The Spirit of Life: Comments from the PSR Distinguished Alumnae

I am utterly convinced that this is an extremely important time to be called to Christian service. Given the state of our families, our communities, our nation, and our world, this is an UNBELIEVABLY important time to be coming into full aliveness and committing one’s self to the flourishing of life. I have an ever-present awareness of God’s movement in this time and place in history, and I have also come to understand that there is no way that we can do Christian ministry without the Spirit of Life. There is no way to be smart enough, to know enough, to have attended enough lectures and workshops, to have read enough books, to be mature enough…to subdue the forces of domination and exploitation WITHIN OURSELVES, much less those forces out in the world. It is so difficult in this culture not to be in opposition to people, to planet, and to the spirit of compassion. Disagreement looks like opposition. People say things that trigger us. Just getting through the demands of each day often seems to require a thousand crimes against the planet, a thousand slights of other people, a thousand departures from love and generosity. Just trying to deal with the civil war inside our own souls-before we ever talk about Iraq or Afghanistan-demands so much that it is beyond us, and so we have to continue to surrender, hour by hour, into the arms of God, over and over again, all day long.

My ongoing, daily struggle is to be both utterly feral–undomesticatable by the forces in the world that would domesticate all of us, defang us, render us harmless to the powers and principalities-being utterly feral in that way, and also being utterly surrendered. You can’t have one without the other. Being undomesticatable depends on moment-to-moment surrender to the Spirit of life and of love. The paradox is that we cannot simultaneously surrender fully AND be in opposition to any living being. Surrender demands love as breathing demands inhalation. At the same time, we DO have to be in opposition to every form of domination, oppression, exploitation, and violence-all of the forces that try to press down life. One of the challenges is to maintain a robust analysis and critique of systems of empire while simultaneously surrendering our entire lives to be whatever God is calling us to be in order to bring about the transformation. To the extent that we are willing to maintain both resistance and surrender, we may be able to help to facilitate the coming Kingdom and live with others into God’s dream.

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I also recognize that I can’t be distinguished or honored aside from and apart from the communities of which I am a part and with which I am co-evolved. The people in my church and in my life–starting with my partner, my family, my community, my church-are responsible for whatever is good in me as a person, as a pastor and as a leader. God’s love is mediated to me through all those people.

I have come to understand that we can only come to life collectively. We are not individually salvageable. The only way for us to be saved is to lose the rigid identities and self-conceptions that keep us separate, the self-interests that we tend to give primacy. Let me explain.

Something profound happened to me here at PSR that has continued to germinate and spread throughout my life in the years since I graduated. When I came to PSR, a seed began to germinate in me, a seed that God planted in my heart as a girl. The seed was the realization that I had the God-given capacity to love without any external cause or stimulus, that loving people who were radically different from me was something that I could CHOOSE to do, that loving was a DISCIPLINE that I could cultivate. If I practiced love, that “practice” would make “permanent.” That seed was fed and watered in the environment of PSR.

Throughout my now-seven-year tenure at First Congregational Church of Oakland, that seed has grown and flourished and begun to bear fruit. Something about that environment pushed me to make a decision to love THESE people, these (at the time) mostly white people that were placed right there in front of me, even though they often seemed very different from me, even though we often didn’t have “resonance,” even though they often didn’t get where I was coming from and said things that I found painful and difficult to swallow. Slowly I have been losing the desire to defend myself, to absolutize my own identity and protect my own position. I just made up my mind that I was going to love these people, today, and I’ve made that decision just about every day and every week, and every month, for nearly the last seven years. What I have come to understand is that love supercedes identity, supercedes pecking order. Love doesn’t require sameness, agreement, or resonance.

This spirit of loving in and through difference is, I think, what is making it possible for radically diverse people to worship together at our church. First Congregational Church is now about 40% African-American, 45% white, and about 15% a mix of Asian and Latino. I have come to call this commitment to living in and through difficult issues of power and privilege “interculturalism,” to distinguish it from “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism merely places cultures side by side without seriously interrogating the obstacles-power and dominance-that prevent authentic community. Interculturalism demands that we interrogate cultures of power and privilege that work against our common life while simultaneously working to overcome internalized forms of oppression. In other words, interculturalism requires that we also interrogate our own cultural identities and lay down whatever cultural forms inhibit our full aliveness. Through deep, full-on, honest engagement with each other, we seek transformation into something new-a Holy-Spirit infused community where we work in solidarity with each other and others in our city, country and world to confront and transform the forces that create suffering and work against life.

Interculturalism is not about transcending or jumping over difference. It’s about each person’s willingness to interrogate domination, exploitation, oppression as they exist in our OWN LIVES, and to care more about resisting that than we care about preserving ourselves. Living into that revelation has been, for me, worth every tear, every disappointment, every period of depression, every supposed failure, every angry moment. That revelation is the foundation stone of my ministry.

More than the diversity of race and class or even culture, I am grateful for and proud of the collaborative work that we have done at First Congregational Church to embrace and be willing to be transformed by people who have extremely disparate faith identities and who have, historically, had a lot at stake in maintaining those identities. On any given Sunday, we have lesbian feminist pagans worshipping with straight evangelical black men, Jewish atheists worshipping with gay refugees from conservative churches, and all of these worshipping with crunchy granola Bay-area progressive activists who have never given faith a thought until now. These people are coming to love and cherish each other, and to work together for justice, in a worship context that is unabashedly and undeniably Christian. To me, this signifies the radical potential of an encounter with the Spirit of Life-an encounter that isn’t about persuasion or promotion but is about unrestrained love.

One of the questions that I ask myself all the time and that I want to ask you tonight is “How can I continue to shift my focus from trying to get people to believe something they don’t see, to making MANIFEST the life, the love, the God, that people are hungry to experience?” How must I continue to change, and urge my community to change, so that an encounter with me and with us causes people to experience a love against which there is no defense?”

I hope that my and our first tentative efforts at answering that question-answering it with our very lives–is one of the things for which I, or we, are being distinguished.

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The other thing for which I hope I and we are being distinguished is our efforts to honor the uncontainable nature of God’s life. The Christic spirit-by which I mean the spirit that loves, restores, champions, lifts up, and regenerates in the face of every kind of pain and suffering-that Spirit never dies. It cannot be parochialized. It cannot be fortressed in any person or community or place or tradition. The life of God is free. It cannot be contained, hoarded, or mastered. That means the life of God, the Spirit of God, is the opposite of the spirit of empire, which is always about the effort to consolidate resources for the benefit of an elite few. God save Christian servants, Christian leaders, Christian churches from our addictions to tempering, taming, tamping down the things that we can’t contain or control!

This revelation about the uncontainable life of God has brought me, at times, into conflict with the institution-building impulse that seems endemic to church life, and indeed to human life in this world. I am not interested in building an institution. I am not so much interested in having 500 members as I am in having 50 real disciples of Christ. I am not interested in large buildings or historical landmarks. I am not interested in having a budget surplus, or even a balanced budget, just for the sake of it. And yet I recognize that all of these things can, at times, when they are not allowed to become idols, serve the Spirit of Life.

So then the question has become “How do we put institutional structures into the service of the Life that is free? How can we create ministry structures that dissolve life and leadership outward like salt, transforming the taste and texture of the communities around it?”

So while I don’t really know why I am being distinguished, I would like to think that it is because of some of these efforts. I would like to think it is because I have had a radical encounter with the kind of love that compels me to put my life-EVERYTHING I HAVE-into the service of ALL life.

This is not easy. Just accepting a call to ministry and service means you have to give up living with the bearable pain of day to day existence in 21st century America and instead accept a call into cycles of acute pain and internal struggle so that you can be really free and fully alive. Leadership is about leading and loving others, but it is also about laying down your life in the service of life. Given the difficulty of that, it is such a blessing to be honored in this way. Because I see all the ways that I fail, many times each day, really to live up to the call, I don’t always see the things that are worthy about what I am doing. This honor feeds my work. It’s a word of encouragement for what I am trying to do. I hear you all saying, “Keep working! Don’t stop trying! Be encouraged!” and I thank you-all of you-for that.

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