Rev. Tess Baumberger: When peace is not quiet
On Sunday May 9, my sermon was on “holy manners,” proposing that we create a behavioral covenant, a document that captures how we reasonably expect one another to behave in community.
In this series, I have been examining phrases from the unison affirmation we recite each week. This time it was, “that we may speak to the world in words and actions of peace and goodwill.” Peace is an apt subject on Mother’s Day, originally conceived of as a day when mothers around the world would unite in advocating for peace.
In a congregation, or indeed in any group, peace is not necessarily or always quiet. We tend to think of peace as a complete absence of conflict, disagreement, or unpleasantness. This is a heavenly dream … from which we must awake! A covenant of right relations is about how we reasonably expect each other to behave. I submit that it is unreasonable to expect a complete absence of disagreement in any authentic community. In fact, a congregation that has no disagreements, conflicts, or differences of opinion is what church expert Gilbert Rendle calls “a false community.”
A community may be false in two ways. First, it may lack diversity because it has driven away all people who think, feel or operate differently from the norm. Those who remain fuse into a single, undifferentiated being. This is not healthy. A vital congregation needs to have differences of belief, opinion and approach in order to address the wide variety of issues it will face over time. These very differences are what allow new and creative solutions. A congregation that can only think one way will die.
The other way a congregation can be a false community is if it is diverse but people are afraid to express their differences. People in such a community do not trust the strength of their relationships enough to be honest with one another. The peace may be quiet, but it’s also not true and can erupt into serious conflict at the drop of a hat.
In healthy churches, people authentically disagree. Things become tense at times, and this can be upsetting. If it is hard for you to understand that why it’s a good to have some tension, consider muscles. If our muscles had no tension, we could not move or even breathe. We could not live. The same is true for communities – a little tension is necessary for things to move and breathe. We need to air our differences.
When we show up with our differences intact, speak honestly and listening in order to understand our differences, some truly spectacular breakthroughs can happen. Other people see solutions where we only see a tangled mess. Where our own life experience fails to offer solutions, another’s may have just the thing. When our own gifts are useless, those of others can shine. Of course the reverse is also true – our vision, experience, and gifts can work when others are drawing blanks.
So one key to living together in an unquiet peace is trust. With experience at showing up to work out a problem with our differences intact, learning to appreciate others’ perspectives, we come to trust our ability to work face our challenges together. This strengthens our connections to one another, so that we hold our relationships dearly, not departing when things are rough, not being rough with one another things are difficult. This helps us approach differences in calm and non-anxious ways.
Sometimes when tensions rise and conflicts emerge, people leave rather than engage in conversation about an issue or problem. They may do so because they are hurt, or because their only experiences of conflict have been full of disrespect, unkindness, even abuse. It is sad when someone leaves, and it deprives the community of that unique perspective that might help it find its way through a difficult situation.
A wise lay leader once said, “How can we make this a place where people who are hurt can stay long enough to receive the healing this congregation can offer?”
We can develop trust. Another word for trust is faith, which brings this issue of Holy Manners to the core of who we are as a faith community. What is our strength, our hope? What is the foundation of this congregation? How can we build on that foundation?
I keep coming back to our unison affirmation: “We pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled, and that we may speak to the world in words and actions of peace and goodwill.”
We pledge to walk together not just when things are calm and quiet, but also when things are tense and noisily difficult. Anyone can walk together through peaceful times – that’s easy. It’s walking through the tense times as a faith community that really calls us to stretch ourselves spiritually.
One tool we can use in walking through stormy times is a covenant of right relations. By practicing Holy Manners we can build a community that can hold those who are hurting tenderly and long enough for them to receive healing, so they do not depart taking the precious gifts of their experience, gifts and perspectives.
Alice Walker once wrote “Anyone can honor the Sabbath, but to make it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”
By this I think she means that faith is a matter not just of thoughts, or beliefs, but also a matter of speaking and acting – “words and actions of peace and goodwill.” How we live our beliefs and values is what makes them sacred.
A covenant is a set of promises made in good faith. What makes the covenant sacred is how we live it in our daily lives.
If we draft and adopt a behavioral covenant, living it will require great perseverance. Living it will ask us to trust that even when we break it, we can apologize and understand, forgive and reconcile, and then recommit to living it again, and again. Congregations that practice holy manners grow spiritually. They have conflict, like any real congregation does, but the covenants they embrace give them ways to manage those conflicts well, creating noisy peace. Peace does not always or necessarily mean quiet.
The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information and links to this and other Unitarian Universalist churches, please visitwww.uua.org. She can be reached at email@example.com.