My second year as your pastor, I got this feedback: “We talk too much about spirituality.” The statement fascinated me and has stayed with me. Every so often, I pull it out and reflect on it. Do we talk too much about spirituality? We’re a church, a community. Is there such a thing as a communal spirituality? Or is spirituality more individual—You have yours, I have mine, and it’s probably best that we not discuss the differences? J
Today we begin our Summer Theme: “Building a Stronger Community.” Between now and the end of August, we’ll look at four areas of our life together and imagine ways we might strengthen each area. The four areas mirror some of the areas we explored week before last at the CREDO conference I attended in New Hampshire.
CREDO is a program developed by the Episcopal Church to increase the health of its clergy. The thinking is that healthy clergy lead to healthy congregations. After 15 years of the program, that connection has proven strong and true.
The UCC Pension Board began exploring using the model 5 years ago. I was in the fourth group they’ve taken through the program. I’ve participated in a lot of Continuing Ed experiences. None has been as practical or energizing as CREDO. That’s due, in part, to the holistic approach the program takes. Most other continuing ed events focus only on one part of a clergy person’s life. CREDO invites us to reflect deeply on each major aspect of our life and then to take note of how each area influences the others.
The five areas of wellness CREDO focuses on are: spiritual, vocational, mental and physical, fiscal, and relational. For each area, we had a fair amount of homework beforehand. At the conference, we had plenary sessions, workshops, small group conversations, and one-on-one consultations with faculty members. By week’s end, each of us had written a CREDO covenant….think of it as an IEP for clergy.
As I prepared for CREDO, I also was thinking about our life together as a congregation. Few things invite a community to reflect on who it is, its core values, and vision of the future like a proposed building project. Our Growth Planning Team has been working hard the last year to come up with a plan for upgrading our current facility and replacing the Next Generation House, and doing so in a way that honors our core values and our hopes for the future. (I heard you all had some good conversation at the Town Hall Meeting last week. Many thanks to Bill and the Growth Planning Team for their good work on that.)
Drawing from the areas addressed by CREDO, this plan for the summer emerged. I suspect that looking at the areas of spirituality, vocation, financial and physical/facility health will help us get even clearer about who we are and where we’re headed. I also think, as decisions about our facility loom, attending to these areas of our life together will guide us in making the decisions that align most closely with our core values and mission as a community of Jesus’ followers. The other thing it will do is help us to see how all the areas are connected. What is the relationship between our spirituality and our financial life? How is our vocational life–our core values and mission–connected with our facility?
So. Does our community have a spiritual life? I’d love us to spend time reflecting on that question together. For now, I invite us to focus on today’s readings from the Gospel of John.
Both passages come from what biblical scholars call Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” The setting for the discourse is the Last Supper. It’s like the last day of class for college professors—trying to cram in everything that didn’t get covered during the semester.
After speaking directly to the disciples in chapters 14-16, in John 17, Jesus directs his words to God, in hopes, no doubt, that the disciples will “overhear.” The prayer begins with Jesus acknowledging that the work God had given to him to do has been completed.
Now that Jesus’ work has been completed, he’s handing the torch to the disciples. If Jesus’ task was to show people God, now that task falls to the disciples. He prays: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine.”
As he prepares for his death, Jesus prays: “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Abba God, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
If you look at the UCC logo, you’ll see those words. “That they may all be one.” I’d always thought that was included to remind people not to fight so much with each other. Now I realize that Jesus’ words go much deeper than simply, “Let’s everybody get along, okay?”
In this prayer, Jesus is inviting his followers into the deepest kind of relationship with him and with God. He’s not talking about one-ness of ideas. He’s talking about a oneness that comes through deep and abiding relationship with our Abba God and with our brother Jesus. The source of our oneness isn’t doctrine or dogma or even consensus. The source of our oneness is our relationship with God through Jesus. Certainly, each of us has our own personal relationship with God. And something about our individual relationships with God has brought us here to this community. So, while each of us is on our own spiritual journey, all of us together, as a community, as Pilgrimage United Church of Christ—our congregation is on a spiritual journey, too. As a community, we have a relationship with God. As a community, we discover God in our midst. As a community, we seek to share God’s love beyond these walls. As a community, we take the time, and the quiet, and the discernment to listen for and respond to the still-speaking God.
How is all this talk about spirituality feeling to you? Are you feeling more comfortable that you’ve ever felt? Or decidedly UN-comfortable?
During our Lenten Bible Study, we spent some time talking about the Holy Spirit. A couple of folks found it very natural to talk about the moving of the Holy Spirit in their lives. A couple of others found the language a bit confounding…. Until those who had felt the Holy Spirit started talking about those experiences.
As one person described their experiences with God’s Spirit as a palpable presence, a profound sense of wholeness, of being who God created them to be, of a sense of peace in decidedly un-peaceful circumstances, the eyes of one of the people who’d been confused lit up…and filled with tears—“Oh! It’s like when I visit people on the oncology ward at the hospital. I feel something present with me. I’m able to be with those people who, many of them, are in so much pain.” Yes. Exactly.
As I’ve reflected on that person’s epiphany, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s not so much that we’ve never had experiences of the Holy Spirit, but that we just haven’t had a name for those experiences. If the sign of the Spirit’s presence with us is a sense of oneness like the one Jesus’ describes in his prayer, a oneness the grows out of feeling deeply connected to God, to Jesus, and to each other….Would you say we’ve had experiences of the Holy Spirit? What are some of those experiences? (Responses)
The mosaic cross, I think, is a great example of a communal experience of God’s Spirit. It began by paying attention not only to the season of the church year—Lent, that time when we reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross—but also by paying attention to an aspect of our worship space that has come to have great meaning for us—our stained glass windows.
I took the bare-bones idea of a mosaic cross to Jaime Fulsang, who took the ideas further. We took those ideas to Bill Dischinger who created the acrylic cross. He got in cahoots with Ric Reitz on the design and lighting. The whole community became involved in gluing the glass onto the cross…each piece representing a deep connection to Jesus’ and others’ suffering. Then Chris Shiver brought his engraver to the process.
And then that fateful Palm Sunday when I invited you all to fill in all the spaces and Ric Reitz raised his hand. “Don’t we believe in the still-speaking God? Shouldn’t we leave empty spaces for others to bring their brokenness to the cross?”
The process of creating this cross….it was a holy experience from beginning to end. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt us so together—so at one—as a community. Each of us came to the cross in the context of our individual relationships with God, and as we patiently waited our turn with glue and glass, our individual spiritual journeys somehow merged into a communal spiritual event. We became one with God through our brother Jesus. We became one with each other.
As powerful an experience as creating the mosaic cross together was, many have joined the community since then…people who do not share that particular experience of the Holy. We’ve heard stories today of other times when we, as a community, have experienced the Holy. How might we prepare ourselves for more experiences like those?