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"… whether Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, the present, or the future— all things are yours, but you are Christ's…" (I Cor 3)

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body of Christ

The Housechurch Movement Ruined My Life

Catchy title, no?   I thought about various things I could call this blog post when I started writing it — things like, “The Dark Hole of House Church” and “the Dangers of Housechurch” and the “Slough of Housechurch Despondency.”   I finally settled on “The Housechurch Movement ruined my life” because, there’s enough truth in that to be worth titling this post that, and, I bet it will make you curious — and rightfully so.

First, let me talk about what I mean by “the Housechurch Movement.”  In recent years, regular institutional-style churches have taken to calling midweek meetings that go on in homes a whole host of names, anything from “life groups” to “cell groups” but occasionally “house church” or “home church.”   At any rate, these things are generally healthy and that’s not the house church movement I am talking about.

The House Church movement is a movement about leaving behind the trappings of institutional churches — such as sermons, preaching, pastors, church buildings, and everything that goes with all that, to have simple gatherings of friends in homes meeting on a very grassroots level to discuss their journey in Jesus, teach and pray with and for one another, and be a family together.   Different “streams” of the house church movement do things similarly or differently and have different viewpoints on how meetings of believers function, but, in general, the main distinctions of the movement are no formal leadership, open participatory meetings, and no church buildings.

Now in and of itself, I don’t actually think any of that is wrong.  If this is new to you, you might be intrigued or you might have a knee-jerk negative reaction and have a lot of objections in mind, and some are pretty common objections that I’d probably disagree with, because in many ways I am still a house church person at heart.  Vast stretches of blogs on the internet are devoted to justifying and explaining the Biblical basis for doing things this way, and fending off critics that would raise an alarm at lack of leadership and/or structure.   However, I’m not going to do either of those things as they are abundantly out there to read, except to say — I still have a huge love for grassroots meetings.  In fact, I am a participant in a house church even at this point in my life, and it has been a wonderful blessing in my and my husband’s life.

Ok, so, have I confused you yet?  (She says she has no issue with the concept of house church, and she is part of one, yet she is writing a blog about how the house church movement sucks?)  Yep, even though I am part of a house church, there are so many ditches and pitfalls in the house church movement that this blog post really still needs to be written.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY

The good part about house church is that if you are in a terrible, blood-sucking, depressing institutional church situation, the house church movement is one place in Christendom that will tell you God still loves you and you’re not sinning if you stop going to church.   It tells you that you don’t even need to go to church at all, that church is wherever two or three are gathered, so if you have a friend or two you can fellowship with, you are just fine.   Short-term, this is freeing and life-giving to many people who need to know they are free from religious obligations to defunct church systems and are going somewhere they hate going thinking that God requires them to attend something.  Short term, it is good to have the freedom to walk away from things that aren’t working and not be buffeted by soft-spoken condemnations such as “but you should stay and make this horrible church better” when you are totally not in a position to do so.

church-1081718_640But long-term, and by that I mean longer than the [half year to two years or so] time it takes to clear one’s head and recover from a bad church experience, it’s not good to dig in one’s heals about not going to church, because we’re all made for community with others and after a while spiritual isolation becomes really traumatic all by itself.   This is even more true if you are a single person hoping to find a Christian spouse, or, if you are a parent hoping to raise children excited about being followers of Jesus.   Hundreds if not thousands of people out there on the internet pride themselves in “being the church” instead of “going to church” and while the freedom not to be imprisoned in some religious system of things is meaningful, the tendency is to end up feeling really doctrinally correct but oh so isolated.  

Many of those thousands of out-of-church people in the house church movement, including me under the influence of house church dogma, desperately WANT fellowship, but are encouraged to hold out with occasional fellowship with a few friends while waiting for the utopian dream of a real, bonafide, healthy house church in their area — or moving to another area of the country to find one.

You wouldn’t have known how isolated I felt — or others feel — by the way we defend our out-of-church circumstance to well-meaning Christians (by whom I considered myself “attacked”) who naively seem bewildered by a brother or sister who refuses to participate in a regular church. When years roll on being alone and fellowshipping only online or occasionally with the two or three friends in an 100 mile radius one has that echo their own viewpoint becomes one’s entire experience of life in the body of Christ, it can be very bad for one’s spiritual progression.  This slowly becomes as toxic and damaging both emotionally, socially, and spiritually as any bad situation one may have left behind.

And here’s the rub — I know too many people, myself having been one for too much of my life — who were so critical of how church should or shouldn’t Biblically function that we ended up in the wilderness for years on end, suffering needlessly in isolation while we convinced ourselves that we were loving the body of Christ while holding out for this ideal way of meeting with believers, and refusing to become involved with any group of Christians that weren’t doing it right.  I didn’t realize it but this had become a false robe of righteousness for me, my “right” ideas about how the church should function — and I was encouraged by others in the movement that I was suffering for being on the right path.   This was such a lie, and I wasted years of my life believing it…  I left one negative system to end up in a psychological nightmare worse as bad as any system out there.

(And as a single person, it may have been the single most important factor in delaying me getting married until my forties, something that some people might choose willingly but with my hopes of having children, I did not.)

TOO FOCUSED ON A TWO HOUR MEETING

Church is minimally two hours a week – yet the house church movement makes things seem like what happens in this two hour block of time is the be-all of God’s concern for His people – the “ultimate intention” he has for His bride on Earth.   When I bought into that idea, I found a great house church that did everything right — for those two hours.  We had amazing meetings under the headship of Christ, open participation and all.  But I need up scratching my head at how we could have such great meetings and yet, almost no community during the other 166 hours of the week.   I stayed way too long in a soul-killing situation, because I believed what really mattered was how great this church was at having a good meeting.

men-2425121_640I finally realized that it doesn’t matter how great or how lousy the church structure is — what really ends up mattering is the fabric of community the rest of the week.   Since then, I’ve also scratched my head at institutional churches I visited with that were horribly restrictive and exercises in sheer boredom for two hours, yet during the rest of the week people were spending time with each other, praying with each other, helping each other with life, being real friends and community.   I’ve marveled at God’s humor at juxtaposing these two situations in my life, almost to get me to ponder which is better or worse in His sight, until I realized that I was too busy trying to figure out what kind of church God approved of, and that this was a pretty legalistic way to think when the reality is that the best church is the one where I was growing the most with God and with others.

Yet, the House Church movement was all about Christ being the Head of His people but I started to realize — the Holy Spirit moves more among a group of folks who meet in a church building every week but know how to be family all week long, than a bunch of religiously prideful house churchers who have the perfect meeting for two hours on Sunday but never see each other otherwise.  Christ is interested in being the head of His people for all 168 hours of the week, not just a two hour meeting.

AND….THE VARIOUS EXPERTS OF HOUSECHURCH DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING

The obsession on meetings and getting them right doesn’t just detract from what goes on during the rest of the week, but it also keeps housechurches from meaningfully getting off the ground to begin with.  The internet is full of people trying to start their own housechurch that are begging someone to come teach them “how to have a meeting” with no one leading (except Christ, of course.)  This gets really paradoxical, with the ideal being to start something, but of course it can’t be you that starts something, it has to be Christ, so you constantly have to make sure you aren’t doing anything while partnering with Christ to do something, but of course that happens through you (and through others who have to make sure they aren’t doing anything either — ESPECIALLY not leading anything.).  It turns out to be a lot of work to make sure you aren’t doing anything while doing things yet not you but Christ in you.   A lot of work indeed, to the point of being confusing, which is why you might need an expert who also isn’t doing anything but is somehow also an expert at teaching you to not do anything except to let Christ do things, to come help you learn how to be better at not doing anything while doing something — yet not you, nor them.

I still see people in house church discussion groups asking “how to have a meeting without having anyone lead it” and “how do people with a teaching gift get an opportunity to use their gift without taking over the meeting” and I am realizing this movement ties people in knots, telling them to pull off paradoxical things because of being so afraid that anything a human does might replace Christ being the head of a gathering.  Christ is most fully the head of a gathering when everyone is raised up to be who they fully are — pastors, prophets, teachers, worship leaders, poem readers, intercessors, evangelists, artists… and we’re too busy crucifying each other’s gifts in the name of Christ than to really see what it means to have all the parts of the body truly functioning in Him and He in them.  Some of the teaching in the movement is so anti “doing” in the name of not being works oriented and learning to sit at Jesus’s feet that it was completely disorienting to me as a young adult trying to figure out what to “do” with my life.   Only now in my 40s am I starting to recover and too much time was wasted.

People who have written books and lead conferences will volunteer to come and teach your group how have a meeting with no one leading, but often the “model” of how to do housechurch often is restrictive and strangles things that would bring life to the group.  One model is intensely performance oriented — you join for a year and either spawn another group in that year, or you are kicked out.  Another model replaces all the songs sung in your housechurch TO Jesus with songs that emphasize who you collectively are as the bride of Christ together, so that musical worship time no longer really focuses on Christ as much as on us, who are the bride of Christ.   (I personally found this hard to get into very much — it was just too distracting for me from the One I wanted to worship.)

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Also, there are some house church experts who ban musicial instruments during singing because anyone playing a guitar would be “too much of a leader” in a fiercely leaderless movement.  As a result, singing worship songs often loses something that only an instrument can provide, and its not a small thing that gets lost.   I understand that the opposite excess is often true in the institutional church — music becomes flashy, pre-packaged, overly hyped, etc.  But when humble people with instruments play worship music from their hearts, and do so in a way that is sensitive and open to non-instrumentalists offering words and prayers, I’ve seen an amazingly beautiful thing. Yet many house churches are so afraid of someone leading they never experience how the Holy Spirit can move among people in that type of musical setting.  And while a very common way that people learn how to tune into the voice of the Spirit is through experiences they have during musical worship and prayer, this process doesn’t occur as easily in house churches that are afraid of musical instruments.

 

The irony is that while I was full of house church dogma, I still listened to recorded worship music with instruments on CD or live streaming.   I was afraid to be part of “the system” yet the music of “the system” I was drawn to in my private worship.   God would touch me deeply through the voices of my brothers and sisters singing to Him in institutional churches and institutional church conferences, yet I squelched my desire to be part of that whole scene (and my talents and desire to make music and lead others in worship) because my doctrine didn’t allow for it, even though it edified me both to play for others and to be in environments where others were playing.  I understand that there is hype, and bad music, and annoying shows, and yes, I understand that “worship is what you do with your life, it’s not music…” which people in the movement are so fond of saying, but the fact is something very edifying happens when people make music together to God, and the institutional church has led the way in this.  But some of the house church models out there actively shut people out from this.

ORGANIC AND NON-ORGANIC THINGS WERE MEANT TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP

tomato-308855_640When I was young, I planted a garden and refused to stake the tomatoes because I wanted them to be natural.  Most of them rotted into the earth they were laying on.  I think this is a good analogy for my experience in the movement.  Organic things often work hand in hand with non-organic things and a tomato stake does not take away from the organic growth of a tomato; it only enhances it.  Some structures that people invent for church life as they gather are not harmful, they only enhance the ability of people to function together — but in the house church mindset I was infected with could only condemn those things.  I do think people need to be set free from narrow-minded leaders who want to micromanage things and don’t know how to make room for the Spirit to flow and people to function as a body.   But in my time in the movement, I believed all structure of any sort was wrong, and this kept me from being part of structures that would have been healthy and helpful to me and others.

The house church movement emphasizes listening to the Holy Spirit and being led by the Lord, but one time I had a dream where the Lord was talking to me about gatherings and boomed the word “STRUCTURE” all through me to where I still felt it burning as I woke up, but I was so blinded by my Housechurch dogma at the time that I could barely accept this.  I wish I had accepted it sooner.

HYBRID CHURCH MODELS

Hierloom tomatoes are good, but hybrid tomatoes have a lot of benefits, and the same is true in my experience of organic church life. These days I am still part of a housechurch, but it’s a group that doesn’t fit most of the desciptions I have shared above.   It’s a very alive, happening group but there are two main leaders who drive it forward.  They’re not afraid to be leaders and I haven’t gone to war against them being leaders as I might have in the past when I was a house church purist.  In my experience over 20 years of house churching, the healthiest groups I have seen that didn’t fizzle out in a few months to a couple years, and that didn’t seem to grow stagnant, were groups that were hybrids between organic church and institutional church.    They were groups that didn’t shut themselves off from the institutional church — they either had healthy relationships with other churches, even institutional ones — or they were an institutional church that decided to transition into being an organic open housechurch.   All of the groups I have seen thrive over time had people in them with strong leading personalities; and they used their personalities to build up others to also be leaders and teachers in the group.   I’ve even been to house churches where our entire group together would visit an institutional church, to keep the lines of communication flowing, and to receive of whatever importation of the Lord was in their midst.   Last week, an institutional church we have a relationship with sent us a photo of their entire congregation praying for our little group.

House church claims to champion the priesthood of all believers and a passion for us all being part of the body of Christ, with Him alone as the head.  But what I got sucked into was an elitist, divisive movement that was full of pride, and I drank the full cup of that.  Instead of it helping me honor the body of Christ more, it cut me off from the body of Christ and took years of my life where I spun in circles trying to get some sense of how to connect in more meaningful ways than internet groups to others in the body.  It stole my chances to find a mate while young.  When the Lord spoke to me about doing missions work, it took at least a decade longer than it probably needed to be for me to do anything with that because I was disconnected from a support base and people who would have championed my way forward.  (In fact, many in the housechurch movement actively dissuaded and even condemned me for my interest in overseas missions as being something too religious and unnecessary in their point of view.) It took a long time to realize that I need the body of Christ and people around me who love the same Lord I love, whether they are in an institution or not, and that the institution is not all bad.

When I think back on it, the things that catapulted my growth in the Lord the most were the timesScreen Shot 2019-04-19 at 2.57.08 AM.png I went against my own house church convictions and sat momentarily under the teaching of some pastor or leader or institutional conference speaker and had the Lord give me some revelation or insight that yes, He could have given me directly because I also have the Holy Spirit, but for some reason, didn’t.   He seems to appreciate using the gift of teaching for whatever reason, and one of the reasons is probably to make us depend on each other, priesthood of believers notwithstanding.   Even so, I was so afraid of the institutional church for so long (and not because it had harmed me, but because my dogma said it was foul and unclean) that I stayed away too long from something that may very well have been a good place to plant my garden, and a good way to stake my tomatoes and bring forth a bounty of fruit in my life to the Lord.  I hope that others who read this will read it not to condemn the house church movement, but to not be sucked down by it’s blind dogma into a pit of isolation and pride that has the potential to steal meaningful years of co-laboring and fellowship from one’s life in the body of Christ.

 

 

Opposite Sex Friendship — a few thoughts

I’ve been thinking about the way that Christians, particularly singles in their late teens, 20s, 30s, think about opposite sex friendships and been wanting to write a blog post on the topic for some time.   The other night a male friend of mine (let’s call him Andrew) was telling me he was going to go hang out with a female friend of mine.   The guy is happily single, not looking for a girlfriend or wife at this point, and not interested at least not at this point in dating the woman in question.   The gal (let’s call her Samantha) is someone who has very openly talked about her desires to be married at this stage in life and her disappointment that she is still single.

guy girlAndrew and Samantha understand that Andrew’s visit with her is only for the purpose of friendship; that Andrew is not interested in Samantha as a romantic partner.  (In fact, they became friends when Samantha was “safely” dating someone else, but that relationship didn’t work out.)  But Andrew mentioned to me, “I do have to be really careful here, there is a real danger that she could develop feelings because she is looking for someone.”

Therein lies an issue.   Somewhere along the line, singles in the church have developed this idea that it is their responsibility to worry about whether or not their friends might develop feelings for them.   Often a guy won’t hang out with a girl if she wants to date him and he doesn’t, or worse yet, he won’t hang out with her (or her with him) if he’s not hoping she’d be interested in dating.  And what I have seen goes like this:

A guy thinks it is dangerous for a girl to like him if he isn’t feeling the same way.   So when he walks into a room full of new people, and a girl he doesn’t instantly feel physically attracted to comes up to talk to him, he’ll have a few standoffish small talk words in her direction and then quickly move on to talk to the gals he finds attractive, making long and sustained connection with them.

WHAT ABOUT OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO WALK AS SISTERS AND BROTHERS?

On one hand, there is nothing wrong with investing energy towards finding a spouse, and that would include spending time talking to people of the opposite sex one finds intriguing.   But the problem with this as a general way of being is that the body of Christ is more than this — whether one finds someone attractive or not the fact is that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ. 

This doesn’t get enough airtime from pulpits, and Christians don’t tend to approach other Christians on that level — they don’t tend to think about the spiritual relationship they already share with someone as being the most important aspect of any interaction they have, and then things like “mate possibility” as secondarily important.   But this is to the detriment of the body of Christ.

In “the world” — outside of the church — people who are in groups form “in-crowds” and “out-crowds.”   Many times this has a lot to do with social desirability, and mating desirability.  People cluster around charismatic, attractive, powerful, or affluent people.   Being in the “in-crowd” increases one’s odds of getting a highly attractive date.   And so on.    When Christian guys (or girls) only invest time, attention, and energy into friendships with girls (or guys) that are romantically or socially desirable, this cluster or “clique” dynamic appears in the church.    But the church isn’t supposed to reflect the value system of what flesh and blood tends to value.

The church is supposed to reflect a higher value system — that is, the worth of every individual to God, and the familial relationship that we all share in Christ of being true sisters and brothers to one another.

This familial relationship transcends even blood relationships — which is a fact that often doesn’t get taught or preached except in whacked-out cult groups that want to dissolve family bonds and reestablish the only important bonds as that of the cult group.  But while the cult groups are wrong in devaluing the importance of flesh-and-blood family as an important realm of relationship for folks, they are not wrong in recognizing that the Bible doesn’t speak of believers being “sisters and brothers” as some sort of unrealistic platitude, or just some feel-good short-hand for “members of the same Sunday morning club.”

WHAT DO WE REALLY WANT TO EXPERIENCE?

Our sister and brotherhood in Christ is true, and it is every bit as “real” as the blood connection we share with our families of origin.   In this case, Jesus’s flesh being ripped apart and his blood actually flowing down to touch the Earth is the “real” blood connection that binds the family of God together.   We are all made of dust of the Earth, and as His blood dripped down to the dust we are all made of, it bound everyone who would believe in Christ into one bloodline — Christ’s bloodline.   Of course, not having his actual blood cells in our veins, it had to be made more apparent so thus we are also “adopted” into God’s family.

But these aren’t just pleasant platitudes, for eternity we will be the Lord’s family and brother/sister to one another.  Other generations and those in persecuted nations had a deeper grip on this, as so many of our brothers and sisters throughout history have mixed their blood together as they died for the Lord together in bloody shows of martyrdom.  And in those moments, no one cared whether they had the same sense of cool clothing style, or whether they liked the same authors, or whether they found each other’s hairstyle or body shape attractive.   We are one in Him in a way that goes radically beyond all that, and this becomes apparent when the same mice in a prison are nibbling on your toes together, or when our blood runs down into the dust as one together at the executioner’s sword.

In some sense, this is what we all want — not to be persecuted, but to experience this communion with one another.  At least those who truly have believed in Christ, somewhere in our souls beats this desire to see the body of Christ look like more than a nice, safe, “oh I know that person, I see them at church on Sunday” sort of relationship with one another.   Whose hearts are not moved by reading Acts about the believers selling their homes to be with one another, having all things in common, eating and praying together from house to house?  We want to share in the communion of saints in late night conversations, bearing our hearts, feeling the presence of God together and being rocked in the fear of the awe of the Lord; we want to make huge sacrifices for each other, to feel a little counter-cultural and radical and knowing that in a very real way we have each others’ backs and we would die for one another.

This doesn’t happen if our friendships are based merely on who we think we might want to have sex with one day and whose DNA seems pleasing to make children with.   If none of these lofty ideas cause one to consider being friends, real friends, with those they aren’t wanting to date, then consider this: often the person you aren’t attracted to might have friends that you would be attracted to.   Sometimes in our human weaknesses lofty ideas don’t cut it but practical down to earth ones make more sense.

Where am I going with all this?  No, it’s not good to lead someone on, to take up all their time and keep them off the dating scene because you, their opposite sex friend, want to hang out everyday and yet you’re not interested in dating them, but they have no idea.   Yes, that’s unkind and irresponsible friendship.

But while irresponsible friendship across gender lines does certainly exist, we need to get around this thing that says we wouldn’t want to be friends with someone we’re not attracted to because, gosh, they might develop FEELINGS for us and then we’re in the middle of a relationship we don’t want to be in.    I’ll ask the same question I asked above:  Where did singles get the idea that it’s a terrible thing if your opposite friend falls for you and you’re not into them?   Where did we get the idea that we need to hold each other at a distance, and run away at the first sign that someone we’re not attracted to is attracted to us?

MATURITY in FRIENDSHIP

adventure-1807524_640I want to call us up to a more mature view of friendship if I may.   A few years back I had this guy friend (we’ll call him Randall) who I developed a serious crush on.   Randall and I were fairly deep, heart to heart friends.   We had a sense of commitment to one another, that we were there for each other to walk each other through some pretty intense stuff we were both dealing with.

Eventually I told him I was seriously becoming attracted to him, and I think Randall’s attitude towards me was a gift of divine proportions.   He said, “Heather, I just don’t feel the same way towards you — though I certainly appreciate this, this, and this about you.  (Awesome when guys build their sisters up in the Lord.)   So I don’t know what you’re going to do about how you’re feeling towards me but I’m going to leave that between you and the Lord to sort out.   In the meantime, I am still 100% committed to being your brother and your friend.”

Randall gave me a gift of steadfast friendship commitment by realizing that my feelings weren’t his responsibility and they weren’t his to deal with….so while he wasn’t unmerciful like, “Don’t even talk to me about this…” he didn’t run away screaming either.   And I in turn took a bit of time away from him to get my heart somewhat clear (you don’t have to have “no feelings” to be clear enough to still be friends), and able to be around him again in a way that we could still reflect Christ to one another.

For a long time I have wished I could tell all the singles I watch running away from each other:  Guys, you don’t need to worry if someone you find unattractive finds you attractive.   You don’t need to hold them at arms length as long as you don’t deceive that person about how you are feeling and don’t take advantage of their feelings.   And gals, the same thing goes on our end – we don’t need to run away from a guy who “likes us” if we’ve been able to be honest and tell him we don’t feel the same way, and IF he is willing to respect our boundaries and not refuse to take our, “No, I just don’t see a dating relationship in our future” seriously.  The only guy I ever had to cut out of my life on this level was one who doggedly refused to take “no” for an answer, insisting God had “told him” I was his wife and that I was in rebellion to God for not listening.   I told him that no means no, and if he couldn’t respect that we couldn’t have a friendship.  But most of the guys that I have ever had a thing for, or who have ever had a thing towards me, still have an open door of friendship in my life to one degree or another.

But of course folks who have been “friend zoned” sometimes find themselves mutually falling for one another despite the fact that one or both of them originally felt that only friendship was in their future.   It’s OK to revisit a friendship conversation respectfully,  in something that might sound like this:  “Josh, I am not wanting to make you uncomfortable as I really value our friendship, I know we talked about this a year ago but I wanted to know if you still feel we are better off not pursuing a romantic relationship — but if you ever did want to date each other, I’m still open to that. But if not, I’m still going to be your friend and sister and I can’t wait to bless you and whoever you marry if it’s not me.”  And it’s also important to not keep hanging on to a friendship if you’re only secretly stalking someone waiting for them to change their mind, especially if you are getting in the way of them dating other people.   A really good test of whether or not a friendship is honest is whether or not you can introduce your friend to someone else they might want to date.   If you can do so, you might end up lifelong friends with someone you really value, married to someone else you really value — a win-win recipe for lifelong friendship that will have deep rewards for both you and the Kingdom.

This is maturity.  And it brings maturity to the body of Christ when singles — and married people who are friends with singles (another topic for another day) can still experience the richness of brother/sister communion in Christ.

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(For further reading check out Forbidden Friendships by Joshua Jones,

or Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions by Dan Brennan.)

(As a footnote I especially want to recognize Dan Brennan’s writings about how in the ancient middle east, a brother was often the most significant and close relationship of a woman’s life, a concept we don’t generally consider when reading Paul instructing Timothy to treat young women as his sisters.  Sisters and brothers were not mere distant acquaintances.  Instead our relationships with the opposite sex in the church tend to be more like the way we relate to the cashier at the grocery store — pleasant, casual, and without any shred of intimacy.  The difference is extreme and fear-based.   But that’s for another blog post.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Tables

During the course of one week: two different US states; two completely different groups of people.   I was there, and I saw the same thing happen in both places and thought, “This needs to be talked about.   WE need to talk about it.”   So I’m writing, and blogging, and talking about the stuff we get afraid to talk about – because let’s face it, nobody wants to be the whistle-blowing whiner.   (Oh alright, I’ll take the job this time. )

At the first event, I was with a fairly large group of people who had gotten together to do some Christian-ey stuff… and afterward, we headed to a restaurant together.   The waitress pushed a bunch of tables together, creating not one, but two long tables.   Most of the people in our group were in the 20’s to 30’s or even early 40’s range; most were stylish and attractively dressed.   There were a few people though that didn’t fit the profile.   There were several severely overweight women, there were a few people that could be considered elderly, and a few people that were somewhat socially awkward for whatever reason one might construe.

And it happened.   I watched it happen – one thing that I am fairly certain should not ever happen in a group of people who are claiming to be following in the way of Jesus.

All of the young, vibrant, happy people sat with their friends.   At one table.   And the elderly, the broken and awkward, and yes, the extremely obese were left to sit at their own table.

I suppose we aren’t supposed to notice these things, much less discuss them.   After all, elderly, obese, and other generic forms of socially awkward and/or excluded people really prefer each other’s company to that of vibrant, close-knit, fashionable and youthful people.   Of this I am quite sure.   Well, almost sure.   Almost as much as I am sure that vibrant, youthful Christian people do not choose the company of the elderly, obese, and awkward ones over their more fashionable and interesting friends.   Yes, sadly – of that much I *am* really sure.

Why is this?   It is, after all, “normal.”   Which is the very thing, that I think, Christians are not supposed to be.   Well, I know Christians are not generally “normal” in their views on social issues if those issues are say, political.   In that degree, many Christians are eagerly “not normal.”   But what about the kind of “not normal” where we actively choose to build our social lives and social networks in completely confusing ways to the average human – deciding instead, in fact, to fully befriend someone who is obviously not a highly sought-after person in social circles [unfortunately even in our church groups] as our PREFERED way to live, prefered especially over just being cliquey teenagers in grown-up skin?

(Side note: of course, it is thought I think that there are no outcasts in our church groups, because after all, once we’ve found an outcast and they’ve prayed the prayer and started coming and doing the Sunday service thing with us, they’re no longer outcasts at all, right?  And our job is just to get them into our church – but we all know we have too many friends to add someone… ‘else’ …to our busy lives. It’s not our job, we know that.   Besides, these people are not like… us.  They want to be in their own category, apart from us… don’t they? )

Well, anyway, that was one restaurant – two tables.    But I have found that it is easy to smile and greet someone during worship.   It’s easy to lay hands on them and pray – to even see their broken hearts and call them out and notice that they are lonely people – heck, to share ‘prophetically’ with them that they are lonely and that God wants to heal them of this – but then, when it comes time to go out to eat together, we all too often leave them sitting at their own table again.   Alone.    Just… like… the… ‘word of knowledge’… or word of comfort… or whatever it was that WE shared with them and told them it was time for them to be free from.   We do this in plain view – and I can’t help but wonder, what happens when they are out of view?   What happens when they are sitting alone, at home, and we are planning a get-together to go see a movie, or go shopping, or play a sport, or workout – whatever it is we do with our church friends when it’s our real life and not a church get together…does anyone invite the fat or old or weird people in the group to come do real stuff too?  Do they ever get to be known as real people, enough to really know who they are and not just give them a ‘word’ about who they are – in our lives?  I guess I have a hard time believing that they do, when they sit at their own table during our after-gathering meals.  We only want to sit with the people we enjoy, the people we have real friendship with – and sadly, that’s never really going to be ‘those’ people.  They have their life, and we have ours.  Besides, at their own table, they are reaching out to the other outcasts, and that’s their calling, or something – something like that.

“It shall not be so among you.”  Jesus pointed out some things about how social rules work outside His Kingdom, in everyday life – and He said, “It shall not be so among you.”   I know in some places in the body of Christ, people want to learn how to do the amazing miraculous stuff that Jesus said His followers would do – “even greater works than these” is what He said His followers would do.   But I have to wonder which is the greater miraculous feat His followers might learn how to execute: is it to heal the sick and raise the dead, or would it be to learn how to love people and bring all sorts of people who normally wouldn’t like each other together, just like Jesus Himself did?

But this was a tale of two tables – two times over.   Because later in the week, I was at another restaurant, with another group of people.   And once again, a waitress pushed tables together for the large group I found myself with.   I had to use the restroom when we first arrived, so by the time I came out, almost everyone had seated themselves.   And this time, there was one guy without a seat – looking over the long table where everyone had assembled.   Did it have to be so obvious, as the table was filled with ‘on-fire’ young worshippers in their 20s and 30s again, that this man who had been worshipping with them, walking with a slow gait as he had recently had chemo and cancer in his 60s, was the one person standing there longingly looking for a seat among them?   Someone tried to ‘help’ him (I guess) by recommending he sit at a nearby table just as I was walking in and saw that my fate also, a relative newcomer to the group, would also be to the exile table to sit with the lone older man.  This story had a silver lining though – in that a young woman there named Rebecca instantly got up from the table and all her friends and said to me, “I’ll sit over there with you.”  And she came and sat with us.

Rebecca’s actions were a spark of hope to me – to see a young follower of Jesus so eagerly and without any outward sign of remorse, eschew her peers and friends to sit with the old guy and the new [almost middle aged] woman,  Her heart was a spark of glory and goodness the ‘people of God.’   But I also reflect that too often, to love those different than the mainstream, means going alone, and leaving one’s friends behind, and for Rebecca that day loving me and the other guy meant so doing.   I am dimly hoping for the day, for the people, who will not have to make such sacrifices – because while such sacrifices are worthy and worthwhile to make, they should be unnecessary, and I do not believe they are a representation of the best the body of Christ could be.   What I want to see is groups of friends learning to include, integrate, and love people outside their peer group together – so that the lonely outcast person doesn’t just sit with the one young sacrificial lamb who is torn between her friends and him or her, but so that the formerly socially unwanted person gets WELCOMED, integrated, brought into a circle where he or she truly becomes one with the circle.   Where the whole gang wants to sit with the elderly ones, and learn from them, or the overweight ones, and look past their figure to their real mind and heart, or to the awkward ones, so they get to learn what normal relationships are like.

Because, I know that if we have two tables, there is one that Jesus is sitting at.  If there’s an outcast table, He’s gonna be there – and one way or another, we’re all missing out.   He’s missing the fellowship of the young and trendy, and we’re all missing Him in each other.   I’d rather we all had Him, and the demonstration of His kingdom among ourselves, so that we can experience a joy that is more than ‘normal’ humanity – but is something truly from Above.  Because after all, in the Kingdom, there really is only ONE table.

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