Monday, April 30, 2012

Carried in Community

In American culture, we prove our worth by the way we’re able to stand on our own two feet. But not everyone in the world sees it that way. In Africa, what makes a person successful is not what they’ve been able to accomplish for themselves, it’s what that person has been able to accomplish for their community. The word they use for that is ubuntu. It means, I am who I am because of who I am with you. The person who makes their mark as an individual would not be well-respected in that culture. The one admired is the one who is able to live in community with others.

The culture of Jesus’ day was a lot closer to the African notion of ubuntu than it ever was to the idea that life is all about proving your worth as an individual. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the continent of Africa has taken more to Christianity than either Europe or North America.

It seems to me that all people have a longing for community, whether they realize it or not. That longing may  be felt more deeply after community has been lost. When I grew up, I had my grandparents, all my aunts and uncles and my cousins around me. I walked to school and everyone at my school lived in my area. At night, adults would go outside and visit with their friends in the neighborhood. You went to work for a company and you stayed there your whole life. The company was loyal to you and you were loyal to the company. People belonged to churches and they wouldn’t have dreamt of switching just because the one they were at wasn’t meeting their personal needs. That’s not our experience today. So many of us are disconnected from our families, from our hometowns, from our schools, from our neighborhoods, from the people we work with and for, from our churches. Community has become like most of things that we take for granted; once we lose it, we realize what a gift it was to have had it. And so people have a longing to experience some kind of community today. That’s the appeal of TV shows like “Friends” and “Cheers” and “How I Met Your Mother.” We all want to have close relationships with people we can enjoy and trust and love.

There’s a story in the Bible about a paralyzed man who is brought to Jesus for healing. He can’t walk, so he can’t get there on his own, and even if he could have, he wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near Jesus because of the crowd of people that surrounded him. But the paralyzed man had four dear friends, and they carried him to the place where Jesus was. Then they lowered their friend through the roof so Jesus could see him. Finally, it was because of their faith that Jesus healed the paralytic. Where would he have been without his friends? No doubt, somewhere lying on a mat for the rest of his life.

Community is a gift for us as people of faith. In community, the strong look out for the weak. When we just can’t make it on our own, others carry us. I think that may be what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to me all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” God helps us to bear our burdens by putting us in a community that bears them with us.

This isn’t only true about times of trouble in our lives. It’s also true about faith itself. None of us is 100% full of faith all the time. We waver. We’re up and down. Sometimes we would stake our lives on the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Other times we’re filled with doubt. Sometimes we’re courageous in the way we express our faith in the world. Other times we’re paralyzed by fear. In a faith community, at any given time, some of us are fearful or doubtful, while others of us are faithful. The one who is faithful today may not be tomorrow. But there always seem to be some among us who are faithful who can carry those among us who aren’t. Sometimes you might be the one who is doing the carrying. And sometimes you may be the one who is being carried. In a Christian community that’s how it works.

There are some people I know who insist that they don’t need to be part of a church to have a relationship with God. This doesn’t ring true for me. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to try to have a relationship with God outside the context of a faith community. Why would a person refuse a gift like that?

I can understand why people are turned off by the church. Certainly, there are many Christian congretations where the community does more to hurt than help us. I admit that the church isn’t perfect by a long-shot. But when it’s working, it’s the community that carries us into the presence of Jesus. I'm thankful that I have been a part of many communities like this through the years.

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