Attendees at NEXT Church gathering share thoughts on loss and renewal
April 14, 2018
Jess Cook’s father, a doctor, had contracted hepatitis B from a patient and died due to complications from the disease nearly 20 years later. Jess said his father always loved juice, and asked for toast and grape juice one day as he was nearing death. Despite having seminary training on Communion, Jess said, “I learned more about the Eucharist that day than in any class.”
His recollection was one of several testimonies on death and dying at a worship service dedicated to that theme at the NEXT Church 2018 gathering in Baltimore. Nearly 700 participants gathered for the annual conference of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members, pastors and those in affiliated ministries under the theme “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying and Rising in a Wilderness Church.”
John Molina Moore told the story of walking into a new church and observing the decay of ministries that have outlived their lifespans. He noted the music program with its “half broken organ and five faithful members of the choir trying to hold this ministry together.”
Rather than suggesting a dismantling of the music program, saying “pastors are often seen as those who kill the program,” he brought a diverse group of people together to “honor what it used to be.” Over time, the music ministry was gifted a grand piano, a local jazz musician came to provide programming, and the church began an arts program for area youth.
These efforts, Moore said, “breathed new life, allowing the music program to rise and blossom again.”
Erin Counihan, a pastor in St. Louis, said she was working on letting the “polite white church lady” within her die.
“It wasn’t until recently that I got to know this radical Jesus guy, got to know this radical Holy Spirit,” she said, calling upon her experiences in protests against racially motivated violence. “In St. Louis the Holy Spirit screamed, ‘Look what’s going on here! Look at your part in it!’” she said.
“In polite white church land, we don’t name our pain, we don’t name our sin. It’s where we avoid having hard conversations that may threaten some of our biggest donors, where we hide our systemic racism … through polite white church lady complicity,” she said.
She added that she and the church are not the same because of her experience of “learning to show up and shut up” among the people of color organizing the protests. “It’s difficult because that nice polite church lady is like Lazarus; she keeps coming back. There are times when the systems and structures of white supremacy think they are Jesus too, because they try to raise her from the dead. There is a bold and radical ‘kingdom’ of God out there … if only we can let some of our old ways die so the kingdom can be reborn.”
Following a reading of John 13:1–17, in which Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and invites them to lives of service, attendees wrote down their concerns about dying and participated in a ritual of remembrance and handwashing with one another at stations around the event space.
The Rev. Jennifer Barchi, pastor of Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, preached the evening sermon. After reading from both Isaiah 34 and 35, she spoke of two types of people and their responses to exile and loss: those who say they’re not going to make it out and those who find a way to grow out of adversity.
“You get to choose your experience of death in the wilderness: You can let it destroy you or you can let it take you somewhere new,” she said. “Instead of approaching these moments of death with fear, what if we approach them with the hope we find in the resurrection?”
“The church is dying — thanks be to God,” she said, asking attendees to join in the refrain. “These words seem sacrilegious; it’s as if I’ve been conditioned to believe we don’t find hope in the death and resurrection.”
But acknowledging places of death, Barchi proposed, “allows us to ask an entirely different set of questions like: What are we dying to? What does death allow us the opportunity to walk away from? What is central to our identity; what is not? What is the Holy Spirit doing among us to fashion us anew?”
She repeatedly affirmed that Christians are to have a different perspective on dying.
“The promise of the resurrection allows us to approach death with creativity and hope,” she said. “The promise of the resurrection allows us to reframe death in the wilderness and ask the questions that lead us to new life and new possibilities.”
“The church is dying — thanks be to God,” Barchi concluded. “Thanks be to God, for that means a new church is rising.”
Gregg Brekke, Reporter, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: NEXT Church gathering
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Loving God, you soak us in your radiant love, enabling us to exude that love to your world. We pray that, as we run the race of faith, you would strengthen us in endurance, that we might serve those we encounter along the way. We thank you for your extravagant grace. Amen.