We have a problem with the way we read the Bible.
The problem has its root in our self-understanding. Put another way, it is how we think of “me.” Modern (or postmodern or whatever) Western culture places overwhelming emphasis on the beliefs, preferences, and untethered identity of the individual. This is often called individualism. Individualism exercises significant power in shaping our understanding and approach to the world–and for purposes of this post, the way we read the Bible.
The biblical picture of “me” is fundamentally different than our modern perspective. In our culture the “me” comes first. The way the Bible is written suggests that “we” should come first. In other words, do we see a collection of “me” forming the “we” or “me” as a part of the “we.” Sheesh, I’m confusing myself with all this we and me. Let me illustrate.
Consider the self-understanding of the Israelites—the chosen people of God. Their favored status with God was something they received as a people. Ebenezer was not chosen by God because he was Ebenezer, but because he was an Israelite. His connection with God began with the “we” of being an Israelite. However, this did not negate what he did or who he was individually. His faithfulness to God, or lack thereof, contributed to the overall faithfulness of the Israelites. His actions impacted the community. As he lived faithfully he set an example for others and contributed to the faithfulness of the people as a whole. As he was unfaithful it began to undermine the faithfulness of the people as a whole. So his “me” was firmly situated in the reality of the “we.”
This impacted the reading of Scripture. The books of the Old Testament were a community history (books like Genesis and Exodus), instructions for community life (Leviticus, etc.), and God speaking through the prophets to the whole people (Jeremiah, etc.). All of this literature was received in community and understood from the perspective of “me” being a part of “we.” It had individual implications, but these implications were rooted decidedly in an understanding of being a part of the whole.
What about the New Testament? This paradigm is strongly echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 where he is talking about the now-chosen people of God, the Church. He says the people of the Church are a body. What each one does affects all the others. The “me” of each individual is important, and this is largely true because each “me” affects and forms the “we.”
The Gospels were written to serve as a witness to the truth of who Jesus was and what he did. This formed the foundation of the Church as it took shape. The Epistles of Paul were certainly not written to individuals. They were sent to an entire church and read aloud to everyone. They were received in community, not by individuals in a study. This doesn’t mean it is wrong to sit alone with these letters, it is wonderful! However, we should be careful to remember that they were written to communities. Places where the “me” was fundamentally a part of the “we.” The individuals who heard the letters of Paul heard them BECAUSE they were a part of the whole. Had they not been they would not have heard them.
With this understanding we can certainly still read the Bible and ask what it’s implications are for me. However, by understanding ourselves as a part of a community I think we will ask that question in less isolation. It is not just a question of what the implications are for me alone in relationship to God, but me in the context of a community that is in relationship with God. The questions can be the same, the framework is just different. And each of us, as individuals, still need to make decisions about the things we do, be aware of how we are being shaped by God, and make decisions to live as followers of Jesus. We just do this with the understanding that it’s about more than just “me” and that these decisions have an impact on the whole.
The Bible was written to us. And because I am a part of that “us,” it was written to me.
This is a meditation on knowledge, wisdom, and understanding inspired by Colossians 1:9-12, Proverbs 9, and Psalm 46.
“Be still and know that I am God.” The beginning of knowledge. True knowledge. The knowledge that founded the earth and hung the stars. Knowledge that is not used for material gain, or utility, or propping up the ego. It is knowledge that wears the gown of wisdom and understanding. It is cloaked in beauty; majesty; grandeur. A knowledge that is “too wonderful for me to attain.” A knowledge that inspires awe, wonder, and fear.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says the writer of Proverbs. Not a book. Not a course or a Facebook post or the whisperings of a sage. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Yet it is often our very knowledge that leads us not to fear the Lord, but to oppose him. “How can you be God and allow me pain?” “I have read much and have concluded you must not exist.” I will be the arbiter of truth, and should you desire my approval you must explain yourself.
We have puffed ourselves up with knowledge and disqualified ourselves from wisdom. But this knowledge is not cloaked in beauty and grandeur. It’s garments are arrogance, utility, and disdain. “Be busy and know that you are God.” The poisoned spring from which our knowledge flows.
But there is a pure spring, if we will have the courage and humility to accept it. This spring is the fear of the Lord. Not trepidation. Though at first it may feel that way. “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” These were the anguished words of the prophet Isaiah when he entered the presence of this infinite God. Something akin to trepidation. For he was in the presence of something beyond him in every way. And then, only then, “your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.” Love. Peace. Assurance. A fear that can be accepted in the face of unspeakable grace, but a fear nonetheless.
“Be still and know that I am God.” If we have the courage to do this we will find that we are not god. A position altogether untenable to our modern mind. For we have been convincingly persuaded that we are gods. We control happiness with the swipe of a card or the click of a button. We bend pleasure to our desires and it obeys, if only for a time. We are gods. And we stand in tension with the one who said “you shall have no other gods.” Instead of fearing the Lord, we fear only ourselves, and begin down the path of foolishness.
Wisdom—the fruit of true knowledge—does not begin with an explanation of the Lord, but the fear of the Lord. This is a good fear. One that springs from a right reaction to what is true. A response to the One who “was, and is, and is to come.” The One who humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. He is great in his majesty, righteousness, and love. It is a fear that C.S. Lewis knew when he placed these words into the mouth of one of his characters as he spoke about the Christ-figure, “my dear, he is good, but he is not safe.” Yes, this is a fear that responds correctly to what is. Like taking a step away from Niagara Falls even as you marvel at it’s power and splendor. A response of awe, wonder, and fear, is the only right response in the face of such beauty, such power. If this is a right response to a natural wonder, how much more is it the fitting response to the one who made every wonder and is himself far beyond all of them?
We have made God many things. Things more palatable to our sensibilities than One to be feared. Things more easily controlled, manipulated, and set aside. This is why “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To fear him is simply to know him as he truly is. In Colossians 1, the Greek word for knowledge is epiginosis—to know thoroughly and accurately. It means we know God well enough that we find the capacity to know him rightly. To acknowledge him rightly.
It is a knowledge that must go beyond one plus one equals two. “Be still and know that I am God.” Niagara Falls cannot be thoroughly and accurately known by reading books and looking at postcards. It must be experienced. One must sit in the mist of it’s overwhelming cascade, listening to it’s power, basking in its beauty. “Be still and know that I am God.”
It is from this vantage point that we will be able to know everything else rightly as well. From the knowledge of God flows right knowledge of ourselves—both crowned with glory and honor as well as dead in our transgressions. And in our glory and our shame, redeemed and loved by the one who is “over all, through all, and in all.” From knowledge of God flows right knowledge of other people—not characters in our story, but people pursued by the Good Shepherd. And from right knowledge of God flows a right understanding of his will, leading to a life that is pleasing to him and bears the fruit of his kingdom of shalom.
And it is from this vantage point that we can even begin to grasp the depth and power of his love for us. A buddy might love us because of what they can get in return or out of their own insecurities. But this great and wonderful God? He does not love us out of need or insecurity. Quite the opposite. His love flows from the very majesty, power, and depth that lead to right fear. Fear and love are not in conflict, though our modern language might lead us to think so. In God, fear that flows from knowledge aligned with reality and love deeper than our imagination flow from the same Source. C.S. Lewis expresses this well when he says, “His love is not “a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, nor the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests.” Instead, it is “the consuming Fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds.”
“Be still and know that I am God.”
“Be still and know that I am God.”
My Kids are my Sunshine (but not just in the good way)
In our family, Michelle and I have faced an ongoing battle to make our kids a part of the family rather than the center of the family. The path of least resistance is to play whatever games our kids want to play at a moment’s notice, to absolve them of any responsibility for the maintenance of our home (which leads to my daughter’s room having an invisible floor), to make sure they are entertained at all times (it would be a sin for our children to be bored!), and to tend toward being the proverbial helicopter parents who cannot allow their children out of their sight. I don’t know why Michelle and I both struggle with this tendency to make the entire life of our family revolve around our children, that might be a post for another time.
The result of this child-centric approach to family is largely negative. First, it breeds selfishness in our children. When life at home is contingent on their whims and fancies, we are training them to expect that everyone should bow to their wishes. Connected to selfishness is tremendous impatience. They come to expect that whatever they desire is a higher priority than anything else in all creation. Why should they have to wait for five minutes to play a game while I finish doing the dishes? We are training them to be absolved of responsibility. They can throw all their clothes on the floor–Michelle will pick them up. They are unable to learn how to solve problems. Whenever there is a conflict or problem they know that a parent will swoop in to solve it. They believe this because too often Michelle and I have failed to let them work it out themselves.
On the whole, a family where everything revolves around the children cultivates deep and lasting dysfunction in the children. Helping our children mature into healthy adults is far better accomplished by helping them to see themselves as a valuable part of the family. Weaving them into the fabric of our family, not making them the center of it, and thereby teaching them responsibility, mutual concern, selflessness, contribution, patience, and sacrifice.
I believe the same thing is at work in church communities. The decisions we make about how to engage our kids have implications, just as the decisions Michelle and I make in our family have implications.
Implications for Personal Formation
When we structure the life of the church in a way that communicates to children that they are the center around which everything revolves, we are forming them (or discipling to use biblical language). The church teaches them to be selfish, impatient, and irresponsible in the same ways Michelle and I often have taught our children this. It’s not done on purpose, but it happens.
When this is true it is a substantial problem. Jesus gave all his followers the task to teaching new followers to “obey all he has commanded.” This certainly must include our children. Jesus, the King of kings, said he came not to be served but to serve. Paul said that the church is a body that looks to the needs of the whole. If we structure our community in a way that fosters selfishness, lack of responsibility for the other, and an expectation of being served, we are forming kids away from what they are meant to be.
Implications for Being the Church
In these formative years we are also teaching them what it means to be the church. Many people decry the selfish nature of church engagement in the United States. It can seem the focus is more on whether we like the music, preaching, groups, or carpet color than whether or not the church is a faithful representation of the bride of Christ. What we do with kids in our community today will shape their approach to the church in the future. We are teaching them today either to go on the never-ending journey of church hopping for self-fulfillment or to engage whole-heartedly in the always-imperfect community of faith. We are training them to focus on what they can give or what they can receive. We do this powerfully through our approach as much as (or more than) our words.
The pursuit of teaching kids what it means to be a part of the body of Christ in a church community can be thwarted in two ways. The first is what I’ve already been saying–to engage them in ways that teach them they are the center of the universe. The other way is to keep them from offering themselves and their abilities as a gift to the community. Too often churches treat children as something to be managed until they grow up and can participate in the “big church.” How damaging! Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body teaches that when any part of the body is sick or not functioning it hurts the whole. Children (and youth) who are a part of our communities are not “body parts in waiting.” They are a part of the body now, and allowing them to function as such is essential to the overall health of the body. We should encourage them to give themselves as a gift to the community, not subtly indicate that someday they’ll grow up and be a real part of the church. We need to show our kids what it means to be the church!
It gives footing to our fear.
There are many reasons for centering all we do around children–either in a family or a church–but I believe one large reason is fear. I know that an underlying fear drives many of the unhealthy ways I engage my kids. I fear that if I don’t cater to them they will grow up to feel unloved. If I don’t watch them all the time they will suffer some debilitating injury. I have to fight these fears to fight my behavior. I think there is also a fear in the church when it comes to kids. We have heard the statistics about how many kids leave the church. Then we hear our own kids say they don’t want to go to a worship gathering because it’s boring. They don’t want to do a service project because it’s no fun. Out of this they may even say they don’t like church–or God. This breeds the fear that we will force our kids away from God. If they are bored, or challenged, or frustrated, then they will leave the church, and God, and it will be our fault.
THIS IS A LIE. If we can glean anything from the inexact studies that have been done on why kids disconnect from church and God as they grow up, it is that entertaining them and catering to them is a part of the problem. They have not felt challenged to make faith their own. They have seen a faith that is more about pizza parties that sacrificing in the way of Jesus for the life of the world. They are not encouraged/challenged to draw near to Jesus–love him and be loved by him. They don’t feel connected to the whole church because they have been sectioned off to be entertained and kept content. It is learning to follow Jesus and live as a part of the fabric of his church that has the most impact on their future.
And the reality is that even in that there are no guarantees. We may do everything right and they may run from God. We may do everything wrong and they could cling to him. If you are following Jesus you probably need look no further than your own background or that of people you know to see this.
The reality is that very often doing the right thing is the hard thing. It is easier to have my kids play video games than it is to have a conversation. It is easier to intervene in their problems than to allow them to face them. It is also very easy to focus on the moment over long-term implications. The things that form my kids well in the long run are often hard in the moment. In our churches we are called to help kids become followers of Jesus–people who love God and their neighbor well. Doing this will most certainly require an approach that sees them as a valuable part rather than the center.
As I child I didn’t know the first names of the adults in my life. My parents’ friends were not Norris and Grace, they were Mr. and Mrs. Friesen. Our pastor was not Dennis, he was Pastor Miller. Through subtle practices like this, and less subtle reminders, we were taught that there was a proper respect we should have for adults. Don’t fear, my point here is not to advocate the necessity of children using titles with adults. My aim is to reflect on our current cultural location and how this permeates and shapes the ways we relate to God.
We live in a society that seems to have lost the ability to have proper respect for anyone or anything. (I say “proper” respect not as a means of scolding us, but as a means of indicating that there is such a thing as improper respect.) The leader of our country is used as a punching bag. It hardly matters if that person is a Democrat or Republican. The only thing that changes is who is doing the punching. Those who disagree with the President do not stop at disagreeing with his policies but move on to demonizing him and aiming venom-filled barbs at his character and his family. There is a way to respect someone while disagreeing with him/her.
Even those who agree with the President don’t seem to respect him so much as lick their chops as they imagine what he can do for them. Their devotion is driven less by respect than the belief that he will do their bidding. I’ll leave the example of our President here as it is not my purpose to consider the proper respect for that specific office/person. I only use the President as an example of a person or position for which there used to be respect, even in disagreement, where now there is not.
We live in a time and place where a healthy understanding and practice of respect has been largely lost. This is one of the brush strokes of the picture I want to paint, but there is another.
I assumed my first pastoral position as a twenty-six year old seminary student. I knew everything. I had the answers to the problems our church was facing. I knew the deficiencies of the approach of the church leadership. I knew enough to veil my arrogance behind a veneer of humility, but the veneer was thin. There were ways our Senior Pastor and elders were leading the church that I knew were wrong. I assumed it was my responsibility to push against these missteps and help them see the light. My supposed knowledge and insight ran wild and refused to be tamed.
In the years since then I have matured, some. I have learned that I am not always right. I am learning that there are times to submit to others even when I think I am. In our culture of rampant individualism—the worship of self—it is increasingly inconceivable to imagine willingly bowing the knee to anyone or anything but self. It is a great act of discipline and humility to submit our will to another. One in which we have become clumsy.
Proper respect. Willing submission. To these I’d like to add one more stroke.
Before my sophomore year in high school I joined a band of fifteen adolescents and a couple brave adults on a camping and canoeing trip to the boundary waters of Canada. I had no idea what I was in for. As I sat in the pounding rain on the back side of an isolated island with my friend Casey, all I wanted to do was to go home. It felt unsafe. No means of communication. Wild and untamed. Who knew what could happen? The trip was uncomfortable, but it was necessary. We paddled until we were sore, and then some. We jumped off a cliff into the waters below. We shared with a vulnerability that seemed unattainable in the context of home. On the whole that trip was not safe. I felt exposed and vulnerable. But it was good. I lived those days with a healthy fear of the land and the water. I understood my smallness and that sense of smallness seemed to inspire growth. When things are great and untamed there is a sense of fear that is right, necessary, and beneficial.
This is not where I live on a regular basis. The world may be dangerous, but I live in a place founded on the bedrock of safety and comfort. Aspects of life that do not sit well on these foundations are not tolerated. I propel my children into this safety and comfort without much thought. I seldom experience a proper sense of fear—or awe—because I have positioned myself to avoid it. There are those who experience the other side of this. They live with fear daily. Real fear that their children will be taken, their homes burned, their jobs lost, or the well-being threatened in some other way. They do not experience the safety and comfort I thoughtlessly inhabit, but their experience could not rightly be called proper fear (or awe) either. It is a fear of what is inhibiting and evil, not challenging and good.
Proper respect. Willing submission. Awe. Ways of being we have jettisoned and forgotten.
All of this works to profoundly impact the way we live with and relate to God. Certainly the Bible speaks of the character of a right relationship with God in many ways—friends, parent and child, master and servant, forgiver and forgiven, husband and wife. It is natural that a relationship with an infinite God would be deep and complex in ways that are difficult to categorize or sum up. I am not attempting to remove these in favor of proper respect, willing submission, and awe, but to highlight a significant component of a right relationship with God for which we have lost capacity. The Scriptures and nature itself proclaim a God who is great and majestic in ways beyond our full understanding. Ways that should inspire proper respect, willing submission, and awe. These are things we have consciously and unconsciously taught ourselves to despise.
“When the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” Exodus 14:31
“12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” Deuteronomy 10:12-13
The consequences of our loss of ability to rightly fear (awe) God are substantial. Right fear is a foundation of trust. Surely love is another foundation of trust, but we embrace the latter while dismissing the former. We talk about trusting God, and falter. There is not one reason for this, but one of the reasons must be that we have given up proper respect, willing submission, and awe—removing an essential component that leads to trusting him. When the Israelites feared the Lord they put their trust in him. God called Israel to fear him, which would lead to obedience, which would lead to their good. We do not trust God unless he seems to be doing our bidding.
“You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!” Psalm 22:23
Our current situation also leads to a decreased willingness and ability to worship God. It is natural that we would struggle to worship someone we see as an equal, or even an underling. Worship is a stream that flows from proper respect, willing submission, and awe. Yes, it flows from love, adoration, and gratitude as well. The truth of the latter does not negate the former. Failure to properly fear the Lord leaves us struggling to worship him, and we should not be shocked by this.
Do a search of “fear” and “Lord” in the Bible. Read through these passages. As you do you will find a robust picture emerging in which the fear of the Lord and the experience of his love, protection, healing, hope, and joy are deeply interwoven. In my life and the lives of those with whom I seek to live following Jesus, I often sense a deficit in willingness to trust God, ability to worship him sincerely, and experience of his love, protection, healing, hope, and joy. I do not mean to over-simplify, but I am convicted that a proper fear of the Lord contributes to all of these.
We live in a society that will erode our concept of proper respect, willing submission, and awe. For those who desire to live a life with God, they must be cultivated.
The Struggle of Friendship (especially for 30-something males, which I write about because I am one)
Friendships for men in their thirties are hard. I say this based on my own experience and on conversations I’ve had with many other men in their thirties. It might be true for men in the forties, or even fifties. Shoot, it might even be true for women! But I’ll leave that judgment to people who are those things. Here’s what I’ve experienced and heard from others that makes these friendships hard.
I always have to ask.
I feel like I am always the one to initiate getting together with other guys. Over time, this makes me feel like they don’t really want to get together in the first place. But as I’ve talked to other guys, they feel the same way. We all want to feel like others want to be with us, and when we don’t feel that way it’s easy to pull back. So we need to keep asking. The reality is, when people say no, it’s probably not because they don’t want to say yes. It’s because…
No one has time.
The reality of this time in life is that it is actually busy. In college I thought I was busy. I did have at least three to four hours a day in class. The reality I see now is that I wasn’t busy and that I had an enormous amount of time to hang out with friends. An amount of time that will never be matched again in my life. Right now there are family dinners, kids activities, bedtimes (anyone seeing a theme here?). It is also a time of giving a great deal of time and sacrifice to careers and dreams. I wouldn’t want to give up any of it. I love my kids and wouldn’t want to take away any of the time I spend with them. I cherish it because I know it will be gone before I know it. I also love my job and enjoy working toward some dreams I have. But all of this adds up to very little free time.
Regular time with other guys has to fit into an hour early in the morning or an evening once a month at best. This kind of limited time certainly can sustain friendships, but it does have limitations. I’ve realized people actually are busy–we don’t just say it. Maybe someday there will be more free time and more time to devote to friendships.
We feel pressure.
Because of limited time and limited invitations, there is pressure to make every interaction deep and amazing. My best friendships were forged over time through playing basketball, sharing dinner, watching movies (and often discussing them), and being there for each other when times were tough. The common denominator with all these things is time. Now that there is less of it there is pressure to maximize the short time we have.
A friend of mine once said that the measure of a true friendship is the ability to be in the same place at the same time without the obligation to say anything. We put too many expectations on our limited time together. Sometimes deep conversation is great, but maybe time spent just hanging out isn’t wasted either.
But we want friends.
Despite the difficulties, I can say unequivocally that I value friends. I wish I could spend more time with my college friends–the guys who became like brothers to me fifteen years ago. I wish there were more nights to play basketball, catch a movie, or just hang out and enjoy a good beer with my friends here. I wish a friend would drop by my house to say hi–even if he only had five minutes. I wish guys would ask me to do things, and keep asking even when I have to say no five times in a row. I wish I would keep asking even when other guys have to say no five times in a row. Maybe I will.
Michelle and I are not known for wild excursions. Because we make dates happen so infrequently we tend to stick to things we know we enjoy–hikes, movies, dinner. But deep down we both relish new experiences and finding hidden gems. So when Michelle told me she had purchased a Groupon for a BBQ class I was excited to try it out. The class descriptions said we would be learning the techniques of BBQ in a hands-on, interactive environment.
We rolled up to an old strip mall on Friday night at 4:45, ready to uncover the experiential treasure of Ruff’s BBQ class. The sign was half lit and the store where the class would take place seemed disheveled–all wonderfully setting the stage for a true hole-in-the-wall jackpot. We checked in with Ruff himself, settled into our seats, and waited. A few minutes later Ruff walked up onto a platform in front, and for the next hour and a half we sat in our seats while he and his assistant talked about BBQ. Mercifully we were given a break and invited to look at their inventory of BBQs outside, so we glanced at them and fled to the car. Then we went to dinner.
Despite the letdown, I did take a couple things away from that night. First, I did get an idea for how to turn my grill into a smoker. Second, it made me think about how people probably experience our church gatherings.
No one cares about insider quarrels.
In an attempt to be funny, Ruff’s assistant consistently made references to how she doesn’t talk to people because of their beliefs about BBQ or how differing opinions on methods cause she and her husband some marital strife. Sometimes I didn’t know what she was talking about. Even when I did, I just didn’t care. I have no personal investment in whether injecting meat makes you more or less of a BBQ master.
But as Christians we talk about all kinds of things that must seem like whether or not to inject meat to those who are new to the faith. We make inside jokes that people either don’t understand or just seem awkward. Not everyone grew up in church and gets the “church jokes.” This was a good reminder for me. Because my whole life has been spent in and around church I know I talk about things in ways that will mostly resonate with other long-time church people.
This doesn’t mean that the way we do communion or whether we are “missional” or whether we know how to bridge the sacred secular divide don’t matter. I’m sure that to truly master BBQ the things Ruff’s assistant was referencing mattered. But we need to be careful not to assume knowledge or investment by people who may not have it. And we need to be careful about the language we use lest we unnecessarily exclude people.
Not everyone cares.
I was truly interested in BBQ. I was looking forward to learning about it and having a good time with my wife trying to make it. I am not looking for a career in BBQ. I will not spend much time studying it or practicing to get better at it. I just don’t care. The most it would ever become is an occasional hobby.
Not everyone connected to churches cares about following Jesus. Some feel it’s an obligation. Some think it’s good for their kids. Some are a little interested. Some enjoy the show and the people. Some think it will help them make their lives better. There are many other reasons people connect to churches or show up at a gathering. For some it is unlikely to ever be more than a hobby.
I don’t think following Jesus at the level of hobby is a tenable position. At the same time, I think there is wisdom in understanding that this is the case as we live together in community. We won’t all have the same level of commitment. What we do with that is another question.
People don’t enjoy being treated like idiots.
At times the BBQ teachers spoke in inside jokes I didn’t get or didn’t care about, but much of the time the spoke like I didn’t know you could cook meat and put it in your mouth. There was needless repetition of simple concepts, making the presentation unnecessarily long. Oh, wait, certainly I’ve never done THAT with a sermon. There was demonstration of simple things like how to use a pair of tongs.
It made me think about how I speak to people. How often do I explain things that need no explanation? How often do I drone on about things people understood ten minutes ago? People may not have knowledge of insider language and concepts, but there are many things that are common sense that they get easily. I just need to learn to know the difference and act accordingly.
When people leave it’s not personal (or at least not always!).
As a pastor, I take it hard when people leave our church. I view church as family more than organization (though certainly there are elements of both). So when someone leaves it’s a bit like having a brother or mother or cousin say they never want to see you again. I also tend to think I just wasn’t good enough. That’s not right, but it’s my reaction at times.
When Michelle and I left the BBQ class it wasn’t because we didn’t like Ruff and his assistant. In fact, there were things we really appreciated about both of them–not least their passion for what they were teaching. We left because we’re not committed enough to BBQ to ride it out. We left because we didn’t have a relationship with anyone there. We knew we’d never see them again and no relationship was lost. We left because it wasn’t what we expected.
I don’t take leaving a church lightly. At the same time, people do it. I’ve done it. It happens for a variety of reasons–many bad ones and some good ones. And no matter how personal it feels, there’s a good chance it’s not.
Three months ago our kids started playing soccer. When we signed them up we expected it to entail an hour a week for practice with games on the weekend. We should have asked more questions. As info about the season came in we found out our son would have two practices a week with an optional third practice on Fridays and our daughter would have two practices a week. My son’s team needed a coach, so I agreed to do it. We launched into the first weeks of the season with discomfort and regret as we felt the loss of less scheduled evenings, time with family and friends, and presence in our neighborhood.
This week is the final week of soccer for this year, and while I’d expect to feel relieved I actually feel a little sad. I don’t think the change in my emotions has much to do with enjoying soccer or coaching–though I do enjoy both of those things. I think it has much more to do with acclimation. Because as I think back over the past year I remember discomfort when we moved to our current neighborhood and started spending a lot of time with neighbors and people who were a part of our new church. Before that most of our evenings were free and spent as a family. But within months our kids went from struggling with all the people around to being disappointed when there was a single evening without others around. I can remember similar transitions with work schedules, job requirements, and family commitments. It seems like when things change, a little time passes, and we acclimate to the new normal.
So why does this matter?
It matters because we will acclimate to our lives whether we are living intentionally or just letting life happen. Whether we live in ways that are healthy or unhealthy, over time we will acclimate to that way of life and it will feel normal. And once something feels normal, whether it’s life-giving or not, it is really hard to change because change feels hard and abnormal.
We all have ways of living that fit with our values and ways that don’t. How much of your life is lived in line with your values? I can identify quite a few areas where I let life happen to me, acclimate, and move on without thinking about it further. In fact, over time, I come to feel as comfortable in the parts of life that don’t fit my values as I feel in the ones that do.
Not a victim.
To the extent any of us live in ways inconsistent with our values we have the ability to change things–it’s just hard. There is a temptation to believe “there’s nothing I can do about it.” Life is just busy, nothing I can do. My spouse and I don’t get any time to really connect, nothing I can do. I don’t know any of my neighbors, but there’s nothing I can do. The list goes on and on. We pictures ourselves as victims of the harsh dictates of the universe–abdicating any responsibility to change things. But we can change things.
We can give up some of our activities. We can do one thing a day to pursue our spouse. We can go have a beer with a friend instead of turning on the TV. We can connect with God instead of hitting snooze. There are all kinds of things we can do, and we are not victims, but many of us do have an aversion to changing the life to which we’ve become so well acclimated.
“The reality is, we just don’t need community.”
That sentence proceeded from the mouth of a former small groups pastor in a conversation this morning at a local coffee shop. (This was said in the context of a larger conversation, much of which will be fleshed out below.) So much of the existence of the church–and certainly the existence of all forms of small groups–is based on the premise that community is essential to human flourishing. But is it?
5 Reasons we don’t need community.
#1 We have what we need.
The early church is often cited as a glowing example of true community. They were together every day. They ate meals together. They even shared their resources so no one was in need. And that was important because they really needed support from each other. There were people who truly were in need. As persecution of Christians began and spread there were those who were economically persecuted and couldn’t make a good living.
There certainly are places in the West where people don’t have what they need. And those tend to be the places where people actually seek out more community and share with each other. When I pastored a small, poor church, it was common to hear about people with a one bedroom apartment offering it to those who were homeless on cold nights. People shared because they needed each other.
My friend shared this example. In the past, when a hail storm came through and destroyed a farmer’s crop, other farmers would have them work the fields that had not been destroyed with them and then share in the harvest. It was necessary for existence. Now a farmer can just call the insurance company.
#2 We are entertained.
Why sit with friends, sharing stories and lives, when you can turn on the TV and watch professionally written stories that draw you into the lives of fictional characters who are so interesting? Why play a board game with family when you can destroy the invading alien army from your video game controller?
We have unprecedented options and opportunities for entrainment. Now I am far from anti-entertainment. There are some forms of entertainment that can bring people together. And there are times it is fantastic to watch a movie or TV show with no human interaction. But there is a reality that many forms of entertainment naturally funnel people away from community. We can be fulfilled, or at least distracted, all day long without any real meaningful interaction with others.
#3 We are busy.
There is nothing I hear more from people around me, especially church people (and very often myself), than that they are overwhelmingly busy. Many times this is true. We have been overcome by the wave of possibilities for activities and information and are drowning. We have no idea how to manage our lives in a way that would create the space for community. If we just stay busy we don’t even notice that deep community is missing that much. We are fulfilled and defined by our activity levels.
#4 We like ease.
Real community is messy. It can be very fulfilling, but it is messy. And messy means difficult, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. Yuck. It seems so much easier to keep to myself. Myself always wants to do what’s easy, convenient, and comfortable. Myself is such a good friend.
#5 We have pseudo-community.
Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing. I’m surrounded by friends, er, acquaintances, er, people. I am smack dab in the middle of a pseudo-community. It’s like Cheers, except without all the actual friendships. (If you don’t know what Cheers is you should really google it.)
Then there’s the next level pseudo-communities like Facebook. I love Facebook. I even think it can be a really helpful means of staying up to date on what’s happening with people in my life. And the birthday app is a lifesaver. But Facebook and things like it can quickly move from being supplemental tools to substitutes for actual community. We feel like we know people. We get to let them know us. Even better, we get to let them know the us we wish we were.
In a couple days I’ll follow this up with the reasons we do need community.
This week I had the opportunity to go to an event put on by Leadership Journal called Redeeming Work. It was focused on the meaning and importance of our work as image bearers of God. Events like this one–focused on the idea of vocation (our call into every part of our lives, not just the ones we get paid for)–are becoming more prevalent. I have personally been deeply moved and shaped by these conversations in recent years. While this focus does not comprise the whole of the Christian life or the Gospel, it is an essential piece that has been too often ignored.
One of the questions that has been raised at nearly every event I’ve been a part of around this topic is whether this is a conversation of privilege that only applies to those who are able to choose their jobs and find themselves in a place of some influence. The question is framed in relation to two groups of people–those who hate their jobs and those who are in positions of relatively little influence. These two groups have some significant differences, but they often overlap.
So can people who hate their jobs and those who are in positions of relatively low influence find meaning in their work? There are reasons to think they can. (In sharing these reasons I also want to acknowledge up front that it is much easier to write about these on a blog than to actually find meaning.)
We are made to work.
Work is not something people were cursed with–it was part of the gift of being human. People are made in the image of God and at the very beginning of the Bible we are presented with a God who works. He brings all of reality into being. And then he gives humanity the work of cultivating and tending what has been made. Working is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. This work does not have to be paid. This work does not have to be chosen. And this work does not even need to be liked. Not working is destructive to the humanity and dignity of people–I’ve seen that firsthand.
All work benefits others–it contributes to the common good.
Other than work that is obviously destructive and sinful, all work benefits others.
Some jobs are more obviously beneficial than others. A doctor restores health to sick people. A teacher educates children, giving them hope for the future. But what about the man who sits in a cubicle and enters data day after day? What about the woman works in a call center fielding calls from angry customers? The importance of their work may seem easier to question than a doctor or a teacher. However, if you spend a little bit of time considering how their work impacts others it is not too difficult to see the value it adds to society. I am not advocating the distance that technology and cubicles can put between people, but they cannot negate the benefit that work provides to others–they don’t have that much power. The man who enters data is enabling the execution of projects that would not happen without him. The woman answering phones is finding ways to make things work the way they are meant to and has the opportunity to help people move from frustration to joy if she is willing. (The ability to see these things requires that we don’t make an exact correlation between meaning and happiness–I’ll touch on that more in a minute.)
We all have influence.
Some people and some professions have more influence on other people and the world than others. That is true. But this fact does not negate the influence of all people and professions on the world. Every person can influence the day of whomever they come across by the way they treat them. Each employee can seek to give feedback at some level, even if it seems small. Take Jim as an example. He was a friend from a previous church who spent his days pushing a grocery cart around to dumpsters, digging out metal, and then walking it over two miles to the recycling center. Not exactly a job bursting with opportunities for influence. But Jim regularly had stories of the lives he impacted along the way. Not to mention the significant amount of metal he kept from going to landfills over time. Jim believed he could influence things, even if it seemed small to others. We may wish for more influence believing we have none or we can steward whatever measure of influence we’ve been given.
Meaning and Happiness are Not the Same
Being happy about your work and finding meaning in it are not the same thing. It is possible to find meaning in something you do not enjoy. Finding meaning is likely to increase your level of enjoyment, but it is not a necessary correlation. If the question is “Can everyone love their job?” the answer might legitimately be no. But if the question is “Can everyone find meaning in their work?” I believe the answer is yes. (Again, excluding work that is inherently unethical or destructive.) Answering yes may be a long journey, and perhaps a slow one, but it is one worth taking.
Most of our visions of life are utopian. A family without conflict, whining kids, or short-tempered parents. Schools where all children thrive, grow, and flourish. Neighborhoods where neighbors know and care for each other. A personal future full of health, financial security, and happiness.
The thing is, our world is not a utopia. Nothing goes fully the way we plan (or at least not for long). We experience brokenness in our relationships. We are frustrated in the pursuit of our plans. Our bodies break down. In short, we experience the world as it is, not as we imagine it.
This shape of things resonates well with Christian theology. God has created a perfect world, and that world included giving humans the choice to pursue evil. We did and perfection was destroyed. Brokenness has entered into every corner of life and reality. Yet the good that was there at the beginning has not been eradicated. And one day, at the return of Jesus, all that is wrong will be made right.
In the meantime, we are left with an important question–will we allow the frustration of our utopian visions to make us cynical or will we recognize the good in things and celebrate it wherever it is. Putting it another way, can we be okay with okay (or at times even excited about it)?
Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I did a triathlon. I trained for months to prepare for it. It was a struggle. I had to fight off my unhealthy habits (with varying levels of success) and a couple injuries. But I got ready. We went with some friends to the mountains for a couple days before the event and on the way up I felt a cold coming on. By the day of the race I could feel the rasping in my lungs. I thought I’d be okay, but less than 100 meters into a one mile swim I couldn’t breathe. I had to consider having them pull me out of the water. I fought through it, but the best I could do was a slow breast stroke. I was one of the last ones out of the water and when I finished my primary emotion was embarrassment.
So in that case, what do I do? Focus on the difficulty and how far short I fell of my goals or find satisfaction in the fact that I didn’t get up and I finished my first olympic triathlon?
As long as we live in this world where the kingdom of God is present but not complete, we will have to continually ask ourselves that question. Can we be okay with okay? Or will we wallow in the frustration and disappointment of how what is is less than what we imagined it could be?