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Lasting impressions

The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis takes APCE attendees back to the foundations of faith formation

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, senior pastor at Middle Church in New York City, delivered a mini-plenary talk to APCE attendees Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Middle Church)

LOUISVILLE — On Thursday the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis recalled for the recently-renamed Association of Partners in Christian Education the scene — including tastes, smells and lasting impressions — of the first time she took communion when she was 7½ years old.

Her dad was a deacon. It was his job to deliver cubes of bread and tiny glasses of grape juice to the congregation, including those seated in the Lewis pew. But it was her mother, whom Lewis called “Pastor Mommie” despite her mother’s lack of formal training or ordination, who taught Lewis all she needed to know about the Lord’s Supper.

“When the bread comes,” the senior pastor of Middle Church in New York City recalled, “I take a little square. My mother leans into my ear and says, ‘This bread means God will always love you.’ Then I ate the bread, delicious Hawaiian bread that was so good, yeasty and honey sweet. I can conjure up that feeling right now. It’s right there.”

Then the cup was served, “those little cups of Welch’s Grape Juice that are a child’s delight.” Her mother again whispered in her ear: “This cup means that God will never leave you.”

“I got that puckery Welch’s Grape Juice taste, and I was so moved. It was the beginning of a love affair between me and God, conducted, mensched and matched by my mom.”

Lewis’ mother died 4½ years ago. “Her dying was like another birth for me. The conversations we were having, the Midrash she was doing with me in her hospital room was almost like that first birthing with the bread and the cup,” Lewis said. “It was full of stares and silences and nods of recognition and hoarse talking, because she had cancer.”

“There was this holy sending into the world that finished growing me up,” said Lewis, whose most recent book is “Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness that Can Heal the World.” “She was pushing me out into the world with this fierce, simple love.”

What’s changed

In a roomful of Christian educators, Lewis wondered out loud: “Are we teaching kids differently now?”

She worries children are “walking around with an image of God as a terrible tyrant who might kill the world” or they’re being taught that COVID-19 “is punishment to the Chinese people.”

“What if what we were trying to do was develop a face of God, to curate in our young people a relationship with a God who loves them and will never leave them.” At that point, young people become “theologians-in-residence of their own lives,” Lewis said.

Imagine, she said, Christian education that “tries to be with the person, that says, ‘This is how we will create curriculum materials: What is a four-year-old worried about? What is a teenager wrestling with?’”

That way, “We aren’t trying to squeeze people into the boxes we have already outgrown, but creating a more playful, more grace-filled, more joyful and fun container in which they come to love this God who is love.”

After her mother died, Lewis said she didn’t much feel like preaching a message of resurrection and hope on Easter Sunday. “I had nothing,” she said. “I could not do ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today’ well. But I had enough doubt to own that, and so I preached the doubt. I said, ‘I don’t know today how I feel about resurrection, but I know God is present in this death.’”

Lewis asked if we can allow space in the canon “to imagine what wasn’t said” and to suss out what Bible authors wrestled with, “so we are able to be less afraid to own where we’re afraid of our doubt and uncertainty. What if we the grownups could be vulnerable enough to express our lack of certainty and invite the people in the room with us to exegete the text and the world and their lives so that together we are making a new theology, a new canon, because God keeps speaking,” a sentiment she appreciates from the United Church of Christ.

The result might be pairing Psalm 139 with Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” “Maybe children would start to wonder,” Lewis said, “when they realize God speaks more than one language.”

“I want to urge you to think about what our intention is,” Lewis said. “Is it to keep our institution going? Or is it our intention to make the whole world the church, a Howard Thurman kind of church where God is everywhere, or a 1 John church, where God is love.”

“How about that, church? Now what?” Lewis asked. “What is your canon? What texts help us make people fall in love and stay in love with God?”

“Fierce Love” is the most recent book by the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis.

“If you want your church to live, I want your church to love — fiercely, not timidly,” with a love “that understands we are inextricably connected to one another.” It’s the kind of love where “when a child’s tummy growls, you are hungry. I want you to be an adherent to the fierce love gospel” in which “the saved ones are only saved because everyone is saved.”

Living a fierce love gospel means we “live a life of love, share our resources and live a life of peace.” On top of that, “I want to convert you to this fiercest love of all, to own your own exegetical power. What’s love got to do with it? I want that to be your song. Order your steps in love. Let love guide your feet while you run this race.”

“Nobody gets to God but through love,” Lewis said, “but everyone can get to God through love.”

“There is someone in your congregation who needs to break bread and hear, ‘God will always love you,’ and drink a cup and know there isn’t anything they can do that would make God leave them,” Lewis said. “That will save their life. Let’s save some lives, my friends.”

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