In my heart of hearts, I really don't care about the World Cup. I don't find soccer that interesting to watch (especially when teams go scoreless for a full ninety-minute game) but more to the point, watching sports on television just isn't my thing. So when I arrived in Philadelphia for our Youth Group's service trip last Tuesday I was a little less than pleased to discover that several members of our group had decided to change plans. Instead of getting in a half day of work our first day, we were going to go pick up some tools, see the neighborhood where we would be working, and then drive to the Buffalo Wild Wings and watch the World Cup match between the U.S. and Belgium.
It was clear that there was no changing the decision--the kids were already psyched up about it. So I brought my laptop with me, ordered a beer and all of the appetizers on the Happy Hour special and figured I'd make the best out of the situation. I didn't want to start the trip on a sour note, so I had to let go of my annoyance.
As it turned out, it wasn't at all hard to enjoy myself. The restaurant was pretty full and everyone was there to watch the game. Televisions lined every wall and the sound was turned up pretty loud. Every time the U.S. got near the goal, people cheered, and when they finally scored everyone was on their feet, shouting and clapping. I quickly ditched my laptop and starting cheering along with the rest of the room. When the clock started to run out and the U.S. needed to make one more goal to tie it up, I really started to feel anxious. My heart was racing, my palms were sweating--all over a game that I don't actually care about.
I caught the excitement of the crowd--it is hard not to. When we stand in the midst of a group of people who are sharing a feeling, chances are we'll start feeling some of the same thing. Human emotions are contagious, especially in groups.
I'll be starting my four-month leave from the Kittamaqundi Community in a little over three weeks (my last Sunday is August 3rd). In preparation for working on my sabbatical project on "A Spirituality of Us", I've been working on a "mind map", a diagram that shows the central question of my study and all the other questions that branch out from it. (I love this part of any project--I'm much better at elaborating and complexifying than I am at focusing.)
My project asks how we can cultivate (name, claim, deepen, reflect on and proclaim) our experience of God in the midst of community. Behind that big question are even bigger ones: what does it mean to experience something in community? Are these experiences to be trusted? When we feel something in community, are those feelings to be trusted?
These are tough questions for me, especially when it comes to religious life. I've been in big worship services with loud music and felt myself get caught up in a way that isn't completely comfortable. The music builds and builds and people are raising their hands and before I know it I'm crying. Afterwards I feel a little sheepish. I know I've just been along for the ride--the things I've felt aren't really my own feelings. It's fun, but it feels like cheering for a World Cup game. I don't really have a personal stake in what is happening.
But at the same time, I know there is a "lively" feeling in the room at Kittamaqundi that is essential to our worship. How to explain it?
Years ago, I led worship for a small congregation in a sanctuary that had room for at least 250 people. I sometimes felt like I was shouting in a padded cell--no matter how much energy I put out, the room seemed to just absorb it. Leading worship at KC is a much different experience. It feels like singing in a room with really good acoustics. The energy I put out into the room bounces around and echos and amplifies. People laugh or cry and that energy comes shooting up to me, nearly knocking me off my feet at times. I know part of this has to do with architecture (the stone walls really do make the room acoustically lively) and some of this has to do with human community. But I have a sense that there is something more to it as well.
Jesus famously told his disciples, "Wherever two or three of you gather, I will be there among you." We sense this--the group is something more than the sum of its parts. There is something alive among us when we are together in true community, something worth paying attention to, something that can be trusted. This is the experience of community that shapes us in a way that lasts long after the cheering and shouting and singing ends.
But how does this kind of experience come to be? Can I try to create it? Or do I need to just let it arrive, unbidden?