Pastor Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy

A Note from Eliza

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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