The congregation I served in Pittsburgh was located in a rough, very poor neighborhood in the inner-city. Many members grew up in the neighborhood, but then moved to the suburbs after World War II. Yet, they sustained their commitment to their childhood church and drove past sometimes six Lutheran churches to get back to their church of lifetime membership. Bethlehem Church was a congregation largely of frugal, German heritage members of generally modest means, who also held a tight grip on the church’s modest resources. Over the years, the congregation had lost much of its engagement with the neighborhood because so many members no longer lived there.
When I was called to serve as pastor, I expressed my intent to live in the neighborhood. So, I took up residence in a church-owned house next door which had functioned as its Sunday School building during their heyday years of the mid part of the 20th Century. I was the first pastor to live in the neighborhood of the church in some 30 years.
We endeavored to reconnect with the neighborhood community. Which is to say, we claimed a stance of generosity toward the community and people outside the walls of the church building. We made Bethlehem Church a site for a Lutheran afterschool program for neighborhood children. We participated in the work of the local civic association and senior center. I helped spearhead a new community leader’s coalition which drew together leaders, crossing neighborhood, racial and institutional boundaries as we sought to address together quality of life issues in the neighborhoods of South Pittsburgh. In short, Bethlehem Church embodied generosity toward the wider community with it time, energies and commitments.
Over the course of years of such outward focused generosity, we came to experience that generosity begets generosity. We discovered that the more we gave of our time and talents in outward focused ways, the more we received from the wider community. It’s not a matter of precise math. There’s no equation that guarantees a return on the investment of time and energies. But we found there to be a distinct tendency that when we gave, we also received.
Here’s the most profound gift we received in the spirit of generosity begetting generosity. Because of our growing public, community-oriented presence as a congregation, Bethlehem Lutheran Church was selected as a site to deploy a full-time Parish Nurse as part of a new, grant-funded program of one of the major Pittsburgh Catholic hospitals. Because Parish Nursing originated in Lutheran churches, the Catholic hospital was committed to deploying one of their nurses in a Lutheran congregation. So, for several years, our little congregation that could not afford to hire additional staff benefitted from the full-time presence of a very skilled, professional health practitioner who functioned in many ways as an assistant minister dedicated to nurturing the holistic well-being of our members, and more importantly, of residents in the wider community. Our Parish Nurse literally saved lives by connecting underserved persons to various health-care providers. Generosity begets generosity.
Resurrection Church is a well-resourced congregation which has a strong track record of giving generously to a number of non-profits dedicated to improving the quality of life of people in Arlington and the wider communities. I pray that our pandemic-induced, comparatively lean times, with giving down because we are not meeting in person on Sundays, does not erode the spirit of generosity which I have already experienced at Resurrection. I pray that our congregation will never succumb to the temptation to reduce stewardship to matters of money needed to meet our budget. Rather, stewardship involves how we steward our whole lives, our time, our talents, our energies, our commitments, etc., of which money is but one dimension. I pray that because of God’s lavish grace in our lives, we will always see a vision of abundance and not scarcity, even when scarcity is all we otherwise see, hear about, and read in the news. For generosity begets generosity.
How do we undertake the stewardship of our lives during the pandemic, when our normal activities have often been curtailed? That’s a good question which involves responses that need to be tailor-made to the circumstances of individuals and families. But even if we are doing less in our own routines and in the life of the church, both our lives and our church still need the investment of time, energy, talent, and yes, money. A house or any structure that sits empty and unused will soon succumb to the forces of decay. A human body that is not holistically active will atrophy. Relationships that do not benefit from the investment of time and energy will wither. And on and on. The point is, investment of our various resources in our individual and communal lives continues to be needed even during slower, less active periods.
May the spirit of generosity begetting generosity, and a sense of abundance amidst scarcity, inspire your investment in your lives, and also in our church – in the service of God’s healing mission for the sake of the world.
In the gracious Spirit of hopeful generosity,
Pastor Jonathan Linman