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!

Do You See What I See? By Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

Said the night wind to the little lamb – Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky little lamb? Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
with a tail as big as a kite. with a tail as big as a kite.
Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy – Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy? Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song, high above the trees.
With a voice as big as the sea;
with a voice as big as the sea
(Christmas Carol – Do You Hear What I Hear?)

As we again begin our Advent pilgrimage to the manger, the question of the little lamb to the shepherd boy in this well-known carol has both intrigued and haunted me. I recently found myself somewhat tempted by the rhythms of the cultural Christmas chaos around us. Notwithstanding my resistance to engaging the consumer chaos that now seems to begin right after the not-so-holy holiday of Halloween, I could feel the pull into the vortex of online shopping and random running around. This prompted me to pause and refocus my spirit, for as you and I claim, there is so much more to this season that culminates on the 25th of December. The power and significance of this season is captured in the simplicity of the words of this carol that I have loved and sung since childhood. Its message reminds us to reflect on what it is we do “see and hear” in this season of great hope and expectation.

As a people called to help others remember the birth of Jesus, we are sometimes caught in the trap of what has often been referred to as the Christmas machine. The Christmas machine is often characterized by the image of tinsel and the sounds of cash-registers ringing. These are not the images and sounds to which you and I are invited to pay attention. These are not the images and sounds that will touch our souls and transform our lives. As we begin our Advent journey toward Bethlehem, it is probably wise to pause and reflect on the images and sounds to which we are indeed attentive, intentionally unplugging the sounds of the cultural Christmas machine.

We can unplug that machine by reflecting on the lighting of the Advent wreaths at church and in our homes. We can unplug that machine by looking to the Biblical Nativity story and its powerful simplicity as we embody the powerful reality of that story in our lives. We can unplug that machine by looking to the human stories that have captured the spirit of the birth of the Christ-child. Those stories are found in each of our congregations and communities of faith. They are celebrated with singing and holiday concerts at our churches, pageants and tableaus capturing the story of the nativity – children, youth and adults retelling the story of the child born in Bethlehem. These are the sights and sounds that will quiet our souls. They will compel us to look faithfully to the evening sky. They will open our hearts and eyes to the light dancing in the night, breaking into the darkness. They will open our ears to the songs and sounds of angels high above the trees.

As we again sojourn together toward the manger, I invite you to pause and reflect on what it is you “see and hear”? Are your heart and mind ready to see that “star” dancing in the night? Are your heart and mind ready to hear that “song” ringing out high above the trees? It is to these images and sights that you and I have been called. May we be like the little lamb and shepherd boy – open to what God has to say anew. May we be open to how God uses the simple sounds and sights around us to break into our darkest realities. Finally, may we be open to hearing the sounds and songs of angels celebrating the birth of the Christ-child once again. Let us follow those sights and sounds – as we embrace the hope of this first Advent week.

On Making Our Hearts A Little Lighter by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

”Be on guard so that your hearts
are not weighed down….”
(Luke 21:34a)

It’s that season again – that time of the year when everything seems to ramp up at the same time. Whether it is church, school, community activities or home – the demands on our time seem to grow exponentially during this time of the year. I have once again found myself working hard to maintain a spiritual centeredness in the midst of what feels like perpetual motion. As I have talked to many of our leaders, I know I am not alone. This has me thinking about those things that get in our way, that cause us to lose our spiritual center; things that we as leaders of the church – wrestle with along the way. I came across a quote reflecting on this Lukan verse in chapter 21. It has been a gift for me in this time of, what seems like, unending commitments – one I share with you as we together witness to the hope of the Gospel.

In Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes’ book, Spirituality for Restless Souls, he lifts up this verse of wisdom Jesus imparts on his disciples as part of their preparation for ministry- “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.” He reminds us that our hearts will be weighed down by the reality and pain of forces outside ourselves as well as forces inside ourselves. What struck me was the words from Rev. Dr. Barnes, “Don’t overload them, he warned, because whenever the heart is full, it cannot handle another thing. Not even a savior.” Barnes goes on to end this paragraph, “Some days it feels like the heart is so heavy that it will pull us back into hell. So we have to unload all that guilt or we will never make it home.”

Think about this – What are those things that cause your heart to be so weighed down that you cannot see God at work around you? What are those things that cause your heart to be so weighed down that you cannot see God at work within you? These are real and important questions to ask of ourselves as we seek to be vessels and ambassadors of God’s great message of hope in Christ.

I clearly cannot speak for you, but it is easy for me to think about all the things that cause my heart to weigh more. It is clear that the negatives always seem easier to identify. They weigh us down, not allowing us to see the positives around us. So I began the discipline of thinking about those things that make my heart a little lighter. Just one month ago, it was in front of me – as I greeted nearly 2,000 brothers and sisters as we gathered for our 300th Anniversary Celebration. Your faithful presence, the sounds of your singing and prayers, made my heart a little lighter. This was not and is not a cliché moment. Through that historic gathering, we together reaffirmed our call into the next 300 years. We were inspired and encouraged by the faith we proclaim. Our hearts were filled with gratitude and joy – even in a season as challenging as this one, when violence and hate continue to frame the daily newsfeed.

I suspect you, like me, can also easily come up with the list of what makes your heart a little heavier, but as we enter what will be an even busier season – Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas – I invite you to resist the forming of that list for a while. I invite you to name and affirm those things, people and places that make your heart a little lighter.

My extroverted self has had to learn what it means to seek respite for my restless soul. It has not always been an easy road. I wrestled with traditional forms of spiritual disciplines. I wondered where I would find the kind of space that would speak to me. Perhaps you have never wrestled with this – I envy your ability. I eventually have grown to understand that healthy spirituality is that process by which I can empty out that which occupies my heart and mind in order to allow for a renewed spirit to shape me. I have found it swimming laps in my pool (yes – still swimming outside). I have found it in silent retreat monastery in Cambridge, MA. Affirming that which is rich and good and godly and life-giving has become an important part of how I shape my service and ministry to the Gospel. Although I fail at times, I believe that whatever spiritual disciplines you use to center your life (nature, prayer, worship, fasting, study, and much more) it is a vital and necessary part of our spiritual health and journey, lest we become so weighed down with the forces outside and within ourselves, that we lose sight of our God, causing us to lose our way home.


This is More Than a Moment: It is a Movement 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 we celebrate the Reformation wind that was unleashed on Western Europe 500 years ago, I was led to another moment in our mutual story of faith. It is the story of a people gathered in an upper room, wondering about their future and waiting for some yet-unknown message from the resurrected Jesus.

The wind that blew into that sacred space in that moment 2,000 years ago unleashed a movement that continues to be part of our story today. Not only is the “church” birthed on that first Pentecost, but also the faithful gathered understood that in Jesus God was doing something new. They understood they were empowered to be ambassadors of this new thing God was doing. The wind that broke into their reality caused them to re-consider and re-form the understanding of many of their cherished historic assumptions and traditions.

We often forget that the community of faith birthed on that first Pentecost was not born out of a strategic plan or committee recommendation. They did not have some road map clearly directing their next steps. On the contrary, this first community was thrust upon a road not yet traveled. Every challenge they faced would be different from the challenges of their past.

This has been the story of “us” – a people of faith – across the centuries. It is the story of men and women honestly wrestling with understanding what it means to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus. And it has been that same holy wind – that breath of heaven – that has repeatedly broken into our hearts and minds, guiding our witness in a way that reflects the heart and mind of Christ for the world in which we live.

Question after question has shaped the debates and considerations of leaders throughout the centuries. What do believers of Gentile background need to do to be embraced by the community of faith? Was Jesus divine or was he human? In what language should the Word of God be written? And out of these defining moments grew a new movement, eventually leading to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. This moment would also bring with it new challenges, as the lines between the religious and political systems became blurred, forging powerful alliances that appeared to be motivated by power and wealth.

As more and more leaders lifted up concerns regarding the practices of the religious leadership, schisms were unleashed- each proclaiming their own truth. And then in 1517, a monk by the name of Martin Luther, using the social media of his time, nailed 95 concerns or theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. His primary concerns questioned whether the practices and traditions of the church were reflective of the Gospel as found in scripture or had those practices and traditions become superior to the Gospel they were to have served? Needless to say, his concerns were not well-received by the religious leadership of his time. The winds released at that moment, which lasted 150 years after he nailed his concerns to the door, unleashed a domino movement that is still being felt 500 years later in Western Europe and throughout the world.

And here we stand today. The movement born out of that initial moment continues to frame much of our theological understanding. It is a movement that continues to require that we look beyond our own traditions and practices. It reminds us that God is sovereign and we are not. We can get it wrong. And as we know, Christians have historically gotten it wrong many times – enforcing racism, sexism, superiority, and dehumanization.

The reformation cries of 500 years ago call us back to basics: Faith alone – nothing but faith can save us; grace alone – we are saved by the grace of God, not our works; scripture alone- this is the authoritative Word of God, not our traditions; Christ alone– Jesus Christ alone is our Lord and head of the church. To these familiar reformation chants, we add our claim to be a church always in need of reformation – ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.

We can choose to look at the reformation as a one-time event or as one more moment in the continual movement of God’s powerful spirit in our midst. We who are called to lead the church must be aware of our own temptations to turn to traditions and structures, rules and governance in a way that limits or gets in the way of God’s spirit. I believe the fundamental reformation lessons learned 500 years ago, and frankly 2,000 years ago, empower us to transform the society around us – a society that has given voice to the darkness of hate, violence, and prejudice.

I find it interesting that the era before the Reformation is commonly called the Dark Ages. Sometimes I wonder if we are in a new kind of dark ages. But then I remember that it is always darkest before the dawn – and that gives me great hope. I remember that for those first believers in the upper room, it was a dark time as they gathered in the unknown. But out of that darkness, a movement was birthed. 1,500 years later, those reformers spoke up in a time of darkness. Out of that darkness a movement was birthed.

And here we stand, 2,000 years after the resurrection of Christ, with a wind blowing upon us and causing us to lose the equilibrium of our assumptions, breaking into the darkness with light. May this holy wind move us to be part of this moment in which we become part of the movement ensuring that God’s justice, grace, mercy, and love become available to all. This is our moment. May it become a movement!

Coming to the Table: Strength and Help for the Journey by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Isaiah 41:10

I confess I’ve started writing this Spirit Soundings at least three times using three different scripture texts. I wondered how I could weave together World Communion Sunday with our 300th Anniversary Celebration next week. I’m sure you’ve experienced this kind of journey – when you start down one mental path only to ultimately find yourself elsewhere.

Perhaps it is because of living overseas and working with Christians of differing denominations in Western Europe and Latin America, but I treasure World Communion Sunday. I love the sounds of different traditions and languages all affirming their faith and renewing their strength for the journey at the timeless and embracing table of our Lord Jesus. The image of peoples of different shades and customs fills me with hope for who we are called to be – across all that would historically divide us.

More than ever, I cherish the message of encouraging Christian unity and ecumenical partnerships across our many traditions, especially at a time when divisive rhetoric (even among Christians) promotes fear, violence and hate – tempting us into isolation so as not to be overwhelmed by all that we cannot control. And there is much that seems out of control.

The hurricane damage continues to haunt us. This past week I have painfully followed my family and friends in Puerto Rico who are still without electricity. We have all been contacting one another, trying to learn about the status of towns and relatives. And then, on an even more personal note, the situation with my mom’s declining health continues to be agonizingly complicated as we navigate her care through a broken health care system for the elderly. Yet even as I share these dimensions of my journey, I am keenly aware of the challenges many of you are carrying in your daily lives. I carry those challenges in the prayers of my heart.

But it was here that the words of God, through the prophet Isaiah, unexpectedly spoke to me, moving me deeply – “I will strengthen you and help you.” There is no more powerful way to claim these words as a people of faith than coming to the Lord’s Table – that place where we can be renewed and sustained. It is that sacred place to which we can come broken and tired, knowing we will be received, embraced, loved, and renewed. It is that place where we remember God’s faithfulness throughout human history and hold on to God’s promises of resurrection possibilities for today and tomorrow.

So as I started down one path, I came to realize just how related this Sunday’s World Communion Sunday is to our 300th Worship Celebration October 7th. We as a presbytery will pause to gather. We will come together – across our diverse realities and contexts – to join our voices in song and prayer. We will hear the good news of the Gospel proclaimed through Word and music. We will offer prayers of gratitude for God’s faithfulness in our lives. We will celebrate the generosity and success of our mission campaign.

But most importantly, we will come from the eastern, western, northern, and southern corners of our presbytery to gather at the Table of our Lord. And at this beautifully diverse table of Jesus, we will once again affirm “who we are” because of “whose we are” as we are fed with that spiritual sustenance that will renew and carry us forth into the next century. In the midst of all we carry with us – the celebrations, the thanksgivings, the challenges, the unknowns – we will hear God’s voice echoing across human time- “ I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

So now I find myself on a clear path – a path that will lead me to where we will come together, gathered around that table of grace, expressing our gratitude for God’s companionship and faithfulness along the way.

Serving in the Eye of the Storm by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat,
so that the boat was already being swamped.
But [Jesus] was in the stern, asleep on the cushion;
and they woke him up and said to him,
‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’
He woke up and rebuked the wind,
and said to the sea,
“Peace! Be still!”
(Mark 4:37-39)

As summer comes to a close, we find ourselves in the eye of the storm yet again. Not unlike this familiar biblical narrative, the events of recent months remind us of just how the winds of storms beat upon our journeys through life. These winds can be as physically real as the winds of Hurricane Harvey. With an unnatural force, flooding and devastation have beaten down upon the city of Houston and other cities and states in the region in ways that will take months, if not years, from which to recover. The force of the winds have left a trail of destruction in its path – even as our attention has moved on to the threatening path of Irma, the next hurricane creating havoc in the Caribbean as it moves towards our land.

The continual images of people stranded, struggling for their survival, stand alongside the humble images of ordinary heroes finding ways to extend a hand to safety. We are again reminded that we cannot control the storm, but we can control how we respond. I am so grateful for first responders of all walks of life, the Red Cross and our very own Presbyterian Disaster Agency who are faithfully on the ground, bringing hope in the midst of devastation. They embody our call to be present for one another when we find ourselves in the eye of the storm.

However, the storms that beat upon us are not only those that come from natural disasters, but also the storms of personal challenges framed by loss, pain and illness. And then there are those hurricane winds pounding upon us with seemingly the equal force of the “Harveys and Irmas” – winds and storms that seem to be harder for us to address. In recent weeks and months, we have experienced a cultural phenomenon that has found voice in the winds of hate, the winds of terrorism, the winds of racism, the winds of war. These stormy winds are beating down upon our nation and world, compromising the very nature of humanity and God’s good creation. These stormy winds keep throwing us off our balance as the worst of humanity seems to have been unleashed – finding justification in proudly bearing images historically associated with genocide and hate. These winds seem to silence our voices, making us dangerously complicit as others actively speak against our brothers and sisters of other races, cultures, languages, and faiths.

But here is the challenge for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus – we are called to serve in the midst of these winds, even in the eye of the storms. This is our role as the church of Jesus Christ. It is precisely in these uncomfortable, life-threatening and assumption-challenging winds that you and I are called to use our hands, hearts, feet, treasures, minds, and voices. For not unlike how we respond to natural disasters, we are called to respond to these stormy winds as well. As a people of faith – as a people who claim to follow Jesus – we understand what we are called to do and who we are called to be. Our teachings are clear. We are called to resist any and all forms of bias and racism that separate us from God and one another. We are called to resist any and all forms of power and idolatry that tempt us away from God. We are called to embrace the stranger and alien in our midst. We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We are called to value children, the elderly and the imprisoned. In essence, we are called to be living breathing bearers of the Gospel – a people of the impossible – embodying resurrection possibilities at home, in our schools, in our communities of faith, in our neighborhoods, in our nation, and in the world.

So as we begin a new program year across the many congregations and ministries of our presbytery and as we prepare to celebrate 300 years of God’s faithfulness, may we boldly reaffirm our call to be a Jesus people. May we be active in love- caring for those within our communities and those outside. May we encourage one another to be agents of transformation for a time such as this. May we nurture and disciple another generation of followers – a generation who understands their call – our call – will always be in the eye of the storm.

The winds and gales will rise – but they will not prevail. May we hear the voice of Jesus saying – “Peace, be still.”

Wilderness Musings by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

When the Pharaoh let the people go,
God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines,
although that was nearer; for God thought,
“If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.
So God led the people by the roundabout way of the
wilderness toward the Red Sea.”
(Exodus 13:17-18)

As I engage church leaders in our presbytery and beyond, I am struck by the reality that in one way or another, we are all on a wilderness journey. By wilderness I mean those places and chapters in our lives that are marked by great uncertainty and the lack of clarity of direction. For some of us, our wilderness journeys are very personal and focused on our growth and direction as individual disciples. For some of us, our wilderness journeys are corporate – seeking answers for our growth and movement as churches, presbyteries, synods, and denominations.

For many years I thought of the wilderness as a place of desolation – a place where I would find myself struggling and wrestling – in a negative kind of way. But then I paid more attention to the Biblical narrative and realized the wilderness was a place of preparation and re-creation, making us a new creation. This hope-filled understanding of the wilderness was confirmed by a trip to Israel years ago. I learned the wilderness was a place where modern-day Israelites took their families to “re-create.” I will never forget walking through the Judean wilderness and simply being in awe of its vastness and its barrenness. However, its barrenness was not lifeless; the barrenness demanded my attention and took my breath away. It called me into deep thought and examination. It challenged me to consider a new way of looking at myself and my life.

That challenge made me aware of three Biblical truths about the journey of God’s children through the wilderness. The first truth is God initiates the journey. Recall, God’s voice to Abraham to leave his land and venture forth into a new one. Recall God calling Moses to lead the people into and through the wilderness for 40 years. Recall if you will, Jesus’ venture into the wilderness, as he was tempted and prepared himself to embark on his journey to the cross.

A second truth I have come to embrace about wilderness journeys is God leads. We may not often like where we’re going. We may not be confident of the path before us – but God faithfully leads. Recall if you will the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day that led the Israelites through the wilderness. I’m confident there were times they wanted to get ahead of the fire and the cloud – so they could see what was before them. I know I have often been tempted to run ahead of God in order to feel more secure about the direction and clarity of my journey.

A third truth is the reminder that even while on the most complex of wilderness journeys, God sustains us. Throughout the 40-year wilderness experience, God was with God’s people. God provided quail, manna, and water. God will continue to sustain his children as we faithfully make the trek through the unknown, the unclear, and the apparently unwanted. The festival of Pentecost is before us. This is a profound reminder of God’s faithful promise and presence in our lives today through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I find these essential truths to offer courage and hope for us as we walk together in our faith at this time. It is clear that these are critical times for the world in which we live as we are called as witnesses to respond to hate, violence, and polarization with love. It is clear these are challenging times for the Church of Jesus Christ – as we explore how to be a vibrant and relevant presence at this time and place. It is easy to become exhausted and discouraged amidst much of the reality of 24/7 newsfeeds. The good news is God invites us to use these challenging or wilderness times to reflect on where we are, reaffirm whose we are, and recommit ourselves to the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what that looks like in a world in need of hope and reconciliation.

May we be encouraged – for like our ancestors of so long ago, out of the wilderness will rise a new people – a people who have lived through the challenges faced in the uncertainty and unknown; a people who have died to a way of life defined by bondage; a people birthing new possibilities in a new land.

Waiting on the Lord and Seeking 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 don’t know about you, but I often find myself fantasizing about all the wonderful ways I will seek respite and renewal. Those ways often include thoughts about exercising more diligently, going on a retreat, forming better dietary habits, reading several new books, going to a distant land, with the list of possibilities going on and on. At times the effort to seek renewal frankly has often seemed like more work – the process in and of itself is “not so renewing.”

Given my current reality with my mom, weekly visits to sit with her for a while in her nursing home, I have found myself reflecting on this ongoing challenge – “how does one get renewal when there is so much going on in so many of our lives?” What is it exactly that provides me or anyone of us with the kind of respite that indeed frees and sends our spirits to that place of soaring eagles in the midst of all the “stuff” of life.?

As leaders of churches and ministries, as members of family systems, as people struggling with the brokenness of the human body, with vocation, with conflicted situations, with disappointments and losses; as people called to care for ourselves as well as others, you and I are faced with this complex challenge day after day. Where do we go to find that sacred space that will quench our thirst and refuel our often-weary spirits?

As I thought about where I find myself, I was led to a very favorite text in Isaiah. This text has often filled my mind’s eye with a wonderful visual of what renewal looks like. The grace with which an eagle soars is quite a beautiful sight. It seems effortless. And yet in my own journey, I have often struggled with how much effort renewal takes.

This text reminds us that the true source of our renewal does not come from doing external things. Mind you, these things (many of which I have already mentioned) are helpful and are often moments of life-giving energy, but they do not guarantee renewal of spirit. I have known many a person who has returned from vacation exhausted and disgruntled. Isaiah reminds us that our ultimate renewal comes from “waiting on the Lord.” It does not come from all the market-driven activities we’re invited into. It does not come from outside forces and sources. It comes from letting God’s life-giving Spirit enter our innermost spaces. It comes from allowing God’s resurrection power to shed light into those dark corners of our often-hardened hearts. It comes from allowing the transforming presence of Jesus to shape our words and deeds.

And this my friends, can happen in the most unexpected places, in the most unplanned ways. This past week I was surprised when I felt a surge of renewal when I sat with my brothers and sisters at our Leadership Collegium meeting. I found myself filled with a profound appreciation for their faithfulness and their love. I felt a sense of peace to be gathered with them. It is always good to be with a people of hope.

So you see, my most recent renewal did not come from all my best-made plans. My most recent renewal has come from a reaffirmation that we are indeed called to minister together in this place. It has come from the prayers that you have prayed on my behalf. It has come from the quiet moments of engaging God’s Word in scripture and song together. In these expected and unexpected places, I have felt God’s renewing presence as reflected beautifully in the words of a favorite anthem-

“And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn;
Make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of his hand”

I trust that as the summer approaches, you will consider the many ways you will seek and find a renewal that will allow God’s powerful Spirit to break in and take you to “the breath of dawn.”