Pastor Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy

A Note from 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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