It Takes a Community to Know God

This past week, I heard Simon and Garfunkel’s I am a Rock being played on the radio. Hearing this song, brought me back many years. As a teenager, I listened to this song many times over and over again. I responded to the rebellious, self-reliant feel of the words and the music. As I listened to it again for the first time in probably a decade, I heard something different. In my youth, I never paid attention to the ending. The final lines of the song, which brings this piece of music from a fevered pitch to a gentle landing. The final lines move the song from an ode of rebellion, to despair as the vocalist sings, “ an Island never cries, and a rock feels no pain.

As I heard these words for the first time again, I became aware of how prophetic they are especially when you realize they were written in the mid-sixties. The sixties was a time when television was the new media outlet, and the concept of personal computers was something very few, if any, ever thought of.

Today, nearly fifty years later, it is becoming easier and easier to live our lives in isolation as technology has nearly eliminated the need for face to face, physical contact. Thanks to the internet, the traditional corporate office is changing as telecommuting allows more and more people to work from home. In fact, I was recently informed that our Episcopal Church Center in New York City no longer contains offices for department managers and staff. The Church Center now rents most of its office space to other entities while managers and staff telecommute and meet by conference call when necessary.

Recent studies indicate Cyber Monday is as lucrative a retail day as Black Friday, as many of us now skip the malls and the need to fight the crowds by shopping online. No need to talk or connect with a sales clerk, just a click or two of the mouse and our shopping is done. For those of us who are comfortable with online shopping, it is easy, it is convenient, and allows us to purchase whatever we want when we want. Soon, we are being told, computer operated drones will be delivering our packages in a matter of minutes. No signature needed by UPS.

And, thanks to social media, we don’t need to leave our homes to have a social life. All we need to do is sign up to be part of Twitter, Facebook or Linked in, and in time you will be connected with hundreds of your closest “friends” sharing your latest vacation pictures in real time. . .Telling of your latest successes and learning about the achievements of your “friends” children. And of course learning more about your friend’s political leanings than you care to know.

Despite all of this technological interpersonal connection, convenience, and access we are not any happier. In fact, studies indicate we are less happy than we were before we became connected. And the question is why? Because as human beings we need something deeper, more real than virtual relationships. In fact, we seek and require relationships that are both deeply emotional and physical as well.

Several years ago, an overwhelmed Romanian orphanage discovered that infants failed to thrive and literally died when denied human connection despite their physical needs being met. And although we would like to believe as adults we are far more emotionally developed than infants, we still need a sense of deep connection with others in order to fully thrive.

As Christians, we know the only way to experience and come to fuuly know the Godhead is through the bonds and the interrelationships of a faithful, spiritual community.

The problem with being part of a community, is the same as those of being engaged in non-virtual relationships in real time and in real places, they are messy, they are inconvenient and they require time and effort. Also, real relationships often challenge us to grow as they push us to feel things and be vulnerable with one another in ways we often find most uncomfortable. And yet, when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, to be vulnerable we find and experience the sense of connection and belonging we all are seeking.

In this morning’s Gospel, we hear John the Baptist’s call to repentance, to turn our lives around, to connect with God and each other in real and enduring ways. It is hard to imagine how anyone in the first century could live in isolation with no virtual reality to hide behind. However, when it came to the faithful, as Jesus often commented, real relationship with God through others had essentially been replaced by adherence to the Law. In Jesus’ day following the letter of the Law was more important than feeling compassion for or connecting with one’s neighbor. How else would the Parable of the Good Samaritan have any meaning in its day.

Like many in today’s world, the spiritual life of Israel was more about the convenience of ticking off holy obligations than the inconvenience of using these obligations as opportunities for developing the sacred relationships that ultimately deepen our own relationship and understanding of God.
We cannot fully experience what this community offers if we choose to keep our life together restricted to only an hour on Sunday mornings. For God is to be experienced as much during coffee hour as God is to be experienced through our worship. God is meant to be experienced as much in our work together in supporting a grieving family as God is to be experienced through Bible Study. And,God is to be experienced as much through pulling weeds, or cleaning the yard, etc. as God is experienced through private prayer or study. For as pray at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer, “where two or three are gathered in his name, He is the midst of us.”

Twenty eight years ago, this coming August, Maureen and I moved into Married Student Housing at Yale Divinity School. Our first year of marriage was probably one of the more difficult ones for us. I had returned to Yale after an internship year and having gotten married. Maureen had just graduated from Siena College and was commuting forty miles each way to her office in Hartford. Both of us were adjusting to living on our own and not being part of the easy social life living in dormitories offers. Without the benefits of being on campus each day, Maureen became lonely and frustrated. By October we were both miserable.

One of the requirements of Seminary was regular attendance at either Morning or Evening Prayer. So five morning a week I would walk down the hill with a handful of colleagues for Morning Prayer at the Berkeley Center. Each morning when our schedules allowed we had the option to stay after for fellowship and a light breakfast. As a poor married student, this was something I stayed for on a regular basis. Our time spent at breakfast allowed for students and professors to bond in ways the classroom setting just could not allow. This is also how I got to know Bill and Martha Padgett.
Bill started at Yale while I was away for my internship year. I was the youngest member of our graduating class, Bill, having retired from a career with DuPont, was the oldest member of the class. Who would have thought a friendship between he and I would have been possible, let alone have anything in common.

But then there came that fateful day in October of “86” when I realized Maureen and I needed help if we were going to get through the first year. So, feeling desperate, I took a risk and reached out to Bill. After all it made sense. Bill and Martha had been married over thirty-eight years and they looked pretty happy. So who better to ask for advice and help. Well as it turned out, Martha was feeling equally as lonely and unhappy. Seminary life is not easy on spouses and Martha being so much older had no one to connect with. That night Maureen and I were invited for a drink at their apartment which was down the hall from ours.

In their small two room apartment a deep bond was formed that sustained Maureen and me through the trials of our first year of marriage as Bill and Martha became the mentoring couple we so badly needed and we, on some level, became the children they never had. As years passed, Martha and Bill became a third set of grandparents to our daughters, and it was Maureen and I who journeyed with Martha through Bill’s dementia and ultimately his death several years ago.
As I reflect over our relationship I realize the bond that formed between Bill and Martha and Maureen and me continues to transcend time and distance. Maureen and I still keep in touch with Martha by phone. I also realize our relationship with them has been one of the most sacred and enduring bonds we have had with any other couple. And I realize, realize the only reason our relationship ever came to be is because Maureen and I chose not to live in isolation while at Yale. Because I chose not to use Morning Prayer as just another requirement to be ticked off for graduation. And, because Maureen and I were willing to take a risk by opening ourselves to the love of God that was being offered to us just beyond the confines of communal prayer.

Simon and Garfunkel are right, an Island never cries and a rock feels no pain. For some of us, the safety of isolation may be what we think we want, as we attempt to shelter ourselves from the messiness of life. But, if you think about it, Islands never laugh and rocks feel no Joy. And neither experience the love of God, as we can, through our relationships with each other.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lynn Milller says:

    From the personal to the universal, you’ve woven a strong message for finding relationship with the Holy through community. Thought of all my St. Luke’s friends tonight when I attended a “Living Christmas Tree” performance at a mega-church in Naples with friends tonight. Hundreds of singers and actors and about a thousand in attendance. Nothing of the intimate there, but they must be connecting in some personal ways to support a facility that rivals a small college campus.

    1. frcraig1 says:

      Lynn, mosymega-churches work on thesmall group model. The means most members meet sometime during the week for Bible study in homes in groups of 12 or less.

      1. Lynn Milller says:

        That makes sense, because they have separate groups for people from Haiti, and another one for several other nationalities. By the way, I just finished reading Vital Signs. Really enjoyed Diane’s article and yours too. I see where you have gone to one service at 8pm. Seems to make good sense.
        Wishing you. Maureen, Kayleigh and Chelsea a blessed Christmas!

  2. Dorothy Pierce says:

    Love this, Craig! Touched many deep places in me.

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