This is a talk that I gave at Cursillo #110 of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina on February 17, 2008.
Before invoking the Holy Spirit, let us all join hands first with just the people at your table and then with the whole group. What I hope you are feeling is a flow of love and the Holy Spirit from one to the other. As a result of our interactions over the past three days, we have formed a Christian Community. As we stand holding hands, we are feeling the love that has grown among us, the caring that has been shown, the trust that has been developed over the past three days. Pause – While still holding hands, join me in invoking the Holy Spirit.
But, what exactly do we mean by “community”? In his book entitled “The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace”, M. Scott Peck quotes part of a sermon by John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, who urged his fellow colonists, “We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.”
I have been fortunate enough to have experienced this type of community several times over the past 35 years. I even founded a Center for Science Education at the University of South Carolina based on this concept of community. But until I began my mission work on the Mississippi coast a couple of years ago, I had never experienced a Christian Community, such as that developed here the past three days. There is no substitute for what people can accomplish when working as a community.
We read in James 2:14-18, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed’, but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action is dead.”
In her talk entitled “Action”, given yesterday, Chris Caldwell gave you all the pertinent reasons for taking action as part of your spiritual journey. Today, I want to talk to you about an extension of individual action. I want to talk to you about community action taken by a group of Christians. Our call to be in community comes from the Prayer Book in our Baptismal covenant, and Acts 2:42 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
It is important to remember:
· That all of God’s people are part of a Christian community.
· “The ministers of the Church are laypersons, bishops, priests, and deacons.”
· All members of the church have the same basic ministry, “to represent Christ and his Church,” and that
· 98% of the church are lay persons.
From I Corinthians 12:4-31 we learn that together we form the community of faith, the Body of Christ. Each one of us has his or her own particular talents, some are apostles, some are prophets, some are teachers, some work miracles, some have the gifts of healing, some are able to help others. Now, most of us can help others, so if we have particular talents such that we can do some particular thing, then we should do it. We don’t have to do everything. But all of us should do something. And if 98% of the church are lay persons, shouldn’t it be clear that the largest part of our Christian action should come from the laypersons.
Our participation in community supports us as we follow the call of Christ in our lives. When Christian communities take action to help our fellow man and/or woman, we have the opportunity to accomplish more for God than the sum total of accomplishments of each of us working as individuals. I know this! I have experienced this Christian community in action and I want to share with you this part of my spiritual journey. But before getting to that part of my journey, I think it might help you understand why this is so important to me if I give you a brief overview of the first 60 years of my journey
My life has included a series of gifts, often received following powerful positive and negative experiences, some of which included “ah-hah” moments into spirituality. Until recently, these gifts were followed by long periods of back-sliding. I didn’t realize that these were gifts from God. Throughout my early years, I attended church somewhat irregularly. I believed in God; I believed that Jesus came among us and did good works, but I wasn’t sure of this business about a resurrection, and I sure didn’t even understand this Holy Spirit stuff. When I was 13 or 14, I had one of my first personal crises, one that caused me to fear loving someone outside my immediate family. Perhaps the most profound gift of my life came in 1953 when God led me Charlie. As a result, I learned that I could love again. We were married in ’58 and we started going to church a bit more regularly, but I still didn’t completely “get it.”
My educational background is in the science of geology. I’ve gotta tell you, that wasn’t an easy environment to be a Christian. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming my environment, I am saying that I wasn’t strong enough to tell my friends and teachers that I couldn’t be an atheist, like most of them were. So I just stayed quiet. Once at USC, the doubts of my associates about God started working on me and after a while in this environment, I started losing my faith. Let me say, right now, though, that Charlie never started losing her faith. My movement away from faith continued and was “helped along” by a decision that I made to get involved with the Hippie movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the humanistic education movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. During that time, Charlie and I had our most serious marital difficulties and at the most serious point, I had to make some changes. My gift this time was that I didn’t lose Charlie. I started going to church a bit more regularly, but focusing mostly on those prayers that were not a challenge to my scientific knowledge. I still didn’t really believe in miracles or resurrections or eternal life. As a result, I simply maintained separate professional and more spiritual lives.
In about 1978, I decided that I wanted to make a career change at USC. This time my gift was in the decision of the Dean to support my forming a Center for Science Education where I could devote most of my time to working with elementary and middle school teachers who were under-prepared to teach science. God was leading me to work with people and away from my esoteric geological research. But, I still thought this was my decision; I still didn’t get it
In 1988, I temporarily moved to Washington, DC, initially for only one year, but without Charlie. Almost immediately I started having serious insomnia. I was desperately homesick for Charlie, USC and Columbia. I thought about praying, but decided that would be too risky. What if I prayed, and nothing got better? What would I do then? But I finally got on my knees and talked heart-to-heart with God. And guess what? God answered my prayers and helped me start getting some sleep, and also convinced me that I should quit my Washington job and return home as fast as possible. I was finally starting to get it.
In 1998, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. It didn’t seem to be too bad and the doctors were very optimistic. But, I was frightened. Then I remembered God’s help through prayer 10 years earlier with my insomnia. So, I had me another heart-to-heart with God. I didn’t ask God to cure me, I simply said that if I came through this, I would devote my life to him. I came through the surgery and started trying to hear what it was that God wanted me to do. But I couldn’t hear, or maybe I wouldn’t hear, until August of 2005 when hurricane Katrina hit and devastated the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf coast. That was it; I heard God calling me to help out the people who were and still are without anything, except maybe their faith. Our church, SFA, got involved immediately and we joined in. After making one mission trip to the Mississippi coast with several of our church friends and some of the good Christians that our son in Texas was working with, the person who was organizing the trips told me that if I wanted to go back to Mississippi, I would have to start organizing the trips. We have been back three times since then and Charlie and I are planning another trip in the fall of this year.
Our mission work on the Katrina disaster was my first experience with this type of community action. What we learned was that we got a lot more in love than what we gave in hard work. We learned that you don’t have to be an expert to put up dry-wall or rip up rotten floors, you just have to learn and be willing to do it. The biggest lesson that we learned, from one of the relief people on site in Mississippi, was that our primary mission was not to rebuild structures, but rather to re-build lives. We learned that we accomplished more when we listened to the people of Mississippi tell us about their experiences, their losses, their extreme sadness, about being displaced from where they had lived all their lives, and in many cases, their belief still that there was a God and that he was looking out for them. More was accomplished in just listening even if it meant that we got one or two fewer “jobs” done.
Let me tell you, when God wants you to listen, he can really make it difficult to remain deaf. In February of 2007, Charlie and I with many others made our Cursillo – right in the middle of our mission work. Just recently at an Episcopal Cursillo Leader Workshop, I learned that God’s plan was even more fundamental. To be sure he wants us to rebuild structures and lives, but his primary goal was perhaps to re-build the re-builders, to make us instruments of his peace. Between our mission work and our experience in our Cursillo and now in this Cursillo, we have been bombarded. I guess God got tired of all my excuses for not hearing him. My life has changed. Since my 60th birthday, I have become a “permanent” Christian. I am committed to avoiding another episode of back-sliding. Still a sinner, but now, as a Christian, I am forgiven whenever I stray. As a result of my experiences the past 9 years I now believe with my whole heart that God loves me, just as he loves you, and that Jesus came into the world and died to save me, and you, and that the Holy Spirit (which I still can’t explain scientifically) works through me to:
… make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
This is the prayer of St. Francis and we say it together every Sunday at our church. It really captures why we are engaged in Christian Community Action. In addition, I am now telling my colleagues in science why I am going to Mississippi and for whom. You know, if they want to be atheists, there is little I can do except to pray for them. But now, as you’ve heard in the old hymn, “they’ll know I am a Christian by my love.” My work in Christian Communities in Action did not make me a Christian, but it sure has made me a better Christian.
What can you do, to experience the joy, even rapture, in Christian Community in Action? First, remember – all can, some should and none must. I found that for me, it was a must. What about you? If you think this is your calling, I suggest you start with prayer – ask God what it is that you are supposed to do. After that, I suggest you inventory your skills, your health, and your other commitments. God won’t ask you to do something that will hurt you, and you will have some say in where to start. Next, you will have to stop thinking that as an individual with perhaps few appropriate skills, there is nothing of note that you can do. You have to give up all those other excuses and focus on your personal strengths and gifts. You don’t have to work in disaster relief. Perhaps your gift is in organizing and participating in something like Meals on Wheels, or feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving, or singing in the choir at your church or being on the Vestry. Just keep in mind that it is in giving that you receive. I had to give up my excuses and now Charlie and I and the others in our Christian Community are making a difference. And we have never felt so good about ourselves and so close to God.
Our growth in Christ has changed us and molded us as a community into the image of Christ. We are instruments for God’s purposes (Phil 2:5-13) and when we began to serve the world in Christ’s name we became apostles. So will you.
Prayer of Thanksgiving