NOTE: This is an updated post from a couple of years ago.
To be left alone or to be in community?
Hmmm, if I am honest, I too often prefer to be alone than in community. What does that say about my view of spirituality and of the character of God?
Here are some thoughts coming out of Psalm 133 in which the Psalmist clearly says that it is good and pleasant to be in community, to dwell together in unity! Jesus had a few things about this in John 13 and 17!
The kind of community described in Psalm 133 is something attractive, something that most of us (including myself) long for.
First of all, it is GOOD (tov). Think God said something about it not being good to be alone from the beginning! So, it should not surprsise me to think that he thinks it is good to be together.
But community/unity is also delightful or it is pleasant. A quick search on na’im which is the Hebrew word, gives the picture that the delight of community should be similar to the joy we have in our relationship with God when we praise Him, the delight that comes with compliments, the pleasure that wisdom and knowledge brings to our heart.
Two images–like oil and like the dew. Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction suggests that the oil communicates a “sense of warm priestly relationship. “
With this imagery, we see God’s anointing of one another–we recognize that God is (equally) at work in my brother or sister’s life. I recognize and value what God is doing in my brother and understand that this may mean speaking the truth in love to one another.
What extravagance to see oil flowing down—community as rich, sweet and fragrant. It is natural that we honor our brother/sister and rejoice when they rejoice!
Peterson suggests that dew brings an imagery of a “sense of freshness and expectant newness.” Should community not bring a thirst quenching for the soul? It is like water on hot day or rain after a drought or the hot season. This image of community provides the promise of better things to come, of blessings!
What creates community? Colossians seems to bring unity and community together well in Col 3:14 “love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony.” Yep, back to love and 1 Cor 13!
What prevents community from forming?
- Seeing others as competitors
- Seeing others as problems to fix
- Using others as a means to make me or the organization successful
What to do?
- Stop labeling others
- Stop presuming to know why people do what they do
- Take each person seriously
- Learn to trust one another other
- Depend on one other
- Be compassionate with and towards others
- Rejoice with others.
Peterson quotes Bonhoeffer,
“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother . . . as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word . . . Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” Cost of Discipleship
So, if I choose solitude over community, can I understand myself? how growth occurs? what is really important to God? learn how deceived I am about my own spirituality.
What can we do to build into community around us today?
Because of the problems with the church as it currently exists, many seem to be opting out of attending today, preferring to meet with a small home group. That has its own set of problems! A Time article, cited at the Kruse Kronicle, suggests that a reason to go to church is to build relationships. And those relationships will improve your well-being.
As important as this is, there must be other reasons to go to church. Question: why do you go to church?
Update on Monday morning: I did go to church yesterday. Didn’t get much out of the message but the total sum of the service–worship, prayers, people, helped me to remember that I am not alone in this faith journey and the service led me into the presence of God, who is wholly other. I needed that! So, I guess in the end, it is all about God and that is the way it should be.
How do we make disciples? As important as is this question, maybe we should also be asking, what does not make disciples. Heard a devotion out of Romans 12:1-2 on discipleship. A true disciple is one who is
- Surrendered to God
- Separated from sin
- Sanctified mind
- Seeking to know and obey God
In the first point, the speaker started to merge surrender with service and so I came up with the following:
Disciples will never be made when there is attempted
- Service without surrender
- Freedom from sin without separation
- Transformation apart from sanctification
- Obedience without knowing the will of God
How does the American Church look in 2010? Not too good according to a recently posted study by the Barna Group on the state of the church. About the only positive comment in this study was a greater desire for involvement in community issues. Yet, without a biblical understanding of why the church should be involved in community issues, Barna warns that this will likely not be sustainable.
Here are the six megathemes identified by Barna’s study:
1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
- Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
- Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
- Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
- The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
- The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.
A few of the words used to describe the church in this study:
- biblically illiterate
- lack of spiritual confidence
- in a theological free-for-all
- possessing unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency
- more spiritually isolated from non-Christians
- reticence of Christians to engage in faith-oriented conversations
- people with little time for spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity
- superficial approach to faith
- compartmentalized spirituality
- fear of being labeled judgmental
- tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies
- in desperate need of a more positive and accessible image
- possessing a need to revisit criteria for “success”
Ouch! Thanks to my wife for the heads up on this rather depressing article!
Can anyone out there help to identify the good things happening in the American church in 2010?
Too many of our teens are following a “moralistic therapeutic deism” with an “imposter” faith” because they have been hearing a “gospel of niceness.” Those are a few of the sharp words John Blake mentions in his review of Kenda Creasy Dean’s book, Almost Christian.
According to Dean, a few churches (Mormon and Evangelicals) are providing teens with a “significant faith community” that makes a difference. Blake writes,
“No matter their background, Dean says committed Christian teens share four traits: They have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose and a sense of hope about their future.”
As expected, Dean says parents are key to bringing about change in the faith of their teens. “One act of radical faith” can make a difference but only if their action is explained. More from Blake about Dean’s book:
But it’s not enough to be radical — parents must explain “this is how Christians live,” she says.
“If you don’t say you’re doing it because of your faith, kids are going to say my parents are really nice people,” Dean says. “It doesn’t register that faith is supposed to make you live differently unless parents help their kids connect the dots.”
Post clarifying what should be at the heart of our worship by Joel Brown (found at Zoecity.com)
Priority #1: Truth
As Paul says in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Truth from Scripture must be the framework and standard by which every other priority is subjected. If we have a gathering with killer music but no truth, we have a pointless gathering: we’ve led people astray by placing their focus on something far less important and valuable than a God who redeems broken sinners.
Priority #2: Corporate Response
If the songs we play are only true, but not singable, memorable, or enjoyable, our people will be far less likely to have their hearts stirred by the truths we are presenting. They will be distracted with trying to get around the music instead of into it. Songs that teach and admonish are best when they are SUNG!
Priority #3: Musical Style, Arrangement, and Execution
When we gather to sing, the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are the means by which truth is prompting people to respond. Though this is our third priority, it is only because it is in subjection to priorities 1 and 2. The music serves truth and responsiveness.
Should we ever suggest that people leave our church or our Christian organizations? Donald Miller has an intriguing post on his blog about one pastor that suggested some people might be better off at another church if they didn’t want to get plugged in via service or home churches. Lively discussion in the comment section.
Here was my comment:
I don’t remember Jesus ever asking anyone to leave because of a lack of space or because they lacked committment. People did, however, stop following Jesus after he spoke about commitment and what it meant to be his follower (Jn 6:66). He asked the twelve in v67, “Do you want to go away as well?” His words were hard and yet they were loving–I think of how Jesus loved the rich young ruler (in Mark 10:21 but not said in Mtt or Lk) and yet still spoke the hard truth–truth which made the young man sad because he was not willing to obey and he went away.
Challenging people to live the life of a disciple will make them uncomfortable if they are not. Yet we continue to love them. If they leave because they don’t like to be challenged, hopefully we are sad because we love them but we let them go. Trying to keep people in our church because we think we need their money or talents when they are unhappy and out of synch with the direction we are moving will only lead all to much pain down the road
From The Way of the Shepherd by Kevin Leman and William Pentak, a summary of their lessons. A small book worth reading.
- Know the condition of your flock
- Discover the shape of your sheep
- Help your sheep identify with you
- Make your pasture a safe place
- The staff of direction
- The rod of correction
- The Heart of the shepherd
If not, then you will enjoy the following cartoon from David Hayward he calls “The Groucho Marx church”
A warning about focusing on outward conformity in a CT 2005 interview with
Dallas Willard “What sometimes goes on in all sorts of Christian institutions is not formation of people inthe character of Christ; it’s teaching of outward conformity. You don’t get in trouble for not having the character of Christ, but you do if you don’t obey the laws. It is so important to understand that character formation is not behavior modification.”
Richard Foster “I think what Dallas is referring to is that many Christian institutions have a system by which you find out whether you’re in or out. Sometimes it’s rules; sometimes it’s a certain belief system.”
I have yet to be in any kind of routine to blog much of late. But, with quick glance at the Kruse Kronicle this morning, I saw his post about Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam S. McHugh. When McHugh talks about the terms introvert and extrovert, he is referring to the Myers Briggs temperament types. If you don’t know your type, it is worth a look. No time now to look for links but free tests online abound.
Kruse writes about the McHugh book
What McHugh astutely observes is the domination of extroverted modes of relating in the Evangelical world. For that reason, many introverted Evangelicals feel deeply out of place in their church community. Introverts in the Church helps introverts give voice to the discomfort they feel … I know he does for me. But it secondarily highlights how the church fails to effectively be a holistic community that brings together people of different temperaments because of deeply held assumptions about that see extroversion as the normative way of leading, relating, and worshiping.
I find this to be a very interesting premise. And as a Introvert (despite what my wife claims), this is a book I plan to order and buy soon. Maybe our church worship leaders would consider more reflection, contemplation and silence if they read this book?
Update January 13: Book arrived yesterday but it is a bit down on the list to be read!
To be honest, as I re-enter the North American evangelical scene, I am not sure what I think or feel about this article, titled, “Jesus has Aids.” Russell Moore challenges the evangelical church to show the same compassion Jesus would have shown to those sufferering from AIDS. Thanks Charlie for the heads up on this. If you read Mtt 25, John 9, Mark 2–really all of the gospels, I think Russell is spot on.
Jesus has identified himself with the suffering of this world, an identification that continues on through his church.
Am I one who has missed Jesus in those suffering from AIDS? I don’t even know anyone in this situation (as far as I know)! Based upon my own inner reactions, I suspect that the church is not a safe place for AIDS sufferers. But, clearly, it should be. And that would be a reflection of a deep spirituality. Ouch! Moore concludes his article:
Jesus loves the world, and the world has AIDS. Jesus identifies himself with the least of these, and many of them have AIDS. Jesus calls us to recognize him in the depths of suffering, and there’s AIDS there too.
Jesus has AIDS.
Like many Christians, I talk a good game when it comes to unity. After all, Jesus prayed that we may be one just as Jesus and the Father are one (Jn 17:11, 22) and that our unity might demonstrate to the world that Jesus was sent from the Father. So far, so good. But what price am I personally willing to pay to achieve this unity? David Hayward asks ten questions that IF I AM HONEST, I cannot simply answer yes, of course. Maybe you could say that some of his questions are flawed but not all of them. Thanks David for making me think! Following are his questions:
- Do I truly believe that everyone has the right to their own beliefs or lack thereof?
- Can I respect the person, even though I may not respect their ideas?
- Do I have the capacity to recognize my own fallacies?
- Will it kill me if I were wrong?
- Am I able to hold what I believe is truth lightly in the interest of dialog?
- Can I overlook and maybe even appreciate the idiosyncrasies of others in order to hear what they have to say?
- Am I willing to discern the deeper currents rather than being distracted by the surface ripples?
- Can everyone play? In other words, will I not ostracize someone because of their beliefs or lack thereof?
- Is personal harm to others the only prohibition I am willing to make?
- Do I love all beings, and if not, am I willing?
Usually movements arise to meet something that is lacking. The Kruse Kronicle suggests that the prosperity gospel may have arisen because of the failure of evangelicalism to provide “instruction that guides me in my daily economic life.”
I like dogs. I really do. I grew up with them. I would like to have a dog again some day. I have been to churches here in which dogs roam in and out at will. It’s not that I am not opposed to having dogs in church but . . . a church service where they are invited? Is there something wrong with this picture?
This really is happening at one California church. Thanks to Kruse Kronicle. Says the Pastor,
The concept is the entire family–2 footed and 4 footed. There is love, there is God in some form or fashion. And when we love a dog or a dog loves us, that’s a part of God and God is a part of that.
People are googleized, branded and experiential. If those of us who recruit and manage volunteers are going to be successful, we’ve got to account for these changes. Here are some initial thoughts that might encourage the necessary adjustments:
- Create regular and easy opportunities to volunteer. And I mean really easy. No police checks. No lengthy registration forms. No liability forms. No prior-to event sign up. Instead, find an event that can be held once a month, if not weekly. Make it easy for groups, families as well as individuals to attend. Most organizations I’ve worked with cannot even imagine how this is possible. It is. It just takes a little work, and some imagination. Mostly, it takes a willingness to admit that the thing not working now, aren’t going to start working anytime soon. Like it or not, change is required.
- Instead of using volunteers as a means to an end, use the tasks volunteers perform as the means to an end. It is the experience volunteers have and not the tasks they perform that is the point. Focus on the experience, and you’ll discover the commitment and productivity of your volunteers grow.
- Ensure that the experience involves close proximity between your community or cause and your volunteers. This is an essential part of volunteers internalizing the experience and discovering very personal and compelling reasons to invest in your organization.
- Only spend time on people who are worth spending time with. (Trust me. Sometimes the seemingly selfish moves are the best for everyone in the long run.) If people come back, and they demonstrate a keen interest in what you’re doing as an organization, then they are the prime candidates for your efforts.
In his daily blog, John Fischer has been challenging Christians to become collectors of stories! It has resonated with me. Read all his blogs or subscribe at his Fischtank. He writes,
Christians traditionally have not been very good story collectors. We have been so bent on getting a person to the desired conversion point that all questions are directed to that one end. Questions like: “Have you been washed in the blood?” or “Are you ready to meet Jesus?” or “Is there anything keeping you from praying to receive Christ right now?” are some common examples. In the process, I surmise we are not truly connecting to people, we’re connecting to freeing ourselves of guilt over falling short in our maximum witnessing program.
One of his readers wrote in about how she was making time each day to go out at lunch with her office mates and listen to their stories.
Well, witnessing may be the last thing on Kyra’s mind, but what is on her mind is far better. What’s on her mind is listening, caring and being a part of someone’s life. It’s connecting with people, and that’s a big improvement over “witnessing” any day.
Early in my missionary career, I learned that some people seemed to be overly concerned with “how many converts” we had, as if we could ever convert anyone! I found these questions disturbing on a number of levels. What pressure it puts on young missionaries in those early days when you are trying to survive learning a language and figuring out how to live well in a new culture. It led me to become even more pre-occupied with an already unhealthy performance mind-set rather than enjoying my relationship with Christ and allowing it to overflow into conversations with people naturally. And, I think that is not the question that we should be asking. Back to John Fischer,
When Christians “witness,” in evangelical speak, they’re most likely not connecting, they’re doing a job—fulfilling a task, completing an assignment someone told them they had to do if they were going to be good Christians. So how does being set apart, unconnected, and carrying out an assignment on people sound like something Jesus would want? It isn’t.
I’ve done the EE thing, the door to door follow-ups from various big public events but I am convinced that these are easy compared to the much harder work of building relationships with people. That takes time and an investment of myself that far surpasses going through a memorized “gospel presentation.” How I am grateful for the relationships and frienships that I have had over the years here. Hopefully, because I have been a good friend, loved them and listened to them, all of them have moved closer to Christ. Some have even become Christians. More from Fischer,
Instead of “witnessing,” let’s connect. Let’s find out how beautiful people are—what makes them tick… what are their hopes and dreams… what are their fears? Get them to talk about their kids, their pets, their hobbies, their favorite movies… What we will find out is exactly what Kyra is finding out: we have more in common than we have differences.
So get ready to hit the rowdy road and meet all different kinds of people with stories to tell. Probe, don’t preach. Ask open-ended questions—questions that get them talking about their hopes and dreams and the journey they are on.
Have I been so busy with “my ministry” that I have not been hearing their stories? That is something I can work on.
Here are a few pictures with “stories” behind them.
“People soon become thirsty again after drinking this water,” said Jesus in John 4:13
The thirst that Jesus is speaking of here is for the “more than,” the transcendent. Why do we (including myself here) look in every place other than in Jesus? What are some waters that we think will quench us? Here are a few for me:
Sex, entertainment, sports, books, tv, movies, winning, control, power, being alone, being with people, work accomplishments, people “needing” me, money, stuff, food, drugs or alcohol, sleep, honor, compliments, appreciation, success, relationships, status, vacations, luxury. Yet the water that Jesus offers, satisfies that thirst we all have. He is the one whom we need and are longing for.
I am (ego eimi) the one you are looking for says Jesus to the woman in 4:26. Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Creation writes about the ego eimi sayings of Jesus.
In saying these words that echo from Exodus 3:14, Jesus is claiming to be God himself. His listeners understood this since they prepared to stone him for blasphemy when he said this in Jn 8:58. According to Peterson, they knew he was saying, “I am God himself, here and now; I have always been, will always be.”
Peterson goes on to explain how the simple statement of Jesus, “I am” is an invitation into a conversation with himself, a conversation “marked by intimacy and leisure.” There is an invitation for those of us who are thirsting for a taste of the “more than” into his very life–Jesus is accessible to us! As Peterson says,
Jesus doesn’t try to impress us with big words or highfalutin concepts; he doesn’t flaunt his credentials; he doesn’t bully or intimidate with a show of authority. Jesus is in conversation with the same kinds of people we talk to most days and many of them we recognize in ourselves. 90
In a statement sure to shock some, Peterson says about John,
he is not nearly as interested in telling us anything new about Jesus (although he does plenty of that along the way) as he is in drawing us into an increasingly intimate relationship with Jesus. “Believe” and “love” are the characteristic verbs; neither can be accomplished in a hurry. 91 (italics original)
Later in the chapter, Peterson makes an amazing statement about belief.
The too often disregarded scriptural rule is that we cannot be made to believe. Belief by its very nature requires assent and participation, trust and commitment. When we believe we are at our most personal and intimate with one another, with the Other. Belief cannot be forced. If we are bullied or seduced or manipulated to believe, we do not end up believing, we end up intimidated or raped or used. And we are less, not more. 94
I know there are a lot of folks out there with a bad church experience (perhaps bullied, seduced and/or manipulated) and that may be keeping them away from Jesus. But, as we go back and read the stories of John, we discover/remember that there is no other place to find the soul quenching intimacy that Jesus offers!
Reflecting on Psalm 133 this week and my NT passage for the day was Eph 4–both carrying themes of unity. Four comments about unity and fellow pilgrims in Psalm 133
- Unity is to be enjoyed–it is pleasant and wonderful. The “sensory properties of oil” (as a fragrance) “convey a sense of richness.” (Dictionary of Imagery) Images that come to mind–a team working together, a symphony playing, a finely tuned engine, a fine work of art.
- Unity is valuable–precious like anointing oil on Aaron’s beard. It is inconceivable that Aaron would be anointed priest without oil just as it is inconceivable that fellow pilgrims on the way would not be moving towards the same goal. Can we say that unity is an essential extravagance? Is it to be obtained at all costs? Well, as much as it is possible (cf Hebrews and peace)
- Unity is refreshing–dew on Mt Hermon affecting the mountains in Zion. Like a drink of cold water given to our brothers ala Mtt 25.
- Unity is a sign of the blessing of God. By this will all men know that you are my disciples. John 13, 17 This suggests that “brotherly unity is an epiphanic experience, combining calling, holiness, life and power.” Imagery 126
Of course this fits well in Eph 4:1-16. What struck me there is the essential core of unity. Not that we are all the same since there are diversities of gifts given. Yet, these gifts were given one to another so that “As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” Eph 4:16 New Living
And then, reading in A Guide to Prayer, an oft-mentioned quote from Bonhoeffer,
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. . . If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. . . But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. . . If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.”
I don’t know about you but I find these words challenging. For one, I see too much disunity and how painful it is to see fellow pilgrims on the way wounding one another. Second, I recognize my tendency to withdraw and yet, I know I cannot, I must not if I want to be whole. Somehow, mysteriously, our well-being is connected one to another. Maybe this is connected with Hebrews 11:40–never did quite understand that last part of the verse??