A Challenging Task

Preachers and church leaders had a challenging task this week, in the midst of division and disconnection in our country, to preach good news. Here is a short list of what has been said from Presbyterian pulpits and messages more broadly. In collecting these, we have attempted to give attention to a variety of contexts, but also recognize this list is in no way exhaustive. We hope you will add links to words you found inspiring in the comments. May we learn from one another and be encouraged by each other.

  1. John Wilkinson, Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester, NY.
    Sermon: Future Tense
    “‘It will be all right,’ because God is God, but that word can ring hollow if it is not accompanied by other words and actions.”
  1. Lisle Gwynn Garrity & Sarah Are, A Sanctified Art.
    Post-Election Prayer
    “When it feels as if the darkness might overcome the light, and that we may never get it right, remind me that you have me eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to love.”
  1. Anna Pinckney Straight, Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV.
    Liturgy and sermon using Isaiah 65: 17 – 25
    “Today is the day to take a step toward true unity, one that begins in faithful foundations and flows into everything that we do.”
  1. Mindy Douglas, First Presbyterian Church of Durham, NC.
    Letter to the Congregation
     “We stand together as God’s people, seeking to right wrongs, love with abandon, and bring hope to the hopeless. We will not stop working. We will not stop loving. We will not stop hoping. We will not stop working for peace.”
  1. Denise Anderson, PCUSA co-moderator from Temple Hills, MD.
    Blog post: The Message to the Margins
    “We can no longer trust in ‘love’ and ‘goodwill.’ Love and goodwill should have never made this a possibility. Love and goodwill should have demanded better of this child of God and strongly condemned the vitriol that came from his mouth. Instead, that vitriol was validated.”
  1. Andrew Foster Connors, Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD.
    Sermon: Where Do We Go From Here?
    “The church has to set the table for a different kind of politic than the one we’ve been repeating. One where we engage people who we find offensive, even scandalous in real relationships, standing with the most vulnerable among us – personally and politically.”
  1. David Renwick, National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.
    Sermon: In Power and Out of Power (sermon begins at 26:28)
    “Jesus said elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount: No matter what the political situation of the world we live in, easy or hard, like it or dislike it, we are always called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And being salt is most important when life to you seems to have lost its taste.”
  1. Christopher Edmonston, White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC.
    Sermon: The Beginning and the End
    “For today please don’t forget this: each of you as members of the church and the people of Christ have a calling to be peacemakers, justice-seekers, reconcilers, and what the Bible calls ‘repairers of the breach.'”
  1. Brian Paulson, First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, IL.
    Sermon: From Ugliness, a Beauty Emerges: Greater Love (sermon begins at 43:32)
    “Let us not taunt each other. American is split right down the middle in American politics. Today, there are members of this congregation who are in a place of deep pain, and even fear…. If you don’t feel this way, please bear compassionately with your neighbors. There is a place for lament in the vocabulary of faith.”
  1. Pastors at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, IL.
    Letter to the Congregation
    “Together, we seek a better and fairer world not just for ourselves, but for any people who feel overlooked, dismissed, or worse, hated because of who they are.”
  1. Katie Baker, Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI.
    Sermon: The End is Near
    “There is no hiding under a rock, no matter how beautiful the stone, and pretending that all is well because everything, in fact, is not. This conversation amongst Jesus and his disciples is convicting because it calls us to trust God in untrustworthy times.”

Matter Matters

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Steve Lindsley is curating reflections on a physical faith. How does one practice a physical faith – inside or outside of the church? In what ways can we experience God through our bodies and our communities? And how does movement, of many forms, bind us to a deeper sense of spirituality? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Madeleine Benishek

What if our foundational story started with a garden full of flourishing trees and abundant life? Then suppose God formed a human from the soil of that blessed Earth and called that human ‘good.’ Imagine that this story was then shaped, molded and passed from mouth to ear around the fires of people wandering in a rocky desert wilderness, a people guided by a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke. Then after struggles and wars, imagine that God came and walked the dust of that same Earth, touching human beings, loving them and making them whole. Imagine if this God on Earth was recognized in a meal of bread and wine. In fact this God-with-us was so powerful that we were scared and killed him. But God continued to love and sent a spirit that rushed through the air into the bodies of everyday people, filling us with God’s presence, God’s prophetic voice, song and courage.  

princeton frisbeeFor me, this story means falling in love with the stuff of this world. It means playing Frisbee on Friday afternoons with friends, feeling my muscles contract and release, sweat covering my face. It means going on runs through the woods, bowing my head to the ground in prayer, even doing a ridiculous dance in the sun before finishing my final paper. It means sobbing when I hear of the havoc humans are wreaking on creation. It also means gathering together with other people for a meal in which we remember our story, not only in words but also with our bodies in chewy bread and the sharp taste of wine.

Finally it means letting myself be changed by the stuff of this world. A mentor of mine once told me to sit down and hold a drinking glass in my hand. He told me to just sit and get to know its way of being in the world. So I went home and sat in a chair and picked up a glass. It felt ridiculous at first. It was ridiculous. Words kept distracting me, but I let go of them and kept returning to this object that started feeling stranger and more enigmatic the longer I held it. I can’t say I learned what it’s like to be a drinking glass. But I did learn the beginnings of a way of being in the world. I began to exist as a peer, as one among an infinity of other things with their own God-given ways of being in the world, each with their own power and grace. God is the source of all creation and so, all creation speaks of God. For me, listening to God means stopping to feel the tension my body is holding. It means letting the light around me change me. It means when I sing, feeling the vibrations fill my whole body. Light, sound and sensation are sent as our teachers as much as a book or a professor.  

Churches are searching for new stories. We make sense of our world through language and story. But so often we forget to return again and again to the ground, the womb which gave rise to those stories in the first place. God delighted in creating and inhabiting the fabric of this world, in light and sound and bodies. I wonder what it would look like to learn, not as a mind seeking dominion and control over material things, but as a lover, seeking only to listen, understand and cultivate that which is beloved in the world.

madsMadeleine Benishek is from Minneapolis and is now a third year MDiv. student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Energizers: Movement with a Purpose

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Steve Lindsley is curating reflections on a physical faith. How does one practice a physical faith – inside or outside of the church? In what ways can we experience God through our bodies and our communities? And how does movement, of many forms, bind us to a deeper sense of spirituality? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Omayra González- Méndez

Can you imagine fifty people doing silly movement to a song? What about 2,000 of them all together before worship? Well if you get the idea, you kind of know what “doing an energizer” is! Yep, it’s a silly thing that we do primarily at youth conferences, but I’ve been seeing it more often in other church gatherings.

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.03.02 PMWhat is the spirituality of having a group of people just dancing together on a song with movement that does not make any logical sense, not even professional movement? Or doing friendship bracelets or play outside with a ball? Well, that is all part of what we call recreation.

Recreation is more than “time to play.” It is about creating community. For years, I have been a rec leader in many events and people think “Oh, that’s so fun, you are just playing around.” Don’t get me wrong, we play and have fun, but we do with a meaning and purpose. The psalms often talk about dancing and praise – “Praise him with the timbrel and dance; praise him with stringed instruments and organs” (Psalm 150:4).  Ecclesiastes 3:4 also tells us that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

The truth is that some people don’t feel good about their body or they see other people moving and feel ashamed and don’t know how to express their joy. That’s why we dance. When you dance with a lot of other people, you don’t feel shame. It is part of feeling good about who you are and being with others who feel the same. The energy goes around, the spirit moves.

I learned this when I was a youth myself. At that age you don’t always understand your body – everything is changing and you are much more self-conscious about what you’re doing and how you look. But when you create space for people to feel safe, when you create the expectation that we don’t want you to be perfect, that we accept you as God accept you for who you are, you start moving, you start dancing and you feel free.

And what about games and crafts? Well, that is another way to express yourself. Doing crafts allows you time to sit down and focus on something specific. Many crafts have connections with a sermon or a specific Bible verse. The idea is to keep you thinking on the word of the Lord. A teacher just told me that you remember only 10% of what you hear but 70% of what you do, so I think that crafts and games have their importance.   

I try to lead games that invite people work together, help people understand the need to be part of the greater body of Christ. Everyone has a purpose. Sometimes people don’t stop to think of the theological part of what they are doing – and that’s okay – but I know that God works in every single moment of the day.

Energizers may not be the traditional way of doing worship or teaching the Bible, but is a way and sometimes that’s all that we need – a way to start doing things. God will take care of the rest!

OmayraOmayra L. González- Méndez is news editor, movie lover and super passionate about the church. From media reports, pictures and videos, she takes every free minute to work in different organizations of the Presbyterian Church, both locally and internationally. As an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Hato Rey, she works with youth society and finance ministries. Omayra understands that all parts of the church are equally important. She will take a summer to sit and follow the committees of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, and fly the next day to lead recreation in a youth event. All matters of the church, processes and creation, fascinate her.

Walking in Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Steve Lindsley is curating reflections on a physical faith. How does one practice a physical faith – inside or outside of the church? In what ways can we experience God through our bodies and our communities? And how does movement, of many forms, bind us to a deeper sense of spirituality? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Roy Howard

Solvitur Ambulando: “It is solved by walking.” The problem to be solved depends on the person. What I have discovered is that walking provides a medium for reflection, discernment and physical delight. This can be said of other activities like running or biking. Yet, after running six marathons and numerous half marathons, I know the difference. Walking slows me down, running speeds me up. Walking compels me to consider my surroundings differently, notice things as I pass and become more mindful. I experience the earth differently when I am walking.

roy caminoI adopted walking as an ongoing spiritual practice after an epic experience of walking a pilgrimage route that begins in a French village at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains and ends in a Spanish village, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. In between is a path that millions of pilgrims have walked since the 12th century. In the spring of 2015 I was one of them on sabbatical from my pastorate. The way is known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an 800 km (500 mile) path over the mountains and across northern Spain. Modern pilgrims are a mixed company of many languages; some traditionally religious and others non-religious, though walking with an explicit and often spiritual intent. I didn’t walk as a religious penitent. I did walk with a purpose that included listening for God’s direction and being free enough from my normal patterns to see them afresh. From the first day I crossed the mountains, walking through snow and rain in the bitter cold, the Camino became an exploration of self-understanding in an utterly new place. The freedom was exhilarating.

Each day at dawn I would arise from my bunk bed, place my belongings in a small backpack and walk out the door. The Camino winds through wide valleys and small villages, among vineyards and the vast grasslands of the high plains. It crosses the rugged mountains of Galicia before descending to Santiago. On an average day my companions and I would walk 12-15 miles. The spring flowers are breathtaking, especially the acres of brilliant red tulips on the hills. Songbirds are abundant, including the ubiquitous call of the cuckoo. Most days I didn’t know what I would eat, where I would sleep or whom I would meet. It was a wondrous sense of being on the edge of fear and faith. Daily I prayed, “I will receive this day with gratitude and an open heart.” Sharing simple meals with bread and wine, engaging in slow honest conversations that frequently reached rare spiritual depth, tending the pains of another: the Camino is a profound communal experience of conviviality. In nearly every village, there is a daily mass for the pilgrims, who greet each other with “Buen Camino” roughly translated “enjoy your walk.” The response is “UltreÏa” a French word of encouragement that means “forward always; keep going [into God].”

I reached Santiago de Compostela in thirty-one days; celebrating joyously with my Camino family. I then walked three days more to Finisterre, the village known as the end of the world. Here, 543 miles from the beginning, the original pilgrims faced the ocean, literally the end of the road, where the world ends and the unknown begins.

There is a saying: the Camino begins when the Camino ends. This has been true for me. Since returning I have continued my practice of walking. I have chosen to arrange my schedule differently and slow my life down to allow walking 2-3 miles to the hospital for pastoral visits or a home for pastoral conversations. I experience the neighborhoods around our church mindfully and even better, I know my neighbors with whom I share stories during my walks.

A month ago, my daughter, knowing how much the Camino has touched my life, suggested I walk the two-day 39.3 miles Avon walk to end breast cancer. Perfect! Remarkably, she, her sister and my wife, who is a breast cancer survivor, decided to walk. We formed a team – Walking in Love – and invited others to join us. We have raised $27,000 and the 13 of us will walk a marathon (26.2 miles) on one day and a half-marathon (13.1 miles) the next. When the Camino ends, the Camino begins.  We are walking in love.

roy_howard_04_webRoy W. Howard is Book Editor of the Presbyterian Outlook and the Pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda Maryland.

The Reunion of Body and Spirit

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Steve Lindsley is curating reflections on a physical faith. How does one practice a physical faith – inside or outside of the church? In what ways can we experience God through our bodies and our communities? And how does movement, of many forms, bind us to a deeper sense of spirituality? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Henry Brinton

Open the Sunday worship bulletin at Fairfax Presbyterian Church, and you’ll see prayers, scripture readings, and hymns — activities that have long been standard exercises in an active spiritual life. You’ll also find an invitation to have your blood pressure checked after worship, and announcements about church members participating in marathons, triathlons, and 100-mile Century bike rides.

fairfax pres bikingThis focus on physical fitness might seem odd in an institution devoted to the health of the spirit, but it represents a growing trend in American houses of worship. Congregations are now reclaiming the ancient biblical truth that human beings are created with a unity of flesh and spirit, not with an antagonism between the physical and the spiritual popularized by dualistic Greek philosophy. After thousands of years of separation, body and spirit are coming back together.

Many Americans are seeking this connection through diet and exercise. “In thinking of body, mind, and spirit, I feel that it is important to stimulate each, and keep the three aspects well balanced,” says Thomas Larsen, an aerospace engineer and member of Fairfax Presbyterian. “I should take good care of my body, which I believe is God’s temple.”

Ten years ago, Thomas joined a group of 40 church members in monthly meetings that I led along with Vik Khanna, an exercise specialist certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. Called “Ten Commandments of Faith and Fitness,” this program encouraged endurance exercise, strength training, and good nutrition in an effort to improve participants’ spiritual and physical fitness. It seemed to work — one woman thanked us for helping her to complete her first 100-mile bicycle race.

Across the country, congregations are adding full-service fitness facilities to their buildings. Fellowship Church, in a suburb of Dallas, provides basketball cages, a rock climbing wall, and a walking trail around a lake. Its ministry includes a variety of sports clubs and team competitions, and even offers a fitness “boot camp.” On the grounds of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, is “Samson’s Health and Fitness Center” — a facility offering athletic leagues and massage therapy. Its motto: “Total Health, Total Person.”

Clearly, religious institutions have caught the fitness bug. But what does this focus on physical health have to do with spiritual vitality? As a Presbyterian pastor, I spend a lot of time studying the New Testament, and I can’t help but notice that Jesus sees the body as a good gift of God — he rejoices in the pleasures of touch and taste and other bodily sensations. Jesus comes on the scene in the Gospel of Mark as a man of action: curing the sick, casting out demons, cleansing a leper, and healing a paralytic — clearly, he cares deeply about the health of human bodies.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus focuses his efforts on saving people from illness, destruction and death, and then at the very end of his ministry he gives the gift of his own body, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26). He doesn’t say this is my mind, or this is my spirit — he says, this is my body. From the very beginning, Christianity has taken seriously the fact that God came to earth in a human body — “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” says the Gospel of John (1:14). This tells me that there is something good and important about our human flesh.

Because Christian spirituality involves both spirit and body, worship on the Sabbath and work-outs throughout the week are critical elements in a life of health and spiritual growth. For me, a core conviction is that God has given each of us the gift of a body, and wants us to take good care of this gift. That’s why my day off almost always includes swimming, cycling and running — activities that help me to keep body and spirit together.

HenryBrinton4Henry Brinton is Senior Pastor at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, VA.  Henry writes freelance articles on religious topics for the The Washington Post and USA Today, and has been a writer for the preaching journal Homiletics since 1998.

Running is an Invitation to Listen

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Steve Lindsley is curating reflections on a physical faith. How does one practice a physical faith – inside or outside of the church? In what ways can we experience God through our bodies and our communities? And how does movement, of many forms, bind us to a deeper sense of spirituality? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Meghan Gage-Finn

meghan shoes

Photo credit: Tom Northenscold

I never saw the point of running for the sake of running. As a high school and college athlete, I was motivated to run in order to get the ball away from another player, or to keep her from getting the ball away from me. Running served the purpose of conditioning me for my sport, keeping me strong and fast and full of endurance on the field. But running in and of itself was not a sport. I held firmly to this belief until the last game of my senior year in college, when I had to turn in my uniform and I was left wondering how I could consider myself an athlete any longer. It felt like this part of myself I had identified with for the past 16 or 17 years, through awkward middle school years and late adolescence, through relationships and new landscapes, was being shed forever as I pulled my jersey over my head for the last time. The structure of a season and daily practices was gone, and the connection to others who were all putting themselves out there for the same goal, pulling in the same direction, was lost. As the time clock counted down and blared its caustic horn, I felt empty.

And so I ran. I ran through the quiet cemetery in my tiny college town, and farther out through the farmlands and pastures. I ran to clear my head, to trick my mind and my body into thinking I was still an athlete, even though there was no one to chase and no one chasing me. I ran farther and for longer, as I contemplated a strange sense of call by God, as I moved to new places knowing no one, in a hesitant attempt to serve God and love God’s people. I ran to connect with myself and disconnect from the noise and the needs of others. Without realizing it, not only did I see the point in running for the sake of running, but along the way I had become a runner. And somewhere in the midst of the miles, I realized that running was prayer and sacred and holy, and that it makes me a better person and pastor, parent and partner.

More often than I would like these days, my runs happen at odd times, in the darkness of one end of the day or the other, or while pushing a stroller filled with a child or two. But the feel of my feet on the pavement and my breath in my body, reminds me that God created me not just for sharing God’s love and justice with the world. I am affirmed in knowing that God created me to live and move and have my being, finding my best self in the midst of the chaos. For me, running is God’s invitation to listen to the world around me, to take care of myself so I can care for others, and it is God’s reminder not to chase or to be chased by the things of this world, but to place my footfalls in the rhythm of God’s steadfast love and grace for all.

Meghan Gage-FinnMeghan Gage-Finn serves as Executive Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. As a triathlete and veteran marathon runner, including the fabled Boston Marathon, she has found this valuable training for both ministry and keeping up with three children, age 5 and under.

Being Shaped by the Body

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Steve Lindsley is curating reflections on a physical faith. How does one practice a physical faith – inside or outside of the church? In what ways can we experience God through our bodies and our communities? And how does movement, of many forms, bind us to a deeper sense of spirituality? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rob McClellan

I was nervous the first time I tried it out at a men’s night at the church.  We had gathered to enjoy fellowship, to sing, to hear a speaker from the congregation, to engage in discussion and then… to practice body prayer. “One of these things is not like the other…” as they say.

Yet then it happened. As I led them through some simple motions, I looked up to see everyone, young and old, moving in concert, not a snicker in the room. There is something powerful about moving in prayer and doing so in community. I believe people are yearning to have faith with their whole selves not just their minds.

To learn a simple routine of body prayer, watch this video.

On paper, I’m a funny one to ask about physical faith. I have spent much of my life in the academy, relishing pursuits of the mind. I am keenly aware, however, that increasingly people enter the faith not because they have been convinced, but because they have been moved.

Rarely does anyone come to the church I serve looking to be told what to believe, and yet I found that many of the forms of ministry we offer are predominately focused on what occurs from the neck up — classes, sermon-centered worship, and intellectually stimulating discussion. Those forms are both meaningful and important. They are also not everything.

If our messages have grown more and more open in the church, then our forms ought to follow suit. We would do well to put just as much care into the art of ushering people into the experience of the sacred as we do into crafting good doctrine. Experiential ministry is a wonderful way to make room for the Spirit to work and play.

For these reasons, I am engaged in a Doctor of Ministry (DMin) project on pilgrimage, reframing this ancient practice for these new times. A lot happens when you walk in the Spirit. Conversations flow with ease between utter strangers. Thoughts and memories emerge with the gentle nudging between soil and foot. Singularity of intention leads to clarity of mind. Energy usually built up behind a desk is released, and with it all sorts of creativity pours out. The dividing walls between the sacred and the secular sweetly dissolve.

Two years ago, I went on an interfaith pilgrimage on the Camino in Spain. We shared in the practices of each other’s tradition and I was struck by how embodied the other traditions were. We have a lot to learn from them. Many of us spend too much time (not of our own choosing) shoring up our church buildings. What if the church gave equal attention to (and received surpassing joy from) the living temples that are our bodies?  

This spring, I return to the Camino, this time with members of my congregation. My job won’t be to teach them, or even to move them. The Spirit will take care of that.  I’ll just be there to show them the way.

Rob McRob McClellan, Pastor/Head of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, CA, is married to The Rev. Sherri Hausser, has a 3 1/2 year old son, studies pilgrimage, and believes Christians “find God in nature” too.

A Physical Faith

by Steve Lindsley

My church was built in the 1950’s as an offshoot of Myers Park Presbyterian a few miles up the road. They built a gorgeous sanctuary that seats 700. They built not one but two classroom buildings that, to this day, contain the standard wooden tables and chairs we all know and love. We’re doing new things with our space these days because that’s what churches today are having to do. Our session recently voted to remove a few pews to the side of the pulpit in order to create a wonderful open area dedicated to music, and those classroom buildings are home to both a preschool and Philips Academy, a school for middle and high-school students with learning disabilities.

trinity pres energizersBut in a lot of ways our church is still like many: founded and built on the premise that encountering and engaging faith involves a lot of sitting and being still. Passive. Doing faith in our heads. One-way communication from pulpit or teacher. Faith received.

Now I’ll be the first to admit it: I could stand to slow down a bit. I’m in constant movement with my work in ministry, with my family, with all the obligations and responsibilities my life contains. There is an inherent, rich value in tranquility, especially as it pertains to growing in faith and connecting with the God who created us and loves us still.

Even so, it’s pretty obvious that there is a constant and consistent presence of movement in our faith tradition. The Israelites wandered for forty years. Jesus healed with his hands. Paul traveled all over. Ezekiel saw a vision of God on wheels. We are more than just the frozen chosen – we are on the move!

This June, the NEXT Church blog series will focus on ways people encounter spiritual growth through movement – everything from running to body prayer to energizers. We hope these blogs will elicit questions like: how does one practice a physical faith – inside or outside of the church? In what ways can we experience God through our bodies and our communities? And how does movement, of many forms, bind us to a deeper sense of spirituality?

It should be a fun month. Now it’s time to get up from my computer and take a walk. Gorgeous North Carolina day outside, and it’s calling my name.

Steve Spring 2015When he’s not being the senior minister of Trinity Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, or songwriting/gigging, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or blogging at thoughts-musings.com, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons, or cheering on his beloved Panthers and Hornets, or watching music reality TV shows with his lovely wife, Steve Lindsley is probably sleeping.

The Grass Withers and the Flower Fades

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Today’s piece is excerpted from a sermon preached by Joe Clifford on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday of Advent at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. You will see that it does not directly answer the question that has guided our blog postings this month, but you will also see that question is answered by God’s promises to us in scripture – promises that save us. To listen to the sermon in its entirety, click hereWe invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter! 

By Joe Clifford

Isaiah 40:1-11 (click for text)

“Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God.

That is the call God issues to the prophet Isaiah in the midst of the people’s exile in Babylon. No more indictment for idolatry. No more rebuke for ignoring widows and orphans. No more calls for repentance. There was a time for that, but now the call is to comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her time is served, a new day is coming.”

In the midst of our world of exile, a world defined by terrorism, born of a dangerous mix of extremism and distorted religion, a world where in this nation mass shootings have occurred at a rate of more than one per day this year, surely that is the word we are called to offer our world: comfort, comfort my people. A new day is coming.

Cry out! The Hebrew verb there is better translated, “Preach!” That’s what Isaiah was called to do. And that is what we are called to do. Cry out! Preach! The good news. The good tidings.

How does Isaiah respond to God’s call? “What shall I cry?” he says. “All people are grass,” dust in the wind, as the old saying goes. Every Advent for the past twenty years I’ve heard this passage and preached on it. I’ve heard its beauty. I’ve heard its comfort. I confess this year I heard something different. This year I heard Isaiah’s cynicism. What shall I cry? What shall we cry in a world gone mad?

December 2nd, 14 dead 21 injured in San Bernadino. November 29, 3 dead and 9 injured in Colorado Springs. October 1st; 9 dead, 9 injured in Roseburg, Oregon. July 16, 5 dead, 3 wounded in Chattanooga, TN. June 18th; 9 dead in Charleston, SC.[1] May 17th, 9 dead, 18 injured in Waco, TX. Those are some of 355 mass shootings in this country in 2015.

What shall we cry? Racism? Terrorism? Extremism? Gun violence? Mental illness? Xenophobia? Security now? What shall we cry?

“The grass withers, the flower fades,” says the prophet, “…surely the people are grass.” For some reason this year, I know how Isaiah felt. Don’t you?

How does God respond? This is a matter of interpretation, but I believe God says, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” The word of our God will stand forever. What shall we cry? What shall we preach? What shall we proclaim? The word of our God! And what does this word say in Isaiah? Let me give you a taste.

Later in Isaiah 40, that word says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 43, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 2, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up the sword against nation…ain’t gonna study war no more!”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 58: “Loose the bonds of injustice… let the oppressed go free… break every yoke… share your bread with the hungry… bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, … cover them, and do not hide from your own kin…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

What shall we cry? Again in Isaiah 58: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

This is what we are called to proclaim. This is what we are called to embody. Or as the Lord tells Isaiah and all the people, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. All people shall see it together. ALL people shall see it together.”

What shall we cry? The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our Lord endures forever.

[1] Los Angeles Times Staff. “Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings: 1984-2015,” published in the Los Angeles Times on December 2, 2015. Cited here: http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/

JoeJoe Clifford is the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. He serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Book Review: Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible and the Ecological Crisis

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During September, Leanne Pearce Reed is curating a month of blog posts exploring stewardship of all creation. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Walter Canter

Patricia Tull’s book Inhabiting Eden searches the wisdom of the Old Testament for a way of ideal relationship with God and creation. Tull ends up in Genesis and Isaiah (along with a supporting cast of plenty other texts from across the OT and gospels) basing her approach to the ecological crisis in humanity’s identity and prophetic call.

Photo from: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Gtu0Wp1TL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Tull begins with a broad assessment of human relationship with God and creation—she finds that the relationship we have isn’t the ideal depicted in Scripture. After the broad overview, Tull assesses the implications of this less than ideal relationship in regards to commerce, food, animal life, and human rights. Inhabiting Eden ends with a hopeful prophetic call to renewed relationship with God and creation through living within the planet’s means.

Throughout Inhabiting Eden, Tull challenges contemporary understandings of ‘environment.’ Environment, to Tull, is not isolated to the nearest wetland, national park or forest. The environment that needs our care and respect in Eden is everywhere. All humans live in an environment and human action affects both the immediate environment as well as the beautiful places of wilderness. The story of creation includes everything, no part of this world is out of God’s reach and all parts of this world are loving gifts from its Creator. Using this all-encompassing definition of environment, Tull develops a theology of gratitude.

Within the ordered and fundamentally good creation, humans have the vocation of caretakers. God provides what we need, and in response to that providing, human beings have the task of preserving these gifts. In Tull’s words, “We were intended to draw sustenance from creation’s bounty. With each breath, we take in God’s provision of air; with each drink, the precious water supply; with each bit of bread, the manna for one more day of love and service. We can begin to uphold the world that upholds us by recognizing these gifts with gratitude, especially our place in an ordered world that is full and fundamentally good, and our vocation to preserve the goodness and health of this living, teeming, exuberant world” (30).

Tull, along with the biblical prophets, shapes her call for justice around an understanding of change in the world. The ecological crisis comes out of dangerous change, but hope comes out of an acknowledgement that just as change in human behavior brought danger, a new change in human behavior can overcome that danger.

Tull’s writing style and structure is accessible; she dives into current ecological issues and scriptural study with clear and concise language. Tull’s accessibility makes it tempting to read quickly, but the depth, poignancy, and relevance of the information often left me pausing to assess my own handling of these sacred texts in relation to my everyday activity. There were even a few moments in Inhabiting Eden where I paused mid paragraph to google things like, “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” hoping that Tull’s description of our planet’s state was hyperbolic (it wasn’t… and ew).

Inhabiting Eden is an excellent read that reminds the reader of the timeless power of Scripture as it challenges the reader to see these old texts in a new light.

Provided by: Walter Canter

Rev. Walter Canter is pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church of Big Lick in Crossville, TN. He’s an avid soccer fan and enjoys hiking with his wife (and occasionally his dog). Contact him at canterjw@gmail.com.