An Advent Prayer

By Jessica TateIMG_1277

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God.
As the light dims in the cooling days
our vision turns inward.
We see the wilderness of our lives, the desert of our spirits–
the crooked priorities
the low valleys of selfishness
the mountains of consumption
the uneven ground of malnourished spirits
the places made rough with wounds we carry.
Reveal again your glory, God of the Most High,
reveal your goodness, your love, your power—
reveal your judgment tinged with grace
so that all people see it together.
Now consider, O Holy One of Israel, we are your people.
You are the potter and we are the clay,
tough but willing to be molded according to your likeness.
Consider, O Lord of Lords, we are your people.
You are the fire that baptizes us in your Holy Spirit
captive by fear but willing to be your servants.
Turn us around to go in your way–
Teach us again not to be afraid.
According to the promise made to our ancestors,
O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:
Comfort, O comfort your people and speak tenderly to Jerusalem
for there is great pain.
Bring good news to our brokenness,
hold close those jagged places in our hearts,
speak freedom to the tension we carry,
release us from patterns that hold us captive,
Proclaim the time of your good favor
and the day of light of our God!
Tear open the heavens and come down, O God!
Jar us into wakefulness.
Though the hour is uncertain
be it evening or midnight or cockcrow or dawn
We await your glory; we are awake!
We watch, we long, we stand on tip-toes
expectantly, urgently, eager.
Tear open the heavens and come down.
Break into our lives–
we are awake!

(Advent meditations on Isaiah’s prophecy, Mary’s Song and the gospel of Mark)

IMG_8376Jessica Tate is Director of NEXT Church.

Holy Ground

By Esta Jarrett

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 2:3-5 (NRSV)

Recently, a stand-up routine by the comedian Tig Notaro made the rounds of “you have to listen to this” lists on the Internet. Last summer, Notaro nearly died from a rare combination of medical problems. About a week later, her mom died in a tragic accident. Not long after that, Notaro went through an awful breakup. Then, right after that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts. At the time of the recording, after time counted in hours, not weeks, she found herself onstage at the Largo Comedy Club, in front of an audience anticipating a stand-up routine.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. Instead of telling her usual witticisms, in which bees taking the expressway figure prominently, she told the truth. “Hello, good evening,” she said. “I have cancer . . . just found out. Good evening.”

During her set, Notaro led the audience through a masterpiece of comedy and an anthropological study of grief. I’ve never heard anything like it. The audience struggled to know how to react. There were moans of sympathy and distress from some, uncertain laughter from others, and hushing noises from the rest.

By the end of the set, the crowd was eating out of Notaro’s hand. They would have done anything she told them to do. It was as if the audience realized the enormity of the gift they had been given: the fit of Notaro’s own self . . . her refusal to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Had Notaro just performed her usual set, it would have felt like a crime of inauthenticity, posturing instead of art. Toward the end of the performance, at the urging of the audience, she did tell her standard, “bee taking the expressway” joke. Because of everything that was not said, the joke assumed an almost debilitating poignancy. The audience, who had witnessed the depth of her pain and beauty, could no longer be satisfied with pro-forma jokes. As they all confronted the reality of death, and found the grace to laugh, the Largo was transformed; the comedy club became holy ground.

When the church is at its best, it resembles that night at the Largo. People need a place to give voice to truth, before God and everybody, and know that they are held in safety and love. Whether in or out of a church building, we need a community where healing and reconciliation mean more than appearances and convention, even if it goes off script . . . and especially if it challenges our expectations of what we paid to see.

A few years ago, while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I visited a certain patient in the hospital. She had breast cancer, and her body was rejecting the cosmetic implants that she wanted to conceal her double mastectomy. She was bald, gaunt, red-eyed, and wild in her grief. She needed to talk to someone about how mad she was . . . at her body, at the cancer, and at God.

In my memory, there was no noise in the hospital except her voice, no light but that illuminating her bed. For forty-five minutes she raged, wept, and confessed everything on her heart to this inexperienced seminary grad.

When her storm had passed, we gripped hands, hard, and prayed together. It was hard to know when we stopped talking and started praying. The feeling of God’s presence throughout our conversation was so strong, you could almost feel its warmth emanating as from fire. As we prayed, we laughed, and cussed, and cried some more. After we said “Amen,” the patient’s face was serene, and I was changed forever. That hospital room became holy ground.

Every church I know has unspoken rules about acceptable behavior, whether in or out of worship. Most of the time, enforcement of these rules is self-policing: if people aren’t feeling presentable, they stay home, rather than burdening others with their troubles. They don’t want to cry, and risk embarrassing themselves. They feel too raw from the sharp edges of their lives to be able to put on a polite face.

But when wounded people feel safe enough to speak their truth, to say when they’re mad or confused or scared, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work miracles in church. Healing begins when a friend hugs your shoulders as you cry during the hymn. Sympathy and help are found as you discuss problems after worship. Even the simple act of being in a crowd of people who are praying and worshiping God can bring about change when change seems impossible. It is precisely in those moments when our lives are messy and unpresentable need that we need church the most.

We talk a lot about our brokenness when we confess our sins on Sunday. But theologically abstract brokenness looks very different from everyday brokenness, the kind of brokenness that makes you feel that you’re not good enough. In the church I want us to be, everyday brokenness becomes a blessing. When we bring our cracked and chipped lives to the font, to the table, to the people, to the Lord, we find ourselves on holy ground.

My prayer is that our awareness of God’s presence will grow and sharpen, becoming as keen as any other sense, so that we might walk barefoot everywhere we go. In comedy clubs, in hospital rooms, and yes, in church, may we say what needs to be said, in the deep and challenging love of God. May the church be a place that people seek out for such healing and transformation, instead of feeling they must stay away until they are presentable. May we all find ourselves on holy ground.

Esta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

Energy, intelligence, IMAGINATION and love…

By Mary Harris Todd

At ordination and installation Presbyterian elders promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Of the four, imagination may be the most challenging.  Unlike a body of information or set of procedures, imagination can’t be mastered by the intellect.  Imagination must be inspired and sparked.  Being open to the imagination and acting on it requires effort and courage.  It’s always much easier to go to the default setting: what did we do last year (or last century)?

While it might not be possible to train the imagination in the same way we study the contents of the Book of Order, it is possible to give the imagination a workout.  One of the primary ways of doing that is telling and listening to stories.  That’s why storytelling is central at all our NEXT Church gatherings.  We listen once again to God’s story in scripture, and we share stories of what God is up to in the church and in the world now.

Healthy small congregations are a rich source of stories to spark the imagination.  We offer a great deal of “scope for the imagination,” to the church at large, to use Anne of Green Gables’ expression.   Now that the mainline church finds itself pushed to the sidelines, it makes sense to listen to the witness of small congregations that have always lived and served on the margins.  We know that it doesn’t always take a program and money and big buildings to answer the call of God.  We know—or at least we’re learning—what it means to live simply and sustainably by radical dependence on God.  We know how to rise to the challenge of operating creatively within limits.

In his new book Imagining the Small Church: Creating a Simpler Path (Alban), PC(USA) pastor Steve Willis shares many sights, sounds and stories from the world of the small church that can bless the imagination of the whole church.  He writes, “Imagination is the prayerful interior work that helps me see what is really going on, not so much dreaming things up but rather being open to what could be” (p. 105).  The eye of imagination allows him to see God’s upside down wisdom at work in the lives of the people and the congregation.  Through imagination he sees both the wonder of what is, and the wonder of what could be.

Two other books from Alban that offer imagination-sparking stories from the small church world are In Dying We Are Born by Peter Bush and Born of Water, Born of Spirit, by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett.  Bush explores why dying and rising with Christ is the way to new life for every congregation, regardless of size.  Writing out of their experience in the Episcopal tradition, Kujawa-Holbrook and Thompsett tell story after story of small congregations finding new life when the whole people of God begin to see themselves as called to ministry.  You can find links to reviews of these books on the resource tab of my blog, The Mustard Seed Journal.  Note that these books both reflect on what it means to be born again, which is the theme of the NEXT Church national gathering in Charlotte in 2013.

Imagination is prayerful work indeed.  It is altogether fitting that we also promise to pray when we promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Come upon us all, Holy Spirit to spark, empower and guide in all these essentials, so that it may be with us as it was on the Day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your young will see visions, Your elders will dream dreams” Acts 2:17 (CEV).

Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Many Bodies, One Table

By Elizabeth Howell

Our church is one of the few congregations in our city that still offers a weekday morning Vacation Bible School.  It is a lot of work to make the week come together, but the children and volunteers love it.

Early in 2012, I set to work preparing a curriculum that would fit our goals for Christian education.  After much brainstorming, my key volunteers and I settled on the theme “Come to the Table: A Journey from the First Passover Meal to the Last Supper.”  Our goal was to teach children about the Eucharist, and to connect the story of God’s people in Exodus to the Sabbath meal Jesus shared with his disciples on Good Friday.  For weeks, we tossed around ideas of creative ways to help the children express what they would be learning each day.

My creative and enthusiastic co-director Kathy knew just where to turn for inspiration.  The image of our week would be the communion table.  With only an old donated kitchen table, we turned to a church member with the skills and vision to create a beautiful piece of worship art.  As this man planned and measured and ordered thousands of tiny colorful tiles, I hoped the piece would come together as he dreamed it would.  Many times throughout last spring, I thought to myself that an ordinary person would not have the patience for such a venture.  This man was not daunted.  His plan: to have 100 children create a mosaic of the Last Supper over the top of a worn out kitchen table.

This one member enlisted the help of a woodcutter and a portrait artist in our church.  He fortified the table to withhold the weight, another member enlarged a children’s coloring book page to be our pattern, and others set about sanding and painting.  At last, the prep work was complete.  It was time to turn the table over to our children.  Over four mornings in July, the children of our church and neighborhood created a communion table that will host a sacrament for generations.

Each day, I photographed the progress.  Little fingers, many little fingers, pieced together the Last Supper.  We were all fascinated to see the scene come to life.  Each day, volunteers took time to allow our children to choose their tiles, to slowly squeeze out glue, and to fit their colors into place.  They were so careful with their work.  The stage of our Fellowship Hall, where the children worked, was quiet with reverence, as they meditated on piecing together this holy scene.

Reflecting back on this VBS project, I often consider how much easier it would have been for the adults to do the work themselves.  It took far more time to plan, to prepare, and to wait for younger, unskilled hands to complete the table.  It is the work of these little fingers in partnership with our artists and volunteers, however, which gives the table its deep meaning in our church family.

I think about this often.  Like many of you, I feel the frustration of recruiting many hands to staff programs and mission.  Some days, it is a struggle to find those bodies that can make an event or a worship service come together.  From time to time, I find myself doing the work a volunteer should be doing.  I tell myself it would be simpler for me to accomplish the task myself rather than find, call, and train a volunteer.  If I’m not careful, however, it is easy to forget how much more worthwhile it is to share that load and enlist the participation of others.  My ministry is to equip these people, not do the work of the church alone.

I remember those adults who patiently waited for children to work and to find just the right tile that was the perfect shade and shape.  My job is to do just that.  My job is to wait, pray, and patiently discern ways to equip God’s people to share in the ministry of Christ’s church.  My job is to equip them and to walk beside them, seeking out ways that their gifts might meet a need, fitting just the right tile into just the right                         space.

Elizabeth N. Howell is the Associate Pastor of Christian Education at  Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA, where she coordinates Sunday and  mid-week educational opportunities for children and adults.  She loves  worshiping with her congregation, ordering fresh packs of curriculum, and taking  long walks with a hardhat (her church is in the midst of an 18 month  renovation!).  In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time outdoors  with her fiancé Chris and their dogs Penny and Berk.

From Thanksgiving to What’s Next

By John Vest

During this week we are reminded of the many things for which we are thankful. When it comes to the church, even though I am passionate about moving us forward into God’s future for us, I am also deeply grateful for the gifts we have inherited from our predecessors in faith. Whatever it is that we may contribute to the emergence of God’s kingdom in the world today, it will rest on the foundations of the past. Even when we can recognize cracks in those foundations, we wouldn’t be where we are today without the faithful work of our spiritual mothers and fathers.

I once heard Richard Mouw describe mainline churches as repositories of historic tradition that are necessary elements in the dialectic work of reimagining what church can be. Phyllis Tickle has famously described historic transitions in church and culture as “rummage sales” in which we sort out what it is from the past that we need to hold on to and what we can jettison. These tasks are critical for us as we imagine what is “next” in God’s vision for us.

It seems to me that if mainline Protestantism has a particular charism in the far-reaching revolutions taking place in Christianity today, it will involve the discerning work of recognizing the gifts of our inherited tradition and how it is that God is calling us to adapt these resources and develop new ones as we seek to faithfully respond to the rapidly changing contexts of ministry in today’s world. Some have called those who attempt such work “loyal radicals,” a label I wish more of us would embrace.

Last week my congregation, Fourth Presbyterian Church, dedicated a major building expansion. The Gratz Center is a thoroughly contemporary building that reflects the bold architectural styles of Chicago. The building committee and architects knew that there was no way we could build something new to match our iconic gothic sanctuary and original structures from a hundred years ago. Our new church campus therefore reflects two critical postures: our embrace of the past and our commitment to the present and the future.

 

When it comes to ministry in my local context, I hope that our congregation can live up to this exegetical interpretation of the buildings we inhabit. My hope is the same for the PC(USA) as a whole. I pray that we might find a way to gratefully embrace where we’ve been yet boldly follow Christ into God’s future.

John Vest is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He blogs at johnvest.com<http://johnvest.com> and is working on a DMin at McCormick Theological Seminary. He dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.

What has Chicago to do with Dubuque?

By John Vest

Last year, as part of my work on the General Assembly’s Mid Councils Commission, a colleague and I paid a visit to an assembly of the Synod of Lincoln Trails. The gathering was in Philo, IL, a small farming community about 150 miles south of my home in Chicago.

Early that morning I stopped by my downtown office to collect some materials for the meeting. I serve a large, cathedral-like church that happens to sit on one of the busiest corners of the nation’s third largest city. The church where the synod gathered in Philo is a much smaller building in the midst of farms and fields.

This massive stone cathedral and this modest white church-house—and the communities in which they are located—could not be more different. Yet both congregations are part of a single church communion. In fact, the very work that brought me to both places that day was an exploration of our church’s deep connectionalism. Still, given the obvious differences in our ministry contexts, I couldn’t help wondering what it is that binds us together and how we might have meaningful conversations about our common call to ministry in the world.

I am an adult convert to Presbyterianism who wasn’t raised in this church. I mostly grew up in the South in Southern Baptist churches. I experienced quite a bit of culture shock when I transitioned from my conservative Baptist background in the South to more progressive Presbyterianism in a big Midwestern city. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand these cultural differences. And as I’ve traveled around the country for conferences and meetings, I’ve taken those opportunities to learn as much as I can about local expressions of Presbyterianism. There is indeed a great diversity within our national church.

Last week I had the opportunity to make a presentation at a regional NEXT gathering in Dubuque, IA. Once again, I found myself in a setting very different from my ministry context in Chicago. As I contemplated what I would talk about, I wondered to myself, “What has Chicago to do with Dubuque?”

I often wonder such things. When I speak with youth workers from various ministry contexts, for all of the similarities in our work, there are as many differences that result from the uniquenesses of our particular contexts. And much of the youth ministry literature and curricula out there doesn’t quite seem to fit the progressive mainline Protestantism and urban setting of my ministry.

What I am searching for is some common ground for the church—across all of our regional differences—to talk about how to move forward into the rapidly changing contexts for ministry in which we find ourselves. I am increasingly convinced that attention to the various post-Christendom realities we face might provide such a shared sense of what binds us together in mission and ministry in 21st century North America.

For centuries, Christian religion and culture dominated the Western world. This was especially true in American culture up through the middle of the 20th century. But this is no longer the case. Christianity in general—and, for Americans, Protestantism in particular—is no longer the definitive center and shaper of culture. “Christendom”—the triumphal reign of Christianity in Western culture—is over.

Every community in North America falls somewhere along what I am calling the post-Christendom continuum. In some places—like rural communities and communities in the American South (where I grew up)—Christianity is still part of the dominant culture. But in other places—like urban centers (where I have spent my entire adult life)—Christianity is no longer embedded in culture as it once was. What will ministry look like in these diverse contexts?

Last night I spent some quality pub time with old and new friends who were in town for the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. From the experiences of those gathered around that table, we could connect the American South, rural Pennsylvania, Chicago, the Pacific Northwest, and the United Kingdom. It was clear that each of these contexts occupies a distinct place along the post-Christendom continuum. We talked about shared ministry challenges and contextualized our work accordingly.

In our increasingly pluralistic society, as the divides between urban centers and rural communities continue to widen, and as minority populations gradually overtake the majority, post-Christendom realities bind us together into a shared missional context that is regionally differentiated. Reflection on where our particular communities are located on the post-Christendom continuum will help us effectively contextualize our ministry while also framing our dialogues with colleagues and partners in very different contexts.

The challenge for us all is to rethink Christianity in these new post-Christendom contexts. As many theologians and missiologists have suggested, post-Christendom provides the church with exciting opportunities to reimagine itself, return to some of its more humble roots, and recast contemporary culture as a mission field ripe for harvest.

What do you think? Is post-Christendom a helpful way for us to think about our shared mission while also accounting for our real differences?

John Vest is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He blogs at johnvest.com<http://johnvest.com> and is working on a DMin at McCormick Theological Seminary. He dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.