Posts

From These Roots: Finding the Herstory in the History

At St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, pastor Mark Davis and his congregation are following a theme during Advent called “From These Roots.” Each week, they focus on a different #herstory about Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy. Here is Mark’s explanation of the series.

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of forty-two generations, from Abraham to Jesus. Some of the names in that genealogy offer glimpse of who Jesus is, even before the birth narrative itself. There are some obvious candidates, starting with Abraham, with whom God made the covenant (Genesis 12:1-3). There’s also Judah, called a “lion” and a “lioness” by his father Israel, from whose tribe one would emerge bearing a scepter and staff (Genesis 49:8-12). And while King David’s stock has a lot of meaning in itself, the genealogy identifies David as the son of Jesse, bringing to mind Isaiah’s great promise, “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1-3) In the end, the point of Matthew’s genealogy is less about history and more about theology, bringing to life the storied promises of the past.

There are some names in the genealogy whose stories may be less well known, but worth remembering during the season of Advent. Within the genealogy of forty-two males, there are also four women, three of whom are named and one of whom is not. One idea for Advent would be to devote one Sunday to each of these women, to hear their backstories, and to listen for how their stories also shape the theological identity of the one who is born out of this lineage.

First, there’s Tamar. The genealogy reads that Judah was “the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” At first glance, it reads like a wholesome nuclear family of Daddy, Mommy, and the twins. The backstory, in Genesis 28, presents quite a different portrait, since Tamar is not Judah’s spouse but his daughter-in-law. In the end, Tamar’s story is a tragic and valiant story of a woman who is caught in a patriarchal system, denied justice by Judah on whom she is dependent within that system, blamed for the deaths of her first two husbands even though the narrator clearly lays the blame on their own sinfulness and God’s punishment, and who must exact her own bit of justice by risking her life and selling her body.

Next there is Rahab, the Mata Hari of the ancient near east. Rahab’s backstory begins in the 2nd chapter of Joshua and is completed in the 6th chapter. She was a sex trade worker living in the city of Jericho when Israel sent two spies to scope out the city before attacking it. She lied, she betrayed her own people, and she hid the spies before helping them escape – because she recognized God’s hand in it. Now viewed as a paragon of faith, Rahab survived the battle of Jericho and returns in Matthew’s genealogy as the great-great grandmother of King David.

Then, there’s Ruth. As the great-grandmother of King David, Ruth has an entire book devoted to her story. It begins with tragedy and turns when Ruth makes the compassionate decision not to abandon her mother-in-law to survive widowhood on her own. Compassionate, beautiful, and clever, Ruth becomes the second foreigner to become part of this family tree.

And then there’s the unnamed woman, described in the line, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Raped by King David, who then has her husband murdered and takes her into his palace to display his royal chivalry, Bathsheba’s story is the ultimate #metoo story. Even in the genealogy, her name is omitted and her identity absorbed into the three men who shaped her life. Yet, Bathsheba survives and ultimately ensures that her son becomes the next king after David’s death. Bathsheba’s story is a story of survival and power.

Imagine the difference it makes to remember that when Jesus is born he has Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba’s DNA running through his veins. Imagine the difference it makes to let the story of these women shape the theological identity of who this Messiah is, what the represents, and how he comes to save us.

In addition, Mark’s church put up an art installation to accompany the series and season (pictured here). A photo of the installation is on the bulletin cover each week. Mark also wrote a song called “From These Roots” that they’ve used as the prayer of illumination each week.

Keep Awake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Julia Pearson

A sermon preached at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, MD. Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37.

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and we’re preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Throughout the season we’ll hear about a baby in a manger, Mary and Joseph and the Three Magi; so why do we begin the season with these dark, apocalyptic readings? It seems a bit morose, doesn’t it? I think it’s because Jesus’ birth was about a lot more than a baby in a manger, and these readings are calling our attention to that. We’re being reminded that all is not what we think it is, and we’d better start paying attention or we’ll miss the whole point of why we’re here.

One of my favorite writers on the subject of incarnation is Ilia Delio, a Franciscan nun who specializes in science and religion. She writes, “In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a new God-consciousness of love becomes radically expressed in a way that departs from other religions. This new religious consciousness evokes a new way of action. Jesus is a new Big Bang in evolution, an explosion of love that ignites a new way of thinking about God, creation and future.”

She continues, “Jesus’ God-centered life shows a way of relating to others that makes things whole where there are divisions. His love gathers and heals what is scattered and apart. He draws people into community and empowers them to live the law of love.”

Jesus is a new Big Bang in evolution? That’s a far cry from a sweet little baby in a manger, and that’s what today’s readings are trying to get us to see. It’s a wake up call to see reality from a different point of view – to, in fact, see it as it really is.

As of this morning, there have been 319 murders in Baltimore this year. That’s more than last year, and we still have a month to go. This past Thursday I walked in the Harlem Park West neighborhood with leaders from our outreach ministry BUILD, which stands for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. When I heard about the murder of Detective Suitor in that same neighborhood several weeks ago, my heart broke, and I know many people in the city felt the same way. It’s why we were there on Thursday.

I saw block after block full of vacant houses, with maybe two occupied houses on any given block. People hear gunshots every night. I talked with a woman named Talia who has a 15 year old son and she won’t let him go outside after dark. She has only lived in the neighborhood for five months, and in that time she knows of five people who have been killed, one right across the street from her. I listened to her story and I felt the despair of Isaiah’s lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” I pray that her son will make it out of that neighborhood alive.

And that’s just part of our current reality. We hear a new story almost every day of another man accused of sexual harassment or assault, as centuries of treating women as objects rises up to be healed and transformed. But that’s a subject for another sermon. What’s capturing my heart right now is what’s happening in our city, which we can’t afford to ignore any longer.

Recently at a BUILD Strategy Team meeting, we were looking at people’s responses to questions about what is causing the violence in Baltimore. Overwhelmingly, answers from throughout the city were lack of opportunities for youth. Many people also mentioned drugs, but when you added up lack of jobs, the closing of rec centers and lack of after-school programs, lack of youth opportunities was the top reason. As we dove deeper into the conversation, a youth member of the team spoke up. She said, “You know those guys who were picked up in Federal Hill recently? I know them. I grew up with one of them. He saw someone murdered right in front of him in his living room. We can’t begin to imagine what these kids have experienced in their lives.” And in that moment we all knew that we had to start telling a different story about the youth in Baltimore.

The disenfranchised neighborhoods of this city aren’t the Wild West, they are a war zone, and everyone living in them experiences the trauma of this on a regular basis. We need to address the trauma at least as much as the violence, because they go hand in hand. This isn’t to excuse the violence – violence should never be excused under any circumstance – but addressing trauma is the only hope we have of getting at the root cause of the violence.

Three years ago Dr. Nadine Burke Harris gave a TED talk about the adverse health affects of childhood trauma. She talked about how she used to look at childhood trauma either as a social problem to be referred to social services, or as a mental health problem to be referred to mental health services. This is how she was trained.

She started working with kids from a poor and underserved neighborhood in San Francisco, and a lot of kids came into her office who had been referred to her for ADHD – attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But when she did a thorough history and physical exam on them, the diagnosis didn’t fit. Most of these kids had experienced severe trauma, and something wasn’t adding up.

One day a colleague handed her a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, and it forever changed the way she practiced medicine. This study asked 17,500 adults about their exposure to what they called adverse childhood experiences, or ACES. These include physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence or incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. For every yes, you get a point on your ACE score.

It turns out ACES are incredibly common. 67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.5%, one in eight people studied, had four or more. The researchers also found that there is a direct correlation between ACES and health: the higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes. Dr. Burke Harris explains why this is: “imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, ‘Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!’ And so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging.

Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”

Identifying a direct link – through scientific evidence – between childhood trauma and health was groundbreaking. Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics said at one point, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” For Dr. Burke Harris, this was exciting news because it was easy to test for, which made it possible to address holistically. If we know someone has a high ACE score, we can provide wraparound services that help to mitigate the long-term affects. She expected it to become a routine test in every doctor’s office. But that hasn’t happened.

Here she is again: “You know, at first I thought that we marginalized the issue because it doesn’t apply to us. That’s an issue for those kids in those neighborhoods. Which is weird, because the data doesn’t bear that out. The original ACEs study was done in a population that was 70 percent Caucasian, 70 percent college-educated. But then, the more I talked to folks, I’m beginning to think that maybe I had it completely backwards.” She continues, “Even in this room, this is an issue that touches many of us, and I am beginning to believe that we marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. Maybe it’s easier to see in other zip codes because we don’t want to look at it. We’d rather be sick.”

This is where our Advent call to “keep awake” breaks in like a splash of cold water. How can we be present with all that we are, and all that we feel, without either disassociating from it or running away?

To sit with what makes us uncomfortable – to not look away, to not run away, to not numb ourselves with food, drugs, alcohol, or shopping. It’s practicing unconditional presence. This is what I hear Jesus saying when he implores us to “keep awake.” We have to be willing to feel our scariest, darkest places if they are to be transformed. Because in the staying, the abiding – the surrendering – God does break in, and transforms our suffering into something new. Our surrender is our participation in the divine workings of God. It’s letting ourselves be the clay in the potter’s hands, and it’s how we become active participants in creation. But we have to be willing to stay with it. This is where contemplative practices like meditation are so helpful, because they train us to stay present through consistent, steady practice. Because if we can’t be present to our own pain, how can we possibly be present to the pain of others?

When we try not to think about what’s going on in East and West Baltimore, isn’t it just a symptom of trying to avoid our own dark places? When we avoid eye contact with a homeless person, aren’t we really afraid of what we’ll see in ourselves? If we’re going to be Christ in the world today, we have to understand these connections, because that’s the example he lived. This is what it means to “keep awake.”

So how do we apply this unconditional presence to others? We listen to people’s stories, and we share our own stories with them. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We let go of thinking we have all of the answers, making assumptions, and stereotyping people, and we just listen to them. We work to “gather and heal what has become scattered and apart” by embracing others as our own brothers and sisters because they are our brothers and sisters, and they are also our children.
There is a program in East Baltimore that has been doing this for the past sixteen years. It’s called The Club in Collington Square. It is an after school and summer program that currently serves 90 children with a waiting list of 40.

Its program director, Vanessa Williams, is an incredible woman. She is a specialist in urban education and knows how to develop children as both learners and leaders. The kids call her their grandmother. Most of her staff of teachers and assistants are from the neighborhood, and they are passionate about giving back to their community. The program includes academics, enrichment activities like dance and martial arts, play, and homework help. They also provide a snack and a hot dinner every day. It is a structured, loving haven in a very tough neighborhood, and it works. If we had programs like this all over the city, it would transform the fabric of our communities. But even this one is struggling to survive. I highly encourage you to take a look at their video – I’ll make sure there’s a link to it on our Facebook page.

Programs like The Club give us hope, and as people of faith we have a unique relationship to hope. We hold it deep within us, and right now we need to let it shine like a beacon for this city because we are in a state of emergency. Just this week school officials in Carroll County have halted all school related trips to Baltimore, because of the violence. So the Francis Scott Key High School Marching Band won’t be playing in the mayor’s Christmas parade this afternoon. It’s bad. This problem affects ALL of us, and it is in all of our self-interests to help heal this city. We can’t wait for the mayor, or the police, or elected officials to fix this. It’s going to take all of us.

To that end, your voice matters, so today during the offertory, members of the cathedral’s BUILD Core Team will be handing out a card containing two questions about the violence in the city. PLEASE take the time to fill it out – we’ll collect them as you leave today. The team will be bringing the cards to a BUILD meeting this Thursday, where we will begin addressing the violence in the city based on our citywide listening. If you are moved to get involved with this effort, talk to someone on the BUILD Core Team, and come to Thursday’s meeting if you can. Team members all have BUILD logos on their name tags today.

I’m going to close with a poem by Jan Richardson, who did the artwork on the cover of this week’s bulletin. It’s called Blessing for Waking.

This blessing could
pound on your door
in the middle of
the night.

This blessing could
bang on your window,
could tap dance
in your hall,
could set a dog loose
in your room.

It could hire a
brass band
to play outside
your house.

But what this blessing
really wants
is not merely
your waking
but your company.

This blessing
wants to sit
alongside you
and keep vigil
with you.

This blessing
wishes to wait
with you.

And so
though it is capable
of causing a cacophony
that could raise
the dead,

this blessing
will simply
lean toward you
and sing quietly
in your ear
a song to lull you
not into sleep
but into waking.

It will tell you stories
that hold you breathless
till the end.

It will ask you questions
you never considered
and have you tell it
what you saw
in your dreaming.

This blessing
will do all within
its power
to entice you
into awareness

because it wants
to be there,
to bear witness,
to see the look
in your eyes
on the day when
your vigil is complete
and all your waiting
has come to
its joyous end.
Amen.


Julia Pearson is Canon for Evangelism at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, MD. She is currently a student at the Living School, studying with Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and James Finley. The program emphasizes an embodied lifestyle made up of practices that deepen a more conscious union with God, and empowers students to express that union actively through works of engagement and compassion in the world.

Collaborative Creation

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

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

by Paul Vasile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sacred Space for Grief

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

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

by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A Reminder of Divine Love

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

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

by Justin Ritchie

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

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

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

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

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


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

Keep Awake

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

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

by Kate Foster Connors

In this season of waiting, I feel impatient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Christmas in Prison

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

Editor’s note: Hans is co-leading a workshop at the 2018 National Gathering called, “A Prison in Bloom.” It will take place on Tuesday during workshop block 2. Learn more and register to participate!

by Hans Hallundbaek

Christmas in prison is not Christmas. There are no celebrations, no gifts, no holly leaves, no caroling, no festive meals. During Christmas everything is the daily tiring routine, as if Christmas was another boring Monday. For those incarcerated, it is just one of those endless days slowly counting away your sentence.

Indeed, for most of the more than two million people serving time in our almost 2,000 state and federal prisons, Christmas is a non-event. The only acknowledgement of the holiday is for those who join chapel services, where volunteers from the outside are allowed to join for a unique Christmas service deep behind tall walls and barbed wires.

The first time I joined such a Christmas Eve service of hymn singing and prayers at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, I was overwhelmed by the experience. When it came to my turn to address a chapel filled with incarcerated men waiting for a hopeful message, I was not quite sure what to do.

After delivering my prepared message, I realized there were no candles in the room, so I said, “Let us, in closing, light a candle to remember the light of Christ being born into the world tonight.”

One of the men in the front pews jumped up, “Pastor, are you crazy? This is a maximum security prison. Candles are contraband here.”

“But wait,” I said, “My candle is different. It is a virtual candle…a candle you can see only in your mind’s eye.”

Reaching into my bag I pulled out, and held up, an imaginary large white pillar candle. I asked, “Can you all see this this beautiful candle?” While obviously a little bewildered, several of the men started nodding their heads.

I carefully placed the candle on the altar, and when I reached into my pocket and produced virtual matches, Tony agreed to come forward and light the candle.

This roomful of men, hardened by years and decades in prison, quickly embraced the moment. I could almost see the candle flame reflected in their eyes. It was totally still in the room as the audience recalled the experience of live candles that they had not seen for years.

After a brief reflection on the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” I prepared to leave as the prison guard arrived to guide me out.

Then someone from the third row shouted, “What about the candle?”

“Just blow it out,” said another.

“No!” came a booming voice from the back of the room. It was Jerome, a big, strong man with a 45 year sentence.

“Please, please never blow out that candle,” he pleaded in a trembling voice, “I want it to stay lit, so that every time I enter this room I can see hope.”

Hope is my favorite Advent theme. And last I checked, that virtual candle is still shining brightly in the Sing Sing Chapel.

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners…
-Hebrews 13:3


Hans Hallundbaek is the coordinator for the Hudson River Presbytery’s Prison Partnership Program. He has served as an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and as a volunteer chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He is the NGO representative to the United Nations for the International Prison Chaplains’ Association (IPCA) and Citizens United for the Return of Errants (CURE). Hans holds his D-Min. from New York Theological Seminary.

Joy, Sorrow, and Improv

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

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

by LeeAnn Hodges

Years ago a minister friend shared a phrase I that have held onto: “joyfully participate in the sorrows of life.” This paradoxical statement has gotten me through a great deal over the years, and speaks to the sort of joy I often find in the midst of advent.

True joy is a way of living that is not dependent upon the external circumstances of our lives and our world. And yet, it takes practice to learn how to embrace joy when things aren’t going the way we hoped or expected.

How do we live joyful lives in the midst of the divisions and pain in our world without discounting the suffering that is all too real? One of the more helpful tools I have found to expand my imagination and hold together both joy and sorrow is the practice of improv.

Improv is most often associated with the entertainment industry. But it is so much more than that. It is a practice that expands our ability to imagine and create. With improv we have the entire matrix of the universe from which to draw. With improv, anything is possible. Not even something as constant as gravity is a given. Where else in our lives are we granted the freedom to take our most creative selves out for a test drive?

One basic “rule” of improv is that we use everything. Even our mistakes. Especially our mistakes. The saying goes like this: “There are no mistakes in improv, only unsupported action.” With this reframing of our roles, my congregation is invited to become co-creators of the narrative of our community. When it comes to worship, on our better days we wait attentively for the surprising joy in our missteps, as room is created for an experience of the Holy One in what bubbles up through the cracks in our decently in order services. By embracing this posture to worship, I find myself better able to walk faithfully through the messiness of my own life out in the world, witnessing to the ways in which God’s grace flows in through the cracks of my own brokenness. And joy is more accessible, even in the most challenging of times.

As I consider the church that is being recreated in the shell of the old, I believe that the practice and play of improv has much to teach us. It is messy work, it is often painful, AND it is joyous.

This year, following the NEXT Church Gathering, I will join two of my more creative colleagues/playmates in offering a post-Gathering seminar where we will use some of these themes of improv to help us engage more deeply with the Eastertide gospel readings. I assure you that there will be a good bit of laughter. And if things go as expected, we will all leave better equipped to joyfully participate in the sorrows of life, guided by the Holy Muse that is at all times working within us and through us, drawing together heaven and earth.


LeAnn Hodges is the pastor of Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD and a leadership coach. Her favorite part of her job is hanging out with people, learning their stories, and, if possible, getting in a good belly laugh at least once a day. From those stories, she learns more and more about the depth of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ. In her free time… oh, wait – LeAnn has three sons, ages 13, 7, and 5… but when she used to have free time, she enjoyed gardening, knitting, reading mysteries, and watching sci-fi shows with her husband of 23 years (who happens to be a high school physics teacher).

Hope on a Whole New Level

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

Editor’s note: Folks from the Presbyterian Foundation are leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Forming Generous Disciples.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Rob Bullock

Hope has been hard to find lately. There’s precious little of it in the morning paper. Not much to be found during the drive-time broadcasts on NPR either. My friends on Facebook don’t seem very hopeful, judging by the posts that show up in my Facebook feed. There’s plenty of despair – about politics, world affairs, injustice, poverty, division, violence, and all of the other entries on our endless list of social ills. The stories of hope are much harder to find.

Sadly, the situation is not much better in the denomination. There’s anxiety aplenty – declining membership, departing congregations, shrinking revenues. Budgets are stressed. Pastors are stressed. A third of our churches don’t even have pastors to be stressed. Even the prayer times at my church on Sunday morning contain far more petitions and pleas for help than reports of hopeful praise.

advent, ornament, starAnd in the midst of all this stress and anxiety and despair, we come hurtling headlong into Advent. Oh yeah. Advent. That season of … HOPE. And PEACE. And JOY. All the bright and shiny feelings, warming our hearts and souls like the bright and shiny ornaments adorning our homes.

Everything changes in Advent: colors everywhere change from oranges and browns to reds and greens. The Halloween decorations are (finally) replaced with Christmas trees. The music on the radio changes. The cups at Starbucks change. The hymns we sing in church come from a different section of the hymnal.

And perhaps with all of these outward changes, we may start to sense some glimmers of hope. Hope that the presents we buy go over well. Hope that the presents we get are things we actually want or need. Hope that the charitable contributions we make will have real impact in people’s lives. Hope that the 40% of annual giving we know comes in every December will indeed come in again this December.

But is any of this really the right kind of hope? is this what Paul meant when he wrote in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans that,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I think that’s hope on a whole new level. Real hope. Enduring, sustainable hope. And, perhaps, hard-earned hope. It helps me to think backwards through Paul’s logical progression. Hope comes from character, which comes from endurance, which comes from sufferings.

So maybe God has a plan for us in our current anxieties. Maybe these are sufferings that can lead us to that hope in God and in God’s Word which Ruth and Esther and Job and David and Solomon and Jeremiah and Luke and Paul and all the other Biblical characters keep talking about.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of hope I’d like to have. That’s hope that will overcome anything on Facebook, or NPR, or in the morning paper, or the afternoon Presbyterian News Service email. That’s hope to get us through tight budget cycles and too many empty seats in the pews. (That’s the kind of hope my Presbyterian Foundation colleagues will be talking about in Baltimore at the NEXT Church National Gathering, sharing stories of real churches that are finding hopeful ways to overcome financial challenges.)

The “next” church should be a hopeful church. And Advent is a perfect time to start living that hope-filled life. We may be surrounded by sufferings, but we must not despair. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 43:5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”


Rob Bullock is Vice President for Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. He is a ruling elder and hopeful member of the St. John Presbyterian Church in New Albany, Indiana.

Waiting with the Widow

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

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

by McKenna Lewellen

In Mark 13, Jesus bellows, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

It is trembling, quaking writing. It is a message of hope – but our ability to hear it that way depends largely on a character who lives at the edge of this Advent lection, one chapter before.

Jesus shouts his apocalyptic declaration from the top of the Mount of Olives, just across from the Temple, but earlier that day, he had been inside its walls, sitting across from the treasury.

Photo from The Center’s Facebook page

In walked a poor widow. Remember her? She enters the treasury alone and drops her last two coins inside the collection box. It’s an ordinary act – one that had, no doubt, happened before and gone unnoticed. Her coins fall in alongside gifts that dwarf hers. She gives to sustain an institution, though it’s unlikely her pennies would cover the cost of counting the gift itself. Why does she do it? Who knows. Jesus doesn’t ask. He just points to her as it happens, tells the disciples what he sees unfolding, and storms out. As they reach the outer wall, the disciples have all but forgotten her and are marveling at the size of the stones.

So often we think about this woman as the poster child for sacrificial giving. A more honest appraisal might speak of her as the last straw, the one who pushes Jesus to speak with a new kind of force about his vision of a new order. Watching her lose all she has, he knows with deepened anger that the world as it is doesn’t work for the poorest among us. The thought of her haunts him the whole climb up to the top of the Mount of Olives, and he proclaims the sky will fall to the ground and the ground will shake, and it will become unrecognizable. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Without the poor widow, we risk hearing Jesus’ declaration in Mark 13 as just another threat barked out by an angry man. With her, the apocalypse carries hope for life beyond the way it’s always been.

Advent invites us to find hope in apocalypse that makes room for the widow to live.

For too long, mission in many of our churches has tried to momentarily save the poor widow. We have fed her more meals, collected more unwrapped Christmas presents, and tucked more sheets into shelter cots than we can count. But few know her, remember her name, or question why, after decades of these projects, we still live in a world that needs to make her a bed, feed her a meal, and send her away with a shopping bag.

Mission committees have tried to save her from a distance, but she is our best partner and leader as we try to find God at work in the world. She is more likely to be a number in our outreach budget than a member of our community. But she is the one who will see the world turn upside-down and wait breathlessly in hope for a different way to emerge – one where she can live without fear of violence, breathe clean air, access enough healthy food, and rest in safety. She is the one who can show us Advent hope.

On street corners, in church basements, and in neighborhood gardens in Baltimore, I am waiting with the widow, and hearing her cry out. She is telling us what the world can be, shouting her vision, painting it on the side of houses, pointing out promise in empty lots.

And as I stand here, I wonder, do we know the widows among us well enough for apocalypse to sound like hope? Or will we miss it?


McKenna Lewellen is the Program Coordinator at The Center, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore.