My Ten Years at Bethesda Presbyterian

Date: June 16, 2019 — Trinity Sunday
Scriptures:  Romans 5:1-5  

“Where my life was broken and healed is the greatest gift I can give anybody.”

These are the words of an old friend of mine named Tom. At the age of 24, in an alcoholic blackout, Tom ran over and killed two young people. In the 50 years since, he became the first ex-con hired by the state of North Carolina to serve in corrections – rising to the top to design programs for rehabilitating youthful offenders like he was. Tom has grown in sobriety for over 50 years into a man of admirable and astonishing wisdom.

“Where my life was broken and healed is the greatest gift I can give anybody.” 

I cannot describe any better these words from the Apostle Paul today. “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

In order to put our church’s calling, Love In Action, in gear: I cannot describe any better my own ministry calling. 

“Where my life was broken and healed is the greatest gift I can give anybody.”


I give thanks that these past ten years, you have given me the place and the space to exercise my ministerial call through these words. 

My call – based at our church. I say “based at our church” with intention. I say that drawing on my recent trilogy of messages that our office manager Debbie Crown has put together in booklet form – copies available in the Fellowship Hall. A trilogy I hope can serve as a vision not only for our capital campaign of late, but for our congregation into our fourth century of ministry four short years from now. 

It is my hope that these three messages may convey in the beginning of this Season of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit is blowing in a new way among us.

A new way: flowing away from this Temple and more toward God’s Tribe entire. A new way: of going out into the world to shape our faith back here – versus shaping our faith first here, and then going out into the world. 


A new way: of being church that does not find its primary power resonatingfrom this sanctuary, but through ministries based at this church. Power found in our biblical hospitality of the several community groups we house – who pitch their tents among us, who we can create redemptive relationships with – rather than power found in a repository of convictions we seek to compel the world into believing.


A new way of being church: based at our church. That phrase conveys well I believe my ministerial calling among you – and especially among our larger community. A calling that sends me beyond ministering the needs of you fifty church members and friends day-in and day-out. That call, after all, does not give me all that much to do. Besides: most of you are too hard to track down. 

So “based at our church” is a good way of expressing my calling among you – living next door to the church these past ten years, working side-by-side with Debbie, our Office and Property Manager for 32 years. “Based at our church” includes a focus on reaching out to assist in fulfilling the spiritual needs of those who find this space as a place for healing. A place for love in action.


A Place for Healing … of Love In Action. For those who have been around here a while: Do those two terms sound familiar?


They should. A Place for Healing … Love In Action. We have used these two phrases most of my ten years based at our church to describe not only my calling, but our church’s calling. 

For nearly five years, we heard our call as “A Place for Healing”. As with all matters of leadership in any Presbyterian church: our church board, the Session, moved by the Spirit, worked closely with the pastor in crystallizing this call.  

“A Place for Healing”. Seemed to make sense. After all, our church that named this town of Bethesda derives its name from a healing pool in the Gospel of John. And what with the NIH and Walter Reed and the Uniformed Services University just down the street – and Del Ray’s Twelve-Step recovery moving in next door: Well, “A Place for Healing” we shall be! 

I heard that call: A Place for Healing. Again, the words of my sober sage Tom: “Where my life was broken and healed is the greatest gift I can give anybody.”Words suggested in Paul’s words to the Churches in Rome before us today: From suffering, endurance … from endurance, character … from character, hope. Holy Spirit: come.


A Place for Healing. Ahhh … my calling.


Well: One of my most painful realizations in my ten years here is that the Spirit-wind did not tack the way of the church as it did my way with A Place for Healing. For Session-ordained or no: the phrase did not take. “But I am not broken,” I would hear from a few. Also: “I don’t need to hit a bottom.”

I sighed. I grew irritated. It took me a while to understand. Understand what the great philosopher and psychologist William James meant when he talked about the difference between the “once-born”– those who achieve spiritual revelation through a lifelong educational process, a more common Presbyterian experience – and the “twice-born” like myself, with whom I am called and will always be called. The twice-born: those who have experienced ego-deflation at some depth, who cry “Yes!” to Paul’s connect between suffering and hope. Down-and-outers like me.

And so A Place for Healing: as a church, that calling languished. Sure, we served as A Place for Healing for others. And yet, it did not seem to speak to us from within. 

So three years ago-plus, we rebooted and refocused. Exit “A Place for Healing”. Enter: “Love In Action.”

Love In Action. Now we’re talking. That speaks to this church: a people of service. Public service, for many. 

Love In Action. It’s a calling similar to the word “missional” picked up by our presbytery as part of its calling. Missional means not so much what we do through the church as a church. It means what we do in our daily lives in transforming the world, based on our faith. And many of you travel widely to do just that. 

And so you have taught me. You have taught me that those drawn to our church do not like to linger in and explore our own broken places for spiritual growth. Navel-gazers most Presbyterians are not – lest we be seen as self-preoccupied. Instead, I think most of us desire and need reminders that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit – and in so being, can accomplish great things. 

And so we are encouraged by the Psalmist today when he says we are “made … a little lower than God/and crowned … with glory and honor.” And many of us warm to the words of Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel in her challenge last month to the graduates of Harvard University: “Let us surprise ourselves by showing what is possible.”

Love In Action. A phrase grounded in a progressive, can-do spirit for a progressive, can-do people. In my first ordained charge – in the humbling scorched sod of Ringwood, Oklahoma – the discipleship there among those survivors was grounded firmly in believing and in feeling. Here, our faith response I have found is grounded firmly in thinking and in doing. In Love In Action. 


And lo and behold – to circle back to my calling based at this church for my ten years here: I am discovering, to my surprise, that Love In Action is making itself manifest here by providing and committing through our capital campaign to establish – guess what: a Place for Healing!

A Place for Healing for our friends struggling with housing and addiction and codependent concerns – all three. All who are now direct beneficiaries of two-thirds of the funds we are raising through our campaign. The church house being converted into living space for the erstwhile homeless … the new chiller and boiler for this yellow brick building that will keep Del Ray upstairs and Bethesda Cares storage downstairs comfortable. That church house conversion, that new chiller and boiler: that’s two-thirds of our capital campaign – serving directly our church campus neighbors. That’s Love In Action – providing A Place for Healing!

 How ironic! How wild and wonderful and unpredictable the Holy Spirit.


Again, my sober friend Tom: “Where my life was broken and healed is the greatest gift I can give anybody.”

That may or may not lie at the heart of your calling as a disciple.

That does lie close to the heart of my own.

And thanks to the grace and permission you have given me these last ten years: you have let me exercise that call around here, and in the community.

And thanks to your naming and claiming of our Love In Action calling: you who are so missionally active with your thinking and doing, your work in the world, have offered and are offering through your generous support our church campus as a Place for Healing. 

A Place for Healing, for those who willingly share – whether they know it or not – the Apostle Paul’s words today with each another: “Knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit … given to us all.”