Reverend Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, October 2, 2005
When my mother died in November 10 years ago, I reached for my hymnbook and turned to George Odell’s beautiful reading. I carried it with me to Montreal. As my brother and sister’s families joined us around Mom’s dining table for one last traditional meal of Chinese take-out, I read it while we lit the candle.
To me it is the description of a caring community, whether that be the community of lovers, family, old friends…or even a church. A true community is something that is there when you most need it, whether that need is born of happiness or sorrow. One definition of home is, “the place that when you go, they have to take you in.” I think that also stands as a pretty good definition of a caring community. I know that in my life I have been blessed to be part of several meaningful communities, places where I could truly be me, where I could feel and share the experiences that were shaping my life. And some of those experiences weren’t pretty. Communities were where I could turn for honest, if sometimes hard to hear feedback when I was being a jerk.
Odell’s list, when reduced to key ideas is wonderfully succinct. A caring community is where one finds comfort in mourning, relief from fear, a kick in the pants in times of self-absorption, a helping hand now and then, people with whom we can celebrate, people who will encourage us when we fail, and ‘gentle hands’ to help us prepare for death. Give me that an I will be satisfied with my life when its end comes near.
When I look back I have to say that it was the idea of a caring community that drew me into the Unitarian ministry. I believe it is still at the centre of my personal mission and message in this work.
For one raised in a church setting, I find it odd that I never really discovered the church as community until living far from home well in my 20’s. And then it was a Unitarian church, not the church of my birth. Many have heard this story before, but it bears repeating. I had been a member of the Toronto First church for a year or two when my youthful marriage suddenly and dramatically came to an end. A few weeks later at Coffee Hour an elder of the church named Frank came up and stood beside me (as guys do when they talk about important stuff). Now if you were looking for a warm fuzzy type in the congregation, Frank would not be the last person you’d think of. You would simply never think of him at all. A quiet and cerebral humanist with a legal and social justice background, you would think of Frank to do the dusty and solitary paperwork that allows someone else to run out and change the world. But wear a party hat and sing, “Happy Birthday”? Naaw.
But that day Frank walked up, took my hand and quietly asked how I was doing. It was, in all, a brief conversation, but from those dark days, it stands out from the many sympathetic hugs and good wishes as a unique and transformative moment. If my tawdry little story could touch someone way over on the other side of life, then I guess I wasn’t really as alone as I thought. There was a momentary connection, a possibility opening up, and it shone like a beacon guiding me to safety. Never, never, my friends, underestimate your power to touch another person’s life, no matter how small the gesture. If you look around during coffee later and see someone looking a little lost, it might be something as simple as your hello that helps them feel at home here, that helps them feel a little less lost and isolated. It will cost you very little. And if yours isn’t the ‘hello’ that helps someone turn the corner, then so what? It’s still cost you very little and was just a nice and neighbourly thing to do. But do try to let your hello mean something.
You see, Frank took a risk by looking me in the eye and asking me that question in a way that said he really was ready to hear the true answer. That was the day that I began to understand what a church community can be. We never became best pals or had lunch together. I bet that in a week or so he forgot that the interaction ever took place. But Frank taught me that a community is a place where you care, simply because someone has chosen to be part of this beloved community with you. Frank knew that he owed me something because of our common bond of membership.
And I see that awareness and compassion here, too, Sunday after Sunday. Each week different folks, walk up to those who have shared candles of care and connection to offer a hug or a kind word or a congratulation or just a sympathetic nod. I know, for I have often been the beneficiary of your kindness when I got married, when my daughters were born, and last year when so many expressed concern that the stress of the move and the renovations were taking their toll. The ability of members to care for one another is one of the things that tells me I am serving the right congregation for me.
But reasonable questions to ask are: How caring must a community be to be a caring community? Is it appropriate to put some sensible limits on our commitment to the needs of others? Where is the line between ‘selfish’ and ‘service’ appropriately drawn? When is it okay to put our needs before those of others?
On a personal level each of us has to work out our own answers. The fact is that most of us lead lives that have at least a few complications in them. Perhaps you have a physical challenge, or a financial one. Perhaps you are dealing with family or work issues that sap your ability to empathize with anyone outside your immediate circle. Maybe the busyness of your life just doesn’t allow for caring visits to hospitals or seniors homes. I remember as a youth spending an hour or more on the phone with a friend…well, okay, usually a girlfriend. I just don’t have the luxury of that amount of time anymore. Typically my longest personal calls today are with the phone tucked under my shoulder while I make dinner. The circumstances of our lives will dictate some of the limits of our ability to act on our concerns for others.
Each of us has to find our own plan for how we will participate in the caring community. My plan involves priorities. I love this church and its people dearly, but my family comes first. Period, full stop. Teilya and I have taken on the obligation of raising children. Others may have quite different views on the subject, and I mean no disrespect to those views. But in my life, there is no higher obligation. Every other need and desire has to fall in line behind that one. This doesn’t mean that every waking moment is devoted to Elora and Lily, I don’t think that would be healthy for them or for me. But it does mean that when a hard choice has to be made…well, the decision will actually be pretty easy. As they grow older and more independent and less in need of my direct care in their lives, well priorities will shift again, but for now, that’s the way it has to be. Extended family, friends in and out of church, even the call of social justice, another expression of a caring community, may have to take a backseat.
Everyone of us has some situation that influences our interest and ability to participate in the caring for the community. I know that some of you have become more involved in helping other church members and friends as family obligations have lessened. Others, as Teilya and I do, seek to find a balance between the competing goods in our lives. But one thing we have learned is that the more you participate in community, the more you are willing to support others with a kind word or a listening ear, the more likely it is that they will be there for you when your time of needing support arrives.
That’s the beautiful thing about community. The more you give of yourself to it, the more you will be embraced by it, or perhaps I should say ‘by them’ for a community is not a thing as much as a group of people.
One challenge in giving care is figuring out how to do it. A lot of people are intimidated by things like hospital rooms or care homes. Many well-meaning folks still have not figured out what to say to someone who is terminally ill or who has just lost a spouse. A lot of naturally shy and reserved people are cautious about developing too much intimacy with too many people. For some kinds of folks being with others demands that they reveal more of themselves than is comfortable. These are limits I think you have to respect.
But these are also personal challenges that can be overcome. At the top of page three in your Order of Service is a notice about a Caring Community workshop. On Tuesday after next, October 11, the Care and Connections committee will sponsor a session focused on visiting and other pastoral techniques. Our goal in this is to help more people in this church get over some of the fears they may have about talking with folks in tough situations. We want to help you develop your skills. While we are looking for a few more people to become active with the Care and Connections Committee, that is not a primary focus of this event. You see the work of a caring community does not sit in the hands of one special committee. Leave all the pastoral and caring work to a few overworked volunteers and a minister, and we will quickly lose the warmth ofg a real caring community and be reduced to a mere service provider. The work of the caring community belongs to each of us and to all of us. The work George Odell described in “We need one another” is not the work of highly trained people, but the work of friends who know our stories, neighbours who believe in doing the right thing, friends who have shared experiences with us.
Caring for one another in a hundred formal and informal ways may be the most important thing we do in this place. Whether it’s greeting someone at the door on a Sunday, or making the coffee or being part of the team of tellers counting the offering, everything we do here has the potential for touching someone else’s life. When Karen asked earlier what you found here and why you return to this place, I bet that more than a few of you answered “the people”, or “the community”… probably far more that answered “Brian’s insightful and brilliant sermons”. But that’s okay. In fact, that’s the way it should be. If it was any other way we might be a valuable organization, but we wouldn’t be a church. For a church is a place that understands that, “We need one another…All our lives we are in need and others are in need of us..”