Fantastible Reasons to Be in Christian Community- Part 1

February 22, 2010

I love inventing words, and this one says it all: Fantastible. It is a combination of the words “fantastic” and “horrible”. As a word, it mixes both meanings into one collective, emotional blend.

I use this word, because there is nothing fantastic about Christian community that isn’t, at the very same time, horrible. Depending on how last week went, most people reading this are going to agree with one word or the other – but few will agree with both. It is like looking at this drawing of the old woman/young woman. Some see the old woman, some see the young one. It is impossible to see both at the same time. When your experience of other Christians is “fantastic” it is hard to believe it is horrible. When it is “horrible”, nothing is going to convince you any time soon that it is fantastic. Let me give an example from my own life.

Many years ago, as a young counselor, I met with a woman who was a close friend of our family. She needed marriage counseling. Her husband of over 30 years was leaving her and wanted nothing more to do with her. This situation was a long time coming, and actually didn’t surprise her or me. I don’t mean to suggest his leaving didn’t hurt. She was devastated by the sense of betrayal and lack of love. I counseled her several times and I think the approach I took was helpful. (Note: I don’t use that sort of talk therapy any more, but I know it is probably the best way to help someone when they are grieving). During the last time together, she asked me my opinion on some of the church ministries she was involved in. I foolishly gave her my opinion instead of turning the question around and asking her what she thought she should do. It really isn’t my place to tell a person what God wants them to do. But, she asked. And I have never lacked for an opinion.

The next Sunday, as people were about to leave the church service, she asked permission of the service leader if she could get up and say a few words. This was a church community of about 80 people, and we were used to announcements and testimonies at the end of the service. She was given the microphone and proceeded for the next ten minutes to lambaste me in public. She accused me of seeking to reject her ministry the same way her husband had rejected their marriage. Many of the things she said were accurate, but they were tainted by her opinion on my motives in saying them. I was in shock as I sat and listened to all of this. I went home from church that day fuming and confused at the same time. How could another believer in God treat me this way? How could the love and care I showed her be so mis-interpreted? Why did she have to use our collective time of worship and community on a Sunday morning as her platform to spew her bellicose grief?

Here is fantastible reason #1 for being in Christian community. We will often say things to one another that people outside of community would never dare to say. In one place in the Bible, we are told to “speak the truth to one another in love”. That is a wonderful balanced formula (truth, in love); but it is a mixture rarely joined properly. Actually, one of the most frightening statements is any sentence that begins, “Now, I mean this in love…”. If you have to add that phrase as a rider at the beginning, most likely what comes afterward will not be in love. Think about this: It is often those people who are closest to us who can devastate us the most with their words. Husband/wife, parent/child, brothers/sisters, bff’s/other bff – these relationships are the targets into which some of the worst shots are fired.

So what is the “fantastic” part about this? If we truly speak “in love” to another person, we will say the sort of things that change the very course of their lives – and ours. At seminars, I often ask the question: “What is the most helpful thing anyone has ever said to you?” Though you would expect that people would report things like “I love you” or “You are so smart”, the answers are often very difficult and hurtful things. Respondents often say that their most helpful memories are of things said in love that had sharp edges to them. Spouses tell of being confronted in their addictions. Children recall a parent expressing grief over their pain-causing actions. Friends tell about their best friends giving them a kick in the butt.

A person last year told me that they were never going to attend any church again. I asked them why, and they said it was because of all the hurtful things Christians had said to them lately. I asked them to recount some of the things which were said. As this person went down the list, only two things were really all that hurtful. And I happened to agree with both assessments. So I carefully asked this person if they felt both of those statements were false. “Actually, I am guilty of those things they said. But I can’t stand the people who said them.” I then asked this person what the real problem was, in their opinion. The answer is very revealing: “I don’t like people talking to me with that sort of familiarity. I like distance. This church community is too close; everyone thinks they have the right to share their opinion…I want to be left alone”.

I suspect this embodies most people’s opinions. Most of us are a “push-me-pull-you” in this regard. We want intimacy and intimate communications, but we don’t like the price that comes with it.

How do you get over this then? You handle it by having grace on everyone (including your own family). You don’t have to accept what anyone says to you, but you do have to take what everyone says as an opportunity to grow as a person. And then, when you are given a chance to speak your opinion, weigh your words carefully. And then be willing to work all disagreements through to the end with the person.

Three years after the woman got up and executed me in public, we had an opportunity to speak to one another. In that conversation, I asked her to express what had brought on her vitriolic speech. She told me of the pain she had felt by my “betrayal”. Instead of defending myself, I showed her I understood what she was saying. At that point, she burst into tears and thanked me for being understanding. Then she asked me why I had told her to give up a few of her ministries. When I explained my reasons for what I had said three years before, she looked shocked. She had not really seen my point at all. By the end of our conversation, she apologized for her actions and for the pain she had caused. It was a fantastic moment for me. But it was also a horrible season I would easily have skipped. It was fantastible.

Next time: Fantastible reason #2: Giving what you’d rather keep.

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