How Do We Feed One Another?

I have served 6 congregations- for over 20 years and of those, only one successfully and consistently resolved the coffee hour dilemma-that was the very small- 60 member fellowship in North Weymouth, who’s only staff person other than me, a part time student minister was the person hired to do coffee hour.

Why is that? How is it we do not appreciate how to fee one another? Here’s the rub- we are an historic covenanted faith tradition, and at the same time, we are the theological champions of individual rights- Respect the dignity and worth of every human being- loosely translated. Don’t Tell Me What To Do- is in direct conflict with justice, equity and compassion in human relations and to amplify the conflict- with no shared doctrine, creed, God or Jesus, no original sin or process for forgiveness to teach us how to behave.

Right Relationships, fairness, equity, compassion, trust and expectation, like water, needs a container to give it shape. Vows, covenants, doctrines and creeds have their place- they are the laws that keep us in right relationship with one another-safe, dependable spheres of our engagement. We call them rules-

Robert Frost reminded us. Good walls make good neighbors-

But something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen ground swell under it and spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast!

What is it about some boundaries that just seem to invite folks to ignore them?

Henri Nouwen- author, spiritual director, priest and professor wrote:

In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture ad country from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.

The Hindus believe that belonging- or community is one of four stages in our spiritual development. They believe that to live fully we must know happiness, success, community and freedom. We play- as children and as young adults- practicing, discovering, what it is that truly brings us joy. For the next 20 years we build upon our appreciation of true happiness to achieve success. We acquire knowledge, material goods, and skills balancing the worlds expectations and demands of us with what makes us happy preparing for the next stage of our spiritual development, deepening youthful happiness into a confident appreciation of personal accomplishment. We are now ready to discover and develop community, our sense of belonging. How we connect with other people, find a home for our spiritual selves gives depth and breadth to happiness, and success. Right relationship with other people gives new meaning and purpose to our lives, preparing us for the fourth and final stage of spiritual maturity- freedom. For true freedom to be achieved, all that we have learned, accumulated, achieved, of material goods, knowledge, position and authority- must be relinquished. The depth of our spiritual development is then defined by our ability to embrace, without fear or resistance the final stage of spiritual maturity in which we let go of it all- free to soar on the spiritual wings of non attachment to all that we have learned, gained and developed to simply be.

That perspective puts all of the communal disagreements about coffee hour, membership, who is dating who or not, into the context of human spiritual development- here- there can be no more important question than How do we feed one another. Truly, our questions around cookies or no cookies who provides them and who gets to eat them- is no less than the search for the meaning of life- and for spiritual enlightenment. Literally and figuratively what we feed each other- how we give, how we receive shapes our successful fulfillment of of happiness, success, community and finally- freedom. We, are each others companions on the journey, supporting cheering, feeding one another to sustain each other - birth to death- and with everything in between.

Walls, boundaries the containers that give shape to our communal waters.

We have all tied to create and sustain boundaries in our life- home for self protection- our own space- I start here- you end here- this is my time…We build boundaries – and then dismantle them in an instant, vulnerable to the tear, or pleas of a child- the disappointment of a friend- the challenge of an aggressive demand, professional expectations, responsibility. Boundaries are essential for loving, consistent relationships, friends, lovers, parents all know the pitfalls of not knowing when to say yes- no….

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out and to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall that wants it down
I could say “Elves” to him, but it is not elves exactly….

We do covenant “to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”. We say that, yet, I can think of instances when we directly or indirectly send the message that some part of anyone’s life... behavior, values or even religious ideas are less than acceptable... or even looked down upon?
Perhaps it is neckties- required or forbidden
Perhaps it is prayer- or meditation, anthem or sermon …
Perhaps everyone is expected to watch PBS... and no one is supposed to watch Fox news?
A capital campaign, an organ- or a membership policy?
Perhaps a personal choice to end or begin a relationship- forgive a loan, or contribute a fortune.
We have opinions, personal values we questioned right and wrong, with uncertainty and with certainty we have cast stones- and been hit with them.

We invite imbalances by either overly focusing on individual freedom or not holding one another accountable for relational choices- or we can go to far the other direction, being hurtful exclusive shunning those with whom we disagree. Respecting the dignity and worth of every individual, can leave ministers and congregations feeling less able to define or develop expectations or boundaries for acceptable behavior.

The current conversation on gun violence is a good example- individual rights vs. communal well being. How do we respect individual choices, decisions, and availability and at the same time hold them as part of a greater whole? How do we feed one another when we all have such different appetites?

My supervisor on my dissertation wrote in her definition of right relationship, “All that is real and good … emerges within our relationships and communities. Thus, values and beliefs are born out of relationships.” Only in relationship, with hearts committed to the well being of all, not the individual rights of a few will we find the resolve to change a culture of guns. Only with the NRA, mothers, urban, suburban gangs, teachers, politicians and us- will any lasting or effective reform be enacted or enforced.

Our first principle, without a relational commitment or context to shape and balance it, becomes a defining principle that does not necessarily invite right relationships. Individualism without an equivalent communal authority limits the responses available to ministers and members of the community when divisive conflict erupts. Without a relational understanding of how we behave, engage with one another, or hold and appreciate differences, there is no accountability to rein in the rights of the individual. Any person who prefers to assert power over another could be the one who defines the outcome of any engagements. Rather than inviting a transformative, relational moment to reveal new opportunities, the most intimidating presence wins.

When power and choice are granted to the person who is the most aggressive, or manipulative, it is usually a personal agenda that is served, rather than a communal one.

How we feed one another- in Coffee hour or in times of conflict, turmoil and grief flushes out our first principle. In respecting the dignity of each and every person, we must also respect the relationship we have with each and every person- that is hospitality..

We practice hospitality, first, by being open and loving with those we already know, when we volunteer to serve when we ask, “How are you?” and when we smile across the room or rush to embrace a friend.

Radical hospitality reaches out even farther- to those it does not yet know. This can be as simple as the practice of greeting those seated near you on Sunday morning and actually getting up the courage to talk to someone you do not know during coffee hour or even harder- it means remaining in relationship with someone you believe has violated a sacred trust- has caused injury or harm to someone you love. We do not ever overlook or condone inappropriate behaviors and at the same time we can remain in dialogue, in relationship, remembering simple, good manners.

It is OK to disagree, express outrage, disappointment or opinion. It is never OK to use your words, your behaviors to intentionally shame or hurt and frighten another. Ungracious or belligerent tactics will not be accepted. And we will not compromise our principles.

We can learn to express our passions without intending harm, suppression or control.

Alone in a cave, we need only give our attention to the sense object we call the body.

The needs and challenges of our living are different when we are alone, in the cave, the only one to consider. When we meet another face to face, the learning, the growth and the practice changes.

All our teachers and ancestors have faced each other so, hand to sweating hand, giving receiving, stretching, being stretched. We abandon the conflict, surrender to care and compassion.

Happiness, Success Community- Freedom. Each step on the journey builds our integrity to embrace the next. To touch one another in those places of authenticity. To know that we are one is to achieve Nirvana.

Together Let us engage in a process to create a covenant, by which First Parish agree to abide- that helps you hold one another accountable for right relationship, that holds out a chalice of our being that given shape to our togetherness assuring safety, trust and accountability. Somewhere in between where we have been and where we are going, there is an opportunity for some new realization or creation to be revealed. In the relationship between what is and what can be, anything can be imagined - be discovered