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A Space for Stories

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rachel Cheney

This year during Youth Sunday, a sixteen-year-old girl stood in the pulpit. She was barely visible, given her small stature. From my view in the choir loft, I could see her knees trembling. Getting her up there was a challenge, but now she stood before our congregation and shared about her struggle with mental health issues. I watched the faces of the people in the pews; many nodded their heads in agreement, others looked surprised at her openness. “Anxiety is a relevant and personal battle many of us face,” she said passionately. “We need to start talking about it in the church.”

The days that followed brought a flood of emails and calls from congregants who heard her message and wanted to express their own struggles with mental health. Her boldness opened up new possibilities for conversation in our church. It took courage and honesty on her part, but it also required that the church make room for her young voice to be heard.

One of the most impactful ideas from the NEXT Church National Gathering centered around the importance of giving our youth space to share their stories. In a workshop designed specifically for youth ministers and leaders, Shelley Donaldson led a candid conversation on the obstacles and gifts of doing youth ministry today. While the first part of the workshop was devoted to time for us to bond over our shared failures and frustrations, the latter half was spent thinking about ways to integrate youth ministry into the broader church. Too often, it seems that our youth programs are sequestered from the congregation. This only fosters the harmful idea that youth are not interested in church, and even worse: that the church is not interested in our youth.

Even though we did not arrive at any earth-shattering solutions for this problem, I left with a simple but profound insight: the church belongs to the youth today. It often seems that we are waiting for our young people to grow up, go to college, spend a decade absent, and then come back to church when they have a couple of kids. Instead, the church belongs to them exactly as they are today. It belongs to our sixth graders who exclusively ask unrelated questions, our eighth graders who feel endless pressure to fit in, and our seniors who want to act grown up but still love playing dodgeball.

When we listen to the voices of our youth, we communicate to them that they are a valuable and essential part of the church. Our congregations should be guided by the stories and ideas of our young people. Though this is impossible when our youth are rarely involved in our services. By creating an inclusive environment for our youth, we meet them wherever they are in their story.

I left the NEXT Church National Gathering committed to lifting up the voices of our young people, hearing and sharing their stories, and looking for opportunities for the church to grow towards them during their faith journey. This past Sunday, thirteen eight graders stood in front of the congregation. Each of them begged me not to make them share first. But, despite their trepidation, each one gave a part of their faith statement. It was a holy moment. Going forward I hope we can keep creating places for the stories of our young people.


Rachel Cheney is a Youth Director in North Carolina who is passionate about ministry with students, healthy living, and outdoor adventures.

Carefronting as True Allyship

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Karen Hernández-Granzen

Karen and Amantha’s workshop

I appreciated being invited for the first time to a NEXT Church National Gathering. I felt privileged to co-lead a workshop with my new Amiga/Colega Amantha Barbee. We met at the PCUSA General Assembly in St. Louis when each of us received the Women of Faith Award. Our workshop gave us both the opportunity to share how our churches are seeking justice, loving mercy, and working humbly before our God (Micah 6:8). I was inspired by what she and our participants are doing to respond to that call. I enjoyed every worship service. I was feed spiritually through the preachers, worship leaders, and music. The diversity of music and worship styles effectively reflected the diversity of the participants. I was moved to tears of gratitude, joy, grief, and laughter!

During what I would like to call the “Holy Times” separated for People of Color to gather separately in a safe space for mutual support via dialoging and debriefing, I appreciated witnessing us implement a Latinx idiom: “Hablar sin pelo en la boca.”/ Speak without hair in your mouth. Another way of stating this Latinx idiom is: “Hablar sin pelo en la lengua.” Speak without hair on your tongue. Basically, what it means is don’t swallow your voice. Instead speak immediately in order to communicate any questions, concerns, offenses.

I would encourage the planners of future NEXT Church National Gatherings to make this “Holy Time” for People of Color to gather together separately a new tradition. I would also suggest that during this time the group consider adopting the norm of “carefronting.”

David Augsburger coined this term over 30 years ago in his book, Caring Enough to Confront.

Carefronting takes a different approach to managing conflict. In carefronting, the overall goal is to attain and maintain effective, productive working relationships. Carefronting is a method of communication that entails caring enough about one’s self, one’s goals, and others to confront conflict courageously in a self-asserting, responsible manner.

In a future Next Church Conference, I would also love to be a part of an open and honest dialogue with People of Color and Euro-Americans to discuss what true allyship means as stated below, and how PCUSA can intentional develop more allies for People of Color within our denomination.

ALLYSHIP1
an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group

  • allyship is not an identity—it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people
  • allyship is not self-defined—our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with
    • it is important to be intentional in how we frame the work we do,
      i.e. we are showing support for…, we are showing our commitment to ending [a system of oppression] by…, we are using our privilege to help by…

1https://theantioppressionnetwork.com/allyship/


Rev. Karen Hernández-Granzen has passionately served as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Trenton, New Jersey for over two decades. As the co-leader of the Arts, Music and Culture Committee of the City of Trenton, she is seeking to ensure that creative ways are used to celebrate the history of the city and educate. As a commissioner of Princeton’s Civil Rights Commission, she is seeking to ensure that issues negatively impacting residents are addressed.

Sources of New Life

by David Norse Thomas

Church conferences can be, lets face it, weird. Long exhausting days can overwhelm me with an even worse sense of imposters syndrome than my first few weeks of seminary. Sometimes I leave with a nagging feeling that maybe this was the year I should have organized a reading retreat with my friends with my continuing education funds instead. But this year, at the NEXT Church National Gathering, I had a uniquely different experience, and I’m not the only one. This month the NEXT Church blog will share the stories and insights of pastors who attended in person and virtually, and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church.

This year, the gathering was in Seattle, and as a child of the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t just the weather and the mountains that made me feel at home. For three days, I found myself engaging in the conversations with colleagues and friends, hearing from speakers doing the work that I see Jesus’ resurrection made visible in. This was a year full of honesty, tackling the ways in which we can be woven together too tightly without room for the people God is calling into our communities, speaking prophetic words about how we need to shift from constructs of racial reconciliation to repairing relationships and seeking reparations alongside our Black siblings, poetry that spoke to the power of being honest about how difficult the work of the Church can be, and where new life is showing up.

For me, one of the most powerful experiences was a workshop on utilizing design thinking in our congregations. Design thinking centers the experience of people and pushes us to creatively utilize the resources we have, instead of mourning what we lack. It is a powerful tool for opening leaders to new possibilities that God might be calling us to risk trying. In the workshop, we utilized the “Mission: Possible” game, and I took away two surprising paradoxical lessons from this experience. First, being encouraged to look at the resources we were given in the game (in the form of resource cards) set my imagination, and those of my table mates, to be creative with the skills and experiences we have. It seems so simple to start with the gifts God has given us in our congregations, but I realized that we so often start with what we lack, instead of giving thanks for God’s provision.

The other surprise came when our facilitators set firm time limits on our planning. Knowing that we had to make a decision freed us up to be more experimental, and to focus. This rang true personally for me. In my context at Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD, we have a firm deadline for when we have to become financially stable as a congregation, or begin to consider options like calling a part-time pastor, seeking to merge with another congregation, or consider selling our building. This deadline has unleashed unimaginable creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to risk failing that we would not have had otherwise. We have to act, and while we need to discern, decisions have to be made.

I returned from the NEXT Church National Gathering excited, ready to start from a place of gratitude and creativity, and I look forward to attending next year with more stories to tell. I ordered Mission: Possible for our next session meeting, and I am excited to see what our creative, motivated ruling elders dream up.


Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

Editor’s note: We invite you to dig more deeply into two of the stage presentations David references by watching the video recordings and engaging with the provided reflection questions:

2019 National Gathering Closing Worship

Opening Song: “Come and Let Us Sing” by Israel & New Breed

Welcome, Census, and Remembering

We come from every corner of God’s creation,
We have brought our whole selves to this place,
Our bodies
Our hearts
Our souls
Our worries
Our doubts
Our dreams
Our questions
Our anger
Our fear
Our frustration
Our joy
We have come in our particularities
And in our communal stories
To be present
To be counted
To be celebrated
And to celebrate the love of the one who names and claim us:
And we name those who we want to remember, and bring into this sacred place:
We come to worship God.

Song: “Who You Say I Am” by Hillsong

Speaking Our Truth

Song: “Hungry” by Kathryn Scott

Filling the Font

From all the corners of our coming and going we bring our water:
Sacred
Ordinary
Life-giving water:
From taps
And snow caps
From seas
And ponds
Rainwater
And drinking water
Waters of life… we have migrated with this water
to this time and this place,
to pour into the common and sacred font,
to remember
and to be re-membered
to renew our covenant
with the God of the migrant and the exiled
with the God of water and life
with the God of mercy and grace.

Song: “All Who Are Thirsty” by Brenton Brown and Glenn Roberston

Invitation to the Offering

Song: “Good Good Father/Friend of God” by Trey McLaughlin

The Story

Spoken by Glenn McCray

Sermon

Rev. Eliana Maxim

Blessing & Sending

We remember the stories of our hearts
We listen to the stories of our siblings
We treasure that which unites us.
Our struggles
Our dreams
Our uncertainties
Our faithfulness
Our faithlessness
Our hopes
Our brokenness.

Yet at the font
We reclaim our name: ha’adam and place: adamah– human from earth.
We recommit to one another in our baptism;
Named, called, held by the One who created us
Strengthened, sustained, convicted by the One who loves us still

I am because we are
My story is incomplete without yours
And our story goes on still in
Caracas
Lagos
Flint
Yemen
Ferguson

Pyongyang
Tijuana
Kashmir
Washington DC

We came from across the map
We leave as children of the Triune God.
Come, remember your baptism.
Take a strip of fabric, proclaim the name of a child of God
and go from this place to live into our story,
and together we be the church.

Song:”Psalm 23 (I Am Not Alone)” by People & Songs

2019 National Gathering Keynote: Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey, professor of religion and ethics at Drake University, gives a keynote presentation on racial justice and white anti-racism at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering in Seattle.

2019 National Gathering Tuesday Worship

Call to Worship

The things of our hearts, our society and our world do not sit nicely together.
They don’t well fit into the small compartments we imagine.
Sometimes, the dissonant chords we strike are the only thing that will shock us and wake us up.
These holy sounds will remind us that all is not well, and God desires to work through us.
May we allow the notes to strike without rushing to find resolution.
May we understand the gift of being uncomfortable,
And know that though the valley seems unbearable,
God does God’s best work in the dark, and cultivates seeds of healing in lament.
May the essence of our being be enough, and
May we see the glinting of possibility along our journey.

Hymn: Lead Me, Guide Me

Prayer of Confession

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again

when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid…

Assurance of Grace

Our lives are full in the hands of a tender God,
The One who is more concerned with the thriving of God’s people than their surviving.
So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

Scripture: Matthew 15:21-28 (MSG)

From there Jesus took a trip to Tyre and Sidon. They had hardly arrived when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, “Mercy, sir, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.” Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.” Jesus refused, telling them, “I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel.” Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Sir, help me.” He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, sir, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the provider’s table.” Jesus gave in. “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.

Contemporary Voice: Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon

Video 1: 0 to min. 1; 9:17 to 9:37
Video 2: all

Scripture: Ruth 1: 19-22 (MSG)

And so the two of them traveled on together to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem the whole town was soon buzzing: “Is this really our Naomi? And after all this time!” But she said, “Don’t call me Naomi; call me Bitter. The Strong One has dealt me a bitter blow. I left here full of life, and God has brought me back with nothing but the clothes on my back. Why would you call me Naomi? God certainly doesn’t. The Strong One ruined me.” And so Naomi was back, and Ruth the foreigner with her, back from the country of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Anthem: Total Praise

Sermon: Bitter

Song: Joyful Joyful

Communion

Invitation to the Table

#SayHerName is a justice movement to increase awareness for Black womxn victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence in the United States. The movement exists to address the consistent invisibilization of Black womxn within mainstream media.

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Out of your great abundance and grace you have fed us, Holy One, sparing none the delight of your gifts and presence in Jesus Christ. Thank you, O God, for one more time! One more time to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with you. Now, may we live as you taught us to pray:

Our Parent, who is among us, blessed be your Creation.
May your loving presence be a reality here on earth.
May we become more interested in building your kin-dom here and now than in waiting for it to come down from above.
Let us share our bread with those who hunger.
Let us learn to forgive as well as to receive forgiveness.
Help us through the time of temptation, delivering us from all evil.
For ours are the eternal blessings that you pour upon the earth.
Amen.

Closing Song: Great Is Your Faithfulness

Embracing Mara

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

In her sermon at the 2019 National Gathering in Seattle, Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown preaches on the subject “Bitter,” referring to the name Naomi claims for herself in the book of Ruth. Attending to the truth told in this sermon might be a practice to consider this Holy Week as an individual practice of devotion, or with a small group.

Dr. Brown calls the church to take time for lament, viewing lament as a gift from God and a way to connect to God. Lament offers “the chance to weep bitterly at the state of the world, the circumstances and challenges that affect us all. Our neglect of lament has somehow changed us and thwarted our spiritual lives.” Dr. Brown challenges our desire to jump over Good Fridays and right to Easter. She contends that resisting the dissonance of lament and holding pain, prevents us from getting to the sacrifice or the liberation.

Take time in lament over the state of the world without trying to find a silver lining or a solution. Be present to the pain.

Naomi and Ruth are two of the first womanist theologians, Dr. Brown argues. When Naomi names herself Mara, she didn’t worry about comforting anyone else, but claimed her own space. She told her own truth. Dr. Brown exhorts the church to call her by her chosen name —

Honor her trauma.
Prioritize her.
Hear the words she is saying in between the words she does say.
Co-conspire with her.
Check our salaries and compare them with hers for equity’s sake.

Dr. Brown says there will be no forward movement if we do not embrace mara.

What is one way you can embrace mara this week, as Dr. Brown suggests?

Dr. Brown believes Ruth came from a womanist society “where she knew that being by yourself in the African context is the same as being dead. If she went back, Naomi would be alone. She knew Mara needed to have somebody to have her back.” Dr. Brown turns to the present day and says we need to learn how to have one another’s backs, to build trust, and to support the most vulnerable among us. The story of Naomi/Mara and Ruth is a story of redemption, but not for them, she says. “It is a story of redemption for the people who did not know how to welcome and listen to them. Solidarily is the order of the day.”

Reflect on the ways in which you turn toward individualism rather than solidarity.

A theme throughout the sermon is that we cannot be church together if we can’t tell the truth. Dr. Brown concludes that sermon by saying, she wants the church to be a place where nobody has to worry about what they have on or whether they have a degree or not or whether they walked up or drove up. She wants a church “that has a pastor that looks like me sometimes.” Her final line is, “I am loving you by telling my truth.”

Reflect on what defense mechanisms you use when someone else’s truth conflicts with your own. How do you overcome those defenses? How do you create the space to hear another’s truth and be changed by it?

Dr. Brown says, “The gift of the black sacred tradition is that you don’t want joy all the time. God will be the one to push you through to the otherside.” May it be so.

What it Takes to Transform

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

In their testimony at the 2019 National Gathering in Seattle, Heidi Husted Armstrong and Scott Lumsden talk about the story of First Seattle Presbyterian Church – a church that went from being one of the biggest churches in the country to total membership collapse. This 30-minute video is a resource for any church group – the session, committees, or teams – to dig into what it takes to transform into the new thing in which God is calling them.

Heidi talks about three things that keep her “hanging in there.” Consider those three things below.

1. I have never been more free to say “I do not know what I’m doing.” How many 5 year plans have been run through this place? Like I’m going to come up with the one that works?! The phrase solvitur ambulando has been attributed to Saint Augustine, which translates as “it is solved by walking.” It means to just take the next step, and the next step, and God will show the way.

What is the hard thing before you in ministry that you need to take the next step toward? What might be an initial first step?

2. Letting go of “churchiness” so that I can embrace the quirkiness, the uniqueness, and the messiness that is in this place. Let me be present for what you have for us today. Let me show up. Help me show up for what is.

What is quirky, unique, and messy about what is in your place? How might you be more present to show up for what is?

3. Remember God is a God of resurrection. Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing (Frederick Buechner). Being in a struggling church mean there’s lots of room for God to show up! There is one Lord of the Church who is still in the business of raising from the dead what is dead in us. Raising what is dead through us. Raising what is dead around us. Raising what is dead in spite of us.

What is dying around you? What might God be resurrecting and raising up in your midst? What are the spaces in your context where there is room for God to show up?

Scott closes their testimony by saying that the church has to admit we no longer have all the answers and instead need to start asking questions of ourselves, of our neighborhoods, and of God.

What questions do you need to start asking of yourself, of your neighborhood, and of God? What questions keep you up at night?

2019 National Gathering Testimony: Heidi Armstrong and Scott Lumsden

Heidi Armstrong, transitional pastor of Seattle First Presbyterian Church, and Scott Lumsden, co-executive presbyter of the Seattle Presbytery, give a testimony presentation at the NEXT Church National Gathering about Seattle First Presbyterian Church.

2019 National Gathering Bible Study Worksheet

This is the worksheet bible study leader Becky Purcell put together for the 2019 National Gathering. The sheet is intended to be folded in thirds. The back is largely empty for use in taking notes.