Thursday, November 4, 2021

Community? ies? What...?!?

Connect, so you can connect again later… These seven words have become an aphorism for me these days, a bit of a mantra as I go about my workaday world. They are surprisingly minimalist for a relational person like myself. I got into theological education a long time ago, guided by a deep desire for deepening relationships, spiritual growth, a sense of belonging in Something Larger Than Myself. In my family, that’s what church was. Theological learning was a good connector with my father, and in an odd, negative-attraction sort of way, with a couple of my uncles. (One was a professed atheist, hence “negative” yet “engaging conversations” between us.) The pathway has been a beautiful one for me, now over decades, peppered with unexpected spiritual friendships and fascinating work across collaborative energies and multiple traditions (and no-tradition). I continue to struggle, however, in my understandings of and participation in community

What does that term truly signify today, given our global economies, political divisions, social-media algorhithms of fear, anger, hatred? How is it enlivening, life-giving, welcoming, even sacred? Can it even be any of those things anymore? How do we understand a community amidst the multiple-communities we can interact with now, every day?


As many who’ve traveled with me with know: In order to stay even remotely connected with my own root community of Protestant Christianity, I had to reach outward into other communities that valued faith and/or practice but were safe for a woman awakening to the Feminine long-denied within her own circles. I sat with Buddhist, Jewish, earth-centered spirituality, Muslim, secular-academic, Quaker/Friends, and more. The last 15 years have been an abundant buffet of welcome into webs of relationships that could hold the differentiation from my own root-tradition that was unfolding. This path of spiritual deepening required me to encounter and be broken open by the shadows of my own “community,” be it familial, marital, ecclesial. Shadows very few in my closest relationships were interested or willing to see, to be clear.


So now, I struggle to understand community as anything monolithic or unifying. While I only affiliate with maybe six distinct communities today (Presbyterian Church USA, United Seminary UMC, Women Writing for (a) Change, and now Awakening Women, Fire&Water Leadership cohorts, and CrossFit), I could point to my daily intersections with probably 10 more, in some fashion or another. These ones named are in addition to my own immediate family and families of origin (my own, and that of my husband). How is one to understand community when a life is built around several diverse communities, many of whom do NOT get along with each other…!? 


My Women Writing sisters downplay my seminary-prof-self; my Presbyterian community completely ignores my WWfaC self, or the woman deeply nourished by Awakening Women. CrossFit has a deep curiosity about my various selves, but our shared focus is fitness-in-community. Camaraderie and challenge go hand in hand, and we form a community together. But it also isn’t complicated or even bothered with all the ecclesial-feminine bits in the rest of my life. Curious, but not focused or necessary to name. Awakening Women and Fire&Water folks are the most distantly connected in my daily life, the first largely in online interactions and occasional retreats, the second in monthly contacts across an incredibly diverse (for me) learning community. I am committed and connected there, but not in the same “in-person” sorts of ways.


As such, all of this can be isolating for me. I can easily feel alone in each community because I am affiliated with all the others that no one in each community is ALSO affiliated with. I am sensitized to the judgments of internal-community-assumptions because I know and love folks who don’t fit within those assumptions, when spoken aloud. Regularly, I have to decide do I mirror this judgment to the one I love who is speaking? Do I share my experience of rudeness or malice, though I know it's not maliciously intended? Do I let it slide, honoring that s/he would have little reason to be so sensitized? And no one needs to be connected to all of my communities as I am for me to feel like I belong...but it can get complicated all the same.


Other times, I’m quietly astounded and delighted because of the overwhelmingly abundant web of connectedness I get to cherish, participate in, contribute to. I am regularly seen and connected with such a wide variety of human beings that I can feel the largeness of our own mysteries, the ways in which we ARE each other while being so vastly different. Human beings are fascinating creatures--of habit, of fragility, of humor--and each is so very lovable--no matter how hidden the divine spark may appear on any given day. Myself included. To encounter each human being as s/he is, when I’m open to it and curious, is a gift to me.


But is that encounter community? I don’t think so…


These questions sent me back to an old-familiar-essay I’ve cherished ever since I first learned of it: Parker Palmer’s 1998 essay, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Community...with a Fourteenth Thrown in for Free.” [He wrote it late at night, with the Shopping Channel on in the background πŸ˜†] As I reread it a week ago, I startled to see some things anew, reframe some things within me based upon my own wrestlings here with what community signifies. I’ll start with the opening two paragraphs, but I suspect there will be different observations rising here over the next several weeks and months. In reconsidering citizenship, I want all Americans to become more conscious of what we assume (or refuse) in our notions of community.


The first observation by Palmer is that community is not a goal to be achieved, but a gift to be received. In previous readings of this work, I think I have cruised past this first paragraph with a sense of “yeah, yeah, yeah...we know that already.” This time through, I’m newly appreciative of the observation and the need to pause here, to stop and listen, to deeply consider more underneath the surface. It returned me to my opening aphorism: connect, so you can connect again later. The practices underneath Palmer's opening observation are vastly different from how most of us are shaped, trained, even convicted to believe. The way of being in my aphorism is more aligned with his observation... Hmmm...


Most of my inherited and earned assumptions about community rest in the idea that we can be trained to form it. Theological education and ecclesial communities are founded on this notion of being shaped in a tradition, being formed for belonging in this particular community.


Folks come to seminary to become leaders in shaping Christian communities to be better Christians. Shaping. Folks find themselves as members of churches when they know how they belong, what behaviors are expected, what we do together when we gather and serve. We belong when our community sees us, welcomes us. I have long heard community-organizing as the intentional, well-trained work of creating community, which has basically meant achieving it, to me anyway. And yet, Palmer opens: community is not a goal to be achieved, but a gift to be received. He writes, “When we try to “make community happen,” driven by desire, design, and determination—places within us where the ego often lurks—we can make a good guess at the outcome: we will exhaust ourselves and alienate each other, snapping the connections we yearn for. Too many relationships have been diminished or destroyed by a drive toward “community-building” which evokes a grasping that is the opposite of what we need to do: relax into our created condition and receive the gift we have been given


This is writ-large in one of the communities in which I participate, contribute (who will remain nameless). All of us have shown up with a desire for our lives to be different in some fashion, more significance, deeper meaning, closer connections, whatever we might name for ourselves as our ‘heart’s desire’ in showing up. And it’s precisely those expectations that exhaust us, alienate us from one another, and snap the connections we say we yearn for. Very few of us came into the journey with the idea that we ought to relax together, accept our created condition as it is, and receive.


My own version of "activity instead of receptivity" stemmed at first from the fact that I’m a white woman in a mixed-ethnicity group. I was not going to be ‘one of those white women’ unwilling to do her own work. I had an urgency within me that I thought was nothing but virtuous, even prophetic. I now know it was masking a sadness inside of me, a deep frustration that I live in Ohio in the year I do. I’m surrounded by Trump Republicans (who I try to constantly humanize and honor, while sometimes failing in my own fear and frustration). I’m much more emotionally aware of the woundedness all around me, white, persons of color, economically-challenged, sick…and it hurts. Can make me afraid for who 'we' are becoming around one another. It’s exhausting to be around fearful white people when I’m fearful myself, as a white woman. When I relax, however, when I practice receptivity, there is an assurance that comes from elsewhere deep within me. I become patient with my urgency, and honor its value within me, potentially for those around me, but surely for myself.

The amusing part is that I was so consciously tending to learning in a racially-diverse community that I missed completely the much larger growth curve for myself: being in community with good-hearted people who serve in denominational structures. As I stay, I'm required to see "denominational executives" as living breathing human beings who matter. Very few people on the planet irritate me more than church denominational executives, by the way. Long, conflicted history in my own church travels...so of course, the universe has paired me now with several. As Winnie-the-Pooh says, "Oh bother." πŸ˜†πŸ˜†πŸ˜†

Part of this history comes from my extensive work in theological education, preparing folks for church leadership. Most of my work in theological education has pointed out the off-the-rails character of life in seminaries/div schools today, having little to no bearing on the relational skills of shaping community. Faculty are hopelessly shaped in more and more disembodied, abstracted, and emotionally-neglected skills, which means they arrive to “teach fledgling Christian leaders” with little to no emotional intelligence or endurance to actually participate in Christian community. Which is messy, conflict-ridden, disruptive and ultimately transformative, when held well by those able to hold ambiguity, uncertainty, and compassion for many. This is NOT what theological faculty do today. Most, anyway. Many come into teaching precisely to escape this work of Christian community. And theological students Zoom in from online portals, which means it’s easy to step away from something that upsets them ‘on screen.’ I’ve had to grieve my previous sense of learning community to allow the individuals that come to me from their separate portals to learn, be engaged by the words of their classmates, and weekly, by my own words in video-lecture, responding to their words. Vastly different animal than in-person Christian community.

So how to break the cycle of assumption then? How to begin to shape incoming seminary students so that community is not something they can create or achieve, but only something they can receive? No one likes the answer to this, which is part of why I love Palmer’s essay so much.


Practice receptivity. Do the inner work to learn how to become vulnerable in collective settings, such that you are receptive to whomever and whatever shows up there. Community will never emerge, be borne, until there is a “capacity for connectedness” deepening all around us. And receptivity requires inner work more than any external structure building. 


As Palmer states in his second paragraph: “Community begins not externally but in the recesses of the human heart. Long before community can be manifest in outward relationships, it must be present in the individual as “a capacity for connectedness”—a capacity to resist the forces of disconnection with which our culture and our psyches are riddled, forces with names like narcissism, egotism, jealousy, competition, empire-building, nationalism, and related forms of madness in which psychopathology and political pathology become powerfully intertwined.” Religious traditions today have lost more and more of the wisdom necessary for this "recess of the human heart" work. It's very challenging for traditional folks to get out of the way and relax, receive. Particularly when their sadness at apparent losses of tradition are so unconscious, so ungrieved.


Seems like next post invited is practicing receptivity in a world in which vulnerability can be penalized. How do we practice receptivity, so to develop our capacity for connectedness beyond what we’ve known in church, civic settings, family?


What is meant by inner work here, in a world demonstrating little but advocacy and resistance, posturing and proclaiming? More to come... Until then...


Connect, so you can connect again later. It may not seem like much, but it models a receptivity and a practice of connecting significant for what community might eventually come to mean.


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