On Church Life

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Apart from communities of family and friendships, there is another to invest life together. it is the gathering of congregants to form a faith community. i enter it initially with visceral hope. but it does not take long for invidious doubt to siege my hopeful expectations. what i seek these congregations cannot proffer. in “Life Together,” Bonheoffer offers that we do not have the prerogative to choose nor change our fellowship in which we belong. it is what it is and it isn’t what it isn’t. when we enter a faith community, we must endeavor to find a sense of belonging and participate in its life together that includes work and play.   

As pastor and as congregant, i have sought to practice presence with those in community. as a good portion of our presence in community, my wife and i practice hospitality. we open our hearts as well as our home to others. we share our selves, our time, our space, our food, our words and our family. we make our home a welcoming place for life together. and yet hospitality as a high act of community is seldom reciprocated by others. we stand in the same sanctuary, we sing the same praises, we participate in the same liturgy, but we do not share our homes. we believe in the same Jesus, pray to the same God and partake from the same Holy Spirit but we do not share our lives together apart from Sunday. we simply do not know, nor want to know, one another well enough to find comfort and joy in life together with one another.

Into every faith community we enter, i anxiously seek four common graces: loyalty, conversations, sensibility and quietude. like family, like friendships, it seems a commonage of congregants would require a few graces to ease our shared humanity. loyalty is that noble virtue that rises above our human  imperfection. it is that personal commitment to one another that empowers our unconditional acceptance of the otherness of others. it is that mutuality that pledges fidelity regardless of our differences. seldom do i find loyalty among those under my pastoral care. my dirt road to ministry is littered with debris of disloyalty. when my leadership is questioned, few in my leadership would protect me. when my integrity is assaulted, few whom i consider friends would testify on my behalf. when my soul is animus with diffidence, few who claim to be close to me would comfort me.    

For congregants in communion, genuine conversation is that transubstantiation of individualism into a communal body of people. sincere dialogues inject a closeness to relationships, a clarity of understanding to disagreements and a cluster of meanings to our faith, hope and love. being human that we are, few of us know how to express our thoughts well; fewer still know how to listen for those same  thoughts. clumsy communication in community is ubiquitous and normal. good conversations require long practices in patient listening and slow speaking. New Testament’s James warns us: know this, my beloved brothers (and sisters): let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for our anger does not produce the righteousness of God. where ever we are, from sanctuary to fellowship hall, from church board meetings to small group gatherings, authentic conversations become warm breaths of fresh air from which we refresh our sense of meaning, significance and community.

Sensibility is that common social courtesy we extend to one another. Paul’s exhorts sensibility in every needy community: so if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind (mind of Christ), having the same love (love of Christ), . . . do nothing from rivalry or conceit, . . . . let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of  others. when gathered as a congregation, we all crave for a better experience of life together. this better experience can only share when we are willing and able to consider others’ interests as important as our own. many congregants are good people – they believe in God and walk with Jesus, but not many are humble and kind. humble and kind people are  willing to consider that everyone we meet is fighting a fierce battle, so we need to be kind in all our considerations.^  it is that etiquette of kindness that holds the door for others to enter first into our community.   

Quietude is a serenity of soul and mind when in community. it is a gentle disposition that dismisses all phatic noises for a more peaceableness of attitudes and activities. when we enter worship, when we enter fellowship, when we enter prayer, when we enter conversation, that threat of senseless chatter is forever present. a quietude of soul and of mind in always in all ways precedes community. when i enter the church, the din of dissonance is always an addled imminence. we long for a quiet contemplation+ from which our shared space with God is shared with one another.

The discord from lack of these four graces robs us true community. at sunset, my retreat to solace of solitude is a confession of personal depravity. i share with Abba Matoes’ confession: It is not through virtue that i live in solitude, but through weakness. those who live in the midst of men (others) are the strong ones. if i appear ungrateful in imperfect community, it is because i lack the gracefulness of long suffering to suffer long with those who are just as imperfect. my retreat is not a rejection of faith community. nor is it a repudiation of the church as a divine gift to the world.

I still go to church on the Lord’s day; i still participate in life together with a home group; i still invite others to our home for food and fellowship. i still find the faith community a necessary part of my personal faith. there are many affirming moments of life-enriching recognition, life-giving acceptance and life-affirming validation of life together with others. it is an euphoria when i am in and leave community.

and yet, at the remains of my days, when everything is said and done, these grace-full moments cannot overcome the overwhelming feeling that my soft soul is too weary of work and tired of well-doing in a world of hard corners. being community with others can drain that charismatic* energy out of this aging soul. i just don’t have the courage nor the strength to find community easy work. the only reformation i seek more eagerly a solace of solitude. the divines said it well, in qui solus est cum solus –  the one who is alone with alone. there i must go, before i enter community again.

*its etymology comes from the Greek  χαρις, from which we get grace, gracefulness, gracious. giftedness, joyfulness, charisma, and here charismatic.

+its etymology comes from Latin forms that mean “with” and “space.”

^from the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo