Brokenness, Healing and Our Future

By Dr. Ed Brenegar

I am convinced that if we were to calculate the actual brokenness of the people in our churches, including ourselves, that the weight would drive us deep into the ground. If you take time to listen, people tell us two things about themselves. One is what they value and find essential for living. The other is where they struggle and experience pain. The more sophisticated of us cover it up by creating distracting narratives or complex metaphorical abstractions. Yet, we are still broken people.

I’m in the fourth month of an interim pastor assignment. I walked into this church knowing very little about them. What I found was a congregation desiring two things. One was healing from the painful departure of a pastor and a music director. The other is relationships of trust and authenticity.

In this church, there is a small group of people who meet weekly to pray for the healing of people and their church. There is a service that is virtually silent, except for some soft music.  Gentle hands laid on one’s shoulders from behind signals that this person is now praying silently for you. Nothing is hurried as healing and peace are beckoned, and received.

This space for healing is formed through openness, respect, kindness and time.

In an interview that Marilynn Robinson gave to The Paris Review, she makes this comment.

Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress. … To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga. Sometimes I can’t believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove.

Our brokenness is synonymous with our humanity. It defines us as much as our createdness in Christ does.  As one member of my church texted me, “I’m just a mess.” Yes, we all are. Some of us are just better at acting as if we are not.

This is why the work of Brene’ Brown on shame and vulnerability is worth our hearing in the PCUSA.  Brown has found a way to talk about brokenness as normal and essential to a healthy life. She describes people who have embraced their vulnerabilities as “wholehearted.” Here’s a description from her book Daring Greatly.

The main concern of Wholehearted men and women is living a life defined by courage, compassion, and connection. The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all of the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything— from their professional success to their marriages to their proudest parenting moments— to their ability to be vulnerable.

I’ve always called this vulnerability the willingness to risk.

The risk to being vulnerable within the institutional arrangements of a church is the perceived risk of losing our authority and power. However, if Brown is correct, and I believe she is, our real power is one of authenticity, not authority. It is this authenticity that I find in the healers at my church. Through their humility and trust in God’s Spirit, I see lives change; my own as well.

There is a brokenness within our Presbyterian community. Many of us understand that to bring healing and reconciliation to our church means that it starts with our own brokenness. As I have relearned again, it comes through the kindness and ministry of those who seek to be bringers of healing and peace.

As we approach the Celebration Day of Nativity of the Christ-child, we may discover afresh the courage to be wholehearted. May we seek with openness and trust the peace that comes from God’s healing in the midst of our shared life as the church.

Ed-LIL2-2010-6Ed Brenegar is a life-long Presbyterian, a Tar Heel born and bred, teaching elder for three decades, a validated minister serving as a leadership consultant, a life / work transition coach, creator of The Stewardship of Gratitude strategy and The Circle of Impact Conversation Guides, occasional interim minister, honored blogger, speaker, and restless inquisitor of the impact of God’s grace in our time.

Find Ed online at the Leading Questions blog and At The Table of Thanks: Presbyterian Life & Mission.

After Newtown: “Gathering at Home”

“Gathering At Home”

a sermon by Catherine Taylor, Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, Blacksburg, VA

Isaiah 12: 2-6; Zephaniah 3: 14-20

What unwelcome events this weekend has brought. For many of us it began happily with the Open House at my house, and the enjoyment of being together in a festive atmosphere. Immediately afterwards, Rob and I bundled up in warm clothes and drove out to John and Martha Dillard’s in the country to watch the Geminid meteor shower away from town lights. With one break for hot chocolate, we watched until midnight as bits of cosmic dust broke into the atmosphere and streaked across the sky. Just seeing so many stars themselves was glorious; the shooting stars were icing on the cosmic cake. I know that others of you did some star gazing of your own.

The next morning the news began to come in about Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown (Connecticut). Today we are dealing with unwanted reminders of April 16, 2007, with feelings of disbelief, sorrow, and anger that such a thing has happened again, this time, unthinkably, involving an elementary school. What are we to make of living in a time when the expectations and pleasantries of Christmas, the wonders of the skies, and the pointless deaths of children can collide within twelve hours? And what does it mean for our faith?

I hope some of you are familiar with the poet Ann Weems and her book Kneeling in Bethlehem. Here is one of her most popular poems, calling Star Giving. Listen:

What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star… Brilliance in a package, something you could keep in the pocket of your jeans or in the pocket of your being. Something to take out in times of darkness, Something that would remind you what Christmas had always meant: God’s Advent light into the darkness of this world. But stars are only God’s for giving, and I must be content to give you words and wishes and packages without stars. But I can wish you life as radiant as the Star that announced the Christ Child’s coming, and as filled with awe as the shepherds who stood. And I can pass on to you the love that has been given to me, ignited countless times by others who have knelt in Bethlehem’s light. Perhaps if you ask God will give you a star.

When Weems wrote that poem she was a young woman the mother of four children, on her way to becoming a successful and beloved poet of the faith. The dedication of Kneeling in Bethlehem reads “To my children, Stuart, Todd, David, and Heather in celebration of all our treks into silent December nights in search of stars, and the wondrous times we’ve spent singing our joy manger-side.” Some years later Weems’ son, Todd, was killed in an accident less than an hour after his twenty-first birthday. Weems was devastated. Although she was surrounded by the loving community of faith and grateful for every act of kindness, her heart was shattered deep within, and she was angry at God. For a long time her poetic voice was silent. Theologian Walter Brueggemann was the one who urged her to grieve by writing poetry again. After a long time in which Weems would write poems and angrily stuff them in a drawer, her sorrow was gathered into an astonishing book of poems of grief, entitled Psalms of Lament. The dedication of this later book reads: “To those who weep and those who weep with those who weep.”

A middle-aged woman now mourning for her son, living in a land of grief and deep deprivation, she wrote differently about the stars. Listen:

The sky has fallen and no one seems to notice. Mountains have fallen into the sea and people are oblivious. Everywhere I look there is nothing but devastation and yet, everyone goes about their business as usual. O God, my life is destroyed, but people go to the bank and to the store. They eat and drink and I crumple under the weight of my heart… Please, O God, rebuild my world. Have mercy on me, for I am all alone. No one sees that the sky has fallen. No one, O God, no one, but you. All knowing God you are the only one who can put the stars back in place. Take pity on me and hold up the sky…

If that were the end of the poem I would not be reading it today, and certainly there are poems of lament in the book that begin and end in pain, which is as it should be. I have no doubt at all that someone will place Weems’ Psalms of Lament in the hands of some of the parents who awoke yesterday to unaccustomed silence from their little one’s bedroom. And as one of you mentioned yesterday, it is not just parents, but siblings and grandparents and extended families whose lives have been forever changed. As I said, Weems is a woman of faith, a woman who held the hands of four children through many Advent nights, star gazing. So her poem does not end in deprivation. Like the voice of a prophet long ago, she changes tense, and makes a sudden unexpected shift into a joy she does not yet feel, cannot possibly feel, but which she knows is real because of the memory of Advents past. Listen to the end of the poem, as she addresses God.

I will walk by the river of hope, and you will find me there, and you will reach out your hand and push the heavens back into place and I will kneel and give thanks, for you will be with me. You will put the stars back in the sky.

“How can anyone hope in something she doesn’t feel?” you may well ask. It is an Advent question, and an especially appropriate question for this day. According to the calendar, we are supposed to be feeling Advent joy but even before Friday’s news a lot of us were simply feeling stressed, busy, and worn out. Don’t joy and rejoicing mean unalloyed happiness or lightness of spirit? Fortunately, as Weems’ story suggests, the answer is no. Joy and rejoicing are not primary emotions, writes Harvard Chaplin Peter Gomes, They are an elusive consequence of something else. To some extent you can decide to feel pleasure or even happiness but no one can conjure up joy– by its very nature it comes as a surprise. “We must realize,” says Gomes, “that the context of Joy is not delight, but deprivation. The experience of joy reminds us, by what we have momentarily gained, of what we did not have before.”

Consider this story told by the preacher Herbert O’Driscoll about his English uncle at the end of World War II. His uncle was in London about to be discharged from the royal Navy and he bought tickets to see an American musical that was new in town. He didn’t know, says O’Driscoll, that Oklahoma! had “burst onto the dark world of Europe like a sudden blaze of sunshine…. It came from a land not exhausted by war, a land still strong, with almost infinite resources. It sang a song of the future.” At the theater he was immediately astounded by all the bright lights. For months, years, he and his fellow combatants had been hunkering at night in places where lights were dim or not used at all, and here was light, bright light, and happy commotion in a city getting used to the idea that war had ended. He was not prepared for the wave of feeling that swept over him when the curtain opened on a scene of fields reaching to the horizon as a voice electrified the audience singing “O what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day, I’ve got a wonderful feeling everything’s going my way.” O’Driscoll’s uncle never forgot the joy he felt in the theater that night as a musical swept away, at least for a time, the memory of war.

Hearing that joy is more closely aligned with sadness than with happiness is especially helpful right now. As a nation since 2001 we have fought two official wars, and one is still ongoing. In 2007 and 2008 we witnessed the near total collapse of the national economy and have been in staggered stages of recovery ever since. We have just come through national elections that have left us barely able to stand in the same rooms together, much less speak. Our ability to have much needed national conversation about the many challenges ahead is almost nil. Now the second worst school shooting in our national history has taken place. And you know all too well the location of the worst. Still all our scriptures on this third Sunday of Advent exhort us to joy and rejoicing.

Perhaps when you heard the wonderfully joyful words in today’s reading from Philippians you did not remember that when he wrote these words Paul was in prison. From a prison cell he writes “Rejoice in the Lord always again I say rejoice!” The same is true of the context of the book of Zephaniah. Almost every word in the book of Zephaniah is frightening. The prophet is telling of God’s anger with a faithless people. Or, to put it another way, they have been wearing lamp shades at the office Christmas party but not turning up in church. Spending time at the mall, but not at the local homeless shelter. They will sing Good King Wenceslas around the piano, about the noble king who slogged around in the snow to take food and firewood to the poor, but they aren’t gonna get their good shoes wet, or risk catching the flu before the big ski trip. Throughout the entire book of Zephaniah God is outraged at the behavior of the people, promising destruction. It’s not that God is petty because things haven’t gone God’s way. There’s something much more emotional going on. The name Zephaniah means something akin to “God protects,” or it may be more powerful; it may mean “God treasures,” God treasures the people, cherishes Israel, the name reminds us. God’s threats are the howls of someone who feels great depths of rejected love. So for most of the book of Zephaniah we hear things such as “I will bring such distress on the people that they shall walk like the blind.” But then, at the end, the only part we read together, all the pain and hurt and threats are over and we hear instead a song of joy and hope for the future. Listen to the words again:

“The Lord has taken away the judgments against you… The king of Israel, the Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.. and I will save the lame and gather the outcast… At that time I will bring you home…” “The Lord is in your midst,” says Zephaniah in the present tense even as he switches tenses to say “And I will save the lame and gather the outcast.”

That mix of the future and the here and now captures another great mystery of Advent. We lame and outcast are anticipating the return of Christ, who we also believe is alive and already here. How desperately we need to be reminded of that today! Priest and writer Walter Burghardt speaks of it this way: “I do not see him as Mary did, bundled in straw,” writes Burghardt. I do not reach for him as Peter did, walking on the waters… I do not grasp him as Magdalene did, risen from the rock I do not see the smile part his lips, the tears moisten his eyes. I do not hear the music of his voice, trace his wounds with my finger. but I know he is there, body and blood, soul and divinity. A hidden Christ, yes, for he hides his face from me. But he is there as truly as you and I are here.” “This is what Advent hopes to accomplish,” says Burghardt. He is here, and yet the day of homecoming has yet to come.

Joy and rejoicing, say all our texts today, is the way to experience the homecoming day that will come in the here and now. That is why Scottish liturgist John Bell could write his beautiful hymn “There is a Place” following the worst school violence in his nation. Listen:

There is a place where hands which held ours tightly now are released beyond all hurt and fear, healed by that love which also feels our sorrow tear after tear. There is a place where all the lost potential yields its full promise, finds its true intent. Silenced no more, young voices echo freely as they were meant. There is a place where God will hear our questions, suffer our anger, share our speechless grief, gently repair the innocence of loving and of belief.

We have already said that no one can be joyful on command. Rejoicing is a surprise even to those who feel it when it comes. So what do we do this Advent in a year that has been hard for many and devastating for some? We read texts like these that speak of rejoicing. We sing hymns and songs that speak of the promise to come. We remember the genuine kindnesses that emerged in the midst of tragedy here in April 2007, the tiny moments of resurrection in the midst of so much loss. We sit in the dark, like Driscoll’s uncle, waiting for the curtain to open on a bright stage and we hum tunes while we wait. When someone asks, “How? How can we sing in such a shadowed time!” our reply is in our songs, which say “We sing because of our teachers, teachers named Isaiah, and Zephaniah, and Paul, who stepped out of their own shadowed times and personal suffering to sing wildly joyful songs of praise. “Sing, shout, rejoice,” they tell us, from prison cells and shadowed corners. “Sing, shout, rejoice,” they tell us, yes, even today. And so we do, because we hold fast what they held fast— that we are the people of God who can put the stars back in place. Amen.

1. Peter Gomes’ comments come from his The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart (William Morrow, New York, 1996).

2. Herbert O’Driscoll’s comments come from Living the Word for Sunday Dec 14, 2003 in the November issue of Christian Century.

3. I have lost the reference for the quote from Walter Burghardt!

4. John L. Bell, There is a Place, Words © 1996 WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland.

We Need a Little Christmas, Right This Very Minute: On Singing Christmas Carols During Advent

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

One of the gifts of being in the NEXT Church is the opportunity to examine everything—literally everything—we do as people of God, to see whether our practices are still a faithful witness to Christ in the 21st century.

One of the challenges of being in the NEXT Church is… the very same thing.

I have thought for many years about the church’s observance of Advent—those four weeks leading up to Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I get the importance of Advent themes. Spiritual preparation helps us not get carried away in a wave of kitschy detritus and overconsumption. There’s something important about not jumping the gun. There’s something lovely in letting the moment ripen. In an instant gratification culture, the discipline of waiting and watching could not be more vital.

On the other hand, it’s a challenge for the church to begin the celebration of Christmas on December 24. By that time, most people have been binging on yuletide cheer for several weeks and are ready for Christmas to end. We’re cranking up the Christmas carols when people may be sick of hearing them thanks to so many mall PA systems.

When we in the mainline church insist on Adventen purity (no Christmas music until X, no tree until Y), when we hold Christmas back with a whip and a chair, because it’s good for us, darn it!… then we are out of step with the world around us.

Maybe we’re out of step in an important, prophetic way. But I wonder. Some years ago I heard Tom Are of Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City name this dynamic: “I just don’t think the church gets to tell the culture what time it is. Maybe in Christendom we could do that, but no more.”

In fact, there have been years when the people I serve seemed so desperate for the incarnation, so starved for good news, that it seemed downright cruel to withhold the message that the Lord is come. Is come, now, in early December, amid the shopping and the hustle and the stress. Other years, it seems appropriate to hit Advent themes more strongly. I wonder if pastors might plan their Decembers based on the rhythms and needs of the communities they serve first, rather than the dictates of the Revised Common Lectionary.

One of the arguments for Advent is that it provides space for people to grieve. Advent gives permission for people not to be jolly. But that’s a question of mood, not of message. Advent is about preparation and expectations unfulfilled. which can bring pain. But Advent waiting can also be deeply joyful (think of the hymn “People, Look East”). By contrast, the incarnation of Christ is cause for rejoicing, but Christmas can also be wistful and brooding (“In the Bleak Midwinter.”)

In other words, yes, Advent can be a corrective to the jingly jangly cheer that’s so jarring—even hurtful—to people who just aren’t feeling it. But Christmas can be that corrective too. There are ways to minister to the brokenhearted while also preaching Christmas. True Christmas, not the store-bought version.

Over the years I’ve thought about other reasons we might observe Christmas in December, specifically through the singing of Christmas carols. Some, I will admit, are more weighty than others:

1. The dramata-liturgical reason. (I think I made that word up.) Rather than erecting a rigid wall between the seasons, many of us see the boundary between Advent and Christmas as a semi-permeable membrane. The longing for Christmas blooms over the four weeks. This happens in many churches visually, with decorations growing more elaborate throughout December. It could happen musically as well.

So on Advent 1 we might sing all Advent hymns. Advent 2, we might do two Advent and one Christmas–one of the more obscure ones. Advent 3, same ratio, but we might break out with a well-known carol, e.g. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or “What Child is This?”. And so forth.

2. The numerical reason. Advent is twice as long as the Christmastide, yet there are twice as many Christmas hymns as Advent ones (at least in the current PCUSA hymnal—we’ll see what Glory to God offers us!). Why would we limit ourselves liturgically in December? It would be like planning worship with one hand tied behind our back.

3. The pedagogical reason. In the bygone years of Christendom, children learned and sang Christmas carols in school. I’m only 40, but even I remember this from my childhood. The shift in our culture means it’s our job—church and family—to teach Christmas carols to our children. I want my kids to know all three verses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I want them to know both tunes for “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

4. The musical reason. As pastor of a small church, I agree with David R. Ray, who urges small-church pastors to choose songs that their people know how to sing—even if those hymns may be a bit old-fashioned or have some iffy theology. In a large church, you’ve got a big choir or a critical mass of people who can carry an unfamiliar hymn. Not so in a small church. A beloved hymn well sung is a more joyful noise to the Lord then a theologically impeccable hymn that people fumble their way through. And few hymns are as familiar and beloved as Christmas carols. (That’s not to say that we don’t teach new ones, but the familiar ones are the spoonful of sugar that help the new ones go down.)

5. The pastoral reason. Life is difficult. Folks are hassled, grieved, cranky. It costs me so little to choose Christmas carols in December, and people genuinely appreciate it. Not because they are spiritually shallow and impatient, and “If only they got Advent they would love it as much as we clergy do!” But because they know the carols well and singing them brings them joy. Because Christmas hymns connect them with loved ones long gone. And the words can be powerful. The “dawn of redeeming grace” never fails to give me goose bumps.

In short, it is not necessarily kowtowing to culture to sing Christmas carols when people long to sing them. It is pastorally sensitive. (I’ll take the “kowtowing to culture” argument a lot more seriously when I hear about churches singing “Frosty the Snowman.”)

6. The evangelistic reason. December is a well-attended month of the church year. People want to be in church. It’s a good time to be attentive to guests. As such, it’s an act of hospitality to choose familiar hymns. Newcomers may not know what the heck a doxology is, and darn it, the church does a different version of the Lord’s Prayer than the one they know, but whew!, they can join in on ”Angels We Have Heard on High.”

There you go… I’ve made my best case. Let’s hear from you now. Hit me with your best shot in the comments or on our Facebook page.

MamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, selling like hotcakes on Amazon and Chalice Press. She writes about “beauty, ideas, creativity, and the life of the Spirit” at her website, The Blue Room. She is on the strategy team of NEXT Church and a co-editor of the NEXT Church blog.

And she looks forward to singing “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” this Sunday in worship.

With an Urgency Born of This Hope

by Jeffrey Lehn

Preached at a meeting of Whitewater Valley Presbytery, November 7, 2012

Isaiah 40:28-31

God, by your grace may we hear in your word what we need to hear and may we then be strengthened by it in order to do what you call us to do. Amen.

Bald-Eagle-gold-black-SILH-_J7X2112Our Scripture lesson this afternoon comes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40, verses 28-31. Listen for God’s word to you.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

– – – – –

Every time I read this passage aloud I can’t help but think of a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire. You may remember it. Eric Liddell, the famous sprinter, travels to Paris for the 1924 Olympics games, but instead of participating in the 100-meter dash—a race he is heavily-favored to win—he opts to disqualify himself, because the preliminary heats are scheduled for Sunday, his weekly Sabbath rest. Liddell decides to attend a local church in Paris instead and the film depicts him standing in the pulpit and reading these old, compelling words from Isaiah, his gentle Scottish brogue pervading the sanctuary. In the background, Michael Joncas’s contemporary hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings,” begins softly playing—“and he will raise you up on eagle’s wings…”—a piece we all sang together at the outset of our meeting this morning.

Now Chariots of Fire is one of my favorite movies, and I have no interest in bashing it, but I’m afraid this rather sentimental scene hinders more than helps our interpretation of Isaiah chapter 40.

Remember that the prophet Isaiah initially sings these poetic words to an Israelite people who have been paying their dues in exile in Babylon. Captivity in Babylon was a cruel reality—God’s people were uprooted from their homes, scattered from their place of worship and forced to learn a new way of life in an unfamiliar place with strange people telling them what to do. Their identity was lost and God seemed more aloof and callous than ever. Perhaps those Babylonians were right. Perhaps Marduk, the chief god in the Babylonian pantheon, did now have the upper hand. The great God of Israel, so faithful and loving and almighty in decades past, now seemed impotent, or at least asleep at the wheel.

Down and out as they are, the word of the Lord the Israelites need to hear is not the soothing Scottish brogue of an Eric Liddell, but the rousing, throat-clearing pleas of a seasoned prophet who knows nothing is guaranteed and every word must count.

So Isaiah minces no words. He goes right for the jugular. “C’mon, guys. You know this. You’ve heard this a thousand times. Remember our Lord is the never-ending God, the creator of everything that was, is and ever will be. Our God isn’t feckless or distracted or tired. Our God isn’t stumped by our predicament, scratching his head about what to do next while we wallow here in exile. No, remember our God is the one who empowers us when we’re weak and lifts us up when we’re bowed down. We have to stop looking for hope in all the wrong places, and start hoping in God, who helps us to run even when we’re weary and to walk even when we’re faint.”


As I look around the PC(USA) these days, I think Isaiah’s words are as timely as ever. I’m afraid we’ve gotten caught up in all that we’ve lost in our exile since the heyday of the 1950s and ‘60s—the loss of members, the loss of influence, the loss of cash, the loss of buildings. I’m afraid we’ve been looking down, sulking and murmuring about our decline, far more than we’ve been looking up to the different but hopeful future God has in store for us. I’m afraid we’ve been grasping far too often for the latest shiny but fleeting fad that comes down the church-growth pike—“it’s all about bringing in young families,” “it’s all about small groups,” “it’s all about hiring that dynamic pastor,” “it’s all about changing our worship style,” “it’s all about hiring someone to get us on Facebook and Twitter,” “it’s all about getting rid of the progressives,” “it’s all about getting rid of the evangelicals.”

Understandable as many of our collective reactions are, they are too oriented around us, around our experience of exile, around our litany of frustrations, around our ability to generate hope. Thankfully, Isaiah clears things up for us. He reminds us no matter how energetic or seasoned we are, no matter how impressive our PIF or CIF is, no matter what our church has done in the past or is doing in the present—we are all, every single one of us, going to stumble and fall. We are going to get tired. We are going to daydream about quitting our current church and joining the bigger and better one down the street. We are going to wonder if it is all worth it.

It’s in those moments that we find out the true source of our hope. Are we hoping in membership numbers or stewardship results or a return to the glorious glory days of the past? Or are we hoping in the Lord who renews our strength, who mounts us up with wings like eagles, who helps us to run and not be weary, to walk and not be faint?

I wonder, in whom or what are you hoping this afternoon?

Reading the newspaper, especially after yesterday’s elections, it’s easy to get caught up in hoping in our favorite candidate or political party, or a still tepid economic recovery. Watching TV commercials, it’s easy to get duped into believing that youth, materialism and pleasure will give us the hope we need. As a pastor, it’s easy for me to get looped into the narrative that if I just skim one more book, watch one more webinar, make one more visitation, offer one more prayer, create one more committee, then perhaps our church will have something more concrete to hope in. But we know better. As Isaiah’s vision reminds us, the only hope that truly lasts, that does not disappoint, that renews us when we’re tired and lifts us up when we’re bowed down, is hope in our Lord.

It was this kind of hope that allowed William Sloane Coffin, former minister of Riverside Church in New York City, to preach the sermon at his own 24-year-old son’s funeral service. Days after Alex’s death in a freak car accident, Coffin climbed into the pulpit and preached these unforgettable words, “… a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander . . . beat his father to the grave.” Coffin, who knew God well enough to realize she would never cause such a tragedy, still lamented the loss of a future without his son. The only thing that kept him afloat in those incredibly dark days was his tenacious hope in our Lord for whom death was not the final word.

It was a similar hope that compelled the writers of our Confession of 1967 to open the final paragraph of that statement of faith with this line: “With an urgency born of this hope.” “With an urgency born of this hope,” they write, referring to the “hope” we have, not in membership figures or stewardship results or fruitful ministries—as good as those things are—but our hope in God, in God’s promise to reconcile all of creation someday, somehow and someway.

Friends, may you and I leave this place hoping not in ourselves but in our Lord. As we return to engage in our ministries, may we find our strength renewed and our weariness eased. May we remember that we don’t have to be the creators of our hope. We have all the hope we need in our Lord already. And we need only share it.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Jeff LehnJeff Lehn is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne. He hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, where he learned to cheer for the Twins and Vikings and ate far too many casseroles. He grew up attending a Baptist church, but had a theological metamorphosis of sorts after college, eventually finding his way to the Presbyterian fold. He enjoys staying in touch with family and friends, spirited conversations over meals and the gratification of yardwork. And he is grateful every day for Arianne, his spouse and colleague in ministry.


Shannon Johnson Kershner — What’s NEXT?

Co-Chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team, Shannon Johnson Kershner introduces the Montreat Board and community to NEXT Church. She traces the beginnings of the NEXT Church movement and challenges all of us in the church to take responsibility to be the church: to follow God in the world, to be friends among our colleagues, strengthen our connections, learn from one another about how to lead in this time of change. She also shares some of the reactions NEXT is receiving across the denomination.

Shannon is the pastor of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, NC.

An Advent Prayer

By Jessica TateIMG_1277

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God.

As the light dims in the cooling days

our vision turns inward.

We see the wilderness of our lives, the desert of our spirits–

the crooked priorities

the low valleys of selfishness

the mountains of consumption

the uneven ground of malnourished spirits

the places made rough with wounds we carry.

Reveal again your glory, God of the Most High,

reveal your goodness, your love, your power—

reveal your judgment tinged with grace

so that all people see it together.

Now consider, O Holy One of Israel, we are your people.

You are the potter and we are the clay,

tough but willing to be molded according to your likeness.

Consider, O Lord of Lords, we are your people.

You are the fire that baptizes us in your Holy Spirit

captive by fear but willing to be your servants.

Turn us around to go in your way–

Teach us again not to be afraid.

According to the promise made to our ancestors,

O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

Comfort, O comfort your people and speak tenderly to Jerusalem

for there is great pain.

Bring good news to our brokenness,

hold close those jagged places in our hearts,

speak freedom to the tension we carry,

release us from patterns that hold us captive,

proclaim the time of your good favor

and the day of light of our God!

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God!

Jar us into wakefulness.

Though the hour is uncertain

be it evening or midnight or cockcrow or dawn

We await your glory; we are awake!

We watch, we long, we stand on tip-toes

expectantly, urgently, eager.

Tear open the heavens and come down.

Break into our lives–

we are awake!

(Advent meditations on Isaiah’s prophecy, Mary’s Song and the gospel of Mark)

Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is Director of NEXT Church.

Holy Ground

By Esta Jarrett

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 2:3-5 (NRSV)

Recently, a stand-up routine by the comedian Tig Notaro made the rounds of “you have to listen to this” lists on the Internet. Last summer, Notaro nearly died from a rare combination of medical problems. About a week later, her mom died in a tragic accident. Not long after that, Notaro went through an awful breakup. Then, right after that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts. At the time of the recording, after time counted in hours, not weeks, she found herself onstage at the Largo Comedy Club, in front of an audience anticipating a stand-up routine.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. Instead of telling her usual witticisms, in which bees taking the expressway figure prominently, she told the truth. “Hello, good evening,” she said. “I have cancer . . . just found out. Good evening.”

During her set, Notaro led the audience through a masterpiece of comedy and an anthropological study of grief. I’ve never heard anything like it. The audience struggled to know how to react. There were moans of sympathy and distress from some, uncertain laughter from others, and hushing noises from the rest.

By the end of the set, the crowd was eating out of Notaro’s hand. They would have done anything she told them to do. It was as if the audience realized the enormity of the gift they had been given: the fit of Notaro’s own self . . . her refusal to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Had Notaro just performed her usual set, it would have felt like a crime of inauthenticity, posturing instead of art. Toward the end of the performance, at the urging of the audience, she did tell her standard, “bee taking the expressway” joke. Because of everything that was not said, the joke assumed an almost debilitating poignancy. The audience, who had witnessed the depth of her pain and beauty, could no longer be satisfied with pro-forma jokes. As they all confronted the reality of death, and found the grace to laugh, the Largo was transformed; the comedy club became holy ground.

When the church is at its best, it resembles that night at the Largo. People need a place to give voice to truth, before God and everybody, and know that they are held in safety and love. Whether in or out of a church building, we need a community where healing and reconciliation mean more than appearances and convention, even if it goes off script . . . and especially if it challenges our expectations of what we paid to see.

A few years ago, while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I visited a certain patient in the hospital. She had breast cancer, and her body was rejecting the cosmetic implants that she wanted to conceal her double mastectomy. She was bald, gaunt, red-eyed, and wild in her grief. She needed to talk to someone about how mad she was . . . at her body, at the cancer, and at God.

In my memory, there was no noise in the hospital except her voice, no light but that illuminating her bed. For forty-five minutes she raged, wept, and confessed everything on her heart to this inexperienced seminary grad.

When her storm had passed, we gripped hands, hard, and prayed together. It was hard to know when we stopped talking and started praying. The feeling of God’s presence throughout our conversation was so strong, you could almost feel its warmth emanating as from fire. As we prayed, we laughed, and cussed, and cried some more. After we said “Amen,” the patient’s face was serene, and I was changed forever. That hospital room became holy ground.

Every church I know has unspoken rules about acceptable behavior, whether in or out of worship. Most of the time, enforcement of these rules is self-policing: if people aren’t feeling presentable, they stay home, rather than burdening others with their troubles. They don’t want to cry, and risk embarrassing themselves. They feel too raw from the sharp edges of their lives to be able to put on a polite face.

But when wounded people feel safe enough to speak their truth, to say when they’re mad or confused or scared, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work miracles in church. Healing begins when a friend hugs your shoulders as you cry during the hymn. Sympathy and help are found as you discuss problems after worship. Even the simple act of being in a crowd of people who are praying and worshiping God can bring about change when change seems impossible. It is precisely in those moments when our lives are messy and unpresentable need that we need church the most.

We talk a lot about our brokenness when we confess our sins on Sunday. But theologically abstract brokenness looks very different from everyday brokenness, the kind of brokenness that makes you feel that you’re not good enough. In the church I want us to be, everyday brokenness becomes a blessing. When we bring our cracked and chipped lives to the font, to the table, to the people, to the Lord, we find ourselves on holy ground.

My prayer is that our awareness of God’s presence will grow and sharpen, becoming as keen as any other sense, so that we might walk barefoot everywhere we go. In comedy clubs, in hospital rooms, and yes, in church, may we say what needs to be said, in the deep and challenging love of God. May the church be a place that people seek out for such healing and transformation, instead of feeling they must stay away until they are presentable. May we all find ourselves on holy ground.

esta jarrettEsta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

Image: jayzee/