Unexpected Gifts: insulation...

As I finish my time with the Marin Foundation, I’ll be writing posts based on chapters from Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher Heuertz, a friend of mine and of the foundation.

Sometimes the best gift we can give to our communities is simply to get out of their way

Leaving my faith community, Holy Covenant, last October had to have been one of the scariest, most painful events of my life. Initially, I thought that I would leave, take a short break of maybe a month or so, and then dive feet first into a new congregation and a new denomination for the purpose of pursuing ordination. Almost half-a-year later, and those plans have yet to come to fruition. In fact, for the time being, I have no desire to pursue them at all. Instead, I'm using this time away from the institutional church to become renewed and rejuvenated.

In the time when I went to church every Sunday, I saw people come and go. Holy Covenant is known for being a transient community, one where people have a tendency to only stay for brief periods ranging from a few months to a few years. It's a way station. And honestly, that's one reason I love it so much. It's a community of social workers, doctors, nurses, activists, students, and so many different types of people that I can't list them all. So much diversity, yet so much in common.

Since October, I've been back less than a handful of times, less for spiritual reasons than for a growing need to feel part of the community. It's been incredibly painful and scary to tell my friends that my initial plans changed. I'm not going to another church. I'm not in an ordination process. I haven't moved on really. In fact, I've stopped. And this time, this period where my pace has slowed and my obligations have lessened, has been good for me. I miss them, dearly, but I've needed the time away.

In churches where people stay for years, rarely missing more than one or two Sundays a year, life becomes routine and creativity can feel smothered, stifled. When community members feel that time away could harm their role, the ways in which they engage and are accepted by their community, then community potentially loses its vibrance. Its edge becomes dulled. Its energy becomes encapsulated by this feeling of safety, a reality that is visible to any outside observer.

If the development of a community isn't marked by periods of withdrawal, retreat, or other forms of creative absence, there can be a tendency for the community to close in on itself

In this particular chapter, Chris tells the story of his and Phileena's pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I read much of Phileena's perspective on the couple's sabbatical in her book. This was the first I'd heard of it from Chris, and his recollection shares much in common with her.

  • Leaving community is scary.
    • Time away is painful.
      • Building new friendships can induce anxiety.
  • Going home after retreat can cause worry and fear.
    • Will I be welcomed again?
      • Do they still want me?
        • Do they need me, or was I expendable?

I can honestly say that, while I've not had a sabbatical similar to Chris and Phileena's, even my few months away from Holy Covenant have caused these very questions to surface within me. And these questions are beyond difficult to face, even when we're returning to a community that has always felt safe, loving, and welcoming.

Chris also shares the following from Henri Nouwen's Inner Voice of Love, a book I'm currently reading (though I've yet to read the entry to which he refers):

Your way of being present to your community my require times of absence, prayer, writing or solitude. These too are times for your community. They allow you to be deeply present to your people and speak words that come from God in you.

Word Made Flesh, the organization where Chris and Phileena spent a number of years working with the "poorest of the poor," during their time there, developed a policy for such absences. Community members who had completed six consecutive years of service would be eligible for a nine month sabbatical. Although hesitant, the couple became what sounds like the first to be granted this much-needed period of rest. This was the time when they traveled the Camino, after which they stayed at Rose Cottage on the campus of Duke University. When they returned, there was a period of readjustment, both for them and for the community they had left. Ultimately, everyone settled, anxiety dissipated, and community was restored, more vibrant, energized, and healthier than it had been before.

Creative absence suggests awakening to our own recognition that our community sometimes needs a break, sometimes needs space to reorganize itself, and sometimes needs the freedom to grow without the dominant voices, the typical expectations that sometimes stifle us

Chris closes with a story of a shop in Omaha, Trocadéro, a "lifestyle emporium." One day, he brought a friend visiting from out of town into the shop. Immediately they were overwhelmed by the wondrous perfumes. They made a remark to the clerk about how it must be amazing to work there. The clerk's response: "I don't even notice it anymore."

Sometimes we need to leave community. Sometimes community needs our absence. In either instance, there is the possibility, the potential, for absence to make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes room for growth and it limits the possibility for insulation, for life to feel stifled, for creativity and energy to become snuffed out.

Sometimes we need to leave...