Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Faith at the Crossroads: Reflections on #NEXTChurch2016

“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:9)

Let it alone until next year?

This Sunday’s lectionary is fitting for those of us who convened this week at the NEXT Church National Gathering at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.  We have asked a lot of questions, pondered critical and urgent realities of our polarized and fractured world, exposed hard truths related to racism, exploitation, and injustices near and far, networked with church leaders and ministry innovators, and talked a whole lot about where the Spirit may be leading our churches and the broader PCUSA at the crossroads of faith in the midst of the complexities of the twenty-first century world.

But we did not resolve to let our world or church alone until next year to bear fruit. “Crossroads are where we can get run over from multiple directions,” remarked Mark Douglas in opening worship. “Standing at them is not what we are called to do."

The temptation for the church is to rest in the familiar, even spread supposed-fertilizer on old mission methodologies, paternalistic charitable practices, and concerns for church programs that primarily target those who are in the pews, which are becoming more and more vacant.  So when the tender of the vineyard suggests pruning what we or those before us planted and make space for what is new to sprout up, it is far easier to say, "Let it alone until next year. Can’t me just spread some manure on it one more time and see if we can make it work? 

And Jesus does not suggest we let it alone until next year. Jesus calls us to move and make a way for new life to be birthed out of the vineyard that belongs to God. Again, what's next is now.  And in the now we need new forms of collaborative action as a we bear fruit together reminded God’s vineyard is never about a single plant. 

After a week of workshops, keynotes, conversations, presentations, and films, it is quite evident that God’s people are responding to this call to collaborate with creativity, compassion, contextualization, and solidarity with our most vulnerable neighbors. Which is what Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak reminded us is the very work of the church today, "We are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to the benefit of others...The more I say justice. I will have to say Jesus. The more I say Jesus, the more I will have to say justice. Because I cannot do this work on my own."

So as we leave this place and return to the crossroads in our communities, we dare not wait until the next year. Our next is now. As Rev. T. Denise Anderson closed NEXTChurch out, "My job is to send you home because after all this ’sho'nuff preaching you have to go back home and bear fruit...We have zero excuse not too move at the crossroads."

NEXT Church Faith at the Crossroads
The 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering is just over a week away! We're excited to have Lisle Gwynn Garrity (A Sanctified Art) serve as our artist in residence during our time together. She created a visual meditation on this year's theme, "Faith at the Crossroads." We hope you'll pause for a moment to watch it and reflect as we inch closer to heading to Atlanta. Art & film by Lisle Gwynn Garrity ( credits: "Flicker" by Origamibiro (
Posted by NEXT Church on Friday, February 12, 2016

For more resources and links to presentations and keynotes: 

Check out a great film on immigration and deportation through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance:

Also, check out the #nextchurch2016 for the dialogue that took place over Twitter

Monday, February 15, 2016

Wait for It: Hamilton as Modern Psalm for Lent

Every Lent, I pair music from pop-culture with ancient psalms, a sort of neo-liturgical means for spiritual formation.  In my youth ministry days, teenagers would aid in the development of the seasonal playlist that merged witness of the past with voices of the present.  As Karl Barth has often been attributed as saying, we must read the Bible in one hand while reading the newspaper in the other. 

I suggest we read the Bible with earbuds; engage the text written by prophets of old while listening to the lyrics of social prophets today. As we do, the Spirit is sure to stir within our hearts and minds as we discern faithful movement in and for the world God so loves. 

This Lent, we begin with Hamilton, an “American Musical” most of us have merely listened to given both the sold-out venue and exorbitant ticket prices.

Nevertheless, the score of the “most addicting album ever” provides plenty of options for this year’s Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey.  And lest we think Hamilton is merely an isolated narrative frozen within the era surrounding the American Revolution, many have reminded us the brilliance of this Broadway production is in its ability to draw "parallels between historical revolutions and equality movements happening now."

Which is the very ethos of this liturgical playlist each Lent, juxtaposing past and present as we lean into the redemptive rhythms of Christ’s cross and resurrection.  

And while we wait for the day when all those victimized by systems and institutions thirsty for power and privilege to be fully set free, may our waiting be everything but passive. May we actively engage and live into God's promised future here and now. 

Track 1 for Modern Psalms for Lent: Wait for It (Hamilton)

"Death doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes and we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes. And if there's a reason I'm still alive when everyone who loves me has died I'm willing to wait for it. I'm willing to wait for it. Wait for it."

Suggested Psalms: Psalm 27; Psalm 62

The cast of Hamilton reinterprets original song in light of modern cries for justice.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Transfiguration Sunday: Moving Beyond Narratives of Self-Preservation

I think I would have wanted to stay there, too.

Amidst the madness that marked a first-century Palestinian and Jewish world captive to an oppressive Roman Empire, I don’t think Peter was out of line to want to permanently tabernacle on the mountain with an illuminated Jesus and the ghosts of Moses and Elijah. There are days when I wish for a similar experience- for my family and me to be whisked away from the chaos and mounting pressure only to find refuge on some sort of sacred island isolated from the noises of a despairing world. 

Throw Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in there as forever personal companions- even better. 

Yet the call to discipleship is not towards escapist retreats to holy hills only accessible to a privileged few. Amidst the many pressing realities of our day, for those who follow the crucified Christ, we must not be lured into narratives framed around self-preservation; we must reject theological plot lines that pull us away from the urgent matters of our day and the concerns of our most vulnerable neighbors. Instead, the Christian is to be informed and active, innovative and subversive, intentional and generous, open and awake, alert and self-giving in these very places.

As Jesus said to his disciples eight days prior to his transfiguration, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24).

We are to mirror the very nature of God who is self-giving, other-regarding, community-forming love.**

Yet, for individuals and religious institutions, congregations and faith-based entities, when finances are tight, pews are half empty, and Christendom is almost completely deconstructed, we are tempted to explore measures of self-preservation and the protection of what is left. When socio-political and ethical conversations become uncomfortable, "biblical truth" becomes open to new (read: reformed) interpretation, and our methods of ministry and governance require adaptation- we may want to flee from change and huddle with the familiar.  When we are dared to risk something, we may cling to everything and give next to nothing- fearing the loss of all. 

In these moments, we need the clouds to break and a voice to call out from the heavens, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)

And like the disciples, rather than tabernacle above, we break our cozy camp and enter into the brokenness of our congregations and communities no matter our perceived limitations in resources, ideas, or influence. We open our sleep-heavy eyes and ears to transfigured imaginations as we remember our call to carry cross in the midst of the poverty and the pain, even the shifting winds of our emerging world. 

We allow the good news of the gospel to be illumined in our hearts and minds as we embody reconciliation in the midst of our fractured and fragmented contexts. We listen to where the cries of our communities intersect with the call of Christ, only to carry cross and follow wherever the voice of our Teacher leads. 

This is the message of Transfiguration Sunday. It's also a good reminder for the church and each of us as we enter into the Lenten season.  

*Image Above: Transfiguration by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, 1824
**"Trinitarian doctrine describes God in terms of shared life and love rather than in terms of domineering power. God loves in freedom, lives in communion, and wills creatures to live in a new community of mutual love and service. God is self-sharing, other-regarding, community-forming love."  Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding 73