March/April Issue


Holy Week Art

I have another topic I want to write about today, but honestly, I want to keep Holy Week holy and welcome you into a few ways I have been proessing the mystery of our faith this week. The other topic will have to wait for next time. I often find that art is the best way for me to keep things holy and so I will share some pieces here.

Are you familiar with the artist He Qi? He is my favorite contemporary Scripture artist. The colors he uses are quite vibrant, loud even. I appreciate how the people depicted in the pictures are not clearly gendered, there is an andrognyous appearance to some of the people. There is movement to his art and the gazer is invited into the scene that Dr. He Qi is creating. Here is his depiction of Jesus triumphanal entry into Jerusalem. Notice the movement in the crowd. They are kneeling, head titled backwards, standing with arms outreached, hand over mouth, and hands reached out. You can almost hear the people crying out "Hosanna, save us!" The donkey's gaze is piercing. Is the donkey looking right at us? Does the donkey know its mission? A child in my congregation interpreted the story of Palm Sunday by saying she was most struck by the fact that the donkey had to give its permission before Jesus could ride on it. I love that! Since John is the only Gospel that mentions palms we see a mulit-gospel representation in this piece. Leafy branches, palms, and cloaks are being offered before Jesus.

As I prepare my sermon for Holy Thursday, I am currently meditating on Dr. He Qi's depiction of the footwashing. As I look at this picture I hear John 13:1 in my head "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." This Jesus is a lover. He touches people, he is vulnerable, he is intimate, he breaks bread, and he faithfully loves to the end. What a word of hope in a world of fleeting love! Notice the angel and then Jesus kneeling at one of his disciples feet. Notice the hands of this disciple, almost defensive and not very open. Could this be Judas? 

The following image is the background to my laptop. Edwina Sandys is the creator of this piece title Christa (1975). It is a feminist interrpretation of Jesus and is displayed in the Brooklyn Museum. This may be provocative for some of you, but I invite you to reflect on Holy Week from a variety of angles. Let the art disrupt, comfort, and inspire. Christa is inspirational and quite powerful for me. She helps me stay focused on my call as a Minister of Word and Sacrament hence why she is my laptop background.

Gungor's "Beautiful Things" has been around for a couple of years, but it musically represents how I understand the resurrection of Jesus this year. Death, decay, heartache, ugly choices we've made, and ugly choices others have made do not have the last word. Hope, beautiful and resilitent hope, is the climax of our Christian story. Behold, God is making all things new. 

I will end my Holy Week artistic reflections with this poem about the first minister of the resurrection of Jesus, Mary Magadelene, by Edwina Gateley. God's blessings to you and to me as we travel our most holy week of the year.

Tell Them
By Edwina Gateley

Breaking through the powers of darkness
bursting from the stifling tomb
he slipped into the graveyard garden
to smell the blossomed air.

Tell them, Mary, Jesus said,
that I have journeyed far
into the darkest deeps I've been
in nights without a star.

Tell them, Mary, Jesus said,
that fear will flee my light
that though the ground will tremble
and despair will stalk the earth
I hold them firmly by the hand
through terror to new birth.

Tell them, Mary, Jesus said,
the globe and all that's made
is clasped to God's great bosom
they must not be afraid
for though they fall and die, he said,
and the black earth wrap them tight
they will know the warmth
of God's healing hands
in the early morning light.

Tell them, Mary, Jesus said,
smelling the blossomed air,
tell my people to rise with me
to heal the Earth's despair.


DMin or PhD?

I thirst for the living God. Where shall I go?


I love learning. I love the process of reading, studying, conversing, and wrestling with ideas. I love challenging assumed norms and defending new conclusions. I love theory, but theory needs to have feet. I love the ideas, but ideas need to have soul. 

Each week I teach a theology class at West End Collegiate Church. It's on the Scripture passage for worship that week and it's one of the hours of my week I am most alive. I love looking at the passage and then ripping it open from so many angles. What is the context? What would a feminist critique of this text look like? What is the theology of each character in the pericope? How many different ways can we understand this text? Then I love taking what I have studied and organizing it into a lesson plan. I sometimes think I am a little weird for how excited I get to put a lesson plan together. Then the magic happens when we all gather for the class. I consistently hear from my congregation that they enjoy coming to my class because there is a freedom I offer when we engage Scripture in my class. The way I teach helps people not be afraid about saying "the wrong thing." God's grace is alive in this class and we do theology together. We live theology. I love teaching and watching my "students" come alive to the questions they have and the knowledge I bring to our class. 

Which leads me to the question in the title of this blog. The congregation I serve tends to be a more intellectual congregation. A few in my congregation have asked me if I am considering another degree and have encouraged me to do so. What a gift for a pastor to hear! I am a minister who brings the academy to the congregation and a spirituality to the academy. I am concerned about nuanced thinking in the congregation and I am concerned about the soul in the academy. I have greatly enjoyed the conversation on the PhD route that Jessica Bratt and James Bratt have facilitated for us on The 12. It has informed my continuing questions on which route I want to take. And Jessica, I think the world of you, God bless you in your work my sister.

I love parish ministry, but I also can see myself teaching at a seminary in the future. I wonder if I will always have one foot in the academy and one foot in the parish? I would get bored if I didn't at least have one foot in the academy. My soul would suffer if I didn't have one foot in the ministry of the parish. When I was discerning what tradition to be ordained in, one of the things that attracted me to the Reformed stream was our love of education. I love how our tradition values good thinking and rigorous learning. 

My theology, and my choices in life, are partly guided by our liturgy, "I thirst for the living God. Where shall I go?" DMin or PhD? Questions of responsibility come forward in me. What a privilege it is to even consider furthering my education, is this a selfish endeavor that could best serve the community in other ways? What will best serve the body of Christ? What will most make me alive? What is sustainable for my soul?

Last night, after our classis meeting, five women ministers and I went out for a glass of wine. Two of us around the table have PhDs and one is currently in pursuit of her DMin. My other colleague and I are asking similar questions about the next steps of our educational process. We both are aware that there is probably another degree in our future, but are wondering if the DMin or PhD is more faithful to our calls. One of the things that was spoken around the table is that the PhD will allow more opportunity to teach in a seminary setting, if that is what I want to do in the future. We also talked about the gender dynamics in both the academy, and the church, and how important another degree is as women who do theology publicly. It was good to hear their perspectives and add that to my processing.

I love parish ministry and I love the academy. I have been seeking the council of others in this journey and welcome thoughts from you. I am curious how people perceive each of these degrees. I also welcome further questions that I should be asking myself as I discern my steps forward. I do thirst for the living God and I am wondering where this thirst will take me educationally. I welcome your prayers.





Urban Church: A Response to Dr. Christena Cleveland's Piece

Dr. Christena Cleveland is someone I met on Twitter a year ago and have been following her closely since. She writes about faith and justice in ways that are honest and call the body of Christ to more faithfully reflect on our practices. I have found her presence to be pastoral, prophetic, wise and hopeful. We have not had the pleasure of meeting in person yet, but I do hope that we will meet in the near future. We both share a common love for the Belhar Confession. If you are not aware of her, I encourage you to check out her blog, or her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

Yesterday she wrote a piece titled "Urban Church Planting Plantations." The context of this piece is Buffalo, New York where she was last week. She was working with urban pastors who have devoted their lives to serving Buffalo. In 2013, Governor Cuomo announced the Buffalo Billion Dollar Investment Plan in which he hoped to transform the city with the desire of rescuing it from it's shrinking population and declining business.

This has caught the eyes of many white suburban churches. Cleveland writes:

The urban pastors reported that, in the wake of Governor Cuomo’s announcement, many predominantly white, wealthy suburban churches in the area have expressed renewed interest in Buffalo’s urban center. But rather than connecting with the urban pastors who have been doing ministry among the oppressed in Buffalo for years, and looking for ways to support the indigenous leaders who are already in place, they have simply begun making plans to expand their suburban ministry empires into the urban center. In other words, they’re venturing out into the world of urban church planting.

One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist. The suburban churches are simply marching in. 

As she notes, this is happening all over the United States as wealthy, white church planters go into urban cities as if to conquer a land and people in the name of their understanding of the Gospel. 

I remember participating in a meeting at the 2009 RCA General Synod. Someone, quite involved in the church planting world, had used the words "Manifest Destiny" in this person's understanding of why we plant churches. Alarmed and shocked, I looked up from my seat to glance over at my friend's eyes who was just as alarmed as I was that those words were used as an affirmation of church plants. My friend, an African American woman, and I debriefed what those words meant to us when we heard them. How did she hear it? How did I hear it? Why did it make us uncomfortable? If this person saying those words would have been more careful at that moment, I don't think they would have said them. In this person's unguarded honesty, we were able to hear motivations for church planting. "Manifest Destiny" is not good news.

Cleveland continues in her piece and writes:

I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job. Last fall, I attended an urban and multicultural church planting conference that gathered national church planting leaders from over 30 denominations. As I looked out over the room, I couldn’t help but notice that the group was about 95% white (and 99% male!).

When I asked the group how they figured that a group of white men could possibly be equipped to lead urban church planting movements among non-white and other oppressed folks, the room got really quiet. No one had a good answer. Indeed, it seemed as if they had never reflected on this question before.

Privilege says I’m called and equipped to minister to all people (but minorities are only called and equipped to minister to people who are just like them).Privilege says that the largest ministry with the most resources is the most effective ministry.

This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped. For far too long, suburban pastors have ignored the perspectives and gifts of urban pastors. 

I find this piece by Cleveland particularly powerful. If I am honest, I have a complicated relationship with church planting. It's complicated, in part, because as someone attracted to urban ministry I see my own imperialistic impulses and that makes me nervous and brings me to confession. I find impulses in me to overstep my reach into communities I have not been called to and this also brings me to confession as well. Dr. Tom Boogaart and I were having coffee one day and I will always remember his words of wisdom when he said that so many pastors are seduced into empire building instead of service in the reign of God. We build our own castles in the name of "the gospel" while totally forgetting partnership with our communities and fellow colleagues. I find church planting to be complicated because I so often see a particular understanding of the Gospel privileged as the only understanding of the Gospel. I am not a church planter, though I often wonder what it would look like if the Collegiate Churches planted a new church, so I listen to this piece by Cleveland carefully.

Cleveland concludes by saying:

If we truly saw ourselves as an interdependent body with a shared Head, resources, blood, and life, then suburban churches that want to love on a city wouldn’t do it by expanding their empires across city lines. They would do it by truly sharing their resources, blood and life in service to the Head.

Why build a new church building in the city when you can build one for an urban church – in desperate need of a new building– that is already there doing great work?

Why hire a new pastor to work at your new urban church plant, when you can give an urban church the resources to make their long-suffering bi-vocational pastor full-time?

Why fund a new urban service project when you can fund the urban service projects that people of color have been running tirelessly and effectively on a shoe-string budget for years?

The Belhar Confession states that "We believe that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22); that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain." Cleveland's piece is right in line with the heart of one of our theological confessions in what it means to be Reformed. 

In conclusion, I have three responses after reflecting on Cleveland's piece:

  1. Confession, I love this part of our liturgical tradition and believe in confession. "God, forgive us our sins of arrogance, white privilege, and our lack of humility. I believe you are alive in the church, though we fumble along many times. Strengthen urban pastors who have devoted their lives to serving the cities they've lived in. May you lead your church in the work of Christ's reconciliation and reconcile us to each other. By your mercy, may we listen and augment our methods to more faithfully love you and love our neighbor."
  2. Reflection. I want to invite those who may be reading this who are church planters, or partnered with church planters, to reflect on the methodologies of church planting. Perhaps this may inspire you to wonder who is in your neighborhood and who has been there before you. What might it look like to honor their work first? I'm reflecting on this piece, as someone who serves a couple hundred year old church, and wondering how to more faithfully partner with other ministers in my urban area. I don't think you need to be a church planter to see the multiple ways one can reflect on this piece.
  3. The Belhar Confession says that "We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged." What does this mean in our lives? How do these words shape our ecclesiological practices? I wonder what it would look like to, as Cleveland says, "sit at the feet of these amazing male and female urban ministers" and affirm the work of God in their faithful work.

It's hard to be the church together, so much learning and unlearning. I am growing in that realization. I am full of hope that God is very alive in our midst and that hope brings me to amplifying pieces like Dr. Cleveland's as our guide for our future. 

Working for the marriage of mercy and justice, together. 


The Dust of the Saints

Sacred Heart Parish in Farmington, New Mexico

A month ago I wrote about a pilgrimage I was going on. Yes, it was part vacation that included the desert of Vegas with my fair share of neon shimmer. Yet that was not all this vacation entailed. My spouse and I traveled outside the disneyland of the desert and into the Colorado Plateau where the landscape takes on the names of burnt sienna, red rock, rust orange, and the other subtle shades of the earth. We hiked through the Grand Canyon and my new favorite place, Zion National Park. In between the vintage neon signs of Vegas and the red rock residue on my hiking boots, we traveled to Farmington, New Mexico where I was born. 

On All Saints Sunday I asked my congregation in my sermon, "Who are the saints that have gone before you that you would like to sit down and have a cup of coffee and ask them questions about faith?" I told my congregation that from Scripture I would love to take Mary Magdalene out to coffee, the first minister of the resurrection of Jesus. I would love to ask her questions about what it was like when she preached to the other disciples about the empty tomb. I went on in my sermon, revealing another layer of vulnerability, to say that I wish I could take my birth parents out for coffee and ask them all sorts of questions. They died when I was nine months old. I have inherited a manila envelope filled with pictures of who they are and stories from my family (I was adopted by my maternal grandparents). I have had an incredible life with so much love from my family, but nothing will quench the fact that the people who created me and brought me into this world are people I do not have recollection of. 

It was the first time I was back in Farmington in 30 years. I don't remember living there and yet I knew I had to go back. This was the land I was born on. My birth parents were teachers on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock. The memories of who they are do not live in the community anymore. I did not know anyone when I returned and I didn't know exactly what I was looking for. My adopted parents gave me the address of the apartment I lived at when I was a newborn. After checking into the hotel my spouse and I drove to the apartment. It feels silly to confess what I am about to write. It also feels quite vulnerable. So be gracious with my tender heart when you read this. I think what I wanted to happen is that when I went to the apartment my birth parents would be standing at the door with arms wide open saying, "Jes! We've heard so much about you. Come in, you are home." But, dear reader, of course that didn't happen. They have been in Glory for 29 of my 30 years. 

One of the clues to my birthparents faith I have inherited are checks made out to their church. I am guessing it was part of their Sunday tithe. I do not know how much this church took up space in their life. Were they church geeks like their daughter? Probably not; that title is usally reserved for us ordained minister types. But perhaps they were like the average person that comes to the churches we serve, wondering about the meaning of life and what the hope of the resurrection had to do with their life.

We decided to go to the parish my birth parents worshipped at. It was a Saturday morning and my spouse made a comment, "Too bad it's Saturday morning. There probably isn't anyone here. I wish we could go in." A closed door usually doesn't stop me. I said, "Let's go try all the doors." We found one that was open. We walked inside. I dipped my hand in the holy water, crossed myself, and made my way to a pew. I sat down and imagined what it was like for my birth parents to worship there. What were they thinking? What were they feeling? I didn't stay in the pew long. I quietly went up to the front of the parish, stood behind the pulpit and assumed the role of pastor. This was quite the powerful experience. My birth parents questions that I had imagined when I was sitting in the pew just moments before took on new weight in this new role of pastor of this imaginary congregation. What would I preach to a town that was economically struggling? What does the hope of Jesus look like, I mean, really look like, in the day to day lives of the people of Farmington? Would there have been something I could have said that reminded my birth parents how dearly loved of God they were, did they ever doubt how much God loved them? I began ministering to my birth parents in this imaginary world I was conjuring up. 

Between the pew and pulpit I felt a strange and holy communion between my birth parents and me. We were present to each other. In a mystical way, we were able to communicate. This is the closest thing I will get to sitting down and having a cup of coffee with them this side of Glory. 

Today is Ash Wednesday. This morning and this evening I will dip my fingers in ashes and make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the people in my congregation. I will remind them of how dearly beloved of God they are and I will remind them that from dust they came and to dust they will return. Just like I have been adopted by my maternal grandparents, I feel I have been adopted with great love, by the Reformed tradition. When I was at my birth parents church in New Mexico the words of Heidelberg Q & A 1 kept popping in my head. What a comfort for me and what a comfort to know that of my birth parents, too. As I place ashes on the foreheads of the congregation today, the words of Heidelberg Q & A 1 will not be far from me:

"What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong -- body and soul, in life and in death-- to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ."

I look forward to that day to be reunited with my birth parents and to sit down in heaven's coffee shop and behold the mystery of belonging in God's love together.



Where's your church?

While the Rev. Jes Kast-Keat is enjoying vacation, she invites the Rev. John Russell Stanger to write for The Twelve. John Russell is Minister for Advocacy and Education at Presbyterian Welcome in New York City, an organization that ministers to queer people in and beyond the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). You can read more from John Russell at

I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) variety. The question that usually follows my disclosure as a pastor is, “Where’s your church?” Other religious leaders might start to wonder about the size of my congregation, the style and theology of worship and language, and how many support staff I have helping me pull it off. They are innocent and natural questions. A pastor serves in a church where s/he stands up on Sundays to preach for their congregation from a pulpit. So I’m always prepared to start my well-worn it’s-more-complicated-than-that explanation.

My non-parish ministry.My first call as a minister is to what we Presbyterians call a “validated ministry,” though we formerly shared the RCA language of “specialized ministers.” This is the process by which chaplains, denominational staff, professors, mission co-workers, non-profit professionals, and others spreading good news go through to have their ministries recognized by our denomination. (It was once entertaining but therapeutically confusing to tell people I was “seeking validation.”) It empowers us preach the word and “rightly” administer the sacraments, as John Calvin would have it, in and beyond the walls of congregations. 

Yet, since my ordination I’ve noticed the myriad and frequent ways we ministers serving beyond congregations are assumed not really to be pastors. As a minister working in a faith-based non-profit, I’m currently fighting the urge to give you a rundown of what my ministerial day-to-day looks like, hoping to convince you I’m legit. But I won’t do that because it only buys into the scrutiny my call and ministry exist under. I’ve learned this behavior through the now familiar questions, laced with skepticism, about my ministry. This skepticism contributes to the erroneous sense that my validated minister colleagues and I are laity playing dress-up.

But for us Reformed folks I think there is something deeply theological about celebrating validated/specialized ministries. Our tradition worships a Sovereign God who is active in all of creation. We proclaim a Christ who refused to operate within the limits of established religious communities. We know the movement of the Infinite Holy Spirit who will not be limited to the visible church. Our God is always with us, but always beyond us. 

Ministers who work primarily beyond the walls of congregations—but not apart from them—visibly point to the invisible church all around us. We specialized ministers are more than an ecclesiastical concession, we are necessary for the full proclamation of the gospel. Ministers serving a particular congregation are also necessary for us to become the Church, but today I’m dreaming of a community where the language of ordained ministry in conferences, congregations, and classes, can be questioned, stretched, and nuanced beyond the limits of parish ministry.

So from now on, when I meet another pastor, my question will be: “What does your ministry look like?”