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Recently Linda and I worshipped with a congregation I had served as
pastor and teacher from 1977 to 1981. They were celebrating their
120th anniversary and I was asked if I would say a few words.
This was my first church after seminary. When we arrived the
congregation was deeply and painfully divided -- the first several
months were tough. But in time it became a really wonderful
experience. We built a new building, sponsored a Hmong refugee
family, played a positive role in a painful school strike in the
community, and enjoyed rich relationships as our family grew.
In my remarks I congratulated the congregation on its anniversary
and thanked them for the church’s role in my life, which I
summarized as “teaching me to love ministry.” I really did come to
love ministry in this first church. Sometimes I wonder how our lives
would have been different had we stayed there longer. As it was, a
church in Honolulu (Linda’s city of birth and raising) came calling
and we answered.
I also tried, in my brief remarks, to describe to that congregation
what I had experienced as its particular “genius.” I’ve had the
notion for a long time that different congregations each have a
particular “genius” or gift to contribute to the world and larger
I told the congregation (mostly, but not entirely, different people
from when I was there 35 years before) that their genius was their
combination of deep piety and involvement in the wider community.
Then, lest that sound too abstract, I said another way to put that
would be to say, “You love the Lord and you love your neighbors.”
That of course is Jesus’ answer when asked, “What is the greatest
commandment of all?” “It is,” he said, “to love the Lord your God
with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your
neighbor as yourself.” This is also a kind of precis of the Ten
Commandments, the first half of which are about love of God, the
second about love of neighbor.
Some congregations are really great on the “love the Lord” part with
lots of praise and prayer and “loving the Lord.” But they may not be
that great about loving actual other people: neighbors, particularly
those neighbors who are different than they are.
Other congregations are really great about “loving the neighbor,”
doing lots of service work, always asking for donations or
volunteers for this or that cause or need. But they may not be very
big on relationship with God/ Christ/ Holy Spirit. “Loving the Lord”
gets soft-pedaled, if pedaled at all.
This small town congregation had seemed to me to hold the two sides
of the great commandment together. And I wanted them to know that
and to remember it. As ordinary as it seems, the combination is
really quite lovely and extraordinary.