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Silence and the Oppressed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Therese Taylor-Stinson

People of color have engaged in contemplation since the beginning of time, though the term used in a broad sense for spiritual practice is relatively new. The Desert Ammas and Abbas were people of color from the Middle East who fled to the deserts to escape the empire and are not only known as among the first contemplatives but also the first psychologists, as they tested the limits of their human condition in the desert. Contemplation is defined as deep, prolonged thoughtfulness. A contemplative, then, is one whose life is devoted primarily to prayerful pondering, and there are two broad forms of contemplative prayer — apophatic and kataphatic.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices

Apophatic prayer — noted as a higher form of communion with God by a 14th century anonymous monk called “the cloud” for his foundational book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing — is a willing surrender into mystery: that which cannot be fully known and is closer to the true nature of God. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of the unknown. Apophatic prayer has no content but is full of intention, such as with a practice called centering prayer.

Fourth century Roman Catholic Bishop Gregory of Nyssa wrote about “apophatic” ways of being. Gregory was born in Cappadocia (present day Turkey) and held his bishop’s dominion in Nyssa — both in the Middle East. So, Gregory was likely a brown person as well, whose central argument is that God as an infinite being cannot actually be comprehended by us finite humans. God is not a white dude with a long white beard who sits on a cloud and grants wishes, and wants your sports team to win. God is something transcendent and alien whose thoughts we cannot properly grasp or explain.

Kataphatic prayer, on the other hand, has content; it uses words, images, symbols, and ideas. Ignatian prayer, such as lectio divina, the daily examen, and the Ignatian process for discernment is mostly kataphatic. Other forms of kataphatic prayer may be writing, music, dance, and other art forms.

Medieval Spanish priest (now saint, as was Gregory) Ignatius of Loyola, a spiritual director, was a prominent figure in the Roman Catholic “counter-reformation,” during the same period or starting a little before the Protestant reformation. His most influential work was Spiritual Exercises, still used by many today. His prayer was “Soul of Christ, make me holy.” And he wrote of himself in Spiritual Exercises, “Without seeing any vision, he understood and knew many things, as well spiritual things as things of the faith.” So, Ignatius too knew apophatic ways of being with God, but his Spiritual Exercises was full of kataphatic prayer forms to assist in ushering oneself, as well as others, into the presence of mystery.

In both Gregory, whom begins with unknowing, and Ignatius, whom engages the mind, I see both an apophatic and kataphatic approach that leads to a fully embodied intention for the Holy. Gregory writes, “We know some things that God is not, but we are incapable of understanding what God is. However, we can observe God’s ‘energies’ projected into the material world by God’s creation of the universe and God’s grace or love entering it. It is just as in human works of art, where the mind can in a sense see the author in the ordered structure that is before it, inasmuch as he has left his artistry in his work. But notice that what we see here is merely the artistic skill that he has impressed in his work, not the substance of the craftsman. So too, when we consider the order of creation, we form an image not of the substance but of the wisdom of Him Who has done all things wisely.”

As an example of a practical application of Gregory’s apophatic theology, he argues that slavery and poverty are unethical. The idea is that humans have a unique value that requires respect, because they alone are made “in the image of” the unknowable and unworldly God. Poverty and slavery are inconsistent with the dignity and respect due the image of God in all people. *[Referenced from an anonymous source.]

So, that brings me to the pervasive idea among white contemplatives who dominate the ideas of modern-day contemplation that for the most part, African Americans and other people of color don’t practice contemplative prayer, which they view as predominantly silence. Silence certainly has its place, but as the writer of Ecclesiastes notes in chapter 3:1, everything has its time: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” One of the few recognized black mystics, Howard Thurman, wrote, “Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you.”

This is an idea the oppressed understand well. In their contemplation, there may be seasons for silence, but there are also seasons and reasons for shouting, dancing, expressive emotion, and even protest, ushering in the presence of God to guide and protect; leaning on that God for constant direction; releasing toxic emotions.

For example, the enslaved taken from Africa across the Middle Passage and brought into chattel slavery were silenced from the time of their capture and separation from all others whom spoke their language and shared their customs. To be silenced is to cause trauma. On the slave ships, they ushered in the presence of God and community through the “moan” — the name given it by the slaveholders. The enslaved became one in their suffering by joining together in their sighs and groans of pain too deep for words. Their separation and silencing continued when they reached land, were warehoused, and sold to slave masters, separated from their children, spouses, and other relatives. Again silenced, they found ways to communicate their suffering and garner support through music, dance, and shouting, as they secretly met in the hush hollows, the abandoned shacks in the woods, and suppressed their sounds by shouting into barrels or pots, and sharing in each others suffering by turning the day’s suffering into song that was joined in a call and response by the others present. They were silenced. Their narrative was not known, but God knew, along with those gathered with them in subversion.

Albert Rabateau tells a story in his book Slave Religion through a third person about the silencing of the enslaved and their knowledge and faith in a Supreme Being. The observer notes how, though the enslaved could not read, they had ways of knowing God, and when they were finally introduced to the Bible, they already knew who God was! The observer also notes that some of the enslaved believed the Bible should not be read until after one has gained that inward knowing.

The oppressed around the world — mostly people of color — have been silenced from control of their own narratives, while the dominate culture dictates a narrative to be both disseminated to the world and absorbed by the oppressed that centers whiteness and devalues the lives and culture of people of color across the globe, leaving them silenced, oppressed, and struggling to know and to value their own heritage.

Silence may be needed in some cases among the dominant culture in order to allow the narrative of the oppressed to emerge; in order for them to come face-to-face with their own complicity in silencing people of color in order to enjoy the privileges of dominance. However, silence is not the only way to encounter God. Silence is not the only way to embrace Mystery. Silence is not the only way to deep pondering and profound prayer. Silence for the oppressed should be embraced on their own terms and their more kataphatic ways of being and prayer embraced more fully by contemplatives of every culture, unless it remains a tool to keep the narrative of the oppressed untold.


Therese Taylor-Stinson is an ordained deacon and ruling elder in the PCUSA. After serving as chair of the COM Care Team, Therese was tapped to serve as National Capital Presbytery’s moderator for an extended 3-year term. During her year as vice moderator, she co-founded and organized the Racial Awareness Festival, now going into its fourth year. Therese also organized a Confronting Racism Task Force for NCP in 2017. She now serves as Liaison for Race and Reconciliation, with a team of six members, under NCP’s Mission Coordinating Committee. Therese is a retired Fed, having served 32 years, leaving as a senior program analyst and the expert at the time in Federal Regulatory Activity. Therese has a private spiritual direction practice, which she began 14 years ago, and she is the Founding Managing Member of the Spiritual Directors of Color (SDC) Network, Ltd. Therese was recognized in 2018 as a Collaborative Bridge Builder by Grace and Race, Inc., and as Author of the Year in the area of social awareness by the Indie Author Legacy Awards for her second edited work for the SDC Network, entitled Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Stories of Contemplation and Justice. Therese celebrates 40 years with her husband, Bernard, on September 8, and they have one daughter and two granddaughters.

Of Asses and Raindrops

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Melanie Weldon-Soiset

The water drop plopped on my brow, hovering over follicles.
I continued to work, my hands aflutter,
yet the water drop cried foul.
“I’m here! I’m heavy! I’m wet, and on your face!” it howled.
I flicked my hand toward my eye,
but paused

mid-air,

wondering Why this drop,
Why me,
Why now?
Like Balaam’s ass, this ball of dew demanded that I halt.
So I stopped my hand, stopped my work, and listened to that glop of rain:
It hummed and hawed on my temple,
Reeling and wobbling, a breath away
From crashing into my eye.

I wait under its weight, miniscule yet full.
And then,
only then,
do I discover the divine.


Melanie Weldon-Soiset is the Fellowship Program Director at Sojourners, and is a participant in the 2020 cohort of “Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats” with Shalem. Melanie is also a pastor, published poet, and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @MelanieWelSoi, and check out her work at melanieweldonsoiset.com.

Intent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Michael McNamara

Intent. All prayer starts with intent.

In the beginning the intent might be a selfish desire to get something or achieve something. The intent might be to satisfy an elder or even a loved one. The intent might be to look good in public amongst peers; the intent might be to show off, as Jesus accused the scribes and the Pharisees of doing.
If one prays enough though, those original intents can begin to melt away. There is another intent that begins to emerge. At first, it is quiet and subtle, buried deep below the surface. It might start with the thought that one should not ask for things in prayer; it might be a desire to pray in solitude even if one has only ever prayed in public; it might come in a moment of seeking prayer apart from the person that has always been present before.

Over time this shift becomes greater. One might feel a need to pray, but is unable to find words; one might feel a necessity for silence; one might find themselves unable to make it through a day without stopping and giving themselves to something larger than themselves, deeper than their own capacity of experience.

Over time, one may begin to deeply understand that the intent of prayer is to simply be present to God.

I have come to appreciate this through the help of contemplatives like Gerald May, Thomas Keating, and Tilden Edwards. And as I have come to appreciate this, I have started to realize that with this intent, nearly all things can become prayer. That an intent to be in the simple presence of God is something that can guide one’s whole being,. One’s life can be intent to be present to God. When a person is intentionally present to God, simply and in still, patient awareness of the freely given Love of God, there exists the capacity to be transformed into the hands and feet of God, to exist as the body of Christ in the world.

One of the hopes of the NEXT Chuch blog this month is to share with the mainline church lessons garnered from contemplative practice. This lesson of intent is powerful. It is simple, yet in it is the capacity to “be reformed.”

What is your intent in worship? What is your intent with mission and outreach? What is your intent with leadership? What is your intent with stewardship? What is your intent as a congregation? The contemplatives offer a simple answer: to be present to God.

And even more than that, what if worship on Sunday morning was an intentional space to practice this intention? To practice it so one can live it out the rest of the week? What if the intent of worship was to practice presence in and awareness of God so that in the rest of one’s life they can more confidently live into this intent? In this scenario worship is not an end in itself; it is a means to God becoming actualized in more places. It is a means to God’s love in one’s community beyond the walls of the church.

Contemplation, then, is not something a person does for themselves; rather, it is something that is done for the community, for the world, because contemplation is the practice of letting God in, and by letting God in, God goes out.

It is with the intent to be present to God and to deepen awareness of God that the Love of God becomes manifest.

What is your intent?


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.

Opening the Door with Yoga

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Sarah Pfeil

Yoga, like grace, arrived in my life when I needed it the most. I had gone through an arduous cancer journey and my spirit seemed broken. After my first yoga class, I knew I had found a way to regain a new sense of being, of wholeness.

The yoga path I am speaking of is a spiritual toolbox which includes all practices of yoga; ethics, breathing techniques, postures, mindfulness, and meditation. Through my practice of yoga, I integrated all aspects of myself into a personal relationship with God. However, the actual practice of yoga can take each person in a different direction. It is not necessary to subscribe to any particular religious beliefs in order to follow the yoga path. The yoga path can lead to a deeper understanding of God, to greater contentment, or to a stronger and healthier body. This is completely a personal matter and how a practitioner chooses to use yoga is up to them.

The heart of yoga is the cultivation of equanimity in mind and body, so the spiritual heart center can wake to the present moment of being alive and sink into the deep and sustaining relationship with God. We integrate all aspects of ourselves into relationship with God. The foundation of yoga, the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas, are the ethical precepts or core values of yoga. These ethics are about avoiding behaviors that produce suffering and difficulty and embracing those behaviors that promote love. The practice of the yamas and niyamas guides us into right relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, creation, and the Divine Spirit.

The practice of the physical postures strengthens our bodies. As physically embodied beings this vessel/body is where God has chosen to call home. Through yoga we appreciate and listen to our bodies. We release tension in our bodies and create openings for the Holy Spirit to move within us.

In every major religious tradition, the Spirit of God is the source of our life-giving breath. In yoga the focus is on mindful breathing. Yoga recognizes the breath as our life force. When we breath mindfully we remember that the breath of life that God breaths into us is the same breath that we share with all living creatures. We notice that with mindful breathing, our bodies relax, energy is flowing within us and we begin to feel a sense of peace on the inside. Our spiritual heart center softens and opens. The peace on the inside flows out to others as radiance and joyful light.

The practice of yoga is designed to move us into stillness and surrender. We develop awareness to notice thoughts as they arise and let them dissipate before we get entangled in them. As we witness our thoughts, the tight control of the ego-mind loosens. We create space in our minds to slip behind thoughts and surrender into the stillness. In this stillness we meet God.

The practice of yoga healed me…. physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I became a Kripalu yoga teacher and had my own yoga studio. The biggest blessing of my studio was watching students allow their Divine within to radiate out. Minds quiet, the heart opens, change happens, and grace flows. Yoga is a contemplative practice and is an opportunity to remember lost aspects of our own Christian tradition. Namaste.


Sarah Pfeil is currently taking part in an 18-month spiritual formation program with the Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C. The program teaches leadership of contemplative prayer groups and retreat leadership. Sarah is a Kripalu Certified yoga teacher and a former Yoga Studio Owner. Sarah has a master’s degree in finance and spent 30 years as an executive in Health care Management and Consulting.

God, the Architect of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lawrence Rush

When thinking about power, the first question you must ask is “what is power”? The dictionary defines power as: the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality. Simply put; power is the ability to get things done. When viewed through that lens, power is neither positive nor negative, neither good nor evil. These values are added in the way that power is used. For example; Dr. Martin Luther King and Adolf Hitler are two of the most influential and powerful speakers of all time. They wielded their power to completely different ends. Again, power is neutral.

So how does power impact me? What is my theology of power? First of all, as a Christian, I believe that power, all power, comes from God. Not only is God love, God is power. I think that understanding this truth helps us understand why power can be positive or negative. Those who know that power comes from God tend to use their power in ways that they believe would be pleasing to God. Conversely, those who seek power for their own ends tend to wield their power in a negative, harmful way. Another aspect is power’s seductive nature. Since the fall of humanity we humans have been fascinated with power. Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When the serpent tempted Eve, he said it would make them like God. I think that was a major selling point for her and has been a continued selling point throughout the history of humankind. Power is seductive because it has the ability to give us more control and (seemingly) God likeness.

The saying is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you remove the concept of absolute from it (like a math equation) you learn that power corrupts. From this I conclude that the more power you gain, the more corrupt you become. I have struggled with this idea for all of my adult life. I have held numerous positions of leadership and I have always worked share and limit that power for fear of corruption. Power’s seductive nature makes it easy to forget where power comes from and that leads to all manners of abuse. This fear of the corrupting nature of power is also due to my interactions with it. Many times in my life I have had to deal with people with power who have wielded it in immoral and hurtful ways. I never wanted to be like that. So despite my cognitive understanding of power as a neutral, I saw it, experienced it, as a negative.

Another issue I had with power (this time, as it relates to the church) is the church’s activity in politics. When I was in college, my American politics professor said that “politics is the study of the acquisition and maintenance of power.” It’s how you get and keep power. The issue I encounter is the drive to acquire power. If we are servants to God who IS power, then we shouldn’t seek to acquire or maintain it because it is God’s to do with as God pleases. I have seen so much corruption and hurtful things come from politicians (many of which are signed off on by church leaders) that I don’t think the church and politics should be so closely linked.

My view on power has started to shift since the NEXT Church training in community organizing. The teachers went out of their way to illustrate the positive impact that power can have. They highlighted the differences between dominant power (which is more controlling) and relational power (which is more of a shared power). Getting back to theology, I believe that relational power is more God-centered. God calls us to be in community with one another just like the trinity is a community (3-in-1 and 1-in-3). However, even in that there is potential for power to be seductive. The accountability of community can counteract that if it is used. The accountability of shared, relational power is also the route through which the church can safely enter in and have a voice in the realm of politics. I mention Dr. Martin Luther King again in this regard. The civil rights movement was a political action that was born of and bolstered by the church. This is how it looks when it’s done right.

Power is something that has been a negative word throughout my life. Much of this is based on my personal experience with it and that tempered my theology towards it. However, now I have to re-evaluate my views. Perhaps power (having it and using it) is not something to be wary of. Power itself is neutral and acknowledging its source and using it properly will keep it from being a corruptor. The early church was all about building shared relational power, building up new leaders who would further spread the gospel and baptize. Perhaps I can acquire and wield power in positive, non-corrupted ways as long as I keep God (the architect of all power) first and foremost.


Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Lawrence Rush received his MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2009. Presently, he lives in Tampa FL with his wife of nearly four years. Lawrence is an ordained Presbyterian minister currently serving as a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital.

Sent Out into the World

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

by Andy Kort

The benediction. It is usually the last spoken piece in worship and is spared the distinction of being the last piece only by the inclusion of a postlude. The benediction is perhaps the shortest element in the worship service, usually only a few seconds to complete. Maybe that’s why people often love it. It is a blessing offered at the end, a simple and wonderful way to remember that God’s help, guidance, and grace goes with us as we leave the sanctuary. I hope that’s actually the real reason why people love it. But in my mind, the benediction and the accompanying charge serves as more than a blessing. I also see it as a line of demarcation, with a before and an after.

What happens before shapes what comes after. Think about the typical Sunday morning and all that happens before the benediction. There is an education hour complete with Bible studies, conversations about faith, kids in Sunday school, prayer in the chapel, and people catching up about their lives from the last week. Before the benediction there are all the other elements of a worship service. We are called together, we praise God, we confess our sins and hear we are forgiven, we pass the peace, and we read God’s Word and then proclaim it in sermon and song. We share our gifts as we are called to generosity, we pray, we sing, and on really good days we celebrate the sacraments. In all of this we hear about God’s reconciling and liberating work in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. We hear about love, justice, mercy, compassion, and more. We cannot help but be shaped by this. And in turn this shapes what happens after the benediction.

What usually happens after the benediction? In the congregation I serve, the pastors recess from the chancel and position themselves to greet worshipers at the doors. The worshipers either stay seated for the postlude or get up and begin to disperse. Eventually we all go into our fellowship hall for coffee hour. Then what? Do we all just go home until next week? No. We go into the world as people shaped by all that happens before the benediction, ready to do the work after the benediction. For many of us, that involves mission activity that has been informed and interpreted through our worship, Christian education, fellowship, and even committee meetings during the week.

Many of us love to quote St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands…no feet…no eyes…but yours.” To that I would also add ears. Maybe even before we are the hands and feet, we are the eyes and ears, looking and listening, witnessing and watching what is going on in worship, but also in our neighborhood, community, and world. Once we learn more about what is going on around us, we are in a better position to engage while responding to being sent into our communities to work with our neighbors. This can also save us from imposing on our neighbors what we assume they need, or helping them with things they don’t really need or even want.

I recently spent time listening to church members through surveys and ethnographic interviews to understand what is important to them as it relates to mission, how they understand mission, and feelings on what we have been doing. I also listened to community agencies to hear more about their needs. The results were informative and led us to adjust what we were doing. Some things changed, others were dropped, and a few new things began. One example of a new initiative is our “pop up missions” where we learn of an immediate need and try to help. But we also strengthened relationships with existing mission partners like Montgomery, West Virginia (15 years), a Catholic church in Nicaragua (20 years), and many local groups.

After the benediction we don’t just get coffee in fellowship hall. We are sent out into the world, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our homes to participate in what God is doing. What is God doing? A whole lot. Christian education, the elements of worship help us to understand “who is our neighbor?” it informs our understanding and biblical best practices. We get a reminder that we are called, equipped, and sent out by God. And as we are sent out, we receive a blessing to send us on our way. It’s absolutely beautiful.


Andy Kort is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.

Stewardship in Today’s Culture

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

by Larissa Kwong Abazia

Let’s be honest: It’s either stewardship season or the congregation’s own sustainability that get our fiscal attention in the church. The act has been expanded to include “time, talent, and treasure” but is this simply a strategy to make people give more, feel good about what they decided to give, or calm anxieties about “the ask” rather than embrace a fuller understanding of what offering is meant to be?

I’m just going to cut to the chase and share these knowledgeable words from Walter Brueggemann: “We live in a society that would like to bracket out money and possessions (politics and economics) from ultimate questions. The Bible insists otherwise. It insists that the issues of ultimacy are questions about money and possessions. Biblical testimony invites a serious reconsideration of the ways in which our society engages or does not engage questions of money and possessions as carriers of social possibility.” As long as we continue to engage in the offering as merely a financial ask for the church’s vitality, we disregard the call to discipleship that requires us to see money and possessions as a disruptive force for change in ourselves and the world.

We must rid ourselves of a few myths:

Myth #1: What you possess is due to the success of the work of your own hands. Need we be reminded who created each one of us, who claimed us in our mother’s womb before we drew our first breaths? We cannot celebrate being created and called by God, yet avoid the required response to give back what was never ours in the first place.

Myth #2: Offering and stewardship are primarily about maintaining, sustaining, or building a legacy. A budget should neither define the life of the church nor its endowments or investments be solely about its own future. It ultimately reflects what we value and where we place our trust (consider looking at the church budget through this lens at the next meeting!). Withholding the money and possessions of the congregation risks keeping us from the exact neighborhoods in which our faith communities reside. We must stop utilizing the first fruits of what we collect for the church, giving only scraps out after our needs are determined.

Myth #3: Offering is what we give inside the walls of the church. We need to act as though what we do inside the church has the power to transform how we live outside of the walls; the concept of giving does not stop at the offering plate but involves every way that we choose to use or cling to our money and possessions.

Myth #4: Offering is just about money and finances. Racism, sexism, other-ing, assumptions, and hierarchies impact our engagement with and participation in Christian life together. We are called to a different kind of community: a diverse gathering of people who create a new lifestyle together. So when our churches say, “All are welcome,” it means that the visitor and stranger transform us, not the other way around. It also means that those who have power, privilege, and authority must share and/or utilize these possessions for the good of the whole.

What would happen if money and possessions were seen as disruptive forces of change for the church and people of faith? We would see Christ in every face and respond with hospitality, generosity, and love. We would acknowledge the truth that, if the marginalized remain in our midst, our money and possessions continue to oppress the exact neighbors we are called to care for and love.

American culture encourages us to clench our fists, take care of ourselves and those we love for first, and celebrate the freedom of individualism. Instead, our faith calls us to challenge these assumptions and live in a community where everyone’s needs are met and all contributions are celebrated, no matter the size. We need to witness to and embody Christian communities where the binary structures of this world (insider/outsider, foreigner/citizen, us/them, have/have nots) are replaced with a true reflection of the body of Christ.


Larissa Kwong Abazia is a pastor, speaker, writer, and consultant with the Vandersall Collective. She is also the project manager and a team member for the Collective Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting research into fundraising practices in Christian communities of color. Larissa was the Vice Moderator of the 221st General Assembly and has served churches in Chicago, New York City, and throughout New Jersey.

Contemplation in a Status Quo World

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

by Mary Beene

Yesterday was a very busy day. I had several projects with looming deadlines and an evening gathering at my office. At 8:30 am I still had parts and pieces of an unfinished DIY bookshelf scattered across the office floor and little bits of Styrofoam packing stuck to every surface in the room. So I settled into my still cold room, sat on the hard floor screwdriver in hand, and finished the bookcase. Then I gathered my cleaning supplies, ran the vacuum and by 10:30 am everything was ready for the night’s event.

That’s when I sat on the couch in the corner of the now cozy office and admired my handiwork. I read a psalm and pondered the Lord’s judgment and the Earth’s joy. And then I sat for a few minutes more. Of course, the urgency of the day fell upon my spirit once my hands and mind were free to wander. I almost jumped up to begin the next phase of the day’s work.

But something stilled me, and I sat for many minutes more in silence, admiring the room, marveling at how God has guided me and uplifted me as I started my own spiritual direction practice, and thanking the Spirit for this blissful moment of quiet before the next thing.

When was the last time you let yourself take a moment of stillness in the midst of a busy day and a busy life? We are taught to admire people who rush through the day, accomplishing so much more than seems humanly possible. If we are wage workers, we know that there is no grace from our employers if we are caught staring into space, even if we know that in our hearts we are glorifying God.

Sometimes I even deny myself stillness at the end of a long day. I try to get in that last bit of housework, watch that program everyone is watching, catch up on Facebook, or even play a game on my phone. If I sit there doing “nothing” someone is bound to come and fill that time for me; but no one bothers me if I am still “busy” with anything that looks demanding.

As a spiritual director I teach contemplative prayer. And it is very important, because quieting our minds and opening our hearts to God is a skill that must be learned. It sounds like it should be simple, but even if I close my eyes right now, I can feel the urge well up to run in circles.

I recently learned of a Presbyterian church in Colorado that started an experiment 20 years ago to do contemplative/centering prayer as a part of their everyday church life. Now, two decades later, spiritual practices are a part of every dimension of the congregation’s life: time for deep prayer in worship, session meetings, Bible study, fellowship and mission. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but it grew organically from the mustard seed of an experiment: what would happen if we took time for stillness?

This morning my office is in a shambles again. It’s not just the glasses and plates that need washing, the regular remains of a lovely party. Unfortunately, one leg of my cute but ancient loveseat choose last night to shatter and crash my poor guests to the floor.

Though I smiled, apologized for the unexpected dumping, and assured everyone that it was no big deal, my heart sank and my mind started racing again. I really love that couch, though it looks this morning like last night was its final party. It helped make the office cozy. And, of course, there’s no money in the budget to replace it.

After the guests left, I jumped into action. The computer came out – how much would it cost to replace a loveseat; is there any money in the bank, are there local stores I can visit in the morning, is there any chance at all there’s a youtube video on fixing ancient couch legs that are probably well past the “fixing” stage?

But this morning I realize there’s one thing I need to do before I rush into action, before the dishes are cleared, the floor is swept again, and the arduous process of replacing the loveseat begins. I am going to sit in the corner of my still cozy office, read a psalm, ponder the wonder of God’s grace and stay for as long as the Lord can hold me fast in a strong embrace. But I suppose today I’ll do it from a chair.


Mary Beene is a spiritual director, retreat leader and facilitator in Savannah, GA for Openings: Let the Spirit In (www.letthespiritin.com). She has her Masters in Public Administration from American University, her M.Div. from Boston University and is a graduate of the Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Direction Program. Her special interests include contemplative discernment for individuals and congregations and writing spiritual memoir as a tool for resiliency.

Youth and the Lord’s Table in the Real World

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

by Cheryl Carson

How enthusiastic are you about coming to the Lord’s Table for communion? That was a question I posed to 16 high school students as part of my recent doctoral research. What emerged was an interesting tension between their passion for the sacrament and their boredom with the ritual.

The good news was that nearly two-thirds said they were very or extremely enthusiastic. John, an 18-year old high school senior, who was one of two who were extremely enthusiastic said, “It’s a way of connecting to God… I’m more of a hands-on person (rather) than just listening, so I think that’s part of what I enjoy.” Matt, a 15-year-old 10th grader said he was moderately to very enthusiastic “because I realize it’s important, and it’s necessary to take part in. But, I’ve done it a lot and it’s special but not very exciting.”

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a practice of corporate worship where we join with the risen Christ in a meal of remembrance and thanksgiving. But as the youth discovered during our focus group discussions, there are many additional meanings that are rarely lifted up.

In the book, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, the authors proclaim that youth are trying to answer three questions: “Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference do I make?” Where can students better explore and discover their identity, belonging, and purpose as disciples of Christ than through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

The youth shared stories of their most memorable experiences of communion. They also, in two focus group discussions, offered their suggestions for making the Lord’s Supper more meaningful. They watched a video available through the PC(USA) entitled, “Communion: A Feast of Grace.” As they watched, they wrote down meanings of communion they heard. The one meaning upon which both groups wanted to build their Lord’s Supper liturgy was the theme of all being welcome. It was important to them to convey that everyone has a place at the table.

The scripture passage both groups selected, unbeknownst to one another, was the feeding of the 5,000. It spoke powerfully to them of the welcome offered by all being fed. They chose to follow the basic liturgical ritual found in the Book of Common Worship. They did not want to dispose of tradition. They wanted to build on it by making communion a full-bodied, sensory experience within that liturgical structure. We need not simply stick to a rote recitation of the Invitation, Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Words of Institution. The youth want to engage all the senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. And when we offer a multi-sensory experience, research tells us the memory of the experience is more lasting.

Here is a sampling of the students’ liturgical ideas:

Intinction was identified as a more intimate experience for a number of youth. They felt a greater sense of Christ’s presence by coming forward to be served. And they got a deeper feeling of Christ’s love when the server said, “The body of Christ given for you,” as they pulled a piece of bread from the loaf.

Adding visual elements was suggested by a student based on an experience at a youth conference. Everyone had placed their handprints on a cloth. The cloth was later used on the communion table to symbolize the community gathered at the Table.

One person recalled World Communion Sunday at their church when a variety of breads were served. The different breads provided a representational nod to people around the world who were also participating in communion that day.

It requires some creative thought and extra planning to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with more verve. But, it is effort well spent in order to engage our youth in communion and to potentially reveal Christ in new ways.

If you would like the article length summary of the research project which includes the Lord’s Supper liturgy developed by the youth, please email me at ccarson@cfpresbytery.org.


Cheryl Carson is the Associate Executive Presbyter for Central Florida Presbytery. She advises the Presbytery’s Youth Council, serves as staff liaison to the Leadership Development Committee, resources congregations and their members, and oversees the presbytery’s communications. Cheryl has a Doctor of Educational Ministries degree from Columbia Theological Seminary. She also has her Masters of Christian Education from Union-PSCE (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond and a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida. (Go Gators!) She is also a Certified Christian Educator in the PC(USA). Cheryl and her husband, Bill, live in Merritt Island, FL with their dog and four cats.

Public Art as Prophetic Word

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

by Shawna Bowman

When we consider the sermon moment we often think first of the spoken word, whether an extemporaneous litany or carefully crafted prose. In the predominately white and western Christian communities I’ve been formed by, we have historically privileged the voice of a single preacher and depended upon the auditory (and hopefully eager) listening and learning of a gathered community in worship. This method of preaching and proclamation is beautiful, rooted in tradition, and has the capacity to inspire, form, and stretch the theological and spiritual imagination of our people.

And… and… it is only one of so many ways we human beings can engage with God’s dream for us and with God’s dream for the world. Rather than use words alone to demonstrate what I’m suggesting, I will invite you on a multi-sensory journey. Let us move for a moment from a stationary pulpit into the streets and look with fresh eyes and open hearts for a prophetic word preached in the visuals of street arts, graffiti and public installations.

As an artist/preacher, I am interested in cultivating an honesty about our own power and perceptions as we approach either the task of preaching or receiving a prophetic word. I invite you to carry these questions with you as we begin our journey into the streets:

Who decides what is acceptable “street art” and what qualifies as graffiti or even vandalism? Who and what artists are commissioned for particular and planned pieces of art and when does an artist risk a prophetic word or statement over and against the institutions who “own” public space? When is it the right time to break the rules, even the law, to risk a prophetic word or piece of visual proclamation?

YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL

Chicago based artist and designer Matthew Hoffman has been the custodian of a public art project that began in Chicago but has expanded across the globe in recent years. The project began as stickers and now includes public installations with the simple statement: you are beautiful in all kinds of shapes and sizes. It has turned up on the sides of buildings, in parks, along Lake Shore Drive, and has been re-created and imagined by kid artists in public school students and public artists around the world.

You can visit versions of the work here. Take a moment and soak them in! While the artists may not have set out to offer a sermon, take a moment to imagine how prophetic a word this truly is. How does the message “you are beautiful” resonate with our biblical story? How does God’s own voice shine through this particular invitation to embrace our beauty?

WHAT WE DO IN LIFE…

One of the most famous and yet anonymous street artists currently creating and curating work across the globe, known only as Bansky, calls their self a “quality vandal,” and their work appeared first in the UK and recently in Bethlehem, Palestine. The artist offers critiques on the status quo, and observations on systems of oppression and violence often revealing the way human beings in positions of power are complicit in upholding them. I love this because it reminds me of some of Jesus’ best parables. Simple yet prophetic, offered in a way that catches us off guard and invites us to see ourselves and the world through a fresh and potentially liberating lens.

You can visit more of Banksy’s work here. Take a moment to absorb each piece as it moves across your screen. Can you see God’s prophetic words peeking through these installations? How is this artist offering an alternative narrative to what many of us experience and put our faith in, in our day-to-day lives?

LARGER THAN LIFE

We know a prophetic word can change our thinking and can move whole communities towards hope and transformation. Chicago public artist Max Sansing creates public murals that are works of reclamation and representation in his community and across the city. He painted this particular mural in the neighborhood where he grew up. Sansing says, “I know a lot of times we get portrayed as certain things, and I wanted to reinforce we could be larger than life.” Isn’t that often the role of a prophetic word? To give voice, worth and hope to a particular people and in a particular context? To hold God’s dream up for the people to see, not only as a beacon but as a mirror? To say, “look, we have all we need, right here.”

You can learn more about this particular mural here, and explore here how Sansing and another street artist, Sydney James from Detroit, use their artwork to impact culture, encourage diversity, and engage youth in their communities. Can you hear and see God’s invitation to embrace the fullness of our human experience in their work? Do they disrupt, confirm, or challenge your assumptions about God’s dream the world?

AN INVITATION

Next time you encounter public art in the form of murals, installations, or graffiti take a holy moment. Breathe in the color, the imagery, the form and shape and listen for the prophetic word speaking through the work. Let the work wash over you like liturgy and let God’s dream for the world bubble up in your imagination!


Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor doing ministry with the creative and justice-seeking folks at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Shawna is co-founder of Creation Lab, an arts incubator and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality, and prophetic imagination, also in Chicago. Shawna is also Associate Director of Field Ed & Experiential Education at McCormick Theological Seminary.