As some of you know, I went to a unique college for the first two and a half years of my experience with higher education. Deep Springs College is located on a working cattle ranch in a high desert valley in eastern California. There is nothing else in the 60 square mile valley except a highway maintenance station. The nearest town is 28 miles away on the other side of the White Mountains. Students lived and worked on the ranch for 42 weeks a year. There were only 24 students at the school, and all of us were male. Classes were small and intense. The students fed the chickens and pigs, tended the vegetable garden, milked the cows, cooked meals for the community, washed the dishes, did paperwork in the office, and studied everything from Black Women’s Literature to Twentieth Century Political Theory to Special Relativity. This college was founded by a man named L. L. Nunn. His purpose was to “train promising young men for lives of service.” He felt that academics alone were not enough to produce individuals committed to serving their communities. Students had to put in at least 25 hours of manual labor each week, and all of the students participated in self government – the students decided who was accepted to the college, who was invited back for a second year, and what courses would be taught.
Of course, not all the students came from the same background or agreed on all issues. There were Christians and atheists, right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats, and even a few socialists. Spirited discussions were not uncommon. Still, we all lived and worked together. We had an investment in the community and the place. We depended on each other. Deep Springs was not a perfect community, but it was a community. People thought of themselves as a community and most were committed to living together in a way that built up the individuals and the group. (Note: Deep Springs if now coeducational. If any young people are interested, please talk with me. Parents: Deep Springs is a great option for your student. It is an outstanding education, and it is free. Yes, every student gets a full tuition, room and board scholarship.)
Our congregation is a community. In many ways it is not like Deep Springs. Even before COVID, we did not spend as much time together as Deep Springers do. We do not live in close proximity to one another and depend on one another for daily needs. We are not isolated from the rest of the world. We do not wash dishes or bale hay together every day. Nevertheless, there are some similarities. Like the students at Deep Springs we all are committed to a common goal. We do meet together (over Zoom) to make decisions about our common life. And we do work together. (Meals-on-Wheels deliveries are still happening. People have worked together to clean up the church building and make the garden look amazing. The Praise Team still gathers – masked and socially distant – to provide music.) Even more importantly, we share one thing that Deep Springers did not share: a common faith in Jesus Christ. We, as the Church, are not simply another organization struggling to make it in the world. We are the Body of Christ. We are the hands of Christ, helping others. We are the mouth of Christ, speaking words of compassion, encouragement, and justice. We are the ears of Christ, listening to those who need someone to hear their pain and joy. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be different from any other group of people. The Church is a Body, not a corporation or a club. A congregation is a living organism, created by Holy Spirit, not a static organization formed by a group of people adopting a constitution.
The question for us is how to open ourselves up to that gift of the Spirit even more, so that we deepen our connections to one another and our love for one another. As we slowly move back to some semblance of “normal,” let us think about how we can be more of a community as the Church. We have given up so much over the past year. Perhaps we can use this opportunity to come together as God’s people as we become more comfortable leaving our homes. We can spend time worshiping together, time talking and listening to one another, time helping the poor and serving the community together. Someday, we’ll even be able to eat together again!
I know that when things start to get back to normal, “Very busy” will become normal again, too. For some, “very busy” never stopped, even during lockdown. I know you don’t need another demand on your time. So, I’ll be honest: if you want to know God and the love of God’s people more intimately, you have to give up something else. We cannot do it all. Two jobs, a social club, three sports teams, a hobby or two, and seven “can’t miss” TV shows make spending more time with the people of God a burden at best and an impossibility at worst. Something has to go to free up some of those 168 hours in a week. Sacrifices need to be made. Maybe after a year of making sacrifices we can see that it is possible to give some things up. We survived.
“Sacrifices” might sound like a bad word, but it just recognizes that we are human and can’t do everything. I gave up some things by going to Deep Springs College. I couldn’t go to the movies. We didn’t have TV. No malls, no fast food. But the amazing benefits of that educational experience made the sacrifices seem tiny, even insignificant, in comparison. (Until I wrote it down, I had never really thought much about the fact that there was no TV at Deep Springs.) It’s the same way once we get involved with the people of God and the mission of God in our congregation.
We have the opportunity to rebuild and reinvigorate our church community. We have survived a really hard year. Indeed, we have not only survived, we have continued to be a blessing to one another to our town and to the world. Deeply connecting with one another – which only happens when people worship together, work together and play together – is a crucial part of the good life. It’s an important part of what God wants for us. To be part of that kind of community, most of us will have to give something up. You might even call it a sacrifice, but it’s definitely worth it. We have the opportunity for God to make something new.