I met a young man who was in town visiting a friend recently. As our brief conversation began the inevitable question was raised: “What do you do for a living?” I told him that I was a pastor at a church in town. He continued to ask questions, curious about what would draw a person to do such a thing, and do it here in Pullman. “No, I didn’t graduate from WSU” I said. “No, I didn’t grow up in the area and I don’t have extended family nearby. I came to do ministry with and for a group of people at Community Congregational United Church of Christ.” He was listening and playing out scenarios in his head. When his demeanor changed, I sensed his realization that if none of the more familiar reasons had brought me here, my purpose might be something completely foreign to him. He was getting a little nervous and looked like he was thinking, “Is he whacky, crazy, one of those strange religious types.” And as much as I wanted to alleviate his fears about what ministry at CCUCC looked like, I was also struck that ministry is sometimes a strange, edgy, counter cultural thing to do. The Christian ministry that we all do is, and should be, out of step with the norm.
These days, those of us who participate in a faith community carry a kind of holy tension into our relationship with others: the same, yet different. We feel this tension especially in a university town like Pullman and in a progressive Christian community like CCUCC. In the academic community, the very real and important spiritual aspects of our lives have for too long been dismissed as either non-existent, irrelevant, or irrational. In such a setting, there are times when we don’t want to admit to noticing, let alone being guided by the spiritual, for fear we won’t be taken seriously. And in the wider community there are many negative examples of religion gone wrong: when faith is used to control and manipulate, or to justify oppression, arrogance, incivility, and downright meanness. Many of us can quickly offer personal examples of the harm done to us or to those we love by religion gone wrong, and we don’t want to be associated with it.
But there are costs involved in allowing this cultural inertia directing us away from faith. (No, I’m not saying that we will all be seeing each other in the burning fires of hell if we don’t go to church!) It is understandable when we don’t identify ourselves as a Christian or a member of a church because we don’t have the energy in the moment to combat the assumptions that come with it. The costs begin to show themselves when we do that so often that we begin to forget the reasons we wanted to be involved in Christian community in the first place. When we forget how our experience of God’s spirit has shaped us and set before us the hope of something better than the current configuration of human culture, we’ve lost something. When we stop exploring the divine through meditative practices and acts of compassion, we’ve lost something. We begin to lose a unique and beneficial identity.
In my brief encounter with the young visitor to Pullman, my initial inclination was to take the easy way out and not get into the subject of faith. But as we continued to talk and I shared the kinds of activities we do in this congregation, I realized how important and how countercultural they really are. Simple things like talking honestly together in a group about doubts and questions and widely varying experiences of God; contemplating our failings or our mortality while listening to a beautiful piece of music; practicing different ways of giving something away to others as well as accepting the gifts offered to us; valuing our children by teaching them what we know while also being open enough to learn from them; reminding one another time and again that each and every one of us is a beloved child of God; creating a safe space for everyone to explore faith, no matter what. All of this (and more) is our unique attempt to follow God in the Way Jesus taught. These ways of living in community don’t make us better than, but do set us apart from many others as we attempt to live deeper and fuller lives together. They offer the identity we seek. They make us strange (in a good way).