Welcome to the Future

by Catherine Neelly Burton

I began this blog series with a working hypothesis: I live in the future of the PCUSA. What’s happening in southern Kansas is where the national church is headed. My conversations over the last five months haven’t entirely proven this as true, but there’s more data to support my hypothesis.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Presbytery of Southern Kansas declined in total membership by 25%. In that same period these presbyteries based in large metropolitan areas declined as well:

  • Mid-Kentucky (Louisville) – 20% decline
  • Heartland (Kansas City) – 17% decline
  • Charlotte – 11% decline
  • Greater Atlanta – 10% decline

I did not contact every presbytery in the PCUSA, but of the ones I contacted, none are growing. Yet, there is still this myth that success equals growth. This myth is particularly detrimental to our rural communities. We know that every year fewer and fewer Americans go to church. If churches in growing cities are in decline, our small shrinking communities have almost no chance by the metric of growth.

In 2009 the PCUSA launched the “For Such a Time as This Initiative.” This program took applicants through at least 2013. According to PCUSA literature the program was “designed to renew and grow small churches and help them to become healthy, missional congregations. The program pairs small, underserved congregations in rural, small town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates for a two-year pastoral-residency relationship, during which they are supported and guided by a cluster of pastor-mentors.”

On one hand I applaud this initiative because the PCUSA tried something new and creative. On the other hand, anyone who looked at the data for rural churches from the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s could have told you that numerical growth in churches in rural and small towns was nearly impossible. This initiative frustrated me because it set churches and pastors up for failure. I’m sure good things came from this initiative, but in the end, the church in my presbytery that had this program was back where it started and maybe even more defeated.

I appreciate the shift in conversation that our national church has made from growth to vitality with the Vital Congregations Initiative, but we’re way behind. The initiative will benefit the churches that participate, those with presbyteries who could staff the initiative. In general though, I think we’re headed for four distinct church models. My hypothesis continues.

The first model is that of the called and installed pastor. It will continue for churches that can afford it. As more and more urban congregations shrink, they’ll move to part time or bi-vocational models for pastoral leadership but (likely) still expect the same work out of their pastors. Because a lot of pastors choose to live in urban areas (for good reasons such as jobs for spouses and community) they’ll (likely) keep doing the work. The Board of Pensions recognizes this and is doing more for part-time pastors. This part-time or bi-vocational structure is model two and is what we’ll continue to see in big cities where there are more pastors than available calls.

In smaller cities, like Wichita, those churches that might get a part time pastor in a larger city like Atlanta, will close. We closed five churches in the city of Wichita between 2014 and 2019. This is model three, let the churches die. It happens in cities, towns, and rural communities.

My hope is that other cities and towns like Wichita, without seminaries or big draws for pastors, will fall into model four. Model four is let the people lead the churches. Several of the churches I got to know in this blog series are doing model four.

There aren’t a lot of pastors interested in moving to small Midwestern towns to be, perhaps, a congregation’s last full-time installed pastor. I don’t blame them. I don’t want that. I serve a church with an amazing staff in a lovely small city. My husband’s vocation means we’ll never live in a rural community. I’m not pointing fingers.

If these small and/or rural churches won’t have full-time installed pastors, what’s left? What’s left are the people, the people of God. What’s left are the people in Chase, KS, who supplement monthly food for 20% of their town. What’s left are commissioned ruling elders who figure out how to get trained despite no guidance and manage to capably lead congregations. What’s left are churches who band together to share resources and serve their communities. What’s left are the people who pray for one another and learn to preach and lead worship.

We don’t lack motivated, called people who love Jesus. We lack care about God’s people who live in small towns and rural communities. Fortunately, many of them haven’t waited for permission from the PCUSA, or presbyteries, or big churches. They’ve gone forward to be the church. With a little help, more could do the same and could teach the rest of us. Otherwise, we are the ones who get left behind.

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

On Faith, Politics, and Limits for the Church

by Rob Hammock

Being a Chicago kid growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, one couldn’t help being broadsided with the power and influence of politics on a city. When I was 5 years old, Mayor Richard J. Daley died. The “Boss” had presided over the city of Chicago for 21 years until his death. Through his control of the Cook County Democratic Party and the Mayor’s Office, he had successfully ruled the city and bent much of it to his will. However, being a South Side kid where most of the Black community lived, I had seen the limits of Daley’s power and knew that his influence was not always positive to the friends and family living in and surrounding my neighborhood. So, in 1983, at just the age of 12, after two terms removed from the late Mayor Daley, my mom and I became involved in the campaign of Harold Washington to become the city’s first African American mayor.

Despite being a seeming underdog in the Democratic primary facing an incumbent mayor and the aspiring son of the late Mayor Daley, Washington won the primary and subsequently became the mayor. Part of my impetus for being involved was the voice and witness of the Black church on the South Side. Churches and pastors had organized to promote someone they felt would fight for their interests. I saw Harold Washington and his part of the Democratic party as a champion for the underclass, the marginalized, and “the least of these”.

Five years later, when I was 16, I had my first taste of ecclesial politics. My mom and I were traveling to Texas for a couple of college visits. During that planned time, it also happened that the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”) was being held in San Antonio. Considering the timing and proximity, we attended the convention as official “messengers” representing our church. I was in for a rude faith awakening. My understanding of Jesus and my faith had come under the tutelage of a small, mixed Baptist congregation, where I had been baptized by a woman pastor. What I quickly learned at the convention was that there was no place for my brand of theology. Apparently, my naïve thinking of loving my neighbor in an urban environment with a woman pastor was anathema to the SBC.

The first evening I remember hearing the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, W.A. Criswell, a key leader in the conservative takeover of the SBC, trumpet against the evils of liberalism. My Chicago church had been hanging on within the SBC as a moderate voice, and it would continue to do so for a number of years, but that was the beginning of the end of my life as a Southern Baptist. Without yet fully comprehending the alleged issues and “heresies” at stake according to the conservatives, I understood the desire for control and power. The legacy of “Boss” Daley had shown me what power-wielding influence and coercion were, and this was it. I was done with Baptist life.

But, despite that experience, I somehow doubled-down for Jesus. As I finished high school and college, I began to voraciously read to understand what the conservative takeover was about and why women and liberals were supposedly evil. I worked my way through reading about the theological gymnastics one would have to work through to fight the battle over the word “inerrancy”. I studied Paul and his letters to see how people came to the conclusion that women’s roles in the church should be limited such that they shouldn’t preach or have authority over a man. An undergraduate degree in Religion and a Master of Divinity later, I was left with the position that these battles were much more about maintaining control and power than they were about following Jesus and loving your neighbor. Reading tomes on the inerrancy of scripture and the limited place of women, I couldn’t square the intellectual gymnastics with my simple understanding that all of the law and the prophets could be summed up in love God and love your neighbor.

My desire for deeper theological understanding imbued with an underlying simplicity is perhaps why I was first drawn to the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Considering the voluminous nature of his works in Church Dogmatics, uttering the word simplicity alongside his name might bring a raised eyebrow. Yet, it was the story of an encounter with Barth at Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago in the 60’s that piqued my interest. The story, somewhat validated, somewhat questioned, was that a questioner asked Barth to sum up his theology in one sentence. Barth’s response was a proud Sunday School teacher’s dream, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Regardless of the story’s ultimate veracity, this gem pushed me forth to learn more from a man that seemed to want to thread the needle of simple faith and deep thought.

As I read more and more Barth, I was increasingly intrigued by him because of his description of “Evangelical Theology” and his context of working with German Christians. Despite my moving away from my SBC roots, I still longed to hold on to some connection to “evangelical” faith. Barth showed me a path: “Evangelical theology is modest theology, because it is determined to be so by its object, that is, by him who is its subject.” (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction). In its simplest meaning from the Greek, evangelical translates to “good message”. This was good news to me indeed. And, reading about Barth’s use of it outside of an American context, I began to see how the American cultural and political context had warped its meaning.

However, the writing that he was involved in that influenced me as much as any was “The Theological Declaration of Barmen”. This document was written in 1934 by representatives of the Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches of Germany that had organized in Barmen, Germany to bear witness over and against the larger German Church’s increasing alignment with Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism.* The following section helped me to more fully understand and caution me on the limits of politics as a vehicle of faithful action for the church. We are called to be faithful to God in Jesus Christ regardless of who is in political control and not succumb to bastardizing temptations of our good news that come with a desire for power.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State…. The church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.
(“The Theological Declaration of Barmen”, 8.23-27)

“Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11:15, NRSV)

* For reference, see the introductory essay along with the actual statement from “The Theological Declaration of Barmen”, Book of Confessions: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I.

Robert Hammock recently rolled off of the Session after a 3-year term at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although trained at Princeton Theological Seminary (MDIV), the last 20 years of his career have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He remains active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of its campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and community development.

How Jesus Organizes and Agitates to Build Movements

by Chris Dela Cruz

Why did Jesus take three years before going to Jerusalem at the end of his life?

If you believe the analysis of the Biblical timeline, Jesus spent the majority of time gathering folks to follow him, often one-by-one, often purposely telling them not to spread the word of his miracles. He hid from the religious leaders multiple times out of safety.

The Church, though, often depicts the primary work of Jesus happening in his dying on the cross. If that’s true, why did Jesus have to hide and wait? Couldn’t he just have stormed into Jerusalem, declared himself Messiah and thus angering the religious leaders right away who were already wanting to capture him, and get the killing over with?

He didn’t do this, though. Because Jesus was a community organizer.

Think about it. The heart of community organizing, especially in the Industrial Areas Foundation model started by Saul Alinsky, are hosting one-on-one and small group relational meetings to understand people’s passions and self-interests, then start gathering in followers (ie disciples?), and identify potential leaders who will then bring in more followers – can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see!

So Jesus spends the bulk of his time on earth bringing in more people into the movement. The Scriptures depict this movement amassing little by little over the next three years, and Jesus and the disciples running small “actions” – in community organizing speak, these are events that provoke and agitate the status quo to react – whether it be healings that transform individual lives or sermons that both inspire and cause increasingly hostility mostly from people in power. These actions serve to gather more followers and lead them finally to Jerusalem to challenge the religious and political powers in perhaps the biggest Action of all time.

Why did Jesus do it this way? Because in his ministry of organizing, Jesus was amassing power.

There are many who shy away from talking about “worldly” power, especially when it comes to Jesus. Too many people have been abused, misused, and oppressed by those in power, and they rightfully want nothing to do with that. Others, though, say they want nothing to do with power and preach a Jesus who gave up all power, who Philippians 2’d his way onto the Throne, who preached nothing but humbling yourself and submitting – a convenient sermon often from those who already have plenty of power to give.

But it’s not as simple as this.

Because, yes, Jesus did indeed empty himself, taking the form of a slave, and humbling himself to the point of death- even death on a cross. But it’s not like no one was watching.

Jesus spent three years gathering thousands of followers, mostly poor and outcast, the original Poor People’s Movement. Then Jesus gathered all these people all in one place! Jesus did this so that, in the event of, say, a world-altering sin-and-death-shattering resurrection, Jesus’ followers would have the long-standing relational bonds, common self-interest, and developed leaders (I mean Peter finally got his act together, right?) that could start and sustain a movement, and they were all in one place to witness it and spread it more easily.

In other words, Jesus made sure his movement would have Power, which in community organizing speak is organized people and organized money. 

And power it had. Jesus told them to wait a little while longer, just as any organizer knows there’s always logistics and last minute calls making sure leaders commit to recruiting x amount of folks, figuring out who the speakers are (ugh why does Peter ALWAYS get to speak), and of course making sure there’s food (so the women have to pay for this thing and feed them? No, beloved disciple, you’re on cooking duties today).

Then the Movement held its first action without Jesus, Pentecost. Tongues were on fire! Languages burst out like the wind! Peter brought down the house! And three thousand people committed to spreading the Word.

Sure, they had the advantage of the Holy Spirit. But it turns out every God-ordained movement has the same advantage.

This has always been the work of the Church, to continue and organize the Jesus Movement, bring in new followers and build leaders and power through relationships, and perform in-the-world-but-not-of-it actions to agitate the status quo and move the world toward change for the Kingdom. We just forgot what movements look like because we fell in love with institutional power. 

At the same time, though, the answer is not as simple as abandoning institutions, as they serve as a means to relational power. Jesus doesn’t force in brute power to oppress, but you think Jesus doesn’t want stuff to change on earth? The Church moving either to consolidate oppressive power or to run away from any chance at systemic impact are both in their own ways denials of the Narrow Path of Jesus Power to witness to God’s Reign of justice, mercy, and peace.

Local church communities have a ton of potential power and impact just by their very nature. If power is organized people and organized money, churches are one of the few entities in modern life that gather large, intergenerational groups of people -and their tithes! – all in one place, regularly, with built in strong relational bonds and common self-interest.  

But we squander it. Yes “service” projects are great, even excellent, but there’s potential for far greater impact that could do so much good if only congregations knew how much power they truly had. Also, bringing your church into the Christ-ordained work of organizing brings out leadership you never expected. You’ll find people that may not be able to preach or teach Sunday School or lead Bible studies or organize church picnics – and thus not get the usual attention and recognition for their gifts – but just by their relationships and influence within them, they can bring 17 people easily to a rally.

Hip-hop artist Ruby Ibarra raps “I don’t pray cuz I organize.” Perhaps there is a way to have both, like inhaling and exhaling. We just have to be open to the call.

Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the new Associate Pastor of Youth, Young Adults, and Community Engagement at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

Deep Rural

by Catherine Neelly Burton

“Deep Rural” is a phrase I learned from the Reverend Charles Ayers. Raised outside of NYC and in New England, seminary educated on the West Coast, Charles has lived in the deep rural for nearly 50 years.  He describes deep rural as a community that is at least 60 miles removed from a city.  Deep rural is the kind of place no one in the U.S. pays attention to unless there’s a disruption in the food supply chain.

Charles and his wife (now deceased) moved to western Kansas to her family’s farm.  As Charles learned to be a farmer he connected with the small churches in western Kansas.  

As far back as the 1970’s (when there was the staff and means to do so) the presbytery paid little attention to these congregations.  Some of them could still afford pastors.  Charles moderated sessions for those who couldn’t and filled pulpits.  Charles was strongly connected to the national tent makers group within the denomination.  He can tell stories of attempts made and challenges faced by tent makers for decades.  

Today there is not a single installed pastor in the western half of the Presbytery of Southern Kansas.  Garden City Presbyterian is in transition and hopes to eventually call a pastor.  Garden City has a population between 25,000-30,000.  It is a hub for commerce and medicine and provides services that might normally be found in a much bigger community.  If you need something Garden City can’t provide, your biggest cities are four hours west (Colorado Springs, CO), four hours east (Wichita, KS), and three-and-a-half hours south (Amarillo, TX).

Photo by Mary Hammel on Unsplash

Ten years ago, Charles invited the PCUSA churches in Lakin, Leoti, and Tribune, Kansas, into a conversation.  These three churches now function as a virtual single congregation with three sites.  This virtual church created a steering committee and put together a preaching pool.  They gather when there is a 5th Sunday for a meal, fellowship, sometimes worship, and sometimes study.  Their goal is to affirm each other’s ministry and help each become better at what they are able to do.  They support and pray for each other. 

Early on in their partnership, the three churches invited the Reverend Bob Wade to come work with them.  Bob is retired and lives in Ohio, but his first call was in Tribune, KS.  The churches came up with things they wanted to be trained in, and Bob served as their ministry coach.  For ten weeks they focused on communion training for elders, learning to pray better publicly, and how to be intentional in pastoral care when visiting and calling.  

The church members were empowered to lead their churches in ways they hadn’t before.  They realized that they didn’t need to wait for a pastor, that they could be the church.  In time, Charles connected with the Reverend Terry Woodbury.  Terry lives outside of Kansas City but had farmland in western Kansas.  Charles got Terry hooked on this vision, and when he spent time out west, he offered his skills in planning to the three churches.  

The churches got more involved in their communities, too.  The Leoti church will likely be the first to close, and as one step in preparing for that, they created a non-profit called Agora.  Agora is intended to strengthen the community.  

The church building is already used by groups like 4H and community theatre.  In time, Agora will take over the building.  This means that the community keeps it, and it is cared for.  Leoti still has a manse which it rents, and they give that income to Agora.  The church in Lakin has income from an endowment and gives to Agora.  

Churches in the deep rural were decades ahead of what churches in larger towns and cities are experiencing now (numerical decline and struggles with building maintenance), and they may be decades ahead of us in how to be church.  The discipleship coach model of congregational empowerment is one that we need to consider as a creative possibility and not a sign of defeat.  

Charles likes to use exile and remnant language regarding these deep rural churches; they are the remnant and don’t know in what form the church will rise up in the future.  We should pay attention because it may very well be the deep rural that shows us the way forward. 

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

Mission as Resistance and Struggle

by Rafael Vallejo, Ph.D.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing”

                                                                                                                                    –  Arundhati Roy

Christian Mission has a long history and the meaning of the word “mission” has evolved through time. It used to be that  when people talked of “missions” they were referring to people from the North who went overseas to “evangelize” or live with poor communities in the villages in the Global South. These people were called “missionaries”. 

Today’s theologies of mission contain big words like evangelization, prophetic dialogue, contextualization, inculturation, inter-religious dialogue, common witness, liberation. 

What I would like us to do here is to revisit how different understandings of Mission evolved through church history.  Kwame Bediako from Ghana argues that church history is mission history.  

In the first century of the Christian movement, many of  the first ecclesial communities believed that the promised return of the Christ was happening anytime soon. The goal of mission then was to “preach the gospel” to as many people as possible so they may  be “saved”. Christianity spread from Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean world until it became the official religion of the Empire in 380 CE. 

Given the diversity of groups and gospels, the Church focused its energies on “right belief” and in the process went to battle against those who held other beliefs (e,g. heretics). Seven ecumenical councils (e.g.Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon) worked to create right language around Christian belief in the form of doctrines and creeds. In 1054, the Church of the East broke away from the Church of the West over  doctrinal  differences. 

During the 15th century,  powerful countries in Europe started explorations into distant lands. In what is now referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery”, mission came to be understood as “civilizing mission” that went hand in hand with “discovering” and taking ownership of new lands  and turning them into colonies. Civilizing missions were conceived as bringing “the light of the gospel” to “the heart of darkness”, the backward, uncivilized colored indigenous peoples in the colonies. 

In the 20th century, after the experience of two world wars, former colonies struggled and won their independence. People from former colonies started to migrate and settle in the countries of their colonizers (eg. UK, France, USA). Migration gave rise to pluralist societies marked by a diversity of worldviews, languages, cultures, religions and traditions. By this time, the center of World Christianity had shifted to the Global South.

Now in the 21st century, much of the language around Christian mission has changed but some of the previously held interpretations are still present. In “Together Towards Life” (TTL) the World Council of Churches (WCC) during its 10th General Assembly in Busan, South Korea (2013) spoke of Mission as “resistance and struggle”. This is the frame I am working with in this series of blogs on “Refugees and Resistance: Enacting God’s mission in liminal spaces.”(Vallejo, 2020)

I think of Missio Dei as engaging the powers and domination systems that are operative in today’s world. I want to re-describe the heart of the Triune God’s work as struggle in a world dominated by “Empire”. Empire as defined by the Accra Confession 2004  refers to “the convergence of economic, political, cultural, geographic, and military imperial interests, systems, and networks for the purpose of amassing political power and economic wealth.” Empire is what stands in opposition to God’s purposes for the world. They “obstruct the fullness of life that God wills for all” (TTL 45)

I find support for this view in resistance literature embedded in the biblical narrative. In the people’s struggle in Egypt, the narrator shows the fragility of the Pharaoh’s power compared to the mighty arm of the deity, later to be known as YHWH. The same theme of resistance and struggle runs through apocalyptic literature in the First and Second Testaments. 

In many ways, border crossings performed by refugees/migrants today is an act of resistance against nation-states who consider it their absolute right to decide who may or may not enter their borders. Refugees are resisting not having voice or visibility by breaking the silence and showing up in huge numbers at international borders, even in the midst of the current pandemic. While this kind of resistance may not be enough to improve their situation or change the system, at the very least they hope to raise awareness that something needs to be done. I believe our God struggles with them as they travel through liminal spaces.

I invite us to think of our mission as mobilizing the church for social engagement and prophetic witness and the flourishing of all of God’s creation. Should we as Church choose to stand alongside refugees and migrants, we need to be prepared to resist and struggle alongside them.

Rafael Vallejo started his theological career at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and San Francisco Theological Seminary and from there continued on with a Master in Theological Studies from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Divinity at the University of Toronto. From 2011-2016, he travelled extensively and studied with indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina as part of his PhD dissertation (2018) on “Faith Perspectives of Mexican Migrant Farm Workers in Canada”. He serves as affiliate faculty at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Rafael is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and his pieces focus on the experience of refugees and mission. 


What Is Your Yoke?

by Rob Hammock

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are now over 160,000 from over 4.9 million cases. In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests continue. The unemployment rate is back down to 10%, but individuals and families worry about the potential of eviction or foreclosure as federal financial support has lapsed. Meanwhile, arguments fly back and forth in the media and social media over “cancel culture” and whether or not wearing a mask is good public health policy or an affront to basic freedoms.

I am tired.

Beginning the sixth month of stay-at-home orders and lockdowns and masks and closed businesses, living in this time of uncertainty, fear, and frustration drains me. Sure, my canine co-workers love it and will probably be sorely disappointed if I ever go back to working in an office, but I miss the easy in-person interaction of others and the off the cuff conversations that happen throughout the day. Zoom calls have certainly lightened the load as I have figured out how to play trivia online and sing together in groups, yet Zoom fatigue is real. I miss being able to walk down the street and interact with neighbors as we visit stores and restaurants. I miss being able to come together over sporting events and cheering on my favorite teams. I miss being able to come together to work on challenges in our community together. I miss worship with actual people and tangible communion elements!

I am weary.

“‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’” (Matthew 11:28 NRSV)

Photo by Ana Cernivec on Unsplash

These words of Jesus from Matthew have given me great comfort over the years, particularly when I have wrestled with depressive thoughts and anxiety. I imagine the welcoming, open arms of Christ beckoning me to sit and rest and absorb the love that is all comforting and unconditional in ways that I don’t fully understand and still have a difficult time believing might even be true for me. I am grateful for this invitation and long to sink into it. In corona-time, this invitation feels even more compelling as I await some return to normalcy away from Zoom and away from the constant din of social media and news that is ever frustrating and constantly imbued with anger, derision, scorn, and fear.

And yet, what is the “normal” I seek? What is the invitation to learn from Jesus that follows the call to rest? There may be a period of rest and comfort, but a return to “normal” in the context of the invitation is not the expectation.

“Learn from me” (Matthew 11:29)

If I am worn-down, depressed, and anxious, Jesus is calling me out of that confusion and inviting me to a different place to be open to a new way of being. Business as usual has not worked for my emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual sanity, so there needs to be a new way. “Normal” cannot be the answer, but Jesus is there to guide me, if I am open to surrender to the call.

“For my yoke is easy.” (Matthew 11:30)

I’ve missed the irony in the next verse regarding the easiness of the yoke. From Merriam-Webster, a yoke is a “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals are joined at the heads or necks for working together.” What in the world sounds easy about a yoke being placed upon me? This sounds like hard, grueling work! But it is simple if I am willing to be open and teachable.

The age of corona-time has offered me the space for reflection and contemplation. The welcoming rest to cast my cares and burdens upon Jesus is real, but it is for rejuvenation and restoration for a new path. To take upon his yoke is to learn and lean in and join in the work. Ultimately, if I’m not stuck too strongly in a place of comfort, I remember it is to join in the work that led Jesus on to the cross.

What is my normal?

In light of my frustrations and weariness, I look back upon what I’m tired from, and I’m struck by how privileged I am to be weary. Where I have legitimate struggles of heart, mind, and health, I can identify them and not minimize them, but I can also right-size my view to know how much I have to be grateful for and that I need to practice the act of gratitude remembrance to counter the negativity.

My family is healthy.

I have shelter.

I have enough food to eat.

I don’t fear being arrested.

My wife and I have jobs that allow us to make ends meet.

My “normal” in pre-corona-time was pretty good. And I am grateful. But, if I am to take on Jesus’ yoke and learn, then part of that task is to remember and know that I do not exist solely for myself. Having been able to find rest and acknowledge Jesus’ love, part of the yoke is to internalize it so I can share it with others whose burden isn’t light and who are indeed quite weary. 

What is my yoke?

Friends and neighbors who have sick loved ones from COVID-19.

Depressed and anxious people living with mental health diagnoses.

Folks worried about not being able to pay the rent or the mortgage.

Families who pray they can find ways to extend the groceries to feed their children.

Black people worried about whether or not they may be the target of the police.

Small business owners wondering if their livelihood is at risk.

Employees on edge waiting to find out if they’re the next to be let go or furloughed.

My privileged rest has the opportunity to take up Jesus’ yoke and be there for those who cannot find a way right now. For those who are fretting. For those who are frustrated. For those who feel powerless. For those who are disenfranchised. I need to listen, learn, and be present where possible to extend Jesus’ grace in solidarity to bear the burdens of my siblings in Christ and neighbors. I know my skills and resources, and I know I am blessed. I can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.

To whom can you listen? From what can you learn? And where can you be present?

What is your yoke?

Robert Hammock recently rolled off of the Session after a 3-year term at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although trained at Princeton Theological Seminary (MDIV), the last 20 years of his career have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He remains active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of its campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and community development.

I Haven’t Called a Woman a “F****** B****”. That Doesn’t Make Me a Decent Man.

by Chris Dela Cruz

After a speech discussing poverty and unemployment as it relates to crime, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a representative in the United States Congress, was accosted and verbally attacked on the steps of the Capital by another representative, Rep. Ted Yoho. Rep. Yoho put his finger in the face of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, a grown, adult woman, calling her “disgusting” and “crazy.”

Then, when walking away, in front of reporters, Rep. Yoho, also a grown, adult human who represents American citizens and swore an oath to serve his country, called Rep. Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch.”

Rep. Yoho, on the House floor delivering a speech allegedly reported to be an “apology” according to some sources, denied he used “vulgar language” and said “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family, or my country” but he apologies for the “abrupt manner in which I spoke to my colleague,” never naming Rep. Ocasio-Cortez or admitting the incident as reported happened. Also, “having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of language.”

In response, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez gave a speech that I cannot emphasize enough how historic and important this speech is, on the floors of Congress. I ask that you watch it in full.

“Mr. Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said. “I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter too.”

“What I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man, and when a decent man messes up as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize.”

Of course my first response was “yeah!” and “you tell that guy!” Of course I did, after all, I am a “decent man.” 


So I have never called a woman a “fucking bitch,” mainly because I’m too embarrassed to say curse words like that about someone even to a friend. I suppose that makes me a “decent man.”

I have, though, chuckled lightly or smirked as some other guy said it. I have read the subtle cues in a group of people where the guys are belittling the women in the room, and stood there. I have benefited from being in a room of guys, many with power and privileges that I could benefit from, where I know I benefited because I was invited there and a woman was not, while the men belittled them. I have been at tables where there’s political discussion where there are women who know more than me, but I know that the men are looking for my opinion because I’m a man, and I feed into it.

Like Rep. Ted Yoho, I’ve not-really apologized to women, including my own spouse, with half-hearted excuses that actually sought to undermine the woman’s perspective, consciously or unconsciously knowing that women’s perspectives aren’t taken as seriously. All because in some vain effort to look “strong” I’m actually being too sensitive to my ego because men’s opinions are usually taken seriously. 

After all, if another man with power, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, can say with a straight face “I think that when someone apologizes, they should be forgiven” and “In America, I know people make mistakes, we’re a forgiving nation,” and even Democratic House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer can say “the apology was appropriate,” then I can do a Ted-Yoho-apology knowing the boys club will defend me. And I do it knowing that the boys may turn on me if I step out of line.

Just as Rep. Ted Yoho has privileges as a representative who is a man, in my call as pastor, I have benefited from all sorts of privileges – I can share with search committees I have young kids without fear, rather than women pastors who have had to remind me how they might be perceived as “being distracted by their family duties.” I have had the assumption of some level of authority, I have biblical texts and “churchy” language that affirm my authority, which affect my career – and my salary.

I have never had the regular experience of feeling physically threatened even from people larger than me. I have never felt unsafe in a dating situation, or in any intimate setting, because movies, TV shows, songs, cultural taboos, and multiple laws in multiple levels of government protect me in these settings, not women. I don’t have scripture-clobbering texts justifying taking away my consent in sexual situations out of “submission” to my spouse, seen as a “head” authoritative figure.

And even as I type this, I know I will benefit from the fact that men say this stuff so rarely that it’s seen as somehow exemplary to say the basic thing of: don’t be physically or emotionally violent toward women with your actions or words, just like you shouldn’t with anyone.

So I guess I’m saying that I think Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is actually being very gracious when she talks about what a “decent man” should look like. Because we men need to do a lot of work, both internally and systemically, to live up to that.

Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the new Associate Pastor of Youth, Young Adults, and Community Engagement at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

Preach Racial Justice

by Holly Haile Thompson

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life…” – Tecumseh

I honor my Narragansett siblings and mark their 345th annual August Meeting – I respectfully remember Dr. Ella Sekatau, Mrs. Eleanor Dove and their families. I acknowledge nearly 600,000 lives around Mother Earth now lost to Covid-19. Yet, unbelievably, this is not quite ‘real’ enough to wear a face-covering to perhaps save the lives of others; “I might save another person’s life by wearing a cloth mask” then justify not wearing one?!

Modern-folk believe ‘holy work’ is flashy, famous, wrapped in finery, but I’ve learned it’s not the one with the fancy abode who is the measure of goodness, it is the one whose ‘well-worn path to their door’ who may not even have a lot but they always have enough to share. It is ‘holy work’ to do what is in one’s power to do that others might live.
We have found ourselves ‘alone to pray’ more in 2020 than ever before. Cloistered life invites meditation, contemplation and can result in new insights. Indigenous Peoples observe many forms of devotion, thanksgiving, prayer and meditation out-of-doors, and we are called primitive and heathen for doing so; while in a land where water, air and soil gives life, sustains life, why wouldn’t all devout people protect, nurture and share these God-given elements?

Matthew’s lectionary readings for August come after Jesus’ experience of a death in the family, he needed solitude – still, was not given the luxury of a restorative quarantine. When might caring leadership look at unscheduled interruption as opportunity? When might influential leadership see the unsatisfied throng of humanity and manifest anything but pity for the rabble who hunger and thirst for fairness, decency, healing and hope? ALWAYS. To look upon the community and not see humanity is a problem: big time.

Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash

Feeding 5000 in a patriarchal system means feeding 5000 men; can we see what’s wrong with this snapshot of helpless disciples and their inability to act? Looking upon this humanity demands a compassionate and humane response – they need to be fed. Not counselled, not removed, not reasoned with, not dismissed, not sent empty away: Feed them. Don’t imagine the dozens of reasons as to why it can’t happen, feed them.

Walking on Water (doing the impossible): some can and some can’t? Focus; and if one’s eyes are not on one’s own bellybutton and its inadequacy, and eyes and hearts are on the action leading to the goal – what seems impossible can be accomplished. So many times a quick re-read of an Allan Boesak sermon from the 1980s will set a wondering wanderer back on the Good Red Road.

Apartheid can’t be changed – but maybe it can;

Racism isn’t a problem in an all White church – well, maybe it is;

Unceded Native Territory will never be recognized – that, too, might come to pass.

“Who do you say that I am?” A question to all who have ears to hear. I say that you’re the One ‘calling out’ and admonishing those who, with impunity, rule using violence. Jesus asks, “Who am I?” The One holding to account people and systems that with astonishing regularity send the needy away hungry, broken, economically and physically crippled, in a system that, by design, creates and maintains conditions resulting in ever-growing populations of desperate dejected, destitute, depleted human beings.

Additionally, “Who have I shown myself to be?” One immune from humanity’s cultural influence, or One who grew up hearing about “Crumbs and Dogs”? In our creeds we mutter some such about ‘fully human and fully divine’ and if the former is also true we must admit to the encompassing influence of one’s own culture; i.e. the ‘White lessons’ given to everyone in the United States – escaped by no one. Enveloping cultural indoctrination perpetuates the ideals of White supremacy and White normalcy in our Nation, Churches and American society. Only those who see beyond these inclinations – and those who learn to see beyond these predispositions – have a chance to become anti-racist no matter who they were born and raised to be.

Don’t become distracted by the crumbs…” Natasha Cloud said to all who work for justice. This WNBA athlete spoke with strength and clarity about the life-path she is walking today in 2020; don’t try and tell her that ‘life’ is not for her, ‘health’ is not for her, she will seek with faithful determination and a singular focus to lift her voice for racial equity in this miserly United States. The wind and the waves are distracting – but they blow where they will because Creator has made it so. The ‘least’ effort to attempt to appease injustice is distracting – but that’s not the focus – ‘Justice in this world’ is the only objective because nothing less can bring Peace.

An Onondaga Elder taught me, “Respect your brother’s/sister’s vision. Can our church-related siblings take a lesson from the Ancient Human Beings of Turtle Island? I pray that they can.

The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on indigenous theology and the lectionary.

America’s Optimistic Spirit is Killing Us Because We Don’t Know What Faith Is

by Chris Dela Cruz

There are a number of expressions and philosophies I have heard that cut across various ideological and political lines that have a distinct American ring to them. Things work out in the end. Chase your dreams. The sky’s the limit. Your inner state is all about how you decide to see things.

In short, American optimism and positive thinking.

I don’t deny the truth and power in many of these sentiments. In the wake of the stresses of modern life, positivity and reframing situations internally seemed to have gotten many individual Americans through these struggles. These narratives can be powerful motivators for both individual and collective action, narratives that tie in with grand American mythology. We braved the frontier! We flew to the moon! We foster innovation and entrepreneurship!

However, it is now clear that America’s Optimistic Spirit is killing us.

These American coping mechanisms of super positive thinking, of “frontier” sky’s-the-limit mentality, and optimistic framing have ill-equipped us to take a horrific pandemic seriously, to confront the realities of long-embedded systemic racism, and to actually use our dream-thinking where it could matter – to pool our resources to deal with an unprecedented economic disaster with actual far-reaching solutions that help people.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

When it comes to our country’s unique COVID-19 crisis, America’s Optimistic Spirit has failed us on every level – our need for freedom has enraptured many to congregate bars, to open up businesses and churches too early, and to either wear masks haphazardly basically for show or not at all. While hindsight is 20/20, when the virus was first hitting the U.S. many officials failed to respond quickly, and many people dismissed its seriousness and wore their lack of concern as a badge of honor. So many people said this was just the media and government overblowing things as usual, that folks stocking up on goods were crazy. When the shutdowns started in March, I heard from many people “well, guess we’ll stay inside for two weeks, and then we’ll get back to normal,” even though basically every health expert was saying this could take over a year (at least) and require multiple lockdowns.

And this just scratches the surface of the systemic failure, of a President who asserted this was just going to be a blip that would go away, and all the ways we re-opened too early because America decided the virus was over. America’s Optimistic Spirit literally cannot cope with an emergency. It does not know how to acknowledge the negative in life, and it cannot handle things outside of its control. It is our demon, possessing us with a smile while we slowly die.

We know this because, in many ways, America has been in an emergency long before COVID-19. As the recent protests have brought into the open, there are entire communities that live in constant crisis situations that have been ignored for our entire history. Black people have been saying for decades that police officers were getting away with murder, that drugs and weapons were planted at crime scenes, that police reports weren’t telling the whole truth. If it weren’t for iPhones and pent-up lockdown energy, Americans wouldn’t ever have listened, because it gets in the way of our positive outlook on who we are and what we have done.

American optimism and positivity may have helped individuals cope with some of the stresses of our over-worked, capitalistic system. But did these mechanisms just help us soothe ourselves enough so that people don’t adequately process how inhuman and unjust the modern systems are, and therefore not stir the drive and desire to change the system itself? Rich people are optimistic that “things will work out” because they in fact always do – because they have rigged the system to make it so. Those who aren’t rich, unfortunately, also inherit that go-getter, dream big, things will work out attitude, because that’s what permeates our culture, because those with power put out a false mythology of meritocracy for the purposes of giving people false hope, not disclosing just how much privilege played a part in success. How many of those self-starting success stories started out with a loan from daddy?

What I am getting at is this: America’s Optimistic Spirit is basically a coping mechanism used individually and collectively to deny reality. Our entire mythology and national ethos is based on a lie lying to itself so it never has to confront the truth. The sooner we look ourselves in the mirror and purge ourselves of our grave certainty, the better.

There are many reasons we developed this Spirit, and many will rightly focus on the political, systemic roots – namely, a logical extension of our Manifest Destiny to wipe out, enslave, and exploit black and brown people in service of America’s never-ending colonial, capitalist “frontier” expansion.

I want to lift up a theological thread, though, that I think at the very least offers a foundation for the political. We simply don’t know what faith is. I’ve heard faith described colloquially from many faithful American Christians as believing really hard in a better future, because God will make things happen. “All things are possible with God” is a common refrain. Ask and ye shall receive.

Americans, because we have denied the existence of harsh realities and because certain privileges have shielded certain people from experiencing them, develop an immature faith that simply contends that things will just work out if you believe in your head hard enough. Our broken, corrupt systems provide goods for the privileged, the privileged call those goods “blessings” on TV, and everyone else recites the creed.

In practice, faith becomes a mastery of control, internally and externally. Internally, because the individual person is asked to control their emotions enough to deny the alarm bells those emotions are signalling about the harshness of reality and the injustice of the systems – yes, you should be angry that your back is against the wall, and yes you should be sad that people are dying for no reason! Externally, because America goes out into the frontier “by faith” while continuing the tradition of exploitation and oppression for anyone who gets in America’s way.

We don’t know a faith whose posture is more of surrender and mystery and loss of control. We don’t know a faith that allows for lament and doubt instead of explanation and certainty.

And so we are left with thousands of people dead of COVID-19 without acknowledging that it doesn’t have to be this way, with a country that cannot even deal symbolically with our racist statues without federal stormtroopers kidnapping people in rental cars.

And we are left to live by Faith alone. After all, demanding our government to provide a more sustainable, substantive COVID-19 response or to fundamentally change its racist systems would require us confronting America’s harsh realities in a way that our Spirit alone cannot cope with.

But I guess I should think positively. Sola Fide!

Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a diverse, immigrant Queens, NYC congregation with over 30+ nations represented. His role includes building a co-working space for young adult entrepreneurs, coordinating kids and family ministries, and helping in community organizing efforts. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

The Jealous God

by Whitney Fauntleroy

Did you know that the God we worship is jealous? We tend to describe God in the easier to digest terms: merciful, gracious, loving, forgiving, patient -or-in the chorus of omni’s- omnipresent, omniscient.  In general, we do not like the idea of worshipping a God who is jealous. While I am pretty familiar with the definition of jealous, I want us to wade into the definition anew today. From Miriam Webster:

1: hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage : ENVIOUS

2a: intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness

b: disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness

3: vigilant in guarding a possession

In Exodus 20 one of the places in the Bible where we find the Ten Commandments, I keep going back to God’s reminder of this particular attribute. God is a jealous god. God has at this point in the scriptural witness a history of punishing current generations for the sins and disobedience of their great grandparents. Why? Simply because God is jealous. Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are, believe them”. We seem to be skeptical that God is who God says She is, particularly when God defines herself in hard to swallow terms.

Photo by Robert Vergeson on Unsplash

As the debate over removing statues and monuments erected for problematic American figures rages on…again, I cannot help but think about our love of idols. Most of the time when I heard about idols in the worship or teaching spaces of church it was things like money or success but what about actual graven images? Perhaps we all got so used to these statues and monuments, that we never paused to think about who the person was or what it meant for all of God’s children to have them look over capitol buildings and public spaces. Idol worship is intrinsic to what seems like the real state religion of America which is America. The very idea of our country is an idol, the way many of our histories, documents, and thus those who made them possible in broad strokes of American ideals: courage, bravery, freedom means that many of us are taught to love this country before we are taught to love Christ. 

Civil religion is not the same thing as faith in the Triune God. That can be easy to forget when there are sanctuaries with American flags and some congregations sing to the idols of American exceptionalism on State holiday Sundays. My senior year of high school I attended Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation and heard Dr. Stanley Hauerwas said, “If your church has an American flag in your sanctuary then your salvation is in jeopardy”. 

When the people who fill our pews (and our clergy too) love the ideals (even as corrupt as they can be) of these yet to be United States more than the ideals of the kingdom of God, how do we reclaim our allegiance not to flags and founding fathers but reclaim our fidelity to a God who already told us that they were jealous, and that idol worship, graven images no matter how noble the human may be is sin against God?

My prayer is that we sit with what American gods we serve, question whose freedom we seek ,and remember that God is indeed a jealous God and that might just be good news right now, always, and forever.

Whitney Fauntleroy is a North Carolina native. Now in her sixth year of ordained ministry, Whitney is grateful to have experienced ministry in many contexts. Whitney has served as Director of Youth Ministry at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, a Designated Solo Pastor at Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC. In the Spring of 2017, she began serving as Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Whitney is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and writes at the intersection of popular culture, identity, and theology.