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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.

NEXT Church is Not About You!

By Frank Spencer

As I have continued to engage in the NEXT Church movement, I continue to find the extended community of the PC (USA) upholding me in my faith journey.  What follows is an excerpt from my book, The Benefit of the Doubt.  These passages are taken from the Chapter, “It’s not about you!”  Let’s keep this in mind as we all discern together how we will be Church together.

*****

Spencer BookIt’s not about you!  That phrase may not be the most fashionable in today’s world of customized products, online shopping, mommy make-overs and human bodies as walking billboards.  We live in a fundamentally self-centered culture.  Even old commercial slogans evoke melody and message in the TV generation.  I bet you can sing right along with these words:

“You deserve a break today!”

or

“Have it your way!”

From the TV generation to the Facebook generation the self-focus has intensified.  We have our own web pages.  We tweet about what we are having for lunch, as if anyone really cared.  We hire personal college admissions coaches, personal trainers, personal shoppers, financial planners, lawyers, and accountants, all to improve the life of ME Incorporated.

But it’s not all about ME, at least not when we talk about faith.  There are two dimensions of this external dynamic to which we should pay particular attention.  The first is that God is sovereign.  God has set forth the plan for the world.  We know God through God’s revelation to us………..

When we acknowledge that God is sovereign, the affirmation of God incarnate that has occurred in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has implications for the whole universe.  However, to acknowledge the truth of that claim requires the ceding of control by the individual because our finite minds cannot fully grasp the concept of an infinite God engaging humankind in this way.  Ceding control is something most of us fear on many levels…………….

The answer lies in the faith of the community.  This is the second external element of faith.  Faith exists within a community rather than as the province of one soul, one mind or one heart.  The faith of a community takes on dimensions that eclipse the capacity of any individual.  The first time I heard this concept, I wasn’t sure what exactly to make of it.  How can a community have a faith?  Surely faith is something we must each wrestle with for ourselves.  Like Jacob, I will grapple all night and will not let go of God until I am victorious or vanquished.  But it is my individual struggle.  Ironically, that attitude captures both the intellectual and the egotist in all of us.

But it’s not about me.  It’s about God and God’s faith in God’s people, us.  It is the community that preserves and passes the faith down to the next generation.  The community is there for me when I need support and sometimes I am there when others need help.  Even sinners and doubters can bear witness to the sovereignty of God and to God’s faithfulness to us.  In this sense the faith of the church relieves me of having to have it all sorted out myself.  I become part of the community that has wrestled with these same issues for centuries, and is still wrestling because we are not finished and will never be finished……………………..

Our Reformed theology specifically rejects the idea that each individual controls his or her fate relative to personal salvation.  In fact, it is not only OK to die with doubt; it is inevitable that each of us will.  God has acted in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and through that grace has redeemed the world.  Our human response is not determinative of the mind of God.

Thus, the community of faith that proclaims the truth of God’s revelation in Christ Jesus and welcomes those who doubt, wherever they are in their journey, is the place where faith can build and develop in safety.

“Wherever you are, there we will meet you.”

That should be our communal promise.  This is not to say that whatever an individual believes is right and true and that’s OK.  Such an attitude breeds a consumption notion of the church, a desire to extract whatever good I can for myself and move on.  Faith builds over time as one lives, studies and worships in a community.  That is how we live Anselm’s credo of faith seeking understanding…………………


Frank Clark Spencer is the President of Habitat for Humanity Charlotte and a student in the Masters of Divinity program at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Before turning to full-time ministry, Frank had an outstanding business career which included creating one of North Carolina’s 50 largest public companies, leading the company to its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, and being recognized by Ernst and Young as 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year for the Carolinas. Frank has been an Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) since 1994, is the past Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and currently serves on the Presbyterian Board of Pensions. He was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and was named a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School. You may find additional information at www.FSpencer.com.  

A Journey Together

Participants in the NEXT National Gathering

By Frank Spencer

When asked to reflect on the NEXT Church event in Charlotte, I find that I cannot limit my thoughts to this one gathering.  For me, the development of the NEXT Church movement will always be tied to my own development at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte.

Attending the first NEXT Church gathering in Indianapolis, I was struck by the passion and optimism of the assembled teaching elders.  Those of us who were there as ruling elders were eagerly and openly invited into the conversations about how to enliven and enrich the PC (USA).  That gathering drew approximately 300 people and engaged themes of waiting and exile.  There was tension and anxiety around the formation of the group that would subsequently become The Fellowship/ECO.   Participants were unsure about the future, even as faith and relationships were strengthened.  Feeling a call from God to engage more deeply my own faith in the context of PC (USA), I entered seminary in May 2011.

By the fall of 2011, NEXT Church was hammering out a mission statement and planning its second meeting in Dallas.  What developed from the fall meetings has guided NEXT Church in a direction that seems to be bearing much fruit.  Everyone involved is dedicated to PC (USA).  The purpose of gathering is to worship, to share ideas and to build relationships in the PC (USA).   There was a decision against voting on any issues and a further determination to leave the definition of doctrinal matters to others.  Dallas exceeded all expectations with 600 participants.  The planning for regional meetings began and optimism abounded.  A senior minister attending his first NEXT Church gathering commented to me, “This is without question the best church event I have been to in my 35 years of ministry.”  I became an inquirer at the Presbytery meeting.

Coming out of Dallas, NEXT Church hired a director and regional meetings occurred around the country during the summer and fall.  The Charlotte community embraced the planning for the 2013 meeting with commitments and volunteers from a range of congregations, large and small.  The plans for worship and programming were intentionally diverse and forward looking.  Gone was the sense of anxiety from Indianapolis.  The excitement and expectation of life together in Christ Jesus was evident throughout the two days in Charlotte.  We worshipped together in new ways and yet focused on the heart of our faith, from Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus through the movement of the Spirit at Pentecost.  We shared stories of innovative ministries and explored ideas for new worshipping communities.   I became a candidate for the office of Teaching Elder.

How have the developments of NEXT Church and my own call to ministry become so closely linked?  It is because I have found authentic community in PC (USA) supported in no small part through my participation in NEXT Church.  I have claimed my faith and my call not through my intellectual effort to decide for myself, but rather through the faith of the community that sustains me in my journey.  Those relationships, the body of Christ, confirm for me what God has placed on my heart.

The traditional structures of PC (USA) have been shaken with financial and doctrinal challenges.  This reality has left older members nostalgic for a time of greater stability and young seminarians nervous about the prospects for full-time ministry.  Sitting in both camps as a mid-fifties second career seminarian who has served the church in many roles, I find NEXT Church is good for what ails me.  As a seminarian, it is heartening that NEXT Church provides a forum for innovation and exploration of new forms of ministry.  As a part of the established structure of PC (USA), it is exciting to experience the passionate faith leadership that our young (younger than me anyway) teaching elders are providing.  Old or young, we should be optimistic when those who love the Church come together for the sole purpose of building her up.


Frank Spencer is a ruling elder at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church.  He is President of Habitat for Humanity Charlotte and a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.  He served four years as Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and currently serves on the Board of Pensions.  Frank’s first book, The Benefit of the Doubt: Claiming faith in an uncertain world, explores the Reformed tradition in a unique and engaging format that developed through a conversation between six of Frank’s current and former pastors and their one common parishioner.  It is available in hard copy or Kindle through Amazon.com.