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Waiting with the Widow

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: McKenna is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by McKenna Lewellen

In Mark 13, Jesus bellows, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

It is trembling, quaking writing. It is a message of hope – but our ability to hear it that way depends largely on a character who lives at the edge of this Advent lection, one chapter before.

Jesus shouts his apocalyptic declaration from the top of the Mount of Olives, just across from the Temple, but earlier that day, he had been inside its walls, sitting across from the treasury.

Photo from The Center’s Facebook page

In walked a poor widow. Remember her? She enters the treasury alone and drops her last two coins inside the collection box. It’s an ordinary act – one that had, no doubt, happened before and gone unnoticed. Her coins fall in alongside gifts that dwarf hers. She gives to sustain an institution, though it’s unlikely her pennies would cover the cost of counting the gift itself. Why does she do it? Who knows. Jesus doesn’t ask. He just points to her as it happens, tells the disciples what he sees unfolding, and storms out. As they reach the outer wall, the disciples have all but forgotten her and are marveling at the size of the stones.

So often we think about this woman as the poster child for sacrificial giving. A more honest appraisal might speak of her as the last straw, the one who pushes Jesus to speak with a new kind of force about his vision of a new order. Watching her lose all she has, he knows with deepened anger that the world as it is doesn’t work for the poorest among us. The thought of her haunts him the whole climb up to the top of the Mount of Olives, and he proclaims the sky will fall to the ground and the ground will shake, and it will become unrecognizable. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Without the poor widow, we risk hearing Jesus’ declaration in Mark 13 as just another threat barked out by an angry man. With her, the apocalypse carries hope for life beyond the way it’s always been.

Advent invites us to find hope in apocalypse that makes room for the widow to live.

For too long, mission in many of our churches has tried to momentarily save the poor widow. We have fed her more meals, collected more unwrapped Christmas presents, and tucked more sheets into shelter cots than we can count. But few know her, remember her name, or question why, after decades of these projects, we still live in a world that needs to make her a bed, feed her a meal, and send her away with a shopping bag.

Mission committees have tried to save her from a distance, but she is our best partner and leader as we try to find God at work in the world. She is more likely to be a number in our outreach budget than a member of our community. But she is the one who will see the world turn upside-down and wait breathlessly in hope for a different way to emerge – one where she can live without fear of violence, breathe clean air, access enough healthy food, and rest in safety. She is the one who can show us Advent hope.

On street corners, in church basements, and in neighborhood gardens in Baltimore, I am waiting with the widow, and hearing her cry out. She is telling us what the world can be, shouting her vision, painting it on the side of houses, pointing out promise in empty lots.

And as I stand here, I wonder, do we know the widows among us well enough for apocalypse to sound like hope? Or will we miss it?


McKenna Lewellen is the Program Coordinator at The Center, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore.

Stewardship 101

by Deborah Rexrode

Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to God’s service, you could not give God anything that was not in a sense God’s own already.
– C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

For us as Christians, all that we have and all that we are belongs to God. So then what does stewardship look like in our lives today? How do we define stewardship?

Too often stewardship means the Annual Stewardship Campaign. It means filling out a pledge card to make a commitment to the annual budget of the church where we are a member. In some cases, the definition has been broadened to include a commitment of our time and talents so that we don’t put all our focus on money.

As we begin a month of reflections on stewardship, it seems the best place to begin is to ask, “What do the scriptures tell us about stewardship?” I share these biblical principles of stewardship for you to begin to broaden your definition of stewardship:

Ownership – Let’s begin with the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” God created everything! In Psalm 24 we read, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” God is not only the creator but also the owner of everything. The biblical teaching is not that God created everything and then handed ownership off to us or someone else. God still owns all that is.

Responsibility – Once we acknowledge that what we have is God’s, the question becomes: “What would God have me do with all of this?” As God’s stewards, we are responsible to care for all that God has graciously entrusted to us. “Who then is the faithful and wise steward…?” (Luke 12:42) A steward is a person who cares for something that belongs to someone else. The steward is not the owner, but instead manages that which belongs to another. All that surrounds us in this life belongs to God, and we have been given the privilege to manage and care for some of it as we travel through life.

Accountability – One day each one of us will be called to give an account of how we have managed what God has given us. In 1 Peter we read, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (1 Peter 4:10) As God’s people, we are called to live and give generously, especially to help those in need. We are called to give first to God and God’s work, to give regularly, and yes, to give cheerfully. The Bible tells us that what we do with our money and possessions impacts our faith. We are called to be accountable for what God has entrusted into our care.

Reward – Stewardship is the way we use the abundance that God has entrusted to our care to love God and our neighbor. Stewardship is more than money, offering plates, and pledges. As the master said to the servants to whom he gave five talents and two talents, “Well done, good and faithful servants! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” (Matthew 25:21) They used what they had been asked to manage and multiplied it for the good of the master and his kingdom.

Stewardship goes beyond the church budget or building project and connects everything we do with what God is doing in the world. Stewardship is a way of life. It is one of the primary ways that we live out our identity in Christ. We are called to be faithful stewards in all that God is calling us to do. It is being open to the opportunities and challenges that God places in our lives and serving with faith and joy.

Stewardship is a spiritual practice that allows us to live out the belief that all we have and all that we are belongs to God. Stewardship is our gifts of time, relationship, worship, thanksgiving, prayer, service, and material possessions. It is a way of living that includes giving.


Deborah Rexrode serves as the Associate for Stewardship with the Presbytery of the James. She is an ordained Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and brings to the presbytery a background of research, study, and application of the theological understanding of stewardship and the importance of ongoing stewardship education in our congregations. She provides consultation to pastors, sessions, and stewardship committees with stewardship campaigns, capital campaigns, and planned giving. Deborah has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in the Sociology of Religion from the University of Virginia. Her research and doctoral dissertation focused on stewardship and the role of clergy in providing strong financial leadership in their congregations.

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Map, Message and Mission

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Utley

The answer is contemporary worship. That’s what people want. That will bring people into the church. And, for some, it did. Until it didn’t.

The answer was mega church. Until it wasn’t.

The answer was emergent church. Until it wasn’t.

The answer is missional church. The jury is still out…

I think the answer will be the same. Mission alone won’t save God’s church.

Most of our congregants have lived through a religious anomaly. In our lifetime, most everyone belonged to a church. Folks who didn’t were looked upon with pity or suspicion. Every politician, every businessman (gender purposeful), every good mother and wife belonged to and participated in a faith community. Protestant was privileged at the time, but if you had to be Jewish or Catholic, we could understand, though we prayed for you.

This was our world. This shaped our assumptions and our understandings of who we were as church people and how we interacted with our neighbors. It’s not our world any more, thanks be to God. But, it’s no wonder we don’t quite know what to do with our declining churches.

Being a disciple of Christ had a particular focus in the first century, quite a different focus during the reformation. The in-our-face-challenge today involves being part of a people who were “trained” in one religious culture but find themselves neck deep in a different one.

We may feel like we are at the beginning of a Mission Impossible movie. “If you choose to accept this assignment,” the tape says, only we really don’t have a choice — not if we want thriving, meaningful communities of faith.

The answer will not be some kind of magic evangelism…but we are learning to ask the questions. We are better understanding our current culture and its need for God’s good news of transformation, redemption, and reconciliation.

It will take all of us in the conversation, all of us committed to exploring the issues, all of committed to “throwing spaghetti against the wall” until we discern God’s will and way in our time.

We invite you to come and throw spaghetti with us at the National Gathering.

Map, Message and Mission is offered on Monday during workshop block 1 of the 2017 National Gathering.


Beth Utley is the director of Christian formation at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in High Point, NC. She has worked in faith formation for almost 20 years. Her work with skeptical youth and young adults and her congregation’s commitment to evangelism honed her knowledge and skill. 

2016 National Gathering Keynote: Bob Lupton

Bob Lupton, author of Toxic Charity, presents the first keynote of the 2016 National Gathering.

 

Bob Lupton has invested over 40 years of his life in inner-city Atlanta. In response to a call that he first felt while serving in Vietnam, he left a budding business career to work with delinquent urban youth. Bob and his wife Peggy and their two sons sold their suburban home and moved into the inner-city where they have lived and served as neighbors among those in need. Their life’s work has been the rebuilding of urban neighborhoods where families can flourish and children can grow into healthy adults. Through Focused Community Strategies Urban Ministries – a non-profit organization which he founded – he has developed two mixed income subdivisions, organized a multi-racial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide range of human services in his community. Bob’s new book, Charity Detox, draws on his many decades of experience, and outlines how to structure programs that actually improve the quality of the life of the poor and disenfranchised.

Re-Imagining Short Term Mission

At the 2016 National Gathering, Ellen Sherby led a workshop called “Helping or Hurting? Re-Imagining Short Term Mission.” Here you’ll find the description of her workshop and an associated resource on planning short-term mission projects.

Short-term mission trips are a mainstay for congregational mission, but often seem like “voluntourism” or a “mission-cation.” How can we, as mission leaders and church staff, shape our congregation’s understanding of mission trips, breaking from old models to embrace news ways of being in service together with others? Explore ways to engage in short-term mission with long-term vision and context-appropriate, mutual service. Learn about helpful trip-leader tools and resources.

Changing the Culture of Connection

by Jessica Tate

There are times and situations in which we must learn what no one can teach us. We cannot turn to others who have gone ahead because no one has been in front of us on the journey. We cannot point outside ourselves. We learn—teach ourselves—as a “community of practice.” [i]

 — Gil Rendle

Over the last few months, NEXT Church has been quietly undertaking a listening campaign about experiences of transformational mission. We are on track to have fifty listening sessions with five hundred Presbyterians by the end of January.

Our desire in setting out on this listening campaign was to give leaders in the denomination a relational tool for discerning God’s direction for our future. Rather than surveying for ideas or asking for opinions, this listening campaign invites Presbyterians into conversation with one another around their actual experiences of mission to mine what we can learn from those experiences on the ground. Bonhoeffer said we must listen long and patiently to others. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others and finally not even notice it…the death of the spiritual life starts here. Gathering together to share stories strengthens the fabric of faith and our connection to one another.

120-next-20140402-114712Through the campaign, we are hearing important experiences from congregations engaged in missional activities. This is often inspirational, but more than that, as we listen to these experiences we start to draw conclusions (or at least common themes) that can inform our collective work – be that in cooperative work locally, in our presbyteries, or perhaps even the future directions for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and our national church structures. Through the sharing of stories, we bring to the level of consciousness the insights and wisdom from experience of mission on the ground. We become a “community of practice” and teach ourselves by bringing to conscious awareness what we have learned from our own experiences.

Out of this listening campaign we hope to identify leaders at the local level who we can resource and connect together for common action that can inform the future leadership and direction of the Church. We have the power to change the way things are when we engage energized leaders who are connected to one another.

Each of our meetings followed a similar process. A leader was trained in this listening process – a tool we have experienced powerfully in the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation. They then pull together a group of 10-15 leaders for conversation. Opening with a prayer and sharing the purpose of the listening session, the bulk of the session is spent with each participant sharing a response to this question:

Can you share a story from the past five years where your congregation engaged in mission with those outside your doors that was transformational in some way?

After everyone has shared, conversation ensues as the facilitator probes more deeply into the stories and begins to unearth some possible points of commonality or difference. At the close of the hour, next steps are shared – namely, that the facilitator will summarize the conversation and report that back to NEXT Church leadership for synthesis and insight and that all participants are invited to the NEXT Church national gathering in February when we will share what we’ve heard across the country.

In the coming days, we’ll be sharing some experiences of these listening sessions here on our blog. You can participate in an online conversation as part of our January Church Leaders’ Roundtable. If you would like to host a listening session, it’s not too late to do that. Please be in touch with me for more information. We look forward to sharing these learnings and in so doing, helping to strengthen the future of the church.

[i] Rendle, Gilbert R (2010-10-01). Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Kindle Locations 293-295). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

Update: read Andrew Foster Connors’ latest blog to learn more about what a listening session at his church was like. 

YAVs Connecting with Community

By Marranda Major

The Washington, D.C. Young Adult Volunteers have been living in Brightwood Park for eight months but we still do not fully integrated into our community. They know us at the corner store and nearest coffee shops. As we were driven outdoors for most of the spring by a bedbug infestation, we’re now on a first-name basis with most of our porch-dwelling neighbors.  And finally–finally!–the bus drivers recognize us and will wait when they see us sprinting frantically towards them.

But there’s something missing…

Our relationship to this place feels tenuous, especially as the end of our year is rapidly approaching. While we prepare for the transition ahead of us–for some, seminary, and others, moving and applying for jobs–we are struggling to remain fully present. We’re trying to think creatively about ways in which we can connect more meaningfully with our neighborhood while we are still here. And we hope that in beginning to develop these relationships, we will establish a network that will help the next DC YAV class to feel at home more quickly.

A few weeks ago, during our community day, we took a walk around Brightwood Park. We established what feel like the boundary of our neighborhood, and decided to extend the perimeter a few blocks from the official border:

We scouted for places where our neighbors congregate–shops, restaurants, bus stops–and tried to discern Brightwood Park’s anchoring institutions: places like schools, hospitals, and community centers that hold power.

While trying to read our context with fresh eyes, we also looked for places where we could volunteer. Each of us chose a location where will spend an upcoming community day doing service–the Fort Totten community garden, a local senior center, the library, etc. Each of us will take on the responsibility of brokering a relationship with one of these community groups.

We hope that these service opportunities and relationships will help us to feel more fully a part of Brightwood Park. I’ll post in a few weeks to report back about how it goes!


 

Marranda MajorMarranda Major is a YAV in Washington, D.C. serving with NEXT Church. 

2015 National Gathering: Linda Valentine

Linda Valentine provides testimony on the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

2015 National Gathering Testimony: George Srour

George Srour provides testimony at the 2015 National Gathering about his organization, Building Tomorrow.

We’d also encourage you to read this response to George’s testimony from Becca Messman.

I Saw Those Eyes and I Just Knew That I Knew You

ROSMY_CMYK_small2By Jessica Rathbun-Cook

During my last year of seminary I had the opportunity to intern with an organization called ROSMY that serves LGBTQ youth, ages 12-20. Since that time, I’ve continued to volunteer in various capacities, and often think the way in which ROSMY’s staff and volunteers embody the organization’s simple goal of “helping youth be themselves” would serve as a powerful model for the Church. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the transformation that comes as youth are given the tools to explore and articulate who they are, and know that they are honored and respected no matter the baggage they carry or the scars they bear when they come in. Every day the cinder-block building that houses the organization becomes a sacred space where lives are transformed through conversations that offer the youth something that many of them cannot find anywhere else: the opportunity to belong.

I recently attended ROSMY’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, where folks who serve with ROSMY are given free food and a big “Thank You” from the staff. I was sitting at a table enjoying a meal and conversation with a handful of regular group facilitators who help lead conversations at any one of several programs that go on throughout the week. Included at the table was Betsy, a 64-year-old former drama teacher who, I would soon learn, has been volunteering with ROSMY since 2001. At some point a relatively new facilitator, Justin, approached an empty seat at the table and asked if he could join us. As we went around and did our introductions, Betsy’s face lit up with a flash of recognition and excitement. Their words were muddled together as Betsy and Justin embraced in a joyful hug. As it turns out, Justin was one of ROSMY’s youth a decade ago, and Betsy was one of his facilitators.

“Oh gosh, it’s good to see you,” Betsy said. “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.” The moment blew me away. Given the number of youth that come in and out of ROSMY’s doors in any given year, and that Betsy has been there for over a decade, it’s a safe bet that she’s led conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of teenagers during her time as a facilitator. I was humbled by the level of respect she gives the youth, by how very present she must be at every conversation to be able to recognize someone, even after a decade apart.

I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.

In the midst of a world that is largely unkind and a Church that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth a chance to to be honored, heard and known. ROSMY’s approach is pretty straightforward: create a space for people to articulate who they understand themselves to be, give them the opportunity to safely explore that identity, and celebrate the diversity of personalities that make a community unique. This simple act spurs transformation, enabling youth to empathize with one another, to hold each other accountable, and to honor every person who comes through the door. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. A number of youth, like Justin, come back as facilitators, offering not only support, but also a model of life beyond the current muck many are trudging through, as if to say: “Yes, I have been where you are, and I know it’s tough, that it sometimes feels unbearably painful; but, know that you are not alone.”

What might the Church be like if we used ROSMY’s model as an approach to ministry? What would happen if we focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? Would giving each other the space to articulate who we understand ourselves to be give way to empathy, trust, and accountability, and community building? What might the church be like if we look each other in the eyes often enough that, even after a decade apart, we might see one another and be able to say, “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you”?

ROSMY’s website can be found at www.rosmy.org.


Jessica Rathbun-Cook blogs regularly at clatteringbones.com.