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Sacred Space for Grief

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

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

by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A Reminder of Divine Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Justin is co-leading a workshop during the 2018 National Gathering called “Songs for the Journey.” It will take place during workshop block 2 on Tuesday. Learn more and register

by Justin Ritchie

Love is my favorite theme from the Advent season. Well, that’s true this year anyway. For me it seems each year at Advent, hope, joy, peace, or love seem to rise to the surface for different reasons. With everything happening in the world around us, this year I find that my heart is longing for love to return in places it seems to have been forgotten and to be born in hearts that seem to be missing it.

We are creating our own corner of Advent love in our home again this year. My parents are traveling from Augusta, GA, to be with my husband and I and a few of our close friends to celebrate Christmas day. Our tradition since I was a child is to wake up on Christmas morning, eat breakfast, and then read the Christmas story from Luke. We still do that every year. In recent years, I’ve looked at our little Christmas gathering consisting of my family of birth and our chosen family, different skin tones and widely differing belief systems and faith traditions. We are gay and straight, Yankees and Southerners, conservative and liberal. Each year we find a way to be together on that morning. We listen to the Christmas story. We exchange presents. We eat. We drink. We laugh. We reminisce. We LOVE.

The other night I watched the Pentatonix Christmas special on television. They are one of my favorite groups and their Christmas albums are already on permanent rotation in our home. Near the end of the program and just before they sang a beautiful arrangement of “Imagine,” one of the group members talked about how Christmas was the time of year we could put our differences aside and come together. It is a lovely, and true, sentiment. Why do we only expect that to happen during the holidays? I think that this seasonal feeling of goodwill to our fellow humans could be something that we practice all year long. What if we used that “Christmas feeling” as a model for how to interact with the people in our lives every day of the year? How different our world would right now?

I grew up in evangelical circles and we did not celebrate or acknowledge the Advent season. I have come to cherish and deeply appreciate this period of longing and expectation. For me, Christmas and the story of Jesus’ birth boil down to this: Divine Love was born in the form of a human baby. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love for all of God’s children. This Advent I am indeed longing and anticipating. My heart needs a reminder of Divine Love. Our world needs a reminder of Divine Love. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Marianne Williamson, puts it this way, “Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love. The real miracle is the love that inspires them. In this sense, everything that comes from love is a miracle.”

May your heart be filled with love and miracles this Advent and in the year to come.


Justin Ritchie is the music director at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD – a multi-cultural More Light Presbyterian Church. By day he is a contractor for the federal government as a web developer. He lives with his husband Jason, Phoebe the French Bulldog, and Bruce the Pug just outside D.C. In addition to his ministry at Oaklands, Justin is the band director at Temple Rodef Shalom in Fairfax, VA. He is also an active cabaret performer in Washington, DC and New York and was recently seen in productions of “The Secret Garden” and “The Full Monty” in Annapolis, MD.

Keep Awake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Kate is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Kate Foster Connors

In this season of waiting, I feel impatient.

Congress is a mess. The #metoo movement is only growing, with accounts of sexual harassment and rape coming out daily. Wildfires are burning California – again. Churches are declining and shutting their doors in a steady stream.

This year, the lectionary texts from the first Sunday in Advent feel especially timely. Isaiah pleads with God: “O that you would … make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2) And the Psalmist implores, “Stir up your might, and come to save us!” (Psalm 80:2b) Like Isaiah and the Psalmist, I don’t feel like we can afford to wait. My prayers lately have been some version of, “How can we WAIT, God? Have you been paying attention to this messed up world?”

It seems fitting that this season of waiting, arriving in a firestorm of brokenness, begins with a call on God to act boldly.

Advent also is the season of getting ready. Advent is the time when we prepare for the coming of Jesus – not the docile baby wrapped in cloths that is depicted in so many children’s books and light-up, front lawn nativity scenes, but the justice-seeking Jesus whose mission is to bring radical love for all of God’s children. Advent is the time when we prepare for God to upend the world as it is, and usher in the world as it should be.

So although (like Isaiah and the Psalmist) in my prayers I’ve been pleading with God to please come soon, my prayer this Advent season can’t only be about my impatience with God. Preparing for the coming of Jesus means that I have some work to do, too.

I have a rock sitting on my desk. It is almost perfectly round, and is smooth and flat on the front and on the back. I keep it in the most visible place on my desk – next to my phone, and in front of the pictures of my family. Across the top, big and bold in black marker, are these words: “Keep awake.”

The Gospel reading from the first Sunday of Advent commands us to “…keep awake…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:33)

I wrote those words on my rock during Lent a couple years ago, at a prayer station our Christian educator had set up for a Maundy Thursday prayer service. It was a good message for Lent, but I decided to keep it in plain sight all year round, because it keeps me honest. To keep awake, I need to pay attention. To keep awake, I cannot let myself stay in the safe bubble that is easy for a middle-class, white woman to stay within. To keep awake, I cannot stay inside the cocoon of my office, or my house. To keep awake, I need to listen to my neighbors in a city that is both full of life and culture, and that is broken and hurting deeply.

It is easy for me to get stuck in my cry for Jesus to please come soon! I need God to help me keep awake, so that I don’t wait (however impatiently) my way through another Advent.

My prayer for the Church this Advent is not all that different: that we all pray urgently for Christ’s coming – “come to save us!” – but that we don’t get stuck in that prayer – that we don’t wait passively – that our churches keep awake to the injustice that is unfolding daily, in our nation, in our states, in our cities and towns, and in our backyards. That we resist the easier path, the one that takes us from our cars in the parking lot to the pews in the sanctuary and back again – and take the more difficult one, the one that takes us out of our church building and into our neighborhoods to find out what’s really going on with our neighbors. The path that keeps us awake.


Kate Foster Connors is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia Theological Seminary. She has served churches in Memphis, TN, and Baltimore, MD. Currently, Kate is the Director of The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore that hosts church groups for mission experiences in Baltimore. She and her husband, Andrew, have 2 teenage daughters, a cat, and a dog.

Joy, Sorrow, and Improv

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

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

by LeeAnn Hodges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Waiting with the Widow

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: McKenna is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by McKenna Lewellen

In Mark 13, Jesus bellows, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

It is trembling, quaking writing. It is a message of hope – but our ability to hear it that way depends largely on a character who lives at the edge of this Advent lection, one chapter before.

Jesus shouts his apocalyptic declaration from the top of the Mount of Olives, just across from the Temple, but earlier that day, he had been inside its walls, sitting across from the treasury.

Photo from The Center’s Facebook page

In walked a poor widow. Remember her? She enters the treasury alone and drops her last two coins inside the collection box. It’s an ordinary act – one that had, no doubt, happened before and gone unnoticed. Her coins fall in alongside gifts that dwarf hers. She gives to sustain an institution, though it’s unlikely her pennies would cover the cost of counting the gift itself. Why does she do it? Who knows. Jesus doesn’t ask. He just points to her as it happens, tells the disciples what he sees unfolding, and storms out. As they reach the outer wall, the disciples have all but forgotten her and are marveling at the size of the stones.

So often we think about this woman as the poster child for sacrificial giving. A more honest appraisal might speak of her as the last straw, the one who pushes Jesus to speak with a new kind of force about his vision of a new order. Watching her lose all she has, he knows with deepened anger that the world as it is doesn’t work for the poorest among us. The thought of her haunts him the whole climb up to the top of the Mount of Olives, and he proclaims the sky will fall to the ground and the ground will shake, and it will become unrecognizable. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Without the poor widow, we risk hearing Jesus’ declaration in Mark 13 as just another threat barked out by an angry man. With her, the apocalypse carries hope for life beyond the way it’s always been.

Advent invites us to find hope in apocalypse that makes room for the widow to live.

For too long, mission in many of our churches has tried to momentarily save the poor widow. We have fed her more meals, collected more unwrapped Christmas presents, and tucked more sheets into shelter cots than we can count. But few know her, remember her name, or question why, after decades of these projects, we still live in a world that needs to make her a bed, feed her a meal, and send her away with a shopping bag.

Mission committees have tried to save her from a distance, but she is our best partner and leader as we try to find God at work in the world. She is more likely to be a number in our outreach budget than a member of our community. But she is the one who will see the world turn upside-down and wait breathlessly in hope for a different way to emerge – one where she can live without fear of violence, breathe clean air, access enough healthy food, and rest in safety. She is the one who can show us Advent hope.

On street corners, in church basements, and in neighborhood gardens in Baltimore, I am waiting with the widow, and hearing her cry out. She is telling us what the world can be, shouting her vision, painting it on the side of houses, pointing out promise in empty lots.

And as I stand here, I wonder, do we know the widows among us well enough for apocalypse to sound like hope? Or will we miss it?


McKenna Lewellen is the Program Coordinator at The Center, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore.