Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Community and Tradition

One of the slippery areas we've encountered in creating spiritual community outside the inherited church structures is how to hang on to parts of tradition while focusing more on being the church instead of doing church. It takes some imagination and some work.

There seems to be a growing understanding, even a longing for, being real, live community together, not just enacting religious rituals at the same time with other people in a building. It's the difference between, "They will know we are Christians by our love," and, "They will know we are Christians by our brass candle sticks, fancy robes, and approved liturgical language."

Now, I'll be the first to say that some of that approved liturgical language and ritual is completely beautiful and serves as an invaluable container for encountering the Sacred. And of course, the tradition isn't just the outward elements of our worship. It's also the stories. It's our sacred stories held in scripture as well as in the lives of the faithful on whose shoulders we stand. Our tradition gets carried on in the quiet integrity of lives lived out of humble service and the alternative values that following Christ calls us to. And then there is the tradition of wisdom writings and the artful expressions of the last 2,000 years. No one is saying let's just pack it all up and send to the curb.

And yet, what I sense going on today is a deep longing to be part of the flowing tradition, to be creators of the living tradition, not just consumers of the past tradition. One of my seminary professors, Christopher Duraisingh, talks of the need to always keep traditioning.
Tradition is an alive thing, like a flowing river, we step into it. We are part of it. We keep it moving and breathing, he taught us.

Recently I read an interesting article by a rabbi that speaks to the tension of wanting to create deep community and what that means for the tradition. I agree with a lot of it. The following is by Niles Elliot Goldstein and was published by the Alban Institute. Full article here.

The icons, symbols, and images of the past no longer hold power for this new generation of Americans. Some of the largest and most dynamic megachurches, for example, do not even have crosses in their facilities, let alone fixed pews or pulpits. What people seem to crave is a sense of community, a feeling of being wanted and known.

Ultimately, we want to be loved, and to find protection through that love.

I believe that we need to rethink our congregations today less as houses of worship than as sanctuaries in the true, etymological meaning of the word—a place of safety and security. These are troubling times, and offering Americans a safe haven amidst the maelstrom around us is a very appealing gift. A sanctuary is different from a church or a synagogue. A sanctuary is not about symbols, rituals, sacred texts, or holy days—it is more about, as the Jewish evening liturgy states, being “guarded under the shelter of Your wings.” ...

If we can transform congregations into sanctuaries and safe havens, we can begin to offer the shelter that so many people yearn for but cannot seem to find. But then new questions will arise that we must confront:

  • With less emphasis on prayer, study, and theology, and more on interpersonal connection and inclusivity, what is it exactly that our spiritual institutions stand for?
  • Are we simply giving the people what they want, or are we holding fast to age-old values and principles?
  • Is it possible to strike the proper balance between creating innovative projects and initiatives and conserving the traditional pillars of our rich and ancient faiths?

These are difficult questions that are appropriate for these difficult times.

We are living into all these questions within our community everyday. Here are some reflections.

First, I think these are more complex than either/or situations. I don't think we have to choose for instance between deep community/ innovative projects and conserving "the traditional pillars of our rich and ancient faiths." I think there is a "both/and" path through all this. It just will take some trial and error as the generations alive now and into the next 100 years or so make our way through. We will have to find a way to not pit innovation against tradition. And we'll need to have the creativity and patience to walk that both/and way to give birth to the new thing God is doing in the world today.

Okay. Now. It is true, our community spends more time tending the depth of our relationships, than in studying scripture or praying together. It's not that we've completely abandoned the latter. We've had theology discussions over oatmeal and while standing around making meals together. Last summer we met weekdays for morning prayer. This summer we've gathered sporadically in the living room for night prayer. We go on retreats together twice a year. Some of us take a weekly Sabbath. We have an altar in the corner where we light candles when we are praying for someone lost in the desert or in distress. We hosted an all night Easter vigil, baptized someone in the backyard, designed and led a few public spiritual gatherings, like the time we offered prayers, songs, and reflections in front of the federal building when a friend was on trial for offering humanitarian aid to undocumented migrants.

We could be more intentional about declaring what we stand for spiritualy and doing spiritual practices together. And that is an important growing edge of our experimental life here. At the same time, nurturing community is an important expression of what we stand for and figuring out what we—an ecumenical community of smart, compassionate, social justice driven young adults—stand for collectively in terms of faith and religious tradition is complicated.

Our mission statement actually puts relationship front and center. It starts like this..."Nourished and empowered by the Spirit, the Restoration Project community seeks to live in right relationship with one another, the community, and the earth ..." I can only speak for myself here, but for me, after several decades of studying scripture, theology, and praying, I got the point that that wasn't the point. It's all a "finger pointing to the moon." Here's what I think is the point: To rest in the presence of God, to know our own belovedness, and then from that to be alive in our own special way and join in God's dance in the world that is already happening. Jesus was trying to invite us to dance, not to sit in a pew.

We can spend all the time in the world studying and praying, but if the quality of our presence, the depth of our love, the playfulness of our creativity, the lightness of our laughter, the gentleness and patience and the realness of our friendships don't show, then what is the point.

For me, spiritual disciplines are important tools to keep the windows of our souls open for the Spirit to blow through. They help us stay alive and breathing. Finding ways to pray, interact with scripture, and do theological reflecting, authentically and in life-giving ways in our everyday lives is the both/and path that we are trying to live out in community. We will keep experimenting, and learning from the rich tradition of monastics, Catholic Worker houses, saints, artists, poets, who have done this in beautiful and meaningful ways long before we attempted it. Community and spiritual practices go hand in hand.

In our community, we've also talked a lot about what does "spirituality" mean? And we don't really agree. But we keep listening to each other and talking about it. And since we are an ecumenical bunch, we each wrestle with our inherited tradition in different ways. We've even discussed at times if everyone was comfortable identifying as a Christian community. Some folks are recovering Catholics, or lean more toward Buddhist meditation, or are progressive in their Christianity and so recognize the wisdom and validity in other traditions. Others consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious. One of the founding members is now studying to be a Unitarian Universalist minister. We are all okay with this. That's just the way our generations roll.

A gift of being an inclusive, eclectic community is that we are a safe space to have honest discussions and to get into the nitty gritty. Here's an image. Imagine that faith and tradition were a car. For some young adults it has stopped running. Here in our community, we have enough space, time together, collective knowledge/training, and grace to dismantle it, lay the pieces out on the back porch, and let them stay there awhile. We have the tools to clean the pieces, share parts from other "cars"/ faith traditions, and work together to put it back together (if that is what is wanted). It's an organic process. And it happens over drinking coffee, playing music together, chopping vegetables, resisting injustice, and cleaning out the chicken coop.

I don't think this is limited to communities that live together. I experienced this level of spiritual support as a young adult at St. Hildegard's in Austin, Texas. They don't live together, but they make a tremendous commitment to be a community to one another. They even call themselves a eucharistic community, not a "church."

From my vantage point, the inherited tradition has messed a lot of young adults up. The patriarchy, the power trips, the homophobia, the lack of seeing the reality of Jesus' teachings lived out in real day to day life, makes some of the tradition very unappealing to smart, compassionate, global-minded people of all ages. When we ask as the author of this article does, "What exactly do our spiritual traditions stand for?" Many of us don't like the answer. But we also know that there are many answers. And that some answers are just being shouted more loudly than others into the public realm. We have a different answer, a refreshing one, to share. But without a real relationship witha real person who has a different answer, who really cares to listen to it.

A recent poll of young adults by the Pew Foundation shows that more young adults than ever before are choosing to not affiliate with a religion or denomination. The full Pew Report is jam packed with interesting charts that show the landscape of religious and spiritual life among our younger generations today. Check it out here. For those of us living it, it's not big news.

For those of us trying to build faithful spiritual communities in light of these realities, I hope it is understood by those in "traditional church models" that we too want to share "our rich and ancient faiths" with the emerging generations. Craving and creating community isn't a barrier to tradition. Community is the boat that will carry us and the tradition through the passage into the unknown future. And if the water gets a little choppy and the storm a little scary, it's okay. We aren't alone in this. Jesus was never very afraid of storms. It's going to be okay. In fact, it's going to be better than okay. That's just the way God rolls.

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