Saturday, March 13, 2004

Fellowship in trying times

Chapters 17, 18 and 19 of Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life are about our relationships with each other in and through the church. Warren stresses that we are members of the body of Christ, "a vital organ of a living body." We were not made to worship or minister alone -- we need a family around us, and commitment to real people.

Life is meant to be shared, and we are called into fellowship, into community. It takes honest, gut-level sharing to build real fellowship. It takes quick forgiveness. "Fellowship happens when mercy wins over justice."

To building a loving community takes honesty, "speaking the truth in love. Glossing over tension-causing issues doesn't build fellowship -- instead, the issue is not resolved, "and everyone lives with an underlying frustration. Everyone knows about the problem, but no one talks about it openly. This creates a sick environment of secrets where gossip thrives."

Why is genuine fellowship so rare? "It means giving up our self-centeredness and independence in order to become interdependent."

Of course, I've been thinking about all these things the past few weeks. I encountered a lot of superficial fellowship at my last parish, due in large measure to the political atmosphere. A lot of people were just going with the flow and weren't going to voice any opinion. There were people with hidden agendas who only presented a side they wanted visible, and so on and so on.

Yes, this is true to some degree all the time and everywhere. But I saw a marked diminishing of fellowship the last months I was there.

It's made me be a bit leery in my new parish, which I like very much. The rector, though on the conservative side, doesn't try to coerce anyone into a particular position. He encourages us all to think and speak for ourselves, which automatically defuses some of the tensions I had felt before, with so much secrecy and deceitfulness and things done in the dark -- I guess Father Dearest thought this was how to do things without engendering controversy. What Warren says about honesty and openness really resonates with me.

Still, I'm very cautious. I'm the new kid on the block. I don't know where I might get caught in old conflicts. I don't know how most of the parishioners feel about things yet. I'm being quiet.

In my study group last week, someone told a bad gay joke. I didn't say anything, but thank goodness, his wife jumped on him about it. I've been thinking about this. Should I have said I found it offensive? I think his wife realized how several people felt in the awkward but polite silence after he told the joke, so it probably worked out better that way.

Tonight, I went to a parish fellowship function. I sat at a table with some people I did not know at all. I don't think they are members of the parish, but attend things there pretty often. To look at them, I'd have said they are all very conservative -- a woman, her husband and brother, probably somewhere in their early 60s. They have the features of Appalachia, that Scots-Irish, hard-working, protective-of-what-they-have-earned-in-a-difficult-life looking. Good-hearted but conservative.

The brother started explaining to the husband how he'd heard that membership had declined some, over that gay priest (he had the details confused), you know, they've got that one now (yeah, only one!), talking about gay marriage and stuff, and people had left.

I watched in fascination as his sister got right on his case in a loving way. She said that God made people they way He made them and we shouldn't hold that against anyone. And while she wasn't sure about something called marriage, everyone should be able to have some kind of legal union that protects them and their partners. Everyone is entitled to that protection.

Brother didn't offer one objection. He might not have bought what she was telling him 100 percent, but he was listening.

I can't help but smile. Whatever other purpose God had in mind with that interchange, part of it was for my benefit. To help restore my faith in people.

Thank you Abba. I know I'm going to have to open myself up.

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