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What is the popular image of community?
It is very likely to be pastoral and sentimental. We like to say “We are Family”. We tend to value community for the personal relationships, fellowship and bonding, nurture and caring, we often speak of “doing life” together in an almost romantic way. These concepts are easy to grasp and I can spend the next hour extolling the virtues of building a strong free community church family along these lines. And they are virtues of course.
But I want to challenge us this morning of the second session of our membership class, to think beyond the obvious of what it means to be a community. Because in reality sharing a common life is a difficult discipline. Because in reality living together is not easy – relationships are difficult, many of us have serious issues in our lives, some have lots of baggage, perhaps a lot of un-learning is required; and there are real and huge problems in our world today – all this will not be solved by sentimentalism nor romance, not by just being one big happy family.
In preparing and researching for today, let me share with you what I found has been said about what community is and what community is not — in respect to faith communities in particular:
Community is not something you can buy in weekend /Sunday chunks like another consumer item.
Nor is community where we take the inspiring worship or inspiring sermon home to benefit our personal life. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this and it should be encouraged. But this personal benefit cannot be the sole reason for joining this Sunday club/community.
Community is not always utopia – a warm fuzzy comfortable supportive family where we are all brothers and sisters
Community is not people just like ourselves, an extension and expansion of our own egos, a confirmation of our own views or beliefs
The challenge that I propose is to see that,
1. Community is where we do not choose our fellow members – they are given to us by grace. In fact, true community might be defined as that place where the person we least want to live with always lives! – to quote Henri Nouwen. Which means a true community will not emerge so long as individuals are busy surrounding themselves with only those people with whom they wish to live, right?
2. Community is a by-product of commitment and struggle. It comes when we step forward to right some wrong, to heal some hurt, to give some service – such as minority groups seeking identity and justice (very much the way FCC came about)
3. Community is more like a crucible or a refiner’s fire – where our egos are broken, our minds are opened as we experience of a God whose ways are not our ways, and thoughts are not our thoughts, where we don’t always get our way, where conflict is not uncommon
4. Community is where God’s will, not our own, is done.
5. Community will constantly remind us that our grasp of the truth is incomplete, that we need many ears to hear, many eyes to see, the full truth of God’s word (at least 3 of our Community Life Principles emphasise the need for us, the priesthood of all believers, to engage in intentional & responsible spiritual & faith development both as indivuduals and as community.
6. Community is the place where the faith of the individual can be tested against the faith of the community – as Robert McAfee Brown states in his article No Faith is an Island, who continues, “The community has a long history; better still, it has a memory. Our individual short memories should be checked against our community’s longer history”, that is, our roots, where we came from
7. Also, the place where the faith of the community can be tested against the faith of the individual – Brown says, “The community must also allow for heresy, or at least for the testing of new idea (or new interpretations of old ideas). It should play this opposite role lest we become rigid, frozen and ossified. This is how communities stay alive, how they thrive and grow.”
In church history, there have been many voices that rebelled and demanded change – in fact, some say these voices are of the more authentic faith – look at our vision statement where we boldly declare that inconsistency with the Christian teaching is not same-sex relationship but it is the discrimination of the other and homophobia that display inconsistency with Christian faith and teachings.
8. Community is the place where the burden of doubt can be shared. Brown says “Some burdens shouldered only by the individual, are too overwhelming and can be destructive. In such cases, the community can be the place for “the bearing of burdens,” the place where things too heavy to be borne individually can, at least during crucial moments, be borne corporately.” This is a sign of communal strength. Sharing of this sort is not to be interpreted as an exposure of weakness but a strength – this is a sign of communal strength and a gift to be treasured.
9. Community is the place where faith can be celebrated and embodied. If the good news our community bears is that of acceptance and love then our community must be a place where that acceptanace and love is embodied, since it will often be scorned by those outside. If we can display that same-sex relationships can be lived out according to the love commandments of Jesus, who will dare scorn us?
Finally Robert MacAfee Brown says
10. Community is the place where faith is energized to turn outward.
“Communities cannot remain ingrown, concerned only with their own inner life. They must thrust their members out into the “strange land,” to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” into the arenas of life not populated by the community.”
This is the missional or sent-forth community we strive to be. And Gary will likely expound on this next Sunday. Remember we need not sing solo. A duet can become a trio and finally a chorus. And the size of the chorus is limited only by the willingness of everyone to join in the song. There is strength in numbers – we can be smarter, stronger, prouder, braver, louder disciples together than we can ever be individually. And it allows the kind of mobilisation that can transform the world. Praise God!
UNIQUENESS OF FCC
Now that we have a better idea of what a true community is – what i want to address now is the uniqueness of our community. We make bold claims of how we are the only truly inclusive, truly diverse church in Singapore. Do we live up to our claims?
This concept of diversity can be easily trivialised – INSEAD where I work, boasts that we are an incredibly diverse school with no less than 86 nationalities on campus at one time – what with Kemi Mabogo whose father is a UN diplomat, Mizuki Yamada who works for the World Bank, and the increasing number of Indian and Chinese MBA students – curiously most have American accents. It is easy to notice that the diversity ends with ethnicity but what they have in common is that they are they mostly come from privileged backgrounds.
If you don’t already realise this, our community comprise people with a diverse variety of backgrounds, experiences and theological worlds (5 theological worlds exist just in our small community according to an exercise we undertook a few years ago) but we are also remarkably homogenous if you consider (leaving out sexual orientation) our education levels, professions, and economics status. According to a survey done by ISEAS in 2010 which we were eventually left out of because we are an anomaly – FCC came out as the highest educated community, our income levels were way above the mean, 91% of us identified as single, and majority were male.
Can we make real our inclusiveness and diversity across all the lines we profess? Apart from sexual orientation – gender, economic status, race, social status, theological orientation, religions even. As far as inter-religious engagement and dialogue, I believe we are uniquely open to relate to those of other faiths – in no small part due to the encouragement and the way paved by my father. And our Community Life Principles acknowldege this is no longer an option in our interrelated world.
In practice and in history the church usually tries to suppress the diversity it contains, and when the suppression fails, fragmentation is the result – which is probably why we see so many church denominations.
The challenge (or should I say, the privilege) for the pastor(s) of this church is to shape this diverse body of Christ, poking his/her nose into each of our lives, teaching us how to admire and appreciate fellow members who may often think and live quite differently from each other.
This leads me to the other uniqueness of our community – we take theology and the study of God’s word seriously. This was the first thing that impressed me about FCC when I first joined. The extent of depth of critical study and reflection – borne largely I imagine from our courage and daring to challenge God, and God’s word with questions like, “How can this be wrong if it feels so right?” “If you are love, God, how can you deny me this very love?” “If I am not meant to be gay, why did you create me this way?”.
This is another of our principles of community life – to engage in constant critical study and reflection – to cultivate the courage to ask the difficult questions, confront the hard issues, risk our lives as it were.
This is not easy for traditionally theology is largely separate from church community life – it is shaped more by academia and scholars than by the experience of church-goers or lay people. I have noted pastors who engage in critical study at seminary, but leave this all behind when they start their ministry. And I have first-hand experience of a Methodist pastor confiding in me that he did not want “to rock the boat” of his members who have been Christians for many years. I told him that would be fine if he could ensure that he’d be there to rescue them when their boat starts to sink. Which in turn reminded me of when I was in an Old Testament class taught by Dr Gordon Wong, when a young pastor-in-the-making accused Gordon of “crumbling the very foundations of my faith”. Gordon replied, “if your faith depends on this miracle literally happening, then your faith is built on weak foundations; they must be crumbled and a stronger one re-built”.
We say at FCC that we don’t believe in easy answers, and righfully so – because life isn’t easy. Together we learn that the problems we face are not obstacles blocking our faith development but ways of refining our understandings. If we can embrace the problems (and each other) then all kinds of wonderful possibilities could appear.
The third uniqueness of our community is we take our political role seriously – if we want to be like Jesus, we must be as political as Jesus was – challenging the authorities, speaking up for the voiceless, naming injustice when we see it, laying down our lives for others.
To make bring this point home I draw from Parker Palmer, author and teacher who worked with Henri Nouwen and lives in Pendle Hill, a Quaker community near Philadelphia, who says “We need to remember that God calls us to live in community not for ourselves but for others .. that there are true communities and false ones — and that God will know the difference even if we do not. In true communities, we identify our own pain with the pain of others, and then band together to resist the conditions which create our common malady. We need communities which will empower us to guard and nourish our humanity. We learn that true community leads inevitably to politics because it confronts the powers arrayed against the human interest.”
We need to find out who has been throwing babies into the river – for those who read my father’s reflections on Prof Farid Esack talk this past week. To attend not only to the social ills or injustices, but to address the causes of the ills in the first place. This is the right thing to do – this is ‘social holiness’ as described in our Community Life Principles – ethical and compassionate faith is involved in the community, in society and in the world we live in.
If we succeed in sustaining and growing our uniqueness in community, FCC could become (and to my mind, already is) the most compelling model of a truly diverse, truly inclusive, truly thinking and truly compassionate faith community in Singapore and beyond.
Before I end, I want to mention also our Faith Statement that you will need to assent to before becoming a member. It reads –
The Free Community Church ascribes to the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as representing the basic tenets of our Christian faith. We welcome Christians who take these creeds to represent historical realities as well as those who ascribe to them metaphorically to represent spiritual realities in Christ. Being an inclusive church and recognizing the unity of the Church in the spirit of Christian ecumenism, we actively welcome followers of Christ across denominations, and across the Protestant-Catholic divide and theologically conservative-liberal continuum.
I would like to share story which illustrates the historical fact versus metaphor perfectly. Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, tells us that,
“…before Henri Nouwen wrote the book that became his signature work, Return of the Prodigal Son, he went to The Hermitage Museum in Russia and sat for whole days contemplating Rembrandt’s famous painting on the return of the prodigal son. He was given permission to bring a chair into the museum and he would sit for hours, studying the painting from various angles and letting it speak to him in his varying moods. The result was one of the finest commentaries ever written on both Rembrandt’s painting and on the meaning of that famous parable in the gospels.
What Henri Nouwen did with Rembrandt’s painting is what we need to do with a lot of the classical language of scripture, the creeds, and dogma. The language there is more iconic than literal, more the language of metaphor than of ordinary life, deep image rather than video-taped history. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It is deeply true, so true that we hang our very lives on its truth. But it is meant to studied, contemplated, meditated, knelt-before and prayed-with, rather than just simply taken literally. It is meant to be grasped at levels beyond the just the intellect.”
Like Henri Nouwen, perhaps we should move our chairs around to look at God from various angles and to see how God speaks to us in our own life situations.
So as we embark on the next stage of our community life, as we formalise membership, as we call and build up new leaders, let me share these inspiring words of Sister Joan Chittister, slightly abridged by me –
The waters part all around us now. The road to Jerusalem is clear. We are on the road to Jerusalem too; some of us dedicated to restoring a long lost past; others committed to creating a better future.
It takes no special vision to see what is happening. We have an entirely new worldview to integrate into our spiritual lives. The world is different now. The unthinkable is thinkable now. What takes vision is to realize that this is the same Jerusalem over which Jesus wept. This is the same world that has forgotten the widow and the orphan, that enthrones the Pharisee and stones the prophets. Racism, sexism and homophobia destroy families and poison relationships. We decry violence and practise it. We talk about equality and deny it. We practise religion and forget the gospel.
Will we as the Free Community Church cry out?
Jesus said, “if you disciples of mine do not speak up, even the stones will cry out.”
So just when it would be so much more comfortable to continue church the way we always have haves, just when we would like to put down all the messiness and work of re-organising ourselves, and just be a happy family every Sunday – Sister Joan places us in a crowd on the noisy, sweaty road to Jerusalem, caught between the complacency of the past and the painful beginning of a new future, with the question still ringing: Who will cry out? Who will cry out? Who will cry out?
The honest answer, perhaps even the smart answer, is “Not me.” And many of us have said it and will say it. We’ll walk away from church, flee chaos and tough conversations, and drop out on the way to Jerusalem.
But there are those others who will keep on shouting, who will keep on telling the story even to those with no ears to hear. Over and over again they will cry out. Can I count on you to be one of them? I pray your answer will be yes.