Veering Off the Holy Way

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 Debbie Fagans

The NEXT Church National Gathering has always been a rejuvenating experience for me. As a gray-head, seeing all the young pastors and lay persons gives me hope for our denomination. Maybe God is doing a new thing in us after all.

This year’s gathering did not disappoint in this matter. I’m not sure I went believing that I personally was in a wilderness and had to die and rise again. But who can listen to Billy Honor with his vivid stories of fire engines or ice cream cones being shared – take a lick – and not realize that there is a spirit awakening our staid Presbyterians?

Or who can hear Jennifer Barchi with her hilarious story of taking her youth group on a camping trip and yelling for Cliff, the other adult, to come out and save them and not realize that we too, like Jennifer, are adults and need to rise to the occasion.

While all the speakers moved me with their stories, whether humorous, serious, or learned, it wasn’t until the last speaker, Kathryn Johnston spoke, that I heard what I think God brought me there to hear.

The Isaiah passage had tickled my mind throughout the conference.

“Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!’”

As I grow older and look back on all I can’t do anymore, it is a comfort to feel that God will strengthen my weak hands and my very feeble knees. I need that strength both literally and figuratively. As we take on new responsibilities in starting a free, after school tutoring program in a low-income area of our city, I need to hear the Lord telling me to be strong and not fearful. God will be with us in this endeavor.

But hearing Kathryn’s humorous story of their car breaking down in a part of our country not known for its liberality and that she almost missed seeing that the “mom & pop” who helped them were people traveling on the Holy Way because she was on the “holier than thou” way, really struck a chord.

“A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way…”

How often – especially now in our political climate – have I been on the “holier than thou” way? I’m afraid to admit, even to myself, that it has been way too many times. I can be very judgmental. Why can’t “these” people see how awful the present occupant of the White House is? Or why can’t “those” people realize we need to cut carbon emissions? We only have one planet. Or why can’t “those” women realize we’re not pro-abortion? We’re pro-choice.

I’m so busy trying to be right that I don’t notice that I have veered off the “Holy Way.” I miss seeing the humanity in the people I put down. But even here, God comes to my rescue.

“…no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”

What a comfort that is, Lord! I am often such a fool. Help me to realize when I have fallen off the Holy Way. Help me to get off my high-horse and look at those who travel with me and are loved by you as much as I am.

And together we can “come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon our heads;
we shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Debbie Fagans is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Albany, NY.  She is also the volunteer executive director of the South End Neighborhood Tutors, also known as Wizard’s Wardrobe. She has a background in education and taught elementary school in PA and NJ. She also worked as program coordinator for literacy volunteers and trained adults to teach adults in Troy.

Wandering in the Wilderness

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 Megan McMillan

Back in September, I read Brené Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Just like all of her other books, TED Talks, and podcast appearances, I was in tears by the end. Brené Brown is basically my personal life coach. Thus, I have been ruminating on the idea of wilderness for a few months. In her book, Brown tells us that the wilderness is a place of belonging and a sacred place, “[The wilderness] is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, it’s the bravest and the most sacred place you will ever stand.”

Thanks to Brown, I feel the wilderness is a place that can be lonely and terrifying, yet it can also be so beautiful and exciting. The scripture we focused on during the gathering reassured us of that. “The wilderness and dry land will be glad, the wilderness will rejoice and blossom (Isaiah 35: 1).”

As a denomination, the PC(USA) has been wandering in the wilderness for a while now. As a seminary student, I am so sick of hearing people say that the church is dying. Prior to my seminary career, I served as a youth director for six years. People always say that the youth are the future of the church, but I firmly believe that young people are the church right now. How can anyone possibly think the church is dying where you are amongst 6,000+ youth at Presbyterian Youth Triennium? How can anyone think the church is dying when you’re sitting in Anderson Auditorium with over 1,000 college students at Montreat College Conference? How can anyone think the church is dying when our seminaries are full of eager twenty-something’s ready to serve our church? If you think the church is dying, you are looking in all the wrong places. We are simply wandering in the wilderness.

I really resonated with the sermon on Tuesday night by Jennifer Barchi. Rev. Barchi shared my feelings in that the wilderness is not always an undesirable place. The church is merely evolving into something different. As people of God, we must evolve with it and transform it into something new. There is death in the wilderness, but that gives us the opportunity of holy rising. This dying will not kill us. This dying will resurrect us. As a denomination, I have full confidence that we will use this death as an opportunity to rise into new, hopeful, and creative people of God. “The Church is dying, thanks be to God!” As we continue to wander in the wilderness, thank you NEXT Church National Gathering for renewing my hope in this church that I love so deeply.

Megan McMillan is a student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Currently, she is serving as the Chaplain Intern at Presbyterian Mo-Ranch in Hunt, TX, for her SPM until the end of the summer. She will then head back to Austin to finish her final year of seminary. A graduate of Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, Megan also served in Columbia, SC as a youth director before her seminary career. She has two adorable dogs that love the outdoors as much as she does, and is an avid South Carolina Gamecock fan.

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.

2018 National Gathering Monday Opening Worship

At the request of Rev. Billy Honor, video of this sermon is not being posted.

Here is the liturgy for the service.

Call to Worship

One: This is our ancient story:
All: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.
One: In him was life and the life was the light of all people.
All: So no traveler, not even fools, could go astray.
One: God called us on the holy way where she was leading.
All: And he comes to us again today—to follow where he leads.
One: She promised to go with us, and she is with us now.
All: The wilderness shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Prayer of Confession

Holy God, in this dry and weary land, our souls are thirsty. We long for wholeness, for justice, for peace, for You, and yet our longing doesn’t always lead us to those places. We recall the moments we’ve tried to quench our own thirst, make our own path, or be our own healer. Whisper to us the promises of your grace, illumine the way home, and hold us in your loving arms, where are shall be well. Amen.

O Lord, hear our prayer.

Silent Confession

One: In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.
All: Amen.

The Assurance of God’s Grace

One: In a world that offers so many old lies and false stories,
help us live into this truth:
All: We are held by a love that we are not required to deserve.
One: And nothing can separate us from that love of God. Nothing.
All: O Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief!
One: In the midst of our questions, doubts, and fears,
we are bold to make our home in your new creation.
All: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, we are accepted
and everything is made new. Amen.

The Summary of the Law and the Passing of the Peace

One: Our Lord Jesus said:
All: “You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
One: “This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it:
All: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
One: And so that you may live connected to God,
to one another, and to your own truest life,
may the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
All: And also with you.

passing the peace


Isaiah 35


Invitation to the Table

One: Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, the holy Supper which we are about to celebrate is a feast of remembrance, of communion, and of hope. We remember the new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we are accepted by God. We come to have communion with the one who promises to be with us always and with each other. And we hope that at this table, we might remember our deepest identity as children, beloved by God, so we might better live into who God has created us to be.

Two: The table around which we gather is not a Presbyterian table or a NEXT Church table. This is Christ’s table, and Christ invites everyone to dine with the Divine. Wherever you are on your own wilderness journey, you are welcome at this table. And because we don’t want anything we say or do to be a barrier between you and the love of God, we get out of the way. (Jeremy and Whitney move from in front of the table to behind it).

One: If you are here, you are welcome.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

One: God be with you.
All: And also with you.
Two: Open up your hearts.
All: We open them to God and to one another.
One: Let us give thanks to our God.
All: It is right to give thanks and praise.

One: Holy and right it is – and it just makes sense – to give thanks to you in all times and in all places, so we come to this table with thankfulness. You created heaven with all its hosts, the earth with all its beauty, and creation with all its charm. And we are thankful. Your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And we are thankful. You give us life and being. You hold us in your loving arms, but you have shown us the fullness of your love by sending into the world your son, Jesus. And we are thankful.

Two: We also come to this table with longing. Gracious God, in this brief moment of silence, we recall our longing with you (Allow 15 seconds of silence). We long to meet you at this table: to taste and see that you are good. We long for connection: with you, with others, and with our own truest self. We remember your unconditional love for all your children. We remember your love for us. We long for a world where everyone belongs, where there’s enough, where all of life can flourish. May this feast be a foretaste of that world.

One: And we come to this table with hope. In a life of dead ends and disappointment, loss and loneliness, we hold onto hope. We cling to hope. We hope that in this meal you might give us a taste of a future where we are okay, and perhaps with your grace we might live in the present trusting that all of life is your good hands. And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant O God that your whole church would soon be gathered into your maternal embrace. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Two: And in the spirit of remembering, we pray the prayer you taught us to pray saying, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Amen.

Words of Institution

One: On the night our Lord Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it (break bread), saying, “Take; eat, this is my body which is broken for you. Do this remembering me.”

Two: After they had finished, in a similar manner, he took the cup saying, “This is the new testament in my blood poured out for you (pour juice). As often as you drink this, do so remembering me.”

One: (raise bread) Taste, and see.

Two: (raise cup) Drink, and remember.

One: Come, for all things are now ready.

Closing Prayer

Two: Having been nourished at your table… (this was mostly extemporaneous) …May you direct our steps in the way of peace that we might become creators of justice and joy. Amen!

Charge and Benediction

One: Go into the world in peace.
Have courage.
Two: Hold on to all that is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Three: Strengthen the fainthearted.
Support the weak.
Four: Help the suffering.
Honor all people.
Five: Love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Six: And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all,
now and forevermore. Amen.