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

The Civil Rights Movement: Important History, but Not in the Past

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)

Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.

Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.

At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.

Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)

I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”

I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”

As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!

Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.

When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.

Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.

The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a frequent retreat and workshop leader and has written for a variety of books and publications, including her website, The Blue Room. She served as a congregational pastor for 12 years. She and her husband Robert Dana have three children. MaryAnn is the recipient of the 2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild.

Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman “Sheds a Little Light”

by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Eighty years ago (1937) this month, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. published a poem by the Rev. Howard Thurman, an African American Baptist minister, professor of theology, and dean of the chapel at Howard University. The title of the poem was “O God, I Need Thee.” Thurman poetically describes our need of God’s sense for time, order, and future.

This month, the NEXT Church blog will help us all investigate God’s timing, order, and future by recommending and reviewing books that shed a little light on what is happening all around and within us in these seemingly chaotic days of 2017. The inspiration for this phrase, “shed a little light,” comes from James Taylor’s song, “Shed a Little Light.” You can watch a video of it being performed by the Lowcountry SC Voices in Columbia here.

Lent, if nothing else, is a time for reflection on what has been and living toward what is possible with God’s help. We die to our old selves as we pray to rise to newness of life in fullest form.

Thurman published Meditations of the Heart in 1953, the second in a volume of meditations that were originally written for personal and congregational use at Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco where he served as co-pastor with Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister, and professor of philosophy from 1944-1953. Both were deeply concerned about building bridges of understanding among varied races, cultures, and faiths.

The purpose of these meditations is, as Thurman puts it, “to focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of life.” The meditations in this 210-page book are chock full of insight, centering prayer, and nourishment for the journey. For me, all three are needed in these days as they were for his congregation in the 1940’s and ’50’s. Meditations are the type of sustenance that fed civil rights leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. who was, in many ways, mentored by Thurman.

Mentoring voices from around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and beyond will follow this post throughout the coming weeks, each from various walks of life and ministry contexts including those leading theological schools, congregations, presbyteries, the General Assembly, and non-profit organizations. Each will identify their context for ministry and call, a book they recommend, what the book is about, and why they believe it is critical reading today. My prayer is that these will become timely and descriptive “meditations of the heart,” so to speak, for a holy pilgrimage into God’s imagined future: the NEXT Church.

My sincere hope is that these posts will also provide a foundational backdrop for the conversations many of us will be having at the 2017 National Gathering on Well-Being in a Thirsty World.

I am Lee Hinson-Hasty and my call to ministry centers on vocation of leaders in the church and the world. I am always curious about how we find what Thomas Merton described as “our true selves.” Discerning vocation is, I believe, a personal, spiritual, religious, and theological journey, and, for Reformed Christians, it is a communal process. Vocation discerned becomes educational and, ultimately, economic in a particular social context. As a resource and advocate for theological education in the PC(USA) for more than a decade, I find my current call as Senior Director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation provides me the best opportunity I know to invite and embolden others to used their gifts to glorify God in ways that will empower leaders of Christ’s Church by supporting future ministers. I pray regularly with James Taylor and others that we will all “Recognize there are ties between us… ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood. …. We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.”

Breathe on Me Lord; I Can’t Breathe

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Rosalie E. Norman-McNaney

Breathe on me, Breathe of God, Fill me with life anew,

That I may love what Thou dost love,

And do what Thou wouldst do.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God by Edwin Hatch (1842-1914) Composer Robert Jackson (1842-1914) Composer Lockhart (1745-1815).

I usually begin a spiritual direction session by inviting a directee to focus on his/her breath as we begin a time of silence. Focusing on one’s breath is a way to become centered in the moment, during a meditation practice, so that we can be attentive to the moving of the Holy Spirit within our lives. As we attend to each moment of inhaling a deep breath and then slowly releasing it, we can experience the easing of the tension within our physical bodies and the scattered thoughts jostling within our minds. The spiritual discipline of focusing on our breath is also a reminder of Genesis 2:7, when God breathed the breath of life into Adam and then to Eve bringing forth life.

Recently, our nation has been reminded of the importance of human breath from those whom the breath of life has been extinguished due to injustice. On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, 17, was fatally shot by George Zimmermann in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon was unjustly profiled as dangerous because he was wearing a hoodie and Black in a neighborhood that Zimmerman believed Blacks did not belong.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot by a white police officer who suspected the youth of a recent robbery and of carrying a weapon. Millions watched the unbelievable actions of New York City police officers holding Eric Garner, 43, in a choke-hold on Staten Island on July 18, 2014. “I can’t breathe,” Garner gasped, as officers held him down and repeatedly banged Garner’s head on the hard pavement. Garner was arrested for resisting arrest and for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner’s body went lifeless, and he was dead on arrival (DOA) to the hospital. Eric Garner was also Black.

The most recent example of injustice was Freddie Gray Jr., 25, who was arrested for allegedly carrying an illegal switch blade. Gray died on April 21, 2015, as a result of unnecessary force used against him, resulting in a spinal cord injury. In addition, Gray was not correctly secured inside a police van while being transported to the police station. Gray also said “I can’t breathe.”

Gray’s life ended due to the actions of six police officers. It was later found that Gray did not have a switchblade. He had a knife that is lawful under Maryland law. It was the type of knife that millions of men of all races carry every day throughout our nation. Unrest, protesters, and riots broke out after each of the deaths of the Black youth and men previously mentioned. Each demonstration echoed loud and clear the same sentiment of injustice and violation of civil rights. Mothers, fathers, spouses, and children moan their loss of loved ones, and we are yelling and shouting individually, corporately, and as a nation, “I can‘t breathe;” We can’t breathe.

The violence and injustice we are facing today is far from the dream that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had spoken of on August 28, 1963. This is not the dream we had hoped would end racism and the inequality of Blacks and others not of the dominant culture. Instead, there is a noose of injustice and racism cutting off the air of our Black youth and men, and we have been jolted out of our dream state to face a civil rights crisis and a complete reversal of what we had all hoped would bring peace and new life. Instead, the breath of some human beings is being cut off because of their color. The recent violence against our Black youth and men has ignited the racial and injustice conversation again. A pertinent conversation to get to the root of racism, which is a deep societal wound that has long been bandaged over, is essential for all of us. The worn bandages are peeling away and falling off as new forms of racism are introduced into society. These new systems are strategically being carried out through a set of laws that unfairly tips the scales of justice in support of destroying our Black youth and men.

The “Stop and Frisk” practice that allows police to stop an individual who may be suspected of carrying a weapon has been inappropriately used to restrict civil liberties rather than for the prevention of crime. It is sadly assumed that our African American men and most others outside of the dominant culture are all dangerous and are most likely to commit a crime. The media has long perpetrated the negative views about African Americans and specifically Black men and youth. This continues to cause a divide to the point that society does not distinguish between one person of color from another. Fear and suspicion is cast over all Blacks instead of seeing people as individuals. The portrayal of Blacks and others outside of the dominant culture as dangerous, as demonstrated in the cases previously cited above, consequently profiles our Black and minority youth and men in a negative light.

Michelle Alexander, social activist and author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarnation in the Age of Colorblindness, uses the analogy of Jim Crow laws to show that the old racial caste system has just been redesigned as a mass racial incarceration system for blacks and Latinos. Alexander challenges the view that, by electing President Obama, a Black President, we are living in an era of colorblindness. Instead, Alexander speaks to the caste system that keeps our Black youth and men, and all others, disenfranchised through a racial incarceration caste system that relegates them to second class citizenship. Alexander calls us all to action to bring about change.

As Christians, believing that we are each made in the image of a loving God, we cannot turn away and breathe within our own safety zone. We are all affected, especially those of us whom are Black and others outside of the dominant culture with sons, spouses, brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbors, friends, and coworkers. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “…injustice anywhere is threat to justice everywhere.” We must all be prayerful, speak up, and advocate for justice for all.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Until my heart is pure, Until with Thee I will Thy will,

To do and to endure.

Closing Prayer:

Lord, help us to be new; breathe on us God. Breathe courage and peace within and instill in us the willingness to breathe out the racism that has hold of our country and bring new life. Help us to be free from our own biases and to be reconciled through Jesus Christ. Move us to peaceful actions that bring about change, so that we can breathe the breath of New Life. Amen.


Rosalie Norman McNaneyRev. Rosalie E. Norman-McNaney is an ordained American Baptist minister, spiritual director, and hospice chaplain in Central Florida. She is vice manager of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Norman-McNaney is committed to sharing the transformational love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ministry with all people regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, language, age, sexual orientation, and or ability.

Silence Before Protest

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Vikki Montgomery

Two great men separated by continents and decades have been on the leading edge of social change through silence.

One was the late Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, mystic, preacher, theologian, author, and poet. He was also well known as a spiritual mentor to the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One observer said of King, “I was not at all surprised to find King reading not Gandhi, but Howard Thurman.” Thurman headed the first African-American delegation to meet with Gandhi in 1936.

The other great man is Nobel Peace Laureate and Emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu. Tutu chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the request of the late president, Nelson Mandela.

Tutu serves as the honorary chair of The Elders, established his peace and family foundations, and is writing a book on joy with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Thurman worked quietly in the background with other Civil Rights Movement leaders, “… to challenge [those] clergy never to lose their rooting in spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, singing, celebration, worship, and silence,” according to Dr. Robert Franklin, former president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, during a Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program.

“There is very great virtue in the cultivation of silence, and strength to be found in using it as a door to God,” Thurman wrote in his book, Meditations of the Heart.

Tutu also found personal strength, solace and direction in the silence. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, he speaks of:

… those moments in the early morning when I try to be quiet, to sit in the presence of the gentle and compassionate and unruffled One to try to share or be given some of that divine serenity.

In fact at the first meeting with the commissioners, Tutu got them to agree to go on a retreat, where as he says:

… we sought to enhance our spiritual resources and to sharpen our sensitivities. We sat at the feet of a spiritual guru, who happened to be my own spiritual counselor, while we kept silence for a day, seeking to open ourselves to the movement and guidance of the transcendent Spirit, however conceived or named.

The Civil Rights Movement was about righting systemic wrongs. The post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission was about healing a nation. As believers in the living God, we need revisit the first and begin the second.

What if as a start, churches, which too often strive to fill services with sound, institute a time of silence within liturgies and meetings? Not just for a moment, but for an extended period of time.

What might the Spirit say to us collectively as we wait in silence?

And what might happen if we individually accept Jesus’ invitation in Mark to, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while?”

The book of Mark shows Jesus as a man of action and also as a man of contemplation. All of the gospels mention him retreating for nights of prayer and then advancing to do good works.

Jesus was the original contemplative in action. The prototype. Tutu and Thurman have been fine copies, and through their influence, they have mentored others to be.

In these days of anguish about the injustices in our nation, before we raise our voices in protest, let us first sit in silence.

Vikki Montgomery

Vikki Montgomery is a contemplative, communications consultant, writer, and educator. Her greatest joy is being a mother and grandmother. Her spiritual mentor confirmed her intuition that silence is the first language of God.