Still on Eastern time, I awoke in Portland, Oregon, hours before most of the city’s inhabitants. I took advantage of a few unscheduled hours and went for a walk.
There were a few cars, lots of bikes and the occasional light rail rolling by. It was blessedly cool and quiet. It should have added up to a sense of peace, but it didn’t.
The young age of the homeless men and women troubled me. Why more so than the older and fewer people on the street in my hometown? I wondered. I realized that many looked like my son or daughters or their friends.
The theater with the rainbow flags at half-staff added to my anxiety. Portland Pride was soon to take place. In a day or two I would see people in T-shirts reading “We are Orlando.” I thought about my brother and his husband, their vulnerability due solely to the fact that they are members of a group deemed less-than and other.
At this assembly we would remember those massacred at Mother Emmanuel; it was year since the group gathered for Bible study were killed because they were African-American. I considered the fact that the young man who’d entered that holy space to murder had been raised in a church not unlike the one in which I had been raised: mainline, Protestant and, yes, white. How had the gospel story been silenced so completely by a racist, hate-filled narrative?
I tried to quiet all the disturbing chatter in my head but I couldn’t. I walked by a storefront that had a simple one-word sign on the door: “Alarmed.”
It summed up my mood. Alarmed. Despite the convergence of hundreds of Presbyterians in this place to do the work of the Lord, I felt alarmed.
But as the 222nd General Assembly began, the feeling shifted from alarm to watchfulness. Biblical mandates to “keep watch” and “keep awake” and “be alert” came to mind. Be on guard, not out of fear for the current state of the world, but in anticipation of the present and coming Kingdom of God. Maybe the first step to being watchful is to be alarmed, keenly aware that things are not as they should be, nor as God intends or desires.
Those admonishments to watch and be on heightened alert come in an apocalyptic context and that should inform our worldview, too. We are people who know both the author of the story and its ending. In the words of Reginal Jackson, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and preacher at the assembly’s ecumenical service, we need to “live like you know God – confident that in the end what God has said will happen, confident that God still has the last word in his world.”
We need to turn our alarm into alertness, our wariness into watchfulness. We need to allow our anger about how things are to awaken us to how God intends the world to be.
As the assembly with its 12-plus hour days, its committee meetings, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, worship services, Bible studies and plenary sessions moved slowly but historically through its work, I began to wake up from fear and move to the hope of possibility, the hope of our calling, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for those who believe.
As the Confession of Belhar was passed and spoken, my alarm turned to alertness knowing “that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ.” Looking on the stage at the new faces of our leadership and realizing: This is the Presbyterian Church. Realizing this isn’t the future of the PC(USA), this is its present, woke me up to the words of our new stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, “We are not dying. We are reforming.”
Surveying the assembly standing, applauding, some weeping, Paul’s admonition to that conflicted church in complex Corinth sounded like an alarm in my head: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” And for a moment, as I watched, I saw all those things – faith, courage, strength and love – present, and because I know the end of the story, surely coming.