A Worship and Music Conference with plenty of both on display

The Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson shines her light from the pulpit during Sunday’s opening worship

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Sudie Niesen Thompson, at left, and the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson near the end of Sunday’s opening worship service. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — When one of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s most gifted preachers stands before an auditorium full of the denomination’s most talented musicians, you’d expect beautiful worship that uplifts and edifies.

Welcome to the hybrid portion of the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship and Music Conference, coming this week to lucky Presbyterians gathered at Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina, and also joining in the comfort of their own homes. The Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, is the conference preacher. The Rev. Sudie Niesen Thompson, associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, is providing inspired liturgy throughout the week.

The Rev. Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday evening’s worship, held in a nearly full Anderson Auditorium, included dozens of candles, handbell players and Scripture readers scattered throughout the auditorium, and — as one might expect — glorious music.

With Genesis 1:1-27 and John 1:1-14, 18 as her scriptural basis, Brooks-Johnson said Jesus enters the world “like a slice of light entering a pitch-dark room … Jesus became light to shine in and through our very lives, and he invites us to be the light for others. Cue the last hymn,” she said with a smile.

“It would be so easy to wrap up the sermon here,” Brooks-Johnson said. “But let’s be honest: We lose sight of the light of Christ. We forget our role as people called to testify that Jesus is the light of the world. We sing, ‘This Little Light of Mine,’” and as she started singing, her voice cracked and trailed off.

“It’s hard to testify to the light when the world feels so tender and painful,” she said. “Sometimes we feel like our own lamps are low on fuel. Sometimes it’s easy to become emotionally numb to the beauty, wonder, mystery and light that Christ brings to us.”

Brooks-Johnson recalled the Bible stories she enjoyed as a 10-year-old. “I loved the stories where Jesus didn’t quite get along with the religious leaders of the day,” she said. “Ten-year-old Aisha really liked snarky Jesus.”

The Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson

The one story that stuck in her head was the parable of the sheep and goats found in Matthew 25. The version she liked best was a musical one, Keith Green’s “The Sheep and the Goats.”

“I played that record over and over and over with one thought: Could I live my life as a Christian and miss Jesus living as a stranger, hidden in plain sight in the hungry and lonely and the lost?” she said. Her prayer has evolved over the years: “Don’t let me be too educated, too sophisticated, too numb or too busy to miss seeing you in plain sight.”

“Let us see your light in your presence,” she now prays, “reflected in the lives of those oppressed and outcast and overlooked.”

Just how do we do that? “I believe we must practice,” Brooks-Johnson said, offering up three ideas for “bearing witness to the light”:

  • Look up. Take a photo of the sunrise. “With every new morning, there is new mercy,” she said.
  • Look out. “See God’s presence in those cast out to the side. Christ is there, and Christ invites us to care for them and walk alongside them.”
  • Look in. “See Christ at work in your own life. The one thing I wish we had more time for during our well-crafted one hour of worship is a little testimony time. Recall your own story of Christ’s presence during the hard times, the time you felt lost. Remember the people who cheered you on. Tell your stories to someone. It may be the flicker of light they need.”

Guilherme Stecanella via Unsplash

“May we hold our flames for all to see, whether full or flickering,” Brooks-Johnson said. “And may the light of Christ always shine, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the mother of us all. May all God’s people say, ‘Amen.’” And indeed they did.

By the numbers

The first week of the Worship and Music Conference drew 629 attendees. This week, 620 are attending in person and 120 online.

Learn more about the conference here.


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