My Pastor Irritates the Crap Out of Me

Church is not always enjoyable.

Seriously, other than our jobs or school, it’s rare that we willingly choose to be in a place where we “have” to be with people and “have” to forge some sort of relationship with strangers.  People who we don’t necessarily like and probably wouldn’t choose to hang out with under different circumstances.  People who get on our nerves and are difficult to like.  The difference being the church’s mission is for us to long to do this, yet it’s equally rare that we reflect on just how hard it is to do so.  And too often the word “community” is reduced to little more than a buzzword.

I was struck by a comment that a Christian lady made to someone in her church.  She said something along the lines of how great it was that he was so willing to love those difficult to love.  What struck me was how she inadvertently revealed the truth that, as the church, this isn’t how we typically operate.  It’s easy for us to love people who act like us, speak like us, think like us; where people are like you and believe what you believe.  Of course that’s easy fellowship:  it’s an extension of loving ourselves!  It’s natural to only want to be someplace that’s comfortable, that instinct is what drives many of our race and class problems.  Most of what we call fellowship remains social and superficial and shouldn’t be confused with true unity.

With a great uniting element like being brothers and sisters in Christ, it should theoretically be easier.  But anyone who’s experienced a Thanksgiving dinner knows how trying connecting with family can be.  Because we don’t always like family.  Church family is no different.  What it’s like to be with people who you don’t always like.  Who get on your nerves.  Who are just SO different from you.

Within church and without, many of us settle for 4th grade relationships/love:  “I like you, you like me, we can chill together.”  We form little (religious) clubs that end up not being particularly welcoming because we wait to see how well the new people fit in before we’re willing to hang out with them.  The onus is on them to prove they’re easy to get along with and not too much relational work.  Because it’s hard to truly engage with people and we don’t like to work too hard at relationships.

This extends to how we work through problems within community.  It’s easier to leave people alone, to “let them think about what they’ve done” and let them “come to us when they’re ready” rather than pursue them.  We also want people to be fixed quickly (“what do you mean you’re still hurting?  I’ve put in two weeks.  Get over it already.”)  And I’ve seen people simply withdraw or (fake) “getting over it” because they don’t want to be a burden or a downer.

This is an immature form of relationships and what we call love.  Even “sinners” (the unchurched or whatever we want to label those outside of our little religious clubs) can love those who love them or who are easy to love.  Us united by Christ, no matter where we are, is how we like to say that’s the way church is supposed to be.

When you think about it, of course “being united in Christ” isn’t always enough.  We don’t all agree or even have the same idea of who Christ is and why He came.  And that’s assuming everyone in the community even believes in Christ as you don’t, or shouldn’t, have to believe before you belong.  People come to church for all sorts of reasons from being entertained by the pastor, loving the music, kids programs, their friends are there, or even cause there’s a free meal involved.

And a lot of our version of fellowship and discipleship seem focused on correcting behaviors and getting people to act a certain way—making it easier for us to like them—rather than learning what it means to love each other.

The church, since the church is people, is made up of people who irritate us, people we don’t get along with, people so different from each other.  We don’t want to struggle.  We don’t seek discomfort out and we do all that we can to avoid it.  This makes us perfectly human.  Loving relationships correct as well as affirm.  Loving relationships, loving accurately and well, mean we can say hard things and still stay in relationship with one another.  Loving relationships are marked by compassion, understanding, and love.

My pastor irritates the crap out of me.  He “demands” to be in real relationship with me.  He wants to speak into my life and wants me to speak into his.  He once randomly sent me a note telling me how much he loves me, like hearing what I think, and appreciates how much I add as a part of their church simply by being me.  So I avoided him for a week or so because I didn’t know what to do with that.  That wasn’t in my usual experience with pastors.  The same thing happened a week later when I went to visit my friend Rich Vincent at his church.  He had me stand in front of his congregation while he told them and me how much he loved, valued, and appreciated our friendship.  That simple act of love and appreciation about reduced me to a puddle of tears.  Neither of these guys—unlike me, of course—are easy to love.  They are full of quirks and eccentricities which can drive a person nuts.  But they’ve nailed what it means to love well.

Think about what it means to live in relationship and community with one another.  Just like there’s no “I” in “team,” there’s no more “me”, only “we”, in community.  Everything is done together and this bumps against just how much of an idol we have made of individualism in Western/American society.  For example, it impacts how we view sin because there are no “personal sins”:  our decisions impact each other.  It’s easy to not be in relationship, that is, to hide from one another, because we’re relationally lazy.  We’re all irritating, frustrating, and difficult to love and be in relationship with.  Too often we try to mask our differences under the banner of a shallow unity through (or to) theology.  Being in constant communication, speaking into each other’s lives, requires intentionality and work.

I like to think of the church ideally being sort of like an AA group (ironic considering the origins of AA).  Where we are united by a common pain or brokenness.  Where we come together in our woundedness, with that sense of “I’m among people who ‘get this’”.  People who accept one another where they are, how they are, build them up, affirm them, and encourage them to wholeness because of what Christ has done for all of us.

If you’re only in relationship with people who agree with you, you don’t know about love yet.  Not mature love.  What it means to love the difficult, those different fromm us, or our enemies.  To love well and deeply—in a way so profound it transforms lives and brings people to wholeness—not easy.  It’s not comfortable.  But when the church becomes comfortable, it becomes irrelevant.

This is Not a Soup Kitchen

So we’ve been attending The Crossing for nearly half a year now.  I’m a people watcher by nature, so it’s always fascinating watching the dance of getting to know one another.   As church should be, there’s an interesting confluence of race and class each week.  Each Sunday night gather ends with Communion and then sharing a meal together.  And each week there are lessons learned in the partaking of Communion and the community meals together.

If the sacrament of Baptism is like entering  into family—entering into community and pledging to be a part of it—the Communion meal is part act of living up to the pledge.  Reflecting on what it means to be a part of that community, how easy it is to damage that community, what it means to reconcile with one another and with God.  I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s words in I Corinthians 11:20-26:

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Again, it’s funny how you can read something and yet see it in an entirely new light when you see it play out in front of you.   In Paul’s day, too many people saw the ritual of the Lord’s Supper strictly as dinner time.  For a few weeks in a row, we had a number of attendants see our community meal that way.  Don’t get me wrong, we’re perfectly cognizant that some of the homeless in our congregation are there just for the free meal, and for many, it might be the only good meal they get that week.  So nothing is begrudged there.  The problem was in the selfishness of piling up one’s plate with no regard to other’s who hadn’t eaten yet.  Which caused our pastor to exclaim that “This is not a soup kitchen”  and we were reminded that this meal is no different than a family dinner.  And while everyone is welcome, each person should be aware that they aren’t the only person in the family or in need.

Now, I’ve done my time in soup kitchens.  I used to get together with friends, go down to Wheeler Missions and serve food to the homeless men there.  It was a great time of fellowship for us workers.  We’d prepare the food, serve the food, and clean up afterwards.  Now that I think back on the time, us volunteers largely spent out time in the kitchen, rarely interacting with the men, while the men waited about like patient children.  In that scenario, I think the experience was more about “us” as workers, learning to be servants, than it was about reaching out to the men and building relationships with them.

If the meals were to be more about the men, we would have had them help plan or prepare meals, asking their opinions, and working and talking alongside one another*.  It’s  the difference of having dinner with them as opposed to giving dinner to them.  It’s not until you’re around people who are real all the time that you realize our  comfort level with fakeness.  Eating alongside one another means that one has to put to death any germ-o-phobe notions:  during communion, we pull bread from a common loaf.  Anyone afraid of homeless hands obviously assumes they know where my hands have been.

I also wonder about how much we take the idea of family for granted.  I wonder what it must be like to have never been in a home with meal shared with family.  Or not having learned how to have conversations.  To have no relational connection to people, or being so focused on self and simple survival for the niceties of what we call politeness.  So without lowering the standard for what it means, I try to increase my understanding and perspective.   Just like others will have to learn to be patient with me for being … me.

People like the idea of community, but people don’t want community. People like thinking of church as a family reunion or get-together, then they remember how much their family sometimes annoys them. People like the idea of eating a meal together, but are too busy to sit down with folks. We like the idea of community, we hate the effort it takes to build and maintain it (“I want community but I don’t want to have to get out of my comfort zone”).  We just need to remember that we’re all created in God’s image, we’re all broken, and we’re all capable of experiencing Christ’s reconciliation.

*It’s funny that even while writing this blog, I defaulted to an “us” and “them” language which I had to go back and edit.

Our Church Stinks

So we’ve been consigned to the basement. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The Crossing meets in the basement of Redeemer Presbyterian (a church we were familiar with since it hosts many First Friday events as it shares space with the Harrison Center for the Arts) on Sunday nights. Each week, round tables, lit with candles, are set up around the periphery of rows of chairs. Nothing glamorous, no power points, barely a sound system, it’s small enough that it’s difficult to hide from one another. The pastor has a conversational style with plenty of interaction between him and the congregation.

I love the reaction folks have when we tell them that we’re going to The Crossing. It’s typically something along the lines of “oh, you’d fit in well there.” I can’t tell if it’s because I’m an artist or if it’s because it’s become known as the church for people with issues.

There’s almost an anti-growth program with its “we’re a screwed up place, you sure you want to be here?” vibe. I remember the Sunday evening gathering which sold me on the place. The couple next to us was high and/or drunk. If we couldn’t tell from the smell the alcohol was wafting off them, their attempt to keep beat to the music would have clued us in. Then during the meal afterward, me and a homeless gentlemen was discussing my unemployment:

“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“You can do that anytime.” At which point, he pulled out his cell phone and gave me numbers to call for job leads.

Oh yeah, did I mention that about a third of the congregation is homeless? For those not used to it, there’s a smell to homelessness. Unwashed bodies, unwashed clothes. One of those things that sounds good in theory. I know that Sally is being stretched as she told me early on that “I’ve always believed church should be a place where people should come as they are: high, drunk, homeless, dirty. I’m just not sure I’m ready to at that church. Or sitting next to them.”

Which is completely honest, though most folks wouldn’t admit to such sentiments. Let’s face it, we talk a pretty good game about social justice, reaching out to the poor, and dealing with homelessness, but we tend to think of that as one of those “over there” ministries. Something that’s done away from the comfort of our suburban castles. It’s also made me realize how much we’ve come to value smooth running services. There is an element of show or production to our church services that we’ve come to expect. A trains running on time veneer of professionalism done in the name of running on/respecting people’s time. And there’s nothing wrong with that, unless we’ve made an idol of that; our need for control superseding the role of the Holy Spirit in a service or the needs of the group. The meal time afterwards is always an adventure.

We tend to want to be with people who are like us, either by race or by class. People who are different will interrupt. People who are quirky aren’t as concerned about appearances. And people aren’t easy to know, assuming they let you get to know them. It’s difficult to embrace the awkwardness of relationships and encounters with people not like us, to allow them to stretch us out of our comfort zones.

We want to go in and fix, that’s our modern American way. But what does it mean to truly love others. What does it mean to be in relationship with them? We don’t give others a chance to let people in or let them in to love us. It’s risky to let people in on our struggles, our shame. We risked being misunderstood, rejected, or not liked. So it’s easier to cling to our addictions and self-protection. The work of building community is hard. It’s one thing to talk about it, another to live it out. To not only walk beside people, but be willing to go after them. To be willing to walk into another person’s pain, their hard reality, even entering into their suffering. That’s how community is forged.

Yes our church stinks. Stripped of the façade, it smells of brokenness and sweat. It’s the smell of community.

Sometimes We Have to Enter the Cave

“The one great advantage you have as a new church pastor is that you are forced to start small. Nothing is imposed on you. Determine that you will know every person, their names and whatever of their lives they are willing to let you in on. Be in their homes. Invite them into your home in small groups for an evening or lunch. The killing frost in too much new church development is forming programs that will attract people or serve their perceived ‘needs,’ getting them ‘involved.’ The overriding need they have is worship and that is the one thing that is lowest on their ‘needs’ list. Insist on it: keep it simple – learn to know every last one of them relationally. And call them to worship – and not entertainment worship, but a community at worship. Americans these days are not used to being treated that way, personally and apart from promotional come-ons. Religious entrepreneurism has infected church planting all over the country. When it is successful numerically (and if you are a good salesman and smile a lot it probably will be) you will end up with a non-church.”

I recently ran across this quote from Eugene Peterson on J.R. Briggs’ web site. The context is new church plants/communities (and I think being willing to enter one another’s “caves” is what being a true church community is about), but it got me to thinking. I recently told a friend that “I know you like to withdraw into your cave. I’m just saying make room for me to keep you company.” Not that I have any special insight, I just know what I’m like when I’m in a “cavey” mood. Most people want to be pursued. We want to be cared for enough, matter enough, for someone to come after us. And sometimes we need space. On our end, we need to do a good job of communicating what we want. On the end of those we are in community with, we need to go after folks.

We often talk about relationships and being in community, but have little understanding of what that means and entails. Too many “guys” act like, well, guys . We’re prone to “give people space” when problems arise and then act stunned when situations are misread or misunderstood. We rarely take the time to evaluate if our approach is a healthy way to deal with situations. (Right now would again NOT be the time for someone to try to convince me women shouldn’t be leaders or wouldn’t make better shepherds). Maybe, in shepherding people, giving people space leaves gaps in relationships, or may leave people feeling isolated or alone.

This isn’t solely a “guy” thing: most people are relationally lazy. It’s easy to hang out with someone but it takes work to get to know someone. It’s easy to enjoy someone’s company during good times and harder to walk through the mess of their lives. I know many pastors get used to people coming to them when they have problems, so they get into a posture of not having to seek people out. Just like I know it’s easy for some leadership teams to go “well, so and so has kept in touch, so my base is covered.” No, it doesn’t: neglecting relationships doesn’t cover for you. Giving people space gives them room to hide. Most times, the hiding isn’t even some deep, dark sin but rather just people being afraid and broken and thus secretive, slow to trust. Requiring shepherds to walk with them for a while before they become willing to share and open up.

It comes down to the basic tools of “doing” relationships. A part of dealing with people as grown ups, mature men and women, means that we have to take risks. That part of being willing to “lay down my life for my brother” means that they might yell at us, they might be mad at us, but we take those chances so that we can hear from them in relationship. That’s why it’s so important to walk alongside folks and pour oneself into their lives. That, in over communication, we will fail on the side of love by letting the caver tell us when they need space.

The Non-Committed Generation?

Related to my anti-emo folks angst, I’ve been encountering more and more of what I can only call floaters. Folks who drift from thing to thing, taste-testing opportunities and communities, unable to commit or develop roots in anything. They are transitory figures, here one minute, gone the next and thus are hard to count on or invest in.

I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or a (postmodern) cultural thing, but it seems like these folks are easily distracted and nearly incapable of following through on things. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t throw too many stones. I juggle a lot of balls which gives the illusion of non-flightiness when in actuality should I get bored with something, I turn to the next thing. I just keep cycling through the same few things rather than keep finding something new each time.

I wonder if it’s a symptom of the same consumer mentality which has led to church members drifting off to the next charismatic preacher or bigger program, because they come together not to form a community but to be entertained or serviced. How we tend to seek out churches based on who has the best show, where you don’t have to do anything and you don’t have to reveal anything. And too often we, as the church, enables such narcissistic behavior.

Folks who do the flitting thing tend to be one of two camps (typically defined by how generous I’m feeling toward them). On the negative side of the ledger, they are not committed (to much of anything) and foster little sense of connection. They fly by seat of their pants, living for the moment in the most visceral of ways. A lot of their tendencies smack of selfishness, because if something (or someone) more interesting pops up, they’re gone with that breeze.

When I’m feeling a lot less frustrated, I see that often they are simply looking for the right fit for them, sampling different things in order to find out where you fit. They form discrete communities and stray from them with great difficulty. They are “truth in the moment” kind of folks, simply non-linear thinkers who come at life from a different perspective.

Yeah, it’s tough to plan things around types who rarely follow through. At the same time, they recognize that non-commital trait in themselves and there is some guilt about it. I like to look at it this way: their heart is in service, in wanting to join in with Christ’s redemptive mission … they just haven’t found that place, that ministry, that calling which fits them.

We all have that selfish part to us and sometimes working through it means just throwing yourself into something and sticking to it even when you don’t want to … for a time. If only to make it through and develop your perseverance muscles. Sometimes it’s just about finding your place, finding what resonates with you, that place where you can best be plugged in. Until you have a relationship with a place or a people, you aren’t committed to it. On the flip side, unless you commit, you can’t develop a relationship. At some point, someone is going to have to take a risk. So continue sampling and when where you land fits, dig in. You may end up surprising yourself.

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Break Glass in Case of Emergency Part Two

I swore I was going to take it easy on the blogging until the New Year and focus on things that have to be done (like our impending church move) and being with friends and family. But I haven’t been able to shake this feeling of weariness, of feeling about burned out and just plain tired.

I think I’ve been kind of trapped in a loop/trap, all of it a pride thing, really. I find it really frustrating and depressing when something I was expecting to enjoy or use to relax doesn’t go exactly as planned (despite the fact that I’m all about not over-planning and improvising). I also can’t stand being introspective to the point of being maudlin or be seen as whining about anything. It’s the classic American quandry, wanting to be strong and independent (despite our need for community).

Now, there are more than a few things I suck at. Taking Sabbath is one of them. Letting folks be a friend to me is another (that’s a tale for another day). Sometimes friends rant at you (and since they are people I’ve chosen to speak into my life, they’ve earned the right). I have a friend whose anonymity I’ll protect by calling him RedWineGums. He’s been a special blessing as I’ve gotten to know him. This may have to serve as a Break Glass in Case of Emergency Part Two type post, as he reminds me of things (you’d think I’d remember since I’d written on them before) which we need to be re-reminded of on occasion:

We don’t have to be the strong men all the time. We don’t have to be the calm at the eye of the storm. We are allowed to have feelings. We are allowed to feel broken. And we are allowed to say we need help.

God appeared on a cloud and gave you this essential task that no-one else could perform did He?

A fear of perception is one way the enemy uses to get to us. Whether it’s fear of releasing yourself in worship, fear of talking to someone about God, or fear of raising how you’re feeling.

We get the idea that we should somehow be immune to the trials of simple human life because what we’re implicitly saying—when we are always the dependable one, always the strong one, always the reliable one—is that we are one. We stand alone as strong men.

Forgetting how much we need God. Forgetting how much our wives, children and friends pour into our lives. Forgetting that it’s only in our weakness and brokenness that God is truly glorified.

How can we live in community when we think we always have to give but never take? There is nothing wrong with saying that we need some help or encouragement or even some acceptance that we put in a hell of a lot of work at times. We’re not meant to seek after it, but neither are people meant to ignore it.

You’re not a whiner if you talk to some other person saying you feel burnt out and would like some encouragement or help with things. Community isn’t about you fulfilling the inbuilt Alpha male need to provide. It’s also about acknowledging when you need someone else to take that place

Let me leave you with this quote and this prayer he sent me (which I generalized so that we could all hear it):

“Well done for hanging on. When you were only going to the church. Well done. When you prayed even though you didn’t feel God. Well done. When you were ignored and passed by but still kept the faith. Well done.” –Jeff Lucas

Lord I ask that they would find the encouragement and comfort they need in You
Lord human words are one thing but let them first turn to You for their rest and recovery
Lord I pray for their mind right now
I come against any attacks of the enemy on my brethren
I speak wholeness, life, hope, faith and love to their lives

Actually, I kept waiting for him to say Take Your Ass Home (and yes, I will learn to start saying “no” to things. It’s practically a New Year’s Resolution. Practically. Hey, I can’t be expected to change overnight).

Friday Night Date Place: Looking for Communitas?

A friend of mine engaged me in a discussion about the nature of the group of friends that she was currently hanging out with. The group met her companionship needs, a group of people her age in the same life situation. They got together to kill time together, watching television, going out to eat, and in general, enjoying one another’s company. In other words, it was basically a singles group.

Singles groups are singles groups first and part of the church in the secondary. Sometimes VERY secondarily. Your typical church singles group has a few key characteristics: 1) the average stay of the typical member is five years and 2) about every three years, the group has gone through a cycle of turnover. Why? Because it is one of the few ministries where the object is to get out of it. People date, and if they marry, they leave. People date, and if it doesn’t work out, they leave. People hang out, and if there are no prospects, they leave.

Some communities exist for their own sake, but can’t sustain themselves over the long haul. Even in my own experience in singles groups, a few true friendships were forged, but the group on the whole couldn’t sustain itself. I’m not talking about the relationships per se because those interested in true friendship built those relationships. But the group on the whole, if it were just about killing time, got old. Especially since the “mission” of the group was to get out of the group.

Michael Frost in his book Exiles discusses the commendable desire for Christian community, how it has become a buzzword, but how it has gone often unfulfilled. Frost’s contention is that the problem begins when we make community our end goal, how “aiming for community is a bit like aiming for happiness. It’s not a goal in itself. We find happiness as an incedental by-product of pursuing love, justice, hospitality, and generosity. When you aim for happiness, you are bound to miss it. Likewise with community. It’s not our goal. It emerges as a by-product of pursuing something else.”

There comes a point where you want to go deeper with a group, where you want to move from community to communitas. With communitas, you buy into a mission or vision and that mission sustains the group because not only do the activities stem from that sense of mission, but there is a sense of purpose about them. The group becomes united behind the feeling that they have banded together at this time for this reason. Whether to join in with what God is already doing (to put it in spiritual language) or simply to better the world them; either way, they become a part of something greater than themselves and turning outwards, rather than continually focused inward.

This part of a hermeneutic of communitas I can buy into. People will want to go to the next level, deepen the roots of the friendships in any group, moving from a sense of a group of casual acquaintances to real friends, because we are relational beings and long for that sense of connection. If we don’t share a committed pursuit of a greater goal, we often will succumb to being a short term, unsustainable mission of hanging out. Until we leave.

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Participatory Community

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people like the idea of community, but people don’t want community. People like thinking of church as a family reunion, then they remember how much their family sometimes annoys them. People like the idea of eating a meal together, but are too busy to sit down with folks. We like the idea of community, we hate the effort it takes to build and maintain it (I want community but I don’t want to have to get out of my comfort zone).

Creating a sense of community is a tough lesson to get across. I tend to like the military model: provide their identity (this is who you are), provide the mission (this is what we do), provide training (this is how we do it), and then send them out to live their mission (now go do it). Think about how boot camp can bring together people from all walks of life and no matter their station in life, create one body from them. (Granted, it’s not the perfect model, though there are plenty of days when I’d love to be able to yell at folks “did you love your neighbor as yourself? Drop and give me 20!”)

[If I fail to make a point with the rest of this blog, it’s because I’m now giggling myself stupid with a lot of other “drill instructor pastor” scenarios]

In church settings, I think part of the reason we aren’t living out community is because there is still this hesitation for folks as they wait for the professionals, to do stuff. They wait for “the leadership” to create scenarios to foster community (be it small groups, or book studies, or whatever dream scenario they think will cause them to jump into instant community).

On the part of leadership, we see things that need to be done and we jump in and do them (and by leadership, I’m not just talking about “the elders” or whoever the “up front” folks are. I’m talking about the 20% of the folks who do 80% of the work).

Someone suggested that if you want the church to learn what it means to be a community, you have to give them opportunities to participate. Let the trash stack up. Let the building get dirty. Quit buying food when the meal contribution falls short. Quit worrying so much about “the building” and it being perfect, especially since “outside” the church, we say that “it ain’t a party til something gets broke” anyway. Let them participate even if all they say “look, I ain’t cutting grass. Here’s $50 to make it happen.”

When community becomes about your needs being met, you’ve missed the point of community. We like the idea of building relationships but we don’t want to have to talk to people. Better still, we always want people to bend over backwards and reach out to us. That’s a wonderful ideal, but that’s rarely going to happen. Community takes work. You have to participate in it for it to actually come about. You have to get out of your comfort zones and our of the Pharasitical seats of criticizing how everyone keeps getting it wrong.

And for the folks who get hung up about whether or not they are getting enough “head knowledge” on a Sunday morning, they forget that sometimes doing is the lesson. And we’re far from getting that lesson down. So I guess I’m wondering, how can we best learn or teach community?

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Community Crutch

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” –Galatians 6:2

Do you ever have to deal with someone you know you are supposed to be responsible for that just sucks the very life out of you? A person you want to be there for, and in theory should be there for, but they just make too many demands of you? I’m going to try and do more than just vent in this blog, so I’m going to at least go through the motions of examining the responsibility of a community (be they friends, family, church, or what-have-you), even as individuals, in taking on one another’s burdens.

There are times when we ought to take as much of another’s burdens as possible. There will be times when I’m in a good place (financially, emotionally, physically, time wise) and a friend or family may be crunched and I can take that burden from them. However, while propping them up is one thing, but it’s not the ideal long term solution.

As I wrestle with the practical implications of what it means to support one another, what it means to share one another burdens, I can’t help but think—counterintuitive as this may sound—sometimes being a constant safety net keeps folks from growing, trying, experimenting, risking failure. Knowing someone is always there can make folks lazy and dependent. When I think of my role as a parent, the goal is to get the kids out of the nest by preparing them to be on their own, not constantly following after them in case they falter. There comes a point when we have to let go of the handle bars and trust that we’ve taught them how to ride the bicycle.

The problem arises when we encounter some folks who try to get by on pity. They won’t work or won’t hold down a job. They seem content to continue to put people in bad positions. It’s a form of emotional blackmail, like tagging along when folks are going out to eat knowing that you have no money: being invited along is one thing; infringing on them is another. Community is a two way street. It’s often hard enough for many folks to ask for help in the first place, these are the same folks who wouldn’t want to be supported that way – dependent on other’s good natures, sponging off folks, mooching our way through life, especially if they want to be seen and taken as grown-ups.

“God helps those who help themselves” is an ancient proverb that shows up in the literature of many cultures, including a 1736 edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, however, it is not in the Bible. This truism does speak more to our nature than it does to God’s: it’s easier for me to help those who are trying for themselves. We don’t want folks to use community as a crutch unless their leg(s) are truly broken.

“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” –Colossians 3:13

(But I’m still going off to listen to Tim Wilson’s song “He’s my Brother-in-Law.” Right now, I’m finding it … soothing.)

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A Muslim Take On Community

So I have this friend in prison with whom I dialogue regularly about our respective faiths (he has discovered Islam while in prison). Every so often, he guest blogs for me. Since we continue to contend that Islam and Christianity can teach each other anything and shed light on each other’s beliefs, here is his take on the idea of community.

The question that initiated this line of thought was whether or not we (by “we” I mean the Muslims here at Indiana State Prison) are a “community” in the way it is defined along Islamic terms and is this definition harmonious to the general understanding of community (and what is the general understanding of community). And depending on the answer to that question, what is our responsibility to either maintain or achieve community.

Community is defined as:
1. People in area: a group of people who live in the same area, or the area in which they live
2. People with common background: a group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society
3. Nations with common history: a group of nations with a common history or common economic or political interests

So depending on the context that it’s used, one could say that community is basically a group of people that either live in the same locale or have similar backgrounds/concerns. I would also say that this is the general understanding that people of the concept of community.

As such, when we talk about the black community, for example, what does that mean? We don’t all live in the same are, we don’t all have common backgrounds, or share the same interest. I guess you could argue that we do have a common history and that we are all darker than white people, but does this really define community?

My problem with this is that community should mean more than that. If we limit ourselves to the above understanding, then we are no more than a collection of individuals that are sharing space. There is no sense of … I don’t know … concern/love.

Islam defines community as a brotherhood (which obviously has a richer connotation – goodwill, a feeling, fellowship, and sympathy for other people). And it is along these lines that Islam defines community. Allah says, “Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher; therefore serve ME and no other,” and “The believers are but a single brotherhood: so make peace and reconciliation between your two contending brothers; and fear Allah that you may receive mercy.” (23:52 and 49:10).

The idea that is being put forth is that the believers are bonded together, unified by their faith in Allah and that as a result of this there is a responsibility to one another. Actually a love for one another. Allah says, “And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.” (3:103)

I don’t want to get preachy here. Suffice to say that the idea is that through our common faith, we are bonded together. We are commanded to love one another. This love is not necessarily the kind of love that you have for a wife or a child. In fact, you might not even particularly like a fellow brother. It is the kind of love, I suppose, is best exemplified amongst members of the armed forces. During my tenure as a Marin, there were plenty of guys I didn’t particularly care for, but the bottom line was that they were Marines. As such, I would always extend that man the respect and courtesy that he was due, I would assist him in whatever he need assistance with, I would put my life on the line to protect him.

That same love is called for in Islam in terms of our relations with one another. Allah tells us to hold on to the Rope, all together. The idea is that we are stronger together than we are individually. You have heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Kind of the same idea here, that collectively we support one another in the areas we are weak. That collectively, there is a measure of accountability that is not present individually.

Then, of course, we have a model of community. We have the historical accounts of how the Prophet (saw) and the early Muslims lived. And what we see, in short, is a body in which the individual sacrificed for the greater good of community, a structure of mutual respect and assistance, and (very important) a very real practice of accountability. This is the best example of what a community is.

Okay, with this on the table, how does this stack up to how or what we generally apply the term community too. Looking at, for example, the Islamic Communities out in the world. What we see, in general, is Muslims falling into what I call the contemporary Christian paradigm (you really need fancy titles for something simple, I could have just said the way Christians do stuff these days).

Here’s what I’m talking about. Let’s go back, oh, 100 years ago in this country. What we will see is a particular standard of morality. This standard, obviously, had a Christian foundation. More importantly, this standard was being not only espoused from the pulpit, but there was an expectation of adherence by the general populace. If one would act counter to this societal standard, then there were repercussions. For the sake of time and space, I’m being really general, and there are exceptions but I think you get the gist of what I’m saying.

We fast forward to 2007, and there is still a standard of living being propagated from the pulpit, however, there is no accountability to the message. A message is preached on Sunday and then the people are dispersed back to their individual lives – which is all good and well for Christians (ha!). The problem, as I see it, this is also true of the Muslim communities. This is counter to the very spirit that is embodied in what community means, or should mean, to the Muslim. Nevertheless, brothers go to the mosque on Friday, but then is seen coming out of the liquor store on Saturday, turning up a 40 oz and what? Nothing. That’s a problem.

So, to answer my own original question, do we have a community here? I would say yes we do. We certainly have the commonality of faith. We express a degree of love that is expected of Muslims for one another. And, just as importantly, we have a degree of accountability and expectation of one another.

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