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Permission to Dissent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Nathan Rouse

My story is little different than many others, but maybe not that different from yours. It starts in the pews of a church and ends… well, I suppose in the ways that matter most it hasn’t ended, but for this part at least it ends outside those walls in the wilderness. But the wilderness is where life is, where true Goodness and holy light may be discovered. And the place you had always thought to be identity reveals, upon sober reflection and the benefit of hindsight, its own decayed innards.

My story is a story of walking away — no, limping away — from religion and a subsequent stumbling, staggering, into Hope; and maybe these are the wrong verbs. Maybe it’s more of a ‘dying to’ religion or, if I’m being perfectly honest (and really it’s just you and me here so why not be honest) it was more a ‘being crushed by’ religion, a crushing which itself resulted, thankfully, in a subsequent ‘being born into’ Hope. Yes, being crushed and then being born. Those feel right.

See if you can chart this path with me, as odds are good you’ve borne witness to it, if not actually lived it yourself: idealistic young adult of faith hitches his (or her) fortunes to a community he loves and in which he feels loved, welcomed, even known, insofar as we can comprehend known-ness. Even when teaching that runs counter to instinct is posited, the love of the community and the belief in its perceived core integrity rivals the impulse to dissent. Until that one day, that day it all sours, that night it all withers; power abused, ostracism enacted, silence condoned, community lost, faith dimmed.

The place I’d known intimately had abandoned even the artifice of faithfulness to loss and revealed its ugly commitment to power and control and personality-worship.

Thank God for therapy.

Then, of course, in the middle of my own intimate faith doldrums, the presidential election of 2016 happened and the angst and grief I felt at the church locally ballooned and magnified, exponentially scaled up, into a wellspring of angst and grief at the church nationally.

This all sounds poetic, perhaps, but at the root of these experiences, at the heart of this forced questioning over these past 5 years, I keep being led back to a most basic line of thought: if adherence to the traditional forms of church and its mores can still result in catastrophe, then why bother? When pastors and presidents are guilty as hell of heinous wrongdoing; when leaders of faith and of civic life metaphorically and literally abuse those in their care; where, then, are we left to turn?

With unveiled faces and with tear-reddened eyes, I have come to think, to maybe believe that we turn — impossible as it may be — to the Suffering Servant; perhaps, ultimately, into the Suffering Servant. The face we had before the world was made is that of humility, lowliness, meekness. We are taught self-aggrandizement. We are modeled ego-stroking, even (and especially) by those in pulpits. Thus, only in the rubble of our old identities can we finally forsake the security of the puffed-up self; can we finally abandon the rigid language of religion and embrace the untamed and untamable spirit of Christ, adopting the posture of loss as the only example worth emulating. We’ve grown drunk following Christ, letting him do all our dying for us, forgetting that the end-goal of any following is embodying.

God help us, we’re so pathetic at embodying.

Reject the Cross as purely and solely substitution, and embrace the Cross as our own will to loss. Resistance only matters if we know what we’re resisting for, if we comprehend what our resistance has to offer instead. Merely holding back the hordes of corruption and decay is not enough. Resistance is painting a picture with our lives, by the aggregation of all our mutual loss into a redemptive counterforce; the very essence of light in darkness.

We dissent in practical ways, like holding our tongue long enough for our words to transmute our anger into tenderness; like truly attempting to conduct a life of love towards others, all others; like recognizing our own limited perspective and embracing the discomfort that comes in broadening it.

We dissent in our religious life by interrogating our biases; by insisting on accountability for our leaders; by fully and completely rejecting the notion of a national identity as a theological one; by recognizing that our own theology has an adverb; by seeing the true dignity of every life at all stages; by full and unfettered inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and minorities in the life of faith, abandoning the extreme exegetical gymnastics required to keep others from Christ’s great feast; by dignifying the agency of all in our midst, especially our mothers and sisters and daughters.

Once the church I loved had expelled me into the wilderness, I ceased striving against what I’d come to know is true: Christ’s kingdom and its gates are offensively inclusive and insultingly wide, and I would no longer be party to bodies, religious or otherwise, that worked to keep others from the Feast of Plenty, the Great Table of Christ’s Welcome.

Forced exclusion from a church congregation pushed me deeper into the suffering servant’s state, and imbued within me a permission to dissent; from the imperially entwined American church leadership that trades its sisters’ safety for power, its parishioners’ presence for pleasure, others’ children for perceived security, and its witness for an empty electorate.

There do remain good churches doing good work. But Christ’s kingdom isn’t bound by four walls and a steeple, no, it is unwalled and elevated, raised high and visible, it is untamed and untamable in the hands and feet of those embodying His prophetic witness to speak truth to power and to issue forth a Kingdom of goodness, where mercy and justice flow like a river.

The church was never a place, but a people. We fashion this Kingdom where we are so those who don’t know the way Home can more easily recognize it and find themselves amidst it. In the life to come for sure, but the life to come begins with the life at hand.

Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand. So, too, dissent, for the Kingdom is in your hands.


Nathan Rouse is a husband, a father, a pet-owner, and a fool for hope. He can be found on Twitter at @thenathanrouse, and also co-hosts a podcast called The Fear of God, discussing horror movies and faith, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Ministry on the Brink of Death

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Yena Hwang

Each year, the NEXT Church National Gathering creates a time and space for me to think theologically upon relevant topics that keep me engaged, informed, and excited in my ministry. This year’s gathering was no different. This year’s theme helped me to reflect upon these questions: “What is dying? What needs to die? Where/what are the signs of resurrection after the death?” This intentional time allowed me to reflect theologically upon these matters with colleagues in a communal setting, as I continue to respond to God’s call upon my life.

This year’s theme strengthened my faith in the promise of resurrection. The problem is that in order to experience resurrection, you must first experience death. Death is an intricate part of life that most people do not like to talk about, until it is unavoidable. It is scary to think about death, because it is the great unknown. It is sad to think about our loved ones not existing in the way they used to exist, where we can see, hear, touch, and hold them, and spend time with them in meaningful ways. There is no argument; death brings sadness. However, death also brings a new way of being and relating to the world.

There are many deaths we experience along on our way to physical death. These deaths are more subtle and they come so quietly that we do not even realize it until much later. Idealisms die with realisms setting in. Expectations die with sustained disappointments. Dreams and desires die with harsh realities of surviving. Our sense of worth dies when our worth is tethered to the values of the world measured in dollars or skin colors. Whether we realize it or not, we have practiced death and dying in various ways.

What used to be is no longer what it is…

The Church is experiencing these kind of non-physical deaths more obviously than before, it seems. Nothing completely new (remember Ecclesiastes?), but the hyper-connected world we live in makes us more acutely aware of this. The sky is falling! The Church is dying! What are we to do? How are we do respond and react?

The ministry to the people on the brink of death and pastoring to those who are left behind to carry on the burdens of living is an important part of our calling. Any minister would tell you that tending to matters of death – all the various ways that death disrupts people’s lives – is an integral part of our ministry. We know how to show up and be present for those who are dying and grieving; we know how to hold families through their grief and give them the words when they have no words to express their grief and allow the healing process to take place with meaningful rituals of our rich Christian tradition.

So, what we do is just that: we show up. Be present in people’s discomfort as they experience the church existing in a different way, not in the way it used to be. We use ancient words to give their grief meaning. We allow our rituals to guide them. We hold people through their anxieties, grief, and fear of the unknown, and pastor them through their loss of “what once used to be.” We know how to do that. And we remind them of God’s promise for them to consider: resurrection.

What if we were to look at “deaths” as ceasing to exist in the way we once existed, in order to exist in another way that cannot be fathomed? What if we were to look at death as a doorway through which we find ourselves rising into another existence…a doorway to experiencing the resurrection? What if we were to minister to the communities going through death with this theology undergirding all our work? How would that change our attitude, our actions and our messages? It will look different. It still won’t be easy, but I feel more confident that I can show up to do that work. What is dying is the old self – what is rising is the new creation in Christ that will usher in the kingdom of God. May it be so.


Yena Hwang is associate pastor of Christian formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, VA. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in NJ and M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Theological Seminary in KY, and recently completed her training as a life coach. Yena’s passion is around cultivating healthy relationships and creating meaningful experiences that nurture people’s faith and spirituality. As such, she loves to hang out with people around eat good food and make observations about intersections of life. She is married to her best friend and a mother of two teenaged boys, who keep her real and with it!

2018 National Gathering Closing Worship

Call to Worship

One: Spirit that lives among us:
All: We see life here in our testimonies, in our tensions, and in this community.
One: Spirit that walks us through death:
All: We are aware of the deaths we experience, the grief we carry, and the pain we bear.
One: Spirit that burns as we rise:
All: We desire to resurrect, to restore, to reconcile; to rise into your call.
One: Spirit that teaches us as we live again:
All: As we worship together, let us live into the new creation that God calls us to be.

Song: Our Life is in You

Confession

Left: We stand in the desert and are consumed with the death that surrounds us
All: Creator let the new life begin
Right: We trust our own abilities and language to breathe newness into desolation
All: Creator let the new life begin
Center: We are parched and thirsty when speaking your truth
All: Creator let the new life begin

Left: We notice people linking arms in the streets
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Right: We feel communal laments of injustice
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Center: We experience the tension of a kindom that is not yours
All: Creator let the new life break forth

Left: We long for unity over oppressive systems
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Right: We yearn for connections that come with vulnerability
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Center: We crave courage to break through our deserts of fear
All: Creator let the new life blossom

Song: Draw Me Closer

Assurance/Peace

The desert is not dead:
Even the sand and dust of our lives
Give testimony to God’s abounding grace and healing,
Revealed in our living, dying, rising, and new life.

God takes all we have
In the desert times of our lives
And leads us into new vistas,
With vision, songs of joy, wellsprings of water.

And now, we invite you desert-wanderers
To live into this proclamation of grace,
By sharing the peace that Christ shares with us,
Stepping out of your contexts and comfort zones.

As you are able, please move to a new place in this room,
Staying there for the rest of the service,
And sharing the peace of Christ along the way.

Sharing the Peace

The Peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.

Scripture

Voice 1:The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
Voice 2:The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
V1:Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
V2: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”
V1:Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
V2:For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
V1: A highway shall be there,
V2:and it shall be called the Holy Way;
V1:the unclean shall not travel on it,
V2:but it shall be for God’s people;
V1:no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
V2:No lion shall be there,
V1:nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
V2: they shall not be found there,
V1:but the redeemed shall walk there.
ALL: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
V1:and come to Zion with singing;
All: everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
V2: they shall obtain joy and gladness,
All:and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sermon

Song: Everlasting Life

Communion

Invitation to the Table

Come to this table,
You who have walked through the wilderness and dwelt in the deserted places-
Have you been fed?

Come to this table,
You who have seen the first signs of spring and have been longing for the blossom to break forth-
Have you been fed?

Come to Christ’s table.
Rise and bloom in the wilderness.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

May the Creator of the Holy Way be with you.
And also with you.
Do not be afraid, people of God, but lift your hearts to the holy One.
Our hearts will be filled with God’s hope and grace.
Children of God, offer songs of goodness to the One who keeps faith forever.
We offer glad praises to the One who comes with justice.

You carved a holy way
through chaos, Creating God,
rejoicing with Word and Spirit as
The waters of creation
Burst forth to form rivers where there had been only dry land.
Those same waters continue to give us life in all its beauty and biodiversity.
Despite these gracious gifts we continually turned away from you.
Patiently, you sent prophets to us,
who urged us over and again to return.

Holiness is the path you walk, Gracious God,
and, in your mercy, you sent your Child, Jesus,
To bring justice for all people,
To lead us along the path of redemption.
He gives us vision where we cannot see,
Ears to hear what we do not want to hear.
When we are worry, world, and work weary,
he comes to strengthen our feeble knees,
And put to work our weak hands.

Truth be told, there are lots of deserts in our lives,
Places that are dying or already dead.
We know the pain—and so do those around us—
of keeping up the facade;
Spring up in us like blossoms in the desert,
Put us to leaping, give to our voice songs we have not sung in a long time.
Put us back on the holy way that leads to everlasting joy.

Come to us in our silent contemplation
As we prepare our hearts to receive this spiritual food

Silence

Gather your people now,
and lead us along the holy way to the Table
where the Spirit anoints the bread and the cup
and blesses all who have come for this feast.

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer

Closing Song: Summons

2018 National Gathering Tuesday Morning Worship

Jess Cook, John Molina-Moore, and Erin Counihan provided testimonies during Tuesday morning worship at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering. The worship service theme: dying.

Here is the liturgy for the service.

Call to Worship

People of God, we have a story to tell
of life and death,
joy and sorrow
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell
of lives cut short,
of life-times fulfilled
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell of
our cities, farms,
and towns, desperately wondering
how they will begin again
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell
of heartache and brokenness in our bodies
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell.
Surrounded by God’s Great Cloud of Witnesses,
we give testimony to our stories of grief and loss,
as we are sustained by water, songs and prayers.
We are living in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

Let us worship God.

Litany

“We are a resurrection people,” we like to say.
And we say it often.
It is true.
But resurrection doesn’t erase or replace
the real life that happens before, during and after.
The real life that we all know –
the places where we are broken,
where we are grieving,
where we are sad,
where we are angry,
where we are hurting,
where we are anxious,
where we are lonely.
For we are human – fully.
And we each carry around
the experiences of trauma, and loss, and hurt
that are a real part of life.
Those experiences live within us,
and they exist
before, during and after
resurrection.
Yes, we are a resurrection people.
But we are also human –
Fully.
And that means that we know death
just as surely as we know life.
Death is real, it is excruciating, and painful, and it is a part of life.
But God is not afraid of death.
God is big enough to hold us
in our hurt, in our brokenness,
in those places of death where we cannot hold ourselves.
When we find ourselves in those places,
when we cannot imagine
ever feeling joy again,
may we remember
that although God will not erase the pain,
God will hold us, God will stand with us.

Psalm 27 (from Ann Weems)

O God of my heart
it is your name I call
when the stars do not come out.
O God of my soul,
it is to you I turn
when the torrents of terror
drown me.
O God of mercy,
it is for your hand I reach
when I stumble
on the stones of sorrow.
O God of justice,
it is to you I cry
when the landslide of grief
buries me.
I stand beneath the night
where stars used to shine
and remember
gazing mesmerized
at the luminaries of the sky
until I could walk
the ink-blue beach
between their shining.
Then their shining stopped,
for they left the sky,
and you, O God,
left with them.
And I am left
alone
beneath a starless sky
with a starless heart
that barely beats.
Will your stars
never shine again?
Will they never again
speak of your mystery?
Will they never again sing
their songs
to my soul?
Will I never again know
the wonder
of the God
of star and sky?
O God of my heart,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
my upturned face.
Let my eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let my heart bathe
in the stunning light
until my soul sings again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of my heart,
call me by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.

Sung Response (from Psalm 27)

[O God], Will your stars
never shine again?
Will they never again sing
their songs
to my soul?

Unison Prayer

O God of my heart,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
my upturned face.
Let my eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let my heart bathe
in the stunning light
until my soul sings again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of my heart,
call me by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.

Scripture Reading

John 13:1-17

Invitation for Remembrance and Handwashing

As death approached, Jesus commanded his disciples to love.
even as denial and betrayal, rejection and unworthiness
was mixed-up in that love.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.
As death approached, Jesus gave his disciples ways to grieve:
a tender touch, washing with water, telling of a story,
being together in community.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.
As death approached, Jesus gave his disciples a place to be together:
a table, a water basin, a home.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.

Unison Prayer

O God of our hearts,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
our upturned faces.
Let our eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let our hearts bathe
in the stunning light
until our soul sing again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of our hearts,
call us by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.

In Life and in Death We Belong to God: Are there Babysitters in Heaven?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook. Today’s post originally appeared at Ecclesio.com and is republished here with the author’s permission 

By Meg Peery McLaughlin

I got a phone call from a young mom a couple of weeks ago asking me how to talk to her elementary-aged daughter about death. It wasn’t because her child was acutely grieving the loss of a loved one, but rather a curiosity about what happens when someone dies. Honestly and humbly, this mother had patiently answered her daughter’s questions. They talked about how everybody dies. Sometimes it is older people whose bodies stop working. They talked about people who die suddenly from accidents or illnesses. They talked about how, yes, even babies sometimes die. Upon this realization, the little girl wondered aloud if there were babysitters in heaven. For if a baby can die and their mommy or daddy aren’t in heaven yet, then who will take care of them? It was at this point that the mom called me.

As a Pastor of Pastoral Care at a larger congregation, I’ve averaged a funeral every other week for the past six years. I’ve watched children climb around hospitals beds pointing out catheters and IV drips, as parents have explained how bodies weren’t working anymore. I’ve seen young siblings bring balloons to the memorial garden and tell me that their baby brother is with Jesus. I’ve released ashes over the side of the mountain and heard a grandchild ask, almost immediately, “can I go have some hot chocolate now.” This congregation has taught me some important lessons about death.

Talk straight. It’s best to be open with kids when the topic comes up and their questions arise. Be honest and as clear/concrete as possible. Kids don’t need to be shielded from the truth. If they are, their imaginations will fill in details where there are gaps. Avoid clichés: “God takes people” makes it seem like God is like the descending metal claw in a toy machine. “Grandma went to sleep and is now in heaven” makes me never want to put my own head on a pillow. “We go to a better place” makes me wonder what’s so bad about the world I’m living in – the one that everyone said God made. “I promise everything will be okay” sounds reassuring, but I’d rather hear that you promise to love me no matter what happens.

Magical thinking is an intergenerational activity. Joan Didion, after the death of her husband, wrote a great book called The Year of Magical Thinking. Her portrait of grief describes the way that she felt like she could control things with wishful thinking. Didion confessed she really did wonder if her husband would come back if she didn’t give away his shoes (he might come back and need them, afterall). Kids, especially kids six years old and younger, live in that kind of world, too. Young kids can think death is reversible. Kids can think that their thoughts/actions/words were the cause of death, or could bring their loved ones back.

State the obvious. . . again and again and again. Why do you think we come to worship week after week after week to hear gospel words, watch the waters of baptism slosh in the font, experience the table in the middle of room? We all need reminders of what is right and what is real. Kids do too. Tell them: Death is not their fault. It’s not the deceased person’s fault. Love doesn’t go away. You’re glad the person doesn’t hurt anymore. It’s not fair. God’s heart is sad too. When they ask again, answer.

Let kids see your love. Afterall, that’s the same thing as letting them see your grief. Love and grief are intertwined and never do we get rid of/get over/ have closure with either. It’s okay to bring kids with you when you visit the sick. It’s okay to bring kids with you to the funeral. It’s okay to let them bring balloons to the cemetery. It’s okay to let them see you cry. It’s okay to talk about those who are no longer in our reach. There is great danger in turning to your kids to have them be your therapist, but there is great wisdom in letting your kids see your process. Where else will they learn to grieve? To love? To honor father and mother? To be neighbor? To trust that in life and in death we belong to God? A worth while read about engendering faith to our kids can be found at: http://www.breadnotstones.com/2012/05/ten-things-i-want-to-tell-parents.html.

Get comfortable in deep water. Most of what I’m asked about by parents are deep water questions. Will there be babysitters in heaven? Will I recognize my loved one? Who will be married up there—grandmom and granddad or grandmom and stepgranddad? How does all this work? I find immeasurable comfort in the way the Apostle Paul treads water here. In 1 Corinthians 15, in his efforts to talk about the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, he says; “Listen, let me tell you a mystery!” I love that. “Listen Up! I’m about to talk to you about what NONE OF US really actually knows!” Here’s some permission giving here: tell your kids you don’t know the answer, tell your kids about mystery. But also dream about what’s beneath your toes. Imagine together about what heaven would be like—knowing what you do know about love, about God’s desire to bind us into community, about Easter morning and Christmas Eve, about your own experience of faith. Realizing that you’re in the midst of mystery doesn’t need to mean that you fall silent, but rather that you can stand in awe with your kid and practice the holy art of imagination.

bunnyParents ask me about good books to read with their kids about death. There are some good ones. Union Presbyterian Seminary has a blog that reviews Children’s Literature. (http://storypath.wordpress.com — search “death” within the site). But if you want to get to the core about my own theology of death, a go-to for me is Margaret Wise Brown’s A Runaway Bunny. Whether with young kids who can appreciate it immediately, or older kids who may remember it from their early childhood, that book speaks of an inescapable love—an inescapable love that is akin to the inescapable love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. If you read that book alongside Psalm 139: 1-12, you might think Brown was plagiarizing; plagiarizing in the most holy way possible. What better what to say that no matter where we go—in life or in death—we belong to God, like a bunny belongs to his mother? Who needs a babysitter then?
Meg Peery McLaughlin is co-pastor of Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia, along with her husband, Jarrett. At the time this article was written she was associate pastor for pastoral care at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS. Meg and Jarrett have three young girls.