Saturday, January 26, 2008
I just got back from the rotating shelter, it's cold outside, a damp cold, and late. The Baptists are staffing it in the Assembly of God church. The Presbyterians staffed it last week. There were over 40 people again in a shelter designed for 20... and 6 kids. As long as I have done this work, I can never get used to seeing the kids in our shelters. Two folks tonight are deaf, and several others mentally ill.
A young mother told me her child had a birthday yesterday, one year old. I asked her what they did to celebrate... "went to McDonald's... until they asked us to leave, then went and sat in the hospital for a while, then over to the men's shelter for lunch and the women's shelter to wait for the church van..." So his first birthday and he walked the cold streets with his parents.
It's on a night like this that I feel the call in this moderator stand. Maybe we can say some things that will make a difference... over the next 4+ months. I can only ask God to give us the chance to speak for these, the least among us... but perhaps closest to our Lord, who also walks the streets tonight and whose head rests with theirs on a pillow in the shelters....
The call of my life, and my reason for entering the ministry, is with and among persons who are experiencing homelessness or otherwise struggling to survive at the margins of our society. Since 1981 my call as a minister has been to the community of Meeting Ground, which I helped to found, and to creating partnership and community between the persons of my parish and the organized church. Meeting Ground is a community of faith and a refuge for persons and families experiencing homelessness. In 26 years several hundred Presbyterian churches, and thousands of mission volunteers, seminarians, interns, and others have been part of our community and ministry. New forms for mission and evangelism continue to evolve from the Meeting Ground community, most recently a broad coalition of faith communities of diverse theological viewpoints who have come together in mutual ministry to create redeeming community with and among folks who have been homeless for many years. Meeting Ground has been a valid mission cause of New Castle Presbytery since 1983, strongly supported by the Presbytery and by others from many parts of the country.
My desire to stand for Moderator is based on my love for the church which has done so much for me. I was not raised Presbyterian, but when I was a very lost young person, it was a group of Presbyterians who befriended me. They brought the church to me where I was; I was introduced to Jesus and my life was forever new. To him, and to this Church I owe a debt of love I can never fully repay, but in standing for moderator I can offer to the denomination a different viewpoint from the perspective of my quarter century of unique ministry. I want to encourage the kind of radical, energetic dialogue that we need – not just for ourselves, but for a world that needs us to have it. For the church I see a growing desire for mission, a yearning for faith in action, centered in the Gospel, with the power to transform lives, society, and our church.
This dialogue may begin around what we mean by “parish.” We need to direct resources and opportunity for creative new understanding of “church” and “mission,” extending the boundaries of our imagination. The province of the Gospel is not the church, but the world – particularly with the persons at its margins, as the Bible teaches – and the call of the church is to continually create new forms of parish in the world – based not on confined and arbitrary structures but the needs and realities of relationships. We may or may not be guided by tradition in our visioning, but we can’t be bound by it. It is the human community itself that is indeed our parish, and for the church to save its life in our time, it must lose it.
The church in the world only truly exists as gathering in which Jesus is known and present. I dream of radical transformation, not so much of structures and procedures, but of heart and loving relationships. I dream that our passion may be for mission, newly understood as that by which grace commends to all – in Jesus Christ we are released from that which divides, labels, and diminishes us as persons and all welcomed into a sacred space in which we are one, together and dearly loved. I dream that we may give ourselves permission for relationships and conversation of which the world will be dazzled: to be honest and plain – speaking openly of who we are without fear, to share our troubles without shame, along with our passionate hopes and truest desires.
Above all that we may be known by our need to love and to be loved. And that we may have the humility to admit that none among us has yet fully begun to grasp the depth of that by and in which we have been loved by God. I dream that our Gospel will be proclaimed by the courage of our doing, by our risk-taking for justice, and by uncommon generosity in relationships with all – that Jesus is alive, with and among us, with all power to redeem.
My eyes were freshly opened to this on a day last winter in a church basement that had been turned into an emergency homeless shelter. An older woman arrived with nothing more than the clothes on her back. Bent over and sullen, she was bewildered, ragged, sick, and withdrawn. She had been “shipped” in a taxi from a church 70 miles away. She needed us.
Shelter volunteers befriended her and did what they could to help, including getting her into a hospital for emergency treatment. When she returned, I went over to greet her and reached out to shake her hand, but she instead flung out her arms and bear-hugged me with gusto. Even though quiet-natured, she talked and smiled broadly, making eye-contact with excited energy... like a kid happy to be home.
She was sharing the grandeur of redemption. The small attentions of kind people, words of care and light, loving touch – even the simple assurance of shelter in a church hallway – had moved her deeply, and she found hope alive again. In the warmth of her smile and grateful embrace she spoke all this reassuringly to me as if I were the one in need, as indeed I was. We needed her.
Together we were church -- confirmed through the beauty of a living sanctuary of gathered souls, and the understanding of God’s presence, pressed dearly in human relationship, revealed in almighty power -- though we were 2, 3, or 20 gathered, in our midst.
I am a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Nyack College, and Princeton Seminary, ordained by Hudson River Presbytery in 1978, and have ministered in Hudson River, Southern New England and New Castle Presbyteries. Marsha, my wife of 34 years, is a partner in my present ministry of Meeting Ground. We have two daughters, Alessandra and Kristen.To learn more: www.meetingground.org