I thank you for the privilege of sharing the Gospel with your beloved community over the last year. I count it all joy that Royal Lane has been a valued community of faith along our journey.
Needing to raise money to build churches in London’s sprawling fringes the Forty-five Churches Fund engaged T. S. Eliot to write the script for a pageant dramatizing the history of the church. I’m most intrigued by Eliot’s emphasis in that script on body life. He raises the level of its importance by asking, “What life have you if you have not life together?” He then makes this bold assertion. “There is no life that is not in community. And no community not lived in praise of God!”
In Paul’s personal letter to his young friend, Timothy, we are reminded that we really do need each other. The intimacy of this exchange makes it evident that in and around and through all that we do we are real children of God who need to be listened to, encouraged, and held in basic positive regard.
Paul considered those in the community of faith to be no longer strangers. They now belong to the “household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). The church is a people and a place for those who have none. That’s good news for the displaced and dispossessed, for those in exile and scattered to the four winds. Paul understood that this community would experience persecution. He, in fact, encourages Timothy to “take his share of suffering for the sake of the gospel, in the strength that comes from God” (1:8). Just as they belong to Christ in all things, they belong also to each other.
“What life have we if we have not life together?”
As a young boy I lived with my mother and two older in a red-brick duplex 14 steps up from the sidewalk on Ellison just off Tenth Street in Oklahoma City. Our little home was actually in the morning shadow of Olivet Baptist Church. Grady Cothen was our pastor. The folk at Olivet sort of loved us into shape.
It was then and there that I discovered the value of a community of prayer and devotion; what it meant to be part of a household of faith where two or three were gathered in Jesus’ name. In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott speaks of her affection for her church community. She says, “When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on.” They tied a knot in the end of the rope by praying for her.
There is no life that is not in community!”
Paul encouraged Timothy to be grateful for a community where the generations are connected. I am ever so grateful that our young family was part of that faithful community at Olivet. Those beloved people were there for us.
The primary text on Christian koinonia is Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He confirms, “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world. Not all Christians receive this blessing; the imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in distant lands, stand alone. They know the visible fellowship would be a blessing. They know the physical presence of other Christians would be a source of incompatible joy and strength.”
Paul reminded Timothy of the sincere faith of his grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice. He encouraged Timothy to rekindle the gift he had received from these who have been a “non-anxious” presence for him (Rabbi Edwin Friedman). A non-anxious presence is not easily rattled, does not get all shook up at the drop of a hat, or when under pressure does not have eyeballs that dart.
My wife’s Grandmother Barton was like that. She loved to recall an afternoon when one of her third-grade students got her number. She showed him by keeping him in at recess. He showed her by running around the room. Telling on herself, Grandmother Barton confessed she was so shocked that she started chasing after him. She realized this was getting her nowhere, and sat down and began to laugh at herself, and said, “I don’t chase my students.” She loved recalling what happened next. “When I sat down, do you know what that little guy did? He sat down, too!”
O God, we give you thanks for life together when we discover that we belong to “a community of sponsorship,”
(to borrow words from Brueggemann); when we learn from each other and faith is stirred into flames as it is handed up and down and around; when faith doesn’t die for lack of a second; and when in faith we let God take our differences and even our strife and wonderfully, creatively weave us together to form the body of Christ.
And no community not lived in praise of God.
Paul told young Timothy that he was grateful to God when he remembered him constantly in his prayers. “Recalling your tears, I longed to see you and be filled with joy” (II Timothy 1:3-4).
Knowing the chaos that can come from our efforts to build community, we must confess that we struggle to find a community that can sustain any sense of praise or joy.
Once upon a time there was a colony of porcupines. One cold winter’s day they were in wont of huddling together. To escape being frozen they longed to be wrapped in communal warmth but plagued with the pricks of each other’s quills they naturally drew apart. Every time the desire for warmth brought them together, the same calamity overtook them. Thus, they remained distracted between two misfortunes, able neither to tolerate nor to do without one another. Until one day they discovered that when they stood a certain distance from one another they could both delight in one another’s individuality and enjoy one another’s company.
What is this certain distance, if not letting there be “space in our togetherness” (Gibran). To find the beloved community requires a propriety of prayer and praise. It calls for a network of knowing and being known where we learn to pray for one another, on the one hand, and where we learn to risk being prayed for, on the other.
In her This I Believe Essay on NPR, Susan Cooke Kittredge explored her belief that “We all need mending.” She writes, “Mending something is different from fixing it. Fixing it suggests that evidence of the problem will disappear. I see mending as a preservation of history and a proclamation of hope. When we mend broken relationships, we realize that we’re better together than apart, and perhaps even stronger for the rip and the repair!” Oh, that our hearts might be comforted, that we might be knit together in love. That’s Paul’s belief shared in Colossians, chapter 2, verse 2. Eugene Peterson polished it up a bit to read, “I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God.” And that’s because, life is better when we’re together (Jack Johnson).