17 Oct, 2021

Building Community (2): With Intention

17 Oct, 2021

Building Community (2): With Intention

by Louise Westfall

The banner headline proclaimed an all-too-familiar pandemic cry:  Hungry for Connection. But the accompanying photograph testified to triumphant success:  some two hundred people, all strangers to each other, had gathered in Central Park at the invitation of a young woman seeking to make new friends.

She’d sent the invitation out to users of the social media app TikTok, after discovering (also via TikTok) that a group of her friends had deliberately excluded her from a birthday party. Rather than bewail her outcast state, she decided to do something about it. She revealed her rejection on TikTok, and perhaps unknowingly tapped into a hunger far more widespread than she’d imagined. Within days, she’d received over 5000 messages, all essentially inviting her to be friends. IRL…in real life.

The initial meet-up in Central Park was just the beginning. Using social media tools she’s started an online community of people–No More Lonely Friends–looking to build relationships in person, which has resulted in meet-ups in LA, San Francisco, DC, Philadelphia and elsewhere. The gatherings are casual, but effective. Social media can be a very bad place for people, one participant noted. But this group is different—we’re all seeking friends. In fact, it’s kind of just turned into a big giant family. [New York Times, August 16, 2021]

Well. It’s instructive to remember that no matter how much the pandemic has changed us, has changed the world and our ways of living in it–some things are constant. And one of those is surely our need to love and be loved, to know companions with whom to share these earthly moments, and to find deep connection among the beloved people of God. That’s what prompted this sermon series on building (and rebuilding) community:  to consider the ways it’s become eroded and broken, and how it can be restored, strengthened and renewed. The Times article (which tellingly appeared in the paper’s business section) shows how social media can be both a destructive and constructive force in community creation. But no one imagines for a moment that simply congregating people–be it in a park or a church building–is sufficient to feed the hungers of our inmost beings. Some of the loneliest moments I’ve experienced have been amid a throng where it seemed that everyone was having a marvelous time…except me. The missing ingredient lies in intention. Why we gather and how we gather. There’s no doubt about the bonds established by sharing a common purpose—playing on a sports team, for example, or being part of a book group. Good things. But what distinguishes a faith community from other kinds of community is its intention toward God. The self is de-centered and then re-centered in God’s love embracing us and all people. I have come to believe that “going to church”–worshiping together (in the multiple ways we do that now)–provides something beyond what other communities provide. Something essential. FRL   For real life.

Our morning text is a joyful affirmation of the power of worship to shape Christian imagination and practice. The writer links the community’s experience together with its formation as a grateful, forgiving, discerning body. The people gather with intention to hear the Word of God, follow the example of Jesus, and receive the freedom and peace of Christ. A reading from the letter to the Colossian congregations, in the third chapter, reading verses twelve through seventeen. Listen for God’s Word to the people, gathered and scattered,  present and distracted…and looking for friends. [Colossians 3:12-17]

I was intrigued and delighted when Bright and Naomi asked if their daughter Tryness could be “dedicated” here at Central, where they’ve been attending while students at DU. They’re from Malawi and members of a Presbyterian Church that reserves the sacrament of baptism to those who can make the decision for themselves. While I was aware of “believer’s baptism” it took a quick call to a pastor friend to send me an outline for a service of infant dedication, which we’ve just experienced. I was immediately struck by the similarities: promises made on behalf of a child; a clear intention to raise the child in the teachings of Jesus and the nurture of a Christian community; and the recognition that it takes more than loving parents to raise a faithful adult. We can’t do it alone–for promises this big we need the additional support and love of others. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we begin a new season of confirmation with Central youth. We’ve got tools–great teachers, the Bible, curriculum and financial resources to underwrite expenses. But even all that is never enough, so a key component of confirmation at Central is choosing an adult mentor for each young person. That growing relationship is where the magic happens:  the experience of unconditional love that opens a space for asking hard questions, expressing doubt, being affirmed as well as challenged, and catching a glimpse of what faith “looks like” IRL–in real life. I’m deeply grateful for the men and women who have agreed to mentor our youth this year. We’ll commission confirmands, mentors, and prayer partners in worship next Sunday and you will see the truth of the matter: it takes a community to inspire and then nourish intention.

We must choose again and again to clothe ourselves with those counter-cultural values of kindness, humility, patience, and an ability to forgive.

And the thing is, friends, it never ends. Confirmation is an important step, but not the only one. As individuals of every age and stage, we need the community to keep our intention focused and authentic. A community to stand with us at every stage of life. A community that offers a hand when life knocks us down. A community that enlarges our perspective, opening us more fully to the mystery and miracle of the Divine. And yes, a community that challenges us. Look, it’s easy to belong to an organization  that simply reinforces our own world views, where our assumptions go unquestioned and preserving the status quo is the main agenda item. But at church we are thrown together with people who irritate us, whose perspectives are widely divergent from ours, and who agitate for things to be different. We must choose again and again to clothe ourselves with those counter-cultural values of kindness, humility, patience, and an ability to forgive. To practice what we preach. To become the answers to our prayers. To sing out truth with tenderness. To reflect in word and deed, above all else,  God’s “brand”–Love. The love that holds this world and us in eternal relationship, and will never let us go.

This is the church’s worship and witness, born of the Spirit’s mighty movement among us…and our intention to follow. Can I have an “amen?”

It matters, friends. Because there is no cure for being human. Life is complicated and messy. And we’re mortal.

Our church administrator, Kathleen Eckert, introduced me to Kate Bowler’s new book with the provocative title No Cure for Being Human (and other truths I need to hear). Bowler is an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, wife and mother to a young son, and when she was 35 was diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer. She is currently under treatment, but always in the specter of an early death. Her life and writings challenge pat notions of the good life and particularly of preoccupation with self. Because there is “no cure” for our mortality, her words resonate: As a professor of history, I know this in my bones:  Nothing is inevitable. Before the baby, before the diagnosis, before the pandemic. I thought life is a series of choices. I curated my own life until one day I couldn’t. I had accepted the burden of limitless choices only to find that I had few to make. There is no formula. We live and we are loved and we are gone.

Nothing will add up to enough. I wish someone had told me that the end of a life is a complex equation. Years dwindle into months, months into days, and you must begin to count them. All my dreams and ambitions, friendships and petty fights, vacation and bedtimes with a boy in dinosaur pajamas must be squeezed into hours, minutes, seconds. How should I spend them? [Bowler, No Cure for Being Human, pp 16-17]

…and the Church responds, Here. In the company of friends. Thanks be to God.

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