Cherry Bream, Flickr, under Share-Alike License


Green Pastures

From Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

A couple months back, I sat in an Iowa pasture with 14,000 others to see Bill and Hillary.

Don’t read too much into that. It is more about me being a sucker for spectacle and possible history-in-the-making, than a Clintonista. Bill was his usual empathetic and charming self. Hillary less so.

The day’s most moving moment came from the host of the event, retiring Iowa senator Tom Harkin. In a public swansong of sorts, he told about the cherished memento that hangs on his office wall in Washington. It is a postcard his father received from President Franklin Roosevelt inviting him to come to work for the Works Progress Administration. Harkin shared how his family, which until then hadn’t been particularly promising or political, became that day staunch Democrats—so much so that their son would become a United States Senator—all because Franklin Roosevelt cared for them.

Looking at the people assembled in the pasture, I surmised that many would have told similar stories. FDR’s New Deal locked in generations of future Democrats.


Pastoring in the midst of Ebola

From Jessica Bratt

Susan Sytsma Bratt serves as Associate Pastor of Northridge Presbyterian Church (USA) in Dallas, Texas. She’s also my cousin-in-law (and daughter-in-law of fellow 12 blogger James Bratt)! Her congregation has ties both to Vickery Meadow, the neighborhood where the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the US had been staying with relatives, and to Texas Presbyterian, the Dallas hospital where that patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, was treated and later died. 

Susan and her husband Peter are also anticipating the arrival of their first child in just a few weeks, and the birth is planned to take place at Texas Presbyterian Hospital. I asked Susan about her experiences as a pastor and parent-to-be in the midst of the ongoing reactions to Ebola in Dallas. Many thanks to Susan for sharing her perspectives with The 12 this week!

Jessica: Overall, what has it been like to pastor in the midst of this situation?

Susan: I’ve taken on a different pastoral role than usual in this situation as I’ve been more conscious of the public role I can play in terms of being a non-anxious presence, sharing facts via social media and in sermons and newsletter articles, and framing this situation and our response theologically and biblically. I have felt called more than ever too to a ministry of presence in Vickery Meadow where parishioners live, and at Texas Health Dallas Presbyterian Hospital.   

Ebola in Dallas has also compelled me to connect more intentionally with colleagues.  I’m grateful to those like George Mason of Wilshire Baptist, and Brent Barry of NorthPark Presbyterian Church, the Attending Clergy Association of Dallas Presbyterian Hospital who have worked to connect clergy to form a web of support and leadership in our community.

J: You're due to deliver your first child at Texas Presbyterian next month. What are the reactions you're getting, and what are your own thoughts about how to stay level headed in the midst of this? How do you deal with other peoples' fear, personally and professionally?

S: First, I have to say that I implicitly trust Texas Presbyterian, or Presby as locals refer to it. It is an asset to our community, and has been very involved in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood. Most of my parishioners go there for procedures etc., and it is why I chose my OB practice in the hospital, and why we chose to deliver there before Ebola hit. I also serve on the Attending Clergy Association Executive Board of Dallas Presby, an interfaith group that is led by Rev. John Engelhard (a fellow Calvin College alum).  It is a hospital that has its roots in mission and in caring for all. Given that history, and their solid commitment to excellent care I trust the institution.


“I’ll Be There In Spirit.”

People get nervous about the Holy Spirit.

I’ll never forget developing a friendship with someone in my neighborhood, who I’ll call Jordan, when my wife Monica and I moved to Philadelphia in 2008 to start Liberti Church. Jordan is like most of the people who live in my neighborhood: smart, cosmopolitan, and decidedly un/non/post-Christian. Shortly after meeting him, I realized that I was literally the first Christian person he’d ever really interacted with.  

Jordan told me over dinner one evening, that he did have one other run-in with Christianity. Something of a jack-of-all-trades, he worked on the film Jesus Camp, a 2006 documentary that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, about a kids’ summer camp called “Kids on Fire” which happened in the Midwest. At the camp, children were taught to “get the Spirit,” roll around on the ground, babble crazily, and yell at the top of their lungs. After describing to me the strange, alternate universe he entered when on location for the film, he wrinkled his face up: “Is that like what you do?”

Even Christians are a little uncertain about the Spirit. Christians call God “Father,” and “Son”—both of which are relational titles with human analogues. The other member of the Holy Trinity? “Spirit.” Or, in the King’s English, “the Holy Ghost.” (That’s pronounced as one word south of the Mason-Dixon line: the “HolyGhost”.)

Yet, two millennia of Christian praying, worshipping, and theologizing has insisted that we can’t commune with God, can’t follow Jesus without the mysterious third member of the Trinity. After affirming “I believe in God…” and “I believe in Jesus Christ…”, the community of Jesus takes a breath, and gets in on the action: “I believe in the Holy Spirit… the Church… the forgiveness of sins…”  

John’s favorite word for the Holy Spirit is “parakletos”-- a rich, many-sided term variously translated as “Advocate,” “Comforter,” or “Mediator.” Tertullian called the Holy Spirit the “doctor veritatis”—the “Truth-Teacher,” or “Truth-Doctor.”  Augustine of Hippo thought of the Spirit as the “digitus Dei”—the “finger of God.” The Holy Spirit is God-in-action, God-in-person.  

The Holy Spirit attaches us to God’s past, present, and future. The Spirit brings God’s mighty history in Christ into our present; unites us with God’s own life, and offers us a foretaste of God’s great promised future.  

This makes profound sense in the lives of people far from Christian faith: the Christian story takes us seriously as whole persons. Christianity is a matter of history, intellect, facts—but not only these things. Christian faith is both intellectually compelling and spiritually satisfying.  

Oftentimes, when I’m invited to a dinner party, a wedding, or some other various-and-sundry-kind-of-get-together, and I can’t (or don’t want) to attend, I’ll often say, “I’ll be there in spirit!” The night before his death, Jesus told his friends this too, but he meant it, and it’s still good news for his friends two millennia later.

Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).


Communio Sanctorum

From Debra Rienstra

Thy glorious household stuff did me entwine, 
                And ‘tice me unto Thee.

George Herbert, “Affliction” (I)

When I was a child, my family usually attended church on New Year’s Eve, and during the service the pastor or an elder would read the “necrology”—the list of those from the congregation who had died in the last year. It was a way of taking stock, marking the passage of time, meditating on the reality that “Hours and days and years and ages swift as moving shadows flee,” to quote a somber hymn we would sometimes sing. I also seem to recall that babies baptized that year were duly accounted for, although their names seemed to weigh feather-light when read against the gravity of the saints departed.

This Sunday evening, my church will hold an All Saints’ Day service. Several of us remarked at a worship committee meeting how we rather cherished that old-fashioned practice of reading the necrology, but since no one was especially interested in attending, let alone planning, a New Year’s Eve service, we decided to shift this practice to All Saint’s Day—which we all agreed was a more fitting occasion for it anyway. At our service, I am hoping we will also sing “For All the Saints,” so that the accounting of our losses will dissolve into that triumphant tune and those resolute words about saints finishing their well-fought fight, resting from their labors, cheering us on with cloud-of-witnesses enthusiasm.

That’s the communion of saints, after all, yes? Or at least, that’s how we often think of it on All Saints’ Day: our connection, across the great chasm, with those who have shared in the body of Christ and who have gone before us. As we think of those saints, we look anew at the ordinary faces around us and recognize saints-in-the-making. We feel our connection to one another on the pilgrim way, the communion that comforts us as we “feebly struggle.” Communio sanctorum, says the Latin of the Apostle’s Creed, Original Edition: communion of holy people.


More living water

From James C. Schaap

Only once in rural west Africa did I see anything like this--a man, a male, at the community well--and this time there was good reason. We were in an isolated village in Mali, far off any easily traceable beaten track, when the men, the powers-that-be, insisted that we, their honored guests, visit their wondrous village well, a gift by the way of the Japanese, the sign said. 

They didn't say it, but it was clear they were bust-your-buttons proud of that well's modernity. No ropes, no pulleys, and no buckets, save the buckets they used--the women that is--to lug all the precious cargo back to their huts.

We had to walk a ways in a desert sun so intense I wished I'd worn a cap or cape. Emphasis on had to--there are things honored guests simply have to do, and we had to witness the glory of their blessed village well.

"We don't really have a choice, do we?" I said quietly to my yankee traveling companion as we walked in heat that was almost unbearable.

He tipped his head and smiled knowingly. "No question," he said, "but out here remember, water is life."

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