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Re-post: Holy Ground

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on December 3, 2012. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

By Esta Jarrett

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 2:3-5 (NRSV)

Recently, a stand-up routine by the comedian Tig Notaro made the rounds of “you have to listen to this” lists on the Internet. Last summer, Notaro nearly died from a rare combination of medical problems. About a week later, her mom died in a tragic accident. Not long after that, Notaro went through an awful breakup. Then, right after that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts. At the time of the recording, after time counted in hours, not weeks, she found herself onstage at the Largo Comedy Club, in front of an audience anticipating a stand-up routine.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. Instead of telling her usual witticisms, in which bees taking the expressway figure prominently, she told the truth. “Hello, good evening,” she said. “I have cancer . . . just found out. Good evening.”

During her set, Notaro led the audience through a masterpiece of comedy and an anthropological study of grief. I’ve never heard anything like it. The audience struggled to know how to react. There were moans of sympathy and distress from some, uncertain laughter from others, and hushing noises from the rest.

By the end of the set, the crowd was eating out of Notaro’s hand. They would have done anything she told them to do. It was as if the audience realized the enormity of the gift they had been given: the fit of Notaro’s own self . . . her refusal to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Had Notaro just performed her usual set, it would have felt like a crime of inauthenticity, posturing instead of art. Toward the end of the performance, at the urging of the audience, she did tell her standard “bee taking the expressway” joke. Because of everything that was not said, the joke assumed an almost debilitating poignancy. The audience, who had witnessed the depth of her pain and beauty, could no longer be satisfied with pro-forma jokes. As they all confronted the reality of death, and found the grace to laugh, the Largo was transformed; the comedy club became holy ground.

When the church is at its best, it resembles that night at the Largo. People need a place to give voice to truth, before God and everybody, and know that they are held in safety and love. Whether in or out of a church building, we need a community where healing and reconciliation mean more than appearances and convention, even if it goes off script . . . and especially if it challenges our expectations of what we paid to see.

A few years ago, while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I visited a certain patient in the hospital. She had breast cancer, and her body was rejecting the cosmetic implants that she wanted to conceal her double mastectomy. She was bald, gaunt, red-eyed, and wild in her grief. She needed to talk to someone about how mad she was . . . at her body, at the cancer, and at God.

In my memory, there was no noise in the hospital except her voice, no light but that illuminating her bed. For forty-five minutes she raged, wept, and confessed everything on her heart to this inexperienced seminary grad.

When her storm had passed, we gripped hands, hard, and prayed together. It was hard to know when we stopped talking and started praying. The feeling of God’s presence throughout our conversation was so strong, you could almost feel its warmth emanating as from fire. As we prayed, we laughed, and cussed, and cried some more. After we said “Amen,” the patient’s face was serene, and I was changed forever. That hospital room became holy ground.

Every church I know has unspoken rules about acceptable behavior, whether in or out of worship. Most of the time, enforcement of these rules is self-policing: if people aren’t feeling presentable, they stay home, rather than burdening others with their troubles. They don’t want to cry, and risk embarrassing themselves. They feel too raw from the sharp edges of their lives to be able to put on a polite face.

But when wounded people feel safe enough to speak their truth, to say when they’re mad or confused or scared, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work miracles in church. Healing begins when a friend hugs your shoulders as you cry during the hymn. Sympathy and help are found as you discuss problems after worship. Even the simple act of being in a crowd of people who are praying and worshiping God can bring about change when change seems impossible. It is precisely in those moments when our lives are messy and unpresentable need that we need church the most.

We talk a lot about our brokenness when we confess our sins on Sunday. But theologically abstract brokenness looks very different from everyday brokenness, the kind of brokenness that makes you feel that you’re not good enough. In the church I want us to be, everyday brokenness becomes a blessing. When we bring our cracked and chipped lives to the font, to the table, to the people, to the Lord, we find ourselves on holy ground.

My prayer is that our awareness of God’s presence will grow and sharpen, becoming as keen as any other sense, so that we might walk barefoot everywhere we go. In comedy clubs, in hospital rooms, and yes, in church, may we say what needs to be said, in the deep and challenging love of God. May the church be a place that people seek out for such healing and transformation, instead of feeling they must stay away until they are presentable. May we all find ourselves on holy ground.


esta jarrettEsta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

Image: jayzee/shutterstock.com

Joy, Sorrow, and Improv

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: LeeAnn is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by LeeAnn Hodges

Years ago a minister friend shared a phrase I that have held onto: “joyfully participate in the sorrows of life.” This paradoxical statement has gotten me through a great deal over the years, and speaks to the sort of joy I often find in the midst of advent.

True joy is a way of living that is not dependent upon the external circumstances of our lives and our world. And yet, it takes practice to learn how to embrace joy when things aren’t going the way we hoped or expected.

How do we live joyful lives in the midst of the divisions and pain in our world without discounting the suffering that is all too real? One of the more helpful tools I have found to expand my imagination and hold together both joy and sorrow is the practice of improv.

Improv is most often associated with the entertainment industry. But it is so much more than that. It is a practice that expands our ability to imagine and create. With improv we have the entire matrix of the universe from which to draw. With improv, anything is possible. Not even something as constant as gravity is a given. Where else in our lives are we granted the freedom to take our most creative selves out for a test drive?

One basic “rule” of improv is that we use everything. Even our mistakes. Especially our mistakes. The saying goes like this: “There are no mistakes in improv, only unsupported action.” With this reframing of our roles, my congregation is invited to become co-creators of the narrative of our community. When it comes to worship, on our better days we wait attentively for the surprising joy in our missteps, as room is created for an experience of the Holy One in what bubbles up through the cracks in our decently in order services. By embracing this posture to worship, I find myself better able to walk faithfully through the messiness of my own life out in the world, witnessing to the ways in which God’s grace flows in through the cracks of my own brokenness. And joy is more accessible, even in the most challenging of times.

As I consider the church that is being recreated in the shell of the old, I believe that the practice and play of improv has much to teach us. It is messy work, it is often painful, AND it is joyous.

This year, following the NEXT Church Gathering, I will join two of my more creative colleagues/playmates in offering a post-Gathering seminar where we will use some of these themes of improv to help us engage more deeply with the Eastertide gospel readings. I assure you that there will be a good bit of laughter. And if things go as expected, we will all leave better equipped to joyfully participate in the sorrows of life, guided by the Holy Muse that is at all times working within us and through us, drawing together heaven and earth.


LeAnn Hodges is the pastor of Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD and a leadership coach. Her favorite part of her job is hanging out with people, learning their stories, and, if possible, getting in a good belly laugh at least once a day. From those stories, she learns more and more about the depth of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ. In her free time… oh, wait – LeAnn has three sons, ages 13, 7, and 5… but when she used to have free time, she enjoyed gardening, knitting, reading mysteries, and watching sci-fi shows with her husband of 23 years (who happens to be a high school physics teacher).