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Death to Bring About Resurrection

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 Michele Goff

I come to the NEXT Church National Gathering every year to be reminded that I am one of many church leaders striving to teach the radical healing love of Jesus’ Christ.

The ideas I bring back to my church from the National Gathering surprise me, often. This can be some creative element of worship, a particularly insightful phrase from communion liturgy, or the depth of meaning found in one particular scripture preached from insightful and varied perspectives.

During opening worship, when I dip my bread in the cup, I am blessed with the words: “the cup of liberation.” I am floored with humility. AMEN! The intellectual piece of my brain says, of course. But my soul is about to burst from this enlivening kiss from the Holy Spirit. Liberated from sin. Set free to participate in radical love. Loved and unfettered because God’s power is compassion, not coercion, as the preacher articulated moments before. I have just participated in a declaration of liberation. Yes, Alleluia!

I notice, more than once, that I am not the only one whose emotions stream down my face as we worship together. Whether we are washing one another’s hands or taping prayers to cardboard box “roadside memorials” scattered throughout the space, worship becomes a tactile experience. Worship is traditional and fresh: we break bread as one and in intimate circles around roadside-memorials-turned-communion-stations. And of course there is joyful singing – by those assembled, by the NEXT Church choir, led and shared by special guests, and even performed by the children of the Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School Choir.

This year’s theme of “Desert in Bloom” was particularly fruitful. It unified the workshops and was easy to recognize in teaching, sharing, and art.

The message of finding love for the fool kept surfacing for me. “A highway shall be there … no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” (Isa. 35:8)

It is easy to witness many people pointing and calling one another fools lately. And I hear myself doing the same thing. As I experienced this text with fresh ears, I heard for the first time that even if I stumble and behave like a fool, God will guide me back to the highway that is the Holy Way. And the “others”, the ones I may think are blind or deaf or fearful of the truth – they too can be restored. When God restores them, and corrects my own foolishness, we will be on the Holy Way together.

In the preaching I heard: Billy Honor exhorting us to call upon the Holy Spirit to be the “super” to our “natural.” With thoughtful humor, Kathryn Johnston cautions us to be careful where we draw the line [between us and them] because Jesus is always on the OTHER side of it.

There is hope for the fool! This is a blossoming bedrock of hope – an answer to the many fears that threaten and infect the world.

The theme this year successfully zeroed in on the importance of death to bring about the transformative power of resurrection.

I return home refreshed, and open to the ways that divisive and harmful attitudes, traditions and fears may be allowed to die a normal and timely death so that the full glory of resurrection might be realized.


Michele Goff is the pastor of Aztec Presbyterian Church in Northwestern New Mexico. After almost 12 years in television production, she graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2015 having finally found her true calling. She is an avid Sci Fi fan and a fledgling knitter whose “happy place” is on the sofa next to her husband with her two dogs at her feet.

Trusting in God, Always at Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Derrick Weston

“We trust that God is always at work in our world and in our lives, giving us joy, and calling us to be faithful to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom.”
– The Sarasota Statement

Underpinning the confessions, griefs, and commitments of the Sarasota Statement is a hope. That hope is rooted in a belief that God is at work, remaking the world in justice in love. It is this deep hope that allows us to carry on even when It seems that the world is at its darkest. We trust that God is working in our lives. We also trust that God is working through our lives. It’s that trust which keeps us from wavering in our work, recognizing the privilege we are given to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

For the last year I have had the privilege of working as the neighborhood organizer for Arlington Presbyterian Church just outside of Washington, D.C. Facing struggles similar to many congregations in the denomination — namely a large, aging building and a small, aging congregation — the church took a faithful step. They sold the building to a local, mission-oriented developer who is in the process of turning the space where the building once was into affordable housing, a major need in Northern Virginia. It was a courageous move, one that could only be made with a firm belief that God is doing a new thing and the church gets to be a part of it.

APC is in the middle of a process. Once the new building is constructed, the church will relocate to the first floor of the new affordable housing complex in a newly designed storefront. While there is incredible excitement for what the church will be once the new space is completed, it is in this in-between time when that trust is tested. The imagery of desert and wilderness feel less like abstract notions and more like lived realities. And it is in this “here but not yet” mode that the church relies on God for her joy.

We find our joy in thinking through new ways of being church. We find our joy in creating new partnerships that will help us to serve the community. We find our joy in knowing that the trail we blaze now may be for the benefit of other congregations that will follow our path or one like it. The joy that we experience is no fleeting emotionalism, but a deep satisfaction in knowing that we are striving to be faithful to the vision that God has given us. It is that joy, based in hope and perseverance that sustains us when the way ahead feels uncertain.

None of what the Sarasota Statement calls for is easy. The work to which it calls us is the work of many lifetimes. These words from the closing of the statement remind me of Dr. King’s insistence that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The work of God’s Kingdom is a slow, incremental climb toward love of God and love of neighbor. The importance of this reminder is that we should work in a way that builds on the legacies of the past while preparing to pass the baton to the leaders of the future. This ensures that the vision to which we are being faithful is indeed, Christ’s vision and not our own.


Derrick Weston is the neighborhood organizer at Arlington Presbyterian Church. He is the co-host of two podcasts, “God Complex Radio” and “The Gospel According to Marvel” and blogs regularly at derricklweston.com.

Engaging the Sarasota Statement

by Linda Kurtz

Back in March 2017, NEXT Church released the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. At the time, this is what Sarasota Statement facilitator Glen Bell had to say about it:

We believe in times of need or crisis, we are called to turn to the biblical and theological roots of our Christian faith to remember our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and say anew what we believe.

Since then, the Sarasota Statement has given me words to say when I had none. In the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA (just an hour across the state from me in Richmond), I quoted Part I of the Sarasota Statement because it was the only thing I could possibly do.

To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim:We trust our Lord and Savior who…

Posted by NEXT Church on Saturday, August 12, 2017

When our national discourse conflates patriotism with anti-immigration or safety with fear of the “other,” I remember the Statement: “We commit to welcome and protect refugees and immigrants…. We denounce a culture of violence that brutalizes or alienates bodies on the basis of ability, sexual or gender identity, ethnicity, or color of skin.”

But the Sarasota Statement speaks in times of hopeful anticipation, too — like in Advent. Each Sunday this past Advent, I posted excerpts from the statement that spoke to that week’s theme, because the statement speaks of hope, peace, joy, and love.

On this third Sunday of #Advent, we recognize our joy comes from God – and that it compels us to act. #SarasotaStatement https://nextchurch.net/sarasota-statement-text/

Posted by NEXT Church on Sunday, December 17, 2017

I am grateful for all of the ways this document, written by a small representation of the PC(USA), has led me and challenged me throughout the past (almost) year.

And now, I’m excited about a new way to engage the Sarasota Statement and look more deeply into its core convictions. The writers of the Sarasota Statement just published a study guide so that you and me and communities of Christians all over can faithfully engage with the statement, scripture, our confessional heritage, and one another. The guide is broken down into five parts: Preamble, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Closing. With the exception of Closing, each part contains multiple questions about biblical themes, theological themes, and contextual themes, drawing upon scripture, our confessions, and our contemporary context to engage each part of the Sarasota Statement.

Their prayer — and mine — is that this study guide will  encourage each of us to examine our own faiths and core convictions, moving towards the development of faith statements across the Church. May the Sarasota Statement continue to be a resource in your own ministry, a reminder of the light of Christ, and a call to justice and radical love.


Linda Kurtz is the communications specialist for NEXT Church and a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. 

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

Keep Awake

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: Kate is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Kate Foster Connors

In this season of waiting, I feel impatient.

Congress is a mess. The #metoo movement is only growing, with accounts of sexual harassment and rape coming out daily. Wildfires are burning California – again. Churches are declining and shutting their doors in a steady stream.

This year, the lectionary texts from the first Sunday in Advent feel especially timely. Isaiah pleads with God: “O that you would … make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2) And the Psalmist implores, “Stir up your might, and come to save us!” (Psalm 80:2b) Like Isaiah and the Psalmist, I don’t feel like we can afford to wait. My prayers lately have been some version of, “How can we WAIT, God? Have you been paying attention to this messed up world?”

It seems fitting that this season of waiting, arriving in a firestorm of brokenness, begins with a call on God to act boldly.

Advent also is the season of getting ready. Advent is the time when we prepare for the coming of Jesus – not the docile baby wrapped in cloths that is depicted in so many children’s books and light-up, front lawn nativity scenes, but the justice-seeking Jesus whose mission is to bring radical love for all of God’s children. Advent is the time when we prepare for God to upend the world as it is, and usher in the world as it should be.

So although (like Isaiah and the Psalmist) in my prayers I’ve been pleading with God to please come soon, my prayer this Advent season can’t only be about my impatience with God. Preparing for the coming of Jesus means that I have some work to do, too.

I have a rock sitting on my desk. It is almost perfectly round, and is smooth and flat on the front and on the back. I keep it in the most visible place on my desk – next to my phone, and in front of the pictures of my family. Across the top, big and bold in black marker, are these words: “Keep awake.”

The Gospel reading from the first Sunday of Advent commands us to “…keep awake…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:33)

I wrote those words on my rock during Lent a couple years ago, at a prayer station our Christian educator had set up for a Maundy Thursday prayer service. It was a good message for Lent, but I decided to keep it in plain sight all year round, because it keeps me honest. To keep awake, I need to pay attention. To keep awake, I cannot let myself stay in the safe bubble that is easy for a middle-class, white woman to stay within. To keep awake, I cannot stay inside the cocoon of my office, or my house. To keep awake, I need to listen to my neighbors in a city that is both full of life and culture, and that is broken and hurting deeply.

It is easy for me to get stuck in my cry for Jesus to please come soon! I need God to help me keep awake, so that I don’t wait (however impatiently) my way through another Advent.

My prayer for the Church this Advent is not all that different: that we all pray urgently for Christ’s coming – “come to save us!” – but that we don’t get stuck in that prayer – that we don’t wait passively – that our churches keep awake to the injustice that is unfolding daily, in our nation, in our states, in our cities and towns, and in our backyards. That we resist the easier path, the one that takes us from our cars in the parking lot to the pews in the sanctuary and back again – and take the more difficult one, the one that takes us out of our church building and into our neighborhoods to find out what’s really going on with our neighbors. The path that keeps us awake.


Kate Foster Connors is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia Theological Seminary. She has served churches in Memphis, TN, and Baltimore, MD. Currently, Kate is the Director of The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore that hosts church groups for mission experiences in Baltimore. She and her husband, Andrew, have 2 teenage daughters, a cat, and a dog.

Christmas in Prison

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: Hans is co-leading a workshop at the 2018 National Gathering called, “A Prison in Bloom.” It will take place on Tuesday during workshop block 2. Learn more and register to participate!

by Hans Hallundbaek

Christmas in prison is not Christmas. There are no celebrations, no gifts, no holly leaves, no caroling, no festive meals. During Christmas everything is the daily tiring routine, as if Christmas was another boring Monday. For those incarcerated, it is just one of those endless days slowly counting away your sentence.

Indeed, for most of the more than two million people serving time in our almost 2,000 state and federal prisons, Christmas is a non-event. The only acknowledgement of the holiday is for those who join chapel services, where volunteers from the outside are allowed to join for a unique Christmas service deep behind tall walls and barbed wires.

The first time I joined such a Christmas Eve service of hymn singing and prayers at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, I was overwhelmed by the experience. When it came to my turn to address a chapel filled with incarcerated men waiting for a hopeful message, I was not quite sure what to do.

After delivering my prepared message, I realized there were no candles in the room, so I said, “Let us, in closing, light a candle to remember the light of Christ being born into the world tonight.”

One of the men in the front pews jumped up, “Pastor, are you crazy? This is a maximum security prison. Candles are contraband here.”

“But wait,” I said, “My candle is different. It is a virtual candle…a candle you can see only in your mind’s eye.”

Reaching into my bag I pulled out, and held up, an imaginary large white pillar candle. I asked, “Can you all see this this beautiful candle?” While obviously a little bewildered, several of the men started nodding their heads.

I carefully placed the candle on the altar, and when I reached into my pocket and produced virtual matches, Tony agreed to come forward and light the candle.

This roomful of men, hardened by years and decades in prison, quickly embraced the moment. I could almost see the candle flame reflected in their eyes. It was totally still in the room as the audience recalled the experience of live candles that they had not seen for years.

After a brief reflection on the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” I prepared to leave as the prison guard arrived to guide me out.

Then someone from the third row shouted, “What about the candle?”

“Just blow it out,” said another.

“No!” came a booming voice from the back of the room. It was Jerome, a big, strong man with a 45 year sentence.

“Please, please never blow out that candle,” he pleaded in a trembling voice, “I want it to stay lit, so that every time I enter this room I can see hope.”

Hope is my favorite Advent theme. And last I checked, that virtual candle is still shining brightly in the Sing Sing Chapel.

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners…
-Hebrews 13:3


Hans Hallundbaek is the coordinator for the Hudson River Presbytery’s Prison Partnership Program. He has served as an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and as a volunteer chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He is the NGO representative to the United Nations for the International Prison Chaplains’ Association (IPCA) and Citizens United for the Return of Errants (CURE). Hans holds his D-Min. from New York Theological Seminary.

Hope on a Whole New Level

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: Folks from the Presbyterian Foundation are leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Forming Generous Disciples.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Rob Bullock

Hope has been hard to find lately. There’s precious little of it in the morning paper. Not much to be found during the drive-time broadcasts on NPR either. My friends on Facebook don’t seem very hopeful, judging by the posts that show up in my Facebook feed. There’s plenty of despair – about politics, world affairs, injustice, poverty, division, violence, and all of the other entries on our endless list of social ills. The stories of hope are much harder to find.

Sadly, the situation is not much better in the denomination. There’s anxiety aplenty – declining membership, departing congregations, shrinking revenues. Budgets are stressed. Pastors are stressed. A third of our churches don’t even have pastors to be stressed. Even the prayer times at my church on Sunday morning contain far more petitions and pleas for help than reports of hopeful praise.

advent, ornament, starAnd in the midst of all this stress and anxiety and despair, we come hurtling headlong into Advent. Oh yeah. Advent. That season of … HOPE. And PEACE. And JOY. All the bright and shiny feelings, warming our hearts and souls like the bright and shiny ornaments adorning our homes.

Everything changes in Advent: colors everywhere change from oranges and browns to reds and greens. The Halloween decorations are (finally) replaced with Christmas trees. The music on the radio changes. The cups at Starbucks change. The hymns we sing in church come from a different section of the hymnal.

And perhaps with all of these outward changes, we may start to sense some glimmers of hope. Hope that the presents we buy go over well. Hope that the presents we get are things we actually want or need. Hope that the charitable contributions we make will have real impact in people’s lives. Hope that the 40% of annual giving we know comes in every December will indeed come in again this December.

But is any of this really the right kind of hope? is this what Paul meant when he wrote in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans that,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I think that’s hope on a whole new level. Real hope. Enduring, sustainable hope. And, perhaps, hard-earned hope. It helps me to think backwards through Paul’s logical progression. Hope comes from character, which comes from endurance, which comes from sufferings.

So maybe God has a plan for us in our current anxieties. Maybe these are sufferings that can lead us to that hope in God and in God’s Word which Ruth and Esther and Job and David and Solomon and Jeremiah and Luke and Paul and all the other Biblical characters keep talking about.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of hope I’d like to have. That’s hope that will overcome anything on Facebook, or NPR, or in the morning paper, or the afternoon Presbyterian News Service email. That’s hope to get us through tight budget cycles and too many empty seats in the pews. (That’s the kind of hope my Presbyterian Foundation colleagues will be talking about in Baltimore at the NEXT Church National Gathering, sharing stories of real churches that are finding hopeful ways to overcome financial challenges.)

The “next” church should be a hopeful church. And Advent is a perfect time to start living that hope-filled life. We may be surrounded by sufferings, but we must not despair. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 43:5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”


Rob Bullock is Vice President for Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. He is a ruling elder and hopeful member of the St. John Presbyterian Church in New Albany, Indiana.

Waiting with the Widow

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: McKenna is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by McKenna Lewellen

In Mark 13, Jesus bellows, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

It is trembling, quaking writing. It is a message of hope – but our ability to hear it that way depends largely on a character who lives at the edge of this Advent lection, one chapter before.

Jesus shouts his apocalyptic declaration from the top of the Mount of Olives, just across from the Temple, but earlier that day, he had been inside its walls, sitting across from the treasury.

Photo from The Center’s Facebook page

In walked a poor widow. Remember her? She enters the treasury alone and drops her last two coins inside the collection box. It’s an ordinary act – one that had, no doubt, happened before and gone unnoticed. Her coins fall in alongside gifts that dwarf hers. She gives to sustain an institution, though it’s unlikely her pennies would cover the cost of counting the gift itself. Why does she do it? Who knows. Jesus doesn’t ask. He just points to her as it happens, tells the disciples what he sees unfolding, and storms out. As they reach the outer wall, the disciples have all but forgotten her and are marveling at the size of the stones.

So often we think about this woman as the poster child for sacrificial giving. A more honest appraisal might speak of her as the last straw, the one who pushes Jesus to speak with a new kind of force about his vision of a new order. Watching her lose all she has, he knows with deepened anger that the world as it is doesn’t work for the poorest among us. The thought of her haunts him the whole climb up to the top of the Mount of Olives, and he proclaims the sky will fall to the ground and the ground will shake, and it will become unrecognizable. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Without the poor widow, we risk hearing Jesus’ declaration in Mark 13 as just another threat barked out by an angry man. With her, the apocalypse carries hope for life beyond the way it’s always been.

Advent invites us to find hope in apocalypse that makes room for the widow to live.

For too long, mission in many of our churches has tried to momentarily save the poor widow. We have fed her more meals, collected more unwrapped Christmas presents, and tucked more sheets into shelter cots than we can count. But few know her, remember her name, or question why, after decades of these projects, we still live in a world that needs to make her a bed, feed her a meal, and send her away with a shopping bag.

Mission committees have tried to save her from a distance, but she is our best partner and leader as we try to find God at work in the world. She is more likely to be a number in our outreach budget than a member of our community. But she is the one who will see the world turn upside-down and wait breathlessly in hope for a different way to emerge – one where she can live without fear of violence, breathe clean air, access enough healthy food, and rest in safety. She is the one who can show us Advent hope.

On street corners, in church basements, and in neighborhood gardens in Baltimore, I am waiting with the widow, and hearing her cry out. She is telling us what the world can be, shouting her vision, painting it on the side of houses, pointing out promise in empty lots.

And as I stand here, I wonder, do we know the widows among us well enough for apocalypse to sound like hope? Or will we miss it?


McKenna Lewellen is the Program Coordinator at The Center, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore.

When Advent is a Plea

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: Dave is leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “From Text to Sermon: Staying Faithful in a Changed Landscape.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Dave Davis

Advent and Christmas come around every year for the preacher whether you want them to or not! I can’t be the only preacher who finds planning for Advent preaching paralyzing some years. When lectionary preachers get bored with the lectionary, I bet it happens mostly in Advent. When topical preachers struggle to come up with the next series or month of texts for preaching, I bet it happens mostly in Advent. The liturgical themes of the four Sundays of Advent unfold with the familiarity of family tradition. The expected rhythm may tamp down the preacher’s imagination rather than inspire. So the temptation rises to opt for a cantata, a pageant, and lessons and carols, leaving one Sunday in Advent to preach!

candleBut it feels like there is nothing routine about Advent this year. The list of events that contribute to a growing darkness in the soul is all too real. The chaos of the world and the nation stokes a growing sense of wandering in the wilderness. Trying to preserve the peace and unity of the church these days can be like trying to keep a flickering candle lit through a stormy night. For those of us who rise to preach there has to be an urgency to our gospel proclamation of the very promise of God.

Bearing witness to the promise of God as the landscape shifts all around you. That sounds a bit like Advent. For still, a voice cries in the wilderness. And still, a people who walked in darkness have seen great light. And still. A star rises in the east. And still, you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And still, the true light which enlightens everyone, came into the world. And still, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall never overcome it. This year Advent is less of a season and more of a plea.

It is getting harder and harder to preach the gospel, especially in Advent. And it many of our lifetimes, it has never been more important to preach the gospel, especially in Advent. It is the paradox of the preaching office these days; the joy and the challenge, the privilege and the heartache. Maybe the first task for the preacher in an Advent season unlike any other is to experience God’s promise afresh and to pray for the light of life to come smack into all this darkness. Pray that God’s promise of that peaceable kingdom will ever more quickly come. Pray that Isaiah’s promise of a child leading them, and of a shoot that comes forth from the stump of Jesse, and of every valley being lifted up and every mountain made low, and of not hurting or destroying on all of God’s holy mountain, and of God about to do a new thing….that Isaiah’s promise would be fulfilled now. Pray for the Advent light to come.

Advent as a prayer. Advent as a plea. And the preacher crying out, praying for, clinging to the very light of God. Falling, just about helpless, certainly speechless into the promise of God. And then, and only then, daring once again to rise to speak.

Because God has spoken.

Come Lord, Jesus, quickly come.


David A. Davis has served as senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, since 2000. David earned his Ph.D. in homiletics from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he continues to teach as a visiting lecturer. Before arriving in Princeton, he served for fourteen years as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Blackwood, New Jersey. He is the author of two sermon collections, A Kingdom You Can Taste and Lord, Teach Us to Pray, and his recent sermons are published on the Nassau Church Sermon Journal. He tweets occasionally at @revdavedavis.

The Surprising Benefit of Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Casey Thompson

Once in first grade, my teacher asked the class what each of us wanted to be when we were older. Cindy said a fireman; Mark answered a teacher; Stephanie wanted to be a princess (bless her heart, it seems more unlikely the older we get). Then our teacher turned to me, “Casey, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

I said, “I’d like to spend my life propping up an institution on life support, squeezing out the last bits of life from it so that it can continue to over-serve the wealthy and under-serve the poor. In short, Ms. Cunningham, I’d like to be a pastor!”

In retrospect, I might have been a cynical child.

Photo from Wayne Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Perhaps you were as well. It would explain why the church of Jesus Christ seems to have a problem with cynicism now. Cynicism happens when our hopefulness deflates, and it seems to me much of the church’s hopefulness has deflated. We’re wondering how to do ministry when the tested, traditional methods don’t work anymore — or when those methods actively make things worse. We’re wondering how to keep this marvelous institution alive that introduced us to the very thing we love most in life. As it gets harder to do, we get more cynical.

I too am prone to cynicism, but I love pastors (most of us) and elders (more of you) and congregants (nearly all of them). I don’t want the church to lose hope.

So I agreed to try and help as I could. I joined the Cultivated Ministry team. We were called together to consider new ways of evaluating ministry, ways that considered numbers and storytelling, ways forward focused on theology and new learnings.

What I have discovered in my time working with this group is that there is an unexpected benefit to evaluation. Evaluation is not just a way to gauge the effectiveness of a ministry so that it might be tweaked toward perfection. Evaluation actually subverts the forms of our ministry. It actually returns us to the theological question at the heart of vocation, a question so fundamental that we start asking first graders so they’ll have enough practice answering it by the time it becomes pressing for them: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” How do you want to spend your time?

My genuine answer is that I want to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want people to encounter the gentle spirit that canopies the world, the shelter that is also the source of our being, and the incarnation of that spirit in the person of Jesus Christ. I want people to know of his love for the world and of his vision of justice and peace. I want people to know there is grace for our failures and consolation for our grief. I want people to know they are not alone, that the Holy Spirit is with them.

When I’m not re-addressing these fundamental questions I find that I drift from trying to serve the gospel to simply managing a slow decline of the mainline’s flavor of the church, staving off social trends with my own work and creativity — instead of the generative work of Christ. “We’ll try it this way this year,” I say. Or if there is less energy: “It was good enough last year. Just move on and get the sermon done.”

I’m going to lose the fight against the slow marginalization of the church in the United States. I think most of us know that now. It’s like trying to sell Blackberries in an iPhone world. It doesn’t fit anymore — even if there’s a dedicated group of users.

But serving the gospel? Yes. I know that serving the gospel is a worthy endeavor even if I fail at it.

Evaluation returns me to the core of why we do what we do in serving the gospel. Evaluation isn’t simply a tool to make your Wednesday night fellowship group run smoother, your Sunday school class more topical, or your Christmas Bazaar better than the Methodist church’s down the street. Evaluation asks why it’s important in the first place. It’s a reminder that the Wednesday night fellowship group helped a couple persevere through a cancer diagnosis for their daughter. It’s the reminder that the Sunday school class birthed a tutoring ministry that helped to close the achievement gap in the local school. It’s a reminder that the Christmas Bazaar raises funds for a church camp where pre-teens fall in love with God in a way that haunts them and enlivens them for the rest of their lives.

The surprising benefit of evaluation is that it prompts us to return to why we spend our lives how we spend them. In that, we see how God works through us and in us and we find hope for a future.

Evaluation, it turns out, is salve for cynicism.


Casey Thompson is pastor of Wayne Presbyterian church in Wayne, Pennsylvania.