My life is a long conversation about God over beer and coffee. I have said this for a couple of decades. But the real soundtrack of my faith is not the chatter of conversation or the clatter of computer keys; it is the tap-tap-tap of feet against dirt. My faith is really shaped by the miles alone along the trails. This is not how I instinctively think of my faith, or other people’s faith. I think in terms of communities, belonging, traditions.
One of the first arguments Amy and I had after getting married happened when I exploded when she told me she did not attend coffee hour after church. I mean, I calmly explained that was where community was formed and friendships born. We belong because of coffee hour, I quietly expressed. As the vicar of a small church, I was reading my own pastoral concerns into the conversation. Churches need community. Coffee hour = Community.
Community is one of those words we use without knowing exactly what we mean, but sure that we hunger for something under that label. As a pastor, what do I mean by community? I mean something like the friendship of the group. It is more than a pile of individual friendships. You can find Webster’s definition here. It is amorphous and broad. I think I mean the unified part, but I think about the emotional connotations of unity rather than the spiritual or civil implications.
Does it matter how we feel about our church as a community? Feelings have been idolized in many ways in our culture. Feelings trump the Bible, rational thought, spiritual insight, truth, love, good will, facts. Feelings are not facts. I could go on and on, and I have. Ask my kids. But on the other hand, our feelings do matter. But I wonder what it would look like to think about community beyond my feelings.
Feelings are the weather of the human ecosystem. They are temporary, shifting, different in different people, seasons, times today. They are responsive to all sorts of things, including internal and external factors, hormones and horrible bosses. Their temporal nature does not make them less powerful though. Emotions can erode the strongest intentions and commitments. Emotions can come to define the human being as surely as desert mountains differ from northern forests.
Who we are as human beings is tied deeply to our emotions. But at the same time, our emotions are fickle. So when it comes to community, emotions are vital and quickly elevated to Creator status. Genesis would be a different book if after creating the world God said, “I feel like this is good.” The opposite of feelings in community work is not facts. Facts are a parallel element of community, along with intentions, leadership, vision, communication structures. The opposite of feelings is emptiness, the death of the community.
Maybe. That brings up one of the fundamental questions, right? Is community ephemeral? Webster’s reminds us that community is association defined by a lot of things, where you live, citizenship, location, common policy. If I lock ten people in the room, are they then a community? Not the way we connote the meaning of the word. On the other hand, I live in a neighborhood that it is an unconscious community.
This brings me back to the church. We are in the middle of these little plate conversations about the church, and one of the issues that gets served right up is the issue of membership. We have probably 30% to 40% of our active church community that does not belong to the Episcopal Church, and therefore not to our congregation. (Remember, wonks, that a parish is a geographical area of ministry.) They are in Benedict’s Rule visiting pilgrims. I want them to join, but they hold on to old affiliations, or sometimes to no affiliation at all, other than Christian.
We are clear about who we are and what defines our branch of the church. I cannot even say “our church” anymore because our disciples are willing to kick back that “church” means the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” of the creeds. But many people do not want to join.
Membership. They would join Grace Church, or think they have joined Grace despite all he announcements and explanations, articles and declarations. But, they are not interested in joining the Episcopal Church, or any particular denomination. Now I am probable to blame on a lot of levels. But much of this is deeply felt cultural trends. It is also feelings. They feel like they are a part of something real at Grace Church. But they don’t feel any association with the denomination or the diocese. Or they just refuse to define themselves out of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
It is sometimes the politics of our national church, social issues, family affiliation, sectarianism as a rule, the particulars or a particular of the tradition. It is is also a lack of awareness of what it means to belong. And because our welcome is so good, and yes it is so good, except for sometimes, that many people see no reason to join officially. When the table is open to everyone, what benefit is left? What is the benefit of moving my membership or dumping my old denomination if I can come and receive here and be welcomed.
So I am thinking of just cutting out all that crap and putting up a turnstile with membership cards.
Okay, not really. But I am constantly aware that for many people who come into the shallow ends of the mainline river, the primary thing they are hungry for is communion, second is community. And if they can get the feeling of community and a good piece of bread, they have everything they need for community. But I am convinced that they are wrong.
I just don’t know how to convince people that the real benefit of belonging is the way we run in the wilderness. It is the pattern, the method, the training in the way of life that is the real benefit of our branch of the church. Our local training club is pretty freaking awesome and the get-togethers are fantastic. Sure, the coach is a doofus. But this is where we learn to run.
Because who we really are and what we are really about is the miles on the trail. It is the running often done alone. This congregation is really a running club in disguise. We get together, we run in groups, we train, we have coaches, we offer each other support, maps, rides, and companionship. But the runs, the runs are what we are about, out there alone on the trails, taking the gospel out, finding the lost and bringing them home, talking Christ to the wanderer, water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, peace to the warring, and forgiveness to all.
We live most of our lives outside the club. We do most of our running in between the group runs, on trails the group mostly never sees. But because we belong to the club, we never really run alone. We have someone to call, a lot of someones, when the miles add up to more than we can handle, or the darkness needs more light than we can bear alone.
We take in pilgrim runners, it is true. We don’t all wear the same shirts and shorts, though I often dream of a uniform for the church. We give too freely away what is a result and not a product.
Maybe there is the confusion. Communion is a result of community with God and with each other. It is the outcome of the miles, but because we hold it in this physical symbol, it is confused to be a product, something received. And so there seems to be no cost more than showing up. We may know otherwise, but how it feels throws us off the trail.
So what do we do with these pilgrim believers? I am not sure that we have a choice but to run with them. We have to encourage them to join, to explain the club and its usefulness, its purpose, its belonging, but our deep calling is to run and run together bearing the light of Christ, sharing the light of Christ freely.
It just means our running club is always struggling when we are doing our job well.
So run, put in the miles. The pitter-pat tapping of feet on pavement and trail is the hymn of the runner, the praise of the human being alive, taking the Gospel out of the club that has it (sort of) and into the world that needs it. That Gospel is that God loves us, provides and protects us, wants to go with us and us with God into the vistas of Grace where people are lost and lonely, hurting and hungry, where we discover that the Spirit has already been here and that when we love the best, we are the dirtiest, covered in the dust of our rabbi Jesus.
Join in. Come in from the streets and trails of your journey and break bread with us, sing with us, and be refreshed. Pardon us when we celebrate our club too much, try to get you into a uniform, or pitch membership. We just love what we are doing and want you with us. We believe that this work of being a branch is important, providing rest support to the runners, coaching and opportunities to run together, training and easy places to try your feet out, and collected wisdom of a community that is not only broad but deep, millennia-old and dusty in the right way.
Chapter 61: How Pilgrim Monks Are To Be Received
Apr. 15 – Aug. 15 – Dec. 15
If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires,
provided she is content
with the customs of the place as she finds them
and does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands,
but is simply content with what she finds.
If, however, she censures or points out anything reasonably
and with the humility of charity,
let the Abbess consider prudently
whether perhaps it was for that very purpose
that the Lord sent her.
If afterwards she should want to bind herself to stability,
her wish should not be denied her,
especially since there has been opportunity
during her stay as a guest
to discover her character.
But if as a guest she was found exacting or prone to vice,
not only should she be denied membership in the community,
but she should even be politely requested to leave,
lest others be corrupted by her evil life.
If, however, she has not proved to be the kind
who deserves to be put out,
she should not only on her own application be received
as a member of the community,
but she should even be persuaded to stay,
that the others may be instructed by her example,
and because in every place it is the same Lord who is served,
the same King for whom the battle is fought.