Telling Our Stories
Check here for the latest thoughts, ideas, and information about what’s going on at GPPC and for faith stories shared by some of our members.
Check here for the latest thoughts, ideas, and information about what’s going on at GPPC and for faith stories shared by some of our members.
2017 has not been my favorite year. If I’m being completely honest, for me, 2017 began in November. Things have felt pretty dark since then. And exhausting. So when I agreed over the summer to contribute to the blog in September, I thought, “Surely I’ll have something to say about all that is swirling around us by then. But how will I choose?”
On this blog, I’ve wrestled with what it means to be a good neighbor. I’ve explored what it means to feed sheep and food insecurity. I’ve answered the question “how can she vote like that and call herself a Christian?” I’ve talked about running the NYC marathon in the days after Paris went dark from a terrorist attack. It all seems so long ago. So much more darkness has enveloped us this year—how can I possibly organize my thoughts around all of it? I even posted a question on Facebook to chew on: What keeps you awake at night? I asked my friends to spend time asking others the same question. I asked them to have these conversations with people who don’t look like them, talk like them, or live in the same neighborhoods as them. I asked them, this time, not to focus on the similarities in their answers but in their differences. How we all might be playing a role in those differences. Thus far, no one has reported back, so, perhaps I will explore that later.
Many of you know my writing is tied to running. So, it’s no coincidence that the last time I wrote was about the time I stopped running regularly. I ended last year’s marathon with a minor injury. I took some time off and just never got back to a regular running schedule. I recently decided that if I’m ever going to write again, I’d better start running again.
It takes me about 15 miles to outline a blog post in my head and maybe another 10-12 to fine tune it—so, basically, a marathon. I’ve had to re-learn how to run. I realized I’d been holding my breath—no oxygen was getting to my legs and they felt like lead. I also realized that I’ve really been holding my breath since last November against all of the hatred, bigotry and injustice swirling around us. I became immobilized. I’d forgotten about belly breathing. The athletes and musicians among us know what I am talking about. You need to expand your belly to fill your lungs with air. I’d been chest breathing. No wonder running has been so hard. When I began breathing again, I realized that fall 2017 marks the 20 year anniversary of our first visit to GPPC.
I can no longer be immobilized by the latest headline or tweet, but, as in running, I CAN take a deeper breath or a walk break. So, I hope you will take a deep breath and walk with me for a few minutes as I reflect on what 20 years at GPPC has looked like to me. The turmoil will still be there waiting for us to work on when we are finished. Let me tell you about a few, but not all, of the people I’ve seen at GPPC. You never surprise me, but you ALWAYS take my breath away:
You, who tirelessly fight for justice in times where there seem to be more and more obstacles, I see you, and I love you.
You, who love boldly, despite feeling weary, I see you and I love you.
You, who drop everything to help a member in need, I see you and I love you.
You, who provide leadership and make long term decisions for our congregation, I see you and I love you.
You, who don’t come very often, and you, who are here every week, I see you, and I love you.
You who are new here, I see you and I love you.
You who are lifelong members here, I see you and I love you.
You, who haven’t been here in a long time, I miss you, and I love you.
You, who pray, I see you, and I love you
You, who make breathtaking music, I see you (and hear you), and I love you.
You, who grieve, I see you and I love you.
You, who provide laughter, I see you and I love you.
You, who sit in the mosh pit, I see you and I love you.
You who sit in the pews or stand in the narthex, I see you, and I love you.
You, who rocked a colicky baby for hours so his parents could have a break, I see you and I love you.
You, who met a kindergartner at the bus stop so a mom could stay home and care for her newborn, I see you and I love you.
You, who feed sheep time and time again, I see you and I love you.
You, who have been away and have returned, I see you and I love you.
You, who twice in six weeks, came to a funeral home or sat in a sanctuary in Ashland to support us at the funerals of parents, I saw all of you, and through tears, I love you.
If I, one member of this GPPC family, can see all of this light, can you imagine what we all see collectively? Can you imagine how much more God sees? Can you imagine how much more Christ loves all of us? It’s not surprising. It IS breathtaking. It’s grace. Love-filled grace. It’s for ALL of us. And how lucky are we that we can take that out into the world when we leave this place?
My walk break is coming to an end. Thank you for accompanying me. When you are weary, take a walk break and look for the light and love here in this place. OK, one last deep breath. Really push your abdominal muscles out as you inhale. Fill your lungs. Exhale, slowly. Now, tell me, what keeps you awake at night?
Kimberly Carswell finds a story to tell on our blog at least once a year. Updating her bio, she writes “I’m a wife, mom, and epidemiologist–that means I spend most of my time making observations. I’ve recently added the Montreal marathon to my bucket list of races. Maybe I’ll blog about that race in French.”
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
This is how Wilfred Owen begins his retelling of the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac. Benjamin Britten used several of Owen’s poems for his monumental War Requiem in 1961, interspersing them with the traditional liturgical requiem texts. Britten’s setting of the text begins with a jaunty Abraham, working diligently to build a fire; the music turns darker and metallic when the father binds his son.
When lo! and angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
The angel that Britten sends is more beautiful than any musical angel I can name. The tenor and baritone soloists sing these lines together, finding perfect unison as they announce with relief the presence of the intended sacrificial animal.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, –
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
This is war poetry. The allegory is clear and horrific. Wilfred Owen (photo) was a soldier in World War I, losing his life a scant week before the Armistice. War poets have license to change stories; they know that violence is a merciless story changer. Owen also reminds us that a story that only threatens violence is perhaps no less violent than one that follows through on those threats. The story of this near sacrifice is deeply meaningful, but it is also deeply unsettling. To Owen, all is not well that ends well.
Britten follows this story with the clear voices of a boy choir – what better way to respond to a story of son-killing than with a boy choir? The boys’ prayer offers a bit of comfort:
Lord, in praise we offer to Thee
sacrifices and prayers, do Thou receive them
for the souls of those whom we remember
this day: Lord, make them pass
from death to life.
As Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.
A noted pacifist, Benjamin Britten tucks a subtle cue into this section. The organ accompaniment rocks back and forth; after a few iterations of this, we start to hear the sirens, the European ones that alternate between two discordant pitches. It’s a wartime ambulance, and it’s an ambulance for Isaac. Music rarely gets this haunting and this true. The Bible gives us a story of extraordinary faith and horrific violence, and Britten sends Isaac an ambulance.
The GPPC choir and soloists will sing this extraordinary setting on Sunday. Britten tells a story like no other composer. Continuing with the theme of youth, we’ll also hear bits of his beloved Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra for the prelude and postlude.
Doug Brown has served as GPPC’s music director since 2004.
Full disclosure: reading each of the marvelously written posts from my fellow new Session members over these past few weeks has done nothing to allay my “blog anxiety” as I reflected on what I might write in this space. How lucky am I to start this Session adventure with four such talented, dedicated, and inspiring individuals as Shannon, Mati, Paul and Mary!
My first pass at this blog post was an essay comparing my decision to serve on Session to the time I bought a large, very expensive bottle of mouthwash when I was living in Cairo. It was tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps not quite the tone I wanted to strike as a new Elder. I found a better framework in the poem, “We are going to Mars,” by Nikki Giovanni, excerpted below.
We are going to Mars for the same reason Marco Polo rocketed to China,
For the same reason Columbus trimmed his sails on a dream of spices,
For the very same reason Shackleton was enchanted with penguins,
For the reason we fall in love,
It is the only adventure.
As a young person, some of my favorite encounters were with stories or people from other cultures. GPPC was a place where I could feed this desire to understand those outside of my “bubble.” Whether on mission trips to the Eastern Shore and Atlanta, or on a trip to Washington, DC to experience Jewish or Islamic worship traditions, or through stories told by our visiting missionaries or other travelers in our congregation, church offered me a venue to explore my interests and cultivate my love of learning and travel. Spending my childhood and youth in an environment that was both safe and encouraging of exploration no doubt played a role in my determination to have my own “only adventure,” though my sights were never set quite so far as Mars.
We are going to Mars because whatever is wrong with us will not get right with us so we journey forward, carrying the same baggage
In rapid succession starting at age 29, I lived an average of 2 years each in Mitrovica, Kosovo; Kampala, Uganda; and Baltimore, Maryland. I then stayed in Cairo, Egypt for nearly 4 years but traveled to at least one other country each month during that period. Journeying forward, always carrying the same baggage. (Well, emotional baggage, that is. Just ask my mother to tell you about my expansive collection of suitcases.)
I approached each new destination with the same eagerness to explore and feel at home: find the grocery store, join a gym, hit up the nearest quiz night. This process always kept me well-occupied for 6 months or so, but soon enough I found myself wishing I belonged in a community like the one I grew up in. A community where I could be with others in one place for more than 24 months, all of us bringing our individual talents to bear to try and shine light into our corner of a dark world.
In April 2015, during a particularly difficult moment, I sat at my breakfast table overlooking the Nile and visualized a happier life. One in which I was no longer shouldering the baggage alone. GPPC was part of the picture.
One day looking for prejudice to slip,
One day looking for hatred to tumble down the waste side,
Maybe one day the Jewish community will be at rest, the Christian community will be content, the Muslim community will be at peace
And all the rest of us will get great meals at holy days and learn new songs and sing in harmony.
I spent the rest of the spring and summer of 2015 making plans to move back to Richmond. During those months I watched troubling events unfold in the U.S. from afar: Freddie Gray’s death and the subsequent unrest in Baltimore, the vile, hate-filled killing of congregants at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, Sandra Bland’s arrest and death. It struck me that I had never tried to understand my own country in the way I had sought to understand places like Kosovo, Egypt, Syria, or Palestine.
I also began to understand that maybe I could put my experiences abroad to good use, to maybe start telling stories of love, mercy, and friendship that I encountered in surprising places. To be as unafraid to talk to, share a meal with, to see the image of God in men and women in Richmond as I was to do those things with a farmer in Afghanistan; a refugee in Beirut.
I thought to myself: I don’t know how I’m gonna do all of this, but I’ll bet spending more time in the GPPC community will get me started.
We are going to Mars because it gives us a reason to change.
Since moving back to Richmond two years, ago, I’ve been asked a few times whether I’m bored with Richmond yet or when I’m going to move back overseas. I know better than to think I won’t ever want to travel again, but for now I’ve set to the task of achieving change – both personal and within our community – without making the trouble of going all the way to Mars. After two decades spent focusing on my career ladder, collecting passport stamps and just generally always looking for the next big thing, I’ve set an intention for patience, perseverance, and settling in.
My decision to join Session at GPPC is therefore the continuation of a personal change process; an expression of gratitude for all I have received; and a commitment to a community that has been committed to me for 40 years running.
Sarah Workman lives in the Northside – Barton Heights specifically – with her big beagle, Maia. She works at Initiatives of Change/Hope in the Cities, where she spends her days thinking, writing, and talking about how we can upend our country’s belief in a human hierarchy which damages ourselves and pervades our systems still today. Outside of work, you can sometimes find her joyfully swimming laps at the Northside Family YMCA, throwing clay pots at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, tossing carrots to Maia during their evening walks near church, or taking in the Richmond Ballet’s latest studio performance. Around GPPC, you may know Sarah better as “Eleanor’s daughter,” an identity she accepts with great pride.
“VOCATUS atque non VOCATUS Deus aderit”
“Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”
Noted psychologist Carl Jung had these words carved over the front door of his house in Zurich. Later they were placed on his tombstone.
This saying is carved into a small board and sits on my desk. Sometimes my desk and my life get cluttered and I cannot easily see the plaque or remember its words for me. Yet, when I do see it, the words bring a soft joy deep inside of me and I continue on my daily path doing what I hope God wants and needs me to do and being who God needs me to be. Those jobs have changed drastically throughout my life and at times I have seriously resisted what seems to be God-directed. However, as I am often too busy to notice subtle messages, God comes to me in bold words and I follow.
You see, my life goal was to be an environmental biologist/chemist and work to clean up and protect the rivers of Virginia. However, at the time, my gender prohibited me from working full time at that job even though I had done this as a summer employee. So, I changed course and began to do substitute teaching. Before long I had a teaching contract and loved teaching chemistry. However, I changed locations several times as the opportunity or guidance came to move. The most drastic change was returning to the city to teach students who needed good teachers and who had been shortchanged for years. How is this move a faith based step? Well, I was quite satisfied with my job in the county at a new school with great labs and smart kids. Yet, when I saw the test scores from the city in the newspaper those numbers seemed to follow me everywhere. That quiet small voice just kept reminding me that I had begun my career in the city and I could go back. Well, like some famous Bible characters, you remember Jonah and others, I tried to ignore the voice. It wasn’t until a year later when I saw the test scores and knew that I needed to make the change. My students in the county would get another good teacher and would be fine, but those kids in the city may not. So, I made the call to apply and my current students and colleagues thought that I had lost my sanity and were worried about my safety. However, when you follow God’s suggestion, I have found, you go in safety and with promise.
Other God-planted ideas have included attending the Presbyterian Pilgrimage and changing churches from the one I grew up in to Ginter Park Presbyterian. Both decisions were difficult and involved stepping out in faith but both have allowed me to grow in my beliefs and be a part of a community of believers that supports, strengthens and challenges me to continue to try new jobs and be a new person. Why else would I take on a Bible Study class when I felt so ill prepared? God sent me great people to help with and participate in our class and those good people of faith continue to make Sunday mornings a blessing to me and to others.
So I will remember “Vocatus atque non Vocatus Deus aderit” as I follow God’s call into tomorrow and beyond.
Mary Frances Hobbs is an elder and an incoming Session member. “I have been a member of GPPC since 1979. Tom and I raised our two sons here and still enjoy being a part of this community. I was a classroom chemistry teacher for many years, then a visiting science teacher in chemistry, environmental science, and nanoscience, and finally a mentor to other science teachers. Four years ago, I began training as a Feldenkrais teacher and practitioner and have now graduated and am enjoying helping people with joint issues, accident recovery, and a desire to move easier. The best part is the Feldenkrais work allows me to be active and spend time with my grandchildren – who range in age from 2 to 20.“
I walk through a slight fog. The fog lifts as I enter a featureless place where people are doing or discussing some unidentifiable act or topic. I then experience a powerful thought. Everybody else knows something necessary to the task or topic, that I lack. Nobody taught me that.
It’s hardly a mysterious dream, if you know my circumstances.
My father, the laconic man with the slight Texas drawl, a hint of native American heritage his family didn’t talk about, and the height that makes me the tallest Korean Irish Federal Public Defender in America (far as I know)? He died when I was 12, on his second attempt at taking his own life.
My mother is a native of Korea. The only woman to earn a political science diploma from Yonsei University in 1959, after growing up in World War II and the Korean War. But book smarts and surviving wars doesn’t help you teach the nuances of growing up an American boy in the northern Virginia suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s. Especially when nearly nobody looked like me, and she, quite understandably, had other concerns on her mind after the suicide of the husband whose devotion to her had previously seemed unshakeable.
Obviously, I had anxieties growing up, before and after my father’s death. But those anxieties ultimately taught me two great lessons: there is power in being different, and there can be even greater power in need.
Lloyd, the painfully awkward kid picked on in third grade? Even mundane childhood cruelty irked me, provoked just because he was different, even if it meant less cruel attention my way. I started making him get off at my bus stop, and taking him to my house. We would play cards or have a snack and he would walk home, or get a lift from my mom.
Andy, the kid who seemed to always be hungry, and too often wear the same clothes? I brought him home regularly for a while. The first time, my mother offered him a second glass of juice to go along with an afternoon sandwich. Andy’s eyes bulged. He had 8 siblings, he explained, and nobody got seconds. Ever.
As for me, my little brother, and my emotionally crushed mother, our needs turned to blessings in many ways. The most notable was through two couples who saw a family in need, and just included us in their own. I visited one for the first time in many years last summer, while vacationing with my son in Oregon. He had met the Kinneys only twice, too long ago for him to recall. But I described them often as simple and loving and caring and funny and genuine, even after weathering their own tragedies, like having now outlived both their biological children. My son saw all those traits in spades, in just an afternoon with them on the glorious Oregon coast. He understood how precious they were to me, and why.
Exodus 3 describes God’s insistence on using Moses, an octogenarian, fugitive, murderer full of fear and doubt, to lead the Bible’s greatest pilgrimage. This scripture, joined by many others, practically shouts its lesson: there is power in being different, or afraid, or needy.
I am no Moses, and—no offense—neither are you. But perhaps you, like me, have been awkward and broken before. We probably would not wish those experiences on anyone. But often, they invite other, remarkable ones—opportunities and motives to give compassion, to receive it, and to marvel at the simple, healing power of being on either end of that exchange.
I am grateful for reminders of God’s presence and capacity to use all things for Good. I am also grateful for you, my church family, and the opportunities we will have, individually and collectively, to be part of God’s good purpose.
As an incoming member of our Session, Paul Gill is the latest contributor to our blog’s summer series from the Session class of 2020.
I am that church member that loves to sing “Somos Uno En Cristo” / ”We Are One In Christ” – loudly and all in Spanish – each Sunday in church. My name is Matilde Moros, AKA “Mati”, and I am one of your most recent Session members, GPPC! So I begin with a proper “hola”!
My story today is about how to introduce ourselves. In our recent Session training we were asked to describe what we do on a day to day basis – essentially describe what a regular day looks like for us. Well, I am a professor, so I teach, at VCU, in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. I am lucky to work with some of the most compelling young people in town! I am also a mother, so I parent, Alexa and Omar two young adults in college, and Ali, an older teen who is finishing high school. I am also a spouse, so I accompany John Taylor, for about thirty years now, twenty seven of those married. I am also a dog mom, of three “angel dogs” Harley, Mocha, and Piper.
That’s my day, which does not tell you much, about how I teach passionately, or how my heart dances with each child of mine, or how wondrously my spouse and I have lived in various parts of this country and in two continents. You also would not know that we magically rescued two dogs and adopted the third, and how much fun they are, and how daily they prove the cliché that they rescued us!
A few years ago, in an interview, I was asked another similar question, basically I was looked in the eye and asked: “who are you”? I quickly replied, I am a theologian. In hindsight, and since I did not get the job, I imagine that was off putting, and did not describe much. Again, perhaps what I was being asked was about what drives me, how I became who I am today, what influences and which people do I hold dear. If the questions were not, what are your days like, or who are you, but “what are you about?”, I could answer better.
I am about justice. I was born into a household of theologians, both my parents and two of my grandparents were trained in theology. I was born in Venezuela, and grew up in the church of Venezuela, but also in a world filled with music, the arts, and philosophy. My parents taught the arts, philosophy, and theology; but also, because my dad was the president of the human rights committee of our state, I was well aware of injustice and human rights violations as a child.
By the time my years in high school rolled around, my parents studied for their doctorates and for that my family moved to the U.S., where my mother was from. My teen years were spent in Nashville, TN, where I learned English, and about the U.S. culture and about war. I was involved in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s while I was a teen. I translated, and I participated in trips to Central America with U.S. church groups, and I became very much aware of my sense of call to justice.
Since then I have studied, and worked toward a sense of collective and restorative justice. My degrees in political science, theology, divinity, philosophy, and ethics have all focused on justice for women, and the intersections of what that means. How do race, class, gender, sexuality, ideology, and faith interact with one’s identity? My identity is as an academic and a theologian, and as such, due to internships and various work during my studies, and related to my interest and passion for justice, I have worked in several areas. In my journey up to now, I did refugee resettlement with Church World Service, mission work, and young adult internships with PCUSA, I directed Hispanic outreach ministry and directed an after school program with a PCUSA congregation in an urban context. While getting my PhD. I taught undergraduate and graduate school.
Most recently before moving to Richmond four years ago, I taught seminary, while directing field education and while coordinating the certificate program as Assistant Dean of New Brunswick Theological Seminary. This fall I am entering full time work with VCU as Assistant Professor, and I am also teaching an “Urban Ministries and Social Justice” course with the consortium of three seminaries in town, and I am very excited to be joining church and session! This summer, in preparation for this 2017 “fall of newness”, we also bought our first property, so Richmond and GPPC are my home.
With all that is new in my life, I want to just affirm that my faith is also renewed. I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church (in Venezuela and the U.S.) my entire life. It will only do justice to tell this story of life and faith renewed, and my sense of identity and justice, with a confirmation that my journey is also about service. Most recently I served the PCUSA as Co-Moderator of the General Assembly’s Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar, which is now in our Book of Confessions. Service at the national level only made me more aware of how important it is for all of us in our congregations to continue to be faithful. Our denomination requires that we all dig more deeply into our theology and our sense of call to justice, and that begins in the pew, and remains with us in the midst of our daily lives and our sense of how the “Reign”, the Realm of God, is about justice, shalom, here as it is in heaven.
This week our Session voted to welcome a refugee family into our community, and to join the Richmond broader network of Sanctuary supporters. What this means for our weekly affirmation that we are one in Christ is that we really let that sink in, “ Somos uno en Cristo somos uno, somos uno, uno solo, un solo Dios, un solo Senor, una sola Fe un solo Amor, un solo Bautismo, un solo Espíritu, el Espíritu Consolador”. One in Christ, who made us distinct in identities, but one in faith. Find me in the pew, singing in Spanish, but one with y’all.
Mati Moros is a member of the Session class of 2020. Each class member is contributing to our blog. Thanks, Mati!
This is the first in a series of posts by our new incoming elders – those people called to serve as leaders in particular ways in our congregation. We welcome Shannon Lindbloom to our blogging corner of the world today.
One day last year I happened upon an article espousing the benefits of squatting like a cavewoman: better pelvic floor health and stronger muscles for standing up, among others. Naturally, I threw myself into a squatting routine with gusto, though like most people who did not maintain the ability to squat after childhood, I couldn’t get my heels anywhere near the ground.
I had lofty dreams of a squatting room in my house where I could eat, read, or work on my laptop. But muscles can’t be lengthened and flexibility can’t be achieved overnight. I gave up once or twice until I settled into a routine of brushing my teeth in a supported squat, with my heels on a door threshold. I stopped expecting to be able to achieve a perfect squat because that seemed beyond my body’s capabilities, but I enjoyed the modified stretch.
And so it was with great surprise recently that I tried a squat on a flat surface and down I went, a bit tight in the hips and more hunched over than I’d like, but able to achieve the position somewhat comfortably. It came upon me slowly, this muscle lengthening and tendon loosening, easing into a position long forgotten.
So too my comfort in and desire for GPPC came upon me slowly. After a lengthy absence from regular church attendance, I was struck one day about five years ago with an itch to try out the PC(USA) church I had read about where gay weddings were performed and all people were welcome. Having small children and wanting them to be raised in church will sometimes do this to you.
But rearranging our lives to free up Sunday mornings seemed like a tall order. Being involved in anything beyond worship hour seemed entirely too much. And so we came and went in fits and starts, and the years passed.
The joy and peace of being part of God’s community crept into my heart gradually. As our country seems more and more divided and imperiled by forces that are everything our church does not stand for, I yearn to commit to something and see it through, to be of use in this community that gives so much. And so when I was asked to join the Session, I felt excited and honored.
As an English major and one-time English teacher, I turn to poetry for inspiration. Marge Piercy, who writes often of her Jewish faith, perfectly expresses my feelings about GPPC in her poem “To Be of Use.”
…I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out….
Changing my daily routines, practicing things that are hard but healthy and healing, allowing room for change and new commitments … these are the desires of my heart. As Piercy concludes her poem, “The pitcher cries for water to carry / And a person for work that is real.” I trust that as I open myself to new possibilities and say yes to new opportunities, God will provide the strengthening and deepening I need to do work that is real.
The further reflections of Pentecost Sunday, courtesy of their authors, each of whom served as a confirmation mentor for one of our youth. Paired with last week’s entry, this completes the presentations from our Pentecost service. Many thanks to our contributors!
I will with God’s help.
I remember driving home from a Godspell rehearsal with Miriam, Anita, and Anna last year. Godspell is full of parables, and I’d like to tell you that we were discussing the theological meaning of the parable of the sower or the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. But, we weren’t. We were talking about a silly line in the middle of “Turn Back, O Man”.
“Jesus, take the wheel.”
We talked about the Carrie Underwood song, how it tells the story of a single mom driving on a snowy Christmas Eve with a baby in the backseat. She hits a patch of black ice, causing her to lose control of her car. She panics, takes her hands off the steering wheel, and cries out to Jesus. It is this cry for help that saves her from danger; she and her baby are safe in the end.
Even though I generally like country music when sung by women, and I’m a sucker for a good story song, this song had always struck me as being kind of trite. And, as a parent of teenagers, I can’t advocate for removing our hands from the steering wheel when the driving gets scary. But, when one of the kids in my car asked if Jesus could really take control of a moving vehicle, I had to accept the gift of being asked a faith question by my kids and set aside my liberal theological background for a minute. “Yes, kids. Jesus can take the wheel.” Viewed through a less country-fried lens, yes, kids, God can help, and you need to know that. God can help when you feel frightened or inadequate or weak or out of place or hard to love. So, we will with God’s help, and God’s help is no small thing.
When I was in confirmation class many decades ago at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church in PA, I got stuck on this question: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” What did it mean to call someone a Lord? What was a savior, and what did I need to be saved from?
I struggled with the language of faith, and that year, I chose not to join the church. I wasn’t ready. But I kept coming back and listening and pondering, and a few years later, I got to a place where I said, YES to church. I said YES to resonating with the story of Jesus and especially with the parables. I love the way Jesus rarely offered easy answers. He’d say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” Or “two men were in a field.” Or he’d turn one question into a new one: “Who is your neighbor?”
The people of the Bible wanted this Jesus to be a Messiah—a savior—and in so many words, he told them: if you want a savior, go spend time with someone who’s lonely. Go rock a newborn baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. Go identify the systemic wrongs in your community and seek out ways to right those wrongs. Stop looking for salvation in all the wrong directions.
For me, faith means saying YES to engaging with a whole bunch of people who are also listening and seeking and searching. Being part of a church gives me a deep sense of gratitude for those who are on the journey with me, and for all who have journeyed before me.
So… welcome to the church community, and welcome to the journey.
“Dearly beloved” is not a phrase that comes to my mind very often. All the movie priests say it – “Dearly beloved we have gathered here this day” to . . . whatever – celebrate or mourn something. I never say those exact words. But I did hear them one day. I was sitting beside a river that day, and feeling sad. I don’t remember exactly why I felt so sad.
But my family will tell you, the river is where I go when I’m sad or overwhelmed or just want to feel better about life. I go to the river or a lake or the ocean, or really any body of water. This particular day I remember: I needed to hear something. I didn’t know what, until I heard it. That I am dearly beloved is what I heard.
I think that’s what God is always telling us – that we are dearly beloved. It can be hard to hear God say that, because other voices are so much louder – voices telling us we’ve done something wrong, or that we need to be smarter or kinder or braver or more unique or more like everybody else. Those voices can make it hard to believe that God loves us, plain and simple, before we’re good or smart or kind or brave . . . and even when we’re bad and stupid and mean and cowardly. God always loves us, dearly.
We often emphasize the adult-responsibility-aspects of confirmation; you’re choosing for yourself what someone earlier chose for you. And that’s real; our young people’s choice today matters. But there’s also a way in which anyone choosing to be confirmed or baptized is just receiving what God has done, and what God has chosen. I hope you’ll feel that today, too: the gift of love that surrounds you even on the days your aren’t dressed up and ready and able to choose God back.
Carla Pratt Keyes
When my youngest daughter was one month old, she died. Up until that point in my life, the only other person I loved who had died was my 97 year old grandmother. When we gathered for her memorial service, we spoke with gratitude about her rich and full life. When Joanna died, I was not grateful. In fact, I was angry..the kind of angry that makes you want to throw something, or even hit someone – hard. I think I decided that who I wanted to hit was God. So as we were preparing to go to Joanna’s memorial service, I was actually hitting my dresser over and over and saying, “I cannot go to this service and repeat all those words of hope and promise we’re going to say.” My mother stepped close, wrapped her arms around my frantic and flailing ones, and said, “That’s okay. You don’t have to say them today. We’ll say them for you.”
That’s what being a part of the church has been for me. In whatever congregation I have found myself, the Spirit has spoken through the words and actions of those who share faith with me. Sometimes those words comfort me. Sometimes they challenge me to not think about myself so much and open myself to others. Sometimes they encourage me to serve God by doing something that feels uncomfortable. Sometimes they offer forgiveness. Sometimes they say we’ll speak God’s promises to you and for you when your faith needs some shoulders to stand on.
The Spirit at Pentecost came to a group of people – not just one person – and it is in shared life with those who gather and call themselves the church that the Spirit most often speaks words of comfort, challenge, encouragement, love and forgiveness. I can’t “do” faith without church, and my prayer for you as you continue to grow in your faith is that you always find a church community that can share the gifts of the Spirit with you.
Thanks to Marcia Perry, who contributed the photos that appear in this series.
We are gratified to present faith stories shared by GPPC members in worship this past Pentecost Sunday. Each of our contributors mentored a young person who joined the church that day, except for Evan Booth who teaches the youth in Sunday School.
Carla’s introduction: One of the things that attracted me to this congregation over ten years ago was a statement in your description of the church – what’s also reflected on our sign out front – that here the ministers are all the members of the church. The pastor serves a particular function, but the strength of this congregation is understood to be in its membership, and in the variety of gifts God’s Spirit activates in us and inspires us to share for the common good.
That seems especially clear to me today, as six of our young people prepare to confirm their intention to follow Jesus Christ. I’m aware of all the folks within this congregation who have ministered to them – listening to them, teaching them, cooking dinner for them, working alongside them; we help each other to glimpse and even to know God’s love.
Pentecost is the day we believe God’s Spirit first came to people like you and me and made us ministers of the church of Jesus Christ. The Spirit makes us able not only to experience God’s good news for us, but also to share it, and even to talk about it. That’s what I asked a few of you to do today – to speak about some aspect of your faith or life in the church or “God’s good news” and how you have experienced it yourself.
Faith is a fairly new endeavor for me.
Almost 3 years a go I really had nowhere else to turn, but to faith. I have always been a “member” of this church, but never a practicing member. Carla sat with me one day to help me “get right” with the church.
“Help us carry our message” is what she said.
Anne Westrick saw something in me that I couldn’t and asked if I wanted to help with Sunday School. A day later, the email came saying I was going to be – a leader?? Be careful what you wish for I suppose. I have been taught not to say no when it comes to service. One thing that I am not up to verse in is the Bible. One thing I do know about is trusting and believing in a God that makes sense to me. Like anyone else, I am not perfect at having complete faith, and I like to choose when to have faith. I have also learned that God is everything or nothing. I want to believe, today, that God is everything
Helping with Sunday School has been really cool. Neat to see the kids – well, students – well, young adults – well, these guys and girls make this decision to join the church. On their own – which I think is the most important part. There has to be faith in there somewhere – that this is going to work out, that this is the right thing to do, or that this is… whatever? “Whatever” and “sure” are the cornerstone of my faith that has grown into something I never could have imagined. One thing that Elizabeth Eason and I harped on this year was sort of a “question everything” philosophy that allowed everyone to form an individual mold of their belief. I cannot imagine everyone in here believes the EXACT same thing, although we are all probably fairly close.
It has been really cool to help GPPC carry a very clear message of love, acceptance, tolerance, and hope among countless others. That is a fight I can get behind. When it comes to God and faith – if it makes sense and is rooted in love, then it works for me.
Thank you for letting me have the opportunity to help out!
How can I talk about how the Holy Spirit guides my faith?
I am a very concrete, linear person with very little imagination; faith and Holy Spirit are two very abstract concepts. Most of you know that I’m much more comfortable baking cookies or digging a garden than I am speaking in public! As I pondered a way to express my understanding of the Holy Spirit’s leading in my life I identified the phrase, “do not be afraid”, which occurs in many Bible passages and sermons. Most recently Carla preached a sermon on April 16 of this year with that very title; it is worth reading again on the church website. I believe the encouragement to “be not afraid” is the way the Holy Spirit supports and sustains me when I enter into unfamiliar situations. Here are some examples:
When I go into unfamiliar neighborhoods that are considered dangerous or undesirable and am able to see the community and beauty that thrives there
When I strike up a conversation with someone I have not met before
When I welcome a stranger into my home
When I go to another city or another country and find my way around all by myself
When I try to help someone solve a problem where I have to learn along with that person, or maybe even learn from that person
When, years ago, I transported a group of adult home residents to a picnic and one of the guys told me he had shot someone
When I tried (and succeeded!) in getting Randolph Hayes into my car from a wheelchair so he could come to Sunday School and worship
When I attempt a hike that I found challenging 10 years ago and manage to stay on my feet
When I go to comfort someone who is suffering or grieving
When I agree to speak in a public forum such as this one, where I am girded by the encouragement to “be not afraid” and I am sustained by the love and acceptance of this community.
Doubt. I want to talk about that.
Doubt is part of who I am. It’s part of being a reporter, which is also part of who I am.
I’m afraid that if I had been one of the disciples, when Jesus rose from the dead and revealed himself, I’d have been right there with Thomas, asking questions and scribbling in my reporter’s notebook – wanting to see the marks on the hands, wanting to touch the wound in Christ’s side.
Can doubt and faith co-exist? I believe they can, they must. I believe doubt is part of my life in faith and in this great church.
As one who was privileged to be a mentor in this awesome confirmation process, that was part of what I had to say – that doubt is not a disqualifier. It’s not a disqualifier for life as a Christian, it’s not a disqualifier for life as part of Ginter Park Presbyterian.
This is a place of learning. This is a place of open minds and open hearts. This is a place of God’s grace. I’ve been part of Ginter Park for 25 years now. It has helped me change and I trust it’s not through helping me change.
This church has a way of helping you understand your doubt as you explore your faith and how it is to be lived. This church opens its arms to all, including those who doubt. If you are someone who feels that need to express doubt – to ask to see and touch the wounds of Christ – this church will hold you close.
That, my young friends and my old friends, reveals the love of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church and the love of Christ, who was ever so gentle with Doubting Thomas.
Next Saturday, we will post reflections from Doug Brown, Carla Pratt Keyes, Ann Knox, and Anne Westrick.