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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.

The Privilege of the Magi

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: J.C. is leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “The Color of Whiteness: Engaging White Privilege In and Through the Church .” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by J.C. Austin

One of my favorite poems that is related to Advent and Christmas is “Journey of the Magi,” by T.S. Eliot; one of my personal Christmas traditions is to read it every year about this time. I’ve always loved how, from the very beginning, Eliot relentlessly strips away the layers of sentimentality and idealization that have accrued to both this particular part of the story and, by extension, to the larger Christmas story and certainly the ways we remember and celebrate it ourselves. In the voice of one of the Magi, Eliot describes how long the journey is, how bad the weather is, how the camels were ornery and sore-footed, how the men who handled them weren’t any better, how the towns they passed through were dirty and hostile. He describes how the Magi dreamt of the privileged life they had left behind to make this journey: “There were times we regretted / the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces / and the silken girls bringing sherbet.” When they finally stagger into Bethlehem and make their way to the inn, their entire experience of the Epiphany of the Christ Child is summed up in one gloriously underwhelming line: “Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”

The Adoration by the Magi – an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The remainder of the poem is one of the Magi reflecting on the meaning of what they saw in the Christ Child. It concludes this way:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
we had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
but had thought they were different; this Birth was
hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
with an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I’ve always read that passage in relatively removed terms: the Magus realizes first that, with the birth of God Incarnate, all other kings, all other purveyors of wisdom, have been effectively cast down from their lofty places. And second, having had his epiphany, he himself no longer fits in where he once thrived; knowing the truth of God taking human form in Jesus Christ in order to save the world, he can’t return to a place that doesn’t (or perhaps just refuses to) know that truth, that clings to its idols and acts like nothing has happened, that simply rings a bell for another silken servant to bring more sherbet. The Magus knows that the days of palaces and sherbet is numbered, and yet still identifies solidly with “the old dispensation,” so that, in the end, he can only hope for the relief of death to deliver him from this limbo of unbelonging.

This year, though, it strikes me that the Magus’ response to the Epiphany of Christ is similar to the way in which most people of privilege respond to the recognition that their privilege will not or even cannot continue: with grief. When one is accustomed to a life of privilege, they inevitably grieve the loss of that privilege in some form or fashion. We are all familiar with the five stages of grief; using that framework, the Magus appears to be somewhere in a dialectic of depression and acceptance.

When it comes to us here in the time of Advent/Christmas 2017, though, the most obvious people of privilege who are in grief are those with white privilege. There are some who, like the Magus, are no longer at ease in the old dispensation, who have accepted the reality and injustice of white privilege and who are working to disrupt and dismantle it. But many, many more white people (both within the church and the larger society) are in other stages of grief: the “All Lives Matter” crowd is rooted firmly in denial; those who “agree with the cause but not the methods” of those protesting racial injustice in our society find themselves in the stage of bargaining; and the white supremacists in Charlottesville and elsewhere are clearly absorbed with the stage of anger.

And then there are those who are trapped in the stage of depression, who have realized that they no longer belong in the old dispensation, but cannot see possibilities for our church or our society beyond discord, division, and even death, just as the Magus concludes. In this season of anticipating and celebrating the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, though, it is my prayer that more and more of us will be able to push beyond depression and death not simply to acceptance, but to confidence that the birth of Christ really is an announcement of “peace among those whom God favors,” which is not white people or any other people of privilege, but rather all those who bear God’s image and follow God’s will. It is a message of life, not death, for all those with ears to hear and the wisdom to see. Losing white privilege is hardly the same thing as losing life; it is gaining life, embracing life, aligning ourselves and our society with the abundant life that Jesus can for all of us, all of us, to have. And that, truly, is an extraordinary gift of Christmas.


J.C. Austin is Designated Pastor/Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Bethlehem, PA. He received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1998. After spending a year as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he was ordained to serve as Associate Pastor for Evangelism and Stewardship at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he helped lead a historic but declining congregation into its first experience of significant growth in vitality, resources, and size in several decades. Following that experience, he went to Auburn Theological Seminary (also in New York City). There, he built a national reputation as an expert on innovative congregational leadership for the 21st century, conceiving and establishing a range of new initiatives to build personal resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, and practical wisdom in pastoral leaders. As a teacher and public theologian, he also developed a particular focus equipping faith leaders to disrupt racial injustice and white privilege in both church and society.

Blending the Old and New

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: MaryAnn 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 MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Some holiday traditions, you’re born into.
Others, you stumble your way towards.
And some, you marry into.

My most steadfast Advent tradition falls in the last category. When Robert and I were dating, I visited his family one Christmas. On Christmas Eve morning, we all gathered in the dining room, with sticky rolls on the table and the stereo tuned to NPR, for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast from Kings College, Cambridge, England.

I was no stranger to choral music, having sung in various ensembles while at Rice University. And for many people, a service of lessons and carols is nothing particularly novel. But I grew up Southern Baptist, and our family had also dabbled in non-denominational services, so the formal simplicity of the service’s liturgy was unfamiliar to me — scripture and song, scripture and song, beginning with Genesis 3 and concluding with John 1, interspersed with music, and capped with a single bidding prayer.

From the first notes of a single chorister singing “Once in Royal David’s City,” I knew I was in for something special. I would later learn that the boys in the choir don’t know ahead of time who will receive the honor of singing that first solo verse, which is heard by millions of people around the world. When the time comes to begin the service, the director lets the congregational chatter subside into a hush, gives the pitch, and points to one child: You.

Years later in seminary I would learn the idea, attributed to Kierkegaard, that the congregation is not the audience of worship, but an active participant; the audience is God. Choosing a chorister on the spur of the moment seems to enflesh this idea that worship is not a performance—not the result of a series of auditions for the “best” voice — but an offering to God.

Now, some twenty-five years later, that boyfriend whose family included me in their Christmas tradition has become my husband, and we have three children of our own. They hang in there pretty well with the broadcast, or at least the first 30-45 minutes, until their attention drifts to books, comics, or other quiet (!) pursuits.

We have continued to celebrate Christmas Eve with Kings College — except when Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, as it is this year. (Our family may still gather around the dining-room table that morning, however — one of the advantages of being a free-range pastor. We’ll see you that night for the candles.)

Like many traditions, the broadcast of the service of lessons and carols is a blend of old and new. The liturgy and choice of readings remain the same, and after more than two decades of tuning in, I am starting to recognize choral pieces that have made multiple appearances. The choir continues to hew to tradition in not allowing female singers, though there is usually at least one female reader of scripture. This traditionalism rankles, of course. But like many things in the church, I make my peace with it for the sake of the deep gifts I receive from it, while still hoping and yearning for change.

Other elements of the listening experience have changed — we now stream the broadcast online, and have been known to text other family members as we listen “together.” It was particularly special to tune in two years ago, when members of Robert’s family were in the congregation in Cambridge, a longtime dream made real.

Many of us who listen each year know the bidding prayer by heart, and feel a special stirring at this line:

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light… that number which no man [sic] can number, with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we forevermore are one.

When I first heard those words, I appreciate the line as poetry. Now, I know countless beloved people who have journeyed to that shore, and I remember and give thanks for all of them. The line takes on new resonance year by year.

The blending of old and new feels like the embodiment of NEXT Church. At our best, NEXT Church seeks to translate an old, old story and timeless truth for a new context and culture. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, stodgy in its own way, has nonetheless stood the test of time for many people. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of its first broadcast. I think about a world still reeling from a global war in 1918, listening for strains of hope in the words from Isaiah and Luke, Genesis and John. The broadcast persisted even during another world war, when the location of the service was omitted for security reasons. It persists still, in a world yearning for the promise of Christ’s incarnation to be real once again.


MaryAnn McKibben is a writer, speaker, ministry/leadership coach, and outgoing member of NEXT Church’s strategy team. She has been listening to Christmas music since the week before Thanksgiving without apology.

When Advent is a Plea

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: Dave is leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “From Text to Sermon: Staying Faithful in a Changed Landscape.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Dave Davis

Advent and Christmas come around every year for the preacher whether you want them to or not! I can’t be the only preacher who finds planning for Advent preaching paralyzing some years. When lectionary preachers get bored with the lectionary, I bet it happens mostly in Advent. When topical preachers struggle to come up with the next series or month of texts for preaching, I bet it happens mostly in Advent. The liturgical themes of the four Sundays of Advent unfold with the familiarity of family tradition. The expected rhythm may tamp down the preacher’s imagination rather than inspire. So the temptation rises to opt for a cantata, a pageant, and lessons and carols, leaving one Sunday in Advent to preach!

candleBut it feels like there is nothing routine about Advent this year. The list of events that contribute to a growing darkness in the soul is all too real. The chaos of the world and the nation stokes a growing sense of wandering in the wilderness. Trying to preserve the peace and unity of the church these days can be like trying to keep a flickering candle lit through a stormy night. For those of us who rise to preach there has to be an urgency to our gospel proclamation of the very promise of God.

Bearing witness to the promise of God as the landscape shifts all around you. That sounds a bit like Advent. For still, a voice cries in the wilderness. And still, a people who walked in darkness have seen great light. And still. A star rises in the east. And still, you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And still, the true light which enlightens everyone, came into the world. And still, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall never overcome it. This year Advent is less of a season and more of a plea.

It is getting harder and harder to preach the gospel, especially in Advent. And it many of our lifetimes, it has never been more important to preach the gospel, especially in Advent. It is the paradox of the preaching office these days; the joy and the challenge, the privilege and the heartache. Maybe the first task for the preacher in an Advent season unlike any other is to experience God’s promise afresh and to pray for the light of life to come smack into all this darkness. Pray that God’s promise of that peaceable kingdom will ever more quickly come. Pray that Isaiah’s promise of a child leading them, and of a shoot that comes forth from the stump of Jesse, and of every valley being lifted up and every mountain made low, and of not hurting or destroying on all of God’s holy mountain, and of God about to do a new thing….that Isaiah’s promise would be fulfilled now. Pray for the Advent light to come.

Advent as a prayer. Advent as a plea. And the preacher crying out, praying for, clinging to the very light of God. Falling, just about helpless, certainly speechless into the promise of God. And then, and only then, daring once again to rise to speak.

Because God has spoken.

Come Lord, Jesus, quickly come.


David A. Davis has served as senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, since 2000. David earned his Ph.D. in homiletics from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he continues to teach as a visiting lecturer. Before arriving in Princeton, he served for fourteen years as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Blackwood, New Jersey. He is the author of two sermon collections, A Kingdom You Can Taste and Lord, Teach Us to Pray, and his recent sermons are published on the Nassau Church Sermon Journal. He tweets occasionally at @revdavedavis.