Exceptionalism: Old First E-pistle 06.27.14

Exceptionalism: Old First E-pistle 06.27.14

We have a new member of our community who likes to poke fun when Old Firsters suggest how unique a community Old First is. He points out rightly: much of which we appreciate about our faith community can be found in other progressive faith communities. There are, for example, a few congregations in each of the major cities I know that would be similar.

But I would add one qualification to his humbling insight: such faith communities can only happen when:

1) they have low creedal thresholds (viz. are theologically broad-minded or even “open”)
2) can and do draw participants from diverse population pools or “catchment areas,” usually urban areas or on the borders created between two demographic neighborhoods.

What kinds of experiences or values are Old Firsters naming that`our “humble-er” is pointing out are not entirely unique to Old First?

Cultural, ethnic, economic, religious, sexual and personal diversity… and the whole host of mixing and matching styles and needs that such a patchwork quilt creates…. When or where there is enough difference — supported by theological commitments that proscribe judgments and rankings because our understanding of the faith encourages us to respect everyone, even see God’s image reflected in every person —  people encounter a welcome, some acceptance and encouragement. Diversity, so appreciated and nurtured, creates a subculture that is permission-giving, affirming, bigger and more embracing.

In this kind of community, there’s less chance that one attribute or way of being will be crowned best. We try and resist the hierarchies of power, people and preferences. Because we’re all imperfect, and it’s only in the rich mosaic created by what each has to offer that together we get closer to complete.

We’re a community formed from the eclectic. Even a bit strange. “Weird” isn’t bad around here. And in our sharing our off-centeredness, there emerges something delightful — room for all.

I remember a young couple worshiping with us a few years ago, who wondered if they weren’t maybe the most normal people in the community. I think they felt sort of lonely in not finding others who seemed their kind of normal. Whereas, often for those of us for whom this community works, there is safe space for how we are unique and unfinished in the midst of others, some of whom are like us and many who are not.

A friend-colleague of mine suggests that these kinds of faith communities become havens for “characters.” Sometimes I do wonder — do we collect folks who are confident in their peculiarity, or do we produce them? Probably both– we offer a welcome that makes people trust that they can be received as they are, and an environment that eggs us on to become even more of ourselves!

We are home to more characters than average, I think; and Old First has been lovingly nicknamed “The Land of Misfit Toys.” But perhaps more importantly, these sorts of communities offer added breathing space and room to grow even for those who don’t feel too far out of the mainstream!

Knowing how assimilated we mainline Protestants can be into the secular world where we live most of our lives… knowing how difficult that assimilation makes it for faith communities to have the punch they need to instill and maintain in us other, even counter-cultural values, I often marvel at
Orthodox Jewish and Amish who create and sustain subcultures that are markedly different from the values and practices and the world around them. As I write this E-pistle, it occurs to me that maybe we are likewise an identifiable subculture, albeit more voluntary and less exclusive or jealous — one that members choose how much or how little to participate in.

Around here, there’s less chance of one description or way of being getting crowned best. In fact, at our best, there’s no hierarchies in our differences. We’re different. Even a bit strange. And in our sharing our various off-centerednesses, there emerges something delightful — room for all. Including those who experience themselves as normal, average, nothing out of the ordinary.

The annotation in our bulletin for the Passing of the Peace often reads “a time for people who come from vastly different backgrounds and experiences to speak, embrace, connect.”

While I agree that we are not, thank God, the only congregation that offers this, we are still rare enough to be special, precious, even sacred. There aren’t enough of these kinds of communities in our world. And, compared to many of the communities in our lives, progressive faith communities are noticeably different.

Finally, despite much that they share, each such congregation has its own personality and style. If we were to ask people who’ve enjoyed a number of these communities, quickly they could describe their differences in tone and feeling.

At Old First, perhaps, much of our difference comes from how we build our openness on the outreach that calls us into service. Clearly, not all our members participate in the outreach program and  ministries that take up so much time and effort and energy around here. But hopefully, everyone hears and feels encouraged to do what they can for others, regardless of all the walls with which the world reassures us we don’t have to care. And Old First always needs our help as we try to feed, and clothe, shelter and love people who otherwise might have less…

See you in church,