Belonging: A Discussion Paper

Elizabeth O’Connor writes in the Call to Commitment, "We understand the Christian Church as the gathering of those who are committed to Christ and to one another in the living of a common life….We are following One who has unfathomable resources and One who makes them available to us and who says, You must set new norms for life so that people can see what life can be." There follows the chapter on Approach to Integrity of Church Membership. She then adds in the chapter entitled No Abiding Place: “Sometimes it has been bewildering to nonmembers…We explained that our structures would never be static….

    Belonging: A Discussion Paper

Ronald Arms 

June 1997


Elizabeth O’Connor writes in the Call to Commitment, "We understand the Christian Church as the gathering of those who are committed to Christ and to one another in the living of a common life….We are following One who has unfathomable resources and One who makes them available to us and who says, You must set new norms for life so that people can see what life can be." There follows the chapter on Approach to Integrity of Church Membership. She then adds in the chapter entitled No Abiding Place:


“Sometimes it has been bewildering to nonmembers…We explained that our structures would never be static….We never have expected to hit upon that final stable structure…If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways…It cannot do this if it is held captive by the structures of another day or it is slave to its own structures…But the test comes in whether we can part with the structure we ourselves have created, for new forms, like the old, can come to represent safeness and security…When we part too easily with that which we have known, perhaps we have not loved well enough. But those of us who err on the other side need to be reminded that change is one of the characteristics of the Christian community."


It seems important to revisit this part of our heritage as we consider the subject of belonging in our faith community. In this very first book there are references to members and nonmembers. "A Guide to Seekers Church " contains references to the authority, the roles and the process by which one becomes a core member. Obviously the integrity of church membership is at the heart of what called Church of the Savior into being initially. Therefore, any reconsideration of current arrangements and understandings on this subject is likely to go to the very soul of who we are. We need to deal with belonging and each other gently and carefully.


The Bible is rich in images and approaches to belonging; as such it is a source of information and inspiration that deserves attention. At some point the community may want to focus some of its School of Christian Living courses on this theme, or ask those with gifts in Biblical interpretation to share more thoroughly this material with those interested. However, it appears the notion of membership and core members are not leading Biblical images for the subject of belonging.


The preferred term for followers of Jesus in Biblical language is disciple. It comes from the Greek word mathetes meaning to learn. Contrary to popular belief, "disciple" is not, in the NT, a specific designation for one of the Twelve. The word occurs about 260 times in the gospels and Acts, but nowhere else in the NT. Of over 230 instances of the term in the gospels, about 90 percent either are not limited to the Twelve at all, or else do not make clear whether these or some larger group is intended. Matthew is the only book to speak of the twelve disciples.


In this spirit, I would like to suggest that Seekers consider the subject of belonging from the perspective of learning. In Chinese there are two symbols for learning. One means "studying" and the second "practicing constantly." Thus in Chinese you can never say you learned something, only that you are practicing it. Dawna Markova tells the story of watching an Aikido master handle a multiple attack from several opponents with great skill. Afterwards she asked him how long it had taken him to learn the technique. He answered, "I still haven’t learned it, but I’ve been practicing it for forty years."


This kind of learning is a way of life. First, it values beginners. It develops incompetency skills — the skills of effective beginners. It is able to ask for help without embarrassment. It values mistakes because they are often good teachers. It is seldom about getting the right answers or following the rules. It does not lend itself to a cookbook approach to life. Next, it values exploration. It does not know exactly where it is going. It welcomes surprise. It is business as unusual. It grows people who practice a holy curiosity. They learn through intuition, inspiration, sensory knowing, deep listening (as a poet or musician hears), seeing with new or sacred eyes (like a painter or a naturalist). And third, it values servant learning. It is about practices you engage in because your life depends on them. It is a journey rather than a destination. It enhances our capacity to produce results that matter to us. It is discipleship in the Jesus sense of the word.


These observations provide some ideas on how Seekers might examine the glue of habit that keeps the current embodiment of our belonging practices in place. To do this we must stretch our membership muscles and widen our circle of compassion. One image I find helpful in thinking about this kind of discipleship is the wheel of learning. Our language makes it hard to abandon linear thinking and either/or categories. But the wheel of learning asks us to think in circles, in cycles and in feedback loops more often than in straight lines. It requires a shift of heart and mind. The goal is not to move from newcomer of member, but to commit to an ongoing learning process. We never arrive. The more we learn, the more acutely aware we are of our ignorance. These turns on the wheel of learning are not a ladder or a hierarchy; they are cycles of experience people revisit at various times during their stay in the community. It invites the kind of participation Meg eloquently describes in Soundings last week and acknowledges that we are all responsible for our communal life. These turns on the wheel of learning can be called by many names; I want to suggest these three: Beginners, Explorers and Servant Learners.



Our culture seldom values beginners. We value achievements and accomplishments. We want to move from being a beginner to being an expert as quickly as possible. But the wheel of learning provides a place of honor to beginners. It is only beginners who keep it viable. The masters suggest there is virtue in cultivating a "beginner’s" mind. If you want to find a place conducive to learning, pay attention to how it treats beginners. They are, after all, the future. Thus "Beginner" seems like a good way to recognize, honor and include those who choose to explore our community. A ritual that celebrates beginner status the way a martial artist celebrates the initial white belt makes sense. Perhaps recommitment Sunday should include an expression of gratitude for those who are willing to begin in our midst. Certainly anyone who would be a disciple must be a beginner.


George Leonard writes, "When Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, was quite old and close to death, the story goes, he called his students around him and told them he wanted to be buried in his white belt. What a touching story; how humble of the world’s highest ranking judoist in his last days to ask for the emblem of a beginner! But Kano’s request, I eventually realized, was less humility than realism. At the moment of death, the ultimate transformation, we are all white belts. And if death makes beginners of us, so does life — again and again. In the master’s secret mirror, even at the moment of highest renown and accomplishment, there is an image of the newest student in the class, eager for knowledge, willing to play the fool."


The School of Christian Living is the door our community provides for those who would get to know us better. This is usually a 10 to 12 week commitment to both basic content and life in community. Twice a year we provide newcomers a chance to pull back the curtain and take a look at how things work in this do it yourself adventure. I would argue that anyone who is willing to cook and scrape dishes with us should be recognized and honored when they complete a course in the School. Passing this landmark should entitle people to participate in making the basic and ongoing decisions in the community. Beginners are more than welcome guests.


A second door that leads to the place of Beginners may well be confirmation classes. Soren Kierkegaard ridiculed parents who wouldn’t trust their kids with $100, but would allow them to decide the fate of their soul. In our search to honor our children we provide them with a way to belong here. We are too unclear about the rights and responsibilities this entails. We tend to treat confirmation as a rite of passage, a once in a lifetime experience, rather than an annual choice. But it makes sense that just as we honor those of our kids who choose not to come to church, we should provide access for those that do. This is another logical way to begin.


I’m not sure what the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities of Beginners should read like. I do know that the opportunity to preach, to take courses, to help spend some of the Seekers budget, to worship weekly and to attempt the disciplines all made my Beginner experience here an interesting one. The more I think about it, the more it strikes me that this should be an important, recognized and appreciated place for people in our community to practice learning as a way of being. This is a framework for serious exploration of the Christian faith. It should be an invitation to people to have a direct, personal experience with Jesus. This is an invitation to meet Jesus again for the first time.


If we would think of beginners in a cyclical fashion we must understand this a place we are never done with. We may start here. This may be our entry point to community. Hopefully we will move beyond it as well. But just as surely we will return. Indeed, the most accomplished learner is the one who most frequently revisits the beginning stage, willing to explore anew, improve again, and discover better ways of being human and loving. The more often we begin the greater our possibilities of learning.



Two classes in the School of Christian Living, or a year of participation in the community, allow one to make the turn that explores a mission group. This is another level of engagement. It is a shift in focus.


The practice of being with others in mission should have an internal and external expression. I would argue that to further enhance our practice of the priesthood of all believers, every mission group should in some fashion serve the faith community as well as the community at large. One of the administrative, support or celebrative functions of community life should be the focus of each mission group. In addition, however, each mission group should also be about discovering where in the world God is at work. Together this small group of people should endeavor to discover ways in which they can join the Sacred in its creative efforts. Currently, many of our mission groups have one focus or the other, but not enough of them have both. To fully engage in an Explorer way of being both the journey inward and the journey outward need expression.


Perhaps this would challenge Seekers to articulate several more corporate missions that would point us towards a common and shared future. If Seekers can find ways to energize all of its mission groups, the kinds of practice in learning we might provide people would surely increase. Retreats, music, maintenance and other inner tasks could enrich current outer directed groups. This would call new expressions of service into being as well. External journeys likewise abound. The notion of an ecumenical institute, Peter and Deborah’s vision and others are already looking to be born amongst us.


In some measure this level of engagement provides a place for us to practice on a continuing basis during the plateaus of faith. "In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fast and slow learners in terms of horses. "In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run.


"When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible, to be the best one, we want to be the second best.” But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.


"If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art, and in life.” The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones." Explorers practice all the way to the marrow of their bones.


If we would think of Explorers in a cyclical fashion we must begin by acknowledging they are neither more than beginners nor less than servants. This stage provides a place of practice for learning as a way of being. It grounds it in community and commitment and provides both an inner and outer dimension to it. Explorers live to learn so that they can learn to live.


Servant Learners

These are people who on an annual basis are willing to commit to the community. They have been through the required courses in the School of Christian Living, found a Mission Group in which to practice their learning, and after sponsorship and writing a spiritual autobiography have claimed Seekers as their faith community. Along with the integrity of practice they exemplify its authenticity as well. They have found ways to transform commitment from a fence that keeps others out to a springboard that strengthens community.


Servant refers to a quality of attention rather than quantity of time. These people understand that learning is not always an attempt to exceed what one has done before, rather it often involves the choice to repeat what is important. It does not confer status or privilege, but indicates intent and frequency. It is an attempt to expand commitment from a product to a process, from a one time experience to an ongoing gift and choice. Servant remains a temporary condition and a repeatable event.


These are people willing to experiment with various combinations of participation, responsibility and risk. They understand servant learning is not a comparison process. If it competes, it competes with itself and one’s own standards. It is not as interested in world records as it is in personal bests. Servant learners are willing to be accountable without demanding that they also be in control. They seek ways to widen the tent, broaden the circle of compassion, and expand the opportunities for continued growth.


The Rights and Responsibilities of Servant Learners needs careful thought too. Central to their role in the community is internal discipline. Because they have the power to forgive, they also have the right to correct. They will exercise forgiveness much more often than correction. Because of the quality of their attention, they may hold a balancing check on the majority decisions of the overall community. The level of trust invested in them allows them to perform as legal representatives for the community in its business transactions. Because power corrupts they will be constantly on guard against the concentration of authority, the abuse of others, and the co-dependent tendencies of community. Servant learners understand the value and importance of rest. Therefore, they actively encourage a wide and liberal use of sabbaticals. Not only in weekly worship experiences, but from servant learning itself. There are times to replenish, reflect and recollect. For this reason they prohibit any one from practicing servant learning more than a year at a time. And they require that servant learners abandon this stage every seven years, if they have not done so sooner.


Servant learners facilitate the wheel of learning. When we think of them in cyclical fashion they are the lubricating agents that move people from helpless victims to active participants. Instead of reacting to the present, they create the future. They understand that every influence is both cause and effect. They know they will begin again and explore often. Because everyone shares responsibility, servant learners find ways of engaging beginners and explorers in service. This kind of discipleship is a lifelong learning process as a closing story reminds us,


"When Jacob returned home, Jonah was laying out plates for the evening meal. A slice of the new moon already curled in the window frame."


"How is school?" asked Jacob.


"I like Ruth," answered Jonah.


"I ask you about school, and you tell me you like your teacher. Now, tell me what you learned today."


"Today Ruth taught us about the principles of a compass," said Jonah. "She said that even if a person doesn’t know where they are going, they should know how to get there."


Jacob, grinning, his eyes wrinkled, said, "Our books of wisdom tell us that if you don’t now where you are going, any path will take you there."


"She also said that the compass always points in one direction, toward magnetic north, and that we only know the other compass points from where they stand in relationship to this constant."


"Yes," said Jacob, "and each of us would be wise to pause in our lives and ask what is our magnetic north. For some of us," Jacob continued, "our magnetic north is love, for some of us it is fear, for some of us it is power. If love is our magnetic north, we will embrace our experiences with caring and support. If fear is our magnetic north, then we will be ruled by insecurity and doubt. If power is our magnetic north, then control and worry about who is in charge will fill our life. Whatever is our magnetic north is the veil through which we see the world."


"But what about true north? Where is that?"


"It is where we know we should be heading."


"But what if you don’t know that or are lost?" asked Jonah, a bit disheartened.


"How can we be lost?" asked Jacob. "There are only two doors. We are brought in one and taken out the other. Along the way, whether we know it or not, we are always giving ourselves directions. And while none of us has a map, all of us have a compass."


"Ruth is a good teacher," said Jonah after a pause, and looked to Jacob for agreement.


"Yes," said Jacob, "good teachers are mirrors that are also windows. They allow us to look at ourselves and see the world."


This is my attempt to work with structures we ourselves have created. I want to explore whether we can break out of established patterns of belonging and begin again. Already we have broadened our commitment statement making it more inclusive. The Belonging class offered in the School of Christian Living produced other ideas on how we might enrich this dimension of our communal life. Together these invite a continuing discussion amongst us in an effort to further clarify who we are and where we are heading. It is an invitation to compare compass bearings, to use each other as mirrors and windows, and in this process come into closer contact again with the Sacred.

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