Message from New Garden Church. September 2nd, 2018.
According to an article published by Harvard in January 2017, there is something that is eating at our lifespans at the same rate as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This thing that affects so many people is nearly as prevalent as obesity in the United States. This factor alone, shortens the average person’s lifespan by 8 years…
This ailment is not violent video games, it’s not a regular diet of McDonalds french fries, and its not drinking too much coke…
What I’m talking about is loneliness. Loneliness affects an absurdly high amount of people in our country, in our city, and I’m sure people that are right here in this room. And no, this isn’t a message about taking care of lonely single people. We have turned marriage into this Christian cure for loneliness, but I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t married people in here who are lonely. Loneliness does not discriminate between single and married, old and young, educated and uneducated.
Ok pause. This research is just now catching up to something that we Christians have believed about life for a long time. One of the most central points of our scripture is community. So lets hold this in our mind and zoom way out 90,000 ft.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. God was hovering over this blank slate. In Genesis, the author tells us that God created the universe. God creates all of these things, and they are good: light, land, the sun and the moon, the fish and the birds, the animals, and finally, God says this:
“Let us make mankind (people) in our image, to be like us…
So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God, he created them.
Male and female he created them.”
and on the seventh day God rested.
And sometimes I think we know what’s in the Bible too well. We know this story by heart, some of you have probably grown up in church, you know the story, you were in the skit during Vacation Bible School, and you have the certificate to show it. We read it, but it no longer provokes the wonder that it could because we think we understand.
Trying to have the perspective of a first time reader, I have some questions! We won’t get into all of them, but here’s a big one: I thought you guys believed in ONE God! But this seems pretty clear that there’s more than just one God there!
See, we believe that not only does God want community for us and with us, but we also believe that God is community. We believe that God the Father, the Son of God (Jesus!), and the Holy Spirit are one together. And this is really important, please don’t miss this: God is the very nature of community.
And we have been created from the community of God to reflect the image of the community of God. So that’s chapter 1 of Genesis. So let’s look at chapter 2.
So in chapter 2, weirdly enough, we have another creation story. So what’s the deal? Did God create the world twice? I’m not here to debate anyone about the literal or non-literal nature of the Genesis creation stories. I’m also not here to debate the how’s and when’s of everything. There are dedicated followers of Jesus who believe God created the universe in literally 6 24-hour periods, and there are dedicated followers of Jesus who believe that God created the world using a big-bang and evolution. There’s probably people on both ends of that spectrum in this room, but guess what? That is small potatoes. I bring this all up to say this: no matter what you believe about our world’s beginnings, there is room in your views to gain insight into the beautiful nature of God, right here in the first few pages of the Bible.
So in chapter 2 this is the story we have: picking up in verse 7.
“7 Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.
This is the dream right? God and a man, together in the Garden. No sin has come into the world yet, no brokenness, no sickness, no death. Just God and a man. This is the perfect set-up, right? Now hold up, because I might make some people uncomfortable with this: I believe the full communion between God and one man was not enough, it was incomplete. It was not perfect.
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.”
***Real quick side note: so many people abuse the second part of this verse. This word “helper” here does not mean “assistant,” or “aid,” or “person who does what men don’t have time for.” This is the Hebrew word “ezer” and it is the same word that is used in the Psalms when it talks about God being our help. The word ezer comes from two roots meaning “power” and “strength.” So sisters, you are powerful, strong, and competent. You are not an afterthought. Creation was incomplete with out you. Humanity is weak without your voice.
Back to what I’m trying to get at: In the creation story in Genesis chapter 2, God sees this: one human by him or herself, even a human living a sinless life with God, is not getting the full experience of life. One man or woman, in full connection with God – no sin separating – is not living the full and complete life that God has for us. The pendulum swings and we often find ourselves on one end or the other of a spectrum. Either we are so concerned with a vertical connection between ourselves and God, that we miss out on godly connections with others, or we become so focused on pouring into others that we forget to be filled through a connection with God.
So the one side is this, “I go to church once a week, I pray, I even listen to the Christian radio station in the car. I have checked all of the boxes, I’m good.” And I think that’s where a lot of us may fall. We have turned what was supposed to be a relationship between 3 parties into a relationship for 2. We have falsely assumed that we will be happier and more joyful because we talk to God. We are really good at nailing the “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” but we forget the second greatest command that is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We have a friend or neighbor that needs help, but we think “I’ve had a long week. I just need some me time,” all as we turn Reckless Love up to 11 in the car. We remember God’s pursuit of us into all of our mess of greed and lust, but we can’t remember to pursue a friend who has begun to fade away from our view. And then we feel lonely, but we don’t know why because we go to church every Sunday.
It’s easy for us to see all the barriers to community with others, but when we are focused on the barriers to community, we miss out on the benefits of community.
So, just for a second, let’s be honest about the barriers to community.
Some of us are afraid of seeking it out because we know ourselves too well. We know how we get, we know who we don’t like, we know what we did last night, we know where we went last week, and we know what we go looking for on the internet.
If we actually tried to be vulnerable and open up to somebody else about what we’re dealing with, they might be visibly uncomfortable and cringe. They might tell somebody else, or perhaps worst of all, they may not. Maybe, worst of all, they might – out of love – want to help, and we’re not ready for that because underneath it all, we actually can’t fathom the idea of facing our demons.
Some of us don’t want to seek out community because it requires commitment. Community takes time and energy that we just aren’t ready to spend. We’re too busy, too tired, too worn out. We’ve got too much going on between our job, and our kids, and our family members who are struggling with their health.
One meeting every two weeks could turn into once a week, then special occasions too, then people will call us for help when they are moving, when they’re sick, and when they get in over their head. We just don’t have the time, our kids comes first. That strategy works until our kids are gone, and we’re just stuck with our spouse, or worse they’re gone too..
Of the lonely people in the Harvard study, the data from the older demographic showed that 35% missed having someone to share a meal with. 30% missed holding someone’s hand. 44% missed having someone to go on vacation with.
So when we are too consumed with our current time in life and “don’t have time” for community, it turns out that there will likely come a time when we have more time on our hands than we would like.
Community with others is more than a time commitment, it’s also a commitment to someone else’s mess. We all love when someone accepts us in all of our brokenness, but when it’s time for us to accept others, it can get messy. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I get in over my head? And messy situations take time.
I’m reminded of the well-known African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It’s 2018 in the U.S.. Everything is fast now. Our cars can get us places fast, our phones can quickly connect to the internet, Amazon can literally get us something the day we order it if we want it bad enough.
The Kingdom of God is not a drive-thru, and when we turn our following Jesus into a 3-hour a week pick-me-up, we are cheapening the sacrifice and gift of the Church God has for us. The community that God has intended for us is not fast, it is slow and time-consuming and messy. We want everything to be efficient and expedient, but efficiency and expediency are not traits of a life lived by God’s design.
So those are some of the barriers that we see to this community stuff. Let’s just say that we can get past those, why do we need it?
One thing that community fosters is growth. Proverbs 27:17 says this, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” or “as iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend.” One of the great things about a church community is this: the sharpening is the point! We’ve all got friends that aren’t sharpening us, and probably friends that we aren’t sharpening. We can read our Bible’s all we want and listen to worship songs, but do we ever really know who we are or where we stand until we voice that to someone else? A huge temptation in Christian culture is to not talk about hard things. There are some vital, important ideas we think are impolite to discuss because we say it is too “divisive,” or “might upset someone.” We are cheating ourselves when we do this. We are cheating others by silencing our voice, and we are cheating ourselves by silencing others’ voices. How can we possibly hold to something as truth if we are not courageous enough to voice that to others? We say that our church is a family, but here’s my question: if you can’t talk about hard stuff with your family, who can you talk about it with? To be able to not talk about your views and live comfortably is a privileged position that a lot of people out there don’t have.
Probably six months ago now, I kicked our midweek student gathering off with this question: Are there things that we can’t talk about at church? Almost all of them, said yes, and the ones who didn’t acknowledged that there are things that we don’t talk about. In a perfect world, we would, but we don’t because we’re scared. Scared of rejection, scared of losing a loved one. How can this be? Sometimes I wonder “Have I made church a safe space for people who look like me, think like me, and talk like me, but a dangerous place for everyone else?” We all need to ask ourselves that.
We will not and do not grow inside of our comfort zones. You know where my comfort zone is? On the couch watching football every Saturday. Honestly, I am so excited that it’s football season again. There’s no days in the year that I love more than Saturdays in the fall when I walk out of my room and turn the TV on and there’s my four best friends, Desmond Howard, Reese Davis, Lee Corso, and Kirk Herbstreit breaking down all the days action. That’s my comfort zone: watch football, eat pizza, repeat. Do you see how I’m not growing when I do that (except in my pants size)?
Do you know where is not in my comfort zone? The gym. Though no one who works there knows my name or my face, I am a member at Planet Fitness. I haven’t been to the gym in at least 6 months, maybe close to a year. I don’t look forward to going to the gym, it’s weird. I’ll get sweaty, there will be athletic and fit looking people there, and I always feel out of place. I always think people are looking at me, and I know what you’re thinking “NEWS FLASH: They’re not.” I know… The gym is not in my comfort zone, but if I spent more time there, I would be a healthier person. We grow outside of our comfort zones, and for a lot of us, reaching out to someone else is outside of our comfort zone.
Another benefit of community is also something that it requires: that openness and honesty. I spent four years in college and a lot of stuff my professors said was in one ear and out the other. Probably most things, if I’m being honest. There are a few nuggets though that I walked out with. I remember one day I was in a class and my professor said this: “Is there anyone in your life to whom nothing is a secret?” For many of us, the answer to that question is no. Being vulnerable is hard because we live in a culture that so values success and strength, that weakness and failure is covered up.
If your answer to that question: “is there anyone in your life to whom nothing is a secret?” is no, please please please, maybe today, try and find someone to have that relationship with. There is nothing more rewarding than the mutual accountability of knowing that someone knows you. Find someone or someones who you can tell anything, but also look in that person for someone who loves you too much to leave you where you are. Who do you go to when you need to say, “I keep doing what I know I shouldn’t and I need your help?” Every person in here is struggling deeply with something. Is there anyone that you can share that with?
Another part of openness and honesty is being able to ask questions. You are not weak, stupid, or faithless because you have questions. God can handle your questions, its God. Can you voice your questions to someone? Maybe you feel something like this: “I have grown up in church my whole life, I know all of the stories, and I’ve always believed that God has my best interests at heart. But now I’ve lost this job that I thought was for me, I’ve experienced loss, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been abused, I’m experiencing trauma. Where is God?” A couple things on this: do you have a friend you could express that question to? Are you the type of person that someone can share that with? Can we as a church be the type of people who can sit and not only listen to those questions, but also be the type of people that can respond in genuine empathy and honesty? Our church and the communities within it should be safe spaces for these kind of questions.
So with community, there are barriers, but there are also benefits. Close relationships in faith communities are an integral part of God’s design for humanity. And I know that there are lonely people in here. Let me make this very clear so nobody gets it twisted: if you are lonely, it is not because you are weak, it is not because you lack faith, and it is not because you are unloved. I do hope that something that has been said this morning got your brain turning a little bit. We want every person in here to be connected. If New Garden Church is about coming in on Sunday mornings and getting our boxes checked for the week, we’re wasting our time. If you like our church because you connect with the singing or the message, I’m so happy for you, but I’m also here to tell ya that there’s more than that. God has more goodness for you.
So everyone in here has a step to take this week. I’m not a mind-reader, but here’s some ideas of what those steps may look like. Maybe you are connected in community. Maybe you are locked into a life group, or have found those few people that you are really open with. The challenge for you this week is to think of someone who needs what you have. There’s tons of people out in the world, and likely some in this room, who need you to invite them into a space where they can connect. Maybe you want to be a leader in forming a community of openness in our church. I want to talk to you about that. Maybe you’re trying to find an inroads to connection. Our groups at New Garden are a great way to do that. In a couple weeks, we’ll have our group leaders and a few folks from each group out in the lobby, and they’ll be ready to talk with you about their group. The when’s, where’s, and how’s. I know what it’s like to be fringe-level at a church. The first step towards a community is a tough one, but let us meet you there. We’re all new here, and we want to connect with you. No need for a deep dive at first, just take a baby-step towards connection.
Maybe this morning, we need to confess some wrongs. Maybe we need to confess of being closed off or exclusive. Maybe we need to confess that for too long we’ve kept to ourselves instead of giving others the gift of connecting with us.
So there’s a chance it’s going to get messy, but what family isn’t messy? There’s a chance it will be hard, but what’s worth doing that isn’t hard?