The Spirituality of Community

Church Going
by Phillip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

I try and walk to church as often as I can. It is just over three miles from my house to here, with about a 200-foot elevation drop. I have a couple of regular routes that I take – usually coming west on Claremont to Garfield, then down to Hammond, and Hammond to Morton, Morton to Glorieta, over to Sunset to a quick right on Mountain to Barthe, and around Barthe and Cypress, past Horizon School to Orange Grove and to here. Or I go down Mountain and up through Prospect Place. Sometimes I go down to the Rose Bowl and up to here from there.

I pass through differing neighborhoods – middle class and poor and wealthy, residential and commercial if I want. I pass by several churches, see signs in several languages, see a variety of people and houses and dogs and cars and landscaping. I can look over to the mountains and down into the arroyo.

It is a good walk. I know it is healthy for me to do this, but the health aspect is just part of it. I often practice my sermon, at least the beginnings of thoughts for a sermon – I walk and talk aloud, trying to sort through the building of various thoughts around what I hope to be able to share on a Sunday. And while that is good, too, it is also not the important part of my walk.

What means the most to me is that my walk has helped me feel at home here, that this is my city, this is my neighborhood. I do most of the food shopping in our family and I like going to some of the smaller stores nearby – I skip the Ralphs and Vons and am currently on kind of a Trader Joes boycott [packaging and tomatoes and sustainable fish] – I go to the stores where they know me.

I feel at home, placed in a place; I feel as though I belong. This matters to me, and perhaps it matters to you too – to belong somewhere, to have a sense that ‘here I am at home’, or ‘here is where I should be.’ We are social creatures, pack animals, a tribal species and so having a place with others is built into our genetic rule.

There is more, though. I would guess we all have places in the world where we feel that intuitively – I did on a glacier topped mountain in Norway, or on a particular lake in Northern Minnesota. I have come to feel at home in Joshua Tree – when I am in one of these places, I feel somehow at rest; I don’t need to get away; I don’t feel lost. When I first visited Southern California in 1984 to interview to be the minister at the church in Costa Mesa, I remember feeling – feeling more than thinking – this feels right, the landscape, the sky and air, the openness – even the sense of lostness I find out here.

You may have your places too. I have said many times here, I know that there is a geography of the spirit, and whatever our particular geography is, it will match up in some places. I need distance in mine, and a touch of melancholy. Places, homes, landscapes, neighborhoods, stores, other people – the stuff of our lives.

Today’s sermon is for Doug Farr. Doug has been a member here for a couple of years, and has jumped into involvement in the church. You may know him from the Welcome Table outside. He is coordinating Big Saturday this year – this happens the first Saturday in May so sign up to help on the patio after the service – this is a great opportunity to do some good and to hang out with terrific people. Doug is one of this year’s Preacher in You Class participants so you will hear him this summer. [Someone suggested I re-name the class to ‘So You Think You Can Preach?’ – a better title, but too late].

He bought this sermon at last fall’s Auction – the deal was that he could tell me what to do a sermon about, and he said he wanted me to preach about the spirituality of community. We talked about this and Doug told me he had found that here. He isn’t a particularly ‘spiritual’ person – whatever that might mean, but whatever it was, he had found it here.

He has found a home. And we are better for that.

So what does this mean – the spirituality of community? In one sense it is pretty obvious – a lot of people find meaning and connection here, and we are a religious institution after all, so using the word spiritual in connection with this place makes pretty obvious sense.

It’s a place where you can feel that you belong, that you are with your kind here.

But, like Ahab says in Moby Dick, we should strike through to the little lower layer to see what is behind it all. It would seem to be a good time to do this. I don’t know how many of you saw the editorial in the LA Times about there weeks ago by Phillip Clayton – he is at Claremont Lincoln University in Claremont – this is an effort of Claremont School of Theology to expand and become an interfaith institution of inquiry. They have partnered with a Jewish and Muslim institution and are currently in talks with the UUA.

In his editorial, Clayton notes that the fastest growing religious group in America is what is called ‘Nones.’ They think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. They do not like dogma or doctrine; they tend to be more socially aware and conscious and look for ways to express their spirituality rather than looking for the right words to describe it.

I am in contact with Clayton and we are figuring out when we can get together. His wife was raised a UU and he is a Quaker.

Here is what Clayton says the Nones are looking for: ‘improved scientificnunderstanding, changing social norms, an increasingly pluralistic religious culture and more freedom to doubt and question — a freedom that until the last three centuries was mostly absent or suppressed and that is still resisted, sometimes violently, in much of the world today.

In my experience, the Nones are not rejecting God. They are rejecting doctrinal requirements that they no longer find believable, along with the rigid structures of many organized religions. For that reason, the rise of the Nones may well be a new kind of spiritual awakening, one in which doubters are welcome.’ Sound familiar? Like maybe what Unitarian Universalism has been doing for over 200 years in the US? Improved scientific understanding? Freedom to doubt and to question? Resistance to doctrine and dogma? A focus on social involvement? Gosh …

Beneath the little lower layer lies something significant. Religion or spirituality, or whatever you want to call this thing we do here, is universal. All cultures have some kind of institution that is centered on the human experience of the sacred, of the transcendent, that tries to ask the questions of meaning, that cares about what is right and what is wrong. The great social scientist Mircea Eliade claimed that we experience the world in two ways – the sacred and the profane. Sort of like the subjective and the objective, the knowable and the mysterious, the sacred and the secular, the horizontal and the vertical.

And the religions of the world have offered two distinct approaches to the transcendent, to the holy, to the sacred. This is all based on the idea that we are connected with something greater than ourselves. Religion, after all, means to re-connect.

This is an over simplification but there are two ways religions have made this link possible – through ritual and through community. All religions have some of both, though most focus on one or the other. Catholics and the Orthodox tradition are centered in ritual, in the sacraments; Quakers and Baptists are focused on community. In the trade, this is known as high church and low church.

We are definitely on the low church side. We have no sacraments. Different congregations will have different rituals, but there is no one ritual that links all UU congregations. Lighting a chalice is part of most, but not all, UU worship services, and that tradition has occurred just in the last 50 years or so. Here at Neighborhood, I ring my bowl each Sunday; we have candles in the back. We sing Spirit of Life most every week. We go to de Benneville twice and Tijuana twice each year; we celebrate Juneteenth with a bar-b-cue.

But we don’t expect that those few rituals are the primary means we have of experiencing the transcendent. No, here it happens in community, in the relationships we form, whether it be deep bonds of friendship or the simple bonds of recognition.

Whatever we might mean by spirituality, it has something to do with the experience of being connected with something greater than your own self. It is the experience of connection, of deep connection; it is the experience that we are not isolated, separate, that we are in relationships, that we are not alone.

Not too long ago, a member of the church was telling me about how he got back into religion. Raised Catholic, he had left – the Catholic church had stopped speaking to him, and so he found meaning and purpose in others ways. But, as happens to us all at some point in our life, sorrow came into his life, a deep sorrow, a loss, and he thought that maybe going to a church might be the thing.

He went to All Saints here in Pasadena – it had the ritual – the high church liturgy he was used to and liked. George Regas was preaching that day, and in his sermon he talked about how our lives are like rafts on which we sail or float the currents of our lives. Regas said that he was sure that for some of the people there that day, their raft was solid, the timber tied closely together, secure. He assured them, it would not always be that way.

For others, the raft was coming apart, but still together, and they were probably looking around for some help in keeping their lives from coming apart. And, then, there were those, of course, whose raft had come apart, and they were holding on to the pieces that remained.

Forrest Church said something similar when he claimed that we all need lifelines at some point in our life, and that there are two things about lifelines we need to remember. The first is that we have to hold on tight, and the second is that they have to be secured at the other end.

Here – this place – is where lifelines are secured; here is where rafts can be repaired.

This is what spirituality is all about. It is about being linked to something beyond the self. It is about the healing of the world, about responding to the brokenness of the world. Spirituality has to do with being able to find help and give help, with connecting our moral imagination to the world to create a better one. It has to do with being connected, with not being alone, with being able to share joys and sorrows, with being able to be strong or weak.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian of the 20th century, said that all life is dialogue between a person and the world, and we meet – Buber’s term – the world either as object or subject. When we meet the world as subject – as equal with our own self, we speak the primary word ‘I-Thou.’ This is the deepest sense of connection, Buber says, when we feel linked in a deep, deep way. It can be with another person; it can be with the natural world, or a piece of music or art, even a piece of bread or fruit.

And, then, Buber says, we might catch a glimpse – just a glimpse – of the Eternal Thou, what some would call God, or Spirit, or no name at all. And our tradition, Unitarian Universalism, says we do that best in community. When we come together, when we meet, when we connect, we might catch a glimpse of that Eternal Thou.

Doug told me he has found that here. I know many of you have, and I suppose some of you looking for that. It takes time, and effort of course, and you have to be here for it to happen, and you have to commit yourself for it to occur.

jim nelsonBut it is here. If the spirit is anywhere, it is where people gather together in common purpose, to love one another, to seek justice and peace, to support one another, to heal the self and the world, to find joy and beauty, to become as fully human as one can. It is here, here, in this room and on the patio, in our classrooms and on the streets when we gather, in our living rooms when we come together; it is in the recesses of your hearts and your minds. Here. Here. Here.

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church

Posted: Friday, 4 May 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on May 4, 2012
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