Learning to Seek: My Lenten Journey

Several weeks ago, I sat on my couch wondering what I would “do for Lent” this year. Over the years, I have begun to groan at the thought because it reminded me too much of a “New Year’s Resolution Restart”. I have given up chocolate, Diet Coke, and fast food more times than I count and IF I made it through Lent, I rushed back to my vice with even more desire on Easter afternoon. In recent years, I have been encouraged and interested in the ideas spread through social media– “40 Bags in 40 Days” for donations to local thrift shops and clothes closets, “40 Letters in 40 Days” for mailing letters to friends, and even “40 Hours in 40 Days” for volunteering with local organizations. Seeing these ideas has reminded me that Lent isn’t always about dieting, and so I started making a list of things that I think are missing in my life or might need more attention, finally settling on one.

One thing in my life that I wish I had more of is study and devotion time. My colleague, Rev. Nicole Ball, recently wrote about a missing CONSTANT congregational presence in our lives as we travel from church to church each week. As much as I absolutely love my job, this is something that I do lament, and so for Lent I decided to take time visiting a few different congregations in my part of the world for worship and study, and focus on devotion more at home. My hope was that I would be able to reconnect with congregations I have worked with in the past, but in a less formal way. I knew that some would still be a one-time visit, but I also intentionally picked one to be my “home” for Lent.

20170301_114627Stressed out and fighting allergies, I shut my computer on Ash Wednesday and headed to Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church in Cary, NC for their noon-time service. I have been able to spend time in conversation with their Senior Pastor, Rev. Jody Welker, recently and wanted to start the Lenten season somewhere I knew I was comfortable and wouldn’t feel completely alone. I arrived a few 20170301_123424minutes early and sat in the beautiful silence of the sanctuary, watching the wind blow blooms off of the trees just outside the window. The stress began to melt away and I was ready to worship.  I listened to Scripture, I sang songs of praise, and I was reminded that I “am dust and shall return to dust, but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” The allergies from the morning remained, but peace replaced stress. That night, I decided to join another congregation and friend, Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC (led by Rev. Byron Wade) where I was challenged by Rev. Wade’s question to the congregation of what it means to follow someone– something I continued to consider through the next 40 days.

A few days later, I joined a small group of women from First Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC for the start of a book study. Over the course of Lent, I returned each week to discuss “Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life” (Rowan Williams) and join together in delightful fellowship and prayer. I quickly realized that even having the book sitting next to me on my side table each night encouraged me and reminded me of these women and our upcoming gathering. The two times I did miss this study, I noticed an absence in my week which led me to a prayer of thanksgiving for this opportunity and the women I was getting to know through our discussions. For the season of Lent, I had a “home” and I look forward to hopefully returning in a few weeks!

Throughout the rest of Lent, I sought opportunities for worship in different ways.

20170315_171343I spent one afternoon with the leaders of Farm Church as we worked in the garden and covered the plants so they would not freeze that night. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” echoed in my head as I moved the dirt and prepared the rows for the upcoming planting.

I sat alongside one of my childhood pastors as we each sought sacred space at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC for their noon-time worship. We celebrated our reunion and praised God in song and prayer, alongside other colleagues from our Presbytery and members of that particular congregation.

While I traveled for Continuing Education, I prayed with other church leaders seeking knowledge of stewardship and other young pastors seeking rest and reflection of the joys and struggles we find in ministry. I listened, shared, and prayed with a beautiful group of women as we reflected on the slave narratives and how we can change the story today by sharing our own (read more about this experience!)

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I spent most of Holy Week in Washington, D.C. taking in the beauty of the Cherry Blossoms, the sunsets, and the rich history of our country, giving thanks to God for bringing us through the wilderness so many times through incredible leaders. On Maundy Thursday, I found myself praying my way through a series of prayer stations before worship at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC.

Finally, I returned to my parent’s congregation for Easter Sunday where I celebrated the Risen Lord and led worship for those who encouraged me through seminary and were present at my ordination almost two years ago.

With all of these different worship experiences, what did I actually learn during these 40 days?

In the stress, in the sickness, in the celebrations, in the resting– God is there. In the tears of joy while sitting in the car following various meetings and worship, in the tears of frustration when I couldn’t figure out what was going on– I had a group to go to with whom I could both celebrate and lament. On the days when I couldn’t find my grounding, there would be a place to sit and join God both with and without other individuals. In the most unlikely places, we can find reminders of God’s presence when we need it most.

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This Lent has been a unique one for me– a true journey through the wilderness filled undeniable glimpses of hope and grace. I didn’t give up any chocolate (I probably ate more!), but I did give up reasons to think that I am alone. I did find my grounding in worship and study. I have found ways for devotion. I have learned how to truly seek God in this crazy, confusing, and unpredictable world.

Will I keep going to the “extra” worship services? Maybe, but not likely.

Will I keep going to the book study? I do hope so.

Will I remember to do my daily devotions each day? I would love to, but recognize that I will miss some.

Will I continue to celebrate the glimpses of hope and grace amidst the struggle and things I cannot control? Absolutely.

We cannot change a lot about this world, but we can change the way we respond. Isn’t that what Christ’s life and sacrifice were about? Following this Lenten journey, I am changing my response through more intentional worship and prayer (apart from what I lead as a pastor). How are you changing your response?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

A Prayer for Holy Week

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 Jardin de Gracias, Siguatepeque, Honduras

John 11:35

What a life you have given us, God,

and who in the world can be expected to navigate it all?!

How many times can I cry as I absorb

the daily news of misunderstanding and distrust?

the reality of violence among family, of disparagement among those who are supposed to love?

the pressure of success placed upon the youngest among us?

the strain on us to be self-sufficient, to not need and not ask?

Tell me, God, should I weep in despair or laugh at the overwhelming absurdity of it all?

Jesus cried, at least once.

I think I would cry more often than Jesus but laughter is a cheerier mechanism to cope with what I see

what I hear

what I feel

what I fear.

I don’t know what you think of all the ceremony

We’ve given to this week called, “Holy,”

but at the very least it gives us an outlet

for processing

suspense

doubt

death

fear

anger

complexity

and, hopefully, agree with you at the end of it all

That life is the most important thing,

worth laughing at and worth crying over.

Worth fighting for.

There’s no navigating life without being scarred,

but there’s grace for living with the scars.

There’s grace.

There’s grace.

My God, thank you for grace.

 

Written by Rachel G. Hackenburg

“Writing to GOD: 40 Days of Praying with My Pen”

Why Not?

Do you ever have weeks that flow seamlessly from one event to the next, and you can only thank God for the way things have happened?

17757676_10102874189603041_5209129391198303298_nThis past Sunday, I heard Union’s own President Brian Blount teach and preach at First Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC. The overall theme of the morning (of course, focusing on the book of Revelation) seemed to be about standing up and stepping out, testifying and witnessing, and loving God’s children and creation in a new and radical way– in a way that pushes us out of our comfort zone and might even take us somewhere we aren’t ready to go. The messages were very timely, but even more so, they were incredibly challenging.

During his sermon, Dr. Blount shared the quote from Robert F. Kennedy, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

As I went through the rest of my day, I couldn’t help but wonder “Why not?” Why can’t I stand up and speak out? Why can’t I love my neighbor with radical love instead of just a passive hello? Why can’t I make a change in my small corner of the world?

Still reflecting on the message from Dr. Blount and the call to witness in Revelation, I drove up to Richmond dark and early on Tuesday morning because this week, Dr. Paula Parker and Dr. Katie Cannon are leading a workshop entitled “Writing (Righting) Wrong: Memory, Resistance, Resilience” (and I learned, a while ago, that one does not miss a class by either of these women, especially if they are leading together!)

In this workshop we will assess and redress the muted, masked, and mangled testimonies and the trans-generational experiences of women, men, and children whose ancestors were enslaved Africans. We will mine the mother lode of survivalist intentions inherited from our foremothers and forefathers who worked as chattel property in the economies of North America for 300 years.  Instead of giving in to justified feelings of fury, our workshop combines the anatomy of the idea with the genogram, in order to stabilize in writing how characteristics prevalent in the Black Church community are ingrained and shaped by memory, resistance, and resilience.

As I sat in this class surrounded mostly by stories that I cannot begin to understand, but a few that I can, I realized at least initially, my role was to listen. To hear the wisdom and experiences of these women, to hear firsthand the accounts of what my history books never told me.

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Cinquin “Free Write”

For a fleeting moment, I wondered “Should I be here? Should I go home?” In that moment, I returned to Sunday morning and asked myself “WHY NOT? Why SHOULDN’T I be here? Why CAN’T I not just hear these stories, but maybe even share some of my own? Why CAN’T I ask questions and try to understand a narrative that isn’t directly related to my own, but does influence it every single day?” Then we read a litany based on Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love and these words called to me, “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.”

As I reflect on the messages of Dr. Blount’s sermon, the call to witness and testify in the book of Revelation, and the stories of these women and those who came before, I wonder where I am limiting myself and the ways that I can relate to and grow with all of God’s creation? I wonder “Why not?”… not just in my own life, but in the life of my community and the Church.

Why not ask more questions? Why not listen more?

Why not seek to find the root of the story? Why not take the pen and write the next chapter?

Why not love radically and seek fervently God’s grace with and in one another?

This question of “why not?” is, or should be, at play in every aspect of our lives– in the way we make personal decisions, the way we relate with our neighbors, in the way we complete our jobs, and in the way we gather together to worship.

As we ask this question, we also have to listen. We have to listen to the stories that have shaped us as individuals and as communities. We have to listen to the stories that have shaped those around us. Every story intertwines at some point, every story influences another in some way. If we can hear and receive each of these stories, if we can find the root of the trauma and the growth, we can write our next chapter.

Reading John’s call to the seven churches in Revelation, a call to stand up and testify, or act in “non-violent resistance” as Dr. Blount translates, I hear this echo of “why not?” As we are called, with God’s children of all time and space, to step out and move forward together no matter what the risk, I am tied into the story. Asking questions might be one of the most dangerous things a person can do, but asking AND listening just might be what finally connects our stories and begins to move our pen on that blank page.

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One exercise that has been incredibly eye opening and beneficial this week has been “free writing”. Following each portion of our discussion, we are given a few moments to journal our initial thoughts– without edits, without hesitations. I have written this particular blog in this manner and invite you to practice this act of reflection as you consider your own story and the story of your community– whether that be your family, neighborhood, or congregation with whom you worship.

And now, in the style of Dr. Katie Cannon,
“Your prompt for this free write is:
Knowing the story of where I have been and am now, I want my next chapter to say…”

 

Ashe. May it be so.

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations


“Writing (Righting) Wrong: Memory, Resistance, Resilience” is an offering of The Womanist Institute at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Home Is Where You Find It

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Feeling the love from Lexington Presbyterian Church

I took a moment the other day to scroll through my blog posts and those of my colleague, Rev. Jordan Davis. If you did the same, you may find that we agree on one thing about our work in Church Relations: we really love what we do.

It has been such an amazing journey to traverse the Mid-Atlantic in service to our Alma mater and in service to the Kingdom as we build relationship and listen to congregations with whom we visit. With a strong cup of hot coffee in hand, our Union swag nestled in the trunk and our clergy robes hanging in the back seat, we set off each Sunday to preach, present, and profess the mission and vision of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Yet, there are always two sides to a coin. While we are gifted the chance to travel and engage a variety of congregations in locations far and wide, I often miss being home. And not my personal home, but my church home.

I am Reverend to Union Presbyterian Seminary, but not to a congregation where I serve Sunday after Sunday. People, places, and pulpits change each week! This dynamism is exciting but can also stir up feelings of being unknown. I often miss being in the presence of those in my faith community who truly know me. I was feeling this particular tug on my heart before heading out this past week for my visit to Lexington, Virginia. However, all of that changed when I stepped foot into Brady Chapel at Lexington Presbyterian Church.

I was scheduled to preach both services, the first being the informal worship service at 8:45am. I arrived and was greeted by alumnus, Rev. Bill Klein. We took a few moments to go over order for worship at this informal gathering, and I was surprised to see that there was no bulletin. My nerves began to set-in as I tried to remember our conversation while being introduced to several, warm folks.

Members greeted me with kind welcome and inquired if I was new or visiting, which is not unusual with this job. We chatted about Union over coffee and I shook hand after hand. However, I couldn’t shake the nagging insecurity about the coming service.

“Get with it,” I thought to myself, “grace abounds! It will be alright.” But I could not help myself relax.

It was not until I sat down in the front row of the gathered community, and the music began, that I was able to take a step back from my worried self and see that home was right in front of me.

These members assembled at a time, which might seem quite early for others, to hug one another, drink warm coffee, and commune. The body of Christ was gathered in this intimate space, singing songs from the Iona community, perhaps still shaking off slumber from the night before. Community joys and concerns were shared in announcements and prayer. By the time Bill nodded in my direction that it was time to read scripture and preach my sermon, I was moved by the love shared in that room. I was so moved, in fact, that I kicked off my shoes and connected with the holy ground upon which I stood. Home was in front of me, and I was did not want to miss-out because of my own insecurity.

Following the sermon, we communed at Table with one another. We sang more praise to the One who called us together in the first place. We extended hospitality with one another and we were sent out, again, to love and serve the Lord.

To be welcomed into an intimate gathering of the body of Christ is not unique to Lexington Presbyterian Church, though they do it very well. This was not my first experience with overwhelming warmth and welcome by a congregation with whom I visit. But that Sunday morning, with the help of God’s Spirit and the members of Lexington Presbyterian Church, I felt able to move my worried-self out of the way, in order to relax in the home surrounding me.

               Rev. Nicole Childress Ball, Church Relations Officer

This Unique Gathering of the Church

positive-attitudeIf you cannot find me in a congregation, you can surely find me in a Presbytery meeting. Rev. Jordan Davis and I spend much of our time attending Presbytery meetings to do the work of building church relationships with Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Imagine if your responsibilities included attending these meetings all over the state? I strive regularly to make the gatherings of three regional Presbyteries which total about twelve meetings per year…

How boring, right?

If some small voice inside of you shouted, “YES!” at my comment, then you are not alone.

I have spoken to teaching elders, ruling elders, and staff who recognize the importance of a regional gathering as the Presbytery, but perceive the meetings to be inconvenient, laborious, and predictable. And these comments are not particular to one geographic area over another. It seems many of us feel this way. However, there are no easy answers when considering how to better improve meetings when we wrestle with the following decisions:

Should we meet on a Tuesday or Saturday?

Would an afternoon meeting be better than an early morning meeting?

Where can we find the best space to accommodate the entire Presbytery?

Should lunch be free?

What about child care?

Will worship include a sermon or will there be a Bible study?

Do we use The Presbyterian Hymnal or should we sing from Glory to God?

Does the hosting site have wifi access?

…Why doesn’t the hosting site have wifi access?!

The answer to each abovementioned question will suit some but will be difficult, or require flexibility, for others. Similarly, there are items of importance which will occur at every meeting but there are also opportunities for fluidity and creativity in the schedule.

My hunch is our attitude toward this unique gathering of the Church influences our experience. Our attitude determines how we engage and value the time.

If we believe the meeting is an impediment on our work or life schedule, we may end up running through our mental to-do list during worship rather than being present with our sisters and brothers in Christ. If we believe the meeting to be laborious, we may lack a sincere interest in future candidates for ministry or we may decide to leave the meeting early. If we believe the meeting to be predictable, we may be less inclined to study up on important items brought forth in the agenda.

Our Book of Order defines the Presbytery as, “the council serving as the corporate expression of the church within a certain district and is composed of all the congregations and teaching elders within that district” (G-3.0301). The Presbytery is the larger, living, breathing body of Christ with a specific charge to be, “responsible for the government of the church throughout its district, and for assisting and supporting the witness of congregations to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that all congregations become communities of faith, hope, love, and witness” (G-3.0301).

At Presbytery meetings, we gather to rejoice and worship the Lord, our God, in response to God’s amazing love and faithfulness. At Presbytery meetings, we discern the work of God’s Spirit among us through discussion and debate from our individual experience. At Presbytery meetings, we celebrate milestones and retirements, giving thanks for those things in the past and for those things in the future yet to come.  At Presbytery meetings, we share our perspectives, we share our lives, and we are the body of Christ.

Therefore, if we believe these things to be true about the role and responsibility of the Presbytery, our attitude toward this unique gathering of the Church may influence our experience.

If we believe that the Presbytery, gathered, serves to support the true witness of God’s sovereign activity in the world, our attitude toward this unique gathering of the Church may influence our experience.

If we believe that, through the diligent work of committees and task forces, missionaries and candidates for ministry, God’s amazing love is shared and celebrated in worship, consent docket, and at table over fellowship, our attitude toward this unique gathering of the Church may influence our experience.

In the words of Pastor Lon Solomon, “not a sermon, just a thought.”

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball, Church Relations Officer

The Dark Part of the Journey: Congregations in Transition

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One of the unique aspects of Church Relations is the amount of time that we are able to spend with congregations in a transition stage of ministry. Many times, Nicole and I are called in to fill the pulpit following the departure of a beloved pastor meaning we are able to see the congregation in their most raw moments, wandering through the deepest part of the forest.

There is no doubt that losing a pastor is difficult. Sometimes the pastor leaves unexpectedly and sometimes rumors float around for months before, “I am sure that Rev. X is going to announce their retirement soon! They did just turn 65, after all.” Every departure is different, and every departure leaves a congregation wondering what will happen next.

Many times, if not all of the time, there is the support of supply preachers. This can be especially difficult for the congregation. Supply preachers rarely know the back-story of the recent departure and are therefore unable to speak about it and begin to offer healing words. It doesn’t help at all that this transition time will likely mean a different pastor every week, making it hard for the congregation to find the consistency they desire.

These weeks following a departure also leave the congregation with a loss of leadership. There is no denying that parishioners look to the pastor for guidance in most things, and even if there is an Elder or Deacon in charge, it can seem like no one is without the prominent figure and “go to” person.

Lately, I have thought a lot about what a congregation goes through during this initial transition. I have worshipped with and led worship for some of these congregations. I have experienced the hesitant welcome that gradually, week by week, turned into a warm embrace. I have heard the laments and the celebrations of departed pastors. My heart has hurt and smiled with each congregation, and my prayers have been filled with thoughts of them.

 

As we are in the season of Lent with one another, I wanted to share some thoughts for these congregations, but also for everyone in a transition phase of life:

1) Consistency is not always key! While consistency is comfortable, it can stunt our growth. This is why the best physical trainers will change up your work out every day. Just as our bodies get tired and quit responding when the same muscle is worked in the same way every day, our minds and spirits grow weary. Yes, it is confusing and tiring having someone new every single week, but it also gives the congregation time to wake-up and learn about other preaching and leadership styles. So often, we think we prefer one thing over another, but it isn’t until we actually experience the other that we can make that decision! Different preaching and worship styles can awaken different senses and parts of Spirit. Different stories can trigger new and fresh ideas.

2) You don’t need a pastor to function! Some of the strongest congregations I have spent time with had no consistent pastor. The Body of Christ is led by Christ, and each of us serves an equal role within the Body. Yes, the pastor has the seminary education and the preaching experience, but that is not what keeps the congregation functioning. Use this time to take inventory of the gifts within your congregation. Is there a desire for Bible Study? Ask each person to bring their Bible to share their favorite verse and why it means so much to them. Does your congregation miss fellowship dinners, but the budget won’t allow for them? Invite each person to bring their dinner from home and join around the table together with your different meals, but sharing the time with one another. Do you want refreshments before or after worship? Invite one or two families to provide snacks every other week or once a month (every week if there are enough willing and able bodies!) It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be huge. Jesus Christ said “where two or more are gathered”, he didn’t say “where the spread is fancy and the leader is ordained.”

3) You are not alone! While it might seem that you are on an island alone and no one sees you or understands, know that there are so many thinking of you and praying for you. The departed pastor, the committee helping you in the transition, each pastor that fills the pulpit, and the neighboring congregations. We are all praying for you! Even if it feels like all hope is lost, when you gather in the Sanctuary on Sunday morning, even if it is just because “it is what we do”, there is someone standing with you. When it feels like you are most alone, reach out and hold the hand of your neighbor. Pray hand in hand and share the Peace with a hug. See and feel God’s presence through the embrace of one another and know that even if it seems like nothing is happening, God is creating an incredible thing in and through each of us!

 

These thoughts don’t save the transition, and they might not make any sense right now. However, I pray that if your congregation is in transition, they might offer some guidance at some point along the way. If you are in transition in your own life, know that every thought applies to you as well. Transition is never easy and it can be terrifying, but know that transition does not mean “the end”, it means that something else is coming.

If you are in a transition in your own life or in your congregation, know that we are walking with you and praying for you! If you have a specific prayer request as you move through Lent and this phase of life, feel free to share those.

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Living as Neighbors

One of my favorite things to look at in a Sunday morning bulletin is the weekly calendar. This is the space where I learn about the life of this congregation beyond the weekly worship hour. When is Youth Group? What studies are going on? What meetings are taking place? What other organizations use their space?

Recently, I have an increasing awareness of outside organizations using the different spaces of the congregations. Even beyond when the different areas of the property are in use, I am especially interested in the relationships between these outside organizations and the congregation. I love to ask various members about their involvement in these different gatherings but sadly, I am learning that the relationship is usually mostly financial.

Renting our available physical space is a wonderful way to round out the budget and help a neighbor in need, but our welcome and shared grace can help to nourish and feed a hungry soul who has come to our doors seeking. They might be seeking a safe community who shares in their struggle, or maybe they are seeking another badge for their Girl Scout or Boy Scout sash. Maybe they are seeking a more fit body or a work space away from home.

No matter the organization or person using the space, every time the physical space of our church is used, we are opening our doors to individuals who might be seeking God’s grace in their lives. Some of the organizations they come with might offer a glimpse of that, but are we doing anything to help in the offering– to be the Church outside of the Sunday worship hour?

greetersWhat would the Church look like if even once a month, members brought refreshments or stood as door greeters when outside meetings are taking place? What would we learn about our neighbors who use this space if we asked if we might sit in on a meeting sometime or offered a brief prayer at the opening of the meeting?

I regularly read mission statements and see signs that say “All are welcome!” Sermons are preached on welcome and visitors are greeted during the worship hour with smiles and open arms. Following worship, though, the lights are quickly shut off and the doors locked until the next meeting when we rush in and out, focusing only on the next thing on our own to do list and very little on the strangers, the neighbors, we pass.

Our welcome, not just on Sunday morning, is what shapes each congregation and the wider Church. I have left workouts in church parking lots disheartened after overhearing conversations  along the lines of “I thought about coming here on Sunday, but they just don’t seem very welcoming the way they look at us and complain.” How would those conversations sound if the person dropping by for a book walked over and greeted the group in the parking lot, or even offered a case of cold water at the close of the workout? I have visited churches during the week for studies or to leave information and been greeted with “Why are you here?” followed by a grunt. Would I have returned for the study the next week if the greeting were a smile and “How can I help you?” Probably, but instead I stayed home to work.

Signs, like we talked about last week, can help to bring someone in. It is our actions that will help to embrace and nourish those who are now here in this Holy space, no matter the reason! The people we welcome may never come on Sunday morning, but they just might leave feeling refreshed and encouraged and might even recommend our church to a friend; OR maybe our welcome will be exactly what they were waiting for and they will be the first in the pew next week! The most important thing to remember, though, is it that it is not about what we receive, rather it is about what we give– God’s grace and love through our welcome.

How does your congregation minister and walk with organizations using your physical space?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations