|Great Themes of the Bible (#12-The Church)
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis pictures hell as an ever-expanding city with empty streets. He even describes the process of how it happens. The people who arrive in Lewis' hell are so quarrelsome that they pick fights with their nearest neighbors within twenty-four hours of getting there. The run-ins are deemed unpleasant enough that the newcomer decides to move. The next street over is usually empty, for everyone who once was there has quarreled and moved already. If she moves to a street that is still inhabited, she is sure to have another argument soon and to move on.
The process continues. People get farther and farther apart. Before long they are thousands of miles from the bus stop where all the newcomers first touch down. Only by peering into a telescope can the latest arrivals see the lights of the occupied houses of grizzled old-timers who live millions of miles away — not only from the bus stop now but from each other as well. In their splendid isolation from one another, they are lonely and weak, vulnerable and afraid. And it is hell.
Holy God living in the perfect fellowship of Father, Word, and Spirit, teach us to value connection and fellowship with one another. Holy God existing in divine community from eternity past, give us a meaningful experience of community in your church on Earth as prelude to the eternal and rich experience of the communion of the saints to which you have called us forever. We offer our prayer in the name of Jesus.
Hell on Earth
We create and live hell on Earth when we fail to seek and experience healthy relationships with one another. Oh, we go to work on crowded streets, work in sight of others, and sit in packed church buildings. Yet most of those relationships don't have much quality to them. There is no depth or warmth. There are lots of acquaintances but few friendships. And it is hellish to have no one with whom to share your innermost self, your most private feelings, your severest heartaches and joys.
Research done at the University of Michigan a few years ago studied just under 3,000 men and women in the United States, Finland, and Sweden. It concluded that a lack of social relationships in and of itself heightens one's susceptibility to illness and death. The researchers claimed that loneliness "is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and lack of physical exercise."
The sort of isolation focused on in that study is characterized by having nobody with whom you can share your private feelings, hopes, and fears. Estimates are that fully ten to twenty percent of people have close contact with others less than once a week. My guess is that this percentage has grown rather than declined in the ten years since that research was published. The same research shows that men are more devastated by isolation than women — probably, the researchers say, because women tend to create a higher quality of relationships than men.
Let me hasten to say that not everyone who is disconnected is that way from being disagreeable and quarrelsome. Some people simply see themselves as unattractive to and unwanted by others. Others have been used and abandoned by someone they dared to trust and have sworn never to make themselves vulnerable again. And some were given a self-image early in life that tagged them "unimportant" and "unlovable." We human beings can be very harsh with one another — and with ourselves.
People who feel cut off from others may then blame the world for its coldness and unfriendly makeup — in which case they further isolate themselves by blaming and finger-pointing instead of doing something positive to end their loneliness. Where do you think a lot of "road rage" or "grocery-store rage" comes from? An angry soul has long ago decided that everybody is against him, so all he needs to go off in a rage is for someone to step in front of him at the checkout counter or to cut him off on the road.
God's Community of Faith
Plato envisioned an ideal state in his Republic, and Sir Thomas More wrote of a society he called Utopia. In the New Testament, God's place of belonging is called ekklesia, and the relationship granted its members is koinonia. I hesitate to translate the former "church" and the latter "fellowship," for we have cheapened them to mean an innocuous Sunday gathering and pot-luck dinner or my group and its rules for membership.
In its best forms, the church exists in the world now as an outpost of the kingdom of God. The church is not heaven's fully established kingdom, but it is a beginning and is in the process of formation. Its presence in the world bears witness to the cross. It testifies to a view of reality that takes eternity more seriously than time. As a visible community of faith, it senses the call of God to bear witness to life in the midst of death, truth in the midst of lies, joy in the midst of despair, and good in the midst of evil.
Against the hell-on-Earth isolation of our time, the church must be a "congregation." The notion of what we refer to as the invisible church is not helpful at a practical level. Yes, only God knows those who are his. But I must take the risk to relate to others who share the view of the cross, eternity, and virtue to which I have been called. Against a cultural reluctance to make commitments, we pledge to be God's presence for one another. If we have been a scattered flock in the world, Christ has called us together. So we assemble, celebrate our call from God, and affirm one another. "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10:25).
When we do congregate for worship, we must allow the Spirit of God to be present, to quicken our assemblies with freshness and life, to renew holy zeal in our hearts. Then, beyond those times of spiritual rejuvenation in the larger group, we must learn to make close contact with each other that allows spiritual intimacy. These are burden-bearing, joy-sharing experiences that cannot happen in whole-church assemblies. They are too personal, too intimate. They require one-on-one and small-group experiences.
This is the phenomenon that had to be created by such twelve-step programs as Alcoholics Anonymous because of the church's failure to be the church. They are settings in which people abandon defensiveness and lies in order to become vulnerable to one another. They can open their hearts without condemnation from others in the group. With the pain of self-judgment already so intense it can hardly be carried, they bare their addictions, infidelities, and failures to one another as the beginning point for recovery. There is a healing mix of tears and laughter as people in the circle recognize themselves in one another.
Where can that growing ten or twenty percent of people come out of isolation into community? Where does the quarrelsome person learn to lighten up? Where does the guilt-laden soul come to terms with what is locked away in the deepest part of her heart? Where does the betrayed person who has been driven even farther underground find a place safe enough to risk trusting again? Is there a place where we can weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice — without sensing either reproach or resentment?
God created it a long time ago. Your Bible calls it the church, the Body of Christ, the Family of God. It is Everyman's Community for male and female, black and white, Jew and Gentile, drunk and teetotaler, employed and unemployed, married and single, rich and poor — anyone who seeks divine guidance, support, and power. Here we share our stories and discover ourselves in one another — and God at work in us all.
Golf tournaments, child-care classes, financial management courses, softball teams, and the like are neither inappropriate to a Christian lifestyle nor improper offerings for a church. But it is not simply that we are sharing social events with other Christians that makes Christian koinonia (i.e., fellowship, community) unique. It is a critical focus on Jesus and seeking the presence and power of God's Holy Spirit that makes the relationship authentically spiritual, healthy, and redemptive. Education, counseling, business, marriage — not one of these things is "Christian" simply because the people doing them are Christians. It is focus on Jesus that makes the enterprise truly Christian.
Here is what the church looked like in the first century and should still look like today:
[The original Christians] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).Conclusion
The thing that makes the church into a spiritual community rather than mere social engagement is most often loss, grief, and mourning shared in the conscious presence of Jesus Christ. Ever notice how quickly strangers bond in a hospital's ICU waiting room? Ever see neighbors who didn't know each other's names huddle together to cry and share what is left after a tornado or fire? Ever attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting? If so, you've seen something akin to what church is supposed to be.
The late Henri Nouwen taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. But he chose to spend the last ten years of his life, from 1986 to 1996, at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Toronto in order to minister among people with mental and physical disabilities. He tells the story of one man that I find particularly moving as a testimony to the need we all have for the church as fellowship and community, a place for making our lives visible to one another in the light of God's healing grace.
A Life Story Book is a collection of photographs, stories, and letters put together as a sort of biography. When Bill came to Daybreak as a sixteen-year-old, he brought few memories with him. He had had a very troublesome childhood and hardly any consistent experiences of love and friendship. His past was so broken, so painful, and so lonely that he had chosen to forget it. He was a man without a history.There is already too much hell on Earth. Quarrelsome men. Defensive women. Frightened, lonely, guilt-consumed people. People living in spiritual isolation from one another. But if enough of us pursue and grasp the divine ideal of community and learn to love one another, who knows? We just might experience a little bit of heaven on Earth and be the church.
But during twenty-five years at Daybreak, he gradually has become a different person. He has made friends. He has developed a close relationship with a family he can visit on weekends or holidays, joined a bowling club, learned woodworking, and traveled with me to places far and wide. Over the years he has created a life worth remembering. He even found the freedom and courage to recall some of his painful childhood experiences and to reclaim his deceased parents as people who had given him life and love notwithstanding their limitations. . . .
Many came together for the occasion [of celebrating Bill's Life Story Book]. Bill held the book and lifted it up for all to see. It was a beautifully colored ring binder with many artistically decorated pages. Although it was Bill's book, it was the work of many people.
Then we blessed the book and Bill, who held it. I prayed that this book might help Bill let many people know what a beautiful man he is and what a good life he was living. I also prayed that Bill would remember all the moments of his life — his joys as well as his sorrows — with a grateful heart.
While I prayed tears started to flow from Bill's eyes. When I finished he threw his arms around me and cried loudly. His tears fell on my shoulder while everyone in the circle looked at us with a deep understanding of what was heppening. Bill's life had been lifted up for all to see, and he had been able to say it was a life to be grateful for. . . .
The cup of sorrow and joy, when lifted for others to see and celebrate, becomes a cup to life. It is so easy for us to live truncated lives because of hard things that have happened in our past, which we prefer not to remember. Often the burdens of our past seem to heavy for us to carry alone. Shame and guilt make us hide part of ourselves and thus make us live half lives.
We truly need each other to claim all of our lives and to live them to the fullest. We need each other to move beyond our guilt and shame and to become grateful, not just for our successes and accomplishments but also for our failures and shortcomings. We need to be able to let our tears flow freely, tears of sorrow as well as tears of joy, tears that are as rain on dry ground. As we thus lift our lives for each other, we can truly say: "To Life," because all we have lived now becomes the fertile soil for the future.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup? (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1996), pp. 72-74.
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