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This video was made by Rhode Island College student, Kristin Blais, for a class. Thanks Kristin!

Shelter in a Storm

For me, this Fathers’ Day was an illustration of the intensity of contemporary cross cultural experience. Yesterday morning I led Beneficent Church’s annual Abbott Park worship. Abbott Park is located right next to the meetinghouse and belongs to Beneficent Church. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. We had 80 people in worship–African Americans, Chinese, Hondurans, homeless, European Americans, Native Americans, university professors, small business owners, older folks from Beneficent Church’s apartment building next door, parents, and young children, gay, straight, transgenedered people–to name some of the people groups represented.

This was also Pride weekend in Providence. Beneficent Church is Open and Affirming. The church is a water stop for Providence’s annual Pride Parade. We also marched in the parade. We also hosted the Providence Gay Men’s Chorus, who performed at Beneficent Church Friday night.

Sunday morning, I preached on the story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God, who spoke to Elijah out of “sheer silence” on Mount Sinai. I spoke about spiritual tenacity–about how God didn’t give up on Elijah when Elijah felt like giving up on God. I spoke about my experience of discovering as an adult that my dad was gay, about my father’s spiritual tenacity, and about God’s faithfulness to my family.

I felt the difficulty of trying to communicate a Bible story that represents a cultural context so different from the 21st century American city–for instance, the fact that the Biblical prophet Elijah was engaged in spiritual war on behalf of God against the prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal and that Elijah actually had Baal’s prophets killed. This sort of thing makes people who live in the land of the champion of religious liberty, Roger Williams, uneasy.

I felt the difficulty of trying to communicate out of my own family experience to a faith community that represents such a diversity of families and cultures.

How does a faith community build a strong, vibrant, faithful faith identity in the face of such diversity? As one of our deacons likes to say, “Not without a lot of work, some struggle, and a few tears.” And, I might add, not without Jesus. The good news is that God continues to work in our lives and in the lives of those around us, preparing our hearts to encounter God in life-giving, life-changing ways. With God’s help we are reaching across cultures, celebrating differences, and building understanding. With God’s grace, our fractured, postmodern lives are made whole.

(Originally published in Beneficent Church’s newsletter, The People’s Times, May 2010).

We need wisdom, not just information. Recently Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave the keynote address at the American Society of News Editors conference. He said that in the 21st century, the world has moved from a situation of relative information scarcity to a situation of information abundance. The way Pastor Nicole and I like to put it is, in the Internet Age, “It’s all out there!”

For us, this means that we focus less on giving expert advice and more on building faithful community. We focus less on imparting knowledge and more on nurturing wisdom. This work requires less Internet searching and more soul searching. It invites us as a community to talk together and listen deeply to each other in respectful, loving ways. We are challenged to work through differences, hear each other’s stories, and discover that our diversity is not a problem to be fixed but an opportunity to be celebrated. Diversity is an opportunity for deepening our understanding, enriching our lives, and developing creative, life-giving solutions to the challenges that face us. In other words, our diversity is an opportunity to practice wisdom.

Proverbs gives God’s wisdom a voice: “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago . . . I was beside him like a master worker; and I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (8:22, 30-31).

This month you will not want to miss the opportunities to celebrate community, diversity, and wisdom at Beneficent Church: International Families Sunday, May 2; Mothers’ Day, May 9; Youth Sunday, May 16; Confirmation Sunday, May 23; and good old-fashioned Memorial Day, May 30. We look forward to seeing you!

This summer Nicole and I and Nicole’s sister, Sarah, attended the Newport Folk Festival. It was the 50th anniversary of the festival and founder Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday. It was a beautiful setting. It was a hot, sunny day. The music was great, and there was lots of it. What’s wonderful to me about the Folk Festival and Pete Seeger in particular is that Mr. Seeger understands the power of music to create community and lifts that community building aspect up and honors it. This is exemplified in the sing-along at the end of the festival day. Together with many of the artists that had performed that day, with Pete leading, we sang “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “This Land is Your Land,” and others. We feel blessed to have been a part of that experience as we continue our work of building authentic community.

Newport bridge

Newport bridge

Listening to the music from the bay

Listening to the music from the bay

Entering the festival

Entering the festival

Nicole and Sarah

Nicole and Sarah

Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples

Avett Brothers

Avett Brothers

Iron & Wine

Iron & Wine

The Adventure Team had a morning off from work, so we had breakfast at Little Falls Cafe in Pawtuxet Village, a neighborhood on the West Bay in Cranston. It is one of the places we visited when we were considering moving to Rhode Island. It’s a small place on the main street with great food, a diverse crowd, and a welcoming, community atmosphere. After our lunch there six months ago, I said to Nicole, “We could live here.”peopleincafe2

Joseph R. Myers wrote a great book a couple of years ago entitled Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect. We really resonate with the vision for community outlined in Myers’ book. Our work as the Adventure Team is to create the circumstances in which organic community can emerge and to nurture, celebrate, and support organic community wherever we find it. Organic community is healthy, sustainable, in harmony with its environment, ordered and evolving, where power is shared, accountability welcomed, differences respected, compassion practiced, and leadership supported.

We have nurtured and participated in organic communities inside and outside churches. Here are just a few examples: the ministry team that formed around a vision to create a new outreach-oriented worship service, a house church where spiritual seekers could find a safe place to ask questions and share insights, a group of rural families choosing to live simply and close to the land.

In his book, Myers contrasts organic community with community by “master plan.” He describes it this way: “A master plan is an adopted instrument of policy intended to control individual acts.” Myers wants to be clear that he’s not against planning in general. He has simply found that when it comes to building community “master planning” usually doesn’t work. We have also found that to be the case: a small groups program that worked great at Willow Creek Church or Church of the Resurrection bombs when imported to another setting, a church planting model that worked great in the 1980s fails in the 21st century, a community development model that brought McMansions and economic growth to southern California brings economic growth to central Indiana while obliterating a small farming community that once existed there; the resulting town feels less like a community of genuine human relationships and more like an agglomeration of individuals. The connective tissue of relationships takes years to develop. When that is gone, making friends and meeting neighbors becomes more difficult.

Regardless of the approach, philosophy, planning or lack thereof, community is difficult work and a wonderful gift. Give thanks for the community that makes your life possible.

Flickr Photos