The Language of Church

By Mark Thomas

Since New Testament times, the church has been understood to be the body of Christ, an organism made up of many parts, yet one in faith, purpose, and ministry. But most of us have lived through an era in which we have thought of the church a bit differently. We have regarded the church as an institution, as a kind of corporate entity, with budgets, strategic plans, classes, teachers, financial campaigns, officers, and a board of directors. Or we have regarded the church as a family of faith into which we are adopted, in which we have brothers and sisters, children and parents, and in which we share meals together. These two ways of regarding the church have been important, valuable, and efficacious for a long time. Unfortunately, the culture in which the church resides is changing. Institutions are no longer trusted as they once were, and an institutional church suffers in that environment. And families are no longer of one kind, but can be extended, blended, single-parent, divorced, empty-nested, and dispersed, but rarely multi-generational, and even more rarely do they sit down to eat a meal together. To call the church a family anymore can be as confusing as it is edifying.

connecting handsMore and more, I think the future well-being of the church will depend on us embracing again a New Testament understanding of the church as an organism, as the body of Christ, made up of many parts, but singular in faith, purpose, and ministry. But more, that we understand the church as the continuing incarnation of Christ, meaning that the church as Christ’s body strives to reflect Christ’s divinity as well as his humanity. Those outside of the body are quick to recognize how we reflect Christ’s humanity. But those of us in the body can also point to the ways in which the Spirit helps us reflect Christ’s divinity. The glory of Christ is that he is both. When the church reflects both, we reveal the living Christ in our words and deeds. The next generation of believers doesn’t want to join an institution, and they aren’t sure they want to get mixed up in another dysfunctional family. What they want is to meet the Christ, and participate in God’s new creation. It’s up to us to make Christ known.

I think the participants in NEXT are well on their way toward making this subtle, but absolutely critical, transition in our self-understanding, and I think it is a movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s important, however, that our nomenclature reflect this new self-understanding. Bodies, for instance, don’t have strategic plans, boards of directors, or church schools. Body language is more personal, relational, physical, and spiritual. It’s been so long, though, since we have used such metaphors that we have forgotten them. What are the metaphors that describe the body of Christ? What language shall we use to tell people who we are? This, I think, is part of the growing edge of what is NEXT.

Mark P. Thomas, Pastor of Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, Missouri.

The Place Where We Are Right

Jessica Rathbun-Cook finished her Masters of Divinity at Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2012, and is hoping to start a PhD program in the fall of 2013. Put simply, Jessica wants to tell people that God loves them. She sees that love expressed in community, and hopes that, in being known and knowing one other, we may begin to see everyone we meet as a child of God.  She blogs at

“The Place Where We Are Right,” by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right / Flowers will never grow / In the spring.

The place where we are right / Is hard and trampled /Like a yard.

But doubts and loves /Dig up the world /Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined House once stood.


I always kind of chuckle when people ask me how my partner and I met.

“We actually grew up in the same church,” I reply, “so we met when we were in pre-school.”

wind_chimesThis answer elicits a range of replies – most often rooted in some form of surprise.  Though I have a number of childhood friends who have married people from my hometown, I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Presbyterian youth groups (especially in East Texas) are not usually the place where same-sex partnerships begin.  Though we weren’t really friends in high school (we went to different schools and were a grade apart), and started dating about a decade after moving away from Texas, our relationship was built upon a foundation of care for one another that had been laid by the church community that raised us.  In many ways, we learned what it was to be part of a faith community from being part of that faith community.  We learned what it was to be cared for by adults who weren’t our parents, to be challenged and taught to live into our beliefs, because it was modeled for us in the lives of the people who took the time to teach us Sunday school, direct us in youth choir or bell choir, take us on trips.  The people in the congregation took the time to listen to us, to ask us tough questions – they showed us what it was to be loved.

When we got married, my partner and I received a number of gifts from some of those people who’d played such a big part in bringing us up.  One of the most treasured of those gifts is a set of wind chimes we got from one of my favorite Sunday school teachers.  They came with a note, telling us that the wind chimes were meant to be a reminder of our love for one another, so that even in the more difficult times we were sure to face we would have something to bring us back to the commitments we made, and the love we share.  As I write this, I can hear the wind chimes on our back porch being played by the cold air that sweeps through every minute or so, and it is with joy that I am reminded of that love.

Last year, after the ordination standards of the PC(USA) changed, opening up the way for the ordination of LGBT people, 75% of the members of my hometown church voted to leave the denomination.  Among this 75% were the bulk of people who had been most formative in my faith.  The same people who taught me what it was to be loved by God, and who showed me the love of a church community, have now left the denomination because LGBT people (people like me and my partner) can be ordained.  Because we live several states away, we didn’t have to hear people call us an abomination, unnatural, or unrepentant sinners (that burden has largely fallen on the shoulders of our parents and on the 25% who’ve remained in the congregation).  We didn’t have to feel directly the vitriol that some of the members displayed at various meetings.  I cannot help but recognize the irony in the situation – that the woman who gave us the wind chimes to serve as a reminder of our love for one another is no longer a member of the denomination precisely because people like us – LGBT people who feel a sense of call and want to serve as leaders in the church – can be ordained.

A few gusts of air just blew through, causing the chimes to clang with a briefly-heightened intensity.  They remind me not only of my love for my partner, but also of love that was offered to me by the people who raised me in the church, and of the love made possible in a faith community.  I am reminded that the church is a family, at times stunningly beautiful in its potential to make connections, and at other times heartbreaking in its imperfection and messiness.  The chimes tell me that even those who love us and nurture us cannot always travel with us down the road we feel called to travel.  They are a gentle reminder that we still exist in the now, even as we keep our eyes and hearts fixed on the not yet.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never had my heart broken by the church.  There are some days when my heart feels as if it might crumble under the weight of the things said and done in the name of God.  I temporarily forget that the church is made up of people, that it is imperfect.  In these times, it is easier for me to give in to the hurt and weariness that comes with the things that have been lost, with the struggles ahead, with the inevitable pain that comes when we strive to live authentically with one another.  Yet, in doing so, I am turning my gaze from the connections made, from the love that is offered and shared, from the bellies that are filled and the souls that are nourished.  I risk missing the excitement shared by the 25% who have remained in my hometown congregation, who have banded together beautifully to work and love and pray for the community, in many ways bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure.

“The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.”  It is the doubts and loves that turn the soil, the places we are broken that allow growth to spring forth.  What might the church look like if we honored the brokenness in one another, if we confessed our fear and our shame and the things we don’t know, rather than trying to convince ourselves that the ground of what we do know is a firm enough foundation to hold us all? Let us celebrate the unfamiliar, and see it as the opportunity to learn; celebrate our brokenness, and see it as the opportunity to be healed; celebrate our individuality, and see it as the opportunity to be part of something more.  Let us celebrate the silence that comes in the breaking of our hearts, and see it as the opportunity to hear the whisper that tells us we are all worthy to be loved.

Brokenness, Healing and Our Future

By Dr. Ed Brenegar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Newtown: “Gathering at Home”

“Gathering At Home”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Advent Prayer

By Jessica TateIMG_1277

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God.

As the light dims in the cooling days

our vision turns inward.

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

the crooked priorities

the low valleys of selfishness

the mountains of consumption

the uneven ground of malnourished spirits

the places made rough with wounds we carry.

Reveal again your glory, God of the Most High,

reveal your goodness, your love, your power—

reveal your judgment tinged with grace

so that all people see it together.

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

You are the potter and we are the clay,

tough but willing to be molded according to your likeness.

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

You are the fire that baptizes us in your Holy Spirit

captive by fear but willing to be your servants.

Turn us around to go in your way–

Teach us again not to be afraid.

According to the promise made to our ancestors,

O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

Comfort, O comfort your people and speak tenderly to Jerusalem

for there is great pain.

Bring good news to our brokenness,

hold close those jagged places in our hearts,

speak freedom to the tension we carry,

release us from patterns that hold us captive,

proclaim the time of your good favor

and the day of light of our God!

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God!

Jar us into wakefulness.

Though the hour is uncertain

be it evening or midnight or cockcrow or dawn

We await your glory; we are awake!

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

expectantly, urgently, eager.

Tear open the heavens and come down.

Break into our lives–

we are awake!

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

Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is Director of NEXT Church.

Energy, intelligence, IMAGINATION and love…

by Mary Harris Todd

At ordination and installation Presbyterian elders promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Of the four, imagination may be the most challenging.  Unlike a body of information or set of procedures, imagination can’t be mastered by the intellect.  Imagination must be inspired and sparked.  Being open to the imagination and acting on it requires effort and courage.  It’s always much easier to go to the default setting: what did we do last year (or last century)?

While it might not be possible to train the imagination in the same way we study the contents of the Book of Order, it is possible to give the imagination a workout.  One of the primary ways of doing that is telling and listening to stories.  That’s why storytelling is central at all our NEXT Church gatherings.  We listen once again to God’s story in scripture, and we share stories of what God is up to in the church and in the world now.

Healthy small congregations are a rich source of stories to spark the imagination.  We offer a great deal of “scope for the imagination,” to the church at large, to use Anne of Green Gables’ expression.   Now that the mainline church finds itself pushed to the sidelines, it makes sense to listen to the witness of small congregations that have always lived and served on the margins.  We know that it doesn’t always take a program and money and big buildings to answer the call of God.  We know—or at least we’re learning—what it means to live simply and sustainably by radical dependence on God.  We know how to rise to the challenge of operating creatively within limits.

In his new book Imagining the Small Church: Creating a Simpler Path (Alban), PC(USA) pastor Steve Willis shares many sights, sounds and stories from the world of the small church that can bless the imagination of the whole church.  He writes, “Imagination is the prayerful interior work that helps me see what is really going on, not so much dreaming things up but rather being open to what could be” (p. 105).  The eye of imagination allows him to see God’s upside down wisdom at work in the lives of the people and the congregation.  Through imagination he sees both the wonder of what is, and the wonder of what could be.

Two other books from Alban that offer imagination-sparking stories from the small church world are In Dying We Are Born by Peter Bush and Born of Water, Born of Spirit, by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett.  Bush explores why dying and rising with Christ is the way to new life for every congregation, regardless of size.  Writing out of their experience in the Episcopal tradition, Kujawa-Holbrook and Thompsett tell story after story of small congregations finding new life when the whole people of God begin to see themselves as called to ministry.  You can find links to reviews of these books on the resource tab of my blog, The Mustard Seed Journal.  Note that these books both reflect on what it means to be born again, which is the theme of the NEXT Church national gathering in Charlotte in 2013.

Imagination is prayerful work indeed.  It is altogether fitting that we also promise to pray when we promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Come upon us all, Holy Spirit to spark, empower and guide in all these essentials, so that it may be with us as it was on the Day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your young will see visions, Your elders will dream dreams” Acts 2:17 (CEV).

Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Many Bodies, One Table

by Elizabeth Howell

Our church is one of the few congregations in our city that still offers a weekday morning Vacation Bible School.  It is a lot of work to make the week come together, but the children and volunteers love it.

ehowell1Early in 2012, I set to work preparing a curriculum that would fit our goals for Christian education.  After much brainstorming, my key volunteers and I settled on the theme “Come to the Table: A Journey from the First Passover Meal to the Last Supper.”  Our goal was to teach children about the Eucharist, and to connect the story of God’s people in Exodus to the Sabbath meal Jesus shared with his disciples on Good Friday.  For weeks, we tossed around ideas of creative ways to help the children express what they would be learning each day.

My creative and enthusiastic co-director Kathy knew just where to turn for inspiration.  The image of our week would be the communion table.  With only an old donated kitchen table, we turned to a church member with the skills and vision to create a beautiful piece of worship art.  As this man planned and measured and ordered thousands of tiny colorful tiles, I hoped the piece would come together as he dreamed it would.  Many times throughout last spring, I thought to myself that an ordinary person would not have the patience for such a venture.  This man was not daunted.  His plan: to have 100 children create a mosaic of the Last Supper over the top of a worn out kitchen table.

ehowell2This one member enlisted the help of a woodcutter and a portrait artist in our church.  He fortified the table to withhold the weight, another member enlarged a children’s coloring book page to be our pattern, and others set about sanding and painting.  At last, the prep work was complete.  It was time to turn the table over to our children.  Over four mornings in July, the children of our church and neighborhood created a communion table that will host a sacrament for generations.

Each day, I photographed the progress.  Little fingers, many little fingers, pieced together the Last Supper.  We were all fascinated to see the scene come to life.  Each day, volunteers took time to allow our children to choose their tiles, to slowly squeeze out glue, and to fit their colors into place.  They were so careful with their work.  The stage of our Fellowship Hall, where the children worked, was quiet with reverence, as they meditated on piecing together this holy scene.

Reflecting back on this VBS project, I often consider how much easier it would have been for the adults to do the work themselves.  It took far more time to plan, to prepare, and to wait for younger, unskilled hands to complete the table.  It is the work of these little fingers in partnership with our artists and volunteers, however, which gives the table its deep meaning in our church family.

ehowell3I think about this often.  Like many of you, I feel the frustration of recruiting many hands to staff programs and mission.  Some days, it is a struggle to find those bodies that can make an event or a worship service come together.  From time to time, I find myself doing the work a volunteer should be doing.  I tell myself it would be simpler for me to accomplish the task myself rather than find, call, and train a volunteer.  If I’m not careful, however, it is easy to forget how much more worthwhile it is to share that load and enlist the participation of others.  My ministry is to equip these people, not do the work of the church alone.

I remember those adults who patiently waited for children to work and to find just the right tile that was the perfect shade and shape.  My job is to do just that.  My job is to wait, pray, and patiently discern ways to equip God’s people to share in the ministry of Christ’s church.  My job is to equip them and to walk beside them, seeking out ways that their gifts might meet a need, fitting just the right tile into just the right space.

Elizabeth Howell is the Associate Pastor of Christian Education at  Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA, where she coordinates Sunday and  mid-week educational opportunities for children and adults.  She loves  worshiping with her congregation, ordering fresh packs of curriculum, and taking  long walks with a hardhat (her church is in the midst of an 18 month  renovation!).  In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time outdoors  with her fiancé Chris and their dogs Penny and Berk.

An Unusual Encounter

The following fictive scenario is indebted to Tony Woodlief’s piece, “Election,” found in Image (Summer 2012, 74). It is also the result of the special kind of sleep deprivation that other first time parents know so well.

by Andrew Taylor-Troutman

Last Friday afternoon, I was experimenting with Pandora stations under the pretext of working on my sermon. Suddenly, a church bell rang three times, which was very odd because the church I serve does not have a belfry. Then I heard a shuffling of footsteps down the hall, coming closer and closer.

A man strode purposely into my office. I noticed his funny looking black shoes, which had buckles across the top and looked positively ancient. He wore a three-quarter length cape around his skinny frame and had a long, long beard like ZZ Top. On top of his head perched a strange, three-cornered hat. I looked into his eyes, which smoldered with intelligence, and realized that he, too, was sizing up me.

“Yes sir, um, may I help you?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew this man from somewhere. Perhaps a presbytery meeting? Was he a guest lecturer at the seminary?

“Are you the minister of the Word at this church?” He spoke with a French accent, very unusual for the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

“Yes, I am Rev. Taylor-Troutman. Please call me Andrew.”

“My name is Jean Calvin. You can call me John.”

“Oh my God!” Calvin narrowed his eyes at me. “I mean, oh my goodness!”

“Perhaps you heard of me, no? I am a lawyer by training, and a theologian by practice. I’ve written many books. Have you heard of the most important one?”

“Of course I have heard of you!” I exclaimed, a little too eagerly. Quickly I swiveled around in my desk chair to the bookshelf behind me and, after a brief and frantic search, pulled down my two volumes of Institutes of the Christian Religion. When I placed the heavy books on my desk, a dust cloud powdered up from the covers, clearly visible through the sunlight streaming through my window. I smiled sheepishly. Calvin grimly tightened his lips.

“I am here because it has come to my attention that many unlettered men in your society do not notice how great a difference and unlikeness there is between ecclesiastical and civil power.”

I blinked at him uncomprehendingly. Calvin sighed.

“I believe your Thomas Jefferson spoke of the separation of church and state . . .”

“Ah yes, I’m with you now! It’s true; we just had a national election in which this issue was very important.” I nodded in what I hoped was a sagacious fashion and waved my hand to clear the dust from the air.

“Let us begin here,” Calvin clasped his hands behind his back and began rocking slightly back and forth, “Undoubtedly evinced from many clear proofs of scripture, the church does not have the right of the sword.”


“I speak of the power to punish or compel, the authority to force, imprisonment, and the other punishments which the magistrate commonly inflicts.”

“Oh sure,” I added, “That power of the sword.” I think Calvin may have rolled his eyes.

“So then, the church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate. But shall the church stop there?”

I hoped that was a rhetorical question and remained silent. Calvin resumed his rocking back and forth.

“Suppose a man is drunk. In a well-ordered city, imprisonment will be the penalty. So will the laws, the magistrate, and outward justice be satisfied. Yet he may happen to show no sign of repentance, but, rather, murmur or grumble . . .”

“Complaining of a hangover,” I quipped. Calvin’s glare told me not to do that again.

“So the minister of the Word, in turn, ought to help the magistrate in order that not so many may sin. Their functions ought to be so joined that each serves to help, not hinder, the other. They must have a mutual obligation to bond for the glory of God.”

“Well, I think you have a good idea there, but as we say around here, ‘The devil is in the details.’”

“I do not see the profit of your expression,” he intoned, “Details, as with all of creation, are manifestly part of God’s sovereignty.”

“Ah, well, you see, some of our magistrates, called politicians, want to use their, um, power of the sword to bend the will of people towards the views of their church.”

“This cannot be. As Ambrose wrote, ‘A good emperor is within the church, not over the church.’”

“Does this Ambrose have a blog? I’m kidding, only joking with you . . .”

“The state of affairs in your country is no laughing matter! It behooves us to identify the abuse of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, in order that we may know what is to be abrogated and what of antiquity is to be restored.”

“Okay, okay; go on.”

“First, this is the aim of ecclesiastical jurisdiction: that offenses be resisted, and any scandal that has arisen be wiped out. In its use two things ought to be taken into account: that this spiritual power be completely separated from the right of the sword; secondly, that is be administered not by the decision of one man but by a lawful assembly. Both of these were observed when the church was purer, as in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5.”

“But John, other people would say that the church should direct the affairs of the state, and that it is the duty of ministers to point this out. Last Sunday, some preachers were telling their congregation to ‘Vote the Bible!’”

“I do not blame the individual faults of men, but the common crime of the whole order of priests, the veritable plague, since it is thought to be mutilated unless it be decked out with opulence and proud titles.”

“Whoa, say that again, in English, please.”

Calvin gazed at me in silent confusion, or judgment, or both. “I was speaking in English.”

“I mean, can you make yourself clearer?”

“Humility, Andrew, pure and simple. If we seek the authority of Christ in this matter, there is no doubt that he wished to bar the ministers of his Word from civil rule and earthly authority when he said, ‘The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them . . . but you do not do so,’ for the church does not have the power to coerce, and ought not to seek it.”

I tried in vain to think of something to say.

“Let the ministers of the Word in your country know my position on this issue.”

With that, John Calvin spun around, cape snapping in the air, shoes emitting an audible clap, clap as he made his way down the hall and out of the church.


Author’s note: All quotes from Calvin are taken directly from Institutes . . . except, of course, when they are not.

Back to What’s Next …

by Mary Harris Todd

As we discern what’s next for the church, let’s take time to visit our ancestors in faith who struggled to discern what God had in mind for them next.  Let’s revisit our mothers and fathers in scripture, and let’s also take another look at church history and our congregations’ histories.  Here is a story from Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church, the small congregation in which I grew up.

Morton PresbyterianWhen the church was founded in 1876, the Kirk’s building was literally perched on a cliff in Spotsylvania County, Virginia—hence the name. By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the congregation had migrated away from the community in the neighborhood of the building. It would still be years before cars made rural travel easier. And since people still depended on horses and buggies and their own feet to get to church, the people of the Kirk had a problem.

What did they do? The congregation decided to move the building closer to where the people actually lived. In 1911 new land was given, and they went to work. They dismantled the church building piece by piece, loaded it onto horse-drawn wagons, moved it to its present location and reassembled it. With the exception of some bricks and a few boards, every piece survived intact. The congregation more than survived. Today the church is still called Kirk O’Cliff even though the cliff is ten miles away and covered by the waters of Lake Anna. As I think about the passion, the commitment, and the sheer sweat that dismantling, moving, and rebuilding required, I marvel.

When it comes to what’s next for the church in the twenty-first century, I wonder what God is planning to “dismantle,” “move,” and “assemble” in a new way now. People who need the embrace of Jesus have in many ways moved out of range of the church, so we are now called to move. Knowing where and when and how is going to require prayerful passion, prayerful commitment and prayerful sweat.

If you’re looking for more stories from our great cloud of witnesses who discerned what was next in their day, I recommend Diana Butler Bass’s book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

There you can visit with some well-known folk like Augustine, Luther and Calvin.  But more importantly, you can also visit with a host of lesser-known witnesses, many of whose names are unknown, who simply did the best they could to follow Jesus, loving God and neighbor in their place and time.  For example, you can begin to get to know the Beguines and Beghards of the late 1100s, Spirit-led women and men who formed semi-monastic communities whose purpose was to care for the poor and people with infirmities.

Let’s dig into the church’s stories and mine them for more examples of people exercising imagination and courage to move in faith towards what was next.  We are here now because a great cloud of witnesses along the way asked, “Gracious God, what’s next?”  Thanks be to God for them, and for the opportunity that is now ours.  New stories of faith are developing every day.  Let the wagons roll!

Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

The Future of Our Connectionalism

First things first: we hope folks have weathered Sandy OK. Be safe.

by Dr. Ed Brenegar

As the chair of the Stewardship Committee of my presbytery, I am concerned by the practice of congregations withholding of funds from the PCUSA as an act of principled protest.  Regardless of the reasons, I’ve come to see it as a political act that weakens our connectionalism. Here’s what I recently spoke during our recent presbytery meeting.

We are the Presbytery of […] . There is no “they.” Regardless of the presbytery you are in, it is essentially a volunteer organization of members from local congregations.   Look at your Nominations Committee list of those to serve on committees, councils and mission teams. They are men and women volunteers from churches.

Our Connectedness as a Presbytery isn’t just Spiritual, but Financial. My presbytery does not “charge” a per capita fee to churches. We, the presbytery, trust in the spiritual commitment of churches to make financial contributions to the support of the presbytery and the other councils of the church. In effect, what is happening is that small churches are funding the per capita payment of those larger churches who withhold funds. How ironic that in our modern day we see Paul’s perspective in 1 Corinthians 12: 22-26 gaining relevance.

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Just to be clear, there are small churches who also withhold funds, and the large churches who are extraordinarily generous in their giving to support our presbytery’s work, including its ministry with small churches. Size is not the primary issue, connectionalism is.

Our Connectedness as a Presbytery isn’t just Financial, but also Missional. From my vantage point as Stewardship Chair, it is the shared mission work of our presbytery that is the heart of our connectionalism. It is the only thing that cuts across all the social and institutional boundaries of the church to unite people from large and small churches in the worship and service of Jesus Christ in the world.

Our Financial Future as Congregations and the Presbytery is not our Past.  We can no longer count on the tried-n-true stewardship practices of the past to sustain local congregations and presbyteries in the future. Developing a dynamic missional connectionalism provides a way for more members of churches to participate and contribute in the life and ministry of the church.  From this position, churches and presbyteries can adapt to the economic realities that we all will be facing in the future.

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