Jon Brown delivers message of restoration that leads to action
by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service
DENVER – “There are times when God says to us, ‘don’t just sit there, do something.’ At the same time there are certainly times when God says, ‘don’t just do something, sit there.’ Be still, just a minute. Be still and know that I am God,” said the Rev. Jon Brown, pastor of Old Bergen Church in Jersey City, New Jersey—a union church of the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) —at Thursday’s worship service of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) annual event meeting Jan. 25-28 in Denver, Colorado, this week.
“There is an in-breathing and an exhaling,” he continued. “Imagine if you were just breathing in, and breathing in with no exhaling. Or, more likely for those of us who work in the church, imagine that you are only exhaling, exhaling, exhaling—giving, doing, working—and no inhaling to get the next breath. Be still and know that I am God.”
This was the crux of the message delivered by Brown, who opened his sermon by leading participants in an American Sign Language recitation of the verse, “Be still and know that I am God,” before addressing the annual event theme of “God With Us in the Chaos” via illustrations from his life as a pastor and single father of two now-adult children.
Using the example of his daughter’s kindergarten assessment, he relayed the story of one of the questions asked of her, “What do you do when you want to go into a room that is dark?” His daughter replied, to the amazement of the instructor, “You hold someone’s hand.”
“The teacher looked at the booklet, flipped to the back, back up to the front, then she looked across the room and said to me, ‘It’s not in the book but it’s the best answer I’ve heard all day,’” Brown said.
“What do you do when you want to go into someplace that is dark? You hold someone’s hand,” he said. “That is what we do as the people of God. That is what we do as people of faith. Some people call it covenant. Some people call it community. Some people call it relationship or trust. It is how the church demonstrates to the world that God is with us in the chaos. We hold someone’s hand.”
Brown questioned the timeliness of APCE’s event theme, knowing the steering committee worked well in advance of what, for many, seems like a time of political and social chaos in which the church is having to respond to concerns of gender and racial justice, the safety of immigrants and a rise in hate crimes across the nation.
“Whether it is a record number of unarmed black lives shot dead by law enforcement, or the invasion of Native American sacred lands by some oil pipeline, or the 45 Latino LGBT young adults and their allies gunned down in a club in Orlando, or 36 people in a San Bernardino health department shot at a training event and Christmas party. And that there’s a flood of thousands upon thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing violence and death,” he recounted. “Is it just me or does it seem as if we’ve harvested an absolute bumper crop of chaos this last year?”
Recalling a particularly hectic time in his ministry as program director at the Montreat Conference Center, Brown told the story of sitting in a drained Lake Susan at the center of camp and seeing the mountains around him and having the sense of “sitting in the curve of God’s smile,” and the restoration this provided.
“It occurred to me, this is my vocation, my calling,” he said. “To learn to rest in the curve of God’s smile—that is our eternal destiny, learning to rest in the curve of God’s smile… For on this day and throughout history God is our strength and our refuge. Resting in the curve of God’s smile is exactly where we are heading, and we’d better get used to it now.”
Sometimes, Brown said, chaos is what truly defines us as people. “On good days and on bad days it’s important for us to be still and know that we belong to God. In these days of chaos and anxiety and uncertainty—when the way seems dark—let us try to remember the advice of five-year-old Analise, and hold someone’s hand.”
Brown returned for an afternoon plenary session—following workshops and lunch—with a message about seeking refuge in the chaos. Speaking on the intentionality of offering refuge, he told the story of Old Bergen Church and the congregation’s adoption of the theme “Making a Space for Grace” shortly after his arrival six years ago.
One example of the congregation’s work in this arena, he said, includes the 2017 plan to host an interfaith peace camp with a number of churches, a reformed synagogue and the Islamic center, in lieu of a traditional vacation Bible school. The group will use the 1997 Presbyterian Peacemaking Program resource, Mr. Rogers: Building a Neighborhood of Peace.
“I share this because I want to be clear—seeking refuge in chaos isn’t just retreating to a quiet place, it’s work,” Brown said. “And sometimes it’s hard work, slow work, even complicated work. But it’s what we must do. It may begin with an attitude of quiet meditation, but it cannot stop there. Seeking refuge in the chaos means creating our own cities of refuge in the one who is our refuge and strength—a very present help in trouble.”
Seeking refuge in chaos, he concluded, is often not about getting an answer; rather it means having God present. “It begins by knowing that no matter how hard we try, we cannot find God. Rather, we are found in the infinite and unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ. Seeking refuge in the chaos must conclude with our work together in creating our own forms of cities of refuge, where those who are lost can run to. And it continues as we shape the kind of church you can fall in love with.”
First-time APCE attendee, the Rev. Beth Hilkerbaumer, associate pastor of youth and mission at First Presbyterian Church of Marion, Iowa, said she was inspired by Brown’s message, seeing ways it could be applied in her context.
“My church is kind of diverse, as far as the range of political opinions,” she said. “So it’s helpful to be able to share that even when people feel that the world is a bit chaotic for them there is hopefulness, there is mercy, in God’s grace.”
She attended the afternoon intergenerational mission workshop—one of over 20 offered during the day—and said the session helped her envision ways she could merge the youth and mission work she does across her church’s membership. “I came away with some really great ideas of what we can do as a whole church in mission.”
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