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Embracing Mara

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!

In her sermon at the 2019 National Gathering in Seattle, Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown preaches on the subject “Bitter,” referring to the name Naomi claims for herself in the book of Ruth. Attending to the truth told in this sermon might be a practice to consider this Holy Week as an individual practice of devotion, or with a small group.

Dr. Brown calls the church to take time for lament, viewing lament as a gift from God and a way to connect to God. Lament offers “the chance to weep bitterly at the state of the world, the circumstances and challenges that affect us all. Our neglect of lament has somehow changed us and thwarted our spiritual lives.” Dr. Brown challenges our desire to jump over Good Fridays and right to Easter. She contends that resisting the dissonance of lament and holding pain, prevents us from getting to the sacrifice or the liberation.

Take time in lament over the state of the world without trying to find a silver lining or a solution. Be present to the pain.

Naomi and Ruth are two of the first womanist theologians, Dr. Brown argues. When Naomi names herself Mara, she didn’t worry about comforting anyone else, but claimed her own space. She told her own truth. Dr. Brown exhorts the church to call her by her chosen name —

Honor her trauma.
Prioritize her.
Hear the words she is saying in between the words she does say.
Co-conspire with her.
Check our salaries and compare them with hers for equity’s sake.

Dr. Brown says there will be no forward movement if we do not embrace mara.

What is one way you can embrace mara this week, as Dr. Brown suggests?

Dr. Brown believes Ruth came from a womanist society “where she knew that being by yourself in the African context is the same as being dead. If she went back, Naomi would be alone. She knew Mara needed to have somebody to have her back.” Dr. Brown turns to the present day and says we need to learn how to have one another’s backs, to build trust, and to support the most vulnerable among us. The story of Naomi/Mara and Ruth is a story of redemption, but not for them, she says. “It is a story of redemption for the people who did not know how to welcome and listen to them. Solidarily is the order of the day.”

Reflect on the ways in which you turn toward individualism rather than solidarity.

A theme throughout the sermon is that we cannot be church together if we can’t tell the truth. Dr. Brown concludes that sermon by saying, she wants the church to be a place where nobody has to worry about what they have on or whether they have a degree or not or whether they walked up or drove up. She wants a church “that has a pastor that looks like me sometimes.” Her final line is, “I am loving you by telling my truth.”

Reflect on what defense mechanisms you use when someone else’s truth conflicts with your own. How do you overcome those defenses? How do you create the space to hear another’s truth and be changed by it?

Dr. Brown says, “The gift of the black sacred tradition is that you don’t want joy all the time. God will be the one to push you through to the otherside.” May it be so.

The Desert is in Bloom

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 Jeff Bryan

I feel like an apology is in order. Here I am, curating the NEXT Church blog, writing the opening and closing pieces, and I didn’t even attend the 2018 National Gathering. I have a good excuse. We had a serious medical emergency in the family. Don’t worry. It’s been a long haul, but everyone is okay. I have a good excuse for my absence; I also have a silver lining. The family emergency gave me the opportunity to listen and watch the National Gathering events online, look at pictures, and read these blog posts with a different perspective. Things look different from far away. Plus, I got to see them from the resurrection side of Easter.

desert bloom hand wash handsThe desert is in bloom. There is life on the other side of death. Resurrection is real. I saw it in my family, as we kept vigil in the hospital for a week, prayed, and witnessed a full recovery. I saw it in the loving hands of church members, bringing countless casseroles and pound cakes to the house. I was surprised to see it in relationships: “You and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but you really came through for me. Thank you, brother. I love you.” I heard it in the voices of children, shouting “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday. On Good Friday, I heard resurrection in the clarinet of a 91-year old man—

the band director from the old, segregated, black high school,
marching into the all-white cemetery,
past the statue of a Civil War soldier
and the rusty C.S.A. markers,
in an integrated band,
the jazz cats giving the old man respect…
“Yeah, man, play!”
“He’s 91 and the best musician in town!”
“It’s an honor to march with you, sir.”
with an integrated crowd,
arm in arm, singing,
“Just a closer walk with thee!”
too many layers of meaning to count,
that ancient clarinet wailing front and center,
with hope as strong today as 1950

—and I’ll never be the same again. I saw it on the smiling faces on Easter morning, children screaming “Risen indeed!” I’ve seen resurrection in congregations, our denomination, and the NEXT Church National Gathering, asking the hard question, “What is God calling us to do, be, or change?” And I read it in the voices of these blog contributors. Their excitement for the future is palpable, and their hope is contagious. Make no mistake. We bear witness to the resurrection of Christ, we proclaim the victory of God’s grace, and the Reign of Heaven is gaining ground.

Readers, I invite you to pay close attention to these blog posts. They are us, they are the future, and they are fantastic. Enjoy!


Jeff Bryan is senior pastor of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jeff has also served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and suburban Philadelphia. He enjoys spending time with family, and has an embarrassingly large music collection.