Today is All Saint’s Day, or Halloween, Part 2 as I like to think of it. As I mentioned in my last post, last evening was All Hallow’s Eve, and just like Christmas Eve/Christmas, today is a continuation of the celebration that started at sundown last night. Just like Halloween, today we remind ourselves that Death does not have hold of our lives, but new life. We remember those who have gone before us. But more importantly we remember that Death is not the end of their story. In many ways yesterday and today are Christians laughing in the face of death and saying “That is not the end of our story! Death does not scare us. It doesn’t define us. New Life does!”
One of the readings for this All Saints’ Day is one of my favorite passages from Revelation. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more.”
It is quite the “rounding out” of the biblical narrative. What began in Genesis with the creation of the world, we end with a new creation. It is almost a mirror of events. But instead of going backward, the events are transformed anew.
It is a breathtaking vision or restoration and new life. It is the ultimate blessing, when all will come into harmony with the Almighty. No mourning. No crying. No pain.
Today marks a time when the church has historically celebrated the dead, the communion of saints, those who have gone before us. (Does it shock you that Halloween has as many Christian roots as this??? Most are shocked.)
Many of the saints of the church went through enormous torment and pain, and Revelation speaks into that pain. Many saints were martyrs, who literally bled for the cause of Christ. Christ, himself, was a part of the violent deaths. Many of our modern day “saints” like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi were assassinated.
It is hard to make sense of violence and needless acts of hatred. I tend to chalk it up to what I call the convulsions of the world, uneasy and ill-equipped to deal with Christ’s message of reconciliation. And so the world revolts. It is birth pangs of a new peace, a peace which Revelation looks toward.
On this day, not only do we look back and remember the important people of our lives who influenced our faith, but we also look forward to the day when God’s “YES” will overcome everyone of our “NOs”.
So let us continue the Halloween celebrations and literally laugh in the face of death, for death does not define our story in the slightest.
Today is the Eve of All Saint’s Day, also known as Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve. It has a surprising amount of Christian roots, despite what the supposed evangelical “Christians” will tell you. Frankly I wish they would do their homework more before they post on social media.
Despite the stories you have heard (and may have mistakenly believed), Halloween is not all about vampires, goblins, and carved pumpkins. It is however about ghosts: for Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, is the beginning of the Festival of All Saint’s Day, which begins tomorrow, Nov. 1. Tradition holds that feast days, in following the Jewish understanding of time, begin the Eve before the day – hence Christmas Eve often has the same function of Christmas Day.
Halloween is not a veneration of the dead as much as it is a commemoration of the faithfully departed who have seen the beatific vision of heaven. Those who have died before us wait, like we do, to enter the new heaven and the new earth, which is the vision of our Revelation 21 passage today.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
The vision of the end of time includes a wondrous re-creation – a time when God retools the cosmos into a place where crying and death and pain will be no more. It is quite the vision. We all wait, living and dead, for this final consummation of the earth. It is the renewal of all renewals.
When I first heard this passage expounded upon I was in class with Dr. Peter Macky, my mentor and inspiration at Westminster College. It is Dr. Macky that led me to seriously consider the ministry. He also got me thinking about biblical metaphors. This was his prime example. It was this passage that led him to know that God spoke to us, not always literally, but often in metaphors.
Peter grew up in Bermuda. The vision in his head of what heaven would be like was just like Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda. Sand like white powder. The gentle ocean waves caressing the shore. The sunlight playing off the water. And in heaven there will be NO MORE SEA?? Peter had decided, if that was the case, he didn’t want to go!
To speak of the sea being “no more” meant for this biblical writer that the chaos of life would be over. No more Leviathan. No more shipwrecks and heartache. No more hurricanes and chaos at all. The peace and tranquility of the next life would take over. But the point being, this is when Dr. Macky understood the power of metaphor in biblical writing, and not taking everything so literal. In his mind, heaven required there to be a beach.
I can relate as well – as a scuba diver, fisherman, and sea lover, there is no way heaven is a place where “the sea is no more”. My vision of heaven is of a vast ocean – of endless Red Snapper, endless coral reefs to explore, endless feasts of shrimp and lobster tail.
And this awaits our future. And on that day I will be reunited with Dr. Macky, who died of cancer some years ago. And I will see all the saints who have gone before me, and we will sit down at a feast beyond anyone’s imagination.
So remember those who have gone before you this day, this All Hallow’s Eve. And when a little ghost in a white sheet comes looking for candy tonight, give her an extra piece, and be reminded that a greater feast is coming.
Many of us are emerging from COVID-life discovering our churches are much different than they once were. Worship feels different. For many churches, young families are not coming back. Giving is different. Mission work has changed.
It is challenging, yet oddly exciting. Many of us as leaders had been praying for change, unable to discover how. The pandemic shook us and melted our ice. It is also exhausting, with little clarity on how to refreeze the melted ice of changed church systems.
One of the things I hear most often (and actually I heard this a lot before the pandemic) is that Christian Education isn’t what it used to be. It appears the Sunday School movement, which started at the beginning of the 1900s, is finally dead. The pandemic has put the final nail in its coffin.
Sunday School is dead. And I say GOOD. It is about time. It was never something Calvin would have approved of. Christian formation is WAY TOO IMPORTANT to be relegated to just Sunday morning. There is far too much material to cover than an hour slot on Sunday is going to provide.
Some people mistakenly think Sunday School has been around forever. It is actually a pretty new invention. It has only been around since Robert Raikes introduced it in the late 1790s to some churches in England, and even then its focus was not religious in nature. It involved rudimentary education for children – how to brush your teeth, do laundry, cook, how to write, read, or do arithmetic. By the 1920s it shifted into Catechesis, then into religious education, and finally to what we have today which is a haphazard Christian formation program that rarely “forms” anyone into a mature Christian.
I mentioned my first objection to Sunday School already, that it is way too important to be relegated to Sunday. Like Calvin, I am in favor of teaching the Bible throughout the week, preferably daily. This can happen in private Christian schools. It can happen in the home. It could happen at church, if our churches were built for comprehensive religious education.
I have other objections to the Sunday School movement. For another reason, Sunday School can be (and is often) a desecration of the Sabbath. Interestingly, these were what some of Raikes critics said back in the early years of the Sunday School movement. They believed Sunday School, or “Raikes’ Ragged Schools” as the critics called them, would weaken home-based religious education, that it could easily be a desecration of the Sabbath, and that Christians should not be employed on Sundays.
Another main objection is that Sunday School has historically divided the Body of Christ. I am an educator, and so I know all about the advantages and disadvantages of age-based learning, early childhood development, developmental stages, and all that. And I also know of learning theories like connectivism and as a church leader helped cultivate in my churches intergenerational events where new ways of learning could flourish. I am also a pastor with my finger on the pulse of the Body of Christ, who sees the level of commitment of congregants in this post-pandemic world, and the reality of tight schedules which stretch families thin these days (ranging from job responsibilities on Sunday, to soccer tournaments, to every other thing under the sun).
I know some of you are saying “Hey Matt, my Sunday School class is doing just fine!” That’s great. And I am not advocating its dissolution. But I would suspect that a fair amount of the reason you like the class is the relationships you have gained. It is probably more a small-group ministry, with a little learning peppered in along the way. I am arguing that those relationships should be more expansive and inclusive. Arbitrarily dividing classes into age-based learning, especially when there is only one person in that age range seems like a moderately ridiculous use of our time. I think our small group ministry needs to be big enough to absorb the death of Sunday School as we knew it.
Let me say a few more words about the Body of Christ divisions and the desecration of Sabbath. When I hold those two objections of mine together, what I am saying is that time is precious, and that the sacred time we do have with congregants these days must be approached with care. We need to focus on keeping the Sabbath HOLY, and that involves worship, community, and food. I believe it should be primarily worship, and not the artificial expectation that children need to learn the Bible that day and that somehow can happen in a 40 minute slot on Sunday morning DURING worship. Our children also need to learn the importance of WORSHIP! Or did we forget?
By and large people today are committed to their church, but they are not coming back to worship in ways they used to before the pandemic. They have discovered new priorities, and new ways to plug into their faith communities. And trying to go back to “business as usual” as church leaders is not even a thought. I take a lot of this as opportunity, not a problem.
We have been looking for ways to let go of things that have not worked in the church for 40 years. So instead of going back, let’s move forward.
Let’s use Sunday as a way to bring families together around food and around each other, and bring communities together. That can happen without them coming “back” to church as it once looked like. It can happen in new ways, if we as church leaders will just let go.
I talk to my Rabbi friends, and hear how they approach Jewish education, and I am filled with envy. In so many ways, education and Jewish identity is the responsibility of the FAMILY. It is not the synagogue or the Rabbi who provides a comprehensive program of learning, but the parents. The synagogue is there to equip. The Rabbi is there to teach, but often it is teaching teachers to teach or think in new ways. Yes, there are opportunities for Hebrew immersion classes, but it is the FAMILY unit who carries these learnings forward observing the traditions from week to week.
Jewish communities have discovered what we Christians are slow to discover – that there is too much to learn to be relegated to just one day of the week. If we are to be faithful to one’s tradition, a more comprehensive approach to education is needed. The Jewish day school movement, once limited to the Orthodox community has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 25 years. According to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), an organization in North America dedicated to strengthening day school education, there are currently 700 Jewish day schools in North America with an enrollment close to 200,000 students. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-educational-trends/) I also see an explosion of private Christian schools and I am encouraged (although right now I see very limited Christian teaching and much more opportunism or exclusivism).
My hope and prayer is that we can reclaim Sunday. And that means letting some old things die away, so that God’s new things can emerge in our midst. Let’s embrace that our children (and that WE too) need to re-learn what community looks and feels like. We also need to learn that Sunday can be a day when the church is at worship and that worship doesn’t need to look like it once did. We don’t ALL always need to be at the church on Sunday morning. There are other ways to worship God.
We also need to discover new options for using Sunday time. Sunday morning can become Sunday evening. For some churches, Sunday can become a time when the pastor does not LEAD in worship, but EQUIPS families for worship. Or Sunday morning can refocus on the whole community in worship and the Sunday School hour can fall away.
We also need to learn that the world will not fall apart if this happens. Calvin lived his whole life without Sunday School. It hadn’t been invented yet. And he did just fine.
We need to learn how to worship God in new ways, and be equipped to pray to God and worship God in our homes, daily. Not just on Sunday morning.
This is when the North American Church will truly experience revitalization, transformation, and dare I say resurrection.
Church leaders everywhere are exhausted. Of course we are! 2020 and 2021 have brought unprecedented challenges. Nothing in seminary prepared us for how to lead in times of pandemic. This second wave of COVID spread has heaped on top of what has been over a year of constantly tacking in new directions. Just when we thought there was going to be rest after a long journey, the DELTA variant has said to churches, “Not so fast!” Constantly changing COVID protocols, upset congregants, CDC and State guidelines, way too many funerals, cancelled vacation plans, mask mandates, unresolved grief, zoom burnout, being our church’s tech guru, week-to-week changes in worship planning, and no clear end in sight – it is all exhausting.
Never in my years of ministry have I seen so many leaders prone to clergy burnout, exhaustion, and borderline hopelessness. I need your help in lifting up our ministers and helping them to rediscover joy in ministry and reconnecting to God’s hopeful future for us all. Please take a moment to write your minister a note of thanks. Think about sending a small gift. Or call them to express your thanks, encourage them, or ask what they can do to help in these tough times.
One of the things I feel is desperately needed is opportunities to unplug from the constant barrage of expectations and demands. What are ways your minister can most easily experience refreshment and realign themselves with the God of rest?
Sabbath observance is of the utmost importance, now more than ever. And creative approaches to Sabbath are equally as important, as resting at home may no longer cut it, especially when you have been working from home all week! For me Sabbath is sometimes getting away from home for the day, although that presents its own challenges to true rest. Often in ministry the reality is that Sabbath comes in deliberate chunks, not a strict set 24 hour period.
I believe our cell phones are at the root of our problem when it comes to breaking the 4th Commandment. Walter Brueggemann said in his book Sabbath as Resistance, “Thus I have come to think that the fourth commandment on sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent of the commandments in our society, because it summons us to intent and conduct that defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses … along with anxiety and violence.”
I think of all the digital devices we have, and how their intent was to draw us better together. And they can! And they have. But they have also become monsters in and of themselves, beeping and buzzing and demanding our attention all day and sometimes all night, often drawing us away from the task at hand. Brueggemann talks about multitasking in that same book, and he does not paint a very nice picture as you might expect!
I need your help. Now is a time when we need to be intentional about drawing closer to God and realigning ourselves with the God of rest. Those of us in the pew need to be cognizant of what our minister’s Sabbath practices look like. We need to stop thinking that Sunday is a Sabbath for ministers, because Sunday is work for them and church musicians, often filled with church meetings and new pastoral care concerns and visits. (Interesting note: Sunday was a work day in early Christendom, with 1st and 2nd Century Christians gathering in the early morning down by the river to worship God, and then heading to work, as Sunday was a workday in Roman culture until very late in their existence.) Second, we need to stop calling our ministers on their Sabbath with the opening words, “I know today is your day off, but….” Third, we need to activate the Deacons during minister vacations.
Those of us who are ministers need to talk more about Sabbath practices and encourage them in our communities. We need to preach about Sabbath, and spell out our own practices and expectations of Sabbath rest. We all know pastoral emergencies happen. But if I turn off my cell phone for 12 hours or 24 hours is the sky going to fall? Perhaps there are alternative ways for people to contact us if there is an emergency. Communicating those practices are going to be increasingly important in this 24/7 world of texting and push notifications. We also need to stop treating the Sabbath as a day to catch up on chores or shopping. That fits right into that problem of our commodity-propelled society, doesn’t it?
I lived in Jerusalem for a semester. I cannot tell you the power of a whole community practicing Sabbath TOGETHER. This is where the true power of Sabbath begins. What would our presbytery look like if everyone of us began Sabbath rest as the sun set on Friday and ALL of us rested together until sundown on Saturday? I guarantee I wouldn’t get 400 new emails on my day off.
Celebrating the Sabbath in Jerusalem was also a powerful reminder to me that Sabbath wasn’t sitting around doing nothing, but a special time to reconnect to God in prayer and community. The day was organized differently. The prayers were different. The interactions and people I encountered on Friday into Saturday were different.
I have maintained that Friday trajectory for much of my ministry. Today my Sabbath is filled with a variety of experiences. The prayer book continues to nourish that time, and often speaking the Hebrew words helps remind me of the importance of Sabbath and its roots. The dog helps me greatly, with numerous Sabbath walks in order, often down by the river in Perrysburg or across the bridge on the Maumee side. I utilize yoga, reading, tending to our plants, and often bread-making or music-making. The prayer book is essential throughout. Time visiting with friends is a majority of my Sabbath, as often I can hear God speaking more powerfully through others than through my individual prayer times. More recently I have come to realize sometimes I am almost too regimented and too methodical with Sabbath. Simply receiving the time as a gift can be challenging for me. I need to not force Sabbath, and let God’s Sabbath come as a gift.
How can you breathe deeply into God’s Shalom?
Above all, I encourage each of you to adopt Sabbath practices and stick to them, letting their rhythm and familiarity guide you over time. Returning to something familiar has power, even if the demands in ministry take you away from them one or two weeks in a row.
Of course we don’t live in a culture that practices Sabbath. And that is another root of the problem, and our challenge in realigning ourselves with our God of Shalom and rest. But if we can come to terms with that reality/shortcoming of our society and work around it, we too can follow the 4th Commandment (and the 10th Commandment also). Communication and expectations of one another are key. But mainly we need to get more serious about following this important command from God. Remember…
God felt so strongly about Sabbath rest, He decided to make it more than just a SUGGESTION.
Today is the Epiphany. The Christmas season has ended. But the Light of God has not. In fact the light is only beginning to shine. And that is what Epiphany celebrates – the light shining and spreading into the world. This time in the church is often a time of focus on the miracles, and passages in which we see the depth of God’s light to our world.
I don’t have to tell you what a trying time this has been for the Church. COVID-19 has stretched and stressed some of our churches to the brink. And yet others have managed to discover new ways of “being church”. They have found God’s grace despite the enormous challenges.
Just today I was helping one minister pave the way for a virtual Ordination and Installation service. Another was looking to have a congregational meeting virtually and needed to bounce some ideas off me.
But those are small examples of God’s light breaking in when compared to the enormous opportunities God has given us. I am talking about opportunities to BE THE BODY OF CHRIST in new and exciting ways.
It hasn’t been easy. From navigating pastoral care challenges, to congregants dying of the coronavirus, from stewardship challenges, to strained relationships, our prayer for the better part of this last year has been GOD, SHOW US THE WAY.
It has been a humbling time in ministry. Most days I do not know the way.
This has felt like a dark time for many. Our prayers have often been to make it past these difficult days, and get back “to normal.” I am not sure I even know what normal is anymore. Nor should I. I believe God is doing a new thing with us, and for us. Our job is not to turn back, but to look forward into the light.
As we seek that Light, we need to embrace our new reality for the opportunities it presents – for ways that the church can flourish, despite challenges. This has been our story for over 2000 years. It has not changed.
In our passage from Revelation, God’s story of salvation spills out as a story of Light. The new Jerusalem is declared and “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its Light.” We learn that this city’s gates will never be shut and “there will be no night there.”
Friends, this is our reality now! As people whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, we need not fear the night. Nor do we live in the dark. We live in the Light, and all of these curve balls and challenges of this last year are opportunities to discover new ways of BEING LIGHT and SHARING LIGHT.
God is doing a new thing among us. And God’s glory will continue to shine. Let’s embrace the Light together.
Saturday’s Assembly was a day to remember. The first virtual Assembly in the history of our denomination came to a close. And it was, by all accounts, a great success!
And while the dust settles, and commissioners recover from a long day, I hope they can celebrate in the biggest news of the day – the reelection of J. Herbert Nelson to a second term as our Stated Clerk.
You heard me right. This is the big news of the day.
Some who were part of the Assembly may think that is an odd thing for me to say, for much business was enacted today, some that may make headlines. But the lasting change of this Assembly is yet to play out, another 4 years of this visionary and determined advocate for justice.
My takeaway from today is CELEBRATION – not just for J. Herbert, but for the great work that was done. And more so, it is the first time I have really felt General Assembly really STAND up for those who are marginalized, truly listening to and lifting up our Indigenous siblings. I feel like we turned a page today, and we are truly listening to the cries of those among us who are experiencing pain.
And J. Herbert will carry that “lifting” forward, as will our 2 new Co-Moderators.
Many may have left the Assembly with a sour taste in their mouths, perhaps feeling slighted or downright miffed – in something that the Assembly did not do, despite the pleadings of many. Those feelings may range from disappointment, to hurt, or even traumatized, for the 224th PC(USA) General Assembly failed to consider a statement on Black Women and Girls offered by Rev. Kerri Allen, Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, and the Black Women and Girls Task Force. In the words of a friend, “When will we acknowledge our participation ‘in structural sin that has exploited, abused, and dehumanized Black women and girls?’ Not at this GA.”
That disappointment may have turned to anger for some at the Assembly when during the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of sacred silence to remember George Floyd and other Black and Brown people who continue to experience oppression even to the point of death, one ignorant commissioner evidently placed a sign on his screen revealing that racism is alive and well in the church. (I did not see it, but am already hearing stories. And I hope this one idiot doesn’t detract from the good work that has begun.)
But I come back to the election of J. Herbert.
Racism isn’t going away in a week or a month. White privilege will continue to haunt us. But 4 more years of a clerk that has brought sweeping change to our national office. Wow. That alone provides a bit of continuity – an agenda and vision carried forward for 4 more years.
That’s four years of overhauling the dysfunction at PMA/GA that has haunted us for decades. That’s four years of a prophetic voice dismantling powers and principalities and listening for the voice of the Shepherd. That’s four more years of stable leadership, and a commitment to turning the page on the past, reaching out to young people and BIPOC. That’s four more years of retooling how we “do church” at mid-council levels, undisturbed by yet another “regime change”.
In short, his reelection gives me hope.
J. Herbert is a megaphone for God’s gracious activity and possibility within the PCUSA, and he will continue to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
So rest in the work that you have done, siblings in Christ.
You have set the stage for God’s gracious new future for us all! And you are listening. And you have encouraged us to LISTEN to the Spirit still.
(Below is a picture of me and J. Herbert, taken a couple years ago at one of our Mid-Council Leader Gatherings.)
In no uncertain terms, I feel the energy of this Assembly, and its energy centers around pledging to work against systemic racism. Bold steps were taken Friday to address that very topic, voting overwhelmingly to affirm that Black lives matters, and confessing that the church has had a complicit part in perpetuating injustices to Black and Brown bodies.
It was impressive and decisive with which the Assembly was able to act, sometimes as a committee of the whole. This all came about with a substitute motion, called Responding to the Sin of Racism and a Call to Actionwhich was ultimately approved 407-72 (85% yes). It was a resolution that was more strongly worded than the original motion proposed by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.
A number of commissioners spoke to how the original motion simply did not go far enough, and that the assembly needed to name, speak and act with regards to opposing white supremacy, white privilege, systemic racism and white silence.
Later in the day, the Assembly made a strong statement in support of our Native American community, seeking to repent for centuries of neglect and abuse, and also took swift action to support some specific concerns among our Native American churches, including lending assistance to Louis Fife and my other siblings in Christ at the Achena Presbyterian Church, and also Teddy and Juanita Tiger and my other siblings at the Cheyahra Presbyterian Church, both in Indian Nations Presbytery where I used to serve as pastor and stated clerk.
I was very happy with those outcomes.
I suspect these actions will be only the first steps in many as the echoes of the General Assembly are felt in the wider church.
In that respect, the imagery displayed by our new co-moderators is befitting. Their election is no happenstance. They embody the Assembly’s energy with regard to their hopes and dreams for a brighter (not whiter) future.
The image above is a Sankofa bird, prominently displayed behind our co-moderators at the podium. Co-Moderator Elona Street-Stewart described the image as a: “Sankofa bird wading in the sacred waters of the Mississippi River. Two cultures come together – African and Indigenous ancestors guiding us forward.”
I love this image! Part of the power of this traditional Ghanaian symbol, common among the Akan Tribe, is how this mythical bird has its feet firmly planted forward with its head turned backward. The Akan believe strongly that the past must serve as a guide for planning the future, and that in the wisdom of learning from the past, a strong future is ensured.
Sankofa is a word from the Twi language in Ghana (Twi is spoken by many, many Presbyterians by the way!) and it translates as “Go back and get it.” This powerful image of a bird with its head turned backward, often with a precious egg or a heart in its mouth, is also an image of what the church needs to do. We need to go back and reclaim our true path laid out by Christ, who joined with the poor and afflicted, and confess ways in which we have fallen short of the inclusive glory of God. We need to go back and undo systems which have disadvantaged whole groups of people, and have been used to disintegrate the unity of the Body of Christ. We need to go back and start afresh.
The Akans believe that as time passes there must be movement and new learning. It is only in new learning, with a knowledge of the past that must never be forgotten, that a march forward can proceed.
This is where we find ourselves as a Church. We need to confess. We need to turn away from the evils of the past. And we must move forward, never forgetting the difficulties of our past.
Only then will God be able to use us as His instruments, and realize God’s bright new future for us ALL.