Works & Hope: Why We Need Community

(This is part II of II.  Part I is here.)

In my New Testament class we just read the book of James, in which is written, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17) For those interested (and if you are not, you can skip to the next paragraph) this can be seen in direct opposition to the voice of Paul, either those texts attributed directly to him or to his followers in the generation after his death.  It was Paul who advocated that faith alone saves.

captured from LibertyChurchNYC
captured from LibertyChurchNYC

As we discussed this in class tonight, my mind went to the post I wrote this morning about how to respond to the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan.  In that post, I wrote of the works of giving money to support relief efforts.  I wrote that financial contributions are far more preferable than concrete items (for example, shoes), which too often clog disaster zones, because not only is it SWEDOW (=Stuff WE DOn’t Want), it’s stuff they can’t use.

Now I am wondering – and worrying – about the focus on giving money as a preferable “works.”  “Works” as in “good works:” putting one’s values into action.  This is not limited to one particular faith tradition or even religion at all.  Perhaps your works comes from the value of welcoming the stranger.  Perhaps it is rooted in the mandate to alleviate all suffering.  Maybe it is grounded in a preferential option for the poor and marginalized.  Or maybe it’s about a political and ethical redistribution of wealth.  Whatever it is, one moves beyond holding the value into acting on or embodying the value.

Works includes a wide range of options, only one of which is giving money in support of a cause.  For those who believe in its power, prayer is considered a kind of works.  Yet the net is even wider than these two acts (both of which are mentioned in that post from earlier today).

While treasure in the secular world is often considered by some monetary measure, the spiritual understanding expands the understanding of this resource to include not just money, but time.  Whether one has excess money to pass onto others in need, one may well have excess time to pass onto others in need: staffing a soup kitchen, cleaning silt and muck from a flood-ravaged plain, completing spread sheets so that underpaid non-profit staff can dedicate their time to more worthy tasks, delivering yarn to a house-bound knitter that they might take part in a congregation’s prayer shawl ministry.  Or perhaps it’s taking part, intentionally and with the aim of community betterment, in the Sharing Economy: letting folks use your car or your extra bedroom or your son’s portable amplifier – sharing not just your time, but your resources in the name of building Beloved Community.

captured from
captured from

So I want to say, I know that not everyone has money that they can give away as their way to support relief efforts in the Philippines.  I want to say, I know that not everybody can pay attention to every tragedy all the time.  In fact, no one can.  There are too many tragedies out there and sometimes there are too many tragedies (and traumas and losses and hurtful distractions) in here.  In each of us.  There are times we can’t give, or even give back.  I adopted two children on my own and had to get used, pretty darn quickly, to accepting help from people I would never, ever be able to pay back or give proper thanks.

This is reason #756,909 why community is so damn important.  Because we can’t do it all on our own.

In the latest issue of UU World, there is the story of two parents whose 18-year-old daughter, Lauren Dunne Astley, was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 2011.   Both parents have become stalwart advocates for healthy teen dating relationships and education about dating violence and its prevention.  The mother, Mary Dunne, had the chance to choose the topic for a sermon by her minister.  She chose, “Got Hope?”

The Reverend Ken Sawyer of First Parish in Wayland, MA, preached this concept, which he learned in dialogue with others, using these words:

There are times—thank goodness, very, very uncommon times—but times when having hope is more than a person should expect of themselves, times just to get through, step by step, breath by breath, when hope is something people around you, your family and friends, hold for you until you are ready to receive it back.

This is why I raised my children in a loving, very active Village: because I couldn’t do it 24/7 by myself.  It is why when I give money to support relief for the latest devastating disaster; I do it not just for myself, but on behalf of those who can’t give money now but wish they could – because someone did that for me when I was struggling financially and I expect will do it for me when things get financially frayed at the edges.  It is why I give time when I can to causes I believe in, and try not to feel too guilty when I can’t, trusting that someone else is holding up their end of that bargain.

When I can access my hope for this sordid world, I nurse it, grow it, and share it.  I know it is my religious, spiritual, and humanitarian obligation to do so, because there is always a heartbroken parent out there, a grieving spouse, an abused and lonely child, who cannot yet hold onto that hope, but needs to know or be shown that it is there.

This is why we must opt into community, opt into intentional covenant with each other that holds each other and holds each other accountable.   This is why we must resist all these secular and materialistic forces that tenaciously lead us along the road where we are bowling alone and where the largest number of us have no one in whom we confide.  Alone, we don’t have enough money or time or prayer or hope to meet the world’s needs.  This has been empirically proven.

It’s not yet clear whether or not when we all band together that we can succeed, so until it’s disproven, we might as well give it our best effort.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

To Lauren’s bereft parents, as well as the whole congregation gathered around them, that minister said these words:

That hope we are holding for you, the hope you may not be able to have now or for a while, that hope we are holding for you, will not go away.

May we do this for Lauren’s parents, or the parents of Renisha McBride, for the parents of Ana-Grace Márquez-Greene, and the countless other parents grieving their lost children.  May we hold this hope for every human and all those creatures ravaged by winds and by despair in the wake of weather gone ever-more savage.  May we allow others to do their part on our behalf when we cannot and may we step up in those moments we can.


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