On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

I’m right here …

Umbrella

There’s no good day for a funeral, but this one was especially bad. An hours-long downpour had swamped the streets. I wondered how many people would be able to get to the church for Emily’s family.

Her father had died suddenly – one of those moments that suck the life out of you and turn your world upside-down. Her family needed support. And now, rain was coming down in buckets, resulting in road closings.

I arrived at the church and was heartened to see a full parking lot. People scurried inside with umbrellas as shields, determined to comfort Emily and her family.

I’m right here for you, they wanted to say. And nothing was going to stop them.

Inside the church was a long line of people waiting give their love to the family. A friend from my church was with me.

When we reached Emily, I hugged her, held her tightly for a few seconds, and reminded her that we’re all here for her and will help her get through it. She said thanks and blinked back a tear.

My friend then hugged her, held her tightly for a few seconds, and said something humorous. Emily laughed out loud – which was exactly what she needed in that emotional moment.

She got the message: I’m right here for you, in the hug and the reassurance and yes, also in the laugh that you need to get through it. I’m right here.

Where have we heard this before?

I’m right here

The heart of Jesus’ message is that God is always right here, working through us, with us and in us to bring love, compassion and healing into the world.

God isn’t the old, white guy with grim face who lives somewhere in the sky and must be begged for what we need. No. Instead, God is right here, living in us, with us and through us. And when we lose sight of God, that’s where we need to look.

Seek, and you will find. But you have to look in the right place.

Often, I lose sight. My most-asked question for God is: Where are you? I have trouble recognizing God in situations.

While my pot of coffee is brewing in the morning, I get on my news apps and catch up on the world’s happenings. Often, there’s so much craziness that I say to God: Where are you in all of this?

It’s easy to lose the sense of God’s presence during the ordinariness of each day: the avalanche of emails, the challenges of dealing with different personalities, the setbacks and the time wasted getting simple things accomplished.

Where are you in all of that?

Then there are the big moments. Someone dies. A job ends. A child struggles. A medical test comes back positive. A parent seems to be slipping away. A relationship is ruptured.

Where are you?

Through us, with us, in us

It’s comforting to me that Jesus – this person who deeply experienced God’s presence — felt the same way. There’s the passage in two of the gospels where he’s dying and says to God: I feel like you’ve abandoned me. Where are you right now?

And at that moment, there are people who have risked their lives to be with him until the end. He gets his answer in their love and their courage.

I’m right here with you. You are never alone.

When we lose sight of God’s presence, it’s good to remember where to look. We find God right here in the people who parent us, who mentor us, who love us, who nurture us, who challenge us.

Sure, those people do all those things imperfectly, but that’s OK. Imperfection never diminishes the divine presence. The answer is still the same.

I’m right here, giving you what you need. Always.

I’m right here in the warm hand that holds yours when you feel alone, in the arms that enfold you when you need a hug, in the voice that reminds you of your purpose and your calling when you feel confused.

Always

I’m right here in the people trying to make peace amid all the conflict, in the people trying to heal all the hurt, in the people serving the least while those with the most try to get more.

I’m right here in those who treat everyone as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God, reminding them of their infinite worth.

I’m right here. Always.

When we recognize God that way, we see ourselves differently, too. We understand that every encounter is a chance for us to bring God’s loving, compassionate, and healing presence into the world a little more fully.

When someone feels they’ve lost sight of God, they encounter us and come away saying: Oh, there you are!