Going theological on a 250 year tradition...

NOTE:  I am working on a theological reflection for my church council (and others) that I hope will be completed by next Monday's meeting. I am not entirely certain if there was one inspiration for this essay; more likely it was the constellation of our 250th anniversary, the awarding of the sabbatical grant, reading both Sabbath as Resistance and Slow Church (at the same time) and my current series on reclaiming the Sabbath in the 21st century. Whatever the spark, it is clear to me that doing ministry in the same place for 250 years is significant. Here's my first take - and I'll keep working at it over the next few days. Thoughts?
Thoughts on Two Hundred Fifty Years of Ministry in the Same Place Sabbaticals, Labyrinths, Jazz and So Much More at First Church, Pittsfield

We are being called by God to go deeper – and our past is a clue to our future. Perhaps it is the significance of our doing ministry in the same place for over two hundred and fifty years that is ripening within me. It could be something more cosmic.  Joni Mitchell once wrote, “Maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe it’s the time of man… but we are star dust – billion year old carbon – we are golden – and caught up in the devil’s bargain – so we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” And it might have something to do with preparing for my jazz sabbatical. Whatever the inspiration, I am increasingly drawn to the wisdom of the unknown preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews. 

As he or she was profoundly aware, those famous and ordinary “saints” from our collective past have constructed a foundation for us to build on as we struggle into the future. They knew that it is was God’s grace that grounded their faith community in hope. They accepted the sins from their past that cried out for repentance in the present. And they trusted that God would reveal ever greater blessings upon their current ministries if they labored towards renewal.  From my vantage point in the 21st century, what was once true in the ancient words, now rings true again:

Since, therefore, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God… Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled… Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me
?” (Hebrews 12/13)

In our 250th year of ministry, we, like our forbearers, continue to wrestle with what being faithful to Christ means in our context. Sometimes our ancestors grasped the radical grace of the Lord’s incarnation and called for – and created – blessings of healing like the first hospice in the region. At other times, they were so acculturated that they only strengthened segregation and race hatred rather than weaken its poison within us as the birth of Second Congregational Church documents. Whether broken or whole, however, our calling among the churches in Pittsfield has always been unique. As the first congregation in this community, we became the symbolic embodiment of what Christianity means for our realm – and this fact continues to hold relevance for us in 2014.

We sit at the geographic center of our city.  We once guided many of the civic and economic decisions that formed the people, culture, architecture and soul of this region. And while our prominence and power has been significantly diminished over the past 50 years, because of our iconic status, we still have a sacred role to play in Pittsfield’s renewal. 

In fact, I would argue that our own inner spiritual and programmatic revitalization as a faith community is inextricably linked to our greater good of the whole community. In the most profound way, it is becoming clear to me that we have been invited by God – and that great cloud of witnesses who have shaped our past – to embrace the leadership of a servant.  Our work is now to be grounded in sharing and solidarity for we are being asked to become partners in reconciliation.

St Paul put it like this in I Corinthians 13:  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love… And then he clearly identifies how a loving servant leader lives for the glory of God: patiently. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

From my vantage point of serving God in community as the 19th pastor in 250 years of ministry at First Church, these things are becoming clearer:  in our childhood, we served the Lord in one way; now we must serve in another. Once we held power and prestige, now we hold wisdom and hope. Once we could act independently and without cause for consultation, but now we must become agents of reconciliation and trust, true partners with all people of good will in Pittsfield. Now we have put away childish things (as best we understand them) and seek to serve our city in patient love.
Already I recognize aspects of this sacred invitation taking shape and form. Our commitment to become and Open and Affirming congregation did not seem particularly prophetic or bold when it was unanimously affirmed by the congregation.  But seen through the lens of our symbolic purpose – the significance of who we have been, where we are located and the legacy of that great cloud of witnesses from our past – this act of radical hospitality has reverberated well beyond the walls of our Sanctuary.  As one of the directors of the Live Out Loud Youth Project told me recently, “You have created a safe space for vulnerable children in this region – and while they may never come to church on Sunday – they know that they can now trust you and the people of First Church – and that is a life-saving gift to this community.”

I sense the same type of solidarity in our partnership with both Habitat for Humanity and BEAT (Berkshire Environmental Action Team.) We have joined their mission as equals in the struggle for justice and compassion just as Christ became an equal in the flesh with us (John 1.) Working together as mission partners, they set the agenda – and we strive to trust the Spirit. Clearly those on the ground know better than we what the real pain in the streets is all about. So, as partners in reconciliation, we join and learn and act in cooperation.

But the calling into our ministry of servant partnership is not limited to external mission: it has implications and value for our stewardship of our Sanctuary, the way we invite the wider community into our space, the way we make decisions together and the way we raise resources for ministry. As the authors of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus write: “ours is a call for intentionality, an awareness of our mutual interdependence with all people and all creation, and an attentiveness to the world around us and the work God is doing in our very own neighborhoods... (Where we wrestle with) issues of justice, manageable scale, diversity, seasonality (relating to both the liturgical calendar and the life and death of individual faith communities), pleasure, beauty, risk, place, time, common space and shared traditions.” (C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, p. 16)

In 2014, I see seven (a profoundly biblical number) key commitments currently taking shape at First Church – and they are all born of our shared vision for servant leadership.  I should note that living into the vision of servant leadership is one of the ways we allow ourselves to be molded into the image of our God. Theologians both ancient and contemporary have struggled to name some of the Lord’s characteristics; and without being exhaustive, they have all agreed that:

·        First, God is patient. “It is no accident that the first characteristic of love that Paul mentions in I Corinthians 13 is patience… (Indeed) the biblical story is often framed through the lens of the patience of God.” (Slow Church, p. 24) It could be in the parables of Jesus where God’s presence is likened to yeast slowly rising in a loaf of bread (Mt. 13) or in a careful reading of Christ’s genealogy that links Jesus to Abraham and/or Adam, the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. “The history of the church is marked by many of the same characteristics as the history of Israel: lots of human rebellion, scattered pockets of human faithfulness and all the while God’s deep and unwavering patience.” (p. 25)

·        Second, God seeks collaboration and partnership with the faithful.  We are intimately involved in acts of reconciliation – healing and hope are not the by-products of automatons – but rather a sacred dance in which grace embraces human reality and leads us towards integrity, repentance, renewal and joy. It is hard work – and the holy story is filled with God’s frustration. But over and over God extends forgiveness and a fresh start to those who are humbled. “God is thus revealed as omnipotent precisely in the fact that God stakes everything on the intelligence, free will and trust of human beings… God attains the goal desired because in this world joy in God’s story is stronger than all inertia and greed, so that this joy continually seized people and gathers them together as the people of God.” (p. 27) Small wonder “process theologians” speak of human beings, both individual and together, as being “lured into faithfulness by the patient presence of God’s joy.”

·        And third, God gives birth to shalom.  Sometimes this means peace, but in a way that is greater than the absence of violence. God’s shalom has to do with right relationships between people. Walter Brueggemann speaks of God’s shalom as “finding out what belongs to another and returning it.” Sometimes this is land, other times it is dignity, often it is hope and almost universally it involves forgiveness.  God’s character inspires reconciliation between individuals and the Lord, between insiders and outsiders, between friends and enemies.

When we began our journey towards renewal seven years ago, we trusted by faith that God wasn’t finished with us as a community. We didn’t know what that meant because it was unknowable before starting the journey; we simply trusted that God had been faithful to our great cloud of witnesses before and would continue being faithful.  Patiently and carefully, listening to one another and sharing prayer, tears and laughter, we began to discern a path into both renewal and reconciliation. 

Interestingly, while a great deal of our work began within the walls of our church, the greater good was always a part of the picture.  Our mission statement makes that clear:  “In com-munity with God and each other, we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion.” There was balance in this new direction. It was grounded in tradition, but was not solely focused on saving the institution. And so we worked at revitalizing both our worship and our outward missions. We found creative and playful ways to care for the wider community that simultaneously attracted new artists and friends into our experiment while celebrating the beauty of God’s love in action. We emphasized gratitude rather than obligation or judgment. We took theology seriously – and prayed with a fear and trembling. And slowly, patiently and quietly a new/old way of being First Church started to take shape. It honors that great cloud of witnesses while charting new ground as leaders learn more about living with a servant's heart. 

(What follows - and is still to be written - will address seven key commitments that are becoming flesh within and among us as we more deeply embrace the charism of servant leadership.)


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