Psalm 144: In Search of a New Song by Ashley Robinson

I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
the one who gives victory to kings,
who rescues his servant David. (Psalm 144:9-10, NRSV)

In my not-so-distant past life I spent my days as a nanny caring for three spunky, questioning, fierce little girls. Like many parents and caregivers, my days looked more like Driving Miss Daisy than Mary Poppins, because I spent most of my time in some sort of carpool line. The youngest of my charges missed the age cutoff for many of the activities, so she spent much of her time in the car with me waiting on her big sisters.

One afternoon, groggy from a half-nap, my usually precious three year old nannykin turned into an evil dictator and demanded a new song to listen to while we waited in the carpool line. I was happy to oblige, because I had reached my limit of the old VBS CD that had taken up residence in my CD player. As I flipped through new song choices, she would cry out, “NOOOOOOOO! That’s NOT it! I need something NEW!”

I flipped through every radio station and every CD, as she grew more agitated by the minute. I even tried to make up some songs to get her back to her usual carefree self.

“Oh, this is a happy day, and we’re sitting in the carpool line, HEY!,” I sang.

“NO! That’s not it! A NEW SONG,” she cried as she pelted me with stale goldfish from underneath her carseat.

I looked in the rearview mirror, half expecting to see pea soup coming at me, but instead she resembled a melodramatic silent film star with the back of her hand resting on her forehead.

I decided to give one last ditch effort to appease the tiny diva, and I played one of our old favorite CDs to fake her out. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” came through the speakers and she immediately started singing and dancing along. “This is it! This is my new song,” she cheered.

“But, we’ve listened to this a million times,” I said, “this isn’t new.”

“Oh,” she said, “Well. Maybe I’s just gots new ears.”

The more I think about it, the more I believe that my tiny fruitsnack -hoarding guru was on to something.

I’m weary of hearing the same old promises of hope in response to the same old stories of despair. My praises have become platitudes. It’s time for a new song, for sure, but I wonder if we should start with truths that we have heard over and over, with a new readiness to transform our hearts. If I am to sing a new song, maybe I should start with trying on some new ears.

Psalm 143: We Remember for Her by Pam Durso

I remember the days of old,
    I think about all your deeds,
    I meditate on the works of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
    my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. (Psalm 143:5-6)

On this day, December 21, one hundred years ago, Lillie Robinson was born. Lillie is my grandmother, my Grandma. For her birthday, my family is gathering with balloons and cake and cards to celebrate. It isn’t every day that your Grandma has a 100th birthday! The party won’t be a long one, and it won’t be a memorable one for her. Grandma doesn’t have much memory left these days. She remembers some old hymns. Her favorite in recent months has been “This World is Not My Home,” and she will sing it over and over again. But Grandma doesn’t remember us–she no longer recognizes even my dad. When I visit with my sisters, she is always glad to see “her friends.” Her gradual loss of memory over the past two decades has often made me sad, but today, on her birthday, we will be her memory. We will remember for her.

We will remember her days of old. We will think about God’s good deeds, and we will remember how she loved God all her life. We will ponder on how God worked through her to bring peace and joy to those in her family and community. Today, we will remember for her.

We will remember the family she created with my Grandpa, her four children and the sweet baby, who died not long after he was born. We will remember all her grandchildren and the goody bags she made for us. We will remember her world-class cornbread and out-of-this-world delicious hot rolls, which she made every time we were at her house. We will remember how hard she worked on the farm, planting and picking vegetables, gathering and washing eggs, kneading the dough for her rolls, and taking care of her family. We will remember how she hugged us tight, never letting us forget that we were loved. Today we will be Grandma’s memory, and we will celebrate one hundred years of a life well lived, a hard life but one full of love. Today we will remember for her.

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia. 

THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Nora Kwok

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we are excited to introduce you to Nora Kwok.

Nora, tell us about your current ministry?
I am a pastor of Grace Chinese Baptist Church in Sugar Land, Texas. I am co-pastoring with two others pastors: Rev. Peter Leong and Rev. Huen. We are grateful to be a ministry of Sugar Land Baptist Church. I have served at GCBC since 2009 and am currently the president of Chinese Fellowship of Baptist General Convention of Texas and the vice-chair of Houston Chinese Baptist Pastor Fellowship.

Most members of our congregation at GCBC are Cantonese-speaking Chinese; however, God has recently sent many Mandarin-speaking Chinese to Houston. In response, we have worked hard in the last few years to develop a Mandarin-speaking ministry to fit their great needs. Now our worship service is conducted in the dual languages, Cantonese and Mandarin. Praise the Lord!

Because there is no Chinese church south of Houston, we hope and pray that we can expand our ministries to include the areas of Richmond and Rosenberg. Although it is very hard to find any property with our limited resources, we trust that everything is in God’s time.

What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your ministry journey?
The world is changing very fast; every day is a learning experience. Understanding different generations and passing on our faith to the next generation are big challenges. Discipleship is another big challenge. It is very hard to encourage discipleship within the church. It seems like many people are too busy to take discipleship seriously.

What brings you great joy in life and ministry?
When people change their heart and life for the Lord, that is the biggest joy for me. It boosts up my energy level.

What is the best ministry advice you have ever received?
Be patient. Everything is in God’s time. God loves my church more than I love my church. Be still and know He is God.

The Pressure to be Happy at Christmas: An Advent Reflection by Aurelia Pratt

Around this time of year, I always get really excited because I love all things festive, and I cherish any reason to celebrate. My husband even refers to me as the keeper of holidays and traditions because I hold moments like Thanksgiving and Christmas so very close. My middle name is Joy, which is fitting because this intense time of joy is typically right up my alley! At the same time, I’m also very aware that this time of year is not a time of joy for everyone. In fact, for many, Christmas season is the most trying season of all.

Personally, I can still keenly recall the difficult holidays seasons throughout my life. I remember the pang of financial difficulty that plagued our family throughout my childhood, and how this struggle only seemed to be highlighted at Christmastime. I remember the pain of our first Thanksgiving after my parents’ divorce and how that pain didn’t lesson for many seasons to come. I remember the loneliness of not having my sisters or mother around for the holiday season year in and year out. It’s funny how a thing as simple as a nonexistent Christmas lunch can feel so isolating.

Like most of us, I have experienced both grief and supreme disappointment in this season. I know how it feels to look around and think everyone else has it made. I know how it feels to want to pass over Christmas all together. So no matter how much joy I may feel this time of year in my adult life, I never forget that for all my joy, someone else is experiencing just as much sadness and hardship. We sing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” and “Joy to the world”, but what if you don’t feel joy this Christmas? What if you aren’t happy?

This is why it has been an absolute necessity that I observe Advent year after year. Because Advent, despite how we often seem to frame it, isn’t a celebratory season but a penitential one. Advent knows about darkness. Advent reminds us that it’s okay to spend a season in tension, waiting and desperately hoping for better things to come. Advent reminds us that we don’t have to feel complete happiness in this season, but that both joy and pain can mingle together as we prepare to humbly receive the miracle of the Nativity.

The pressure to be happy at Christmas can be overwhelming. But Advent has a way of removing societal expectations. While the hustle and bustle of the season screams at us to check off our Christmas lists, be in seven different places at once, and do it all with a grin smeared on our exhausted faces, Advent tells us to stop. Slow down. Breathe. Advent tells us that maybe the darkness we are experiencing isn’t wrong; maybe it’s right, and maybe it’s more on track than we have ever been.

If you find yourself in a dark place this Christmas season, don’t fret. Take comfort. Know that you’ll fit in perfectly here because Advent will meet you in the dark. Advent is where we visit the depths, and it is a great mystery, but this is where the good stuff – like hope and peace and joy and love – are ultimately found.

My prayer is that this year, we will let the darkness of Advent lead us to a joy at Christmas that is deeper than we ever could have known or anticipated.

May it be so.

O come, O come Emmanuel.

 

Rev. Aurelia Davila Pratt is the Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Grace Baptist Church in Round Rock, TX.

Psalm 130: When Joy Shows Up for the Preacher by Pam Durso

Psalm 130:1-2, 5-8

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. . . . I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with the Lord is great power to redeem. It is the Lord who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

Some days I feel like my calling is to be a repository for sad stories. These past few months I have sat and listened to so many hard, hard stories. Students, colleagues, women ministers, church members, and friends have come to me with stories of painful break ups, tragic deaths, and unexpected diagnoses. Most of the time all I can do, all I know to do is to whisper a few words of love and pray. But I recently figured out that I am also holding their stories close in my heart. I am collecting their painful words. I am a repository.

This week all that holding suddenly felt like too much. My heart was bruised. My spirit felt broken. All those stories compounded by the daily news of terror and violence, hatred and anger left me living in the shadows. It was all just too much.

In the midst of my sadness, I knew Sunday was coming. And I was scheduled to preach. And it was the third week of Advent—the Sunday of Joy. Nothing makes a preacher feel more like a fraud than to stand and preach on joy when she can’t seem to find any joy herself. But that is what I did. I stood and promised my beloved congregation that joy could be found. I assured them that in staying close to Jesus we can experience joy, that by being faithful in living God’s good news we will discover joy, and that by saying “Yes” to God’s plan for the salvation of the world we will know joy.

I said all those things, fully expecting my preacher’s license to be revoked in the middle of my sermon. But I kept preaching . . . getting close to the end of the sermon, and that is when it happened. I stopped preaching, call it a dramatic pause if you like. Call me the moment of truth. But there I stood with no words. My mouth open, but nothing coming out. And I cried out to the Lord. “Are you listening, God? I am here preaching all this joy—but I am pretty desperate. Are you listening? Because I am waiting here, needing something from you. Joy—that is what I need. Are you listening?”

Then suddenly I was speaking again . . . but I wasn’t saying the words on my manuscript. Instead I was confessing my lack of joy out loud . . . to my church. To be honest, it scared me a bit but I couldn’t hold back my words. I told them the truth about my shadows. I told them that joy had been really elusive for me lately. I told them that I was struggling, and because my lovely church members talk back to the preacher, they said, “Yes.” “Preach it.” “Go on!” And they nodded and again said, “Yes.” But what I also heard them saying was “We know how you feel!” “We are with you.” “Us too!” Suddenly, I was no longer alone, and there it was . . . a glimmer of joy. I looked out at the faces of Eleanor and Jamie, Robert and Bernard, Norm and Chrissy, and in that moment, joy didn’t seem so far away.

Yesterday, Cornerstone reached out to me and said, “There is hope AND JOY in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with the Lord is great power to redeem.” Sometimes it is the preacher who needs to hear her sermon the most.

Pam Durso is the executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.

 

 

THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Mary Carol Anderson

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we are excited to introduce you to Mary Carol Anderson.

Mary Carol, tell us about your current ministry position.
I have recently returned home to the church in which I was raised and have now served as minister of youth and recreation at First Baptist Greenville, South Carolina, for seven months. My primary focus is ministry to our youth and their families, while I also work with our recreation ministry and college ministry. I also serve as a staff liaison for our internship committee and scholarship committee.

What experiences have shaped and prepared you for your present role?
I often find myself having conversations with people who always seems to come back to the question: “why teenagers?” My typical response is that I remember how hard it was for me to be a teenager. I struggled with my own fears and challenges but was active in my youth group, and there I was offered what I feel was the greatest gift I was ever given: grace. That grace in the midst of all my mistakes equipped me for what I would later face in my own ministry to teenagers.

As a college student, I was a recipient of a loving college ministry that supported me and pushed me into discovering my gifts, and that experience shaped my theology and continues to impact how I lead youth ministry today. I believe youth ministry to be a building block for life-long relationships through the college and the young adult years rather than as a program that dismisses teenagers when they age out of the group.

Who has inspired you along the way as you have lived out your calling?
When I think of the many influential people who have been involved in my spiritual development over the years, I am in awe of their patience with me, and I hold on to the encouraging words that they offered to me in various times in my life. Experiencing the strong presence of women in the pulpit from a young age shaped and formed my image of God in the world. Michelle McClendon, Donna Forrester, and Gina Brock were the female voices that I grew up hearing at First Baptist, Greenville. Not until much later in my call did I realize how amazing it was to have these three special women as part of my spiritual formation through the years, leading in worship, serving in denominations, and being a guiding light for all women in ministry and leadership.

As I began exploring my call to ministry in college, Gina Brock and Frank Smith became my teachers as they challenged me and offered me responsibility and leadership within First Baptist’s youth ministry. They instilled in me a sense of confidence as they saw my gifts and passions for youth increasing.

I am reminded daily of the wise and thoughtful youth ministers, who offered me first-hand an experience of Christ’s unconditional love. Don Flowers and David Woody earned a few stripes and many gray hairs “raising me” in their youth ministry, teaching me the essentials of being present in places of brokenness and modeling for me how to be a light in the world. They since have become my most treasured friends and mentors as they continue to walk with me in ministry.

I am continually grateful for the opportunity to have partnered in ministry with many wonderful and gifted ministers in the past eight years of full-time ministry. The ministers and mentors that have been part of my journey have each shaped who I am today and inspired me to continue discerning who I am and where God is calling me. But my true inspiration is the countless youth. Their gifts of vulnerability and honesty paired with inquisition allow me to engage in their lives in unique ways that very few people get to experience. It is those moments that keep me energized for each day that God gives me to be their youth minister.

What advice would you give to a teenage girl who is sensing a call to ministry?
You CAN do this! You SHOULD do this! I will SUPORT you in this! I am aware of how fortunate I was to have been raised in a church family that fully supported women in ministry. I am grateful everyday for the opportunities that I had as a young female growing up, listening, watching, and learning from strong women in the pulpit and in church leadership. Because of them, I never questioned who could or could not be a minister. By their example, I knew that ANYONE who is called by God can be a minister!

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to engage in conversations with teenage girls about their sensing a call to ministry. These moments are wonderful! When I witness their passion, hear the love they have for others, and see their deep concern for the needs of the world, I am reminded of what the pure, essential meaning of ministry is.

For a Holiday Season Beyond Expectations by Carol Harston

This holiday, I am asking Santa for a new vacuum. I want the most powerful one there is. I want one that not only cleans the open spaces but also seeks out the nooks and crannies where things hide. I want one that can eradicate the land mines within my heart of unchecked expectations, rampant selfishness, and effortful conformity to the illusion of the perfect holiday.

For the Pinterest holiday home and Hallmark movie scene are all illusions. We may intellectually agree this to be true, but our hearts love it enough to cling to its possibility of being reachable this year.

Like the nativity that emerges every year with its key players, we set our own scenes with the holiday key players– stress, envy, shame, and disappointment. They may not have stockings with their embroidered names but they are the tried and true figures in our modern Christmas scene. Our stress and frantic hurriedness are Christmas traditions.

The season begins with great intention. The memories of the season make us smile and cause us to count the days. We pull out the pictures from the past and we let the tapes roll through our imagination. Traditions “promise” the continuity of experience. We already imagine the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table with pumpkin pie as the meal’s reward, the gifts wrapped carefully underneath the tree, and the faces lit by candles on Christmas Eve as “Silent Night” wafts to the heavens.

Traditions are beautiful gifts. But they are slippery things. Just as mysteriously as the stories of reindeer, jolly men, and tiny elves, the traditions transform like magic from gifts we receive to idols we cement in gold. They become not enacted rituals but unreachable expectations.

The child spills the milk all over the table and yells “Yuck!” when she catches sight of great grandmother’s cream corn. The mere sight of the big empty space beneath the tree incites stress within your bones. Social media measures your preparedness and sends “not enough” coursing through your veins. Illness and tragedy catch one by surprise when they do not skip the month of December.

This season, I pray that our rituals of stress, envy, shame, and disappointment are the places where God shows up in the darkest nights and hints of a whole new joy that exceeds anything beyond our control or creation. I pray that God is who we believe God to be – not just “I am what I am,” but, “I will be who I will be.” I pray that new life is born within my own whatever will be.

If it is a time of great joy, may my feet be light and my laughter be heard.
If it is a time of great sorrow, may my hands be still and my tears be full.
If it is a time of great fear, may my eyes be open and my hope be uninterrupted.

Whatever it will be, it will not be as I imagined. It will, instead, be the place where I cry out for a God for whom the world still yearns and upon which my redemption still depends. It will be the birthplace of God’s greatest new adventure – living Spirit within dying flesh that saves the world in ways that exceed our expectations.
 

Carol Harston has served as minister to youth at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, since 2007. Outside of youth ministry, Carol has her hands full as a mom to James (4) and Collier (2) and wife to Drew (orthopedic surgery resident and faithful youth volunteer).

Psalm 139: You’re Still Here? by Ashley Robinson

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)

I have spent a good portion of my adult life trying my best to run away from all things holy. And, the amazing, if not annoying, truth that I have discovered through my running away is that no matter how far into the darkest, seediest corner I wander, I can’t escape the presence of a very persistent God.

One very dark evening, God found me in the corner of an empty bar parking lot. It was a few minutes past closing time, so the dregs of people that had shut down the joint had gathered outside to wait for our rides home. One of the guys standing around tried to light a cigarette and couldn’t because the wind was too quick and cold. As everyone began fumbling to help, I noticed that there was an old candle in my coat pocket. Weird, I know, but strange things often find their way into my coat pockets and purse bottoms. I had been keeping my distance from the group while I waited on a friend to arrive, but something in me led me to walk over to them and offer the old candle.

The candle lit easily and stayed lit as they passed it around the circle so everyone could light up. As we began sharing stories, I realized that the candle I was holding had been in my pocket since the last candlelight service that I had attended.

It had been almost two years since I last held that candle and sang songs of hope and peace, and it had been even longer since I had tried my very best to shut the door on God. As I held the candle for the circle of once-strangers, our walls began to drop and we opened up to each other. Part of the reason why we were so willing to open up to one another had something to do with the fact that we had just closed down a bar, I’m sure. But regardless of how we got there, the stories we shared eventually began to sound an awful lot like prayer requests. Then the encouragement we offered one another felt a lot like the casserole-toting, caramel-cake-baking care of a church family. We even tried to bellow through a sloppy version of Silent Night. The broken concrete we were standing on was littered with forgotten smokes and puddles of sloshed-about drinks, but for us that night, it was holy ground.

When our rides arrived we hugged like old friends, and then scattered back into our own lives. I flopped down into the backseat of my friend’s car and thought, “So, I guess you’re still here, huh?” The candle in my hand, still warm and melty from the flame, was a tangible, piercing-the-darkness “Yes!,” from God.

There are a few things that I must remember, now that I don’t try to run from God quite as often. The circle of light that I shared with those fellow bar-flies was no less holy than the high-church candlelight services I attend now. And if hope can find its way into a seedy corner of a bar parking lot at 4am, then certainly hope can find me in my seat in the back corner of my church sanctuary.

I know now, most of the time at least, that God will find me, no matter how far I run. I’ll raise a candle to that.
 

Ashley Robinson is the executive assistant at Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.

THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Veronica Martinez-Gallegos

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we are excited to introduce you to Veronica Martinez-Gallegos.

Veronica, tell us about your current ministry?
I am a Clinical Pastoral Education student at Carolinas HealthCare NorthEast in Concord, North Carolina, serving as a second-year chaplain resident. I am assigned to Oncology, Renal, and Family Med Units and the Palliative Care Team.

What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your ministry journey?
I think the biggest challenge I have had to face has been my own struggle to accept that I can be a woman in ministry. Growing up in a traditional Southern Baptist church in a border city of Mexico and Texas, I did not know women could be ministers. I was raised with the mentality that women could not be pastors. Although I am a pastor’s wife, I had a difficult journey in accepting and claiming my own pastoral identity.

What brings you great joy in life and ministry?
After a long journey and finally discovering some optimism as I explored chaplaincy, I now find joy in using my spiritual gifts and skills in clinical pastoral care. I am gifted with compassion to care, offering spiritual and emotional support to those who are physically and emotionally wounded. I am delighted to be on a theological journey in a place that has given me the opportunity to minister as a woman, especially as a Latina woman.

In this ministry, I am with people in their suffering. It is a privilege to meet people in a sacred space and help them process their suffering. Life’s difficulties are opportunities to grow and to learn to rely on a Higher, Supreme Being. My hope is to support care seekers who are struggling with the meaning of suffering by validating their feelings, listening to them, and helping them identify support systems and coping strategies.

Another joy in my life is giving my daughters the spiritual support they need during this new stage in their teenage lives and supporting my husband in providing spiritual pastoral care in the local congregation as time allows.

What is the best ministry advice you have ever received?
My friend, Zoricelis Davila, helped me to learn to say “no” and to set boundaries. My supervisor, Greg Hathaway, taught me that vulnerability is not a synonym of weakness. On the contrary, it takes courage to show vulnerability, but is in those vulnerable moments that we learn to live wholeheartedly.

What if . . . Dreaming Bigger for Martha by Pam Durso

Every February now since 2007, Baptist Women in Ministry has invited churches to participate in our Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching. We ask that churches sometime during February invite a woman into their pulpit. The last few years we have had 200 or more churches participate, and it has been a beautiful thing.

But this year, this year I am dreaming bigger, hoping for more. No, not bigger numbers or more church participation. This year I am hoping that churches will embrace a new Martha vision. This year I hope that churches will invite young preachers, new-to-the-pulpit preachers into their pulpits. I hope that churches will invite women who rarely have opportunity to preach to be their Martha. Think about it . . . what if 200 churches together said, “We believe in young preachers. We support new preachers. AND we believe in them and want to support them so much that we will invite them into our pulpit. We will invite women who have never, ever preached before. We will invite women who are not often in the pulpit to be our Martha. We will be an affirming church for young preachers!”

Imagine what that kind of encouragement would look like, what it would feel like to college women, to seminary women, to seasoned women ministers who are never given opportunities in their own churches to preach. Imagine, just imagine.

This year our dream is bigger, our hope is broader. We invite YOUR church to be a Martha church, a church that stands with 200 other churches in their support of new and young preachers. This year our dream is that Martha Stearns Marshall Month will open doors and brighten the pathway for women just beginning their ministry journey or inexperienced preachers seeking to explore their giftedness.

Pastors sometimes say to me, “Oh our church has women preach all the time. We are good with women in the pulpit.” But this year, I challenge you to make Martha Stearns Marshall Month a time for YOUR church to encourage, to support, to give a place of opportunity to a new preacher. YOUR church could change her life!

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.