Community: The Wounds of Fellowship

This is the first of five parts dealing with some of the challenges of community life.

“…His appearance was marred more than any other man, and His form more than the sons of men…”

~~Isaiah, the prophet.

“What happened to your arm?”

It’s a question that I get asked often. There is a scar across my right elbow where I tried (and fortunately failed) to chop off my arm with a gas-powered pruning saw. The accident happened over twenty years ago. When I am asked about the scar, I tell about the wound.

Wounds tell stories. In Christ’s body after the resurrection, they told of redemption and eternal life. Now, the body of Christ is the church and it, too, has wounds that tell the story.

From Christ’s Body to the Body of Christ

Jesus, the suffering servant, carried away the sins of the world —His generation, the generations before, and the sins of the generations to come. He took the wounds in His body and unleashed a tidal wave of reconciliation that was to rush upon the human race and pour out across the millennia to touch even us.

But why did Jesus have to bear the scars of crucifixion even after His resurrection? Surely a resurrected body could have been a perfect, unscarred body. Why the scars? Because scars are evidence of wounds and Christ’s wounds proved something. They proved that life had been poured out. They proved brokenness is the cost of healing. His eternal, resurrected body bore the marks of the horror of sin in order to prove that sin and rebellion cannot be undone but must be forgiven—horribly, passionately, and continually forgiven.

Thomas, the disciple, needed proof that the cross meant something more than another martyr’s death. Jesus offered him the evidence of His resurrected presence: He showed him His hands and His feet. It was the fatal wounds of the living Lord that stood as proof of redemption.

Today, when we take the bread and the cup of the Eucharist (literally, “the good gift), we see Jesus as Thomas did, pierced through and crushed. We say, “our Lord and our God!” as we look upon the living One—his shattered hands and feet, His pierced side.

And when we leave the table we are the hands and feet of the living Lord, no less wounded. It must be so because wounds prove something. They prove that the work of Christ goes on and that sin is not undone, but forgiven. Jesus’ wounds should have been lethal, but they were merely mortal. Their presence bore witness to the miracle of resurrection life. Likewise, the wounds of the church should destroy her daily, but the church, like her Lord, lives on. Her wounds prove that life—supernatural and vibrant— is within and among us.

Living with wounds is hard. But God calls us to more than that. To live beyond them and in spite of them is the word of our testimony to the world.

Community: Alienation to Transformation

There [isn’t] any such creature as a self-made man or woman. We love that expression, we Americans, but every one who’s ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people.
We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we are headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forebears—and not just in the 18th century, but our own parents and grandparents—did for us, or we’re not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away.

~David McCullough, Historian

It’s early morning. I got up before five today. Figured I’d try getting up when I awakened in the morning rather than waiting for the alarm—something about the obeying natural rhythms. We’ll see how that goes today in the early afternoon!

I’ve been thinking about history. Not just the grand sweep of past events and world-forming circumstances, but the quiet passing of days and years in a community. It seems to me that the measure of a community of faith is the history that the community has been willing to enjoy and, at times endure, together. Real community is formed when its members set a course and follow it, regardless of the cost of the course.

So often these days the cost of traveling together is too high—not that it is in fact, only that we perceive it to be as a matter of convenience—and rather than pay the price we abandon the enterprise and one another. That we “go to church” as though it were a location or an institution makes it all the simpler. We’ve had people announce that they were going to “leave Summit” (the name we’ve applied to the little band of travelers here) and move on to some other place. I’ve always been intrigued by that choice of words. It strikes me that it’s easier to “leave Summit” than to say, “I have grown tired of you,” or, “you displease me.”

Steve Meeks, a Baptist preacher, pointed out that there are four stages of community. The first, he calls “initiation,” the honeymoon stage when relationships are new and the excitement of discovery empowers the group. Anything negative is swallowed in the glare of brilliant newness.

The second stage is “alienation.” Here is where the challenges begin. Romance collides with reality. The flaws and blemishes—they’ve always been there—start attracting more attention than the positives. Here is where history is made. Here is where the mettle of the group is tested. At the point of disappointment is where heroes emerge and relationships are forged. Traveling from Independence, Missouri to the West Coast today is not remarkable. The same journey in 1850 made history, and the story lives on. The difference? Perseverance and determination against the obstacles that would deter and destroy. Yet, at the point of resistance is when people abandon community. On the eve of history, they “go somewhere else,” not realizing (or admitting) that it is not a place they have abandoned but companions, which are the stuff of history.

Meeks points out that the step beyond alienation is “transformation,” where real love begins. The lights are on, but not as brightly—glare has become illumination. The flaws and blemishes are in full view but they no longer matter. Love has covered a multitude of sins and the community is transformed—and each member. Later, as new members trickle in, the old ones tell the story of their history together and the new ones are drawn into it. Mere companionship moves toward covenant and the community is no longer defined by name or place but by a people.

What then? If a community is transformed what comes after? Meeks suggests that “incarnation” is next. It is a community that has learned to live together with wisdom, depth and grace. Incarnation takes time, but it is what the world is longing to see. It is, I think, what Christ-followers are longing to be, too. But the price is high and is paid by staying together long enough have a history to share. The motivating question for such followers is not where do you “go to church” but “with whom have you been called to be the church?”

Economy: Relational Economics

We’re taking a giant step into the future
And turning into a thousand other towns
I heard today the news that they are
Closing the bookstore down.

Some big concern comes in and yanks
Our jobs, our shops, our hometown banks,
Then they expect our grateful thanks
It happens every day.
I guess I just prefer to see
Success serve our community
Not just some wealthy VIP
Who lives a thousand miles away.

So take a minute and look around,
There are corner shops in every town
Squeezed and pushed and hunkered down
And battered by the blows
No, they might not be shiny or bright or new
But they’re run by folks like me and you
Now, I can’t tell you what to do
But me?…I’m going to shop at those.

John McCutcheon, “Closing the Bookstore Down” Rounder Records

It was an ironic situation. I was standing in Fairley’s Pharmacy, a locally owned and operated drug store when my cell phone rang. It was my wife telling me that I’d gotten a call at home from the Safeway Pharmacy—corporate mega-drug powerhouse—about the over-the-counter medication that I was trying to find. I had just left there and stopped by its tiny competitor, tucked into a pie-shaped building about a block away where Sandy Boulevard angled into Fremont Street. Fairley had opened back in the 1920’s long before Safeway was built.

I called Safeway back and got a recorded voice, the first of several… “For store location and business hours, press ‘1’, for the floral department, press…” Eventually, I got the pharmacy and another recording: “For pharmacy hours, press ‘1’. If you are a doctors office, press ‘2’. If you need information about insurance or medicare…”

At last I got a human voice. I talked to it as the pharmacist at Fairley’s—a living, breathing pharmacist—stood at the counter waiting to talk to me. He had been waiting about five minutes for me to finish navigating the electronic labyrinth. Safeway said that the medication I was looking for had been discontinued. I hung up. I turned to the man at the counter. He told me the same thing.

I left the little drug store considering the contrast between the information I got from the corporate store and the information I got from the little guy. The difference was relationship.

Now, here’s just the right place to insert the obligatory diatribe about the impersonal world with its electronic customer service and volume pricing. This would the time to slam the capitalist juggernaut and lament the lack of locally sustainable economies. But I think there is a different issue for Christ-followers, the issue of relationship. As citizens of the commonwealth of faith, relationship becomes the relevant issue. Jesus taught us to value human interaction and charitable service. He taught us to love one another, and along the way, love the world, which was what the Father had done by sending Jesus in the first place. None of that is possible without relationship and placing high value on the personal. Our issue with corporate America isn’t raw economics, it’s relationship; it’s losing the personal interaction, the human, voice and the human face—the window into the soul, which is where the Spirit of God jealously yearns to dwell. If we choose the small and local it’s because relationships are lying right there on the surface and not buried beneath a media-drenched infrastructure or a constantly shifting bureaucracy. If we choose “humongo mart” it’s usually in pursuit of the less expensive or convenient—the sacrifice of the personal.

Still, it’s fairly difficult these days to avoid the maelstrom of the humongous. When it isn’t practical or possible to support a local economy, we can at least make relationships a priority as best we can. Down at Safeway we know a few people. Bret asks about my son; Sharydon knows my last name. I try to go through their checkout line—when they’re working, and until they get transferred to another store—then I drive home, passing Fairley’s on the way. I intend get my prescriptions there from now on. Shun the corporate monolith and trade locally…hang the cost!

So give me slow food and a hometown team
Spencer’s, Bodo’s, Chap’s Ice Cream
Gleason Hardware and that corner store
With the dust on the shelves and the bell on the door
I swear I’d love to hear that sound once more
Since they closed the bookstore down. (McCutcheon)

Community: Leadership Breathes

A friend of mine once said, “In the church, leadership is like breathing. It happens or the body dies.”

Other thoughts:
Leaders don’t create communities. Communities raise up leaders to express and manifest the character of the community.

In its infancy a vision is shaped by people, but in its maturity people are shaped by the vision.
Leadership is not for the assertive but for the submissive.

Grapes and elders are much the same. They both must be crushed, aged and poured out before they are set before the people of God. They are also like bread, the must be crushed, mixed with oil and passed through the fire.

We may follow the direction of a leader and find that the leader is no more than a “benefactor.” In the church, we are to follow the example of a servant. It is from such examples that elders are recognized.

True leadership is worthy to be followed not because it bears a title, but because it bears a burden.

Economy: Emerging and Engaging

Indigenous faith communities ought to emerge from all this interaction with the host subculture. While it is noble and, indeed, a godly activity for a Christian businessman to run a shoe shop and to try to be Christ to his customers, something is missing if a Christian faith community isn’t part of the equation. The Christian businessperson can engage colleagues, clients, and customers in a discussion of faith questions, but the best hermeneutic of the gospel is a community of Christians living it out.

~Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, Hendrickson. p. 27.

I remember the sixties. Quite a decade! They even bubbled over into the decade after, presenting the nation with a whole generation of newly minted progressives. We stepped into the seventies wearing “love beads” and smelling of patchouli oil and marijuana. We were loathed for our impropriety and rejected for our impertinence. We figured that was proof enough that we’d thrown off the constraints of the system. Yet, as the decades have come and gone my generation finds itself looking more and more like our parents and grandparents than we ever thought—hoped—we would. God forbid that our children and grandchildren follow in our footsteps!

What’s needed now is a new generation that steps out of the stream and walks according to the tradition of the Christ followers. Such a generation will not emerge as a reaction to the culture (people drive cars, therefore let us walk slowly), rather from a careful consideration of our faith and calling. From a clear understanding of who we are as Christ followers we can respond rather than react to the culture around us. Must we react to materialism by becoming definitively poor? Perhaps not. Perhaps the issue isn’t how much we have, but how we go about having much. Using mammon and serving mammon are different, but crossing the line that separates them is easier than we wish it were.

We are called to new life, but in what way is the life we live so much different from those around us? If the life we have chosen has not blossomed with new fruit—distinctive fruit—we should probably wonder why and set out to bloom afresh.

Society: Are Ideas Like Mutual Funds?

There is much to be said, socially and intellectually, for bringing together people of different outlooks and beliefs; but there is not rational basis for the notion that by mixing a number of conflicting views you are likely to arrive at the truth. You cannot construct truth from a mass of dissonant and disparate material. You cannot construct truth at all: you can only discover it. And the more noisily opinionated people intervene with their contributions, the less likely you are to discover it.
~Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind. Servant Publications, p.112.

Jody and I have been away for a couple of weeks to the Midwest. The first week we facilitated Prayer Summits for pastors—Jody in Chicago, and I in Wisconsin. After that was done we slipped away to the Door Peninsula in northern Wisconsin for a little R&R. We had a restful time. The weather was windy, cold, and sometimes rainy. It even snowed lightly. No matter. The weather was a good excuse to sit by the fire and read a book, browse the gift shops or hang out in a local Internet café.

I’m thinking about a conversation at the Internet café.

Chit-chat with the owner of the shop turns toward the war in Iraq. Since Caleb just spent a year there (it seemed like a hundred) I know something about it; I even have some opinions. As we talk, another guy comes into the store. He buys a coffee, sits down behind me next to the door, and quietly ponders his Americano. He listens to the discussion as the topics flow: the insurgency…the shaky Saudi monarchy and how handy it might be to create a friendly government with reliable oil reserves …troop strength and long-term prospects for withdrawal…equipment needs and pressure on industrial output…spent uranium war materials on the Iraqi landscape.

I pick up on that last subject. Not qualitatively different than the danger of landmines in other war-torn regions, I suggest. Mr. Americano, the guy behind me, chimes in with observations about the CIA and clandestine operations. The subject takes a left turn into the Viet Nam war. He wonders how many guys died in Viet Nam, and then suggests an estimate that doesn’t seem right.

“I’ll find out,” says the owner and turns to his keyboard—tappity, tappity, tap. “Uhhmm—uhh …says here, around 58,000…Says it’s a myth that most of the guys over there were drafted. Says two thirds were volunteers.”

Mr. Americano: “What web site are you lookin’ at? Sounds like it’s right-wing. You need to get a different web site.”

It turns out the web site was sponsored by an association of Viet Nam helicopter flight crews, but that’s beside the point. It was Mr. Americano’s response that intrigued me: find a different web site. He hears information that doesn’t square with his point of view—get a new web site; get another source, one that matches my leftward idea of the world. The thing is, I’ve heard the similar things said by the right leaners. “Where’d you hear that? NPR?” say my conservative friends. “That’s liberal. Get another source.” Whether right or left, blue or red, liberal or conservative, it’s about staking out the territory of truth and standing with the lot that agrees.

I don’t know who coined the phrase, “the marketplace of ideas,” but the term seems particularly appropriate. Actually, we live in a world that is more than a marketplace of ideas; it is a supermarket—ideas for every preference, worldview, and ideology; for every opinion, position, and point of view. The search for truth has been all but abandoned and replaced by a quest for validation.

Where is the Christian mind in all of this?

In the dominant American culture ideas are often like mutual funds. They come bundled together, marketed and managed. Property rights and pro-life are a package deal that comes in the same portfolio with second amendment rights, privatizing social security, and welfare reform. The environment, abortion rights and gun control come packaged with subsidized housing, stem cell research and the welfare state. But are ideas like mutual funds? If we buy one do we have to buy the rest? Is it really up to the idea mavens to decide our agenda? I think not. As Christ followers our task should be to discern what is relevant to our Master and to us and then live consistently with that regardless of the direction of the market. That will require abandoning the crowd and sifting through the prospectus of society—the dominant culture and the sub-cultures, even the evangelical one.

I don’t think we can afford to let our ideas be managed by the spin masters and pundits any more than we can afford to protect those pre-packaged worldviews by seeking out only sources that agree with them. We have to demonstrate more independence and certainty than that. We have to live the reality of “human life held in the hands of God…the whole universe sustained by his power and his love…the natural order dependent upon the supernatural order, time contained within eternity…this life as an inconclusive experience, preparing us for another; this world as a temporary place of refuge, not our true and final home.” (Blamires, p.67)

Helping Restless Christians on the Road to Adventure