Denver gathering showcases curriculum, delivers educational inspiration
by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service
DENVER – More than 600 church educators are gathering in Denver, Colorado this week at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) annual event to discuss the latest trends in Christian education and learn about best practices that address the diverse needs needs in the church.
Playing off the 2017 event theme of “God With Us in the Chaos” based on Psalm 46, the Rev. Denise Anderson, Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the PC(USA), reminded attendees in bringing greetings to the opening worship, “Even in the chaos, even when we can’t make sense of anything we’re looking at—God is still with us. And all we need to do is be still, not be idle, not be stiff, not be immobile. No, be still, and know that God is God—in our marching, in our teaching. In everything that we do, we can still be still.”
The sermon, delivered by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber—a best-selling author and an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor who founded House for All Sinners and Saints church in Denver—added to the theme of chaos by introducing the story of Peter walking on the water from Matthew 14:23-33.
“I’ve often heard this story preached as ‘the little disciple who almost could,’” she mused. “Like Peter could have kept walking on water if he’d just thought ‘I think I can. I think I can.’ And then also, that with enough faith you too can walk on water—all the way to Jesus. I was basically taught that Peter’s only mistake was that he stopped believing in Jesus.”
Bolz-Weber continued deconstructing this theological position, wondering what sort of message was sent to believers if “the moral of this story” was merely about the ability to overcome fears in order to be whole, loved by God or faithful.
If read this way, she said the story seems to say, “If you are not ‘God-like’ in your ability to defy the forces of nature, then the problem is that you don’t have enough faith and you should probably muster up some more because it’s up to you to walk on water and make your way to Jesus… I guess I don’t see that way of telling this story to be ‘Good News.’”
But overcoming judgment against those who don’t overcome lives of chaos, most vividly represented in the biblical narrative through imagery of the sea, Bolz-Weber said, “I’m done buying the way that religion tries to convince us that through our own efforts we can make our way to God.”
“Peter, who, as you know is like the spokesman for the spiritual idiot in all of us, thinks he can make his way to Christ—maybe like we do—but his efforts fail him, as they do all of us,” she said. “And we assume he sinks because he doesn’t have enough faith. But what if it wasn’t the inability to walk on water that demonstrated a lack of faith? Maybe we in ministry need to hear this… ‘Your inability to walk on water is not a failure!’”
Sometimes, Bolz-Weber assured, the chaos is too much, and we have no choice but to give up and sink. “Maybe we need that,” she said. “Maybe we have to exhaust all our own efforts and sink, and let God be God for us. Because maybe this isn’t the story of Peter’s failure at all. Maybe it’s the story of Peter’s baptism. Peter exhausts his efforts to make his way to God and sinks so that he has no option but to accept the hand of Christ, reaching down to pull him up… Chaos does not win.”
“God is present with us in the chaos, saying, ‘Hey, I’m here, don’t be afraid,’” Bolz-Weber said. “Peter’s lack of faith wasn’t demonstrated in his inability to walk on water. Peter’s lack of faith was assuming God wasn’t already present in the chaos and that he had to try to make his own way to God to be safe.”
Following a break during which event attendees conducted a mass “mannequin challenge” video shoot, Bolz-Weber returned to speak in a plenary session, where she addressed issues of faith and shame that are present in her yet to be released book.
“On some level, maybe worry is nothing more than fear that either I will not get something I want or fear that something I have will be taken away,” she said. “And both of these fears—if you think about it—are based in finitude, the fact that nothing lasts forever… But Jesus refers to a bigger reality, what he calls the kingdom of God.”
Pre-conference events on Jan. 23-24 included a certification course in Reformed theology for Christian education, suicide prevention training and certification for church workers, and an off site workshop on protecting houses of worship in light of the June 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The pre-conference workshop titled “Co-Creating Uniquely Beautiful Worships” was led by Katie Sternhagen of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Ballwin, Missouri. Workshop participants employed the framework of multiple intelligences to create the Thursday morning worship for the conference, allowing the group to gravitate toward each person’s gifting area.
“The idea came about as a blend of the theory of multiple intelligences and the theme of ‘God with us in the chaos,’” she said. “The body group did the call to worship. The nature group did the prayer for illumination. The music group did the assurance of pardon. The word group will bring the lesson. The logic group did the call and prayer of confession. And an art group did the banners.”
Two half-day meetings of Presbyterians Organized in Nurture and Teaching (POINT), led by members of the Congregational Ministries Publishing (CMP) office of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, introduced attendees to the curriculum options available, and coming, from the denomination.
“You have big roles in your churches and presbyteries because I know how hard you work,” said the Rev. Charles “Chip” Hardwick, director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism ministries at the PC(USA), in his opening remarks. “It’s really hard to work as a volunteer, staff person or Presbyterian resource center.”
“You know how important it is for us to teach our adults, children and youth about being Christians in the Reformed tradition,” he said, issuing a charge for these leaders to prioritize teacher training “to help people understand the grace of God and the ways we honor Christ through teaching, not because it helps us earn our way into heaven, but because it honors Christ.”
Malinda Spencer, Mark Hinds, Marissa Galvan-Valle and Sunkyoo “Sun” Park from CMP presented an overview of their ministry in that area and invited comment and interaction with curriculum.
Spencer spoke on the adoption of the Growing in Grace & Gratitude Sunday school curriculum for grade school and younger children. Highlighting the ease with which educators can use the curriculum and the adaptability of the lessons to match the needs of individual classes, she said, “We want to equip leaders as best we can with our curriculum guides. And everything guides the children toward the ‘grace moment’ found in each lesson.”
Leah Wyckoff, resource center director for Grace Presbytery and Sunday school teacher at Emanuel Presbyterian in Bedford, Texas, said Growing in Grace & Gratitude “has pieces the children can carry out of the classroom that help them live out what they’ve learned in the lesson.”
She gave the example of a recent Sunday when the children learned about being “salt and light,” resulting in them creating cards with candles or salt packets attached. The students, including youth group classroom helpers, named a person who had been salt or light for them and then presented the cards to them.
“We have to find ways to make the things we talk about [in Sunday school] portable,” Wyckoff said of the activity. “That’s a key to our faith communities and congregations today—sharing the grace and love we find there.”
Christine Treger, from the Presbyterian Church in Westfield, New Jersey, said Growing in Grace & Gratitude fits the needs of the classroom and teachers, even sending parents “Grace Sightings” emails so they can, with their children, help to see the places God is working in their lives.
“I also use it in a mid-week program for ages three through fifth grade and for Sunday school,” she said. “It’s very Reformed and opens up the possibility that there can be more than one ‘grace sighting’ in each story, and that God continually works in us, through us and for us.”
Hinds also announced and upcoming confirmation curriculum based on the data collected by the five-denomination Lilly Endowment funded Confirmation Project. Expected for Fall 2018 with the title “Big God, Big Questions,” the PC(USA) has been invited to develop the curriculum based on results of the Lilly study.
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