April 23, 2017 ~ Right Relationships & Spiritual Communities

By Art McDonald

You may have heard the story of the growing UU church that decided to purchase an Episcopalian church that was experiencing decline in membership. Although the final moving date had yet to arrive, the UUs asked if they could move some things in as the Episcopalians were still moving out. No problem, responded the Episcopalians, we’ll put a curtain across the altar and you can store all of your things behind the curtain. The UUs did just that. The day before the final closing, as the Episcopalians were in the building for the final cleanup, they got very curious about just what was behind the curtain. Not able to contain their curiosity, they pulled the curtain back and the first thing they spotted was a huge coffee pot! In response to this discovery, one Episcopalian uttered to another, amazing, it’s true, UUs do worship a coffee pot!

This, of course, is one of so many not so flattering jokes about UUism and our religious beliefs, or, if you will, non-beliefs. When I first heard it, I thought, other religionists love to make fun of UUs and our perceived shallow theology. Actually, UUs ourselves often love to make fun of our vast differences from traditional religions – a coffee pot instead of a tabernacle on the altar; perfect!

However, upon further reflection, I thought, you know there’s something deeper here that, in fact, I think we can actually affirm, i.e., the coffee pot, as a symbol of our gathering after church to commune, or, as I like to think, deepen community, is actually a beautiful symbol of something that ought to be essential and central to spiritual community, i.e., building deep, trusting relationships. We can’t do that if we don’t spend time around the coffee pot, or other such rituals, be they small group meetings, adult education, circle dinners, or community service projects and action events, such as Family promise, or Open Door, or ECCO gatherings. What is common to all of these is the practice of relationship-building, i.e., learning about one another and connecting on a deeper level.

Some weeks back I asked for sermon suggestion, wondering what would be helpful to address in these months leading up to our transition. Some have responded. One suggestion went like this: “something about understanding healthy separation and attachment in spiritual communities…” at the bottom was a big smile. So, though I don’t know who made the suggestion, and wasn’t totally sure where to take this, here goes. Hope it is helpful; maybe even insightful, even if it’s not what one of us actually meant.

In a book entitled: “The Psychology of Mature Spirituality: Integrity, Wisdom and Transcendence,” (eds. Polly Young-Eisendrath & Marvin Miller), a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ruthellen Josselson, authored an article she entitled: “Relationship as a Path to Integrity, Wisdom and Meaning.” (pp 87-102).  Although the article is primarily focused on how women grow and develop psychologically and spiritually, I think her insights apply to us all. How do we find meaning in life, she asks? Through “connection with others,” she replied. Citing the great psychologist of growth and development, Erik Erickson, she suggests, without deep contact with others, there is no growth or a deep sense of meaning. “Relationships become the site in which individual identity and social commitment  are melded and form the arena of meaning and integrity,” she writes. She goes on to say that we learn more about ourselves and grow especially in relation to those who are different from us; although we share many traits with others, we are also very different, culturally, in our experiences, in our traditions and beliefs – we learn about ourselves from others, and we change and grow and mature when we open ourselves to another and embrace difference. “Wisdom may develop out of relationships which challenge our views of ourselves and others.” That is, part of growth is interacting with those whose “worldview” differs from our own. “The capacity to embrace difference in relationship enlarges the self…which leads her to proclaim that…as we begin the 21st century, wisdom about relationships is the greatest challenge as we recognize the diversity of the world in which we live.”

The recent presidential election a good example of the differing worldviews we have as Users; our struggle with immigration another huge challenge, especially in more traditionally mono-cultural societies such as in certain Western European countries that feel they are losing a national, cultural identity; observing today’s election primaries in France will tell us a lot.

One of the things I love most about our involvement with ECCO, our Northshore community organizing network, is that I hear stories from folks from Africa, Central and South America, Jewish, Muslim and Black evangelical traditions, folks who have grown up in more privilege than I, as well as folks who have spent 20 years of their lives in jail, mostly because they grew up poor, or where drugs and crime flooded their streets, or made mistakes in their lives. Through ECCO and other experiences, over the years, I’ve learned to believe and say that no human being is illegal or an alien; we’re all created in God’s image; “God Needs no Passport,” if you will.

And through so many of our outreach projects, I’ve learned about caring with and for others, for Ruthellen Josselson, a key “…path toward wisdom and integrity – caring for one another and serving the community.” Caring gives us meaning, “transcendent” meaning, as we look beyond ourselves and family, and experience otherness.

The great Jewish existentialist philosopher/theologian, Martin Buber, takes this question of the “transcendence” of relationships to the level of suggesting we can only know God, capital T transcendence, through human relationships, or, in acknowledgment of Earth day, maybe we can expand that to include relationships to all of the natural world, as so many experience the divine through nature. In an amazing book, almost indecipherable, entitled I and THOU, Buber suggests we can’t reason to God because God is not an idea or principle, but rather a relationship, an event, an encounter, an experience.

Buber used the expression “helping relationships,” as essential to human and spiritual growth, self-awareness, self-discovery, what he ultimately refers to as “actualizing our full, human potential.” And, in my view, religious community is one very obvious place where, through “helping relationships,” built on TRUST, there can be an incredible growth opportunity, a kind of laboratory of relational development and maturation, both psychologically and spiritually. But it is essential for growth that religious community is built on trust. It’s risky to submit to such a community as ours, but an incredible opportunity for growth if one enters fully into relationships with others.

At our recent retreat at Notre Dame in Ipswich, after 4 members of this congregation, as part of a Friday night panel discussion, shared their faith experiences and their reasons for coming to this church, one of us responded to the panel by saying something like (I-the person) didn’t really need religion or even understand the need for faith journeys, i.e., it wasn’t really very important to try to figure all that out, then, just when I thought this person was going to trash the whole idea of what we are trying to do here, (s)he said that before joining (s)he didn’t have much of a community but, because of the church, now (s)he has all these amazing relationships and (his/her) life is so much richer than before. (I hope I got this right-I’m sure I’ll hear if I didn’t). But it was an amazing affirmation of the value and importance of religious community and “helping” relationships.

I felt something similar a few weeks back when Peggy Duff stood up in the pulpit, having been asked to share something of her experience on the retreat, and went on to share her own incredible story of being a shy, reserved, not so confident person, when first joining the congregation 14 years ago, and how she grew through congregational experiences to seeing herself in leadership roles and taking on commitments that she never imagined ever doing before. She said she learned how to take risks in this congregation, through all of the encouragement and “helping relationships.” And now she is a leading voice in the wonderful women’s chorale, SORELLANZA! It was so powerful listening to Peggy’s journey.

She took a risk, put herself out there because she saw others doing that and she trusted this was a safe haven to make such steps. She has begun to actualize her potentials, as Buber would say, but only after experiencing deep, trusting relationships in a community of faith and goodwill. It was risky; she could have been hurt or lost more confidence if the encouragement were not there. She opened herself, became vulnerable, attached herself to many in this community, and she prospered and grew and learned about herself, only after opening her heart to others. In my 40 years of ministry, I’ve seen this happen over and over.

Concerning the risk involved, some years back one of us here told about inviting a friend to consider joining the congregation. The person responded that it appeared that the congregation was a wonderful community, the minister, a good fellow, and that (s)he had real interest, but just once concern, i.e., suppose (s)he comes and gets to know folks, then, for whatever reason, loses interest or the experience wasn’t quite what (s)he was after, then has to pull out. The person didn’t want to take the risk that it might not work and thus feel the awkwardness of withdrawing.  So (s)he never came. The risk is real. If we open our hearts, our experience of love and acceptance can make our hearts expand, but we are also vulnerable to being hurt and experiencing pain and loss.

As most have figured out, UU is a non-creedal faith. That is, we don’t require people who join to adhere to a statement of faith, or believe in a particular creed or set of beliefs. Instead, we are what is called a covenantal faith, that is, we make promises to one another, and, perhaps God, and we make commitments to honor those promises. Part of the promises we make when taking in new members or dedicating our children, is that we will do all we can to nurture loving relationships and encourage and support one another’s spiritual and religious journeys. It’s all based on the Hebrew scripture, what I call the Older Testament,  in which God promised liberation to the Israelites, and, in return, asked for fidelity. And Moses agreed to this covenant and shared that with his people.

Martin Buber says that human beings are promise-makers, but, because we don’t always keep our promises, promise-breakers, (like the ancient Israelites and most human beings) and when we do stumble, we are called to be promise re-makers, over and over. For Buber, such promise making is essential to human nature. So, thus, we seek community and fulfill our potential in relationships with others and promise to work at it.

So, this has been a long-winded attempt at responding to the sermon request about “healthy separation and attachment in spiritual communities.” I think it essential to attach deeply to one another in spiritual communities, in order to grow, knowing that it is risky; there could be pain and loss involved, yet the potential for deeper living, deeper loving and deeper psychological and spiritual growth are also, and not uncommo0n in my experience, very real. As one among you with a special role as minister, I have chosen to attach deeply, opening my heart and soul to many relationships. Keeping a healthy emotional distance might have been wiser, but I wouldn’t know how to do that very well. And it wouldn’t be true to my sense of vocation and understanding of ministry, which, I believe, calls for deep, mutual love. And I believe I and others have grown because of this deep attachment. Yet, I’m aware, as the transition for us all gets closer, that there’s a cost, a certain loss, as relationships change.

When Melanie and I left a wonderful church community in Pittsburgh, as well as a wider community of relationships, to be closer to family and help some members in the dying process, a group of 4 congregational members offered to drive with us up here to Massachusetts. It was an incredible act of love and generosity, and a sign of deep attachment. They needed to know we arrived safely. After arriving in Salem, emptying the U-Haul, having a late diner and more than a few pints, everyone went off to bed but one of the Pittsburghers and I. Once alone, Linda went on to share with me that when I sent a letter to the congregational members about our decision to move to Massachusetts, she said she got really angry and, staring at me with a glare I’ve almost never encountered, she uttered: “don’t you ever do this to anyone again the rest of your life.” I was pretty speechless and dumbfounded, so I just let her fire away until all her bullets were spent. I said I was sorry, though I wasn’t sure for what. We finally went off to be in silence.

I never really knew if she was angry because I sent a letter, rather than speak to everyone individually, or whether she meant I shouldn’t have ever ended the ministry or leave Pittsburgh. It didn’t, in the end, matter, as the next morning she apologized and acknowledged what she had said was unfair. She was clearly in pain, but that was no excuse, she said. The experience was profound, for it made me realize how deep attachments are risky, possibly unwise, as when they change, for whatever reason, pain can follow. On the other hand, we had all grown so much over the years because of the promises and commitments we made to one another, always knowing that change will occur, hopefully for the best of reasons. Deep love and growth go hand in hand with deep risk and vulnerability, it seems to me. I don’t see any other options. And in my 14 years here in Essex, I’ve taken the same direction and I hope it has served us all as well as could be expected. For myself, I can’t believe how rich it has been. I can’t imagine doing it differently.

And part of this journey has been our coming together around a coffee pot, sharing our stories, and our queries and our very selves as we have built so many rich relationships. Most of them, I hope, helping relationships. Certainly that’s been my experience. And that’s why whenever someone suggests planning a meeting right after service, especially if it’s a business meeting or task-oriented meeting, I have protested mightily. NO, I can hear myself proclaiming, time after service is for gathering around the coffee pot and opening ourselves to deeper bonds. If we’ve accomplished nothing else in these 14 years, we’ve still accomplished a lot.

“The Divine may come to life in the individual human person, may reveal itself from within the individual person; but it attains earthly fullness only where, having awakened to an awareness of their universal being, individual beings open themselves to one another, disclose themselves to one another, help one another; where immediacy is established between one human being and another; where the sublime stronghold of the individual is unbolted and man breaks free to meet other man. Where this takes place, where the eternal arises in the Between, the seemingly empty space; that true place of actualization is community, and true community is that relationship in which the Divine comes to its actualization between person and person.” Buber ON JUDAISM, p.110. AMEN>