Morning Prayers * MIT Chapel * November 10, 2009
In the fall of 1995, I arrived at the seminary I was to attend excited to meet my classmates. As it turns out they were an impressive bunch: lawyers, professors, a professional calligrapher, most graduates of fancy universities, most accustomed to succeeding at whatever they set out to do. We studied Church history together, we ate together, we prayed together in the chapel three times a day, we planned Holy Week services together, we did service work together, and we socialized together.
By the middle of our second year of seminary, none of us were speaking to one another. We were entirely fed up of one another. Rivalries had bred resentments
and disagreements had festered into deep irritations. We had frustrated one another's project (which was, generally, to shine like a star wherever we went). The ego is the last idol, as Anglican theologian John Macquarrie writes, and we were each clinging to ours like a life bouy.
The mutual, seething silence didn't last forever. Eventually, by the grace of God, we let go of those idols, we forgave one another for the sin of being
human, and we slowly helped one another recompose themselves as a more authentic human being. By the time we graduated, each of us had survived the shipwreck and were able to look back, see how far we had come, give thanks for one another's role in building up one another's capacity to love, and move out into our ministries much clearer about what we had to offer and what we didn't. We spent the next year and a half traveling all over the Midwest attending one another's ordinations, so committed were we to one another's ministry.
Community is the frustration and the fulfillment of the individual (John Macquarrie). We become who we are in community, and that is by design. My Christian faith teaches me that we are created by love, for love, and so we are necessarily relational. Our very personhood is never autonomous, and it is in the rough and tumble of real families, real friendships, real communities that we are shaped into the fullness of ourselves. It is unusually much less romantic than it sounds. But it gives me hope.
One of my favorite things, as a chaplain, is seeing how community mentors a student. In our Lutheran Episcopal Ministry community, we have lots of mountain-top
Experiences -- winter hikes, hymn sings, deeply moving sharing of stories, healing prayers. And all of that is great. But what is even more great, I think, is when things go wrong, when heated words are exchanged or anger voiced, when students are tempted to give up or walk away, but by the grace of God they stick with it, they stick with one another, they are honest about
their feelings and they work back towards relationship, a relationship that feels different now, bringing a self that feels different, too. This process helps them to be less fearful, to trust their voices, and to trust that they will be loved regardless.
Community like this is the real deal. It gives me hope. More than that, I need it. Living as I do in our "Bowling Alone" culture, I need social capital
that will not disappear if I dare to cry or yell or mess up. Communicating as I do in a Twittering world, I need people who will listen to me blather on from
time to time. Working as I do in a time when employers demand super-metrics and double overtime, I need people who will affirm that my value as a person cannot
be measured on a spreadsheet. Bear one another's burdens, Paul wrote to the Galatians. That's really what Jesus was talking about. That's really what
Amos and Hosea were talking about. That's really what God has always been talking about. That gives me hope.
I want to end with an excerpt from one of my favorite essays by one of my favorite authors. This is from Anne Lamott's "Why I make Sam go to church." It's not really about church; it's about communities and hope.
"[My son] Sam is the only kid he knows who goes to church -- who is made to go to church two or three times a month. He rarely wants to. This is not exactly
true: the truth is he never wants to go. What young boy would rather be in church on the weekends than hanging out with a friend?
You might think, noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. Or you might wonder why I make
this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weeks, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say.
I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.
But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want -- which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy -- are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from the Jewish Theological Seminary that said, "A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning." Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food.
It's funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools -- friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty -- and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they're enough."