© Dr. Chris Schriner 2003
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 28, 2003

Yesterday was the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins a time of soul-searching self-evaluation known as the High Holy Days. Some of us here at Mission Peak Congregation follow this Jewish practice, and some are more likely to evaluate ourselves at other annual milestones, such as our birthdays. But as a spiritual community, Mission Peak does tend to search its collective soul around the same time as the Jewish High Holy Days, because we are at the beginning of a new congregational year and we need to ask ourselves, "where are we going?" Just yesterday our Board spent several hours in retreat with a facilitator who helped us develop excellent goals for the next few months.

Knowing that many of you have been thinking about the future of MPUUC, this morning I want to call our attention to the importance of building true community, which is much different from just being a bunch of people who occupy the same space once a week.

Valuing human community ties in with some very traditional religious teachings. At the beginning of the Hebrew Bible it is said that human beings were made in the image of God. And according to Christian theology, Jesus of Nazareth is the son of God. If we are made in the image of God, that means we can find the divine in each other. And the idea that Jesus is the son of God underlines this connection between humanity and divinity. It's interesting that when Jesus was asked to state the greatest commandment, he said there were two great commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I mostly interpret orthodox religious teachings in terms of this world rather than in terms of a world beyond, because this is the world that I know. So for me, these traditional Jewish and Christian teachings - about being made in God's image and God coming to Earth as a human - mean that whatever is most sacred, whatever I value most deeply is found in people and in human relationships. Speaking personally, one of the main reasons I decided to be a minister rather than a university professor was that I wanted to work with a multi-generational community, with rich and complicated relationship structures, rather than only with college students.

I think part of what I was looking for was a sense of human connection. And several years ago when I began asking Unitarian Universalists what spirituality meant to them, and many said that feeling connected was a core spiritual experience. Feeling connected to the cosmos, connected to other people, to humanity, to life, to the Earth. And it is much easier to feel connected if we are part of a face-to-face caring community.

I'd like to try something a little unusual this morning that will illustrate some of the things I've been talking about, and it's going to involve these three balls of yarn. Allysson is going to take one of these to the back and I'm going to give you a ball of yarn here in the front row, and another one to you over here. In a moment I want you to pass or gently toss the yarn to another person, but keep hold of it yourself so there's a connection between you and whoever receives it. Now we don't want anyone's glasses knocked off, so don't throw it hard. Just go ahead and start passing and gently tossing it from person to person.

What do you notice about the pattern that we are forming here? (Discussion.) It's extremely complex, isn't it? There's also a certain beauty to it. There's an intricacy and even delicacy that is quite lovely.

Now play along with me and imagine that these three colors symbolize different ways that we connect with each other. As you look at these colors, imagine that the red string represents enjoying each other - socializing, having fun, liking and being liked. And imagine that when you see orange threads, those represent knowing each other - sharing, communicating, speaking honestly and listening carefully. The blue string might stand for working together - projects, problem-solving, fine-tuning our systems, collaborating on crucial decisions. Suppose every time we worked together with a group we could see bright blue filaments stretching out from one person to another; suppose every time we shared from the heart, orange twine would reach out and connect us; and that enjoyment brightened the room with networks of redness.

Let's take one last look at this interdependent web of relationship that we have symbolized here this morning. And when we discard these threads of yarn, the links between us still remain, even though we are no longer depicting them in a way that we can see.

Now let's somehow pass all of the string toward the two center aisles. Can two people from the front rows volunteer to pick up all of this material and move it to the back? Thanks so much.

So why did I have us do this? I am convinced that one of our deepest human problems is that people tend to focus more on what is visible than on what is invisible. This biases us toward dealing with physical realities to the neglect of human realities. Our society spends so much money making shiny things, but sometimes we neglect to spend money healing the broken places in people. Many people are renovating their homes these days. It's a lot of hard work and hassle, but very satisfying when it's done. But don't you wish we could see the results of renovating relationships in our families as clearly as we can see the results of remodeling a kitchen? Building community is as much of a construction project as building a cathedral. And in building world community, wouldn't it be wonderful if the results of our nation's actions appeared visibly for all to see, so that when we decide to fight a war or not to fight, we could see whether that choice creates new bonds of connection with other nations or whether our actions destroy those fragile bonds?

Many people believe there are invisible powers at work in this world, spirits, angels, and demons. I too can sense invisible forces at work among us, even though I do not think of these in supernatural terms. I sense the connections of work, play, and communication - the web of life. I've been trying to observe the dynamics of groups and communities for a long time, and to me these connections are so real that sometimes they impact me more forcefully than the physical things that my eyes can see. There's so much more in this room right now than just you, me, and the furniture. All sorts of strings, complex and intricate, link us together. When we create community we create something, and we can "see" this if we look with our hearts rather than only with our eyes. Those string-like patterns are just as real as the yarn that we saw and touched today; they are "the ties that bind."

So the first idea I wanted to emphasize is that people tend to focus on what is visible rather than on what is invisible, but the web of human community is as real as any physical web. Now I want to turn to the question of what sort of community we want. What are the communal qualities we are striving to create here at Mission Peak? One way to look at this issue is to think back to various communities we have belonged to in the past, and ask ourselves what we have most appreciated about them. And I'd like us to think about this in a time of reflection and prayer. So I invite you to close your eyes for a time of prayer or meditation, and I will suggest some things to focus upon during this quiet time.

Meditation: Think back now about communities you have been part of in the past. These include work teams, social clubs, special interest groups, therapy groups, and congregations. What did you value most about these communities? Be sure to include Mission Peak, if you have found value here. And now think of the ideal community. If you could magically create a face-to-face network of people who know each other well and care about each other deeply, what would that be like? And how could we make that happen at Mission Peak?

Now open your eyes and let's talk about what you experienced. (Discussion)

As I evaluate the community we call Mission Peak UU Congregation, I sense that our connections are becoming stronger and more satisfying. I recently mentioned that people are expressing their appreciation toward others more frequently than they used to. I also notice new opportunities for socializing springing up, as when Cindy Stubblebine resurrected our monthly potlucks. We just had a potluck on September 20 which was well attended and lots of fun for all ages.

Another vehicle for building community is the Spirit Buddies program, where people pair up and touch base with each other once a week to share what is going well in their relationships with others. After the service today we will have a brief meeting of Spirit Buddies, to focus on where we go from here.

We also create connections through adult religious education. This year we have had two mandala workshops, offering us the chance to express ourselves with imagery rather than only with words. I hear that the mandala evening last Sunday went very well. The relationships workshops, the series on mythology, and the spiritual retreat were all well-attended. And you just heard Cade Murray talk about the Questers Forum, which will address controversies about God starting October 12.

How can we utilize these opportunities for building community? Well, Woody Allen said that 90% of life is just showing up, so that's a good place to start. Invest time in these events, and you'll benefit. But besides just showing up, you could also say that 90% of life is just paying attention. (I realize that this adds up to 180%, but there's some overlap here.) Showing up physically is good, but showing up with your mind and heart is even better. If you want to give yourself a lift, pay attention to what you like about people here. I was at MPUUC meetings for seven hours yesterday, and part of the time I was just noticing personal characteristics about people that I enjoy. An incisive mind. A quick wit. The willingness to question. The willingness to say, "I'll do that." An aliveness in the eyes, and in the voice. The Inner Light shows itself in so many ways among us.

At yesterday's Board retreat there was a clear commitment toward reaching out to expand our community. During the next few weeks we will consider the proposals of our Comprehensive Planning Committee, and one of the key issues is whether we are ready to commit ourselves to growth. I think we mostly want growth, but there is a huge difference between wanting growth and committing ourselves to achieve that goal.

Mission Peak has been gradually growing in size, but I'd like to see us grow faster. And we can do that by simply paying attention, being conscious of membership growth as a priority. Three examples: We can remember to wear our name tags as a way of welcoming visitors, we can invite our friends to attend Sunday services or other activities, and we can socialize with newcomers. Jeanne Brown recently mentioned that the first Sunday she came here someone invited her to lunch, which greatly impressed her.

As we reflect on our congregation as it begins a new year, do we sense the invisible threads that connect us one to another? And are we committed to building this beloved community? If we do commit to this invisible construction project, the potential rewards are unlimited, because there is no limit to how vital and fulfilling this congregation can become. I believe there will be congregations in the future which achieve a quality of personal connection that go beyond any community that has ever existed before. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that happened right here? Is there any reason it cannot? Perhaps we can make this happen just by showing up and paying attention, as we gently toss connecting threads from one person to another. What a paradox that we may be most fulfilled as free individuals when we are embedded in a web of relationships. Blessed be the ties that bind.

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