Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.
We certainly live in anxious, stressful, fearful times. Not enough money for so many. Too much money for a few. Too many lies presenting themselves as truth. Not enough respect for divergent voices, for differing experiences. Too many fears becoming reality. Not enough peace. Not enough trust, respect, or safety.
But no worries! Congregations like this one offer a contrast to all the “not enough” and the “too much” out there. In this space you re-create every time you come together; there is hope, fun, and even love. You and your children are surrounded by people who can be—some who will be—your lifelong friends. There are plenty of resources for everything you might want to do, all that you’d like to give, everything you’d like to change, because everyone operates with a high level of commitment to what this place is all about. Every single person can be counted on, is respectful, honest, and caring all the time. When life gets hard or confusing or lonely; when things don’t make any sense; when you are in need of help, this is the place you come for a listening ear, for comfort, for a challenge if that is what you need, and you always get what you need. Likewise, you always give what every person wants or needs, whether or not they can say what it is they wish to receive.
And it all just happens!
Some say you can find heaven on earth here! This is the place where the beloved community is present, thriving, and making a difference in the wider community, in people’s lives.
I know you know that the high-commitment, low-worry, centered, inspiring, trustworthy, fun, justice-seeking congregation doesn’t just happen. As much as we’d like for it to be so, wish that it would, come through the door expecting it to be here already—it doesn’t work like that.
It takes an ever-deepening rediscovery of who we are together, of why this congregation exists, why we are here, and what are we to do. Even fun and friendship takes practice and risk-taking. Love takes a combination of demanding fierceness and of tender compassion. This thing we do together becomes what will save us.
That is because “whenever two or more are gathered,” you will get absolutely all that always happens between individuals, among couples, in families, in small and large groups. You will get it all in congregational life, all that humans bring with them wherever they go.
It is true, all over the planet, human beings act like human beings, and perhaps even while traveling in space above and away from this planet. Let’s be real, the stresses of life in 2020 and now 2021 have brought forth all our humanness has to offer. Even here inside this congregation we cannot escape it.
It can be so disappointing, disheartening when we UUs, who really want to be different from everybody else, act like regular human beings.
It is especially disappointing and disheartening within congregational life, in this place and space where we try to be different than average humans; where we hope and expect to be guided by our best selves, by love; and we aren’t, we aren’t all the time.
We can and we must continue, creating and re-creating a better version of the beloved community we want to see and to be, the one with a vibrant mission, with a strong spirit of love, with a collective, burning passion to right injustice, to meet whatever needs we can meet in our wider community, to take what we have in abundance and give it to those who lack what we have. And in giving, finding again and again that we receive what we really need, which is to widen the circle of relationship, of love and service.
Creating the congregation that is visible and vibrant is all about always moving towards spiritual maturity. Those who are grounded in creating the beloved community won’t keep pretending that what they have been doing is going to bring different results than it has so far. Those who are creating the beloved community won’t assume that love and caring is just going to happen, or that it will happen the day after we get the right leader, who surely will lead us to the promised land.
None of us are perfect. None of us. Never will be. We all do have particular gifts, each and every one of us. We all have something to give. Together we have a great deal to give. You prove that over and over, having gotten this far in this experiment, this congregation.
Where will you be in 10 more years, in another 25? Will this be a place to learn and laugh? To share who you really are and trust that you will receive care and respect and the companionship of lifelong friends? A little of that, a lot of this, all the ingredients mixed together just right? The recipe always changes. “Spiritual maturity” takes risking trying something new, being intentional as our forebears intended us to be, always paying attention to how the spirit is moving among us.
You have created a space, a life together as a congregation, where those of you who are here now and those who will come can trust that the humans here are doing their very best to behave well, to love well, to give and receive well. What one finds here can be so inspiring that what you and others experience here can and should spill over to “there” and everywhere.
What’s missing, perhaps, is a little bit of confidence.
Out there where people are anxious and afraid, or just bored with the same ol’, same ol,’ you can bring love and an opportunity to be of service. You can bring a buoyancy, an attitude of abundance, a practice of holding each other up, of knowing that together we can all be held afloat on the same life raft.
A congregation with buoyancy is one that has resilience, the ability to pop back up when forced down—by societal changes, by circumstance, by worry, by betrayal, by heartbreaking disappointment.
A congregation with buoyancy has a “can do” attitude. Members practice forgiveness, understanding that normal human behavior is never perfect, and that we can always begin again. We can make amends. We can start over. We can return to the ways of love. We can let go of the need to repeat old stories of how we were hurt. This practice attracts other “can-do” people who don’t want to dwell on the harms done, but rather on the good that needs to be done. It takes confidence and resilience to believe that you have the power to make this world a better place; that one small congregation full of love can make a difference in lives far beyond its numbers.
Not long ago, I spent an afternoon with a small gathering of people who had known each other for quite a while, who are trying to grow the numbers in their small congregation. They were sure that if only their presence and their message was more visible, maybe on a giant billboard in their community, people would seek them out.
I urged them to consider that they likely needed to become not so much a congregation that came together for a free thinking forum, but rather to model themselves as part of the beloved community. They seemed puzzled by that suggestion. While most of them were trying to imagine what I meant, one person who was among their founding members shouted at me that love meant nothing to him. Shouted at me!
When I say beloved community, I am referring not only to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a communion of people who share the wealth of the earth, who don’t tolerate poverty, hunger, or homelessness; but also, of the obscure sociologist before him, Josiah Royce, who saw how the community, the congregation that follows the ways of love, doesn’t wait for folks to find them. They seek out those in need. Because they have been changed by love, they are motivated to share the practices of love.
I was having a conversation with this congregation’s leaders after their worship service. During the service I heard this same person who’d said love meant nothing share in joys and sorrows how much it had meant for them to have found a new friend. How delighted they were that this new friend had been open and accepting of their liberal points of view. They shared that they hadn’t expected that and were looking forward to sharing more time with this new person.
Seems to me that LOVE has everything to do with it!
Perhaps we had different definitions of love.
I think we are all looking to be loved, and a place to be loving.
This business of being a congregation is about trust, about being trustworthy, about practicing compassion, about living a life of service.
I was talking with this year’s youth member of the Board of Trustees a few days ago, after listening to the Right Size Board Task Force talk about what they had heard from people they had asked about what they wanted the congregation to be in the future. Some of the task force members had asked a few young adults who are not members yet what would have them join a congregation.
Over and over, they heard young adults say the same thing the youth member of this year’s board said: We want to be in a place of service. Not only a place to be loved, but to be loving, to go out into the wider community and do acts of love. They want to be part of a community dedicated to love and service.
I find these conversations so inspiring. Many of us who come here, whether we are here in the sanctuary or attending virtually, come to get our batteries charged for the rest of the week. Charged, so we can be in service to the wider community in the same way that these young people want to be.
We need to remember that for everyone who comes in the door, or who has yet to come in the door, that it is not just about being loved. But it is about being with a community where you can express being loving, and where we can all do that together.
May we grow into being that community dedicated to love and service.