Posts

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 derricklweston.com.

Refusing to Hear

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 Angela Williams

“…whose expressions of faith we have refused to hear.”
– The Sarasota Statement

For most of my life, I have refused to hear even my own expression of faith and expression of self. When I was first engaging with the Presbyterian Church at the denominational level, it was as a Young Adult Advisory Delegate to the 221st General Assembly. In that role, I voted to create marriage equality in the PC(USA), not knowing that my push of the button would affect my own potential future marriage.

Seven months later, I cried out for answers and heard only silence. In that void, I heard God’s response, and it terrified me. My gut already knew who I was, and the Spirit offered no other commentary. I did not seek the silence, but the silence greeted me and reflected my identity as a bisexual cisgender woman. In that long, dark night, I wrestled with God. Of course I supported other people’s expressions of their gender and sexual identities, wherever they may lie on the spectrum, but that did not apply to me.

Art by Jeff Gill via Flickr

It took many months of struggling and bargaining to accept and love this newly unfolding part of me. It was even longer before I decided to share that side of me with the world. While I tiptoed in and out of the closet, only revealing my bisexuality to certain confidants, fear made a home in my gut. This fear was the strongest motivator in hiding my full identity. Fear of the injustice I could face. Fear of rejection. Fear of the church. Fear that I would lose relationships. Fear that this part of me would jeopardize my ordination process. Fear of not finding a job in ministry. Fear that I would not be fully embraced as part of God’s beloved family.

Perhaps fear is why we, the church, have refused to hear some expressions of faith. If we truly listened to the stories of those crying out for justice, then we would be convicted to act. If we looked to the silence, perhaps God would not respond, leaving us to wrestle with our gut instinct that something is not right.

Oh, how we are called to change if we truly seek justice, if we actually offer hospitality, and if we fully embrace as part of God’s beloved family those whom the church has harmed individually and systemically. I imagine that in living out that gut feeling, that Spirit nudging, the church would find it difficult to maintain the status quo. How beautiful would the church be if all were loved, welcomed, and protected, no matter the trauma they have experienced.

Still, that process of transformation must begin with those of us in the dominant culture observing silence. In our silence, may we create space for the marginalized and historically silenced to share their stories of injustice. Then, we in the dominant culture must believe them. The Spirit is in solidarity with those stories and moves within hearts and souls to enact justice in this world. Welcome Her movement into your relationship and gut. Wrestle with Her for a while. Then use your voice and privilege to follow Jesus and stand with and for those who are unjustly marginalized and oppressed.

The Sarasota Statement offers wisdom and rich guidance for the church in 2018. While it is both confessional and aspirational, I find space in it where I can wrestle with my own privilege, as well as feel comforted that I am embraced as part of God’s beloved family. Upon reflection, this document encourages me to seek out silence and listen for other expressions of faith in my self and in others that I have refused to hear. Whose expressions of faith have you refused to hear? How can you start listening for their stories?


Angela Williams is training to be a community organizer and a pastor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and at the University of Texas School of Social Work in Austin, TX. She finds life in experiencing music, listening to podcasts, and exploring creation.

The Idol of Discord

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 Christopher Edmonston

“We grieve that we have segregated and broken our communities along worldly constructs of race, class, ideology, and belief.”
– The Sarasota Statement

America, and her churches, have historically been possessed by many idols. They are the usual suspects: racism, money, violence, and power. Different eras have made headway against them, but like all idols, they are hard to kill.

Today we face another idol, a closely related cousin to the usual suspects: the idol of discord.

We love to fight. We have all “teamed up” and while our various teams have theological and ethical merit, our teams encourage competition and conflict. Healthy conflict can breed renewal. Conflict unhinged leads to discord. Too often our disagreements have to deepening conflict. Our teams are becoming tribes (read: David Brooks’ The Retreat to Tribalism) and our tribes are increasingly dividing us into combatants.

It is Jesus who issues the definitive caution to discord run amok. In the Gospel of John, he prays of his church and people, “may they all be one.” In the beatitudes he preaches, “blessed are the peacemakers.” The first question to ask ourselves is about how we are investing our power and using our time. If we are not investing at least equal time and prayer in reaching out to those with whom we don’t usually agree as we have in defining our own tribal identities, then there is no chance for peace. No chance for peace means that any chance for oneness is lost.

I have enjoyed membership in at least five “repairers of the breach” groups within the PC(USA) with participants from multiple tribes who hold differing theological perspectives. I have also been part of leadership cohorts and addressed bipartisan groups of leaders with perspectives all over political spectrum. These groups are always challenging to hold together. There are always painful moments and hard conversations. But when we invested equal time to listening to other valid positions, even when they were hard to process, we discovered unexpected synergy and unlikely friendships.

If there is nothing else to be learned from Jesus in our age of discord, it is that Jesus remained engaged with those with whom he disagreed. He held his positions, but he continually went to dinner in their homes, listened to their shallow protests, and returned to relationship with his most strident opponents (for example John 3 and the Pharisee, Nicodemus).

Of course there is a very big caveat. Just like grace can be cheapened, peace can be cheapened. Injustice, suffering, and intolerance in all their forms must be opposed. The same Lord who calls us to peace also calls us to kingdom-building and directs our witness to justice. Peace where there are still peoples oppressed is no peace at all. Wherever the usual suspects of idolatry still live, they must be countered and confronted with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

In the Sarasota Statement, the authors chose a perfect verb about our segregated and broken church communities: grieve. The authors show incredible wisdom in the selection of this verb as we, in the church, have allowed the worldly idols of race, class, ideology, and belief to divide us into obscurity. Does Jesus want cheap peace? I cannot believe so. But does he grieve when our efforts for discourse and collaboration break down? Does he grieve when we get the parties to the table only to see the parties leave after the meal to return to their owns tribes, freshly devoting their energies to the elimination of the other tribes with whom they disagree? I believe he does.

Difficult people and deep disagreements will always exist. There are righteous fights to win. But if the manner in which we disagree is not worthy of the Lord who has called us to justice, then our efforts to declare the reign of God and be peacemakers at the same time will bear no fruit.

It was Aisha Brooks-Lytle, the newly installed Executive Presbyter in Atlanta, who preached powerfully at the NEXT Church National Gathering in 2016 this call: “Jesus doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations, he starts them.”

Aisha is spot on. It is long, slow, difficult, honest conversation that our church needs. For when we are one in the Spirit, the usual-suspect idols begin to lose their power and dare not divide us or hurt us any more than they already have. There is power in oneness, a power that we have not often tapped these past 35 years. The end of the grief which the statement so elegantly defines begins when we invest more in discourse than we have in discord. Or at the least it can begin when we choose to invest equal amounts of energy in relationship building as we have in defining our tribes.


Christopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, and a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Sing

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 Felipe Martinez

In our silence, we listen for the stories of those whose cries for justice we have disregarded and whose expressions of faith we have refused to hear. We grieve the ways our silence indulges cowardice, justifies irresponsibility, and promotes fear in the face of injustice.
– The Sarasota Statement, Part III

I have sung in a choir, on and off, since I was in elementary school. Whether it was a church, college or community choir, singing has been for me such a great avenue to enjoy music together with friends and develop a sense of community. Unfortunately, for as much as I like to sing, I am a terrible sight-reader. The best way for me to learn my part is to rely on repetition and on being next to someone who knows our part well. I sing and sometimes sing the wrong note, but I am always listening to my singing partner, working to learn the piece.

Photo credit: Colorful people, Allstate choir 2007, by Becka Spence via flickr.com. Creative Commons

At that point in the learning process, I actually try not to hear what the other voices in the choir are doing, because my little musical brain can only handle so much input. And so I am in awe of my choir directors through the years, because they can hear every part at the same time. Not only that, they can tell when things are not working well, and they can pinpoint which section is not all on the same note (and I suspect sometimes the director knows I’m the one singing notes of my own creation!). At times the director would stop rehearsal and ask us tenors to sing our part alone. It was not a matter of shaming us, but of helping us get on the same tune. Listening to each other, listening to the accompanist, we learned together, those leading the group and those of us bringing up the rear. The beautiful part then comes when we each know our part well, and then singing as a full choir I depend on listening to the other parts, because now we’ve gone from learning to making music together. We sing cooperatively, letting our voices weave in and out in the melody and harmony as the composer would have us do.

As a Church, through the centuries, we have been at our worst when we’ve demanded that only a unison song of our own making will be our song; that no other notes, no harmony could enter our performance. We have been at our worst when we’ve silenced the voices which would have woken up our theology from its oppressive droning on, or challenged prophetically its monotone which we had been indoctrinated to think was the only note which would please God. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

To our shame, when we knew the Church was not singing God’s song, when in our discomfort we silently went along with a harsh tune of judgement and condemnation, of injustice disguised as purity, we unfaithfully let our ears be stopped up and we let God down.

Yet God is steadfast. God has always heard all the voices and has relentlessly invited all into God’s song. As a gracious director, God grants us pauses when we get to listen to voices other than our own, and offers us time to listen to ourselves alone for a moment so we can find our way back to our part in God’s song.

The poet writes there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7) — which I could paraphrase “and a time to sing.” What is crucial is that in that ancient rhythm, the Church faithfully sings God’s song of love and mercy, so that in our pauses we will truly hear those voices God knew were being drowned out, so that in our time of silence we will truly hear the divine melody as it is meant to be heard, so that as we draw the necessary breath of the Spirit we will to jump back into the song when we’re cued.


Felipe N. Martinez has been a solo pastor of a small and a medium sized congregation, as well as an Associate Executive Presbyter and Interim Executive Presbyter. He is currently the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Indiana.

The Healing of Our Planet

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

Editor’s note: In this blog post, abby reflects on the end of Part III of the Sarasota Statement, which reads, ” We work for the healing of our planet from the wounds our own carelessness inflicts.”

by abby mohaupt

I am running next to the ocean; this is the place I call home. While I divide my time between so many places because of God’s call on my life, it is this bend in the path that reminds me who I am. Running here, as the waves lap against the rocks, I remember what the coastline looked like when we first moved here. Four years ago, it was further out…. We could climb down the rocks and into the surf, letting the waves kiss our toes. Our first Thanksgiving by the ocean, the county brought in big rocks to stop the erosion from the king tides. The ocean has been rising; the place I call home is slowly disappearing.

So here, when I look at the sky with its purple and pink and green in the sunset, I fall in love again with this little part of the planet that is groaning.

We work for the healing of our planet

I can hear the leaves crunch under my feet as I wander through the arboretum. I’m picking up the litter the undergrads have left behind. I catch my breath when I see the upturned roots of the tree that fell last spring; I forget what it’s like to watch a tree return to the ground. Ashes to ashes, topsoil to topsoil. This is a death that is part of life. I pick up more litter. This is a death that is not natural but part of a life we have created for ourselves. These are left behind clues of consumerism that will not decay. I listen to the birds call to each other, wondering what they tell each other about us.

And here, when I look at the branches that are just beginning to bud into spring, I fall in love again with this little part of the planet that is groaning.

We work for the healing of our planet

I am on my third conference call for the day, and this time I push my niece in her stroller as I listen to my co-organizer imagine a world without climate change. We are writing an overture, arguing for the moral mandate to divest from fossil fuels. My niece wakes from her sleep and stares at me; I make faces at her to make her smile as we walk down the path back to her house. My mic is on mute because the wind keeps blowing. So, I listen and pray.

Then here, when I look into my niece’s face as she begins to smile, I fall in love again with this little part of the planet that is groaning.

We work for the healing of our planet

I do not know how to love God’s good creation. I know only that in the beginning God breathed everything into being and loved it — all of it. I know only that our first call has been to love creation with our whole selves — with our hearts and souls and minds and strength. I know only that we must do all we can in all the ways we can to love creation with our liturgy, ritual, buildings, and wallets.

So, here I am, looking out onto the whole big lovely world, falling in love with it and letting my heart break for the groaning of this little planet.

We work for the healing of our planet


abby mohaupt is a minister member of San Francisco Presbytery, a PhD student in New Jersey, and a native of Northern Illinois. She is the moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA, a member of the Presbyterian Hunger Program Advisory Committee, and co-editor of Presbyterians for Earth Care’s “EARTH.” abby is a long distance runner, multi-media artist, and deep lover of Jesus and all creation.

Small and Imperfect

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 Andrew Kukla

“We, a small and imperfect reflection of the church…”
– Sarasota Statement, Preamble

A friend and I have a little saying we use with each other: “Pulling out the splinter.”

Let me back up. A couple of years ago I posted on FB about one of my children having multiple splinters in their hand and how painful it must be and that I was amazed how long they had gone without asking for help. I was making a statement of part amazement and part empathy. That is all. A statement.

And then 25 people chirped in to tell me how to get splinters out of a child’s hand.

I didn’t ask for help. Frankly, I didn’t need help. I have 4 very active children; I’ve figured out my methods of pulling out splinters. But people just cannot help themselves when it comes to helping others. They must tell you what you are doing wrong and how to fix it.

Back it up some more. I sat in the room we used in my residency for Clinical Pastoral Education with tears streaming down my face. My colleagues had filed out of the room, and my supervisor and I sat there in silence. I was wrung out. I was in a place of despair. I had shared that, and my colleagues did everything they could to fix me. I told my supervisor, “I don’t want to learn from this… but all I’m thinking right now is about how much training we went through not to fix people and yet still we don’t get it. And I’m learning to be a better chaplain as they try to fix my grief, but I don’t want to learn from this.”

We cannot help ourselves when it comes to helping people.

We yearn to be helpful and end pain around us, but also… we crave being the authority. We crave it everywhere for everything — our own myth of omni-competency. Polity, parenting, theology, cultural decay and generational theory, chapter and verse of our canon within the canon of the Bible, politics, purity, and yes, even the best way to remove a splinter. We cannot pass up an opportunity to tell someone how to do things better if they just listen to us. It has me weary of many of the ways I used to enjoy being a part of the Church, and I will admit I have removed myself from most clergy groups I used to belong to because they began to feel like know-it-all groups and I wasn’t interested in what they were selling.

And so… I have grown jaded when I see a statement that starts out saying, “a small and imperfect reflection of the church.” Do we mean it? Will our life-our statements AND practices-bear it out? Do we see ourselves as small? Do we think, from beginning to end, that we are primarily… imperfect? Are we willing to abdicate the authority of perfection? Will we set aside authority at all? Or do we, while giving a tip of the hat to buzzy words and phrases, also imagine that we are right about most things, most of the time?

As I sit here at the beginning of the Sarasota Statement and read “a small and imperfect reflection of the church,” my hope and challenge to myself, and to you, is that we hold that thought close from beginning to end. We are naming big challenges here. Moral arc of the universe kind of challenges. And if we think we know the answers before we start — while we are walking and, frankly, any time before the work is done — we are wrong. Let’s take this journey to justice freed from our preconceived answers, our mantles of authority, and chains of righteousness.

Let’s admit, truly, that we are small (but of divinely ordained significance) and imperfect (beloved of God) and that is exactly why we have to sit in the room with the excluded, the disinherited, and the oppressed and let them speak for a while… a good long while. Before we ever — if we ever — speak. Because our job is not to fix it, but to bear witness.

I see you, I hear you, I value you, I love you. And that is all I know.

“We, a small and imperfect reflection of the church…”


Andrew Kukla is a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.

Deeply Moved by Grief

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 Jarrett McLaughlin

It was a rare moment of thinking ahead when I submitted my bulletin information for Sunday, February 18th, a full NINE days ahead. True confession though – it wasn’t actually me thinking ahead but rather the fact that our administrator was out of the office at the beginning of the next week and so the deadline had shifted.

At the time, all I knew was that I was preaching on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus in John 11 and that in my initial reading of the text, I was particularly struck by the emotional journey Jesus takes. As I would later observe in the sermon to come, John’s portrait of Jesus shows us a son of God who is so confident, so unflappable, so maddeningly divine. He never seems to get angry or sad but rather floats above those human emotions. At the beginning of the chapter he even speaks so mechanically about the death of his friend. But then he comes to Bethany and Mary is weeping and everyone is weeping and he’s face to face with real death and real grief and something inside of him breaks. John then gives us the shortest verse in all of the New Testament: “Jesus wept.” Christ’s tears are so important that they receive an entire verse just to highlight this moment of extreme pathos. It’s almost as if John shows us a Jesus who is learning what it means to be human and this scene is pivotal.

I hadn’t articulated all of that when I submitted that bulletin information, but even a cursory reading of the story shows Jesus in the midst of a profoundly emotional encounter. And yet he is not simply one who grieves and wallows in that grief. Instead he is moved by that grief – John specifically tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He was moved to act – and this is when he performs his seventh and final sign – the raising of Lazarus and his haunting command to his disciples and to the Church in every time and place: “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know when I sent the bulletin in was that the next Wednesday, seventeen students and educators would be shot and killed at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School. What I didn’t know is how profoundly I would be affected by that shooting, especially as I sat with this text where Jesus is deeply moved by real death, moved to act. What I didn’t know is how I would be haunted by this Jesus who – when his disciples are standing speechless before Lazarus who is literally tangled up in the trappings of death – says to them “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know was how poignant the words of the Sarasota Statement would be – chosen nine whole days before they were spoken aloud, five days after another deadly mass shooting.

We are people of hope who confess Jesus is Lord over a kingdom in which no one is hungry, violence is no more, and all suffering is gone.
So strong is this hope that we lament any and all instances of its absence. When we witness hunger, injustice, discrimination, violence, or suffering, we grieve deeply and repent of our sins that have enabled such brokenness to persist.
Furthermore, we are incited to act and to be vehicles of change through which God’s kingdom breaks into the world and our earthly lives. Our commitment is to acts that feed, clothe, instruct, reconcile, admonish, heal and comfort – reflecting the power of God’s hope and an eagerness to see the Kingdom made manifest.

There are days when I am so tired of that kingdom’s absence. I’m tired of the flags flown at half-staff and the endless debates about guns and mental illness that never go anywhere. I’m tired of looking at pictures of tear-streaked mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends discovering their loved one is no more. I’m tired of flowers and ribbons and candlelight vigils. I’m tired of this kingdom’s palpable absence and I do feel moved. A statement of faith is just that – a statement. But at least it tells me and this community I love that when we are greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved – maybe we’re not so far off from the Christ whose love is stronger that death, whose passion is as fierce as the grave.


Jarrett McLaughlin serves with his wife Meg Peery McLaughlin at Burke Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Washington DC.  This is a blog post about the Sarasota Statement, but it’s also a blog about a mass shooting in an American school, so perhaps this background is worth sharing: “During my first year of high school in suburban Raleigh, NC, a fellow student was shot and killed in the park next to my school – a student not even involved in the altercation but who came over to ‘watch a fight.’  That story and the trauma to the student body that followed forever shaped my views on guns and their place in society. As you read this post, you should understand this about me, because all of our stories shape who we are and how we react to any given situation. This is my story and these are my reactions – nothing more, nothing less.”

Comforted and Challenged

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 Frances Wattman Rosenau

Passing the peace can be the most uncomfortable part of worship. You know, the time when some congregations invite everyone to stand and even get out of their pews in order to shake hands and greet other people who have gathered in worship. It’s not just uncomfortable because there are those inevitable awkward church people who pass the peace with exuberant enthusiasm and purpose. It’s awkward because of, well, the other people.

Greeting other people, indeed touching other people in worship, forces us out of our God-and-me bubble. If we came to worship to escape the world, we find ourselves right smack in the middle of it anyway, shaking hands with strangers. It’s so much easier to slip in quietly during the first hymn, sit unassuming near the back semi-anonymously, and pretend we’re there to be with God. We know what to do.

But other people just get in the way.

The Sarasota Statement offers us an encounter. Through the claims and stances in the statement, we may very well find ourselves “both comforted and challenged.” Like passing the peace in worship, we get the opportunity with the Sarasota Statement to be changed both by radical affirmation as well as boldly facing the truth.

In this phrase “both comforted and challenged,” I hear an echo of the oft-repeated call to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Religious leaders have latched on to this phrase as a battle cry — our purpose as Church. These words, from Finley Peter Dunne, were originally written about the role of newspapers in public life.[1] And yet, it seems such a great fit for the Church, when we are our truest selves.

Indeed the Sarasota Statement does comfort and challenge. We are all here in this statement: no matter our identity or what side of what spectrum we’re on. We are heard and accompanied in experiences of being excluded. We are challenged in our own privilege or our histories of exclusion. We are called to something better.

The whole endeavor gets to the core of what church is for. Why don’t people sit at home by themselves, sing songs to themselves and read the Bible by themselves? I mean, maybe some people do. My suspicion is that it isn’t very fulfilling, and certainly not very transformational.

Those of us who engage in church, and who value a vibrant faith community do so to be a part of something bigger than what we could do on our own. We need other people, as awkward as they are, to comfort and challenge us. That’s what the Sarasota Statement has done for our congregation when we have used it in worship: it amplifies the truest purpose of church. Through voices long-silenced and calls to action, the Sarasota Statement enriches worship to its greatest call – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – in order to move boldly forward as the people of God.

[1] https://www.poynter.org/news/today-media-history-mr-dooley-job-newspaper-comfort-afflicted-and-afflict-comfortable


Frances Wattman Rosenau is the Pastor of Culver City Presbyterian Church in the Los Angeles area. Her DMin studies focused on multicultural and multiethnic worship. She has a passion for the global church and has lived in India, Scotland, Arizona, Upstate New York, Paris, Chicago, and Tulsa. When Frances is not at church you will find her training for a race, reading about bulldozers with her boys, or searching for her husband in a used bookstore.

Road Signs and Tough Topics

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Last fall, after much cajoling from my children, we spent an afternoon at Cox Farms for their fall festival, a beloved institution here in Northern Virginia. I say “cajole,” because after many annual pilgrimages when my children were younger, I was ready for some new autumn traditions for our teen and tweens. But they are adamant about going. For them, it’s a connection to childhood and a pleasant place to be together as a family. (I suspect the giant cylindrical bags of fresh crisp kettle corn can’t hurt.)

Thanks in part to my connection with NEXT Church and our emphasis on inclusion and diversity, I like to look around the places I go to see how racially and culturally diverse they are. Who is here? Who is conspicuously not here, and why might that be? That day last October, I noticed way more people of color at Cox Farms than I ever had before. I couldn’t be sure whether the demographics of the clientele had actually changed, or whether I was seeing with new eyes groups of people who were always there… but the difference was striking.

It was only later that I found out about Cox Farms’s tradition of feisty signage. It began many years ago with two rainbow flags flying over the hay-bale tunnel. Then, a Black Lives Matter sign in the window of the family home, followed some time later with a message on their marquee expressing love for their immigrant neighbors. Again, I’m not privy to Cox Farms’s statistics on clientele. But it stands to reason that in a culture in which whiteness is considered the default, historically marginalized populations won’t simply assume they are welcome somewhere unless they are explicitly welcomed. I couldn’t help but think of the church: what topics we take up together, what remains unspoken, and how we express our welcome. If we’re not specific and heartfelt in our language, if we rely on generic words like “all” and “everyone,” our message will not get through. It’s too easy for “everyone” to be followed by an implicit “…who looks like me,” especially when the community and its leadership are homogenous already.

This month’s focus for the NEXT Church blog will be 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.

There are many themes woven into the statement — the nature of Christ’s kindom; the need for the church to be a vehicle of change — but a major theme is our call to dismantle forces of oppression, notably systemic racism. And guess what? Cox Farms took on that one too, with a sign a couple of months ago that said “Resist White Supremacy.” It didn’t take long for some folks to respond with angry letters and calls for a boycott. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of comments and messages on the business’s Facebook page were positive (and I vowed never again to push back on my kids’ nostalgic desire for hayrides and fresh-pressed apple cider).

The Cox family was baffled by the negative response. As an article in the Washington Post put it, “Who, other than a white supremacist, would be offended by a message condemning white supremacy? [The family] also understood, though, that this is America in 2018, a time of such fierce division that even voicing opposition to the ugliest beliefs could be twisted or taken out of context.”

I am not so coy as to pretend there isn’t political resonance in words like “Black Lives Matter,” “resist,” and “white supremacy.” That doesn’t mean that the church should avoid them, but should lean into them even more. The church is a unique institution, ideally suited to talk about these matters in a deeper way, in communities that pledge to be with and for another not because we agree, but because we are united in Jesus Christ. If tough topics make us recoil, it’s probably because we’re feeling implicated, and that’s never a comfortable feeling. But our bristling may also be a sign that we haven’t talked about them enough. We need to push into that discomfort; otherwise we will never change and grow. The Sarasota Statement provides language — and the study guide, a framework — that allows for such faithful proclamation and exploration. Onward.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and leadership coach living in Virginia. She is author of the forthcoming God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and 2012’s Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a former chair of NEXT Church’s strategy team, and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award.

Engaging the Sarasota Statement

by Linda Kurtz

Back in March 2017, NEXT Church released the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. At the time, this is what Sarasota Statement facilitator Glen Bell had to say about it:

We believe in times of need or crisis, we are called to turn to the biblical and theological roots of our Christian faith to remember our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and say anew what we believe.

Since then, the Sarasota Statement has given me words to say when I had none. In the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA (just an hour across the state from me in Richmond), I quoted Part I of the Sarasota Statement because it was the only thing I could possibly do.

To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim:We trust our Lord and Savior who…

Posted by NEXT Church on Saturday, August 12, 2017

When our national discourse conflates patriotism with anti-immigration or safety with fear of the “other,” I remember the Statement: “We commit to welcome and protect refugees and immigrants…. We denounce a culture of violence that brutalizes or alienates bodies on the basis of ability, sexual or gender identity, ethnicity, or color of skin.”

But the Sarasota Statement speaks in times of hopeful anticipation, too — like in Advent. Each Sunday this past Advent, I posted excerpts from the statement that spoke to that week’s theme, because the statement speaks of hope, peace, joy, and love.

On this third Sunday of #Advent, we recognize our joy comes from God – and that it compels us to act. #SarasotaStatement https://nextchurch.net/sarasota-statement-text/

Posted by NEXT Church on Sunday, December 17, 2017

I am grateful for all of the ways this document, written by a small representation of the PC(USA), has led me and challenged me throughout the past (almost) year.

And now, I’m excited about a new way to engage the Sarasota Statement and look more deeply into its core convictions. The writers of the Sarasota Statement just published a study guide so that you and me and communities of Christians all over can faithfully engage with the statement, scripture, our confessional heritage, and one another. The guide is broken down into five parts: Preamble, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Closing. With the exception of Closing, each part contains multiple questions about biblical themes, theological themes, and contextual themes, drawing upon scripture, our confessions, and our contemporary context to engage each part of the Sarasota Statement.

Their prayer — and mine — is that this study guide will  encourage each of us to examine our own faiths and core convictions, moving towards the development of faith statements across the Church. May the Sarasota Statement continue to be a resource in your own ministry, a reminder of the light of Christ, and a call to justice and radical love.


Linda Kurtz is the communications specialist for NEXT Church and a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA.