Against The Rules: An Advent Reflection on Love

“When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.”

  – Madeleine L’Engle

The season of Advent rounds out with a focus on love. The story of Jesus is the story of God who loves us so incredibly uncontainably much that God explodes the boundary between divinity and humanity and comes gasping into this world to love us in person. With skin on. And so he does.

God’s love is endlessly surprising, uncontainable, unexpected, unconventional, boundary-breaking, against the rules. And that – a love that refuses to be ordinary, expected, or contained – a love that breaks the rules – is really what the birth of Jesus, and frankly his whole life, and death, and resurrection are all about.

Jesus’ whole ministry was about loving against the rules. A love that chooses mercy instead of violence. A love that chooses the outcasts first, that makes family out of social pariahs, and tax collectors, and sex workers, and widows and children, and the sick and disabled, and the overlooked and forgotten and the hated. Society says keep to your own, stay away from those people, they’re problematic. Associating with them makes you problematic. You’re not allowed to love those people. It’s wrong. It’s unclean. You can’t. And Jesus says: watch me.

And Jesus also says that about loving us – about the most hidden, unbearable, broken parts of us. The love of God, in Jesus, spills right over the barriers we hide ourselves behind. His love seeps like water between the cracks in the walls we put up to protect ourselves.

And it all starts in a manger, in a tucked away, forgotten corner of the world with a young couple who all the rules say shouldn’t be together, but they are anyway. May love surprise us all this Christmas, may it flow through every crack and well up in surprising, beautiful ways.


Image from the cover art designed by Lisle Garrity for the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering, with the theme “Build wells, not walls.”

Not So Expendable After All: An Advent Reflection on Joy

“Joy, collected over time, fuels resilience – ensuring we’ll have reservoirs of emotional strength when hard things do happen.”
– Brene Brown
It may be easy to think that, of the four themes we focus on in Advent, “joy” is the most expendable. It’s the one we’re most likely to dismiss or forgo because we’re busy and the world is a hard place, and it just doesn’t seem as important or helpful as hope or peace or love. And yet here it is, right in the middle of our Advent season, demanding our attention.
Perhaps joy has an important role to play after all. We are surrounded by mess and chaos and a world that sometimes seems like it’s on the brink of being lost entirely. It’s a slog. It’s exhausting. But joy is what reminds us why love, and hope, and faith are worth fighting for. It’s what reminds us that the hard things, no matter how much it may feel like they’re winning, they don’t get the final word. God does. And that is good news.
The holidays can be a hard season for some, a time when joy is hard to come by. And that’s okay. But just as we hold faith for one another, we can hold joy for one another too.
Joy gives us the strength we need to keep going. And it gives us the space to breathe a little too. And dream. In the midst of a narrative of despair, joy interjects like a voice of protest and resistance. And that’s what Jesus does too, in coming into the world, right in the midst of the chaos and the mess and the muck. It’s what Christmas does, year after year when it explodes into the middle of our lives and reminds us that God is with us, always, and that is reason to celebrate and rejoice.

Art produced by Lisle Garrity for the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Letting Go to Take Hold: An Advent Reflection on Hope

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.”

– Emily Dickinson

Advent is a season when we lean into hope. We look to the coming of Christ as a promise that a better world waits for us even as we wait for it. In Jesus, we find hope that love will have the final word. We dream of a world where swords are transformed into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. A world without conflict and division, where no one learns war anymore.

But Advent is also tricky because we anticipate and find hope in the birth of a savior who was already born millennia ago, already died and rose again and ascended. And yet here are, in a world still broken, still wrecked and wrecking, waiting to see our hope realized in some unimaginable future.

Our faith dares us, in this season and always, to believe that a better world, a better way, is possible. And we are called to recognize that taking hold of hope, moving toward that better world, requires that we relinquish our white knuckle grasp on the broken ways of this world. After all, we cannot take hold of plowshares and pruning hooks if our hands are still full of swords and spears.

If hope is the thing with feathers that perches in our souls, perhaps it also lifts us up, above the hopeless messiness of this world, so can we catch a glimpse of the world made new, and then get to work.

Art installation for our NEXT Church National Gathering at Fourth Church, in Chicago in 2015. This bird is composed of the prayers of confession offered at the precise time when the PCUSA officially and fully embraced a more inclusive definition of marriage. Credit to Shawna Bowman for this piece and to Fourth Church in Chicago for the photo.

Waters of Justice for a Flood of Peace: an Advent reflection

“We say ‘peace’ like it’s a balm
like an earnest effort
to calm the storm
of anger and pain
but listen
if the world is on fire
then maybe
is rain

and lightning
and thunder
so I wonder
if maybe redemption
requires drowning a little
in the tension
of our fear
of disrupting the status quo
and our hope for better
than what we know.

Maybe storms too can be Godly.
Maybe a flood can be a promise.”

– from Holy Water, by Layton E. Williams

One of the themes we focus on every year as we light our Advent wreaths is peace. Peace is an important element of Christian faith. We see it symbolized in the dove and the olive branch. One of the many titles we ascribe to Jesus is “Prince of Peace.” We proclaim that the world to come, the world made new, will be marked by a full and lasting peace that cannot be destroyed, when lion and lamb will lie down together, and weapons will be transformed into farming tools.

It’s a beautiful vision, but it’s also one that can feel pretty far removed from the world as it is today. Right now, there are conflicts happening across the planet, between nations, and peoples, and families, and even between humans and the earth. In the face of such upheaval, peace seems sort of like a dream, a fairy tale. And too often, when we rush to try and create peace, we do so at the expense of justice. The truth is that believing the promise of peace means recognizing that we have work to do. In faith, we must do whatever we can to help create a world that is both loving and just, and only then can true peace be fully realized.

What are some actions you can take in your own life to help waters of justice and goodness roll so that the promised peace can finally flood into the world?

An art installation as a part of worship at the NEXT Church 2019 National Gathering.

“OK, Boomer.”

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Bethany Benz-Whittington is curating a series that will explore the idea of different generations in ministry, and what gifts each generation particularly have to offer the church. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Dr. Cynthia M. Benz

Many of the church members I am privileged to serve are Boomers, like me, if not one generation ahead. To a large extent they are (or were before they retired) buttoned-up professionals who worked 9-5, Monday-Friday, in suits and ties, the women in pantyhose and heels, many of whom were lifers with their employers; it was all about being loyal to the company and the pride of working for the same organization their entire adult life. I was actually one of those until I received a call to ministry mid-stream, so I totally get it. A great deal of the qualities that are important to them are important to me: looking and dressing professionally all week, preaching from a manuscript so it will be a 3-point sermon with no rabbit trails, and a preference for traditional worship. No pink hair. No black fingernails. No avocado toast.

One of the reasons I have remained something of a conformist is because I desperately want the message of Jesus Christ to be heard. In my life experience, it seems that now, more than ever, those of us with the heavy responsibility of preaching must boldly and unwaveringly, oftentimes impatiently, call out scandalous injustice, outrageous and heartbreaking inequities in society, and the life-threatening disregard for the earth and its resources, messes clearly of our own making. The radical Word of the Gospel will not be heard by the pew-sitters in front of me if I have comported myself in such a way that creates a stumbling block and makes them uncomfortable. Please do not get me wrong, though. I absolutely aim to “afflict the comfortable,” but I hope to do so with the words and expectations of Jesus.

In 2017, the Barna Group published a study that determined the “percentage of church leaders 65 and older has nearly tripled [since 1992], meaning there are now more pastors in the oldest age bracket than there are leaders younger than 40.” What this tells me is we Boomers must acknowledge we are the generation that is, by and large, on its way out the door in terms of pastoral leadership. I have dearly loved serving the Church of Jesus Christ as a Minister of Word and Sacrament and am grateful for the privilege to have done so, but I do not believe my Boomer colleagues and I will be the ones with the solution for the future. Throughout our denomination, the numbers are declining, the beautiful sanctuaries we idolize are crumbling, and we are unable to financially support the ministries we assume are important. Am I worried? In years past, more so than now; now, only minimally, because I see who the leaders are coming up behind us.

Some of my favorite ministers in the world are Millennials and I am over-the-moon in love with the way they think and preach and lead and it gives me unbounded hope for the future of the Church I love. Did it make me clutch my pearls and squeal when my daughter, a Millennial Presbyterian pastor, was ordained in her Chacos? Or when she served Communion barefooted (granted, it was at a retreat)? Initially, yes, but once I considered how impressive it was for her to so completely be her authentic self, I was both proud and a little bit envious that I was not so bold.

My birth year is almost dead center of the Boomer generation, and I came of age near the end of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and protest music. Those events were formative and fear-inducing for us. It caused us to go about life as a very serious people. It caused us to be grave and buttoned-up and not to take life for granted. It caused us to seek higher education so we could be prepared for whatever disaster may come our way. As teenagers, we wanted to make sure our family and friends were “saved.” As adults, certainly as Presbyterians, we seem to be more concerned with sharing God’s grace and we depend on the generations behind us to shore up issues of justice. The fact is every generation offers something of inestimable value.

I hope I am not unusual in this, but the X-ers, Millenniels, and Y-ers inspire me more than they will ever know. They give me hope. And, when I hear, “OK, Boomer,” rather than taking offense, or going to the opposite extreme and laughing it off, I stop and check myself to see what I have missed, what can I learn. To my younger colleagues I say, “Thanks, y’all.” And just for the record, in the not-too-distant-future when I retire, I’ll be shaving my head like Emma Gonzalez.

Dr. Cynthia M. Benz is an intentional interim minister whose home is in Florida, but is currently serving in North Carolina. Cindy and her husband, Steve, a retired Presbytery Executive, enjoy both the mountains (him) and the beach (her), visiting grandchildren, and binge-watching anything by Aaron Sorkin … not in that order.

Diversity, Inclusivity, Authenticity, and Transparency: Fruits of the Millennial Spirit

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Bethany Benz-Whittington is curating a series that will explore the idea of different generations in ministry, and what gifts each generation particularly have to offer the church. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Chad Wright-Pittman

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

– Isaiah 58:9b-10

I’ll never miss a beat, I’m lightning on my feet
And that’s what they don’t see (that’s what they don’t see)
I’m dancing on my own, I’ll make the moves up as I go
And that’s what they don’t know… mmhmm

-Taylor Swift, ‘Shake it Off’

So, I’m fairly new to parish ministry… My initial call was to serve as the director of a service oriented, faith based non-profit. It was an incredible ministry and a huge learning opportunity for me. It wasn’t until I got into the pulpit that I began to hear folks note with surprising regularity that I’m “just a kid” and that it “must be nice to be so young” and that soon I would “learn how we do things around here.”

What’s perhaps the most interesting thing is that behind each of these statements is a truth. I am young… It is nice… and I am continuing to learn my context here in a mid-sized church in a small southern city. I do have much left to discern about how ‘we do things around here’. Yet, it’s also interesting how those small truths are then used to quickly dismiss concerns I may have, or my hopes for our communal life together as ‘too idealistic.’

First though, a couple of misunderstandings I’ve noticed in the zeitgeist:

All young people are not millennials. Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. The eldest millennials are turning 38 this year. Yet, many folks who say things like, ‘millennials are so…’ are really describing trends they see in the generation coming up behind us (Gen Z, or Post Millennials).

Also, Millennials are not a monolith. Not all millennials carry with them the same concerns, experiences, or privileges that I’ve been afforded, but I do find myself to connect with the generation’s noted aspirations toward diversity, inclusivity, authenticity, and transparency.

While being a millennial in ministry has already revealed some challenges, I truly believe that my experiences growing up between the economic highs of the mid to late 1990s, the dot-com bubble bursting in 2002, and the eventual market crash of 2008, has given me a real sense of how truly malleable much of our society is and how much sway folks with power and resources have over the lives of everyday folks. Couple that with a healthy dose of ‘too idealistic’ and you have someone who really believes they can make a difference in the world around them.

That very optimism about the malleability of the world around us – and our desire to see it left better than we found it – will be a gift to the church, I believe, as the Church hopefully continues to make space for young ministers to step into leadership. It remains to be seen how that will change as our generation runs up against the inevitable pitfalls, setbacks, and general backlash that always happens when folks start tinkering with longstanding institutional structures. I hope we can retain the energy and creativity that has brought us into the public sphere thus far.

Perhaps the primary gift that Millennial church leaders bring is our desire to have our cake and eat it too. It seems that our generation is creative enough and idealistic enough to believe that we can do it all. We also believe that the church can have a budget that reflects its values. We can create balance in our work and play. We can have work that pays the bills and is meaningful to us and connects us to our gifts and passions. The haters gonna hate, and the fakers gonna fake… but millennials seem to have a nose for sniffing out inauthenticity and stubborn defeatism and demanding that false dichotomies be turned into fruitful paradoxes. There is a win-win situation yet to be discovered. There’s a way for us to have it all; for the needs of the afflicted to be satisfied, for all to be fed, for the pointing of the finger at each other to become the pointing towards unforeseen grace and generosity.

If the church wants to reconnect to its prophetic imagination and remain a relevant institution, we may need to lean into the unique outlook many millennial pastors bring. The many gifts millennials bring to the table – high expectations, idealism, transparency, and authenticity – may be the gifts the church needs to grow and adapt in this present reformation.

For me, as I grow and adapt in my new ministry context, I pray I’m able to hang on to the optimism that has brought me this far. I hope I’m able to continue to question a lack of diversity and inclusion in the pews and in leadership. I hope I’m able to continue to seek transparency and authenticity in the places where rituals and traditions have become rote. And as the pitfalls, setbacks, and backlash begin to challenge that optimism, I pray I’ll have the clarity of mind to shake it off, shake it off.

Chad is pastor, thinker, and enthusiast; a lover of: people, scripture, coffee, action, and reflection. An M. Div graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, he served as the director of DOOR Atlanta for three years inviting young folks to “See the Face of God in the City” and to reflect on God’s call to love and serve each other.  He and his wife Lauren now live in Anderson, SC where he serves as Associate Pastor for Care and Outreach at the First Presbyterian Church.