Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Ann Henderson
Challenge is the word that I hold on to as I contemplate my response to the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering. Spending two and a half days immersed in meaningful worship, rich keynotes, and empowering real life examples of the church at work in our broken but beautiful world was…well… honestly, it was exhausting! But exhausting in a good way – the kind of exhausting that gives me more energy in the end; exhausting as in finishing a thought provoking book; or exhausting as in diving deep into an issue that I am completely passionate about; or exhausting as in knocking on doors for a political candidate; or exhausting as in serving meals at a local soup kitchen. Exhausted but renewed, a paradox of sorts.
The words of Pope Francis, quoted by keynote speaker Allan Boesak, circle around in my head and heart: Do we realize that something is wrong in a world where there are so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected? Do we realize that something is wrong where so many senseless wars are being fought? Do we realize something is wrong when the soil, water, air and living creatures of our world are under constant threat? So let’s not be afraid to say it: we need change; we want change.
On the one hand, I grieve the seeming lack of empathy in our world and in our churches. Yet on the other hand, the fact that these words are spoken by one of, if not the, most powerful religious leader on this earth gives me hope. As do many other things I saw and heard at NEXT… The Sanctuary church in Arizona where immigrants are welcomed and cared for gives me hope. Members from Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) warned us that “you can’t build what you can’t imagine,” challenging us to imagine a just economy, a community where racial divides are acknowledged and one that admits that black lives really do matter; a healthy earth, where clean air and water is valued; a world at peace…. They have imagined and listened and are seeing some positive change in the midst of despair in their community. This gives me hope. Members of some Atlanta area churches are graciously opening their buildings to their neighbors for after school education programs and to immigrant congregations for worship space. This gives me hope.
We might not enjoy the shade of the oak tree that we plant, we might not enter the promised land, change is a process, a struggle. In The Irony of American History, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” The NEXT Church National Gathering gave me hope and courage that we can stand with our neighbors and plant the seeds of change.
Ann Henderson is a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church, Statesboro, Georgia.