“Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.” So begins a well-beloved passage adapted from the words of the Rev. James Vila Blake, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Evanston, Illinois. These words are often spoken in the life of our faith. Several of the congregations I’ve served spoke them communally every week as part of their worship.
When we say certain words or phrases over and over again, there are several possible effects. One is that our brains tune out the repeated stimulus. I suspect most schoolchildren have this kind of relationship with the Pledge of Allegiance. But another effect of saying things repeatedly is that they become deeply engrained into who we are. Are the words of this statement engraved into the souls of those who speak them?
“Love is the spirit of this church.” This is a powerful statement. If it is true, and we all hope that on some level it is true, it obliges us not only to walk together in love, but to think deeply about what it means for us to love.
Too many churches embrace the fallacy that caring and inclusion mean the absence of conflict. This is a horribly destructive falsehood, because it stifles the creative and transformative confrontation of conflict. Caring and inclusion mean that conflict is addressed in a caring and inclusive way. An environment in which the tacit agreement is that we will avoid saying or doing anything somebody might disagree with is not one of caring and inclusion. If we assert, explicitly or implicitly, that controversy is not welcome, that disagreement is against the rules, what we are really saying is that we don’t actually trust each other. Dissent and disagreement, when they are expressed respectfully, are an expression of trust. We are saying to that other person: I trust you; I trust that you will take these remarks in the spirit of good will in which they were intended; I trust that you will engage in this dialogue with me in a respectful and thoughtful way.
Most churches aren’t real enthusiastic about dealing with conflict, and frankly, while it’s not healthy to be conflict-avoidant, some folks make a fetish of conflict — they relish fussin’ ’n’ fightin’ so much that that’s the only way they know how to be in relationship with others. It’s not impossible to find Unitarian Universalist congregations that fit that bill, though of course it ain’t just us. Every human group has its conflicts, whether it’s a family or a factory workforce or a town council or a church. Crises are a part of the nature of things, and crises create conflict. Such conflict can be addressed in any number of ways, but where there is a crisis, there will be a conflict. Stasis is not the nature of the universe; things change, things move, and predicaments arise, and with them, conflicts. Conflict is a part of life. The question is not whether or not we have to deal with conflicts, but how we respond to them, and how we may respond to the inevitable conflicts of the future.
“Love is the spirit of this church” means that we are going to disagree, and that we stay at the table even when the going gets tough. “Love is the spirit of this church” means that we are going to trust one another with our differences of opinion. “Love is the spirit of this church” means that we are going to be honest with one another and with ourselves — even when doing so is uncomfortable, especially when doing so is uncomfortable. It’s important to understand the thorny and complex meanings of “love is the spirit of this church,” but just as important is understanding what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that we place stability and appeasement and familiarity over courage and honesty and a sense of adventure. It doesn’t mean that we think our interpersonal connections are so fragile that anything that could disrupt their perceived stasis needs to be avoided, especially since that perception of stasis is itself an illusion. Relationships are alive, and all living things grow and change. “Love is the spirit of this church” means that we as a faith community have to have the courage to grow and change together. And it does take courage, it does take courage to do that.