Being Community, Being Church
The Congregation at Duke Chapel Retreat, May 31, 2008 by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Being a Disciple
I‟ve been around the Congregation at Duke Chapel long enough now to pick up what we could call the recurring melodies. Over the last nine months the melody I have heard more than any other is, “We need more community.” So what I want to do in my three talks today is to spend some time looking at what “more community” might mean. In my second talk this afternoon I‟m going to look in theological and practical terms at what community might mean for the Congregation at Duke Chapel. In my talk this evening I‟m going to reflect on what community might mean when it‟s extended to the people beyond the Congregation, a world we might in general call mission. But I want to start this morning by acknowledging that community is not just a fuzzy word that makes all things seem good. Community is a scary word because it might suggest I have commitments and responsibilities that go beyond those I have explicitly chosen, beyond the circle of people I know well and trust, beyond the range of activities within which I claim some competence and in regard to which I cherish some understanding. That makes it scary. So I want to identify some fairly elemental principles that govern Christian discipleship, principles we can strive to adhere to, or look back and find we have been striving to adhere to, for a long time. I hope this morning will be a time of refreshment for each of us as disciples, before we reflect together on our commitments to one another and then to others beyond our fellowship. When Jesus was approached by the teacher of the law and asked the greatest commandment, he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,' and: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Here is the nature of discipleship in the simplest possible terms – to love God, the neighbor, and oneself. I‟m going to look at these in reverse order, to restate what discipleship requires. Love of the Self It may seem unusual to start with the self. But I learned a lot from a friend who lives in a monastery when he told me that the monks who serve the meals have a small meal themselves before they serve all the other monks, so they have plenty of energy for the task and are not thinking only of the meal they themselves will be eating shortly after once the serving is done. Loving oneself is not the same as being selfish. It is not at the expense of loving others or God. It is simply cherishing the gift God has given us in giving us life. Being a disciple means loving oneself in several ways. (1) It means first of all knowing oneself. John Calvin begins his great work the Institutes of the Christian Religion with two principles: without knowledge of the self there is no knowledge of God, and without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of the self. So coming to know oneself is not a purely narcissistic exercise, like the nineteenth-century politician Horace Greely who was described as “a selfmade man who worshiped his creator.” All the things we smile on and regard as healthy for undergraduates are chiefly about this quality of knowing oneself. Travel to different cultures, living without creature comforts, going away to university, meeting and befriending people of diverse social backgrounds, eating a wide range of foods; we may not do these things ourselves but we applaud them in the young because we recognize that through such activities one comes to know oneself. Adventures shape character. Quests are an education not only in the destination and the companion but in the character of the pilgrim. Just as a sign of love for another is detailed attention to their unique characteristics, quirks and qualities, so a sign of love for oneself is a healthy awareness of how one differs from others, in what one‟s unique quality lies, and how one may employ those unique gifts to best effect.
(2) But the self is not a static thing, and so the second element of loving oneself is striving to be what only you can be. Achievement involves education, application, brains, determination, discernment, encouragement, a supportive environment, and much besides. It‟s a mixture of raw material, added resources, and people coming alongside. It‟s often possible to make up in one area what is lacking in some others. Achievement is not about getting to the top of the tree. I‟ve spent enough time around Nobel Prize winners to know that even they don‟t feel they‟re at the top of any tree – they make quiet mutterings about it not being a very competitive year and someone else having done the key research. Achievement is about bringing to the outside the person who is inside. That process isn‟t a selfish one, if one believes God has made you for a reason, and if one believes you‟re more likely to make those around you flourish if you‟re playing with all the strings on your guitar. But neither is it a competition. You will never be your father, or the person your father wanted you to be. You can only be a person there‟s never been before. And the public forms of recognition and measurement, the prizes, salaries and accolades, will never describe or approximate the person you really are. (3) And the third element of loving the self is a recognition of one‟s common humanity. If striving to be what only you can be is about one‟s uniqueness, the cocktail of inheritance, experience and circumstance that makes you what you are, this common element is about coming to terms with the ordinariness and earthiness of just being alive. It‟s about remembering the goodness of rest, of companionship, of exercise, of breathing mountain air, of the created world, of simply eating, of sharing embodied life with another person, of being around children, of hearing birdsong, of swimming, of holding someone‟s hand, of sitting down after working hard. For most of humanity, work only occasionally creeps into the second category of expressing one‟s uniqueness; it‟s largely a matter of this third element, simply finding the good in being alive. Contentment in discipleship is about finding one‟s way between these three elements – knowing yourself, striving to be what only you can be, and rejoicing in simply being alive. At different stages in life, in different circumstances, and in the light of different setbacks, which one of these is most prominent will vary. But if any one of them falls off the radar, one might have to ask if you are truly loving yourself. All three elements converge in the virtue of humility. Being humble means having neither too high nor too low an opinion of oneself, falling into neither pride nor despair, but judging oneself on one‟s call from God, realizing that God made you because he wanted one like you, and therefore seeking to fulfil the role God has assigned for you in the divine drama. Love of the Neighbor When we read the story of the Good Samaritan and we hear the lawyer say “And who is my neighbor?‟ we tend to sigh and think what a brainless or wilfully blind man the lawyer must have been. But that‟s unfair. The identity of our neighbor has been a much-discussed issue in Christian history. I‟m going to give you an edited highlights package of that historical discussion by limiting the notions of neighbor to four circles, each of which turns out to be a bit more complicated than it first appears. (1) The first circle we may call church. I‟m going to say more about our responsibilities and relationships in connection to church in my second talk this afternoon. But for now I simply want to point out that from baptism on, church is our primary relationship. Christmas isn‟t primarily time for family; Christmas is primarily time to celebrate as part of the body of Christ. In baptism we become part of Christ‟s body. Our individual self and our familial relationships become secondary. Like the other three circles I‟m going to look at in a moment, the church circle is a mixture of elements we‟d choose and elements we wouldn‟t choose. Billy Graham famously told his new converts “Don‟t join a perfect church – you‟ll spoil it.” One commonly-used thanksgiving prayer at the Eucharist begins “It is our duty and our joy…” That‟s a useful phrase to keep in mind in relation to all four circles of neighbors. Being a neighbor is a mixture of duty and joy, since our neighbors are a mixture of those we rejoice in and those we bemoan. In contemporary America the doctrine of baptism is perhaps the most difficult doctrine of all to grasp. There are two units of loyalty that demand our total attention – the individual and the state. The churches that thrive are generally those that simply underwrite our existing assumptions about the
individual and the state. So to say our principal loyalty is to the church is a profound challenge to these two assumed loyalties. It is profoundly personal, because it suggests the unit of my individual self is not the measure of all things. And it is profoundly political because it suggests the unit of public life is not the nation state but the worldwide church. So for example for a Christian to consider killing Christians from other countries on behalf of the nation state is deeply problematic. And what makes it problematic is baptism. Killing another Christian is destroying a part of your own body. (2) The second circle we may call family. Again, there‟s two kinds of family relationships – those that largely come under duty, and those that largely come under joy. I‟d like you to think about what I‟m going to call the three faces of family, whether the relationships are about duty or joy. a. The first kind I‟m going to call face-to-face. This means intimacy – ideally loving intimacy within marriage, tender closeness of parent and child or siblings and maybe beyond towards cousins and grandparents and other special people. Of course intimacy doesn‟t always mean happiness – the long-delayed heart-to-heart may name or stir up long-buried fears, resentments or antagonisms. Because face-to-face is pretty intense, you really can‟t expect to have this level of relationship with too many people, and you certainly can‟t expect to have it with anyone without it making a time and emotional impact on your other neighbourly relationships. An unrealistic expectation of intimacy with too many people simply means getting into the habit of letting people down. Being married means promising that your spouse will always have first call on your intimate life. Having children means saying that now will always be the right time for you to be close to them, even if now isn‟t always the right time for them to be close to you. b. For the second kind I‟m going to turn 90 degrees around and use the term side-by-side. Family relationships don‟t all have to be intimate. They can be ones of trust, sharing and mutual enrichment punctuated by face-to-face moments at Thanksgiving or some other suitable moment. When siblings grow up and leave home, and particularly if they have their own families, this can be perfectly natural, especially when they live long distances apart. Everyone has their own wisdom on this. I have only two suggestions. (i) Don‟t confuse two birth family members‟ need to do some important face-to-face catch up or conflict resolution with the rest of the family‟s need to drive or fly long distances for reasons they don‟t understand. I imagine everyone here knows what it‟s like to drive to Alabama with the hovering question “Why are we doing this, Mom?”, when Mom perfectly well knows the answer is, “Because Dad desperately needs to have a face-to-face conversation with your grandmother and he can‟t face it so he‟s dragging us along to ensure we‟ll all be so busy he won‟t have to have the conversation.” (ii) Don‟t assume the long family road trip is the same as a holiday. Every family needs some face-toface time and some unhassled side-by-side time building sandcastles or shaking Mickey Mouse‟s hand for the 43rd time, and vacation is often the best time for it. Spending time with other relatives often makes that vital work harder rather than easier. Nuclear family takes time, and wider family takes time too, but never assume they can be addressed at the same time. c. For the third kind I‟m going to turn 90 degrees further around and use the term back-to-back. This is about what we owe our family even when we don‟t see them, or perhaps get on with them, very much at all. The Commandment says, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” That word honor is a good guideline for all our family relationships. I‟m a great believer in maintaining minimum formalities of Christmas and birthday cards, which may simply be a way of saying “I‟m still your brother, despite all.” However poor the relationship becomes, it‟s seldom necessary to embarrass a relative in public, or excise them from a will, or deprive your own children of their acquaintance. To be a Christian does not mean to have an automatically happy close or extended family. But it does mean to honor one‟s family, happy or not, because the family is the most immediate tie to the contingency and temporality of our lives. They knew you as a tiny baby, and know you aren‟t a self-made person after all; and they will still know you on your death bed, when all the dear friends who clustered into your wedding photographs may well have faded away.
(3) The third circle of neighbors I want to consider are those who constitute your day-to-day world. I‟m thinking of work colleagues and other people you interact with regularly through work or wherever you spend most of your days, people who live in your neighborhood, and friends. As ever, these relationships are a mixture of duty and joy. For some, the office party may be the highlight of the year; others may be longing to get away to be with family or friends. Those with small children or dependent parents may find they have hardly any energy left over for colleagues, neighbors or friends. Those without a spouse or children may find among colleagues, neighbors or friends the kinds of face-to-face intimacy that more commonly belongs in a family setting. This is a huge subject, so I‟m just going to highlight two things. One is what you do owe to this circle of people. It doesn‟t take much to maintain a healthy relationship with a half-dozen people in your neighbourhood. A short conversation every week or two should bring you up to date with all the news you really can deal with; it‟s a small way of overcoming the anonymity of suburbia and reminding yourself that life is fundamentally about human interaction in one another‟s presence, for which the internet is a poor substitute. Likewise your friends include those you carry in your heart each day, either because you see them often or because you know they‟re in an important moment in their life, plus those who have been close but now are in the pending tray. The great thing about modern technology is that it offers such a range of ways in which you can tell people you‟re thinking of them even when they‟re far away. If you don‟t take advantage of any of these methods to communicate it‟s reasonable for a person to wonder if they‟re still your friend. Colleagues are slightly different. In some ways they‟re the opposite of friends because you see them all the time even if you don‟t want to. They can reasonably expect you to be amiable and generous in all dealings and to recognize their humanity by the way you respond at times of crisis, transition or celebration. That‟s what you do owe to this circle. The other thing to highlight is what you don‟t owe. It can be helpful to keep a careful distinction between family, friends, neighbors and colleagues, in the sense that you remember the ways in which each is different from one another. Your friends don‟t owe you to make up for the shortcomings in your family, nor do you owe them. Your colleagues do not owe you to make up for the shortcomings in your circle of friends, nor do you owe them. When colleagues become friends or family become neighbors or friends become family or neighbors become colleagues it can be wonderful but it can also get very complicated and it‟s unlikely to work without being talked through pretty carefully. What you don‟t owe to this circle is to empty your domestic life of all intimacy by pouring your whole emotional energy into friends, neighbors and colleagues. Nonetheless even the best domestic existence has its intense or lonely elements, and some emotional outlet into this wider circle is very healthy for most of us. (4) And then there‟s the fourth dimension of neighbor, which is the kind referred to in the Good Samaritan parable – and that‟s to say the stranger. Again I think it‟s helpful to separate strangers into two kinds. The two kinds are what I‟m going to call strangers within reach and what I‟m going to call strangers beyond reach. I‟m not going to dwell long in this area as it‟ll be the subject of my talk this evening, but I want to give one or two suggestions. a. By strangers within reach I mean the people you don‟t know, you couldn‟t put a face to but who live or work within a relatively short distance from you. If you heard they‟d been killed in an explosion you‟d feel a shiver of anxiety because it would feel like it could have been you – you know that street, you used to live right across the road, you once worked with their brother, you used to serve meals at that night shelter. It would be an exaggeration to say that you know them, but there‟s no doubt that they‟re your neighbor, and if you were running for political office you‟d be greeting them like a long-lost friend. When there‟s a crisis of local or national proportions, you can feel quite close to such people, because it seems in most important respects they‟re just like you. Through the internet the range of people in this category can become enormous, as you realize whenever someone forwards to you a mass email and you discover how many people are only two inboxes away from your world. A university campus is made up of thousands of people who are a friend of a friend. Christianity is a religion of the incarnation, and this means that in-
the-flesh encounters have precedence over virtual ones. The person you drive past each day on your way to work has more claim on you than the person who emails you every day. One should hope that the strangers within reach all become real human beings to you over time; but that doesn‟t mean they have to become friends, because it simply isn‟t possible for most people to have so many friends. One other thing to bear in mind is that travel vastly increases your range of strangers within reach. If you visit the Congo or the Gulf Coast or Guatemala you are creating a different level of relationship or obligation to the people you encounter there to that which you‟d have had you never been. You don‟t visit countries when you travel, you visit people. b. By strangers beyond reach I mean what we often call the “world” – that‟s to say all those people we‟ll never meet but have some sense of through imagination and news media. Not all these people are in crisis, as news broadcasts might suggest. But some are, and we need to arrange our finances and our prayers and our hearts in such a way that we are expecting tugs on our compassion as a matter of course, rather than as an exceptional tragedy. Strangers beyond reach today must include future generations. It‟s an interesting question whether our care for God‟s creation should be considered as part of our love for ourselves, our love for our neighbor, or our love for God. But at the very least it must be part of our love for the neighbor beyond reach, the generations yet to come. If the minimum insight about the earth is that it doesn‟t belong to us, and the minimum standard of morality is that you leave that which doesn‟t belong to you no worse than you found it when it came into your possession, we‟re not doing too well just now on that minimum standard. All of these accounts of our relationships and obligations to our neighbors are inadequate without a fully developed account of our relationships and obligations to the church, which qualifies the notion of stranger and relativizes the assumptions of family. But we shall come back to church in my second talk. Love of God Two things will be obvious from what I‟ve said so far. The first is that we can‟t be thinking in terms of a relationship with God that‟s independent of our relationship with ourselves and our neighbors. For some people the relationship with God comes fairly easily and naturally, and the relationship with self and neighbor is a tiresome mundane obstacle to that ethereal transcendent connection. For some reason such people seem to rise to the top of most church hierarchies: it‟s considered fine to be horrible to one another and to have often very negative feelings about oneself so long as one has an evidently transparent relationship with God. Meanwhile for others the relationship with neighbor comes more naturally and the relationship with God is more of a struggle. For some reason these people find themselves lower on most church hierarchies. But these three loves must be different facets of what is fundamentally the same love. The second thing that should be obvious is that even though these three loves aren‟t contrary to one another, that doesn‟t mean to say they‟re identical. Over the last 200 years a whole host of theologians and philosophers have come along and said love of God was not substantially more than love of neighbor, that‟s to say God simply represented our highest aspirations about being human. And today those parts of Protestantism that seem most popular seem to be the ones in which God is largely a grand word for oneself, such that faith is a mixture of therapy and self-realization. When our faith is weak, it‟s quite understandable that we seek to gain credibility in our own and others‟ eyes by translating the claims of the Christian faith into terms any right thinking person would endorse on the basis of logic, probability and goodwill. But this is to gain the whole world at the expense of one‟s life. The Christian faith is falling off a cliff in the hope and confidence that God in Christ can and will catch you – not pretending there was no cliff there in the first place. Love of God is the commitment of one‟s body, mind and spirit beyond the point that one can know for certain that the being one is committed to is indisputably there. It may sometimes feel and often look like recklessness, but at other times it may feel and certainly looks like the surest foundation one can ever know. You can‟t get round the anxieties of loving God by translating that love simply into the more tangible love of self and neighbor.
So what does our Lord require of us? The answer lies in a balanced response to these two things I‟ve just mentioned. On the one hand a love of which God and others can see the tangible fruits. On the other hand a love that isn‟t limited to or exhausted by tangible fruits. I‟m going to take these one at a time. 1. Tangible fruits. For the sake of simplicity I‟m going to talk about loving God as a matter of the past, the present and the future. Let me explain what this means in terms of tangible fruits. a. The past. Loving God in the past means responding with joy, gladness, thankfulness and praise to what God has uniquely done for us in the gifts described in the story of creation, covenant, Christ and church. The commandments begin with the prohibition against idolatry. In other words our joy and thankfulness are shown in our identification of God as the only God, and of Christ as the face of God, and the Holy Spirit as the unique power that makes Christ and all that Christ has done present among us. The key word in loving God in the past is “remember.” This word is repeated throughout the book of Deuteronomy. Remember. The Eucharist is, before anything else, an act of remembrance. So the tangible ways of showing our love for the God who has saved us by concrete acts in the past is to engage in acts of remembrance and thanksgiving, of which gathering for worship is the most obvious. Keeping the commandments is essentially a commitment that expresses remembrance and thanksgiving, for the tempting voice in our ear that makes lying or stealing seem so attractive is a voice that is tempting us to forget that God has saved us and in this particular manner. All sin is in this sense a kind of idolatry – a desire to worship a God other than this God and a desire for God to bring the kingdom in other than this way. Likewise giving over Sunday, or at least Sunday morning, to worship God is something tangible and measurable: you either have done it or you haven‟t. These kinds of tangible signs preserve us from selfdeception. b. The future. The best test of whether we love God in relation to the future is what we do with our money. In centuries gone by the best insurance was childbearing. Today our insurance is the size of our bank account, our share portfolio, and our real estate status. We all know these things will be useless to us when we die, but we still care about them. It‟s interesting to see how funerals have changed over the last two generations. Not long ago a funeral was all about God‟s promises and warnings in relation to our eternal destiny. It certainly said goodbye to the departed, but at least as much served notice on the mourners that they had some issues to face. Think about a prayer that no longer appears in the regular worship order of the tradition I come from, that sums up the mood of a traditional funeral. “Grant us, Lord, the wisdom and the grace to use aright the time that is left to us on earth. Lead us to repent of our sins, the evil we have done and the good we have not done; and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son, in the way that leads to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Today funerals tend to look back rather than forward, and concentrate on celebrating the life lived. It‟s almost bad manners to talk about the future. But tangible signs of love for God in relation to the future are all about investing in the things that last for ever. Such things are seriously out of fashion. c. The present. One test of whether we love God in the present is whether we are open to surprises. I don‟t believe God is intent only on upsetting the applecart of our best-laid projects, but I do believe that the way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans. When you think about those things you have carefully planned to the tiniest detail, is it in order to ensure God is present, or might it be to ensure that even if God were present, he couldn‟t ruin it? We spend time planning to make sure that when God shows up we have something in reserve such that we can enjoy the alternatives that arise. Not all surprises are happy ones. But whenever you hear someone say “I‟m devastated because I had the year (or the next three years, or my whole life) planned out and this has ruined everything” you have to wonder if God was ever part of the arrangements at all. 2. Intangible fruits.
a. The past. To me all the intangible fruits of loving God can be summarized in one word, and that‟s prayer. So for the past, present and future I‟m simply going to talk about three kinds of prayer. As to the past, I want to commend to you the practice of lament. Lament is bringing before God those ways in which we find the workings of the Holy Spirit inscrutable, frustrating or alarming. Why are you letting this baby die? Why are these people afflicted by an earthquake? Why can my husband not share my faith? Why can I not meet a person with whom I can share my life? There are three or four conventional ways of dealing with such things. One is anger, that waves the fist with a clear sense of injustice. Another is guilt, which is a kind of internalized anger. A third is hyperactivity, that assumes all solutions can yet come through me. A fourth is a kind of enforced forgetfulness, that tries not to see or to bury the memory of the wounding experience or emotion. Lament is a form of love, that steadily refuses to avoid naming the source of distress, but at the same time refuses to let the distress take over the whole relationship. Lament isn‟t therapy, it‟s love remaining real. b. The future. Here an intangible form of love is the practice of Sabbath. Sabbath really is about what you don‟t do rather than about what you do. It‟s a recognition that God does what really matters. All the things that make us want to work seven days a week are ways of demonstrating our lack of faith in God. The simplest way to show your love for someone is to imitate them. If god fitted in a day of rest to the seven days of creation, we should be able to manage it. c. The present. The time we spend in prayer is a little like a Sabbath in every day. The point of prayer is not primarily to achieve results in intercession or even to set ourselves straight in confession. It‟s primarily to show God and ourselves that we love God above all else, and that disaster with God is better than triumph without. It‟s often said that most of life is just showing up, and it‟s certainly true of prayer. We all have the same long list of reasons why prayer isn‟t our forte – we can‟t concentrate, we get distracted, there‟s not many quiet places to go, we go to sleep, we keep thinking of beautiful but inappropriate people, whatever it is – these are all reasons why our prayers may be short, but not reasons why we might not pray. Do we have a similar list of reasons why God isn‟t our forte? Prayer is the time we give to God when no one else is looking. Simple as that. And if that‟s no time at all, then it sounds like God is simply for show. Conclusion This first talk has set out the day-to-day contours of being a Christian. I hope there hasn‟t been much new in it, because it‟s supposed to be stuff that we all inhabit every day. Two of the biggest pressure points lie in what it means to be church and what it means to care for and be in relationship with our needy neighbor, particularly the one we don‟t know or hardly know. That‟s why these two themes will be the subject of my next two talks. But this morning‟s opening talk reflects the desire of all the great theologians from Paul to Augustine and ever since, that the Christian life is about love or it‟s about nothing, and that the only way to know what love is is to witness the love of God in the Trinity embodied in Jesus Christ.
Being a Church
Like Jesus, the Church is both human and divine. While we sometimes struggle to articulate the human aspect of Jesus, we equally struggle to identify the divine dimension of the Church. It‟s sometimes said that our struggle with the humanity of Christ is more than analogous to our profound awareness of the humanity of the church. No one, let‟s face it, is happy with the church. Either we are Christians who are certain what God asks of us and others, and we feel the church asks too little of us and spends too much time and energy accommodating those whose understanding and practise of the kingdom is too insipid, or we are people who aren‟t at all sure what God asks of us and others, and we feel the church asks too much of us when our time and
energy have plenty more needy and worthy objects for their attention. Even when we are content with the community of faith in which we find ourselves, we can find ourselves so surrounded by examples of practice that are so narrow, so broad, so devalued or so intolerant that they can make us wonder whether we belong in the same religion. In this second talk I want to explore what it means to be a church and to be the church, and then to consider more precisely what it might mean for the Congregation at Duke Chapel to be a church. I see church life, understood corporately, as made up of four elements, and I‟m going to go through each one briefly in turn. 1. The first I call common life. The inspiration for this comes squarely from the description offered of the early church in Acts 2.42-7. “They devoted themselves to the apostles‟ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” It‟s worth breaking this ideal picture down into its constituent elements. There is first the discovery of and formation in faith (the apostles‟ teaching). Then there is time spent with one another, building one another up and deepening support and encouragement (fellowship). Third there is sacramental worship (the breaking of bread), and fourth there are other dimensions of worship (the prayers). Fifth there are amazing acts of God, which bring awe on everyone. Sixth there is the sharing of goods with one another, and seventh there is the selling of goods and distribution to those in need. And that‟s about it. The tangible results are goodwill among the people and a growth in the size of the community. So common life means today what it meant then. It means education and formation, involving the different ways people come to and grow in faith. It means fellowship, both of hearts and of wallets, involving the different ways people enjoy God and one another, and are supported through times of weakness in body, mind or spirit. And it means worship, both all together in one place and in smaller gatherings that make the practice of the presence of God their sole purpose. This threefold formula of formation, fellowship and worship seems a pretty adequate summary of what it means for Christians to share a common life. 2. The second element of church life I call mission. The inspiration for this comes perhaps equally from two of the most familiar of Christian texts, Mt 25 and Mt 28. The second goes like this. “Jesus came and said to the disciples, „All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.‟” Here Jesus gives the dimensions and nature of discipleship. It is to involve people from every nation. It is to involve adherence to all of his commandments. It is to require faith in the Trinity. And it is to begin with baptism. The first text goes like this. „Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”‟ Here we are given six definitive acts of mercy: giving food and giving drink, welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked, taking care of the sick and visiting the prisoner. These six acts of mercy map the contours of humanitarian and charitable work in every generation. Almost ever understanding of mission is some kind of combination of these two key texts.
3. In addition to the two visible aspects of church life, there are two less visible aspects, one that corresponds to common life in that it is largely inward-focused, and another that corresponds to mission in that it is largely outward-focused. The less visible inward-focused aspect I‟m going to call housekeeping. This refers to the responsibility to ensure that the church fulfils the duties of trust laid corporately upon it – in relation to buildings, budgets, payments, legal responsibilities, and contracts. It‟s hard to find specific guidance for this in the New Testament, where everyone seems to float along without a budget, but it possibly causes more conflict in church life than any of the other areas. 4. The fourth, less visible, outward-focused dimension of church life is a more nebulous area that theologians tend to call ecclesiology but I‟m going to call partnership. It‟s a recognition that one congregation does not fulfil all God‟s kingdom purposes – that there are other organizations, especially churches, but also mission organizations, para-church groups, secular non-profits and other appropriate causes with which a congregation must find a healthy way to align itself. In my third talk tonight I‟m going to expand on the second of these aspects, the mission dimension of church life. I‟m going to spare you much talk about the third aspect, housekeeping, because your Congregation council already spends plenty of time on that. What I want to do now is to focus on the first and fourth aspects, particularly the first. I‟m going to do this in two ways. First, what would a common life of a congregation in twenty-first century America ideally look like? Second, what might that in reality mean for the Congregation at Duke Chapel? The Common Life of a Congregation What would a common life of a congregation in twenty-first century America ideally look like? Well, if we return to the reflection we made on Acts 2 a few moments ago, it would have three key dimensions. 1. It would so shape and form and build people up in the faith that they would become personally and corporately unselfconscious yet articulate witnesses of courage and example to their fellow Christians and to all whom they might meet. 2. It would be characterized by relationships among its members and across its body as a whole that would evince the fruits of the spirit, restore the wayward or weary, walk with the distressed or troubled, and share with the growing or joyous. 3. It would worship with heart and mind and hand and voice, both as one body and in smaller gatherings, in such a way that worship both shaped and reflected the virtues of formation and fellowship. The key question it seems to me from listening in on various conversations among the Congregation at Duke Chapel over the last three years is the second one. Everyone enjoys the worship at Duke Chapel – it‟s such a dominant aspect of life at the Chapel it‟s hard to imagine being involved in the Congregation unless one found the worship meaningful, helpful and joyful. And the first question, of formation, seems dependent on the other two. So that leaves us with the second one, fellowship. What does this ubiquitous but mysterious piece of intra-Christian jargon, fellowship, really mean? I suggest as follows. I‟m going to group my remarks under the headings of why what and how. 1. Why. The reason why church is important is to enjoy what Christ has achieved and show that Christianity is not just an idea, a theory or a promise but is fundamentally a lived reality. A key dimension of this is to embody what is proclaimed in baptism, that is, that Christ‟s body is more fundamental than our individual bodies. When we are baptized we become part of Christ‟s body and we lose the illusion of our timeless individual identity. Fellowship means living in such a way that we realize our bonds to one another are more significant than our individuality, that in Christ we are corporately a new creation. This is an almost impossible point for most contemporary western society to grasp, committed as our culture is to individual expression and fulfilment. Thus in our culture church is generally seen as a means to an end – either of individual growth or societal stability and enhancement. But for Christians
church is an end in itself. It is a witness of the new life made possible in Christ. No other purpose is required. So fellowship really is the most important part of church, along with the worship that addresses the source of that new life. 2. What. These are the things I believe fellowship involves. a. It involves never feeling that you are alone. That means knowing a significant number of people in your congregation well enough that you can ask them for help when you are in trouble, ask them for company when you are lonely, or expect them to notice if you are absent or not yourself for a period of time. Fellowship means bearing one another‟s burdens, or better still, helping one another to bear our own. b. It involves sharing joy. When good things happen, when there is new life, recovery from illness, a birthday or an achievement, one can hope to know enough people well enough to rejoice in you for your own sake, not because of your skill or success but because of your creation and baptism. c. It involves walking together through the wilderness. When a person‟s life goes astray, what is sometimes most sad is not that they have sinned, for that is something we are all prone to, but that they had no one to walk alongside them who could tell them the truth or with whom they could share the reality of their situation. Fellowship should mean trust and accountability, not with everyone, because one can only be completely open with those who appreciate the significance of the story you are telling, but with at least one person who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you forget how it goes. d. It involves finding the right way to fight. To suggest one can have life without conflict is a dangerous fantasy – it‟s not even the reality of the early apostles. The point is to create the right kind of conflict, honest, direct, patient, forbearing, and eventually forgiving and reconciling. There are few things the world needs more than such examples, and there are few things more liberating than a conflict that is surrounded not with bitterness and finality but with mutual respect and growth. e. It means simply enjoying the warp and weft of life. One of my favourite expressions is the “discipline of joy.” Sometimes we have to make the effort to be around one another to remember and appreciate the gifts of God, the gospel and life itself. Fellowship is an opportunity to remember and cherish the joy of simply being part of the household of faith, and of challenging the potential idolatries of family, neighbourhood and even friendship by putting each in their place. 3. How. At this point I fear turning into some kind of ghastly self-help guru, like people who offer advice to married couples on how to keep their passion alive. Nonetheless I hope many years as a pastor and a theologian have drawn me towards some conclusions about what matters in facilitating fellowship in a congregation. I have the following suggestions. a. Size. God wants big people, not necessarily big churches. In a culture that rests so heavily on the market, it‟s natural to assume that the first job of the church is to acquire more members. But I vividly recall being the pastor of a church that spent several years grieving its smallness, before finally after I‟d been there for about four years one member said for the first time “You know, if we were larger, we couldn‟t do some of the things we do.” Most of the things I‟ve named under fellowship actually require relatively small numbers. If the congregation is too large for everyone to know each other in any meaningful way, there has to be some way of breaking it down into manageable units. Worship and formation, and of course mission, may be possible beyond those units, but fellowship may not be, at least in such a significant way. b. Activity. It‟s a well-documented habit of so-called highly effective people, and it‟s in my view a habit of healthy churches, to do fewer things and do them well. The things a church has to get right are public worship, pastoral care, stewardship and administration. Fellowship isn‟t about quantity, any more than friendship is about the number of times people see one another. But just
as a friendship dies if on the occasions the friends do see one another no genuine interaction occurs, so fellowship requires depth more than breadth. A healthy church should be a breath of fresh air – more honest than family, more relaxed than work, more inclusive than friendships, more intimate than neighbourly goodwill. The key is that people enjoy and value what they are doing, rather than make up for their anxiety by frenetic activity that drowns quality in quantity and exhaustion. There‟s nothing more infectious than a group of people enjoying themselves. c. Energy. My most deeply grounded lesson for congregational life is to go where the energy is. This means trusting the Holy Spirit to be already working in people‟s lives and to have confidence in the trajectories people are already on, seeking to give permission rather than to withhold it. Energy comes from growing in ministry, learning, gaining confidence, seeking and finding new parts of oneself and new parts of God. Energy comes from taking risks and looking back on a history of solidarity and trust. Energy comes from enjoying change, embracing newcomers, and mixing age groups to create challenge and a kind of community not to be found elsewhere. The reason I love Godly Play is that it creates so much energy from the interaction of young and old and the permission it gives for the exercise of the long-somnolent imagination. The last thing to say about risks is that at some stage they have to involve the things we most easily measure – time and money. Churches love building new sanctuaries or education rooms, not just because it tells the world that they are alive because they are growing, but because the time and money such projects take is a tangible witness to their commitment to God and one another. Part of what it means to be the congregation at Duke Chapel will have to involve at some stage some kind of similar commitment of time and money to a shared project, otherwise there will be no shared history of faithfulness to God and God‟s honouring of that faithfulness that will give this community any particular story to tell. Discipleship that comes cheap is never going to be discipleship that runs deep: simple as that. The Common Life of the Congregation at Duke Chapel Having glanced over some things that we might value in the fellowship of any congregation, it‟s time to look more closely at what we might aspire to in the fellowship of the Congregation at Duke Chapel. To do so I want to go back to the three ways of loving oneself that I described at the very beginning of the first of today‟s talks. If you remember I suggested loving oneself required three dimensions, and I called these knowing yourself, being what only you can be, and recognizing your common humanity. I‟m going to treat the Congregation at Duke Chapel for a few moments as a self, and speculate on what it might mean for the Congregation at Duke Chapel to love itself in these three ways. 1. Knowing yourself. If we were to have an honesty session on ourselves, we‟d see a number of things, including I suspect the following. a. Duke Chapel is an aspirational and often inspiring place to worship. It offers anonymity because of the size of the gathered flock, a sense of superiority because of the elite nature of a research university, and a sense of refuge because of the refined character of the liturgy, music and preaching. It therefore starts from a position of being a place of escape rather than of direct encounter with the other or intimacy with the close neighbor. (As a place of escape I think people put up with a level of inconvenience e.g. parking and inaccessibility during the week which would probably be intolerable if people were looking to the chapel as a genuine home.) There are of course plenty of reasons why escape is a very good thing at certain times in one‟s life. We almost all had personal crises or intense periods of work of domestic life where we wanted and needed God but couldn‟t cope with other people, and many of us have had bruising experiences of church fellowships that left us wanting something a little more at arm‟s length for a while. These more impersonal aspects of the Chapel‟s worship fulfil the presenting requirements of perhaps 90% of the gathered flock on a Sunday morning and perhaps 80% of the Congregation at Duke Chapel. Though the remaining percentage may feel that these alone
constitute an impoverished vision of common life, since they lack the formational and fellowship dimensions, a good number either aren‟t seeking these dimensions or are finding them elsewhere. b. While the Congregation at Duke Chapel may therefore number around 500, those who are seeking formation and fellowship in addition to a rather rarefied form of worship and a certain level of pastoral care may be closer to 100. That‟s actually a nice size for a church. In fact it might be a lot easier for the Congregation at Duke Chapel to be an energizing breath of fresh air if it spent more time thinking of itself as 100 people than as 500. The questions would then be, how can this 100 or so people gain a genuine, sustainable and energizing sense of one another? Can this 100 be broken down into units of ten or a dozen who can relate to one another in a meaningful sense as accountable communities of faith? A retreat such as the one we‟re on is of course a great way to start. If it‟s working, we could quite quickly name precisely the specific individuals and households who in the normal course of things would hope to be here and are genuinely missed. c. I think what is holding the Congregation at Duke Chapel back from realizing its oft-articulated desire for more community is that it knows it is 500 in number and it looks out on a Sunday morning and sees anything between 500 and 1500 people and so it assumes community needs to involve something on that scale. But the reality is that not only are the numbers present on a Sunday morning inflated by the presence of those who are with us only very occasionally or for reasons very far from our own, but that the kind of fellowship we lack can‟t be had among a large mass of people. So the conclusion of this brief exercise called know thyself is not to let the fact that most people around the Chapel aren‟t looking for the kind of fellowship this weekend represents stop those who are from getting lots of it. d. Most of the more active members of the Congregation think of themselves primarily as the carers rather than the cared-for, and so a significant part of fellowship is likely to arise in ministry settings, such as pastoral care (Stephen ministry meetings), mission (re-entry group evenings or shelter dinners), or education (book groups or adult forum planning). e. Finally the most visible members of the congregation from where I‟m standing are parents of children or teenagers, the active retired, particularly those with partners still alive, and single persons in mid life. This seems to be largely who we are. 2. Being what only you can be. That brings us to the question of what forms of fellowship will work best and be most enjoyed by the Congregation at Duke Chapel, or at least that part of the Congregation at Duke Chapel represented by this weekend‟s gathering. At the moment I sense most fellowship takes place as a kind of by-product of something else, usually worship, education, or mission. This weekend is unusual because it exists almost entirely for fellowship understood for its own sake. The lesson I believe is for fellowship among the Congregation at Duke Chapel to be regular in the sense that you know when the next one is, but not common in the sense that it comes along too often; intense in the sense that like this weekend it asks for a significant commitment of time and energy, but not solemn in the sense that as well as taking each other seriously participants expect to have a lot of fun; intimate in the sense that people should be facilitated in having opportunities to get to know each other on a deep level but not claustrophobic in the sense that the emphasis should be on opening up opportunities that participants may be able to pursue and capitalize on elsewhere at a later date. My feeling is that if we get these times of fellowship right, the formation and mission aspects of church life will fall into place fairly naturally, but if we don‟t get these times of fellowship right, the danger is that mission and education initiatives may feel piecemeal, fragmentary, disconnected and even artificial. Ideally, as we are discovering this weekend, these times of fellowship would have a residential component, although once or twice a year may be the maximum we could stretch to for this. Failing a residential component, some sense of going together to a special place seems the next step down. Failing that, some kind of shared meal, although meals work best when they are some kind of special occasion rather than a default potluck, and a special meal is usually best when fewer than 20 are
present. Intimacy and depth are more likely when people are sitting down rather than standing, eating rather than just talking, away from responsibilities rather than surrounded by them, and staying put rather than about to make a journey. I can‟t say what will make the Congregation at Duke Chapel be what only it can be, but I can suggest that what I‟ve just recommended might be the best way to find out. 3. Recognizing your common humanity. And finally this brings us back to that theme of partnership that I left hanging when I ran through the four aspects of church life earlier in this talk. The Congregation at Duke Chapel is always in danger of becoming a self-serving society. That‟s not because there‟s anything especially selfish about its members – quite the contrary. It‟s because it lacks the organic ties to those bodies that can trace their patterns of partnership across time and space. The vision of the Church is not just about the local congregation. It is about all times and all places. Just as we put up with the congregation members we find ourselves with, so we put up with the other congregations our church places us alongside. Except at the Congregation at Duke Chapel we don‟t. We are an interdenominational church, which means we are always in danger of being an unaccountable church, maintaining what a hundred years ago was known as “freedom without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” As I have said on many occasions, being an interdenominational church only makes sense if we see ourselves as a missionary church with the university campus as our primary mission field. It makes no sense as a permanent state of affairs. As a missionary church, the Congregation at Duke Chapel has to ensure it remains on excellent and close terms with three bodies: a. Duke University in general and Duke Chapel in particular: the Congregation is a partner that must never let itself become simply a tenant, still less a squatter. b. The churches of the Triangle and region. Bodies such as DCIA and NCCC are more significant for the Congregation at Duke Chapel than for most other churches, because we do not have close affiliations to other congregations that ensure our mutual accountability in faith and mission. c. The judicatories of the denominational churches. Even though we are not a part of a denomination, we need to recognize that there are only two types of churches, those that are part of an official denomination and those that are a law unto themselves. If we don‟t want simply to be a law unto ourselves, with no firm ties to the body of Christ in all times and places, we have to seek the blessing and approval of the judicatories of the denominational churches, especially the United Methodist Church, under whose auspices Duke University still officially lies. Conclusion All I have said in this second talk is in celebration of what we are doing together this weekend by simply rejoicing in one another‟s company, delighting in the gift God has given us in giving us one another as something quite different from friends, family, or neighbors, something more significant and more mysterious which we call the body of Christ. I believe what the Congregation at Duke Chapel needs is permission to be what only it can be, a body or people entered through worship, built up in education and engaged in mission, but most of all characterized by the depth and quality and infectiousness of its fellowship.
Being a Church in Mission
In this third and final talk I want to turn to the remaining unresolved area of discipleship and church life, our relationships with strangers. I‟m aware that since I‟ve been at duke Chapel I‟ve acquired a reputation for highlighting these issues, particularly in relation to the city of durham, and I hope what I say this evening will clarify what I think I‟m doing and what I think the congregation at duke chapel or at least its members might be doing. I want to explore with you what it means to share the heart of one‟s Christian existence with someone who may be a very different kind of Christian, a person of a different faith altogether, or a person of no
explicit faith at all. I‟m assuming that the “other” person is different not just in the language of faith but in social circumstances – economic conditions certainly, and quite possibly racial heritage also.
The Context of Engagement I want to start by mapping the context of engagement. What are we taking for granted when we think together about engaging in ministry, witness, and service? Usually for example a community like ourselves assumes that something is wrong and it has an opportunity, perhaps a unique opportunity, to put that thing right. There is, after all, almost nothing more satisfying that setting things straight. When one looks around a congregation like this, one frequently feels, “given the experience, technical skill, professional expertise, and financial resources in the room, we should be able to do a whole lot together.” But that depends on what‟s the matter. Christians have had two traditional answers to the question of what the matter is. The first answer is, in a word, sin. The story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil crystallizes the human capacity for perversity. Humans have the propensity towards extraordinary good – but they also have what seems an irresistible impulse towards destructive, shortsighted, selfish and almost pointless evil. As Augustine puts it, in the Fall humanity retained the capacity to choose, but lost the ability to choose well. So the first answer to the question, “What‟s the matter?” is, sin. But this has never been the only answer. The second answer is, in a word, scarcity. Whereas the first answer says, it doesn‟t matter how much we have, it‟s all been poisoned by sin, the second answer says, things aren‟t so bad, only there isn‟t enough to go around. The poor simply don‟t have enough – enough food, enough water, enough health care, enough jobs, enough money, enough space, enough security, enough education, enough friends. Now sometimes it‟s said this is really because the rich have too much. But even the rich generally feel they don‟t have enough – enough life, enough resources, enough information, enough expertise, enough revelation. Fundamentally this sense of scarcity is traceable back to one source. There doesn‟t seem to be enough God. Sin puts the blame on us, and says we don‟t have enough goodness. But scarcity fundamentally puts the blame on God, and says there simply isn‟t enough God to be and to do all that we want God to be and to do. And yet many perhaps most Christians have a deep-seated desire to protect God. And so rather than simply plead for more, they tend to become very active in working on God‟s behalf to alleviate and reduce the scarcity they see all around them. All efforts are spent reducing scarcity of life (death) and scarcity of well being (suffering). It is an exhausting commission, made more so by the fact that the more one succeeds, the greater the expectation becomes. The higher life expectancy and material prosperity go, the higher people want them to go; the one thing that never changes is the perpetual sense of scarcity. These are noble efforts but I believe they are based on a fundamental theological mistake. It‟s not true to say there isn‟t enough God. On the contrary, there‟s too much God. The problem is, we‟re finite beings and our imaginations aren‟t big enough to take in the too-much that God is and the too-much that God gives us. It is not that God does not give us what we need – it is that we do not understand or use the ways God makes the abundance of grace available to us. So we do indeed experience life as scarcity, but because we don‟t receive all that we have been given, not because we haven‟t been given it. If we gather together as a congregation and say “How does our gospel incline us to engage with issues of social inequality?” we can end up feeling pretty miserable, because our gospel feels so small and social inequality can feel so big. But the question becomes a different one when we turn it round. “What is God giving our community in the gift of the people we know who are struggling to hold life together? Where and in what ways do we experience scarcity in our lives and how might God be giving us everything we need by giving us people very different from ourselves?” So, for example, it may be that you know a young person whose ability with her hands was a secret even to her until she worked on a Habitat house. It may be that you know a person who has the ability to make a party go but never had the budget till she joined a re-entry team sharing and celebrating the journey of an ex-offender back into regular community life. It may be that you know a young man who‟s
always felt his basketball was pretty second rate until he started coaching children at a community center and realized how much he really had to offer. When one person finds a vocation, another person makes a friend across race and class boundaries, and a third walks tall in an area of their life where they had always felt a failure, we could happily use the words “Holy Spirit” – but it would be easy to miss that part of the term Holy Spirit in each of these cases is a person of a very different social location. God gives us everything we need, but God doesn‟t drop everything we need in our lap. Where would be the fun in that? God wants us to go on an Easter egg hunt, searching for nuggets of candy and refreshing encounters all over the divine garden. The game God plays with us is that God allows us to think we are doing all these things for others. We might even persuade ourselves we are doing these things for God. But as the examples I‟ve given demonstrate, the real beneficiaries are ourselves, because we have at last found ways to receive the too much that God has to give us, and so the dawn of our salvation has come. I‟m talking about a significant change in our motivation for engaging with issues of social inequality. On the scarcity model, we have two almost opposing factions, whom we could call by their conventional names – “them” and “us.” “They” are distinguished by what they don‟t have – jobs, affluence, stable relationships, a college education, healthcare, faith perhaps. “We” are distinguished by what we do have – mortgages, conventional security benefits, neighbors we can trust, and this lingering sense of guilt. In fact the sense of scarcity on the “we” side is enormous – not enough time, not enough sense of how to make things better, not enough trust that we can make relationships that won‟t hurt us, not enough money to part with very much. So we match up our outer affluence and our inner scarcity by coming up with elaborate theories to protect us from hurt and failure without challenging our sense of ourselves as benefactors. One ancient and familiar such theory is the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. This enables us to be benefactors to the thrifty and respectful while withholding compassion from the reckless and prodigal. But what needs challenging is our sense of ourselves as the benefactors. The whole point is that if we experience life as scarcity we are the needy. And we remain in scarcity so long as we look for salvation in the wrong place. We read the parable of the Good Samaritan and we take for granted that we are the Samaritan. We are not the Samaritan! We are the man beaten and bruised by the side of the road. We lack resources, we lack security, we lack everything we need to get to Jericho. We assume the priest and the Levite will give us whatever we need. They have their place, but they‟re no use to us on this occasion. The one who offers us salvation is the Samaritan – the stranger, the enemy, the one we assume is out to get us, the one we look down on, the one we wouldn‟t dream of living next to, the one we‟ve never in our lives eaten a meal with let alone touched, the one who claims to worship the same God but whose religion we despise and whose race we regard as inferior. This then is the context of engagement. It is not that we‟re the affluent priest or Levite driving through the dodgy byways of our local downtown. As long as we read the story that way we will continue to find ever more elaborate methods to pass by the strangers who litter our path. The point is that we‟re the man by the road. We‟re the needy one who finds God gives us everything we need through the person whom our society, our economy, our culture, and even some of our churches have taught us to patronize, feel guilty about, ignore, or even despise. The gospel is not to scurry around busily making up for the scarcity Jesus so carelessly left behind when making a botched job of the kingdom of God. The gospel is to receive the abundance God has to give us through those the world sees only for what they lack, and thus to allow God to give us everything we need. Styles of Engagement It‟s time to move from the “why” of engagement to the “how.” If something is wrong, and you are a person who wants to help, there are broadly three ways to do so. One is working for. Working for means doing things on behalf of other people. When you see someone leave the grocery store with a huge pile of shopping bags, it‟s the most natural thing in the world to say “Here, let me get those for you.” You‟re then working for that person by carrying their bags to their car. If it‟s a simple task with a short time-span, there‟s every chance it‟ll end with a heartfelt “Thank you!” and a reciprocal “You‟re welcome: have a great day.” This is what we might call the conventional model of engagement. One person has a need, while the other person has skills, availability and willingness to help. The latter person conventionally spends a
lot of time working those skills up to a very high standard, and consequently makes those skills available in specific circumstances under very strict rules. This is what we call being a professional. This is what medicine is about, this is what the law is about, this is what dentistry is about. Physicians, attorneys and dentists do for us what we can‟t do for ourselves. It‟s hard to overestimate the hold this conventional model has on our imaginations. Pretty much the whole of the professional school structure – medicine, law, nursing, engineering, divinity, environment – runs on this model. I wouldn‟t mind betting that pretty much every undergraduate who comes to university wanting to make the world a better place assumes that‟s the way it‟s done. You become very good at what you do, and you spend the rest of your life doing it for people. It‟s immensely satisfying to be able to do for someone exactly what they need doing, whether it‟s fixing a child‟s toy or showing a novice how to find a website on their computer. We can see an end result, and it affirms us as people of skill and ability. In many cases it makes the recipient‟s life materially better – and in the case of a physician or firefighter, it may even make the difference between life and death. So why do professional people so often find that their clients don‟t say thank you? The reason is that working for makes the expert feel good and important and useful, but it doesn‟t necessarily leave the recipient feeling that great. The working for model sets in stone a relationship where one person is a benefactor and the other is a person in need. It‟s humiliating if many or most of your relationships are ones in which you need someone to do things for you. The working for model perpetuates relationships of inequality. Worse still, it‟s possible to be the recipient of a person‟s help and still find the benefactor remains a stranger to you. The whole point of the professional infrastructure of divided offices, administrative assistants, appointment times and special uniforms is to remind all parties that this isn‟t a friendship, with expectations of compassion and tenderness, but the provision of a service with no strings attached outside and beyond that service. The working for model dominates contemporary notions of welfare, but it leaves the rich and the poor pretty much where they started off and it keeps them strangers to one another. Let‟s go back for a moment to the person emerging from the grocery store with too many shopping bags to carry to the car. It‟s natural for you to say “Here, let me get those for you,” and thus initiate a working for relationship. But will the person automatically say “Thanks so much?” No, they won‟t, for one of two reasons. The first is that they may feel they are being patronized, particularly if there is a sensitive dynamic of gender, age or disability. For some people it is better to struggle on alone than get on the receiving end of any kind of working for relationship that simply reinforces their lowly social standing. The other reason why the person might say no is if they think you might be going to run off with their shopping. So these two factors, empowerment and trust, are prior to any working for relationship getting off the ground. I‟m now going to look at them in turn. The issue of empowerment is taken up in the second model of engagement which I‟m going to call working with. One writer describes working with like this:
Working with the poor is a lot more difficult. This means recognizing that being poor is not just about lacking income, but also being excluded from positions of power. Working with the poor means waiting for poor people themselves to define what their needs are, and to support them in the action they decide to take to change things. It involves entering into a relationship with poor people, and so surrendering some of one‟s own autonomy and sense of power in being able to identify what needs to be done and take steps to make a difference. It means offering what one has and is for their use. (Sarah White and Romy Tiongco, Doing Theology and Development: Meeting the Challenge of Poverty [Edinburgh: St Andrew Press 1997] 14)
Working with means bringing different skills and experience together around a common goal. It can create a wonderful sense of partnership, provided that the agenda is being set by the person in need, rather than the person trying to help. Instead of a professional relationship, where the person in need sees the benefactor entirely on the benefactor‟s terms and in a relationship dictated by the benefactor‟s sense of priorities, the working with model depicts a round table where each person present has a different but equally valuable portfolio of experience, skills, interests, networks and commitments. The working with model recognizes that the journey is as important as the destination. Just as on a medieval quest or pilgrimage, the conversations and adventures one has on the way matter as much and shape character as significantly as the place one is walking
towards. Working with is not so much about giving people better material conditions and facilities, it‟s about making new people, inspired and empowered and finding new skills and confidence through being given responsibility and access to conversations that have wider influence. To take a familiar example, there are a number of institutions in our major cities where a homeless person can find an evening meal. The conventional model, working for, suggests what the homeless person needs is an evening meal. But simply providing an evening meal reinforces the person in their poverty, and leaves them hungry again tomorrow. So the familiar distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor separates the person who needs a help up through a tough time from the person who will keep coming back for meals however often they‟re available, and the logic often goes on to assume the only way to help the undeserving poor is to punish them until they learn to fend for themselves. The empowerment model, working with, is not content until the homeless person not only sets the menu but does the cooking themselves. On this view community kitchens exist not to produce meals but to empower people, and the director of the kitchen should change every few years as a new homeless person comes through the ranks to take over the reins. Before long the question of why people continue to go hungry should bring all kinds of people, business leaders, city managers, and welfare advisers around the table with homeless people to empower homeless people to resolve their own problems at the table of power. Working with is essentially about realizing that a social problem is everyone‟s problem, and about everyone getting to feel the sense of satisfaction at resolving that problem that in the conventional model only the professional person gets. But there is a third model. The third model addresses the issue of trust we left unresolved when we were wondering whether we could take those shopping bags back to the overburdened person‟s car. This model I‟m going to call being with. The same author I quoted earlier describes being with like this:
Being with the poor is more difficult still. It means experiencing in one‟s own life something of what it is to be poor and oppressed, to be disempowered. To set aside one‟s plans and strategies for change, and simply feel with the poor the pain of their situation. It involves seeing the implications poverty and development have for people‟s sense of themselves and their connections with one another, not only their material well-being. This spells the end to an easy view of poverty as romantic, or the poor as simple and virtuous. It means to see tensions and contradictions within and between the poor and non-poor, and to recognize through this that all of us are part of the problem. Poverty is not just out there, but within us, whoever we are. (White and Tiongco, 14)
Being with adds an extra dimension. It means experiencing in one‟s own body some of the fragility of relationships and self-esteem and general well-being that are at the heart of poverty. It means having the patience not to search around for the light switch, but to sit side by side for a time in the darkness. Job‟s comforters are much maligned, but it‟s often forgotten that when they came to him and did not recognize him, “they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great” (Job 2.13). Being with is incomprehensible to an imagination that has been entirely shaped by the conventional working for model. After all, how can one hope to solve anyone‟s problems if one divests oneself not only of the safety of professional boundaries but of the skills that go with them? As one person who did this in the Philippines relates, “It was not socially acceptable. I lost my privileges, my old contacts, my security. I felt very vulnerable. I used to wake in the night afraid that I would get sick and have no money to pay a doctor.” (White and Tiongco, 13). The transition one has to make is that poverty is not fundamentally a problem to be solved. The working for model, and some versions of the working with model, tend to turn everything into a problem ripe for solving. But some things aren‟t problems, and some problems can‟t simply be fixed. Just imagine working for and working with have done their stuff, and achieved all they set out to. What then, when there is no world to fix? The American expression is, “We get to hang out.” In other words, we enjoy one another. We enjoy the actions and habits of life because they make us realize how good it is to be alive, how good it is to be a person among others, how good it is to be a person in the created world, how good it is to be a child of God. The being with approach says, “Let‟s not leave those discoveries till after all the solving and fixing is done and we‟re feeling bored. Let‟s make those discoveries now.” To say to someone “I want to be with you” is to say “When I‟m with you I feel in touch with myself, in touch with what it means to be a human being
among others, in touch with creation, in touch with God.” (That‟s a lot to say, so in America we put it in code by saying. “Let‟s hang out.”) To say that to a wealthy person may be a way of saying “I value you for who you are as a person, not what you‟ve achieved in your career.” But to say that to a poor person is to say something very extraordinary. Yet if you can‟t say such a thing to someone, there really is no reason in the world why they should trust you. Because if you can‟t say such a thing to a person, it‟s clear you‟re only using them as a means towards some further end. Take for example the case of a person who has a terminal illness. There‟s very little working for to do. Sure, you can fix up all sorts of gadgets and comforts to make the last days or months less burdensome. But there‟s no way to solve the problem. As for working with, there‟s certainly a lot to be said for demedicalizing the person‟s situation, for getting away from drugs and technology as much as possible and turning whatever one can into words and mementos and significant moments. But what‟s really required is simply being with – staying still, listening, being silent, not having the answers, sharing the struggle, praying together, singing songs and hymns, taking time over meals, recalling stories, remembering messages to pass on. What‟s needed isn‟t therapy – it‟s company. What the dying person is saying is “Please don‟t leave me alone.” Let‟s get back to the Good Samaritan for a moment. Remember the context for engagement is to see ourselves not as the priest or the Levite, with a variety of methods of working for, and the freedom to pick and choose which is the most suitable. The point is to see ourselves as the man in need, searching each passer-by to see if they have what God promises to give us. If we see ourselves as fundamentally the man in need, it becomes absurd to start with the model of working for. It‟s pretty difficult to see ourselves as working with, although it‟s possible the man taught the Samaritan a thing or two about donkey riding on the way to Jericho. All we can offer is being with, and being with precisely as the needy person in the relationship. Only if we start by thinking of ourselves as the needy, vulnerable person in the story can we begin to understand that the stranger, particularly the stranger separated from us by race or class, can be for us the face of God. And so maybe being with is therefore where Christian ministry, service and witness begins. A Theology of Engagement I want you to think for a moment about the shape of Jesus‟ life. We place a huge emphasis on his last week in Jerusalem – his passion, death and resurrection. That‟s fully justified, because the gospels are balanced the same way – Mark gives the last week 6 chapters out of his 16, while John gets to the passiontide material in chapter 12 of his 21 chapters. St Paul concentrates almost entirely on Jesus‟ passion, death and resurrection, and almost leaves Jesus‟ life out altogether. Before that last week Jesus spent two, maybe three years moving around Galilee. In Galilee he built a popular movement. He worked with his disciples, teaching and training them to live in the kingdom he told them was breaking in. He worked with the poor, healing them and empowering them to be transformed from burdens on others into carriers of the burdens of others. And he made trouble for the authorities, getting into controversy with those who used their religious and political power for something less than setting God‟s people free. And before his ministry in Galilee, we have to assume he spent around 30 years in Nazareth. Doing what, exactly? Leaving aside the incident when Jesus sat down with the teachers in the Temple at the age of 12, we only really have two verses of scripture that answer that question. Luke 2.40 says “the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him”; while Luke 2.53 says similar things: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.” So Jesus spent a week in Jerusalem working for us, doing what we can‟t do, achieving our salvation. If you like, he was the person in the supermarket parking lot who said, “Here, let me carry that burden for you.” He spent three years in Galilee working with us, calling us to follow him and work alongside him. Thinking again of the supermarket parking lot, he encouraged and empowered the person with the bags, removing the obstacles and reshaping the load, but letting the person themselves determine the direction and claim the credit afterwards. But before he ever got into working with and working for, he spent 30 years in Nazareth being with us, setting
aside his plans and strategies, and experiencing in his own body not just the exile and oppression of the children of Israel, but also the joy and sorrow of family and community life. And so the question of how we approach ministry, service and witness in our city is fundamentally a question of how we see ourselves before God. The joy of being a child of God is more than anything else the joy of being with God – not just working for or with God but simply being with God because there is nowhere better to be. We often quote the words of Irenaeus, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”; but we generally leave out the words that follow, which add “And the human life is the vision of God.” If Jesus shows us not only what it means to be God but what it means to be human, we should take his example seriously. For Christian ministry, service and witness, there can be no true working for or working with God or humanity that is not deeply rooted in being with both. Towards a Theology of Nazareth I want to conclude with three invitations to explore what it might mean to embody Nazareth – to minister, serve and witness in the spirit of being with. The first comes from Augustine. At the start of his book On Christian Doctrine he makes a very interesting distinction between what we “use” and what we “enjoy”.
There are some things, then, which are to be enjoyed, others which are to be used, others still which enjoy and use. Those things which are objects of enjoyment make us happy. Those things which are objects of use assist, and (so to speak) support us in our efforts after happiness, so that we can attain the things that make us happy and rest in them. We ourselves, again, who enjoy and use these things, being placed among both kinds of objects, if we set ourselves to enjoy those which we ought to use, are hindered in our course, and sometimes even led away from it; so that, getting entangled in the love of lower gratifications, we lag behind in, or even altogether turn back from, the pursuit of the real and proper objects of enjoyment. For to enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Book 1 Chapters 3, 4 [Translated by J.F. Shaw, Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1892] 9)
Going back to the beginning of our exploration, we can understand sin as “using” that which should be “enjoyed”. Too much eagerness to “work for” and solve or fix problems leaves one eager to find things one can “use”. Not finding much to use in a neighborhood can lead one to shake the dust off one‟s feet and move on elsewhere in search of more useable material. But the gift of being with is learning how to enjoy what many predecessors have failed to use. When one says “I‟m happy to be with you” one is saying “I am „enjoying‟ you”, that‟s to say (in Augustine‟s words) I am resting in satisfaction with you for your own sake. You are not a means to any end. You are an end in yourself. I have no purpose in being in this conversation, in this neighborhood, other than to receive from you all the wonder that God brought about just in making you. Usually we only ever say this to people on their birthday – I am rejoicing simply in the gift God gave us in making you.” Learning to “be with” is learning to treat people as if every day were their birthday. If we are to minister, serve and witness among people in our city in a spirit of being with, we must learn to enjoy them for their own sake, not try to use them and, finding them wanting or unresponsive, get cross with them or toss them away. Perhaps the most significant way in which we can embody the ethos of being with is to share meals with people. I have realized something about sharing food. When I realize, and want to get to know someone or their household better, I find myself wanting to cook for them. In other words I want to work for them. When I get to know them better it seems natural to cook with them. Somehow the little negotiations over how they or I roast potatoes or sieve flour and who gets to decide when we disagree become the music to which the words of our conversation are sung. This is my most regular experience of working with. But when I both care about someone and know that person well, the food becomes somehow secondary, and it‟s really an excuse simply to sit beside them and spend time in one another‟s company. The food is something we use, so that we can enjoy one another. I believe eating together is the single simplest and most enjoyable way of embodying what it means to move from working for to working with to being with.
Finally I want to share with you two quotations that have sustained me in my ministry, particularly in the times when I have sought to be with disadvantaged people over long periods and have invariably felt I had little tangible to show for it. The first is from a man called Bill Arlow, who wrote in the context of the Northern Irish Troubles in the 1980s. He said, “It is better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail.” So much of working for is succeeding in causes that will finally fail: delivering programs that produce good statistics but only reinforce inequalities, institutionalize humiliation, and disable genuine relationships. What will finally succeed is years and years of being with, building trust, caring about people for their own sake, coming to them as a needy man to a wandering Samaritan, expecting to see the face of God in them and enjoying them for the wondrous creation that they are. It doesn‟t look much, but it‟s the way Christ spent most of his incarnate life. And that brings me to my last quotation, from the mystic Thomas a Kempis, in his work The Imitation of Christ. He writes, “That which is done for love (though it be little and contemptible in the sight of the world) becometh wholly fruitful.” Working for may be done for love, or for many other reasons. Working with may be done for love, though it is possible to have other goals in mind. But being with, as far as I can tell, has only one motivation: it is because the other is precious for their own sake, solely to be enjoyed with no thought to use. Being with can only be done for love. And in that, it imitates the way God loves us. God is with us, Emmanuel, for no other reason than that God loves us for our own sake. God enjoys us. That is the mystery of creation and salvation. That is the mystery that all our ministry, service and witness must seek to imitate and emulate. If, and only if, it does, it will become wholly fruitful.