Dear fellow Presbyterians

Dear friends and colleagues,

You have seen the facts: we’ve had more mass shootings this year than there are days, we are 5% of the world population and account for 1/3 of its mass shootings, and that there was not one but two shootings in our country on December 2 (and that’s what made the news).

I spent much of last night posting overtures and reports from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I didn’t do this just because I am the vice moderator and feel as though I need to inform others about the resources that our at our fingertips. Each Sunday when I opened the bulletin of my church, I would read, “We are all ministers of the church.” I didn’t really think that much about the statement growing up. There is not a hierarchy. There isn’t a boss who demands certain actions. We are all ministers doing the work we are called to on this earth.

We are a denomination of words. We’re great at policy making and debate. Some would even say experts! But as I watched the news unfold yesterday and today, I am reminded that we are all ministers.

It’s time for us stand up and demand more, both of ourselves and others. We have the policies and words to back us up. We know what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states about gun violence. It’s now up to us to do something about it. We can no longer avoid the tough conversations with our neighbors in the pews, leave the messaging to the preacher in the pulpit, rely on our pastors to do the leg work in our communities or believe that a statement from the denomination will be enough.

We are all ministers. We are all the Church.

We’ve engaged in a churchwide conversation about the identity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I want us to continue to engage in policy and statement making because it’s a way that we have a voice in the national conversation. But I also hope that our identity involves the local congregations to presbyteries to synods to the national leadership doing the hard, tough work of educating/engaging one another and our politicians in demanding changes to address gun violence. I want to be a part of a denomination that recognizes the historical reality of America that racializes others when faced with fear and decides to respond with love; we need to look no further than the Japanese internment, a black teenager wearing a hoodie, a Sikh man questioned about his Muslim beliefs, or news outlets that yesterday said the shooters names sounded, “foreign.” I want us to remember the photographs of Aylan Kurdi washing up on the Turkish beach and we open our doors to welcome more Syrian refugees because others pull back in suspicion.

Let’s not just talk about who we are as a denomination…let’s live it.

Gun Violence Prevention from 221st General Assembly (2014)

Gun Violence Policy from 219th General Assembly

Resource created for congregations based on the policy from 219th General Assembly

“Trigger” (A film created by David Barnhardt based on the policy from 219th General Assembly. It includes 4 lesson discussion guide if you purchase from PDS)

Advent: Week 2 Liturgy

Rev. Lindsay Borden, interim pastor at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church in NYC, put together this resource for the second Sunday in Advent. It incorporates a congregational conversation about the identity of the Church (www.pcusa.org/identity) the encourage engagement in the denominational process. Please feel free to use some or all for your service!

LIGHTING OF THE ADVENT CANDLE and CALL TO WORSHIP

(from Baruch 5 – for 2 – 6 readers)

Reader __________: Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent means “coming,” and as we await the coming again of Christ into our world, we light the second candle, the candle of peace.

Reader ___________: Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;

Reader ___________: for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven; and God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”

Reader ___________:  And God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of God’s glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.

Reader ___________: As a beacon of peace in our warring world, we light this candle, as we look for the coming of the One called Prince of Peace. (The second candle is lit.)

Reader ___________: People of God, let us work for Christ’s peace!

All: Let us worship God!

HYMN

CALL TO CONFESSION

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

As God’s faithful beloved, let us turn to God in repentance, trusting in God’s mercy and grace.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

Loving God, we have heard the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

But we have failed to prepare for your coming.

The chasm between those in the valleys and those on the mountaintops gapes wide.

If we find our pathways smooth, we take the credit, and ignore those for whom the road is hard.

If we ourselves find the way rough-going, we try to struggle on alone, forgetting that we can do more together than we ever can on our won.

O God, have mercy on us.

Mend our crooked little hearts. Enlarge them with your love.

In Christ we ask it. Amen.

DECLARATION OF FORGIVENESS

Hear the good news: all flesh shall see the salvation of the LORD – and that won’t be our doing, but God’s. Believe the good news; live the good news: in Christ we are forgiven; in Christ we are made whole. Amen.

PASSING THE PEACE OF CHRIST

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION

God of Peace, by your Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your Word. Teach us your way, that we may put away our garments of sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of your glory: the mercy and righteousness that come from you. Amen.

SCRIPTURE READING

Philippians 1: 3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

COMMUNITY CONVERSATION: What does it mean (to you) to be church?

This week’s theme is about peace and, in the weeks building up to Advent, we have seen anything but peace on the news: rejection of Syrian refugees based on the bombing in Paris, “guilt shaming” as countless acts of violence occur around the world, and the desire to seek our own safety and peace before that of others. In some ways, it’s natural. We want to be safe. We want to be secure. We want peace.

Seeking peace is something that must be practiced. If we don’t know what it looks or feels like, then we don’t know how to obtain it.  Today’s passage from Paul to the Philippian church highlights the way we are to prayerfully seek God’s call in Christian community. He says, “…this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best…”

Today, together, we are going to practice seeking peace. The conversation begins right here, with the people we are sitting next to in our pews. So, we are going to engage in a conversation with one another. I invite you to first turn to your neighbor or neighbors and answer this question: “What does a church seeking peace look like?”

(give them 3-4 minutes)

Have people report back. Then ask, “If we strive to become that church, what must we save and what must we let go of?”

(give them 3-4 minutes)

Conclude by saying that, “Everything we do is to contribute to the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ through the glory and praise of God as Paul says in today’s passage. What fruit do we hope to harvest as a community of faith?” Encourage people to lift up things as they feel led. Make a connection to the work of your local congregation through the presbytery all the way up to the national level of the denomination. One way to encourage our work together is to participate in the conversation going on in the PCUSA now…”

[From PCUSA website: “In a religious landscape that has been changing substantially in recent history, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its agencies have been wrestling with what these changes mean for the church, its identity, mission, and focus. The Office of the General Assembly seeks new ways to faithfully carry out the direction given by the General Assembly in the 21st century. In the midst of these changes and this collective discernment, the important question arises as to whether the purposes and mission of the agencies that have served the church in the past are right for our future as a church.

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly has called for a church-wide consultation that seeks to engage the whole denomination in a conversation about what the church is called to be and do, what it means to be a connectional church, and what is our shared identity, so that the 222nd General Assembly in 2016 will be substantively informed by the insights and wisdom of congregations, councils, and agencies when it gathers in Portland to ponder these things.

What are we called to be and do as a denomination in the 21st century? The objective of this study is to engage the whole church in conversation, and to provide a summary of this conversation to commissioners at the 222nd General Assembly, where they will weigh important matters of purpose, function, mission and ministry. We have the opportunity to share our hopes and dreams about the church with the General Assembly. Will you join the conversation?”]

CONCLUDING UNISON PRAYER:

God of Hope, we pray that – as individuals, as a congregation, and as a denomination –  

our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight,

that through your gracious Spirit we may determine what is best –

that is, what is your will for us – so that in the day of Christ’s coming,

we may be found dressed in your beautiful righteousness, clothed in  your everlasting love.  

In Jesus Christ we pray, to the glory and praise of your eternal name. Amen.

AFFIRMATION OF FAITH (from Matthew 5: 3 – 11),

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

OFFERING

SACRAMENT OF COMMUNION

HYMN

Invitation to the Table

Hear the words of the prophet Baruch: “Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.”

At this table we are given a foretaste of that day, when all God’s people shall come from the ends of the earth, and all people shall be welcomed and fed.

To come to this table, you do not have to be without sin; none of us is sinless.

You do not have to be good; only God is good.

You do not even have to be Presbyterian – for this is not the table of the Presbyterian Church

or of any church; it is not the table of the perfect, but of the loved.

At Christ’s bountiful table, all are beloved, and all are welcome

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (from Luke 1:68-79)

Minister: The Lord be with you.

People: And also with you.

Minister: Lift up your hearts.

People: We lift them to the Lord.

Minister: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

People: It is right to give our thanks and praise

 

Blessed are you, LORD God of Israel, for you have looked favorably upon your people and redeemed them. You raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, and you spoke through the mouths of your holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies within and without / our wayward and wandering ways.]

 

Thus you showed us the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered your holy covenant, the oath that you swore to our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, to grant us that we, being rescued from our sinful natures, might serve you without fear, in holiness and righteousness before you all of our days.

 

And so we praise you, singing with all the saints on earth and all the saints in heaven:

(Hymn # 568) Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,

Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

 

Yet we continued to turn from you, but you never turned from us.

You sent a prophet called John to go prepare the way of our Lord,

to give knowledge of salvation to your people by the forgiveness of their sins.

 

And in the fullness of time, by your tender mercy, O God,

you sent your child Jesus, to shine into our lives with the dawn of a new creation,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 

In his birth, in his life, in his ministry, and even in his suffering and death,

Jesus taught us what it is to be fully, joyfully, generously human –

loving you and our neighbors just as we are loved.

In his resurrection, we learned that even death cannot destroy your love.

And so, according to his commandment:

We remember his death,


we proclaim his resurrection,

we await his coming in glory.

 

God of Grace, as we wait with holy impatience for the advent of our Savior,

send your Holy Spirit now

upon these gifts of bread and wine, and upon your gathered people,

to bless us and bind us together,

to make us indeed one with the risen Christ and with each other,

to feed and sustain us for your holy work of loving the world.

 

Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

all glory and honor are yours, almighty and merciful God,

now and forever. Amen.

 

The Lord’s Prayer.

 

[Words of Institution, if not said during prayer]

 

Prayer after the Communion

O God you have fed us at your bountiful table.

May this holy and joyful meal encourage us to help prepare your way:

To straighten the paths of injustice,

To fill in the valleys of poverty

And tear down the mountains of injustice;

To strengthen our hearts, until that day

when all flesh shall see the your salvation

through Jesus Christ our peace. Amen.

HYMN

CHARGE AND BENEDICTION

A Prayer for the World

This prayer was delivered at Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary on November 19, 2015. 

Were you there when people strapped bombs on and armed themselves for battle? Were you there when violence erupted in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Nigeria? Did you hear the gun shots and bombs in Paris as people screamed and kept silent, not to hear you but to protect their own lives? Did you perceive the defiance and acts of retaliation that united two countries that were once in opposition with one another; were you weeping as sadness gave birth to unified violence? Were you watching as homes were ripped apart and raided under the banner of greater safety? Did you see yet another unarmed black man shot this week in America, another unvalued life lost in the headlines? Are you listening as people celebrate this morning at the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud? Are you there as students mere steps away from our campus protest against racism and demand a better community for Princeton University?

Where are you as our world is torn apart?

We beget violence with violence, preferring more weapons to prevent gun violence. A photograph of a young boy washed up on the shores of Turkey brought tears to our eyes only weeks ago; and now we turn our backs on refugees who flee the familiarity of their homes because it’s a better option than staying. We want to close our doors and build walls along our borders. We embrace fear in the name of our own safety.

Where are you as our world is torn apart?

We are ripping our theology books apart as we ask the question, “Why do bad things happen?” We look into the eyes of our fellow students wondering what this is all about, why do we care? A theological education, books and papers, that gives birth to what?

Where are you as our world is torn apart?

How can we remain silent when it seems as though you are doing the same?

 

Where are you as we tear your world apart?

This world is not ours, we were merely the stewards of Creation. Though the waves of violence sweep around the world, we will not allow it to wash over us. We acknowledge that this is your dance, not ours. Movement to your tempo and beat within the steps laid out before us. We dance because the terror and fear cannot overtake us; this is what a life of faith is all about.

Where are you as we tear your world apart?

Beside us, behind us, alongside us, in front of us. You, O God, are embracing us in this dance. We move our bodies in defiance of the depths of despair that could draw us in. We dance so that your song can be known in all corners of this world.

 

 

Who’s Next?!

Closing Worship of ASC, MCL and GACOR: October 11, 2015

Psalm 130 and Acts 5: 1-11

“Who’s Next?!”

We all have at least one Annias or Sapphira in our lives, don’t we?

Those people who come to the microphone during a presbytery meeting and there’s a collective eye roll. Commissioners sit back in their pews, arms crossed, getting comfortable for the flood of words that is about to come from the sound system. It’s the mixture of anger, frustration, criticism, and Robert’s Rules that rolls off their tongues so easily…the finger that points to a problem but hands that are rarely a part of doing the repair work.

Or what about those churches who give just enough? Those congregations that have decided to withhold their per capita in defiance of the denomination but still hold the blue and red seal on their signs and “Presbyterian” in their names. Communities that rarely send teaching or ruling elders, but when you start to see their faces regularly, you wonder what they might want from the presbytery.

And it goes without saying as we near the season of overtures and preparations for General Assembly, those who plan conspire and plan together. The masters of strategy who lay out the ways that support can be garnered for their position…because of course, we don’t mean that it’s bad for those who agree with us to strategize! How else would we be sure to approve the measures that matter to us?!

I’m going to give you a moment to just imagine your own Ananias and Sapphira. Now imagine them pop, out of the picture!

What a breath of fresh air! New space created from what one of my good friends calls, “Energy vampires.”

In February I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have gone through round after round of chemo in the spring and surgery this past summer. Recently I went to see my oncologist who placed me on a medication saying, “Most women experience hot flashes. There is also an increased risk of cervical cancer, cataracts and liver cancer.”

I laughed. I let our giggles that could not be stopped. It just all seemed funny to me that one drug that could both prevent reoccurrence of my cancer, but also put me at risk of others.

I just happened to have an eye doctor’s appointment the same week and when I told the doctor what medicine I was on he said, “Did your oncologist tell you about the side effects.”

“Why yes, she said cataracts.”

“Oh, cataracts are the least of your worries!” he responded. “It can also effect the blood vessels in your eyes and increase your chances of other damage.”

Innocently, I asked, “So if my vision becomes blurry or I see spots, should I come in.”

“If you see any of those things…it’s too late.”

Everything about cancer treatment is all about measured risk, putting chemicals at just enough of our concentration into our bodies to kill the exact cells that give other people life. It includes obsessive hand washing, tapped energy levels, and losing hair for a new style that many of us would have not tried otherwise.

You see, for me, the hardest part about facing cancer wasn’t taking the drugs that could kill me, either now or in the future. It’s all about learning how to live into hope when I know what could be on the horizon, even if it is years or decades away.

You see, no one told me that I would have to navigate what it meant for me to live without cancer. In my head, I was sure that I should be celebrating that the surgeons were able to get clean margins around the tumor and that my lymph nodes showed that the cancer hadn’t spread. I should have been living as though I have gotten a second chance at life! The people around me were certainly celebrating. But inside, I just couldn’t jump up and cheer.

For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt unsettled.

Here was the problem: No one told me that I would have to figure out how to live while I was afraid of dying. No one told me that I would have to make memories that, years from now, I could possibly look back on with a smile that I had done that because I needed something to sustain me through the next crisis. I didn’t know how to live again.

All of Acts before our passage for this morning is about the radical movement of the Holy Spirit. This is a community that is literally on fire! We have the Spirit moving on Pentecost that sends those of unified mind out into the surrounding neighborhood to evangelize in tongues once unfamiliar to them. Leaders are confidently defending their trust in the teachings of Jesus and baptisms are happening like crazy.

The community has fully committed to this movement, living with everything in common. Only a few verses before this morning’s passage we are told that no one lacked. People were selling all of their property and giving everything that they earned to the community. Even a Levite man named Barnabas sold his land and placed all of the money at the apostles’ feet.

Most commentaries on this passage focus on the honest stewardship of Barnabas and the emptiness of Ananias and Sapphira. Not only did they lie to the apostles about their gift, but they conspired together to do it. They created their own partnership, trusting in what they could provide to one another over the community that was attempting to live with full reliance on one another.

But here’s the thing about Ananias and Sapphira: I think the community failed them, too. The apostles were sending the signal to the ever growing and changing community that they were to share everything in common. Maybe they were even encouraging people to sell their land and everything they possessed to lay the money at their feet. They were giving the big stewardship message that we are all told today NOT to give.

But what was missing in the message that Ananias and Sapphira couldn’t fully trust the community? I wonder if they thought…

This all sounds like a great deal, but what happens when the furvor is gone? What happens when the crowds leave, the conversions decrease, and we’re hungry for more than promises?

Do you think that they looked around at the society and culture around them, one that was full of deities and excess, and wondered if the ideals of this faith could be sustained? Where would their cushion be if it wasn’t? How could they return back to their status if they needed to?

What if they looked around and saw their neighbor’s slaves, the widow, those physically disabled, individuals facing illness…the marginalized… and wondered…what were they going to give? Why were they to give everything they owned to share with people who wouldn’t have to give anything near what they were asked to sacrifice? (I’d love to preach a sermon about the power and privilege steeped in these comments, but that’s for another time.)

No one told them how to live for their faith when they were asked to let everything that they had once valued.

No matter what led to their decision, Ananias and Sapphira die on the spot. The passage concludes, “Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.”

The community became cautious and worried. I imagine they were asking, “Who’s next?” or even, “What did I sign up for?”

Here’s the thing: This is the first time that the community is actually called “church,” ekklesia in the Greek. In the midst of sadness and fear, they are gathered together as the people of God.

We’ve been talking over and over again about the necessity to have this conversation about what it means to be the Church today.

  • Heath’s call to the Church, Next Church, COGA’s invitation to talk about identity, the Fellowship’s exploration of the call to be together in difference…I could go on.
  • But I want to remind us that we are called to explore this together and I find my own call at this unique time and place to be sure that we are lifting up the voices of the full body of our denomination.
    • We have to have a conversation about the processes that many of us love, that some of us feel make us uniquely Presbyterian, and the ways that they favor those who possess power and privilege.
    • Puerto Rico à Who gets to decide what is an essential document for their community?
    • We need to explore who we are…that advocacy and justice work isn’t just a response to our call as people of faith, but a reflection of what it means to be the full body of Christ.
    • It’s the reason I have worked with Valerie Small to adjust her workshop for tomorrow morning to reflect on the conversation about what it means to be the Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), inclusive of the voices that are so often marginalized.

If you want to know what it means to face death, to give up everything for what you believe and the community that you love, you need to go no further than look at this table. This was the last meal of a death row inmate. And each time that we partake of this bread and this cup, we proclaim that it is our meal. We shout throughout all of Creation that his last meal is the same food that will feed us in our call to ministry.

A Pastoral Letter to Members and Friends of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

NOTE: Full resources from the Office of the General Assembly can be found HERE.

Dear members and friends of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Presbyteries have been engaged in conversation, discernment, and prayer concerning the recommendations from the 221st General Assembly (2014) in the nine months since Detroit, Michigan. On March 17, 2015, Amendment 14F (On Amending W-4.9000 Marriage) received the required majority from the presbyteries.

The approved amendment to the Book of Order lifts up the sanctity of marriage and the commitment of loving couples within the church. It also allows teaching elders to exercise their pastoral discretion in officiating weddings and in doing so “… the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.”

Though we know that this amendment received the necessary majority for approval, we encourage the congregations, presbyteries, and synods of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to continue to be in conversation about marriage and family. We hope that such “up/down” voting does not mark the end, but the continuation of our desire to live in community; a partnership that requires prayer, the study of Scripture, listening to and with one another, and a dedication to partnership in the midst of our diversity of opinion.

We trust that God whose Word brought Creation into being is also the same Word that speaks to us today. With confidence, we believe that God calls the Church into living as a transformative community that embraces the call to be God’s beloved community in the world.

 

 

Ruling Elder Heath K. Rada

Moderator, 221st General Assembly (2014)

 

 

The Reverend Larissa Kwong Abazia

Vice Moderator, 221st General Assembly (2014)

What We Need To Hear

In my nine months serving as the vice moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA), I’ve been talking a lot about the Syrophoenician woman.  Here’s a link to the sermon I gave at Princeton Theological Seminary and a written version from a visit to the Presbytery of Wabash Valley.

I’m not letting her go because I don’t think that she has anything to say to the Church.  I’m letting go because she and I have been journeying together for a year now, wrestling and grappling with what it means to be a driven person of faith in a world that would rather cast off challenges and embrace the easier path.  I think there are new places to walk toward.  But before I let her go, I want to lift up a few reminders of what she stands for:

1. We have got to get out of our own way.  I know there are to-do lists that grow each day and we are daunted that our membership numbers are dwindling, but the solution isn’t just in us.  We can’t forget the covenant that God has made…and that covenant might be growing, expanding, and reaching out farther than we ever imagined!  We’ve got to take the hands and feet that we keep in constant motion and remember to lift them up to God.

2. We can’t miss the big picture.  There will always be another fire to put out, a vote to cast, a division to be created in the Church.  These range from allowing pastors to officiate at same-gender weddings to being annoyed that the three year old in the pew next to you is being distracting in worship again.  If only the church weren’t made up of people!  However, the minute we let issues define who we are, then we have lost our mission as the whole body of the Church.

3. When we turn the page or wake up to a new day, we still have to figure out how to be the Church together.  The decently and in order way that we, Presbyterians, love to do our work does not mean that we know how to live together or that a vote will mean that we can automatically move on.  The harder road is to wake up each new day committed to reaching across the table and loving those who are our “enemies” or the ones we deem as “other.”  It’s coming back to the Table if things didn’t go our way (OR if they did!) and sharing a meal together because we value the whole body.

4. Like Jesus, we can get so steeped in what we think needs to be done that we miss out on the needs right in front of our eyes.  Yes, buildings need tending and that Bible study is faltering, but there is a whole world outside of our doors too.  The world may be kneeling right at our feet but we’re missing it because we’re focused on what needs to get done first.  It’s not about putting our houses in order before we reach out to others…that’s giving others the scraps from the Table.

5. Women understand what it means to be pushed from the Table, underestimated, undervalued, and silenced…but we still came/come over and over again for our seat.  Women are still paid less, judged against stereotypes, and criticized for “wanting to have it all.”  We’re told to lean in or lean back, judged for speaking up, criticized for what we wear to work, and called a _____ if we’re too assertive.  I am so thankful for every single woman who has gone before me, those who walk alongside me, and those who are discerning who God has called them to be.  We not only pull up a seat for ourselves, but we remember to pull up a seat for others.

Keeping the Movement

If you want a break, you can’t have it.  If you want to deny that there are broken systems at play that favor some over others, you cannot do that any more.  If you want to catch a breath, you’re reminded that Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe.”

This continues to be a movement and our churches must not be silent.  I’m collecting sermons, blog posts, reflections and articles from Christian circles as we continue to address systemic racism and social bias that frames our lives.  I hope that these will continue to be nourishment for the journey ahead.

Sermons, Prayers and Worship

Randy Bush, Pastoral Prayer for Ferguson; Saturday, November 30, 2014.

Mark Elsdon, Lament during worship at Pres House; Sunday, December 1, 2014.

Frances Wattman Rosenau, Sermon on Psalm 80; Sunday, December 1, 2014.

Louis Knowles, Rubble; Sunday, December 1, 2014.

Derrick McQueen, Beatitude of Gratitude and Order of Worship; December 1, 2014.

Joann Lee, Still Waiting; December 1, 2014.

Ted Hickman, Duryea Presbyterian Church, December 1, 2014: Covered by NPR HERE and HERE

Larissa Kwong Abazia, From the Wilderness; December 7, 2014.

Sabrina Slater, What Shall I Cry?; December 7, 2014.

Chris Shelton, Longing for Home, December 7, 2014.

Articles

Mark Koenig, Always Broken; December 3, 2014.

Rev. Dr. Robert Foltz Morrison (EP of NYC Presbytery) and National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Message to NYC Presbytery and Council Response.

Cynthia Holder Rich, Ecclesio Series on Incarnation; December 8, 2014.

Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns, Presbyterian Church (USA)

Posts

Faith Leaders Stage Die-In at NYC City Hall

A Pastoral Letter from Concerned Faith Leaders in the City of New York to the Mayor and City Council

 

And so it begins…

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison.  I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny. (Matthew 5: 23-26)

We don’t have cable television in our house so I was left sitting on the couch with an antenna  trying desperately to follow the grand jury’s decision concerning Michael Brown’s shooting.  Channel 2.  Channel 4.   Channel 5.  Channel 7.  Back around again…Scorpion.  The Voice.  Sleepy Hollow.  Dancing with the Stars.  Over and over.

Eventually one television channel aired the decision by the grand jury.  Only a few words came out of Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s mouth before I sank back into my seat.  In the mixture of emotions that erupted in the following minutes, I maintained the sinking feeling that so many of us know, “I’m not surprised.”

I’ve not written a lot on this blog recently because so much has been weighing on my heart and mind.  Recent weeks have included financial concerns in the 1001 Worshipping Communities of the Presbyterian Church (USA), churches continuing to discern if they can be in communion with those whom they disagree, an unarmed man in a stairwell and a twelve year old boy with a toy gun both shot and killed, people of color facing racism every single time they walk out their doors in the US, consistent unrest throughout the world, and now the grand jury decision concerning Michael Brown’s death.  If I were to name everything, well, that would take more than one blog post.

More and more, every day, I am convinced that reconciliation continues to be the most powerful call that we have as people of faith.  It bears such significance that Jesus tells the crowds to leave their gift at the altar and run to their brother or sister to make things right.  Not walk, run.  Here’s what I think it means in today’s terms:  We do a lot to seek pledges for the coming year.  We talk to our congregations about gracious giving and stewardship.  We sometimes struggle to make ends meet in our churches so that we can pay the bills, keep the lights on, and run the heat.  We wax eloquent as our financial gifts as well as the work of our hands and feet serve ministries near and far.

But in Christ’s call, all of this is meaningless if we aren’t reconciled to our brothers and sisters for the wrongs that we commit.

Racism, sexism, ageism, socio-economic differences, able-ness; the list goes on and on.  We are at no shortness of broken relationships, promises, and situations….we are, however, short on our dedication to true reconciliation in which our needs are intricately woven into the needs of others.

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” -Fannie Lou Hamer

 

This Sunday my congregation will light the candle of Hope.  My hope is that the brokenness of our political system, governing bodies, churches, and relationships right down to our own humanity will never, ever be the final word.  As we sing the songs of Advent and wait for a child to be born, may we be reminded that the incarnation breaks into the world in a divine act of reconciliation.

So, dear friends, hold nothing back.  Dive deeply into the call to live filled with hope.  Go quickly to be reconciled to your neighbors before you come to the Table or stand in the pulpit.  Demand reconciliation of yourself and others or the humble gifts that we give, whatever they may accomplish or however well-intentioned they might be, will be rendered meaningless.

No Way Back

Below is the sermon that I preached at the Moderator’s Conference in Louisville, KY on Friday, November 7, 2014.  Over 100 people registered for the event to equip presbytery or synod moderators and vice moderators for their service to the Church.  May they lead the denomination to new horizons through their unique calling!

No Way Back: A sermon on John 20: 19-29

Shut the doors! Haven’t you heard, our denomination is in deep trouble.     We lost 224 congregations and our membership declined by 89,296 people. We might as well round that up to 90,000. We’ve got fewer hands to do the work and even fewer resources to make anything happen. We’ve lost buildings and whole congregations. We can’t risk losing any more people.

Turn the locks! Our churches and presbyteries are in dispute. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. And these debates aren’t just about the paint color for the sanctuary or moving the baptismal font two feet to the left. It’s all about sex and sexuality; marriage, the right to marry and the freedom to officiate…divestment and the relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters…and gracious dismissals. I’ve experienced this struggle myself. Even before I returned home from General Assembly this summer I had an email in my inbox from a neighboring rabbi. I made an appointment and sat in his office as he talked about how we had broken our friendship with their congregation. I’ve had conversations in my presbytery with people from all different sides of the spectrum who say, “Don’t you think it’s ____________________ what the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided about gay marriage?” Lock the doors before we have these conversations so that no one can escape.

Close off every single exit! Our polity as failed us: with up and down votes, winners and losers, we’ve pitted our communities against one another. We’ve been encouraged to label one another and uncover categories so that we know how to “work together” in supposed partnership. We’ve allow the debates of our presbyteries through our General Assembly define who we are and what we stand for, forgetting that we, we embodied, are the Church.

Shut everything off! It’s time to hunker down and hit preservation mode. If we can’t save what’s inside, then we surely can’t save anyone outside. It’s time to focus on us.

I imagine that that is what the disciples must have felt like at the beginning of the week after Jesus’ death. Closed doors. Locks turned. The world shut out. The joy of a culture changing Messiah so easily traded for mourning and inactivity. I always picture them cramped inside of the room, occupying the same space and yet, somehow, completely withdrawn from the deep sadness that envelops each.

“It’s time to focus on us,” they must think. “How can we face the crowds when we barely know what to think, ourselves?!”

Did you forget so easily about the unnamed men and women who had been transformed by the presence of Jesus? A simple miracle, sermon, lesson or word of mouth that travelled from city to town to village and back around again.   The people who were on the ground, trying to change their lives even though they didn’t walk alongside Jesus every day like those disciples. They had the harder job of keeping their faith alive without Jesus with them, day in and day out. Jesus the Messiah…now Jesus the Conquered. Visions of victory only to be beaten and hung on a cross. All of those communities, those countless individuals hoping for a new future, gathering outside the walls of that closed off room and mourning alone.

Only they weren’t mourning alone were they? There was Thomas. Thomas, who is no where to be found in that locked room. He’s somewhere else, dare we say among some people who are asking the same questions about the executed Christ? Unlike the disciples, might he be asking the same questions? Could he have made himself vulnerable, answering as a disciple of Jesus with the daringly honest words, “I have no idea. I don’t know.” But doubts and incomplete answers, he was still there and among them, steeped in pain and loss as a community together.

There are real, deep scars out there in our churches…mourning and vulnerabilities torn open from our denomination’s decisions…but you don’t need me to tell you that, do you?!

There are people who are celebrating the vote concerning marriage. Pastors and congregational leaders in states that recognize same-sex marriage that finally feel free to offer pastoral care and support to their parishioners without strings attached. Individuals who have fought for decades for full inclusion of the lgbtq community that feel like the long road to get here was hard won. Some have said to me, “We want to celebrate but we feel like we can’t in respect to those who disagree with us.”

There are those who mourn this decision, feeling as though we have left biblical authority at the door for cultural relevancy. Churches who have left or are considering leaving because they’re not sure we can break bread and share the cup at the same Table; they’re not even sure we believe in the same Savior who prepares the Table. And those who stay are faced with the ongoing pressure that they have conformed, giving up their long held beliefs just to stay together as a denomination. Another person said to me, “We’re bleeding. We’re hurt, and then we’re told that we’ve betrayed our beliefs by staying. And everyone else wants us to just move on.”

There are individuals and communities of color who look at the Belhar Confession and wonder if the denomination is capable of wrestling with the call to racial reconciliation. Immigrant communities whose ministries are hindered in the larger church because of language barriers and cultural differences, lack of resources in their native tongues, and an inability to adhere to our denomination’s structural demands because of their unique callings. A long history of racial/ethnic presbyteries that were never fully integrated into the life of their regional governing bodies, only joined together by name. We are a 90% white denomination in a country that is becoming increasingly more diverse. And, let’s be honest, eleven o’clock is still the most segregated hour on Sunday in many of our congregations.

There are real, deep scars…wounds that need tending. You all know them….you can name them…and if we did, we might be here all morning.

So here’s the thing: The disciples knew it was Jesus because they saw his hands and his sides. The scars and wounds didn’t disappear from his resurrected body, they were still right there as an acknowledgement of everything he had endured on earth, from his first breath to his last. They saw the marks of pain with their own eyes and only then does the text tell us that they were overjoyed to be with their Lord again. And don’t call him Doubting Thomas anymore! Thomas wanted to see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, put his fingers in the wounds, and his hand to his side because those marks were a witness that every single thing Jesus went through, beginning to end, was real. The good, the bad, all embodied in Jesus’ resurrected form.

Every single one of you knows the wounds and scars that your communities bear. The days of trying to move around the issues or somehow skip over them or even pretend that they don’t exist, that we’ve done the hard work and can move forward…those days are gone. This day, we are called to move through the pain and suffering, to have the tough conversations, to face one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and take the harder road together.

I have a confession to make: A few days before this summer’s General Assembly I started to panic. I’ve run session and business meetings before, but what if Heath and I were actually to be installed and moderator and vice moderator. How would I moderate a meeting of over six hundred people from across the country and even around the world? So I confess, I ran to the bookstore and bought “The Annotated Roberts’ Rules” and then I bought, “Robert’s Rules for Dummies.” I had my Stated Clerk email me his flowchart of commonly used motions and how to handle them.

This weekend you will learn about parliamentary procedure, amendments that need action from your presbyteries, and resources available from our national office. You’ll engage in conversations in structured workshops and open source spaces. I hope that you will also connect with fellow moderators and find ways to support one another when you leave this place. But in our governance of up down voting, winning and losing, and the attempts to do it decently and in order, we can’t think that that’s all we need to do.

In your calling, I charge you to be like Thomas. Go out in the midst of the crowds and, even without answers, meet people where they are. And when they tell you that they have seen Christ, go and see the marks of pain and suffering. Go to touch, see, and experience the broken body of the Church, and then believe for yourself that resurrection is possible. Share that story in every meeting that you moderate and all that you do.

Because the truth is, even if we close our doors and shut ourselves off from the world, the resurrected Jesus still comes among us and says, “Peace be with you.”

Stopping to Breathe

I’ve just experienced a long weekend in Newport, RI for vacation and now I’m trapped at the Philadelphia Airport for an almost four hour layover.  I guess part of it is self-induced because I knew that I would be here waiting for the connection to Louisville for the COGA (Committee of the Office of General Assembly) meeting.  But now as I sit here, the struggle to simply be in one spot with very little to do has become a struggle.

It’s outside office hours and, though I will be working remotely while attending the meetings in Louisville, I can’t help but want to spend my time checking some to-dos off of the list.  Just a little email cleaning, stewardship season planning, sermon reflection, communion liturgy writing, and phone calling.  All things that will make my life much easier when I return on Thursday to the office.  Why not check them off of the list now while I am sitting in an airport terminal: there’s nothing better to do, right?!

Life has become even more hectic as I balance a professional life as both congregational pastor and vice moderator.  If you know me, you know that I love being busy.  The thrill of juggling different responsibilities keeps my brain buzzing and attention focused on the big picture.  But I am learning the art of saying, “no.”  I find myself in meetings to listen and contribute but stopping the urge to jump in with two feet because I am already knee deep in several areas taking my attention.  It’s a completely different hat to wear in which I contribute but not serve as the go to person with endless tasks to follow-up on after the meeting.

So, herein lies the problem as I sit in Terminal F in Philadelphia.  I gauge my professional success in the ability to be busy.  I want to knock those items off of my to-do list and sitting here makes it even easier to do so…what better things do I have to do with my time?

I’ve realized that juggling countless responsibilities is not only stimulating but a completely justifiable excuse to keep myself from slowing down, taking a breath, and enjoying the moment.  I’m good at being busy.  I’m amazing at serving as the go-to person and always quick to jump to action if someone needs me.  My cell phone buzzes with personalized rings so that I know if it’s an email, text message, phone call, tweet, or Facebook message.  Truth be told, it doesn’t really matter because I’ll check my phone at any of those sounds.

So now I am blogging about this struggle because I am NOT going to check my work email, respond to any messages, or search for liturgies on Google.  I’m going to sit here to read a book, surf the internet (for fun!), and relax.  All of this because what I do outside of the office is just as valuable as inside.

And now you are my witnesses and can hold me accountable to it.