Jan 04 - The Christian Life Happens In a Circle, Not a Row

The Christian Life Happens In a Circle, Not a Row

January 4, 2015

Matthew 18:7

January 4th, 2015
Matthew 18:7

In the past, there were a few misfits at the Olympics.  If you were around and remember watching the 1988 winter Olympics held in Calgary, you might remember Eddie “the eagle” Edwards who competed in ski-jumping. 
At that same Olympics the Jamaican bobsled team competed.  
Or if you watched the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano, you may remember Philip Boit of Kenya who finished dead last in the 10-kilometer cross-country race.  
Or in more recent times, there was Kwame (Nkrumah-Acheampong) of Ghana, who was nicknamed the "Snow Leopard," competed at the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver.  Unlike the others, he did not place last, but did much better than expected. 
One of the most memorable moments in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sidney, Australia, was when Eric "The Swimmer" Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea swam in the 100-meter free style qualifying heat. The 22-year-old African had only learned to swim one year before the Olympics, had only practiced in a 20-meter pool in a hotel without lane markers, and had trained to race 50 meters, not realizing that the minimum distance is 100 meters.  Ironically, during the qualifying rounds, the other two swimmers in his heat were disqualified because of false starts.  So Moussambani was forced to swim alone.  On the second 50 meters, he ran out of steam and thrashed his way slowly to the end.  The crowd of 17,000 started cheering him on when he was really struggling.  This is what he said,

The first 50 metres were OK, but in the second 50 metres I got a bit worried and thought I wasn't going to make it.  … Then something happened. I think it was all the people getting behind me. I was really, really proud. It's still a great feeling for me and I loved when everyone applauded me at the end. I felt like I had won a medal or something.

Every one of us needs to have cheerleaders, those who cheer us on or comfort us during the times when things get tough, when we are struggling, when we think we are drowning.  And the reality is that the paid staff at any church, this one included, do not have a magic wand that they can wave over the sick to cure them, to remove both physical or emotional pain, to restore broken relationships, to make sure the house sells, to make people be kind and generous, to provide that needed job.  

Yes, pastors can help from time to time in helping those in need, but the reality is that we always need those in our lives we can lean on, and to be someone others can lean on in their time of need.

In order for that to happen, all of us need to be in some kind of structured community, often outside of our families.  This is a reality if we are religious, spiritual, Christian, agnostic or atheistic.  

The kind of groups may differ.  It could be a service group, a meditation group, a support group, a knitting group, a young mom’s group, a team setting, a Bible study group, a prayer group, as long as there is a sense of belonging and friendship and mutual care and understanding – when there is a time when people can share about what’s going on in their lives. 

That’s really one of the secrets behind AA and NA meetings.  It’s hearing the stories of others and telling our own stories and building caring friendships with others.

Now, if we are believers, then we need to be with a group of believers where this sharing and caring can happen.  While it is possible to live as a believer in seclusion … as a monk for example … that is not how most humans are wired.  We were created social beings who need fellowship, community, and friendships.  When difficult or joyous times come along, we have those we can share with.  

The Christian life does not happen in the Sunday morning service, no matter how good and how important the corporate worship and message is.  Sitting in a row we may even think we are at a performance put on for us, when in reality it is every believer who hopefully connects with God on a deeper level.  

But the Christian life really happens when we spend time together with other believers … in prayer, in services, in sharing and caring.  

The very first church got this.  They embraced both worship at the temple and the smaller meetings in their homes.

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  … Day by day, they attended the temple together and broke bread in their homes … praising God.                            Acts 2:42,46,47

Circles are better than rows.   It is better for us to look at each other than looking at a worship teach or a preacher.  In a circle we can listen to each other, pray for each other, share God’s word with each other.  Spiritual and personal growth, belonging, care … always happen in circles, in small groups.  This is why we want to put a large effort in our adult, youth and children’s small groups.

Jesus once spoke about the things that cause his followers to stumble, and he was thinking in particular, some action or event that causes a person to flounder in their faith or even to walk away from what they believe.  This is what he said,

Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble!  Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to the person through whom they come!                Matthew 18:7

The second sentence literally reads, “Bound for to come the stumbling blocks.” In the Greek, sometimes the most important word in a sentence is placed first.  Like Yoda speaking to Luke Skywalker:  Impatient you are. Help you I can, yes.

In other words, it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come.  It isn’t as if some people are immune from tripping over something that they weren’t anticipating.  

All believers will encounter things in their lives that will tempt them to put God on the back burner, to stop in their pursuit of God, that keep them from obedience to God’s will, that will even pull them away completely from their faith.

So what causes us to stumble?  Jesus indicates that both circumstances and individuals could be the source.

So, it could be new ideas or new information that we receive at college or university.  In fact, our own university, while open to some forms of esoteric religion, is highly opposed to Christianity.  

I sometimes wonder what happens when children learn that their parents purposefully told them some lies during their formative years and how that impacts their faith in God.

Or it may simply be that our new circle of friends and acquaintances want nothing to do with anything remotely connected to God.  In fact, it could be one relationship that causes us to turn our back on God.  

How many people have vowed that they would never abandon God, never abandon church, never abandon their Christian friends … yet end up doing just that?  

The stumbling block could be what Jesus in the parable of the soils calls the “deceitfulness of riches” (Matt 13:22; Mark 4:19), “the cares of the world” (Matt 13:22) and “the desire for other things” (Mark 4:19), that chokes out faith.  

In other words, the things we desire and want, including money and possessions, can become that stumbling block, if it takes us away from living for God.  

I recently met with a friend who spoke of some corporate cultures where the person who makes the most money has to pretend that he is the smartest person in the organization, and others have to affirm him in this sham.  More money doesn’t make us smarter.  In fact, it can deceive us into thinking we are more than we really are.

Wealth can in fact increase our opportunities to serve God and help others.  Unfortunately, those opportunities are rarely taken advantage of.   As the writer of Proverbs writes:

Do not give me riches … so I won’t be full and deny you and say, “Who is YHWH”?        Proverbs 30:8-9

We can have too much.  Wealth may be a good thing but it can become a stumbling block.  

Difficulties, stress, suffering, pain, can all become stumbling blocks.  Do you realize that we are the most obese, addicted, medicated and indebted cohort in western history?  Could it be that these are all stumbling blocks we have fallen over because of our society and the need to keep up and feel at least somewhat in control?

It is impossible for us to go through life without having stumbling blocks come into our lives on a consistent basis.  Every single one of us have the potential to stumble if something is thrown at us at an inopportune time.  When we are weak, when we are down, when we are lost, when we are lonely, when we are upset.  

At those time it is easy to stumble out of church, to stumble away from God, to ignore him, to turn our back on him.  It's particularly easy to stumble away when we are only a nameless person sitting in a row on Sunday morning – last in, first out. 

However, what often can keep us from falling when we stumble is when we are in community; when we do life together in community, in fellowship, in a circle  … If that community is actually relational, personal, if we actually go beyond superficial acquaintance.

Now Jesus has a special warning for those who are tempting others out of their relationship with God, away from the good things they are committed to, away from their stated moral beliefs, from their values, from their faith.

To get back to the Star War movies, Anakin Skywalker, filled with anger, kills his own wife and, at the promise of being able to bring her back to life, joins the dark side and becomes Darth Vader, a violent and cruel man battling on the side of evil.  

woe to the person through whom the things that cause people to stumble come!

Eventually Vader engages his grown son, Luke Skywalker, in a light-saber duel, cuts off Luke's right hand, reveals that he is Luke's father, and entreats Luke to turn to the dark side so they can "rule the galaxy as father and son", a promise that is reminiscent of one that Satan made to Jesus in the wilderness temptations.

Woe to the person who causes another to act contrary to their moral values.  Can I personally do or say something that would destroy someone’s faith or the potential for them to come to faith.  Can I say something so harsh or mean to a fellow student, co-worker or anyone else who knows I am a believer, that I would rob them of the desire to ever follow Christ.  Or can I act in such a predatory way, that it actually causes harm to someone else?

What about my own family, my spouse and, in particular, my children?  Can I personally do something that could cause them to stumble?  Is my example, my attitude, my actions and reactions, my words, my lifestyle, the priorities in my life actually the reason why they will reject Christianity in the future?  

Do they see that I have spent all my energy becoming successful at something that doesn’t really matter in life?  Do they see me living in contradiction to my stated beliefs?

Have I prepared them to face with integrity and honesty the different world views they will engage with in higher education?

Can I warn them of the stumbling blocks that will come their way?  I think it’s a good thing that our society is not that open to alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking as it was in the past.   However, there has been an increasing tolerance of smoking pot, as if it had none of the inherent dangers associated with alcohol, nicotine and tar.  

While smoking pot is not the unpardonable sin, unlike what we’re told, it can be addictive or habit forming.  

Pot today has 4 times the amount of THC than pot in the 1980’s.  Very few health professionals consider THC to be benign.  About 9% of users get addicted and for some of them it does become the entrance drug to more harmful substances.  

Frequent pot smoking gives rise to the same conditions as cigarette smokers:  daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent chest illness, and a heightened risk of lung infections.  

While a direct link between smoking pot and cancer has not been established at this time, there are known carcinogenic properties in what is inhaled.  In fact, all smoking is harmful to lungs.

Marijuana hinders learning and memory for weeks after exposure, implying that even casual smokers function at a suboptimal level.  

A large long-term study in New Zealand showed that people who began smoking marijuana heavily in their teens lost an average of 8 points in IQ between age 13 and age 38.  These lost cognitive abilities were not fully restored in those who quit smoking pot as adults.  To be blunt, smoking pot when you’re young can make you dumb.

Do we teach our kids about what they will face?  Do we give them a heads up?  Or do we bury our head in the sand?

Having said that, there is a time when we stumble simply because our parents, our spouses, our family is the last group of people we want to confide in or listen to.  After all, what do they know?  

Instead, our peers, our friends, may be going through the same thing we are, they may understand us better, or they may be safer when it comes to sharing what’s going on with us.  

So sometimes when a stumbling block comes our way, the last group of people we will confide in or listen to consists of family members.  Those are the times when it is important to be in community with those outside of our family.  This is as important for youth as it is for adults.  All of us need positive, spiritual people in our lives.

A man who named himself “Kohelet,” (= teacher), wrote the following:  

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labour.  If they fall down they can help each other up.  But pity those who fall and have no one there to help them up.           Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Two individuals who work in sync with one another can actually accomplish more than they can do individually.  There is greater return on the work done if they complement each other and work in tandem.

By the way, small groups work best when there are between 8-10 people in it, but a small group really starts already with two people who meet on a regular basis:  

Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.                  Matthew 18:20  

Stumbling blocks are inevitable, but pity those who fall and don’t have someone else to help them up.  We can become so disconnected and isolated because of or work, because we are introverts, or because of our personality.  So what happens when we fall morally, or spiritually and there is no one to help us up?  No one to call us out?  No one to hold us accountable?  No one to encourage us?  

Some of us do not take advantage of the opportunities to be in communion because we’re too tired, too burdened, too busy, too overwhelmed, too shy, already overcommitted.  

When I was 17, I was approached by a Christian friend to be involved with Christian Service Brigade.  The captain became a father figure to the one who had no father.  My co-lieutenants became my closest friends.  The boys who were part of the group became those I ministered to.   It was this group that was instrumental in my conversion at 18 and my desire to serve in full-time ministry.  It kept me on the path.  Maybe you have a similar story.  

Imagine if your father had a group of men who were his genuine friends who shared his values and who could help him out and encourage him to do the right thing when things got rough.

Imagine if your ex had a group of friends who were believers and who were able to say that having an affair, or staying out all night, or going to the bar to drink, were able to say, “bad idea, bad idea, bad idea.”  

Imagine if your teen had a group of friends who, instead of pulling him away from God pulled him toward God?  

That is why every church can never just rely on rows, but must focus relentlessly on getting people into circles.  That is, if they connect.

Connection (the Christian term is “fellowship”) is a very important aspect of our lives that gives purpose and meaning in life.  One of the reasons why God put us on this earth is to connect.  It is one of the reasons why we exist.

Often we don’t connect because we are afraid.  We may attend a small group but we never pray out loud, we never share anything personal, we never allow others to see what’s going on inside, because it would make us excruciatingly vulnerable to rejection and ridicule.  

This is particularly true when we feel deep inner shame about who we are.  We feel that we’re simply aren’t good enough to be in connection.  So in a group setting our guard is up because every person there is a potential candidate to hurt or reject us.  For connection to happen we need to be vulnerable, but often we hate being vulnerable.

On the other hand there are those whose insecurities cause them to overshare, to dominate a conversation, to be the center of attention, to the detriment of those who don’t get a chance to share and be heard.  

Or there are those whose pain and discomfort causes them to proclaim even the uncertain as certain.  They argue a priori from their preconceived personal convictions backward to conclusions.  This can be seen in modern politics where there is less and less conversation and more and more blame.  Party lines of personal beliefs as state as empirical certainties.  

Or there are those who simply cannot admit they are wrong, who always know better, … they are not willing to allow any other opinion to stand next to theirs and they are willing to argue until the cows come home to prove that their position is right.

Or there are those who are completely selfish when it comes to a small group function.  I am reminded of group projects in school or university where the other person was incredibly lazy and hardly contributed.  One of the reasons why hosting can be difficult from time to time.

These are some of the main reasons why small groups may not work.  

Small groups shouldn’t be like this; cannot experience one on a webcast or with an orator or as a one holding weapons of attack (figuratively), or with those to whom it isn’t a priority.

A large church in the States has over 40,000 people in small groups.  They have found out that in their case about 12% of those who attend a small group do not have a good initial experience.  Their pastor tells them that this is the time that they have to put on their big boy pants.  

Don’t let one bad experience keep you from joining a small group.  Don’t be like the person who still waxes eloquent over the small group he or she attended back in 1997, but hasn’t attended one since.  One bad experience is no reason not to try again.  That’s how important this is.  

On the other hand, be a person who is a genuine contributor to your group, someone who can allow everyone to speak, who can allow other opinions to stand.  Most outrageous statements, “That’s a unique way of looking at it.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone else interpreting this passage just like that.”

People who ARE able to find genuine connection in small groups are those who believe they are worthy of love and affection.  They have a personal sense of worthiness which in turn allows them to feel a deep sense of belonging. 

These people are courageous in the original definition of the word – the Latin “cor” meaning “heart.”  These are people who have fortitude in their hearts, their inner being.  You could call them “whole hearted.”

Whole hearted since they can accept that they are imperfect.  
Whole hearted since they don’t always have to be right.
Whole hearted in that they do not have to take over and be the center of attention.
Whole hearted in that they have the compassion to be kind to themselves, which then leads to being kind to others.  
Whole hearted in that they do not feel obligated to be someone who others think they need to be – they are able to be themselves.
Wholehearted in that they are able to embrace vulnerability, convinced that this is neither excruciating nor comfortable but necessary if relationships are to grow.
Whole hearted in that they are willing to be the first one to say, “I love you.” 
Whole hearted in that they do all of this knowing that there are no guarantees, that they can invest in relationships that may or may not work out, that not everyone is going to like them, … and they’re Ok with that.

By the way, there are also good reasons for seeing a counsellor or therapist.  One of those reasons is that our friends do not have good bull manure meter.  

Being connected, being in fellowship, being vulnerable and open, … that is the birth place of creativity, joy, love, tenderness, understanding and growth.    

So let us love with our whole hearts even though there are no guarantees.  Let us practice gratitude, joy, and fellowship.  Let us believe that we’re good enough to be in connection.  Let us become vulnerable, even though people may betray us.   

At the end of the day, just get in a circle.  Or start your own.  Speak with pastor Byron.