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Sustenance to Bloom

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 Eliana Maxim

In a busy season of ministry, the opportunity to attend the NEXT Church National Gathering popped up on my calendar quite unexpectedly. I remembered the enthusiasm with which I had registered back in early winter, but now with to-do lists multiplying magically, I wasn’t sure I would find the time or “head space” to engage.

I am so glad I did.

The theme of “The Desert in Bloom” appropriately described what many of the pastoral leaders with whom I work have been experiencing. The realities of ministry can certainly make one feel as if you are in extended wilderness time. And that you are doing it alone.

In order to bloom in said desert would require sustenance, at least for this pastor. A desert in bloom means hope above all else.

My first interaction in Baltimore was attending the Sunday evening People of Color get-together. This group met again at the conclusion of the gathering. And in both of those meetings, I found the space where we could speak frankly about the ways the church has moved towards greater inclusion and equity, and how much further is has to go.

I was challenged by Rev. Jonathan Walton’s keynote talk on pastors being suspicious of praise and the church’s complacent comfort in a safe Jesus. “Maybe it’s easier for us to worship a supernatural savior than to accept the challenge of a moral prophet.” And I took comfort in Rev. John Schmidt’s vulnerability as he shared his wilderness testimony as a Biblically conservative pastor guiding his congregation to stay in the PCUSA and remain engaged missionally where God is calling them, which includes ministry to people living with HIV/AIDS.

I was nurtured by impromptu coffees, lunches or happy hours with old friends and people yet to become friends that provided informal opportunities to check in, celebrate, grieve, and dream together, regardless of where we came from or what our ministry contexts might be.

At a time when many are wandering the desert, wringing their hands in despair over the church we are no longer, the NEXT Church National Gathering provided space and energy to rejoice at the new things God is doing. We acknowledge the demise of what we were, but rejoice at what is yet to be. Is it scary? Anxiety producing? Of course! But we navigate this new terrain together and most importantly with the assurance of God’s presence among us and God’s sovereignty.

As a member of the Way Forward Commission, a body created by the 222nd General Assembly to review and make recommendations on the structure of the denomination for this next season of ministry, I have intentionally sought out the blooms of the church we can be. I caught glimpses of it at the National Gathering.

And as a member of the Seattle Presbytery, I am beyond excited to know NEXT Church will be coming to our neck of the woods in 2019. I look forward to the inspiration and continued sustenance I am confident will be offered. And I look forward to seeing you there! Praise be to God!


Eliana Maxim is the Associate Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Seattle. Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, Eliana also serve as the vice-moderator of the PCUSA’s National Hispanic/Latinx Caucus. You can usually find Eliana hanging with her husband Alex, daughters Sacha and Gabi, and spoiled-rotten Boxer Lola the Dog.

The Desert is in Bloom

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 Jeff Bryan

I feel like an apology is in order. Here I am, curating the NEXT Church blog, writing the opening and closing pieces, and I didn’t even attend the 2018 National Gathering. I have a good excuse. We had a serious medical emergency in the family. Don’t worry. It’s been a long haul, but everyone is okay. I have a good excuse for my absence; I also have a silver lining. The family emergency gave me the opportunity to listen and watch the National Gathering events online, look at pictures, and read these blog posts with a different perspective. Things look different from far away. Plus, I got to see them from the resurrection side of Easter.

desert bloom hand wash handsThe desert is in bloom. There is life on the other side of death. Resurrection is real. I saw it in my family, as we kept vigil in the hospital for a week, prayed, and witnessed a full recovery. I saw it in the loving hands of church members, bringing countless casseroles and pound cakes to the house. I was surprised to see it in relationships: “You and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but you really came through for me. Thank you, brother. I love you.” I heard it in the voices of children, shouting “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday. On Good Friday, I heard resurrection in the clarinet of a 91-year old man—

the band director from the old, segregated, black high school,
marching into the all-white cemetery,
past the statue of a Civil War soldier
and the rusty C.S.A. markers,
in an integrated band,
the jazz cats giving the old man respect…
“Yeah, man, play!”
“He’s 91 and the best musician in town!”
“It’s an honor to march with you, sir.”
with an integrated crowd,
arm in arm, singing,
“Just a closer walk with thee!”
too many layers of meaning to count,
that ancient clarinet wailing front and center,
with hope as strong today as 1950

—and I’ll never be the same again. I saw it on the smiling faces on Easter morning, children screaming “Risen indeed!” I’ve seen resurrection in congregations, our denomination, and the NEXT Church National Gathering, asking the hard question, “What is God calling us to do, be, or change?” And I read it in the voices of these blog contributors. Their excitement for the future is palpable, and their hope is contagious. Make no mistake. We bear witness to the resurrection of Christ, we proclaim the victory of God’s grace, and the Reign of Heaven is gaining ground.

Readers, I invite you to pay close attention to these blog posts. They are us, they are the future, and they are fantastic. Enjoy!


Jeff Bryan is senior pastor of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jeff has also served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and suburban Philadelphia. He enjoys spending time with family, and has an embarrassingly large music collection.

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

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.