Friday, February 11, 2011

Let Them Be One! Three Reasons for Community and Deep Fellowship

“Let them be one!” (Jn 17:21) This fervent prayer prayed by Jesus before he went to the cross for us all still resonates throughout the heavens.  Why?  Why did Jesus pray for us to live together, to be together intimately and closely?  Why is this such a constant theme in the epistles (Phil 2:2, Col. 3:14, Eph 4:16)?  The call to community and regularly-interacting deep relationships is not a hippie notion built on warm feelings of togetherness and false love.  There is nothing wrong with warm feelings of togetherness, but the reason Jesus desired for us to be One and the apostles insisted on it is far greater.  Jesus prayed that we would be one, so “that the world may know that you have sent me.” 

This was the reason He gave.  And this relates largely to my last blog entry, in which I presented that you must live in close fellowship with others if you are to minister effectively, both to yourself, to Christians, and to the world.  The New Testament paradigm of ministry is corporate, and is only discovered and accomplished through the New Testament style of living: together deeply. 

In this blog, I wish to give three other quick but poignant reasons why community is essential. 

First, for clarity’s sake, what I mean by “living in community” is living in close relationships with multiple people centered around loving God and one another, centered around knowing Him more. These are relationships where real things being talked about is the norm, where eating together is the norm, where worship and prayer together is the norm.  This may or may not include living together, though in my case it does.  Now, onto the first reason.

The Death of Selfishness
The first reason living in close community is crucial is because it produces the death of selfishness, of needy self-obsession.  I know of no more strangling a noose than the ever-tightening one of selfishness.  I think most people actually know this without really having to be told.  Most people have felt the draining, ever-defeating feeling of self-seeking, self-obsessed selfishness.  We all know the feeling. Selfishness is profoundly dissatisfying.  But I will tell you something even stronger.  Selfishness is a slow but invariable death.  Selfishness produces anger that gets so strong that the soul numbs.  Selfishness produces insatiable chasms of hurt so deep that the soul refuses touch.  Selfishness produces wrath so fierce that it is nearly impossible to talk to.  Selfishness kills a person.  Jesus wasn’t joking when he said these words, “Whoever wants to come after me, let him take up his cross, deny himself, and come after me. For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it, but however loses his life for my sake will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).   

Jesus knew that self-seeking and obsession with your own needs and desires would kill you, would cause you to lose your life.  So sign up for something that causes you to have to deny yourself.  Sign up for something that causes you to have to live for God and others in a radical way, constantly.  Take no chances.  Save yourself form the strangling misery of selfishness by giving up your life!  There was a time when I was strongly questioning the direction of my life.  I was questioning the extent of community in which I am choosing to live and the path my life is on.  I was in the car really crying out to God to tell me what to do.  Did I really have to do this?  Did I really have to talk to people this much?  Be this close to people?  Was it really necessary?  Did I really want to raise a family in this context?  And then the lines to a Josh Wilson song came into my head, the CD of which was conveniently right in front of me in the compartment in the car.  I put on the CD and heard these words. 

I'm thirsty, God I'm thirsty from drinking what destroys me
I'm pouring poison in my cup
I'm hungry, God I'm hungry consuming what controls me
Somehow it never fills me up

We all want to find something to pass the time
But that could never be enough

Everybody says we're all so different
But everybody knows we're all the same
We're all trying to find a pill to numb the pain
Something's got to change

Do you remember when you had so much hope within you?
It lingers deep inside you still
The more of us we swallow, the more we become hollow
Until we don't know how to feel

We all want to find something to satisfy
But we could never be enough

When everything we say and take just leads to war and hate
We only pass the blame, sedate the pain and move along
But something feels so wrong, so deep inside, so hard to hide
So desperately we try and try and come to find
That we are not what we've been looking for

I can't believe I'm hearing people say that all is well
I think it's time we all admit we have no good within ourselves
'Cause we are not okay, we're not alright and we need to pray for help
Forgive us for our pride, oh God, oh God please save us from ourselves

'Cause everybody says we're all so different
But everybody knows we're all the same
We're all trying to find a pill to numb the pain
Something's got to change

So God help us
Something's got to change

After I listened to this song, I signed back up whole-heartedly for living in deep fellowship with multiple people.  I haven’t looked back since then.  Realizing so deeply that my own selfishness will destroy me.  Realizing so deeply that my own self will eradicate me.  I made the decision that I had to do something, be constantly around and engaged in something that pulled me out of myself towards others.  And community does this more than anything else.  We are urged to be one, to be together in true love, because this will cause us to be free.  The way you live for others in community liberates you from the noose of selfishness and frees you into beautiful living for God and others.  What a great way to live.

So I put myself between a rock and a hard place.  You cannot survive in a community if you remain selfish.  It or you will be ruined and ended.  In fact, this is why most friendships end.  To stay in relationships with people, and especially to have deep relationships with more than just one person,  you must have the constant flow of death-of-self that is the only way to true life. If you stay in community, your selfishness will ebb or you will drown under it.  That’s the only option you’ve got. Community ensures that you will change or die. This is the kind of place I want to put myself in.  I want to live in a way that forces me to deal with the sins that destroy me, or die.  I know it’s radical, people.  But it’s the way to go when Jesus is saying things like, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, for it is better for you to enter heaven maimed than be thrown into hell whole” (Mat. 5:29).

Revelation of Where You Don’t Know God
The second reason for community is that it causes you to see ways you don’t know God, which are ways you can still know Him more.  It brings these gaps in knowledge near to you, making them very accessible and changeable. There are many people, especially here at the house of prayer, who think that the way you access your relationship with God is by sitting in the prayer room. There is a whole bowl of truth in the essential reality of focused times of prayer and communion with God.  But I will tell you quite truthfully, that the times when your relationship with God is most evident are not in the prayer room.  It is when the person you are trying to talk to says something cutting because he is suddenly connected with how worthless he feels.

The knowledge of God is a glorious endless abyss.  The treasure trove of heaven is all the different facets of Who God is and experiencing each one.  His power.  His meekness.  His mercy.  His aptitude.  His gentleness.  Oh, He has so many beautiful faces.  He is Bridegroom.  He is Friend.  He is Judge. He is Lord.  He is King.  He is Servant.  There is so much to know, to relate to, to be with, to feel. And each face, each facet of God is required to respond righteously in different situations.  Therefore, each of the ways you know or do not know each facet of God are revealed by how you relate to people around you, especially those to whom you are closest.  Therefore, living in community is direct access to the diversity of God’s attributes. 

Granted, you must have the right paradigm for this to really be successful.  If you believe that the reason you get wrathfully angry when someone backstabs you is simply because you were backstabbed, if you make all of your emotional reactions circumstantial, then you will not realize anything at all.  However, if you realize that the reason you became wrathfully angry when someone backstabbed you is because you don’t know some part of God, then you just collided with a place you are about to know God more. 

Jesus, when betrayed by someone close to Him, did not become wrathfully angry.  This is because Jesus knows that God would never betray Him.  Jesus knows that God avenges Him.  Jesus looks at every situation and feels every situation with the emotions given to Him by His relationship with God.  We on the other hand, lack understanding of Who God is, how He feels about us, what He thinks about us, how powerful He is, how merciful He is.  So, when someone stabs us in the back, the cavity of feeling unloved, of being worthy of being backstabbed, swells to the surface and we suddenly feel its painful presence, whether that means a feeling of debilitating worthlessness or quick, self-protective anger.  This sin then manifests towards our brother or sister, but its source is that cavity of not knowing fully that God would never backstab us.  In contrast, when you know that God would never backstab you and someone does, you are liberated to continue to feel positive affections of mercy and love towards that person. 

If you live in community with this paradigm, regular interaction with people becomes incessant opportunity to know God more, to love God more, and to be loved by God more.  Every occurrence of horizontal relational sin (meaning between humans) becomes an opportunity to know God more.  The horizontal reveals the vertical.  As John put it.  “Anyone who says he is loving God while he is hating his brother, is a liar” (1 Jn 4:20).  Very practically, when you constantly bump against other people in close daily interaction, you are given regular emotional access to the places in you that don’t know God. And then you can go with those places to God and have Him change them!  It’s great!

On the other side of this coin is this reality: when you hide away from everyone, choosing to not live in community, you will not collide with these absences of knowing God nearly as sharply.  When your response to being stabbed in the back is to run away, instead of persisting in that relationship, you cover up the place where you don’t know God, for it to flare and fester numbly beneath the surface.  Being in relationships, however, keeps you constantly engaged and aware of the places you don’t know God.  There’s no way to hide from them.  You are essentially cornered into knowing Him more whereas running from community leaves those places to rot and be discussed when you stand before Jesus’ throne.

People Keep You in Check and See What You Can’t See
                Though this last point is very obvious, I don’t think most people understand how crucial it is.  It’s not just that people keep you in check and that’s nice or that people see things about you that you can’t see and that’s helpful .  It is helpful but the truth is that people keep you in check in ways that if they did not, you would fall, and people see things you can’t see in ways that, if they didn’t tell you them, you would be stuck. 
I cannot count the number of times that I have been in a mess of confusion in my own life, feeling all sorts of emotions, disoriented and downcast.  And then, one of the people I am around a lot will have insight into my situation that turns everything around, or at the very least, orients me so that I can go forward well.  I have wondered many a time what would have happened if someone didn’t come and say something, and I truly think the answer often is that I would have gradually sunk in that place, paralyzed, maybe eventually numbing to it and moving on. 
In same suit, I can’t count the number of times when someone in the group will be going a wrong direction, and someone tells them.  Who knows how long that person would have gone that direction if no one had said anything?  The scary thing is this: they really didn’t know they were going the wrong way.  They really thought that feeling that way in that situation, or making that decision with respect to that job, or treating that friend with a certain paradigm, was actually good!  But it wasn’t!  It was formed in sinful, subtle self-protection, hopelessness, or anger.  We need people around us who will see these things that we don’t see, and call us on it! 
As a flawed human being, I can make you this promise: there will be things you don’t see.  There will be times that you think you know what’s going on and you don’t, when you think you’ve heard God rightly and you haven’t.  It will happen.  And without people around you who operate in love and the Holy Spirit and who live close enough in your life to see what’s going on, you will make mistakes that truly are deleterious.  I’m not saying you will necessarily fall into apostasy.  But I am saying that you will make a major mistake or two that you did not have to make that will have real consequences both in this age and in the reward system of the next. 

                So put yourself around people who can see you, who are near to you, who are actually talking to you about real, deep things in your heart and life.  You need those people, and they need you.  Again, God knows that this is the way we are meant to operate and live.  That’s one of the reasons He is crying out, “Let them be one!”

All of these reasons, the death of selfishness, the ability to see where you don’t know God but can, and the need to be seen and checked by others, are reasons why I believe living in real community is essential.  What do you think? 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Everybody Wants to Know Their Calling

But Nobody Wants to Die
       Everybody wants to know their life calling.  The desire for understanding and feeling purpose and placement, to know the will of God for your life, is something that every Christian aspires to.  The answer to this is primarily in understanding that your purpose is to be in relationship with Jesus, no matter where you are or what you are doing.  Before I talk about calling in a way that is very important, you must first know even more importantly that the truest satiation of this longing in your heart for calling and purpose is not found in figuring out what job you are to have, what ministry you are to be a part of, or who you are to marry; understanding that role will only bring you so far.  In contrast, you must realize that the primary purpose of your life is the eternal purpose of your life, relationship with Jesus.  Realize right now that the primary purpose of your life is to know, love, and fear God in relationship with Him.  Only in incessant relating with God will you find a sense of purpose, value, and meaning.  This is your primary calling.  This is the only satisfying ambition.

       However, your secondary calling, though temporary, is also important and understanding it is of great value too. What I mean by secondary calling is what job/assignment you are to do on earth during the period of your life before physical death or Christ’s return.  Are you to be a mom, a dad, a teacher, a lawyer, a missionary, a husband, a wife, a preacher, a priest, an evangelist, a politician, nurse or some combination? So many people are obsessed with this calling, with understanding it, and as I said, much of why they are obsessed with it has to do with their lack of understanding of their primary calling, which indelibly subsumes and trumps all other callings.  However, it is my belief that many are failing to discover or know their secondary calling (their ministerial role) because they do not have biblical paradigms of ministry or living. 

       It sounds something like this.  We ask “what does God want me to do?  What business am I called to?  What are my gifts?  How am I made to benefit others?  What’s my assignment from God?  Yet all the while living in a way that prohibits the answering to such questions. I can’t iterate enough how much of this problem stems from simply not realizing in a real way that your purpose is to grow in knowing and therefore loving and fearing God.  However, another problem is that people are not willing to live in a certain biblical way that would produce a biblical ministerial style. How did Christians live in the New Testament and how did they minister in the New Testament?  The answer to both of these is: together.  New Testament Christianity did not in the least have the overly-individualized, nuclear-family obsessed, self-preserving, isolated lifestyles that 90% of Western Christianity endorses and lives in. 

       Our culture is wrapped in and consumed with the incessant production and reproduction of smaller worlds that self-protect.  In high school or college, maybe your world was bigger, maybe you had a group of friends, but then you experience pain and loss of relationship, and it shrinks.  You choose a smaller number of people to be friends with, but then people in that group break relationship with you or ‘fade away’. You lose and abandon person after person, filled with greater and greater hopelessness.  Eventually, you develop a survivor-like mentality and an emotional set to match, determined to find just that little group or, in most cases, that one other person that you will devote yourself to.  You cling to them, and build your world around your little relationship with just them.  You are now so scared and so fragile that you even try to create a base of security through financial survival.  The world may expand to include children and it sometimes permits entrance from extended family members.  Maybe even you have a couple or two that you sometimes talk to, once or twice a week at most.  And then, the final blow: even your spouse or your children’s relationship fails and your self-protective world includes only you.  Your world has shrunk and its walls are not open.  They are solid, made of iron and steel, enforced and constructed by the fear, anger, and agony from all past relationships. 
       It is from this place or on the road to this place that most people are asking what they are to do with their lives. They ask from a world of or a path leading to overly individualized, isolated, self-protective worlds, built on an idolatrous marriage, ‘trusting’ and ‘loving’ a spouse more than God, and idolatrous parenting, finding ‘worth’ and ‘purpose’ primarily in their children.  And yet, those living this way are surprised when they get no answers as to their callings or when their answers they seem to get never really develop biblical-scale fruit.  Most people live in this overly-isolated way, so how is it that you think they will minister or expect to minister?  That’s right.  In a self-protective, overly-isolated way.  They ask for what their individual calling is without other members of the Body because they live essentially alone or almost so. 

       But how did the people of true apostolic, New Testament Christianity live and how did they minister?  The answer to both is again the same: together, and the second flowed out of the first.  The way New Testament, apostolic Christians lived is the way to live and the corollary way to minister is the way to minister.  You cannot expect to minister one way and live another.  So how did they live? They met together daily, they had everything in common, they ate in one another’s homes, they ministered together all the time.  Just read it yourself.  Acts 2:41-47.  [If you want to see how wide-spread Christians were known for deep communities of love and togetherness, I’d encourage you to study historical records of the 1st century, many of which indicate such.]
       And how did they minister? Together.  All through Acts you can see that Paul traveled not just with one person but with a group of people; even when he is on his way to or in prison, there are others with him. At the end of Paul’s letters, you will see descriptions of the company that he is ministering with, including both those who are couples and those who are not married, those his age and those who are not (1 Cor 16:17,18, Col 4:7-17, 2 Tim 4:9-22, Titus 3:12-13, Philemon 1:23-24). The entire basis of ministering with differing gifts and skills is presented in 1 Corinthians 12-14 in a way that assumed that people are ministering together.  There are other verses spread throughout the NT that have such assumption also (i.e. Mat. 18:20, 2 Cor. 13:1).  Even Jesus Himself ministered on a team.  Someone may point to John the Baptist as ministering alone, but many scholars believe that John the Baptist was a part of the Essenes, a group of people who lived together outside of Jerusalem for the purpose of cultivating more holy lives apart from the corruption of the contemporary Jewish order.  Without question, John at the least had disciples (Mat 9:14, Lk 5:33). New Testament Christians ministered together.
       The life of the Christian in the New Testament was incredibly communal and involved daily deep fellowship and communion with other believers.  It was from this lifestyle and identity that the ministry of the New Testament flowed.  Christians today think of their callings from a westernized, isolated, and selfish version of Christianity.  This is dysfunctional and will inherently fail both in that the average Western Christian will often not even realize their calling or, if they do realize it, they will fail in carrying it out.  Because one person’s calling is not complete by itself, a lack of interconnection with others maims both the person’s ability to be ministered to and the person’s ability to minister to outside individuals. Allow me to give you some examples.
       Say a person is called to help others with interpersonal problems they experience with those they live around.  He or she won’t truly be able to fulfill this task if they live isolated away from all of these people.  In fact, that called person will probably not even be able to understand his or her calling because the church to which they’re called to minister mostly just hides from those they live around, instead of actually dealing with all of the myriad of issues between hearts (all of course rooted in relational issues with God).  Say someone else is called to serve a group of people with tangible acts of serving like cooking, cleaning, and simple love.  How will they ever even think of this being a valid job without seeing communities that exist where people are eating together every day?  Sometimes the lack of the right paradigm, which stems out of a wrong life, actually prevents the calling from even being realized. 

       On the other side of it, though, you may have someone who accurately discerns that he or she is supposed to teach others about the Word of God.  They may do this quite well, but without the other members of the Body, say someone who can feel the emotions of God for the poor very well, that person’s ministry will be narrow and ineffective.  It is likely that that individuals will themselves gradually deteriorate without receiving the right ministry.  But even if someone manages to stay alive in that way, his or her ministry to the outside world will be incomplete.  As the Scriptures themselves put it, the eye cannot be a foot and the foot cannot do the work of the eye.  The ministry happens when they are together! And yet we expect to be successful as ministers when we think of our callings in individual, isolated ways! 
       Everyone must think of their calling with respect to their roles within a team or group and the group’s calling.  And yet, any time I have talked to people about this, their response is always, “Well, where do I get the team?”  The answer is simple but extremely difficult.  The team/group is arrived at by you being a friend to those around you in a way that is not self-obsessed and self-preservative.  When you aim your heart to actually serve, love, and be intimate with those around you to the glory of God and for relationship with Him, and when you do this well through a biblical lens of understanding that relational disunity between people stems from relational disunity with God, you will arrive at the production of a group of people who can minister in ways you have never dreamed.  You will arrive at an awareness of your roles in that group.   And that group will receive the calling of God as a team with greater power and efficacy than you have seen yet. 
       Let’s say you agree with me at this point.  What is the root problem?  Of course it has to do with you and your relationship with God.  Look to God and say, “God, I am sorry for trying to protect myself from other people.  I turn to You and trust You.  I’m sorry for being selfish.  I don’t want to ever find security in my spouse or family or the small, controllable size of my created world.  I am sorry for living for money out of fear.  I want security in what You think and say, in what You do, in who You are, in how You feel.  God, cause me to live in a way that brings together deep communities of Your people.  Take away my isolating fear.  Give me actual love for people around me.  Holy Spirit, come be mine, and let me be Yours.” 
This is radical, people, but it is doable. 

Note:  I am not arguing that everyone must live together in a commune with corporate finances.  I am not trying to be legalistic about this. The problem is in the heart, but as your heart changes, so will the way you live.  I am asserting that a substantive self-protection exists and that it has stronghold-like manifestations in the way you live, almost never communicating with other people, relative to your own household idolatrously. Change outward manifestations by actually having other relationships, but I urge you most absolutely to turn to the Lord in a new level of trust and worship.  Out of this so many things that are meant to be understood will come, including understanding calling biblically and understanding your own calling effectively and fully.