A Renewed Call to “Rise Up” by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“Arise, Your Light has Come”
(Isaiah 60:1)

With Labor Day behind us, Fall is now upon us. We are mindful that the warm days of summer will soon be a distant memory. Backpacks have been blessed and school buses are again picking up our children. Educators of all ages have embarked on another academic year in hope of making a difference on some young mind and heart. And for us in the church, this new rhythm and year is marked by rally days as we come together in our congregations to affirm our belonging to a community that offers the hope of Christ in a world clearly wrestling with despair. This movement into a new season, in many ways, rhythmically echoes the prophet Isaiah’s words to those returning to their beloved Jerusalem from exile, “Arise, your light has come.” These words remind them and us that we are called to rise up from our knees and our prayers as a people of hope – even and especially when faced with uncomfortable choices. That is our call as the Church of Jesus Christ – to stand with our Biblical Jesus values – even and especially when it feels unpopular or inconvenient.

As I shared with almost 2,000 women last month at the National Presbyterian Women’s gathering, I believe we – the church today – finds itself at a historical and critical crossroads (yet again). These crossroads are defined when Christians of all backgrounds, cultures, races and traditions come face to face with a fork in the road that requires believers to choose a way forward – the way of holy defiance or the of silence and cultural complicity. As a nation, the importing of a people from western Africa and enslaving them is one example of the church’s dance with silence and complicity. These critical intersections have occurred over and over again throughout history. As people after people are reduced to a place of non-being or second-class citizenship, the church has been called and compelled to rise.
Consider the dislocation of our indigenous north American siblings; the internment of our Japanese American siblings; the inhumanity of our current immigration reality, the rise of modern slavery through human trafficking, forced labor and child slavery, the promotion of fear as a way of vilifying one another. The list goes on – as the church is again called out of its comfort bubble – more often than not, with some resistance.

I was reminded recently of an old country song I loved when I was 18 – Jesus was a Capricorn; he ate organic food. He believed in war and peace and never wore no shoes. Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends. Lord knows if he’d come back now, we’d nail him up again. I suspect there is truth to these words even today.

The truth is, we Christians, not unlike our ancestors who were exiled to Babylon, have a high tolerance for co-existence with the culture around us – we like our comfort bubble. It takes a lot for the larger church to hear the voice of our contemporary prophets; to choose between faith and grace over the powers of the world. But here is the good news – when the church does claim its voice, when we break our silence – history has proven that mountains can be moved.

I believe this is one such moment. And this is not about popular politics and political parties – this is not about red, blue or even purple states. I love and serve people across these states and shades. This is about reclaiming our Jesus state of mind and heart – to let that voice be heard at a time such as this. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the church, the conscience of the state. I believe our corporate conscience today is telling us that something is not right; that something is broken; that something must change – and we realize (perhaps reluctantly) that as a Jesus people, we are called to be part of that change. We can no longer let words that shape our identity be hijacked by interpretations that are not of Christ. Like the prophet Isaiah, God’s voice is breaking into our reality – calling us to rise up and invite others to rise up with us.

So friends, using the mental tempo of Hamilton – An American Musical, we are called to rise up; when we’re living on our knees, we rise up. Tell our sisters that we’re gonna rise up; tell our brothers that they have to rise up; when are folks like you and me going to rise up? So may we rise – like colorful kites adorning the sky, understanding as Winston Churchill reminded us – kites fly highest against the wind, not with it. So as we begin our new seasons of ministry in our various contexts and congregations…..

  • May we rise up against the wind – and be church – who in hope faithfully grow and disciple our children of all ages in the ways of Jesus – clearly affirming what we do as part of who we are – because of whose we are.
  • May we rise up against the wind – and be a church that embraces evangelism not as a program but as the incarnation of the proclamation.
  • May we rise up against the wind – and in holy defiance – take our teachings out into the world.
  • May we rise up in hope – embracing all humanity across gender, sexual orientation, age, race, ability, nationality or culture.
  • May we rise up in hope – affirming the uniqueness of our races and diversity as an expression of God’s love for the beauty of colors and threads that together weave the full tapestry of creation.
  • May we rise up in hope – giving voice and presence to those who cannot speak nor stand for themselves.
  • May we rise up in hope – providing food and shelter to all who are hungry and homeless
  • May we rise up in hope – breaking the silence in the world and church that has perpetuated the abuse of so many – children, youth, women and men
  • May we rise up in hope – embracing the stranger – building bridges instead of walls.
  • May we rise up in the hope of the resurrection – trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit as she compels us forward into new life.

This is our call – as we together rise up from our pews- standing for a world that God wants – one of love, mercy and justice. May we rise – boldly in divine defiance of the brokenness around us. As Maya Angelou reminds us – in the midst of all the challenges – “You may trod me in the very dirt – But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

When Silence is Broken and the Church Rises – Kingdom Glimpses Emerge by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.”
(Matthew 6:33)

There are moments in history when the church has found itself at critical intersections, where what we claim to believe collides with the cultural temptations around us. These are moments where Christians of all backgrounds, cultures, races, and traditions come face to face with a fork in the road that requires believers to choose a way forward. For us as a nation, the importing of a people from western Africa and enslaving them is one example of the church’s dance with silence, complicity and ultimately – its reluctant but faithful movement to decry slavery as a sin. These critical intersections have occurred over and over again throughout history. The truth is, we Christians have a high tolerance for co-existence with the culture around us – we get comfortable. It takes pivotal moments for the church to “rise up” and claim its counter-cultural voice – but when the church does claim its voice, when we break our silence – history has proven that mountains can be moved.

It is no secret that as a Presbyterian church we love words – so historically we respond with a written declaration or confessions that responds to a unique moment in history. Most of our confessions in our Book of Confessions respond to what was understood as a theological crossroads in history where the church was compelled to break silence. Many of the more recent creeds decry the injustice of their time. This is not about popular politics – this is not about red, blue or even purple states. This is more about finding our faithful voice for a time such as this -when we all know in our hearts that something is not right; that something is broken; that something must change – and we realize (perhaps reluctantly) that as a Jesus people, we are called to be part of that change. There is no other choice!

I believe that this reflects the spirit of the 223rd General Assembly that gathered in St. Louis, Missouri this past week. At a time when we as a culture are overwhelmed with negative newsfeeds, polarization, and violence, a faithful people came together from north, south, east and west. Strangers walked into the assembly, many wondering how their voices and gifts might contribute to what at face value can be an intimidating journey. Well, these men and women – from advisory delegates to commissioners – found their voice together. They embodied the Matthew 6:33 call of the assembly to “strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.”

Perhaps it was the powerful and gripping moral imperative of the images of children being ripped from their families that caused the consistent response. Perhaps it was the advocacy presence of our Stated Clerk. Perhaps it was simply the power of the Holy Spirit calling us out at this time in history – but voice after voice, action after action – the assembly spoke up against the violence and injustice prevalent around us. But this Assembly did more than just speak up – they took to the streets on behalf of injustices on immigration and cash bail and they raised money to accompany their street action. It became uncomfortably clear that gathering as a people of faith provided the prayerful discernment to move beyond our comfort zones and to rise up in ways I have not experienced in decades.

The truth is, it sadly takes much for the church to speak up together – I have found myself convicted by the sounds of this 223rd General Assembly. A powerful witness took place as we gathered by the river in St. Louis and I invite us to not take the voice and spirit of this Assembly lightly. This assembly is challenging us to not be silent. It is compelling us to step outside of our comfort zones. And they are reminding us that this is our moment in time to embody the kingdom of God.

So as we continue to consider how the assembly actions, statements and recommendations impact or speak to us as a presbytery, as congregations, and as individual saints, I encourage us to allow their discernment to shape our movement forward as a people of faith for a time such as this. May the breaking of our silence serve to move the mountains of injustice around us. May we embrace the challenges of this moment together. May we embody our commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ through continued evangelism – the invitation to follow; continued discipleship – the deepening of our faith; and faithful social response – our witness in the world in response to what is required of us – “but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8). May we work together to embody the ‘kin-dom’ to which we’ve been called.

Click here for a brief summary of actions as prepared by the executive staff of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. 

Also visit www.ga-pcusa.org.

Making Our Way to GA223

June 8, 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters on the Journey,

In just one week, your elected commissioners and Young Adult Advisory Delegate (YAAD), other leaders facilitating General Assembly conversations, along with your Stated Clerk, your Associate Presbyter and your Executive Presbyter will find themselves at the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis, Missouri, meeting from June 16-23, 2018. As we begin to make final preparations for this trip, we are confident we will all be richly blessed by gathering with thousands of Presbyterians from around the nation, along with guests from other churches in the world.

This year’s theme, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” based on Matthew 6:33, is a reminder of our call to faithfully work to bring about “Gospel incarnation” into the brokenness of the world. Despite the brokenness around us, we are a people who believe that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be agents of transformation, providing glimpses of God’s kingdom so that justice, love, and mercy can be experienced by all. Our eight commissioners and one Young Adult Advisory Delegate (YAAD) along with a Theological Student Advisory Delegate (TSAD) also from our presbytery, will be part of that transformative hope as they gather in their committees to learn, listen, discern, recommend, and vote on issues of concern to people of faith within our denomination from around our nation.

We ask for your prayers for each of our commissioners – that their hearts might be open to God’s powerful Spirit; that they might model how to listen and engage brothers and sisters with whom they might disagree; that they might make new friends; and above all, that they will be a people of prayer and discernment as they seek to interpret faithfully the complexity of issues before them and the Assembly. Please lift them up by name: Elder Jim Ballengee, Elder Ron Cronise, Rev. Dr. Janel Dixon, Rev. Chris Holland, Rev. Byungil Kim, Elder Contina Lundy, Elder Zandra Moffett, Rev. Casey Thompson, and our YAAD, Madeline Taylor along with Brian Ballard (TSAD). Also pray for all who will be diligently working on committees and in different capacities. Read more about our delegation and follow daily reflections through our commissioner’s blog here:
https://presbyphl.org/category/commissioners-blog/

As is tradition, the Assembly will be blessed by rich worship and biblical reflection. There will be celebration of new worshipping communities and creative ministry innovation. This is also a critical moment when 538 commissioners and 183 advisory delegates will gather from east and west, north and south to discuss the broad range of theological and social concerns that challenge our Christian witness. You can find out much more about each of the specific overtures and issues by going on the PCUSA website dedicated to the 223rd General Assembly https://ga-pcusa.org/ and our own webpage: https://presbyphl.org/223rd-general-assembly/. However, in an effort to introduce you to the breadth of the conversations scheduled for St. Louis, we are listing many of the topics below. A final reminder that any recommended changes to the Book of Order will need to go to the presbyteries for their consideration following the Assembly. Our presbytery will consider voting on them in November. All other General Assembly decisions serve as guidelines for the direction and work of our denomination over the next two years.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all. Blessings and peace,

 

CLICK HERE FOR  A BRIEF SYNOPSIS OF THE ITEMS COMING BEFORE THE 223rd GENERAL ASSEMBLY

 

The Promise of a Pentecost People by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“When the day of Pentecost had come,
they were all together in one place.
And suddenly from heaven there came
a sound like the rush of a violent wind,
and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
(Acts 2:1-2)

As the voices sang the opening choral number, “The Call,” the words filled the sacredness of that space with the words, “Come, my way, my truth, my life; such a way as give us breath; such a truth as ends all strife; such a life as conquers death.” The beautiful stone walls seemed to lift up the unbridled hope present in the historic Princeton University Chapel. In a world framed by yet another senseless school shooting and the continued presence of violence and threats of war, I found myself clinging to that Pentecost moment as hundreds of seminarians received their degrees. It was a poignant reminder of how God continues to break into our mundane reality with a new generation of leaders – men and women eager to rise up and lead the present-future church of Jesus Christ at a time framed by financial scarcity, images of despair and surrender to the narrative of the “not possible.”

What was equally powerful was the presence of thousands more – witnessing to the accomplishments, the hopes and commitments of these men and women. Those witnesses struggled to restrain their applause until the end, as daughters, sons, nephews, nieces, mothers, fathers, and grandparents walked across the chancel to receive their degree. It was an extraordinary moment of energy and hope that could not be contained – not even by a culture that often exhausts us with discouragement.

The truth is, I should be used to this annual ritual by now. Over the past eight years, I have had the privilege of attending most of the commencements at Princeton Theological Seminary. I have heard the same songs sung that were sung at my commencement in 1994. I have processed with the trustees – leading the faculty and graduates. But that is simply not the case. Sitting in the chancel, looking at the throngs of people causes a deep stirring and joy in my soul. The joining together of voices in song and prayer was like the unleashing and rush of a mighty wind – blowing through that space. It was the Pentecost prelude to sending forth new leaders into the world to witness and serve in the name of Jesus. There were prospective scholars and professors, chaplains, small church pastors, associate pastors, big church pastors, bi-vocational pastors, church planters, church revitalizers, missionaries, prophets, and priests. They reflected the ministry of the body of Christ in its many forms. They were incarnate reminders of a Pentecost people who believe the Gospel has something to offer the world for a “time such as this.”

This commencement coincided with Pentecost Sunday, a day when many of our congregations celebrated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the very first community of faith gathered in the upper room. Some of our church families celebrated their confirmands and young people. Others celebrated by offering and sharing the languages reflected in their communities. The lectionary New Testament story of Pentecost in Acts was tethered to the Old Testament story of dry bones in Ezekiel. I love these two moments in the story of the faithful. In Ezekiel we’re reminded that God’s powerful Spirit can breathe new life into bones that had become dry and lifeless – causing them to rise up. It is that same breath that brought new life into the upper room 2,000 years ago. It is the same holy breath of heaven that was poured out upon those present in the University Chapel this past week. It is a season that claims loudly that we are a Pentecost People – a people of new life, a people of the impossible; a people who rise up out of despair into the hope of the resurrection.

Many of you will be witnessing commencements over the next few weeks. Some of you will even be commencing – beginning new seasons of hope in many different ways. May you allow yourself to be awed by the hope that is being unleashed in those spaces. May that hope inspire you to remember “who you are because of whose you are.” May we rise up together – may we let that breath of heaven send us forth into the world as a people of Pentecost – with joy and love. And so I share the words of the final verse of “The Call” – Come, my joy, my love, my heart. Such a joy as none can move; such a love as none can part; such a heart as joys in love.”

*The Call: Poem by George Herbert (1633)

The Unlikely Encounter of Monasticism and Me by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“We seek to be nourished by Christ in Word and Sacrament
for our own participation in the work of God –
nothing less than the drawing of all peoples
into reconciled community through participation
in the mysterious, self-emptying love
of God’s suffering and vindicated servant, Jesus.”
(SSJE Brother Jonathan Maury)

The first time I approached the beautifully kept stone church was about 6 years ago. My motive for exploring the monastery was selfishly driven by my desire to find a place to stay while I might also visit my son during his four years at Harvard. It stood majestically, but hidden, by the Charles River in Cambridge, MA – adjacent to an enclosed courtyard. Built in the 1800s, the stone church is home to the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), a monastic order of the Episcopal church.

As I was oriented to the schedule of daily prayer, worship, meals and other amenities, I learned, much to my surprise, the monastery was a silent retreat house. Even our meals were in silence. I was not overly thrilled about what I initially encountered – but there I was for three nights. If I am completely honest, my initial sojourn into this sacred space was more as a skeptical observer – but the guest house was clean and the 14 or so brothers within the community knew how to sing and cook. The fact that I could see Dakota would make me endure almost anything – even the silence. And so it began – my reluctant relationship with a monastic order. Little did I know then that six years later I would yearn for the sanctuary of the silence that overlooks the Charles River.

As I walked into the courtyard last Tuesday, I felt this sense of welcome and peace as I made my way past the beautiful metal cross that stands as a welcoming embrace to the guest house. My goal was to disconnect from my rapid-pace schedule while reading and writing two articles for a new commentary for preachers. As an added bonus I would also get to see Dakota by the weekend—he lives in Boston but travels during the week. But it is clear that I now visit the monastery for me. This sacred space has taught me much about the rhythms of life.

It has enlightened me about the gift of silence – a silence not associated with secrets, isolation, or darkness; a silence not associated with abuse. This silence is different – it is a gift that allows for the busyness that occupies my non-stop brain activity to be overtaken by the rituals of reciting the psalms, singing canticles, reading scripture, and offering prayers. What appears, at first, to be “rote and mechanical” slowly and rhythmically escorts me into a new mental landscape – one that allows me to enter “a vastness, a space of simple being, an abundant quietude.” This quietude, in return, allows me to make space in my heart for what God might need me to hear. It allows me to engage the depths of my hopes and concerns. I confess, I am smiling as I type this – as I would never have imagined myself as much of a monastic-style person – but I have found a nourishing freedom by what has now become my twice-annual sojourn to the monastery overlooking the river. And I have learned that freedom is an important part of what I need in order to maintain a healthy spirit of grace as I witness and engage in the reconciling ministry and mission of Jesus Christ. I believe it is something we all need.

As we prepare to gather next week as the Presbytery of Philadelphia, I am mindful that the rhythms of our lives can be overwhelming – filled with noises and distractions that keep us from God and one another. I invite you to consider where it is you have found or can find that intentional space that allows you to freely hear God and yourself.

Now that I am back in the Philadelphia area, I am aware that the rituals of the monastic space in Cambridge need to be replicated in this space as well. For me, that will be found as I begin swimming this week – as each stroke becomes a way of making space in my spirit for God’s voice to break in, as the sounds of the water echo the sounds of singing and praying. For you – it might be found in running, walking, bicycling, gardening – something that allows you to rhythmically find your spiritual freedom that, in turn, allows you to reflect God’s reconciling grace in all you do.

The thing I have learned about monasticism is that it is not solely about the actual space – although there is no denying the gift of the monastery. It is about creating a monastic space as part of our spiritual disciplines – a place where our hearts can be liberated and nourished – as we seek to be a people of ‘Jesus hope’ in this world.

Please click here for a PDF you may download and share with your congregation.

Emerging in Faith by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out
of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream speech)

As one approaches the Jefferson Memorial, you can see the towering marble figure from almost any angle. The intentionality of the visibility – reminding us of the impact this founding father had on our nation. Once there, you are compelled to look up as you read many of his values chiseled into words on the domed ceiling above. Since working in D.C. in the eighties, this has always been one of my favorite places for meditation and reflection. From this space by the Tidal Basin, you see the Washington Monument as well as much of the city. I am mindful that about 2 miles away, a towering marble portrayal of another president can be found in the Lincoln Memorial. In the midst of all that divides us, I was grateful for reminders of courage and conviction that frame a part of our history.
My husband and I went to DC this past weekend to meet up with our son on his birthday and to see our two little grand-girls. The touring of a few monuments became a late-night or early morning excursion bookending lunches, dinners, parks, and conversations. But they became pivotal as we went to see the 9-11 Memorial by the Pentagon – admiring the moving architectural design that from a distance looked like wings of each of those killed in the terrorist attack. But up close they looked like branches coming out of the ground continuing to burst with new life as a stream of water visibly ran beneath them. I was deeply moved by the power of its simplicity.
There was one more monument we went to see – and this one – stood not far from the places of Jefferson and Lincoln – intentionally acknowledging their connection to the struggle for equality across the centuries. This one was made of granite – its design raw, simple, and contemporary. The towering figure of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged out of the stone with words inscribed – “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” These words do not include the first part of the sentence from his “I Have a Dream” speech that read – “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
In many ways we have sanitized the memory of Rev. Dr. King’s life – often reducing his memory and life to hallmark sounds. We forget that it was his real and present faith in Christ that allowed him to not be overcome or entombed by the ‘mountain of despair.’ We forget that his life brought together the depth of his Christian faith with the witness that faith required of him. It was not a romantic journey – it was one that emerged ultimately with the sacrificing of his life.
In this season of Eastertide, I am mindful that the one we claim to follow – the one Jesus – was able to emerge from the confines of a stone tomb, defying death and stepping into the light of the resurrection. His spirit continues to be poured out upon us inspiring and equipping us for a vision not visible with our eyes. I am reminded that it takes really hard work to ‘hew’ – shape and form – our witness in the midst of all that would cause despair and hopelessness. I am reminded that it is our faith that compels us to keep on pressing forward.
May we remember and emerge together out of the mountains of despair – whatever and wherever they are – as stones and voices of hope because of our faith.

Leaving Those Strips of Linen Behind by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“But they (the apostles) did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”
Luke 24:11-12 (NIV)

Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! This familiar declaration was joyfully shared throughout the world this past Sunday. In languages unknown and known to us, these words were repeated again and again across nations, cultures and race. The music and voices of choirs filled sanctuaries, embracing the visitors and members alike while flowers filled worship spaces with the artistic expression that comes from God’s creation.
From our pulpits we have heard the familiar story that defied and transformed the darkest night of humanity into life-giving possibilities that only the God of creation could orchestrate. It is the story of the impossible made possible.
One of my favorite scenes is found in the Lukan version of the resurrection story. The women go to tell the apostles what they have seen and have been told – but the apostles do not believe them. And then we have Peter – the very same Peter who denied Jesus three times a few days earlier. In his raw and honest response to what he has heard, he got up and ran to the tomb. He finds strips of linen there – and he wonders what has happened.

According to Matthew 27:57, 59-60, Joseph of Arimathea, who had become a disciple of Jesus, took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and placed it in the tomb. I imagine Joseph doing this carefully with great respect for the teacher he came to follow. What started out as an execution-style death was transformed into the honoring of a faithful and beloved Jewish man with all the rituals of that time. The women were doing the same when they found themselves before the empty tomb. And now – when Peter bends down to look into the tomb, the only things left behind are strips of linen. Think about this – these were the strips of linen that had been used to wrap Jesus’ body. And now, it was all those strips that were left behind in the tomb.

Years ago I was reminded of the powerful symbolism of these strips. These linen strips represent all that keep us bound up, restricted and confined. These linen strips represent the physical, emotional and spiritual assumptions that do not allow us to walk out into the light of the resurrection. They are the fears, the illnesses, the abuse, the injustice – all the pain that shapes our earthly journey – binding up our hearts and minds – not allowing us to move into or even see the resurrection light and possibilities right before our eyes. They are all that keep us bound up and entombed – unable to walk out of the darkness.

At this point in my ministry and life, I am deeply aware of the strips of linen that can hold me hostage, confining me to the darkness of the tomb. I am all-too aware of the many strips of linen that can prevent me from walking out of my personal tomb-like circumstances. I’ve learned that at some points along our journeys in this life, most of us will carry thoughts and emotions that wrap us in spiritual or emotional bondage, confining any movement of possibilities. The reality of this brokenness makes the arrival of Easter Sunday a necessary and timely one. We are reminded yet again that we are a resurrection people, a people of the impossible. And as a people of the impossible, this Easter moment compels us to strip ourselves from those fears and emotions that bind us, leaving them behind in the tomb – following Christ out into the light boldly – Jesus Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

Taking the Mountain Top Experience into the Valley by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Mark 9:2-4

We all love our momentous mountain top experiences – those moments when we experience the power, love and grace of God in a way difficult to capture with words. Perhaps it was at a wedding, a graduation, the birth of a child, or the accomplishment of what appeared to be an impossible task.

For me, one of these moments occurred when I competed to be a National Urban Fellow. I remember going to Washington, D.C. as a finalist to compete for one of 24 positions out of 400 applicants. I can still see vividly the dome of the Capitol building when I came up the escalator at Union Station in D.C.. My mind raced as I dared imagine myself living in that city. The next 18 months were among the most significant in my life, as I completed my Masters in Public Administration and spent the next five years working at the National League of Cities. I remember thinking, “My God, thank you. I, who came from modest means and a Puerto Rican heritage, this is more than I could imagine; more than I could dream.” I was truly taken to a place that I never dared imagine. It was a place bigger than my mind could grasp at that moment. This is precisely what mountain top moments do – they take us to a place far bigger than our human minds could imagine. Since then, I have had many mountain top experiences – some personal and others professional. Each has left me with two emotions: an awareness of grace and gratitude and the belief and conviction that I could do something significant and good.

What I’ve learned over time is that these mountain top moments are essential to our moving forward. These mountain top experiences help us face the future. They give us courage to address the challenges of life. They fill our hearts and minds with both emotions and images that serve to prompt us forward. Can you imagine what Peter, James, and John were thinking when they found themselves before Jesus, Elijah, and Moses? I suspect they also did not really want that moment to end.

I have also come to understand the importance of taking the experience of that mountain-top moment back down into the valley where we are called to serve. I have come to understand that the inspiration, faith, grace, and hope we experience at those God-given moments is what will sustain our witness in the midst of injustice, brokenness, and pain. In many ways, the victory of the Eagles has been a city-wide mountain top experience – providing us with a glimpse of what can bind us. The energy, the joy, the hope of Philadelphia has been palpable. The inspiration gained from what has been the story of determination and courage has been epic. But what next? What will we – the residents of this city – do with this incredible energy? What good will we birth from this experience? For the truth is, the challenges in our city are real. I am hopeful that this glimpse of unity will remind us of a greater call.

I believe this is part of our discipleship challenge for the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ. We must find ways to prepare ourselves for coming down from the mountain into the valley. If you read on in this Markan story, you will recall that Jesus goes into the valley and is immediately confronted by disease and evil. As followers of Jesus, we too will be confronted by the challenges of this life: disappointments, diseases, fear, financial worries, illnesses and more; places where our society is broken. As followers of Jesus, we must be ready to follow him down that mountain into the valley of brokenness to the foot of the cross. We must be prepared to respond with love and grace in those moments where we are called to minister. For it is precisely in these valley moments that we are shaped to be the hands and feet of Christ in ministry. It is in these moments that others can truly see and experience the grace and love of Jesus Christ through us. Without these moments, the mountain top experiences, however grand, will lose their relevance and power in our daily lives.

May we take the life-giving power and hope received during our mountain top experiences into the valleys of our lives and the brokenness of the world around us.

Wind, Wings and Renewed Strength by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“…but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”
(Isaiah 40:31)

I suspect most, if not all, of us have images, songs, events, people or places that allow us to experience a freedom of spirit that fills us with renewal, peace or hope. Our emotional or physical connection to them allows us to be touched in a way that is transformative. I believe these moments to be sacred because they allow for God’s powerful holy spirit to enter our hearts, shaping us is ways that compel us to “keep keeping on,” even through the darkest of nights.

As is no secret, one of my constant images reflects the sounds and sights of the ocean – with waves rhythmically crashing on the shore. I have been reminded of their soothing power on my spirit as I have briefly returned to the sands of Malibu, Santa Monica and Laguna beaches this week in hopes of finding some small sense of peace after the death of my mom. The water’s bluish color against the blue sunlit sky has provided a profound embrace as I walked upon the sands, acting like a balm upon my grieving soul.

But water is not the only experience that lifts me to a place where I can feel the presence of the holy. Like many of you, over the years I have been lifted up through music – lyrics that capture the depth of my heart – providing me with words and melodies that frame what I cannot speak for myself. I have also been lifted up through running in Central Park, bicycling 300 miles through France, ice skating – each of these presenting a personal physical challenge that when met would be invigorating and renewing. Notwithstanding how different these images, events or places have been, they have each made me deeply aware of God’s grace. Each has made me thankful for a faith that has sustained and lifted me up on eagle’s wings – at both expected and unexpected times in my life.

Today I was reminded of another gift I’ve received over the past decade. For a brief period of time, I owned a motorcycle. And although I stopped riding soon after I bought the Honda 350, I have never stopping loving the sensation I got from what felt like being one with the wind. Well this afternoon I rode again (as a passenger) with a dear friend who is like a brother. We took his Harley Davidson through Los Angeles traffic into Malibu Canyon and onto the Pacific Coast Highway into Santa Monica. For the first time since mom died, I felt a surreal sense of peace as the wind pressed against my face. The sun was bright and the air was fresh and cool.

There was little conversation on the ride – you can’t talk much when you are moving fast. But this silence allowed my senses to take it all in – the colors of the landscape, the mountains, the canyons, the sun setting on the coast. It was like I saw them for the first time – although I’ve seen them so many times before. I found my mind wandering to the Isaiah text – “…those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles…” I felt like my spirit had been released – like I was indeed soaring with wings. I smiled as I thought about the power of the Holy Wind unleashed at Pentecost. That holy wind – that breath of heaven – is what carries us emotionally, spiritually and physically through life’s meandering roads. I am grateful for the power of that same spirit that heals, encourages and renews us today.

May we each name and claim those places, events, images that renew our souls – that strengthen and lift us up – with gratitude for God’s powerful presence in our lives.

Longing for Light by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good…”
(Genesis 1:3-4a)

Darkness – that place and space where visibility is poor; where finding one’s way is difficult. Darkness – that place and space where hope and possibilities seem out of reach. Darkness – that place and space where we – you and I – can be overcome by a sense of powerlessness. And powerlessness can lead us to a place of despair and/or desperation.

It is no secret that a significant part of this past year has been framed by images of darkness. Images and words of hate and polarization have littered our cultural landscape. This need to alienate or villify the other because of disagreements in political views or cultural and racial identities has become an acceptable norm. The threat of nuclear war is on our daily news feed. Acts of violence and terrorism at home and abroad have transformed recreational spaces to memorials of bloodshed. The “me too” movement has given voice to many whose pain has been incubated in darkness for fear of what bringing abuse and harassment to light could or would mean for them.

And then there are the more intimate journeys we carry. Like some of you, I have experienced great loss this past year as we said goodbye to one of my sisters and walked a complicated journey to the death of my mom in December. I have said goodbye to three other dear friends in the past few months. My heart has been in pieces. Yet I am humbly aware that many of you have walked and are walking similar journeys – whether prompted by the death of a loved one, loss of a relationship, insecurity of employment.

The truth for me is that 2017 will be remembered as a year associated with the kind of darkness that tugs at ones soul in a way that makes it difficult to recognize the light, let alone claim it. It was a year that tempts us away from the glimpses of light that peak through the darkest nights of the soul. But then I find myself reluctantly face to face before Epiphany – that day when the hope of God breaks through the darkness over an obscure land in an insignificant place – guiding shepherds, sages, and angels to the Christ child. I find myself face to face with a light of great hope that is “for all people” – that extraordinary story of salvation history and love shared with the most ordinary of people and circumstances. I find myself face-to-face with the truth I claim as part of my faith – that darkness will not overcome the light.

As I look longingly to that flickering – at times- barely visible light – I am able to recognize the light in the acts of courage that have taken place in the midst of the horrors. I am able to recognize the light in the letters and prayers extended me over the past year. As I look to that flickering light I am reminded of the truth that we as a presbytery joined our voices together to celebrate our 300 years by reclaiming our commitment to children, education and restorative justice. I am able to see the heart for the Gospel that you, our churches and ministries embody day after day in an effort to bring healing and hope into the darkness. I am able to celebrate new pastoral leadership in our congregations. I am able to affirm how God continues to raise up new generations of men and women who boldly are saying yes to vocationally serving the church.

As the snow falls today, I find myself grateful for the much-needed reminder that Epiphany offers. Epiphany reminds us of how it is God’s Word – spoken at creation and then birthed in a manger that has always faithfully broken into the darkness defying that darkness with resurrection hope. Above all, Epiphany reminds us that we are invited to see the light and bear the hope of that light – of that Word – into the world.

As we embark on this new year together, may the hope and blessings of our Creator God, the love of our redeemer Christ and the communion and fellowship of our sustainer, the Holy Spirit – be with each and everyone of us. May we look to reclaim and bear that light into the darkness together!