The 2022 Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators (APCE) Annual Event opened with a bang with worship leaders crying, “Who knew it would take two long years to get here?”
Of the 768 people registered for the conference, 557 responded with joyful cheering and wild applause. And the rest? Well, we don’t know! 211 participants participated virtually from homes, offices and churches as the “Circle of Faith” conference launched. What was planned as a 50th-anniversary event became a celebration of “50 Years + one and beyond,” as vaccinations, COVID protocols and the option for virtual participation finally allowed the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators to gather.
Shannon Kershner, pastor of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, invited participants to imagine a family photo album. Kershner envisioned opening the album to reveal recent photos – Jesus and family, the early church – before turning back the pages to reveal photos of distant family members, the ancestors described in Hebrews 11.
First, the photos showed the expected photos of the matriarchs and patriarchs at their best. Then, they were caught in unexpected moments of shame and doubt: Father Abraham watching as Sarah is led away into Pharaoh’s home after Abraham lied that she was his sister, for example (Genesis 12).
Besides Abraham’s “grainy picture of doubt, fear, and brokenness,” Kershner imagined a photo of Sarah as she cast out Hagar and her baby (Genesis 21). “Sarah’s arm is outstretched, a finger pointing to the desert … She thought God was not going to do as God promised, and her mistrust fueled her cruelty to Hagar.”
Kershner imagined this photo album as an illustration of Hebrews 11’s assertion: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” She suggested that we view the album through a different lens: “Faith is the reality of things hoped for. The conviction of things not seen.” Pictures that highlight brokenness and doubt are incomplete — “we’re only looking at the things we can see.”
At the same time, Kershner suggested a modern photo album of Chicago. If our local photo album included only images of homeless women, men and families, we would not see the full picture or the entirety of these individuals’ experiences. Kershner lifted up the example of Friendship Presbyterian Church, a church that met in a train station and a theatre before organizing their broader community to build a new space — a spacious community center that offers housing, a food pantry, classes and space for Friendship to worship and serve.
Kershner shared this as an example of letting “holy hope” define the reality with stories like Friendship as examples of God’s promises fulfilled. “These new pictures remind us that God was still able to be God in the midst of doubts and fear,” Kershner said. “God is still moving and working and causing God’s people to dream new ways to be of use for transformation in this world.”
With Kershner’s own energy building, she encouraged the crowd, “You decided that God still has work for you to do in this world,” concluding, “I will not be one bit surprised if you discover anew the spiritual energy you need to continue to labor in the trenches of ministry.” And the next few days are structured to make that happen, as APCE participants are officially launched into a series of worship, workshops and gatherings curated to nourish spirits and provide practical and creative resources.