Pinnacle Presbyterian Church

Echoes Blog

NYC Pilgrimage 2018 - The Farminary


The Fran Park Center for Faith and Life is celebrating Earth Week with many learning opportunities and part of this week’s offering is a lecture from Princeton Theological Seminary’s, Dr. Nate Stucky.  Many Park Center supporters had the opportunity to meet Dr. Stucky for the first time at his “Farminary” when we journeyed over last November, on our pilgrimage to the east coast.  We enjoyed the experience so much we invited him to come to Scottsdale to teach us more about his mission. Please join us on April 24th staring at 5:00pm to welcome Dr. Stucky with a dinner in our fellowship hall.  Following dinner, we’ll head over to the sanctuary to enjoy his lecture under the massive plastic bottle art installation.   The lecture’s topic is “Does God Waste Anything?”  Join us!  

by: Joanne McDowell

Dr. Nate Stucky, Director Princeton Seminary’s Farminary, asked – “Where have you most felt God in your life?” The answers were different for each of us, but often touched on the common thread of nature, God’s creations and an actual physical place indoors and outdoors.

My thoughts that morning we met with Dr. Stucky were too numerous to sum up in one sentence, but I mentioned a nature preserve near my home in Colorado and the mountains, in general. For me, mountains aren’t one specific place, any mountains usually bring me closer to God. Actually, that’s dirt, rocks and earth in piles anywhere… and rivers, streams, birds and animals that inhabit them too. To me – this is when I am closest to God… in nature. God came to Moses through the clouds on that mountain and He frequently speaks to me from my own backyard overlooking Pinnacle Peak.

God has also reached me in buildings from time to time, like the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France or, the York Minister in England or the Sagrata de Familia in Barcelona. Sometimes when I’m staring at the magnificent cross in Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona I feel the closest to God.

But, when we toured the Farminary and saw the fields, the barns and the gardens, the lake and the trees around which Nate has built a “church,” I was reminded of the fields around Bethlehem and Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee and the banks of the Jordan where Jesus walked and preached. Here he shared meals with his disciples and the multitudes. What Nate Stucky has started there at the Princeton Seminary’s Farminary has the potential to bring a different, but holy expression of God at work in today’s world. We can still turn to nature to find God’s magnificent works and to learn and listen for how He is touching our lives.

With all the references in the Bible to the vine and branches, to harvest and to the calamities of nature, the possibilities are endless! I know the outdoors is where God finds me most often – with my eyes on the sunset, my hands in the dirt or my feet on rock ground. Like Elijah, I’ll be in the cave, listening for the still small voice that comes to me among God’s perfect creations. AMEN.

PS. Did I mention that both my Grandfathers loved the earth and soil? One was a farmer in Iowa and one raised flowers (gladiolas and peonies) for the Iowa State Fair. My love of the soil and the mountains goes way back, all the way to my formation.

Click here to read additional reflections from the NY City Pilgrimage

What Happens When Life "Turns Turtle"

Have you ever turned turtle? Another way to put it would be that everything seems upside down, backwards, twisted and crazy. The phrase comes from the new movie Mary Poppins Returns where Topsy, Mary Poppins cousin played by Meryl Streep, sings a song called “Turning Turtle.” In the movie, Topsy is having a “turning turtle” day and is unable to do her work. Nothing seems to go right for Topsy on these “turning turtle” days.

If you are like me or Topsy you too have days that “turn turtle” so to speak. Sometimes these just happen when life gets overwhelming, when we have too much to do, when we are suddenly paralyzed by what lies before us. Other times “turning turtle” relates to a season when we have lost someone we love, a job has changed, a big move, a natural disaster occurs, or a health crisis.

Really anything in life that is a big change can be a “turning turtle” moment. Many times these days make us feel like we can’t even figure out how to fix dinner, we break things without reason, we get lost in our thoughts, we don’t know the answers to things that we know that we know and the list goes on. Basically, as the song goes, “Fast is slow, low is high, stop is go…Night is day, dog is cat, black is white, thin is fat…”

In Stephen Ministry we talk about these as life changing moments. Sometimes these moments pass quickly because they are related to a stressful moment or challenge, but more often than not these are life changes that define our future forever and the small moment is only one in many “turning turtle” moments. In the midst of these losses or even celebrations it seems like we are all over the place. Nothing in life seems organized or we are overly organized and even tiny changes cause great stress, our emotions are up and down, we can’t make decisions and our ability to handle challenging situations might not be the way you normally work through a challenge.

These defining moments ask us to look at our lives from a different perspective as we work through this season. In the song, Mary Poppins asks Topsy to turn herself upside down and then everything looks normal again. In a sense, living in this new normal also asks us to do the same thing, but it doesn’t just take one day. Instead it is many moments and days of working through what this new normal looks like until suddenly the “turning turtle” days seem to be less and less. But you don’t have to do it alone. Stephen Ministers, pastors and friends are always there to walk with you through these difficult seasons…and when you need a reminder and maybe a smile when you “turn turtle” click here and listen to Mary Poppins and Cousin Topsy figure it out with the Bank’s children.

Moving Forward: Toward Ordination


This is an update on my ordination process…and a reflection on the journey.  Twenty-seven years ago I responded to the “call” to ministry by checking out the only seminary I was really interested in: Princeton Theological Seminary. Why was this the only one? It’s the only one I really had any connection to. I was, at that time, working at the Historic First Presbyterian Church in downtown Phoenix. I was working for the music department, teaching in the First Presbyterian Academy (music, theatre, Spanish, cooking, Bible, second & fifth grades), teaching adult Bible study at the church, and I was serving on session (at 22 they referred to me as the ‘younger elder.’)  I experienced “the call” to ordained ministry in the midst of doing ministry. Two of my pastors at that time, Gayle and Tom Parker, were both Princeton Seminary graduates. Gayle encouraged me to look into Princeton; Tom encouraged me to look into Fuller (where he worked).   Princeton seemed the better fit for me…so much so that I stayed there 13 years, earning three degrees and teaching speech & preaching for ten of those years. I enjoyed the academic environment, and got to stay connected to music as a mode of faith expression and practice. 

Fifteen years ago, as I was nearing the end of my time at Princeton Seminary, I discerned that the time was not right for me to enter into ordained ministry. It was a tough decision. I was thinking that I would be teaching in theological settings. I love teaching. It’s a basic component to what I feel called to do in this life. 

Since I have been at Pinnacle, I have had the opportunity to use my teaching, musical, preaching, and worship leading gifts. And in the midst of doing ministry, I discerned God saying, “Now is the time.” Pinnacle congregation and its leadership has helped me discern that the call to doing ministry has meant the fulfilling of the call to “ordination.” I am grateful for those, like Wes Avram, who have helped me listen and follow.  

Three weeks ago, the Presbytery of the Grand Canyon approved me to receive a call. It was a wonderful morning, with plenty of Pinnacle people there to support me in being examined publically on my statement of faith and readiness for ministry. There was only a twenty-minute time slot allotted for this examination, but it stretched to about thirty. It was actually fun; I wanted to keep going! After 13 years of theological education I have a lot to say!  (Insert cue for laughter). 

In the last few weeks I’ve been asked by several people, “So, now that you’re getting ordained, does this mean you’ll be leaving us here at Pinnacle?” That’s what usually happens for Presbyterians. Things are different however in this case. What’s wonderful is that the “call” allows me to stay here at Pinnacle to continue in the ministry I do here and to expand on that ministry.

Moving to the status of “ordained” technically means that I can do two things that I am not currently permitted to do: perform baptisms and officiate at communion.  Yes, I am looking forward to participating in these “ordinances” of the church, taking part in what God is already doing in our midst (I taught the course at Princeton Seminary on doing baptisms and communion for 10 years!) But being ordained means far more than presiding over ordinances. Entering into ordained ministry means, most of all, holding space for others by listening carefully, lovingly, and soulfully to others and empowering individual members of the body of Christ to embrace the ministry to which God has called them. 

Ordained ministry is a trust. The community trusts that God has chosen certain individuals to lead, teach, preach, pray, and act lovingly so as to exhibit God’s love in Christ. And the ordinand holds that trust (faithfulness) in all aspects of life. What will be different after the service of ordination (currently scheduled for October)? Not much…and everything.  The mantle of ministry isn’t something that is removed when one leaves the campus of the church.  Ministry shapes every aspect of life. For me personally, it means that I am more accountable for everything I do. As Paul would say, “Hold every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).  Ordained ministry means trusting that God is at work in and through the person of the ministry to guide the everyday saints of the church to fulfill their calling as “the priesthood of all believers.”  It means that love is the calling and the answering of that calling, leading through service and in following Christ’s call, “Brothers and sisters, love one another” (John 13:34).


In the March 12 New York Times Magazine, Eva O’Leary published a “Letter of Recommendation” for Lent.  Without reviewing the piece (you can read it with ease online), I want to give my take-aways here.

Ms. O’Leary writes about discovering Lent over a number of years, as she found her way into an Episcopal congregation during the time she broke up, got back together again, broke up, got back together again, eventually married, and then in the end divorced her love.  The travail of her relationship was an interesting backdrop to moving from skepticism about Lent (it’s odd, archaic, and only about giving up chocolate for no real reason) to embracing what Lent could mean in her life.  Or maybe it was the other way around, that discovering Lent gave an interesting backdrop to her ups and downs of love, sadness, guilt, and forgiveness.  Either way, she found her way around some profound thoughts about this time of year.  Here’s what I got:

We live into Lent, slowly.  Not many of us really do anything more in the 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter that we call Lent than think about it on Sundays and maybe do a midweek service once or twice.  Some of us do more:  fasting, taking up acts of charity, doing daily devotionals and weekly evening worship, reflecting on the human condition and our need for God.  But as we move along the continuum, Lent has gifts to give.  Those gifts can slowly remind us that our whole lives are long, rocky, twisty journeys toward the Love that made us.

We let Lent live into us, even more slowly.  No one need tell us we’re imperfect, or that life can be both hard and great.  We pretty much know this.  The questions for us are how to better understand, and even embrace, our imperfection as a place of grace, and maybe how to let new thoughts slowly redefine what we think is hard and what we want to be great—to change our sense of ourselves, what we want, and what our lives are for.  Those questions get answered, bit by bit, and maybe over years, in what Lent invites us to:  a long, repeated rhythm of being honest with ourselves giving the broken parts to God—with openness and thanks.  The insights of Lent are meant to move into our regrets as well as our happiness, to free us.

And when Lent’s power becomes real, it becomes what’s true.  “We are from dust, and to dust we shall return,” we’re told on the first day of Lent, as ashes are smudged on our forehead.  And yet we say that with gratitude, told that admitting that is the first step toward being released from the burden of thinking we’re supposed to hold everything on our shoulders.  We withhold words of joy, or things of pleasure, not because they’re bad, but to remind ourselves that they’re fleeting—so when they come (again) we can savor them all the more even as we learn to keep them in their rightful place.  We see life in all its breadth—the good and the bad—and so we learn to see others better too, to appreciate others in all their complexities too.  And we wait for the Easter bang, when trumpets and singing and flowers return—knowing that the gift of possibility and joy is, finally, the truest and surest thing of all.  Suffering is inevitable, but not necessary.  Love is all. 

So accept my own letter of recommendation for Lent—all the way to Easter.

In response to Christchurch


March 15, 2019

As I write this, reports are 49 dead and dozens injured in Christchurch, New Zealand, in an act of terror.  Four people being held, with questions around three of them not resolved yet.  The details may change as reporting continues, but the reality of it all won’t.  It was a planned attach on two mosques while people were worshipping.  Bombs were found in at least one car.  These mosques would have been filled with Kiwi Muslims, immigrants, refugees from violence elsewhere.  Everyone dead or injured has their own story, as valuable and meaningful as anyone else’s—and as precious in God’s heart. 

We paused when the shooting took place in the synagogue in Pittsburgh.  We paused when the shooting took place in the churches in South Carolina, and Texas.  We paused when the shooting took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  We’ve paused too many times.  The distance between here and New Zealand shouldn’t give us shelter, or any sense of separation.  For in our world of interconnectedness, these distances aren’t all that distant.  These are neighbors.  We should pause now too.  Just as we should pause when we hear news of mosques or churches or synagogues or other places of gathering attacked in Iraq, Egypt, France, Jerusalem, Germany, or anywhere.

Preliminary reports are that this act in Christchurch was done by one or more white supremacists.  They added to their perverse ideology of racial superiority a moral mandate to cleanse their small world of things and persons they believe impure and threatening, by any means necessary.  For them, maybe it was their ideas about what it means to be a “New Zealander.”  In our context, it often comes down to what someone thinks it means to be an “American.”  It seems to me that the lethal combination is that combination of ideology and moral mandate—to force what you want by cultivating fear, with no guiding or chastening principles but victory.  Combine this with delusional views of one’s own power and mistaken assumptions about how things work, and you’ve got fire on fuel. 

We can rightly name mental illness behind some of these attacks.  But I think we’d be wrong to assume that naming mental illness isolates the problem to the individuals who commit the acts.  For delusional and mentally ill folk use images and themes like any of us do, drawn from images and themes available in the wider culture.  Available rhetoric is used to create imagined stories of identity or righteousness that end in violence.  That doesn’t mean that those who are reasonable are responsible for how otherwise rational debates are manipulated into crusades of violence by a few.  But it does mean that we’d do well to be careful, to think about how we think and talk about how we talk, and put more themes of reconciliation and honest conversation into the public domain than we do themes of judgment and battle.  And we’d do well to promote learning, interest in others, and patience with difference even as we ask critical questions and speak of truth. 

This I know we can do as the church.  And this we’re trying to do here at Pinnacle.  Let’s keep at it, assured that even if we’re not talking about things that seem directly related to these terrible events of yesterday, we’re still cultivating the ground of healing, of hope, and of a better way. 

And let us pray for all those who harbor such delusions, and hate:  that their hearts might be stirred toward a truer righteousness.  And let us pray for victims and their families.  And let us pray for those all-around the world, and even here, who watch things like what happened yesterday in Christchurch and are afraid for their own safety.  Today, let us let those prayers go especially to Muslims in our own community, for freedom to worship and freedom from fear.