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Pilgrimage is Facing Fear

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Churchfrom May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebookand Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Frank Spencer

As I approached the checkpoint for the first time, I could feel my anxiety rising. The uniformed guard said, “Passport.” Not as a question, not as an invitation, but rather as a requirement for me to pass unharmed. It is hard to tamp down the fear as one approaches an armed representative of a government which is not one’s own, in a place where all the rules are not transparent nor equally enforced. As I moved beyond the checkpoint, I could feel my anxiety ebb. The moment of fear had given way to encounters with new acquaintances that would prove full of good will. I would pass through Checkpoint Charlie between East and West Berlin five more times before the wall fell in 1989.

Photo: Greg Klimovitz

The wall that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem and surrounding areas looks strikingly like that earlier wall that had so terrified me. It is twenty-five feet of vertical concrete topped with razor wire. Every so often, a watchtower looms with armed guards protected from view, but not from seeing. On the Bethlehem side are intricate, amusing, and sometimes profane graffiti paintings. The west side of the Berlin Wall was likewise adorned.

The Israeli checkpoints have the same feel as their Cold War antecedents: young military guards with automatic weapons. As you approach, you hope they are busy or bored and not feeling aggressive or confrontational. The latter is always a risk as research shows that simply the presence of weapons significantly increases aggressive cognition, hostile appraisals, and aggressive behavior.[i]

The Israeli settlements in the West Bank also have checkpoints. They were not as I had pictured them. Somehow my mind had constructed an image of single story homes on small lots with communal agricultural space. Perhaps I had melded the idea of kibbutz and settlement. In contrast to that bucolic misrepresentation, they are extremely dense, urban populations up to 60,000 people with schools, businesses, and public spaces. They can function as suburbs with commuters driving to work in larger cities. Like Bethlehem, they have fortified perimeters made mostly of fencing with barbed wire. Any entry requires scrutiny at the military checkpoints. Unlike Bethlehem, they are not trying to keep the population in, but to keep a perceived threat out.

The common element on both sides of these barriers is fear.

In Jaffa, the seaside suburb of Tel Aviv, there exists a striking contrast to the West Bank. We American Christians strolled the promenade with a mass of humanity that clearly included Arab Muslims; Arab Christians; and Liberal, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. No one seemed threatened or fearful. A wedding reception was beginning in one of the local establishments. Couples strolled the beach in the fading light. There were no checkpoints to navigate, no fences to separate, and no weapons to brandish.
Israel/Palestine is a complicated place with profound geo-political implications. After having spent only a week meeting people and encountering many contrasting ideas and perspectives, I would not presume to offer any solution to the current political problem. But it is a political problem. Leaders on each side demonize the other and ascribe the worst intent, often inciting violence from their constituents.

What I can say is this, walls and fences guarded by armed soldiers have never created peace. At times, it may create the illusion of security for one side, but that security is a falsehood. Walls and fences cannot keep out resentment of those on the side of less power any more than they can keep in the fears of the ones supposedly protected. The narratives about the enemy on the other side of the barrier grow and are expanded with each generation that lives unnaturally divided.

Perhaps what Christianity has to offer to the peace process is this: we believe in a God whose reconciling action with humankind was to accept complete vulnerability and “move into the neighborhood.”[ii]

When people build relationships through personal engagement, hate and fear tend to dissipate. Our commonality as children of God is more profound than our superficial differences. Engaging the faces of our fear is perhaps the only way to face that fear.

[i] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1088868317725419
[ii]Eugene Peterson, The Message.


Rev. Frank Spencer is the President of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has served as an elder and deacon and taught Sunday school to adults and children. He was Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Montreat Conference Center and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. His home church is Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, where he was ordained by the Presbytery of Charlotte. You can learn more about Frank on the Board of Pensions website.

Pilgrimage is Shared Grief

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Churchfrom May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebookand Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Whitney Fauntleroy

It is amazing how often we forget to remember. A perfect example is how I forgot to remember to write this blog post until I got a text message from one of my fellow pilgrims. Our scriptures are constantly reminding us to remember, from commandments to the Sabbath to the women who come to anoint Jesus’ body and are told to remember how Jesus told them of his resurrection. That impulse to forget when we should remember is what brought me to the Holy Land Pilgrimage.

In a land so rich in the history of faith, I was struck by the amount of forgetting. For those of us who come to this land rich with the stories that shape us and mold us, sometimes there are so many sites to see that you can forget which one was which. In an era of instant photos and posts, what would it be like to remember this story and the suffering and oppression that is in the rocky soil we traverse? Pilgrimage is in remembering the shared grief and in the solidarity that binds us and them, wherever us and them may be.

A local Palestinian carrying his pack on a donkey as their use of motor vehicles is limited on Israeli roads. (Greg Klimovitz)

We heard from two advocates who spoke of the treatment of young Palestinians who are held in detention centers. The descriptions were cringe-worthy. I saw my fellow pilgrims’ shoulders sink and faces contort at the systemic ways fear and violence plagues communities and the trauma was felt from mother to child over generations. During the portion of their talk reserved for questions and answers, there was a time to hold space for how similar the narrative of the treatment of Palestinians was to the plight of brown and blaock bodies on these shores and in these, as Frederick Douglas wrote, “yet to be United States.”

In Galatians, we are called to carry each other’s burdens and, in doing so, we fulfill the law of Christ. We are called to remember that the grief brought upon our Palestinian kinfolk, our Jewish kinfolk, our Latinx and African American kinfolk, through historic and present systems of division, oppression, and othering is all our grief. Shared grief, empathy, honoring, and holding spaces for those who suffer is not specific to which side of the borders and checkpoints one resides in the Holy Land, but extends to places all over the world.

The beauty of the Gospel and pilgrimage being an experience of shared grief is we are not called to stay in the lament but to work towards a flourishing of humanity, in which mourning turns to dancing, and sack clothes and ashes are traded in for garments of gladness. The flourishing of humanity, the reversal of grief and suffering comes not only through fervently praying for dividing walls to be crushed, but also through stubbornly proclaiming to the oppressed, “I see you” and “I see myself in you.” This sort of flourishing demands that we tell the stories we heard in the Holy Land and do not shy away from telling stories even in spaces and places where it seems like ears have been closed and hearts have been hardened.


Rev. Whitney Fauntleroy serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, VA. She has been involved in NEXT Church off and on since she was a seminary student.

Passing the Peace: A Daily Practice

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 passing of the peace. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Heidi Thompson

What does it mean to pass the peace?

What I know is that during Sunday worship, when it is time to pass the peace, I stand and greet those around me with a handshake, a smile, and a phrase that includes “peace.” When my heart is full, this is easy and a real joy to reach out to others with the peace and the love of God. On a day when I am not so full, or I am in a church I have never attended or surrounded by people I do not know, I may hesitate and hope others reach out to me, and feel disappointed if they don’t. I try to remember this when I see others hesitate.

When we pass the peace in worship, we don’t reach out only to those we know or feel comfortable with. We pass the peace to anyone seated near us. Many of us look for those we don’t know, and pass the peace that we may get to know them, and allow them to feel welcomed and connected to our congregation. What if, rather than seeing this as a part of worship on Sunday, we could see passing the peace as how we are in the world?

For me there are two levels for looking at this “simple” worship practice. One level is what actually happens when we reach out to another with a handshake and a smile and the word “peace.” We are making a connection with another; we are weaving the cloth of the church community. There is no greater human need than that of connection and belonging. When we make that effort, when we connect with another, we are doing our sacred work.

The deeper level is what is in our hearts that we communicate in our handshake, our smile, and our words. Are we really passing the peace of Christ?

I am saddened by the divide that is growing in our communities and nation, when I see fear and anger being used to keep us separate and to cast aside so many as having no value. It takes the threads of all of us to address the needs of today’s world. It takes differing viewpoints and an understanding of those we may not agree with. The 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering theme description reminds us that, “Our call is to recognize the value of each thread in all its complexity, each thread’s necessity to God’s design.” And yet, when divisions are deep how do we weave together with those we can barely tolerate?

For me, peace is the key. Jesus taught, “Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

I believe that peace is the opposite of fear. And I see fear as the basis of all that is being used to divide and limit us in today’s world. It is the fear we are different and separate and not good enough; and it is the fear that nothing is certain and we will not be okay. I contrast this with what I know of God’s love: that we are more than good enough, for we are the fully loved children of God, and that our needs are, and always will be, met by One who is capable of more than we can imagine. We are not separate; we are one with God, and vitally connected to one another. We know God’s divine peace.

What if everywhere we went, we went with an attitude of passing the peace. If everyone we found ourselves with, whether we knew them or not, whether we felt comfortable with them or not, we would pass the peace in whatever way seemed appropriate – with an extended hand or a hug or a smile, with either spoken or unspoken words, passing on the divine Spirit of peace and love. What if every time we took an extended hand, we in our hearts passed the peace, with love and non-judgment, allowing someone to feel welcome, if only for a moment, in a world that is angry, afraid and divided? Emotions are contagious. Just as fear can spread, so can love and peace.

Is it possible to make passing the peace our way of being in the world? It will take being grounded in our belief in God’s love for us and caring for us, so that we do not fear. And in that place, we will be peace, and our daily practice will be passing the peace and the love of God to all we meet. And this is how we will weave together differing viewpoints and build bridges across the divides.


Heidi Thompson is an elder who worships at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian and Second Presbyterian in Baltimore, MD. For over 30 years Heidi has been a computer software consultant and adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University teaching financial modeling. She writes and teaches about the gifts of fear and the dark emotions, and other things that make us uncomfortable.

Treating Fear: Immunotherapy for Sessions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katherine Kussmaul

I am not an allergist. I am not a shot-room nurse. I am an immunotherapy patient.

I am allergic to many things: dogs, cats, dust mites, molds, and a whole slew of grasses, trees, and pollens. I receive three injections per week: injections of the very things to which I am allergic. The hope is that, over time and with steady increases in the amount and concentration of serum, my immune system will adjust in a way that reduces the allergic response. I will still be allergic, but my allergies will not compromise my life and actions to the same degree.

So how does immunotherapy relate to governing bodies, particularly sessions?

When I think about the sessions with whom I have served and consulted, I see two shared traits: sessions, congregations and pastors are allergic to fear. Addressing this fear with principles from immunotherapy is effective in “treating” this allergy.

Fear, like my allergies, exists. Acknowledge its presence and impact.

  • Recognize symptoms: are we stuck, avoiding or side-stepping conversations, or continually postponing decisions? Symptoms of fear can present as a silent minority or as a silencing majority, they can be found in parking lot meetings, flurries of post-meeting emails, and in “people are saying” statements. Notice the symptoms.
  • Ask questions. “What are we not talking about?” “Whose voices are we not hearing?” “What other conversations are happening about _____?” “What is preventing us from taking action?” “Why does it feel like we are tip-toeing?”
  • Be direct: “Of what are we afraid?

Fear, like my allergies, can be identified. Be precise.

  • Identify the fears. There are probably more than one. Listing the fears provides clarity and facilitates movement. Listing the fears sparks conversation and feeds meaningful dialogue. The list becomes a starting place and a tool for reflection and assessment.
  • Be precise. It’s not enough to say “tree pollen.” We have to know if it is birch or cedar or pecan. It’s the same with an allergy to fear. It’s not enough to say “We are afraid of change.” Figure out the specifics. Drill down. Are we afraid of offending or disappointing someone? Afraid someone will leave? Afraid of taking a stand or being labeled the ______ church? Afraid we will decline beyond sustainability? Afraid of making a “bad” decision?

Fear, like my allergies, can be addressed. Take action.

  • Acknowledge the truth of inaction: there’s no such thing as “doing nothing” because “doing nothing” results in something. Gather information, discuss, discern, and do something. Action is almost always better than inaction. And when you discover a better way, simply regroup and head in that direction.
  • Speak for yourself. Practice, facilitate, and expect direct communication from others. Try “I am interested in your thoughts” when you hear “People are saying…” Or “To whom are you referring? I will speak with them directly.”
  • Agree on common language. Create a shared glossary (mental or actual) of words and phrases to explain the action, set expectations, and communicate the process. Be consistent. Establish an alternative narrative. Think about changing “We’ve always ______” to “In the past, we ____and now we ____.”

“Treating” fear, like my allergies, requires consistency and persistence.

  • Immunotherapy is most effective when you receive injections for three to five years. Even when ministry is busy or after reactions that require ice packs, hydrocortisone cream, and extra medicine. In those moments, I have to recall where I started, assess my improvement, celebrate my progress and remember: it takes time for an immune system to adjust how it reacts. It is the same with sessions, congregations, and pastors. “Treating” fear requires consistency and persistence. Even during Advent and Lent. Especially during times of heightened congregational anxiety.
  • Notice where you have responded to fear more effectively. Look at that original list of fears and celebrate the progress you are making. Embrace your role as pastor-encourager. Highlight success. Point to growth. Remember: it takes time for a session, congregation, or pastor to adjust how they respond to fear.

Fear, like my allergies, will never completely go away.

  • I will never be free of allergies. Particular seasons of the year will always be more challenging. While I hope I progress to the point of not needing daily medicine, I feel certain my medicine cabinet will always contain Zyrtec, Singular, and Benadryl for the times I need extra support.
  • There will always be particular topics about which sessions, congregations, and pastors will need extra support. This support may look like reconnecting with all or part of this process. It may look like inviting a colleague or consultant to watch, listen, and offer input. And it may be as simple as reading Scripture: Joshua 1:1-9, Psalm 27, Isaiah 41:1-20 & 43 or any of the countless occurrences of the phrase “Fear not!”

Last week was an easy immunotherapy week: no reaction. This week required an ice pack. This is the reality of immunotherapy. Treating allergies, whether dust-mites or fear, is a process. It takes time. And as my favorite shot-room nurse says, “Slow and steady wins the allergy race.”


Katherine Kussmaul is the pastor of St Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC and is a graduate of The Aquinas Institute of Theology, Duke Divinity School and The College of Wooster.

When Creativity Saves You from the “F” Word in Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Lisle Gwynn Garrity is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lisle Gwynn Garrity

We all know the feeling.  You’re neck-deep in sermonizing, lesson-planning, worship designing, or any venture that requires you to put your blood, sweat, and tears into creating something as an offering to others, and then the “F” word starts to rear its ugly head. FEAR is creativity’s brute oppressor; it shows up right when we’re in the thick of imagining or creating something new, and whispers not-so-sweet nothings in our ears.

“This is the WORST sermon ever written–even Calvin will be snoring from his grave.”

“We can’t possibly try this new youth activity–the youth will mock it and laugh in my face.”

“Members will certainly LEAVE THE CHURCH if I suggest we do something different for the prayers of the people this Sunday.”

Fear has this way of gripping us by the throat, choking us of any God-breathed inspiration for which we are gasping. And, too often, the “F” word wins out, shutting down the whole creative operation.  God forbid, the “F” word may even have something to do with that dreaded and familiar moniker, the frozen chosen.

Lisle Gwynn Garrity1

As a liturgical artist, retreat leader, and worship consultant, my ministry is constantly butting heads with the “F” word. When leading worship arts retreats, where I invite anyone and everyone (artist and “non-artist” alike) to create art in community, I talk a lot about the “F” word. There’s something about a blank canvas and a paintbrush that tend to strike fear into the hearts of most grown adults. So we talk about that fear. I declare that, if the “F” word shows up, we can acknowledge it, observe it, and then move right past it. That is the gospel promise, after all–fear and death will not have the last word.

When creating live visual art during worship, I am forced to practice what I preach. Being a self-proclaimed “artist” offers no protection from the “F” word, believe me. Painting for an audience to witness and scrutinize any mistake is vulnerability at its finest. But, when I step past the “F” word, I can fully offer myself as a vessel to be shaped and molded by God. Giving my whole self to the creative process is a full-body prayer; in those moments of fearlessness, I am most open, most willing, and most able to offer my gifts to others and to God.

Lisle Gwynn Garrity

So, what’s your fear-stomping creative practice? What’s one way you can regularly practice creativity (perhaps through painting, singing, cooking, gardening, wood-working, etc.) to strengthen your capacity to confront the “F” word? What’s one way you can offer your whole self to a creative process and to God? Most importantly, how can tapping into your unique, God-given creativity open yourself to that wild and restless divine Spirit that is so ready to do good work through and in you?

Lisle Gwynn Garrity2

 


Lisle Gwynn Garrity HeadshotLisle Gwynn Garrity is a Pastorist (pastor + artist) diving into ministry with a creative and entrepreneurial drive. A recent graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, she holds master’s degrees in divinity and practical theology. If you’re interested in pushing past the “F” word to create art in community, sign up for her workshop, “Arts & Worship” at the 2016 National Gathering. See more of Lisle’s work at www.sanctifiedart.com or on Facebook at A Sanctified Art.