Church in the World

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Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer

When it seems that people are butting heads all around the world because of differing religious views, it is refreshing to hear about the ecumenical opportunities taking place nearby. As I sat and talked with Rev. Ed Johnson (M. Div., 2014) at Pinetops Presbyterian this past Sunday, he told me about a ecumenical Thanksgiving service that he and members of Pinetops Presbyterian would be participating in later in the day. This annual service brings together members of the local Presbyterian, Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Church of God, and Methodist congregations (a total of 11 congregations from Pinetops, NC and surrounding communities.) An offering is taken up and goes into a joint account that all the churches use to support those in need in the community for food and clothing, as well as offerings for other issues of need. Rev. Johnson continued to explain that the ecumenical relationships extend in various forms during the year as the individual congregational leaders work with one another to lead various worship services in one another’s worship setting.

As I sat and listened to Rev. Johnson, I wondered what would happen if communities around the country and world took this relationship building seriously. Pinetops, NC is a small town (1 square mile) that has embraced opportunity where many might see none. By extending their reach to surrounding communities and looking at the needs around them, they are changing the hearts and mindsets of the individuals both within their congregations and those who see this relationship from the outside. Sitting and listening to this story, I saw hope and excitement in Rev. Johnson’s eyes and it was contagious.

Interfaith conversations are naturally built in at Union where students come from a variety of denominational backgrounds- Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Luther, Episcopal, Church of Christ, and Church of God (just to name a few.) Personally, I craved these conversations about theology and polity since I grew up Disciples of Christ, attended both a Methodist and a Presbyterian church in college, and was going through the Presbyterian ordination process. Through our new curriculum at Union, the students are being given a wonderful opportunity to grow beyond these classroom conversations as they explore interfaith relationships in the community and I am excited to see what effect it has on the future of our Church. In fact, as I write a conversation has started in our community Facebook group about one of many interfaith opportunities coming up, this one led in part by one of our own students.

I wonder though, what about those of us who are already well into ministry and seminary is a distant memory. How can we begin to foster these ecumenical and interfaith relationships within our own communities? What effect will these relationships, and seeing congregational leaders fostering them, have on our congregations?

Headlines, cartoons, and statuses about religious differences are filling our media in almost all negative ways during this time of year when ideally, we should be coming together. It is up to us as leaders of our faith communities to change this. We may not be able to change the world with one church, but we can begin to make a difference within our community.

How does your congregation engage with other faith communities? What changes have you seen as the relationships are built? There is no better time to start the conversation than today!


To learn more about the “Church in the World” aspect of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s curriculum, check out our Academic Catalog (p25).

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Prayer for a Questioning Heart

 

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Nicole C. Ball, Church Relations Officer

This weekend, I had the distinct honor of preaching in the pulpit of Salem Presbyterian Church in Salem, Virginia. This congregation is pastored by Rev. Dr. Will Robinson and Rev. Janet Chisom, both alumni of our institution. Similarly, they have a long history of Union support which only made their welcome more enjoyable. Tyler and I were greeted with incredible hospitality by the lovely folks at SPC, Salem.

I admit, however, I was more anxious than normal as I felt tasked to share a pastoral word about the events of terror and hatred some 48 hours before in Paris, France. Not unlike most of my pastoral colleagues, I had prepared a sermon for Sunday and looked forward to a restful weekend. But as I have learned in my time as a person in ministry, the world does not stop turning on account that I ask it to pause, momentarily.

The events in Paris, and others which have streamed across media outlets in the past year, have caused me to question so much as a member of humanity and as a person of faith. I can’t help but question the significant impact on our selves and our relationships with one another when we exchange metaphoric jabs, painful uppercuts and kidney shots, choosing divisiveness and aiming to underscore our “rightness” in a given matter. I can’t help but question what we lose when we elect to settle into absolutes: always and nevers, rights and wrongs, do’s and don’ts. I can’t help but question why we seek to land securely on a “truth” we believe to be the fix for the problems around us, eager to move away from situations which are uncomfortable for us, or which challenge us in our faith.

I can’t help but question.

In her collection of prayers and reflections titled, Seasons of Your Heart, Sister Macrina Weiderkehr writes  about her, “seasonal struggle with God” and encourages us to recognize those same peaks and valleys in our own spiritual lives. Her work, “Prayer for a Questioning Heart”, challenges me to consider how, in my questions, I may further find God’s grace to pilgrim through this life.

It seems to me Lord

that we search

much too desperately

for answers

when a good question

holds as much grace

as an answer.

 

Jesus

you are the Great Questioner

Keep our questions alive

that we may always be seekers

rather than settlers.

 

Guard us well

from the sin of settling in

with our answers

hugged to our breasts.

Make of us

a wondering

far-sighted

questioning

restless people

And give us the feet of pilgrims

on this journey unfinished.

May it be so.

 

*To learn more about Salem Presbyterian Church, check out their website: www.salempres.org

*To learn more about Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, her publications and her blog: http://www.stscho.org/macrina.php

What Business are You In?

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Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer

If you read this blog regularly, you might have caught on that I love ministry that moves beyond the walls of the church building. This week, the story is very similar and I highlight it because right now I think we could all use a glimpse of God’s love and grace moving in the world around us. I pray that the story of Oak Ridge Presbyterian Church brings you hope and peace in the midst of fear and turmoil.

When I was welcomed to Oak Ridge Presbyterian on Sunday, one of the members graciously offered to show me to the office across the parking lot. As we walked, he began tell me about one ministry that he and his friends started for a young member in the congregation. This particular young lady suffers from Cystic Fibrosis and is one of roughly 30,000 who are commonly overlooked when it comes to research funding. My “church guide” explained that he wanted to help in some way, so he and his friends started “Brews and Barrels for Belle.” This is not a ministry directly sponsored by Oak Ridge, but it was started in-part by a member and the other members back it whole-heartedly. This past weekend, members of Oak Ridge teamed up with the community to raise roughly $16,000 for Cystic Fibrosis research. Together, church and community brought light and hope to a young girl and her family.

Later that morning, another member of the congregation spoke briefly about a seasonal mission project, “Summerfield Christmas Store.” This “store” allows families in need to shop for items for their children that they might not otherwise be able to afford. Oak Ridge, in partnership with several other congregations in the community, will bring Christmas to roughly 180 children in the form of new clothes and toys this year.

This week I am participating in Interim Ministry training through Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Leadership Institute. We have spent a great deal of time asking questions like “What business is your church in?” Oak Ridge is in the business of caring for God’s people through love and grace. The members have been empowered and share this love and grace both as a congregation and on their own. In a world with war breaking out and walls building up around us, that is the business we need.

What business is your church in?

How long?

In light of the events of the past few days, this morning I offer my sermon from this past Sunday. Our regular congregational focused blogs will resume in the coming days.

Grace, Peace, Joy, and Prayers
Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer

Psalm 13

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits,
agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

Look at me!
Answer me, Lord my God!
Restore sight to my eyes!
Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
        and my enemy will say, “I won!”
My foes will rejoice over my downfall.

But I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
because he has been good to me.

John 11: 27-37

27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.

32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”

They replied, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

 

How long, O Lord???

How long??

How long will we weep?

How long will JESUS weep?

 

Earlier this week, we had a network outage at Union that allowed me to sit down and write not just today’s sermon, but get a solid draft written for next week. Life was good. And then Friday happened. I couldn’t stand up here and preach a happy sermon. I couldn’t pretend everything is ok… because it isn’t. Things aren’t ok. I’m scared and sad. I don’t know what to say right now.  And I know I am not the only one.

Friday evening, my husband and I were making dinner and getting ready to go play games with our friends. Somewhere between cleaning up dinner and sticking some brownies in the oven, I checked my phone and saw a report about an attack in Paris. “Well, crap” I said as I read the headline to my husband, wondering when things like this would quit showing up on my news feed… wondering if someone thought this might be a fun “Friday the 13th” prank. We went about our life after a mild lament. I said a quick prayer as I slipped the brownies in the oven, “Lord be with them.”

After a few hours of playing with our baby nephew and some competitive card games, we checked our phones real quick while the baby was checked on. “Over 40 killed.” “Multiple Attacks Ravage Paris.” “Prayers for Paris.” I quickly dug deeper when I realized that I wasn’t seeing the fun Friday night pictures littering my Facebook, but instead pleas, pictures of Paris, and terrifying headlines. My heart ached for Paris.

Yesterday morning, hoping to find an uplifting article on the situation I pulled out my phone. Baghdad. Beirut. Japan. Paris. Syria. Kenya. Mexico. Some I missed on Friday as I wrapped up work and enjoyed having a sermon completely written and even printed already. Some were brand new. I laid there in bed wondering what in the world was going on. Wondering when it would end. My heart broke. The only clear thought that I had was simply, “Jesus wept.”

 

Jesus did indeed weep. We wept. In those moments on Friday evening, unfortunately like so many before, we all wept together.

 

This morning, I personally find myself asking the same questions as David, Mary, and the Jews.

“How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily? How long will my enemy keep defeating me?”

 

HOW LONG?? How long will time freeze when we see “Breaking News” flash on our TV screens? The first time I remember seeing that, I was in the 8th grade and the next thing I heard was that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My heart still stops when I see that screen as I pray “Oh God, please don’t let it be bad.” On Friday night, it was bad and grew to horrific as the weekend progressed.

 

How long will find ourselves lying in bed reading reports of mass shootings and bombings? How long will those reports overshadow the natural disasters that really no one can explain, like the earthquake in Japan and Mexico? How long will the personal agendas of self-centered jerks block our view of God?

 

I want to stand up here and say “look around at the world around us and see the many ways that God loves us,” but on mornings like this, I am with David. I want to know why God is hiding his face from us. I want to know how long we will have to stand here, defeated. I want to cry out to God to look at us, to look at our pain and losses and take care of us. Help us! I don’t want to feel like we are in this alone. My brain tells me that isn’t the case, but right now, it feels like it.

 

Both Mary and Martha, dropping at Jesus’ feet following the death of her brother, cried out “Lord, if you had been here he wouldn’t have died!” How many people around the world are crying the same thing? How many of us, even for a fleeting moment, have thought that- this weekend or during another tragedy? How many of us have wondered where God was, and if God had been there would the outcome be different?

 

“He healed the blind man but he couldn’t save Lazarus?” How many of us stand with this group of Jews right now. How many of us wonder why so many other terrorist threats have been thwarted, but not these. How many of us wonder why so many earthquakes have been almost uneventful, but Japan has suffered yet another powerful one. How many of us wonder why a religion that appears to put persecution of others before all else, seems to be winning in this round.

 

I will claim it. I have had many of these thoughts this weekend. I want to know what in the world is going on and why God is letting it happen. I want to explain all of this away with a simple theology term or statement from our confessions- that is why I went to seminary after all, right? But- I can’t. Instead, I stand here with the rest of the world asking the same questions, looking for the same answers.

 

In the midst of the fear and questioning though, we find two words that change everything. Two words that we can remember almost any other time but we forget when we are in panic mode. Jesus wept.

 

When the young child was shot in the drive-by, Jesus wept.

When the college student fell from the balcony, Jesus wept.

When the older man struggled for his final breath, Jesus wept.

When the young mother broke down under the pressure, Jesus wept.

When the bible study members were shot by the stranger they welcomed, Jesus wept.

When the bombs detonated in Beirut, Baghdad, and Paris, Jesus wept.

When the ground shook in Japan and Mexico, Jesus wept.

When the gunshots rang out in Syria and Kenya, Jesus wept.

 

When we weep, Jesus weeps. That is where I find comfort in these times. No matter what else is going on, God is with me in my pain. God doesn’t want to see this happening- look at the story of the flood when God tried to rid the world of this and start fresh. God even promised to not get involved in such a way again, giving us the opportunity to use our free will in a way that could build up God’s Kingdom… and this is what has happened. The last thing that God had planned for us was that we would live in a world that seems to move from one shooting or bombing to the next. Time is no longer measured by seasons, but instead by the number of days since the last attack. This is not what God created us for. This is not what Christ came to teach to us.

 

Christ came to share and teach God’s love.

Where is that today?

 

In the midst of ISIS attacks and threats, in the midst of shootings and suicides, in the midst of pressure from work and pressure at home- where can we find God’s love and grace?

I know, this sounds so cliché but I say this because it is true- we find God’s love and grace all around us.

When chaos was breaking out in Paris, I found reassurance as I looked in the eyes of a sweet baby smiling back at me. My heart broke for the victims of the attack, but my heart was filled with a love unlike any other at the same time. That is what God does for us.

When I read about Japan, Baghdad, and Beirut I found reassurance in the warm purring of our cat, sleeping soundly between us and enjoying the light pouring through the window.

It seems superficial to some, but sometimes that is how we have to see the world. In the midst of chaos, we have to take note of the even the smallest things that God has given us. Even in those, we find God’s love.

I am not saying that a baby’s smile or a cat’s purr will change the world, but it can help to refocus us. Take a minute and close your eyes. Think about the hours before you came to church. What happened- what did you hear, feel, see, smell, or touch that reminded you that God is with you? Hold onto that. In all that you do today, keep that memory with you. Remember, in all things that God is with you.

 

I can’t explain the earthquakes. I can’t explain the shootings and the bombings. I can’t explain most of what we see on the news each day. I wish I could. Life would be so much easier that way.

I can remind you that God loves us though. When it feels like the world is crashing down around us, God loves us. When we can’t explain anything, God loves us.

 

As David said, “I have trusted in your faithful love. My heart will rejoice in your salvation. Yes, I will sing to the Lord because he has been good to me.”

When we sing to the Lord, in a way that all can see, we won’t bring an end to these horrific events but we just might change the heart of one person. We don’t know who that person will be, and we don’t know what they will do after we meet them. But when we share God’s love and praise God in all that we do, maybe… just maybe, something in the world might change. Maybe, a school shooting will be prevented. Maybe, a bar bombing will be prevented. Maybe, a city massacre will be prevented. Or maybe, we might just make someone smile after a really bad day. We don’t know. But it never hurts to try.

 

We don’t know how long this will go on. But we do know that as we weep, Jesus weeps. This is not what God had planned, but we can work together to slowly usher in the world that was intended.

Presbyterian pastor, Fred Rogers, once said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  When we share God’s love, we help. When we reach out to our neighbors and offer God’s grace, we help. Be the helpers. Be the ones who are loving instead of hurting.

 

This morning, as we prepare to go into a world full of pain but also full of God’s love, let us go to God in prayer using a prayer shared by PC(USA) on Friday evening.

 God of mercy, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance, in the midst of unfolding violence and the aftermath of terror and loss, we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion.

In these days of fearful danger and division, we need to believe somehow that your kingdom of peace in which all nations and tribes and languages dwell together in peace is still a possibility.

Give us hope and courage that we may not yield our humanity to fear.., even in these endless days of dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death.

 We pray for neighbors in Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad, (added: in Japan, in Syria, in Mexico, in Kenya) who, in the midst of the grace of ordinary life–while at work, or at play, have been violently assaulted, their lives cut off without mercy.

We are hostages of fear, caught in an escalating cycle of violence whose end cannot be seen.

We open our hearts in anger, sorrow and hope: that those who have been spared as well as those whose lives are changed forever may find solace, sustenance, and strength in the days  of recovery and reflection that come. We give thanks for strangers who comfort the wounded and who welcome stranded strangers, for first responders who run toward the sound of gunfire and into the smoke and fire of bombing sites.

 Once again, Holy One, we cry, how long, O Lord? We seek forgiveness for the ways in which we have tolerated enmity and endured cultures of violence with weary resignation. We grieve the continued erosion of the fabric of our common life, the reality of fear that warps the common good. We pray in grief, remembering the lives that have been lost and maimed, in body or spirit.

 We ask for sustaining courage for those who are suffering; wisdom and diligence among global and national agencies and individuals assessing threat and directing relief efforts; and for our anger and sorrow to unite in service to the establishment of a reign of peace, where the lion and the lamb may dwell together, and terror will not hold sway over our common life.

In these days of shock and sorrow, open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands to the movements of your Spirit, who flows in us like the river whose streams makes glad the city of God, and the hearts of all who dwell in it, and in You.

 In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray,  Amen.

Baptism Curiosity

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Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer

I have witnessed many baptisms and blessed one baby during my Clinical Pastoral Education internship, but on Sunday I was the closest I have ever been to a baptism since my own. As ordained clergy, I was invited to stand with Rev. John Maurice Thomas and the family as Rev. Thomas baptized a beautiful two year old girl at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Wilson, NC.

As Rev. Thomas prayed and baptized this sweet girl in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit I couldn’t help but notice the curiosity and bewilderment in her eyes as the water ran down her forehead. She looked around at her family gathered in front of her, looked to Rev. Thomas, and looked at me. She knew something special was happening, but didn’t know what… yet.

Meanwhile, I stood next to her and took in the moment, probably with a very similar curious look on my face. Baptism is an incredible thing, and we spend a great deal of time talking about it in seminary. We discuss the theology as well as the logistics, but until we are ordained we don’t actually get to take part. I never touched the water this past Sunday, but I was right there. I could feel the love, the excitement, and the curiosity in a way that never quite reaches the pews nearby.

During the final prayer, I couldn’t take my eyes off of my new Sister. She squirmed in Rev. Thomas’s arms and wiped some water off of her forehead, looking at the small bead on her finger. Her curiosity seemed to have no end.

Looking back on these special moments, I wonder what the Church would look like if we all approached our faith with the curiosity of a young child, examining the water from their forehead?

What if we took the time to dig deeper and get excited about what God is doing in our life, even if we don’t understand exactly what is going on?

No theologian, scholar, or scientist can tell us exactly what happens when the waters of baptism wash over us but through our faith, we know that the water changes us.

As the rains come down this week, let the drops wash over you and remember your baptism. Know that through those waters, through God’s love and grace, you have been forever changed. Know that as brothers and sisters in Christ, we have all been washed by those waters.

Wipe the water off of your forehead and exam it. Look around at the world around and ask God what God is doing. Get excited and reach out for those around you just as the squirming child reaches out to her family.

Give in to the bewilderment and excitement that is your baptism!

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Nicole C. Ball, Church Relations Officer

(left to right) Nicole Childress Ball, 2011 alum and Church Relations Officer; Rev. Dr. Bill Klein, 1954 alum and Pastor Emeritus; Rev. Elizabeth N.H. Link, 2009 alum and Associate Pastor
(left to right) Nicole C. Ball, 2011 alum and Church Relations Officer; Rev. Dr. Bill Klein, 1954 alum and Pastor Emeritus; Rev. Elizabeth N.H. Link, 2009 alum and Associate Pastor.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance, the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

On Sunday, November 1st, All Saints Sunday, I had the pleasure of sharing a presentation at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia. It was after discussion with a fellow classmate and alum, Rev. Elizabeth N.H. Link, that I received the invitation for a visit.

During their “Pop-Up Sunday School” hour, which is a monthly class offering a variety of topics and discussion, nearly 25 folks gathered to hear about the rich history between Union Presbyterian Seminary and Second Presbyterian Church, Roanoke.

It was a real honor to be introduced by the Rev. Dr. William Klein, Pastor Emeritus and 1954 Union Theological Seminary graduate. It is not hard to see why Dr. Klein is such a beloved figure in the life of Second Presbyterian Church. He and his wife, Dot, have remained steadfast in their dedication to the life and ministry of the congregation long after his retirement from serving as Senior Pastor from 1968-1997. And his dedication to the furthering of God’s Kingdom in the wider Church shines through in his service to Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Dr. Klein held positions on the board of our great institution, seeing us through many transitions and periods of growth. He served on the Board of Union Theological Seminary (UTS) from 1980-1989, then again from 1994-1997. When Union Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE) became federated in 1997, Dr. Klein served one more year from 1997-1998.

Another incredibly influential figure in the life of both Second Presbyterian Church and Union Theological Seminary was the late Barbara Lemon, who served on the UTS Board from 1994-1997 and the Union-PSCE Board from 1997-2002. In the upcoming Richmond Hall renovation, the Barbara Lemon Community Center will be dedicated to honor her support and contributions to theological education at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

During Dr. Klein’s introductory remarks, it was palpable to hear his love and dedication to Union Presbyterian Seminary. But it was his historic recollection of the relationship between Second Presbyterian Church and Union Presbyterian Seminary which set the foundation for my presentation to come. Second Presbyterian Church has been pastored by 3 ministers in the past 73 years, all of whom were Union graduates. 7 of the 9 Associate Pastors have been graduates and 11 church members have sought their theological education from Union. Their dedication to strong pastoral leadership and sound biblical education from Union graduates is exemplary to the wider Church. On such an important Sunday in our liturgical calendar, it was a joy to share in the celebration of those saints who faithfully served this congregation and the wider Kingdom. Thanks be to God!

You can find more information about the mission initiatives, historical leadership of Second Presbyterian Church, and its relationship to Union Presbyterian Seminary by visiting their website: www.spres.org