DSC07323.jpg{Not sure how you, Dear Reader, got here, but I arrived after looking at all the mugs in the Kellam kitchen cupboard and thinking, “Would it not be fun to write something about one for each day in Lent?” That remains to be seen.}

The “caption” for this photo mug is on the opposite side. It reads, “Union Presbyterian Church, Endicott, NY.” I wrote previously about our family’s Richmond, Virginia “home church,” but the church on this mug is the church I grew up in, and, amazingly, the church my wife and I attend now. If there is a definition of “home church,” this congregation is it. Here’s why.

My parents grew up in Endicott, my mother just two blocks from Union Presbyterian Church; my Dad just a mile or so away. Though their parents attended other churches, I think the love-struck Harry and Beverly wanted to walk their own path together, so they went to Union Presbyterian as a couple. In 1941, at the age of 19, they were married there. When Dad came home from his WWII “tour” of the Philippines, Mom and Dad took their toddler son (me) to Union Church to be baptized. At the age of 13, I was confirmed there, or to put it in the active voice, I confirmed the vows my parents took at my baptism.

It turned out that at the time of my confirmation, the Kellam family happened to live right across the street from the church. I’ve only half-joked that I am a Presbyterian because it was the closest church to walk to. In a letter to my Dad as his last days loomed, I expressed my deep gratitude that he had walked me up the church’s front sidewalk to deliver me to my first Sunday School class there, and I clearly remember that day! The walk, and the welcome. It all stuck, for good.

Mom and Dad weren’t exactly church pillars. Dad was introverted and lived a more private faith not particularly fed by the institutional church, and Mom used to say that after getting six kids ready for church, she preferred the peace and quiet of the family living room to the church sanctuary on Sundays. Nonetheless, I rarely missed Sunday School, worship services, or youth group. In ninth grade, in filling out a school guidance  questionnaire about vocational possibilities and high school curriculum choices, I listed the ministry as one of my interests.

Long story, short: came college. Then seminary. My church offered generous and gracious support through the thick and thin of my so-called academic career, and in 1969, I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in my home church.  My first call took me to Richmond where I stayed for 23 years (having already spent three years there at seminary). Churches in Vermont and Upstate New York followed, and in retirement, by happy providence, we found ourselves fifteen minutes from where I had grown up as a kid.

Retirement brought the gift of choosing a new church home, so while Joan continued to serve as a church musician at one church, I decided to “church shop.” And I went back to my home church in Endicott to see what had become of it. I slid into a pew one Sunday morning, and sitting next to me was Marilyn Bombard who had been an advisor to my youth group when I was in early high school. The liturgy that morning had components from Iona Abbey in Scotland (where Joan and I had spent a week’s retreat a few years prior). And the pastor’s worship leadership and sermon were wonderful. One stop shopping…my search ended where it had begun when I was baptized in that very space so long ago.

As you might expect, Joan and I are pretty active there now.

Something I rarely hear mentioned as preachers introduce the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness: he had left home. And pretty much for good. The scriptures don’t dwell on his leave-taking — his last Sabbath in his home synagogue, kissing his mother good bye, hugging siblings or bidding farewell to longtime friends– but surely someone with his compassionate heart and sensitivity to peoples’ feelings would have felt some sorrow in leaving home for that desert retreat. He must have had some notion that this was a move into a journey where he would no longer have a “place to lay his head.” If home is a place of love and nurture, of rootedness and family (and it isn’t always, I’ll admit), then saying goodbye is difficult, both for those leaving and those left behind.

Jesus did go home now and then in the three years that followed his wilderness days and ministry years. But his homecoming wasn’t always as welcoming as mine was (Mark 2:1, 3:19b, especially 6:1-6). As he called disciples, he called them away from the comforts of  home, and from their vocations as well. If they hadn’t followed Jesus, Zebedee’s sons James and John no doubt would have remained with the “Zebedee & Sons” fishing company, not exactly a life of leisure, but more homely and comfy than dodging crosses and nails.

There comes a time to leave home, for all of us. (A poignant jazz piece by Presbybop’s Bill Carter is entitled “Let Them Go, Set Them Free.” It suggests that the goodbyes are necessary, that we are all called to make homes of our own beyond the ones in which we were first nurtured.) That my own life has seemingly come full circle, and that I am home again at my church…that is a grace-filled gift. But wherever we find that place “where when you go there they have to take you in,” [Robert Frost] or when you are, as the Kenny Loggins song sings, “celebrated home,” isn’t it comforting (the comforts of home), and far more welcoming than a mere “roof over our heads?”

Back to church. I think I know why churches often take the lead in providing shelter or sanctuary for the homeless ones, the refugees, street people, aliens — those with no place to call home, to feel safe, to enjoy privacy. See, churches follow the One whose parents were told, “There’s no room for you here.” It was of him that it was said, “He had no place to lay his head.” In a very real sense, when a house of faith opens its doors as a shelter, or declares itself a sanctuary for those who have fled persecution and danger, when it welcomes strangers…does it not welcome Christ himself…home?

A closing thought: in John 15, a familiar verse has Jesus saying, “Abide in me and I will abide in you.” Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message seems to take a cue from The Jerusalem Bible in putting it this way: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” I’ve always liked that interpretation. A deeply spiritual union that reminds us that the Kingdom of God is within us. Home incarnate.

I know I’ve meandered some in this essay. But after such wandering, you see how I’ve come back to “home?” Blame it all on my home church, the one pictured on the mug.

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Union Presbyterian Church, Endicott, NY, as seen from the home I grew up in

 

 

 

 

 

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