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Of Asses and Raindrops

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Melanie Weldon-Soiset

The water drop plopped on my brow, hovering over follicles.
I continued to work, my hands aflutter,
yet the water drop cried foul.
“I’m here! I’m heavy! I’m wet, and on your face!” it howled.
I flicked my hand toward my eye,
but paused

mid-air,

wondering Why this drop,
Why me,
Why now?
Like Balaam’s ass, this ball of dew demanded that I halt.
So I stopped my hand, stopped my work, and listened to that glop of rain:
It hummed and hawed on my temple,
Reeling and wobbling, a breath away
From crashing into my eye.

I wait under its weight, miniscule yet full.
And then,
only then,
do I discover the divine.


Melanie Weldon-Soiset is the Fellowship Program Director at Sojourners, and is a participant in the 2020 cohort of “Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats” with Shalem. Melanie is also a pastor, published poet, and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @MelanieWelSoi, and check out her work at melanieweldonsoiset.com.

Pilgrimage is in the Leaving

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

“That’s not how the story goes,” I said to the Canadian pilgrim next to me as the doors to the tomb slammed shut. It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week after the Sabbath, just like the gospel story. I had ventured alone from my hotel in Jerusalem, through the Damascus gate, winded my way through the empty and narrow streets of Old City, and into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition says the empty tomb of Jesus is located. The wait was too long the day before and I was looking for a different ending to my pilgrimage.

After taking the Eucharist in front of the open tomb, I was third in line when an ecumenical argument broke out between two priests responsible for their tradition’s worship on opposite sides of the sepulcher. Whatever the dispute, one priest presumed it was enough to shutdown visitation. My fellow traveler leaned over to me, “Did we just get barred from Jesus’ tomb?”

This marked the end of my Jerusalem journey. Despite the disappointment, I logged the homiletical illustration and kept walking.

The call to keep walking was a common theme for the week. Whether in Galilee or Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Nablus, Shiloh or Joppa, our local Palestinian guide, Iyad, frequently whispered through our audio devices, “keep walking.” This was a short pilgrimage and our ambitious clip was designed to ensure adequate time with local partners like Daoud Nassar. After all, pilgrimage is about people as much as place.

VW Bus surrounded by olive trees and parked at Nassar Farm due to road restrictions for Palestinians. (Greg Klimovitz)

Daoud, a Palestinian Christian, lives on land his family has owned in the West Bank for well over 100 years. Also known as Tent of Nations, Israeli settlements are constructed all around them, suffocate the farm, and cut off the Nassar family from running water, electricity, and access to public roads. Yet Daoud Nassar and his family reject intimidation and keep walking. They peacefully resist through remaining, grounded on the mantra, “we refuse to be enemies.”

Daoud spoke with us about a Israeli military raid that burned down 250 of their olive trees, a major source of their livelihood. Tent of Nations shared their plight with partners, assured God would somehow hear their cries and concerns and resurrect something new. And God did, through a UK based Jewish community. Empathizing with their story, this community purchased new olive trees, organized a visit, and planted life alongside their Christian neighbors. I bought an olive tree that day, prayerful I would revisit this symbol of hope. “We believe in justice,” Daoud said before we left. “One day we will see the Son of Justice rise again.”

As likely noticed throughout this blog series, many of us wanted to linger longer in the caves and among the olive trees of Nassar Farm. We had spent two days in Bethlehem, where a thirty-foot wall lined with barbed wire, video surveillance, and snipers snakes throughout the region. This wall imposes separation, perpetuates fear, and sustains modern apartheid. At Nassar farm, however, we found an alternative narrative of hope through the prophetic witness of a new friend whose faith was grounded in the One who, amidst first-century occupation and oppression, also called this region home. Then we heard a familiar voice in our ears, “keep walking.”

So we did.

Sunset on the beach of Joppa (Greg Klimovitz)

We walked to Nablus and Hebron and alongside Muslims, Jews, and Christians. We walked with refugee children before we dipped our hands in the well where Jesus offered living waters to those written off as other. We even walked the beaches of Joppa, where Jonah was spit onto dry land and Peter reminded, “not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). There we were reminded of our call to keep walking towards Philadelphia and Charlotte, D.C. and Atlanta, San Diego and wherever we called home. Empowered by what we had seen and heard, keep walking to confront the dividing walls of hostility that snake through our own communities and threaten our own borders. Awakened by the courage of new siblings in the (inter)faith family, keep walking as advocates for neighbors oppressed by the ghettoization of our own neighborhoods. Stirred by the systemic restriction of resources through racial grids in one nation, keep walking with interfaith and ecumenical partners to dismantle the same practices in our own. And when the doors of tombs slam shut and resurrection hope appears burned to the ground, lean on the witness of Daoud and keep walking towards the Son of Justice, who will rise again. Keep walking, whispers God’s Spirit, because pilgrimage is as much in the leaving as in the initial going.

A poem written in the airport prior to leaving, which stayed with me on our pilgrimage and upon return:
Life is pilgrimage.
Travel well and never alone.
Venture to spaces where the divine and human collide
in a particular place.
Go with eyes wide open
where stories and parables
share the ground your feet now tread.
Pray en route
and listen to the voices of the other
those more oft passed by.
Ask questions
linger longer.
Expect to encounter the Holy
to return different than when you first set out
awakened
as you keep walking.


As the Associate Presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, Rev. Greg Klimovitz encourages church leaders in the development of collaborative and holistic ministry partnerships, exploration of intentional and creative mediums to tell related stories of faithful witness, stewardship of grant resources to fund and sustain new and existing initiatives, and design of contextualized expressions of the gospel in the twenty-first century. Greg is married and has four young children. Follow on Twitter @gklimovitz or gregklimovitz.blogspot.com

Resurrection is Not an Argument

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

As we start Eastertide, this testimony offered by Ken Evers-Hood at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering is a beautiful reflection for the Easter season. It would be appropriate as a personal devotion, for a a group of church professionals or clergy, or for a staff team to watch and reflect on together. Please note that in this talk, Ken shares a piece of his own #metoo story, which may bring up memories for others.

At the start of his testimony, Ken shares that he was nervous about focusing on depression, but then he realized that if he could offer vulnerability that might help anyone who is feeling lost then it would be worth it.

What is one area in your ministry in which moving toward increased vulnerability might help someone who is feeling lost? What is at stake for you in moving toward that vulnerability? What is at stake if you do not make that move?

Ken’s testimony offers four layers of how he understands how to do ministry with depression.
The first layer is to care for your soul. He encourages all church leaders to have a therapist, a coach, a group with whom you are honest.

What care for your soul are you currently practicing? What care does your soul long for?

The second layer Ken points to is the strange, unexpected grief of ministry. He says, “When they need us to show up we have to be professionals who show up and they don’t need our mess and yet we are human and we have it and so we discover the strange, unexpected grief of ministry.” He tells the story of a colleague who lost his faith in resurrection during Holy Week.

What griefs do you carry in your ministry? What crises of faith haunt you? How do you carry those griefs? Where do you process those crises of faith? What promises of our faith uphold you in those times? What people help to hold the faith with and for you?

The third layer is what happens when it is the church itself that is hurting us. Ken shares of his own experience with a church leader abusing power and engaging in misconduct. Ken says, “The scars are healed but I don’t believe they will ever be gone.”

What accountability do you have in your own ministry context and in your own professional life to maintain healthy boundaries? If you have been hurt by someone in power in the church, how have you shared your experience? What people and places have believed in you? What cultural changes can we make as a church to prevent this kind of misconduct from finding a place in our communities? Pray for those who have these scars.

The fourth layer Ken addresses is that healing does happen. In each of these layers, Ken shares poems that have come out of his own struggle and care for his soul —
Theodicy (6:55-8:16)
Resurrection is not an argument (11:21-12:54)
Cassandra’s daughters (15:20-18:14)
Not running but dancing (20:08-24:49)

Listen to any of the poems a second and third time. What word or phrase catches your attention? What truth might it be speaking to you? What promise? What challenge?

2019 National Gathering Testimony: Ken Evers-Hood

Ken Evers-Hood, pastor of Tualatin Presbyterian Church in Tualatin OR, gives a testimony presentation on ministry with depression at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Hills of Appalachia

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Janice Stamper

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

It’s holler, not hollow
where I live
On the farm in the hills
Of the Appalachian mountains
The land is our soul
Not just our property
Settled generations ago
The spirits of my ancestors
Are all around me
As I work the soil
My hands cracked from toil
Just like theirs from hard days.
Living in poverty ain’t easy
It’s not because we don’t work
We work our hands
To the bone
Cutting wood for fires
Clearing land of thickets
Planting gardens
Hoeing, weeding
plowing, harvesting,
Storing, drying,
Freezing, canning
And food in the winter
is our pay.
It is our work.
It is our job.
Yet, others say
We are lazy, sorry
We could move
We could go
Where there are jobs
But to leave
Is more than just moving
It’s leaving our world
Our family, our culture
Our music, our faith
Our land, our heart.
It’s not like moving
From one place to another
It’s giving up everything
That one knows and loves
To move to strange ways
Strange lands, strange cultures.
Mysteries and wonders
of Appalachia
Cannot be known
By driving freeways
And reading about it
One must turn
Onto windy roads
Traveling deep
Up and down craggy hills
through lush forests
Sometimes
Five or six roads
Off the main road
To find the places
And see the people.
Sit on the porch
Eat at the table
Stay for a while
To listen to the
Stories as only
The teller can tell
With laughter
And tears
Fables filled
With wisdom
And truth.
One must look
Into the eyes
Of weary souls
To see hearts
Burdened by
Hard times
Hard work
Hard lives
Yet alive
With God’s grace
Love’s steadfastness
Spirit’s power
And faith
That endures
Hoping beyond hope
That others remember
And will not forget
The stories
The faith
The love
The lives
The beauty
The hopes
The dreams
Once they drive on
From the hills of Appalachia.


Janice Stamper is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She served in ministry in Alaska for thirty years then returned to KY in 2010 to care for her father, who recently died in March.

Sacred Space for Grief

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: Lisle is leading a workshop during the 2018 National Gathering called “The Art of the Desert Journey: What the Creative Process Might Teach Us About Blooming.” It will take place during workshop block 3 on Tuesday. Learn more and register

by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

I don’t remember the negotiations that took place, but I do remember knowing it was a blessing to have my mom home from the hospital for Christmas. I had just turned thirteen, and — to my now horror — I spent much of the holidays consumed with the frivolities of my social life to avoid thinking about the fact that my young mother was in hospice care. My memories of her last Christmas with us are blurred. Was she home for Christmas Eve? Did we have our annual Christmas Day meal? Was that the year Santa filled our stockings with Elmer’s glue and over-sized Fruit of the Loom panties?

What remains clear, however, is the image of her shrunken frame sinking into the couch cushions — her body swaddled in gray over-sized sweats, her balding head tucked into the folds of a beanie, her face both swollen and sunken at the same time. What remains crisp in my memory is the picture of cancer’s devouring disguise.

If you have become an unwanted friend to grief, you know well how holidays are often filled with both blurred and lucid apparitions of holidays past. We walk through seasons of abundant joy with grief tugging at our sleeves.

When preparing materials for Advent with A Sanctified Art, we decided as a team to create resources to help churches carve out sacred space for those grieving in the midst of the holidays. With more than enough devastation and turmoil in the world, we knew many would be entering the season feeling like they were walking with a wet blanket draped over their heads, as if smothering their every inhale with hot, sticky air.

We wanted to offer congregations a way of naming and releasing grief before God as a radical act of hope, one that forces us to sit still in the shadows to acknowledge the ways our lives have torn apart at the seams, one that forces us to wait for the new life that is strangely birthed through suffering. And so, my colleague, Sarah Are, crafted poetry for a Longest Night Service and passed the poem along to me to pair it with visual poetry.

With Sarah’s words as my muse, I created a painting and short film to visually manifest the safe and sacred space Sarah paints with her words. To begin, I read Sarah’s poem a number of times, letting her lyrics wash over me again and again. The beauty of her poetry is that it spans universal truths while also feeling particularly personal. Even if you are not drowning in grief, there is still room for you here. The poem lures each of us into a space of quiet inquiry to simply welcome the emotions that arise along the way instead of trying to fix or silence them.

I began the painting with charcoal to express the rawness of loss and the shattered ways we often cope with our own grief or attempt to soothe the losses others have endured. I wanted these initial marks to be messy and chaotic, a visceral outpouring of the immediate shock loss of all kinds triggers. Then I began to fill the canvas with dark and haphazard strokes, creating a wild storm of sky. I hope we might all feel permission to fully step into the heart of this storm, letting go of control or the need to find our way out—to simply surrender to the ways grief wreaks havoc beyond repair. Gradually, the stormy sky slowly curves into calm. I hope you see whatever you need to see in this imagery—clouds, sea, the Spirit of God, the exhale of grief, or something completely unnameable. I finished the painting with a stretch of gold and ivory near the bottom, symbolizing solid ground and stability—a place in which you can sink your feet—even in the midst of the storm.

After my mom died, I didn’t know how to grieve. I thought that releasing my pain would break me and would expose all the ways my world had fallen apart. I’ve spent most of my adult life confronting and undamming the well of sorrow I didn’t know how to let loose then.

When I watch this film, I experience a journey of return — to my grief, to my mother, and to the inexplicable sense that, no matter what, something bigger and greater than me surrounds me with care. That is the best way I can name what Advent hope feels like.

And they say to me, We are sorry for your loss.
And I say to myself, Me too.
Me. too.
Because what I know now is that
when love takes a hold of your heart,
it gives a piece of you away,
and when that disappears
that empty space aches.
You can’t fill it.
You can’t drown it.
You can’t forget it.
You can’t ignore it.

There’s just space and you have to let it be.
—Sarah Are, excerpt from “Let There Be You”


Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity is an artist, retreat leader, and creative entrepreneur working within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and beyond. As founder of A Sanctified Art LLC, a collaborative arts collective creating multimedia resources for churches, Lisle believes in the prophetic and freeing power of art to connect us more deeply to God and one another. Learn more about her work by visiting lislegwynngarrity.com and sanctifiedart.org.

Twitter: @lgwynnarrity // @sanctifiedart
Instagram: @artbylisle // @sanctifiedart

Workshop Materials: Verse & Vision

Workshop: Verse & Vision
Presenters: Nancy Arbuthnot & Gerry Hendershot

Attached you will find a revised handout from the “writing from Scripture” part of the Verse & Vision workshop with Nancy and Gerry.

Verse and Vision

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 Nancy Arbuthnot

“What do the ordinary things of daily life—water, salt, feet, clothes—have to do with spiritual existence?” This question came unbidden to me one day a few years ago while I was at a writers’ retreat in rural Virginia. I had just completed my poetry translation project, days ahead of schedule (no doubt helped by the hearty, delicious meals prepared for us each breakfast, lunch and dinner time; cozy writing studios nestled into the rolling hills; enforced quiet zones in the residence hall; and the lack of internet and cell phone coverage), and with no other writing projects in mind, I picked up my Bible, propped my feet in the doorway of the cabin, chose a random phrase and gazed out over the bucolic countryside.

So began the meditative poems collected in my book, Spirit Hovering, and my quest to share my spiritual explorations. Over the years, I have led many “Writing the Spirit” workshops with church groups and the homeless and other vulnerable populations. Recently, Gerry Hendershot, another poetry lover and spiritual seeker, teamed up with me to create “Verse and Vision,” an online and real-time program promoting creative uses of poetry in church life. We have posted our first online blogs and presented poetry workshops at our DC-area presbytery meetings and in our churches. In our NEXT Church workshop, we hope to spread the word about ways poetry can stir our spirits and connect us to our spiritual source!

Our workshop focus is two-fold: to read and discuss poems to use in liturgy and spiritual formation, and to write our own poetic meditations based on scripture. Gerry will share resources for using poetry in difficult discussions of life changes (death, divorce) and social justice issues (white privilege, gender identity). He will also introduce choral-speaking of poetry in worship. I will share poems from Spirit Hovering as examples of how to meditate on scripture with a pen. I will leave you with a short poem from my book, inspired by John 6:35: “I am the bread of life”:

Bread

Bread breathing through a thousand
small holes—

bread his father baked
mixing yeast, sugar, flour, water
letting the dough rise
punching it down
the sweet moist aroma
filling the apartment

May I have some? the boy asked
and his father slicing
the still-warm loaf
placed a piece in his hands

What was wanted, asked for
What was asked for, given

Verse and Vision will be offered during workshop block 1 on Monday of the National Gathering.


Nancy Arbuthnot, a teaching elder at Western Presbyterian Church in DC, is professor emerita of English at the United States Naval Academy. In addition to Spirit Hovering, her publications include the English versions of Vietnamese poems in Waves Beyond Waves by Le Pham Le and a chapbook of poems about growing up in a navy family.

gerry hendershot After Gerry Hendershot retired from a career in health research, he was led by the Spirit into poetry, learning from craft shops, listening to great poets read at festivals, and spending too much on poetry books. Along the way he began sharing his love of poetry in his faith community—the Church of the Pilgrims in DC, where he is a ruling elder.

Nancy and Gerry’s website is www.verseandvision.org.

5 Questions with Gary Swaim

This series highlights participants at the national gathering in Minneapolis on March 31st – April 2nd, 2014. Presenters, preachers, teachers, and leaders were asked the same five questions and their thoughtful responses may be found here every week. The goal is to introduce you to people you’ll hear from in Minneapolis and prime the pump for our time together. Hopefully, something here will spark an idea, thought, or question for you. We encourage you to reach out and initiate conversations that you can later continue in person. 

Gary D. Swaim, Ph.D. lives in Irving, TX.  He is a produced playwright in California and Texas (including a drama portraying the last years in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and a widely-published poet and writer of short fiction, in addition to anthologized poetry and fiction.  Currently, Dr. Swaim teaches in the Masters of Liberal Studies Program for S.M.U and serves as Faculty Advisor for Creative Writing.  He was selected as the 2011 Texas Senior Poet Laureate and was awarded the honor of Minnie Stevens Piper Professor of Excellence for the state of Texas. Swaim is a member of the Woodhaven Presbyterian Church of Irving, Texas and a ruling elder. Gary will be leading a workshop, Creating the Poetry of the Spirit.

5 questions1. Tell us about your ministry context.

I grew up in a conservative denomination and served as a minister (pastor) in that denomination (fulltime and supply) for approximately fifteen years.  With that same group, I later served as an elder for thirteen years.  Through it all, I began drifting (deliciously and painfully) from the literalism I had been part to.  Fresh air fell on me when my wife and I associated with the Presbyterian Church.  I continued my spiritual search and have served as a ruling elder (and lay minister) there.  I have, for as long as I can remember, regarded myself a deeply spiritual person who makes essentially no distinction between the world of the spirit and material.  Each of my life acts is, I believe, of the (S)spirit.

2. Where have you seen glimpses of “the church that is becoming”?

I have seen the “church that is becoming” in the specific acts of persons inside as well as outside the nominal church.  I have seen it among those who say they do not believe as well as in those who believe deeply.  I have seen it in the person of advanced age and of youth.  It is most in individuals (and my thoughts go to one so aptly named Gloria) more than in collected gatherings of Christians.  I have seen the church becoming most with the marriage of the arts to the gathered body of persons. . .when individuals become co-creators with God.

3. What are your passions in ministry? (And/or what keeps you up at night?)

The so-called “high church” among most Presbyterians speaks to me most and impassions me.  Perhaps because I am a Professor of Arts and Humanities, symbology/imagery/depth of analysis speak to me most clearly, and I fear for its demise, its being overrun by bubblegum theology and practice.  No, I know.  This meets the needs of many and has every right to its existence.  It is, perhaps, only I whose need cannot be met by what APPEARS to be surface in nature.  And, then, I cry (worshipfully) at the excellence in a performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman’s recording.  I have not said, you will have noticed, that I’m always consistent.

4. What is one thing you are looking forward to at the NEXT Gathering?

I will be enjoying (I know this is so, by faith) my first visit with Next Church.  I have long been involved in a quest for truths of all types and sorts, the very nature of my profession and temperament.  A quest, as concept, automatically involves “quest-ions.” I am rife with questions, short on permanent answers.  I expect that will be so for most attending Next Church.  What other reason than the search for answers would bring into existence a gathering like this?  I look forward to interacting with “questers.”  Nothing gives me greater anticipation.

5. Describe NEXT Church in seven words or less.

Believing, hopeful, questers in search of answers. . . .