In an essay titled, America is Falling Apart at the Seams, New York Times columnist David Brooks worries over the sharp decline in civility in our country. Wreckless driving is on the rise. Instances of violence on airplane flights are up. Teachers face a rising tide of disruptive behavior. Suicides and drug use have increased sharply.
Brooks names the “usual suspects” of societal and cultural causes of incivility–social media, the former president’s permission-giving, and the sharp decline of church in society, to name three. In the end, he wonders if the core of our incivility problem is more spiritual or moral. Brooks admits to having no answers. “I just know the situation is dire.”
Reading this article as your pastor, I wondered: If the core of our national incivility problem right now is spiritual, how might our church contribute to healing it?
For most of my ministry, I’ve talked about Beloved Community–the societal call first announced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,–and an individual church’s community as two separate things. About four years ago, I began to see that individual church communities and the Beloved Community Dr. King envisioned aren’t separate, but intricately interrelated. That being the case, how might our church help to heal incivility in our nation?
David Brooks mentioned the sharp decline of churches in society. Do you ever wonder why? Might it be because church communities, too, are “falling apart at the seams?” Are churches also losing a sense of cohesiveness and solidarity? Are conflicts within churches sending a message to those outside the church that churches don’t have it all together?
If people in faith communities don’t tend to their own communities, if they don’t tend to how they talk with and treat each other, if they can’t have hard conversations with each other and still love each other, they won’t have much to offer to the work of healing of the world.
Part of what helped me to see the connection between church communities and the Beloved Community was reading the first few chapters of the Book of Acts. After Pentecost, the faithful began worshiping and eating together and “having all things in common.” Interspersed between descriptions of this new church’s community life, Peter and John venture out into the wider community, preaching to and healing all who come. After venturing out, they always come back to the church community.
This back-and-forth dance–faith community-wider community-faith community-wider community–suggests that how a congregation does community and how that community creates Beloved Community in the wider world are of a piece.
Though Paul wasn’t on the scene until later, reading his letter to the Corinthians it’s clear he understands the connection between how a congregation does community and its ability to create Beloved Community.
Paul was concerned about the church in Corinth. The people had divided themselves into factions…people with fewer resources were getting sidelined at communion…people with some gifts were given more power than people with other gifts…
Paul saw that the church at Corinth was failing at community…which meant they also were failing at creating Beloved Community outside the church. So, he writes them a letter, a primer on community.
It’s easy to beat up on the church at Corinth, but remember–they were just getting started. They were trying to do church right after it was born. Of course, they were going to get some things wrong. Of course, they were going to need some guidance. How grateful they must have been to have someone spell things out for them so clearly.
As I think about our First Congregational community–all congregations, really–we’re pretty much where churches in the first century were: the way we do church is being re-born. We’re having church on Zoom today…I rest my case. 😉
First century churches were trying to figure things out at the get-go. We are trying to figure out how to do church in complex new realities created by the pandemic. Like first century churches, we’ve gotten some things wrong. Also like first century churches, we’ve gotten creative and have gotten a lot of things right.
So…if we want to strengthen our church community so that we can, in our new reality, work more effectively to build the beloved community Dr. King envisioned, what might we do?
In an essay titled Staying at the Table: A Spirituality of Community, Parker Palmer wonders if part of what contributes to communities’ struggle to live authentically in community is clinging to idealized understandings of what community is. Sometimes, we assume community will be like the Garden of Eden–perfect. Or sometimes we imagine community as the new Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation–a reconstituted perfect community. I share with you now Palmer’s reflections.
“The experience of community,” he writes, “is nothing like the garden or the New Jerusalem. Not, at least, after the first few weeks! Many people experience an initial euphoria, but soon “the honeymoon is over.” Euphoria fades and dies. We begin to realize that all is not harmonious here; that it is not entirely safe to be naked with each other; that even if our old tears are wiped away, there are new ones to be wept.
“As the euphoria dies, as our images of community crumble, several options open up to us. Some people simply abandon their hopes for community and return to isolation and individualism. But they go back to that condition with the added burden of disillusionment and cynicism; the community that once existed for them as a beckoning dream no longer exists at all. Other people choose to stay in community – sort of – but withdraw their hopes and enthusiasms and energies, eventually creating the kind of community that Revelation calls “lukewarm.” This is the condition of many of our churches, I think. People have dealt with their disillusionment by “sort of” staying in community with each other, but not at any depth of investment or risk.
“Then there is a third option we might take following the death of euphoria, the crumbling of our utopian images. That is to keep on keeping on; to press deeper into the experience of disillusionment to see what it has to teach us; to abandon our romantic images of community and look for new images that have the power to explain what is happening and to help us deal creatively with it.
Palmer offers a new image of community: The Last Supper.
“Here is Jesus,” Palmer writes, “who has been pouring out his life for the people seated around the table. Now he has brought them together in the universal rite of friendship, family, and hospitality –breaking bread together and passing the cup. And what do these people do? First, in response to Jesus’ claim that one of them will betray him, they deny that any such thing is possible: “Not us, Lord, not here, not in this nice church!” Having taken care of that, they move to an argument about who is the greatest among them! As someone has suggested, they probably went on to quibble over who would pay the bill.
“What does Jesus do in the midst of all of this? Being fully human, he must have been tempted to get up and leave – just as you and I are when our romantic images of community fail. But Jesus does not leave. Instead, he keeps breaking the bread and passing the cup. Both here and in the rest of his story Jesus demonstrates his commitment to staying at the table.
“If we are to follow Jesus, we must try to stay at the table with our own communities, in our own churches and elsewhere.
“How did Jesus manage to stay at the table? What was his “secret”? It was the same “secret” that Jesus taught throughout his ministry – put ultimate reliance not on yourself or on others but on God alone. Jesus was not shocked or undone by the dissolution of community that he saw at the Last Supper. He knew human nature, he knew our weakness, and the disciples only demonstrated what he already knew. But Jesus knew something more. He knew that there is a God who is with us more fully than we are with each other, a God who will keep us together if we only will place our trust in God and not in our own togetherness.
“We will always be disillusioned by community. But in the spiritual life, disillusionment is a good thing: it means losing our illusions about ourselves and each other. As those illusions fall away we will be able to see reality and truth more clearly. And the truth is that we can rely on God to make community among us even – and especially – when our own efforts fail.
“And here is the paradox: as we become disillusioned with community and more dependent upon God, we also become more available for true community with each other. But now we are different. Our eyes have been opened and we have no more romantic illusions. Seeing ourselves and each other clearly, yet seeing God’s continual healing presence among us, we can begin to experience the fruits of the Spirit with each other: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness.”
As it turns out, Palmer’s reflections aren’t just about how to do community; he also shows us a way to gain communal clarity, which is our community’s focus this year. Part of gaining clarity is giving up our romantic illusions about community.
That is my prayer for our community this year…that we give up our romantic illusions about who we are as a community, that we put our trust in God so that we can be brave enough to see things as they really are, that we become very clear about all our strengths and all our “growing edges” (as we used to say in seminary)…It’s my prayer that we do these things because our FCUCC community needs it. It’s my prayer that we do these things because the world needs us. It’s my prayer that we do these things because the only way we’ll be able to create Beloved Community outside our community is to keep working at it inside our community.
May it be so. May it be so. With God’s help, may it be so.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2022