Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Practice and Pursuit of Community

“We believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation of the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought; one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain… We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:  that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another."  
                                                   Excerpt from the Confession of Belhar

Our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Africa professed unity and community as essentials to the life of the church.  They did so during apartheid law.  Their witness was theological:  our unity is a gift of God in Jesus Christ.  And it was deeply political:  the state and church at that time institutionalized overt and tacit rules which separated persons by race and subjugated people of color, which they boldly named sin and contrary to God’s will.  In 2016, the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted and added the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions, part one the PC(USA)’s Constitution.

So this Lenten Season, I've been reading with my family after dinner "Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar,” edited by Kerri N. Allen and Donald K. McKim.  In it, Mihee Kim-Kort writes, "In light of Belhar and these words in particular--'that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another'--perhaps these are the appropriate practices of the church because that is the flesh-and-blood reality--we practice community.  We deliberately and intentionally practice giving ourselves to one another because we realize we belong to each other.  We need each other.  We are inextricably tied together.  We pursue this unity like a brutal physical regimen.  It is not something we come by perfectly, all at once.  It is terribly messy, awkward, and fully human.  In many ways, it brings out our deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities if we are doing it faithfully and hopefully."  (p. 19)

We are “community” challenged in America today!  We are very much mired in the “messy, awkward,” practice of community in Washington DC, Lansing, and other state capitals.  And the values fought over there are represented in most every congregation. A core value of the American culture is independence, individualism, self-reliance.  Ironically, our frontier pioneer forbearers also knew the value of a good neighbor, of a helping hand in a barn raising, of a Friday night dance social, and gathering for worship on Sunday.  They walked, rode horseback and in horse drawn wagons and buggies to do so.  Pursuing community was an effort and a gift.  

Community/Individualism or shall we say Independence/Interdependence is another one of those polarities about which we have been taught.  You never get rid of a true polarity.  There is truth and value in both.  One can’t thrive without the other.  There is an upside and a downside to both.  An overemphasis of one typically causes fear and alarm from the other.  Today in America we are unfortunately experiencing the spiralling downside of this polarity.  Effective leaders recognize and manage polarities calming fears and pointing to the upside value of each.    

We are also “community” challenged today in the church, in our Presbytery.  Differences which separate get close inspection and are emotionally charged, while the ties that bind fray.  Congregational participation is voluntary.  What does being a member of Presbytery mean?  The Leadership Team of the Presbytery I serve is working to discern our core values, values which will drive use in our goal setting and strategic God desired outcomes.  The Belhar lifts up such a core value, “the experience, practice and pursuit of community.”

Shannon Johnson Keershner writes “I keep hoping to persuade folks that difference does not have to equal division and unity does not have to equal uniformity.  I have frequently appealed to our ‘unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’ I have preached that we have been made the one body of Christ, and God did not ask our opinion before God did it.  Therefore, it really does not matter if we like one another or not, (though we usually do!).  I always emphasize that we belong to each other because in Christ Jesus, we belong to God! …..Belhar’s central conviction that God has made us one—regardless of, actually in celebration of, our difference—is always central for me.”  (p. 22)

However we name it, one of our core values must be the experience, practice and pursuit of community.  Surely community is linked in a larger polarity with individualism.  But as inhaling is linked with exhaling, one not being sustainable alone for long by itself, but together combine for life giving breathing, so too, I believe, God joins the individual and community join together for blessed living!  

Thanks be to God, unity is a gift we have in Jesus Christ.  And community, however messy, awkward and which often triggers our deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities, is also our obligation to pursue.