“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift the other up; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
This is the third in a series of four articles titled, “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards of Sticking it Out.” It is a response to a workshop taught in Indianapolis by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.” After twenty-five years in ministry he had resigned his pastorate, leaving behind not only the ministry, but the church and his life of faith. He believed that life “no longer worked for him.” Since I have been in pastoral ministry for about that same amount time and chosen to stay with it, I thought I would offer a different perspective. That is, I have chosen not only to stay with the life of ministry, but, even more, the life of faith. Though my profession is an extension of my faith, my faith is much more than my profession. It is through my faith that I understand myself and others and with my faith that I seek to engage the world. Last week, I wrote about what I call the Sacred Realities. There are realities in this world such as love, joy, hope and beauty that are beyond the realm of empirical verification. They are realities that cannot be measured or weighed or touched, yet they are the very things that give human life its truest sense of meaning and purpose. I believe that behind all these realities is the deepest Reality – God.
This week, I want to share about the importance of community in the life of faith. The community is a place of comfort and challenge in which we learn what it means to be truly human. In “The Courage To Be” Paul Tillich wrote, “Only in the continuous encounter with other persons does the person become and remain a person. The place of this encounter is the community.” In other words, our humanity can only be fully realized in our relationship with others.
That our American culture with its emphasis on individualism has seen a break down in community has been well documented in books such as “Bowling Alone” and “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.” Our increasingly disconnected lives has led to a breakdown in civility that is easily seen in our political world and is possibly a contributing factor to the many random acts of violence that seem to take place almost daily. The Christian faith, in which we are taught to love both neighbor and enemy and to welcome strangers, can and should play a vital role in helping our culture overcome our increasing estrangement from one another.
The church can help to build community in a variety of ways, but I want to briefly mention two. First, the church as a source of support and encouragement for people. Life can be very difficult at times – each person has struggles and difficulties and loss that must be endured. The church is a place where people should realize they are not alone through the difficult times of life; that their sorrow is shared by others. As a pastor, I have had countless opportunities over the past twenty-five years to be with people in some very difficult times. When I am present on such occasions, I always feel as if I am standing on sacred ground, a place where the grace of God can be made manifest. This grace often comes in the form of other church members living out their own faith with those who are suffering by holding a hand, providing a meal, cleaning a house, sending a card, or any number of other expressions of compassion. I have heard on more occasions than I can remember, someone saying to me, “I didn’t know so many people cared.” The community of faith is a place of support and encouragement. Not only within itself – but also within the larger realm. This is why churches must always be engaged in ministries of care and compassion beyond its own members. Every congregation should be reaching out in the town or city in which it finds itself to help meet the needs of folks who are struggling in life – food and housing and clothing ministries are at the top of the list. But there are numerous ways we can share in the life of those who are our neighbors and who just like us, are the beloved God. It is also the sense of community support that should lead the church in being among the first and most consistent responders to people who have endured the devastating natural tragedies that happen. And when longer term recovery efforts are part of the equation, the long term commitment of people of faith is vital.
Another important aspect of the church in building community is the inherent challenge of living together in community. In my understanding, the community that the church seeks to build is not one in which we ask everyone to be just alike. It is instead a community built upon having dignity and respect and love for each other even with our differences. It is a community in which we recognize that we all have different gifts and talents and abilities, along with different thoughts and ideas. It is not our uniformity that is the foundation of our community, it is our united commitment to recognizing that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus worthy of the love and respect that forms the foundation of community. It is not just the one who looks like me, thinks life me and acts like me that I am to be in relationship with. It is also the one who doesn’t look, think, or act like me that I am called to journey with in life. That can be quite a challenge at times . . . . but it can also be very beautiful when it is accomplished.
So part of the reason I have stayed with my faith is because I find in the church the community of support and challenge I need as I strive toward my full humanity. Yet, I recognize that the church has often fallen short in these areas. There have been some, even many, who have come to the church with the hope of finding a community of support and they did not. For whatever reason, they were not made welcome. I have heard their stories. I know it is true. I also know that the church hasn’t always proclaimed the unity that exists in our diversity, but instead, often out of fear, proclaimed uniformity. I know it is true. I am aware of these shortcomings. And I am deeply sorry for those who have experienced these failures of the church in their own life. All I can offer is that what you experienced is not the way it is supposed to be. All I can hope is that you can keep looking for the sense of community that we all need to be who we are meant to be. I found it as a person of faith in the community of faith. My commitment is to strive to make my faith community the best community possible for all people.