(This is final part of my series on connecting with God the past two weeks. Click here for the original post to start it.)
One of my favorite stories of the desert abbas and ammas comes from Abba Anthony. He tells of a monk accused of sin who came to speak with him. When he arrived, another abba, Abba Paphnutius was present and he told this parable, “I have seen a man on the bank of the river buried up to his knees in mud and some men came to give him a hand to help him out, but they pushed him further in up to his neck.” The brothers who had come, bringing accusation caught the deeper meaning. So corrected and convicted, they took their brother back to their monastery (from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers).
In the opening pages of her book, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction,author Margaret Guenther shares this same story. While we may not all be spiritual directors, we can take the hint she offers to us when people come to us, when we gather together, “whatever we do...we are neither to mess with them nor push them further into the mud (3).”
Community is part of our Christian journey. The history of our Christian faith speaks of many different ways for us to connect to God. In this series on connecting to God, I've laid out just a few of the many but I hope, some that you may not have tried. Yet, it is important to note that in so many ways, our Scriptures, our tradition, our experiences and our reasoning, keep pointing us back to community – to gathering together – as one of the central means by which we connect with God.
God did not call out to Abram and say that the two of them were going to have a great time hanging out together. No, God said, “I will make you a great nation. (Gen.12:2).” Skip forward to Jesus and the legacy he left for us. It was to his disciple Peter that he said, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church...(Mt. 16:8).”
It was Dietrich Bonhoffer, (who along with Martin Luther King, Jr., are the only twomodern day martyrs recognized by the United Methodist Church) who said,
“Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God...the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking it's temperature. Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate (pg 30, Life Together).”
Seeking God in community is not primarily about what we do but about what God has done in Jesus Christ. Learning to live in this connection, to relate to and with one another wasn't, hasn't been and will never be easy that I can tell. As I have often noted to others, take a look at the Book of Acts and pretty much all the Epistle writings. They record for us the disunity, the struggle and the strife of various churches in the first century. Almost everything Paul writes is based on the premise that someone or some group is screwing up in some church some where! You want a first century church? I think we have always had it – we just don't really want it. What we want is an idealistic, narcissitic community of spirituality which always gives us what we want.
But Bonhoffer brings us to a reality that we often overlook. For just as the Biblical record gives us an honest look into the ugly side of the formation of the Church and churches, it also lays out for us the work of the church in caring for the needy, of sharing the Gospel of Jesus, baptizing new converts into The Way, and for giving hope to a world disconnected from God. And it is “a reality created by God in Christ...” we didn't do it.
So when we gather, would it make a difference if we truly focused on God as our common denominator? More accurately, is our focus on Jesus Christ for that relationship? I think it is but to connect with God then, in community, I would put forward three questions that I've modified from Rose Mary Dougherty's work in group spiritual direction (see link below). When you seek to connect with God in community, ask yourself (and all should ask of themselves):
1.Do I come with an honest relationship with God?
2.Do I come with a wholehearted desire to participate in a group process of prayerful listening and response?
3.Do I come with an openness regarding my spiritual journey that I can share with others?
It seems easy enough to get off track and our focus become less about God and more about us (take for instance the work of General Conference and note that I'm not even going to try and reference this one). As we take time together, we need to be quick to ask if we have, “...shifted from being present to God for one another to being present to one another with only an occasional reference to God?” (pg 68, Group Spiritual Direction). We also need to be honest about the reality of our own nature: to be interested in ourselves than in God.
We would do well to stop colluding with modern practices and reasoning and consider the ancient traditions of the abbas and ammas. They understood the nature of community far better it seems than we do. They “got it,” it being that a community in relationship with God was hard work, dirty work, and good work. Any one of us could be an Abba Paphnutius recognizing that our attempts to "help" often result in people just getting forced deeper in the muck. Unlike those monks, we may try to cover up our error. But as author Parker Palmer recently said, “We may choose to disempower ourselves but we aren't powerless.” God offers us a community in which to know Him, but it remains within our power, by grace, to choose the way.
May I Ask? Are you willing to choose the way of community to connect with God? Why or why not?
May I Suggest? Three options: 1) start small with a group of friends focused on God using the 3 questions to guide you, 2) Seek out a group spiritual direction opportunity or 3) Try a church in your area, for that matter try a number of them. You can go to UMC.org and use the church finder to find a church nearby.