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.”

Table Transformation by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

As they came near the village to which they were going,
he walked ahead as if he were going on.
But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us,
because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’
So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them,
he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him;
and he vanished from their sight.
(Luke 24:28-31)

He took the bread…. he blessed the bread…… he broke the bread…. and gave it to them. These words continue to echo with significance across centuries to Christians across denominations, binding us to Christ and one another. On the day of his resurrection, Jesus is on the move engaging strangers on the road to Emmaus. As night draws near and he is invited to the table, Jesus accepts their hospitality. And in that gracious act of both their offering and his accepting hospitality—when they are together at table—they experience the resurrected Christ.

As a people of resurrection hope, we are invited to consider the power and significance of the table—both metaphorically and literally. As I have often said, the ‘table’ in our culture often defines and determines who is welcomed, accepted, and valued. Conversely, it determines who is not. But the table that we claim as an Easter people is one that radically embraces the stranger and ‘the other’ we meet on the roads we travel.

This ‘embracing’ of the stranger regularly happens in communities of faith when we are at our most faithful. I continue to be amazed by how individuals who come from different walks of life, who are not related biologically, who didn’t know each other before, come together as a community of faith. We are not unlike the earliest disciples—they are considered by many as a ‘motley crew”—not the MVPs or elite of their time. A disparate group of individuals become a transformed and transforming community—bearing the light and hope of the resurrection into a world that is hurting. Because of this gift, we have been blessed with relationships we would not have otherwise known or, perhaps, even chosen.

Notwithstanding this truth of the table, there are times when we fail—when we forget to greet and receive the stranger who walks through our church doors. There are times when we fall short—when we judge another before we engage them. There are times when we use the table as a place that makes us feel comfortable and even, powerful—as we keep others away.

But this Lukan scene at the table, between Jesus and the strangers who offer hospitality, reminds us of just how powerful the theology of the table is for us as believers. Throughout his life, Jesus models for us the importance of gathering around the table. He demonstrates his willingness to stay at the table even when confronted with betrayal, denial, and flight on the part of his earliest followers. He is willing to offer his life rather than abandon the very community that abandoned him. Even on the day of his resurrection, he again embraces strangers who, when gathered with him at table, are able to recognize who he is—the Christ, the Messiah, the one about whom the Scriptures have spoken.

Two-thousand years later we are again reminded to boldly invite and receive the stranger at our tables as part of our ‘gospel proclamation.’ It is at the table where, with open hearts, we might experience the grace of the resurrected Christ through one another. Theologian and preacher Fred Craddock offers a wonderful image to what happens when we gather with Christ at the table – “His presence at the table makes all believers first generation Christians.” May our hearts and tables be open so that—no longer blind—we might see the living Christ among us and experience the transforming power of his resurrection.

Celebration Amidst Human Complexity by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival
heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.
So they took branches of palm trees and
went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”
(John 12:12-13)

Palm Sunday has always held a wonderful place in my heart.  It conjures up the sights and sounds of memories and traditions I hold dear – children processing, palms waving, choirs singing hosannas.  Like many of you, I have enjoyed making little crosses out of the palms.  It is a familiar and cherished moment of the festival seasons of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Our congregations show renewed signs of life – as the “saints” prepare their hearts in worship for the events that follow in the week ahead.  Palm Sunday beckons us to follow the “great crowd” – as the crowd follows the man on the donkey.

As Jesus enters the gates of the city of Jerusalem, we also are invited to meet him.  We are invited to sing, “Hosanna,” as he makes his way through the city streets on a donkey, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies.  We are invited to be swept away by the energy of renewed hope and possibilities that God has for each of us in the One who “comes in the name of the Lord.”

And yet, Palm Sunday in all its grandeur also invites us to embark on a complex discipleship journey.  The celebration energy shifts as we all-too-soon find ourselves in a labyrinth that leads us through a series of dark nights.  As we cross the city gates, the sounds of hosannas will too-quickly give way to more sinister images and sounds.  The hosannas are too-quickly replaced by the whispers and sounds of suspicion, distrust, and conspiracy.  The light of day too-quickly gives way to shadows that seem to get darker with every passing sunset until ,at last, betrayal, denial, and the sounds of hammered nails echo uncontrollably in our ears, hearts, and minds.

This painful complexity of the journey makes Palm Sunday that much more meaningful for us as a people of faith.  As we are once again beckoned to follow Jesus through the city streets, it is a moment to acknowledge that our Lord is indeed before us – even in the shadows of our lives.  It is an opportunity to lift up our voices in acknowledgment that our God has been faithful throughout human history – even when we do not ‘see’ that faithfulness with our human eyes.  It is a reminder that even two thousand years later, those who come in the name of the Lord are indeed blessed – even if that blessing is often hard to discern.

May this joyful entry into our often-confused and complex walk to the cross be filled with Christ-like courage – a courage that shapes how we do ministry in this time and place; a courage that reflects our awareness that neither the shadows nor the whispers in the darkness will ultimately have the final say in our lives.  May our voices continue to triumphantly sing with boldness and conviction – Hosanna – “God Save Us!” – blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Our Lenten Pilgrimage – A Time to Return by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

 Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing. 

Joel 2:12-13

I have fond memories of Carnevale (Mardi Gras) while living in Italy.  One of my favorite Carnevale was the year that Edward and I were invited to stay at a luxurious hotel as guests of the owner.  I always wondered about the costumes that Italians seemed to wear during these festivities.  So we rented real costumes – Romeo and Juliet – and spent the entire day walking around the city of Bologna in exquisite wear.  We ate at a lovely hotel and even had a professional photographer take our photos of that magnificent day, which to this day, make us smile.  The lavish energy around Carnevale is fascinating.  It felt like a last loud shout of excessiveness before a time of deep silence.  Notwithstanding its spirit of “too much,” it marks the eve of an ever-more significant season in the life of the Christian church – Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Pilgrimage.

Growing up, I mistakenly thought Ash Wednesday was a Roman Catholic ‘thing.’  Isn’t that sad?  It was the fall-out, I believe, of being a reformed people who wanted to celebrate the resurrection and unwittingly sent out the message that the darkness of Lent and the cross were to be minimized.  We were quick to celebrate Easter morning with bonnets and pretty clothes; we were slow to absorb the pain that got us there.  As we know, the resurrection of Easter morning would have little significance without the cross; just as the cross would mean nothing, without the resurrection.  The reality and tension of both are vital elements of our faith walk.  I am thankful that we have recovered the sacred traditions of this season.  I am thankful that our churches gather their communities throughout this season, beginning with the humble reminder of our mortality through the administering of ashes and ending with the piercing cry of a fallen Savior – leaving us with deadly silence and darkness until the light of the resurrection imposes hope for humanity.

This forty-day pilgrimage of Lent marks an entry into a wilderness season, if you will.  The number forty marks a season of struggle.  This was true for Noah and Moses – yet the end of both those journeys were framed with a new life of promise for those who followed.  The number forty marks a season of temptation for Jesus – yet he is strengthened for the darkness of the cross that would lead him through a time of despair into a time of great hope and light.  My dear friends, Lent is a forty-day season that invites each of us to go in silence to those places where we can explore the temptations and despair in our own lives.  Lent is a time to examine our spiritual and emotional faith life.  These are those deep places known only to ourselves and God.  This wilderness season is an opportunity once again to refocus and reexamine who we are because of whose we are.  We do not need to wear sackcloth.  We’re not even expected to fast, but we are invited to remember that we are broken vessels shaped and molded by the one God of creation, the potter in whose hands we place our lives.

As we refocus, I remind us that the wilderness journey is not a time to surrender to our temptations and sins.  It is a time to dig deep into our inner selves – to wrestle with our temptations and sins.  It is a time to reaffirm (and redefine if need be) the state of our relationship with God.  It is a time to reaffirm and redefine, our witness of God in Jesus, to the world.   I understand today in ways that I had not previously, that the wilderness is a time and place from which we will exit stronger than when we entered.  It is a time and place where we will exit with a determination that will strengthen us for the journey beyond today.

What joy to know that the journey before us is one we share, one that binds us together as a people of faith.  As we embark on this corporate pilgrimage – embrace the words echoed in Christian churches throughout the world this week – “from ashes you came; to ashes you shall return.” These words are not simply a reminder of our mortality; they are a reminder that even in our mortality – because of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, we have been gifted with the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of the resurrection.  “In Jesus Christ, you have been forgiven.”  And in the profound awareness of that hope, hear the words of the prophet Joel – “Return to the Lord your God.”   May we turn to and return “with all our hearts” – to a spiritual and embodied way of life that reflects before one another and the world, the love and grace that we, in our brokenness, have received.

 

 

Our Ancient Call – Counter-Cultural Faithfulness in Christ by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“The LORD has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God. These words echo through the centuries and remind the children of God of the complex simplicity of our call. We are called to stand with the ways of justice, kindness, and humility against forces that often feel impenetrable – injustice, hate, and poverty. These forces tempt us to turn on one another, take away the dignity of brothers and sisters, and tempt us to focus on what divides us. This has caused me to dig deep and consider our counter-cultural call as followers of Jesus.
What does it mean to be a Christian – a faithful servant of Christ – at a time such as this?

This question seems to be even more relevant as we, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, enter our 300th year of responding to God’s call and faithfulness as individuals and congregations. And so I have allowed myself to consider some moments in our nation’s history when culture and church collided:

  • The Civil War and the call to stand on the side of the abolitionist.
  • The internment of Japanese Americans and the call to stand on the side of justice for them.
  • The segregation and racism leading up to the 1960s when the church was called to stand on the side of human dignity for all people, regardless of color.

From the very beginning of our history, our story as a people has been checkered with these dark chapters – dark chapters that require the voice of the church near and far to resist the culture and reclaim the Gospel. In many ways, this is where we again find ourselves – that place where church and culture collide; that place where the model of Jesus’ servant leadership crashes head-on with the culture of leadership based on sheer power.

Regardless of our individual political cultural leanings and opinions, there is no denying the unsettled spirit in the air. It is a spirit that has been unleashed – giving permission for incivility, cruelty, indifference and even violence to take center stage in the narrative of our daily lives. It is a spirit that is counter to everything we claim as a people of Christ. We sense a call to be the people God called us to be – but what does that look like? Our call is framed by the life and teachings of Jesus. The Gospels tell us over and over again of how Jesus took on the cultural assumptions and images on behalf of the ignored, despised, forgotten, ill, poor.

This week we were reminded of just how powerful our witness can be as we gathered with the eight identified outreach ministries and initiatives that seek to interrupt the school to prison pipeline in the Philadelphia area. We heard of the commitment to provide safe places to inner city children and youth – places that would simultaneously provide educational support and elevate human dignity while creating alternative relationships to the ones found in the streets that lead to truancy, gangs, juvenile justice system, and prison. We learned of initiatives for restorative justice through radical hospitality and using the arts as vehicles to strengthen the hearts and minds of those forgotten or even feared. This is our call – to engage our faith in a way that actively embodies our counter-cultural call to resist the new normal that encourages a spirit “not of God.” This is our call – to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

As we prepare to gather next Tuesday for our Stated Meeting, I am grateful for the faithfulness of these initiatives along with the faithfulness of our congregations that grow and disciple the saints- young and old – to be bold ambassadors of hope in the worlds they engage. I am eager to come face to face with you; to greet one another in the name of Christ as we listen to seven words of light and hope during our worship. I am eager to be encouraged by your presence and prayers in this season of Epiphany. Above all, I am eager to reaffirm our commitment to reflect the light of Christ together – defying the darkness around us.

An Ancient Challenge – On Choosing “Another Road” by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests,
they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.”
(Matthew 2:11-12)

Last Sunday, the final Christmas story was told. It is the story of the ancient magi following the bright star that would lead them to the infant child, a child they believed would be the messiah, as the prophets had foretold. The familiar story bookmarks the end of the Christmas season, ushering us into the season of Epiphany.

In many ways, we have romanticized the journey of the magi. We celebrate their ability to locate the infant and his family. Clearly it is their wisdom and knowledge that provides them with insights absent to others. We are moved by their act of humility, as they kneel before the infant in the simple manger. After all, these are powerful and wise men – they would not pay homage to just anyone. Even the Roman King Herod received them in his court. We are touched by their generosity, as they present the infant with precious and expensive gifts. The gift of myrrh was commonly used for anointing and embalming, a symbol of a death that was yet to come; the gift of frankincense was used for incense, a symbol of the deity before them, and the gift of gold as a precious metal, a symbol of kingship on earth.

Their encounter with the infant reflects that powerful moment when humanity encounters the divine. That encounter shapes and frames what happens next. It is precisely what happens next that challenges each and every one of us today. When presented with the choice to return to King Herod (as he requested) to share the infant’s whereabouts, the magi chose to return to their own country “by another road.” They chose not to return to the King with the information, information that would have probably gotten the infant Jesus killed. The magi instead chose to honor the infant in the manger, and by doing so, save his life. Who knows what would have happened if they had returned to King Herod with the information he wanted? Maybe they would have been rewarded. After all, they would have been saving King Herod’s throne. We will never know, but what we do know is those three wise men – after encountering the divine- chose another road.
So what about us? What road would we choose? What road do we choose?

We have made this journey to the manger over and over again. We have sung the songs that make us feel good about the birth of the infant child. We celebrate his birth by offering generous gifts to those we love. But when Christmas is over and we leave the presence of the manger, what road do we choose? Would we choose the road back to the earthly power and wealth – to the Herods of our time – or would we make the choice the magi made? Would we turn our back on the trappings of earthly power so the life and witness of the infant Jesus could live on?
This is the ancient challenge for us as we enter a new year – at a time in history when polarization and fear-mongering continues to frame much of the narrative of the culture around us. Acts of hate, violence and terrorism are all-too common. What road will we choose as our witness in our congregations? In our ministries? In our individual lives?

As we know the infant child grows up – and his witness on this earth is clear. He stands with and for the oppressed and the poor. He touches those who are untouchable. He heals the sick. He embraces the other – the impure, the unwanted, the foreigner, the young and the elderly. He challenges the assumptions of the culture around him – both religious and secular. He ultimately chooses to give his life so the brokenness between God and humanity could be made right, allowing for us to participate in God’s resurrection hope. That was the Jesus witness. That witness is our call.

The choice the magi made when they stood up from their knelt position allows for the greatest story ever told to continue to be told. What will be said of our choices as we embark on a new year? During this Christmas season we have once again made the pilgrimage to the manger, eager to greet the infant child. But now, as we return to the movement of our days and weeks in those places where we work, play, and live, what road will we choose?

May the world say of us 2,000 years from now, on their 300th year as a people of faith, they stood with the infant child and traveled home by another road!

Encountering God – Renewing Our Souls for the Challenge

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There the angel of the Lord appeared to him (Moses) in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Exodus 3:2-4


By Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

You’ve heard this before, but it really is true. The older we get, the more the concept of time seems to evaporate, reminding us of the value of the time we have been given; reminding us of the importance of values such as purpose, courage, conviction, integrity; of hope and faith.  The founder of the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology in the Webb Schools of California in Claremont is remembered for his challenge to students:

What will you do with your moment in time?

One thing I have learned about time is we can easily waste it, cheating ourselves of deepening our relationships or developing intentional priorities for our lives. We can easily let life happen, becoming victims of the circumstances around us. As a people of faith, we are not immune from this kind of perpetual motion. Even the way we approach church and our faith journey can become rote.  We can easily go from this to that, from here to there without really allowing for an encounter with God; an encounter that calls us by name and renews our conviction and courage for the road before us.

Now most of us will not encounter God in a burning bush while tending our flocks.  For some, the encounter comes through music.  For others, it comes through deep prayer lives or communing with nature. It is no secret how I respond to the ocean. Over the past few years, I have found my encounters with God in a guesthouse in a monastery on the Charles River in Cambridge, MA.  What began as a convenient place for a mom visiting her son at Harvard has turned into a spiritual pilgrimage twice a year. Little did I know how I would yearn for the quiet space within the monastery walls. And each year my encounter with God has deepened. The Chapel and worship in this sacred space are in some ways of another world and time – frankly, a little like the Da Vinci Code.  But I believe that this is in part what makes this such a sacred space for me – the last person I would have ever thought would find solace in silence.  Like the burning bush, I approached this place as I was – intrigued by what I might find – with no real purpose but the convenience of being close to my son.  And yet through the space and the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, I have heard my name called out compelling me again to say “here I am.”  Without this space, I would fall prey to the life of perpetual motion, easily tempted to react instead of respond to the hard realities around us as a people of faith.

That hard reality has been embodied in the rhetoric and hateful language of our presidential election, convicting us of the truth that we are a divided nation. Regardless of your political affinity, there is no denying that many of our brothers and sisters feel a sense of hopelessness, of not being able to make ends meet, of feeling forgotten or feeling singled out because of poverty, race, gender, immigration status or some other injustice. There is a fear and anger that has recently framed the narrative of our nation. There is a cultural divide that is deep and real.

And it is amidst this reality that we are called to respond and lead – not sit back in our pews on Sunday morning.  As a people of resurrection hope, we must stand up against any and all things that would strip another from dignity. The “Jesus way’” demands we stand with the oppressed, the forgotten, the imprisoned.  The “Jesus way” demands our congregations and ministries resist accepting the new normal in the language of disrespect, of hate, of bigotry. This is our job; this is our ministry.  It was Jesus who said, the mark of our identity is seen in our ability to love one another.  (John 13:35)

But this work of love, reconciliation and healing, is hard work; it requires seeking justice while not letting our anger create new hate.  It is a work that cannot be done simply on the fumes of exhaustion or on the merits of our gifts.  It is a work that requires our making space to encounter God – so in the end, we might be able to rise from our knees to resist the evil we encounter around us.

This is our God-given moment in time – what will we do with it?  How will we respond to God’s call to us in the unexpected?  May our individual encounters with God strengthen and encourage us to stand together – bound by our faith in Jesus – to be agents of transformation in a hurting world.  May we find ourselves before the warmth and awe of God’s presence – lingering in that place from which we can turn and respond “Here I am, send me.”

Living Into Hope by Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

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May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
(Romans 15:13)

What is this thing we call hope? We know it is there, but it can be hard to capture with words. Desmond Tutu says, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.” This ability to see what is not yet visible has driven the dreams and visions of millions of men, women, youth and children. This intangible – hard to describe in words ‘state of heart ‘– is responsible for a spirit within us that not only allows us to see a better tomorrow, but also inspires us to “be and build” that better tomorrow. As followers of Jesus, this is the essence of our call – to embody this dimension of our faith in how we live. It is ‘us’ at our best. It is ‘us allowing God’s powerful Spirit of new life and resurrection to shape our identity against all the forces that would much prefer we exist in the shadows of fear and hate.

But “living into hope” – as the third part of our 300th Anniversary theme affirms – is not for the faint of heart. Pope Francis reminds us “hope is a risk; it is a risky virtue.” Hope embodied in our actions takes on and challenges the present and existent “way it is” – and dares project and actively strive toward “what it should be.” Hope is not based on some innocent Pollyanna view of the life. On the contrary, hope is fully aware of that which is all around us – threatening to imprison our spirits and even our bodies. Hope carries with it a depth not easily discouraged by the real and present challenges of this place and time.

As we – this Presbytery of Philadelphia – look to 2017 and the 300 years ahead of us, I have been wrestling with what the embodiment of our hope might look like. Will we dare believe God’s plans for us are far greater than our ability or inability to see the possibilities? Will we step into that belief with conviction? Will we be willing to risk the idols and brokenness of our time: a romanticized past; aging buildings cheating us from our witness; a rampant economic injustice that continues to create sub-populations who have felt unheard; a poverty resulting in homelessness; an education system cheating children from the very hope we say we claim in Christ; a culture of “isms” and polarization dehumanizing the “other” in the name of some false sense of security? Will we surrender that false sense of security we create with beliefs contradicting the Gospel message of God’s unconditional love? Will we boldly be a counter-cultural force to this reality? What will we be willing to risk so the world – not simply our individual lives – might reflect the hope of the Gospel for all creation?

Each generation has had to face extraordinary challenges and answer this question for themselves. This was true for our fore-parents from the moment they started to build a life on this continent. That journey slowly but eventually led to the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the rebuilding of a government structure from scratch, wars from within and wars with other nations, civil rights for all people, and more. Their legacy – with all its imperfections – is grounded on a hope they carried for which they were willing to die. What will our legacy be for our children’s children? What are we willing to risk for the sake of the promise of a new and better tomorrow? What hope are we willing to live into? How will we tangibly abound in hope?

As I write this Spirit Soundings, I am in Cambridge, Massachusetts overlooking the Charles River from a room in a monastery. Many of you know, I have a deep connection with flowing water – whether rivers or oceans. In my spiritual studies this morning, I was reminded the ancient symbol for Christian hope is the anchor. The anchor represents safety – a sense of holding steady on the waters. It represents a sense of arrival. Yet when the anchor is raised, it travels with the vessel on to the next horizon and place of promise. For us, it is clearJesus is our anchor, our hope – providing a centering for where we find ourselves and a ever-present companion for where we are going.

I honestly can’t say for certain where we will be ten years from now, let alone 300 years from now. But I choose to live in the hope we have been given in Christ. I choose to believe most of you choose to live in that hope as well. I believe together we can – and will – witness to the love of God in Christ in ways that are relevant, transformative and responsive to the world in which we live. I believe together we will abound in hope! So I leave you with the words of the Apostle Paul to the saints in Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen!

Rooted in Grace – “There but by the Grace of God go I”, By Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

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But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace toward me has not been in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:10a

Have you found yourself wondering where this unbridled anger and hatred has been hiding, which seems to have taken over the public discourse of our nation? Permission has apparently been granted to express the voice of pain in ways that bring out the worst of our humanity. Fear and anger have a way of doing this. They have always had a way of doing this when we allow our pain to define our actions and words. There is no denying that the pain around us is real.

There is pain when one fears they can’t pay for food to find its way to the table. There is pain when one fears they can’t find a job because of the color of their skin. There is pain when one does not have money to pay for medical bills that keep piling up. There is pain when one fears the secret abuse experienced as a child will be found out. Life seems to be littered with pain – injustice, loss of employment, broken relationships, illnesses, political systems that seem out of whack; congregations struggling with survival instead of vision and hope. These challenges are real – and the truth is that none of us escape their looming presence.

Like some of you, I have wounds from pain I carry from my life’s journey – pain from childhood abuse. I carry the pain of the failure of a brief first marriage. I bear the pain of a mother holding her premature dead infant daughter. There are other wounds I carry. I shared some of these wounds at the May presbytery meeting – the stereotypes that wounded my spirit and tempted me to believe that, because of my Latinx heritage, I was not ‘smart’ enough to venture forth into challenging and exciting possibilities afforded others. I am aware, if I focus on the pain, it can be overwhelming and paralyzing. I’ve learned life can’t be lived by simply focusing on the pain. But that assumes an intentionality of movement of the mind and heart – and that is not always easy to do. I distinctly remember a moment several decades ago when I consciously wondered why I was not angry with the world. I wondered why, in spite of these moments of pain, I was able to make choices for my life that allowed me to move forward with some degree of healing and forgiveness- for myself and others. All I could come up with was, “there but by the grace of God go I.”

I remember being surprised by my own words. I meant them – I was naming something within me that has allowed me to find hope in the midst of real pain. I have come to recognize that something as ‘grace.’ It is this deeply rooted presence of God’s grace and love that has allowed me to take another breath, take another step when others would be defeated, or worse yet, be swallowed up by resentment and hate. It is this profound awareness of a constant invisible embrace that has kept me standing. It has kept me rooted in hope.

Today, I understand this is our identity as a people of faith. We are a people rooted in grace. This is our ultimate call – to reflect unmerited grace in our lives so others might become a people of hope. It is funny, but this hope is ultimately not manifested in success or power. I have seen this grace expressed in places of profound poverty and persecution. Contrary to popular cultural images, I have seen this grace find voice and hope in the most unexpected places. My Aunt Rosa fought cancer for over 20 years before she died 4 years ago. She raised three kids as a single mom in Spanish Harlem. She lived below the poverty level and had no formal education. Objectively speaking, there was nothing easy about her life. But there is no one I have known who embodied grace more than she did. “There but by the grace of God goes she.” Her faith and her love of God radiated through her eyes. Being in her presence made you smile. Spending time with her gave you joy and hope to live another day. And her kids all did just that – completing college and moving their mom into a lovely little apartment overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC where she spent the last days of her life until she went into hospice. There is little more amazing than the presence and power of grace.

As we consider our pilgrimage of faith as Christians across 300 years in the greater Philadelphia area, my hope for us is that we can celebrate and affirm our identity as a people rooted in grace. “There but by the grace of God we stand” today as a people of faith witnessing to the love of Christ across languages, cultures, race, ethnicities, histories and more. There is no question that life in contemporary USA and the world is complicated – tempting us to be the worse of humanity, giving voice to our pain in ways that destroy one another. But grace – God’s grace – somehow manages to overcome ‘the complicated’ with forgiveness, possibilities and hope – framing our view of the world (and ourselves) in the likeness of the One in whose image we are created. Grace allows us to see the world through the eyes of God’s love for each of us. May we aspire to be a people who embody ‘amazing grace’ in all we do!