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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

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.

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.