I find myself busy these days with other writing duties, so I needed to rely on a guest to meet my goal of offering a weekly entry here. And, as regular readers well know, the change of voice that comes with guest entries can be very satisfying. Mark is one of my favorite people and a delightful contributor to this site. This week he speaks to an issue all of us will recognize from hard experience. May we all pay close attention to his gentle reminder! RNF
I had the privilege last night to listen to a very good friend of mine address a group of young adults regarding what it means to be in community. It was a tremendous message and everyone was refreshed by his care and wisdom with the Word of God.
As one of his illustrations he spoke of an author and accomplished scholar who had taught at Harvard and Yale. The author shared that his participation in the inner circle of academia amounted to a constant performance. To spend time in such settings was to be in a room full of strangers who found utility in each other—with each required to fulfill a unique and beneficial role for the others. He realized that this elite circle was actually defined by exclusion—by who was not in it—so that inclusion demanded a constant effort to prove that you were still worthy to be there.
I don’t exist in such rarified air as that man, but I understand what he was saying. I lived my professional life before I met Christ in exactly that way—and sadly, too much of my life since then, as well. I have become comfortable, even adept, in the room full of strangers. How many men and women live in communities defined by such performance? How many people, even within their marriages, feel that rejection lies just beyond their next failure? What kind of community can exist in places where each day brings not a greater sense of intimacy, but a new opportunity to fail to live up to previously set expectations? I know this world all too well!
It is not out of the ordinary to see such circles in the workplace. Such places require skills and contributions to keep the commerce going and gainful. It would be foolish to expect such places to disregard performance (or lack thereof) in favor of a feeling of community. Stewardship to the owners and the customers requires more of such enterprises. But when the family, or the church, or the communities of love and interest devolve into such elite inner circles, something precious is lost. Each person’s need to be part of something bigger than themselves—and to be accepted and loved just as they are—is lost.
When we meet the first two inhabitants of the Garden of Eden in Genesis they are amazingly “self-unaware.” They were assigned some wonderful tasks in line with the exploration and care of God’s creation. They found purpose in the fulfillment of what God had given them to do, what He equipped them to do, and what He encouraged them to do in daily discourse. It is hard to imagine them going through emotional crises of self-loathing and doubt. They existed to be in fellowship. They bore God’s own image—as does all of humanity. That image is characterized by a special relational identity: “male and female He created them.”
By contrast we now live in a world that exalts the self—the rugged, contract-making, self-sufficient individual. Such individuals, we imagine, form gradually improving quid-pro-quo relationships with other individuals of substance in order to ascend the ladder of success. We worship the image of the self-made men. Yet no such man really exists. Regardless of the prowess of our intellect or our appeal, we owe our place in this world to the grace and the sacrifice of others. None of us can honestly define ourselves outside of a myriad of relationships, regardless of the self-image we worship. We are relational at our core. We say, “I think, therefore I am,” as though the declaration makes it so. But the truth of the matter is, “I am loved, therefore I am.”
None of us, then, exists apart from a loving, creative act of God. He loves us despite our fallenness and He made provision for us because of the fallenness and He invites us to come into the only relationship that has eternal significance. And when we enter into that relationship, the doors open for genuine relationships beyond anything we could ever have imagined. When we turn away from the allure of the world, we lose those things that are held by the power of the world. But we gain everything. “Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30). The room full of strangers that demands performance gives way to a room full of brothers and sisters in the household of God. It is Heaven on Earth.
I forget that reality more often than I remember it. Today I took a walk on the beach. In Oregon at this time of year the beach is blustery and cold. Actually, it is that way for much of the summer as well. The waves are unsettled and wild. As I looked at them crashing the shore I thought of how inhospitable this corner of the world can seem to the uninitiated. This is not the sandy beach of summer dreams!
Then the sun broke through the clouds in a burst of glory. Above me, gliding on the wind effortlessly, were dozens of gulls. It was a scene of peace above the tumult of the sea. The churning sea served the gulls a daily buffet of creatures and dead things for them to feast upon. They were wonderfully cared for by their Creator. They rode above the tide with one another—not one of them wondering if they belonged in this stream of the wind alongside the others—their identity was assured by their assigned place in nature.
When I leave the rooms full of strangers, I am thankful for a home where I can return to find those who will receive me in love regardless of how I have performed; a place where I belong. I am thankful for friends, like the one who spoke a blessing into my life while he shared a message with young men and women about what it means to be in community. Having such a friend is a precious thing. Having many of them is heavenly.