A First National Gathering

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jojo Gabuya

The NEXT Church National Gathering, themed “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying, and Rising in a Wilderness Church,” was my first ever opportunity to meet, dine, and interact with 675 Presbyterian pastors, lay leaders, and students. I was one of the students who registered and got a scholarship to be able to participate in the event. Although I heard some disturbing news about the Maryland’s current peace and order situation from a young man who I happened to sit with on the Metro train en route to the City Centre, it did not deter me from fully participating in the 3-day conference.

The superb venue, the warm hospitality, the healthy lunches, the out-of-the box worship services, and collegial atmosphere, made my first three days in Baltimore an unforgettable and worthwhile one.

On the first day of the National Gathering, Rev. Billy Honor brought the house down with his humorous yet insightful sermon. The altar, covered with used Amazon boxes and filled with baskets of bread and dozens of juice-filled cups, rekindled my sense of the Holy and Sacred. In his keynote presentation, David Leong, who describes himself as an accidental academic, talked about Detroit as an urban desert. He posed this challenging question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal?” He shared the story of Vincent Chin, whose murder gave opportunity for Asian Americans to come together in Detroit. So, he stressed the importance of speaking about one’s experience of racism. “Not to speak is to speak and not to act is to act”. And, I was impressed with the story of Grace, a Chinese American who finished her PhD in 1940. He stressed that the desert in Detroit was about the lack of resources for the common good.

The heavy Vegan sandwiches for lunch were a welcome treat that got me through the first session of the workshop on “Creating and Planning Worship for Freedom.” The succeeding two sessions gave me more ideas on crafting a worship service, grounded on people’s struggle for freedom. And, I had the honor of being the only MDiv student/seminarian and UCC member among ten other workshop participants, who are Presbyterian pastors and lay leaders of their own Presbyteries around this country.


Jojo V. Gabuya is a Master of Divinity student at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. They are an international student, who identifies as an Asian non-binary transgender person. They are also a Member in Discernment for Ordained Ministry in the United Church of Christ. And, they are currently serving as Minister in Training at El Cerrito, where they have been trying to dance the Word of God, instead of reading it.

Death to Bring About Resurrection

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Michele Goff

I come to the NEXT Church National Gathering every year to be reminded that I am one of many church leaders striving to teach the radical healing love of Jesus’ Christ.

The ideas I bring back to my church from the National Gathering surprise me, often. This can be some creative element of worship, a particularly insightful phrase from communion liturgy, or the depth of meaning found in one particular scripture preached from insightful and varied perspectives.

During opening worship, when I dip my bread in the cup, I am blessed with the words: “the cup of liberation.” I am floored with humility. AMEN! The intellectual piece of my brain says, of course. But my soul is about to burst from this enlivening kiss from the Holy Spirit. Liberated from sin. Set free to participate in radical love. Loved and unfettered because God’s power is compassion, not coercion, as the preacher articulated moments before. I have just participated in a declaration of liberation. Yes, Alleluia!

I notice, more than once, that I am not the only one whose emotions stream down my face as we worship together. Whether we are washing one another’s hands or taping prayers to cardboard box “roadside memorials” scattered throughout the space, worship becomes a tactile experience. Worship is traditional and fresh: we break bread as one and in intimate circles around roadside-memorials-turned-communion-stations. And of course there is joyful singing – by those assembled, by the NEXT Church choir, led and shared by special guests, and even performed by the children of the Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School Choir.

This year’s theme of “Desert in Bloom” was particularly fruitful. It unified the workshops and was easy to recognize in teaching, sharing, and art.

The message of finding love for the fool kept surfacing for me. “A highway shall be there … no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” (Isa. 35:8)

It is easy to witness many people pointing and calling one another fools lately. And I hear myself doing the same thing. As I experienced this text with fresh ears, I heard for the first time that even if I stumble and behave like a fool, God will guide me back to the highway that is the Holy Way. And the “others”, the ones I may think are blind or deaf or fearful of the truth – they too can be restored. When God restores them, and corrects my own foolishness, we will be on the Holy Way together.

In the preaching I heard: Billy Honor exhorting us to call upon the Holy Spirit to be the “super” to our “natural.” With thoughtful humor, Kathryn Johnston cautions us to be careful where we draw the line [between us and them] because Jesus is always on the OTHER side of it.

There is hope for the fool! This is a blossoming bedrock of hope – an answer to the many fears that threaten and infect the world.

The theme this year successfully zeroed in on the importance of death to bring about the transformative power of resurrection.

I return home refreshed, and open to the ways that divisive and harmful attitudes, traditions and fears may be allowed to die a normal and timely death so that the full glory of resurrection might be realized.


Michele Goff is the pastor of Aztec Presbyterian Church in Northwestern New Mexico. After almost 12 years in television production, she graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2015 having finally found her true calling. She is an avid Sci Fi fan and a fledgling knitter whose “happy place” is on the sofa next to her husband with her two dogs at her feet.

The Dream of Our Future

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shirley Dudley

I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a life-long Presbyterian, and a minister’s wife, confirmed over 70 years ago. I have attended many conferences through the years, especially the ones with the Presbyterian women, but this was my first time at the NEXT Church National Gathering. What struck me throughout the conference was its INCLUSIVITY. Everyone was at the table in every aspect of this conference – top leadership, worship leadership, worship space arrangements, workshop participation and leadership, worship music, entertainment, etc. Also, people were not afraid to laugh at themselves and they did not take themselves too seriously.

The next thing that grabbed me was the INNOVATION. It was like we were living in “the dream of our future” at this gathering. I am not only talking about the big things but the little things, too, like the cardboard box altars where people could leave mementos and congregate. I did not know that there were so many ways to get people out of their comfort zones in a church-related situation. My husband was a professor of Church and Community in several seminaries and I know he would have been stimulated, as I was, with Dr. Leong’s discussion of race and place. I am in a multi-cultural downtown church with people who come from everywhere else but the downtown. It is freeing for us to have to mingle and worship together, but it requires a time commitment that we are sometimes not willing to give in order to make a dent in the crises of our city. So even if we are not bound by our individual places, we are bound by our “place” in a troubled city.

Since I returned home, I was asked to share my experiences from the conference with my session and offer some concrete ideas for our future. I described all of the above, the worship theme, the main speakers, the energizing testimonials from Baltimore, workshops, and some of the fun things that happened to me personally as I reconnected with old friends. Then they asked me for concrete ideas for our church. Here are a few of those:

We are a small church that could definitely benefit by intergenerational opportunities. There are moments when we could share in small groups with each other in the worship service itself. We have many small tasks that could be spread around and the children could be more included in decorating our sanctuary, even finding pictures for the pastors to use on Sunday morning in our screen.

We don’t have to be so serious all the time. This conference seemed to give permission to “lighten up.”

We work diligently with hunger problems, but digging deeper in our local community for partners in ministry would work well for us – especially as the city of Hartford is becoming a place of change and more young people.

I was also moved by the Florida groups that were supporting the students affected by the massacre. We too can take part in the efforts to win more gun control.

We also have DACA leadership in our church and they need support.

And on and on… Yes, with the help of God, we will try to do our own “rising” in a wilderness church with inspiration from a life-giving conference.


Shirley Dudley an 85 year-old mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and was married to a Presbyterian minister and faculty member of McCormick Theological Seminary (and Hartford Seminary), Carl Dudley (now deceased). She served as first full-time registrar and assistant dean at McCormick Theological Seminary, 1976 -1993. Shirley presently lives in an Active Life Care Senior Center in Bloomfield, CT, and attends a downtown Hartford Presbyterian Church.

Guided by Faith

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Hope Schaefer

When our associate pastor approached me about attending the NEXT Church National Gathering, I was honestly hesitant. What was I going to gain from attending this conference? It wasn’t until I started to read the workshop descriptions that I realized how perfectly NEXT Church aligned with my career and my own personal passions. As a lay leader in my church, I registered for three workshops, from which I knew I could bring back information to apply for our congregation and my job as program manager at a non-profit food pantry.

Leading up to the conference, I had several conversations with my husband about strengthening my faith and helping it guide me in my career, but it was something I was struggling with. Once we arrived, I relinquished my hesitation and allowed myself to be open to all the National Gathering had to offer. The first service of the conference invigorated me. Internally though, I was still struggling to answer my question of career and faith: just how could I intertwine the two? I feel that faith is something I should hold close. We are not a faith based food pantry, but it’s something that I recognize daily in my work. It gives me hope and strength for social justice and the immense problems that our pantry clients face.

My first workshop, Coaching for Transformation, led me to my answer, an answer that really had been staring me in the face the whole time. With a partner in our workshop, we shared a “problem” we were facing and our partner had to respond with thought provoking questions. I explained the internal battle I had of better integrating faith into my career. Right away my partner responded with, “Why don’t you change your perspective?” Why shouldn’t faith always be a part of my career? Why would I need to separate the two? She responded, “What’s stopping you from your faith always being present in your day, especially as a woman with strong faith?” That was it. I needed to change my perspective, flip my thinking, and choose to see what was already there!

The NEXT Church National Gathering was an amazing opportunity to change perspectives and inspire us to focus on what COULD be. These perspectives can allow us to praise even while something may be dying or failing that death and failure can still bring about new life and opportunity. So, thank you, NEXT Church, for breathing new life into my passion for fighting hunger, sharing my faith and letting it guide me, and speaking up for all that I care about.


Hope Schaefer is a lay leader at First Presbyterian Church in Neenah, WI. Hope is a full-time program manager at the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry. This large non-profit food pantry provides food monthly to 2,000 households and distributes over 1.3 million pounds of food a year. Hope is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Master of Science program in Recreation Management and in her spare time she runs half marathons with her husband (and soon the Chicago Marathon!) and plays cello.

Sustenance to Bloom

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Eliana Maxim

In a busy season of ministry, the opportunity to attend the NEXT Church National Gathering popped up on my calendar quite unexpectedly. I remembered the enthusiasm with which I had registered back in early winter, but now with to-do lists multiplying magically, I wasn’t sure I would find the time or “head space” to engage.

I am so glad I did.

The theme of “The Desert in Bloom” appropriately described what many of the pastoral leaders with whom I work have been experiencing. The realities of ministry can certainly make one feel as if you are in extended wilderness time. And that you are doing it alone.

In order to bloom in said desert would require sustenance, at least for this pastor. A desert in bloom means hope above all else.

My first interaction in Baltimore was attending the Sunday evening People of Color get-together. This group met again at the conclusion of the gathering. And in both of those meetings, I found the space where we could speak frankly about the ways the church has moved towards greater inclusion and equity, and how much further is has to go.

I was challenged by Rev. Jonathan Walton’s keynote talk on pastors being suspicious of praise and the church’s complacent comfort in a safe Jesus. “Maybe it’s easier for us to worship a supernatural savior than to accept the challenge of a moral prophet.” And I took comfort in Rev. John Schmidt’s vulnerability as he shared his wilderness testimony as a Biblically conservative pastor guiding his congregation to stay in the PCUSA and remain engaged missionally where God is calling them, which includes ministry to people living with HIV/AIDS.

I was nurtured by impromptu coffees, lunches or happy hours with old friends and people yet to become friends that provided informal opportunities to check in, celebrate, grieve, and dream together, regardless of where we came from or what our ministry contexts might be.

At a time when many are wandering the desert, wringing their hands in despair over the church we are no longer, the NEXT Church National Gathering provided space and energy to rejoice at the new things God is doing. We acknowledge the demise of what we were, but rejoice at what is yet to be. Is it scary? Anxiety producing? Of course! But we navigate this new terrain together and most importantly with the assurance of God’s presence among us and God’s sovereignty.

As a member of the Way Forward Commission, a body created by the 222nd General Assembly to review and make recommendations on the structure of the denomination for this next season of ministry, I have intentionally sought out the blooms of the church we can be. I caught glimpses of it at the National Gathering.

And as a member of the Seattle Presbytery, I am beyond excited to know NEXT Church will be coming to our neck of the woods in 2019. I look forward to the inspiration and continued sustenance I am confident will be offered. And I look forward to seeing you there! Praise be to God!


Eliana Maxim is the Associate Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Seattle. Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, Eliana also serve as the vice-moderator of the PCUSA’s National Hispanic/Latinx Caucus. You can usually find Eliana hanging with her husband Alex, daughters Sacha and Gabi, and spoiled-rotten Boxer Lola the Dog.

The Desert is in Bloom

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jeff Bryan

I feel like an apology is in order. Here I am, curating the NEXT Church blog, writing the opening and closing pieces, and I didn’t even attend the 2018 National Gathering. I have a good excuse. We had a serious medical emergency in the family. Don’t worry. It’s been a long haul, but everyone is okay. I have a good excuse for my absence; I also have a silver lining. The family emergency gave me the opportunity to listen and watch the National Gathering events online, look at pictures, and read these blog posts with a different perspective. Things look different from far away. Plus, I got to see them from the resurrection side of Easter.

desert bloom hand wash handsThe desert is in bloom. There is life on the other side of death. Resurrection is real. I saw it in my family, as we kept vigil in the hospital for a week, prayed, and witnessed a full recovery. I saw it in the loving hands of church members, bringing countless casseroles and pound cakes to the house. I was surprised to see it in relationships: “You and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but you really came through for me. Thank you, brother. I love you.” I heard it in the voices of children, shouting “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday. On Good Friday, I heard resurrection in the clarinet of a 91-year old man—

the band director from the old, segregated, black high school,
marching into the all-white cemetery,
past the statue of a Civil War soldier
and the rusty C.S.A. markers,
in an integrated band,
the jazz cats giving the old man respect…
“Yeah, man, play!”
“He’s 91 and the best musician in town!”
“It’s an honor to march with you, sir.”
with an integrated crowd,
arm in arm, singing,
“Just a closer walk with thee!”
too many layers of meaning to count,
that ancient clarinet wailing front and center,
with hope as strong today as 1950

—and I’ll never be the same again. I saw it on the smiling faces on Easter morning, children screaming “Risen indeed!” I’ve seen resurrection in congregations, our denomination, and the NEXT Church National Gathering, asking the hard question, “What is God calling us to do, be, or change?” And I read it in the voices of these blog contributors. Their excitement for the future is palpable, and their hope is contagious. Make no mistake. We bear witness to the resurrection of Christ, we proclaim the victory of God’s grace, and the Reign of Heaven is gaining ground.

Readers, I invite you to pay close attention to these blog posts. They are us, they are the future, and they are fantastic. Enjoy!


Jeff Bryan is senior pastor of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jeff has also served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and suburban Philadelphia. He enjoys spending time with family, and has an embarrassingly large music collection.

Collaborative Creation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Paul is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Paul Vasile

It’s a gift to catch glimpses of God-with-us in workshops and planning gatherings I facilitate for pastors, musicians, and worship leaders. As we read, sing, and improvise with scripture and liturgy, the Word takes on flesh in unexpected and beautiful ways, often with refreshing directness and authenticity as individuals bring their voice and story into dialogue with sacred text.

This fall, leaders of a newly bi-lingual congregation gathered for a day of worship, reflection, and worship planning. We used the morning to strengthen community through practices of listening and discernment then divided into small groups, each assigned an Advent lectionary Psalm and a part of the liturgy to create (call to worship, community liturgy, prayer petitions, etc). There were a few anxious asides as we began but energy and ideas quickly flowed in Spanish and English. Twenty minutes later, we reconvened to share the thoughtful, hand-crafted pieces of liturgy they created together. A feeling of mutual support and care was tangible, as was the joy of making something specifically for their community.

Wholeness and beauty are found in creative spaces like these, where individuals and groups create space for new ideas and visions to bubble up and out of our imaginations. There is also something profoundly risky and anxious about it. Creating is vulnerable work and can be chaotic and unresolved. Sometimes we take what we’ve created, set it aside, and need start over. It’s humbling.

But there are profound gifts to be found in creating collaboratively, especially for leaders of faith communities. How might our ministry shift as we practice being in the present moment, as we deepen our listening skills and trust our God-given instincts, and as we shift from an often-obsessive focus on product and outcome to appreciation for (and even delight in) the process? How might we learn to dialogue with voices of judgement or critique that often lead us to shut doors that need to be left open or even walked through?

This is what we’ll explore at our National Gathering post-Gathering seminar “Manna for the People.” We’ll burrow into Eastertide scripture passages through improvisation, singing, and play, with lots of space for individual and group reflection. We’ll create a gracious, generous space where our creative instincts are welcomed and affirmed, where we stretch and grow into new ways of leading and living. And we’ll find joy and pleasure in making something together, as we offer our voices and ideas to shape worship for our faith communities.

Like Mary, who welcomed unknown possibilities with a bold “Yes,” we’ll use the phrase “Yes, and…” in our improvisation work and see what unfolds. Like the shepherds watching their flocks, we’ll hear the proclamation “Do not fear!” and reflect deeply on ways the love of God liberates us from judgement and anxiety that prevent us from taking creative risks. Like the Wise Ones, we’ll listen to our intuition, trusting the wisdom of God and the community to take us where we need to go.

As the mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is ever waiting to be born.” We hope you’ll join us at the NEXT Church National Gathering in February as we make space for the Holy One to be known in our work and play. Join us for an extra day of exploration, growth, and collaboration, and discover new skills and practices to enrich your ministry. It will be a renewing, life-giving experience!


Paul Vasile is a freelance church musician, consultant, and composer based in New York City. A multitalented musician and dynamic worship leader, he is committed to building, renewing, and re-shaping faith communities through music and liturgy. Paul brings over twenty years of ministry experience to his work as a consultant, workshop facilitator, and teacher. He is excited to help congregations broaden their repertoire of sung prayer and praise, and to demonstrate how participatory music and liturgy can energize and unify worshippers from varied backgrounds, cultures, and traditions.

Sacred Space for Grief

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Lisle is leading a workshop during the 2018 National Gathering called “The Art of the Desert Journey: What the Creative Process Might Teach Us About Blooming.” It will take place during workshop block 3 on Tuesday. Learn more and register

by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

I don’t remember the negotiations that took place, but I do remember knowing it was a blessing to have my mom home from the hospital for Christmas. I had just turned thirteen, and — to my now horror — I spent much of the holidays consumed with the frivolities of my social life to avoid thinking about the fact that my young mother was in hospice care. My memories of her last Christmas with us are blurred. Was she home for Christmas Eve? Did we have our annual Christmas Day meal? Was that the year Santa filled our stockings with Elmer’s glue and over-sized Fruit of the Loom panties?

What remains clear, however, is the image of her shrunken frame sinking into the couch cushions — her body swaddled in gray over-sized sweats, her balding head tucked into the folds of a beanie, her face both swollen and sunken at the same time. What remains crisp in my memory is the picture of cancer’s devouring disguise.

If you have become an unwanted friend to grief, you know well how holidays are often filled with both blurred and lucid apparitions of holidays past. We walk through seasons of abundant joy with grief tugging at our sleeves.

When preparing materials for Advent with A Sanctified Art, we decided as a team to create resources to help churches carve out sacred space for those grieving in the midst of the holidays. With more than enough devastation and turmoil in the world, we knew many would be entering the season feeling like they were walking with a wet blanket draped over their heads, as if smothering their every inhale with hot, sticky air.

We wanted to offer congregations a way of naming and releasing grief before God as a radical act of hope, one that forces us to sit still in the shadows to acknowledge the ways our lives have torn apart at the seams, one that forces us to wait for the new life that is strangely birthed through suffering. And so, my colleague, Sarah Are, crafted poetry for a Longest Night Service and passed the poem along to me to pair it with visual poetry.

With Sarah’s words as my muse, I created a painting and short film to visually manifest the safe and sacred space Sarah paints with her words. To begin, I read Sarah’s poem a number of times, letting her lyrics wash over me again and again. The beauty of her poetry is that it spans universal truths while also feeling particularly personal. Even if you are not drowning in grief, there is still room for you here. The poem lures each of us into a space of quiet inquiry to simply welcome the emotions that arise along the way instead of trying to fix or silence them.

I began the painting with charcoal to express the rawness of loss and the shattered ways we often cope with our own grief or attempt to soothe the losses others have endured. I wanted these initial marks to be messy and chaotic, a visceral outpouring of the immediate shock loss of all kinds triggers. Then I began to fill the canvas with dark and haphazard strokes, creating a wild storm of sky. I hope we might all feel permission to fully step into the heart of this storm, letting go of control or the need to find our way out—to simply surrender to the ways grief wreaks havoc beyond repair. Gradually, the stormy sky slowly curves into calm. I hope you see whatever you need to see in this imagery—clouds, sea, the Spirit of God, the exhale of grief, or something completely unnameable. I finished the painting with a stretch of gold and ivory near the bottom, symbolizing solid ground and stability—a place in which you can sink your feet—even in the midst of the storm.

After my mom died, I didn’t know how to grieve. I thought that releasing my pain would break me and would expose all the ways my world had fallen apart. I’ve spent most of my adult life confronting and undamming the well of sorrow I didn’t know how to let loose then.

When I watch this film, I experience a journey of return — to my grief, to my mother, and to the inexplicable sense that, no matter what, something bigger and greater than me surrounds me with care. That is the best way I can name what Advent hope feels like.

And they say to me, We are sorry for your loss.
And I say to myself, Me too.
Me. too.
Because what I know now is that
when love takes a hold of your heart,
it gives a piece of you away,
and when that disappears
that empty space aches.
You can’t fill it.
You can’t drown it.
You can’t forget it.
You can’t ignore it.

There’s just space and you have to let it be.
—Sarah Are, excerpt from “Let There Be You”


Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity is an artist, retreat leader, and creative entrepreneur working within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and beyond. As founder of A Sanctified Art LLC, a collaborative arts collective creating multimedia resources for churches, Lisle believes in the prophetic and freeing power of art to connect us more deeply to God and one another. Learn more about her work by visiting lislegwynngarrity.com and sanctifiedart.org.

Twitter: @lgwynnarrity // @sanctifiedart
Instagram: @artbylisle // @sanctifiedart

A Reminder of Divine Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Justin is co-leading a workshop during the 2018 National Gathering called “Songs for the Journey.” It will take place during workshop block 2 on Tuesday. Learn more and register

by Justin Ritchie

Love is my favorite theme from the Advent season. Well, that’s true this year anyway. For me it seems each year at Advent, hope, joy, peace, or love seem to rise to the surface for different reasons. With everything happening in the world around us, this year I find that my heart is longing for love to return in places it seems to have been forgotten and to be born in hearts that seem to be missing it.

We are creating our own corner of Advent love in our home again this year. My parents are traveling from Augusta, GA, to be with my husband and I and a few of our close friends to celebrate Christmas day. Our tradition since I was a child is to wake up on Christmas morning, eat breakfast, and then read the Christmas story from Luke. We still do that every year. In recent years, I’ve looked at our little Christmas gathering consisting of my family of birth and our chosen family, different skin tones and widely differing belief systems and faith traditions. We are gay and straight, Yankees and Southerners, conservative and liberal. Each year we find a way to be together on that morning. We listen to the Christmas story. We exchange presents. We eat. We drink. We laugh. We reminisce. We LOVE.

The other night I watched the Pentatonix Christmas special on television. They are one of my favorite groups and their Christmas albums are already on permanent rotation in our home. Near the end of the program and just before they sang a beautiful arrangement of “Imagine,” one of the group members talked about how Christmas was the time of year we could put our differences aside and come together. It is a lovely, and true, sentiment. Why do we only expect that to happen during the holidays? I think that this seasonal feeling of goodwill to our fellow humans could be something that we practice all year long. What if we used that “Christmas feeling” as a model for how to interact with the people in our lives every day of the year? How different our world would right now?

I grew up in evangelical circles and we did not celebrate or acknowledge the Advent season. I have come to cherish and deeply appreciate this period of longing and expectation. For me, Christmas and the story of Jesus’ birth boil down to this: Divine Love was born in the form of a human baby. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love for all of God’s children. This Advent I am indeed longing and anticipating. My heart needs a reminder of Divine Love. Our world needs a reminder of Divine Love. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Marianne Williamson, puts it this way, “Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love. The real miracle is the love that inspires them. In this sense, everything that comes from love is a miracle.”

May your heart be filled with love and miracles this Advent and in the year to come.


Justin Ritchie is the music director at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD – a multi-cultural More Light Presbyterian Church. By day he is a contractor for the federal government as a web developer. He lives with his husband Jason, Phoebe the French Bulldog, and Bruce the Pug just outside D.C. In addition to his ministry at Oaklands, Justin is the band director at Temple Rodef Shalom in Fairfax, VA. He is also an active cabaret performer in Washington, DC and New York and was recently seen in productions of “The Secret Garden” and “The Full Monty” in Annapolis, MD.

Keep Awake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Kate is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Kate Foster Connors

In this season of waiting, I feel impatient.

Congress is a mess. The #metoo movement is only growing, with accounts of sexual harassment and rape coming out daily. Wildfires are burning California – again. Churches are declining and shutting their doors in a steady stream.

This year, the lectionary texts from the first Sunday in Advent feel especially timely. Isaiah pleads with God: “O that you would … make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2) And the Psalmist implores, “Stir up your might, and come to save us!” (Psalm 80:2b) Like Isaiah and the Psalmist, I don’t feel like we can afford to wait. My prayers lately have been some version of, “How can we WAIT, God? Have you been paying attention to this messed up world?”

It seems fitting that this season of waiting, arriving in a firestorm of brokenness, begins with a call on God to act boldly.

Advent also is the season of getting ready. Advent is the time when we prepare for the coming of Jesus – not the docile baby wrapped in cloths that is depicted in so many children’s books and light-up, front lawn nativity scenes, but the justice-seeking Jesus whose mission is to bring radical love for all of God’s children. Advent is the time when we prepare for God to upend the world as it is, and usher in the world as it should be.

So although (like Isaiah and the Psalmist) in my prayers I’ve been pleading with God to please come soon, my prayer this Advent season can’t only be about my impatience with God. Preparing for the coming of Jesus means that I have some work to do, too.

I have a rock sitting on my desk. It is almost perfectly round, and is smooth and flat on the front and on the back. I keep it in the most visible place on my desk – next to my phone, and in front of the pictures of my family. Across the top, big and bold in black marker, are these words: “Keep awake.”

The Gospel reading from the first Sunday of Advent commands us to “…keep awake…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:33)

I wrote those words on my rock during Lent a couple years ago, at a prayer station our Christian educator had set up for a Maundy Thursday prayer service. It was a good message for Lent, but I decided to keep it in plain sight all year round, because it keeps me honest. To keep awake, I need to pay attention. To keep awake, I cannot let myself stay in the safe bubble that is easy for a middle-class, white woman to stay within. To keep awake, I cannot stay inside the cocoon of my office, or my house. To keep awake, I need to listen to my neighbors in a city that is both full of life and culture, and that is broken and hurting deeply.

It is easy for me to get stuck in my cry for Jesus to please come soon! I need God to help me keep awake, so that I don’t wait (however impatiently) my way through another Advent.

My prayer for the Church this Advent is not all that different: that we all pray urgently for Christ’s coming – “come to save us!” – but that we don’t get stuck in that prayer – that we don’t wait passively – that our churches keep awake to the injustice that is unfolding daily, in our nation, in our states, in our cities and towns, and in our backyards. That we resist the easier path, the one that takes us from our cars in the parking lot to the pews in the sanctuary and back again – and take the more difficult one, the one that takes us out of our church building and into our neighborhoods to find out what’s really going on with our neighbors. The path that keeps us awake.


Kate Foster Connors is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia Theological Seminary. She has served churches in Memphis, TN, and Baltimore, MD. Currently, Kate is the Director of The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore that hosts church groups for mission experiences in Baltimore. She and her husband, Andrew, have 2 teenage daughters, a cat, and a dog.