The Stupendous Promises of God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cynthia Rigby

My favorite part of the Sarasota Statement is the preface.

This is, no doubt, because I am wired like the theologian I am. And theologians like to think about why it is we are saying what we are saying even before we say anything. Thus, the caricature of the theologian is that we talk and talk before getting to the point.

So, enough already. I’ll get to the point.

The reason we dare to imagine what things should look like in this world (in the Sarasota Statement and beyond) is because God has made us stupendous promises. God’s Kingdom will come to earth as it is in heaven, we confess. Lions and lambs will lie down together. Tears will be wiped from suffering and grieving eyes. We will join Christ at the Table and hunger will be no more.

The reason we risk working toward realizing these promises in our world, today, is because Christ invites us not only to watch and pray for the coming of the Kingdom, but to join with him in doing the will of God that advances it. “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends,” Jesus says to the disciples, inviting us to live and act in the world as those who “know what the master is doing” (Jn. 15:15).

And the reason we submit to re-forming how we understand what it looks like actively to claim and enact God’s promises is because we believe the Holy Spirit continues working in us, in the context of the Christian community, conforming us to the image of Christ.

I’m sure the Sarasota Statement gets some things wrong, when it comes to the specifics of the Kingdom that is coming. I am even more sure we have left out a great deal, and have been humbled and excited by the good suggestions and queries Christian siblings have sent our way.

But what we get right is the affirmation that God’s Kingdom will come. What we get right is that we are called to do the will of the God who will bring it. What we get right is that we, as the children of God, are invited to claim the promise, to imagine it, to step into it, to live it.

We do these things, on this very day, with echoes of resurrection celebration ringing in our hearts: He is risen! He is risen indeed! And we remember, as our risen Lord instructed his disciples, that the journey is not over. The Holy Spirit will come upon us, and even greater things will yet be done. In the power of this remarkable promise, again, we join hands together to watch and pray, hope and listen, imagine and act. To God be the glory! Now: on with the work of the church!

Cynthia L. Rigby has been teaching theology at Austin Seminary since 1995. She holds a BA from Brown University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of “The Promotion of Social Righteousness” (Witherspoon) and “Holding Faith” (Abingdon, forthcoming). She is one of four general editors for Westminster John Knox Press’s new lectionary commentary series, “Connections,” which will be coming out in nine volumes over the next few years.

Moments When the Spirit Moves

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah Are

Sometimes new life lands in your lap like a summer thunderstorm- strong, sudden, and powerful.

Other times, new life shows up like a melody, or a sleepy cat- waking up, stretching its bones, and assuming its position back in the sun, back in your memory.

For me, the NEXT Church National Gathering this past February felt like that. All of that.

tsr_4819_webNEXT was an IV drip of coffee, energizing me in ways that I forgot I knew. However, it also was a reminder that the Holy Spirit moves, adding strength and memories to weary muscles.

I think we all have those moments- moments when the Spirit moves, and all of the sudden you know you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Those moments slide past us like water, taking with them the frustrations of previous aches and pains.

For me, some of those ministry moments have involved warm cups of coffee on church steps with the homeless folks that slept there the night prior. Some of those moments have involved youth group, where the “cool” kid stood up for the kid with autism, and it was holy ground. Others have involved 1,000 youth at Montreat, or three other young adults at bible study.

I crave the certainty of those moments.

I know that currently, seminary is where I am called to be, and I feel invigorated by that. However, my view of ministry has changed since being in seminary. I have struggled to discern where I would fit into a church that is both saturated in tradition, yet simultaneously growing and evolving, and at times have missed the calm certainty that comes only with sensing the Spirit.

In the seminary world, there is an acute sense of change in the air. The church is stretching. We cannot all find jobs, and when we do, they often look different than what we had imagined. We are being forced to tap into our creative side and our risk-tasking side, as we dream up bi-vocational ministries, new church developments, and fundraising tricks to cover the cost of a full time salary.  Pension plans are not a sure thing, and residencies provide sweet relief as Christian education and associate positions dwindle.

Taking risks and leaning into creativity is an exciting prospect, but it is also vulnerable, a little scary, and very exhausting.

This year’s NEXT conference was the first time that I have truly felt that this risk-taking creative solution making reality might actually be a blessing, and not strictly a challenge. For over the course of three days, I watched story after story of real ministry, that is faithful to the gospel and loving to the core, unfold before my eyes. I watched countless doors open, with new ministry models, and imaginative ways for old churches to continue faithful work.

For a long time, I have felt as if engaging in creative ministry models would be my uphill battle, but at NEXT, I was overwhelmed with how much is already being done, with how smooth those roads were being made.

As I walked through the big wooden doors at the end of the three days, I told myself- “this has to be the most exciting time to be in ministry, because there are no closed doors.”

I don’t know if it’s factually true – that this could be deemed the most exciting season.  

However, what I do know, is that it was one of those moments I crave. It was one of those moments where the Spirit moved, and all of the sudden, I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be- dreaming, hopefully, about the future of the church.

Those three days gave me new life, and it sounded like a melody, and felt like a sweet summer rainstorm. I walked away humming to myself, “What have I to dread? What have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms?” For I am convinced, this has to be one of the most exciting times to be in ministry.  After three days at NEXT, how could I dream otherwise?

sarah are

Sarah Are is a second year student at Columbia Theological Seminary pursuing a Master of Divinity. She is a book-worm, a food blogger, and a busy-body. Sarah was raised on sweet tea and in church pews, and re-microwaves her coffee every morning because she knows the world is cold. Kansas City and Richmond, Virginia are the two places she calls home; however discovering somewhere new makes for a wonderful day in her book.

Meeting The Holy Spirit Again (for the 61st Time)

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Amy Williams Fowler

Holy Spirit and Pentecost Hymns in Glory to God

2015BirdI was baptized on Pentecost in June, 1954, at the First Presbyterian Church of Woodbury, NJ. Amy, meet the Holy Spirit. But I grew up in Presbyterian churches that were uneasy with references to the third person of Trinity, with the exception of the Apostles’ Creed recited on Communion Sundays. I don’t remember any Pentecost celebrations until the 1980’s. While I was under care in preparation for ordination I was asked each year by the Presbytery’s Committee, “What Christian doctrine causes you the most difficulty?” My answer was the same for four consecutive years: The Holy Spirit. Each year the committee members responded: “Yes, me, too.”

After I was ordained, when I experienced the touch of God’s Spirit on my spirit in real time, it occurred to me that this might be what people had been talking and writing about for so many centuries. I was able to revisit times of real grace (pre-ordination), and to say, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not realize it.”

When I was serving as an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA, in the early 1990’s, we learned a beautiful Pentecost hymn, set to a tune arranged by one of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Come Down, O Love Divine (Glory to God, 282). The text is dated c. 1367, and it is lovely.

Come down, O Love Divine; Seek out this soul of mine, and visit it with you own ardor glowing.

O Comforter, draw near; within my heart appear, and kindle it, your holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming.

And let your glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, shall far outpass the power of human telling.

For none can guess God’s grace, till Love creates a place, wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

When I moved to Indianapolis and began interim ministry, I vowed that I would share this wonderful hymn with every congregation I would serve. I am delighted to see that it “made the cut” as one of sixteen Gift of the Holy Spirit hymns in Glory to God. It is an impressive collection of new and old hymns — well worth singing on days other than Pentecost, too.

During my interim ministry in Anderson, IN, we sang Come Down on Pentecost, and one of the members met me in the narthex to say, “Dear, we only like the old hymns here.” I replied, “Then I know you enjoyed this one — written in the 14th century.” Actually, I was compelled to include it. I had heard it earlier in the Spring as I was driving up I-69. It was the day after the Oklahoma bombing, and one of firefighters was being interviewed on National Public Radio. He talked about carrying the babies’ bodies out of the daycare center, and how his life would be forever changed. I remember that he said something like: “I can’t say why this has happened, and all I can do is pray.” My eyes were so full of tears that I pulled over. The musical interlude that followed on NPR was the tune of Come Down, O Love Divine, thus proving that there is at least one Christian at NPR, despite what we have heard to the contrary.

I sang along: For none can guess God’s grace, till Love creates a place, wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling. Amy, meet the Holy Spirit!


Amy-July-2014-214x300Amy Williams Fowler

Presbytery Leader

Presbytery of Genesee Valley

Confessions of a GA Junkie


Now that’s trust!

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

By Leslianne Braunstein

In 2001 I took San Francisco Seminary’s GA Polity course and received an in-depth introduction into the history and workings of this august body. I was hooked. I’ve been to every General Assembly since. I am a certified GA Junkie. I’ve got the pin to prove it.

After years of drifting among the committees, I now pick a committee and follow its proceedings through open hearings, advocacy statements  and deliberations – right through its report to the Assembly during plenary.

What I love about General Assembly is the Spirit working in and through the commissioners. This is most evident in committee deliberations.  I have followed the committee workings of both the Polity and Peacemaking committees during times of great contention. As the commissioners entered the room I could see on their faces they had already made up their minds on issues of great importance to the church. Over the course of three days as they listened to testimony and discussed the issues among themselves, as they prayed and genuinely sought God’s face in their deliberations, I could actually see those firm convictions yielding to the leading of the Spirit. It was an amazing experience to witness.

Committee deliberations have taken many turns in the last few years. The efforts to build consensus on issues of substantial contention seem to run into obstacles and roadblocks at every turn. With good leadership, though, committees that worked primarily as “a committee of the whole” seemed to be able to build a deeper trust among their members than committees strictly relying on Roberts Rules. Roberts Rules, while a useful tool, simply does not engender mutual confidence among committee members. Being able to look in the eye your brother or sister in Christ and express your deepest hopes and fears seems to be the only way consensus can be reached.

Of course, letting committee members actually talk to one another during deliberations is messy and requires great listening skills from leadership. It takes great wisdom to know how to corral the energy in the room and bring it to a place of peace and understanding. In the end, in order to make the report, though, there must be a return to Robert’s Rules so that motions can be made and seconded and voted upon. I believe, though, the deliberative process is better served by other means.

Four years ago I monitored the Peacemaking Committee that, once again, deliberated whether or not the PC(USA) should divest from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. At the first open deliberation it was clear who was going to vote which way. However, during the next three days, as the commissioners listened to testimonies and the advice of Gen. Assembly agencies, and as they discussed what they heard in small groups and as a committee of the whole, you could feel the air change. In the end, the committee – one I believed was split in half – came to an overwhelming consensus on the direction the church should take in these matters. Of the almost 50 commissioners, only four felt strongly enough to want to file a minority report. Even with that, the next day when the committee met, the leader of that group stood and tearfully acknowledged that while they had reservations about the outcome the committee was recommending, they would not file a minority report “for the good of the church.” It was, he said, the Spirit’s leading; the report should stand on its own. I saw no visible victory behaviors – no high-fives or thumbs-up.  What I heard were heartfelt acknowledgements of the difficulty of their decision and prayer. Lots of prayer.

I think this result was only possible because the leadership of this committee was committed to building trust. I suspect she did a lot of this during the closed sessions; and, when the atmosphere grew tense, she found ways to incorporate trust building opportunities into the discussions as they proceeded.

I have no idea how this would work in plenary. While individual committees work to build trust among their members, it is clear when the reports get to the floor of the Assembly, the trust does not extend to other committees. It is clear that we do not trust one another. While the Spirit may work in my life, we are not too sure about what She is doing in yours.

As I write this, I wonder if our predicament isn’t that we don’t trust one another; rather, we really question whether God is able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

It’s a dilemma, for sure.

LB PhotoLeslianne Adkins Braunstein is an Interim Ministry Specialist in the PCUSA (National Capital Presbytery), a biblical storyteller and passionate GA Junkie. She was raised in New York City in what is the equivalent of the Southern Baptist Church. Leslianne joined Hollywood Presbyterian Church in 1991 and she immediately fell in love with the connectional nature of the Presbyterian church (U.S.A.) – in all its beautiful organized messiness. Leslianne was a law office administrator before her call to ordained ministry which might explain her affinity to decent orderliness.

“table” photo credit: Joi via photopin cc