Hands of Healing in a World that Wounds by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”  (Luke 5:18-20)

The image of these friends physically carrying, lifting, and lowering the paralytic has always been compelling to me. I imagine the crowd – the inability to make their way through the throng with a bed. I can almost hear the conversation between these determined men, “how will we get to Jesus? How will we be able to heal our friend?”

I have a distant memory of my parents lined up for hours to bring my sister to Oral Roberts so she might be healed. My late sister was born with trisomy 21, commonly known as Down Syndrome. Oral Roberts was a nationally recognized preacher who was known for healing. I must have been five, which made her three. All I recall was the crowd, the waiting, the endless line, and the disappointment when they turned my parents away after they had waited for hours. Their hope was crushed. My sister would not be healed. I have often considered the kind of emotional desperation that causes one to make their way through a horde of people and makes one stand in line for hours praying for your child to be touched and be cured. My sister defied all odds and lived into her late 50s – hers was a complicated life but her life taught us much about simple things – such as joy, dancing, and music. The one who was not healed on that day brought a kind of healing to those whose life she touched. The one whose parents carried her would be one whose spirit carried her parents and siblings.

This story ends differently from the one in the Bible – there was no miracle of healing. But it demonstrates the importance of recognizing how God faithfully places people in our lives whose hands we may not see at first but who gently help to heal and carry us through the proverbial roofs. It speaks to those moments in our lives when we are unable to carry ourselves; when the weight of what we are experiencing is such that we cannot walk through the pain or the challenge before us and others have helped carry us. Sometimes the carrying has been obvious and known to us- like my sister and parents. Other times, we can only see the hands in the rearview mirror after we have moved forward from the depth of that painful season. They are the hands that embraced us, encouraged us, fed us, and loved us – initially invisible hands that resulted in visible healing.

There is no question that we do not get to live this life without finding ourselves in one of those places – where life’s tragedies and disappointments have emotionally, psychologically, and even physically paralyzed us. This kind of paralysis causes us to lose hope; and hope is central to us as followers of Jesus, especially in this season of resurrection as we continue our journey through Eastertide, wrestling with the impact of that resurrection morning on our identity today.

And our identity as a people of hope is complex. There are times we will be like the man on the bed lowered through the roof – carried by determined friends. But there will also be times when we are called to be the men and women who carry others when they are unable to carry themselves. We will be called to be the determined friends making our way creatively through the “rooftops” – working together to lift the burdens that keep others immobile with hopelessness. We will be called upon to be the prayer warriors, the feeders, the “shelter builders,” the visitors. And in that call – as we allow ourselves to be hands that help heal others – we may be surprised by the healing that happens within ourselves, that comes when we walk with another. This sounds like “church” to me – that sacred place – that imperfect covenant community where we are called to gather to reclaim our identity as a people of resurrection hope; that place from which we go out bearing the hope of Christ in a world that too-often wounds.

Denver, San Diego, Sri Lanka are recent reminders of this wounded world – a world where children continue to be stripped of their lives with senseless gun violence in places we once thought of as safe; a world where people worshipping get massacred.   It is to this wounded world that we have been called to be the healing hope initiated by the risen Christ. It is to this that we have been called to be hands of healing in a world that wounds.

What “Mark” Do You Need to See to Believe? by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

But Thomas said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,
and put my finger in the mark of the nails
and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
(from John 20:25)

‘Unless I see the mark…” These words of Thomas have haunted believers throughout the centuries as we wrestle with what it means to be a people who believe in the resurrection. Thomas is bold in his doubting. He is clear about what he needs to believe. Thomas needs to see the mark of the nails. He needs to see the wound in Jesus’ side. Not even the witness and words of his closest friends were enough for Thomas to believe that Jesus had in fact been resurrected. He knows their hearts; he hears their words; he feels their energy – and yet he is unable to believe.  In many ways, Thomas’ words foreshadow a challenge for believers today. What do we need to see to believe? What mark is enough for us to affirm our faith in the resurrected Christ 2,000 years later?

As I consider the violence and fear surrounding the days of those first gathered followers of Jesus, I can relate to Thomas’ doubts. After all, a “mark” of his time was framed by an unsettling reality. The leaders of the religious institution of their time were concerned and not happy with these “Jesus followers” – as they were viewed as a threat to the way they understood their faith and their God. Their concerns were so real that they colluded with the secular government of their time and executed Jesus.

The truth is, the “marks” of our time are not so different. The violence around us can be overwhelming – from the shootings in the streets of our city to the senseless acts of terrorism around the world. The bombings that left hundreds dead in Sri Lanka is a recent reminder of this reality. Like many of you, I am deeply disturbed by how religious beliefs are often used as weapons of hate – disregarding the common dignity all humanity shares. These are some “marks” of our times – “marks” colored with despair and death, fear and desperation. I imagine Thomas, struggling with the “marks” of his time as he gathered with his brothers and sisters, concerned for what would happen to them now that their leader was crucified.

But if we can see beyond these “marks” that threaten our very lives, there are other marks that indeed point us to the hope of the resurrected Jesus. The presence of the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered continues to be the same breath of heaven that allows us to see with hope what is physically not before us. It allows us to see with the eyes of faith – to recognize God in places and spaces that can be unexpected.

As we engage this season of Eastertide for the next 40 days leading us to Pentecost, I invite us to consider the “marks” of the resurrected Christ around us.  I invite us to consider the words of Thomas, “unless I see the mark,” and reflect on what “marks” we need to see in order to believe. Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in the embrace of another? In the celebration of a life well-lived? In the birth of a new life? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in the sounds of music? In the bursting forth of new life of Spring colors? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in those standing with the oppressed? In the feeding of the hungry? The clothing of the naked? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ in the whispers of prayer? Friends, these are the “marks” of a God who continues to break through the brokenness and darkness compelling us toward new life. These are the “marks” of a people who more than 2,000 years later are able to see the risen Christ in the ordinary comings and goings of life.

Friends, may we receive the same breath Jesus breathed on to those first disciples, allowing it to shape our witness with conviction and encouragement. May we boldly claim the “marks” of resurrection life around us; for they are there – pointing to the One whose initial marks are the reason for the possibility of new life for each of us today.

From the Safety of the Shore into Deep Water by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

 Jesus got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon,
and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.
Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long
but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught so many fish that
their nets were beginning to break.
(Luke 5:3-6)

It is no secret that I am an ocean “appassionata.” My soul is renewed as I walk along the shorelines on both the east and west coasts. So as I read this familiar story, I was struck by the contrasting images of the shore and the deep water that frames this narrative. I found myself asking the question – How often do we do our ministry from the shore? How often do we find comfort in that place? There is safety in being able to stand on our own two feet as we proclaim the radical gospel of Jesus. The shore allows us to share the gospel without much risk. We can wet our feet; we can even get our bodies wet, but we are still in control.

When Jesus tells Simon to “put out into the deep water,” he is challenging Simon to go beyond his comfort zone, beyond that which he can control. Jesus is also challenging Simon to go to where he has already been before, with the possibility of something new happening. How often do we resist taking this step in our discipleship journey? Frankly, how often do we apply this ‘limiting’ reasoning to our church ministries – from evangelism to the continued growth of our faith?

How often do we say, “I’m done – I already tried that?” Not only do we do this with ministry, but we also do this with our human relationships. We close doors to new possibilities, forgetting God is much bigger than our human agendas. This text reminds us to take our faith a little farther; to venture deeper into our relationship with Jesus. In John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get out of the Boat, he reminds us that in order to experience the greatness of God, we must trust that God can do extraordinary things with us ordinary beings. This is a challenge for all disciples. We can talk about all the possibilities of our faith, but if we do not actually take steps in faith to make those possibilities a reality – if we do not go out into deeper water, our faith will be in danger of remaining along the shore line – comfortable and frankly, a bit shallow.

As I think about the church in contemporary society, I believe this is one of the most significant discipleship challenges today. We must ask ourselves – Do we really believe what we preach – or even preach what we believe? How often do we make decisions for fear of rocking the boat? How often do we prefer to maintain a stationery state that will yield nothing new in terms of community presence or spiritual growth – while focusing on our buildings? We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are God’s vessels, empowered by God to make a difference in this world. We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are empowered by God to bring justice and mercy into our midst. We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are called to be a missional presence in the here and now. If we can’t be part of this witness in this broken world, who can? We too often believe in our own powers, opinions, visioning and planning – forgetting by whose power we serve.

As we prepare to gather as a presbytery tomorrow, I am deeply convicted by the voice of Jesus compelling me – compelling us – to go out into deeper water. I am grateful for the courage of many in our midst who have demonstrated their willingness to step out beyond the shore in faith. I am grateful for a presbytery leadership – Elder Linda Rutkosky, Rev. Randy Barge, and Elder Vijay AggarwaI – who recognize the “God possibilities” in our midst, serving as our moderators and vice moderators. I am grateful for a new denominational leader in the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, whose spirit clearly believes God’s plans for us are far greater than what we can see with our eyes.

I would be remiss, as we embark on Black History Month, not to mention my gratitude for the spirit of our historic African American congregations and leadership who continue faithfully to be open to stepping out beyond the shore into waters that are indeed deep and unsettling – but rich with resurrection possibilities.

May we continue to grow in our awareness of the power of the resurrection within and among us. May we, like Simon, obediently (albeit, at times, reluctantly) cast our nets and our trust into deeper water. Perhaps our “catch” will not be such a surprise.

The Centrality and Clarity of Our Call by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to
bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free..,“
(Luke 4:18)

I am a lover of film and theater. I greatly appreciate the interpretation of the human story on the big screen and on the stage. There is something powerful about confronting dimensions of ourselves through the story of others as they journey throughout history. The art of entering into the human experience through the life of another can remind us of our common hopes and aspirations. They can remind us of our commonality, our mortality, our temptations and our redemption. Like an effective sermon, these artistic portrayals can invite us to believe and reach beyond “what is” to “what can be.” Last week my husband and I went to see Black Klansman, a “truish” interpretation of the first African American police officer hired in Colorado Springs in mid-80s and his story of infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan. That is all I am going to say about the plot – as I would encourage you to see it. But what was particularly effective in the development of this film was the use of clips from the civil rights movement more than 20 years earlier to prepare and direct the viewers’ minds.

Those clips portrayed real-time images of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he prophetically challenged a world where the assumptions of race and hate found themselves challenged by the demand for equality and justice. As we know Rev. Dr. King was a Christian whose understanding of the Gospel was woven into the centrality of his ministry as he confronted the evil of his time.

This past week our nation celebrated the witness of Dr. King. Many of our churches participated in service projects in their communities, pausing to remember one who sacrificed much so that others might be able to take one step further and lift their heads a little higher. This year some of our churches provided support to those affected by the government shutdown. Through these efforts, the spirit of Dr. King continues to remind us that we still have work to do if we are truly honoring his legacy.

Recently, however, there has been some conversation about the danger of how Dr. King is being remembered. Harvard professor and friend, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Walton, speaks to how we as a people have romanticized and sanitized the memory of Dr. King. Whether we agree with Rev. Walton or not, his words are important to consider. Walton says, “In so many ways, Dr. King has become America’s racial Easter Bunny… He is the poster boy of American diversity that is brought out to lay the feel-good eggs at the feet of an otherwise sinful society. As long we focus on the Easter Bunny, we don’t have to deal with the cross and suffering.”

These words compelled me to consider whether we have done this to the very one we claim to follow – Jesus of Nazareth. Has his witness become sanitized? Have we distanced ourselves from the sacrifices, the pain and reality of his journey? Have we moved quickly to Easter Sunday minimizing the reality of the cross? Are we not guilty of often engaging the “love” part of his teachings without fully engaging the “centrality of his life’s call?” And in this Lukan text, as Jesus begins his public ministry, his “life’s call” is clear. It is to “bring good news to the poor…release the captives…recover sight to the blind… and let the oppressed go free…” Everything Jesus does and says in the subsequent three years is clearly framed by this mission – a mission given to him by his Father, God, in an act of relentless love for all humanity. And as we know, embracing this mission can collide with existing values. Confronting the systems and powers in place within our society (including the church) will more often than not be met with resistance. That very resistance and collision of values escorted Jesus to his execution on the cross – an execution blessed by both political and religious powers in their effort to sustain the status quo or social order as they believed necessary.

The clarity and centrality of our call – perhaps this is the challenge to each of us as individual disciples and our communities of faith. This is our 2,000 year old mission statement. It is one that understands and embodies the love of God in the expressed commitment of concretely transforming the lives of those within our walls and those outside the walls of our churches. As we continue through this season of Epiphany – as we continue to consider how God reveals self in the person of Jesus, perhaps it is a time to reaffirm what this means for us as a people in the greater Philadelphia area at this time in place. Have we sanitized our understanding of the Gospel in an effort not to deal with the pain? How are we reflecting our commitment to this Jesus call? In what ways are we serving as agents of bringing “good news to the poor…releasing the captives…recovering sight to the blind… and letting the oppressed go free?” And friends, while poverty, imprisonment, blindness and oppression are visible around us, they also take on forms beyond the economic and physical realities around us. They also find themselves among and within us – in our spirits and assumptions – compromising the very hope we proclaim to a hurting world.

I find myself in a deeply reflective place as together we faithfully seek to be a people of hope at a time when hate and fear are again the rhetoric of our culture. I am profoundly grateful for the witness of which we are a part – I am deeply moved by the commitment we embody in our congregations and other ministries serving our communities and neighborhoods. That being said, in a culture of quick phrases, twitter feeds, and social media memes, I invite us to again boldly consider and embrace the words of Jesus as he self-reveals the centrality of his call – the centrality of our call: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovering sight to the blind and freeing the oppressed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. May it be so!

“Thin Places” – Where Heaven and Earth Meet, by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

Now when all the people were baptized,
and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended
upon him in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.”
(Luke 3:21-22)

This is one of those biblical images that has often captured my heart and mind. Not only have I visually imagined Jesus standing by the Jordan River, but I have also found myself repeating the words spoken by God on many occasions as I have celebrated the life of a saint whose witness in this world was shaped by their faith. It is a bold Gospel proclamation – Jesus is humbly baptized by his cousin and the skies are opened; and God speaks words that I believe we long for throughout our lifetimes – “This is my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased.”

This seemingly ordinary first century practice of baptism is transformed into an extraordinary affirmation by God. Not only does God the ‘creator’ and ‘father’ speak a word, but Jesus the living Word is also revealed to the world while the Holy Spirit descends upon him. This is the consummate trinitarian moment – all three Godheads making an interactive appearance at this pivotal moment as Jesus prepares to begin his three-year public ministry. Understood as an epiphany or a manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, this is the second of three epiphanies in the gospels, the first being the revelation to and the journey with the magi (celebrated last Sunday) and the third at the Wedding in Cana. Epiphany is a season when the Christian church celebrates and affirms the many ways [deleted that] God in Jesus is revealed. This season of discovery and revelation continues until Ash Wednesday when we pivot and begin our journey to the cross.

I have learned that many of us do not think much about this season. It is simply the season after Christmas and before Lent. But the season of Epiphany matters, as during this time we are invited – like the magi – to continue seeking out and looking for God in the midst of all the noise and sounds around and within us. Celtic Christianity refers to moments like the baptism of Jesus as a ‘thin place’ – that place where heaven and earth meet. It is that place and space where we experience God in an unexpected way, where we are made aware of the presence of the divine, or as Celtic tradition says, “a veil is lifted,” giving us a glimpse of a profound presence. For the Christian church, that manifestation is understood to be in the sacraments. But as we know, we experience God is other ways as well.

For some of us, ‘heaven meets earth’ in nature – on the oceans or in the mountains. It is no secret that I love the ocean. I easily relate to the song from Disney’s Moana – “See the line where the sky meets the sea – it calls me” – and I can assure you, it does call me. East coast or west coast, something profound happens to me when I quietly walk along the seaside. For others, ‘heaven meets the earth’ through music, relationships, worshipand spiritual disciplines, art, and life moments. Any of these spaces can create the conditions for those ‘thin places’ or epiphanies, which allow us to be touched and transformed in profound ways by God.

Given the world we live in, it is critical for us to be active seekers of God’s presence. After all we often live much of our lives in what can be referred to as ‘thick places’ – places driven by the noise of social media and newsfeeds thrust upon us from outside, not allowing us to see God’s light breaking into the darkness. We often live in thick places where fears and assumptions make us deaf to God’s voice breaking in through the heavens. It is not enough for us to skip from Christmas to Lent as if there was nothing in between. This season of Epiphany invites us to continue seeking out those ‘thin places’ where God’s light and voice breaks into the unexpected and ordinary dimensions of our beings. As we begin a new year, may we continue on this holy journey with open hearts and minds – yearning for those “thin places” where heaven and the earth meet – touching us in ways that transform our witness in this world.

A Moment to Give Thanks by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

As we gathered last week as the Presbytery of Philadelphia at Wallingford, I was struck by the spirit of the gathering.  There was a ‘vibe’ in the air that accompanied the mood throughout our pre-presbytery conversations, business meeting, worship and celebration dinner.  I could not help but consider how blessed we are to be part of this diverse expression of the body of Christ – a body of Christ that, as I said Tuesday, has demonstrated itself to be courageous, creative, counter-cynical and covenantal.  How blessed am I to have been invited to join you five years ago; to come alongside you, to shepherd this presbytery; to partner with gifted men and women who believe God is making straight a way before us – so that together we might courageously and creatively consider ways to reflect the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ for a time such as this.  It is a time when it is easy to be overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness.  As such, it is also a time that makes it imperative to practice the discipline of gratitude – of pausing to name God’s blessings in our midst.  It is these blessings that will serve to fuel our hearts, that will serve to lift us up from our knees when we pray, that will inspire us with the Holy Spirit – so together we might be lights in the darkness.

As we approach Thanksgiving and this season of gratitude and hopes, I pause to say how thankful I am for the privilege of being a part of “The Story of Us.”  Thank you for the kind words spoken last week; for the vote of confidence as we embark on another five years; for the spirit of grace that allows me to be imperfect without fear; for the covenantal embrace that sustains my heart during the valleys and the mountains.  Above all, thank you for being faithful ambassadors of Jesus Christ.  My heart is filled with gratitude – for you!

So as you gather around table this week and in the weeks to come, I invite you to name those people and things that fill your heart with gratitude.  Boldly give thanks for them!

On behalf of the entire staff of the Presbytery of Philadelphia – Kevin, Greg, Steve, Deb, Betsi, Cassie, Andrea, Luis, Ann, Dolores and Marilyn – we wish for you a Blessed Thanksgiving.

 

The Struggle Within by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village,
where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.
She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and
listened to what he was saying.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;
so she came to him and asked,
‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?
Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her,
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
there is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.'”
(Luke 10:38-42)

We Presbyterians are a “doing” people. That “doing” is framed by the Protestant work ethic embedded into our denominational DNA. Associated with John Calvin and the Puritans, this Protestant work ethic emphasizes hard work, discipline and being thrifty as a way to live because of one’s faith. Many would say that this way of life impacted the industrial revolution and modern-day capitalism. Historically during the Reformation it was used as a contrast with the Roman Catholic focus on worship attendance, sacraments and confession. The implication being that kind of spirituality could lead to inaction and passivity. Ironically, we need both for a healthy spiritual life and witness in this world.

One could say that as Protestants and Americans, this work ethic has had its own idolatrous temptations. In our effort to “get things done,” to not waste time, to do things “in order” for ourselves and those around us, we could easily miss out on some deeper needs, causing a spiritual void of sorts. We fill that void within with the noise of movement and the checking off of lists. This noise can easily distract us from doing the hard spiritual work required of each of us. For years I wrestled with this struggle from within.

But our Biblical sister Martha might “have me beat.” Martha lives with her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus about 2 miles from Jerusalem in the town of Bethany and they are friends of Jesus. I imagine their home as one of those rare places where Jesus could go without feeling like he had to be on. Some of us have those places – where upon our entrance into that home, our spirits are renewed and refreshed. The people in those places and spaces become critical to our journeys in this life. For more than 40 years, my “people place” is on the Upper West Side in NYC. No matter how I am feeling, how lost, how pained, how exhausted – an embrace from the saints within that home releases the degenerative energy within and encourages me forward. It does not require any words or conversation. I can’t help but smile when I consider Martha and Mary’s home as one of those places for Jesus.

In this familiar story Martha is clearly doing what Martha does – she is making it “all right”’ for her friend – feeding, comfort, warmth, etc… Every time we have a gathering at home, I can relate. But her sister Mary has apparently found another way to receive Jesus in their home. While Martha is doing – Mary is listening. And when Martha complains to her friend Jesus – he does not support her concerns. On the contrary, he lifts up Mary’s model as something important for the long term. Listening is one of the most important spiritual disciplines we can develop. But listening requires us to stop, sit and allow for the silence or voices of others to penetrate the noise in our lives. It requires that we be open to the voices of others. And Jesus reminds us that this kind of engagement can never be taken away from us.

Over the years I have found this to be true – creating the space to allow others to shape my heart has proven invaluable. Creating the space to allow God’s voice to interrupt my schedule has compelled me to grow in ways I might have otherwise never experienced. That is how I found my way to silent retreats at the monastery in Cambridge, MA. It has provided me with the discipline and strength required to embrace both the Martha and Mary within me with joy.

In many ways our churches struggle with this identity – I have seen many churches wrestle with being in that spiritual space, mistaking the spiritual practices of prayer, ceremonial traditions, study of scripture and worship with passivity and inward focus. We forget that the reason we gather regularly is to worship God while renewing our identity so as to go out into the world and lead transformation – working to make right what is broken. Conversely, I have seen churches working to make right what is broken in the world – but forgetting the “why” of what they are doing what they do. We forget that we are not simply the YMCA (which I love). The reason we faithfully work hard at being a voice for change in the world is because that is the inner call of our faith – that is what the gospel requires of us.

My prayers for us as we continue into this fall, is that we will be a people who intentionally strengthen the spiritual disciplines that serve as our foundation as we take that strength and witness into the world. May we embrace the importance and presence of the Martha and Mary within each of us.

An Affirmation of Faith in ‘the Testimony of Creation-Scapes’ by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In God’s hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains also belong to God.
The sea and the dry land belongs to God,
which God’s hands have formed.
(Adapted from Psalm 95:3-5)

There are moments and places in our lives that visually and viscerally proclaim God’s greatness beyond our personal existence. They are moments that speak to our spirits, loudly reminding us of majestic presence in the work of creation and nature – or what I will call ‘creation-scape.’ Having recently returned from 16 days in Iceland and Ireland, I was confronted by such a moment. I have returned with this deep sense of gratitude for having had the gift of pausing and traveling to corners of the globe unknown to me before. I am experiencing an affirmation of the beauty of the earth and how creation feeds our often weary souls.

To be honest, Iceland was our son Dakota’s idea – and since he was gifting us this trip, we graciously accepted “the stop” on the way to Ireland. Well Iceland was no ordinary “stop on the way to anywhere else.” Iceland was extraordinary – especially as we made our way through the southwest part of the country where we floated with icebergs as they made their way through a lagoon on their way to the North Atlantic Ocean. It was a calm day with a stillness in the air – the reflection of the lagoon clearly mirroring the whites, blues, and black combination of ice colors as they floated away from the glacier wall. We floated alongside them on a motorized rubber boat slowly weaving our way through the towering grandeur. The splendor of the glacier, the icebergs and the massive ocean that would ultimately receive the ice sculptures reminding us of our humble place in creation. I could visualize the hand of a great sculptor giving shape to the formation of shapes and colors around me.

And as if this was not enough – after a long day, the lights of the Aurora Borealis made themselves seen at midnight. There are no words for dancing lights in the sky – even when the colors are subdued. I stood in the cold for more than 90 minutes, afraid that I would miss something. I was mesmerized at their subtle movements. As many of you know, I have often described the light of Christ as being like that of the northern lights – uncontainable, dancing, whispering. I believe that to be truer today. Iceland became a vivid reminder of how God’s hands have given shape to a natural world around us. I am reminded to join the psalmist in affirmation of God’s hand in creation.

We did make it to Ireland and there too we experienced God’s extraordinary presence in creation. There is much I can say – but the highlight of that visit was walking the Cliffs of Moher – five miles of cliff paths some 400 – 700 feet above the Atlantic in western Ireland. The mountains physically look like something out of a Game of Thrones scene – a combination of beauty and eeriness. Formed some 300 millions years ago, the cliffs stand vertically on the ocean’s edge. One could not deny God’s presence as we walked the windy and winding path. We could see creation-scape perfection for miles, again becoming deeply aware of our own humanity and mortality before the majesty of the rock formations receiving the ocean waves.

Like many of you I often live a rhythm that does not always encourage me to take in the beauty around me. It is a rhythm that is often framed by to-do lists, meetings and other over-commitments. It’s a rhythm defined by discouraging weather patterns or newsfeed. It’s frankly a rhythm that can strip our souls from who we are called to be. It is good to pause and be reminded of what is far greater than any of us. It clearly does not need to happen in another country – but it is good to take quiet inventory of that which is God’s work in creation as part of our spiritual disciplines.

So I join the psalmist in proclaiming God’s greatness, leaving you with a song that speaks to the majesty and miracle of creation as an affirmation of faith and testimony to our creator. I first heard it at a concert in which Nicole Mullins sang – it has escorted me through the complex seasons of my life. I hope you enjoy it, but the words that speak powerfully are –

Who taught the sun where to stand in the morning?
Who told the ocean you can only come this far?
Who showed the moon where to hide ’til evening?
Whose words alone can catch a falling star?
Well I know my Redeemer lives
I know my Redeemer lives
All of creation testify
This life within me cries
I know my Redeemer lives

Amen!

 

 

 

 

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.