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.

2018 National Gathering Tuesday Evening Worship

Jennifer Barchi, pastor of Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, preaches at the 2018 National Gathering in Baltimore. The theme for this service: rising.

Jennifer Barchi serves as the solo pastor of Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church on the west side of Baltimore City, MD, where she focuses on redevelopment and reconciliation, and is the author of The Joy Thieves. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Stanford University, she has served congregations in Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Groomsport, Northern Ireland. She loves writing, hiking, hanging from the ceiling on aerial silks, and just about anything that involves creativity. Jennifer currently lives in west Baltimore with her wife, Lauren, and their dog, Cinnamon.

The liturgy for the service follows.

Call to Worship

Voice One:Sometimes dying remains. It overwhelms us and then persists with stubbornness. This death is a wound that never fully closes, a wound that stays raw even as it grows old. This is the death we must learn to be with, beside, among, that we must learn how to witness as it seeps out from the safety of its boundaries and bandages. This is the dying that didn’t kill us but came so close that we can still taste it on the back of our tongues, hear it echo in memories behind our thoughts, feel it creak in our bones. Sometimes dying remains.

Voice Two: And sometimes dying is rising. Sometimes dying sparks a new thing, becomes possibility, potential, the fallow ground where new life slowly takes root, unfurls, grows wild. This is the death that we encounter in the parched, desert landscape that erupts with blossoms of magenta and yellow and crimson. This is the death that resides in the musty tomb where the Holy Spirit begins to breathe in the darkness. This is the death that razed our internal landscapes, bringing down our carefully constructed walls and disrupting our well-laid plans, but which offered us the opportunity to build something new, something we wouldn’t have otherwise imagined. Sometimes dying is rising.

All: Sometimes dying remains, and we carry it with us. Sometimes dying is rising, and we rejoice in the abundance of new life. We bring all of our experiences of dying into this community, and we watch for and bear witness to the God of resurrection.

Hymn: In the Bulb There Is A Flower

Call to Confession

Confession is the holy practice of telling the truth. In confession, we tell God the truth about our lives, the truth about our world, the truth about our churches. This evening we focus on what is true for us about death and resurrection. Our prayer tonight will be spoken and shared. For each question we invite you to share your answer with someone(s) sitting near you. At the end we’ll sing the Kyrie together.

The Act of Confession
What feels dead in the Church, in the denomination, or in your life?
What is killing the Church, the denomination, or you? Do you want to let go of it?
What in the Church, in the denomination, or in our world is killing you?
Where do you long for resurrection? Where do you resist it?

Music: Lord Have Mercy

Assurance of God’s Presence

One: In life and in death and in resurrection, we belong to God. This is true:
All: We are claimed by God’s love long before we even have language to claim God ourselves.
One: This is true:
All: Christ walks with us, even in death.
One: This is true:
All: The Spirit dwells within us, offering the light of peace in the fog of fear and hatred and violence.
One: This is true:
All: We are part of a community that mourns together in death, rejoices in new life, and hopes in the promise that God is making all things new. Amen!


Isaiah 34:9-17



Isaiah 35:1-10


Hymn: Now The Green Blade Rises

Baptismal Liturgy

Voice 1: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Heeding the word of Jesus, and confident in his promise of new life, we baptize those whom God has called. In baptism God claims us, and seals us to show that we belong to God.

God frees us from the fear of death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his dying and rising. By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of a community, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of disruption, reconciliation, and transformation. In baptism, we proclaim that “to be a Christian is to be continuously undone and remade by a Savior who encounters us in ways we might not expect, through a collection of people we might otherwise reject, screen, or censor.” As we remember our own baptism, let us turn from the fear of dying, and embrace the Spirit of possibility with joy.

Voice 2: Together as one body let us reaffirm the promises made in our baptism.
One: Trusting in the God of new life, do you turn from fear and its tyranny in our communities?
All: We do.
One: Do you turn to Jesus Christ, the wounded and resurrected one, trusting in his presence and power in a world haunted by death?
All: We do.
One: Will you witness to the wild movement of the Spirit as she breathes the hope of rising into landscapes that appear to be dying?
All: We will, with God’s help.
One: Let us each remember our baptism and be glad.

You are invited to move to the nearest altar/memorial, remember your baptism, and bear witness to the promise of the resurrection.

Visual Prayer

Sometimes our prayers fall beyond the reach of language. This evening, our prayer will be made up of images that stirred a sense of resurrection, of dying and rising, for those who submitted them. As you watch the pictures on the screen, we invite you to pray for those who are experiencing dying and rising in our communities, in our churches, in our nation, and in our world.

The Lord’s Prayer
Our God 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.