Giving Thanks: To the One Who Calls us to Fruitfulness

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Job 19:23-27a
2 Thes. 2:1-5,13-17
Luke 20:27-38

“But we must always give thanks for you… because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” (2 Thes. 2:13-14)

As Election Day nears, Thanksgiving seems especially far off. And not just Thanksgiving the holiday, the day off from work and school, the day full of food, family, and football–but the act of thanks-giving. It’s hard to imagine giving thanks for anything amidst the baiting, debating, and hating that seems to characterize this season. Instead, we set thankfulness aside like a child’s sweet but silly game, while we feast instead on anger and fear. We gather together all our troubles, and blame the other side for causing them. Then we armchair-quarterback our way through the political games, spiking the ball with every perceived score for our own team, all the while jeering at our opposition’s cheerleaders and mocking its mascot.

Maybe it’s just not possible to practice thanksgiving when we’re feeling shaken and alarmed (2 Thes. 2:2) by all that “They” say is wrong with the world. We can’t spare any energy for thankfulness when deceivers demand our attention (2:3), and even we may be inclined to give our exaltation to the one who claims to be able to save us (2:4).

The antidote to this poison is the same now as it was for the Christians at Thessalonica: brothers and sisters whose salvation is in the Spirit, not in heads of state, and who have the discernment to distinguish deception from truth. The community that lives so faithfully will produce a bounty of fruits! Faced with the deceiver’s horrific headlines, they abide in the good news that the apostles proclaimed. Promised the greatness of a victorious nation, they seek only the glory of Christ. Instead of relying on the powers of a president, they lean on the love of God; and instead of dreaming of a comfortable living and infallible armies, they yearn for eternal comfort and strengthened hearts (2:16-17).

The antidote to the poison of lies and lawlessness is, and has always been, true thanksgiving. Thanksgiving comes when we recognize the Source of all we receive; no elected official can save us, comfort us, build up our hearts, shape us into communities, nourish us, and give us hope. A president’s promises may be optimistic (at best) or empty (at worst), but our Creator calls us to a full and fruitful life. We already have a Savior, a Comforter, and an eternal Hope who summons us to lives of abundance–not in what we possess, but in what we produce. Let us rejoice in this harvest, giving thanks to God until the day of the Lord comes at last.

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.


Each week Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. Today, we are thrilled to introduce Becky Caswell-Speight.

Becky, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served.
Unlike many women my age, I was fortunate to have been encouraged by my congregation to follow God’s call to enter vocational ministry. St. Matthew’s Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky has always been a strong proponent for women in ministry. I am grateful that this is where I grew up. Because of them, I never questioned my calling due to gender. The church shared my excitement. I received cards and notes of encouragement from many members. I was told stories about the trailblazing women that had been ordained at my church. One fellow church member, Wade G. Rowatt, made numerous trips to campus to keep me updated on all the new seminaries forming and helped me consider where to apply after graduating college. It wasn’t until I walked into my first preaching class and a young man told me that I wasn’t allowed to be there because I was a girl that I realized my upbringing at St. Matthew’s Baptist wasn’t the norm.

Midway Baptist Church in Kentucky was the first congregation I served. They gave me an opportunity at the young age of twenty-years-old, and set me on the path of congregational ministry that I continue on today. This ministry path has led me to places of service in Christian camp organizations, congregations, and a domestic violence in Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, and now in Stone Mountain, Georgia Christian. In the beginning of my ministry, I concentrated on the faith development of teenagers. I was blessed with a mentor that had been a youth minister for many years and I wanted to provide a similar blessing to others. After nine fulfilling years in congregational youth ministry, my calling shifted from youth to family ministry. This change came during a time of significant transition for my family. In a period of five months, my husband Josh graduated from seminary, our oldest daughter was born, we moved our family from Texas to Virginia, and I began studying at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond while also working at a local domestic violence center.

During this time of discernment as a student, a new mother, and an advocate for victims of domestic violence, I began to see life for families and children with new eyes. At the shelter especially, I witnessed what it was like for small children, through no fault of their own, to live in a world of chaos. The children’s chaotic lives in the shelter were juxtaposed against the rather calm life of my young family. Life wasn’t fair for the shelter kids and I wanted to do something to help make it better. This led me to search for answers while at seminary. Family systems theory became my focus of study and ministry with families became my concentration in church ministry. Since graduating from seminary, I have continued this concentration at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

What are the greatest challenges you have encountered along the way?
Seasons of ministry are just like the seasons of life–there have been challenges that I have faced that have brought me immense joy, and there have been challenges that have brought me incredible pain, which have caused me to question my call.

The greatest challenge that I’ve ever faced in ministry happened while I worked with youth and a few of my students were in a horrible car accident a few days before their high school graduation. It has been fourteen years since that day, but I can still vividly remember the smallest details of that day and the moments just after it. The death of a young person is awful and, for me, this one was particularly tragic. She was an incredible, vibrant young woman who stretched my theology and pushed me to be a better minister. However, saying goodbye to her was not nearly as challenging as walking with her friends and my students as they grieved and tried to comprehend the pain they were feeling. As their minister, I didn’t want any of them to have to carry their pain on their own. Over the next few weeks and months, we went grocery shopping together, we sat through two funerals together, we organized counseling sessions together, we grieved together. I remember barely sleeping or eating. I worried constantly about how they would see God’s love in the midst of so much pain. And to be honest, I still worry. Did I miss anything that would have made that season of life easier for them? Did I help ease their pain? Will those seniors remember their high school graduation with joy or with sorrow?

When you are called to minister to youth and children, it is hard not to forever see them as an extension of who you are in the world. Logically I know that all I could do was walk with them, listen to them and be available to them when they needed me. Emotionally, though, all I wanted to do was take away their pain, and I never could do that for them. How I made it through what was my most difficult moment of ministry was by having an amazing community of friends and colleagues in ministry. This tragic moment in ministry taught me to trust in God in the hard moments, which are going to come, and to lean on the people God has surrounded me with for support and encouragement when I am tired.

What brings you the most joy in ministry?
Looking for the small moments of real ministry bring me joy. A few years ago, I was reminded of the importance of one of these moments by a former parent. This parent wrote me to tell me about a time that I had their child in my ministry and how she was dealing with extreme anxiety issues which caused her to not want to participate in most activities. She was too scared to go to Sunday school for fear of her parents getting hurt while they were separated. Then one morning I noticed them sitting in an empty room playing with a small sand box. I sat down next to her and asked her if she knew why we had that sandbox. Then I asked her to tell me about her favorite Old Testament story. She said that she liked the Ten Commandments. I went into the church’s Godly Play room, and grabbed the Ten Commandments story. For a few brief moments, she and I sat at the sandbox and shared with one another the story of the Ten Commandments. I was very aware of a number of other important things that needed attention that Sunday morning, as they do every Sunday morning. But for those few minutes, the only thing that mattered was a child that I knew was uncomfortable in our traditional setting but willing to learn about God.

Finding a space for ministry with just this child on a busy Sunday created a safe place at church for her so that she could have ears to hear God’s story. It was a holy moment for me. After our impromptu ministry session, she slowly began attending Sunday school on her own again. And not too long ago, I saw her on a mutual church trip, without her parents. I am very proud of her and the way she has overcome the challenges she faces with her anxiety.

When I answered God’s call to ministry I dreamed that all of my ministry moments would be like this holy moment. Now I realize that the moments like I experienced with that young lady are the moments in ministry that keep us going when ministry feels less than amazing.

What is the best ministry advice that you have ever received?
Our home is Louisville, Kentucky where I was born and raised. My husband, Josh, and I met in Kentucky and were married in Louisville just two weeks after we graduated from college. Since that time, ministry and school have taken us as far as fourteen hours away from Kentucky.

Moving to Texas in our first year of marriage was difficult. The stores and restaurants were all different from what I was used to at home. Texas culture was so different from Kentucky, though my husband (who is from Texas) felt right at home. Our new church was a university church filled with bright, engaging, informed congregants. I was like a fish out of water. Even our family traditions were changing. In my first year in Texas, I went to my husband’s grandparent’s home for a fish fry for Thanksgiving. I mean, who goes to a fish fry for Thanksgiving? No turkey, no pumpkin pie, no mashed potatoes. Oh, but there was Dallas Cowboys football. The people that comforted me when I struggled were fourteen hours away in Kentucky and I was truly homesick. And it was exactly during this time I received the best ministry advice that I have ever received.

My sister, who is older than me and is a wonderfully-gifted preschool teacher, told me (in the way that older sisters do) to get myself together and grow where I’m planted. I remember thinking to myself, “Seriously, you’ve never lived more than thirty minutes away from Mom and Dad. How do you know anything about how I’m feeling right now?” The truth is she didn’t know what it was like to live away from family, but after talking to her that day, I realized that she was right.

After heeding her advice, I began to build some of my strongest ministry relationships–relationships which helped me the next year when tragedy struck. And while I have yet to attend another fish fry for Thanksgiving, I did go on to host college Thanksgiving each year at my home for displaced students who had no other options during their break. The fish fry became tame compared to the side dishes that showed up at this annual feast for students. By taking my sister’s advice and actively building my village, I realized that an essential part of moving and growing into a new ministry setting is to “grow where I am planted.” I have been most successful when I have done just that. (But, please, don’t tell my sister she was right.)

The Ministry of Guilt? By Bianca Robinson Howard

Perhaps I am being a little too transparent, but I have to believe that I am not the only one who has gone through, or is currently going through, feeling guilt as a woman in ministry. Recently, I wrote a blog on boundaries and knowing when to say “yes,” and “no”. Well, now it seems like I am the one who needs a refresher lesson in boundaries.

Guilt has been haunting me lately. Any woman in ministry who is married, has children, or any other personal obligation outside of ministry, has likely encountered guilt at some point in her life. Feeling guilt has been a recent development for me—guilt for attending late meetings at church, being at church every Saturday morning instead of being home, and making the hard decisions of spending my time in my ministry instead of my family.

But, where does the feeling of guilt come from? I believe guilt partly comes from the self-conflict of having your heart and mind in two different places and not being able to fulfill the needs of both. Guilt could also come from the need to please people. Guilt could come from caring too much about what others think of you. Guilt arises when you are learning to balance life (which I have not yet mastered, and I don’t know if I ever will.)

Clearly, I am learning a tough lesson about guilt, and if you are too, let’s give ourselves some GRACE! Praise God for GRACE! We all need a bit of grace daily! God’s grace is sufficient, whether it comes as a whisper of “it’s ok,” from a friend, or “I’ll handle it,” from a spouse, or an “I love you,” from your child. God is our source of strength and our source of “it’s ok” when we feel that things are really not OK.

I’m learning to accept the boundaries I set. I’m learning to be free from expectations—from others and from myself. With God’s help, I will pass this test in time. But in the meantime, I am leaning on God to help me through this lesson by learning not to beat myself up (or hurt anyone else) in the process.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” – (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Bianca Robinson Howard serves at Zion Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, as associate minister and the full-time children and youth pastor/director.

Standing the Watch: Habakkuk 2:1

Sunday, October 30, 2016
All Saint’s Day

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Isaiah 1:10-18
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

“I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will answer…” (Hab. 2:1)

A few months ago, our family took a road trip to Washington D.C. to celebrate with a friend who was retiring after thirty-four years serving in the U.S. Navy. The Navy loves its rituals; its ceremonies are practically liturgical, and events that take place on dry land retain the shipboard vocabulary of the Navy. (Even our local Navy hospital has “decks,” not floors!) When a Sailor retires, whether from a ship or from a shore command, he or she is officially relieved–for the final time–from the duty of standing watch.

Watchstanding keeps the ship, and by extension, the Navy itself, secure. Watchstanders are ready to troubleshoot, to respond to emergencies, to receive messages, and to keep everything literally shipshape, day or night. On ship or shore, there must always be someone standing watch; watchstanders must never leave the post until they are relieved at the end of the shift, and then a shipmate is already standing by, ready to assume the duty.

When a Sailor retires, relieved for the last time from standing the watch, the question arises: Who will stand the watch?

The prophet Habakkuk stood the watch; not on a metaphorical ship, but on a metaphorical rampart. Patiently, day and night, the prophet awaited a word from God, a response to the prophet’s cry for help. When the Lord’s answer was slow to come, the prophet knew he could not leave his post, for how can vision come to one who abandons the watch? The prophet Habbakuk is gone now, long since retired from the duty of watchstanding, yet we still cry out to God for help. We still suffer, ourselves, and we still experience heartbreak on behalf of the suffering of others. We still await the fulfillment of the Kingdom vision, a world put to rights.

At our friend’s retirement ceremony, the master of ceremonies asked the traditional question: Who will stand the watch?

And throughout the auditorium, one at a time, young Sailors–who had been supervised, mentored, taught, maybe sometimes yelled at, and most certainly cared for by our good friend–stood and responded, simply, “I will stand the watch.” The ship is in trustworthy hands, thanks to the Master Chief’s careful training.

The prophet’s duty of watchstanding has been handed over to us. Who will patiently await the word of God on the decks of our ships, on the ramparts of our city walls? Who will keep awake in the darkest nights? Who will stay alert in the deepest silences? Who will guard over us, never abandoning the post? Who will accept the great responsibilities that those who came before us carried so bravely for so long? Who will call out to God on our behalf, and who will listen–as long as it takes–for the Lord’s reply?

We have heard the traditional question, the liturgical question: Who will stand the watch? Thanks to the careful training of prophets, of disciples, of ancestors, of teachers and preachers and beloved friends and all the saints who surround us, this ship is in trustworthy hands: ours. And we will stand the watch.

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.


Each week Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister and this week we are thrilled to introduce Jillian Farmer.

Jillian, tell us where and how are you currently serving in ministry?
I’m currently the associate pastor to youth at Kirkwood Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

What have been some of the challenges you have faced in your ministry journey?
Figuring out how to be a single woman in ministry is tough. I came to Kirkwood Baptist Church straight from seminary and had only been to St. Louis once before starting the call process at KBC. As I began my life here, I wasn’t just working through the learning curve of my first call, I was also trying to figure out life in a brand new city as a single woman. Thankfully, the people of KBC became my family in very real ways, inviting me to their homes for meals and making sure I had all the things I needed. But, I was still not prepared for the challenges of doing ministry as a single person. It’s hard to be a single person in a world that feels like it’s created for couples. I think the concept and practical concerns, challenges, and details of single ministers entering congregational life is a growing edge for most churches and seminaries.

Recently, I have also been journeying through a season of my ministry that has been filled with difficult decisions and a serious need for improved communication and healing. I call this difficult season a journey because I’m confident there is much to be learned along the way. I’m also hopeful that when I get to the end of this journey, my ministry and I will be in a better, wiser place.

What brings you great joy in life and ministry?
My youth bring me so much joy. A few months ago, I opened my computer on a Monday morning to find the screensaver had been changed to a cat, wearing a headband and riding a unicorn through a field with a technicolor rainbow background. This wasn’t how I had left things and I quickly figured out that the two boys who’d used my computer to “look something up” before the Sunday night’s youth event had made some changes for me. I have no plans to change the background anytime soon.

Being able to go to the youths’ school events, or having youth group alumni text me about the challenges they’re facing and the incredibly mature choices they’re making, is so special. I’m so blessed to be included in the lives of these gifted, intelligent, sassy youth who are growing into young adults with faith-centered lives.

How do you keep yourself healthy–spiritually and physically?
During my second year here, Kirkwood Baptist Church made it possible for me to take part in the Center for Teaching Churches through The McAfee School of Theology. For two years, I had a professional coach, a peer group, and a Ministerial Support Committee made up of KBC members, and I don’t have enough words for how formative that program was. Though my time in the program is now over, it has had long-lasting effects on my ministry. In 2015, my Ministerial Support Committee became my Ordination Committee, and walked with me through the ordination process. I was able to create an ecumenical peer group that I still meet with monthly, and I continue to work with a professional coach. All of these things are part of my arsenal for keeping healthy spiritually. I also recently discovered the Sacred Ordinary Days Liturgical Day Planner. As someone who doesn’t enjoy devotional books, it’s a resource that both appeals to the list-maker in me, and reminds me to center my day in scripture.

Physical health is something I struggled with in the first few years of my ministry. I had to learn, after several bouts of pushing too hard and getting ill, that rest really is a good thing. And that if I listen to my body, it’ll tell me when I need a break. I’m still working to balance all the pieces of a truly healthy life, but I am much more aware of my physical limitations and needs than I was when I started my ministry.

Baptist Women: Voices of Hope by Sarah Greenfield

“I really needed to hear that,” voiced a student following the second lecture of the Cornerstone Series at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. The Cornerstone Series Bible Lectures, endowed by Lee and Lunelle Hemphill in honor of his parents, the late Mr. and Mrs. C.W. Hemphill, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The preacher at this year’s celebration, Kyndall Rothaus, is pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and author of Preacher Breath. Kyndall is not only a pastor, she is a poet. The rhythm and creative use of imagery found in her writing and preaching captures the attention and heart of her readers and listeners. Kyndall’s gifts and skills as a preacher and writer are beautiful, but ultimately, it was the words “I really needed to hear that” that struck me that day. I can’t stop replaying those words.

I discerned my own call to be a minister on the campus of Hardin-Simmons–in that very same auditorium where Kyndall lectured. As a student, I heard many lecturers, preachers, and speakers, and many times my response was “I really needed to hear that.” But I have realized that I not only needed to hear honest engagements with hard topics like Kyndall’s “The Voices of Hope,” in which she moved through lament, protest, and imagination to make her points, I also needed to hear those words in a feminine voice. Kyndall’s very presence, as a woman in leadership speaking to the concerns of our day, provided hope on our campus.

How are you ensuring young women hear voices of hope like Kyndall’s? As a young female minister who has been influenced by so many bold women in ministry who paved the way for me, I feel a degree of responsibility to ensure that the women who come after me will hear and see women speaking and preaching. Whether it is from the back of an auditorium, in a classroom, or in a place of worship on a Sunday morning, women need to see other women standing behind the lectern and the pulpit.

There are women in Baptist life to celebrate. We need to hear from them. I urge you today to consider how you might contribute to the effort to put women role models in front of the next generation of women who are seeking their call. They must have images, a great variety of images, of what it looks like to be a woman in ministry. They must see women leading and preaching in Baptist churches, classrooms, auditoriums, and chapels so that they too have opportunity to say “I really needed to hear that.”

Sarah Greenfield is pastor for emerging adults, First Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas.


God Pours Out: Joel 2

Joel 2:23-32
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God;
… he has poured down for you abundant rain…

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions…”
(Joel 2:23, 27, 28)

The scriptures give us countless views of the coming Kingdom of God, a time when wrongs will be righted, uneven ground will be leveled out, inequalities will be erased, hungers will be fed. The proud will be humbled, and the downtrodden will be lifted up. The rich will be emptied, and the empty will be filled.

The prophet Joel goes a step further: God won’t just even out the scales the way a careful scientist shifts a gram at a time to achieve perfect balance, or the way an accountant tallies dollars and cents to balance the books. The God of abundance will pour out bucketsfull, waterfalls, downpours, splashing onto bone-dry fields and urging up new sprouts of grain, new vines climbing their trellises, new olives on the trees. God will pour out wonders: a feast that satisfies all hungers, a community with the Presence at its heart, a life together free from shame. God will pour out, like the cup that overflows, and the years of thirst will be a distant memory, drowned out by praise.

The God of abundance will pour out, filling more than fields and cups and stomachs. God will pour out God’s own Spirit, filling the hearts and minds and mouths of men and women, young and old, master and slave. From the top of the ladder to the bottommost rungs, the Spirit, that abundant, uncontainable, irrepressible Spirit will pour into–and out of–the most unlikely prophets. Their heads will be full of divine dreams, and their eyes drawn to bright visions. Inspired by the Spirit, they’ll proclaim the Kingdom, interpret God’s works, show the way to redemption. Inspired by the Spirit, the people who listen will perceive the wondrous overflowing love of God, and “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Joel 2:32a)

When resources are scarce, we scrimp and save, weighing each gram and counting each penny, but God’s resources are boundless, and we can receive and share and celebrate them as richly as they are given. God doesn’t call disciples, or preachers, or prophets out of desperation, but out of abundance! God doesn’t need to call women just because there aren’t enough men. God doesn’t need to call millennials just because the Baby Boom is retiring. God pours through them all, because in a parched world there is no such thing as too much of the quenching Word.

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.


Each week, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister and this week we are thrilled to introduce Erin Walker Lysse.

Erin, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served.
I first sensed a call to ministry when I was in college and had no specific job title in mind. My education at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University exposed me to a variety of jobs in ministry, for which I am grateful. After school, I accepted an invitation to be camp pastor for Passport, Inc. at one of their summer youth camps. In that work, I experienced community with other ministers, a meaningful sense of spiritual presence while preaching, and a rich sense of myself as preacher and camp pastor.

My work at camp led to four years of ministry and admissions counseling at Wingate University, a camp host. I ministered alongside Dane Jordan in campus ministries, and learned the value of mentoring relationships. I also had the privilege of helping the university consider its relationship with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, CBF in North Carolina, and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. As I ministered with current students and counseled potential students through the admissions process, I also got to travel to work with Baptists around the state and the country.

After a few years in higher education, I sensed a call to local church ministry and was delighted to serve Union Cross Baptist Church as minister to families for seven years. Ministry at Union Cross gave me long-term pastoral relationships in which to engage and grow, worship leadership and preaching opportunities, and many ways to know myself as pastor, teacher, director, and leader.

As I ministered, I also had a desire to take a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). I entered the CPE process in 2013 at Wake Forest University Baptist Health, and continue my journey there as a Supervisory Education Student.

What have been your greatest joys in ministry?
Connecting with my story, the story of another person or community, and with the sacred story of creation and redemption gives me great joy. One patient I knew at the hospital was a new mother who was dying just days after giving birth to her first child, a daughter. There was deep pain in her story. And there was great joy in her meeting her daughter. My own grief over the death of my mother when I was a young girl was present in my time with this patient. The great joy I found was in the connection we made in the few weeks she and I knew each other, in the deep sharing and sense of accompaniment therein, and in the possibility of healing in grief that knows hope. In many ways along my journey in ministry, I have found connection through relationship, a deep sense of being accompanied, and the possibility of healing or wholeness to be sources of great joy.

What challenges have you encountered along the way?
Being a minister can feel like an isolating way of being in the world. Though I have often felt accompanied by God in love, grace, and generosity of God’s Spirit, I have also felt lonely in the work of doing ministry. Friends and family are supportive of my sense of call, but cannot always relate to what it is like to minister. Friends and family who also minister sometimes feel distant, either geographically or because of our shared busyness. I have struggled with letting others be deeply part of my journey because I get focused on the tasks at hand or because I get stuck in my head about how different my work is or feels from the work others engage in the world.

What is the best ministry advice you have ever received?
I am learning to trust that who I am and my story are my best tools for ministry. It matters that what I know about God has context – shape and form – particular to my life experience. My ability to be present with another from within that context opens the possibilities of love, grace, wholeness, and God knows what else, between another person and me. As I minister, my relationship with God, my awareness of myself, and my connections with others guide and sustain me.

A Stone Called Embrace by Susan Rogers

Embrace the glorious mess that you are. – Elizabeth Gilbert

At the start of this year, our church hosted a visioning workshop. I love visioning, it’s the living it out that’s the tough part. Led by a leadership coach, we were invited to name the ways we envisioned being part of God’s dream for the world, something we had talked a lot about during Advent. As the morning progressed, it got more personal and more specific. We were asked to write our “one word”. That word was to be inscribed on a stone and placed somewhere we’d pay attention to it.
My word was “embrace” and my stone stays in the bottom of my messy purse, where I often find the keys I swear I’ve lost. I may not feel keys when I first start digging, but I inevitably feel that smooth stone reminding me of what I said I’d be and become.

I am a dreamer and an idealist who started a church with all kinds of hopes and expectations. Among other things, I imagined a place of refuge, a safe space, people deeply connected to the real needs of the community, a hub for reimagining the church—I could seriously go on. Did I mention I’m an idealist? These hopes have brought some people our way and have also sent some away. They have been fuel for shaping our life together and have also created false hopes that we (or worse yet, I) can be all things to all people.

Thus, the need to embrace. It’s a strange word to relate to who I want to be and become, but it speaks to my struggle as a pastor, a woman in ministry, and a perpetual work in progress. To embrace means to be fully myself with all of my flaws, gifts, passions and imperfections and be with others in that same way. It means to stop pushing and pulling so hard at every perceived wrong turn, set back or conflict and to patiently listen, wait and even admit when I don’t have an answer (which is much of the time). It means toning down my inner critic. It means being okay with disappointing people.

A week ago on a Sunday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours doing jail visits. One of the people I visited was a twenty-four-year-old young man who’d been convicted of murder. I’ve made jail visits before, but not usually on a Sunday. I was tired when I arrived and wondering why I’d made this commitment during the time I really wanted to be enjoying a nice long afternoon nap. As I was waiting for him to enter our visitation room, my word came to mind. Then, I remembered that I was not there because I have it all together. I was not there to fix or to give advice. I was there to be present. I was there to be myself (hesitations and all) with another weary soul. After a brief introduction, we spent thirty minutes having deep, soulful conversation. Mostly, I just listened as he shared about his life. Before I left, he asked if he could share a rap he’d recently written while in jail. He used the metal table as a beatbox as he sang about his newfound faith. A prison guard walking by did a double take. Before it was over, I closed my eyes and felt the Spirit’s nearness in a way I had not felt in a while.

To “embrace” does not mean to stop having hopes, dreams and expectations. Quite the opposite. It means showing up to notice when and where God is present and how the Spirit is moving, tweaking, calling, disturbing and refining our part in God’s great big scheme of things. I pray for more courage to stop striving to be perfect and instead to be fully present wherever, however & with whomever I find myself.

Susan Rogers is pastor of The Well at Springfield in Jacksonville, Florida.

A Sacred Souvenir: Genesis 32:27

Sunday, Oct. 16

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Genesis 32:22-31
Tim. 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” (Gen. 32:27)

There are many characters in the Bible who are wonderfully human, and who get into situations we can relate to. We can imagine ourselves in their sandals, and in their stories, we can see deeper into our own relationships with God. As a young man, Jacob deceived his father and cheated his brother to gain the upper hand in his family; as an old man, he fathered a dozen sons with their own schemes and dreams. These are stories we can understand. We might not condone the behaviors of scheming sons and betraying brothers, but we can at least identify with the temptations of competition, sibling rivalry, and upward mobility. It’s all too human.

Then there are some stories that are so specific and so supernatural that we can’t even begin to put ourselves in them; the best we can do is explore them from a distance, examine their visible edges and try to glimpse their subtle shifts and suggestions. In his midlife, Jacob, having sent his family and all his possessions across the river, was left alone for a night of unexpected combat. With God. God’s own self showed up in the darkness, nudged Jacob awake, and kept him struggling, wrestling hand-to-Divine-Hand in a shockingly well-matched bout until the sun broke over the horizon. There’s no “typical human experience” here!

And then, to make it even more unbelievable, God–God!–asked to be released!

Jacob was holding God too tightly; God asked to be let go and Jacob agreed… on one condition. So God gave Jacob what he demanded: a blessing, which God provided in the form of a new name. By the time the estranged brothers would meet again, he would no longer be the cheating little brother Jacob, but Israel–the one who strives with God.

Israel’s name would become the name of an entire people. His own children, all the tribes they would lead, and the nations they would become, were rooted in relationship with this wrestling God. The children, the tribes, the nations of God would share in Israel’s blessing and in his wounds.

Israel’s own supernatural striving with God, his resulting blessing, and his lifelong woundedness echo through generations of real people. Wonderfully normal, everyday humans may never have to prove their strength against God in the utter darkness of a desert night, but into wonderfully normal, everyday situations, they carry Israel’s name. They carry–we carry!–the gift of a blessing and the souvenir of a lingering limp.

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.