Thursday, July 19, 2012

Discovering Our Common Purpose

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. - Philippians 3:15-16

I was sitting recently in a meeting of Occupy Our Homes DC (OOHDC), and things were getting rough. We were having an epic meeting in which we were airing a lot of the conflicts and struggles that had been quietly brewing over the past several months. The emotional intensity was palpable, and at first it seemed like the group was on the verge of ripping apart at the seams. Some of us felt the need for a broad ideological framework that could provide a basis for our shared labor; others of us just wanted to get busy with the work of stopping evictions and to dismiss wider philosophical considerations.

I was one of those who leaned towards focusing on action. I wanted to work on practical strategies for how we could prevent residents of our city from losing their homes. I did not see the need for anything much deeper than that. Let's get the work done, I thought, impatiently. Yet, there was something important being lifted up by the folks on our team who urged us go deeper in our shared understanding. They perceived that without vision the people perish; without a clear sense of what our shared purpose is, our group would have no cohesion.

We had a breakthrough when we realized that our shared purpose was not a cause, or an idea, or a program; rather, we were brought together by a person. We are working to ensure that one particular woman - Deborah Harris - is able to remain in her home. She is our basis for unity. As we gather together, to walk with her in the struggle to save her home, we find a concrete, human basis for our work together as an organization. With our focus on Deborah and her particular circumstances, we can allow everything we do be tailored to the goal of defending her home. Tactics, strategy, decision-making structures - all of these can be flexible as we adapt our community to focus on our singular goal, rooted in our commitment to a particular person.

Our life in Christian community is like this. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not primarily drawn together by a shared set of rules or values. We certainly share many of these things, but they are the fruit - rather than the root - of our common life. Our life as a community flows out of our shared relationship with a particular person, a loving Teacher who guides us and forms us as we choose to walk with him.

The ground and source of our life together is our shared commitment to a particular person: Jesus. Our allegiance is not primarily to a particular set of ideas about Jesus, nor even to a specific code of conduct that must be performed by rote. Instead, we are invited to give all our attention to Jesus himself, and to allow his very substance and character shape the direction of our life as a community. What we believe and what we do as a community flows out of our living relationship with him.

We will always find something to disagree about, and that is OK. Unity does not mean unanimity. As a matter of fact, superficial unanimity can sometimes mask a deeper disunity that is festering within the community. Our shared silence, rather than containing a rich vibrancy where the Spirit can move, can become a place of unspoken tension and deadness. Christ's light is the great Revealer, and we hestitate to approach God together when we are hiding our deeper feelings from one another.

When we are united in a particular person, we find the common purpose that allows us to break down the walls of niceness and to be real with one another. When we find our common ground in spirit and in truth, we are able to penetrate the walls of false courtesy that divide us. We are able to be true and honest, to really come to know one another in our common struggle for liberation.

As a Quaker, I find it deeply liberating to re-focus in this way. Rather than putting my energy into figuring out "what do Quakers believe?" or "what do Quakers practice?" I can instead set my sights on the most important matter at hand: "Who is this person, Jesus, and how is he calling me to live?" When I am gathered in a community that is actively asking this question, there is the real possibility of revolutionary transformation.

How do we find our common purpose in the concrete reality of another person? Do we allow ideas or rules trump the reality of the lives of those around us? How can we ground ourselves in the experience of the Risen Lord Jesus, allowing him to become the focus that orders and directs our lives as a community?


Bill Samuel said...

This is the key, centering on Jesus Christ. The concept that Christ is the Truth, as he said, is so difficult for us to grasp that most Christians wind up substituting something else - doctrines, the written word of the Bible, rituals, etc. So their identity winds up not being centered in Christ.

Liberal Friends tend to focus on what they are not. The tendency is not to be articulate on what is the center, but on what is not the center. This is also not helpful.

When I started attending my current faith community, I found it so refreshing that it centered on Jesus Christ not on other things or on what they are not. And my experience is that it provides a much better base for unity than the alternatives.

James Breiling said...

Thank you for an essay rich in insight.

Yes, focus on the conduct and teachings of Jesus as set forth in all four gospels Most challenging. Transforming.

Set aside the writings before and after Jesus, and many contentious issues disappear.

shannon said...

Aaaaamen aaamen a a men a men a men (you know the song!)

Susan said...

The description of Jesus’ life and teaching that we have in the four Gospels is very useful when we seek to understand how Jesus is calling us, not only individually but as a community united in him. In addition, my experience with Friends has shown me that Jesus is alive among us now. When we sit together in worship, we are waiting for him to speak to us, quietly to individuals from his place within our hearts (or souls), and sometimes aloud in a message that comes through the voice of a faithful, responsive worshiper. The occasion doesn’t even have to be a formal meeting for worship. As Jesus tells us in Matthew 18, “Where two or three people are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” We can know directly what Jesus’ guidance for us is, individually or as a community, when we ask and pay careful attention to the resulting answer.

Thanks for thy clarity, Micah, about the real basis of Christian community, and thy reminder that the steps in faithfulness that follow listening will very often be action and transformation.

Anonymous said...

This addresses directly something that has been on my mind a lot lately, and captures (I think) exactly the place to which I've come. It seems clear to me that true community must orient around relationships, not mere intellectual assent to some set of propositions (theological or otherwise). Thanks for this excellent post.

Dale Graves said...

Friend Susan speaks my mind. Thanks Micah

pwhinson said...

Absolutely incredible insight beautifully expressed. Thank you so much for this.