The language arts class in which I assist just finished reading Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli. Because I leave halfway through the class each day, I was only able to catch bits and pieces, but I was able to get the basic idea of the book. It's about a boy who is orphaned at age three, and spends the next few years of his life trying to find a place to call home. He bounces from place to place, never allowing himself to feel comfortable at any one of them because he is afraid to settle in, afraid to let himself get too close, afraid of losing anyone else.
As we finished the book today, I started thinking about how that is so like those of us who follow Jesus. We're afraid. Afraid to let others get too close, or to get too close to them. We're afraid that we won't be accepted once people discover the real us. I think our biggest fear is the fear of being hurt. I know that fear personally, and there have been times when I have tried to not get too close to folks in certain groups, because I have been hurt and don't want to get hurt again. I understand those who have to deal with that.
I believe that these fears are one of the reasons churches are not what they could be. Many are looking for a safe place, but they don't let themselves get too comfortable or too close to the people in a church. In a large church, they can hide. Eventually though, they will get the vague feeling that something is wrong, that the church is not meeting their needs. They will then look somewhere else, like Maniac Magee. Unfortunately the cycle will continue to repeat itself, or they will give up on the whole church thing altogether. Or, they may come upon a small to mid-size church that bills itself as a place "where people matter." They soon find out that people matter as part of a program, not as individuals. Conflicts may happen, and then, out they go. Some spend their whole lives looking for a place to belong.
Even those who are part of simple churches are not immune to these fears. Again, they are perfectly understandable. If one of the goals of a simple church is to know and be known, there will inevitably be conflict. Too many folks have the idea that if they can just "do church" the way the early church did, all of their problems will be solved. Have you read the letters the Apostles wrote to the early churches lately? It seems that a large part of those letters were written to address problems that the people were having with each other. I have yet to be in a church where a man was sleeping with his father's wife.
Anytime we deal with people, there will be conflicts. Life is messy, and the deeper we let people into our lives, the better the chance that we will be hurt. That hurt makes it hard to believe that we are safe, that it is really possible to live in community. Some return to the old routine of moving from place to place, never allowing themselves to get comfortable or to love again. Others will give up, and try to go it alone. Both approaches have problems. The first puts us right back into the system that hasn't produced the community that many look for. The second forgets the fact that the Church is the Body of Christ, that we need each other as the body needs each of its parts. When a limb is amputated, the patient experiences a phantom limb, feeling pain in a part of the body that isn't there. The same thing happens in the Body of Christ.
Living in community is hard. The conflicts happen, and the wounds they leave are real, and sometimes deep. I don't believe the answer is to hide our hearts deeper, or refuse to be vulnerable again. Loving and being loved is hard, messy, and painful. It can not be accomplished in our own strength, it can only be done in the power of the risen Christ, the One who has told us to love each other as he loves us.
Be encouraged. Community and love can happen. It is what Abba wants. It is how others will know we belong to Jesus.