Belonging. Believing. Blessing

Ephesians 1:3-8

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. He has lavished his grace on us.

I’ve recently been doing some soul searching.  Now that I’ve become a mother I am particularly interested in two questions. Who am I? And Who does God want me to be? When I spend time with my daughter, I ponder how I am perceived or will be perceived by her. I can be very critical of myself, and I don’t want to pass that on to her.  It is easier for me to be negative, and I have to work hard to stay positive and optimistic.  I imagine that when God looks at me, God loves and appreciates me for who I am and would encourage me to live into the fullness that God hopes for me.  When my daughter grows up, I want her to experience more of my positive side than my negative side.

As I reflect on myself, I have also extended my reflections to the church.  Who are we and who does God want us to be? How do we focus on the positive and not the negative?  A flood of images and ideas come to mind in response to these questions. Sifting through all my thoughts, I came down to these three  B’s – belonging, believing and blessing.  They define the church now and they are foundations for our future growth.

The first word that I chose was belonging. Here at Kenilworth Union Church members have a strong sense of belonging. Many have a great deal of history here, going back several generations. Family tradition creates a strong sense of belonging.  For newer members, the connection that people feel to one another and to this beautiful church building makes them feel part of this place. We cannot forget above all the work of the Holy Spirit unifying all of us as God’s children, one holy family.

When I think about KUC I’m reminded of a well-known song that I’m sure will be familiar to you.  It goes like this:

“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.

Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see, your troubles are all the same.  You wanna be where everybody knows Your name.”

The theme song from Cheers captures that sense of belonging that we value in our church community. In its simplest sense, our church is a place where we feel cared about, by others and by God, and that makes us feel like we belong.

Our sense of belonging is an important part of what keeps us strong as a community of faith now.  It is also going to be a significant part of our future.  In a book called Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard, he brings to light the decline in community life in America over the last four to five decades. The title comes from a trivial but telling example: the percentage of adults who belong to a bowling league today is only about ¼ of what it was in the 1960’s.

Here are other examples:

  • The percentage of people who volunteer in a political campaign – stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, going door to door – is today about half what it was in the late 1960’s.
  • Active membership in local clubs and organizations, like the PTA, has dropped by about half, percentage-wise, since the 1970’s.
  • People are visiting one another less frequently, having friends and family over for dinner less frequently, getting together to play cards less frequently.

In short, Putnam concludes that every objective measure of participation in community and civic life is declining.  Our need for community, for places where we belong is not declining. In our future, I see that KUC can be a place that reaches out to the people who are feeling isolated and alone because of modern living.  We can bring people together to connect in meaningful ways.

I have already told you that one of my favorite things about KUC is that you can belong to this church without having a particular set of beliefs. There are many churches out there where you have to believe in order to belong, but here we are committed to freedom of belief.  When we look to the Bible, Jesus asked his disciples to “follow him” before he ever said, “believe in me.”  We follow that biblical tradition.  You don’t have to have your faith all figured out to be part of this church.  On the other hand, there are members here who are very certain of their beliefs and enjoy testifying to their faith.  What a gift that here people have the freedom to be lost or found in faith and be in fellowship with each other.

In thinking about believing, I am reminded of parts of a book that I have recently been reading called Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  Donald describes his friend who taught Donald that “what I believe is not what I say.  It is what I do.”  In other words, we have to talk the talk and walk the walk.  If we say we believe something, then our choices and actions should reflect this belief.  Another striking point that Donald’s friend made about believing started out with his friend asking him what he would die for.  His friend told him that dying for something was easy because it is associated with glory or recognition, but what about living for what we believe.   Donald writes, “If my friend is right, if I live what I believe, then I don’t believe very many noble things.  My life testifies that the first thing I believe is that I am the most important person in the world.  I am learning to believe better things.”  This is a very powerful admission.  When I read it, I thought about what I would be willing to die for.  I would be willing to die for my daughter and my husband, for my family and friends.  If I care that much about them that I would sacrifice my life for them, how can I live for them?  How can my life reflect my belief that they are so very special?  I hope that my life will reflect noble beliefs, as Donald says he hopes this for his life.  I believe in the greatest commandment, that above all we must love God, love our neighbors and love ourselves.  I want for my life to show how much I truly care for others.

If KUC was getting a report card for how well we do putting our faith in action and living our beliefs of caring for others, I would give us high marks for our compassion and service.  This has been our strength and I think it will be our strength in the future as well.  As a non-denominational church, we have opened our doors and aimed to be a place that welcomes people of all different beliefs.  This is something very special about our church that helps us to bring together people from diverse backgrounds who hold very different beliefs as a family of faith.  In our church descriptions we state that “Kenilworth Union Church is a Christian family of faith who comes together to worship, to find spiritual inspiration and guidance and then goes out in service to others.”  When we go back to those two questions I started with of who are we and who do we want to become, I see us moving more and more towards emphasizing compassion and service within our community and beyond it.   I think of the 48 agencies that we give grants to each year and the liaisons who work with them and I am moved by how far the reach of your generosity extends.

Why do we care so greatly about serving others that brings us to the third B.  Blessing.  We have been greatly blessed and, out of gratitude for our blessings, we want to bless others.  In our Christian religious tradition, to be blessed means to be favored by God.  This means that blessings come from God.  To express a desire to bless someone else is saying that you wish that they would experience what it is like to receive God’s favor or gifts.  One of the first appearances of blessing in the Bible is in Genesis 12:1-2 where Abram is told by God “I will bless you, I will make your name great.”  In this passage blessing is associated with recognition and success. Many are familiar with the blessings in Numbers 6:24-26: “May the LORD bless you, and keep you; May the LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; May the LORD turn His face to you and grant you peace.”  In this passage the blessings are God’s care for you, God’s graciousness to you and God’s peace.  There are many ways to look at blessings.

Kenilworth Union Church is truly blessed.  We have so many gifts.  We are blessed with this beautiful church building.  We are blessed with beautiful music.  We are blessed by the inspiration of the Word of God.  We are blessed by the 100 volunteers who are teaching Sunday School this year and the 60 high school helpers.  We are blessed by the hundreds of students who come to learn about God and God’s love in our Sunday School classrooms.  We are blessed by every member of the congregation.  I could go on and on about our blessings.  I hope that you could too.  We recognize our abundance of blessings and we bless others by knitting prayer shawls for people facing personal challenges and difficulties with their health; by bringing meals to new moms; by serving food at A Just Harvest and The Night Ministry; by sending tutors to work with children in Rogers Park; by supporting shelters for victims of domestic violence; by building a school in Haiti and wells in Ghana.  Through your hands and generous hearts KUC has touched so many lives.  We have been greatly blessed and we have been a great blessing.  It is a strength of our past and offers us possibilities to grow in our future.

There is a verse in scripture from James 1 “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from God, with whom there  is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”  There is so much that is so good at KUC.  We cannot doubt that God has been good to us and will continue to be.  We face challenges and change, but in a way those are gifts from God too.  Challenges help us to grow.  We are growing and changing as a community of faith, but we can rely on our sense of belonging, our beliefs and our blessings as our foundations from the past and our promise for a bright future.