Many of us were watching last week as Hurricane Isaac took a familiar path – across Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico, and finally making landfall in the New Orleans area. It was hard not to make comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 took much the same path with devastating results. Thankfully, Isaac was not near as powerful at Katrina. Katrina made landfall on the Gulf States as a category 3 hurricane, Isaac was a category 1, but still did a good deal of damage.
One of the stories to come out of the news this week was the sweet story of Ashley, an 8-year-old girl in Louisiana whose home was in the path of Isaac. Before her family left to get out of harms way, Ashley left this note on a dry erase board for her stuffed animals.
I don’t know if you can read it, but it says:
Ashley’s Hurricane Rules
- Noises: Scoot close to your buddy.
- Bathroom: Take a buddy.
- Rules: Follow these rules.
- When I’m gone: Stay calm. No partys (sic).
- Fun: Have fun (http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-834278)
Good advice for our friends – stuffed or otherwise.
When I saw that, I was reminded of Robert Fulghum’s now famous essay, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which contains the following rules:
- Share everything.
- Play fair.
- Don’t hit people.
- Put things back where you found them.
- Clean up your own mess.
- Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
- Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
- Wash your hands before you eat.
- Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
- Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
- Take a nap every afternoon.
- When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together (Fulghum 4f).
Fulghum and Ashley each advocate for the “buddy system.” Ashley knew when her friends were scared or needed to go to the bathroom, they should go with a buddy. Fulghum learned in kindergarten, “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
We instinctively know there is safety in numbers. Kids, even at an early age, don’t like sleeping alone. They want someone in the room with them. And when they are convinced there are monsters under the bed, they come into their parents room and sleep between us. Even my dogs, when they hear thunder, will come close to someone. There is a sense of safety, and more than a sense, we know it is true.
I have been in youth ministry for a long time now, and when we go on trips – to an amusement park or somewhere on a mission trip – I tell the youth they must travel in groups of at least three. They are not allowed to travel alone or in pairs – mostly because a pair could be a couple, and well… in high school that is not always the best.
We know the buddy system is a safer way to travel than going alone. But when it comes to our faith journeys we often ignore that advice, and seek out a solitary path.
Going It Alone
When we think spiritual journey, we think of a monk taking a vow of silence. When we think of a thin place – a moment with God – our first thought may be of a hiker having an awe-inspiring moment of solitude at sunrise on top of a mountain or by a lake. When we think of one chasing after God, we might think of Julia Roberts traveling around the world to figure it out for herself in the movie Eat, Pray, Love. For most people, we don’t think of the God-moment happening with a group of people from church.
The Barna Group, a company that polls people and studies trends in church, bore that out. Early this year they published an article saying, “one-third of those who have attended a church in the past have never felt God’s presence while in a congregational setting,” and “most people cannot recall gaining any new spiritual insights the last time they attended church” (Barna Group). Now that may say something about how poorly we are doing church. But I wonder if it doesn’t also reflect what we expect.
Conventional wisdom appears to indicate we come to church expecting to hear about God, but we don’t expect to meet him here. We more often expect to experience God in quiet, solitary moments.
A couple of years ago I chatted with a tech guy at a very large church. He was trying to sell me a software package to help congregants develop their personal relationships with God (http://monvee.com). One of the selling points he told me about was that the software anonymously shared with the church leadership where people were finding close connections to God. Information, he said, that could be used to help improve worship services. He went on to say his church had begun projecting more nature images during their worship services because most people were identifying nature as a spiritual place.
Again, we tend to think of a spiritual moment, a spiritual journey, as being a solitary endeavor. This is not though what the Bible tells us.
Biblical Spirituality is Corporate
Today’s Old Testament lesson is a great example. “Two are better than one,” Qoheleth the author of Ecclesiastes’ writes. He is advocating for the buddy system way back in the Old Testament. Then a few verses later, “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 12). This is the point I was trying to illustrate with the kids during the children’s time. One string can’t hold up the brick on its own, but when brought together the strings can do amazing things.
The same is true of a cable. It is not just one big piece of wire, but is made up of a bunch of smaller wires that when brought together can hold up a suspension bridge. Same principle.
Throughout the Old Testament it is clear spirituality was expected to be a corporate journey. Time and again we hear about the people – freed from slavery in Egypt, wandering the wilderness, entering the Promised Land, returning from exile – lots of corporate images. We read the individual’s responsibility to keep the Law, but we never get the sense that this was something they did for their own, personal relationship with God, but to strengthen the nation’s relationship with God.
Following the exile, the tribes get scattered. They begin to act more or less like twelve different people rather than a single nation of twelve tribes. One of Jesus’ first acts is to choose twelve disciples, a symbolic number stating to all who would understand that he sees his ministry as a reconstituting of the nation of Israel, a regathering of the people of God.
Jesus travels with people, speaks to groups, and gains a following. When he sends the disciples out, he sends them in pairs (buddy system). After his resurrection, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, the Spirit descends on a group of people gathering in Jerusalem for the festival, and immediately draws more into the group. According to Acts 2, three-thousand people were baptized that day and the group we call “the church” was born.
Later Paul is called of God to go out from Jerusalem and share the Gospel with the Gentiles, those not born Jewish. When he does this, Paul brings together congregations. He writes letters to the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, the church in Rome. The letters were read to a gathering of the Christians in that area, presumably their worship gatherings. He tells us these gatherings took place in the homes of what were probably some of the wealthier Christians.
Paul often reminds the churches that they are not alone in the world. For example in his opening of 1 Corinthians he writes, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
It was important to Paul to remind the churches they were not alone. He was constantly encouraging the Christians in city after city of those in other places responding to the Gospel as they had. He shared their joys, their struggles, their victories and their defeats – all to encourage them to continue to grow in their relationship with Jesus.
It seems though, somewhere along the line, we have forgotten our connectedness. I wonder if it is not because we were taught that there were some things you do not talk about in polite company: politics, money, and religion. So we have decided that our spiritual journeys are supposed to be something that we keep to ourselves. I know I have often heard it said, “My faith is my business.”
So, taken to the extreme, we have a generation of people who are doing it on their own. They are doing their own research and coming up with their own explanations of who God is, and what it means to be a person of faith. We have a group of people who, as Pastor Bob is fond of reminding us, will say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” In my mind, that means they are saying they have their own system of connection with God that they do not share with anyone else. Again, this is not the way it is supposed to be.
The writer of Hebrews puts it so well, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Apparently, even as early as the writing of the book of Hebrews, some had decided they could have a relationship with God without having a relationship with one another. They had to be reminded to not neglect meeting together.
Wesley & Bonhoeffer
Oddly, this is what John Wesley was seeking to recover in eighteenth century England. Wesley was gathering people to hear his preaching. Almost no pulpits were open to him – if you read his journals you will hear him say, I preached here and was asked never to return – so he started these society meetings. The people called Methodists were trying to buy their first meeting house, so Wesley instituted a penny collection from each society member. When he started going around talking to the people, he found many were not living out their faith on a daily basis, but were instead making it a “Sunday only” activity. To remedy this, Wesley called the Methodists to meet together during the week in small groups to “watch over one another in love.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an early twentieth century German theologian, felt something similar to Wesley. In his book Life Together he wrote the following description of German Christians in the 1930s. Tell me if this sound familiar to you.
though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners! (Bonhoeffer 110)
Bonhoeffer was noticing how the people of the church came together, but never really connected because they had constructed these walls of false piety. We dare not expose ourselves as sinners, instead we work very hard to keep of the facade of having the perfect family, a perfect life, and a deep connection with God – even when we’re not feeling it Monday through Saturday. Like Wesley, Bonhoeffer called the church to be connected, not simply in their “holiness,” but also in their “brokenness.”
Our relationship with Jesus is best lived in connection with fellow believers. This is what the author of Hebrews is writing about. We ought not to neglect meeting together, but should encourage one another. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
Oh how I love that phrase. Typically, we use the word provoke as an excuse for misbehaving; “I flew off the handle because he provoked me!” We are talking about an involuntary, usually negative and embarrassing reaction to a stimulus.
Oddly enough, the Greek word used here points in the same direction. Some of the English words used to translate the Greek are incitement, irritation, and stimulation. One lexicon translates it this way “a provocation which literally jabs…someone so they ‘must’ respond” (http://concordances.org/greek/3948.htm). So it seems a bit out of place in this context. We encourage one another to love and good deeds, but provoke?
The Shared Journey
When Christians meet together, and share their spiritual journeys together, we begin to react not with anger or defense, but with love and good deeds. When we are building one another up in our faith our immediate response becomes the loving response.
We are to not neglect meeting together to share our spiritual journeys, a practice we have been neglecting for hundreds of years. Instead we are choosing the solitary path.
The time has come for the church to recapture our practice of meeting together. As has often been said, “Christian faith is deeply personal, but it is never private.”
I had a seminary professor who put it this way:
When we weren’t looking, Bill W and Alcoholics Anonymous took our best stuff from us (I’m pretty sure this was Bryant Kirkland. Not a direct quote but my recollection.).
I believe the professor had a point. Alcoholics Anonymous works because everyone who comes to a meeting knows they are there because they are an alcoholic – in fact, they have to self-define as such. They meet with others who have been through similar circumstances and they assist one another – encouraging one another, building one another up.
The same ought to be true in our churches. We should have meetings that function as “Sinners Anonymous” where we meet together on a regular basis to admit to one another that we are sinners in need of the grace of God. Then, rather than pretending we have it all together and suffering in silence, we could receive encouragement from one another, build one another up, spur each other on in our discipleship, provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Can you imagine having a place where you can come together with fellow travelers on The Way, and share your journey using the buddy system? A place where you can take off the mask you wear, and share your struggles?
For the past several weeks, Pastor Bob has been sharing with you The Way and unveiling some new initiatives we are beginning next week – the centerpiece being our Blueprint for Discipleship groups. Our intention is to then begin to put together Covenant Groups – Sinners Anonymous gatherings – where we can encourage one another and provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Fulghum had a point when he wrote that he learned in kindergarten, “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
I like the way Ashley said it better. When you need to go to the bathroom, take a buddy. And when you are frightened by noises, scoot close to your buddy.
May you and I dare to be part of a group of people who will be our buddies in our spiritual journey. May we provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Trans. John W. Doberstein. New York: Harper & Row, 1954. Print.
Fulghum, Robert. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things. New York: Ballantine, 1989. Print.
“What People Experience in Churches.” Congregations Articles. The Barna Group, 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 31 Aug. 2012. <http://www.barna.org/congregations-articles/556-what-people-experience-in-churches>.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.