Doorkeepers of the House of God
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
— Psalm 84:10
Vickie Lee Jones and Maurice Stallard near Louisville, Kentucky. In Pittsburgh, Joyce Fienberg. Richard Gottfried. Rose Mallinger. Jerry Rabinowitz. Bernice and Sylvan Simon. Daniel Stein. Melvin Wax. Irving Younger. And Cecil and David Rosenthal.
After multiple acts of hate were perpetrated last week, focus has been put again on the persistent scourge of anti-Semitism. The people of Israel have faced persecution throughout their history, including at the hands of those claiming to worship Jesus Christ. Yet they have managed to praise God and enact compassion even in the midst of tragedy.
As a Presbyterian, I was always encouraged to respect all people of faith, but there was a special affinity for the Jewish people, as most of our Bible is Jewish, and Jesus was, of course, a Jew. But I also recognized the sites of these two very recent hate crimes, as Louisville has been like my second home as the site of our denominational headquarters, and the killer apparently attempted to enter a predominantly African-American Baptist church before going to a nearby store and killing Ms. Jones and Mr. Stallard there. So hatred is not restricted to any one faith.
I recognized Squirrel Hill as the home of a new church that was one of the inspirations for the 1001 New Worshipping Communities movement. Vera White, the first coordinator for 1001, started on this path while on staff of Pittsburgh Presbytery, when two graduates of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a PC(USA) seminary, approached her for advice. They had realized that though Squirrel Hill was well-known as a strong Jewish community, it had become an eclectic but well-educated mix of cultures and traditions, 40% of whom were not connected to any faith community. They started meeting with eight people, and their efforts grew into what is now the Upper Room Christian Community (aka Upper Room Presbyterian Church).
Apparently Squirrel Hill has been a welcoming place on many levels. Not only have they welcomed people from other backgrounds into their neighborhood, the Tree of Life synagogue supported HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. It seems that the attack on this particular synagogue may be partly based in their support of HIAS, whose mission since 1881 has been to welcome and assist refugees, first from persecution in Europe but over the years assisting refugees wherever they are, which has included refugees from the Vietnam War, and now in camps and cities from Kenya to Ecuador. HIAS’ very mission seems to have incited a convergence of hatred towards Jews (and Jewish compassion) and refugees, as depicted in conspiracy theories about the caravan of refugees fleeing Honduras and other Central American countries.
The people of Tree of Life present some of the core lessons of God’s will for all of God’s people—and Jesus’ warning that the world hates those who follow God’s will to heal this broken world. But again, in spite of all, we are called to praise our Lord for loving us and giving us a place in God’s plan of salvation, at global, local, and personal levels.
On a personal level, I have been most inspired by David and Cecil Rosenthal, brothers who were the unofficial greeters to all who came to worship at Tree of Life synagogue. Diane Rosenthal, their sister, said “I imagine they probably greeted this guy,” referring to the man who would kill them. They had developmental disabilities but lived independently, and were fixtures in the community and especially at the synagogue, where they found belonging, love, respect, faith, and purpose. What a joy, to be doorkeepers in such a house of the Lord! My prayer is that God swept in and instantly took David and Cecil and all the martyrs of hatred to God’s loving embrace.
Just last week, I was part of a consultation with Presbyterians across the denomination to determine the best approach to eradicate racism. I have always considered racism to be the best demonstration for me of original sin—that is, sin that is carried from generation to generation, such that we are broken even before we can do anything to protect ourselves from it. We are born into a society that is infected with racism at its foundation, and so it can only be an act of God to save us and cleanse us of this sin. As such, just like other ways the world has warped us (consider greed, revenge, gossip), our reliance on God’s help to be healed of these worldly ways is the very demonstration of discipleship.
I have often thought that God’s kingdom will come when Abraham’s children—Jews, Muslims, and Christians—find a way to live in peace in the Holy Land. It occurs to me now that God’s kingdom would also be revealed in the diaspora of the world, including in the United States, when anti-Semitism is eradicated from the hearts of Christians, anti-Muslim rhetoric is turned into words of welcome, and the forces of violence and vengeance are dissipated from all of us. I share a story from Martin Buber’s book Tales of the Hasidim:
An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the rabbi. “Then when is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you can look on the face of any woman or man and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”
I pray that we can all find ways for Christ’s day to come to light, in all our churches, and all our communities. I can suggest Gregory Ellison’s Fearless Dialogues which was introduced by the Office of the General Assembly. I also lift up Voices Rising, published by First Pres Pomona’s own Bree Devones Hsieh and Servant Partners Press. Voices Rising is a compilation of the stories of many women of color in mission, finding their place in the evangelical movement as the unique children of God they are. You can learn more and order a copy at http://www.servantpartnerspress.org/voicesrising/
I will be away—really away, in Japan—until November 19th. Have a happy Presbytery meeting on November 10th! At the November Presbytery meeting, you will be asked to adopt the 2019 slate of leaders and budget, and we are moving the necrology to the November meeting. As usual, if you have questions, please contact Twila French, and she will either help you or find someone who can. Let us give thanks for Twila as well, as you will hear that she is planning to go part-time in July next year, so our budget for 2019 will include Twila continuing part-time as our Presbytery bookkeeper, as we seek a new administrator and associate Stated Clerk to start next summer. I am always grateful for Twila, but am especially grateful that she will not leave us entirely, so we can continue to benefit from her dedication and organizational memory as we seek an additional partner in ministry.
Blessings, and thanks for making your churches a place of welcome and love,