Critical Presence

In late October and early November of this past fall, I was in India on a Global Ministries People to People Pilgrimage.  My  friend and colleague Frank and I co-led this trip which included 15 of us.  Three of us had been on a trip together two years ago.  On that trip we spent all of our time in southern India, where our home base was Mudiyor Balar Kudumba Grama Pannai, known in English as Family Village Farm, the home of almost 200 orphaned and semi-orphaned children, homeless young women and elders.  From there we ventured to visit the Shieffelin Research Institute for Leprosy at Kirigiri, and Shanthigramam, a haven for elders who have been cured of leprosy but still have no place of welcome home.

This year we spent time in the south with these and other Global Mission partners; then we traveled some thousand miles north to spend time in Mungeli at Christian Hospital and the Rambo English School.  We even got in a safari at the Kanna Tiger Reserve.

There were clearly life-transforming relationships, encounters, and experiences throughout — as there were before.  But this time is different.  This time the Global Ministries philosophy of ‘critical presence’ is still stirring in me in ways I have yet to fully understand.  There were people in our contingent who were nurses, medics, teachers who planned and filled critical roles in health screenings, who guest taught in nursing school classes, who led music.  But all of us, whether or not we had those particular skills, were simply open to being present, learning from our mission partners, and caring in the best ways we could.

Yes, I had the humbling privilege of preaching in chapel while at Christian Hospital in Mungeli, but the most meaningful moments for me were those holding the hands of women in surgery and in childbirth.  Though I did not speak Hindi and they did not speak English,  I will never forget the feeling of looking into their eyes and feeling the grip of their hands.  I will never forget simply holding the clawed hands of women and men who have been scarred by leprosy.  I will never forget standing in the wards at Kirigiri with those being treated for leprosy.  I will never forget simply being with the children and the young women and the older women and men at Family Village Farm.

In these weeks since our return, I have first had to adapt to being back.  The truth is that I did not want to come back.  I want to be in India.  I could very easily spend significant time at Family Village Farm, or at Christian Hospital in Mungeli.   But the most significant realization has to do with critical presence.  We talk about critical presence as a philosophy in Global Ministries; yet I am coming to believe that critical presence must be the heart of my ministry no matter where I am.  Now I need to discern what that means for me — in congregational ministry, in presence with seminary students, in the community, and yes, in mission local and global.











Urban Way of the Cross Walk

The Maundy Thursday Tenebrae and Communion is over and now we sleep until Good Friday.  I always like our Good Friday Way of the Cross Walk.  We started the walk several years ago and it has grown, now including seven congregations of five denominations — Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Mennonite, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ.

The walk will begin in the sanctuary of our DOC congregation and conclude at one of the Presbyterian congregations.  The walk usually includes people of all ages, including babies in strollers, and elders. One year a 15 year-old boy skateboarded most of the way.  Tomorrow it will likely be raining; even then a hardy smaller group will walk.

The Way is casual and involves everyone in leadership.  Each person has a copy of the 14 Stations we have created, with readings, reflections,  prayers, and songs.  As we walk between stations, the leader simply asks different people to read or lead prayer at the next station.

Ours is an inner-city neighborhood.  We create a different route through the streets and identify different stations each year.  Over time the stations have included such places as:  local markets, a fire station, a clinic serving Vietnamese immigrants, an alley where a young girl was murdered, nursing homes, boarded-up abandoned buildings,  mental health facilities, a coffee house welcoming those in the LGBT community, schools,  etc.   At each place, we make the connection between Jesus ministry and the path toward his crucifixion and our own ministry and the cost of discipleship.

Tomorrow our stops will include the telephone company, an area of small businesses, a nursing home, the Missouri School for the Blind, a residence for adults living with mental illness, a struggling residential area, a school that is being closed,   a building, now for sale, that housed a program for troubled youth, but had to move because the neighborhood residents did not want the program near them, a Center for Early Learning that supports both children and families, and a new neighborhood bakery and art center, a park, and an Ecumenical Food Pantry and Urban Ministry center.

As we create the route each year, and then walk it in prayer and reflection with others in our community, it is an opportunity unlike any other  to really see our neighborhood.  We see what is going well and we see the challenges.

Autumn Leaves

What a wonderful morning! A small group of us gathered at the church to rake leaves. We had not planned this for today, but quickly pulled together a group when we found out that the city would be picking up leaves on our street on Sunday. It is one of those perfect blue sky autumn days. The yellow, orange, and red leaves that glowed in the trees just days ago, now cover the ground. In about an hour and half we had the church yard raked, and one of the flower beds mulched. Then we placed the new park benches given to the church by a generous member and garden lover!

As our lawn and garden area is still developing, the placement of the benches required an eye to the future as well as an value of the present. The church faces on a major busy street. In front of the church is a bus stop, where people wait and disembark all day. There is no shelter or seat at this bus stop. Therefore our benches may provide a place of rest in the shade when the summer heat is oppressive. We have had times of prayer and caring conversation outdoors. We want the garden to invite people out of the building and into natures and the sounds of the city around us. We wanted the benches to invite conversation. Therefore we placed them to create a conversation place, where people may not only sit side by side, but face each other in comfort to talk. Would the benches generally face the street or the church? Look out to the activity of the city or toward the church gardens and building? We ended up with a little of both, but more of a look toward the peaceful garden circle where the Peace Pole will stand.

Conversation this morning was wonderful and the church is a little more welcoming for the work done.

Contemplative Ministry?

Lately I find myself in a new (for me) depth of prayer.  It is a kind of prayer that at some moments seems to draw me closer to people, yet at other times draws me apart and into myself.  Even in those ‘apart’ times, when I am less interactive with people, I feel connected and close.  I often see their faces and hear their needs and concerns in prayer.  It is as if each one is held before God; in God’s light.  This past Sunday, I was an the adult class and though I was so appreciative of the comments of others, I found myself just soaking in the faith and depth of those in the class.  I did not want to talk.  I wanted to listen; to receive the expressions of faith they offer so abundantly.  I realized later that I was, in essence, praying through the class.  It was like lectio divina with the text being the experiences and the faith of the people in that room.

I am a late-night person; definitely not a morning person.  I think a part of what I love about the night is the ability to be to myself — to think, to read, to write, or even if I’m watching television, to absorb and reflect — to pray.   The night brings a sense of connectedness with God, and a clarity of thought and insight that is different from the day. Night is when the creative juices flow for worship and sermon preparation.  The difficulty, of course, is that the world and most of the ‘doing’ parts of ministry live by day. Perhaps that is what makes the night so precious.

At times I feel that ministry is filled with activists and extroverts, who pray and relate in different ways than I do.  It seems that with the years, I become even more of who I am.  For many of these 25 years in ministry, I have tried to push myself ‘out’ when I am drawn ‘in’.  There is nothing wrong with working on the other side — the less dominant side — of our very complex selves.  It makes it possible for me to relate in rich ways, to engage with God’s people.  Yet, in these days I want to explore the contemplative side; to both allow it and nurture it.

The challenge is to integrate this into the practice of congregational ministry.  This brings me to consider my assumptions about pastoral ministry.  What does it look like for pastoral ministry to be a ministry of prayer? a ministry of presence?  What kind of leader am I evolving into?  How can my contemplative leaning come together with the gifts of others in the congregation to effect a strong and integrated ministry?  I realize that our congregation’s focus on becoming a community of prayer may have been my desire to live in a community of prayer.  I do believe that the process and result of this movement has been good in many ways, however I am realizing my own needs and motivations in it.  Hmmm.  More for reflection.