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Advent 2013

I start the four weeks of Advent this year as I always do, with determination to use this time for preparation—not to prepare for Christmas, with its shopping and entertaining—but to prepare for Christmas, the day we commemorate the miracle of God becoming human.

God became human.  God is still a human.  As incomprehensible as it seems, the vast Encompassing of all energy and matter selected one moment in that part of eternity we call time, and one point in the multitude of potentialities that we call the universe, to compress Love into one lifeform that we call human.  That the God of All would give God’s self to us in this way is most revealing of the character of that Love.

This story of Christmas is the story we would create to fulfill our strongest yearnings and answer our deepest questioning.  If the story is not true, it should be; and the fact that we need it to be true is perhaps the best evidence that our yearnings for Love are being fulfilled in just the way the story tells.

On Thanksgiving morning this year, I went to Mass with my mother.  As they have for hundreds of years, the altar bells rang during the Eucharistic prayer, when faithful Catholics witness the host of unleavened bread and chalice of wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The altar bells chime to mark the moment this miracle occurs.  All eyes are on the host and chalice raised high.  Whatever the distractions of the day, they are set aside to give attention to that place on earth where heaven bursts in.

I remember the awe this moment inspired in me as a child. Something powerful and unexplainable was happening, there among the candles and the solemn bells, and the prayer the priest whispered as he bent low over the cup.

Today I find myself longing for that awe again.  I start the four weeks of Advent with a determination to use this time for preparation—preparation of my consciousness, my emotions, my soul-to give attention to that place and time where heaven burst in, and a small child was born who encompassed the whole universe as well as our deepest yearning for Love.


Thinking about living in an economy that isn’t empire.

David Korten: How You Can Get Started Building a New Economy.

Every day I see the impact of the welfare cap in human costs.  This piece in The Detroit News points out that ending welfare actually costs the state money.

Editorials | Cap on welfare is too expensive in the long run for Michigan | The Detroit News.

National Alliance to End Homelessness: Library: Increases in Homelessness on the Horizon.

The biggest news around the neighborhood this week was the announced coming resignation of Mike Green, the Executive Director of Harbor Habitat for Humanity.  I spoke this week with Bryant Knepp of Harbor Habitat, who praised the work Mike has done in the community.  Although the article this week in the Herald Palladium left open the question of whether Mike was resigning under pressure from the board, Bryant says nothing could be further from the truth.  Mike has served for a number of years and feels he is ready to move on to a new project in a different state, Bryant said.

As the community is developing economically due to the impact of the Harbor Shores project, home ownership by community members becomes even more important, so that residents aren’t priced out of their homes as rents rise.  Harbor Habitat’s work has already made home ownership possible for so many people and the work must continue.  Please be sure to support this organization in your prayers and with your resources during this important transition.

Alongside Harbor Habitat’s work in building new homes comes another ministry just getting its start in the area.  The Fuller Center for Housing of Berrien County is planned to do home repairs on existing homes.  Read more about the Fuller Center, which was founded by former Habitat for Humanity President Millard Fuller, at The Fuller Center project has the support of Harbor Habitat, according to this story on the Center’s website:   The Center will be a collaboration of several area churches, according to Jenny Fry, Missional Outreach Director at First Church of God, St. Joseph.

As I write this, it’s almost too warm to be November, but we all know that the wintry weather is on its way.  Please remember those without stable housing in our community and consider supporting the work of the Salvation Army, the Soup Kitchen and other organizations that shelter and feed the homeless.

Faced with the departure soon of one of his biggest tenants from the Mercy Center, Winn Wolf says the building is up for sale and may be boarded up for a while.  As you probably have noticed, current Mercy Center tenant Intercare is building a new clinic a couple of blocks away at the corner of Empire and M-139.  While the new clinic will enable Intercare to continue serving low income people in the community, it’s uncertain what the future of the the former Mercy Hospital building will be.

After a long history as a community hospital, the former Mercy Hospital became a home to many non-profit organizations after Lakeland Hospital consolidated its services in St. Joseph.  Winn says he has made millions of dollars of improvements to the building and it’s in really good shape, although new owners will want to update the interior. 

Another Mercy Center tenant, The Opportunity Center, is moving into a great new home on Pipestone Avenue across from PawPaw’s Fish Hut.  I spoke with the Center’s Director, Richard Marsh, this week in the new building as movers were arriving with more furniture.  The Opportunity Center provides services to returning offenders as a part of the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative and offers GED preparation for anyone in the community.  TOC is operated by Heartland Alliance, a large non-profit with over 100 years of service in Chicago. 

Richard tells me that TOC is also considering re-opening its culinary arts program that trains people for careers in restaurant work while improving their reading and math skills. The new building comes with a commercial kitchen already in place.  Although the kitchen is smaller than what TOC had at the Mercy Center, it would still cook up some of the great food the culinary arts program was known for.

“There are partings and there are new beginnings, and usually you can’t tell them apart.” These were Pastor Doug Petersen’s last words to us in the last benediction after the last words and prayers in a day that had been full of both prayers and benedictions and a few tears too. After eight years at First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor, Doug is retiring and we are staying here, doing what we were doing long before he got here and what we plan to keep doing long after all of us now here have gone on.

I joined First Presbyterian almost twenty years ago, when a young minister named Dirk Ficca had led the congregation for several years. Dirk was getting ready to resign, to take on a new challenge in Chicago, but I didn’t know that yet. As a newer member, I didn’t find it surprising when one day Dirk asked me why I had joined the church—was it because of him, or because of the congregation?

I thought Dirk was the most inspirational and passionate leader I had ever met, but I didn’t hesitate to tell him that I was there because of the congregation, not just because of him. While Dirk’s leadership united and focused the church, it was the individual members who created a church that was ready to act with a radical love in the community.

When Dirk left, I served on the committee that searched for his replacement. We didn’t have a lot of money to offer a minister, and even some of the candidates that initially were interested seem to lose that interest when they heard more of the details about this small congregation in a poorer neighborhood in a small town.
We weren’t worried, though. We knew that we would find a minister who “got it” about what we were trying to do. And in the meantime, we would just keep doing what we do.

Over the next few years, we had two ministers and several interim ministers, in keeping with how the Presbyterian churches call their ministers. None of them was there as long as the eight years we had with Doug, but there is nevertheless a sense of continuity, a consistent forward movement through all those years.

As a part of Doug’s farewell, we had a concert we called The Three Pianists. Marcelo Caceres, our church pianist and native of Chile, played classical compositions including his own work. Jean Prosper, a jazz pianist from Haiti, played jazz interpretations of secular and sacred music. Then our church secretary Charlene Jones Clark took the microphone and belted out “Amazing Grace” while Jean played. Soon Charlene took a seat at the piano, but Jean stayed nearby. We realized that Charlene was playing and singing the first verse of a song Jean didn’t know, so that he could learn it. As Charlene began the second verse, she stood up, hands still playing the chords. Jean slid onto the bench while placing his hands over hers. Without a pause in the music, he picked up in the middle of a phrase, and Charlene grabbed the microphone to sing.

This is how it works at our church. The hands playing the notes on the piano are leading the music, but they are not the music. Even when the hands change, the music plays on.

2010 is a year of transition for us as we say good-bye to a retiring leader and welcome a new leader who is already part of the community but who is assuming a new role.  This is also a year in which we intentionally reconsider every aspect of our ministry and calling to understand God’s invitations to change some things and to preserve others.  Frederick Beuchner, one of my favorite authors, wrote of “Listening to Your Life” as a way to discover the invitation of God in everyday events.  As a way of listening to our collective lives in community, I offer this journaling of the year to my church-family and others who find their way here.  Discernment happens in community, so your comments are invited and valued.