All posts by Michael Bledsoe

Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled

There are as many ways of saying goodbye, I suppose, as there are routes to be taken to the sea. Think of this: we have had nearly eight months to get our minds around the idea of my retirement and departure as your pastor. Eight months! We have had time to chat with one another, study options, talk about accomplishments, remember both good and bad times and all within the loving context of this church that is so much a harbor to us. We travel toward the sea, we return to this harbor.

Most goodbyes, as you well know, are not so intentional. People leave our lives abruptly and there is not time to tie up loose ends. But we have had this remarkable time of intention and in that time our leaders have bravely taken on the tasks associated with finding a pastor. And during that time we have continued to BE the Church—as we experienced so brilliantly this past Sunday in the Christmas music program provided by our choir and musicians. And as we have experienced in worship, Sunday after Sunday, never missing a beat; gathering for prayer and a Word from God; baptizing, communing and living within the sphere of the Gospel.

This does not necessarily remove the sting of departure. And truly, that sting becomes most poignant when absence is finally encountered—my office, for example, empty of books and the various artifacts of my faith from candles to crosses. It looks and is empty. What we must do our best to remember is that we navigate our lives within the narrative of good news that is Christ. And we know that he had conversations with his disciples about his departure. He would tell them things like, “I must leave but I am not leaving you as orphans in the world.” And he said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…” I encourage you to read the entire 14th chapter of the Gospel of John. You will find much to encourage and comfort you there.

The presence of a loved one—a family member, a friend or yes, an old pastor—is like a lingering perfume. They may leave us but they are never truly absent. And that holds true for me as I and Melinda come to terms with a new routine that will not include worshipping at Riverside (and let me just say that if we think about it, we can understand why best practices include a pastor stepping out of the congregation s/he has led—I would find it difficult not to be your pastor and you would find it difficult not to respond to me as pastor and that, dearly beloved, would lead to frictions that simply do not need to arise as you make a way into a future with a new pastor). The gift of your presence remains with us. We will call on that when we are missing you and of course, we will commend you to God who, through the Holy Spirit, will provide you peace that passes all understanding. God be with us ’til we meet again. ~Pastor Bledsoe

Making Best Use of Our Building

One year later, we have “learned the ropes” about our beautiful building. It has surprised us at times with its intelligence and beauty, doing things and allowing us to do things we could not do previously. At other times, we’ve had to adjust and perhaps have been pinched. There is no perfect building. We live and we learn. So in what follows, a few “heads up” tips as we move forward. And by the way, special thanks to Luke Wassum who has been MVP for figuring out our building. He has made sure the HVAC is scheduled properly and has addressed an array of issues over this past year, making sure loose ends were tied up. Thanks, Luke.

Sanctuary Seating Access. When you look at the configuration of our pews, you can see that we have one short pew (first pew on the piano side) that allows for wheel-chair, stroller or walkers to be seated. This needs to be recognized for what it is: making our sanctuary accessible. In other words, a wheel chair can “park” on either side of that short pew. Also, the longer first pew on the other side has been cut short to allow a wheel chair or walker to park there. How might we maximize these strengths?

  1. I would urge all of us to give our members in wheelchairs or using walkers the priority to sit in those spaces.
  2. I would ask the choir to move from the short first pew on the piano side to the longer pew toward the communion table side. This is a matter of just several steps but will make a world of difference for people who need those spaces.
  3. Ushers should be proactive and help guide wheelchairs and walkers to those prime spots for seating. It is sometimes difficult to navigate when there are people filling the pews. Ushers can be a very welcome guide to someone trying to locate a seat.

Food and Drink and Spilled Drinks. A year in and we can see stains on our carpet near the rest rooms and on the landing outside the sanctuary. Two thoughts. 1. If you take food or drink into the atrium area and spill it, please clean it up immediately and 2. Never bring food or drink into the sanctuary. It is our holiest place and as well, the most expensive in terms of furniture and flooring. The Nelson Multi-Purpose Room, with its linoleum floor, is the easiest room by far to weather such spills.

Entrance Doors. Remember the wooden doors at our entrance? Aren’t we glad to have the steel/glass doors? YES, we are. They can rattle though. So while we have become accustomed to hearing some noise in the sanctuary, it would be helpful if: 1.you carefully close the glass doors so they don’t make a racket and 2. Be careful of your voice levels upon entering, particularly if you’re running late and service has begun. Low voices, less talking and quietly coming to the landing and into the sanctuary would help ease some of that.

Parking Cars. We have really worked out the parking and that is due in no small part to the consistent presence of Imani on Sunday mornings, opening the door to allow cars inside to park. As well, Frank has been a great help getting in early on Sundays to open the door and hand it off to Imani and then graciously serving as a welcoming host in our atrium so visitors see someone with a friendly smile upon entering. Just don’t forget, your car has to be out by 3pm. If you do decide to hang out at the Wharf, be sure to make arrangements to get back inside the church so you can reach your car. You can always ask someone at the front desk at The Banks apartments to let you in or go to the bottom of the hill at the garage door and buzz to have them let you in.

Clean-up. We have a custodial service that comes into the church on Mondays and Thursdays but it would be especially helpful for all of us to pitch in especially on Sundays. Remove bulletins from the pews, for example. Or as the saying goes, if you see something, say something or do something —we want to keep the church clean and bug and rodent free. I think we’re doing a good job with this overall. Koinonia lunches continue to be a challenge as Jonathan and Ed tend to tie up all the loose ends and take trash out. It would help enormously to have folks volunteer to help them return the multi-purpose room to its clean state, take out trash and otherwise fill a dishwasher and wash, turn off the Keurig machine and make sure the doors on the refrigerator and ice machine are closed upon leaving.

Audio Visual. We are so thankful for Anthony’s providing the video feed to the downstairs TV in the multi-purpose room (and recording the service and placing the sermon each Sunday onto the web site where folks can hear it). Another way our church is “smart” is the hearing loop provided via our sound system. I hope in the coming weeks and months that we might revisit how we can put that technology into the hands of folks who could benefit by the hearing assistance.

That’s a long list but you know, we haven’t had a chance to sort some of this out and I’m preparing to leave so it’s just as well that I get this list going. If you have a concern or idea, don’t hesitate to let a trustee know or let Karl know and this can be updated in a newsletter in the future. Speaking of the building, this past Sunday was a glorious success as we tested our baptistry! A month ago, Karl and Jonathan helped me do a dry run of a baptism and Luke climbed on a ladder to reach the heat dial in a ceiling panel in the church office. All of them and other trustees like Etzel and Ed have also helped. Sarah Fairbrother found wonderful mats to catch the water and Deacon Laurel helped guide our baptismal candidate to the right points. I thought it went very, very well.

We have a few loose ends (like assigning a deacon to pick up the wet robe and towels in the dressing rooms) but really, it was a great success. How beautiful to see a young person baptized (congrats to Alexandra!). And Rev. Ruth said it so beautifully in her brief sermon, telling Alexandra (and all of us) that of all the clothes we will wear in our lives, nothing will be as beautiful as that wet, white robe worn into the waters of baptism where, before the world, we declare our faith and are baptized into Christ forever.

Thanks for being the people of God. ~Pastor Bledsoe

One Mind

The lectionary text read this past Sunday by Deacon Ida is from a remarkable chapter in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  I want to strongly suggest that you read it over and again not just this week but every week until the search for a new pastor is completed.  I say this because of two things. First, because it is simply remarkably powerful scripture. Second, because we all know you are about to be tested.

Here’s the verse from that second chapter I have in mind:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,

2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:1-4

I am about to step out of the circle called Riverside after leading you for 28 years. Your leaders are working diligently to fill the pulpit and provide an interim pastor so they can then launch a search team for a permanent replacement. This is going to take time which means you will need to be patient. This is not going to be easy which means you should roll up your sleeves and offer your service, be it collecting an offering or cleaning up after Koinonia. I now want to put into caps what is pivotal in those verses just cited: BE OF THE SAME MIND, HAVING THE SAME LOVE, BEING IN FULL ACCORD AND OF ONE MIND.

How in the world do we make that happen? The answer is in the third and fourth verses. Be humble. Be helpful. Be positive and consider the interests of others as important as your own. Do not gossip. Do not raise your voice or disrespect anyone, particularly those who are volunteering their time to sort through this process and find persons to lead. Attend worship and do so with the joy of Christ overflowing in your hearts.

The circle will be unbroken if you do that. People step into and out of the circle of fellowship all the time. But the circle does not have to be broken. Find a way to achieve consensus. Do not give naysayers, backbiters, gossips or negative people your time. I don’t believe we have many of these at Riverside but any human institution is going to have folks like that. Keep your eyes on the prize.

This community of faith is worthy of your best efforts. May the Spirit of God provide you peace so you are not anxious but hopeful. You are and ever will be in my prayers. ~PSTR

Rip Tide Warning

Sing praises to the Lord, O you faithful ones,  and give thanks to God’s holy name.

Psalm 30:4

This time of year reminds me of rip tides at the ocean. You know, those currents that pull a person beneath the waves, running fast and swift. The warning to swimmers is, don’t try to swim directly to shore because the power of the current is too strong. Instead, swim parallel to the shore and at an angle in order to avoid being pulled under. Why does that come to mind this time of year for me? 

There is a steady ratcheting up of emotion and marketing at this time of year, beginning with Thanksgiving and then culminating at Christmas Day with people having spent lots of money and time at festivities. This cultural riptide can be a threat to sincere and authentic religious life. But I don’t believe the solution is to swim against that current and raise complaints about whether or not people say Merry Christmas or Happy Winter Holiday. Swim parallel to this current. Enjoy some eggnog, decorate your tree without guilty conscience (you’re not a pagan for doing so), exchange some gifts, wear ugly sweaters. Just keep swimming parallel to the shore at an angle until you step out of all that cultural bluster and the Silent Night of Christmas Eve ushers in the quiet beauty of the Good News given to Shepherds. One way to “swim parallel” is to worship in this season. Worship provides a safe refuge for us in this season and it also aims us in the right direction.

So Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. May your travels be safe if you’re journeying. And I hope you can sense that I’m praying thanks for all of you. For the gifts of God, for human friendship and companionship and joy, for the gift of life, give thanks. 

Grace & Peace. ~PSTR

The Circle of Life

I know you’re familiar with the song, Circle of Life, from the Lion King. I’m thinking more these days of Harry Chapin’s song, All My Life’s a Circle. Both speak to the seasons of our lives, the changes, the inevitable partings and hopefully new beginnings. I love both of those songs.

Speaking of circles, on Sunday December 8th we’ll be celebrating two circles that have come “full circle.”

First, we’ll have a baptism and I have the privilege of baptizing Alexandra Greenwood. This is such a joyful story! Alexandra is the granddaughter of Rev. Robert Troutman, formerly pastor of Riverside for some 14 years through the 1970s and 1980s. He really had a major impact on shaping our progressive Baptist identity. I met Bob in 1983 as a participant of the Baptist Peace Tour through Baptist Peace Fellowship—we had traveled with a large contingent of folks who wanted to counter the “evil empire” rhetoric and embrace our brothers and sisters living in the Soviet Union and remind them that we loved them. Anyway, Bob and I got to know each other; he heard me preach in Volgograd and then some 7 years later, he recommended me to the pulpit committee of Riverside. The rest is history as they say. Now here I am, at the end of my ministry at Riverside and who walks in the door? Alexandra, his granddaughter and she wants to be baptized. Her mother, Bob’s daughter, Karen and her husband James are hoping to join us that Sunday for her baptism. This will be very, very special indeed.

The second circle on Dec 8th will be our friends from Westminster Presbyterian Church joining us in worship. It has been just over one year since we left their fellowship and care of us to enter our new building. I thought it important that we get together again. So Ruth will likely join me in preaching that day (we each will keep it brief) and then all of us will return to Westminster for a catered lunch. Our choir and musicians will lead us in a time of singing hymns and some Advent carols. This will be an outstanding day of friendship and hope.

Finally, let me remind you that that Sunday is also a day of communion so we will have worshipped together within the great circle of these sacraments, baptism and communion. You won’t want to miss this.

Our choir will present Christmas music on Sunday, Dec 15th. And as you know, my last Sunday as your pastor will be Dec 22nd. All my life’s a circle…. Thanks be to God who makes us the Church and assures us that the circle will be unbroken.

Grace & Peace, ~PSTR

Models of Pastoral Transition

Pastor Bledsoe addressed in his first sermon back from Sabbatical, the examples of leadership transition with Moses and Elijah–both examples of an authoritarian style of transition where a leader selects his successor. This may never have been a “model” but an example. Indeed, it is not what we strive for in today’s analytical style of sorting through qualified candidates for any position.

Sunday August 18th, Part II of Biblical Models of Transition will be preached and we’ll look at the selection of the apostle who replaced Judas the Betrayer. You can read Acts chapter 1 and be prepared. Again, the question will be: is this a model for our church or any church to follow? You’ll have to show up and listen to the sermon to know what “this” is.

We are trying to sort through what, if any, biblical instructions there are for selecting the next pastor. How are we to be guided? But to put our process in a nutshell, perhaps we should simply become familiar with what our church constitution says should happen when a pastor resigns (retires). ” Vacancy – Whenever the office of Pastor shall become vacant, or be officially pending, without delay it shall be the duty of the deacons, in conversation with at least one of the Baptist conventions with which the church is aligned–the Executive Minister of the D.C. Baptist Convention, and/or the Alliance of Baptists and/or the American Baptist Churches, USA –to select a minister of the Gospel to fill the vacancy.  A Pulpit Committee of no less than five members shall be nominated by the Deacons and elected by the church in order to search out and present prospective candidates for the office.  … [Article VI.1.c]

Currently, our two boards have been meeting with a consultant, Rev. Paul Clark, and have led the congregation through listening sessions. Sometime in the early Fall, we should be ready to nominate and elect the search committee. What is YOUR role? You and I are to be in prayer, practice patience, be discerning and we ought each to ask ourselves what we are prepared to do in order to make any of our “wants” for the next generation of leadership to become reality. What will you support? What will you show up to do? Because the Church is not the pastor but all of us. Let us be guided by the words of the Apostle Paul to the church at Philippi: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” The Good Shepherd is our First Pastor, our First Shepherd. Amen.

Preachers lined up for summer

Top of a crosier, a hooked staff carried as a symbol of pastoral office.

As Pastor Bledsoe is on sabbatical, the following preachers have agreed to step into the pulpit at Riverside. Please honor them by your presence. These two months will be a time for growing and embracing the transition in store for us since we now have some time for a “dress rehearsal” before we say goodbye to Pastor Bledsoe. Let’s pull together, take a deep breath and enjoy hearing from these faithful servants. Let us be faithful and not grow weary from doing well.

JUNE

2 Rev. Countess Cooper  Countess has known Pastor Bledsoe since she had him for World Religions at Howard Divinity in 1999. She also served as music director for our early service in 1999.  She earned her MDIV from Howard Divinity and is ordained in the UCC.  She can preach and sing. You can get a glimpse of that double gift in this video.

9 Rev. Roland Weah Associate Minister for over 12 years, Roland was a student of Pastor Bledsoe’s at Howard Divinity.  No stranger to Riverside, Roland has a pastor’s heart as he ministers to our shut-ins and visits the hospital. Roland will be overseeing services even though he is not preaching every service.

16 Rev. Jill McCrory Pastor of Twinbrook Baptist Church and a long-time colleague Jill is a DC native and graduate of the Leland Center Baptist Seminary in northern Virginia. Jill has been intensely involved in AWAB.  You can find a wonderful interview with her at the Metro Weekly site

23 Rev. Brian Hamilton Co-Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church with his wife, Ruth, Brian is not stranger to us. He and Westminster welcomed us with open arms during our interim journey.  A long time resident of SW and deeply committed to safeguarding the musical culture of Jazz and the Blues, we are honored to have Brian preach to us.

30 Dr. Jay-Paul Hinds. Jay-Paul has been a wonderful colleague at Howard University School of Divinity where he has been Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care, Practical Theology and Psychology of Religion. A graduate of Princeton and Emory, Dr. Hinds brings urgent insights into our complicated world and culture.

JULY

7 & 14 Father Martin Smith. Father Martin has preached once for us at Riverside and we found him to be charmingly provocative or perhaps he was provocatively charming. Either way, he delivers insights with power.  Martin is well known throughout the Episcopal Church as writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and teacher exploring contemporary spirituality. A priest since 1971, he most recently served as the Senior Associate Rector at St Columba’s church in Washington, D.C., in the Diocese of Washington

21 Rev. Lawrence Rodgers A graduate of Howard University School of Divinity, Lawrence graduated at the top of his class, and with the following honors: The Biblical Scholarship Award in biblical and theological studies. The Donald Barton Prize for most likely to succeed in Pastoral Leadership, and the Delores Carpenter Award for “exemplifying the highest levels of academic achievement and embodying the commitment to do justice, love mercy, and walking humbly with God.” He is currently pastor of Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore.

28 Rev.  Phillip Huber Pastor Huber is the pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church here in SW.  He has just led his congregation through a development process that took a dozen years. He is a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg.  He has served a number of parishes and was Visiting Professor of Missiology and Cultural Anthropology at Tumaini University, Iringa, Tanzania.  Phillip also serves as Disaster Response Coordinator for Maryland and Delaware, Lutheran Disaster Response.

For everything a season

In Ecclesiastes chapter 3:1 we read:  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”. With this beautiful strand of verse from Ecclesiastes, we are compelled to embrace the changing nature of the world and the unfolding of our lives. Consider the story of Riverside over the past two years.

We left a building, saw it razed and then worshipped in two interim spaces over the course of two years (Jefferson Middle School and Westminster Presbyterian); we built a new and beautiful church on a corner that is arguably the hottest corner in the District at the moment. We moved back in. We have adjusted and we have overcome. We have secured our church with an endowment and in the midst of all of that, we have continued to worship and care for one another. That’s a lot!

When we began that process, I promised the leadership and the church that I would remain until we had accomplished these two goals of an endowment and a new building. Now, five months after our move-in, I am convinced by way of lots of prayer and discernment that it is time for Riverside to also begin its transition to new pastoral leadership. Sunday, May 5th, I announced to the congregation that I am concluding my pastorate on December 22nd.

What happens next? A logical, purposeful process of consultation for the Deacons and Trustees with Rev. Paul A. Clark. Discussion about an interim pastorate and the hiring of an interim by January 2020; study of our context and hopes; and the eventual creation of a pastor search committee (that process is overseen by the Board of Deacons) which likely takes a year. Just as we intentionally addressed our hopes and fears in the transition from our previous building to the construction of our new church, we will construct a way forward. We hope and pray for a seamless handoff with a process that eventually brings new pastoral leadership for a new church in what is very much a new community. As I stated in today’s sermon about Joshua, we must now be of courage and dedicate ourselves to fearlessly moving forward. “We’ve come this far by faith,” as the song goes. We will carry on so this Baptist church of inclusion with its prophetic voice of justice and peace might continue to speak and remain a safe harbor for all people. ~PSTR

Palm Sunday – Holy Week

We have nearly completed our Lenten Journey. Palm Sunday is this Sunday, a moment we recall as the final entry of Jesus into the holy city, Jerusalem just prior to his arrest and execution by the Roman governor, Pilate. It is a day mixed with joy and sorrow.

Wednesday is our Get Lifted! midweek service of praise and prayer at 7pm. Join us as Jonathan leads us in songs and Kevin Twine plays on the piano. Thursday evening at 7pm is our Stones Of Remembrance communion service–a solemn evening of song and prayer in which we remember those we love who have left this world. It is a moving service. Friday the church will be open from 11 a.m. until 1pm for prayer. While no formal service, Kevin will play softly in the sanctuary. You may drop in when you like to pray on Good Friday. And of course, Sunday the 21st is EASTER. Let us come into this holy week with meek hearts filled with gratitude.

on the front porch

Last week I spent two afternoons in a row sitting out front of our church with a sign that says, “The Pastor Is In.” A couple of guys (rightly) pointed out that I was outside. I was thinking more along the lines of Lucy in the cartoon strip Peanuts. “I’m in” as, “I’m available.” I will occasionally sit outside with my sign and an extra chair. Feel free to drop by for a chat, tea, coffee, a vent or a prayer.

We are right in the middle of Lent which for me has meant composing sermons around the temptation narratives in the Gospels. But I’m moving along a plot line that includes Christ’s baptism, temptation, withdrawal to Galilee, departure from Nazareth, setting up in Capernaum and then calling disciples. This coming Sunday we will find ourselves on a hill (or mount) listening to the teaching of the Christ. If someone asked you what Jesus taught, well, you could not do better than to point them to Matthew chapters 5-7. We’ll begin with the Beatitudes.

Worship is about one hour long. We praise, pray and hear a sermon. In one hour folks. One hour in a week, give yourself to worship. Some will say that is not much time and they are correct. But have you ever watched a large rock thrown into a lake? Worship ripples over our lives, pulsing across the web of our interrelationships with themes of peace, justice, healing and repair. We’re easy to access by metro and bus. The Circulator, #52 and #54 buses drop right at our corner and the free Wharf shuttle picks up at L’Enfant and delivers you at the Wharf a block and a half from our church.

See you Sunday or on the “porch” sometime this week (likely Tuesday and Wednesday). ~PSTR