Two weeks ago, I talked a little bit about the difference between “true belonging” and merely “fitting in.” I quoted Brene Brown, who wrote in her book Braving the Wilderness, that…

Belonging is being accepted for [who] you [are]. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else… If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit it. (160)

This morning, I want to continue on our theme of “Identity and Belonging,” by reflecting a little bit on the meaning of the word “community.” It’s a word we use often, but it can be hard to find the real thing. True community is, I think, related to what Brown calls “true belonging.” If you can be your authentic self in a group of people and they can be their authentic selves with you, you may have found true community.

According to Jerry Hampton,

“A community is…a group of people who, regardless of the diversity of their backgrounds, have been able to accept and transcend their differences, enabling them to communicate effectively and openly and to work together toward goals identified as being for their common good.”
(from Group Dynamics and Community Building by Jerry Hampton)

Or as author M. Scott Peck says, in his book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, a real community is “…a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to ‘rejoice together, mourn together,’ and to ‘delight in each other, [making] others’ conditions [their] own.’” (Peck, 59)

This sort of community is hard work to create and to maintain. All too often, unfortunately, those who seek community find instead what Peck has called pseudo community, in which “people who want to be loving attempt to be so by telling little white lies, by withholding some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict.” (88)

The forging of real community, in which we share our most deeply held thoughts, values, truths, and fears, is not easy, nor is it always comfortable. It requires not only that we tolerate difference, but that we honor and celebrate it. It requires a good deal of risk-taking, and apologizing, and forgiving. It requires that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It requires that we learn to live with mistakes, our own and others. It requires that we not turn away from pain or challenge or suffering, but that we turn toward them.

 Ideally a church is like that. Like in the story this morning…a place where people can share the stories of themselves. Like in the reading…a kind of chosen family where we stay at the table when things get hard. Like in the song we just sang together…a place where we feel like we are at home.

Of course, the reality is that when people come together and are allowed and encouraged to be their true selves and form true community, conflict is inevitable. And so in talking about community, I also feel like I need to spend at least a few minutes on conflict.

Interim minister and church consultant, Terry Foland, says that conflict is simply “contradictory points of view, or struggle for limited resources.” It is a neutral term, not something that is inherently bad.

The plus side of conflict [he writes] is that its presence may indicate that something important is happening in the church, or that something important needs to happen, or that the accomplishment of something important is being threatened. There is usually high interest in a matter that has more than one possible outcome. Managed carefully [he says], conflict helps bring about needed change in the congregation. (In Temporary Shepherds, 40)

The downside of conflict is that it can be divisive and cause people to feel hurt and discounted. Conflict may divert energy and resources away from productive ministry and mission. People in conflict tend to have skewed perspectives on the issues. They often react in ways they normally would not, or they believe things about others they would not normally believe. People in conflict skew data they receive; they misinterpret the beliefs, actions, and words of those with whom they are in conflict; and they break off communication with the opposition, except to attack or attempt to convince them that they are wrong. (Temporary Shepherds, 40)

Foland goes on to say that there are 8 primary issues that churches tend to fight about:

• The first is: Church identity (Who we are and what we understand our purpose and mission to be)
• The second is: Who is in charge? (the struggle between clergy and lay leaders or between formal and informal leaders)
• The third is: What do we believe? (which may have to do with the church’s stand on social issues)
• The fourth is: How do we worship?
• The fifth is: Role expectations of leaders (which could have to do with the minister’s or staff’s use of time or priorities…or about what Foland calls “gaps and clashes,” ‘when one person or group thinks that a task is someone else’s responsibility and no one takes care of it,” or “when more than one group or individual believes that they are responsible for a matter” and a “turf battle” ensues)
• The sixth is: Limited resources (including money, but also space, scheduling or volunteers)
• The seventh is: Focus inward or outward? (when some focus on what they can get from church and others focus on what the church can provide to others)
• And the eight issue that churches sometimes fight about is: Malfeasance or misconduct by clergy (where some in the church readily believe accusations and others passionate defend)

We could spend a lot more time on this topic of conflict, of course, and someday perhaps we will, but for this morning, I just want to emphasize that conflict is normal and neutral, and that it can either be healthy or unhealthy depending on how it is dealt with. It can be used constructively, when the congregation and its leaders, including the minister, are trained or experienced in how to manage it. For congregations that strive to be true communities, it is worthwhile to invest in such training before you find yourselves in the midst of a heated conflict.

But one tool that we do already have, as a Unitarian Universalist congregation, in the church covenant. A covenant is a set of promises that we make to one another. In our tradition, which is non-creedal, in which we don’t require that members believe in one particular doctrine, and in which we honor and value difference, covenant is what holds us together.

In your congregation you have both your affirmation, which we say every Sunday in worship, and your formal covenant, which is in your bylaws, and which is really an expansion of your covenant. But the three basic promises that you make to one another in both are these:

To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.

As you may already know, your “affirmation” did not originate with you. It was written by James Vila Blake, an American Unitarian minister of the late 19th and early 20th century. He served as minister of our congregation in Quincy, MA, for a time, and also served a number of congregations in Illinois.

He was also a poet and a writer of hymns. And when he began to serve as the very first minister of our congregation in Evanston, IL, in 1894, he penned the words of this affirmation to serve as their church covenant. Since that time many other congregations – I would guess hundreds – have adopted and adapted his words for regular use as part of their worship services.

There are some common variations. Some say “Love is the doctrine of this church” rather than “Love is the spirit of this church.” Some say “service is its prayer” rather than “law.” One congregation that I served includes promises “to seek the truth in freedom and to speak the truth in love” But every version that I’ve seen begins with the line, “to dwell together in peace.”

A colleague of mine, Barbara Fast, once pointed out that, “We do not promise each other that we will dwell together in irritation, annoyance, fatigue, frustration, intimidation, resentment or under threat, ” (In a sermon called “Taming,” delivered October 15, 2006). Ours is a promise to be civil with one another, certainly. But mere civility – mere toleration – is not enough. It is not enough to simply be “nice” to one another.

The promise to dwell together in peace does not mean that we will pretend to agree with one another even when we don’t, just to avoid conflict. It also does not mean that we will let inappropriate behaviors go unchallenged so as to avoid conflict.

But in order to seek truth in love and to help one another, we need for our relationships to be undergirded by a profound trust. A trust that we will behave thoughtfully and gently with one another especially when we might not see eye to eye…that we will be tender with one another when we are at our most vulnerable. Only then can we bring our whole selves into this community. Only then can this be the healing place it is meant to be. Only then can we really be free to abide by the 2nd promise, to seek the truth unafraid, to seek the truth in love.

Etymologically, the word “to seek” is related to a Latin word which means “to perceive by scent.” We promise, in essence, to follow our noses. To follow the scent of truth wherever it may lead us. We promise to go on a quest; on a journey to discover. This promise to seek truth contains an acknowledgment that we don’t already have truth in our possession, at least, not the whole truth.

I’m reminded of the old Hindu story of the men who together go into a dark room in which there is an elephant. But since none of them can see the whole elephant, they can only describe that part which they can feel with their hands. The one who can feel the leg believes that an elephant is thick and cylindrical like a pillar. The one who can feel the ear believes that an elephant is thin and soft and like a fan. The one who can feel the trunk believes that an elephant is like a hose.

Like those men, we do not have full possession of the truth. The promise to seek requires that we acknowledge the incompleteness of our understanding. It demands of us a sense of humility. We do not know it all…but through sharing what we do know, we can come to know truth more fully. And so we must both seek and share what we discover in love.

 Of course, it can sometimes be a challenge, when we do share our truths, to share them lovingly. And it can be difficult to hear truths that are spoken to us by others. But if we are going to dwell together in peace, we need to be able to share the truths of our personal experience, including our opinions, with one another safely, while respecting the integrity of the people with whom we share them. We need to be able to give one another feedback and constructive criticism in a caring and gentle way that honors both the giver and the receiver.

How do we do that?

First, we must always examine our motivations for sharing our truths with another. Is it our intent to build up the other person? Or to tear him down?

And second, we must remember that our truth is only partial and what we hear from others is also only partial. We must listen to the truths of others as well as speak our own.

And when we share our truth, it is helpful to also share our appreciation and our encouragement. It is helpful to speak gently and compassionately as well as honestly and directly. To ask of ourselves as the Quakers often ask, “Did my words make the other person’s light shine brighter? Or did they diminish his light instead?” We should always seek to build up, rather than to tear down, even – perhaps especially – when we’re sharing our concerns and disappointments. Because, of course, the third promise we make each Sunday when we gather is to help one another.

We help each other in ways both small and large every week. Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of a meal or a phone call or a visit when you’ve been under the weather. Perhaps you’ve gotten a card from someone in the church, or a ride to or from the hospital or a doctor’s appointment. Perhaps you’ve had your walk shoveled in the past, or your leaves raked. All of these things are examples of how we try to help one another on a regular basis.

We agree to help out here at church in other ways, too – by greeting, or helping with major building projects, or changing light bulbs, or providing food and coffee after the worship service, or serving on a committee, or by pledging our financial support to help to keep the church as we know it functioning. We make promises to help one another all the time in a myriad of ways. The opportunities for helping abound.

 Not that we couldn’t do better. We could always do better. I would suggest that we haven’t even begun to imagine all of the ways that we could be fulfilling our promise to help one another. And I would submit that there is no offer of help that is too small.

And it is also true that there are limits to the help we can offer one another. Sometimes the best help is to be able to listen with an understanding heart and to refer to others who are better equipped to provide the help that’s really needed. Never underestimate the help we give by simply listening to one another.

The Rev. Barbara Merritt once wrote about a word she had learned from friends who’d been traveling in Cameroon. The word is “ashia,” which means, “I see your struggle.” “I see the way you are meeting the challenge of the moment.” “I am witness to your stamina and the persistence of your effort.”

She goes on to say that in religious community, “we are witnesses to one another’s challenges and struggles. To the one who is caring for an aging parent, we say, “ashia.” To the teenager who is trying to find their own strength and identity, we say, “ashia.” To those of us struggling with grief or illness, or depression or addiction, we say, “ashia.” Sometimes it is with a smile. Sometimes in prayer. Sometimes in a conversation in coffee hour.”

In a world where our struggles so often go unseen, we can sometimes help one another most by the simple yet profound act of seeing, of opening our eyes and our hearts to one another in the Spirit of Love.

And Blessed be.

Reverend Wendy Bell
Interim Minister | + posts

Wendy Bell was appointed Interim Minister of First Parish of Watertown in August of 2019, and will serve a two year term while we are in search for a new settled minister.