Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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It is Good That We Are Here!
From 1984 to 2003 Heidi Neumark served as pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx. Her memoir, Breathing Space (Beacon Press, 2003), a book I’m reading as a possible text for next year’s class on “The Practice of Christian Ministry,” is an intimate portrait of the glory and grind of parish ministry. When she arrived Transfiguration sat amid the devastation wrought by Robert Moses’ urban renewal, environmental racism, educational indifference, extreme poverty, the glorification of violence, and the epidemics of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. I was reminded of my frequent drives along the Cross Bronx Expressway in the 1970’s and 1980’s where scores of abandoned apartment buildings bore witness to decay. Making it worse was the cynical effort of the city to hide the disaster from the outside world by painting curtains and flowers on the windows to present a happy and reassuring façade to everyone but those who were forced to live and die there.
Nothing was easy about ministry at Transfiguration. To be sure, she chronicles many accomplishments and achievements as she traces the gradual transformation of her part of the city after most had given it up for dead. But things don’t get better every day; some days they get a lot worse. There are few unambiguously happy endings, either for her parishioners, or for her church. The book ends with her departure for another parish in another part of New York. Transfiguration’s future is uncertain at best.
It’s tempting to see only the uncommon in this remarkably difficult pastoral setting. Even the most toughened practitioner of urban ministry would be hard pressed to present a comparable picture of daunting challenge. But the memoir is also shot through with the “ordinariness” of parish ministry: Visits to parishioners that bring the pastor face to face with unimaginable faith and courage. Bible study sessions that reveal stunningly perceptive insights from the most unlettered of members. Building projects gone horribly awry. Members whose family circumstances are so chaotic they can’t be depended upon to fulfill even the most basic leadership responsibilities. The endless struggle to carve out time for family, for study, for prayer, for oneself.
None of this is unique to ministry in the South Bronx. Neumark speaks for many a pastor when she writes, “I keep wanting to build something stable, solid, and lasting and often seem to be failing. Things progress and then seem to fall back.” But then she reminds herself,
It’s ironic that many clergy choose to avoid the inner city in favor of a more secure environment for themselves and for their families. Then some of these same ministers complain that their churches are set in their ways, stuck, rigid, unmoving – which is to say, stable! A fully-satisfied church where nothing moves or changes is a dead church. In the end, stasis may be more deadly than instability. . . . The moving ever shall stay because it bears within a dynamic, creative, and indefatigable power.
But one does get tired. And the bills still have to be paid.
While reading this book I kept asking, “What sustains?” Certainly faith, loved ones, and community do for Neumark and for the rest of us. Some days Jesus is palpably present; other days it is simply a little boy crawling into a lap for a hug. But there are practices and disciplines as well, and for this pastor and parish a constant and quite intentional liturgical shaping to life that seems to give meaning and purpose. The weekly Eucharist, the rhythm of liturgical festivals and seasons tracing the ways of God through the life of the community all center life in the chaos of centrifugal forces that spin out of control. Transfiguration turns again and again to font and Table, and to the movement of the church year from Advent through Pentecost, as ways to situate life within the larger drama of the Biblical narrative. Absent this liturgical grounding it is hard to imagine how Neumark and her members would have avoided being overwhelmed by the crises around them. I think there’s a word for the rest of us here, particularly when we serve in places where liturgy is thin and sacraments infrequent.
Describing worship one Transfiguration Sunday, Pastor Neumark describes the testimonies that were part of the sermon. “Rick spoke of his addiction to drugs, his anger and guilt before God, and finally of coming to our men’s Bible study hoping for something better in his life. . . . Evy told the story of how she used to come as far as the church door on Sunday mornings for the sole purpose of collecting money for Avon. . . . Lucy spoke of her years in the valley of the shadow of domestic-violence.” Each became, Neumark reports,
stories of transfigured people in a transfigured church. Everyone was shouting with Peter: “Lord, it is good that we are here!” But the transfiguration story does not end with shouts on the mountain top. Instead, Jesus leads his disciples down, where all is not brightness and light. Immediately, they are approached by a father seeking help for his epileptic son who flails about and falls into fires. Jesus casts out a demon, healing the boy, when the disciples cannot. We come down, too. The following week would be our annual congregational meeting, when we would join the reluctant disciples who had come down from the mountain to face a desperate father and a sick child, as well as their own faithless impotence and distress. . . . For Transfiguration Sunday the church is always packed. It’s another story when we come face to face with the nitty-gritty of our budget, council elections, deficits, and demons that still drive suffering children into danger, while the disciples stand around worrying how to pay the bills and who is the greatest.
All is not brightness and light. That, too, is part of the transfiguration story for this Sunday, which is good news for a church that often does worry about money and who is the greatest But let’s not forget the good news that there are also mountain tops for us where transfigurations still happen. Indeed, most days that’s enough to make us say, “It is good that we are here!”