Pilgrims on a journey...
Ever since I first encountered the Community of Celebration in Aliquippa, PA I have been taken with the song, "Won't You Let Me Be Your Servant?" For those who don't know this ecumenical contemporary monastic order within the Episcopal tradition, you might check them out @ http://www.communityofcelebration.com/.
I first discovered their unique commitment to liturgy, spiritual renewal, blended worship, the way of St. Benedict and acts of compassion at my first church in Saginaw, MI. I received a test copy of their music book, Cry Hosanna, in the mail. A few years later, when my family moved with me to Cleveland, OH I discovered that it was only 2 hours to their community house.
And over the almost 12 years in that ministry, I made the trip to Aliquippa often - attending conferences, midweek evening prayer and regular week long quiet prayer retreats - as well taking some trips just to learn how they weaved together contemporary music, traditional liturgy, charismatic prayer, dance and silence. They have helped me grow in spirit and commitment to Christ and while I am no longer a member of the extended community - I now sense a greater harmony with the Community of Iona - I treasure their ministry and the friends I made along the way.
Which brings me back to the song whose second verse goes: We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road; we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load. Two experiences are running through my heart and mind as I reflect on these words.
+ First, I had the chance to share tea with a colleague who is becoming a friend. Unbeknownst to me, we have shared some common themes and experiences over the years - time in California working for social justice, ministry in affluent, suburban Connecticut as well as world travel, divorce and a deep commitment to the realm of the intellect - and now find ourselves back in New England.
Three years ago we met for lunch on a ball-bustingly cold day and even then I sensed a kindred spirit. But the work of church renewal - to say nothing of learning a new culture and figuring out how to do ministry in these brutal economic times - took up most of my time and energy so we haven't really taken the time to grow deeper. But that started to change in August - and continues to happen now as we have discovered another common commitment in the importance of nourishing the inward journey. Call it spiritual discipline, praying the hours or just the way of the heart, our shared United Church of Christ has been too long on talk and too short on prayer over the years. So, in different ways, we have gone outside our tradition to explore what our inner emptiness was trying to tell us.
And like so many others in the once mainstream Protestant tradition have discovered, it is only through a deep connection with Christ (in the Christian realm) that we are nurtured and sustained to engage the world with acts of compassion and justice. In fact, without the presence of Christ guiding and healing us - correcting and encouraging us, too - we will usually end up either burned out or becoming what we hate. So, I am delighted that he both took the time and the risk to open our hearts at a deeper level with one another. Now, not only are we pilgrims together on a journey in the home of the Pilgrims, but we are also here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
+ Second, I am struck by the hunger so many of our churches have for authentic Christian community. To be sure, some folk are so addicted to individualism and busy-ness that they avoid and denigrate any exploration of community, while others are so needy as to be exhausting in every sense of the word. Both are unable and unwilling to learn the rhythm of Christian community that includes giving and receiving, sharing and taking, light and darkness as well as word and silence.
The third verse of this hymn says it so well: I will hold the Christ-light for you in the shadow of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear. First, the community is about Christ's light - not that other lights aren't real or valuable - but we are about the light of Jesus. For reasons good and bad, some fear/avoid Christian community because they don't want to be associated with those who also claim Jesus. Hence the "spiritual but not religious" reality - which makes sense - but doesn't feed the spiritual hunger. Second, there is the truth that we must face our fears and move towards Christ's peace. And that is NOT an intellectual quest: it is experiential, it takes practice and lots of vulnerability. It also takes time and in a culture obsessed with commodities and bottom lines...
There is also a sense that the rhythm of Christian community must be shared - no one person can carry everyone's load - nor can others reach out to the wounded with Christ's light if the fears are not expressed - or owned. What's more, part of the rhythm of community includes being alone - and this is REALLY bewildering. Sometimes you have to be by yourself - and deal with it - do your own walk so that you really can walk the mile and bear the load. I like the fact that the hymn doesn't say "I will carry you" or "I will take away the load." Rather it says we are here to help each other - and from that help we find a way bear the load of our own lives.
The closing stanza wraps this paradoxical rhythm of Christian community together: when we sing to God in heaven we shall find such harmony, born of all we've known together of Christ's love and agony. Community is not about singing solos AND it includes both Christ's love and agony. Our ups and downs - fears and hopes - joys and sorrows together in a balanced and honest way.
This fall the Spirit seems to be calling to me in ways that speak of Christ's community in a deeper way. I am grateful.