When the Fellowship Looks Like a Mess

A few years ago a friend of mine from childhood called me up. She’d seen on Facebook that Karen and I had seen Kenny Chesney at the Houston rodeo. She said, “You didn’t know this but my husband plays bass for Kenny.” Being a Kenny Chesney fan, I spent the next half-hour asking more about Chesney than what was going on in her life. That’s what you do when you encounter someone who has had an encounter with someone you would like to meet.

That’s what you do if you would like to know someone who is not present. You ask their friend who is. So if you want to know Jesus get to know John. He’s been with him. And he wants you to be with him too. In the first chapter of 1 John we read: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…”

John and others have walked with Jesus. Jesus’ life was made “manifest.” The word means “to make visible and known that which was hidden or unknown.” John is not about to give us some lofty, spiritual, code language that only the spiritual elite can figure out. He’s going to give us something down to earth that we can experience ourselves.

Then he tells us why he is proclaiming what he has known of Jesus: “… so that you too may have fellowship with us…” We have fellowship with “us.” John is referring to himself and others who have believed. He’s talking about the church. The Greek word for “fellowship” is koinonia which means “to have in common, to share, to be a joint participant, a partner with someone else.”

So koinonia is a sharing of life. John uses words of affection and relationship in his letter: little children, God’s children, beloved, brothers/sisters, fathers and children. These words give you a warm feeling.

But that may not have been your church experience. People often seem surprised when they find that the church is not perfect. But it did not surprise John. He sees in this fellowship problems too. It is a mess. He describes their behavior with words and phrases like: lie and liar, hate, child of the devil, and one who commits sin. He says some refused to love, had self-deceit and refused to help someone in need.

This is what fellowship is like. It’s messy. This fellowship is made up of people who are sinners. But they are people who acknowledge they are sinners. They come together to find out they are not all bad. But they remember they are not all good either. It’s a place you can learn to love others. And don’t forget it’s good to learn that others are having to learn to love you too.

We learn that by participating in another fellowship: “…and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” This is the only perfect fellowship you will find. Other’s aren’t. So there is no need to change churches. No need to jump to the next start-up. No church will follow a vision perfectly or a mission statement without mistakes. No church is perfect, and, if there were one, you and I would mess it up if we joined.

But the Father and the Son (and Spirit) have a perfect fellowship. We learn fellowship with “us” by experiencing fellowship with “them.”

That’s what this “last-living-one-of-the-Twelve-pushing-100-years-old” John would want for Jesus’ disciples today. He told the stories for years then wrote them down to last years after he was gone.

His words are still speaking today. He’s telling us what it is like to be with his friend Jesus. Listen well and you might find the fellowship you’ve been looking for.

Question: In what ways are you aware that you might love the church more? In what ways might you need to become more aware that people in the church are also learning to love you?

Find Life Around a Table

Can you picture a time of warmth around a table from your youth? It doesn’t take me long. As a young boy we took trips to northeast Arkansas to see my grandparents. We’d make our way past Texarkana and start checking off the towns: Hope, then Prescott. We’d move on to Little Rock, Searcy, then on to Hoxie and Walnut Ridge. Once there we knew Pocahontas was near. The car would snake its way through the town square and out towards Attica. If you blinked, you’d miss it. The General Store was on the left side of the road. The Baptist Church on the other.

But then over a few more hills and we’d turn onto the gravel road on the left and up to Granny and Pop’s house. By the time Dad parked the car they’d be on the front porch ready for two little boys to come running for hugs.

We had lots of fun on their farm. We’d try to help Pop “slop the hogs.” We’d catch fireflies. We’d crank homemade ice cream and ride our pony. But if I had to picture a time of warmth around a table it would be there. When the food was ready we’d all gather around the table: Pop, Granny, Mom and Dad, me and my brother. Pop would say the prayer. And we’d enjoy the meal together.

The warmth came not so much from the meal itself but because we were together and I knew that these people loved me and I loved them. Even my older brother. I had to. Mom said so. We were family.

Meals should be important to us because they were important to Jesus. Some scholars have said that “Jesus ate his way through the gospels.” Sharing meals was a significant thing in Jesus’ culture. There were social boundary markers in the Jewish world. And one way those boundaries were kept intact was by who received invitations to a meal and who did not.

Jesus came along and upended the social boundaries. Sure, he ate with his closest friends. That goes without saying. You know that from scripture but if not, you at least would know that from Da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan.

But Jesus did not only eat with those who were on the same journey with him. Jesus shared meals with people who saw things differently than he did. In Luke 7 Jesus eats at a Pharisee’s house. Jesus is reclining at the table with him. We need to remember that there are times we need to sit down with people we may not totally agree with and offer them our friendship. We might even give them a glimpse of the Kingdom.

And Jesus shared meals with people who lived differently than he did. He was known to eat with tax collectors and sinners. “Tax collectors” were hated by their Jewish friends. “Sinners” was a catch-all term for people who were obviously wicked. Tax collectors would fit into this category. But so would criminals and prostitutes. They had no place to fit in regular society so they fit with each other. When Matthew starts following Jesus he invites him to his house for a meal. We’re told that “many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus…” They were comfortable being with Jesus. And Jesus was comfortable with them.

Jesus ate his way through the gospels. Sitting at table with others meant they were accepted. They belonged. Maybe we should eat our way to life. Start with your family. If you are used to eating in different shifts or in different places around the house, begin by eating together at the table.

Move from there to inviting someone over to your house for dinner. Think about your neighbors and friends. From time to time you may want to throw a party and have a larger circle of people over.

When you can, eat family style. Sharing a meal includes passing plates and caring for each other in that way too.

Remember, you don’t have to be a great conversationalist. But you can learn to be a great questioner. Ask questions. Ask about a person’s day. What was good? What was not so good? Hear their story.

It’s a cold world out there. But warmth can be found around a table. We’d better get used to it. I’m told there is a banquet awaiting us at the Father’s house.

Question: What are your favorite memories around a table?

Don’t Squib-Kick Through Life

While in Italy in June I was asked to do two things I had never done before. The first was to try Horse Tartare. It wasn’t as bad as you might imagine. The second was to be the ceremonial kick-off kicker in an American football game for the Parma Panthers. It was worse than you might imagine.

The Panthers became famous on account of John Grisham’s book Playing for Pizza. In 2008 Karen and I went to Parma because we had read the book and I wanted to see one of the games in the Italian Football League. We missed the game but got to meet the owner and his wife: Ivano and Bea Tira.

We’ve forged a friendship over the years and this summer we finally made it to a game. The Panthers were in the first round of the playoffs. In the days leading up to the game Ivano looked at me with a wicked smile on his face and said, “Rick, I want you to kick-off for us at the game.”

I thought he was kidding. I figured we’d get to the game and he’d have me conduct the coin toss. That didn’t happen. We were standing on the sideline and suddenly Ivano said, “You ready?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “OK. So we’ll go out on the field now and you will kick. You sure that’s OK?” I laughed and said, “Well, it won’t be pretty because I don’t kick footballs. But I’ll do it for you.”

I assured the real kicker he would not lose his job. Ivano said, “Now it’s time.” I turned around and saw the other team lined up. There was no turning back. It quickly dawned on me I had not planned out what I would do if he really was serious about the kick. I had no idea what I was doing so I stutter-stepped my way to the ball and kicked it straight on. (If you want a good laugh you can see it here)

My nephew Ryan—who played soccer and was his high school football team’s kicker—was watching from the sideline. He later said, “That was as wrong of a kick as possible.” The announcer called my 15-yard low spinning kick a Squib-Kick. It was ugly.

Sometimes our lives are like Squib-Kicks. Instead of hitting the sweet spot and sending the ball soaring we stutter-step our way through and end up with something ugly. And the reason is the same: we lack a plan for our lives.

Jesus didn’t. He knew exactly what he was to accomplish. You and I don’t have more to do than Jesus. He was here to save the world. And yet in three years he was able to tell the Father, “I have brought you glory by finishing the work you gave me to do.” In football terms he kicked it high, straight, and with distance.

Jesus had a plan and he gave us a plan: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” That’s the plan: make disciples. We learn from Jesus how to do what he would do if he were in our shoes.

And what would he do? He kept that simple too. “Love God. Love your neighbor.”

Instead of my terribly unplanned kick, our lives should be in sync with the plan God has given us to fulfill. But how do we do that when we are juggling multiple relational circles? A mentor of mine used to answer that question by saying: “Be a disciple. If you are learning to follow Jesus, you’ll learn from him how to make disciples. It will be natural.”

Jesus had many relational circles too: crowds, the 72, the 12, the 3 (Peter, James, John) and even the 1 (John). Jesus did not spend the same amount of time with everyone. But he did spend his time with everyone the same way…with purpose.

And so will we. What if you looked at your relational circles again with a plan? You won’t spend the same amount of time with everyone. But you will spend time with everyone the same way: with purpose.

It takes a plan. No Squib-Kicking allowed.

Question: How can you avoid a “Squib-Kick Life” starting today?

How to Find Community When You Can’t Find a Piazza

Karen and I were celebrating our 24th anniversary when I remarked, “You know, next year is our 25th anniversary. That’s a milestone. So I want to take you out to dinner somewhere special. You name it and we’ll go there.”

That’s a dangerous thing to tell your wives, men. I was thinking a restaurant somewhere in the Houston area. She answered, “OK. I choose Rome.” We had a love of Italy and I had made a promise so we started making plans.

We found a special place called The Library and reserved a table months in advance. The night finally arrived and it was a great celebration. After our meal we started meandering through the streets when we turned a corner and there it was: Piazza Novana.

It is one of the great piazzas in Italy. Ornate fountains, baroque buildings, street artists and performers make this the place to hang out. That night the piazza was full of people watching a live musical on a huge stage erected at one end. Piazzas are full of life.

Throughout Rome there are many smaller piazzas. They are the heart of the section of the city they are located in. Paths cross in the piazza. People meet in the piazzas. Piazzas are designed to encourage community.

It’s quite a contrast to our way of life. We drive home and put our car in the garage…if it will fit. The garage door closes and we enter the house. We might possibly have everyone in the family at the table at the same time, only to later go to their own separate rooms where each person has their own access to Wi-Fi, computers, and maybe a TV.

In America we live in a culture of individualism rather than a culture of community. How can that change? Looking at how Jesus created community will help.

Jesus created community around a common purpose.* Jesus began his ministry with these words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The word “repent” is not as “churchy” as it sounds. It literally means to “change your mind” or “change the direction you are going.”

This summer we left the Hertz Rental garage in Florence with our GPS ready to go. We turned right out onto the one-way street looking forward to enjoying a drive in the country on our way to a winery. But as soon as we hit the streets we realized the GPS was not working. More than once we determined we were heading in the wrong direction and turned the car around. You could say we “repented.”

That was Jesus’ purpose. And his followers had the same purpose: to help people turn and find their way into his kingdom.

Jesus also created community around common beliefs. Beliefs are important. Behaviors are based on beliefs. So Jesus taught what life in the kingdom was life. He knew what people believed would be seen in their behaviors. One example is Jesus taught that the marginalized had a place at his table. Some didn’t believe that and so only the approved ones would be invited to a literal table meal. In contrast, Jesus invited “tax collectors and sinners” to sit with him at many table meals. His community formed with people who believed what he believed. Community can be found with people who have common beliefs.

And then Jesus created community around a common place. The common place for Jesus was Galilee.  Jesus’ ministry began and ended there. Most of his ministry was spent traversing Galilee with people who lived in that region.

That’s how community is developed. People have to be together in a common place. Facebook won’t create it. Twitter can’t. FaceTime is better than no time. But it takes being in a common place for people to have the opportunity to look each other in the eyes and go deep into each other’s lives.

Who knows what could happen if we repent from our way of individualism and turn to Jesus’ way of community? We might find it. Even if we can’t find a piazza.

*These community ingredients inspired by Randy Frazee’s book The Connecting Church

Question: Where do you find community today?