Our Place in a Culture of Isolation

We live in a culture of isolation. We have elderly people who can go days without talking to another person. We have young people who have moved for jobs and do not have family around them. We have parents without a support network to raise their children with. Many people do not know their neighbours or the people on the street. People are expected to live their lives as islands; not to impose on others, to solve their own problems and to do it alone.

There are places where this doesn’t happen, places where instead of isolation there is real community. It can be seen in a crisis, when a community or country draws together in support of those in need. But on the whole, across the country the feeling of isolation is a reality.

One place a culture of isolation should not exist is within our churches. Jesus commanded us to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34) and also to “let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:16). Our churches should demonstrate a culture of community between one another and that shines out beyond the membership of those who attend on a Sunday.

“Let your light shine before others”

This culture can be created in a multitude of ways; in our welcome of people, in our prayers, in practical and emotional support in times of need, through our encouragement and our desire to spend time together.

But, when we look at how Jesus really loved, we realise that it is more than being loving and kind but requires sacrifice and honesty as well.

Jesus went outside of his natural/expected friendship group. He loved and spent time with Romans, Samaritans, people who no one else went to and people who on paper had very little in common with him. Many people feel isolated and we are called to draw people into real community, regardless of the age difference or seeming differences in experiences or needs. 

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It can be as simple as inviting someone round for lunch who would normally be eating alone or standing with a parent whose child is playing away from where people are gathered.

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Jesus sacrificed his time and made time in his schedule to help others. When word came to Jesus that Jairus’ daughter was dying (Mark 5:21-43), he left what he was doing and went to her. He didn’t rush off continuously, but when he was needed he made the space to be there. We are called to be involved in each other’s lives and support one another. Acts of kindness are not restricted to when we have time, people’s needs don’t wait for when you have a space. 

It might be doing something outside your natural circle or inviting someone in. It could be sacrificing a conversation with a friend to talk to someone having a tough time. It could be creating time in your busy schedule to cook a meal for someone who is having a challenging week. 

Jesus had close friends who he shared his whole life with. He travelled with the disciples, they discussed faith and shared meals. When Jesus was nearing his death, he went with his disciples to pray and shared with three that his “soul is overwhelmed” (Matthew 26:38). Jesus did not hide his thoughts, his future or his anguish from them. God created us to desire friendships that have real depth. We might meet with someone regularly, but that is not the same as sharing our personal and spiritual questions, challenges and fears. 

sharing

It is a choice to speak more openly and honestly about your life with those you are closest to. It is a step of trust and confidence in the other, that can develop a deepening spiral of openness, trust and understanding between you all.

challenge

Jesus cared enough to challenge his friends. He saw them as God saw them and the people they were called to be, so he held them accountable for their thoughts and actions. He raised them up by encouraging, teaching but also challenging them. A friendship with deep honesty creates opportunities for accountability and growth. Ultimately it is about walking together towards God.

It might be a willingness to discuss topics you disagree on, with the aim of understanding the other’s views and opinions more clearly. It may be asking the tough questions about each other’s faiths and lives. It might be encouraging and holding the other accountable for changes they wanted to make in their lives (and wanting them to do the same in return).

Jesus told us to love like him. It is no easy challenge but one that can transform a person and a community. In a society where many people are isolated and alone physically and emotionally, a church that loves as Jesus in these ways brings people together in a culture of love and community that shines out. There are things you already naturally do and others that you will find challenging.

  • How are you already showing love like Jesus?
  • Who is loving you as Jesus loved?
  • What area is the biggest challenge? How can you begin to show love in that way?

Holistic PCCs

“We don’t have any small groups”

“We don’t have any small groups” I have been told several times since I started my role. There is often a recognition of their importance and a desire to have them combined with the reality of a tired and over-stretched congregation. This comment is usually shared with me during a PCC meeting. I respond by pointing out that they themselves are a small group.

The recognition that your PCC is a small group can help the members realise the responsibility they have for one another and deepen relationships with openness, honesty and support.

“You are a small group”

There are three main elements to a small group: faith, fellowship and outreach. A holistic small group is working towards the deepening of faith, the support of one another and a desire to reach others. A PCC is unlikely to have time for a full Bible study, social time, extended prayer and engaging with outreach and also complete the important business that it is called to discuss. So how can a PCC develop a more holistic approach, while still being an efficient body?

Here are just a few ideas to help you get started:

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 Faith:

  • Take it in turns to bring a Bible passage (personal choice or decided before). The person leading shares the passage and what they feel God has been saying to them from it.
  • Designate time at the beginning and/or end to pray specifically for the conversations you’ve had and God’s hand in any decisions.
  • Have a few minutes for individuals to share how God has answered prayers or acted in the past week.

These kind of changes can help the group to recognise that God is at work in their lives and the life of the church. It encourages them to notice God in their daily lives. 

Fellowship:

  • Start 15-30 minutes earlier for tea, cake and conversation.
  • Have a PCC social evening at Christmas/New Year and before the summer, without an agenda.
  • Each meeting a different member is asked to share something of their faith and life journey for 2 minutes.

Social times but also times committed to sharing, actively encourage people to learn more about each other in their spiritual, physical and emotional journeys. It encourages the group to invest in each other beyond making decisions.

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Outreach:

  • Keep it on the agenda; what is happening in your church? If there isn’t anything currently happening, what is next?
  • Pray for your community beyond the church walls when you gather together. You could pray for different groups of people or pray and mark off different streets as you go.
  • As a PCC send out letters of gratitude to individuals engaged in outreach. They may be people running or helping outreach linked to the church or they may be doing it in other areas.

Prayers and thanksgiving keep outreach in the forefront of people’s minds and remind members that church exists to support Christians and to reach out to those who don’t know Jesus yet.

Learning from bees

Earlier this month the Serving Christ Team discovered a bumble bee nest just outside our window. Obviously bees are crucial for our ecosystem and we are allowing them to stay. The plan had been to leave the windows shut but weather has different ideas. And, so several times a day we have a giant bumble bee struggling to make it out through the glass window until someone comes to its aid and releases it outside.

They work together for the hive.

Bees are remarkable creatures. Bumble bees seem to defy the laws of physics in their ability to fly. Honey bees somehow create a golden liquid that is lovely in cakes and on toast. Despite being small, they work together on mass, each with their own role for the hive.

As I’ve watched our bees coming and going over the past few weeks, I have thought a lot about their ability to live together and what we can draw from them. I keep coming back to the way they communicate to help each other. 1

Bumble bees tell each other where the best pollen is by dancing and releasing a pheromone in the hive, so the bees go out to look for the flowers with the same scent. Honey bees take it a step further and have specific dance moves to communicate distances and direction, so the other bees can head out. The sun is used as a point of reference and so the dance changes as the sun moves. When sharing with the hive, they are honest about where they have been, hold a shared point of reference and respond to what they have been told.

There is much we can learn from the bees and apply to our own church communities as we socialise and chat.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice.”

We need to be honest about where we have been and where we are. Paul tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). But people cannot know who is rejoicing and who is mourning unless people are willing to share were they are. It takes trust and vulnerability to answer the question ‘How are you?’ with honesty. But so often one person’s honesty begins to break down barriers for others and truth is shared about where we are and where we have been. 

We need to respond to others’ honesty. If people are willing to trust us then we are called to respond in love and care. The bee’s response is to rush off and find the flowers. Our response is to stay and travel alongside that person. This might be practical help, a listening ear, sharing experiences or an offer of prayer. Equally important to our immediate response is that we remember and ask them about it later too.

We need to remember our point of reference. Jesus is “the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Whether we are sharing joys or struggles we need to keep our eyes focused on God. We need to encourage ourselves and others to recognise God working in the good things that happen. We also need to raise difficulties up to God in prayer and to look for where God is working within the situation. Telling someone that you are praying means they may see God’s answer themselves. Our honesty and responses are not about what we can do, but about what God can do.

Bees are sustained by the honey created by their careful, precise communication as they share and respond. We are sustained by God. Keeping our focus on him as we share and respond to each other reminds us to see the sweetness of God’s involvement more and more.

Are you willing to share honestly about your life? Will you respond with love and grace when someone opens up to you? Will you seek where God is working in your life and help others to do the same? 

I am because we are

On Trinity Sunday, I was worshipping in Canterbury Cathedral. The preacher was the Cathedral’s Canon Librarian (Click here to hear the sermon). As part of his sermon he used two quotes, one from a famous philosopher and one he had heard repeatedly during his time in Central Africa. I have been musing on how these two quotes work together since that Sunday.

In his sermon he mentioned Descartes, and his famous quote “I think therefore I am” 1. This quote came from his search for something that he could have absolute faith in. He found that everything he had trust in could be doubted, no matter how unlikely. Finally, he found he could not disprove his ability to think and doubt. He concluded that he could trust in his existence because he could think and that could not be taken away.

Descartes is often seen as the father of modern philosophy. His understanding of the world was based on using reason. He believed everyone had the ability to use reason and gain knowledge and discover truth. This has had a huge impact on the world we now live in as we seek to understand it through reason in science, philosophy and experience. But it was not Descartes who struck me.

It was the second quote used, “I am because we are.” The Canon had heard this many times during his twelve years working in Central Africa. It speaks not of individualism but of ‘interconnectedness’. Its emphasis is the importance of those around us in forming the people we are and the person we will become. It speaks to our desire to be in community rather than in isolation.

‘I am because  we are’

Descartes taught us that we can seek, question and find truth for ourselves. But, God did not design us to be alone. Rarely is an individual experiment or study enough to prove or disprove a theory and rarely are those experiments carried out by a lone scientist. What we see is teams and groups of people working together to find and demonstrate truth to then share with the world using their personal experiences and expertise. Both the individual and the community are vital.

The main point of the sermon was that the Trinity is the perfect example of “I am because we are.” Father, Spirit and Son have specific attributes but they are one and rely on each other for perfect unity, they cannot exist apart. 2 As part of God’s creation, we learn that we can be individuals and be part of something bigger at the same time.

The Bible tells us how we are to live in a Trinity inspired community. “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” 1 Corinthians 12:12. This verse reminds us, not just that we have different gifts that work together, but that we are designed to be together in community. Each person is crucial to the whole, we need each other.

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.”

Every member of our community brings something vital that makes us more ourselves. This is in part their gifts, but also their personality, ideas and experiences. Positive and loving relationships are central to a community and its individuals thriving. Do we recognise the importance of our church community and at the same time love the individuals that shape it?

It seems like a huge task when faced with a world that advocates individualism, independence and separatism. And yet, appreciating and drawing together a community can be as simple as loving and authentic words to connect us together.

 

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  • Is there someone with largely unseen gifts or roles that we could thank?
  • Could you tell someone the impact they have had on your faith?
  • Is there someone on the fringe (new, busy with a task, chasing children) you could physically go to and start a conversation with over coffee?
  • Could you invite someone back for Sunday lunch?

These seemingly small gestures may feel insignificant. But, it is not the size of the gesture that matters, but creating a culture of love and recognition of individuals within our community. It’s showing that ‘I am only because we are’

Called to friendship

When we make friends, we are likely to gravitate towards people who are similar to us. We share the same hobbies, are in similar life stages, we share the similar backgrounds, values and beliefs. On the whole they are easy, you gain as much as your give, and what you give does not seem like a sacrifice. These relationships are important because they allow us to relax, share and have fun but they are not the only people that Jesus calls us to love.

“A new command i give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” John 13:34-35 (NIV)

Jesus spent time with sinners, tax collectors, women and Gentiles. People would not have expected the Son of God to hang out with these groups. So much so that the Pharisees complained that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2). And yet, Jesus connected with each one of them on a personal and deep level. His love for them reached them on a level beyond their background, beliefs and society’s expectations.

So when Jesus tells us to love each other “as I have loved you”, he is not just talking about the people we are naturally drawn to. He calls us to love those we struggle to hold a conversation with, those who irritate us and those who are different from us in any way.

Let’s be clear this love comes naturally to some people, but for others it is something that takes effort and commitment to do. It means actively stepping out of our own circle. It may be that that person has a real need that you can provide but they cannot repay. You might need to work hard to keep a conversation going. You may need to let go of or work through irritations again and again.

Motives are important. Loving others like Jesus can mean providing and sacrificing but it should be a genuine effort to bridge differences and knock down walls to reach a place of community and love. The aim is not to continue awkward conversations indefinitely but to seek to find common ground to share and discuss. The aim is not to hide your irritations but to get to a place where they disappear from your mind or have resolved between you. The aim is to love more like Jesus.

And for a moment, think of all you would gain from someone investing and loving you in this way? When you realise someone values you for you. How you can be challenged in your faith and life by a different perspective. When you are opened to a new group of friends through them. Everyone benefits from this type of love.

Jesus calls us to love as he loved. This may need to start as a conscious effort, it may call for sacrifices, but increasingly it becomes part of who you are as you welcome everyone, love anyone and grow in community together.

Who is God calling you to show love to?

What barriers and walls are in your way?

How can you practically begin to remove those barriers and walls?

Overdoing the Soup

Our home group decided fellowship would be at the core, so it would always start with a meal. Rotas were made, plans were made and we began. It started well, everyone wanted to and could put time into creating a nice meal. It started simple with pizza and pasta but began to escalate and become more costly in time and money (especially as the group doubled in numbers). Pudding had gone from simple crumbles to stacks of homemade profiteroles.

we were not using our resources responsibly.

Don’t get me wrong, the food was lovely. But an unease grew; a few felt unable to keep up with the standard, people’s lives were becoming busier and the fluctuating group size meant we could be short of food or wasting it. We decided we were not using our resources responsibly.

So, a decision was made. Soup and rolls every week. The rota remained and people could choose to buy or make it. It began perfectly in the midst of winter with a homemade Mulligatawny soup followed by Heinz the next week. Everyone could contribute, people could be creative or run to the shops on the way and there was no waste. We had found the perfect solution.

Fast forward 18 months. It’s a warm summer evening. We are sat eating soup with the windows open. One member announces that she is bored of soup and will be cooking something else next week! A sigh of relief ran around the room. An end to the soup campaign!

We still have soup occasionally, but we’ve also had fajitas, lasagne, jacket potatoes and stews. We have had some lovely homemade puddings, but the bags of bought cookies are appreciated just as much. We like the variety. We appreciate the time and money that has gone into it…whether that was an afternoon cooking or squeezing a shopping trip into your lunch break.

A time of fellowship, sharing and provision.

The meal is no longer a competition, it is a time of fellowship, sharing and provision…exactly what it was always meant to be.

My Small Group has a job to do!

Small Groups in churches include far more than just Bible Study or Prayer groups. The PCC, groups that plan the children’s work together, the toddler group team, a group who meet to do the gardening or the cleaning are all great examples of small groups.

A holistic small group thinks of the whole person and their journey with God. They are interested in the spiritual, emotional and practical lives of each individual. As a group they care for one another, seek to connect with God and to draw others in.

This can seem like a big ask and time commitment to add, especially if your group has a specific task to do. But, there are small simple things we can do to transform these groups to be more holistic without taking more time and energy. It only takes one or two people in the group to be proactive in seeking a more holistic approach.

Every group will have conversations at some level. The question is how can we deepen those into strong relationships? A big part of it is extending the conversation beyond ‘How are you?’ it’s being interested in what people have to say and being willing to share back. It is also about following up on things that have been mentioned in the past mean people know that they are valued and the conversation can be developed and grown as needed over time. It sounds ridiculously simple, but the reality is that as trust is built so is depth.

Adding a faith aspect can seem a little more daunting if there currently isn’t any element of it within the group. It can be as simple as adding a short prayer time, a relevant Bible reading or a short personal reflection. A very gentle approach is to offer to pray when something comes up in conversation, either immediately or a promise to pray during the week.

You can use a gentle approach to deepen relationships and discuss spirituality. Prepare a question to share with the group that opens up our thinking. For example, ‘What are your gifts?’, ‘What are you thankful for?’, ‘Who or what influences your decisions?’. They do not require a faith answer but open opportunities for you to share honestly and for others to explore what is central to their lives.

There are many simple ways to build fellowship and discuss our faith based on the relationships that already exist. These small habits can transform a group to love each other more, to share about their beliefs and result in more passion for the task they do together.