No Way Back

imagesBelow 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.”

Different Paths, Same Destination

2014-09-14 17.22.14
2014-09-14 16.47.56I wrote an article that reflected on the first three months of my time as vice moderator that was posted today on Ecclesio.  You can find it HERE.  It’s a reflection on the commonalities that can carry us into the future together.  Despite our differences, I’ve found that we are still seeking the same destination: to serve God in the unique ways the speak to our contexts.

I’ve been carrying these pictures around from my time at Bethel Murdoch Presbyterian Church, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to share them.

The congregation hosts four ice cream socials throughout the summer as key fundraisers for the congregation.  At least 100 gallons of ice cream and 13 different flavors.  I was sad that I visited the week after the last ice cream social, but I did get to taste these four amazing flavors!

You can’t have a 200th anniversary celebration without cake.  Yum!2014-09-14 16.32.47 2014-09-14 16.32.43

2014-09-14 17.22.39

Recently the congregation made the challenging decision to tear down their manse.  A church member took the mantle from the house and carved it into this beautiful chalice and paten.  It is an inspiring, creative idea and one that will allow a piece of the manse to stay with the congregation long into the future.  I can just imagine the people who will be fed in the next 200 years of their history.


Celebrating 200 years with Bethel Murdoch Presbyterian

This sermon was written and delivered in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Bethel Murdoch Presbyterian Church in Loveland, OH on Sunday, September 14, 2014.  The texts were Hebrews 4: 1-11 and Mark 6: 30-44.

Rest Area

The Church is dying. Statistics from the Presbyterian Church (USA) alone say that we decreased by 224 churches and our membership declined by 89,296 people.

Look anywhere on the Internet and you will find articles about how and why the Church is dying. Congregations that have trouble letting go of tradition to allow for new voices to be heard, buildings that become overwhelming financial burdens and leave little money for mission (or anything else, really!), churches that are welcoming only as long as people are willing to do things the way they have always been done. Faith communities struggling to compete with the countless non-profit organizations fighting for money from the same people that are sitting in our pews. Congregations that long for the days when an individual’s faith was a given and a denominational name meant something, but today we have to work ten times harder to carve a place out in people’s busy lives. And disagreements…well, don’t even get me started on those.

Bethel Murdoch Presbyterian ChurchKeep on searching and you will find articles suggesting any number of solutions. I’ve read ones about how Sunday school is killing the Church, but also how strong Sunday school programs can revive us. There are countless articles about youth and young adults, who they are, what they want, why they are not in our pews, and what we can or should do about it. And don’t forget about the most recent census statistics that focus on the growing diversity in our country, bringing a call to arms for multicultural/ intercultural, multiethnic, communities before we miss the boat.

But take a look outside of our sanctuary walls and things look bleak, too: Ferguson. Gaza. Syria. Iraq. Ukraine. Children crossing the US border because their families believe it is the best chance they have for a future. Fighting over power and authority all across the world. Struggle with depression, materialism, abuse, aging, overworking or underemployment right here at home.

At times, the challenges facing the Church seem impossible and leave us feeling completely uncertain about what a person of faith is to do about it!

Immediately before today’s reading about the miraculous feeding of the five thousand in Mark’s gospel, John the Baptist was killed. The message from John’s death was loud and clear: there will be consequences for those who live out their faith to its fullest. John had crossed the line in his relationship with Herod, cautioning the king that he should not marry his sister-in-law. So in an act of defiance, Herodias asks for him to be killed and his head placed on a platter before her.

Standing and speaking up as a person of faith has its consequences.

Sadness and mourning must have shaken everyone up as the Messiah and his followers sought peace in the middle of their maddening ministry schedule. As our reading says for this afternoon, the apostles were still busy teaching and building a faith community. Maybe, like so many of us, they found it easier to keep moving forward and doing instead of allowing the wave of mourning to wash over them. The busyness stops them from tending to their own long overdue self-care after John’s death. And so, Jesus offers them the safe space they need: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Rest. It’s not something that we often hear when we think about working in our congregations. We think that the doing and adding will be what keeps us afloat. Dare I say that we might even believe that this is what God wants us to do; live as busy worker bees in a hive that never rests?

The risk is that we become so busy with the work of our own hands that we forget to lift them up to God who made all of these things possible in the first place.

Jesus offers the gift of rest through the cooling breeze from the boat ride and the shifting waters moving their vessel forward. As the land that once was below their feet fades into the background and they breathe in the fresh air they are reminded that hitting the pause button will help them to place their feet on solid ground and, step by step, face the road ahead.

I have no doubts that Jesus and the disciples might have hoped for a longer respite that that boat ride. But as they docked, the crowds that followed them to the other side were waiting. Jesus, the ever-patient leader and teacher, looked out at them as if they were sheep without a shepherd. Restless though they were, the Messiah took his few moments of peace and gave them up to be with his sheep.

The rest that the people were seeking and received when Jesus taught them was anything but rest to the disciples. We can tell when they want Jesus to just send the crowds away from the distant area to their own homes where they could eat and rest. Asking them to feed the thousands was probably the icing on the cake.

But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t rebuke them or solve the problem himself. He asked the disciples what they have. He took those ordinary loaves and fish, the meager amount, and blessed it…then he gave that same offering back to them and told them to feed the crowd of thousands. Something had changed. The loaves and fish before them that grew into twelve baskets of leftovers, they would never be the same to those men again.

That’s the rest area that they needed: to rest in their trust in Christ right there next to them. Their eyes were opened from their impossible to what is only possible with God.

As I have learned about your congregation’s 200-year story, it’s clear to me that this community is fearless. You know what it means to take whatever you have and lift it up to God!

I’ve read the story about your movement through three different presbyteries which, no doubt, meant learning about different leadership styles and living as an outsider of a new community until you were fully involved in each regional body.

Not long after the birth of this congregation, “… a group of sixty-five Bethel members, including five elders and six deacons, was dismissed…to organize the Presbyterian Church of Goshen…..[the congregation] was reduced to a little more than half of its former membership.” You are unabashedly missional.

In the late 1940s when more space was needed, the men of the church decided, “Let’s just dig a basement by hand.” And they did…

Faithfully responding to the challenge of raising money so that ground could be broken on the fellowship hall, classrooms, kitchen and office space next door, you hit the ground running and made it possible so that you can enjoy the space today!

You’ve navigated pastoral changes and church financial struggles but still managed to dream of new partnership with other congregations and innovative ways to reach out to your community.

And you wouldn’t be Presbyterian if you didn’t know how to break bread together, sharing meals across tables and building relationships as all are nourished not only in body, but also in mind and spirit.

You are a faithful, fearless people.

All of those things that I listed at the beginning of my sermon? They are real numbers, statistics, articles and current events. You cannot deny that there are challenges and struggles of day-to-day life that you will have to face outside of these walls…maybe even inside, too. These needs crowd around you, finding you in your places of rest, and push in seeking rest of their own. And there will always be more needs to address, that we know for certain.

So friends, rest on this day. Soak up these moments and the holy pauses that grace your life.

Because on this day of rest, Jesus is still asking you what you have. And as you rededicate this house of worship, he’s going to offer a blessing for it…and then he’s going to give it back to you. You could look at it as the same thing or it could be transformed to something new, feeding thousands more in mind, body and spirit through the work of your hands in the next 200 years. Just don’t forget take those same hands and, over and over again, lift them up to the heavens thanking God for making everything possible.


Take Off Your Sandals


YAV orientation 2014 @ Stony Point Conference Center in NY

Exodus 3: 1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’ But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:

This is my name for ever,
and this my title for all generations.


Friday, August 22 at Stony Point Conference Center with the newest Young Adult Volunteers became exactly what I needed to end my week.  Just days earlier, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released a statement about Ferguson, MO which bore my name on it.  It took only a few minutes for concerns, comments and disappointment to come from across the Church: Were we speaking for our Church’s or on behalf of “the world”?  Were we really asking people to trust law enforcement officials and the justice system at a time when some of the same individuals participated in Michael Brown’s death and proceeding events?  Did we avoid naming “racism” and stop short from calling our denomination to hands-on, immediate action?  Was it possible for us to have used so many words to say so little?

As the only person of color named at the bottom of the letter, I felt even more responsible for what many called a lackluster response published over a week after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson.  Others, my good friends and colleagues included, wanted more from me.  I wanted more from me.  

So I did the only thing that I could think of: I dove into the project of curating sermons, blog posts and articles from across the Church about Michael Brown’s death and the unrest in Ferguson, MO.  I wanted our denominational voice to be more than one statement published on one Tuesday afternoon.  I wanted to show that we are a connectional Church struggling in real time with the crisis unfolding right in our backyards.

In just a few short days I could do nothing except focus on the collection, receiving additions whenever they came and almost immediately adding them to the post.  I slept little and, when I did, I woke up with a mind buzzing of what might be next.  I wrote to over 60 pastors and colleagues across the country seeking their writing as well as any of those whom they encountered.  Members of my presbytery received by blurry-eyed emails for calls to action.  It both filled me up with hope while at the same time draining my ability to see clear visions of what might be next.  It was at that exact moment of teetering on either being half full or half empty that I drove up to Stony Point.  I was only able to be there for a few hours but in that short bit of time, the YAVs expressed what took me days to learn: Everywhere we go is holy ground and everything that we do is the best that we can give in that moment.  They didn’t need to say a word…I could just feel it wherever I went with them.

God tells Moses to take off his sandals because the ground beneath his toes is holy:  A man who never felt at rest.  Lands that housed him but never quite felt like home.   Communities who didn’t dare to claim him as their own.  But on that sandy mountain, in front of a burning bush and in the presence of God, was a place where he could kick off his shoes, make himself comfortable, and turn fully to the divine’s call for his life.

I met young adults who were heading off to familiar cities but with expectations of living in community and serving in new ways.  Young adults who would live in host homes: inhabiting someone else’s space until it became their own, uncovering unspoken rhythms of life, and learning about a different culture through everyday immersion.  Those filled with a mixture of uncertainty and excitement about reaching across different cultures to build bridges and create change.  Others for whom the reality of their packed bags finally meant that they would be flying off to new destinations in just a few days; the goodbyes they had said to friends and family just a few days earlier were actually the goodbyes that needed to last a year until their return.  Young adults ready to give, receive, learn, uncover, grow, explore and discern.

They had already kicked their sandals off and touched the holy ground beneath their toes.  With eagerness, they were ready to give everything that they have to the adventure ahead.

They may not have known this, but they were the encouragement I needed to pick myself up, sandals in hand, and move forward on my two-year journey as vice moderator.  Injuries (physical and emotional) will happen, toes will be stubbed, calluses worn…but we (every single one of us!) still have to feel the ground beneath our soles/souls, claim its holiness, and take another step.

Take off your sandals, because the ground beneath your feet is, indeed, holy.


Find the YAV blogs here and more about the program here.

Becoming a Church of all People


A photo from closing worship and communion at the 2014 National Multicultural Church Conference in Fort Worth, TX

Well, my travel officially began with the National Multicultural Church Conference in Fort Worth, TX from July 31- August 3. I have to admit that this was the perfect first trip to kick off my journey as vice moderator. You may or may not remember that my congregation is located in Queens, NY. It’s the most diverse county in the country and the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills is certainly a reflection of it. We are composed of several languages and cultures from all around the world and lack a racial/ethnic majority in our congregational demographics. When I look out into our congregation on a Sunday morning, I can’t help but think that I am looking out at the future of the United States sitting right in the pews!

It was exciting to be among people who are asking questions about the dynamics of multicultural, intercultural ministry.  There were workshops about power and privilege, leadership shifts, young adults for whom plurality and diversity are already a reality, worship that honors unique experiences of the divine, and already existing models of ministry.  The participants of the workshops were a reflection of diversity themselves: various denominations, ministers, lay leaders, and others all worked in teams to present each workshop.  We didn’t hear from one voice, but many as we learned from the leaders as well as participants.  This truly was a witness to living as a Church body.

But the best part of these conferences and gatherings is to reconnect with old friends and make new ones.  My spirit was lifted as I spoke with people about the blessings and challenges of their ministries.  Ministry…well, heeding God’s call in general…is never an easy task!  I am inspired by the work that is being done throughout our Church.  There are many in our midst who are using their hands, feet, and voices to form communities that welcome to all people.  These communities are multifaceted and complex, calling those who participate to live into way of being that might be very different than what the world outside of their walls says is acceptable.  I am equally inspired by people who are faced with challenges that seem daunting BUT they continue to do the hard work to move forward.  After all, aren’t we all at times left wondering if we are on the “right” path (as if there was one!) or feeling as though we are on an island doing this kind of work without any others in sight?!  It’s at those times that meeting people from across the country and around the world becomes critical to nourishing us for this work.

The conference theme was “Journeying and Awakening into God’s Diverse World” set on the backdrop of Luke’s narrative of the Road to Emmaus.  As our first worship and keynoter reminded us, we journey first and then are awakened to what God has in store.  Sometimes we have to take that first step and, like the men on the road away from Jerusalem, are met by Christ without even realizing it.

So, friends, what are the ways you and/or your church are journeying and awakening to God’s call for you?