Sunday, July 25, 2010

Community – Being Part of Something Larger than Yourself

The love letters keep arriving, correspondence from evangelical Christians who seem very anxious about our community’s name change and cross removal. Some of them just can’t let it go. It’s not enough that we leave them alone to practice the faith of their choosing. It seems to be important that we also conform to their expectations. There are some common themes in the letters. Most of them mention “hell” and “anti Christ” and most of them accuse me of being “unbiblical”. What does it mean to be biblical? Should I be walking around in sandals and toga? Should I be growing a long beard and speaking Aramaic? What does it mean? I guess they mean that they want me to conform to their preferred, albeit inconsistent, interpretation of the Bible.

I have read so many of these letters recently that the word “unbiblical” has begun to blur and look like “umbilical”. Every time I read an angry letter I replace the word “unbiblical” with “umbilical”. It helps me not to take any of the judgment and hatred personally. It makes me smile every time…. “It’s just umbilical”; “Your beliefs are umbilical.” From henceforth I shall be known as Umbilical Man. Once I smile, I can respond with love and compassion.

This is fitting really. Long ago I cut the cord that ties me to evangelical Christianity. I release myself from needing to conform to the expectations of churchianity and opt instead for the liberated journey of authenticity. Once the cord is cut, I am left free to craft my own spiritual path. Are you free? Maybe that’s why you are reading, because you are seeking to find liberation from a religious path that abused your mind and spirit, and for some of you your bodies as well. Make this the day when you cut the cord. Be liberated from any and all ties that bind you to unbelievable beliefs and unhealthy attachments. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human adventure. You have nothing to prove and nothing to fear. Just become more and more yourself, grow closer to the God of your understanding, dive into the sacred meaning in your own experience, and find inspiration where it resonates in any of the spiritual giants who came before you.

Inner Spirituality

Is yours an inny or an outy? Not your belly button but your spirituality. My belly button is an inny that grows deeper and deeper every day. And my spirituality is also an inny that grows deeper with time. In other words, I recognize that I change the world by changing my perceptions and observations of the world. I have moments of inner peace that pass understanding. I have moments of inner wisdom and clarity that defy the evidence. I have experiences of sacred wonder that defy the senses. I grow to accept uncertainty with more and more inner peace. I increase my compassion for wider groups and situations. Spirit moves in my life from the inside out.

Spirituality is deeply personal and subjective, and yet I would be lost without a community of kindred spirits to sharpen and inspire me. So what’s the balance between personal spirituality and community? Let me illustrate with a fun story.

A young Rabbi, fresh out of seminary was conducting his first service at synagogue. It was all going well until he got to a particular prayer. Half the congregation stood up. The other half stayed seated and shouted, “sit down your idiots; you’re not supposed to be standing up.” This went on for several weeks and all the intense training hadn’t prepared the young Rabbi to handle this conflict. So he sought out the advice of the oldest member of the synagogue. He said, “You have been a member of this synagogue for over 50 years. You know the traditions intimately. Please tell me, is it the tradition to stand during the prayer?”

“No it isn’t”, said the old man.

“So the tradition is to stay seated?” the Rabbi asked.

“No”, said the old man, “that is not the tradition either.”

The Rabbi was beside himself. “This is my problem. The congregation doesn’t share a common understanding. Half the congregation stands and the other half sits and yells at those standing.”

The old man interrupted, “Aha. THAT is the tradition.”

So true. Leading an inclusive spiritual community is like pushing a wheelbarrow full of frogs. We are free spirits and non conformists. You don’t like being told what to do, do you? In any case, there is no common tradition. Some of us like standing, and some prefer to sit. Some are expressive and some prefer peace and quiet.

There are core values we agree on–things such as inclusion and seeking to live with depth and mindfulness. Beyond that, community is a great place to practice the delicate art of give and take. Aim to give more than you take and the community will be strong.

Ego and Community

Most of us aspire to be awesome community members, but in practice a tiny little word with a massively sinister plot gets in the way – “ego”. Ego tries to convince you that you can get by just fine by yourself. Don’t ask for help because that might compromise your independence.

Speaking as a typical man who doesn’t like to ask for directions, I can relate to the challenge. There is a beautiful scene in the Pixar movie Finding Nemo.

Nemo is the little clown fish with a desire to explore the ocean. His Dad Marlin is a fearful, cautious man. When Nemo goes missing in the ocean, Marlin goes out in search with his new friend Dory. Marlin doesn’t want to ask directions, and says to Dory, “It’s a fish we don’t know. If we ask it directions, it could ingest us and spit out our bones.”

Dory says,” What is it with men and asking for directions?”

Marlin replies,”I don’t want to play the gender card right now. If you want to play a card, let’s play the “let’s not die” card.”

The ego works the same way. It convinces us that if we let others too close in our lives, our separate and special identity will be swallowed up and spat out like fish bones. The ego tries to convince us that our very existence is in jeopardy if we get too close to others. Of course this is a very small perspective. In your best moments you know that your life is made larger by including others, serving others, loving others. Don’t believe the ego’s lies. Nemo was right. There is an ocean of possibility to explore. Sure, there will be risks and dangers. But the risk not to set out and explore is far greater. Ego often works undercover as fear. As long as your commitment is greater than your fear, you will keep expanding your circle. As long as your life is run by the large self, you will swim in the depths of the ocean and discover that it’s all just water and you have nothing to fear.

Community is a great place to learn–learn about yourself, learn about your fears and friction points, as well as being a great place to practice your inny spirituality in safety alongside others.

We tend to think that we have to shrink our uniqueness in order to conquer the ego. On the contrary, a true understanding of who you are puts the ego in its rightful perspective. Neal Donald Wash, author of Conversations with God said, “The larger your understanding of who you really are, the smaller your ego.”

The larger your understanding of who you are, the more beings you feel connected to, the less separation you feel, the less ego there is. Community is a great place to connect to people who are similar and different and practice finding the balance between being a free spirited individual and being a responsible global citizen.

Community and Perspective

It ultimately comes down to what you expect from community. Do you expect to be spoon fed answers, or do you see community as a place to share wisdom? Does community shrink your life by making you tribal, or does community expand your life by taking you out beyond your own perspective?

Alice Walker wrote in The Color Purple:

Tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for [God] to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.

If a religious community is about finding the God of a particular tradition from outside of yourself, an inclusive spiritual community is about sharing the innate human desire to connect to something larger than yourself, by any name or description.

Comedians Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks created a comedy skit called the “2013 Year Old Man”. At one point, Reiner asks Brooks, “Did you always believe in God?”

Brooks replied: “No. We had a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshiped him.” Reiner said, “You worshiped a guy named Phil? Why?”

“Because he was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!”

Reiner asked, “Did you pray to Phil?”

“Yes, would you like to hear one? Dear Phil, please don’t be mean, and hurt us, or break us in two with your bare hands.

Reiner said, “So when did you stop worshiping Phil?”

“Well, one day a big thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Someone called out, “There’s definitely something bigger than Phil!”

We all want to believe in, connect to, and serve something larger than ourselves. If you make money or fame your larger goal, you will surely be eaten up by ego. If you make your desire to show love and compassion to a growing group of people your larger goal, you will live a full and peaceful life. This sense of something larger than yourself goes by many names, including God and Higher Power and Nature. Community offers an awesome opportunity to get in tune with this sense of something larger than your limited perspective by any or no name.

Community reminds you that you are part of a village which in turn is intimately related to a universal life force. The African Mandinka tribe in Gambia has a beautiful naming ceremony for young babies. On the eighth day of life, a newborn is brought to the village centre. The mother holds the child before the father who whispers the name in the baby’s ear three times. No one else knows the name at this time. The child is the first to hear their name, the first to know who they are. Then the father takes the child out beyond the village gates, holds the child high above his head and tells the child, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.”

The Bible text in 1 Corinthians 12 addresses a similar issue. Corinth was a diverse place. It was a famous meeting place of different lifestyles, and worldviews. This was all good. The problem was ego. They competed to see who was the most spiritual. They thought the measure of spirituality was how you sounded–whether it was talking on tongues or using pious language. None of this meant anything unless it was used for the good of the community.

Community Opportunities

What is the measure of spirituality? Whether it builds the common good, making the world a more decent place. Whether it builds healthy community. Sometimes the most important community work makes very little sound. People quietly get on with doing what needs to be done. There is a job for everyone to do in community, and all the jobs are equally important. There are many manifestations but only one spirit, and your large self knows spirit intimately. Community creates an awesome opportunity to discover a larger version of yourself by seeing yourself in relationship to others. Let me end with an inspiring story about getting beyond ego.

A young boy was taking piano lessons. His mother rewarded him by taking him to hear a concert pianist. On the way to their seats, the boy spotted the piano on stage and slipped away from his Mom. The mother sat down and was horrified to see her son sitting at the Steinway grand piano on stage. The crowd laughed nervously as he began to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” When the boy realized there was a huge crowd listening to him he became nervous and started missing notes.

At that moment, the concert pianist entered the stage. He whispered in the boy’s ear, “Keep playing. We will play together.” He reached over and began playing running harmonies on either side of the boy’s one fingered Twinkle Twinkle. Everyone, including the boy, was entranced. The concert pianist had chosen to express a larger aspect of his own nature and in the process had created space for a young boy to flourish.

The question for you–what are you doing to make another person flourish? What are you doing to make community stronger? What work are you doing to manifest spirit for the common good?

Take a look around and see yourself as part of many intimate communities. Look closely at your communities, your reminder that you are not alone and you are indeed part of something larger than yourself. Behold the only thing greater than you. Namaste.

For Further Reflection

What cords of unhealthy attachment do you need to cut?
Where do you see ego dragging you into fear and mistrust?
What experiences help you to realize that you are not alone?
How are you manifesting spirit for the common good?

Books and Resources
A New Earth; Awakening to your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle