here there be dragons

August 29, 2004

Some reflections on my community group – the “cell” group or whatever of people from my church.

I was reading in today’s Times: this fall on Hollywood Boulevard, from now to Halloween, an actress named Maggie Rowe is creating a walk-through haunted house based on the work of an Assembly of God minister from Colorado. It’s called a Hell House – you may have heard of this – the different rooms depict, in the pastor’s words, “The hell and destruction that Satan can bestow upon those who choose not to serve Jesus Christ. Literally, Hell House depicts choices that have the end result of ushering people into hell.” You can guess the choices: they include abortion, homosexuality, and teen suicide. So Ms. Rowe was thinking about this phenomenon and told her friend: “We have to do this. This is the best crystallization of the evils of fundamentalism. We couldn’t parody them any better.”

So people go to see a haunted house where the boogeyman is the Devil – played by Bill Maher, incidentally – and they’re supposed to laugh at him. But underneath the Devil is the real boogeyman, and the audience is supposed to be scared of him: the fundamentalist Christian.

I don’t know WHAT to say in response to this. Except maybe, “Boo!”

I don’t know what to say because I too find Christians scary. I spent years visiting Redeemer, this huge church in NYC that meets in Hunter College auditorium, without getting too involved. I would sit on the very edge, against the wall, so no one ever had to move past me to get to a seat. I sat way up front, where people generally didn’t like to sit, because I was less likely to have someone sit next to me. After the service I would get my mini-muffins and leave quickly. I mean, all the other people there seemed nice and all, but with Christians, you can’t be too careful.

Every now and then the pastor or someone else would emphasize the church’s small groups and encourage everyone to join one. That idea was a non-starter for me. Join a small group? Lose my anonymity? Naw, man, that’s life in the fast lane.

Now, I knew this would not do. I knew sooner or later I was going to need to worship God as part of a community. I knew – without really understanding why. I knew because a lot of the exhortations given to Christians in the New Testament are written in the second person plural… addressed to a group, in other words, not an individual. I knew that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there in their midst.” (So what does that make the solitary desert-island Christian? Chopped liver?) I knew that, looking back over my life, I was always afraid to bind my life too tightly to anyone else’s, for fear that they would encroach on my happiness and independence. Strangely, in spite of my caution, I spent a lot of time unhappy and helpless – but when I let down my guard and became tightly bound to another person, life seemed to improve a bit. That suggested that depending on other people wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing.

Still, I hesitated. And it’s not hard to see why. Take those folks in L.A. going to see Hollywood Hell House. Accost them outside the theater and tell them: every Wednesday night, all across this nation, fundamentalist Christians are gathering in groups of ten or twelve, in their living rooms, and reading the Bible together… and talking about Jesus. It would make their blood run cold. They’re gonna picture the Borg linking up with the collective to take their marching orders. Or people sticking cables into the backs of their heads, ka-CHUNK, plugging themselves back into the Matrix, back into this virtual world in which they don’t have to think and have no difficult choices. Bad enough that anyone should, in the privacy of their own mind, believe in God’s wrath, believe that sin is a big deal, that there’s a Satan and a Hell… but if those people are getting together in groups and reinforcing each other, egging each other on, we have a problem.

So I read this article, and I wanted to sit back and think about how my small group – we call it a community group in the church I go to now – actually works in the field.

Three observations.

The first thing we usually do is sing hymns. Pretty interesting exercise for a small group of people, one or two of whom may have actually sung in a choir or chorus before… and without accompaniment. We aren’t usually in key with each other. And we don’t all know the same songs, so we might be singing a song with half the group leading the tune and the other half trying to learn the tune on the spot. Why on earth do we do this? Clearly, not because it makes us feel powerful or smart or cooler than everyone else. It’s a foolish thing to do, unless our God is real. So it’s a modest way to step out on a limb and take faith out of the realm of the academic and abstract. Also, we’re never tempted to think that our singing is pleasing to God on its own merits. So we’re also acknowledging that we worship a God of grace, who has come to meet us, and far more than halfway. God knows we’re lousy singers, but bids us sing nonetheless, and accepts our sacrifice of praise. That’s a mysterious God. So: faith, humility, and mystery.

The second thing we do is study the Bible. That raises the question, why do we entrust our time and energy to this book, above all others? Do we really think that God would condescend to send us an email? Or that an infinite God could possibly send a finite human race a message that meant something to them? By studying the Bible together, we not only affirm that God is not silent and that he wants a relationship with us, but we recognize the authority of the church – because the church made this book and helps us interpret it – and at the same time we shoulder our responsibility as an integral part of the church. We are not peripheral. We are not marginal. Our pastor expects us to search the Scriptures diligently for our daily bread – to participate in the fundamental teaching mission of the church. And when we do this, when we actually slow down to look closely at the Bible, we find out how complex it is and how complex we are. We don’t all think the same. We don’t all always agree. It’s not a theological circle jerk. Instead of walking out reinforced in our own hasty judgments – we walk out (on a good night) with fresh awe at the miracle of unity in the Spirit.

The great thing about Bible study is it makes the group about something more than ourselves. The great thing about prayer, with which we usually close, is that it makes our selves about something more than ourselves. We share our concerns with each other, we confess our sins – when we feel brave, or just when we’re too miserable to hold it in – we tell each other the stories of what God has been doing in our lives… and we take what could have been just one more boring autobiography – or should I say autoerotica – and make it public property. We share our loaves and fishes in the presence of the multitude, and instead of sitting idly in our pocket, they feed a commmunity. The first time I attended a small group and we shared prayer concerns, a stranger was sharing something quite personal with me, and I felt trusted – not because I’m so obviously cool and sensitive, but because I was there in the name of Christ. These days, at prayer time, more often than not it’s a friend who shares his or her life with me – and the way strangers become friends is the clearest and most powerful testimony to the value of a community group.

There are no friendships in the Borg collective. There are no friendships in the Matrix. A friend is not a yes-man. A friend is not a fellow cult victim. Rather, a friend is a fellow sinner. A friend is someone who inspires you, challenges you, gives you relief from the monotony of your inner voices by being genuinely interesting. A friend carries the burden of your faith when Christianity (or your own place in it) just seems unbelievable. That’s not about uniformity or conformity. It’s about endurance in something worthwhile.

Like I said, I still find Christians scary. Sometimes, on a really good day, I scare even myself.

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