Friday, April 24, 2015

As far as it depends on you... live for peace

Earlier this week I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper, The Berkshire Eagle,
celebrating the virtues of our small city. Pittsfield is large enough to have some interesting eateries - brought to life by some creative young entrepreneurs willing to invest their resources and wisdom  - but small enough to know your local and regional politicians by name. At 40,000 people, this is an ideal size community that works hard to balance natural beauty and agriculture with the sophisticated tastes of a well-educated population. There is a community college in our town, a few strategic, modest-sized employers who are on the right side of the technology curve to remain competitive into the future and a thriving arts community. Further, within a 50 mile radius are first class art museums, private liberal arts colleges, the summer home of the Boston Symphony to say nothing of hiking, skiing, biking and bathing venues. 

My letter was born of a commitment to take St. Paul's wisdom re: civic society seriously. In Romans 12/13 where he advises the young Jesus movement to mostly make peace with the political authorities of the day. In his context of  Pax Romana in the first century CE, this made sense.  (NOTE: another Christian text, Revelations 13, offers some insights re: an oppressive and unjust civil context and deserves careful consideration, too.)  For most of my public life I have been influenced by two parts of Paul's teaching from these chapters.

Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

For me this means building up the common good.  Those who follow Jesus are not simply critics, we are those who contribute to the repair of our world. We are not just takers, but creative citizens who are fully IN the world while remaining not OF the world. In this two things occur: our witness is clear and our neighbors learn to trust us.  When clergy and laity only show up at protests, I believe we lose some of our credibility. We must be present and active in the ordinary activities of the communities we live in. We must know and build trusting relationships with the people in power - offering respect and love when appropriate as well as clear and compassionate critiques when that is deserved - lest we become irrelevant and shallow caricatures.of our best selves. Paul was clear in Romans 12 that our engagement with reality is never to be compromised by the lowest common denominator of our culture, but rather transformed by the Spirit's renewal so that we "do not conform to the world, but present our whole beings as a living sacrifice to compassion and love."

Another small sentence from Romans 12  is persuasive to me, too: So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. My hunch - and certainly my experience in both church and the wider community - is that this is the key to authentic and faithful citizenship as a person called to follow Jesus.  We have to make an effort, yes? We must be engaged - and our engagement is to be about peaceful social relationships. Paul continues:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

The spark for my letter was ignited last week while speaking with on of the young movers and shakers in our town. She knows everything that is happening - and about to happen - in the arts scene here and is committed to helping the town strengthen its economic and cultural renewal. When one of the leaders from my congregation mentioned in passing that "Pittsfield has a deep inferiority complex about itself," she quickly replied, "And I refuse to accept that everywhere I go. We not only have great potential here, but great and committed people making real changes already." I wanted to honor her refusal to give in to our historic pessimism while offering my commitment to the work of ordinary renewal in a place I have grown to love. My letter reads:

Letter: Sabbatical prompts thoughts on Pittsfield

The Berkshire Eagle

To the editor:
As I prepare to leave Pittsfield for four months on a sabbatical from my congregation, I wanted to write a word of gratitude to The Eagle and the people of Pittsfield. All communities have their problems — and we have our share — that is part of the human condition. Simultaneously, there is a spirit of quiet compassion alive in our town, too that is sometimes forgotten or overlooked.
Today (Patriots Day), for example, as I left the pharmacy on my way to the grocery store, a woman waiting in the parking lot called out to wish me travelling mercies. She is not a member of my congregation nor someone I know well. But she read the story Derek Gentile wrote about the sabbatical two weeks ago and wanted to wish me well.
Thirty minutes later at the supermarket, both the check-out clerk and another shopper stopped to ask me about the upcoming trip. They, too had seen the Easter pictures in The Eagle and took the time to offer a word of encouragement. This happens in Pittsfield all the time!
My next-door-neighbor arranged to make certain our driveway is plowed during the winter; another neighbor does this work without cost because, as he told me, "That's what neighbors are for!" Some of my clergy colleagues have made themselves available to help lead worship while I am away, including Fr. John Salatino of St. Mark's and Rabbi David Weiner of Knesset Israel.
From the young entrepreneurs renewing North Street, the hundreds of citizens who support our benefit concerts for emergency fuel needs and/or cleaning the Housatonic, the inter-faith work for justice in the Berkshires taking place through BIO (Berkshire Interfaith Organizing), the countless people who have donated to the CROP Walk to End Hunger to our local political leaders and state officials, it is clear to me that this is a "big-hearted" place to live.
I will miss Pittsfield during my time away and already look forward to getting back to work with my neighbors when I return in the fall.

Blessings and gratitude,
James Lumsden Pittsfield (The writer is pastor of First Church of Christ at Park Square.)

Does this make me a Pollyanna? I hope not, but I am willing to take that risk. My ministry in this place is taking root. I want to nourish those roots on my return from sabbatical. I have long believed that one of the commitments to incarnational theology in real life means that I become a part of the community. Remaining a constant outsider has no juice for me. 

So I am already sensing that this work will include four broad areas of engagement upon our return: 1) Our congregation's commitment to Berkshire Interfaith Organizing; 2) A new effort at men's ministry that includes rites of passage and connecting older mentors with teens; 3) Something I think of as a "Feast for Common Ground" that would be a travelling show built upon music, poetry, food and serious conversation; and 4) deeper initiatives into the contemplative aspects of a spirituality of jazz. These four themes keep rising to the surface of my prayers. They speak both to my passions as well as my sense of what is missing in our community. How did Buechner put it concerning our calling: it is that place where our greatest joy meets the world's greatest need?

One more thought: as I have ached and planned, prayed and prepared for this sabbatical, my weariness has often been the driving force. That is oddly starting to lift already and we haven't even left! As a colleague said to me on the phone yesterday:  please remember that there is a bold difference between sabbatical and retirement. Sabbatical is refreshment grounded in returning - there is hope and blessing for everyone in the return - while retirement means an end to ministry as you know it. Don't confuse the two.

He was right... and my sense of return and re-engagement is starting to give our departure some new shape and form.

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