It’s always tough to know where to start a story, hence the (endless?) Star Wars prequels… but, as I am oh so aware that our retirement date is looming, I have been reflecting on how Incarnation came to be and I wanted to share some of my favorite memories with you. So over the next couple of months I will be gradually reminiscing about 'the early years' in my letters from Liz. Enjoy!
Key proviso: this is my story from my perspective…. There are MANY ways to tell the story of Incarnation, and while this is mine, I’d love to hear YOUR memories as I go through the years! PLEASE could you add them as comments? Please....
2007 - 2017: the prequel
I was tempted to begin the story in 1962, but I'll spare you the early years ... and start with our American Adventure. In Summer 2007, my husband Simon, my daughter Fiona, and I quit our UK jobs/schools, packed up all our worldy goods, said goodbye to friends and family and moved the the USA—leaving our sons David and Adam at University in the UK. Now, that is a whole ‘nother story.....
2009 - 2016
Simon and I joined a church planting adventure with Restoration Anglican Church as they launched from The Falls Church (Anglican). Again this is a whole story in itself—but this was where I was encouraged into ministry, from where I studied and was ordained, where I helped shape my views of how churches should do global outreach, and, eventually, where I began to learn how to be a pastor. These were rich years and I loved my time there.
In 2014, the Rector, Rev. David Hanke, led Restoration though a process of discernment, emerging with a 5-year plan—which included a dream to plant 5 churches. In my role as the director of outreach I joyfully and with HUGE delight helped as much as I could in three global church planting situations with which we were connected. It was so much fun to be thinking about what church planting in other cultures and contexts could look like. And so that, I thought, was that.
However, in January 2017, I went with a team to Cambodia to join with old and new friends on a pastors' retreat. Amy came too and we had a truly wonderful time.
While in Cambodia, I was wrestling with a question I felt God had posed to me. Would I be willing to leave my very comfortable and happy position at Restoration and plant a church in South Arlington? It was a question which had been gnawing at me for a while. Simon and I had begun to think about it. I had asked God many questions about it. EVERYTHING in me said ‘no’. Why would people go to a church led by me when there were so many other fantastic churches around? Our Diocese does not have many female rectors; I was not convinced our cultural context in the ACNA was one which attracted many people who wanted female leadership (especially not mine!). But gradually God was undermining my objections. So I decided to use this time in Cambodia to ask Him for clarity.
I did a few things. I asked one of the local pastors to pray for me without giving him ANY details about what I needed. I simply said I needed direction, and in my head I asked God to answer in a specific way if I should go ahead and offer to lead a church plant. Hugely to my surprise, my prayer was answered with a massive YES. The second vital thing that happened on this trip was the opportunity for long conversations with Amy. Essentially, if she was in, I was in. Turns out—she was in!
Good grief. I was going to have to do this. The final cherry on the cake was a dream I had, in which I asked God if I could call this church plant Incarnation and he said YES. Incarnation—the truth that God became our embodied Saviour—was all it took. This was news I wanted to share with all my neighbors in South Arlington—especially if they had never heard it before.
Amy adds: What Liz didn't know before that Cambodia trip was that I, too, had been praying about a church plant in South Arlington for some time, even before Restoration had unveiled its 5-year strategic plan to plant churches. Trent and I loved our neighborhood along Columbia Pike and had been asking God to send us other people who loved it too and who wanted to join us in praying for a fresh expression of the kingdom here. When Liz talked to me about the possibility of planting, I felt that God had answered those prayers. The other thing that stands out in my memory of that trip was the growing hostility being expressed toward immigrants and refugees back home, people like our neighbors along the Pike. Each morning over our Cambodian breakfast, we watched BBC News footage of protests in American airports and city streets. Liz and I both care deeply about justice, and this news grieved us, prompted us to pray, and shaped some of our earliest conversations and hopes about Incarnation.
SO once back from Cambodia, and after Simon added his YES, I spoke to David Hanke (my boss and always a cheerleader) and he said YES. I spoke to Morgan Reed about joining the team and he said YES.
I spoke to Josie and Izzy about whether they wanted to join, and whether Josie would lead our kids work—with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS)—and they said YES. I talked to Beth about whether she would come and lead our music and she said YES.
Josie adds: After years in a small Spanish-speaking church plant in Alexandria and then a very large, traditional Nashville church (with widely different styles, both of which we loved for different reasons), Israel and I had asked God to lead us to a church that suited both of us when we moved back to Alexandria. To be honest, it wasn't looking good, until we visited Restoration on Palm Sunday 2016 (Liz Gray preached that Sunday and I loved her accent.) We'd found it! When church planting discussions began the next year, I was thrilled for the opportunity to practice the CGS training I'd received in Nashville that was so spiritually healing and refreshing to me. And Izzy and I were both drawn to Incarnation's colorful vision of being good neighbors in South Arlington—closer to our family's beloved Del Ray and Chirilagua neighborhoods in Alexandria.
Over the next months there were so many more conversations: some resulted in YES, some in NO. Amy, Morgan and I started to meet regularly. Amy and I went to a church planting conference in Seattle in April. In June we went to our Diocese's bootcamp on church planting. Amy and Morgan started organising monthly prayer walks. Morgan was ordained as a priest in June, and also went on a course to learn how to fundraise in August. I began working with a church planting coach in August (such a helpful relationship which lasted the next two years). Tom Herrick, the previous Canon for Church Planting in our Diocese, was a steadying voice and coach to us all as well.
We prayed. We walked. We talked. We wrote (read this and this for our earliest hopes and articulations of Incarnation). We started monthly interest meetings where we talked about our hopes for Incarnation and our neighbors. We raised support for Amy and Morgan who would be funded as ‘missionaries’ for the first couple of years as we established ourselves. (Just as an aside, it's fun to remember that at this point all three of us were also studying: Amy was working steadily on her MDiv, I was doing a DMin and Morgan was writing his PhD thesis.) We met neighboring churches and organizations in South Arlington and learned how we might partner together.
Next, Simon and I sold our house and moved to South Arlington, and from that October, in our living room, the Incarnation Servant Team began to meet every month: Amy and Trent Rowe, Morgan and Ashley Reed, Beth DeRiggi, Josie and Izzy Ortega, Leigh McAfee, Megan Westmoreland and Simon. What a stellar group of thoughtful, prayerful, wise and spiritually mature people.
Our embryonic community was beginning to take shape. We even acquired our church planting puppy, Poppie, who helped Simon and me begin to get to know our new neighbors as we walked and talked and prayed.
In Advent, Josie led the first of many prayer retreats in her home, introducing our community to the contemplative, playful way we hoped to "wonder" together. These have become part of our DNA and it was such a sweet time as we watched people worshipping together. The dream was becoming reality. As the year drew to a close there was a growing sense of anticipation as to how God would lead us into the next phase.
Tune in for more next week as we remember 2018… the year of our launch! And add your memories below now in the comments! Feel free to also add pics either here or on FB!
In other news:
Lent is coming... we'll give you more details in a week or two, but meanwhile, remember to plan for Ash Wednesday services at 7am and 7pm on March 2. We'll be meeting at Greenbrier Baptist Church—another place with delightful Incarnation memories... more in a later episode!
With so much love —let me know if you have time for coffee or a walk!