Christmas is winding down. We’ve crossed the threshold into another year and Epiphany arrives on Sunday. I enjoy the rhythm every year of being reminded of the reality of the incarnation. One of my favorite phrases to describe this comes from Eugene Peterson’s Message translation of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
Peterson has been one of my mentors in life. Even though I only met him briefly in person on a couple of different occasions, his writing and teaching for pastors has had more influence on my understanding of what it means to be a pastor more than anything else outside of scripture. Today, I read an article in Christianity Today with a fairly recent interview with him. I was stuck by the following question and answer:
Q: As you know, community has become something of a buzzword in the church today, yet in some ways we have less of it even though we talk about it more. Why is that?
A: Probably because many people in churches today don’t have a sense of community, and in order to get a sense of community, church leaders start gathering people up and giving them jobs. We’ve lost a talent for relationship and showing interest in the other person. We don’t have community because we skip over the critical part: being in relationship with the people, knowing their kids, knowing their jobs, knowing the neighborhood.
As I get older, and as I get more experience in pastoral ministry, the more that I recognize the importance of truly getting to know people, getting to know their lives, and getting to know the community where God has placed me. I can now recognize that when I was younger I often treated people as commodities – something that I could get something from. People were valuable to me in as much as they could offer me something. It was easy for me to move on from relationships once they ceased to be valuable to me.
The truly disturbing thing is that it is possible have this same attitude under the guise of “ministry” or “Christian service.” We can fall into the trap of serving people because we know that we need to serve someone. The particular person doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we need someone to serve and they are available to us. I suppose the classic modern example of this would be American Christian short-term mission trips that are totally disconnected from any kind of long-term relationship.
Of course, this kind of people-as-commodity thinking is compounded by living in a highly mobile society. We can move on from a job, move on from a school, move on from a church, any time that relationships become difficult. We can move halfway across the county if we wish and “start fresh” with a clean slate of relationships with no prior history or baggage. I increasingly hear from older Christians something along the lines of this: “At my age, I have no time for toxic relationships.” This becomes an excuse for dismissing those that are hard to get along with in favor of those whom you enjoy being around. I sure am glad that God did not have this attitude with us!
Jesus “moved into the neighborhood,” and he didn’t exactly pick the best neighborhood!
So I think about this often these days. What does it mean to put down roots and truly get to know and care for my “neighborhood.” This, of course, includes those in my congregation, but it includes so much more. One of my greatest joys these days is going into a local business in the Stanwood/Camano Island area. It is rare that I don’t end up sidetracked and having a long conversation with someone that I know. Sometimes this is someone from my congregation, but often it is not. Usually it is someone that I genuinely want to know better because they are my “neighbor.” For many years one of my ongoing prayers has been this: “God, give me your heart for people.” This prayer emerged out of the awareness of what I described earlier about how I approached relationships with others, and God continues to answer it in surprising ways.