Presbyterian College Holds its One Hundred Thirty-Seventh Commencement in October

-Laura Smith Conrad, Class of 1993

“Presbyterians honor the life of the mind and insists that only a life of love exceeds it as a means of praise to God,” I shared with the Class of 2020.

In a pandemic year, when all life was interrupted in an effort to protect one another from the coronavirus, COVID-19, the school year at Presbyterian College sputtered to a close. Graduates were mailed a degree, and families like ours celebrated on the back porch with a photo to honor the completion of a degree. We tried to mark the milestone by making up announcements and like many, made a yard sign to share the good news with our neighbors.
The closure that a Commencement Ceremony and Baccalaureate Service brings to college graduates each year, was noticeably missing.

On October 3, on the grassy plaza facing the historic Neville Hall, hundreds of masked faculty, graduates, and families gathered to hear inspiring and comforting words, and to hear her or his name called honoring this significant step. As many of our celebrations have been of late, the mood was subdued, poignant, and, even more reverent, due to the gravity of the state of our world. In a matter of days our lives changed drastically.

Among those graduates was our son, Avery Conrad, and his friends, who still posed for the typically photo at the front sign, but noticeably missing were the parties and celebrations. Some students watched live stream from other parts of the world as they served in the military abroad or returned to their home country.

True to our college motto, “While I live, I serve” the commencement was a celebration of service. Allen McSween, a member of Foothills Presbytery, was honored with an Honorary Doctor of Public Service Degree for his many years of service to Presbyterian College. Allen, a Clinton native, and grandson of the 11th President of PC, served on the Board of Trustees from 2007-2016. He served on numerous committees of the college, Board of Visitors and the Board of Church Advisors.

David Taylor, PC Class of 1981, received the Dum Vivmus Servimus Award for his work with Momentum Bike Club. Established in 2010, Momentum Bike Club has grown to 16 bike clubs that serve 225 students. It has received state and national recognition as an innovative intervention that provides mentoring support to under-resourced students in Greenville and Pickens Counties of South Carolina.

I had the privilege of speaking to our son’s class at the Baccalaureate service on the theme “Rebuilding the Uncommon Good.” Our text was Nehemiah 2:1-5, 17-18 calling upon the class to be living stones who are built into a community that serves the greater good. Having a college degree places them among the top 5% of our global society. I reminded them that with great privilege comes responsibility. Jesus said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48b). Recalling the destruction of Nehemiah’s world, we noted the brokenness in our world concerning the pandemic racial justice, division, and economic challenges. Instead of building walls as Nehemiah called for, we are called to build connections. In closing, I charged the class with these words and concluded with the hymn, “Here I am, Lord,” calling us to service and praying that God would take our hearts of stone, and make them hearts for love alone.

So, I challenge you tonight, commit yourselves to the common good. Actually, in a time when the ideal of the common good seems like a lost value, I challenge you to rebuild the uncommon good.

And rather than rebuild a temple like Nehemiah and the people of God did, I challenge you to rebuild with the stones that are most needed in God’s world today:
Like honesty, integrity, compassion and empathy, that have been part of your holistic education at Presbyterian College. God does not live in a Temple but is Sovereign over the whole world. This world is God’s sanctuary without walls. We have been given the gift of life. How will we return the favor and give back to God? How will we serve the world?

I pray you become living stones, sharing the most desperately needed gifts of the Holy Spirit;
faith, hope, but above all love. Christ doesn’t change minds as much as he changes hearts. And through the undying love of God, we have been created, redeemed, and sustained.
I pray that your heart will be the most important gift, or living stone, you give in return.

May it be so.

Heartwriting

By Dennis Tedder

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[a] says the Lord33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. -Jeremiah 31:31-34

As we cope in a rapidly changing world, communicating with others is a crucial skill.  This ability remains important while our methods of communication have changed so much in the past few generations… and are changing still.

When I entered school as a child, one early, foundational subject was handwriting.  All of us were instructed in holding a pencil & shaping letters… then forming words… then stringing words together in sentences… writing to express thoughts & ideas… Younger folks, now taught keyboarding skills, find it curious & quaint that earlier generations received a grade in handwriting.

Handwriting is still a basic skill for most & we begin learning the same way – tracing letters.  We copy a pattern to guide our hands in forming letters & words.  Some of us as children excel at clear, clean, legible handwriting, while others struggle with handwriting.  Then, my generation had to learn writing in cursive!

I remember the shock upon hearing that our sons were not learning to write or read in cursive.  I will admit, they and their generation seem to manage this age of keyboards and voice command technology fairly well.

The text from Jeremiah extols an imperative ability for coping & communicating with a broken & sinful world.  This gift, so vital in living well, is not handwriting but heartwriting. Heartwriting is how we reflect in our thoughts & actions the Way of living our creator God inscribes in our hearts.  God calls us to make our mark with our words & deeds, as we learn & relearn, guided by & patterned on the truth God prints in our hearts.

“God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever yearning, developing, growing and changing for the good.”  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation for January 1, 2019

Just as children form their letters by copying the letter guide over & over, we form our faith & lives by continually following the guide God plants deep within us.

It’s been said that the Bible is largely a record of humans breaking their promises & God keeping God’s promises.  That’s where God’s anointed prophets come in — along with divine promises, we hear human prophets, who confront a people who keep breaking their promises.  Jeremiah is such a prophet, speaking to Israel long ago and to us today in times of stress and uncertainty.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises fatigued people:  The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with [my people]… this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (31:33) From God’s Way imprinted on our hearts, we will make our mark, with heartwriting that shows the world God’s Way.

Howard Thurman wrote:  [We] cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished. It is then that [we] stop hoping, stop looking, &… anticipations fade away.   The dream in the heart is the outlet. It is one with the living water welling up from the very springs of Being, nourishing and sustaining all of life. Where there is no dream, the life becomes a swamp, a dreary dead place, and, deep within, a [person’s] heart begins to rot… The dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [us] to ride out the storms of … churning experiences… The dream is no outward thing. It does not take its rise from the environment in which one moves or functions. It lives in the inward parts, it is deep within, where the issues of life and death are ultimately determined. Keep alive the dream; for as long as [we have] a dream in [our] heart, [we] cannot lose the significance of living.  Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart, 36-37.

The prophets know this dream in the heart as TORAH, God’s law (the way, the guidance).

Proverbs instructs:  Let not steadfast love & faithfulness forsake you… write them on the tablet of your heart. 3:3 keep my commandments and live, keep my teachings as the apple of your eye; bind them on your fingers, write them on the tablet of your heart. 7:3

 We take God’s writing within and we put in ‘out there.’ Can the world read our heartwriting?

A man writing at the post office desk was approached by an older fellow with a postcard in his hand. With shaking hand, the elderly man said, “Sir, could you please address this postcard for me?”

 The other man gladly did so, agreeing also to write a short message & sign the card for the man. Finally, the younger man asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

 The old fellow thought about it for a moment & said, “Yes, at the end could you just put, ‘P.S. Please excuse the sloppy handwriting.'”

 John Yates, Leadership XIV  Handwriting can be illegible, unreadable. 

Is our heartwriting clear in our daily words & deeds?

Our heartwriting is not cursive or some fancy font but daily Covenant living with God & one another.  Church family, we help each other, each generation, form faith by reaching deep within, holding up the pattern we can copy together.

“I think that there are a lot of broken hearts these days, broken on the left and on the right over the conditions of modern life. I think “the politics of rage” is really about heartbreak.”  Parker J. Palmer, Autumn/Winter 2010. collegevilleinstitute.org.

Beloved people of God, disciples of Jesus Christ, called & claimed by grace, God wants us to make our mark on this heartbroken world.  We are not talking about penmanship but discipleship. Do we form our lives guided by the Way, the guide God gives in Jesus Christ?

As Jeremiah and others declare, God plants & imprints God’s Covenant Way – a divine dream for how life can be — on our hearts.  Jesus promises that “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  We profess:  JESUS CHRIST MEDIATES GOD’S NEW COVENANT & BRINGS a life-building MESSAGE STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART OF A HOLY GOD TO EVERY HUMAN HEART.  Shaped by the Way God inscribes in our hearts, our heartwriting can bless the world.

May our heartwriting be clear and readable each day, sisters & brothers in Christ.


Rev. Dennis Tedder

First Presbyterian, Anderson

November 22, 2020

Hope at the End of the Journey

Original post- used with permission from APCE- The Advocate

By: Grace Yeuell

James Tissot, “Journey of the Magi.”

Who doesn’t like a good road trip movie? Some of my personal favorites include Dorothy skipping down the yellow brick road toward Oz, Olive travelling on a mini bus to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, and a chain gang’s odyssey through depression-era Mississippi in O Brother, Where Art Thou. The characters on each of these road trip journeys are driven by hope for something more or something better than what their life holds at the outset.

One of the most hopeful journeys we remember during the Christmas season is one taken by three men as they followed a star in search of a new king. A crucial juncture in this journey is captured by artist James Tissot in his 1894 painting “Journey of the Magi.” At least one critic notes that Tissot’s intent was to capture the three men as their separate caravans meet up and they become travelers together on a common journey. The painter places them in the foreground of the scene, sitting astride lively camels, dressed boldly in flowing yellow robes.  With intense focus, they fearlessly move forward in search of the promised one. They ride three abreast, portrayed as equals; each committed to reaching their far-off goal together.

This Journey of the Magi moment captured by Tissot holds a special message for those of us in professional ministry today. Whenever we feel like we are going it alone, this painting encourages us to look to our left, and then to our right. Hopefully, we can each see that, like the Magi, we are not alone at all. We travel with brave others who have also committed their lives to “following the star.” We know from scripture that the Magi reach their goal together.  They find promise at the end of their journey. They find hope and peace and joy and love. They find Emmanuel, God with us . . . and they worship.

May this season be a time of reconnecting with colleagues who remain our fellow travelers in ministry. We are still on the road, travelling together toward hope. This is good news worth sharing. And who doesn’t like a good news story?


Grace Yeuell is the Religious Education Program Director for Installation Management Command – Europe, currently serving in Vicenza, Italy. To find out more about educational ministry in the military context, visit the Army DRE Facebook page

PYC On the Road

In March of 2020, our Presbyterian Youth Council (PYC) planned, and was so excited for the upcoming Senior High Retreat at Montreat based on the theme “Joy.” One week before the retreat, the closings and shutdowns began due to Covid-19. Although disappointed, we worked hard to keep moving forward.

Jump ahead to August, when we were able to have our planning retreat outside at the presbytery office, everyone brought their own chair, socially distanced and were masked for the day. When it was clear we would be unable to hold Bonclarken this fall, we began praying and dreaming about how we could do youth ministry in a new way.

PYC on the Road was born and our amazing PYC students stepped up and planned keynotes, small groups, recreation and energizers. We hosted our first event (outside, masked, and socially distanced) on November 15 at Eastminster with youth from Fountain Inn and Eastminster for an evening of “Behind the Mask” led by PYC! It was amazing!

We would love to provide programming for you and your youth groups as well. We can do this in a variety of ways. We can come and lead a “regular youth group” evening for you; a Saturday morning gathering; an all-day retreat type of schedule or a ZOOM gathering. PYC will bring all needed supplies. We will follow your churches safety guidelines and would love to come and share with you as we seek to discover what are the things that we hide behind that keep up from living into who God has created us to be.

Please reach out to Joan Jones, PYC Adult Coordinator, at joan@eastminster.com or 205-222-3732.

 

Reflections from PYC youth

Mary Katherine Nelson (senior), John Knox Presbyterian

When I got the news that Bonclarken wasn’t happening this year, I can’t say that I was surprised. There may have been a glimmer of hope somewhere inside me, holding onto the possibility that maybe Bonclarken would be the ONE thing that wouldn’t get taken away. But in the end, it was obvious that it wasn’t going to happen.

Naturally, I was devastated. Senior year is bittersweet for everyone, pandemic or not. It’s a year full of “lasts” and savoring every minute of familiarity. As the pandemic spread, so did the number of cancelled events. Every day I woke up to a new email or text message delivering the crushing news. It was devastating. I felt like everything I had worked so hard to put together was getting pulled right out from under me. It wasn’t easy to bounce back from. I found myself spending most of my time alone, sulking about everything I had lost. But after a month-long pity party, I decided to look for the light.

Nothing was going to go as I had anticipated, but was that really a bad thing? I realized that this great misfortune was actually a blessing. The Lord knew that I was comfortable in my day to day life and that I was reliant on familiarity, so He flipped everything upside down. This was an opportunity to grow and experience things in a way I never had before. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need to take the next steps in your life and your faith.

This is exactly what led us to creating PYC on the Road. PYC has done the same two retreats for years now, and they never fail to amaze me. It’s always so encouraging to see how all of our hard work pays off in the end, and it was never an option for us to let that potential go to waste this year. We discussed the importance of connecting with the youth during these trying times, but we knew it was going to look a lot different than normal. Thankfully, PYC was ready for the challenge. Our dedicated group of youth was eager to experience new leadership roles and have total control over the event. We worked hard to write keynotes and plan small group activities, and it all paid off in the end. PYC on the Road pushed us to new limits in leadership and in faith, and I am thankful for this opportunity to think outside the box.

Augusta Roach (senior), Easley Presbyterian

I remember the last Mini-Montreat vividly as I had realized that weekend that it was something that God was calling me to do and I could not wait to one day be in Upper Anderson leading this retreat. The next year, after a very successful Bonclarken, the year took a turn that left PYC in a jumble of confusion and disappointment when COVID canceled our completely planned retreat a week before it would have happened, and a sadness after we realized that this is how our seniors would leave PYC.

Entering into the 2020-2021 PYC season, I had been praying that God would continue to work through us, no matter how that would be. I cannot say that I was surprised when we got the news that we would not be able to hold the middle school retreat at Bonclarken, yet I was surprised on how positive we all made the situation and how we adapted to it. Each member felt that COVID had stripped us from our everyday activities and everything we put our identity into and without those things, we did not exactly know who we were without distractions.

We quickly ran with that concept and in one day, we had created “PYC On the Road” where we would take PYC to individual churches and lead mini-socially distant retreats about the masks we hide behind that keep us from being who God calls us to be. The more we planned this, the more obvious it became to me that this is exactly how God had wanted us to share our stories and faith. After our first youth group on the road and hearing stories of faith from my fellow leaders and speaking with the youth, I realized that this is just what people need to hear at this time, and I am excited to watch God lead PYC through this new journey of ours.

 

Raising White Kids, a Report from a Book Study- from APCE

Written by: Sarah Dianne Jones
Original post source: The Advocate

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May of this year, I, along with every other educator, was swept up in the rush of equipping families with resources to talk with their children about the horrific racial injustices that are ever present in our country.

  • What could we offer families that would make this conversation easier?
  • What does a denomination that’s over 90% white have to say about how to teach children about race?
  • What was different about this situation, about this round of protests and outrage and calls for reform?
  • Would this be another case of watching protests take over most major cities and some smaller towns for a few days only to disperse when no change comes?
  • Perhaps the biggest question was: does my responsibility to equip my families change if this cell phone video capturing yet another murder doesn’t change things?

Of course, the answer was no; my responsibility didn’t change. This time, a book list of picture books, middle grade novels, YA books, and a children’s sermon about what God dreams of for all of God’s children didn’t feel like enough. Families needed more, and I knew that I needed to do more. Thus, the Zoom book study on Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids was formed.

The rush to form book study after book study was evident in Facebook groups, church websites, and even friend groups, but I discovered when I moved to Charlotte that people are deeply connected to their “home base,” their church community. The church is oftentimes their social group, parent gathering, and a huge piece of their identity. Even knowing this, I was surprised when over 30 people signed up to participate in the study, including a few folks from outside of Charlotte who had grown up at Sardis Presbyterian. We decided to meet weekly for two months, working through a chapter per week of Raising White Kids.

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Imani Milele Choir

An African choir, a South Carolina camp: Unexpected community during COVID-19

Imani Milele Choir

Written by: Leslie Scanlon- October 19, 2020

Original Source: The Presbyterian Outlook

They were supposed to stay for two nights.

Now, because of COVID-19, it’s been more than 200.

Last spring, on March 17, the Imani Milele Choir, a children’s choir from Uganda, arrived to spend two nights night at Fellowship Camp and Conference Center, a Presbyterian-related camp in Waterloo, South Carolina. Each year since 2013, the Imani Milele Choir has come to the United States for a fundraising tour — crisscrossing the country by bus to sing at churches and schools, raising money money for eight education centers it operates for children in Uganda, and finding sponsors for children who attend those schools.

As the choir group settled in at the camp – a group of 21 children ages 10 to 15, plus 16 adults – so, gradually, did the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to shut down travel.

“It caught everyone off guard,” said Sam Straxy, the choir’s tour director. At first, he thought the choir might have to cancel performances for a week or two, so he asked if they could stay a bit longer at the camp. When they began to understand things would be shut down much longer, “we definitely wanted to go back to Uganda,” Straxy said. But on March 22, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, closed Entebbe International Airport to all non-emergency passenger flights — so the choir was stuck.

That’s when Kevin Cartee, executive director of Camping Ministries of the Carolinas, offered to let the choir stay on at Camp Fellowship for as long as needed — the start of what he describes as “an amazing opportunity to provide some Christian hospitality. It’s also been amazing the impact the choir has had on us,” and the local community. “They have remained extremely positive and optimistic” during a stressful time, he said. “It’s incredible how the choir has ministered back to us.”

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Sustained by That Stuff?

by Pete Perry


Exodus 16 (selected verses)

They had been at it for six weeks.
Wandering in the wilderness.
Wondering what would happen to them next.

Dislocated. Not knowing the next place they would sleep.
Anxious that they would not be able to find food.
Scared they would not make it but instead would die in the desert.

So they turned on their leaders, Moses and Aaron.

“If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt; when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 1

We have been at it for more than six months now.
Wandering in the wilderness. The wandering began as we left the life we had know to find deliverance from a different kind of Pharaoh —not an Egyptian one but a viral one.

We too have been wondering what will happen to us. Have we taken the right precautions to stay safe in this wilderness? What about our children? What about our elder sisters and brothers? Will businesses make it? Will our salaries be sustained? And church. Are people still worshiping with us?

We can’t see them. Screen fatigue is beating us down.

Church leaders, can they be trusted to guide us through? Perhaps like those complaining Israelites, we are murmuring, — some of us beneath our breath, some of us out loud, —

“If only we had ignored this virus when life was so good, — when the economy was whizzing, —when we could have donuts and coffee together every Sunday . . . . But you, our leaders brought us out into this wilderness. You are killing this whole congregation.”

 

We are tired of this. Like those ancient Israelites, we want to go back to the way it was. Maybe there was a cruel Pharaoh back there in Egypt.. But at least there in Egypt there was meat and bread.

Those Israelites lives had been upended. They now just wanted things to get back to normal. But normal, the way things had been, would never return. What lay ahead for them was a whole new world, —a whole different way of being a community.
And God was forming them for that whole new world out there in the wilderness.

 

You know this story!

They were moving toward Promised Land, the bible calls it, that new world, —Promised Land in the land of Canaan. Out there in that wilderness, the Israelites were not in the middle of an interruption. They were in the middle of a disruption.

 

Interruption. Disruption.

Those are terms the Christian educator and astute pastor Rodger Nishioka uses to help us understand what we are experiencing.

An interruption is when what we have known stops. Then, after a while, when the crisis that caused the stoppage is over, —things return to the way they had been — to normal.

A disruption is when what we have known stops. But when the crisis is over things do not return to the way they were, to what we call normal. In a disruption, we get changed. Whatever has happened makes life different on the other side. Rodger is pretty sure we are in a disruption. 2

Just think if you will. Department stores and malls. On the far side of this wilderness will we be frequenting them? Will they exist? Or will online shopping become the norm? Office towers in the midst of our cities. On the far side of this wilderness will companies still lease thousands of square feet of office space packed with people working out of jammed together cubicles in buildings in the center of our cities? All of that was the norm in Atlanta, Charlotte, New York with the accompanying long commute times. In the future will telecommuting become the new norm for professionals and corporate employees? How will that reshape the whole design of our urban areas? Business travel. On the far side of this wilderness will companies still spend millions of dollars on business people flying all over the country and the world for meetings? Or will Zoom meetings become the new norm for such meetings? And how will that reshape our whole airline industry?

Out in the wilderness, the Israelites were in a disruption. God was reshaping them for what lay ahead in that new land they would inhabit. In this wilderness we are in as a church I invite you to consider whether it is, as well, a disruption rather than an interruption for us.

I make that invitation for I am concerned about your expectations. You have heard that the Session has taken action to authorize gathered, in-person worship to resume in our Fellowship Hall. The elders, deacons, and staff are getting ready for this. We anticipate all the procedures to enable this gathered worship will take about three weeks to put into place.

So on a Sunday toward the end of October, these in-person services will begin. Yet, we are still in the wilderness of this journey away from domination by the coronavirus. So these services will not be a return to the way they used to be. When they commence I expect the Session and I will still receive grumbling.

The larger reality is that even on the far side of this wilderness journey the shape of our life together as a congregation will not return to the normal we once knew. For in this wilderness God is at work reshaping this congregation.

I do not know what that shape will be. But I imagine, if we are attentive, —we might be able to discern even now some signs of the way it will be then. For instance, —in this wilderness time we are learning that some of the things we did as a congregation we haven’t missed. So maybe on that far side, we won’t do them anymore. In this wilderness time, we are learning that some people who came to worship out of habit or social customs are now out of the habit or have decided that the social custom of going to church is a thing of the past. So on that far side, we won’t see these people in our pews or in the chairs in the Fellowship Hall anymore. The ones who will be here may be smaller in number perhaps but more committed in faith.

In this wilderness time, we are learning hat the literal physical health of the members of this congregation is utterly dependent on the public health of this community and world.

As one person put it, we are learning that “none of us are safe until all of us are safe.”

So on that far side will a big missional focus of this congregation become working to assure everyone in this city and the surrounding area has access to quality preventative health care?

Like it was for those Israelites, this wilderness experience for us is a disruption, not an interruption. There is a whole new world coming for this congregation — a promising new world. Yet there will not be a return to the way things were.

In the meantime, it is hard. We are tired. We are scared about what is happening to our life —as a church, as a nation, as a world.

Will we make it to that far side? Why not give up and just return to the land of Pharaoh, — return to the way we want to go about our living, — return to the land of just letting this wretched virus take its toll, —kill off an estimated 1.4 million of us in this country 3 including who knows how many within this congregation, —to get us to “herd immunity”? At least if we did that, those of us surviving could eat and go on our merry way.

Those Israelites could not see how they would be sustained in that wilderness. Out of that fear they cried out in anger against their leaders. God heard their complaining. And God provided. Quail in the evening. Manna in every morning. Not much is said about the quail in this story. But a lot is said about manna.

Do you know what the Israelites called it? “Man hu” was their word. Literally it means “what’s that stuff?”

I wonder if their word for it is kind of like the word we have for leftover broccoli in the refrigerator, — “what’s THAT stuff?”

I wonder if it is similar to the word some of my grandchildren use when asparagus or spinach is put on their plates.

One Hebrew scholar says this about manna: —“A type of plant lice punctures the fruit of the tamarisk tree —(found in the Sinai desert) — and excretes a substance from its juice, —a yellowish-white flake or ball.

During the warmth of the day, it disintegrates but it congeals when it is cold.” 4 Sounds appetizing doesn’t it? God gave it to the Israelites to test them, — to see if they would rely on God’s providence to see them through, —to see, as the writer of Deuteronomy says, — if they trusted God “to do [them] good in the end.” 5

Every morning “what’s that stuff” was on the ground. For forty years! I bet those Israelites got tired of it. Having to depend on that stuff to make it through the wilderness got old. Yet, God provided. It was always there — fresh every morning. And it sustained them each and every day —“until they came to the border of the land of Canaan,” 6 —until they came to that far side, that Promised Land.

In this our passage through the wilderness, I heard a clip of the recent testimony Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, gave to a Senate sub-committee. He said, “these face masks, are the most important powerful public health tool we have. They are our best defense. I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine, — because the immunogenicity maybe 70%. And if I don’t get an immune response, — the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will.” 7 His comment stirred my imagination about what God’s provision for us in our wilderness right now looks like.

 

What is the manna God is giving us each day to see us through this hard passage?

It hit me, could it be science? Science. The science the public health experts have been offering us for months now. Science. The simple science that masks, social distancing, — washing hands, staying away from crowded indoor spaces slow the passing of the aerosol droplets of this virus. Science. Is that the manna God is now providing to sustain us? It may not be appetizing. The scientists sometimes get some things wrong and have to change their recommendations a bit. Yet, now the preponderance of public health scientists are telling us the same thing. These simple things work.

 

Science.

We may not like its demands. Wearing a mask is a nuisance. Not gathering in crowds indoors cramps our desires. Social distancing limits our desire to shake hands, hug, — welcome people to sit around our table. It gets old. Yet is science the manna God is providing for us to endure through this wilderness? Is it the manna that will see us to the far side, — see this congregation through to that side in a way that honors and cares for each member of the body?

Is it what God is giving us testing us to eat it, so to speak, — testing us to depend on it as a way of seeing if we trust God’s provision and trust God’s desire “to do us good”?


That stuff?
You’ve got to be kidding! Eat that stuff?
The Israelites ate it. They “ate it for forty years, until they came to a habitable land . . .” 8  

That stuff.
God is offering it to us right now.


Pete Peery
Interim Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Greer SC
27 September 2020

 









1 Exodus 16:3

2 Interview of Dr. Rodger Nishioka by the Rev. Lee Hinson-Hasty, Director of the Committee on Theological Education of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) August 10, 2020 https://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/does-the- pandemic-represent-an-interruption-or-a-disruption/

3 The Cost of Herd Immunity in the U.S. — Likely involves more than a million deaths; “That cannot be our price” by Kristina Fiore, Director of Enterprise & Investigative Reporting, MedPage Today September 1, 2020. medpagetoday.com

4 Fretheim, Terrence E. Exodus: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991, p. 182

5 Deuteronomy 8:16

6 Exodus 16:35

7 Dr. Robert Redfield. US Senate testimony. September 16, 2020

8 Exodus 16:35

You are My Witnesses

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.
I, even I, am the LORD,
and apart from me there is no savior.
I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—
I, and not some foreign god among you.
You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.”
Isaiah 43: 10-12

 

There is a well-known legend about a Rabbi named Akiva. He was born in the first century just a few years after Jesus lived out his earthly life among the people of Israel.

Late one afternoon, as the sun was beginning to set in the west, Rabbi Akiva was walking along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. As he walked home to Capernaum, he used his time to meditate and recite scripture. As the legend indicates, he was meditating upon the portion of scripture (above) where the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, You are my witnesses.

Rabbi Akiva was so focused upon the text that he didn’t realize that instead of taking the turn toward the city gates of Capernaum,  he followed the path toward a large gate of a Roman fortress. Just as the sun was setting, Rabbi Akiva grasped what happened. It was then that he heard a loud voice coming down from the perch above the gate. It was the voice of the  Roman Century Guard standing on the top of the wall. The guard shouted down,

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Rabbi Akiva was startled and could only respond by saying, “What?”

Again, the guard called out,

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Rabbi Akiva took a minute to gather his thoughts, and he shouted back up into the darkening sky at the Roman Guard, “How much do you get paid to ask me these questions?”

The guard was now confused as to why this stranger would ask such a question. So, after a few minutes of silence, he said, “Two Drachma per week!”

The Rabbi, with intense conviction, shouted back to the Roman Century, “I’ll pay your double if you stand outside of my house and ask me those two questions every morning!”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” These two questions point to our identity and our purpose. They are centering questions, especially during a year of a pandemic, racial unrest, storms, economic stress, and messy politics.

Who are you, really? How does your life reflect God’s love and the grace of Christ? Why has God claimed you and “called you to be a witness” during this specific season of history in this particular part of the world?

Debbie Foster
Presbytery Leader & Stated Clerk

 

Photo credit: Anthony Delanoix

Trehala Manna

By: Ashley Brown

I have a stack of Hebrew cards piled up on my desk at Austin Seminary. So, while not an expert in Hebrew, I am proudly able to read two words; manna and shalom. The latter is a result of a college tattoo session during my esteemed tenure at the University of South Carolina.

Manna means “What is it!?” in Hebrew. Did you know that? I absolutely, one hundred percent did not. Classes start in September, thank you very much.

So.. what could manna really be? Is it really bread from the heavens? Can God rain down some sourdough, please? Nerd out with me for a second…

Scientists and religious scholars have long wondered a theory that manna is actually a natural phenomenon that occurs in Middle Eastern deserts with a unlikely candidate- a simple beetle. This beetle, modernly named the Trehala Manna, may seem insignificant at first glance.

In fact, the beetle itself is not as noteworthy as it’s cocoon, which scholars and scientists alike agree may be a likely candidate for the manna that God provided.  The cocoon is comprised of a crystalline carbohydrate named “trehalose” . Trehalose is known for its ability to enable species to survive extreme drought and dehydration and complete freezing. It also serves as an energy source. It’s like a power bar, never-ending water fountain and warm wool blanket all rolled into one, depending on what is needed for the organism.

Trehalose is responsible for saving millions of lives each year in impoverished third world countries to keep vaccines usable where refrigeration is limited.  Additionally, trehalose is the secret ingredient of the “resurrection plant”- which can survive months of complete drought. “Trehalose has remarkable preserving power and is produced by creatures that lie dormant under drought conditions. Some plants can lose over 95 percent of their water content and still survive, thanks to the trehalose in their cells,” says John Emsley, a science writer at The Independent.

Modernly, manna as a metaphor can serve as the nourishment God provided us during our times of spiritual drought and starvation. It’s cool to acknowledge the crossroads where pain and glory intersect, and to witness the provisions God hooked us up. Although that reflection typically for myself comes after the fact. Manna can be the light in the darkness, the cool scar after the deep cut, or the food pantry at the local shelter when we’re unemployed. It can be the nice police officer smiling at us, as they write us our speeding tickets and remind us to slow down for the safety of others.

Manna is the nourishment we need, not the nourishment we desire. I mean, it’s not a choice piece of prime rib or anything.  It’s what is the bare minimum of what we need in order to fulfill our Earthly responsibilities as God’s children. Or maybe… it’s just a beetle’s old cocoon in the desert.


Ashley Brown is a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC. She is a first year student at Austin Theological Seminary and an inquirer under care of Foothills Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry.

Six conversations that build community

Originally posted September 4, 2020 by The Presbyterian Outlook

Six conversations that build community

Guest commentary Matthew J. Skolnik

This Sunday I held my 10-year-old nephew under my right arm as we live-streamed worship into our living room. While most of our family is white, my nephew happens to be black. He has been in our life for over nine years and I am so thankful that he is a member of our family.

As we worshipped, our pastor called the church to righteous indignation, and I held my nephew a little closer than I usually do. My nephew probably did not notice the difference, but I certainly did. I have feared for him before, but these days I lose sleep over him and others whom I love.

While my nephew and I sat together, and as our pastor’s words washed over me, I recalled sharing a meal with a Black mother a few years ago. During our time together, she explained to me what it was like to watch her son get pulled over for a malfunctioning taillight. I cannot adequately describe her fright and horror.

As worship continued, I recalled many of the Black mentors, teachers, students, classmates, colleagues and friends I have had over the years. The first Black man I truly loved and admired was Carl Jackson. Mr. Jackson taught me about music and life from the time I was in 4th grade until I went to college. I know I was young, and I know that I was not the one who led most of our conversations, but I regret not asking him more questions and not spending more time listening to his difficulties. I bear this same regret with many others.

From technical solutions to social answers
On June 12th, Mariame Kaba wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” In it, she makes that case that technical solutions such as police training will never stop police brutality, and therefore the preferred alternative is to redirect policing funds to social programs such as education and healthcare.

It is not my intent to get sidetracked into a discussion about the validity of Kaba’s conclusion. Instead, for me, the most interesting and helpful part of this article is the idea that technical solutions do not have the ability to transform social challenges. For example, technical solutions provided by the government and other institutions have not improved health disparities in our country, nor have they reduced the suicide rates of our military personnel. Further, technical solutions have not helped end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the last 70 years, nor have technical solutions reduced human trafficking.

If Kaba’s premise is correct, and if it is true that government reforms and training will never squelch such visible and profound violence in the police force, how much less will technical solutions be able to adequately address more hidden forms of oppression, such as microaggressions and implicit bias? If the technical approaches cannot stop murder, how can technical solutions change thought patterns and micro-actions?

This is a serious line of inquiry that requires our utmost attention.

If we are honest with ourselves, we begin to realize that we cannot rely solely on technical solutions that are provided to our people through the state or other institutions. Instead, we need to seek another primary pathway forward.

In their 2010 book “The Power of Positive Deviance,” Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin outline a methodology that unlikely innovators have naturally used to solve the world’s most difficult problems in the past. The book was published by Harvard Business Review Press and includes areas of success such as childhood malnutrition in Vietnam and reduced infection rates within a hospital setting. The starting point of the Positive Deviance approach is threefold: solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist; they have been discovered by members of the community itself; and these innovators have succeeded even though they share the same constraints and barriers as others.

From my perspective, this book should be required reading for any person who exercises leadership. I also believe one example of Positive Deviance that predates the book comes from South Africa.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with the late Johannes Swart. Before his untimely death, Yanni was a PC(USA) pastor in rural Pennsylvania, and a professor of world mission and evangelism. More importantly, Yanni grew up in South Africa and he helped to remove apartheid from his homeland.

As I was probing and trying to learn from his experiences, Yanni revealed to me that the tide turned against apartheid when young Blacks and whites began intentionally eating together. Over the years, I have taken Yanni’s experience seriously and I have implemented his wisdom where and when I can. For example, I have invited Muslims and Christians to eat together.

Relationship-building over meals is a simple social solution that is powerful. Eating together, sharing conversations and beginning to see others truly as humans, for me, is the exhibition of heaven on earth. In fact, I strongly believe that these gatherings have more to do with the ancient understanding of ekklesia (church), than attending a homogeneous worship service on Sundays.

The South African idea turns away from technical solutions and toward social relationships as a starting point. However, as we look at the plight of the Black community in America, we know that we need help, encouragement and a framework to get started in these intentional acts of community building.

Helpful tips

  • Seek relationships, not programs. Do not announce a new church initiative. Instead invite people to a community.
  • Let people opt in or opt out. In “The Power of Positive Deviance,” the authors make the case that people cannot be coerced to participate and lead change. People have to want to be involved. I find it best to think about this process as described in “Diffusion of Innovation.” Some will be early adopters, others will not. Most people eventually come along after they see success. So, please first work with those who have a heart to make a more perfect union. You may have to search for like-minded people or visit another community.
  • COVID-19 is not an excuse. There are ways to gather and eat in a safe way. For example, eating outdoors in the summer, with boxed meals, and sitting a reasonable distance apart can work. As in all social evils, an excuse not to act is a form of silence. Everyone can identify problems. But we need leaders who can find solutions.
  • Build a healthy environment. In “The Culture Code,” Daniel Coyle argues that teams (communities) function best when leaders provide words and actions that offer safety, mutual vulnerability and a shared purpose. Someone in your presbytery can help you do this better.
  • Pray before each meal. Saying a simple prayer before eating is part of our public witness. For example, “Lord, thank you for one another, the food that we share and the time we have together. In Christ’s name, amen.” Bonus points for those who work in elements of Coyle’s “The Culture Code.”
  • When we get past COVID-19, appropriate touch is important. My Arab friends have taught me over the years that we build relationships through touch. At first, I did not know what to do with a man holding my arm as we walked down the streets of Cairo. What forms of touch make sense in our culture? For more insight, read “Trust Factor” by the neuroscientist Paul J. Zak.
  • After a few gatherings, share leadership. Consider asking someone else to host or lead the conversation with you. We want to multiple leaders. We are looking to create a movement, like they did in South Africa.
  • Do not get too intense too soon. People will naturally ask one another questions, but the weight of the conversation cannot outweigh the trust that has been built. Be nurturing, and redirect the conversation through questions like the ones that are listed in the next section.
  • Throw out the idea of curriculum. Instead, when introducing a conversation, do so informally. Use statements like, “I am really curious how everyone got their name…” or “As we get to know one another, what is a favorite childhood memory?” Avoid phrases like, “My pastor says that our third conversation should be…” or “According to this brochure, we should talk about…” People desire community, not another obligation or program.
  • Ideally, your first community will include three types of people. In “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that pandemics of change require three types of leaders to build a word of mouth movement. He calls these people: connectors, mavens and sales people. Get a little training or do a little research on your own.
  • Close each gathering with intention. Thank people for coming and for sharing their thoughts and stories. Thank them for being willing to be vulnerable together, and for accepting one another. Let them know that you will invite them again soon. If you set an ongoing schedule, wait until there is full buy-in from everyone in the group.

 

Six conversations that build community
The following are helpful conversations to be shared over meals that help build trust, relationships and community among people who do not know one another or who have vastly different experiences. These conversations can be used within communities, or across racial divides.

You may desire to change a conversation topic. If you do, please note that there is a logical progression in the listed conversations. For example, conversation 5 would not be helpful during a first meal.

Conversation 1: What is your name? What is its meaning/history? Why was it chosen?
Conversation 2: What is a favorite childhood memory? Where and when did this memory happen? Who were you with? What made it so special?
Conversation 3: What meal do you love the most? Is it special because of the food, or is it tied to an event? Who usually gathers for this meal? What makes this meal important to you?
Conversation 4: What is one embarrassing moment from your school days? For me, in grade school I was pushed and I ended up sitting in a small trash can! This conversation is about practicing vulnerability. Guide people not to get too deep. Your group most likely is not ready yet.
Conversation 5: Share a painful memory from within your family. Again, guide your people not to reveal their deepest wounds just yet. You will most likely get some pushback because some people will want to reveal too much. Be careful here, you do not want to create an expectation that everyone needs to share at this intimate level; doing so could scare people away.
Conversation 6: What is one friendship with a person from a different background that has made you a better person? How did this relationship unfold? What gives meaning to this relationship?
These conversations are but a starting point to help us mend our nation. After some months of regular meals, you most likely will start to get a sense that it is time to delve into more challenging topics. But that discussion is for another day. Today, we can take one step. Let’s take it together.

-Matthew J. Skolnik


MATTHEW J. SKOLNIK is the general presbyter of Muskingum Valley Presbytery in eastern Ohio. He enjoys motivating mission, equipping leaders and encouraging the church. Matt has lived with his family in Ohio for 12 years, loves nature and laughs frequently.