.

Disagreement is not, itself, a failure of community.  It is in how we deal with difference, how we deal with disagreements, how we interact with one another that we demonstrate our faith.  Do we listen to one another with open hearts and open minds?  Do we seek less to "win" an argument, than to bear witness to one another's hurt, one another's fears, one another's hopes?  Do we speak our truths openly and honestly, trusting that this community has room for our doubts, our questions, our dreams? 

Christianity is hard, because it calls us to hear one another, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Christianity is hard, because it calls us to welcome one another - baggage and all - even when we'd rather not.

Christianity is hard, because it calls us to love one another as we would be loved, even if it breaks our hearts.

But how much sweeter are those good times - the laughter and the support that we find in this place - when they are built on a solid foundation of honesty and openness and love?  How much more do we understand the darkness of Advent or of Lent, when we have walked together through the shadows of difficult times, and arrived, as a loving community, into Christ's light? 

Let us be Christ's disciples, in darkness and in light.  Let us be the Christian community that we are called to be, loving and beloved, building one another up and holding one another close, secure in God's care for us all.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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August 2014

Luke's Gospel recalls Jesus' first time preaching in a synagogue, after his baptism.  He went back to his hometown, to the people who had raised him and knew him, and preached on the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah, who, like all of the biblical prophets, had spoken truths that no one really wanted to hear - not just words of comfort to a people in search of God, but words of rebuke, and words that called the people and their leaders back into a right relationship with God. 

When Jesus preached on Isaiah's words, he was run out of town.  Run out by his own people, for speaking uncomfortable truths. 

Uncomfortable truths abound in our scriptures and in our faith.  Often, they are couched in a comforting message: Love your neighbor as yourself... But who is our neighbor?  The one you despise.  The one you would never let near you.  The one you think isn't even entirely human.  Love that one as yourself. 

Christianity is a faith both of comfort and of discomfort.  We should certainly take comfort in God's abiding presence with us, in God's grace that holds us up no matter how often we fall.  We should take comfort in the assurance that we are beloved no matter what.

But the very fact that we need that reassurance - that we need grace - should keepus at least a little bit uncomfortable.  The fact that Isaiah's words, and Jesus' preaching, still call us back to discipleship; the fact that we continually need to be called back to discipleship, should make us uncomfortable.  We are called to a love that does not come naturally to us.  We are called to love beyond the barriers that human beings so often erect to exclude and dehumanize one another.  We are called to love beyond race, class, sexuality, gender, nationality, mental health, employment or housing status, and religion. 

And yes, that makes us uncomfortable.

Sometimes our call can be so uncomfortable that we are willing to remake God in our own image; to put our own prejudices on God and justify our fear, our unwillingness to love - to see every person we encounter as worthy, as made in God's own image, just as they are and without changing. 

Sometimes our call - to love as God loves - can be so uncomfortable that we are willing to act with malice to protect our own sense of who God is, and who God loves, and who God considers worthy.  To vandalize symbols of a love that extends beyond our own, beyond the boundaries that are of our own making.  To secure borders and boundaries and demonize those who would cross them; those who seek our love and our compassion.

We still need Isaiah.  We still need Jesus.  We still need the prophetic witness that calls us to a greater love than we feel capable of. 

And then we need to respond.  The call of discipleship requires us to respond.  Not by running the prophet out of town, as the people of Nazareth did, but by bearing witness ourselves to the power and depth of God's love.  By becoming a prophetic witness in our own right, trusting in God's presence and grace.  By not allowing God to be made over in hateful human form.  By being the persistent voices that remind the world that God's love extends beyond all that we can possibly know, let alone understand.

Bearing prophetic witness is hard, as Jesus learned quickly.  Speaking love, and grace, and peace, to a fearful world is a challenging call indeed.  But the opportunity to love those neighbors who have often heard nothing but hate preached in God's name is not one we can ignore.  The opportunity to open our hearts to the injustice that so many children of God endure on a daily basis leads us all the more deeply into God's love and presence in this world. 

This world is hungry for love.  For all the risk and sorrow that our prophetic witness may bring, there is so much more love and support.  For all those who would run us out of town, there are so many more who will keep us safe, patch up our scrapes and bruises, and carry our prophecy and God's love even further into the world.  For all the hate in this world, there are many more who are desperate to hear our witness of enduring and abundant love. 

Let us continue to bear witness, my friends.  Let us continue to speak aloud God's love, and let us not be silenced.  God is still speaking!  Let us do likewise. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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July 2014

There was a day recently on social media when it seemed as though everyone I knew was in the worst possible mood.  No matter what the subject - church, politics, children, life - there was nothing but complaining, whining, name-calling, meanness, and pessimism. Although I turned it all off for a good chunk of the day, that sort of negativity can really stay with you, and I found myself in a rotten mood.  So I put an idea out there, to the internet:

For every mean thing you say about someone, find something kind to say as well.

For every institution or injustice about which you are whining and complaining, tell us what concrete action(s) you are taking to make the situation better.

The answer to the idea?  Silence. 

Negativity is viral.  Say something snarky or cutting?  You'll get retweets on Twitter and likes or shares on Facebook.  Say it in person, you'll get laughs and affirmations.  You'll be rewarded for your "wit".  The conversation will build, it will stir passions, it will get exciting, it will be fun. 

 But if you say something nice about someone?  If you talk about the good things that are happening in this world?  Those are the conversations that seem harder to keep going.  Those are the one-liners that fall flat.  Those are the conversations that might start on a positive note, but that quickly turn around and fall back into the negative.  Talk about the good work that certain groups or people are doing around homelessness often spins into a pessimistic conversation about the hopelessness of the situation.  Talk about the need for better mental health services devolves into a discussion about violence.

It may be more "fun" to speak negatively, to complain about the problems of the world and be able to blame someone for them. Negativity and snark speak to something within us; there is a reason that the media - print, televised, or social - plays so often to angry soundbites.  It's easier, certainly, to call a politician names than to comment on her policy choices; to say "He is a jerk", suggesting there is something inherently flawed about a person, than to say "his actions have hurt me", separating the person's entire being from certain actions we find distasteful.  It's easier to speak in generalities, but we damage ourselves in the process.  We create an "other", a "not-me" that we don't have to like, let alone love.  We can dehumanize a person, write off their worthiness to be heard or even acknowledged.  But by doing this, we cut ourselves off from one another, and from the God who is most present among us in relationship.

What if we put as much energy into finding the good in each other, as we do into demonizing one another?  What if we put as much energy into love as we do into anger?

It's not easy, but discipleship isn't supposed to be.  It might be less fun, less popular, less entertaining.  But it might be a worthwhile challenge for us.  Because in forcing ourselves to look for the good in people, we are forcing ourselves to see even those who hold opposing viewpoints as children of God.  We are forcing ourselves to maintain relationship with those whom we might rather write off entirely, to remember that although we disagree, there might still be points of agreement, or even respect.

What might happen, if we made the conscious decision to get off the negativity bandwagon, even just for a month?  Who will take the challenge?

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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June 2014

When I was initially called to First Church, a friend and colleague asked me what it was about the church that I loved so much.  Among other things, I mentioned the sense of energy that I had felt in the congregation; the sense of wanting to do more than simply gather in worship on a Sunday service.  You have always been, in the time I've known you, a church of vision, and of discipleship, and of compassion. 

Now, after a couple of years of discernment with you, and many conversations that didn't seem to go anywhere at the time, things are beginning.  We have spent the past couple of years imagining our path forward, and planting the seeds.  Now the first sprouts are showing.  We are beginning to poke our heads out of the four walls of First Church, out into the community.  Some are doing it with specially-made t-shirts (and more should soon be available!); some with rakes and shovels; some with planned gatherings in homes and public spaces.  We are coming to a place of remembering that the church is not as much this building, as a gathering of people encouraging one another on the way of discipleship.

Yet I would remind you: the first sprouts in any garden need careful tending.  They need nourishment and warmth.  They need our attention and energy, which asks more discernment of us.  The task force that has been focused on this question is doing a lot of that discerning, but we all need you, as well.  Let us know where your passion lies.  Let us know what you do well - organization? details? sewing? cooking?  gardening? publicity?  Stranger things than that have been helpful in the life of the church!

And, as new programs arise and new ideas circulate, we ask your tender nurture of this new growth.  There will certainly be ideas that don't flourish, but let it not be because we weren't willing to tend them.  Even when we are unsure about the ideas, even when it seems like nothing is growing, let us trust in the thought and careful planning that has been going on, and in the desire that we all share to do the work of discipleship in this community.  Let us trust in God to use us to bring the love that this world so badly needs. 

Because what I sensed in you at the beginning is something that I now know to be true: you are a church of vision, and of faith, and of discipleship.  None of that can be contained within a building: rather, let us be the faithful members of the Body of Christ that we are all called to be - both in the church and in the world.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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May 2014

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” -Matthew 25: 37-40 (NRSV)

This is a familiar passage to many of us, and often cited as a favorite.  Here, in the midst of a long passage on judgment and redemption, is a call that many of us find compelling: to serve Christ by serving one another.  We give to our food pantry and serve in soup kitchens because the Body of Christ is hungry.  We put our old clothes in the Planet Aid box, or give to coat and sweater drives, because the Body is naked, cold, and exposed.  We try to care for each other as though we were caring for Christ, as though we were caring for God's own self among us - which, indeed, we are. 

Yet often, we care in ways that keep us distant from each other.  We give of our "stuff" - our money, our possessions, even our time and talents - in ways that do not put us into direct relationship with "the least of these".  We fill a container every year for Zimbabwe, but do we take the time to include our letters, our prayers, our questions for the people we're serving?  Do we know who they are, do we hear their stories? Do we allow them to teach us, to serve us, to ask us questions in return? 

In the ways that we serve, both the global community and the local community, do we create lasting relationships?  Do we consider those to whom we donate food and clothing to be of one Body with us - in interdependent relationship with us? 

The question goes deeper, even, than the Gospel writer takes it.  For where we leave off, in that parable, with recognizing Christ when we serve humanity; God picks up and pushes further.  For if the well-being of each of our bodies is dependent upon the well-being of all of our bodies, it follows that the well-being of all of our human bodies is dependent upon the well-being of this Creation. 

In What Are People For, Wendell Berry puts it succinctly: "God made the world because He wanted it made.  He thinks the world is good, and He loves it...  If God loves the world, then how might any person of faith be excused for not loving it or justified in destroying it?"  Rather, we are called to be in relationship with "the least of these": the ecosystems that hunger for clean air and thirst for clean water; the creatures made sick by our relentless drive towards convenience consumerism (both in the manufacturing, and the thoughtless discarding, of disposable products); the people and systems imprisoned by our quest for ever-more-scarce resources - you might ask our Zimbabwean partners about the diamond and gold mining that occurs in their nation.  We are called to be in economic relationship - to give towards the feeding of the hungry, the housing of the homeless, the care of the sick and imprisoned.  But we are also called deeper: into direct relationship with Christ through the lives and stories of "the least of these", however it is that we hear them.  We are called to serve and to be served; to give love and to receive it with humility and grace, for the good of the entire Body of Christ and in service to the God who created us all and dwells with us still. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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April 2014

Do you remember your first time?

I doubt it.  I don't.

Like so many of you, my parents first took me to church when I was a very small child - in my case, about two years old.  Some of my earliest memories are of sitting in the pew - pretty much the same one every week - and looking at the bulletin, or the hymnal, or the people around me.  I remember my father's finger, tracing the line of the hymn so that I could follow along as he sang.  I remember watching the adults around me bowing their heads in prayer, and sneaking glances to see if I was doing it right; trying to anticipate when everyone would stand for the hymn so that I wasn't the last one up. 

I learned the rituals and unspoken rules of the church as many of us did, at the side of a patient teacher.  Long before I reached adulthood, the rhythms of the service - standing, sitting, bowing head, finding the hymn - had become second nature. 

It's hard to imagine it any other way, isn't it?

The church, to many of us, is our comfort zone.  No matter what gets preached, no matter how weird the hymns that your pastor chooses for that Sunday, there is a familiarity about what we do that is comfortable and soothing to many of us.  It's hard to imagine, sometimes, that it might be otherwise.

There is a benefit to sitting where I do: I can see you all every Sunday morning.  I can see the church gathered in worship, singing and praying and listening as one Body.  There are many Sundays when I wish you could see it, too, for there is something very powerful in our gathered congregation, moving together through the familiar rituals of worship. 

And there are Sundays when I wish you could see it for the parts that aren't familiar, and aren't moving together. 

More frequently than not, anymore, there are new faces in our worship service.  Some who grew up with church rhythms and bulletins and hymnals and standing and sitting... but many who did not.  I wish you could see them.  And I rather think they wish you could, too.  Because that which is so familiar, so comforting, to us is new and strange to some.  Just as we once did, they need a patient teacher to guide them through the things we do without ever thinking about it. 

They will remember their first time, and just how it felt.  They will remember, and we will be The Church in that memory.  We will be God, in that moment.

We talk a lot about being the hands of God in the world; bearing the light of God, bringing the Kingdom of God out of our walls and into the larger community.  But in so doing, we should not neglect that which happens within our walls, in those who are brave enough to venture in, hopeful but unsure of what they will find. 

I look at you, on a Sunday morning, and I can see God present in our worship.  Even, sometimes, holding a hymnal and tracing the line of the hymn. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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March 2014

There seems to be a lot of handwringing in mainline church circles about the decline of the church.  There have been books and articles written about why we're in decline and who is to blame.  There are those who bemoan the secularization of our society as prime culprit - if only kids didn't have Sunday morning activities, they'd be in church!  There are others who lift up the mega-church, all-in-one-inclusive-package as the impossible standard against which the average mainline Protestant church can never measure up. Another, that I mentioned in a recent sermon, mentions the exhaustion factor of a theology that requires us to think constantly and be self-critical.  There seems always to be the enumeration of all that we've lost, all the people who are missing - the young people, the young families, the recent empty-nesters, each cited as a source of decline and decay in a formerly strong, stable institution.

A lot of factors justify all this handwringing, I'll admit: average Sunday attendance is down in almost every church where I've ever worshiped.  Sunday School attendance is down.  Pledges are down, often significantly.  Antacid sales are skyrocketing among those who are in charge of church finances. 

The thing is, however, that measuring church by these metrics is a little like measuring your child's growth only as pencil marks on the wall.  Height is a valid measurement, but it tells you nothing about the sparkle in his eyes as he tells a story, the awe of overcoming seemingly-impossible challenges, the simple acts of maturity and responsibility that gradually (one hopes) replace the temper tantrums.  Height is easy to quantify, certainly, but it tells an incomplete story. 

When I look at our church - whenever and however we are gathered - I do not see decline.  I see the numbers -  in attendance, membership, financial giving and antacid sales -  and those speak of areas of both hope and struggle for us right now.  But there are other metrics, far less quantifiable, that tell me clearly that ours is not a church in decline.  I see children, excited to be in church, asking the questions that we need to hear.  I see a strong, thriving ministry among the families of our church, who are teaching each other about covenant and community.  I see long-time members sitting with first-time attenders, living into our promise to be a welcoming church.  I see a group of people who are not content with a Sunday morning faith, but who are pushing for ways to be disciples in the world.  I see the Body of Christ, holding one another up in sorrow and in joy, loving despite difference, seeking after the health of the whole. 

I do not see decline.  Not in our church.  And I don't expect to see it anytime soon.

It's time to ignore the culture of fear that tells us we are declining. It's time to change the narrative, to talk more about how we seek to live our faith in authentic ways.  New ideas are percolating about how to live out the ministries and missions of First Church outside our walls.  At the same time, we're seeking ways to better utilize our walls - this historic building - to serve the needs of the community.  We must live, not in fear, but in hope.  We must live in the promise of God's providence and grace, the promise that reminds us that our church is so much more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Let these be the standards by which we are measured: by the love we show to one another and to our community.  Whether we are two or two hundred or two thousand, if love is our metric, First Church will never be in decline, no matter how much handwringing goes on around us. 

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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February 2014

Just wanted to put in a quick thank you to everyone...

Thank you all so much!

To the Deacons, who are working overtime, coordinating pastoral care and worship planning.

To all the fantastic pastors who have led, and will lead, worship. God's Word continues to be spoken!

To the church staff, who are probably finding their jobs simpler without my interruptions, distractions, and crazy ideas.

But mostly, to all of you, who are the church: you have wrapped my whole family in prayer and love, while still giving us the space and time to rest and relax together. We are so grateful to be a part of this community.

Peace and blessings, Eliza

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January 2014

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Some of the most hopeful words of the Gospel, as we dwell in a time of light.

This may not seem like a particularly "light" time of year; it's still pretty dark when the alarm goes off, and dark well before many of us are sitting down to supper.  Although the days are getting longer, it will still be a while before we'll notice much of a difference.

But in our Christian tradition, the time of waiting, of wondering, of wandering in darkness is over.  Christ's light is present in the world, just beginning to shine in the hearts of shepherds, angels, a few animals, and a couple of very tired parents.  God is present in human form, to banish the shadows in which we so often find ourselves living.  And the light does not end with Christmas - even if we make it last for twelve days!  After Christmas, the church enters the season of Epiphany, marked by the arrival of the Magi, guided by yet another source of light.  Epiphany: the time of understanding, of clear-sightedness.  The time, in the midst of a bleak, cold New Hampshire winter, when we are reminded to remain turned outwards; to be open to all that is beyond our own warm, well-lit spaces, out there in the darkness and the cold.

I think, sometimes, that it's a good thing for us that this season doesn't occur at a time when we are naturally outgoing.  We are called into the light just at the time when we would naturally like to curl up in our own homes and hibernate a bit.  We are called into the light in a way that reminds us that light doesn't happen without some effort on our part - from the practicality of electricity bills, to the little acts of kindness and light that somehow mean all the more at this harsh time of year.  We are called into a light that we must tend carefully, that we must carry with us and spread - consciously and faithfully - so that the shadows of this world might be banished again, and again.

Which doesn't sound like hope, but like a thankless, super-human task.

But we are also reminded, at this time of year, that light attracts light.  It was the light of the angels that drew the shepherds on to Bethlehem, to bear witness to the birth of God's light.  It was the light of the star that drew the Magi out of Persia to find the home of the one whose light would continue, long after the star had disappeared from the night sky.

And it is the light of that one, whose birth we have just celebrated, who nourishes the light that we carry.  It is for the sake of that infant light that we step boldly into the shadows, extending our hands and our hearts to those who have so long lived in darkness.  And we do so with hope: that our light might shine in the darkness, and that we will tend that light well, renewing it as needed and sharing it far and wide, so that the shadows - of fear, of pain, of ignorance, of hatred - shall not overcome it.

The light is in the world.  The light is in each and every one of you, and the shadows tremble because of it.  In the cold and dark of a New England winter, you are God's hope in this world.  Thanks be to God!

Yours in Christ, Eliza

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