“Creating Community Is an Important Part of the Support We All Need to Navigate through Life”
Every congregation experiences the coming and going of persons. Some people are transferred OUT of the community by their work. It’s called relocation. Some people are transferred OUT of the community by their behavior. It’s called boundaries.
Some people are transferred OUT of the community by their health and their age. It’s called “senior living.”
Some people are transferred OUT of the community by their status as a
student. It’s called “high school graduation.”
Some people are transferred OUT of the community by their experiences IN the community—someone inflicted their will upon them. It’s called HURT by church.
I’d like to reflect on the last one for a minute; hurt by church. As the pastor, I am not a stranger to the invitation of the congregation to “seek out the lost” and “restore them to community.” In fact it used to be common place for churches to hand a new pastor a list of persons whom they haven’t seen for awhile, expecting the pastor to call on those persons and invite them back to the community.
I honestly don’t open myself to this invitation as much as I used to because what I’ve discovered is that if someone is hurt by church they aren’t at peace until the person or persons whom they are in conflict with make the move to reconcile.
However, there is one phenomenon I have observed over time is that many persons who have been hurt by church often don’t give another congregation a try. It’s that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” sort of thinking. Trust has been lost. Can it be recovered? After all, at one point the individual entered the church community with a lot of hope—after all the church is Jesus’ body in the world—if there’s one place where a person should experience love and support it’s the church! How did we hear it expressed in Galatians? “(We) love one another.” How did we hear it in Genesis?
“It’s not good for people to be alone.”
And yet I know many, many persons who have been HURT by church; they’ve been judged instead of welcomed. They’ve experienced the church as a “museum for saints instead of a hospital for sinners.” When I introduced the phrase “hurt by church” a few minutes ago, I talked about the “infliction of the will.” In his book Will and Spirit, author Gerald May defines willfulness as “setting oneself APART from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate. Willingness, on the other hand, is “surrendering one’s self-separateness, an entering-into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself.” In other words, willingness partners with God and neighbor; willfulness dominates God and neighbor.
In the church, what we hopefully understand is that we are on a journey to spiritual maturity. John the Baptist called this journey repentance, which means (Thomas Keating) “change the way we are looking for happiness.” The Apostle Paul refers to this journey as transformation, “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” All of us; not simply some of us…we’re all invited to the feast called spiritual maturity, life in the kingdom!
Keep in mind, however, that we cannot control spiritual maturity, that’s God’s realm. All we can do is show up and listen to the spirit and encourage other people to show up and listen, too. I’ve often thought that the two hottest topics in a church should be “How are you and God getting along?” and “What are you hearing?” What I’m talking about is awareness; waking up to the conversation God is having with us.
But there’s more! We can be aware that every person is at some stage of the transformation process—that the process is painful—and that we get by with a lot of encouragement from our friends.. It’s here in the church that we stretch together to forgive, to listen to God, to find the courage to do what God asks us to do! God speaks both independently OF, and THROUGH, the community. And we never know where in the community the wisdom is going to come from –sometimes the elders, sometimes the children.
Now, how you and I might understand this is to think of ourselves as a Lego block. Do you know what a Lego set is? It’s a pile of brightly colored plastic building blocks that snap together so the builder can form all kinds of wonderful things: boats, bridges, roads, homes, even the “Bat” mobile. We’re unique in some ways but we all snap together for the greater good. Christ, after all, didn’t come to simply save people—God sent Jesus into the world to save the world! Only the world cannot be saved with just one block. We move closer to the goal when there are many, many blocks cooperating with the builder.
Ah ha! God has something wonderful in mind for the world and each one of us takes our place in the design. Like a good Lego, we take our place among the other Lego blocks; not OVER the LEGO blocks, not under the Lego blocks, but WITH the Lego blocks…straining to listen to the builder and follow so that goal is reached. In the church, we take our place among the other participants; not OVER each other, not UNDER watch other, but With each other…straining to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow so that the goal is reached. The Christian community exists to help all of the members listen to the Holy Spirit; to God.
But sometimes we get WILLFUL, and we begin to think that we are the builder and not the LEGO…and we begin to think that our friends in the faith exist to listen to US. And that’s when people get hurt; we take our gaze off the Spirit and demand that all eyes rest on individuals In the church; we chose power OVER instead of power WITH.
So how do we avoid this trap? We create boundaries; we name loving behavior and we read it and work it and read it and work it until loving behavior becomes the norm.
Today I’m going to take us through a set of boundaries, of loving behavior that I’d like our church to learn and apply. I want you to read through them at home and in small groups. They’re on the screen and in your bulletin. They’re called TOUCHSTONES, and they were written by a lovely Quaker man named Parker Palmer:
· Be present as fully as possible. Be here with your doubts, fears and failings as well as your convictions, joys and successes, your listening as well as your speaking.
· What is offered in the circle is by invitation, not demand. This is not a “share or die” event! During this retreat, do whatever your soul calls for, and know that you do it with our support. Your soul knows your needs better than we do.
· Speak your truth in ways that respect other people’s truth. Our views of reality may differ, but speaking one’s truth in a circle of trust does not mean interpreting, correcting or debating what others say. Speak from your center to the center of the circle, using “I” statements, trusting people to do their own sifting and winnowing.
· No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other. This is one of the hardest guidelines for those of us in the “helping professions.” But it is vital to welcoming the soul, to making space for the inner teacher.
· Learn to respond to others with honest, open questions instead of counsel, corrections, etc. With such questions, we help “hear each other into deeper speech.”
· When the going gets rough, turn to wonder. If you feel judgmental, or defensive, ask yourself, “I wonder what brought her to this belief?” “I wonder what he’s feeling right now?” “I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself?” Set aside judgment to listen to others—and to yourself—more deeply.
· Attend to your own inner teacher. We learn from others, of course. But as we explore poems, stories, questions and silence in a circle of trust, we have a special opportunity to learn from within. So pay close attention to your own reactions and responses, to your most important teacher.
· Trust and learn from the silence. Silence is a gift in our noisy world, and a way of knowing in itself. Treat silence as a member of the group. After someone has spoken, take time to reflect without immediately filling the space with words.
· Observe deep confidentiality. Nothing said in a circle of trust will ever be repeated to other people.
· Know that it’s possible to leave the circle with whatever it was that you needed when you arrived, and that the seeds planted here can keep growing in the days ahead
Which one of these touch stones did you immediately hear and think, “That’s so true…and so beautiful”?
Which one of these touch stones did you hear and think, “Wow, that’s really difficult to do; necessary, but difficult?”
Is there one that you don’t understand?
I believe that people of faith everywhere are hungry for loving community that listens to the holy spirit of God together—a place where they can belong and be their true selves and not some make-believe person; some place where they can grow into Christ and join hands with others and help build God’s better world in their small part of the world; a place where they experience willingness, power with, and not willfulness, power over. I also believe that you and I together can create such a community; a loving community—with prayer and self-discipline. Parker Palmer’s Touchstones are all about self-discipline.
Loving community takes work. “My way is difficult at first, “says Jesus about love, “But in the end it’s the easiest.”
Can we give it a try?
Prayer: Amazing God, gift our church with a willing spirit that thrives on your leadership and exists to build each other up in love. Amen.
(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener, Billings Central Christian Church, on Sunday, January 25, 2015.)