This is the fourth in a series of four blog posts looking at the Vision, Mission and Purpose statement drafted for a new, unified Conference. Delegates from the Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island conferences will vote on formally creating this new conference at the joint Annual Meeting June 15-16 in Springfield, MA.
The question tumbled forth and hovered over the empty dinner plates: “How many raviolis can I have?”
I’d just set a steaming vat of ravioli in the middle of the kitchen table. The cat was shooed off a chair; napkins went into laps; a fork clattered to the floor. The usual stuff.
The question came again, louder, in case I missed it the first time. As a newly minted stepmom, it baffled me. How should I know how many raviolis each kid could have? There were five of us and a triple batch of ravioli, plenty for everybody with leftovers for tomorrow. But for those meals that could somehow be counted numerically, the insistence on a fair share — or at least one more than the others — meant there were never leftovers. The boys would make themselves sick first.
But who could blame Younger Brother for the question? Elder Brother was sly, cool, had ridden through elementary school on all the best waves, always managing to get the extra portion. Younger dropped things, forgot things, inevitably got caught up in other kids’ naughtiness, always getting the blame.
Little Sister had her own bedroom, but Younger and Elder brothers were forced into the same bedroom. To say they “shared” would be a misstatement; this was no peaceful co-habitation. They annoyed each other to no end, on purpose, for no good reason. On the top bunk, Elder became a human furnace in his sleep. In the dead of winter, he nightly slid an arm through the space between the wall and bed’s frame to pull open the lower window in hopes a gustlet of frigid air might drift his way. In the bottom bunk, by the open window, Younger shivered under layers of blankets. The next afternoon, Younger wantonly touched Elder’s stuff, just because.
Such is life together.
In the crucible of a collective — be it a family, a village, or a denomination — we learn who we are. We learn what drives us bonkers and what makes us happy, how we are powerful and how we are vulnerable, how we are alike and how we are different. This is to say, in the company of others, we learn what it means to be human. We learn to be an “I” in the midst of the “we.”
Perhaps this is why Divine Wisdom calls us into collectives. It is in families, communities, and denominations where we grow strongest and most complete. We love each other, work with each other, challenge each other, push against each other. Each “other” in our midst is a gift.
Trinitarian theology tells us the very nature of God is relational — Creator, Christ, Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us concern for others ranks in importance with love for God. Every major religion articulates some version of the Golden Rule, from Baha’i to Zoroastrianism. So ubiquitous is this rule among the world’s religions that, if there is one most important thing about being human, surely it has something to do with our relationality. In the end, maybe that’s our primary human task — just being with each other.
It sounds pretty simple, but as any family, village or denomination demonstrates, it ain’t easy. Other people mess with our stuff. Other people take more than their share. You being comfortable might depend on me being uncomfortable. From time to time, we all channel Greta Garbo: “I want to be alone. I just want to be alone.”
Perhaps this is why God wrapped the sometimes thorny gift of fellow humans in another gift: covenant. The word is from the Latin for “coming together,” but it feels Biblical, bearing an attitude of sacred obligation. It invokes the sentiment of Ecclesiastes 4:12 “And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” That is, we can compete against each other or fight with each other, but we are strongest when we bind ourselves together, including God as the adhesive third element.
From the beginning, God’s bond to human beings has been one of covenant. Christ’s church is founded on covenant. The United Church of Christ is built on covenant. In all these, covenant serves to strengthen individual parties, to celebrate commonalities, and to draw out and refine particularities in order to edify the whole. In covenant, your strength makes me stronger. In covenant, my unique gift blesses us both. This is the way of our faith.
The Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island conferences are poised to further the long history of God’s people coming together in covenant. The draft agreement for forming a new conference out of the existing three cites having a “stronger voice” and “greater impact” in carrying out ministries on all levels, local to global. Organizers have been clear that this proposal is not a “merger.” The plan is not to stew together the three Southern New England conferences until all elements are various shades of brown and of the same taste and texture. No, this covenantal coming together is intended to make the most of each conference’s strengths, enhancing each’s flavor while recognizing our many mutual interests.
Moreover, the vision for this new Conference is wider than the three existing conferences. Local congregations are encouraged to covenant with “all who work for the common good,” locally and globally. The new Conference itself would be open to “associate” members: groups, ministries and denominations that desire to “align with and act in common cause with” the new UCC conference.
There are very practical reasons for this coming together. But in my estimation, the most practical reason is that Christ bids we come together in this way. Christ calls us away from our tendencies to isolate ourselves, or elevate ourselves above others. Christ bids that at every level, we strive to put away our competitive leanings and anxious self-concern. The Bible reveals God’s intention that our collectives themselves collect toward a grand unity. Within that grand unity, each of us — each human, each family, each congregation, each conference, each denomination — might come to embody that Divine crucible which, in the end, brings out the very best of our human selves and inso doing, reveals God’s abundance.
The Rev. Amy Lignitz Harken is Minister of the Mattapoisett Congregational Church in Mattapoisett, MA
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