We had just arrived in the Okanagan. We moved in, unpacked, and went church shopping.
The first church we tried was Winfield United. The service itself was, well, so-so. Solid. Perhaps even stolid. Nothing exciting, but nothing offensive either.
Then, on our way out, Marg Kyle grabbed me. “We need you in our choir,” she insisted.
I’ve been singing in that choir for 25 years now.
In the church — and I guess in other contexts too — we talk a lot about community. We value community, even the virtual community supposedly offered by the internet.
And yet we often get it wrong. A seniors’ care home is not automatically a community. Neither is a housing sub-division. Both can become a community — but that will depend on the relationships of the people who live there, not just on living in close proximity.
And having a million followers on Twitter or Facebook does not create a community either.
Community comes from working together. Sharing values. Risking vulnerability.
A working model
I think a choir offers a good model of community. Obviously, we have to work together. We meet regularly. We make a commitment to each other. We have to agree -- at the very least, to sing the same song. And we have to subordinate our own desire to stand out, to be different.
Sometimes learning a new piece of music is a grind. An endless repetition of difficult notes and phrases. We do it over and over… And then, amazingly, all the pieces fit together. We know our parts. We pause as one for an eighth-note rest. We all hit the next consonant as one voice.
We have stopped being a collection of individuals, and have become a collective organism. A single mind. And in a sense, a single body – we even have to breathe as one, line by line.
We transcend our individuality. And it feels wonderful.
Philosopher Ken Wilber claims that we all have a dual nature. We are individuals, with private hopes and desires. At the same time, we seek to transcend the limitations of being an individual. From cells to galaxies, he contends, everything wants to be part of something greater than itself.
Author Jonathan Haidt suggests that we humans seek transcendence in a variety of ways.
Some rely on chemicals, from peyote to ayahuasca, to attain a feeling of unity with everything.
Some relate to group activity. Sports, for example. A team whose disparate players click like a well-oiled machine becomes more than a mere collection of talented individuals. Sports fans feel united in cheering for their favourites.
Military service may breed the strongest sense of community, as members risk their lives for each other.
Worship may be the oldest means of building community. By singing together, participating in familiar rituals, and – as in a choir -- subordinating our individual egos to a mutually accepted leadership, be that a local minister or a worldwide organization, we build networks of connections.
Worship also attempts to connect with the most transcendent reality of all – merging with the divine.
Granted, not everyone in a choir will reason that singing derives from a universal desire for transcendence. But they all know intuitively they’re part of a community.
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week I suggested that the traditional pattern of Believing, Belonging, and finally Behaving (or working with others) didn’t work anymore. People are just as likely to get involved by working with others, and then starting to feel as if they Belong, and Believe. Or may start by attending a group (belonging) and then move to Behaving and Believing.
James Russell provided an experience that illustrated that/those patterns: “Neither my wife nor I believe in a god or gods, but we DO believe in working with other people to make the world better (More joyful? More friendly? Less painful? More equal?). Yet when she wanted to join a church group that seemed to be doing something concretely helpful, she was barred (directly and straightforwardly) because she had no intention of joining The Church, or adopting The Faith and told them so. For the same reason, she never became a Girl Guide (and our son never became a Cub): Believe first, do later was the whole of the law. This sort of thing does not work if you actually want to live according to what Christians say their founder wanted.”
Isabel Gibson commented, “I've read that we gradually adjust our beliefs to conform to our behaviour, to reduce a psychological distress called cognitive dissonance, where the two conflict. Focusing on behaviour in group settings can, therefore, be both productive and respectful, since while we do have some right to demand certain standards or types of behaviour, we do not own what's inside other people's heads.
“Bringing "belonging" into the picture [with beliefs and behaviour] adds another dimension. Whether the model is a traffic circle or a three-legged stool, I don't know, but I like the image and the movement you suggest.”
Bob Rollwagen wrote, “I understand the Bible to be a collection of stories, fables, myths, collected writings, and memories, assembled by scholars over hundreds of years from a perspective representing their time and education and life experience. Those with power chose how they would interpret it -- some with benevolent insight, others with personal gain. Even now in the 21st century, many try to shape the world as they feel it to be their right. You might say that Jesus got it right but few listened, and few leaders are listening now.”
Elwyn Hunt in New Zealand had further thoughts on touch, and/or touchiness: “I used to belong to a very loving, supportive study group who gathered weekly for a couple of hours to sing, pray, and study together. We began and ended each morning with hugs. When meeting up at church services the hugs among the group continued – until the day that it dawned on us that we were making ourselves an exclusive group who hugged some people but not all..... so now we (loosely) keep the hugs to study days.”
Abraham bargained with God to try to save the people of Sodom. Moses talked God out of destroying the Israelites, by persuading God that the Egyptians would consider God a failure if the Israelites died in the desert. Obviously, it's okay to argue with God. Like a skilled negotiator or a lawyer, we must be ready to use all the tactics available to us. Psalm 25:1-10:
1 To you, Holy One, I plead my case.
2 I trust you; don't let me down.
You won't let me make a fool of myself.
Lord, don't let others lord it over me.
3 You wouldn't humiliate your loyal helpers, would you?
Save your heavy hand for those who don't care about you.
4 I want to be your friend, Lord.
I want to do things your way.
5 So take my hand, and lead me through life's potholes and pitfalls.
You can save me; You are what I have been looking for, all my life.
6 Don't do it just for my sake.
Do it for your own reputation as a loving God.
7 Don't count my past mistakes against me.
Be true to yourself -- you are a loving God, So show me love, O Lord.
8 Holy One, because you are perfect, you can take pity on less perfect people;
9 You can train the fumble-footed to follow your footsteps.
10 Your ways lead to love and faithfulness,
And those who keep faith with you will not forget it.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet