Pastors’ Blog

We All Have Questions: A Summer Sermon Series

Religion is at its best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at its worst when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answers for everybody else. ~ Archibald Macleish

What are your questions about faith? We all have them: questions about the nature of God or Christ, how to interpret certain biblical stories or passages, Christian doctrine or theology, beliefs you were taught when you were growing up, the interplay between religion and science, the role of religion in culture or government – just to name a few.

During worship this coming summer, we’ll tackle your particular questions in a sermon series entitled, “We All Have Questions.” In order to make this sermon series work, we need to know what your questions are. You’re invited to send your faith-related questions to our pastors, Joanne Whitt or Diana Bell, in any way that works for you: email, in-person conversation, a personal note, phone call, text or even a Facebook post. There is no such thing as a stupid question. The pastors will review the questions and depending on how many there are, choose among them. When questions have common themes, they may be combined into one sermon. The sermons will explore the biblical passages that best respond to the questions.

Sometimes, an exploration of Scripture might provide a pretty clear answer. In other cases, a sermon might be more of a “wrestling out loud” with the questions.

When it’s possible, accounting for preacher, event and room schedules, we’ll hold “sermon talk-backs” following worship for those who want to dive deeper into a topic.

We all have questions about faith. What are yours? Let’s explore them together this summer.

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Social Justice and Good Music: It’s Who We Are

Social justice and good music. Those are the two pursuits, the two ministries that folks keep mentioning in connection with First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo. In a number of discussions lately, both more and less formal, if you ask people to answer a question something along the lines of, “What is it that we do well, that most people identify with us, and that we should keep on doing?” they will say, “Social justice and good music.”

That doesn’t mean that’s all we do, or that’s all we are. We have an exciting ministry to children, youth and families (much of it revolves around social justice) and we care deeply for each other, both in times of need and in the ordinary process of building community. We worship together, we play together, we work together. But we’re best known for social justice and good music.

This congregation has a long history of social justice activism. In 1965, our pastor boarded a bus with students and faculty from the seminary next door, and went to Selma to march with Dr. King. We continue this commitment to justice through our ministries to the homeless of Marin County, rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, fighting hunger globally and locally, a commitment to the environment, welcoming our LGBT brothers and sisters and insisting that “Black Lives Matter.”

A couple of years ago, Simon Sinek’s TEDTalk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” ( formed the centerpiece of our leadership retreat. Sinek explains that people don’t buy what we do, they buy why we do it, and that is why we “start with the ‘why.’” When asked to define the “why” of our congregation – why do we exist? – what is our purpose? – our leaders came up with this: “We believe that we are all children of God. We express that belief by sharing God’s love for creation through worship, service and community. We believe God calls us to do justice in the world and to offer the peace and joy of God’s love to all.”

This social justice “why” is rooted in our reading of Scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments emphasize that God loves all of God’s creation, and in response, wants us to love each other. Shortly after beginning his ministry, Jesus announced his mission statement by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

(Luke 4:16-19)  And so we agree with Cornel West, who said, “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Our love of great music has a long tradition as well. Music speaks to us in ways words cannot, and is an important way we connect to the holy. Our sanctuary houses two of the best pipe organs on the West Coast and we’re proud of the legacy of excellent musicians who have served and continue to serve as music directors, organists, soloists, and choir members. While we have a definite bent toward the classical, we also love gospel. A couple of times a year we enjoy a New Orleans jazz band; every World Communion Sunday we welcome West African drums; we remember our Scottish heritage on Reformation Sunday with the Highland bagpipes and snare. Our congregation is blessed with fine musicians (flute, clarinet, violin, guitar, keyboard) who offer their talents even on ordinary Sundays.

“Social justice and good music” doesn’t sum up all of who we are. But it’s a pretty good start.



Coming Out

This letter was originally sent out to our congregation on September 23, 2015.

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

I write to you with good news. As many of you know this summer I attended a weeklong workshop called, “Building a Vocal Community.” For one week I was immersed in the story, history and music of African and African American people. While I have always felt an affinity toward gospel and spiritual styles of music, there was a special longing in my heart when I sang songs about the struggle for freedom. Freedom is coming, oh yes I know! It struck a chord in my heart. That’s when I began to realize that it was time for me to come out publicly to you, my church family, about my sexual identity: I am not straight.

I am at the anniversary of an almost ten year struggle with accepting myself as “not straight” and I am pleased to finally not feel shame in claiming my truth. Read more →

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Lent Week 5: Daily Resurrection and Holy Week

During Lent, I’ve been blogging about our Lenten theme, “Daily Resurrection,” and in particular, looking at what other writers and thinkers have to say about daily dying to an old way of being, thinking or living, and daily rising to a new way of being, thinking or living.

This coming Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday. I remember when we used to call it simply “Palm Sunday,” and many folks still do. The switch to “Palm/Passion” happened when someone, somewhere – I don’t know who – said, “What a minute. If we don’t touch on the passion of Christ (that is, the days and hours leading up to his crucifixion and death) on the Sunday before Easter, most people will skip right over it. Because, let’s face it: No one is going to come to those Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Vigil services we so diligently and conscientiously offer. They’re just too darn depressing.  They make people uncomfortable.”

So the daily resurrection question I’m dealing with in this week’s blog concerns why we should bother with all that uncomfortable stuff between Palm Sunday and Easter in the first place. And how one form of resurrection might be moving beyond (or – dying to) a theology that would cast God in the role of a cosmic child abuser (not my phrase) and rising to seeing God as the one who pursues us and rescues us from the life of violence and domination by being just the opposite: by being the God of humility and self-emptying love that will not let us go. Read more →

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Lent Week 4: Daily Resurrection as Wholehearted Living

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, social science researcher Brené Brown describes “10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living.” These guideposts emerged from the data in her research on difficult emotions including shame, vulnerability and fear.  She found that some people are better able to engage in their lives from a place of worthiness.  They are able to cultivate “the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.  … Yes I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”  She developed the ten guidelines because the research revealed that these people lived lives that reflected cultivated certain qualities, behaviors and attitudes, and letting go of others:

  • Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
  • Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
  • Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
  • Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
  • Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
  • Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
  • Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
  • Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
  • Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self‐Doubt and “Supposed To”
  • Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”[1]

What do these guideposts have to do with daily resurrection? Note that for each guidepost, we not only are to cultivate something, we are to let go of something else. We are to die to something, in order to live wholeheartedly to something else. I don’t know about you, but I find the “let go” list much more intimidating, much more personally challenging than the “cultivate” list. Read more →

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Lent Week 3: Daily Resurrection as a Practice

Although we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead on Easter Sunday, the resurrection holds little importance for us here and now if it’s only a historical event that we give a nod to once a year. The resurrection is intended to be so much more. It is intended to impact our lives every day. This phrase “every day” points to practice – to practicing resurrection.

Authors Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have devoted their lives to identifying resources for people in their spiritual journeys. They raise the question: “What happens when we think of [the word resurrection] as a verb? Then the resurrection becomes a spiritual practice in daily life.” They define the practice of resurrection as anything that brings hope and life, and defies death and needless suffering. They quote Catholic writer Megan McKenna: “Every time I bring hope into a situation, every time I bring joy that shatters despair, every time I forgive others and give them back dignity and the possibility of a future with me and others in the community, every time I listen to others and affirm them and their life, every time I speak the truth in public, every time I confront injustice — yes — I bring people back from the dead.”

In their article, “Easter: Resurrection as a Spiritual Practice,” the Brussats identify a variety of ways we can practice resurrection – ways that we can bring hope, healing, or reconciliation both to common, everyday experiences and to life’s challenges. Their list shows how our relationships with others, our work for the common good, and our own healing all are settings for resurrection. Read more →

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Lent Week 2: Daily Resurrection to “Black Lives Matter”

We’ve now concluded the conversation on race and privilege our congregation started 4 weeks ago. Our Sunday morning conversations have been both challenging and hopeful. As one participant put it, it seems as though we’re in the second wave of the Civil Rights Movement. The first movement changed laws. This second wave is about changing hearts.

The only way our hearts are changed is by opening up to the possibility that there are things we don’t know, ways to see things that we haven’t seen, ways to understand things that we never understood before. That is what we spent the last four weeks doing. It has been a time of resurrection: of dying to old ways of thinking about race and privilege, and rising to new awareness.

Now it’s time to think about where we go from here.  To think of this in terms of our theme for Lent this year: How can we daily die to what gets in the way of our fully loving all of our neighbors regardless of race, ethnicity and class, and daily rise to new life that celebrates our common humanity and connection? Read more →

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Lent Week 1: Richard Rohr on 12 Ways to Practice Resurrection Now

What does it mean to live resurrection daily? It means dying to ways that are not life-giving for ourselves, others, and creation, and rising to ways that are. But what does this look like? In a series of blogs this Lent, I’ll take a look at how several writers have interpreted this question.

Richard Rohr, one of the most influential spiritual teachers in the world today, has often addressed the challenges of ego, or the False Self, in his books. Either consciously or not so consciously, we put on the False Self in order to accommodate what society believes is “successful.” It is the polished version of ourselves, in which we’ve denied all our weaknesses and overworked our strengths. It is a mask we hide behind because we are ashamed of what we believe we really are. But Jesus teaches us again and again the most counterintuitive of messages: We grow spiritually much more by getting it wrong than by doing it right. Rohr writes:

“If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A “perfect” person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection.” (Rohr, Falling Upward, xxii.) Read more →

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Sharing David Lose’s “Terrifying Thought”

sonora sign
More on the question of how we do church/the future of the church: A challenging set of questions raised by David Lose, one of my favorite writers and the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He calls this, “A Terrifying Thought,” posted today:

“So what if all the decline our congregations and denominations have experienced in recent decades has little to do with a failure of leadership (what congregational leaders fear) or changes in theological or political stances (what more conservative church leaders assert) or a degenerate or disinterested generation of believers (what people in the pew too often feel) or with any of the other things we usually attribute it to. What if the decline is simply the result of a massive cultural shift? That is, what if we now live in a world where the emerging generation a) has tons of options for ways to think about and make sense of their lives, b) has way less time for things that don’t feel purposeful or worthwhile, and c) (and as a result of a and b) just don’t do things because their parents did but instead only commit to things that make a tangible difference in the world, both theirs and the world around them?

I guess another way of putting this is, what if our congregations are set up – in terms of things like “membership” and “pledges” and “new member classes” and “friendship pads” and scripted worship services filled with sixteenth-century music – to respond to the needs of those who came of age in the fifties, sixties, and seventies but have little to offer millennials? In other words, what if the way we do church just doesn’t make much sense to the youngest third of our population? What then?

I find this to be a terrifying thought. Mostly because I think it might be true.”

You can read David Lose’s posts at…In+the+Meantime%29.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t mean what we’re doing is “wrong.”  It also doesn’t mean that if we switched to drums and guitars we’d “attract” a bunch of young people.  I am pretty convinced we would not.  What I’ve garnered is that what Lose is saying applies to all “church” offered as something people do on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Saturday evenings or any other time, in a building on a corner with a “sanctuary” and classrooms and a budget and all the rest of it.

I do NOT think the Church of Jesus Christ is “dying.”  I suspect, however, that it will look very different in 25 or 30 years.

In the meantime, we have to be agile, creative, responsive, vulnerable, and above all, faithful to Christ in a way that dares greatly, as we strive to “make a tangible difference in the world, both [ours] and the world around [us].”

The photo accompanying this blog is one I took earlier this year in Sonora, California, in the Gold Country.  It was in the window of a small coffee shop.  You have to click on it to read the sign.  I invite you to do so.

Together we serve,

Joanne Whitt

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Outline for Belhar Confession Study

An Outline for a 1-Session Study of the Belhar Confession 

Sunday Seminar, October 5, 2014, 11:30 a.m. following worship.


Discussion Questions:

1) What is a “confession” of faith?
2) What is the Belhar Confession?
3) Why talk about it now?
4) What are the arguments for and against including the Belhar Confession in Part I of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (our Book of Confessions)?

I. What is a “confession”?

What does “confession” mean in this context? To “confess” in this sense means to affirm, declare, acknowledge or take a stand for what one believes to be true.

Why does the church confess? Part I of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution (The Book of Confessions) contains eleven confessional statements adopted by the Presbyterian Church as significant and instructive in both our individual and corporate Christian lives. Each one arose out of a perceived need for the church to define itself, both for itself and for the world, in response to:
1) a perceived threat to its integrity or identity;
2) a political or cultural movement that attacks the church or seeks to compromise its commitment to the gospel;
3) new insights into the promises of the gospel desperately needed by the church and the world;
4) or all three.

The eleven confessions are:
• The Nicene Creed (A.D. 381)
• The Apostles’ Creed (A.D. 180 – 8th Century)
• The Scots’ Confession (1560)
• The Heidelberg Catechism (1562)
• The Second Helvetic Confession (1561)
• The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)
• The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)
• The Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934)
• The Confession of 1967
• A Brief Statement of Faith – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1983)

Chart: For the historical context and crisis that inspired these confessions, see the attached chart from Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991). *The chart does not include A Brief Statement of Faith, adopted in 1983. The crises facing the church and world when A Brief Statement of Faith was adopted were the reunion of the northern and southern wings of the Presbyterian Church after over 100 years of separation over slavery, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

What do these confessions mean to us? (In other words, do you have to believe everything in them to be a Presbyterian?)

II. What is the Belhar Confession?

The Crisis: The Belhar Confession has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It does not, however, mention apartheid, but rather seeks to address a far wider context.

Date/origin: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church first drafted this “outcry of faith” and “call for faithfulness and repentance” in 1982, taking a lead in declaring that apartheid threatened the truth of the gospel. That church formally adopted it in 1986.

Issues addressed:
(a) Unity of the church and the unity among all people
(b) Reconciliation within the church
(c) God’s justice

A look at the Belhar Confession itself (see the attached).

Churches that have adopted the Belhar Confession:
• Dutch Reformed Mission Church (1982)
• The Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa (1994)
• The Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa in Namibia (ERCA) (997)
• United Protestant Church in Belgium (1998)
• The Reformed Church in America (RCA) (2010)
• The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) created a new, less-binding category for the Belhar, and adopted it as an “Ecumenical Faith Declaration” (2012)

III. Why talk about the Belhar Confession now?

This past June (2014), the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) approved the committee’s recommendation to refer adoption of the Belhar Confession to a vote by the Presbyteries.

History: The PC(USA) first considered adopting the Belhar Confession in 2008. A committee from the 218th General Assembly requested that a committee begin the formal process of including the Belhar in its Book of Confessions. That committee recommended adoption of the Belhar Confession to the 219th General Assembly in 2010. The General Assembly approved the recommendation and referred adoption to a vote of the Presbyteries. The Belhar Confession fell 8 votes short of the 116 necessary for adoption. In 2012, the 220th General Assembly began this process anew, and in 2014, the 221st General Assembly approved the new committee’s recommendation to refer adoption to a new vote by the Presbyteries.

IV.  What are the arguments for and against including the Belhar Confession in Part I of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (our Book of Confessions)?

Arguments for adoption:
1) Belhar powerfully interprets the gospel around three central biblical and confessional terms of our Reformed tradition: unity, reconciliation, and justice.
2) Belhar is a powerful advocate of God’s salvation at work in and through the church for the sake of the world and the healing of the cosmos.
3) The church has a special need to be instructed on the continuing dangers of violence and warfare, of the division between the rich and the poor, and between those of differing races, tribes, and peoples.
4) The unity of the church is our common calling in Christ. The church’s unity is its mission.
5) Adopting Belhar would be a declaration of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition.
6) Adopting Belhar would announce to the Church in the world our commitment as Presbyterians to unity, reconciliation and justice, not just in our own nation, but also in the world.

Arguments against adoption:
1) Not timely: The apartheid it addressed in South Africa no longer exists.
2) Redundancy: The PCUSA has spoken clearly on racism in the Confession of 1967, which is already included in the Book of Confessions. The Belhar Confession is redundant.
3) A waste of resources to “talk” rather than “do”: The church today desires to bring reconciliation through Christ to the world by doing the work of releasing the captives, bringing sight to the blind and binding up the wounded. Spending the church’s time and resources to debate an outdated, 20 year old document – written to address apartheid in Africa – is wasteful of her time, energy and resources.
4) Liberation Theology: The concern is that there are phrases in the Confession of Belhar, written from a Liberation Theology perspective, that could be used by other groups [read: LGBT] that consider themselves oppressed, to bolster their agendas in the church.
5) Failure to focus the Confession on the Lordship of Christ: The Belhar Confession emphasizes the unity of the Church, which is not a confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, but a confession about what the Church is or must do. Unity is not necessarily tied to Christ’s Lordship, since unity may be achieved by other means.
6) The issue of homosexuality: The argument is that because unity is the main point of the Belhar Confession others have insisted on using it for issues that are “unbiblical.” One of the contributors to Belhar, Allan Boesak, has sought to use it as a means to gain ordination for practicing homosexuals in the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa.
7) The Israeli and Palestinian conflict: Speakers for the Reformed Church in America have suggested using the Confession as a solution for what they perceive as racism on the part of Israel. As one South African put it “If there is one situation in this world that contextually fits the antiapartheid struggle and its dynamics, for which the Belhar Confession was written, it must be the Palestinian situation, currently.”
8) The issue of pluralism: At several places in the confession the word “church” is replaced by another category called “the People of God.” The Belhar Confession uses this term to describe the church. The question has been posed: “Is it possible to expand this “People of God” terminology to encompass the ‘peoples of God,’ including in this Jews and Muslims? And by this to provide a monotheistic platform for unity?”

(Resources for arguments against Belhar: Advisory prepared by Sue Cyre, Theology Matters, May 2008;

Response to Arguments Against:
1) Redundant? By that standard most of our current confessions would have to be excluded.
2) Waste of time – to whom? This is a complete insult to anyone who has experienced racial discrimination, and only demonstrates the ignorance and insensitivity of the Joint Renewal General Assembly Team.
3) Liberation Theology is problematic? Is the book of Exodus not liberation theology? What about Jesus’ ministry “to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free?” Black South Africans, most of whom were Christian, desperately needed liberation from a white supremacist so-called “Christian” regime. Nelson Mandela was labeled a “communist” by the Reagan administration.
4) With regard to “the Lordship of Jesus Christ” as a central focus: In reading the Book of Confessions one does not read any one part of it as if it were the whole. Belhar will stand along beside the other witnesses made over the past two thousand years.

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