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Ashes to Ashes: The Season of Lent


Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Growing up in a Southern Baptist context, I never heard of Lent. I had no idea the Christian Church had “seasons” or its own calendar.  That was unfortunate.  Discovering this in my college years came as a great surprise and a benefit to me ever since.  For it became apparent to me that my navigation of this world and my life would be –if not easier then–more meaningful simply because I could comprehend my life as developmental, evolutionary which is to say, an unfolding mystery and journey.

The Lenten season begins this Ash Wednesday and marks the formal beginning of the season of Lent and that season is one of reflection, examination of our consciences and souls and repentance. We do this especially as we recall the testing of our Lord in the wilderness, just after his baptism.  I sometimes get myself down to an Episcopalian church to have the sign of the cross made on my forehead with ashes. Baptists do not hand out ashes or participate (as a rule anyway) in this ritual act.  I can tell you from my own experience, it is a powerful moment to have a priest rub those ashes onto your forehead as she says those solemn words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Whether or not you participate in such a rite, the truth of those words should stir us to a season of contemplation and repentance.

Ashes as a sign of sorrow have been with us for a long time.  In the ancient book of Job, we find that the stricken man “sat among the ashes.” This was a sign of grief and sorrow.

Leon Wieseltier in is book,  Kaddish,  wrote in his book about rending one’s clothes as a sign of grief. He pointed out that the mourner who rends thus gestures outwardly what has in fact takenplace inwardly. “This act of violence,” Wieseltier writes, “dignifies the external truth and the internal truth of what has happened.”  So with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads: it is an outward sign of an inner sorrow and grief: for our participation in the ruin of the world, for our grief for life that is short and brief, and a declaration that we will live more faithfully and justly in the days to come.  As the Book of Common Prayer declares:

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.  Have mercy on us, Lord.

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25th Anniversary in One Week: The Novel Pastorate


We have nodded to my 25th anniversary as pastor of Riverside Baptist Church this month –provided a collection of sermons, Safe Harbor– and now we conclude with a luncheon after a Sunday morning worship of “testifying.”   This past week has been an appropriate reflection of my 25 years. Here is some of what I did.

I visited and counseled with the sick and the despairing; I kept vigil beside the former First Lady of Fifth Baptist Church, Rosalie Harrison, praying with her, reading psalms, and then commending her to God on Tuesday evening, February 21st. She had told me many years ago that she wanted to live to 100 years old.  I visited her in January to wish her a happy 100th and then, one month later, she left this mortal world with its tears and suffering.  Her graveside service is Thursday the 2nd of March at Fort Lincoln Cemetery.  I spent my day Friday visiting the funeral home and the cemetery to make her arrangements and in between those visits, received word that Lauren was on the way to the hospital to give birth.  I received news last week that Wyatt  was released from Children’s Hospital where he had undergone a significant surgery.  I sat on a bench on a beautiful Spring day of 74 degrees in February with the President of SWNA, a delightful and gifted gentleman who wanted to get to know me and our church better.    Spoke with Ian over at Blind Whino about the possibility of an art show and an alternative worship experience once a month.  Saw  several of our development team  walking our property, hardhats and goggles on as I drove by, headed for an appointment.  I taught a class at Howard Divinity and worked to arrange for as student to serve on a panel discussion of an up and coming play on March 4th at Temple Micah, The Gospel of Lovingkindness, devoted to the issue of prevention of  handgun violence.

Plans, prayers, tears and laughter–my 25 years crystallized in one intense week.  From joy to sorrow and back again, the pastorate at Riverside has been a novel and a sacred journey.   I’d like to conclude this month’s celebration of this anniversary with the Apostle Paul’s benediction in Romans:  For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever. Amen.  ~ See you Sunday

 


Stage Left, Our Town, Our Church


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All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts, . . .
[As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII]

One can forgive a playwright for casting all of life as a stage.  Indeed, Shakespeare by so doing ended up revealing a psychology of human social interaction that is informative and helpful.  What role did you play today? What lines were you given? What improvisation did you make when interrupted by an audience member or by a misplaced prop? What kind of entrance did you make this morning, grand?  Quiet?

Every Sunday we of  Riverside Baptist Church worship in an auditorium at a local middle school.  It has a stage with a beautiful burgundy curtain. The chairs squeak.  The sound reverberates against hard walls, making the speaking and singing parts at times difficult to hear. But you recall middle school and plays don’t you?  How exciting it was to work for the first time on a theater crew, arranging the moving parts of scenery and stage; how tense for actors to remember their lines and for singers to sing in tune; and how delightful to play one’s role before parents and family and friends.  To say that each Sunday we “play” at church is not flippant, but is as profound as Shakespeare’s keen insight into our daily lives that unfold into Acts, scenes and exits.

Like the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Our Town, we begin with the Stage Manager making announcements and orienting people to the surroundings, helping the audience to transition from “audience” to the role of “congregation” and this occurs just after the stage crew has covered a simple plastic table with a cloth, placed  flameless battery-operated candles on it, along with a chalice that was made by a local potter in our last service in the building that used to stand on the corner of 7th & Maine.   As Thorton Wilder has the Stage Manager say, this is Maine Street (our Maine is named after the state) and this is Our Town.  And our “sanctuary” now is a middle school auditorium and the props include school paraphernalia collected in corners, school signs and wide hallways with their shiny floors.  As with any play, whether or not you can see the world through the thinly constructed scenery depends on your own imagination and willingness to look into and through your own life.  Charles Isher, writing for the New York Times wrote about Thornton’s play, “Wilder sought to make sacraments of simple things. In Our Town he cautioned us to recognize that life is both precious and ordinary, and that these two fundamental truths are intimately connected. “

This he could have written about Our Church.  When you drive down Maine Avenue in SW these days, you’re likely to be distracted by cranes, large trucks, unfinished buildings being pieced together and flagmen.  But along that avenue is a rippled roofline of Arena Stage, a beautiful and provocative building that dominates the skyline and by its transparency invites any and everyone in to view a stage, a play, and their life.   But it’s not the only stage in town.  Just down the road in a brick middle school, an audience gathers weekly to learn lines, sing interludes, make gentle entrances  and courageous exits.  Indeed, we “make sacraments of simple things.”  Every week, each Sunday, 10 a.m. just off of Maine.   ~Ladies and Gentlemen, See you Sunday ~


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Sabbath-Keeping As Resistance


The third commandment given to Moses and the Hebrews was, Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy 

We are instructed to hallow that day and to remember that God created the worlds and that God liberated the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt.  It is a day of truth-seeking and a time to cultivate covenantal bonds of human dignity and worth. By remembering the Sabbath and hallowing that day, we signal to the world that our commandments come to us via the fountain of life and we are made in the image of God, thus it behooves each of us to live justly, uprightly, and mercifully.

So many of us are stunned by the first three weeks of a new President that has thrown the country into chaos, diminishing our institutional checks and balances, promoting his family’s business from the sanctity of the White House, promoting inaccuracies of all kinds and threatening to destroy politicians who oppose his policies.  What to do in such a time?

Keep the Sabbath.  Hallow the day of rest.  Join in with your brothers and sisters in worship. This is resistance of the subtlest and most profound kind.  Your allegiance is to the King of the Universe, not an earthly prince.  Your strength is renewed and your heart recharged for living a just life.  Your mind is rekindled, the kindling of lies and suspicions and hatreds burned by the fire of truth and of the Divine.  ”We” comes into being.  We  march in the light of God, as we sing on most Sundays. We gather around the table of Christ and give our hearts to the Good Shepherd and to one another.  This is resistance. Here is a source for courage and strength.  I hope to see you Sunday. We need you.  And you need us.  Sunday then.  We hallow the world.  We resist.


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Mr Trump Meets Black History Month


February 2nd the President seemed to imply that Frederick Douglass is still alive.  I suppose we can be grateful he knows the name of the lion of Abolition.   This is an educational opportunity not only for the President, but for our country.  February is Black History Month and we have just had illustrated for us in a vivid way why this month dedicated to the struggles and accomplishments of African-Americans is still so very needed.

Speaking of opportunities, I want you to be aware of a play being hosted by our friends at Temple Micah and performed by Mosaic Theater, The Gospel of Loving-Kindness.  Here is what Rabbi Zemel shared with me about this opportunity:

Last year Mosaic Theater ran a production of the “Gospel of Lovingkindness,” a powerful play that addresses gun violence and youth in a poignant, intimate way.  One member of our Gun Violence Prevention working group saw the play and thought it would be an excellent way to raise awareness in our own community.  So we got in touch with Mosaic, and they agreed to bring a traveling production (black box style, minimal blocking, no set) to Temple Micah this March, and to follow it with a post-show discussion, to help us connect with gun violence on a deeper level.  The performance will take place in our sanctuary and is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, March 4th, 2017.
 
One of our group’s primary goals has been to educate children and bring them into the conversation, whenever it is age appropriate.  We believe that this play is appropriate children as young as middle school, if they are accompanied by an adult.  We have also been focusing more recently on the importance of conversations and collaboration with other faith based communities, and we know we must work together if anything is to be done about the gun violence epidemic.  So we would love to partner with you in this endeavor and invite Riverside Baptist to be a part of the experience.  
 
The evening will end with havdalah, the ritual that brings the Jewish Sabbath to a close.  
 

Here is a review of the production from 2015.

This is an educational, interfaith opportunity to educate our youth and lead them to safety. Will you support this effort and bring a young person or youth?  If yes, please email the church or pastor.
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25th Anniversary Sunday of Pastor Bledsoe


This Sunday, February 5th, marks 25 years since Pastor Bledsoe was selected as our pastor.  This is  a significant milestone in the life of both pastor and church.  Join us for worship as the choir and soloists sing, the pastor speaks to the occasion and following the service his new collection of sermons, Safe Harbor, will be available for ten dollars.

Riverside has had long pastorates as a rule, though the minister prior to Pastor Bledsoe was here for about three years. Prior to that, however, Robert Troutman was pastor for fourteen years.  The institutional memory, the continuity and care through generations and over the life span of an individual member are all qualities of a “novel pastorate.”  Churches sometimes go through a revolving door of staff and when this happens, it can be a test to keep folks together. We are a church obviously that prefers longevity to a revolving door.  This does not mean we are not forward-thinking though. After all, we are in the process of building a new church on our corner and steering the congregation to meet the future of new opportunities that await our community as The Wharf comes online.  We are a Christ-Centered, Multi-Cultural, Inclusive, and Ecumenical church, rooted in historic Baptist principles of soul freedom and the priesthood of each believer.  Join us this Sunday as we celebrate this significant moment in the life of our church.

~See you Sunday (at Jefferson Middle School)