Who Can Claim Community?

Community

Several weeks ago I was seated in a very familiar auditorium with hundreds of other United Methodist clergy. This is not an unfamiliar setting – I’ve spent much of my life in similar circumstances. As part of our meetings, various invited and scheduled individuals – leaders of our conference or denomination – stand and share information with us. I have forgotten much of what I heard during those few days, but one message still leaves me in shock.

One of the leaders of our seminaries stood up and began to share a story from a few years ago about an “athiest church.” For any of us who are aware of the great diversity of spiritual movements not just in our country, but around the world, this is an old story. Secular humanists have gathered for many years to provide insights for life, communal support, and values as to how to live in the world. Yet, it seemed to be news to this man. He continued this story, relating that when he heard it, there was one thing that came to mind – He thought it was “pathetic.”

My mouth hung open, stunned. My friends sitting near me shifted in their seats, obviously uncomfortable with such strong and judgmental language. This man continued his talk, stating that the Bible tells us that only followers of God can gather in true koinonia. Koinonia is a Greek word (and the New Testament was written in Hellenistic Greek) which essentially means fellowship. He stated that only people who gather in God’s name can have God’s presence in that community, and for others to copy this is pathetic.

Jesus was Jewish, but he never limited his contacts to people who were Jewish. In fact, it was often the non-Jewish people who became some of his closest associates, who carried forth his message, who even changed his mind about the nature of God (as in the Canaanite woman). If Jesus himself did not believe God’s presence could only be limited to his particular brand of religion, how can we make such statements today?

The past couple years of my life have been some of the most difficult I have encountered. And some people I know who claim to be Christian have been the most hurtful. And some of my most powerful encounters with the spirit of Christ have been through people who are athiests. Who are we to limit where God is in this world, how the Divine works, where true community and love and support can be found?

Our society and world are so incredibly divided, filled with hate and mistrust of “the other,” and lacking in the ability to engage in respectful dialogue. For those who claim to follow the spirit of Christ, we should be the last ones to pass judgment where the Divine is present or is not present. I give thanks that the Divine is present throughout all of creation and in each person I encounter.

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“Loneliness is the great affliction of our age.”

“Loneliness is the great affliction of our age.” I was only half listening to the author being interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition, but that one statement echoed throughout my small car. I repeated the phrase a couple times before asking my daughter to find a slip of paper and write down the sentence. I continued driving to church while Ava graciously recorded the statement. I listened more closely and soon discovered the author was Lawrence Osborne, promoting his new book The Ballad of a Small Player. I admittedly have not read anything by this British writer, but his insight spoke to me, especially as we were heading to weekly communal worship.

Humanity certainly has been afflicted throughout history. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the problems – violence, disease, fear, greed, discrimination, hatred. Each of these things is prevalent in the world today, but I believe Osborne is correct in his assessment. Loneliness is the greatest of all the ills facing our world today. The irony is that we are more exposed, more connected than ever before. Through the internet, and social media in particular, we oftentimes end up sharing far more of ourselves than is perhaps a good idea. We have hundreds of “friends,” place our every unfiltered thought on twitter, and post selfies of every size, shape and sensitivity multiple times a day. We create an interesting timeline of our lives, encouraging people to know how #blessed we are or sharing our outrage over poor customer service at the local store.

Yet, in the midst of this extreme lack of privacy, we are lonely. A recent study by the University of Chicago revealed that loneliness is dangerous for one’s health even, placing a person more at risk than poverty. During my years of working with college students, I know that isolation (real or perceived) is one of the biggest challenges. The teen and young adult suicide rate continues to increase. If one feels completely alone, the pain is often so great that death seems the only escape.

There are a number of reasons I attend church (and not just because I’m a minister). One of the primary reasons is for the community. God calls us to be in relationship, and we know God most clearly when we are connected with others. It is when two or three are gathered together that God is present. Even when we are not in the physical presence of another, knowing that we are connected with someone else in spirit holds a great power – a great power of grace.

Community doesn’t always need to be found in religious or spiritual organizations. That is obviously an easy place to combat loneliness and isolation, but we can create community with others in very powerful ways. Friends can oftentimes become closer than family. Our co-workers and neighbors can provide support and understanding in ways we can’t always imagine. To heal the great affliction of our age, we are called to connect with others. Social media is a great way to enhance relationships which are already present. It’s not a substitute for doing the deep face to face work required in friendships. Connection is not just about time – it’s also about quality. We must risk ourselves and that which is at the heart of who we are, so that others can truly know us and we can truly know them. That’s scary to do. Revealing ourselves is not always received as we would like, but when it is received with grace and love, it has the greatest power in the world.