"Though I have moved beyond some of the beliefs taught me by the church, I have held fast to the value of community. I do understand how people can negotiate life without believing in a higher being, having known atheists and agnostics who are perfectly happy. But I have never met a whole and healthy person who lacked loving friendships. For many of us, those friendships occur in spiritual communities. Though I belong to a number of associations and groups, my participation in a spiritual spiritual community has enabled me to engage the deeper dimensions of life in a way my involvement in secular community hasn’t. I’m a member of the ACLU, but the Quaker faith I belong to has been championing issues of justice far longer. My membership in the Sierra Club is meaningful, but religion has advocated for creation care since its earliest days. I support Doctors Without Borders, but religions are responsible for many hospitals around the world. Everything I value has been a historic priority of the world’s religions. To divorce myself from spiritual community would be to separate myself from the culture that birthed my life’s priorities.
"In spiritual community, I have found grace, hope, courage, and direction. I have been exposed to worlds I wouldn’t have known, cultures I wouldn’t have experienced, and ideas I likely never would have considered. Ironically, even as I have rejected some of the religious precepts of my Quaker community, I have never been ordered or compelled to affirm something I could not in good conscience believe. More times than I can count, I have been urged to follow my leading, even when that leading deviated from historic church practice. For all the criticisms I have heard about the intransigence of the church, and indeed some Christian communities can be headstrong, I have been free to explore, think, and embrace new territory. This book is evidence of that freedom.
"This is one of the reasons I return, again and again, to my community in the church. But there are other reasons. Devoting my life to the growth of others has helped me grow. Urging others to listen and forgive has made me listen and forgive. Helping people think and speak more carefully about God and life has caused me to think and speak more carefully. I have been on the verge of leaving several times, when people were unkind or petty, or the demands on my time exhausted me. So I retreated, rested, but then always returned. And have been better for it.
"How do we become fully human without one another? How can we learn and grow in isolation? How can we experience happiness, joy, and love apart from others? How can we know God without God’s presence being meditated to us through the stories and experiences of others? Growth through community is difficult, even painful, but I know of no other way to grow.
"When I was in first grade, my teacher, Mrs. Mann, brought several eggs and an incubator into our classroom. We watched daily, looking for the first crack to appear and a chick to emerge. One day our patience was rewarded when we heard a faint tapping sound and saw a small hole appear in one eggshell. I remember asking Mrs. Mann if we could crack the egg to help the chick be hatched.
" 'No,' she said, 'the chick needs to break through the shell to build its strength.'
"I believe healthy communities function in much the same way. Bumping up against others, negotiating life, breaking through into new realities build our strength. Without this struggle we wither and die. God rarely works solo but works most often in tandem with others, perfecting us, each of us completing one another.
"This is the God I believe in, because this is the God I’ve experienced — this Divine Presence within, committed to our maturation, at work in the arena of the blessed community. I do not know whether God is present at the front of creation. I wasn’t there. But I do know God is with us now. I experience her presence every day. I am certain, as certain as one can be about anything, that we have more to learn about God, and more to unlearn. Yet both the learning and the unlearning are great gifts, moving us toward truth, joy, and peace everlasting.”