Building FAITH in Community, Part 1:
[Follows HYMN #347: "Gather the Spirit"]
I have been "gathering to celebrate" in my religious community for all of my life. Because of that lifelong experience, I have been fortunate to learn many lessons about the power of community.
One of those lessons I learned about religious community came during my first year of serving East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, WA, as a minister. It began on a Sunday morning in May as the choir was practicing before the service. The phone rang and a voice asked for Joyce. I went to get her out of the choir. I stood near her as she answered it then was stunned when I heard her tell me what had happened. Her husband, still at home, had collapsed and been rushed to the hospital.
I remember the look on her face of fear. And I remember the deep concern her fellow choir members felt as they moved through their paces that morning. All of us were worried and wondered what might happen.
What happened was the worst possible thing. Her husband had had a stroke and wasn't expected to live. When he died a few days later, we all mourned the loss of a good man cut down in his prime.
After the funeral, I will never forget what Joyce said to me. She said, "I don't know what people do who don't have a church at a time like this. I would have been lost if it weren't for East Shore and its community."
I began that day to understand the power of religious community in a person's life. A power that transcends theology, transcends individuals, transcends even time. I began to understand that community itself can be deeply spiritual and because it is spiritual, it can transform people's lives.
This Sunday Jaco and I begin a five part series we are calling, "Building Faith in Community." Over the course of these sermons (spread out over the next few months), we will explore the opportunities and the challenges that come when we try to create community within the diverse religious spectrum that is our faith, Unitarian Universalism. We hope to offer you both perspective and tools on this challenging path we are trying to walk. And we expect you to help us.
To that end, we are offering a slightly different form of sermon discussions during the course of this series. While a couple of the sermons (like today's) will be followed by "Reverberations," our monthly post-service discussion, all five of these special sermons will be preceded by a discussion, usually on a Tuesday evening prior. In other words, we invite your help in thinking about these issues before we preach about them. We hope you'll keep an eye on the newsletter listings and come to as many of these discussions as you can.
We will also be using a little word device to help us (and you!) remember the critical feature of the particular approach to community we are preaching about on a given Sunday. Thus, each sermon will use one letter in the word "FAITH" as the key focus of the sermon.
"Foundations" is first, today. The next sermon in the series will focus on the inspirational history of community in our faith tradition and will be called "A Church for All Souls." The third in the series will be during our big Stewardship service on March 19. Its focus will be on "Interdependence." The fourth will reflect on the importance of moving beyond ourselves in the effort to build community and thus will use a T word, "Transcendence." And the final and last sermon will be on Palm Sunday when we will reflect on the "Hope" that community brings to each of us and to our world.
All these sermons will be available to you afterward so if you miss one you can read it later. But we hope you will do your best to come regularly during this season for we feel that we stand on the brink of something exciting at Paint Branch, something that can deepen our commitment to each other (and thus be mutually fulfilling) in wonderful ways. So let us continue by reflecting on what might be the foundations of a community in a setting like ours.
There are actually five "F" words we will be lifting up this morning. The overall one is "Foundations"-in other words, what is the ground on which our community stands. The next is Faith, our shared religious understanding. But we will focus most on the other three, for the foundation of community rests, in our view, on an understanding of our Freedom, our Families, and how we deal with the Friction that inevitably emerges in community life.
But before we move deeper into these areas, let me just say a word about why we are using the term "faith" to help us talk about community.
Faith is one of those words that make some UUs uncomfortable. I think this is so because too often it has been used simplistically to describe something unexamined in one's life. "Blind faith" has often led to terrible things and we, in our liberal religion, challenge peo-ple to move beyond simple answers into a deeper understanding of what is real and true.
But faith is also a word that can be used to describe those values and beliefs we hold most dear. In our opinion, Unitarian Universalism is a faithful path to follow in exploring the meaning of life. And it is also our opinion that a faith such as this, full of ambiguity and complexity, is best developed in relationship to others. Thus, we believe that to build a truly deep and lasting faith we need the interaction and breadth that only comes in community.
So we also believe-have faith in-the community itself. Thus, this sermon series will be a chance for all of us to discover why we come here, and why what we do here matters in profound ways. So let us move on to another important "F" word, one that has for generations served as an important element in our understanding of our liberal faith. And that word is "FREEDOM."
[Jaco takes over here]
One could easily highlight the ongoing contrast between religious orthodoxy and religious liberalism by answering an ancient, but still relevant question put forth in the Book of Amos: "Can two walk together except they be agreed?" The orthodox response would likely be: "No. We must be agreed on doctrine or we cannot walk together." Consequently, the communities they build are often exclusive ones, with high walls and straight, narrow paths.
Meanwhile, the liberal answer would be a qualified "Yes." Qualified because we should agree on some basic understandings, to be sure, but generally, as the 16th century Unitarian of Transylvania, Francis Dávid, said eloquently, "We need not think alike to love alike." In other words, "Yes, we can walk together without agreement. We are FREE to discover for ourselves the truth found in our own life and we respect the diversity that accompanies us on that path."
Religious freedom-one of the "F words" that form the Foundation of our liberal religious community-is indeed basic, but these days it's also basically taken for granted by generations now far removed from ancestors like Francis Dávid who had to risk their lives to gain such liberty. Perhaps this is inevitable. Even American revolutionary Tom Paine recognized the tendency of those who love freedom to relax their vigilance in its defense, when he wrote: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it."
Let me risk a challenging equation here: I suggest that UU church communities will thrive and deepen only to the extent that we-as the current caretakers of this ideal-do three things: 1) understand the rich history of religious freedom; 2) cherish the contemporary embodiment of religious freedom; and 3) internalize the meaningful implications of religious freedom.
In service of this goal, to better understand, cherish and internalize our Free Church heritage, I will offer two particularly relevant notions about our freedom.
First: historically, we trace our free religious roots back to the Puritans, who arrived on these shores desperate for freedom from the religious oppression they suffered in Europe. They had their own intolerant blind spots, of course, but they nonetheless established the principle of the Free Church in America. They created a system called Congregationalism, whereby each gathered community was its own authority, free from any denominational or other form of hierarchy. (Today, the inheritors of this innovative system are primarily the UUs, the Baptists and the United Church of Christ, AKA Congregationalists).
However, there's an often overlooked aspect of how the creators of American Congregationalism understood, cherished and internalized their system. They were wise to recognize that freedom should never mean isolation. Congregational autonomy by itself was incomplete, they declared, without the cultivation of essential relationships with neighboring churches.
In the seminal statement of 1648, known as the Cambridge Platform, there is an entire chapter devoted to "the communion of Churches one with another." UU Historian Conrad Wright, in his book, Walking Together: Polity and Participation in UU Churches [pg. 21], says that this chapter describes "six ways by which the churches were related in a seamless web with neither center nor circumference." So the principle and image advanced here, in true Congregationalism, is less about an autonomous local church, standing alone self-sufficiently, and more about "the community of autonomous churches"[ibid.], forming a diverse but interdependent web of freedom among regional groups that cooperate for common cause.
This vision of a related wider church community, maturing for at least 350 years now, has an immediately pertinent application to us here this coming week. On Saturday afternoon at our neighbor's facility, the UU Church of Silver Spring (a mile and a half from here), many of us will gather to launch an organizational effort to better co-ordinate all the various UU efforts for Social Justice in this region. The president of our continental Association will even be on hand to bless the endeavor. It is a notable, if ambitious example of how we today can continue to understand, cherish and internalize our free church heritage, by joining many "Churches one with another," to build a stronger foundation of social ministry for all of us.
My point here is that the Foundation of our local church community is built on the long-standing, although often ignored network of related free religious communities. It is a powerful and intriguing web of relationship that many of us find very fulfilling. I invite and encourage your awareness of and participation in this realm.
The other aspect of freedom that I want to bring forth for a moment is the noble activity called Free Inquiry. We might well understand, cherish and internalize our heritage, but then where does that lead us? Well, we embark on the path of Free Inquiry, and encounter the universe in our "own direct and original ways" [S. L. Fahs' phrase]. The path of Free Inquiry really has no destination. It is a method glorious and demanding, a process rich and infuriating. It is how we actively live out and live up to our heritage.
Recently, synchronicity found me reading a paper by Harvard Divinity School student Jennifer Brooks about "the Principle of Free Inquiry" as a "'Theological' Basis for UU Religious Education"[paper title], and it will help me make my main point on this subject. She wisely rests on the formative work of the mid-20th century theologian Henry Nelson Wieman. Wieman pioneered Process Theology with his influential image of "creative interchange," as good an embodiment of Free Inquiry as there is.
Wieman noted that the actual meanings and values of our lives grow with us and are, of course, debatable and changing, but what doesn't change-what he would call "God-is the eternal process of creatively engaging in pursuit of those meanings and values. This then, is creative interchange, and, for my money, it happens best in community.
Brooks is helpful when she describes the activity of this eternal process: "Creative interchange requires an openness to new perspectives; the willingness to use those perspectives to re-formulate one's prior judgments ; and an acceptance of the possibility that one's self will be transformed in response to new insights. All these attitudes (openness, willingness and acceptance) foster creative interchange, and can be developed largely through personal conversation
Yet talk is not enough. There is a more challenging prerequisite for achieving the conditions that allow optimal creative interchange To be fully effective, creative interchange requires creative thinkers. These are the people who are most likely to transform themselves in response to others' values; who are most likely to generate new ideas that can provoke transformation in themselves and others; and who are most likely to consider a wide range of possible responses to differences in points of view. Moreover, it is the creative thinkers who break out of conventional paradigms to pursue free inquiry at its most expansive."
And where better for this kind of creative thinker to emerge than in a free church community? But however tasty such opportunities for free inquiry might be, they do not always just happen by themselves. Coffee Hour is only so conducive for transformative conversation. No, creative interchange must be creatively arranged, especially in our modern environment of competing time constraints.
Well, once again there is an immediately pertinent application for us here this coming week. On Tuesday evening, Barbara and I will convene our third attempt at what we're calling an Adult Religious Education Summit, to investigate the ways we might intentionally design the future of creative interchange here in this free religious community. (The previous two sessions were prevented by snow, so maybe it was the Universe allowing this sermon to lead the way into the summit.)
All creative thinkers are invited and encouraged to come help us map out a plan to build a strong and enriching-perhaps even transformative program of Adult Religious Education for the Paint Branch family. Such a more active dimension would indeed fortify the freethinking foundations of this community.
Speaking of family, let's move along to another of our Foundational elements.
The next "F" word is one that speaks deeply to most of us, in positive and negative ways. I am talking about family, the first community we encounter. I will look at two aspects of family: first, the church as a family; and second, how our own family experiences affect our view of community.
People often talk about the "church family." Usually by this they mean the deep relationships that people in this faith community can share. While I have mixed feelings about family as a metaphor for church there is one aspect of family that I think is essential for understanding religious community. When the word family is used, most of us immediately think of people of all ages who are related to each other-parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers and cousins.
This image of people relating across the generations is a powerful one to me. I grew up in a home where my family members were of all ages, from my grandmother (the oldest) down to me (the youngest). In between were, in the early days, a teenager, a young adult, two elementary age kids, and my parents, who were then middle-aged. We were not segregated in our home by age; we lived together, ate together, were together as a family.
The church, at its best, is also what Jaco and I like to call "pan-generational" (reaching across all ages). Here at Paint Branch we have babies, children, teens, young adults, middle-aged people, older people and elders. We are of all shapes and sizes. Some of us have children, some do not. But in a sense, when we come here together, we remind ourselves that the church "family" includes us all, and honors all kinds of families.
We believe that this pan-generational view of community is not just a nice thing; we believe it is truly foundational for religious community. Our culture does a lot to try to keep the ages apart. We send children off to school to be with people their own age. Many of us socialize with people in similar life stages. Yet here we have at least the potential to create a community where we can learn from and love across the ages.
One image I hold in my mind when I think about this is of two Paint Branch Lillians. Last week I watched as Lillian Lee, one of our wonderful elders and a longtime church member, held in her arms little Lillian Brett Enoch, one of our youngest members, born just this Fall. The two of them are a living example of our community reaching across generations. It is our hope that Paint Branch will want to deepen our commitment to becoming a church family of all ages.
While creating a church that has aspects of a family may be foundational to building community, I also need to add that each of us brings a certain amount of baggage to church from our own families. Not all of us had completely happy family lives. Some of us are estranged from our families. While the church can act like a family for some of us, it also can bring up unresolved issues from our own families of origin.
In any community we join, we bring patterns and styles of being that we learned at a very young age in our first and primary family. Some of those things we learned can be very useful in our church community. But there are some things we learned from our original family that can trip us up. Such as dealing with conflict. I, for instance, came from a family where getting angry just wasn't allowed. It's taken me years to learn how to properly deal with my feelings of anger when they emerge since I was taught to stuff them. And there have been times when my patterns have not served me well in the church community.
And that's where the last, but incredibly important "F" word comes in. What do we do with the inevitable Friction that emerges in community?
A free faith, founded upon free inquiry and inclusive of many kinds of families, is going to create a demanding diversity, especially in an intentional community like ours. Diversity, while not an F word, can very naturally lead to Friction between people of good will, who find themselves at odds, for one reason or another. And diversity then re-emerges quickly, because there are many ways that different people respond to inter-personal friction.
Let's imagine two possible extremes. Barbara mentioned that in her family expressing anger was generally not encouraged. Maybe she and I get along so well because it was also the case in my family of origin. I have little or no memory of my parents ever arguing with each other, at least where I could hear them. No doubt they thought they were doing the right thing. But the only models I had of family fighting were when they occasionally got mad at one of us kids, which of course included all kinds of authority and power dynamics. I did not get any training in how peers might fight fairly. The message I got was, "Don't fight or argue at all."
So one extreme holds a norm that natural friction between people is avoided, denied, ignored or suppressed, with most unpleasant emotions held within, unexpressed. Okay, for how many of you does this sound familiar? The other extreme, which neither of us can speak for but we've each witnessed, is when friction is frequently played out in a regularly argumentative atmosphere. Some parents and families just relate very expressively, with much vocalization of upset and anger, often followed by making up and not holding grudges. At least that's what it looks like. For how many of you does this sound familiar?
The point is that some people learn early on that they can and often have to fight to hold their own in vociferous families, while others learn that fighting is not appropriate or necessary. Well, what do you think happens when two good people from each of these backgrounds, now grown up, find themselves working together on a demanding church project, and things do not go especially well? Friction happens, and they come at it from entirely different angles.
There are, of course, gradations on the extremes I've portrayed. There's a continuum of ways that we respond to inter-personal friction. And we can always learn new ways to embody our values, so we are not automatically, for all time destined to live out what we learned in our families of origin. However, without intentionally examining this aspect of our life in community, we are most likely to revert to a default position, which is probably what we learned early on.
There are all kinds of people with all kinds of default positions drawn to Paint Branch UU Church. Within the many circles that orbit our congregation, how aware are we of this kind of emotional diversity, especially when we're in the midst of some natural community friction? I say that some friction is natural because Barbara and I have been in UU church communities basically our whole lives and we have no illusions that they are always happy, smiley places where everyone gets along just fine all the time.
If that were the case in a particular church, then they probably have little or no ambition to really be a community, or really deal with significant issues. Superficiality probably reigns. Rather, we believe what Parker Palmer once said about the fuller reality of community life: "When we first come into community we are blissfully ignorant of just how agonizing it is. We come with high expectations: Where the world hates, community loves; where the world betrays, community trusts The only problem with this is that it doesn't work."
Then he names a principle that, ever since Barbara and I first heard it, has stimulated our thinking: "Community," he said, "is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives." This sounds pretty fatalistic. Does it mean we should give up on ever realizing the dream of productive, fulfilling community among friends? No way. It just means we should be realistic in our idealism, and work to improve the odds that, when friction does appear, we know what to do with it in ways that build, not erode, the sense of community we seek to create.
The point is that any diverse and inclusive group that cares about where it's going and has a vision that stretches people a bit will inevitably experience moments when people of good will just have to bump up against each other. So what happens then?
What happens then? This is, I believe, one of the most worthy questions to ask in a developing community (and communities are always developing or else they are dying). What happens when people of good will disagree or get upset with each other? How does the relationship move from there? How do others nearby behave? What resources can the community offer people in conflict? How direct can people safely be with each other? Or how much does unhealthy avoidance create a vague but persistent fear about being honest and authentic?
These are not easy questions, and it's not unreasonable for folks to shy away from answering them. But they also point to a cornerstone of strong community: the foundational principle that freedom only comes with responsibility, especially responsibility for behavior, including behavior amid friction. The ways that people in community agree to disagree can be much more telling than the actual subjects on which they might argue.
The fuller development of this dimension is demanding; it takes effort, leadership, time, patience and creative thinking. But you know, it may just be the best game in town. As a default conflict avoider, I'm not always eager for this challenge, but I can see how what we do here, in microcosm, matters a lot. So I am motivated to consider community friction and not just always hope it goes away by itself.
In this threshold year of 2000, our world clearly needs help figuring out healthy ways to approach global frictions; our nation needs help discovering healthy ways to work out American frictions; our metro area and neighborhoods need help managing local frictions. Why shouldn't church communities like ours become conscious, progressive laboratories of human development to model how this can be done? People who learn better ways to move through friction in their church can become very good citizens in the wider world.
And Paint Branch is well positioned to contribute to this vision. We are not at all beset with strife, as are some other congregations that don't have any choice but to deal with conflict because it's rapidly eroding their foundation. We have the opportunity to watch for little frictions that emerge and build some muscles to channel that energy in creative, community-building ways. Gradually, intentionally, we can model how to soften the sharp edges that will poke out now and then.
A story helps my resolve to walk this path. Once a brother came to a monk and said: "What shall I do? My tongue causes me trouble and whenever I am among people, I cannot control it and I condemn them in all their good deeds and contradict them. What, therefore, shall I do?"
The old man answered him: "If you cannot control yourself, go away from people and live alone. For this is a weakness. Those who live together with others ought not to be square, but round, in order to turn toward all." Further, the old man said: "I live alone not because of my virtue, but rather because of my weakness. You see, those who live among people are the strong ones" [Desert Fathers, in Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, pg. 151].
Here at Paint Branch, we can rise to another level of creative interchange and deepen our relationships. We can help each other be "strong ones." We can draw folks into a project that embodies what I call our "neo-family values" in significant, even transformative ways. It can be done and there are lots of helpful resources we can drawn upon, IF we have the congregational will to build this kind of faith in community.
On the way, we'll face and finesse our frictions,
we'll favor and fulfill our families, we'll foment and feature free inquiry,
we'll flourish in freedom, we'll feast upon our fluent faith,
we'll foliate our foundation, and even foist some fun upon our folks!
Barbara and I will be back with four more takes on this formative subject, between now and Easter, but first, let us flex our vocal cords in song-Hymn # 325 ("Love Makes a Bridge") - and flood this Meeting House with the fluid sound of our full flock.
Closing Words [following New Member Recognition Ceremony]
May all of us, along with these new members, take up the covenant of belonging, which will challenge us to grow in our faith.
May we have hope that we can span our differences with a bridge of love.
And may the spirit of life be ever present in us, guiding us toward more gracious ways of living together in joy-filled community.
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