Each year at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Albright-Deering lectures on United Methodist Studies are held in April in honor of the Rev. Pat and Betty Lou Albright. They are wonderful people and friends of mine; Pat is pastor emeritus at Mt. Lebanon UMC. I try and attend each year out of love for the Albrights; they've also had some dynamite United Methodist scholars in years past, including Randy Maddox and Richard Heitzenrater.
Yesterday, Bishop Kenneth Carder spoke about "Friendship with the Poor: A Wesleyan Means of Grace". Readers of this blog will know that ministry to, for, and with the poor is a subject close to my heart, so I was excited about the subject. I was also able to connect with some sisters and brothers in Christ who were in attendance, which is always good...Dave Coul, Chuck Prevot, Deb Rogosky, Lola Turnbull, George Tutwiler, Jeff Vanderhoff, and Michelle Wobrak were just a few of the folks I had an opportunity to spend some time with.
Today, I'm heading back to PTS for another lecture series, this one presented by Bishop William Willimon, one of my favorite contemporary theologians. I had the chance to meet and speak with him briefly during General Conference 2004; today, I'm hoping to get my picture taken with him.
Some of my notes on Bishop Carder's presentation...
Ministry with the Poor - Why do it? Why make it a priority?
According to John Wesley...
1) It is the only way in which we can imitate Jesus.
2) It is the means through which God has ordained we can achieve sanctification and perfection.
3) It is the only way to be practicing what you ought to be preaching.
"Every pastor should be as familiar with the local jail as with the local hospital."
So much of what we do in the UMC is so middle class...from our worship styles to our clothes to the parliamentary procedure we use during Annual Conference; we've lost touch with the poor and need to reconnect.
Too often, when we talk about reaching out or church growth, we're talking about reaching out to those who are like us. We like to start new churches in white, middle class suburbs rather than in urban areas or rural trailer parks. (Note from Keith: I've said this many, many times, and this is especially sinful for our Conference because new faith communities in trailer parks or a downtown storefront would be relatively cheap to obtain, if we took the time to train our clergy and pledge to support the ministry no matter what.)
Most of us have seen the famous painting of Jesus knocking at the door. We often teach our children that this is an image of Jesus knocking at the door of a person's heart, and one needs to open the door to allow him to enter (the doorknob, after all, is on the inside). But maybe we ought to instead look at this as an image of Jesus knocking at our church doors saying, "What are you doing in there? Get out here!"
Remedies for our neglect...
1) We need to form relationships with people "on the other side of town"...the impoverished, inmates, AIDS patients, immigrants, drug addicts, minorities, trailer parks, public housing projects, etc.
2) Learn to access and utilize the gifts and talents of the poor...don't just minister to them - find ways to use their own precious gifts; exegete your ministry context.
3) Stay focused on Jesus Christ.
4) Develop an accountability and support community; you cannot do it on your own.