Fire of Commitment
By Rev Ellen Quaadgras
Reading by Rev Nadia Bolz Weber
“It’s my practice
to welcome new people to the church
by making sure they know
that House for all Sinners and Saints will,
at some point, let them down.
That I will say or do something stupid and disappoint them.
And then I encourage them to decide
before that happens
if they will stick around
after it happens.
If they leave, I tell them,
they will miss the way
that God’s grace comes in
and fills in the cracks
left behind by our brokenness.
is too beautiful to miss.
The fall after I graduated from seminary, I drove from Massachusetts to Texas for a social justice residency at first Parish in Dallas. It’s a 5 day drive. That’s lot of lot of time, a lot of states, a lot of not very much to do. Luckily there were also a lot of radio stations. It occupied my time, not just the music, but noticing the differences in local channels. DJ’s who spoke with different accents, areas of the country with different musical styles and flavors. But all offering a lot of toe tapping pop and rock. Which you need when you’re 7 hours into your drive for the day.
`As I listened, one thing I noticed was how much of the music was love songs. I didn’t do an exhaustive inventory, but I’m guessing 2 out of 3 of the tunes played were love ballads of one kind or another – from the, I can’t believe you left me, to the I long for you, why don’t you want me too, to the I love you soo much I can’t believe how lucky I am, you’re the best thing ever, did I mention I love you, variety.
Anyway. One day, maybe day 3 of the trip, I was happily listening to one of these stations in one of these states. In fact I was probably halfway through the state before I realized, that the toe tapping love song I was listening to was not about the songwriter’s latest beau, but that it, and most of the others I’d been listening to that day were actually written to or about God, Jesus, the holy spirit. Christian Rock.
I know, you would think. A newly minted minister on her way to serving her first church would have picked up on that a little sooner.
Let’s just say I was paying close attention to the road.
But what struck me from that experience is, how similar the two types of songs actually are. The-I-love-you-so-much-I’m-so-lucky-please-be-mine, human in love variety and the-I-love-you-so-much-I’m-so-lucky,-please-heal-my-life, God-love variety. And interesting how similarly evocative. The longing, the love, the hope. Finally, I’m home. Finally, you, lower case y or You capital Y, will make everything better.
As I was thinking about it, I started to see more overlap between religion and romance. Nuns – afterall – are also known as brides of Jesus. Arguably, catholic priests marry the church. I’m thinking of a seminary professor who would point out just how evocative some scriptural language is when it comes to that ardent love of the One Who is Greater Than All. These two longings – he pointed out – reside very close to each other, in the depths of the human heart.
Which may explain why I’ve read more than one sermon using marriage as a metaphor for congregational membership. And just the other day in our newcomer welcome, the comparison came up that church shopping is like dating, and, as in dating, at some point you may decide you want to make a commitment and get married, or in this case, become a member.
Now, I’m not saying marriage and church membership are identical, for our new members who are getting a little nervous about what exactly they just signed up for. There’s no alimony to pay if things don’t work out. You don’t have to live in the same house, no one is going to tell you to take out the garbage or pick up your socks. Well actually, if you leave your socks around, someone might tell you to pick them up, and actually, you might feel inspired to take out the garbage if you happen to notice there’s an issue, but I’ll get to that later.
But while marriage and membership are not exactly the same, there are similarities worth exploring – which Kendra Trufahnestock lifts up in one sermon on this very topic.
There is an organization called the Gottman Institute, she notes, which has been conducting research on marital relationships for over 40 years.
The institute has a method for relational health based on what they call the “good enough” relationship. Moving away from the idea that there is a perfect person who will meet your every need, they instead lift up a more realistic model in which couples accept their partner as they are, learning skills to navigate differences, create shared meaning and deepen friendship and connection between them. There is no perfect, so they teach a “magic ratio” of 1:5 – for every negative interaction, healthy couples tend to have 5 or more positive interactions. There’s something to strive for…
Here is a description, from their website, on commitment.
“Commitment means believing (and acting on the belief) that your relationship with this person is completely your lifelong journey, for better or for worse (meaning that if it gets worse you will both work to improve it). It implies cherishing your partner’s positive qualities and nurturing gratitude by comparing the partner favorably with real or imagined others, rather than trashing the partner by magnifying negative qualities, and nurturing resentment by comparing unfavorably with real or imagined others.”
In her sermon, Trufahnstock suggests swapping out the word person, for congregation. Here’s how that reads:
“Commitment means believing (and acting on the belief) that your relationship with this (congregation) is completely your lifelong journey, for better or for worse (meaning that if it gets worse you will both work to improve it). It implies cherishing your (congregation’s) positive qualities and nurturing gratitude by comparing the (congregation) favorably with real or imagined others, rather than trashing the (congregation) by magnifying negative qualities, and nurturing resentment by comparing unfavorably with real or imagined others.”
It’s not a bad model for any committed relationship, really, with anything or anyone. Spouse, children, your vocation, and yes, also with your congregation.
It’s not a bad model for our relationship, with life.
Ceasing to look for the perfect, whatever, ceasing to look for greener grass and working, instead, to improve what you’ve got, right now.
I remember, before I went into ministry, reading a quote from who else but my favorite Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. She once said that we each get a plot of ground. It may be full of rocks, it may be filled with roots, it may be dusty or hardened or hard to till, but it’s our little plot of ground – the ground of ourselves, and we get to work with it.
I heard it at a time in my life where I was finally open to hearing something like that, after having pursued the perfect everything and everyone. It was like – oh, right, yes. Because even if you find the perfect who or what, you know it will disappoint you eventually.
I know, that sounds terribly cynical but is actually, I think the foundation of true hope. The foundation of an honest hope. It’s real. Recognizing that disappointment happens, doesn’t ask more of life than it offers. It rests in acceptance of what is, that humans are sometimes fickle, cranky or unpredictable. That life throws curve balls, no matter where you are or what organization you are a part of. It recognizes nothing and no-one is perfect, no matter how they may at first appear. And it also acknowledges that beautiful things can grow in rocky soil. That the work of our hands and hearts makes a difference. And that the most sublime appreciation and experience can happen anywhere. Can happen with you and me right here. In this place. With these people. Why not?
In another sermon on the relationship between membership and marriage – yes, like I said, there are quite a few…. Rev Dr Kelly Murphy Mason highlights a book by Rev. Ana Lyons Levy. The book is about arguably one of the earliest commitments humans were asked to make, at least, in Jewish and Christian history. The 10 commandments. First brought down the mountain by Moses, and followed, well, at least sort of, here and there, by Christian and Jewish humans, ever since. And, they, the 10 commandments, are part of our own UU history and heritage.
And here’s where this connects to our theme today. The 6th commandment, Murphy Mason writes, contains that firm injunction: “Do Not Commit Adultery.”
According to Rev. Ana, this religious teaching has spiritual implications outside of marriage. In her rendering of the commandment, Rev. Ana communicates an imperative for us to “reject throwaway culture” and “stay in for the long run”, even when – or perhaps, especially when – we are tempted to bolt and run far, far away.
“This commandment gets at the heart of what it means to be in relationship,” Rev. Ana maintains, “to keep commitments even when one would rather not, to devote oneself to something flawed, to love someone imperfect, to work at something when it’s hard, and to stop shopping for something better.” All these choices are counter-cultural these days, she observes. “This commandment challenges us to de-commodify and re-enchant the people in our lives,” she concludes.
Now, that can feel practically impossible when we have had disenchanting experiences, and I guarantee that if you’ve been involved with any faith community for a length of time, as Murphy Mason notes, you’ve had at least a couple of those, maybe [many more] over the years.
Yet, when you stay, anyway, even when the urge is to bolt, especially when the urge is to bolt, something can happen. When you choose to stay – not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, when you choose to stay with your heart open rather than blaming or criticizing or picturing better people and better places somewhere else, something can happen, for you, and for the people you choose to stay with.
Something can happen when we stay and come face to face with whatever, inside us, is made so uncomfortable by, whatever it was. Maybe it was someone’s imperfect rendition of spirit of life, right behind you and in your ear, maybe it was the project you were so excited about that no one else wanted to do, maybe it was what someone said to you at coffee hour or maybe didn’t say that you wanted them to.
When we choose to stay and work with whatever came up for us inside, it’s hard. Disappointment is hard. Resentment feels hard. When we’re angry, that’s hard. And. If we choose to practice opening, reflecting, assuming best intentions on the other side, when we practice remembering they are probably doing their best, just like us, we might just find, over time, that we ourselves become more flexible, or more grace-filled, or less reactive to *whatever* is going on around us, anywhere, anytime, with anyone.
Which is not to say we should never leave a relationship or a job or an organization. Sometimes you should, sometimes that is what you need to do.
But a key part of Rev. Ana’s point is that while our culture often tells us that freedom is this way – over in that other place, in that new job, in that new car, in that new town, in that new anything… Actually, paradoxically, humans are most free when we are bound, to something greater than ourselves and to one another. When we are bound to one another determined to be in service of something greater than ourselves. We become most free – when we learn to stay.
Rev. John Buerens, former president of the UUA, has rewritten the beatitudes just for UU’s: “Blessed are those who yearn for deepening more than escape;” he writes, “who are not afraid to grow in spirit. Blessed are those who take seriously the bonds of community; who regularly join in celebration… who come as much to minister as to be ministered unto,” “Blessed are those who… invite their friends to come along, to join in fellowship, service, learning, and growth. Blessed are those who support the church and its work… and who give of themselves…”
And can I just say, I see so much of that grace here. So many of you, all the time I see you practice these tenets of healthy relationship, healthy congregation. Accepting one another, appreciating one another, making room for one another, forgiving yourselves and one another, staying committed, giving of yourselves in so many ways, working that 1:5 ratio… Growing in spirit…
There are some beautiful love songs out there. Written from the heart, to the loveliest of ideal imaginings of how things could be. That’s not a bad place to start. With hope possibility and the highest of aspirations.
And. Real life can be sobering.
And yet, when we accept, come back, learn, reflect, forgive, try again, till our soil, plant new seeds, we may just find, or create, or experience, something sublime, right here. We may just find God, or spirit, or life, fills in the cracks. And that is too beautiful to miss.