250th reflections...

After almost 11 hours of sleep, I am still experiencing awe, gratitude and joy as I reflect on yesterday's 250th Anniversary Concert celebrating the founding of First Church in Pittsfield.  In every way it exceeded my limited hopes. What's more, there seems to be a sweet but significant ripple effect taking place as the result of our ministry.  Yesterday gave our convictions and commitments a public form that others could see and feel. As the prologue of St. John's gospel says: the words and sacred ideas became flesh in ways that resonated deeply with grace and truth - and we gave thanks that "God was in the house."
The weekend began with an Open House and Art Show.  At first it didn't seem like this would generate much enthusiasm. Sometimes church historians are more enamored with old papers and silver than the wider public. And let's just say there wasn't a groundswell from local artists to show off works focusing upon the architecture of First Church. In my heart of hearts I thought this was going to be a dud. But then my sweet wife talked the art show up with one of her colleagues and some of the budding young artists in a local high school got excited about displaying their creations. And their buzz was contagious so that by week's end there were 15 different photographs and/or paintings on display in our Sanctuary. And as I walked about taking in their beauty, I was touched by the artistry and commitment involved in bringing this art show to birth.
Then it was on to the Open House where historic artifacts from the congregation's 250 years were on display. Again, I'm not one who likes to spend a lot of time looking at 15 silver goblets that have been accumulated over the years - but apparently there are others with a different viewpoint. And they came out to see the display despite bouts of freezing rain. Our band and choir worked hard all week - and have been doing so for the past 6 weeks - in anticipation of Sunday's concert. Once again, I was touched at the deep commitment and pride each musician brought to our final rehearsal. Like Bob Dylan once sang, "Some thing's going on all around you and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?" I could sense something was shaking, but I couldn't grasp what it meant.
Sunday morning worship was lively and rich: clearly there was a spirit in the air that offered a hint of what was yet to come. Both quiet excitement and hope was simmering within and among us. Our daughter and son-in-law - and my little man, Louie - were in from Brooklyn and that, too softened the day. After worship, we grabbed a quick lunch and I got a chance to hold my little man on more time before heading back for a final rehearsal.

At 3:00 pm we started - a jazz trio (Carlton on piano, Jon on drums and me on upright bass) set the tone with Keith Jarrett's "Memories of Tomorrow" - and we were off and running.  When I looked up after finishing the groove, 200 people had showed up - and the anticipation was palpable.  So we sang the old songs - "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past" and "For All the Saints" - and we sang a new hymn written especially for the anniversary - "We Are Not Alone" - and opened our hearts to God in thanksgiving. 

I had asked the minister of Second Congregational Church to welcome the folk and both read the lesson from Hebrews 12 and the opening prayer.  He is a dynamic and faithful man and he set up the feast with vigor and love.  As I stood to deliver the opening "remarks" I was relieved to see that ALL of our invited guests had arrived and had been escorted to their reserved seats as planned. I joked about wearing a suit and tie - a few friends had mentioned that in my 7 years they couldn't recall my ever wearing such threads - and I noted that I would be happy to get another such outfit in another 250 years.  

Then it was off to my prepared reflection which I realized was too long so I improvised and riffed on what struck me as the essential themes: 
+  Today we can feel what it means to be surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  Not only are the saints and sinners from the past with us, but so too are more contemporary pilgrims.

Our long history as been filled with a number of great and wonderful achievements as well as a few colossal failures.  And now that our status has shifted from "the country club at prayer" to a more modest fellowship, we have the opportunity to serve the common good as authentic partners. (It was, of course, no accident that our guests were all partners in compassion.)

+ Then I addressed one of the lingering wounds in our church - and the wider community - this historic schism born of racism between First and Second Congregational Church. I quickly rehearsed the stories and history before offering the pastor of Second Church a silver chalice from 1804 as a sign of our repentance and hope for the future.  My prayer, I concluded, is that very soon our white church and their black church might be able to share the cup of blessing at the table of grace as loving sisters and brothers.

I was, of course, weeping by this time and as I brought the loving cup to him, the moderator from Second Church said out loud, "Praise God..." And then their choir stood up and began to applaud and give thanks to God. This set in motion about three sustained minutes of applause and tears and celebration that in small but loving ways, the grace of God is greater than our sins and past.  With this, I rejoined the band and we took off on our version of Tom Waits' song:  "Come on Up to the House."  Choirs kept the spirit moving, our mission partner guests brought words of love and encouragement and the Mayor shared a public declaration with us.  Our children sang and danced, our band played like saints on fire and our choirs - black and white - raised songs to God in gratitude.
And after two hours, Carlton brought the house down with an explosive and stunning pipe organ postlude.  A reception followed that was both beautiful and satisfying.  And by the time we got home, notes via email had started to arrive saying things like:  this experience has changed my understanding of church. A few offered testimonials about finding courage to live more fully into the spirit of love. Others spoke of having their hearts awakened by the power of small acts of reconciliation. And everyone celebrated the radical combination of old and new music that honored tradition but also celebrated the beauty of new creations, too.
There are two truths that  I've been considering as a result of this festival of faith:

+  First, we have made some deep connections with our mission partners over the past seven years.  They have not been flashy or even public. Rather they have been built with quiet conversation and disciplined participation. In other words, we have been careful to earn the trust of our partners by being compassionate and consistent. 

+  Second, these partnerships have been born of discernment rather than pressure from within or without.  We have waited quietly for the Lord. We have not rushed to fix things that are broken nor have we tried to get on any one's bandwagon. No, our commitments have been nurtured by patience and prayer as well as study.
And as my music director and I were observing after everyone else had left the Sanctuary, you could feel the depth and breadth of these connections. There were a whole lot of people in the room who were excited about what reconciliation and hope look like in our town. And there were all types of people who felt at home being with one another, too:  black and white, gay and straight, conservative and liberal and lots of us who fall in between. It was a good and sacred time and I am so very grateful to have been a part of it all.
My favorite comment from the whole thing came as one of the gospel choir members left.  She shook my hand and looked me straight in the eye. I was a little apprehensive about what she might say.  Still holding my hand she said, "Reverend Lumsden.... (long pause) I like how you sing.  You got soul!" She flashed a little smile and then departed.  Thanks be to God.

(Thanks to Joe Durwin and Lauryn Levesque for the pictures.)

Olivia and Cate

First and Second Church friends

First Church Choir


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