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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.

2018 National Gathering Closing Worship

Call to Worship

One: Spirit that lives among us:
All: We see life here in our testimonies, in our tensions, and in this community.
One: Spirit that walks us through death:
All: We are aware of the deaths we experience, the grief we carry, and the pain we bear.
One: Spirit that burns as we rise:
All: We desire to resurrect, to restore, to reconcile; to rise into your call.
One: Spirit that teaches us as we live again:
All: As we worship together, let us live into the new creation that God calls us to be.

Song: Our Life is in You

Confession

Left: We stand in the desert and are consumed with the death that surrounds us
All: Creator let the new life begin
Right: We trust our own abilities and language to breathe newness into desolation
All: Creator let the new life begin
Center: We are parched and thirsty when speaking your truth
All: Creator let the new life begin

Left: We notice people linking arms in the streets
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Right: We feel communal laments of injustice
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Center: We experience the tension of a kindom that is not yours
All: Creator let the new life break forth

Left: We long for unity over oppressive systems
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Right: We yearn for connections that come with vulnerability
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Center: We crave courage to break through our deserts of fear
All: Creator let the new life blossom

Song: Draw Me Closer

Assurance/Peace

The desert is not dead:
Even the sand and dust of our lives
Give testimony to God’s abounding grace and healing,
Revealed in our living, dying, rising, and new life.

God takes all we have
In the desert times of our lives
And leads us into new vistas,
With vision, songs of joy, wellsprings of water.

And now, we invite you desert-wanderers
To live into this proclamation of grace,
By sharing the peace that Christ shares with us,
Stepping out of your contexts and comfort zones.

As you are able, please move to a new place in this room,
Staying there for the rest of the service,
And sharing the peace of Christ along the way.

Sharing the Peace

The Peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.

Scripture

Voice 1:The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
Voice 2:The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
V1:Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
V2: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”
V1:Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
V2:For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
V1: A highway shall be there,
V2:and it shall be called the Holy Way;
V1:the unclean shall not travel on it,
V2:but it shall be for God’s people;
V1:no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
V2:No lion shall be there,
V1:nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
V2: they shall not be found there,
V1:but the redeemed shall walk there.
ALL: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
V1:and come to Zion with singing;
All: everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
V2: they shall obtain joy and gladness,
All:and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sermon

Song: Everlasting Life

Communion

Invitation to the Table

Come to this table,
You who have walked through the wilderness and dwelt in the deserted places-
Have you been fed?

Come to this table,
You who have seen the first signs of spring and have been longing for the blossom to break forth-
Have you been fed?

Come to Christ’s table.
Rise and bloom in the wilderness.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

May the Creator of the Holy Way be with you.
And also with you.
Do not be afraid, people of God, but lift your hearts to the holy One.
Our hearts will be filled with God’s hope and grace.
Children of God, offer songs of goodness to the One who keeps faith forever.
We offer glad praises to the One who comes with justice.

You carved a holy way
through chaos, Creating God,
rejoicing with Word and Spirit as
The waters of creation
Burst forth to form rivers where there had been only dry land.
Those same waters continue to give us life in all its beauty and biodiversity.
Despite these gracious gifts we continually turned away from you.
Patiently, you sent prophets to us,
who urged us over and again to return.

Holiness is the path you walk, Gracious God,
and, in your mercy, you sent your Child, Jesus,
To bring justice for all people,
To lead us along the path of redemption.
He gives us vision where we cannot see,
Ears to hear what we do not want to hear.
When we are worry, world, and work weary,
he comes to strengthen our feeble knees,
And put to work our weak hands.

Truth be told, there are lots of deserts in our lives,
Places that are dying or already dead.
We know the pain—and so do those around us—
of keeping up the facade;
Spring up in us like blossoms in the desert,
Put us to leaping, give to our voice songs we have not sung in a long time.
Put us back on the holy way that leads to everlasting joy.

Come to us in our silent contemplation
As we prepare our hearts to receive this spiritual food

Silence

Gather your people now,
and lead us along the holy way to the Table
where the Spirit anoints the bread and the cup
and blesses all who have come for this feast.

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer

Closing Song: Summons

The Grass Withers and the Flower Fades

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Today’s piece is excerpted from a sermon preached by Joe Clifford on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday of Advent at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. You will see that it does not directly answer the question that has guided our blog postings this month, but you will also see that question is answered by God’s promises to us in scripture – promises that save us. To listen to the sermon in its entirety, click hereWe invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter! 

By Joe Clifford

Isaiah 40:1-11 (click for text)

“Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God.

That is the call God issues to the prophet Isaiah in the midst of the people’s exile in Babylon. No more indictment for idolatry. No more rebuke for ignoring widows and orphans. No more calls for repentance. There was a time for that, but now the call is to comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her time is served, a new day is coming.”

In the midst of our world of exile, a world defined by terrorism, born of a dangerous mix of extremism and distorted religion, a world where in this nation mass shootings have occurred at a rate of more than one per day this year, surely that is the word we are called to offer our world: comfort, comfort my people. A new day is coming.

Cry out! The Hebrew verb there is better translated, “Preach!” That’s what Isaiah was called to do. And that is what we are called to do. Cry out! Preach! The good news. The good tidings.

How does Isaiah respond to God’s call? “What shall I cry?” he says. “All people are grass,” dust in the wind, as the old saying goes. Every Advent for the past twenty years I’ve heard this passage and preached on it. I’ve heard its beauty. I’ve heard its comfort. I confess this year I heard something different. This year I heard Isaiah’s cynicism. What shall I cry? What shall we cry in a world gone mad?

December 2nd, 14 dead 21 injured in San Bernadino. November 29, 3 dead and 9 injured in Colorado Springs. October 1st; 9 dead, 9 injured in Roseburg, Oregon. July 16, 5 dead, 3 wounded in Chattanooga, TN. June 18th; 9 dead in Charleston, SC.[1] May 17th, 9 dead, 18 injured in Waco, TX. Those are some of 355 mass shootings in this country in 2015.

What shall we cry? Racism? Terrorism? Extremism? Gun violence? Mental illness? Xenophobia? Security now? What shall we cry?

“The grass withers, the flower fades,” says the prophet, “…surely the people are grass.” For some reason this year, I know how Isaiah felt. Don’t you?

How does God respond? This is a matter of interpretation, but I believe God says, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” The word of our God will stand forever. What shall we cry? What shall we preach? What shall we proclaim? The word of our God! And what does this word say in Isaiah? Let me give you a taste.

Later in Isaiah 40, that word says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 43, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 2, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up the sword against nation…ain’t gonna study war no more!”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 58: “Loose the bonds of injustice… let the oppressed go free… break every yoke… share your bread with the hungry… bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, … cover them, and do not hide from your own kin…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

What shall we cry? Again in Isaiah 58: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

This is what we are called to proclaim. This is what we are called to embody. Or as the Lord tells Isaiah and all the people, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. All people shall see it together. ALL people shall see it together.”

What shall we cry? The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our Lord endures forever.

[1] Los Angeles Times Staff. “Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings: 1984-2015,” published in the Los Angeles Times on December 2, 2015. Cited here: http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/


JoeJoe Clifford is the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. He serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

With an Urgency Born of This Hope

by Jeffrey Lehn

Preached at a meeting of Whitewater Valley Presbytery, November 7, 2012

Isaiah 40:28-31

God, by your grace may we hear in your word what we need to hear and may we then be strengthened by it in order to do what you call us to do. Amen.

Bald-Eagle-gold-black-SILH-_J7X2112Our Scripture lesson this afternoon comes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40, verses 28-31. Listen for God’s word to you.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

– – – – –

Every time I read this passage aloud I can’t help but think of a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire. You may remember it. Eric Liddell, the famous sprinter, travels to Paris for the 1924 Olympics games, but instead of participating in the 100-meter dash—a race he is heavily-favored to win—he opts to disqualify himself, because the preliminary heats are scheduled for Sunday, his weekly Sabbath rest. Liddell decides to attend a local church in Paris instead and the film depicts him standing in the pulpit and reading these old, compelling words from Isaiah, his gentle Scottish brogue pervading the sanctuary. In the background, Michael Joncas’s contemporary hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings,” begins softly playing—“and he will raise you up on eagle’s wings…”—a piece we all sang together at the outset of our meeting this morning.

Now Chariots of Fire is one of my favorite movies, and I have no interest in bashing it, but I’m afraid this rather sentimental scene hinders more than helps our interpretation of Isaiah chapter 40.

Remember that the prophet Isaiah initially sings these poetic words to an Israelite people who have been paying their dues in exile in Babylon. Captivity in Babylon was a cruel reality—God’s people were uprooted from their homes, scattered from their place of worship and forced to learn a new way of life in an unfamiliar place with strange people telling them what to do. Their identity was lost and God seemed more aloof and callous than ever. Perhaps those Babylonians were right. Perhaps Marduk, the chief god in the Babylonian pantheon, did now have the upper hand. The great God of Israel, so faithful and loving and almighty in decades past, now seemed impotent, or at least asleep at the wheel.

Down and out as they are, the word of the Lord the Israelites need to hear is not the soothing Scottish brogue of an Eric Liddell, but the rousing, throat-clearing pleas of a seasoned prophet who knows nothing is guaranteed and every word must count.

So Isaiah minces no words. He goes right for the jugular. “C’mon, guys. You know this. You’ve heard this a thousand times. Remember our Lord is the never-ending God, the creator of everything that was, is and ever will be. Our God isn’t feckless or distracted or tired. Our God isn’t stumped by our predicament, scratching his head about what to do next while we wallow here in exile. No, remember our God is the one who empowers us when we’re weak and lifts us up when we’re bowed down. We have to stop looking for hope in all the wrong places, and start hoping in God, who helps us to run even when we’re weary and to walk even when we’re faint.”

***

As I look around the PC(USA) these days, I think Isaiah’s words are as timely as ever. I’m afraid we’ve gotten caught up in all that we’ve lost in our exile since the heyday of the 1950s and ‘60s—the loss of members, the loss of influence, the loss of cash, the loss of buildings. I’m afraid we’ve been looking down, sulking and murmuring about our decline, far more than we’ve been looking up to the different but hopeful future God has in store for us. I’m afraid we’ve been grasping far too often for the latest shiny but fleeting fad that comes down the church-growth pike—“it’s all about bringing in young families,” “it’s all about small groups,” “it’s all about hiring that dynamic pastor,” “it’s all about changing our worship style,” “it’s all about hiring someone to get us on Facebook and Twitter,” “it’s all about getting rid of the progressives,” “it’s all about getting rid of the evangelicals.”

Understandable as many of our collective reactions are, they are too oriented around us, around our experience of exile, around our litany of frustrations, around our ability to generate hope. Thankfully, Isaiah clears things up for us. He reminds us no matter how energetic or seasoned we are, no matter how impressive our PIF or CIF is, no matter what our church has done in the past or is doing in the present—we are all, every single one of us, going to stumble and fall. We are going to get tired. We are going to daydream about quitting our current church and joining the bigger and better one down the street. We are going to wonder if it is all worth it.

It’s in those moments that we find out the true source of our hope. Are we hoping in membership numbers or stewardship results or a return to the glorious glory days of the past? Or are we hoping in the Lord who renews our strength, who mounts us up with wings like eagles, who helps us to run and not be weary, to walk and not be faint?

I wonder, in whom or what are you hoping this afternoon?

Reading the newspaper, especially after yesterday’s elections, it’s easy to get caught up in hoping in our favorite candidate or political party, or a still tepid economic recovery. Watching TV commercials, it’s easy to get duped into believing that youth, materialism and pleasure will give us the hope we need. As a pastor, it’s easy for me to get looped into the narrative that if I just skim one more book, watch one more webinar, make one more visitation, offer one more prayer, create one more committee, then perhaps our church will have something more concrete to hope in. But we know better. As Isaiah’s vision reminds us, the only hope that truly lasts, that does not disappoint, that renews us when we’re tired and lifts us up when we’re bowed down, is hope in our Lord.

It was this kind of hope that allowed William Sloane Coffin, former minister of Riverside Church in New York City, to preach the sermon at his own 24-year-old son’s funeral service. Days after Alex’s death in a freak car accident, Coffin climbed into the pulpit and preached these unforgettable words, “… a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander . . . beat his father to the grave.” Coffin, who knew God well enough to realize she would never cause such a tragedy, still lamented the loss of a future without his son. The only thing that kept him afloat in those incredibly dark days was his tenacious hope in our Lord for whom death was not the final word.

It was a similar hope that compelled the writers of our Confession of 1967 to open the final paragraph of that statement of faith with this line: “With an urgency born of this hope.” “With an urgency born of this hope,” they write, referring to the “hope” we have, not in membership figures or stewardship results or fruitful ministries—as good as those things are—but our hope in God, in God’s promise to reconcile all of creation someday, somehow and someway.

Friends, may you and I leave this place hoping not in ourselves but in our Lord. As we return to engage in our ministries, may we find our strength renewed and our weariness eased. May we remember that we don’t have to be the creators of our hope. We have all the hope we need in our Lord already. And we need only share it.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 


Jeff LehnJeff Lehn is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne. He hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, where he learned to cheer for the Twins and Vikings and ate far too many casseroles. He grew up attending a Baptist church, but had a theological metamorphosis of sorts after college, eventually finding his way to the Presbyterian fold. He enjoys staying in touch with family and friends, spirited conversations over meals and the gratification of yardwork. And he is grateful every day for Arianne, his spouse and colleague in ministry.

 

An Advent Prayer

By Jessica TateIMG_1277

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God.

As the light dims in the cooling days

our vision turns inward.

We see the wilderness of our lives, the desert of our spirits–

the crooked priorities

the low valleys of selfishness

the mountains of consumption

the uneven ground of malnourished spirits

the places made rough with wounds we carry.

Reveal again your glory, God of the Most High,

reveal your goodness, your love, your power—

reveal your judgment tinged with grace

so that all people see it together.

Now consider, O Holy One of Israel, we are your people.

You are the potter and we are the clay,

tough but willing to be molded according to your likeness.

Consider, O Lord of Lords, we are your people.

You are the fire that baptizes us in your Holy Spirit

captive by fear but willing to be your servants.

Turn us around to go in your way–

Teach us again not to be afraid.

According to the promise made to our ancestors,

O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

Comfort, O comfort your people and speak tenderly to Jerusalem

for there is great pain.

Bring good news to our brokenness,

hold close those jagged places in our hearts,

speak freedom to the tension we carry,

release us from patterns that hold us captive,

proclaim the time of your good favor

and the day of light of our God!

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God!

Jar us into wakefulness.

Though the hour is uncertain

be it evening or midnight or cockcrow or dawn

We await your glory; we are awake!

We watch, we long, we stand on tip-toes

expectantly, urgently, eager.

Tear open the heavens and come down.

Break into our lives–

we are awake!

(Advent meditations on Isaiah’s prophecy, Mary’s Song and the gospel of Mark)


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is Director of NEXT Church.