Monday, June 11, 2012

first person plural

A few weeks ago, two of my youth were practicing for a concert they were giving. They wanted to play some traditional hymns, so that the churchly audience would feel at home, but they wanted to jazz them up. Like these guys:

That band, called Mutual Kumquat, produced a record of beloved Brethren hymns with fresh and fun arrangements. So Chris and Kristine practiced hymns, but free-lanced a bit, jazzed things up, improvised. And as they were doing it, we coined a new term. What they were doing, in the style of their favorite Brethren band, was mutualizing the music.

Mutualizing. It’s what we do. Take a good look at beloved Brethren hymns, and I bet you’d find that the ratio of first person plural to first person singular pronouns is heavily weighted toward the former. We speak as a we – or at least we try to. Move In Our Midst, some places known as the Brethren anthem, doesn’t have a first person singular pronoun anywhere in its 4 verses. Kenneth Morse knew his Brethren theology.

It’s not an easy transition, this move from I to WE. In fact, it’s pretty painful. When I lived in a BVS community house, my fellow volunteers and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying hard to live into the we. Every decision - from transportation to dinner menus, leisure activities to shower times - every decision required input from multiple people. It sucked. A lot. It was hard. There was a lot of independence lost. But my worldview shifted. I had to SHARE things. I had to LIVE with other people. I had to get along with them, and enjoy them, and work with and for them. And, in the end, most of us decided that the very basic practice of living together was worthy of that kind of investment of energy and will.

Doesn’t mean I don’t fully appreciate living alone now, though. There’s a lot of radical American individualism left in my selfish soul. I'm an independent introvert by nature, so being a part of this tradition that insists on my identity belonging to the gathered church that surrounds me chafes. It's not always natural, and it definitely isn't easy. But it's how we've interpreted Jesus' life, what we've learned from the early church, and where the Spirit continues calling us - together.

In 1762, a young woman started seeing visions and preaching. She was doubly testing the church's professed opinions, seeing questionable visions of angels and daring to preach in public as a woman. Catherine Hummer's father and minister encouraged her, and they caused trouble. The case went to the Church of the Brethren's Annual Meeting, where the gathered body decided that remaining in good stead with one another was more important than determining if Catherine was acting against church belief. They advised those involved "out of brotherly love, that on both sides all judgments and harsh expressions might be entirely laid down, though we do not have the same opinion of that noted occurrence, so that those who do not esteem it, should not despise those who expect to derive some use and benefit from it."

On both sides, all judgments and harsh expressions might be entirely laid down. If only, if only, if only this year's Annual Conference might have the guts and the grace to do something similar. If only we'd remember to mutualize our traditional melodies, riffing and improvising on them until they make sense, again. With grace, brotherly love, and faithfulness.

There’s an African word, Ubuntu, which means “I am because we are.” People like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee use it to explain their ethic. It’s probably the same idea. But I am not African…I’m American, and a member of this tiny Anabaptist sect that raises barns and shares debt and shoulders grief and builds churches and serves communities and washes each other’s feet…and we call all that mutualizing. First person, plural.


sarah said...

Really wonderful reflection, Dana. Blew me away, as always. And now I will hum Move in our Midst for the rest of the night.

bekah said...

Have you posted this on Kumquat's FB? You should :)