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Re-post: Holy Ground

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on December 3, 2012. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

By Esta Jarrett

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 2:3-5 (NRSV)

Recently, a stand-up routine by the comedian Tig Notaro made the rounds of “you have to listen to this” lists on the Internet. Last summer, Notaro nearly died from a rare combination of medical problems. About a week later, her mom died in a tragic accident. Not long after that, Notaro went through an awful breakup. Then, right after that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts. At the time of the recording, after time counted in hours, not weeks, she found herself onstage at the Largo Comedy Club, in front of an audience anticipating a stand-up routine.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. Instead of telling her usual witticisms, in which bees taking the expressway figure prominently, she told the truth. “Hello, good evening,” she said. “I have cancer . . . just found out. Good evening.”

During her set, Notaro led the audience through a masterpiece of comedy and an anthropological study of grief. I’ve never heard anything like it. The audience struggled to know how to react. There were moans of sympathy and distress from some, uncertain laughter from others, and hushing noises from the rest.

By the end of the set, the crowd was eating out of Notaro’s hand. They would have done anything she told them to do. It was as if the audience realized the enormity of the gift they had been given: the fit of Notaro’s own self . . . her refusal to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Had Notaro just performed her usual set, it would have felt like a crime of inauthenticity, posturing instead of art. Toward the end of the performance, at the urging of the audience, she did tell her standard “bee taking the expressway” joke. Because of everything that was not said, the joke assumed an almost debilitating poignancy. The audience, who had witnessed the depth of her pain and beauty, could no longer be satisfied with pro-forma jokes. As they all confronted the reality of death, and found the grace to laugh, the Largo was transformed; the comedy club became holy ground.

When the church is at its best, it resembles that night at the Largo. People need a place to give voice to truth, before God and everybody, and know that they are held in safety and love. Whether in or out of a church building, we need a community where healing and reconciliation mean more than appearances and convention, even if it goes off script . . . and especially if it challenges our expectations of what we paid to see.

A few years ago, while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I visited a certain patient in the hospital. She had breast cancer, and her body was rejecting the cosmetic implants that she wanted to conceal her double mastectomy. She was bald, gaunt, red-eyed, and wild in her grief. She needed to talk to someone about how mad she was . . . at her body, at the cancer, and at God.

In my memory, there was no noise in the hospital except her voice, no light but that illuminating her bed. For forty-five minutes she raged, wept, and confessed everything on her heart to this inexperienced seminary grad.

When her storm had passed, we gripped hands, hard, and prayed together. It was hard to know when we stopped talking and started praying. The feeling of God’s presence throughout our conversation was so strong, you could almost feel its warmth emanating as from fire. As we prayed, we laughed, and cussed, and cried some more. After we said “Amen,” the patient’s face was serene, and I was changed forever. That hospital room became holy ground.

Every church I know has unspoken rules about acceptable behavior, whether in or out of worship. Most of the time, enforcement of these rules is self-policing: if people aren’t feeling presentable, they stay home, rather than burdening others with their troubles. They don’t want to cry, and risk embarrassing themselves. They feel too raw from the sharp edges of their lives to be able to put on a polite face.

But when wounded people feel safe enough to speak their truth, to say when they’re mad or confused or scared, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work miracles in church. Healing begins when a friend hugs your shoulders as you cry during the hymn. Sympathy and help are found as you discuss problems after worship. Even the simple act of being in a crowd of people who are praying and worshiping God can bring about change when change seems impossible. It is precisely in those moments when our lives are messy and unpresentable need that we need church the most.

We talk a lot about our brokenness when we confess our sins on Sunday. But theologically abstract brokenness looks very different from everyday brokenness, the kind of brokenness that makes you feel that you’re not good enough. In the church I want us to be, everyday brokenness becomes a blessing. When we bring our cracked and chipped lives to the font, to the table, to the people, to the Lord, we find ourselves on holy ground.

My prayer is that our awareness of God’s presence will grow and sharpen, becoming as keen as any other sense, so that we might walk barefoot everywhere we go. In comedy clubs, in hospital rooms, and yes, in church, may we say what needs to be said, in the deep and challenging love of God. May the church be a place that people seek out for such healing and transformation, instead of feeling they must stay away until they are presentable. May we all find ourselves on holy ground.


esta jarrettEsta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

Image: jayzee/shutterstock.com

Confession through a Queer Lens

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the confessional sequence. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Max Hill

As a queer person, I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with authenticity.
Not all spaces are safe for full honesty about my identity.

Time home with certain family members just causes stress.

As does living in a seminary community among students with a diversity of theological beliefs about my body, my expression, and those I love.

And so does walking into an unfamiliar worshipping community and not knowing if such a space is one that I can relax in or

if my walls of anxiety are a warning that this isn’t a place where I can be all of who God created me to be.

Photo from Maryland Presbyterian Church Facebook page

So I negotiate.

Not always consciously, but it always happens.

I ask questions about what I need to wear and how I need to perform that day.

Should I paint my nails? Put on makeup?

Those little things that help me to feel like myself – or

is it better to do what’s safer

To wear my boy clothes? To keep my nails and face bare?

And if I do that, do I need to hide the rainbow tattoo on my arm?

This negotiation can be exhausting and draw me away from worship.

So maybe a more meaningful worship is happening amongst those where I don’t have to hide –

my queer family.

I’m lucky to have a queer family of faith.
People that I can go to and it doesn’t occur to me to negotiate outward expression or and put up an internal wall of protection.
People with whom I can just put on “Thank U, Next” by Ariana Grande and vogue the night away.

The drag queens, butch queens, femme boys, trans persons, and those of nonbinary identity and expression in our churches all negotiate themselves almost to the point of extinction. Not all of us have the strength or opportunity to live authentically in our places of worship.

But what is worship when we hide?

What is confession when we are not giving all of ourselves – when we are not SO honest and authentic that we can feel it in our bones?

The authenticity of queer identity and expression is not the act of confession – because it’s an authenticity that doesn’t hinge on our imperfections.

Queer identity and expression is not an imperfection.

But it’s something our confession can learn from.

In confession we get honest – or we’re supposed to….

We speak together of our failures and admit our faults.
Those of queer identity and nonnormative gender expression know what it means to not always love ourselves. We know how easy it can be to internalize the isolation of not seeing ourselves in the world (or in the pulpit).

Those lucky enough to have the strength and resilience to thrive know what it means to unpack the shame placed on us, to take the harm we inflict on ourselves and lay it down.

And what more is confession than radical authenticity? To be authentic is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to trust and hope for grace.

Confessional vulnerability is exactly what our worship needs. We need to break our liturgy open and examine ourselves.

Because when we do, we can truly experience the grace that Christ shows us.
The grace to dance.

To laugh.

To live.

To be.

Negotiation forces us to examine ourselves deeply.

Examination allows us to know ourselves intimately.

This way, we can harness the strength to accept Christ’s love and grace.

Our confession can learn more about how to know yourself intimately from queer, trans, and nonbinary persons.

We know how to proclaim as Brooke and Carmen Xtravaganza do in Paris is Burning, singing, “I am what I am, I am my own special creation!”

And we know how to show grace to those that can’t see our authenticity as beautiful.

Thanks be to God.


Max Hill is passionate about relationships, community building, and the intersection of faith and identity. He has recently served as the Student Minister for Contextual Exploration, Community Engagement, and LGBTQ Belonging at Maryland Presbyterian Church outside of Baltimore. He has also served as a Student Pastor for LGBTQ Fellowship at Broad Street Ministry and Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. Before that, Max was a grant writer and New Worshiping Community founder/facilitator with United Campus Ministry at the University of Arkansas. Max is in his senior year at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Pastors and Social Media

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. For January and February, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a month of reflections on technology, faith, and church. Join the conversation here or on Facebook. This post is based on one originally posted on Columbia Connections on January 22nd, 2015. 

By Adam Walker Cleaveland

For as many years as I have been writing or talking about social media and the church, I have been pretty adamant that pastors should only have one Facebook account. See, I wrote about it here.

There were many reasons why I took a pretty hardline approach to this. For one thing, I know myself and I know I would forget which account I was signed into – and post the wrong thing to the wrong group of people.

But it was more than that. I believe in authenticity and transparency when it comes to being a pastor in the 21st century. And yes, I’ve sat through those pastoral care classes in seminary and know about power dynamics between clergy and laity. Yes. And I remember cringing in those classes when a few students would start ranting about how pastors can’t be friends with their parishioners…and I think it only gets more challenging now with social media.

social media

 

I have always tried to be pretty much the same Adam on Facebook and on my blog, as I am in Session meetings and in the pulpit. I believe that authenticity and transparency are important for ministry in the 21st century church.

And sometimes that makes things challenging. When I started my blog, Pomomusings, in 2003, it became a place for me to think, out loud, to try on different theological positions and to rock the boat a bit.

Now, there are some people who enjoy having their boat rocked. And there are certainly others who don’t. I’m sure there were times when some folks had issues with some of my views, or my language, or my way of sharing something online. And sometimes, those folks were members of the churches I served. And generally, we were able to have some really good conversations because of those interactions.

Based on these previous experiences, I just assumed that authenticity and transparency were values that most churches viewed as important as well. Unfortunately, because of too many things to get into in a short blog post, that hasn’t worked out all that well in my current call.

There were questions about the types of articles I was sharing. Were they “balanced enough” and “fair”? Was it really okay for a pastor to share things that imply what their politics might be on certain issues? When is it okay to post articles and links about controversial issues, and when is it not okay?

Knowing that this was causing some serious angst in my parishioners, it caused me to rethink how I’ve viewed social media and pastoral leadership.

How well should a congregation know its pastor? Can social media be a space where pastors can share their political views, and share things that are important to them, in the virtual presence of parishioners? How does all of this translate itself to the question of how pastoral or prophetic a pastor is in the pulpit?

For me, the solution was found in tweaking Facebook privacy settings and Friend Lists and being much more intentional about choosing who (from my church) saw what status updates, tweets and photos. I also think this experience has helped me to see something that is totally obvious: what works in one congregation doesn’t necessarily work in another.

It’s better for my ministry to share less on social media with members of this church. That doesn’t mean that I’m having to “silence” myself. I can continue to share online as I had been, but I just “filter” who sees what – and that gives me flexibility and space I need. I can still have meaningful conversations in person about some of these hot button issues; it just works better to keep those offline with this community.

While I have somewhat changed my thinking on the topic, I still encourage pastors to have one Facebook account and to be as transparent and authentic as they can. But I have a greater understanding why some feel the need to have two accounts.


 

10251921_10152736900070498_1386465092307869785_nAdam Walker Cleaveland is the Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church, Winnetka, Illinois, and has been blogging at Pomomusings since August 2003. He lives in Chicago’s North Shore with his wife Sarah (also a pastor), their son Caleb, and a lab-pit named Sadie.

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.