September 15, 2013
The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
I was delighted to find myself bringing the word during Re-Commitment season. I’ve been engaged recently in pondering what we nine faith communities in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour mean when we talk about being “in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour.” These personal explorations have arisen for me from involvement in the life of three or four of these churches over the past few years. My explorations have confirmed, for me, the essential wisdom embodied in this tradition, and also have provoked new wondering about the specific structures and practices that embody that wisdom.
The clarity that’s come for me, so far, has been the centrality of Commitment and Re-Commitment. It seems to me that when we are clear about the nature and depth of our commitment, individually and as a faith community, then the meanings and designs of membership, belonging, church structures, discipleship, spiritual practices, and accountability—all these facets of the tradition, will emerge with a present-tense authenticity.
I speak as someone whose life has been changed irrevocably by the Church of the Saviour –its proclaiming of the gospel, its wisdom, and its practices. When I was 29, I was living and working in Austin, Texas, where I’d arrived at age 19 as a lonely and unprosperous student, intent on never going to church again. Now at age 29, and where I had climbed at a dizzying pace up the career ladder …only to find that, in terms of what served life, I had placed my ladder up against the wrong walI. Something in me was very restless, and would not be denied. Something in me wanted to get back to church.
Luckily for me, what seemed at the time as a random choice of which church to attend, was the perfect place for me to have landed. There, I found companions in restlessness: all of us were wanting something that, even together, we couldn’t quite name. Part of it was our wanting a deeper quality of belonging to each other, and at the same time a deeper sense of our own authentic identity– we intuited that these somehow were two sides of the same coin. And it was also about our longing for a deeper familiarity and more mature understanding of Christian faith—of Scripture, with what a community’s life in Christ could be. One of us had taken graduated from a seminary program, and had read about the Church of the Saviour: and in 1984, 5 of us found ourselves traveling together from Austin TX to Germantown, MD., to find out more about what this way of being church was all about. We returned very energized by what we had heard and had experienced, and immediately formed an Inward/Outward group based on the C of S model. What I found in 1984 still lives and shapes my life deeply, nearly 30 years later. As a result, my gratitude and appreciation of the tradition is deep. I want for others all that has been given me from the tradition: I want to see it live long and thrive.
It’s in this spirit that I come to Commitment and Re-commitment as the focus of the word I’m bringing today. There are going to be two movements: the first will be my sharing some words of wisdom and inspiration about commitment; and the second will be sharing about how I’ve seen commitment, and particularly re-commitment playing out in the last couple of years in the C of S churches I know.
I’m going to focus the first, reflective movement on the writing of Howard Thurman, an African-American mystic, poet, pastor, teacher, and prolific writer. Among the many roles he filled during an active ministry that stretched from the mid-1930s until his death in 1981, he was Dean of Chapel at Howard University, and later at Boston University. And between these times, he co-founded and co-pastored the first truly inter-racial Christian congregation in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.
In his short essay, “The Meaning of Commitment,” Thurman describes the depth of what true commitment can mean. Then he turns his discerning gaze on what flows, experientially, into the life of one who has truly committed. His description comes from his close watching of the world through the eyes of a poet and a truth-teller. His ways of describing the workings of commitment feel fresh within me.
Thurman’s key point is that it is possible for a human to make a conscious, fully-willed decision so singular and complete that the person “yields the very nerve center of his consent.” This commitment can be to an end, a purpose, a way of being, perhaps to another person. Once made, this commitment may live so strongly for the one committing that it becomes more important to him or her than physical living or dying.
This movement of commitment is not an isolated act that plonks down as an alien moment in a larger life story. Rather, it’s related to the totality of the life—”an ingathering of all the phases of one’s being, a creative summary of the individual’s life to that moment. Something total within the person says ‘Yes.'” It is an agreement within the self, and, as Thurman says, “it is a unanimous vote, and not a mere plurality.”
From his lifetime of contemplative watching, Thurman saw what seemed to be a certain automatic response that is set in motion whenever this singleness of mind and heart has been reached. A new life energy and vitality becomes available, and starts moving through a person, with what seems to be a well-established pattern of unfolding—like the working out of a natural law. Thurman says that is really what we should have expected. After all, this world we live in is a living world: “Life is alive, and we are expressions of life, sustained by the characteristic vitality of life itself. God is the source of the vitality, the life of all living things.”
Commitment as a yielding of the very nerve center of one’s consent can have any number of objects, from those we would find easy to affirm, such as an economy that promoted the common good; or mastering the creative expression possible through a musical instrument, or through visual media. When its object is God, we reach a central teaching of Christianity—that of surrender. The Biblical assumption is that this movement of surrender is well within the power of an individual, it is not the product of any particular special talent or endowment. Nor is it dependent on any status due to birth, race, or social class. It is not about merit or demerit. It is conceptually within our reach, simply as human beings: If we offer to God our central consent, then we become energized by the living Spirit of the living God.All of which is to say: there is something very deep that is involved in this matter of Commitment—and thus of RE-Commitment!
Have you known this movement of commitment, and the resulting power that comes forth from it, in your own Iife? I know it is true of my own experience: when I can surrender at anywhere close to the depth that Thurman describes, I have been met by Life coming toward me. Something happens. Energy begins to flow, not of my own doing.
I’m remembering a period recently, when, step by step, I was led through a series of experiences, each of which demanded that I either deepen my commitment or step away. I felt about as fully present and committed as I have ever been in my life. But now, I also felt myself being at the absolute end of my inner resources. It was during Holy Week, and I remember offering up a prayer that was probably some mix of surrender in the sense of “I give up” in defeat, and of “I give myself over” surrender as turning over nerve center of my consent. I remember that my memory then turned toward a graphic I had first seen at a Quaker retreat center: Its central design element was two large black hands, like a children’s art project, and the words: “This really can be out of your hands.” I felt some sense of peace—that I’d done the best I could, however flawed and incomplete. Now I was putting it in God’s hands.
Just two days later, I got encouragement from a surprising source, a person who I hadn’t known that well, and didn’t know was keeping up with what I had been trying to do in life. His encouragement, was as if an angel had come with a renewing cup from a deeper well of wisdom and life energy, just as my own supply had completely bottomed out.
Somehow, letting it be out of my hands, in this case, I was back on the court– but in a different way. I showed up, with the energy given but only a day at a time—nothing extra, but enough. And mostly I watched, and listened. I thought of Ephesians 3:20: “Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask for or imagine, to God be glory.”
The inner work of conscious discernment and prayer around re-commitment has some of the same dynamics: in the midst of our life as it is already unfolding, we’re asked to give over our consent once again. We probably can’t force ourselves to authentically turn the nerve center of our consent to God at or before 10 a.m. on the 3rd Sunday in October. But we can look within ourselves: is that living energy and vitality that results from that surrender flowing in our lives? As the traditional C of S Commitment statement puts it- “I unreservedly and with abandon commit my life and destiny to Christ, promising to give Christ a practical priority in all the affairs of my life.” We can ask ourselves: Is it in us to make a commitment with that much power?
There’s an added dimension that Elizabeth O’Connor, the long-time chronicler of the theological thought and the lived experience of the Church of the Saviour pointed out. She often wrote that “What is true of the individual is also true for a community”. She believed that something like the turning over of the nerve center of consent was possible for our small groups and our worship communities, as well as for individuals. Gordon Cosby and the Church of the Saviour sought ways to let that energy flow through our mission groups out into the world. This may be the secret about how so much was created from the energy that filled the early years of the Church of the Saviour—as so many missions were born from so small a band of pilgrims: beginning with the Potter’s House, there have been so many missions birthed in the Adams Morgan area that that community’s unfolding occurred on very different paths than it would have otherwise: Columbia Road Health Service, which birthed Christ House, which later birthed Joseph’s House, which later birthed the Cornerstone ministry. Jubilee Housing—it has 7 buildings with over 200 units. Sarah’s Circle. L’Arche community. Festival Center with the Servant Leadership School and Discipleship Year. Jubilee Jobs, which has placed 22,000 people since its beginning. Nearby in Shaw, there are three ministries many of us know: For Love of Children, Hope and a Home, and MANNA. And there are many more.
Last year at about this time, I was moved to re-read one of O’Connor’s books, The New Community. In one passage, she’s describing the marks of what she called The Liberating Community. One of the marks she named was a radical commitment to a deep contemplation of one’s own life AND the life of one’s faith community. It’s easy for a person, or a community, to become assured of its own goodness, she believed, and to cease to ask questions about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and whether there is some other way God is calling them. They lose track of inquiring into the vitality and aliveness of their spirits and their ways of being together. She called on all of us to be “critical contemplatives” of the state of our commitment. By this, I don’t imagine she meant to be accusatory, disparaging or condemning. Rather, she was inviting us to be keen and insightful about the true nature of how things stood with us, individually and collectively.
I want to share my own experience of the aliveness and power that can be generated by a community process of “critical contemplation” of how things stand with us as individuals, and with a community’s shared “critical contemplation.” This time a year ago, I was a covenant member of the Potter’s House Church. This church hadn’t had a tradition of a re-commitment season, but because re-commitment season has always been an important time of discernment for me, giving me occasion to really look honestly at my situation, I suggested we do a re-commitment group discernment. As I looked within, I found I wasn’t clear about re-committing to the Potter’s House Church.
Having read Elizabeth O’Connor’s thoughts on the liberating community, I was imagining the power there might be in bringing a community dimension into our discerning about re-commitment. Presiding at a meeting of the Potter’s House Church membership, I asked the question: “Re-committing to what?” And that WAS a powerful question: it led to 5 months of community exploration, as we slowly and painfully stayed with naming our individual situations and our views of life together as a faith community and coffeehouse ministry. In February, in our sixth month of discerning together, we came to a common acknowledgement that we had come to the limit of our capacity to responsibly hold the life of the Church and at the same time to give attention to the needs of the Potter’s House coffeehouse ministry.
It took a critical—and even courageous, contemplation to bring us to the moment of surrendering ourselves as individuals, and of surrendering as church members together—and to turn over the nerve center of our consent, as a group, to the Living God. But once we were able to do that, the door DID open for us—not as we imagined it, or planned for: as you know, we had ‘planned’ to have the Ecumenical Council agree to have the Potter’s House be owned by the Church of the Saviour. But the life energy that came towards us was other than what we expected: a mission group of 8th Day stepped forward to share their sense of call to management of the Potter’s House. They had gathered themselves around a fresh call on their life in response to two young 8th Day members who had committed themselves to the call they’d heard to work toward and manage the renewal of the Potter’s House.
Then, in response to this sense of call by the Mission Group, the Potter’s House Church offered ownership of the Potter’s House building on Columbia Road to the 8th Day Faith Community. What prepared the 8th Day community to say “yes” to this new commitment, which will significantly change the way they work with the community’s fiscal resources, was that 8th Day had during the previous year undertaken an extensive community-wide process of reviewing its own sense of meaning and purpose. It had identified several key areas to which it would place its focus: one of these was supporting the involvement and leadership of younger people—like those who were called and committed to the new life of the Potter’s House ministry.
A similar process of Critical Contemplation, individually, and then together as a community, unfolded at the Friends of Jesus church in 2011. It began with a call to each of the covenant members to a season of reflection and re-evaluation of their individual commitment to Friends of Jesus, and evolved into a shared discernment about the community’s sense of call. The result has been a re-focusing of the church’s call from economic justice to racial reconciliation, and the calling of new co-pastors– Harold Vines and Joe Collier. Again, there’s a sense of interconnection between the critical contemplation of individuals and of the community as a whole.
Another crucial development in the unfolding story of the Potter’s House and of the cluster of C of S communities at Columbia Road is the flowering of a racial justice and reconciliation coalition across individual congregations. As the three churches I’ve mentioned began to talk together about the renewal of the Potter’s House, the people-of-color caucus of the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Team advocated for people-of-color being empowered to make a real difference in the creation of the new structures and practices for the renewed Potter’s House.
My sense is that if we move into the sense of commitment that Howard Thurman describes, the C of S principles and practices—mission groups, our spiritual disciplines, our SCL classes and preparations for Stewardship—all these will be enlivened, and possibly transformed by the new energy and vitality that will flow through our communities.