The Love of God
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
My “go-to” image for church is that of family. I know that I shouldn’t limit any part of God’s world to a single image, and that there are issues that might arise with this metaphor, especially for people whose family lives have been problematic. But the concept of family is pretty universal, at least in theory, and rich, and it can even challenge us to see more of what church can and should be. This last week gave me small glimpses into the beauty and pain of the family of San Gabriel Presbytery.
I don’t get to La Verne Heights very often, but I was invited there twice this last week. Last Sunday I preached there, on Jonathan Hughes’ first Sunday back after an extended sabbatical including globe- trotting with his immediate and, at times, his whole extended family. He is a walking promotional poster for the benefits of sabbatical! It was a joy to see his renewed energy, the glow from his time with family, and the heartfelt welcomes from the congregation.
This last Saturday, I was again at La Verne Heights, for a celebration of Katie Archibald-Woodward’s ordination. Though she has been based in Atlanta for many years and was recently ordained there, she wanted to celebrate at her home church, the church that formed her as a Christian and loved and prayed her through seminary and the many adventures she has had on the way to ordination. It was such a joy to hear stories from her former pastor and her babysitter, among others, about her growth over the years. Her babysitter shared how Katie, this child she used to take care of, has grown to become one of the most significant influences on her spiritual life—the child has become the friend and mentor.
It also occurred to me that I could think of three younger women—Jessica Vaughn Lower, Lauren Evans, and Katie Archibald-Woodward—who grew up at La Verne Heights and then went into ordained ministry, with bold visions for their ministries. They all have great gratitude to Steve Metcalfe, their pastor growing up. Their theological perspectives are not carbon copies of their home church or their home pastor, and I asked Steve about that. He seemed a bit embarrassed at first, but then told a little story about how he defied his childhood church, because he was not going to be pigeon-holed. It became clear to me that a church could have a specific theological perspective, while also giving their members the freedom to discern what their faith means to them. We also had to acknowledge the transformative power of going away to seminary (Jessica and Lauren went to Princeton, Katie went to Columbia). While it now seems almost a luxury to be able to pick up and move to a residential seminary, those of us who were able to do it are grateful.
I am reminded how the church is one of the few institutions that encompass the entire family, even across multiple generations and certainly through different phases of life. It’s wonderful to see such gifted people coming into their significant ministries, as well as the people who nurtured and helped to form their faith lives as children. And as much as we worry about the aging of our church members, I know of several people in our presbytery who are pregnant. One expectant mother was sharing with her friend that she doesn’t have an obstetrician in town, because her first child is a bit older and I think they were in a different area when she had her. The friend immediately said she has great caring professionals to recommend, which caused the mother-to-be to weep. How lovely to be in a church family where we can raise our most personal concerns, and have companions so ready to help!
As a family, we aren’t limited to taking care of ourselves. I am thrilled to report that the City of Baldwin Park not only approved the plan to convert the buildings of First Presbyterian Baldwin Park into affordable housing, the City committed $1.2 million to the project! Our partner in this project, Habitat for Humanity, was pleasantly surprised that several people from LA Voice, the interfaith community organizing group, were strong advocates and helped greatly with the City. LA Voice was the first group we spoke to about the Baldwin Park church property, and in fact their housing organizer, Rev. John Oh, was the first to suggest repurposing Baldwin Park’s existing buildings. What a blessing to have partners in ministry, the resources to offer, and the commitment to our Matthew 25 vision to enable us to make bold moves of grace. One of the elements of the Matthew 25 vision is to eradicate systemic poverty. (The other two elements are to dismantle structural racism and revitalize local congregations.) While education still offers a great path out of poverty, we have learned that owning property has a significant impact on intergenerational wealth as well.
Not everything is easy or perfect in the family. Brian Gaeta-Symonds lost his mother, Garth Moller’s family gathered recently to celebrate his life and ministry, and Harlan Redmond lost a dear cousin suddenly. We have folks on presbytery staff and elsewhere who are very busy as members of the sandwich generation, caring for ailing parents while also being responsible for young children. One young pastor shared with me the pain when his father, a pastor from a different tradition, denounced his pastoral decisions and broke off their relationship. We have many new leaders from outside the PC(USA), and some of them face various levels of resistance to coming to us. May they feel God’s assurance that God’s love will never leave them, even if human relationships falter. And may we surround them with our prayers, and our love.
There are so many ways that our churches become family for our members, and the community around us. Praise God for the privilege of being able to nurture children as they grow into adulthood, to provide support and guidance to each other as we face significant milestones of life, to join our gifts and energies together to be Christ’s hands and heart in the community. Thank God for churches that become family for members far away from their birth families, separated by distance, death, or estrangement. Finally, because we know of the great needs in the world for healthy, loving relationships, may we be bold in welcoming others into our churches, that we may be as Christ for each other. May we recognize Christ in our midst, especially when caring for the least of us. And may we keep our hearts open to the grace and blessings that come to us, large and small.
Thanks be to God!