The Infirmary and the Gym

Living Your Faith, part 1

There’s a saying about the function of a congregation, I've mentioned before. The two-fold function of the congregation is:
to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
It sounds like two different things: comforting afflicted and afflicting comfortable. You might read this as separating the comfortable from the afflicted in much the same way the sheep are to be separated from the goats: the comfortable being the goats, are to be afflicted.

I don’t believe in a separation of people into sheep and goats. I resonate with Alexandre Solzhenitsyn who wrote:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
There’s no separating sheep from goats.

It’s not just that all of us are part sheep and part goat. The impossibility goes deeper than that. We can’t tell the difference between our own sheep parts and goat parts.

What we all are is: a bundle of competing drives and needs, and sometimes some of them need to be at the fore and sometimes others do, and we aren’t always perfectly skilled at knowing which drives to attend to when, and we aren’t always perfectly skilled at attending to those drives without collateral damage, so we make mistakes and cause harm to ourselves and others. There are no sheep and goats, and likewise no division into the afflicted and the comfortable.

I think what’s trying to be said is simply: Care about people.

Your congregation is not here to judge you as too comfortable and thus set out to afflict you in various ways. Your congregation is here for joy and peace – to learn about, to practice, to model, to embody, lives of joy and peace. As we go, we soon learn that caring, kindness, compassion -- love -- is at the center of joy and peace.

If you’re not living that way, then you’re not comfortable. This we know: as Benjamin Franklin put it,
“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.”
A person concerned only with their own protection and aggrandizement is a fundamentally unhappy person, never at ease, never comfortable. A certain public figure, perhaps, comes to mind: fundamentally unhappy, never at ease, never comfortable.

Your congregation is not out to afflict the comfortable. We are here to help each other care more, become kinder, less complacent and thereby grow more comfortable with ourselves and our world. Whether you are suffering from a general complacency or a specific grief, the path forward is the same: connect with people through compassionate service to others. Thus there is no two-fold function for a congregation, but a single function, which takes thousands of forms.

Another way the idea of a two-fold function is sometimes expressed is to say congregations have a pastoral function and a prophetic function. The pastoral is care and guidance for grief, loss, and heartache. The prophetic is a reference to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos, Micah, et al. The traditional meaning of prophet is one who speaks for God, or by divine inspiration, to guide the people of Israel. Unitarian Universalism has been particularly influenced by strands of thought that view these prophets primarily in their role as social critics. The prophets were the ones who called out injustice – who spoke truth to power – who urged the people (particularly the powerful) to change their ways and turn away from evil.

I once characterized the pastoral and prophetic as the infirmary and the gym. In its pastoral function, the congregation is a spiritual infirmary. When you come here sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited, the congregation provides care, sustenance, replenishing rest to help you get better. In its prophetic function, the congregation is a spiritual gymnasium. Here we offer each other the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity. We’re here to work out together.

Both the infirmary and the gym are concerned with health, as the congregation is concerned with spiritual health, so, again, there’s ultimately one function – though good health requires both rest, on the one hand, and exercise, on the other.

Throughout western religion – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – theologians and faith leaders have also grappled with and sometimes promoted another model: call it the insurance policy. On the insurance policy model, congregational life is your insurance that God is on your side -- that, as one insurance company advertises, you’re in good hands. You will be provided for on earth – and, afterwards, heaven. You pay your premiums by giving assent to doctrines and tithing to a congregation and when the time of need comes, God will issue the check to cover your need.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Living Your Faith"
See next
Part 2: At the Center of Joy and Peace
Part 3: Atoning and Facing the New Year

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