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Re-post: Holy Ground

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on December 3, 2012. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

By Esta Jarrett

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 2:3-5 (NRSV)

Recently, a stand-up routine by the comedian Tig Notaro made the rounds of “you have to listen to this” lists on the Internet. Last summer, Notaro nearly died from a rare combination of medical problems. About a week later, her mom died in a tragic accident. Not long after that, Notaro went through an awful breakup. Then, right after that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts. At the time of the recording, after time counted in hours, not weeks, she found herself onstage at the Largo Comedy Club, in front of an audience anticipating a stand-up routine.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. Instead of telling her usual witticisms, in which bees taking the expressway figure prominently, she told the truth. “Hello, good evening,” she said. “I have cancer . . . just found out. Good evening.”

During her set, Notaro led the audience through a masterpiece of comedy and an anthropological study of grief. I’ve never heard anything like it. The audience struggled to know how to react. There were moans of sympathy and distress from some, uncertain laughter from others, and hushing noises from the rest.

By the end of the set, the crowd was eating out of Notaro’s hand. They would have done anything she told them to do. It was as if the audience realized the enormity of the gift they had been given: the fit of Notaro’s own self . . . her refusal to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Had Notaro just performed her usual set, it would have felt like a crime of inauthenticity, posturing instead of art. Toward the end of the performance, at the urging of the audience, she did tell her standard “bee taking the expressway” joke. Because of everything that was not said, the joke assumed an almost debilitating poignancy. The audience, who had witnessed the depth of her pain and beauty, could no longer be satisfied with pro-forma jokes. As they all confronted the reality of death, and found the grace to laugh, the Largo was transformed; the comedy club became holy ground.

When the church is at its best, it resembles that night at the Largo. People need a place to give voice to truth, before God and everybody, and know that they are held in safety and love. Whether in or out of a church building, we need a community where healing and reconciliation mean more than appearances and convention, even if it goes off script . . . and especially if it challenges our expectations of what we paid to see.

A few years ago, while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I visited a certain patient in the hospital. She had breast cancer, and her body was rejecting the cosmetic implants that she wanted to conceal her double mastectomy. She was bald, gaunt, red-eyed, and wild in her grief. She needed to talk to someone about how mad she was . . . at her body, at the cancer, and at God.

In my memory, there was no noise in the hospital except her voice, no light but that illuminating her bed. For forty-five minutes she raged, wept, and confessed everything on her heart to this inexperienced seminary grad.

When her storm had passed, we gripped hands, hard, and prayed together. It was hard to know when we stopped talking and started praying. The feeling of God’s presence throughout our conversation was so strong, you could almost feel its warmth emanating as from fire. As we prayed, we laughed, and cussed, and cried some more. After we said “Amen,” the patient’s face was serene, and I was changed forever. That hospital room became holy ground.

Every church I know has unspoken rules about acceptable behavior, whether in or out of worship. Most of the time, enforcement of these rules is self-policing: if people aren’t feeling presentable, they stay home, rather than burdening others with their troubles. They don’t want to cry, and risk embarrassing themselves. They feel too raw from the sharp edges of their lives to be able to put on a polite face.

But when wounded people feel safe enough to speak their truth, to say when they’re mad or confused or scared, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work miracles in church. Healing begins when a friend hugs your shoulders as you cry during the hymn. Sympathy and help are found as you discuss problems after worship. Even the simple act of being in a crowd of people who are praying and worshiping God can bring about change when change seems impossible. It is precisely in those moments when our lives are messy and unpresentable need that we need church the most.

We talk a lot about our brokenness when we confess our sins on Sunday. But theologically abstract brokenness looks very different from everyday brokenness, the kind of brokenness that makes you feel that you’re not good enough. In the church I want us to be, everyday brokenness becomes a blessing. When we bring our cracked and chipped lives to the font, to the table, to the people, to the Lord, we find ourselves on holy ground.

My prayer is that our awareness of God’s presence will grow and sharpen, becoming as keen as any other sense, so that we might walk barefoot everywhere we go. In comedy clubs, in hospital rooms, and yes, in church, may we say what needs to be said, in the deep and challenging love of God. May the church be a place that people seek out for such healing and transformation, instead of feeling they must stay away until they are presentable. May we all find ourselves on holy ground.


esta jarrettEsta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

Image: jayzee/shutterstock.com

Resurrection is Not an Argument

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

As we start Eastertide, this testimony offered by Ken Evers-Hood at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering is a beautiful reflection for the Easter season. It would be appropriate as a personal devotion, for a a group of church professionals or clergy, or for a staff team to watch and reflect on together. Please note that in this talk, Ken shares a piece of his own #metoo story, which may bring up memories for others.

At the start of his testimony, Ken shares that he was nervous about focusing on depression, but then he realized that if he could offer vulnerability that might help anyone who is feeling lost then it would be worth it.

What is one area in your ministry in which moving toward increased vulnerability might help someone who is feeling lost? What is at stake for you in moving toward that vulnerability? What is at stake if you do not make that move?

Ken’s testimony offers four layers of how he understands how to do ministry with depression.
The first layer is to care for your soul. He encourages all church leaders to have a therapist, a coach, a group with whom you are honest.

What care for your soul are you currently practicing? What care does your soul long for?

The second layer Ken points to is the strange, unexpected grief of ministry. He says, “When they need us to show up we have to be professionals who show up and they don’t need our mess and yet we are human and we have it and so we discover the strange, unexpected grief of ministry.” He tells the story of a colleague who lost his faith in resurrection during Holy Week.

What griefs do you carry in your ministry? What crises of faith haunt you? How do you carry those griefs? Where do you process those crises of faith? What promises of our faith uphold you in those times? What people help to hold the faith with and for you?

The third layer is what happens when it is the church itself that is hurting us. Ken shares of his own experience with a church leader abusing power and engaging in misconduct. Ken says, “The scars are healed but I don’t believe they will ever be gone.”

What accountability do you have in your own ministry context and in your own professional life to maintain healthy boundaries? If you have been hurt by someone in power in the church, how have you shared your experience? What people and places have believed in you? What cultural changes can we make as a church to prevent this kind of misconduct from finding a place in our communities? Pray for those who have these scars.

The fourth layer Ken addresses is that healing does happen. In each of these layers, Ken shares poems that have come out of his own struggle and care for his soul —
Theodicy (6:55-8:16)
Resurrection is not an argument (11:21-12:54)
Cassandra’s daughters (15:20-18:14)
Not running but dancing (20:08-24:49)

Listen to any of the poems a second and third time. What word or phrase catches your attention? What truth might it be speaking to you? What promise? What challenge?

Ministry on the Brink of Death

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Yena Hwang

Each year, the NEXT Church National Gathering creates a time and space for me to think theologically upon relevant topics that keep me engaged, informed, and excited in my ministry. This year’s gathering was no different. This year’s theme helped me to reflect upon these questions: “What is dying? What needs to die? Where/what are the signs of resurrection after the death?” This intentional time allowed me to reflect theologically upon these matters with colleagues in a communal setting, as I continue to respond to God’s call upon my life.

This year’s theme strengthened my faith in the promise of resurrection. The problem is that in order to experience resurrection, you must first experience death. Death is an intricate part of life that most people do not like to talk about, until it is unavoidable. It is scary to think about death, because it is the great unknown. It is sad to think about our loved ones not existing in the way they used to exist, where we can see, hear, touch, and hold them, and spend time with them in meaningful ways. There is no argument; death brings sadness. However, death also brings a new way of being and relating to the world.

There are many deaths we experience along on our way to physical death. These deaths are more subtle and they come so quietly that we do not even realize it until much later. Idealisms die with realisms setting in. Expectations die with sustained disappointments. Dreams and desires die with harsh realities of surviving. Our sense of worth dies when our worth is tethered to the values of the world measured in dollars or skin colors. Whether we realize it or not, we have practiced death and dying in various ways.

What used to be is no longer what it is…

The Church is experiencing these kind of non-physical deaths more obviously than before, it seems. Nothing completely new (remember Ecclesiastes?), but the hyper-connected world we live in makes us more acutely aware of this. The sky is falling! The Church is dying! What are we to do? How are we do respond and react?

The ministry to the people on the brink of death and pastoring to those who are left behind to carry on the burdens of living is an important part of our calling. Any minister would tell you that tending to matters of death – all the various ways that death disrupts people’s lives – is an integral part of our ministry. We know how to show up and be present for those who are dying and grieving; we know how to hold families through their grief and give them the words when they have no words to express their grief and allow the healing process to take place with meaningful rituals of our rich Christian tradition.

So, what we do is just that: we show up. Be present in people’s discomfort as they experience the church existing in a different way, not in the way it used to be. We use ancient words to give their grief meaning. We allow our rituals to guide them. We hold people through their anxieties, grief, and fear of the unknown, and pastor them through their loss of “what once used to be.” We know how to do that. And we remind them of God’s promise for them to consider: resurrection.

What if we were to look at “deaths” as ceasing to exist in the way we once existed, in order to exist in another way that cannot be fathomed? What if we were to look at death as a doorway through which we find ourselves rising into another existence…a doorway to experiencing the resurrection? What if we were to minister to the communities going through death with this theology undergirding all our work? How would that change our attitude, our actions and our messages? It will look different. It still won’t be easy, but I feel more confident that I can show up to do that work. What is dying is the old self – what is rising is the new creation in Christ that will usher in the kingdom of God. May it be so.


Yena Hwang is associate pastor of Christian formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, VA. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in NJ and M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Theological Seminary in KY, and recently completed her training as a life coach. Yena’s passion is around cultivating healthy relationships and creating meaningful experiences that nurture people’s faith and spirituality. As such, she loves to hang out with people around eat good food and make observations about intersections of life. She is married to her best friend and a mother of two teenaged boys, who keep her real and with it!

Sacred Space for Grief

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Lisle is leading a workshop during the 2018 National Gathering called “The Art of the Desert Journey: What the Creative Process Might Teach Us About Blooming.” It will take place during workshop block 3 on Tuesday. Learn more and register

by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

I don’t remember the negotiations that took place, but I do remember knowing it was a blessing to have my mom home from the hospital for Christmas. I had just turned thirteen, and — to my now horror — I spent much of the holidays consumed with the frivolities of my social life to avoid thinking about the fact that my young mother was in hospice care. My memories of her last Christmas with us are blurred. Was she home for Christmas Eve? Did we have our annual Christmas Day meal? Was that the year Santa filled our stockings with Elmer’s glue and over-sized Fruit of the Loom panties?

What remains clear, however, is the image of her shrunken frame sinking into the couch cushions — her body swaddled in gray over-sized sweats, her balding head tucked into the folds of a beanie, her face both swollen and sunken at the same time. What remains crisp in my memory is the picture of cancer’s devouring disguise.

If you have become an unwanted friend to grief, you know well how holidays are often filled with both blurred and lucid apparitions of holidays past. We walk through seasons of abundant joy with grief tugging at our sleeves.

When preparing materials for Advent with A Sanctified Art, we decided as a team to create resources to help churches carve out sacred space for those grieving in the midst of the holidays. With more than enough devastation and turmoil in the world, we knew many would be entering the season feeling like they were walking with a wet blanket draped over their heads, as if smothering their every inhale with hot, sticky air.

We wanted to offer congregations a way of naming and releasing grief before God as a radical act of hope, one that forces us to sit still in the shadows to acknowledge the ways our lives have torn apart at the seams, one that forces us to wait for the new life that is strangely birthed through suffering. And so, my colleague, Sarah Are, crafted poetry for a Longest Night Service and passed the poem along to me to pair it with visual poetry.

With Sarah’s words as my muse, I created a painting and short film to visually manifest the safe and sacred space Sarah paints with her words. To begin, I read Sarah’s poem a number of times, letting her lyrics wash over me again and again. The beauty of her poetry is that it spans universal truths while also feeling particularly personal. Even if you are not drowning in grief, there is still room for you here. The poem lures each of us into a space of quiet inquiry to simply welcome the emotions that arise along the way instead of trying to fix or silence them.

I began the painting with charcoal to express the rawness of loss and the shattered ways we often cope with our own grief or attempt to soothe the losses others have endured. I wanted these initial marks to be messy and chaotic, a visceral outpouring of the immediate shock loss of all kinds triggers. Then I began to fill the canvas with dark and haphazard strokes, creating a wild storm of sky. I hope we might all feel permission to fully step into the heart of this storm, letting go of control or the need to find our way out—to simply surrender to the ways grief wreaks havoc beyond repair. Gradually, the stormy sky slowly curves into calm. I hope you see whatever you need to see in this imagery—clouds, sea, the Spirit of God, the exhale of grief, or something completely unnameable. I finished the painting with a stretch of gold and ivory near the bottom, symbolizing solid ground and stability—a place in which you can sink your feet—even in the midst of the storm.

After my mom died, I didn’t know how to grieve. I thought that releasing my pain would break me and would expose all the ways my world had fallen apart. I’ve spent most of my adult life confronting and undamming the well of sorrow I didn’t know how to let loose then.

When I watch this film, I experience a journey of return — to my grief, to my mother, and to the inexplicable sense that, no matter what, something bigger and greater than me surrounds me with care. That is the best way I can name what Advent hope feels like.

And they say to me, We are sorry for your loss.
And I say to myself, Me too.
Me. too.
Because what I know now is that
when love takes a hold of your heart,
it gives a piece of you away,
and when that disappears
that empty space aches.
You can’t fill it.
You can’t drown it.
You can’t forget it.
You can’t ignore it.

There’s just space and you have to let it be.
—Sarah Are, excerpt from “Let There Be You”


Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity is an artist, retreat leader, and creative entrepreneur working within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and beyond. As founder of A Sanctified Art LLC, a collaborative arts collective creating multimedia resources for churches, Lisle believes in the prophetic and freeing power of art to connect us more deeply to God and one another. Learn more about her work by visiting lislegwynngarrity.com and sanctifiedart.org.

Twitter: @lgwynnarrity // @sanctifiedart
Instagram: @artbylisle // @sanctifiedart

Holding Hope: When Waiting is Tinged with Loss

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Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook. Today we re-visit this excerpt from Holding Hope as a reminder of the complex (and often silent) suffering that goes on in the lives of our congregants.

By Ashley-Anne Masters

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Ashley-Anne’s Advent devotionals, “Holding Hope: Grieving Pregnancy Loss during Advent.”

Advent, which means “coming,” is the Christian Season of waiting and preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ. In the season of Advent:

we wait…

for Emmanuel, God with us, to be born.

we wait…

for the shepherds to hear the angels singing.

we wait…

for Mary and Joseph to start their journey to Bethlehem.

we wait…

for Mary to give birth.

we wait…

for Jesus to make his entrance into the world.

Waiting for the birth of Jesus is similar to waiting for any other baby’s birth. We hear the announcement from the mother that she is pregnant, and from then on, everything changes. We are able to watch and see physical changes in the mother as the baby grows in her womb. We celebrate milestones of trimesters. We hear updates and see pictures of the baby’s new nursery, crib, clothes, and rocking chair. We plan for how we will take care of the baby. We wait for the mother to give birth and to find out the baby’s name. We wait to see who the baby looks like. We wait to see hope, light, joy, and love in the purest human form wrapped in brushed cotton with the smell of perfection that only babies possess.

But, what if that is not the way things happen? What if the mother begins to have cramping and bleeding before she even hears her baby’s heartbeat? What if the mother’s water breaks when she is only 20 weeks pregnant and there is no choice but to induce labor? What if the baby is born at 38 weeks, looks perfect, smells perfect, but the doctor brings the news that something does not sound right in the baby’s heart? What if we wait and there is no beautiful human gift to hold? What do we do? What do we say? In these situations,

we weep…

with the parents and grandparents.

we weep…

with the aunts, uncles, and godparents.

we weep…

because the night is too silent.

we weep…

because there are no adequate words.

we weep…

because there is no other response.

Yet in the midst of our weeping, we dare to hope that in the pages of this guide you may find hope to hold. While we hold on to our feelings of grief, we also reach out to the hope of Christ in the world in which we live. We hold on to hope in the midst of confusion, grief and loss.

Why Holding Hope?

While infertility, miscarriage and stillbirths are unfortunately common, the details and grief processes surrounding such losses are something we do not often discuss. Too many parents suffer in silence or solitude and feel that there is no appropriate way for them to talk about their grief. Yet these experiences are not uncommon and do not happen in isolation. Therefore, Holding Hope is intended to provide a safe opportunity for us to share our experiences of pregnancy loss. By sharing the stories of our lives with each other, we can help each other through the darkness and carry some of the pain for one another.

Moreover, the grief of losing a baby, like any other grief, is often more intense or resurfaces during the holiday season. Perhaps the most significant reasons are that the Advent and Christmas seasons celebrate the birth of a child, and there is something magical about celebrating the Christmas season with children. Thus, Holding Hope is intentionally designed to speak to our grief in the midst of the hopeful expectance of Advent.

The purpose of Holding Hope is to provide a faith-based resource for all those suffering from pregnancy loss. It is not to serve as medical advice or to replace a counselor, spiritual advisor or support group. Holding Hope is intended to be used by anyone – mother, father, partner, friend, sibling, family member, caregiver, clergy, medical staff, counselor – who is grieving the loss of a child or children due to miscarriage, stillbirth, or other complications of premature births. The hope is that you will find this devotional comforting as you grieve or as you care for someone who is grieving.

How to Use Holding Hope

The four devotionals are written in light of the four Sundays of the Christian Season of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Each devotional offers a helpful perspective on a reading from scripture and questions for further discussion. We also provide a “prayer template” that helps you write your own prayers, and prayer examples from the perspective of a mother, father, child or sibling, and grandparent.

Depending on your need, there are many different ways to use the devotionals and supplementary materials. Individuals and couples may wish to light a candle each Sunday and read the devotional together at home. Friends and family members may meet weekly and discuss the questions in “Further Thoughts,” or use the prayers as a way of praying for someone who is affected by the loss. Congregational leaders and pastors may use the ideas throughout the guide to plan community worship services during Advent. There is no “correct” way to use Holding Hope, just as there is no “correct” way to respond to the loss of a pregnancy.

Holding Hope is published by The Church Health Center and includes an exhaustive resource list to provide ongoing support for families and caregivers. It is available in printed and Kindle format.

——–

AAM HeadshotAshley-Anne Masters is a freelance writer and pediatric chaplain in Chicago, IL. She is the author of Holding Hope: Grieving Pregnancy Loss During Advent and co-authored Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergywoman with Stacy Smith. She blogs at revaam.org.