The events of the last two years have been humbling—even for New Yorkers, a breed not easily humbled. When I first moved to Manhattan, I was often startled when someone offered a complimentary comment about another person, saying that he or she was “really smart.” The pride that went before the particular New York fall was, more than any other human frailty, our peculiar brash pride in putative cleverness, savvy and smarts. Now there is no escaping the embarrassing fact that a lot of very smart people in New York never saw the present economic crisis coming, and that many of those smart people had been participating in the foolish decisions that contributed to it.
Like most pastors, I claim that the face-to-face meeting is the best way to do the ministry of the church; also like most pastors, I spend an enormous amount of time reading and composing e-mails. I am driven not so much by my own schedule or preferences as by those of my church members. Many of them use e-mail all day long and expect the church to do the same. If I want to keep up, I have to keep typing.
In the fall of 2006, when Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, began welcoming refugees from Burma, we had no idea what we were getting into. In the spring of 2007 there were 30 refugees from Burma in Rochester; by 2007 there were 200, and by now there are almost 400, with many more expected. Rochester is a microcosm of what is happening quietly across this continent and in many other nations.
It’s beautiful when the congregational system is humming along—the church is Spirit-filled, worshipers are bearing each other’s burdens, submitting to one another and rejoicing continually. When faced with major decisions, the congregation seeks the Lord and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After prayer and copious dialogue, a consensus emerges. Or the congregational system hits a pothole. The decision-making process is accelerated or compressed for a decision that has huge implications for the life of the church; the issues raised are theologically profound and the consequences painful no matter what is decided. At these times, a congregation can see its unity shattered.
When Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church was built by German immigrants 100 years ago, it stood alone on the block; now luxury condominiums are boxing us in. A preservationist says it will cost $8 million to repair our church, give or take a million. The stained glass windows have already been removed because of the danger of breakage during the construction next door. The steeple alone, leaning to one side, will cost over a million to repair. “It’s a substantial building,” the preservationist said when he delivered the news. Sometimes I curse this substantial building as an albatross, a black hole, a money pit. And yet . . .