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At St. Paul’s: “Our primary mission is to relate to, and minister to people who are living on the edge, who seek God’s will for their lives, struggling to find direction and purpose in a society that can be violent, insensitive and money-grabbing.”
Prayer for the Community
Baptism is the outward sign of an inward transformation. We use these
words: In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I baptize
thee. Then we dunk the person under water, not too long, but just long
enough to get the point of the experience. We will go to the lake next week
and walk out until we are waste deep and then perform the ritual.
People have been asking me: why do people get baptized as adults;
especially if they have already been baptized as infants. And my answer
is this: they are ready for a new level of commitment. Baptism is the
outward sign of inner transformation and that means a person who wants to
be baptized is ready for a fresh start: or in Biblical terminology: to be born
again. That means a person dies to the old self in order to follow a higher
calling: and that calling is not personal but for the good of the community.
Rev. Gordon Cosby, one of my lifelong mentors, a famous preacher and
sage, was a founding member and pastor of Church of the Savior in
Washington DC until his death last year, has said that the individual giving
him or herself over to the authority of the church community is the central
commitment of discipleship.
He also said, “For a community to be maintained and its life deepened over
a period of time, there must be a "critical mass" of people who understand
just what community is about. It is this critical mass of people that is
seriously in union w/ the community & these people are very committed
to the well being of the whole, & not seeking personal enhancement in &
through the community, or making demands of the ego on the community.”
That is why I agree to baptize adults. I want a critical mass of members
who are all working for the same thing: building community.
Ok. What does that mean? Well, that means community takes priority over
anyone’s personal agenda, including their personal gain, and that means
they put the church first. People who want to participate in the life of the
community make sacrifices.
When another guru of the church, Jean Vanier defines community, he
talks about a place of safety and intimacy. And he often stretches out his
arms and cups his hands as if it holds a small bird with a broken wing.
He asks: "What will happen if I open my hands fully?" We say: "The bird
will try to fly away, flutter its wings, and it will fall and die." Then he asks
again: "But what will happen if I close my hands too tightly?" We say: "The
bird will be crushed and die." Then he smiles and says, "An intimate and
safe place is like my cupped hands, neither totally open nor totally closed.
It is the space where growth can take place." He quoted Henri Nouwen
Vanier goes on: "but Community also is a place of conflict . . . and the first
conflict is readily accepted by most people. It is the conflict between the
values of the world and the values of community, between independence
I see this played out on Sunday mornings when I set things up and try to
have a perfect worship service. When no one coughs during prayer time;
when no one is noisy during the quiet time; when no juice gets spilled
on the floor, etc., you know what I mean. And it doesn’t happen. That
is conflict; it is a natural part of the life of the community, says Vanier.
Togetherness is messy, touchy feely, and doesn’t always go as we have
planned. People don’t always meet our expectations of behavior. And that
creates conflict, which is so frustrating, but that is community.
“Another source of conflict is in learning to give space to others so that
they may grow, rather than competing with them and lording over them.
I see competition in the Thrift Store. What we need is more cooperation,
patience and working together. One gesture that might show solidarity for
the community is a couple more people coming in on Wednesdays and
helping Kelly in the afternoon. Instead of saying: I did my part, now I am
leaving; it could be: let’s see what else needs to be done . . . Which leads
us to the third conflict.
"The third source of conflict in community is similar to the second. It is the
conflict between caring for people and caring for oneself.
Sometimes we give and take; and sometimes we take and take; and
sometimes we give and give. There is a need to balance the give and take.
Giving to the church of your time, talent and treasure hopefully brings you
pleasure. You give what is asked of you and hopefully, you take what you
need in the form of Peace of mind, feelings of togetherness, actually liking
the people you meet in church. And wanting to serve them . . . not just the
neighborhood, but serve each other. But you leave yourself and what you
want and need out of it and put God’s work first.
"The fourth source of conflict is between being open and being closed. [Too
often] we in this church feel like we are part of an extended family, which
is a closed unit; people may sacrifice their personal growth, freedom and
becoming, to the god of belonging ... but then they don’t grow in the spirit
because they guard the family from intruders. Feeling like a family can be
a death to personal growth. Therefore a community is a place that is open
and closed at the same time; open in the way we invite other people to join;
but closed just enough where people feel safe to look at their own stuff and
share their vulnerabilities and not afraid to take risks.
So community is a place of conflict, open and closed at the same time, it
is a place where people come together to give their hearts and minds to
the group, to relinquish their sins, and sort out their own spirituality; and
if you've got that critical mass of believers who really understands the
community, Cosby says, then it can deal with the people who come in
expecting the community to enhance their egos and their own fulfillment. Or
some just come to connect with people they can take advantage of. Robert
met people and talked about the Bible and then asked for money to help
him get through his financial crunch at the end of the month. Totally self-
serving, and not very subtle. And yet, Robert just called me the other day
to say that he wants me to visit him in the hospital where he is getting tests
run for cancer. He admitted using crack, and that is why he was always
running out of money.
Every community has to be aware of and to sustain that critical mass of
believers. One problem in some churches that goes unrecognized is that
the members are spread too thin with too many different types of outreach
or mission projects that it doesn't nurture the inner core of its life.
That is where the retreat comes in. In order to assess, enhance and grow
the critical mass of community members, the group has to be able to get
together and work through its style of leadership and teach each other and
learn from each other HOW to live; we need to learn to live with conflict.
The community leaders have to not only tolerate conflict, but welcome
it. Because, only in conflict does a person and a community stretch their
spiritual wings. In order to fly.
Being born again in the act of baptism and choosing membership and
serving the community, a person gives themselves to the group. There is
a trust level that needs to be there, an invitation and a creation of safety
and intimacy, knowing full well that each person’s best and their worst
behaviors and patterns of life will be exposed.
In community, we live in the moment of the past, present and future, God’s
time, which is not our own. We see our past and forgive ourselves our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And we wait . . .
living in the moment, waiting for the conflicts to resolve themselves. It
is a liminal time . . . a time in between the recognition of a conflict and
when it is resolved . . . this is where the true work of the Holy Spirit is at
its best. We need one another in this liminal time, we need a community
of faith that will pray with us, support, encourage and challenge us as
well, "companions . . .who experience the same struggle to be faithful in a
world that does not share our values or our insights. We need a community
of believers through whom shines the glory of the exalted Lord."
The world is still a hostile place, and we will not always agree with each
other, and the cross makes no sense to many optimists, no more than the
resurrection does, but we have been left in God's care. Jesus says: We
are not alone. We have a history and knowledge of the truth of God’s love,
mercy, steadfastness and strength. As Fred Craddock so eloquently puts
it: "The Evangelist leaves no one in doubt: the church is not an orphan in
the world, an accident of history, a thing dislodged, the frightened child of
huddled rumors and superstitions. The pedigree of truth is established and
unbroken: from God, to Christ, to the apostles, to the church" (Preaching
through the Christian Year A).
There is a time in baptism when your head is underwater that you are
expecting to feel a surge of power from the Holy Spirit; a new energy or
moment of glory. That is liminal time – waiting for the Lord to give us what
we need to continue. It is only a moment but it lasts life time; an eternal
lifetime. Hold your breath and trust.