Psalm 34:1-8 and Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
In a dream last week, one of you was meeting with me. Actually lobbying me. Trying to convince me that in this day and age coming together for church, meeting once a week even for worship was not only antiquated; it had become unnecessary:
“The sermons are posted on-line anyway– just let people read them when they want. And we have so many ways to stay in touch these days, is coffee hour really so necessary? We could do all our meetings via skype. We’re a servant community anyway; people don’t come to Old First unless service is already in their hearts…
We wouldn’t have to struggle so much to find common free times among all the competing schedules.
We wouldn’t have to keep up all this space…”
In the dream, I wasn’t buying these arguments for disembodied or virtual church. You know me, the traditionalist who never likes to see things change! So the plaintiff became more direct, maybe revealing the deeper agenda:
“Michael, whenever we come together, there ends up being more confusion than understanding, and usually some hurt feelings. It’s just too much. Too much to put people through. Too much to go through. People just can’t work or live easily with one another; we can’t make community work very well. …One could point out, ‘we don’t even like each other all that much.‘ It’s only because we’re the church, that we’re get thrown together and stuck with each other.”
I know better than trying to follow the logic in a dream, but maybe my dreamself found this last point compelling? I changed courses completely… told dreamer that we needed to immediately call Larry and Adam, the Admin. Standing Group Leader and the Treasurer, and have them close the church’s bank accounts, dissolve our books: “I’m convinced; we were going to become a virtual community; no more material holdings, fewer worldly obligations; it’ll make us more spiritual…”
The dreamer, stammered, not so sure of her unexpected success: “Um, don’t we need more people involved in a decision like this?” Doesn’t there have to some process?” As she thought of more arguments against my hasty and unilateral action, she said she could hear the anxiety in her voice rise– in her own dream. “Shouldn’t the Elders know? Don’t we need a congregational meeting? At least, there has to be something in the E-pistle giving people a heads up… so they’ll know not to show up next Sunday?”
She woke up before we found out what happened next…
* * * * * * *
A self-assured critic of the church told me once: “Congregational life is only for people who don’t have any place else to feel important…” As an insight, his comment wasn’t that far off; as a condemnation, he missed the boat. I wanted to respond, “Yes, and everyone always comes to church hoping for a good fight too, because the cutting and unkind things people say when they are battling are far more interesting that any of the good, but bland words that otherwise are in the atmosphere at church!”
One of the lessons I learned parenting, admittedly learned the hard way, “Everyone” and “always” statements — they usually can’t hold as much water as they claim!
It’s true — it’s not always easy being part of the church community. (Notice: that’s a “not always” statement, rather than an “always” statement!) And it’s not always easy to be in a family. Or even among one’ friends.
But, I believe, “community life” benefits us more than it costs us. Ironically, its advantages often come in the times when it’s uncomfortable as surely as when it feels good, supportive, “natural.” Because communities make us grow beyond ourselves. I’d argue, that the equation– or “the return” to risk sounding a little more monetary than I mean– is better on a faith community.
To back up such a statement, I could make some sort of high fallutin argument about how God is with communities who are about being with God. But I’m not sure it’s true, and it’d be unprovable anyway.
Instead, I’m going to be “down to earth – practical” on this. Church isn’t somehow supernaturally different or blessed. Actually, as our peer’s dream pointed out, church is quite human, not always human, but often wooden, almost always broken… much to our astonishment and disappointment.
Still it can be a more worthwhile community than most. Because of the people gathered here? Before you let yourselves get too puffed up, we’re no more mature, forgiving, caring or holy, I suspect, than the average sample of humanity. But when we come to church, more often than not… people come here with the intention of being good, our desire to grow, a willingness to be changed, to become better.
God may be with all people, all communities the same, but here our sense of God’s presence, at our best our openness to God’s presence is higher makes the difference. A little difference — the hopes, the intention, the openness that we bring here — but multiplied by each one of us, together they, we make such a difference.
There are few communities in our world whose organizing principle begins with admitting in front of one another that we are not all right. That we have made mistakes. That we need help. Need each other. Need a power greater than ourselves.
Few communities we seek to be involved in wherein participation includes giving the community the permission and power in our lives to ask us to change. — to take a step forward, to move ahead, to walk taller, talk better, love more deeply, live stronger.
Paul’s 4th chapter in the letter to the Ephesians is an exhortation. He writes from prison, encouraging us to use our freedom in Christ to step out and to speak loud and proud. The whole chapter says, essentially:
Sisters and Brothers, walk the walk and talk the talk.
Despite all our differences — differences that don’t trouble us in the UCC, differences we celebrate as sure signs of God’s creativity and sheer magnitude — Paul reminds us that despite the many paths we can see stretching out of the hills all around us, we are to be heading in one general direction… because we’re following the same leader… all hoping to get to the same destination together.
Go back and read Paul’s exhortation about what it means to become a mature Christian… it’s humbling.
‘We all have parts to play in what God’s trying to accomplish with the church. Different roles, of course, according to our gifts and experiences. But we also share a role in keeping this community together.
To do so, stop focusing so much on your sisters and brothers, and how their hearts are. Focus instead on yourself– there’s where you can make a difference. Because, beloved, if this is going to work, we have to keep our own hearts vulnerable, put the needs of others and the community before our own desires, and remain patient and kind, remembering that the reward of our efforts likely will not be immediate, even foreseeable, and whenever in doubt — even if you are certain someone doesn’t deserve it — show compassion.
This one chapter — it’s deep, with much more than first meets the eye.
I want to leave you with what Paul has to say about our talking the talk. Words around church are complicated. Boundaries get blurry. Intentions hard to nail down. Effects unintended. Unexpected. It becomes too easy a venue for harshness to be delved into, shared, condemned upon others.
What to say, and when to shut up– it’s not as easy as it one might think. What to share and why? And with whom? And when? Our words, more than our actions, maybe because they come out quickly and seem to disappear as soon as we say them, can throw us into an even deeper valley of shadows and doubts. So I’m leaving you with my summary of Paul’s advice about how we control our tongues and dedicate our voices.
None of this is easy. But if we could just remember these guidelines as our goal of what is spoken and what is left unspoken, they could begin to change our habits, and transform our community.
1) Speak to people before you speak about them.
2) Speak uncomfortable truths that, were it not for love, we’d miss out hearing altogether.
3) Speak not to be popular, not because what you say will be welcome, but because your words can be an occasion for growth, someone else’s or your own.
4) Hold your tongue if what you have to say would be a putdown — of yourself or someone else.
5) Do not give your anger voice to speak for you.
6) Share what you have to say — it may be the blessing someone can only receive from you.
7) Listen much more — deeper — than you talk.
Can anyone remember all 7 of those goals:
“To,” not “about.”
Truth in love.
Words grow people.
Your words can bless.