NCC Framing Story – A Work in Progress

“NCC’s Framing Story – A Work in Progress,” Susan Ryder

Matthew 18:20
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Romans 12:4-5
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

Georges Erasmus, an Aboriginal leader from Canada, said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

Rabbi Zoë Klein – Part of the core value of how we treat each other in a sacred community is how we welcome others, not only those from outside our community, but those within our community as well. Each and every action that we perform, overtly or covertly, has to say: you are welcome here.

From Intro the NCC Belief Statement – This statement expresses what holds us together as an ecumenical faith community. We are people who experience doubt and questioning as a positive part of the journey of faith, and we do not presume to have final answers. Our statement is a “work in progress.”

“Tell me the story of the day I was born” – it’s something children ask their parents over and over as they are growing up, even if they have already heard it so many times they could tell it themselves. I remember asking my parents numerous times to tell me the story of my coming into the world, not because it was a remarkable story – I wasn’t born in the back of the car on the way to the hospital or during one of California’s famous earthquakes or anything exciting like that. I wanted to hear them tell it again and again because it was the very beginning of my story, my entrance into the family, the start of my presence in the world. Birth stories aren’t just for individuals – couples and families have origin stories, as do communities and organizations. Creation stories are integral to religious communities, and each have their own version of how the world came into being, along with where and how their Deity fits in, and how humanity came into the picture. Native American tribes have multiple creation stories – they are some of my favorites.

Last year Brian McLaren talked to us about birth stories, or as he called them, framing stories, for institutions and faith communities – and how important it is for those stories to be known and shared within the community. A common memory, as Georges Erasmus put it. As we celebrate NCC’s 25th birthday later this month, it seems a good time to share our birth story again. For some it is familiar and you could tell it yourself, perhaps better than I can since I came along 5 years into the story – while for others this may be the first time you are hearing it. Once upon a time … as any really good story begins … New Covenant Community was born on a Sunday morning in September 1992. Our founding mothers and fathers – twelve of them as spiritual coincidence would have it – gathered around a communion table to share progressive worship together. Twenty five years later, half of those original 12 founding members are still with us – David and Betty Rademacher, Garrett Scott, Colleen Farlee, and Jim and Gwen Pruyne. Some have died – Jody Stewart, Sandy Scott, Lloyd Farlee, Jacqui Adair, Dorothy Lee, and Laura Pedrick moved out of state.

As with any birth, much planning and work came before that first Sunday. The abbreviated version of is that NCC was the child of the United Campus Christian Foundation, or UCCF, an ecumenical campus ministry that, in 1992, had an almost 40-year presence at Illinois State University, much of that time in this very building. During those years UCCF students worshipped at First Presbyterian Church, which was located at the corner of Fell and Mulberry. When First Pres. decided to relocate away from campus to the east side of town, then UCCF campus minister Jim Pruyne, his wife Gwen, and a few board members and ISU faculty, used this loss of their valued worshipping community for students as an opportunity to create a new, progressive congregation, which would be made up of three of the five denominations affiliated with UCCF – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ.

From our very beginning, NCC did not conform to norms, which is an integral part of our heritage. Most union churches are formed when two congregations merge, usually to save money and combine resources. St. Luke Union Church in Bloomington is a typical example – a joining of UCC and Presbyterians in 1975, and even before that a union of Reformed, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian congregations. Keep in mind too that NCC was established at a time when many new congregations were declaring themselves non-denominational. Totally bucking that trend, NCC was birthed as not just a union, but a TRI-union congregation. We’ve always been a bit rebellious, haven’t we? And not just about our denominational trifecta. NCC was an Open and Affirming/More Light congregation from the very beginning – meaning we publicly affirmed and welcomed LGBT people fully into the life of our community, long before it became “legal” for either denomination to do so. At that time we were only one of only two welcoming congregations (the other being the UU church).

Also from the start, NCC members and friends valued spiritual searching over religious certainty, something that was attractive to many folks who had either left traditional Christianity behind, or had never really bought into it in the first place. We became one of the earliest congregational members of the Center for Progressive Christianity, where Bob served on the board of directors for many years. We valued the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, whose books we read and who we invited to speak about the historical Jesus – John Dominic Crossan twice and Marcus Borg once, and most recently Stephen Patterson and Ruben Rene Dupertuis. Committed to social justice and community action, we wrote letters encouraging the town of Normal, and later Bloomington, to adopt anti-discrimination policies in relation to LGBT persons. We joined Illinois People’s action, and embraced interfaith perspectives.

From the very beginning on that first Sunday, we gathered around the open table of Jesus, breaking bread and sharing the cup together every Sunday in the tradition of the Disciples of Christ. Communion took on a new, profound meaning for us, and we were especially compelled by the notion of open commensality, first shared with us by Dom Crossan. Commensality – eating and drinking at the same table – is a fundamental social activity, which creates and cements relationships. We welcome all to our table, inspired by the ministry of Jesus, who, as it says in our bulletin each week, “in a society marked by rigid social separations invited all sorts of people to be reconciled to God and to each other around the supper table. We, who are many and diverse, also become one Community as we share one loaf.” We do not use traditional words of institution that relegate the sacrament to a blood sacrifice and atonement for sins; rather we use words that break down walls and include people rather than exclude them. One last thing to mention about worship is that we don’t pass an offering plate, and we never have. Our founders did not care for that aspect of a traditional service, so our offering plate sits in the back for people to leave their gifts.

There is certainly more to share about NCC’s framing story – some details have been left out for the sake of time or due to fading memory. And of course our founders might tell the story differently than I have – as I said, Bob and I came into the picture five years after NCC began. And as with any story, it alters in the retelling based on who the storyteller is and what is important or stands out for them. Hopefully I have accurately shared the most important parts of ours. We will explore more in the coming weeks as we consider different aspects of our story – next week Bob will consider how our place, location, is part of our story. As I conclude, I want to share what I believe is one of the cornerstones of who we are, and it comes from the NCC Belief Statement, which was written in those early years of NCC’s existence, and it begins, “Early in our life as a Community, we began a dialogue about what we believe. We did not want simply to repeat creeds written many centuries ago by people living in worlds different from our own. This is our consensus statement. This statement expresses what holds us together as an ecumenical faith community. We are people who experience doubt and questioning as a positive part of the journey of faith, and we do not presume to have final answers. Our statement is a ‘work in progress.’” I would add that New Covenant Community is also a work in progress.

Brian McLaren suggested that while it’s imperative to know and claim a shared story, a history, it is also essential for communities to grow and develop beyond those framing stories. The challenge all institutions face is how to successfully navigate that fine line between honoring the past while at the same time not letting it tie us down to something which is no longer tenable. As we reflect on our first 25 years, we are cognizant there are ways we have already evolved and need to continue to do so in order to thrive and survive for the next 25 years – something much easier said than done, especially within churches, where sacred cows are plentiful, even in a young congregation like ours. Refrains of “this is how we’ve always done things” or “that’s not what our founders had in mind” come up against choruses of “we need to try something new” or “if we don’t change we might not survive.” Our challenge is to honor the variety of voices and find the harmony they can create together, honoring our identity as a work in progress.

My hope as we embark on our next 25 years is that we will celebrate the continuing opportunities we have to make our voices heard, as well as the responsibility to say things that are worth hearing to each other and to the larger community – now more than ever. May this 25-year milestone encourage us to look both back and ahead, as well as truly being present in this very moment, and to be grateful for who we were, who we are, and who we are yet to become. We are a work in progress.

May a good vision catch me
May a benevolent vision take hold of me, and move me
May a deep and full vision come over me,
and burst open around me
May a luminous vision inform me, enfold me. Amen.