Saturday, February 02, 2008

A Theology of Presence: A Sermon

I get so caught up in the day to day, the hour to hour, of my own life and ministry, that it is good to step back and try to see what supports it at a deepest level. I think that’s one of the purposes of worship and the church, to take some time out of Time, to explore and dwell on what we otherwise so often put out of sight and mind, and celebrate what truly matters. So I will be talking about what is going on in my life and community relationships, and about the larger why it is going on, not in hopes, so much, that you imitate me or my community, but that it opens up a way for you to do the same in your life and community and relationships.
Religion at its best is about learning to see freshly, to live differently, to focus on what if of worth we don’t see or experience most of the time. At its worst it is about re-affirming our prejudices and comforting us in our ruts and choices to live the same old same old regardless of the harm to others.
In thinking about what has been shaping or shaking up much of my life and community lately, I see it in the changing of a kind of default mode that dictated much of my responses in life. The language for this change comes back to me from my time in chaplaincy, but it is a lesson that can come from many places and has I think universal lessons. It has even acquired something of the status of a cliché, something where the words are so familiar that they mask the original power of the thought conveyed.

“Don’t just stand there, do something” was the mantra of my growing years, my reflex to problems, conflict, injustice. And not just do something, but be sure to get other people to do something too. On personality leadership scales my preferred type is called “a conductor.” At its best, it’s about being responsive, gathering folks together, growing community, confronting issues with solutions. At its worst, it’s about seeking to fill up empty spaces with empty gestures, focusing on programs and plans and not people.
You know you’ve gone from it being a virtue to a vice when you are unable to “do something” or make something happen or finish a project because you find yourself in the midst of those inevitable things, like a deathbed, like being in a relationship with someone who keeps making bad choices, that are beyond your control. And when that happens, when you keep trying to not just stand there, but do something, the something that you usually do is to leave—either physically, or emotionally, or both. You become an anxious non-presence, become less fully human, alive. These things and times will happen, I suppose, to all, but if you get stuck there, if they become your default mode of life, then comes burn-out and all that follows and ironically, tragically, the one whose life used to be devoted to changing the world into a better place and making a difference in life becomes a lonely resident in a world of only one.

So as a chaplain and minister I was taught to replace my earlier mantra with its seemingly opposite—“Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.” Be Present. Know that it is enough. This doesn’t mean be a bump on a log, not go stand over there out of the way where you can be ignored. It means rather than becoming an anxious non-presence, you become a non-anxious presence, let yourself fully be where and with whom you are but realize you are more than the situation or the other people might try to make of you, and you may not be able to control the environment or others but you don’t have to react to them. You are never completely out of control because you can be in charge of your own response. And it comes when you place yourself in the midst of the world, not removed from it.

These basic lessons of personal life and relationships can show up in community life too. It is what has astounded me about the stories I find myself participating in through our little spiritual gathering called The Living Room, and through our larger incarnation in our neck of the woods we call A Third Place Community Center. A Third Place is a term that comes from community and neighborhood activists. First place is your home; second place is your work; but we all need third places to be a part of especially those where we mix and mingle and dream and do with others unlike ourselves and our own tribes. They remind us of our larger ties and bonds. American Business knows this and the lack of such places in people’s lives today and they seek to fill in the gap for a price, sometimes a big price. We are trying to do it for free.
Especially because of where we are in north Tulsa there are few if any business-oriented third places, very very few community-minded churches, in fact little it seems going on as in other places, and its hard to get to the other places, and there’s a whole lot of scarcity thinking that tends to diminish people’s own sense of power, understandably in some ways since the local necessities and amenities other places take for granted, are absent where we are, and we are losing what little businesses and civic groups we still have.
People really feel like the road from Jericho up to Jerusalem runs through their neighborhood, and they have no problem identifying who those are who pass by, anxious non-presences, on the other side of the road.
But we know that everyone has something within them to give back, to give up, to help with. They just need a place, permission, and patience. They need to feel there is a Presence beside them, among them.
So Last year we moved out of our big-enough 1800 square foot space in Turley on North Peoria where we had our sign that said The Living Room and windows were full of religious symbols and words and announced church programs and services that we hoped people would be attracted to, but found that, surprise, surprise, a whole lot of people didn’t chance coming into such a declared “sacred space”, either they were dechurched or unchurched or they already had other church affiliations that seemed at odds with what another church might be doing. We had plenty of room there for our own little gatherings, and we were always trying to use that space to organize things out in the community for the wider community, but we realized what we really needed to do was to go where the community was, rather than spinning our wheels and getting stressed out trying to get people to come to where we were. The measure of our success would not be how much we grew in number, but how much the community grew in spirit and life.

So our small group of 10 or so, usually on the fewer side of 10 or so, brought down the signs on the outside, and moved this past April into a space more than twice the size of where we had been. 4,000 plus square feet, more rent, more utilities, pretty much same pledges (in fact as the year went on last year circumstances cut our regular pledges almost in third). But we had a whole new vision. Instead of a church library for us, we created a community-wide public independent library in an area without one; we created an internet center for free access to those many without computers or access in our area; we created a free donation room for clothes and items where people come and take what they need and leave whatever financial donation they can; we created a meeting space for community events, projects, parties, even though there hadn’t been much of any of this in our area, but now there have been. We were full to overflowing this past Halloween, with ten times the number of people attending the party we threw than had been the previous few years in our previous church space. Pretty soon donations from the community were making up, almost, for the pledges we lost. We are going to create a community foundation that will keep this going and growing. Our Living Room Church gatherings continue, meeting as guests in the very center for others we created, meeting while the center is open, often while people come and go, as we seek to break down the barriers between people, between the so-called sacred and the secular.

What I realize we have been doing is practicing a theology of Presence, of Simply Being There For Others, of providing simple hospitality with a radical attitude that it is all about creating community outside of our own community, all about, as Mother Teresa put it, doing small things with great love, and knowing thats what counts. Simply being present and available and all of a sudden good things start to happen.

A few days ago a woman called me at A Third Place to ask about connecting with us to start a mentoring program for children whose parents are incarcerated. She initially called the local Baptist church and was told they didn’t have enough members to take on the project, but, get this, the Baptist church recommended they call me instead. Me with our church that might have 10 or 12 on a Sunday evening when everyone’s schedules mesh just right. I didn’t hesitate in saying yes and setting up the program. Because I wasn’t just thinking of tapping into our small Living Room Group; I was thinking of tapping into the whole Greater Turley area through our A Third Place Center. I told her I would think of Turley as our one big congregation, or as our New England puritan religious ancestors called it, the Parish. This is when I knew we had made the switch from organized institutional church to mission-driven community ministry.

And coming up this week we have the large mobile Univ. of Oklahoma Bedlam primary care clinic beginning to come to Turley twice a week. We are partnering with OU to hold a series of community forums to connect residents and their needs and dreams. We are expanding what we do inside the walls of the Center for the purpose of improving life outside the walls of the Center. We will be setting up a coffeehouse, an exercise area, an outside relaxing, brown bag eating area and meditation garden, to go along with our available seats out in front where people stop and sit and talk (we are located right between the post office and laundramat). We will be having more free concerts, festivals, community organizations started (trying to form a group of local business folk and will be offering a free thank you reception for them in March), and we plan to expand our library concept to also include a lending library of tools and mowers, and a kind of community resource sharing board where people can list both their needs for items and services for free, and where people can post their own services and items to give or loan to others. We hope to connect people with food coops, nurture and seed and promote more community gardening. I tell people that we are trying to re-create a kind of extended family or village, minus the dysfunction, that was once more present.

And even though I have been known to say more than once that what the community probably needs--rather than a bumbling inexperienced at all this Master of Divinity coordinating things--is a Master of Social Work, and hope we do get some soon, still there is a theology behind and through all we do. It is a community ministry. Perhaps a kind of progressive faith-based ministry. We include and promote information about events at other churches, but everything that happens at A Third Place is part of the value system of our micro-church currently still called The Living Room Church (names, like spaces, should follow mission not the other way around). It grows out of our faith that we are called to be ordinary radicals in the liberating inclusive expansive spirit we find in Jesus. We fail at this, but we seek to respond to such questions as…if he were here this day in our neighborhood, where would Jesus be, with whom, doing what?
This evening we think he might be watching the Super Bowl with those who haven’t already been invited to some party, but who yearn for a party nonetheless, so we are throwing a party for the community and asking for donations to the food bank. This Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, we think he might be watching the Super Tuesday election returns and seeking to create a common ground for people across political lines to learn how to be more non-anxious presences in social cultural and political ways, and so we will be opening the community center for that party that night. This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we think he might like to see churches coming together for religious services to mark the Lenten time of focusing on the path of revolutionary living that led to the cross and to Easter, so we will be inviting others to join us at a different church for that special service. And so on it goes, day by day, small things with great love, living as if another world was possible, and is here.