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Embracing Mara

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In her sermon at the 2019 National Gathering in Seattle, Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown preaches on the subject “Bitter,” referring to the name Naomi claims for herself in the book of Ruth. Attending to the truth told in this sermon might be a practice to consider this Holy Week as an individual practice of devotion, or with a small group.

Dr. Brown calls the church to take time for lament, viewing lament as a gift from God and a way to connect to God. Lament offers “the chance to weep bitterly at the state of the world, the circumstances and challenges that affect us all. Our neglect of lament has somehow changed us and thwarted our spiritual lives.” Dr. Brown challenges our desire to jump over Good Fridays and right to Easter. She contends that resisting the dissonance of lament and holding pain, prevents us from getting to the sacrifice or the liberation.

Take time in lament over the state of the world without trying to find a silver lining or a solution. Be present to the pain.

Naomi and Ruth are two of the first womanist theologians, Dr. Brown argues. When Naomi names herself Mara, she didn’t worry about comforting anyone else, but claimed her own space. She told her own truth. Dr. Brown exhorts the church to call her by her chosen name —

Honor her trauma.
Prioritize her.
Hear the words she is saying in between the words she does say.
Co-conspire with her.
Check our salaries and compare them with hers for equity’s sake.

Dr. Brown says there will be no forward movement if we do not embrace mara.

What is one way you can embrace mara this week, as Dr. Brown suggests?

Dr. Brown believes Ruth came from a womanist society “where she knew that being by yourself in the African context is the same as being dead. If she went back, Naomi would be alone. She knew Mara needed to have somebody to have her back.” Dr. Brown turns to the present day and says we need to learn how to have one another’s backs, to build trust, and to support the most vulnerable among us. The story of Naomi/Mara and Ruth is a story of redemption, but not for them, she says. “It is a story of redemption for the people who did not know how to welcome and listen to them. Solidarily is the order of the day.”

Reflect on the ways in which you turn toward individualism rather than solidarity.

A theme throughout the sermon is that we cannot be church together if we can’t tell the truth. Dr. Brown concludes that sermon by saying, she wants the church to be a place where nobody has to worry about what they have on or whether they have a degree or not or whether they walked up or drove up. She wants a church “that has a pastor that looks like me sometimes.” Her final line is, “I am loving you by telling my truth.”

Reflect on what defense mechanisms you use when someone else’s truth conflicts with your own. How do you overcome those defenses? How do you create the space to hear another’s truth and be changed by it?

Dr. Brown says, “The gift of the black sacred tradition is that you don’t want joy all the time. God will be the one to push you through to the otherside.” May it be so.

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.

Seeing Jesus in the Stranger

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During April, as we continue to process the 2015 National Gathering, Joe Clifford is curating a month of blog posts exploring multiculturalism in the NEXT Church. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Joe Clifford

As we enter the season of Eastertide and consider the ways the risen Christ is working among the church, I am reminded of Luke’s story about the road to Emmaus.  You’ll remember that Cleopas and his companion are making their way home from Jerusalem following the crucifixion when they are met by a stranger on the road who asks them what they’re talking about. “Don’t you know what’s happened?” they respond.  And they proceed to tell the stranger about the crucifixion and the death of their hopes and dreams.  They mention rumors of resurrection, but they’re not buying it.

Like Cleopas and his companion, we talk a lot about the bad news these days, about the death of the church and the decline of Mainline Protestantism.  We know the statistics.  Mark Chaves of Duke Divinity School points out that no indicator of traditional belief and practice is on the rise.   Only 25% of Americans regularly attend worship services, and regularly now means once or twice a month.  In the past 20 years, the number of people saying they adhere to no religion at all– the “nones”–increased from 2 or 3 percent in 1990 to close to 17 percent in 2010, with the number of “nones” increasing most dramatically among young adults, with over 25% of Millennials reporting no church affiliation.  Only 15% of Millennials say that living a “very religious” life is important to them.  Institutional religion as we have known it is dying.  We would likely say to the stranger, “Are you the only person who doesn’t know what’s happening in the Jerusalem that is the institutional church?”

The stranger does not respond with much compassion.  In fact, he calls them “fools.” He proceeds to open the scriptures to them, to show that you can’t have resurrection without death.  In the midst of the decline of the white mainline Protestant church, another part of the body of Christ is rising in powerful ways.  According to an article published back in May 2014 on the Daily Digest of the PCUSA website   “American Christianity still has plenty of Millennials — they’re just not necessarily in white churches.”  Rev. Derwin Gray, pastor of Transformation Church, a multiethnic congregation in South Carolina reports,  “What I see among Millennials are African Americans and Asian Americans and Latinos who are vibrantly growing in faith and leading the future of what the church will become.”  According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute he’s absolutely right.  The majority of younger Christians in this country are people of color.  White Christians only make up 26% of Americans age 18-29.  Only 12% are white mainline Protestants.  On the other hand 28% of that age group are Christians who are people of color.   This is part of a huge shift underway in American Christianity. For Americans over 65 years old, about 70% of their generation are white Christians.  For my generation, it’s 54%.  For my children’s generation, it’s less than 25%.

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Rev. Gray believes the future will belong to churches that are multicultural, not because it is politically correct, but “because that’s what God wants.” He cites Revelation 7:9 “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”  He concludes, “The reason that we should have multiethnic churches is not that the demographics of America [are] changing — but because it is at the heart of the gospel.”

The rise of multicultural Christianity is connected to the expansion of Pentecostal churches.  The Pentecostal movement is often traced to the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles.  Today it is estimated that by 2025, over 40% of the global Christian community will be Pentecostal.  That’s a shift the likes of the Protestant reformation.

Back on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion invite the stranger into their home.  There the guest becomes the host, taking the bread, blessing it and breaking it, and their eyes are opened to see the risen Christ. This month we invite into the NEXT Blog, Joel and Rachel Triska from Life in Deep Ellum.  They are ordained ministers in the Assembly of God Church running a fascinating ministry in urban Dallas. We also hear from Rev. Shane Webb and Pastor Antonio Pichardo who are partnering in rural Texas on new worshipping communities.


Joe CliffordJoe Clifford serves as Pastor, Head of Staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.  In 2006 he came to Dallas from the Alpharetta Presbyterian Church in the Atlanta area.  Joe is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and has his Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from McCormick Theological Seminary.