Community and Culture

Why Christian community is essential to following Christ:

“But what we value in a culture is the inside view – the view of the participants, whose emotions, attachments and goals are all clarified by their immersion in a shared way of life, and the web of rituals and images that has been woven into it. This inside view can be taught, but only by a process of acculturation, in which the one culture is put across as ‘ours’. Acculturation is valuable as the precursor to the ‘we’ attitude – the thing that makes it possible to look on yourself as one among many, with a destiny that is shared.” Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope

The Christian Vocation – Furthering the Kingdom

Cooperate

As a young boy, when Jesus was found by His parents in the temple He said that He had to be about His Father’s business (Luke 2:49, literally: “in the things of My Father”). Jesus had a vocation and that vocation was doing the work of His Father. A vocation is a person’s calling in life, their unique service while on earth. Jesus devoted Himself to accomplishing the Father’s business and He passed that calling onto us as Christians (John 20:21). But, what is the Father’s business? What is a Christian’s vocation?

Put simply, every Christian’s vocation is to further the Kingdom of God. This was the essence of Jesus’ work (Mark 1:15) and it is the essence of our work. To further the Kingdom of God is to cooperate with God to extend His rule and reign, which ultimately means bringing His goodness to the world. God is sovereign, but because He has chosen to limit His sovereignty by man’s freedom, we live in a world that has an actual potential for love, but also unfortunately, suffering. The Father’s business is to do whatever we can to see the potential for love reached while reducing the possibility of suffering. Specifically, that means extending truth, hope, and love.

“Truth works and lies don’t.” That’s a little aphorism I coined to help bring home the idea that cooperating with reality is the only way to flourish in life. Indeed, the truth shall set us free. In God we live and move and have our being. All reality comes from Him, therefore, the closer one is to truth, the closer they are to God. Extending truth is encouraging knowledge and behavior that reflects reality, for example, rejecting hurtful misbeliefs, having a modest view of oneself, treating people respectfully, learning as much as we can about the world, and being honest. Satan is the father of lies, and his defeat entails shining the light of truth whenever we can.

Extending hope is proclaiming in word and deed the fact that God writes the last chapter. He is good enough for everyone of us and He promises a bright future. There are a lot of dark clouds in this life and suffering is the way of man, but it doesn’t end there. We have a Friend who sticks closer than a brother and One who is preparing a place for us. There is every reason to have hope because there is a God. Optimists are realists. Evil doesn’t have the last say. How we talk to our neighbors, how we raise our children, how we think about our problems, and how we plan our future can all be shaped by this hope, which furthers the Kingdom of God.

Lastly, furthering the Kingdom of God speaks of love conquering all. Love is the delightful dance of community. When we treasure and bow before each other, we find fulfillment that’s at the heart of God. As Trinity, God has His being in communion. Giving and receiving in mutual appreciation is the drama of literature and history and is universally recognized as the point of all our living. Extending love is to treasure people, resolve conflicts well, sacrifice for others, and encourage the wonder of oneness. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).

While Jesus had a unique mission, we share the same general vocation, that is, furthering the Kingdom of God. This vocation, expressed by extending truth, hope, and love is targeted toward ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. In a future post I’ll give some practical ways to carry this out.

I can ‘see’ better

The impoverished soul says, “In lieu of good relationships, I can at least take pleasure that I see better than others.”

Conflict

Conflict is a normal and essential reality when humans seek to relate together.  It is basically the flash point of differences in thinking and behaving.  While conflict may be uncomfortable, it need not be destructive.  In fact, it can and should help to deepen relationships.  The main concern is to make sure that conflict is healthy.

Healthy conflict is cooperative where people together seek to clarify and correct the problems they are having in relating to each other.  Unhealthy conflict is adversarial where people seek to win points and vanquish their opponents.  The metaphor I like to use is the circle and the line.  Healthy conflict is like two people standing in a circle together looking at the relational problems they are facing and jointly trying to solve them.  They have the same interest, namely, improving their relationship.  They are on the same side, standing together facing a challenge.

Unhealthy conflict is when people draw a line in the sand and do battle with each other.  They are adversaries.  Someone is going to “win” and someone is going to “lose”.  The truth is that both will lose.  There is no communion when one person seeks to dominate the other.  The conflict is unhealthy because the relationship suffers and will eventually succumb to disease if disagreements continued to be resolved this way.

In order to have healthy conflicts both people need to listen, seek first to understand the other, and admit when they are wrong.  It is admittedly difficult to do these things when you feel hurt.  The natural urge is to retaliate.  Honestly communicating can help to overcome this tendency.  Simply admit that you are hurt or angry, but you still want to resolve things and are open to being wrong.  A frank confession can do wonders to keep the doors open.  Then listen with the objective to understand rather than reply.  And like everything in life, the more you practice these skills the better you will get at them.

Community is about good relationships.  Conflict is inevitable and a necessary process for maturing relationships.  Learning to accept and positively engage in conflict is an essential skill for those in any kind of community.

Community Requires Generosity

Generosity

If community is about anything, it’s about living well with others. For something so fundamental to everyone’s experience, it is amazing that we often don’t know how to live well with others. I’m convinced that many relationship problems are the result of simply not being generous enough with each other.

Each of us can be rude, thoughtless, self-preoccupied, forgetful, ignorant, impatient, and even lazy. Even when we are trying to diligently live a life of kindness, our journey will include making mistakes and failing our ideals. This is the human condition, of which we all partake.

It would be helpful to compare our weaknesses with other people’s strengths, rather than our strengths with other people’s weaknesses. Doing so can help us become more generous. Generosity, in this context, basically means we’re willing to freely put up with the difficulty other people’s weaknesses cause us because we recognize that the difficulties we present to others are no less troubling.

Paul tells us in that familiar passage in 1 Cor. 13 that love is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. In other words, love is generous. We just won’t be able to live well with others if we’re not generous. Community requires generosity.

What’s God’s First Name?

In 1989 an unexpected and life-changing experience stormed into my life that altered my world. I refer to the revival that was the beginning of our community in its current form. Before then I was serving as a missionary in a popular evangelical mission organization. Although we were working with dedicated and sincere Christians, we were products of pop culture nonetheless. In fact, the revival which changed everything for me dismantled ways of thinking that I subconsciously took for granted. These ideas were obviously inherited from culture, both secular and Christian.

The revival included for me a dark night of the soul where the foundations of my Christian experience were challenged and reshaped. One particularly shocking insight had to do with my attitude toward God Himself. I had always assumed, and heard a great number of sermons and exhortations telling me, that God wanted to be near me, that He was my best friend, and was even described as a romantic lover. The most powerful sermons were the ones that passionately painted this picture of a “Song of Solomon” image of God that was sure to elicit deep feelings in the audience and, hopefully, fill the altar. No doubt the motives for teaching this somewhat maudlin view of God are admirable, seeing that many people feel alienated from Him. I’m afraid, however, that it reflects some elements of pop culture.

After a three day penetrating examination of my life I remember attending a service. I was never so clear about my own heart or the wonder of God’s grace. During worship I recall feeling unable to lift my hands. For that matter I couldn’t even lift my head. God, in His love, was introducing me to reverence. It appeared to me unthinkable that anyone could casually assume a “Song of Solomon” level of familiarity with Him. Certainly, He loved me dearly, but I was not His equal, and I didn’t offer anything that even remotely would entice Him. Paradoxically, reverence has enabled me to experience His nearness more sharply than ever before.

In Western culture there has been a slow, but continuous move toward egalitarianism. It has rapidly permeated the culture since the 60s. By egalitarianism I mean the idea that we are all equal and that everyone should be treated the same. Distinctions due to age, position, or gender are all suspect. It’s ironic that in an age where individuality is cherished, we mean to make everyone equal (one of the chief reasons for the increased interest in getting a tattoo is to express one’s individuality).

We all cry to be different, but we can’t brook the difference of others if it demands we defer to them. In other words, we tolerate everybody, but we respect nobody. Kenneth Minogue observes, “The old deferences in which one behaved differently with parents, women, teachers, clergymen, and so on have been left behind: everyone is now part of a single human scene and, broadly, one treats everyone the same.” A niece of a friend of mine teaches elementary school and, besides being called “Dude” by the students on occasion, is regularly asked what her first name is. She wisely answers, “Misses.”

Real intimacy cannot be forced and can only spring from truth. You can’t make someone love you and ignoring differences will only create distance. In spite of our insistence that we’re liberated from the conventions that govern sexuality and situational formality, we are not finding that we are closer to others and we are as lonely as ever. Respect, deference, and reverence help us walk in truth on which close relationships are based. When we recognize who is really in front of us, and submit to that, we make the first step towards a relationship of integrity. And without integrity, there is no intimacy.

Prior to 1989, I was an egalitarian who rightly experienced a gulf in my relationships. Because I want to become closer to God, I am ever seeking to become more reverent. Because I long for the intimacy of my friends and family, I am always trying to better honor them and become a more respectful follower of the Lion who is a Lamb.

The Most Amazing Woman

Lisa

In Christian circles, and even in pop culture, it is rather fashionable for husbands and wives to say that they are married to the most amazing and wonderful man/woman they’ve ever met. I understand their intention in saying this. They want to communicate how much they appreciate their spouse and show that they are not taking them for granted, which is a helpful push against a culture that tends to promote self-absorption. More importantly, they simply want to bless their spouse, which is very admirable. But this hyperbolic and misguided approach can actually promote the very opposite effect the fawning lover intends.

A complement, to be lastingly effective, must be based in truth. The chances that our spouses have been, and will continue to be, the superlative of all humans we’ll meet is rather slim. Despite the ambiguity about which properties the impassioned cry is made, even if those could be enumerated, it would still be highly unlikely. Humanity is just too wonderful and diverse to believe that in our small corner of the world we’ve found the best.

But perhaps the complement is really a way to say that our spouses are the best for us. In other words, it’s a subjective statement and therefore cannot be challenged. Granted, but the declaration is a comparative statement. The focus is on comparing this man or woman with every other man and woman in the world. If I wanted to say that they were best suited for me, then I would make myself the focus of the statement. For example, “My wife is so wonderful to me,” or “I’m amazed by the beauty and kindness of my wife,” or “My wife means more to me than any other woman in the world.” The focus here is the impact of this person on me (a subjective statement), not a qualitative comparison with others. However, you rarely hear these statements made this way. To talk like this is to bear one’s soul, which seems rather unsophisticated, and so an uncourageous facsimile will have to do.

More significantly, the real problem with the “amazing man/woman” boast is that it suggests that our spouses mean something to us because they possess certain characteristics. It reduces them to a favorite object or a preferred good or service. They’re the best product on the market. This is truly demeaning because people are not objects. People are irreplaceable beings. They can’t be reduced to their various characteristics. True love isn’t loving someone because of something they have (their beauty, their personality, their talents), it is loving them period. I’m not saying their qualities don’t matter. Of course they do, and they do factor into our selection of someone to be our friend. But it’s not because our loved one is the best instance of those qualities that we choose them. If it is, then our love is a farce.

Someone who is loved for their properties can be replaced when another comes along with a greater quality or quantity of those properties, or when they happen to lose those properties through age, disease, or an accident. Love that has any real meaning is a love that can’t be explained. Just as each person is a profound mystery, so is the love that binds two friends together.

I’m pleased that there is a current trend to unashamedly affirm our spouses in public. But the best affirmation is one that doesn’t cheapen the person and courageously bows before the beloved.