A Startling Lesson We're Afraid to Learn
We’ve learned so much during this pandemic, especially about what things have put us outside our comfort zone and what things we value as necessary and important parts of our survival. These are important clues to what helps us cope, what keeps us going, what we still have to learn.
Perhaps we haven’t quite begun to realize yet a very startling insight for us. I think this part is one we have avoided looking at, because the implications are huge for the way life in our country is structured, let alone life in our families and churches.
Here’s the startling thing: Our well-being and success in life is inextricably bound to that of everyone else around us. In other words, we are a community and we need each other, for better or for worse.
Yes – I realize that reading that doesn’t sound new. Of course we need each other. We know that. And…
Have we really thought through what it means for our well-being to be bound to others? Have we really thought through what changes would need to come from that?
When it came to wearing masks to protect others, how many of us were excited to put them on? When it came to socially distancing to protect others, how many of us were happy to do it? When it comes to standing up for the good of those who are bullied, mistreated, and even killed in our society, how many of us are willing to put ourselves on the line?
How many of us have put ourselves out there to help the most vulnerable around us get on the vaccination list before we do? How many of us have had a deep conversation with a friend of another race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation to find out what challenges they experience in our society? How many of us were willing to give up our stash of toilet paper and sanitizer for someone who needed them more?
These are just a few examples of what it means to stake our well-being in the well-being of others in our community and to make changes that reflect that bond.
You see, most of us just hunkered down in this pandemic, grabbed all the supplies we needed and more, and took care of our own families. When others infringed on our safety, we became frustrated. When our right to do the things we wanted to do was hampered, we became frustrated. We didn’t often think about our impact on other people. Yet, beating this pandemic and resuming life depends on everyone doing what is best for the whole community, not just ourselves. Yikes.
American society has developed into such an individualistic mindset that we don’t think in terms of community anymore. We have become more lonely and isolated even as we have divided ourselves into camps of people who think like us (read Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness, written BEFORE the pandemic and describing these kinds of things). We have abandoned connection and community for our own rights and liberty, and it has cost us dearly. It has taken a pandemic to show us, just from a simple concept like wearing a mask to protect those around us. Yes, it protects us too, but the primary function of masking is to keep everyone around us safe from the virus because we don’t know who’s infected. It’s community-first thinking.
In society, we criticize the notion of community-first thinking, or relational community, as a utopian society that doesn’t work, or as a socialist/communist structure that penalizes the strong people to help the weak. After years of watching capitalist structures and how the gap between the wealthy and the middle and lower classes has grown, I’m convinced that running society wholly off one theory (any of those theories) is never going to be successful. Just like running society as a bunch of individuals who happen to live near each other is leaving us lonely, lost, and adrift in a world where we were designed for connection. We need each other to thrive!
The church has suffered deeply from this societal shift.
The church started by the apostles long ago was a church of relational community, where everyone put in their possessions and resources to support each other. It was a community built on trust, where everyone gave their best to the whole. This is what Jesus built in the ways that He ministered, reaching out not just to the people in power but especially to those on the outside, treating the lepers and disabled with not just equality, but equity. (If you’re not sure of the difference between those terms, check out https://onlinepublichealth.gwu.edu/resources/equity-vsequality/#:~:text=Equality%20means%20each%20individual%20or,to%20reach%20an%20equal%20outcome.) Jesus got out of the temple and took his ministry to the community, baptizing in rivers, teaching on hillsides, and healing in the streets. Jesus held up mirrors for the temple leaders to look in, helping them see that their strict guidelines hindered their people rather than helping them grow in faith and purpose. Jesus spoke truth everywhere He went, welcoming everyone to His side and showing the value of those who were undervalued in society. This is the legacy He left us, and the church doesn’t reflect this legacy nearly as well as it could.
The church grew on that early foundation of relational community, but has gotten off the track. For years in this country, the church was the source of strength and support for the poor and needy until the government took that function. At the same time, individualism grew and we were seen as an optional way to ‘find God.’ Many people started to create their own individual spirituality on the golf course, in a park, on an athletic court or field, or with meditation, music, and yoga, and the church became irrelevant since people could do things on their own. We’ve crippled ourselves by that notion too. Frequently churches seek to take care of their own people, to ensure that their pastors spend their time ‘on the people we have’ rather than the neighborhood and the community, where ministry seems to bring less rewards. We’ve become individual churches rather than churches that work together. Congregations don’t want to share a youth leader or mission programs or worship with another church, because what if all of the families and their money go to the other church and not ours? How will that help us?
What happened to focusing on the notion of spreading the word of Christ as our primary mission? What happened to our vision of doing God’s work in the world? We have been holding on tightly to our own self-preservation, and when we do that, we die! It’s another Biblical paradox. Ironically, when we carry out our mission, Jesus seems to take care of preserving our light. Self-preservation isn’t an issue when we’re focusing on God’s work first.
We’re not going back to normal, folks, or at least I hope not, because normal in our country is individualistic ‘me first’ thinking that keeps us in divided silos. The pandemic has exposed it. Countries which lived off an attitude and mindset of taking care of everyone and sacrificing what they needed to in order to help each other beat the pandemic much more quickly and opened back up to healthier societies. We did not. We spent time blaming the scientists, chasing fantasies of problem-solving wonders, and fighting over what restrictions were really necessary. We’ve lost more than 500,000 people who needed us to be better, to be in relational community caring about each other and making the sacrifices it took to help everyone, not just ourselves. We failed them. We failed ourselves.
Will we fail in the future? Or will we use this as a stepping stone to face the reality that our world is community-based? That we need each other? That what happens to someone in Germany or South Korea or Kansas or California affects us too? That our time on earth is interwoven with everyone else’s? That by serving and helping others the way God intended us to do, we actually find ourselves and our purpose?
I hope we never return to what was our ‘normal.’ Instead, I hope we think purposefully and intentionally about new ways to build a better society and a better church. I hope we rediscover who we’re meant to be as people and as the church. I hope we throw out our insider mindsets and starting listening to and modeling what Jesus taught us: baptizing in rivers, teaching on hillsides, and healing in the streets. I hope we come alongside others, developing relationships first, and seeing what God brings out of it for us. Most of all, I hope we build a community-first mindset in which we can weave the most wonderful tapestries of life together with people of all kinds, people whom God has created. For everyone born, there is indeed a place at the table. We just need to redesign our tables, our minds, and our hearts to revolve around the community of all God’s children!
The startling news is that we’re dependent on others; how can we turn that into the most exciting thing we’ve heard in years?