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I Believe the Children are Our Future

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post was updated to include the entirety of the author’s post. We apologize for the error! 

by Kim Lee

I had a newborn. But I figured: never too early to learn. Subsequently, there I was, attending a class for parents on teaching children to drive.

First question: “At what age does a child learn to drive?”

One called out, “Sixteen.”

Another, “no, no, no. Fifteen, that’s when they start taking driver’s education courses.”

Silence.

Photo from Selywn Ave Presbyterian Church Facebook page

After what seemed a rather dramatic pause, our presenter said, “I’d like to suggest that your children are learning to drive from the moment you buckle them into their car seat.”

“Do you slow down for yellow or speed up?” “Do you lock your doors?” “Do you wear your seatbelt?”

As a Christian educator, I think about those wise words and ponder: When does a child learn he or she is a child of God?

I’d like to suggest from the moment we welcome them into the family.

Are we keeping God’s words in our hearts? Do we recite them to our children? Do we talk about them when we’re at home? When we are away? When we lie down? When we rise?

I was a preschool teacher for fourteen years. Over those years, I came to realize that if I really wanted to impact the life of a child, and what teacher worth his or her salt doesn’t?, I had to reach the parents. Let’s be honest, as a teacher I had access to the hearts, minds, souls and bodies of my little learners twelve hours a week, if they were in school every day.

As the Director of Children and Family Ministry, I have access to the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies of my little disciples-in-training, at best, two hours a week, eight hours a month, and fifteen hours over the summer, if a family is EXTREMELY active. That means the church, assigned with the task of “guiding and nurturing by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging the body of Christ to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of the church of Jesus Christ,” has a grand whopping one hundred and eleven hours a year to fulfill its baptismal promise.

On the other hand, parents have access to the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies of their children twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of eighteen years! I think that is why the writer of Deuteronomy addresses Israel:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statues and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children…
–Deuteronomy 6:4-9

What? What shall we say?

As parents and teachers and pastors, we are not asked to make up answers on the fly. Rather, we are charged to hear God’s Word; to love God with all of our heart, an undivided faithfulness; and with all of our soul, a commitment unto death; and with all of our might, everything we have and are — the totality of the human creature. Throughout the Bible, there is a recognition that it will take the whole of Israel — parents, teachers, preachers, and neighbors — to instruct children into the household of God.

An exasperated mom tells me that every day she fights the same fight: She gathers her eight-year old daughter’s cleats, socks, and shin guards, fixes a water bottle, makes a snack and places everything by the front door so that all her daughter has to do when she gets in from school is pick up her bag, grab her snack and get in the car. And yet, each weekday afternoon her daughter finds some reason or is flustered by some event that prevents her from doing just that, making them late to soccer practice every. single. day. And I wonder: Why do we expend so much time, energy, and money for our children to partake in soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming, tennis and on and on and spend either no time or very little time worshipping God, praying, and studying the Bible with our children?

Where on earth did we get the idea that children are little bodies devoid of souls? We may not sacrifice our children to fire gods anymore, but I fear we are sacrificing them to soccer fields, basketball courts, baseball fields, swimming pools, tennis courts, and the like.

Children are born unto us as curious, searching, longing, spiritual beings. They ask the deepest questions of life: Who am I? Why isn’t life fair? Where am I going? How am I going to get there? Why? Why? Why?

Then we shall say to our children…

What?

What will we say?


Kim Lee serves as part-time Director of Children’s and Family Ministries at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Kim is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. Before arriving at Selwyn, she served as the Director of Spiritual Formation at South Mecklenburg Presbyterian from 2007 to early 2015. Prior to that Kim served as a lead teacher in their Weekday School for fourteen years. Kim is a native Charlottean, having grown up at Covenant Presbyterian Church. She and her husband, Rick, have an adult son. Kim loves stories any way she can get them — books, movies, songs or spoken. She also enjoys frequent walks along the greenway with her golden retrievers, Norton & Tilly.

Sacred Agents

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Eyde Mabanglo

The Purpose of Power is Restoration

Luke 1:17
“With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

I am tempted to recoil from power because I see power abused everyday. It is offensive to me and grieves my heart. As a result, I often reject (or shrink from) any power I might have in order to avoid any temptation to wield the same abuses of power that I abhor.

Reflecting on a theology of power has challenged me to re-evaluate and re-calibrate my ultimate distrust and rejection of power. My calling to follow after Christ and proclaim healing to the nations is woven together with a God-given power and sacred agency to participate in that restoration. I am reminded that the world desperately needs Christian leaders that have a healthy view of power to enter into this glorious, restorative work of God’s Spirit.

Power Comes from God’s Authority

Luke 4:36
They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!”

The truest power is God’s. I love how the word authority includes the word author. God is author of all that was, is, and will be, so naturally the only power that exists to bring renewal and restoration belongs to God alone. God is sovereign. Scripture reminds us that power and authority go together. When power serves self only (basically the definition of abuse of power), then it should be obvious to all that it does not reflect God. Power that diminishes or destroys is demonic. Power that restores is sacred and ordained.

We Have the Power to Help and Heal

Luke 9:1
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases…

I believe that the abuse of power prevalent throughout the lifespan of humanity is indeed a demonic force. I may hesitate to believe that I have ultimate power over demons, but I now believe I have the power (and obligation) to speak to power, to redirect power, to leverage power, and to influence other agencies of power to bring about healing in our bodies, relationships, and institutions. I am a sacred agent of restorative power.

Power Restores Right Relationships

Luke 22:69
“But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

The picture of Jesus sitting at the right hand of “power” is more than a family photo. Through a theological lens, the incarnate power of God simply (yet profoundly) abides with God’s Self. Power is about restoring each of us to a wholeness that finds itself in God’s self. This is the purpose of power—to turn hearts (Luke 1:17) to others which in turn is to turn one’s heart to God. This is the new commandment (self-giving love is the essence of God’s Word). In other words, “They will know we are ‘Sacred Agents’ by our love.”

God Sends Power and Sends Us

Luke 24:49
“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

God’s power is God’s essence which means that this divine power is not just sacred agency but perhaps is profoundly equal to God’s love, grace, mercy, life, faith, resurrection, and self. God’s self can’t not love. God must create (make things new) always, so God’s Power is always regenerative, renewing, restoring. This may be the best way to understand the Word — the Logos, the imago dei, our Triune God. Dwelling in that Word is how we understand the purpose of God’s sacred power and our sacred agency.

Then, we must humbly embrace the responsibility of receiving this power to bring about right relationships under the authority of Christ Jesus. We must not abuse it, but neither should we reject it or recoil from it.

For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Now and forever. Amen.


Eyde Mabanglo is an ordained PC(USA) pastor and ICF trained leadership coach. She is an experienced transitional pastor and is currently serving in a 260-member congregation in Tacoma, Washington. Eyde is driven by a profound hope in Christ Jesus and is devoted to helping church leaders fully participate in God’s mission of sacred restoration.

Scripture, Poetry, and the “Irrational David”

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jenny Warner

When I get stuck, I call Ken Evers-Hood.

And when you read his new book, you’ll know why he’s on my speed dial of advisers.

Ken and I met as pastors in the same presbytery in Oregon. As a new pastor, serving three hours from the hub of most other churches, I had few true colleagues. Ken invited me to sit in the back row with him, included me in the irreverent commentary of the younger pastors (by which I mean those under 55), all the while sharing with me a great love of the presbytery and its process.

I learned to trust Ken’s perspective, and so when he invited me to join him in a yearlong leadership cohort with the poet David Whyte in 2015, I said yes. The experience changed both of us. We found a community and a construct that took us further in ministry, our lives and our future. Our collective engagement with David’s work taught us to bring our whole selves to bear in our vocation. We learned to trust where vulnerability leads us, which is perhaps the most radical move a leader in contemporary America can make, religious or not.

Ken found another companion in this wholehearted journey in David of the Bible – a shepherd, king, musician, poet, friend, lover, and full-throated human. In this book, you will see David with a lens that opens fresh possibilities of being faithful, not perfect.

In his first book, The Irrational Jesus, Ken offered his doctoral research on decision-making and leadership in the church. In this book, The Irrational David, Ken dives deep and has “a real conversation,” as David Whyte would say. He brings Scripture, philosophy, theology, poetry, literature, and psychology into a conversation that puts us all at ease because of Ken’s profound vulnerability.

For those who are struggling to articulate a faith that is not either/or in the aftermath of the liberal/fundamentalist battles, Ken masterfully articulates a faith that honors the complexity of postmodern understandings in a way that is grounded and undefended. He doesn’t let either side get away with defended polarities and invites us into faithfulness and wholeness instead.

My copy of this book will be full of underlining and coffee stains as I return over and over to see what Ken has to say about the text I’m preaching on. His words often say what I intuit, but am not yet able to articulate. As a gift to preachers, he brings along references from literature, history, and life that will make Scripture come alive week after week. This book is a trusted dance partner in the rhythm of life with God.

Editor’s note: The Irrational David is not available yet, but you can sign up to receive an email from Amazon when it is available there. This post will be updated when the book is available (any day now!).


Jenny Warner is pastor at Valley Presbyterian Church on the western edge of the Silicon Valley. She loves the challenge of pastoring on the West Coast. She and Chris have two teenage daughters and a Bernese Mountain Dog named Holly.

The Intentional Practice of Imago Scriptura

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the scripture reading. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Edward Goode

“You need to pray the Psalms.”

Those were the words of a prayer partner friend after I had been sharing about some of the most difficult challenges I had faced both personally and in my pastoral ministry. My response was something like, “yeah yeah” because he said once again…

“Ed…You NEED to pray the Psalms.”

That night, he texted me asking if I had prayed Psalm 1. So I opened up my Bible app and read it so that I could reply back that I had. But something stirred as I read “…but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by steams of water…”

What stirred in me was a picture I had taken a few months earlier of a tree that looked to be growing out of a lake. As I opened up my photos on my computer and found a picture of it and I felt like I was looking at Psalm 1. It may not have been the way that my friend intended it, but I prayed Psalm 1 at that moment. (Side note – I later found out that the tree is actually dead…oops.)

I copied that photo into my journaling app and wrote a few words about it and what stirred in me. The next day, I read Psalm 2 about taking refuge in God and thought of the overhanging branches of a row of live oaks in South Carolina I had seen. The next day came images for Psalm 3, then 4, and several months later I had gone through all 150 Psalms both in my own personal journal and posting them to my blog. As I did, I began to hear from others about how the images helped them to “see” the Psalms in new ways.

Through this new practice, the Holy Spirit transformed my experience of Scripture. As I read the passage in the morning, I started to make it my practice to take a picture of something from that day that reflected the Scripture. As a result, the words stayed with me and truly dwelt in me throughout. I wasn’t just reading to say I had read it but it was reading it to see it became incarnate in my life. It moved Scripture from being an intellectual exercise to something that engaged me more fully – intellect, body, emotions, time.

One of the struggles that people have with the Bible is finding the places where it intersects with “real life.” This practice helped me to find those intersections. Simply put, it is the practice of intentional looking for where God is all around us. Over the years this practice has grown where I am seeing Scripture around me even when I am not intentionally looking for it. Sometimes it has been a sunrise or sunset and sometimes it has been a cup of tea on my desk or a broken branch on a tree.

In the years that have followed, I have continued this practice in my own personal life but also have begun to find ways to integrate it into the worship life of the congregations I’ve served, to lead people in visual devotional practices, youth group activities with kids and their phones, and so forth.

Within worship, this practice can widen the experience of Scripture for a congregation. Scriptures can be shared with the congregation in advance and members are invited to respond in prior to Sunday or during the service itself with their own pictures of how they’ve “seen” those Scriptures around them during the week. Sermons could be crafted out of the images that are shared by the congregation as well. Congregational members can also share their images on their own social media feeds as a way to share their faith and be invitational to others. Like my own personal experience of it, this practice can allow Scripture to be experienced more fully by a congregation – engaging not simply the intellect but the emotions – engaging not just in an hour on Sunday but throughout the week between the Sundays.

I was asked a few months ago about what this practice has done for me and simply put, it is helped me “see more.” My physical vision hasn’t changed but my spiritual vision has. This, I believe, is one of the core desires God has for us – to widen our vision… to see the beauty and wonder of God all around us, to see Scripture come to life within and through each of us, to help us to see more of the opportunities that God places around us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, and to draw upon the life-giving movement of the Holy Spirit.


Edward Goode is one of those PCUSA pastors enjoying the blessing of our denomination’s full communion relationships as he serves as interim pastor at Christ Church UCC in Ft Thomas, Kentucky. He and his wife Amy (also a PCUSA pastor) have three teenagers who keep them humble, busy, and continually in prayer. In addition to being a husband, father, and pastor, he loves to be outdoors with their dog, Scout, and his camera (currently unnamed). You can follow him at imagoscriptura.com, @revdarth on Instagram and @edwardgoode on Twitter.

Communities of Interpretation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Robert Williamson Jr.

When it comes to officer training, I imagine reading the Bible is pretty far down the list of tasks most of us consider urgent. There are issues that seem more pressing, like understanding our polity, or evangelism and church growth, or balancing the budget. Besides, we often think of pastors as the only “legitimate” interpreters of the Bible, leaving church officers and members to tend to other, more practical matters.

Yet the stories of the Bible are foundational to everything else we do. The Bible teaches us the language of the faith. It shows us how to be the people of God, living in the world and yet refusing to be conformed to it. It exposes false narratives that would keep us enthralled to Pharaoh. It declares the good news of resurrection life made possible in Jesus Christ, who came to let the oppressed go free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, the Bible reminds us who — and whose — we are.

As such, immersion in the Bible is imperative for the life of faith. Without it, we cannot know what it means to be the church. We cannot understand the greater purpose that animates our polity, our budgets, our worship life, and our participation in God’s mission. We — all of us — need to become interpreters of the Bible.

All of Us Together

Our church structures can communicate that interpreting scripture is a task reserved for pastors and scholars. Too often, we hear the Bible read and proclaimed from the pulpit for 20 minutes on Sunday and scarcely think about it the rest of the week. But, properly understood, biblical interpretation is the work of the whole community, permeating our life together. We all have something to contribute and something to learn. While pastors and scholars have specialized knowledge that can illuminate the Bible in certain ways, each of us has our own experiences, insights, and questions that can enrich our common reading of the Bible in other ways. We read better when we read together.

In my work with Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a 1001 New Worshipping Community whose members are mostly homeless, we engage together in Bible studies that invite that insights and experience of every reader in the room. We spend about 45 minutes to an hour reading the week’s lectionary passage. We read slowly, paying attention to the details of the text, asking whatever questions occur to us, and finding the places where the text connects to our own experience. We open it up and walk around inside it just to see what we might see.

For instance, one afternoon we studied the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac as told in Mark 5:1-20. As a biblical scholar, I wanted to focus on the political implications of the demons calling themselves “Legion,” a term for a Roman military cohort. My Mercy friends, by contrast, related personally to the demon-possessed man. They understood what it was like to be inhabited by demons, though theirs had names like “Addiction,” “Depression,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” They understood what it felt like to be cast out of society and left to wander among the tombs.

Reading the story together helped us all to understand it—and each other—more deeply. I came to know more about what it’s like to struggle with demons. I even came to identify some of the demons that animate me in destructive ways — demons with names like Comfort, Success, and Prestige. In turn, my Mercy friends thought more about how their demons may themselves be manifestations of the political and economic structures of our time.

More than that, reading the Bible together helped us imagine what it means to be the church together. Like the Gerasenes, we have too often been taught to marginalize, shackle, and abandon those who struggle with their demons. Yet Jesus immediately set the man free, despite the protests of those in the community who were more concerned for their financial well-being than for the man’s restoration to wholeness. Like Jesus, we decided, the church should show compassion for the marginalized, even if it means being banished by those invested in the status quo.

But my Mercy friends saw something else in the passage that I had missed. They recognized that Jesus refused the newly-healed man’s request to follow him, instead sending him off to proclaim the good news among his own people. They suggested that those who have “been down through it” and have come out the other side have a special mission. As the healed man could proclaim the Gospel in a region where Jesus could not go, so too could my homeless friends witness to the good news in places and among people who would not listen to someone like me.

Becoming Communities of Interpretation

I tell this story simply to say this: reading the Bible with each other can change us for the better. It can help us see the world differently. It can help us to understand ourselves differently. It can shape us more fully into the people of God, bearing witness to resurrection life in a world too often shrouded by the shadow of death.

As church leaders — whether pastors, scholars, ruling elders, or deacons — we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to be immersed in the world of scripture on a regular basis. We need to find ways of reading the Bible together, letting the words of Scripture shape our sense of ourselves and our conception of what it means to be the church. As communities of faith, we need to live in the stories of the Bible, and we need the stories of the Bible to live in us.


Robert Williamson Jr. is associate professor of religious studies at Hendrix College and founding pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a multi-denominational worshiping community welcoming all people, especially those who live on the streets. His latest book is The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today (Fortress Press, 2018).

Is This the Best We Can Do?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Hooker

When I was young in ministry, the session of First Presbyterian of Kingsport, TN where I was associate pastor would debate some important matter until it appeared everything had been said that needed saying. Then, just before the moderator called for the vote, from the back of the room, Ernie Blackard would raise his hand, and when recognized, ask, “Mr. Moderator, I’d just like to be sure: Is this the best we can do for Christ and his Church?” There was, as I recall, never any answer to that question but silence. But there was always a silence, during which we all asked ourselves whether the vote we were about to cast served any purpose other than the advancement of our own interest or agenda. Ernie is long dead now, but his question echoes in my head every time I prepare to cast a vote.

The Book of Order names the order of ministry to which ruling elders are called, “the Ministry of Discernment and Governance” (G-2.03). I think the polity gets that just about right. The first and primary function of the ruling elder is that of discernment. The word comes about as straight and un-Anglicized from the Latin discernere as it is possible to do: “to separate, set apart, divide, distinguish, perceive.” The polity is even clear what, precisely, ruling elders are to discern: they are “not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ” (F-3.0204). The will of Christ. Not the shrewdest business decision. Not the action that comports with my pre-established preferences. Not the decision that places me on the right side of political favor. We are called to discern — to separate out all that stuff — until all that is left is the one that reflects the will of Christ.

It’s only after discernment that one gets to governance, the business of leading and guiding the people and institutions entrusted to the session’s care. Governance is always secondary and subsequent to discernment, because it depends on discernment. Even the title given to the order reflects this: ruling elder. The mission of the ruling elder is as old as Scottish Presbyterian polity. The Second Book of Discipline (1620) is clear that the task of the ruling elder is to measure the faithfulness of the congregation “according to the rule of the Evangel” — that is, according to the will of Christ as revealed in Scripture. This, by the way, is where the term “ruling” in ruling elder comes from.

I refuse to pull punches here. This means that every ruling elder must be a scholar of Scripture. It also means that it is the task of every teaching elder is to facilitate the session’s scholarship. The best sessions and pastors I know are the ones who take that responsibility seriously and spend time at session meetings in study, conversation, and prayer around the relationship between Scripture and the business at hand. Sessions that fail to do so, or that are convinced that they simply don’t have time to do so, are failing in their duty. That indictment, I fear, would convict more than a few of our sessions, including most of the ones I led when I served as pastor and moderator. Shame on me. Shame on us all.

When the members of the Form of Government Task Force (of which I was one) were making presentations to presbyteries in advance of the vote on the then-proposed Foundations and Form, we were fond of saying that the role of the ruling elder was a spiritual function, not to be confused with being a member of the board of directors of a small non-profit corporation. The best preparation for being a ruling elder is not an MBA (although many fine elders have one) but a sense of the mystery of God, not a head for figures so much as a heart for the flock. Ruling elders are shepherds before they are CEOs.

It will be argued that the church, as an institution, has certain needs in common with most businesses, and that some business sense is needful as the church makes its way in the world. Probably. It will be argued that the church’s financial ship will run aground on the rocks of receivership if there aren’t a few people who can read a balance sheet. Conceded. But let it never be said that those voices are the last voices to be heard in debates about the wellbeing of the people of God. Grant rather that the last voice is that of Ernie Blackard, wondering whether this is the best we can do for Christ and his Church. And let there be, in the silence that follows, a moment of discernment.


Paul Hooker is Associate Dean for Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  A teaching elder, Paul has served in parish ministry, as a presbytery executive and stated clerk, and has extensive experience in writing and interpreting the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He blogs original poetry at http://www.shapeandsubstance.com.

Getting Out of the Boat

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Denise Anderson

A sermon preached at Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD. Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20.

Unity Presbyterian Church, you may remember that recently we committed ourselves to being part of a number of new things. First, we are looking at dissolution of our charter and the possible repurposing of our facility for a new ministry that will meet the specific needs of our surrounding county. But there is also something afoot here in our county that has the potential to facilitate significant change in our community. For the past year and a half, a number of local clergy and lay leaders from a variety of traditions have been meeting, organizing, and working together to develop the Prince George’s Leadership Action Network, or PLAN. PLAN is on track to become an Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated organization. Now, perhaps we need to examine what that means.

The Industrial Areas Foundation, according to its website, “is the nation’s largest and longest-standing network of local faith and community-based organizations.

“The IAF partners with religious congregations and civic organizations at the local level to build broad-based organizing projects, which create new capacity in a community for leadership development, citizen-led action and relationships across the lines that often divide our communities.

“The IAF created the modern model of faith- and broad-based organizing and is widely recognized as having the strongest track record in the nation for citizen leadership development and for helping congregations and other civic organizations act on their missions to achieve lasting change in the world.”

Our neighbors in the DC metro area and to the north in Baltimore all have IAF-affiliated organizations serving them. They have been effective at a number of efforts to benefit their communities, including ensuring jobs for local resident and fighting for access to healthy foods. Now we want to bring that sort of cooperative leadership and organizing to Prince George’s County. Unity is part of that.

As we do the work of building an organization here, it occurs to me that the Bible is replete with stories of organizers! Let’s frame what it means to organize. Organizing is the building of power across constituencies. Power is simply two things: organized people and organized money. Furthermore, people are organized not around particular issues, but around self-interests. There is a need in the community that, if not addressed, will have reverberating effects. For instance, I need to be able to pay my rent, so it is in my self-interest that a new company setting up shop in town would be intentional about hiring locally.

Today’s texts tell us about two organizers: Jonah and Jesus. One more reluctant that the other. Both effective at tapping into their eventual followers’ interests and abilities.

We may not think of Jonah as an organizer, but in a sense he was. In essence, what Jonah did is what good organizers do: agitate people around a particular need within their community. Jonah’s method of proclamation was necessarily disruptive. Friends, while I don’t advocate walking through Prince George’s County proclaiming its destruction, I think we who are residents would agree that there is deep complacency here. People are prone to cut themselves off from the needs that exist, and there needs to be a widespread calling of attention to those needs. God is not destroying us; we are doing a good enough job of that on our own! For every day we allow our schools to underperform, we bring about destruction. For every foreclosure that is handed down, we bring about destruction. For every bit of commerce that is wooed into our county without subsequent guarantees that residents will benefit, we bring about destruction. We need to be the Jonahs who will agitate the city (or county) and confront the people with a simple question: “What are you prepared to do about this?”

Organizing teaches us to identify leaders within a community. Leaders are simply those who have a following. Jesus after his baptism set out to build his following, and he did so in such an effective way. He honed their leadership using what they were already doing. Like any good leader, Jesus recognizes a need: the Kingdom of God is at hand. So he sets out to gather/organize those who would exist within that kingdom or reign. He sees the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew, and astutely connects this important work with the work they’re already doing: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!” He does the same with the sons of Zebedee.

Organizing is not gathering people to do things they have no interests in or training for. That would be a recipe for disaster. Organizing identifies those who already have the capacity for the work and building on that capacity. We know there are people with gifts and expertise to meet the very needs within our communities. Organizing connects those people to work they’re already equipped to do.

And in both Jonah and Jesus’ cases, the work could not start unless someone “got out of the boat.” Jonah initially ran from his calling and took a boat out of town, only to be met with a fierce storm and a fish’s belly. When he surrendered to the call and work, then he was washed safely to shore. Jesus called some of his first followers from their places of comfort and familiarity. These were men who were used to fishing for, well, fish! Jesus invited them to do something somewhat familiar, but markedly different.

Getting out of the boat means acknowledging our fears, but ultimately surrendering to our call. It means letting go of what we had hoped would mean comfort and security for us. It means taking on a vulnerability that defers to the needs of the many. But it’s not entirely selfless. It is also understanding that the liberation of those people for whom we fish is tied into our own. Getting out of the boat is an act of saving our own lives, for to not act is to act. To not make a choice is to choose something (and that something is rarely life-giving). Unity, as I have shared repeatedly since I first arrived three years ago, change will happen either with us or to us. The good news is we have the power to choose which that will be!

The Great Organizer, who hung from a tree on Friday but got up with all power on Sunday, continues to organize. He continues to agitate and push us beyond what we think are our limits. He continues to call us to greater work and faithfulness. And the best news of all, perhaps, is that we are not left without help to do what we’re called to do. In hope, in trust, and in the assurance of God’s love, grace, and empowerment, let us leave our places of comfort and complacency. Let us get out of our boat and into our calling. Amen.


Denise Anderson is pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD, and co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly.

Always Being Reformed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shannon Kershner

A sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on Reformation Sunday. Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:14-20.

Today is the Sunday on which we focus on a major emphasis of our Reformed tradition – the promise that God is not done with us yet. The promise that we are always being called to ask the question – what is God doing here and now, with us, through us, in this world, in which we are called to be the church? Remember our Presbyterian motto – we are the church Reformed (big R, indicating the branch of our Protestant Reformation theological tree) always being reformed (little r, verb) by the Spirit of God. We are a part of the body of Christ who trusts that our work as God’s people in the world is ongoing and dynamic; a part of the body of Christ who trusts that we will never “arrive” at perfection; a part of the body of Christ challenged to constantly be about the work of disorganizing old ways of being that are no longer effective, in order to reorganize for faithfulness and witness.

So together, then, we are to continually be in prayer, in study, and in conversation with Scripture, the newspaper, and each other about “what’s next” for us. As we continue in this fourth programmatic year of our ministry together, who does God hope we will be here and now, for each other, for ourselves, for our neighborhood, for our city and world? And while it is undoubtedly a challenging way to live – always on the lookout for where God is calling us next – I cannot imagine any other more beautiful way to move through this gift of life with which God has graced us. Thus, on this 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, I ask you: where have you seen new creation lately? Where – in your life, in your family, amongst your friends, in the world – where have you seen new creation lately? Will you show me?

I began writing this sermon on the plane Friday afternoon while feeling quite bleary-eyed and mentally full. I spent last week in Baltimore where I joined 60 other folks for one week of clergy-focused community organizing training. The leadership training was put on by a consortium of leaders from the NEXT Church movement (in which I continue to serve in leadership), Johnson C Smith Seminary – one of our Presbyterian seminaries – and the Baltimore affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation called BUILD – Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

The group being trained was comprised primarily of Presbyterian clergy (with a smattering of Presbyterian lay persons, Methodists and Episcopalians), but we were quite diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, church size, area of the country, etc. The week was jam packed, each day beginning with our first class at 8:30am and ending most days at 9pm, hence the bleary eyes. The week-long seminar was also, undoubtedly, the most powerful and challenging leadership development work I have ever done. I cannot recommend the training enough. We spoke a great deal about learning how to lead the church in the world as it is, while, at the same time, being fueled and inspired by what Scripture promises about the world as it should be and will be one day by God’s power.

I came away from the week deeply convinced that while what we think, what we believe, what we say is important, our more privatized faith expressions will probably not be what changes our world into being more just, compassionate, and merciful. Rather, the ways we actually treat each other and those we call stranger, the ways we act on and engage with our world, the concrete ways we demonstrate our love for each other – our relationships – will be the most powerful testimonies to the Reign of Jesus Christ, to the way the world should be, to the way of new creation. So though words are necessary; words are important; words carry power and shape our imaginations, it will be the relationships we develop with each other and with our neighbors, relationships fueled and sustained by God’s Spirit, that God will use to transform our church and our city.

We see this emphasis in today’s Scripture from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Though Paul does use personal language, “if anyone is in Christ,” he does not simply concentrate on the individual. Rather, he immediately takes it to its communal end – in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self and entrusting us, as community, with that message, that purpose, of reconciliation. Preachers Boring and Craddock put it well, I think, when they say that in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic hope God doesn’t just save souls; God renews the world. In Jewish theology it is tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. Therefore, “the meaning [of Paul’s words] is not that the individual becomes a person while the world remains unchanged. Nor is the meaning psychological, as though the world remains the same but for those who have come to faith, ‘everything looks different.’ No, Paul means the statement “If anyone is in Christ” objectively. In the Christ event something happened to the world (to everything), not just to individual souls.”1

Building on that foundation, New Testament scholar Tom Wright claims that if God was doing all this [death, resurrection, forgiveness, reconciliation] in the Messiah, that work now needs to be put into effect, to be implemented [by us]. The great symphony of reconciliation [being made new] composed on Calvary needed to be copied out into orchestral parts for all the world to play.2 So while God initiates the work of reconciliation, [that work does] require a response on the part of those whom God reconciles to Godself.3 Or, more simply put, “When a new world is born, a new way of living goes with it.”4 Remember our two words from the last two weeks – grace and responsibility.

So again I ask, on this day when we celebrate God’s constant work of reforming the church in and for the world, where have you seen God’s gift of new creation lately? While you are thinking about that, I want to do what one of my preaching professors once suggested strongly – in a sermon you have got to show people, don’t just tell people. So let me show you where I saw new creation during my time in Baltimore, just to start stimulating your own imagination and memory.

We took two field trips as a part of our training, so that we could see with our own eyes what a priority on building a relational culture and the power created by those relationships in the church and in the neighborhood looks like in real time. The first place we visited was a Baptist church in West Baltimore. As we drove through the neighborhood, I saw scenes that reminded me of neighborhoods in Chicago, several of which are not too far from here. Many homes had windows boarded up with no trespassing signs posted. Liquor stores dotted most of the corners while empty lots stood neglected, overgrown with weeds. But then, we walked into the church. And there in the fellowship hall were 70 folks from that neighborhood, many of them returning citizens (people who had recently been released from incarceration).

They were there because they desired to find meaningful employment, a new start. They were there to learn how to live as part of God’s new creation. Every Tuesday, those residents gather with clergy and other leaders from that neighborhood to be a part of the Turnaround Tuesday movement – a movement of/by/for those who need jobs.

Each week, for four hours, they meet for a time described as “one part AA meeting, one part religious service, one part boot camp, one part job-preparedness training, and all parts remarkable.”5 The movement has been gaining steam for the past two years and because of the leadership and commitment of those participating in the movement, as well as the deep commitment of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, over 300 residents returning from prison or jail have found full-time, living wage work, with many more in the pipeline.

We had a chance to hear the stories of the participants and to experience their hard-won hopefulness. Frankly, even though we were at a leadership development experience, that afternoon, we had church. For at root of all of it, the very foundation, was a profound sense that God had made all of them and all of us new creation. The participants talked about this transformation openly and they challenged each other to see it both in themselves and in each other. For while the road ahead is undoubtedly going to be full of steps forward and steps backwards, as long as they stay in honest and accountable relationships with each other and with the Turnaround Tuesday movement, new creation will continue to be discovered. It is who they are. It is who God has created them to be, both as people and as important leaders in their neighborhood.

The participants are committed to figuring out their own orchestral parts to play in God’s transformation symphony. For not only does Turnaround Tuesday train people for work, but it also then stands alongside them so those newly trained leaders can help create more jobs for those following them. All of the people in the movement are helping each other discern the new way of life that goes along with the new world being created in their midst. They are being reformed, their neighborhood is being reformed, and the church is too.

On Thursday afternoon, we went on another field trip, this time to East Baltimore, where we gathered in another Baptist church sanctuary and listened as the pastor of that church, someone who had grown up there, told us about the work that congregation had been doing alongside other congregations and residents of that neighborhood, empowered by BUILD. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood had fallen into a state of disrepair and depression, a common story in many urban areas, including here in Chicago. When jobs and possibility moved out, the drug economy moved in and settled. People who dared to speak out against it were threatened. Some were killed. You could not safely leave your home no matter the time of day, not even to walk the block to church. No one, the pastor said, deserved to live like that.

66% of the homes of that neighborhood were vacant. The whole place felt forgotten by the rest of the city and its leaders. But then, encouraged by others, that pastor and other neighborhood leaders decided that God was calling them to both proclaim and embody new creation right there, in the community of that church. So after years of organizing work, last Thursday the pastor was thrilled to walk us around the neighborhood and show us the massive rebuilding that has been taking place for the past 7 years. Using a fund called The Reinvestment Fund, currently at $10 million, that neighborhood has redeveloped over 250 homes for residents currently living in the neighborhood, and built new ones. But it is not gentrification in the way we experience it here in our city, because people are not being priced out. And now, the home vacancy rate is 6% and more and more residents of the neighborhood are purchasing their own homes and learning how to be responsible homeowners and members of the neighborhood together. New creation. Right there, all around that church. And those are just two of the stories I heard. I have many more.

But I feel it is important to show you those two experiences because I know that we, too, are committed to being a church that tries to not settle for the way the world is, but who actively works with God for the way the world should be. That call to be a Light in the City has been a part of our DNA for decades. I also know, however, that we are still not sure exactly what that looks like for us in our immediate and long term future just yet, beyond doing what we are currently doing which continues to be vitally important. But do know I am committed to working alongside other leaders in this congregation and staff as we actively discern over the next year and following years our next steps into God’s transformative work for this church and for our city. That commitment was why I went to Baltimore.

And here is what else we do know together, today, what we base our life on together – God is not through with us yet. God is not done with us as people or as a people called Fourth Church. For God does not desire for us to simply maintain the way things are, no matter how good or how healthy they are. God does not call us to get all settled in and comfortable. Remember, we worship a God who is, according to the biblical story, always on the move. We worship a God who, through Christ, has made and is constantly making us new creation. We are always being invited to dis-organize and re-organize so that we can be wide-awake and ready to play our orchestral parts in God’s symphony of transformation and reconciliation.

For we are a church Reformed, for sure. But we are also a church, a people, trying our best to be open to God’s reforming power – a power we will not just speak of, but a power we will learn how to build and embody in relationships with each other, in relationships with our neighbors, in relationships with others in our city who also long to be a part of God’s making this world new. Thanks be to God for the gift of being a church Reformed who is always willing to be reformed by the wild, creative, powerful, free, active, on the move Spirit of God. Amen.

1 Boring and Craddock, p. 559. Quoted from a paper Jessica Tate presented at The Well, Montreat, 2012.
2 Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. p. 65.
3 Matera, p. 142.
4 Wright, p. 63.
5 http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-turnaround-tuesday-20170313-story.html. Article written by Mike Gecan.


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

2018 National Gathering Closing Worship

Call to Worship

One: Spirit that lives among us:
All: We see life here in our testimonies, in our tensions, and in this community.
One: Spirit that walks us through death:
All: We are aware of the deaths we experience, the grief we carry, and the pain we bear.
One: Spirit that burns as we rise:
All: We desire to resurrect, to restore, to reconcile; to rise into your call.
One: Spirit that teaches us as we live again:
All: As we worship together, let us live into the new creation that God calls us to be.

Song: Our Life is in You

Confession

Left: We stand in the desert and are consumed with the death that surrounds us
All: Creator let the new life begin
Right: We trust our own abilities and language to breathe newness into desolation
All: Creator let the new life begin
Center: We are parched and thirsty when speaking your truth
All: Creator let the new life begin

Left: We notice people linking arms in the streets
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Right: We feel communal laments of injustice
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Center: We experience the tension of a kindom that is not yours
All: Creator let the new life break forth

Left: We long for unity over oppressive systems
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Right: We yearn for connections that come with vulnerability
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Center: We crave courage to break through our deserts of fear
All: Creator let the new life blossom

Song: Draw Me Closer

Assurance/Peace

The desert is not dead:
Even the sand and dust of our lives
Give testimony to God’s abounding grace and healing,
Revealed in our living, dying, rising, and new life.

God takes all we have
In the desert times of our lives
And leads us into new vistas,
With vision, songs of joy, wellsprings of water.

And now, we invite you desert-wanderers
To live into this proclamation of grace,
By sharing the peace that Christ shares with us,
Stepping out of your contexts and comfort zones.

As you are able, please move to a new place in this room,
Staying there for the rest of the service,
And sharing the peace of Christ along the way.

Sharing the Peace

The Peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.

Scripture

Voice 1:The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
Voice 2:The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
V1:Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
V2: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”
V1:Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
V2:For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
V1: A highway shall be there,
V2:and it shall be called the Holy Way;
V1:the unclean shall not travel on it,
V2:but it shall be for God’s people;
V1:no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
V2:No lion shall be there,
V1:nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
V2: they shall not be found there,
V1:but the redeemed shall walk there.
ALL: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
V1:and come to Zion with singing;
All: everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
V2: they shall obtain joy and gladness,
All:and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sermon

Song: Everlasting Life

Communion

Invitation to the Table

Come to this table,
You who have walked through the wilderness and dwelt in the deserted places-
Have you been fed?

Come to this table,
You who have seen the first signs of spring and have been longing for the blossom to break forth-
Have you been fed?

Come to Christ’s table.
Rise and bloom in the wilderness.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

May the Creator of the Holy Way be with you.
And also with you.
Do not be afraid, people of God, but lift your hearts to the holy One.
Our hearts will be filled with God’s hope and grace.
Children of God, offer songs of goodness to the One who keeps faith forever.
We offer glad praises to the One who comes with justice.

You carved a holy way
through chaos, Creating God,
rejoicing with Word and Spirit as
The waters of creation
Burst forth to form rivers where there had been only dry land.
Those same waters continue to give us life in all its beauty and biodiversity.
Despite these gracious gifts we continually turned away from you.
Patiently, you sent prophets to us,
who urged us over and again to return.

Holiness is the path you walk, Gracious God,
and, in your mercy, you sent your Child, Jesus,
To bring justice for all people,
To lead us along the path of redemption.
He gives us vision where we cannot see,
Ears to hear what we do not want to hear.
When we are worry, world, and work weary,
he comes to strengthen our feeble knees,
And put to work our weak hands.

Truth be told, there are lots of deserts in our lives,
Places that are dying or already dead.
We know the pain—and so do those around us—
of keeping up the facade;
Spring up in us like blossoms in the desert,
Put us to leaping, give to our voice songs we have not sung in a long time.
Put us back on the holy way that leads to everlasting joy.

Come to us in our silent contemplation
As we prepare our hearts to receive this spiritual food

Silence

Gather your people now,
and lead us along the holy way to the Table
where the Spirit anoints the bread and the cup
and blesses all who have come for this feast.

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer

Closing Song: Summons

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.