By Emily Powers
Over the past two months I’ve done a lot of reflecting over my experience at NEXT. I have come to some conclusions.
- First, there is nothing better than celebrating the church with a bunch of Presbyterians.
- Second, we all are looking for some kind of change and renewal.
- Third, setting the scene is just as important as the content at the conference.
As I prepared to leave DC for a week, I found myself getting more excited, it helped that my housemate is the NEXT YAV (Young Adult Volunteer). I was extremely excited to get to hear Brian Ellison, my pastor of 13 years, preach and to get to see friends from all over the Presbyterian world. I also found myself excited to see a conference that was going to focus on not just creative preachers and speakers, but also focus on a creative and artistic approach to liturgy. Worship is always something special when art is valued as an important part of the experience.
Throughout the conference the audience became a part of the artistic experience. It started by taking pieces of Presbyterian works (the hymnal, the confessions) cut into pieces. First, we wrote on these pieces of our tradition what was holding us back. I wrote of my fears at putting my life into the church. Then we turned them in and they were linked into a chain wall that divided Fourth’s sanctuary. In the next service, we got up and wrote what was holding us together, as Joy Douglas Strome preached, our third spaces. I wrote about my YAV community and the amazing women I’ve been sharing this year with. In the next worship, we broke down the wall and everything that was holding us back. It was a moving experience to tear down the physical barrier that we built up around us and between us, and to see our power in community to move beyond those walls.
This was an amazing experience but what was truly remarkable was witnessing what these broken chains became. The next morning, the final day of the conference, we walked into the sanctuary to see a phoenix hanging above us. Its feathers and flames were created from our fears, our safe spaces, and our love for one another. A truly wonderful sight to see. Not only was it beautiful, but it showed the transformation that can come from all the fear and pain in the world. This collaborative art gives us hope–
- that together we can transform the parts of our tradition that have hurt and excluded beloved children of God
- that together, we can reconfigure the parts of our tradition that are beautiful and meaningful to fit our evolving context
- that we can truly rise from the ashes and become something whole, created by us all.
That is what I took away from the National Gathering. That we all have different stories and different opinions, but when we work together to break down those barriers, we can become something new. The church has a long way to go to be the best it can be, but like the phoenix, we have the opportunity to be new again. I learned a lot about starting again and remembering where you came from, but also that we are better together. We learn more when we listen to all the voices, especially the voices who are often ignored. I think if we can learn all of this from something so simple as scraps of paper, then we’re off to a pretty good start.
Editor’s note: For another perspective on liturgical art at the National Gathering, check out “Scraps of Paper” by Christopher Edmonston.
Emily Powers is a Young Adult Volunteer at the Washington, D.C. site where she serves with Capitol Hill Group Ministries and the Washington Seminar Center by doing street outreach and advocacy with D.C. residents experiencing homelessness. Emily is a connoisseur of hotdogs, macaroni and cheese, and–according to Netflix–‘Emotional Dramas Featuring a Female Lead.’