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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.

What Do We Say?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jessica Tate

In the wake of the hyper partisanship of the 2016 presidential election, I began hearing from pastors across the country who were wondering, “What do I say on Sunday?” Some were crafting liturgy for congregations of young adults who felt despondent and afraid after the election. Others were writing sermons to congregations of supporters of the then president-elect, pleased with the results. Still others knew that sitting in their pews on Sunday would be a “purple church” – Democrats next to Republicans next to Independents, and that party affiliation didn’t necessarily correlate to one’s vote. Everyone I talked to was wrestling with their own reaction to the political moment alongside the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel.

What do I say on Sunday?

It is always the church’s job to proclaim the hope of our faith. To tell and retell the story of God – our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. It is also the church’s job to interpret the cultural moment and the human condition in light of our Reformed theological understandings. The Sarasota Statement is an attempt at proclamation and theological wrestling for this particular moment. At the same time, we know that every statement we make about God and ourselves is limited, and not without error. This statement is an attempt to take seriously the theological claims on which we say we stake our lives with the humility to recognize and confess the ways we continuously fail to live out those beliefs. It is also an invitation and commitment to live differently going forward.

The writers of the Sarasota Statement began their work with the recognition that they are but “a small and imperfect reflection of the church.” They would not – and could not – presume to write a confession of faith for all people for all times and all places. Nor could they assume the mantle of writing on behalf of the church, as is usually the process by which Presbyterians develop confessional statements. Rather, this group gathered because it seemed an important and difficult moment for leaders around our church to name the convictions of our faith alongside the disconnection and division in this country. What do we say?

The Sarasota Statement also began from the premise that any word for this particular moment must be a word that can be said by multiple voices. This is not to suggest that this particular statement contains exactly the right words in exactly the right way and that every person agrees with everything that it says. Rather, the Sarasota Statement is an attempt to stand under the judgment of our theological convictions – taking a posture of humility in recognition of our own blindness, stubbornness, willfulness, and idolatry. We hope this posture invites more voices into conversation and reflection, rather than furthering well-worn lines of division.

Further, we pray this statement can be useful in the practice of faith – in worship services, in small groups, in personal reflection – in the ways people actually engage in faith formation. We hope it provokes conversation and deepening thought. We hope it invites others to do their own theological reflection, their own wrestling with the human condition in this particular moment in time.

Ultimately, this group of writers doesn’t have the right words. We have a word, an offering, and we pray that it will be a blessing. More importantly, we hope it will be a catalyst that provokes you to ask, “What do I say?” If there are places of disconnect, how would you say it differently? If there are places of discomfort, why? If there is something you long to see here that is not, what is that? How can you say it? If there are pieces of the statement that resonate deeply with you, what longing do they meet? What truth do they express?

We hope you will wrestle with this statement and invite others to join you in the wrestling. And we pray that wrestling will invite you to generous listening, risky truth-telling, and ever-deepening faithfulness to a Savior who continually invites us to be undone and remade.

What will you say?


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church. She lives in Washington, DC.