This year, my Annual Meeting address is a preliminary report on the Wondering Together conversations we’ve been having.
- Context: Awareness of need to work on medium- and longer-term financial sustainability for our life together here
- We have been advised that any serious work along those lines needs to start from a clear sense of who we are and what we’re about, as a church
- We’ve asked ourselves those kinds of questions before – most recently in prep for 2018 capital campaign & renovation
- But we’ve been through a lot and changed a lot since then.
- Time for a renewed season of wondering together about how God is shaping us and where God is leading us.
Wondering Conversation process
- Started in late summer; most recent in December
- Have probably included about 50 people so far – in person and online, kids, youth, adults & elders, a pretty good range.
- I would still like to gather more input! Possible online version; maybe another couple of group conversations if people would enjoy that – it’s really rich, holy space. Let me know!
Going through the notes, SO FAR… pulling out big topics & themes. This isn’t a full report! Just some observations…
Cluster of responses about how we worship & engage with the Bible and faith.
Being an intergenerational church, with scope for meaningful involvement for kids & youth.
Liturgical playfulness & intentionality
Hands-on participation & our Scripture dramas
People’s liturgical and personal quirks are welcomed
Peaceful quiet & holy noise – God can be in both
Someone said, “I am not comfortably bored. Ever.”
In terms of theology and beliefs:
Scope to question, wonder, explore, rebuild, play
Listening & learning from one another – “The Bible is in all of us”
“Christ cares about liberation, here and now, for all people.”
An awareness that good theology can happen on the floor
A cluster of responses about the other things we do, besides worship.
Creation care commitments.
Caring for and enjoying our grounds; respecting our non—human neighbors like the bats.
Our commitment to youth ministry. In one conversation folks wondered out loud whether we have a call to serve queer and unchurched youth.
Outreach giving and volunteer opportunities to serve others.
Someone said, “We are most ourselves when we are reaching out.” One of our young folks said, “Madison and Middleton are better because of St. Dunstan’s and I’m proud of that.”
Our ongoing work around voluntary land tax and restorative actions with respect to the Native peoples of this place.
The BIGGEST set of responses – fullest pages of tick marks and notes – had to do with how we *are* as a community, to and for each other.
People talked about inclusive welcome.
Meaning everything from welcoming LGBTQ+ folks, to welcoming folks of no church background, to welcoming folks of all ages in the fulness of who they are.
People said, “We allow children to be children.” And: “St. Dunstan’s listens to children.”
One of our youth, re: inclusive welcome at youth group: “Are you part of this church? We don’t care. Are you part of any church? We don’t care. Do you play board games? You’ll learn.”
Many people spoke in various ways about mutual care.
Safety, trust, respect, kindness, shared prayer.
Someone said, “We love each other through the changes.”
Someone said, “It’s OK to bring your feelings to church.”
Several folks talked about valuing our commitment to Zoom church: the ways it keeps people connected; the intimacy of face-to-face worship and shared prayer on that platform.
People value a sense of room and opportunity to share their gifts and skills. One person mentioned the “non-hierarchical use of people” – if you want to lead something or help shape something, there’s probably room for that.
Reflecting on the many ways people stepped up to make music last summer, one person described St. Dunstan’s as “this amazing thing that creates what it needs.”
People talked about resilience and capacity to change. That we’re a church that’s dynamic, not rigid.
Folks described a balance of comfort and growth, support and renewal, “not living in the status quo.”
“The casualness and the messiness and the constant evolution.”
Someone said that our church at its best is “compassionate, honest, joyful, and hopeful.”
Someone said that she chose our church, and stays at our church, because it’s a place of fierce love. Fierce love.
People are super clear that we’re not perfect! There’s a lot for us to keep growing into. But there’s also a lot that is hope-filled and holy.
As your pastor: I think I know this church pretty well. But there were some things in all this that surprised me! Some stuff that seems distinctive about St. Dunstan’s — the grounds and Creation Care commitments, land acknowledgment work, even our strong commitment to outreach – were mentioned often, but were not the biggest themes.
I don’t think that’s because they’re not important to people. Maybe instead it’s because we understand that those things flow out of more fundamental things about the kind of faith community we’re striving to be, together.
Another thing I’m learning from these data is that folks with no kids or grown kids do understand and value what we are doing in creating a community of welcome and nurture for kids and youth. It’s a big encouragement to me, to hear that.
I want to come back to that phrase fierce love. It came up in our very first conversation; I had forgotten it. But once I read it again, it stuck in my mind.
It was rattling around in my brain as I read a book about the Rule of St. Benedict, the week before last, in preparation for my clergy retreat. Benedict lived in the 6th century, and founded a monastic order, the Benedictines. His Rule of Life laid out how community life in Benedictine monasteries should be ordered, but Christians – and non-Christians! – who are not monastics have found wisdom and value in the Rule, as a pattern for Christian living, for fifteen hundred years now. (By the way, Dunstan was a Benedictine monk and founded many Benedictine monasteries!)
The book I was reading quoted this from Benedict’s Rule: “Try to be the first to show respect to one another, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior… This zeal the [community members] should practice with fervent love.”
Try to be the first to show respect to one another…
Supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior. Now, listen: For Benedict’s time, it was a big deal to propose that community should embrace those who were different in various ways and help them participate and belong.
I don’t love the language of “weaknesses,” but if we shift just a little to supporting one another in our differences of body and behavior, then we’re getting really close to some things people say they value at St. Dunstan’s.
This zeal the [community members] should practice with fervent love. When I read this, fervent love caught my attention because it sounded a lot like fierce love.
I looked up Benedict’s original Latin for this passage. Fervent is a Latin word; it comes from the word for boiling – it has to do with heat and intensity. But in the original text, it’s not just fervent love. It’s ferventissimo love.
Our music folks will know that means not just fervent but SUPER FERVENT. THE FERVENTEST.
Fervent and fierce have a lot in common. They point to an intensity of love, a love that digs in and holds on; a love that’s willing to bare its teeth when necessary.
And what Benedict names here as part of the work of community – striving to be the first to show respect to one another, supporting with the greatest patience our differences of body and behavior, with fervent love – that reminds me of a lot of what is coming up in these wondering conversations.
I’m not saying that we should declare fierce love our new mission statement, or start printing it on T-shirts.
I just found it to be a phrase that captures a lot of what people say they love about this church, and a lot of what you all hope, for this church.
Fierce love is a simple phrase, but not a simple reality.
- On a weekly basis, I have to work to figure out where to spend my limited time and energy nurturing fierce love among us.
- Sometimes we need to discern, together, about direction and season, projects and priorities.
- And of course we don’t all see eye to eye. There can be conflicting needs and hopes, for all kinds of reasons.
- The Society of St. John the Evangelist, another monastic community, includes this early on in their Rule of Life: “The first challenge of community life is to accept whole-heartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will. Our community is not formed by the natural attraction of like-minded people. We are given to one another by Christ and he calls us to accept one another as we are.”
- Look, if something shows up in a monastic Rule of Life, it’s because it’s hard, OK?
Fierce love isn’t simple; it also isn’t easy.
- We have many growing edges. Ask me and I can name a few; maybe you can too.
- Our resources – human, financial, strategic – are often stretched thin, and we have to make hard choices, let some things go, and live with uncertainty.
- I don’t think everybody here feels loved fiercely. We have ongoing work to do fully welcoming and integrating newer members, and listening to the needs of longer-term members.
- And let’s be honest, some folks just want to come to church. It’s OK if you’re not looking for a community of fierce love!
Are we are fierce as we mean to be? As we need to be, for each other, for the world?
- Are we ready to support our youth group making Pride signs for our lawn again this June, even if it means another month of being vigilant for potential vandalism?
- Are we ready to take creation care beyond solar panels and composting, to talking about how we can be advocates for, and participants in, big, systemic change?
- Are we ready to have hard, bold conversations about where our convictions as people of faith meet the issues at stake in the elections this year?
Fierce love isn’t simple. Fierce love isn’t easy. Fierce love can be hard, messy work.
But I think fierce love, fervent love, ferventissimo love, is important. Is holy.
Might be a thing that makes a church worth people’s time and care and investment, in a season of so much struggle and change in the world around us.
I’ll close with a favorite prayer, composed by William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II.
O God of love, we pray thee to give us love: Love in our thinking, love in our speaking, Love in our doing, and love in the hidden places of our souls; Love of our neighbours near and far; Love of our friends, old and new; Love of those with whom we find it hard to bear, and love of those who find it hard to bear with us; Love of those with whom we work, And love of those with whom we take our ease; Love in joy, love in sorrow; love in life and love in death; That so at length we may be worthy to dwell with thee, Who art eternal love. Amen.