The other night I invited six people to a dinner party that I was hosting for my birthday. I picked six because I have a table that seats that many and I didn’t want it to be so big that people would break off into groups to talk. I desired ideally, good conversation among all of us. We hardly ever do that any more it seems to me. I also told them that I didn’t want any gifts for my birthday but I said that if they wanted to they could bring a ‘gift’ to perform or present which celebrated life. I’m not sure why I did that but intuitively I felt that by doing this we might, God willing, experience something deep as we listened to one another, deeper than talking about the weather, the habits of our children, the struggles at work or what was new at the shops that week. I thought to myself it could go badly and get a little tacky, perhaps feel a little staged or it could be special.
As it turns out the night ended up being a very special evening. Each person shared about something that was close to their heart through song, poetry, crocheting, writing and visual art. As we told stories we celebrated and grieved change, we laughed and wept about the struggle of being female in our world, we cried about broken dreams and we reflected on the fragility of life. In short even though we were each so different, from various ethnic backgrounds and social contexts, each at different stages of life, single, married, child free, with child, we experienced that rare thing called connection. And I don’t think connection happens that often in life. Not real connection.
Think about it, most of the time we live on the surface of life, communicating about mundane matters for practical purposes, ‘Don’t forget to pick up that cake for Sarah’s birthday tomorrow’, ‘What do you think we should make for dinner tonight?’ ‘Wonder how we can get rid of all those leaves from the gutter the easiest way? ‘Can you file this?’ Life is usually made of of such ordinary things. So when we connect, when we actually look into each others souls we can immediately sense the difference. God made us to connect in this way with one another.
When I thought about that dinner party the next day and as I reflected on what actually happened in the end I realised that the kingdom of God had broken into my dinner party right there at my table. There were six people doing what God had made them to do, we were connecting deeply so that community was formed in a real and authentic way. We were reflecting the image of God. Our barriers came down and I witnessed the way that God had been working in one friend’s life for her profound transformation, in a way that nothing but the Spirit of God can do. Our arms reached out to another friend who is grieving the loss of a broken dream yet is still believing in the presence of God in her life. And we nodded in agreement to a poem read out by another about the difficulties of gender boundaries placed on women and we heard God’s whisper in the poem.
Why does this kind of connecting happen so infrequently in Christian community? Don’t get me wrong there were little glimpses that night of the brokenness of our world, insecurity, pride, competition yet that was completely overridden by the work of the Spirit who builds community. The breaking in of the kingdom of God that I experienced at that dinner table can only happen as the Spirit creates that kind of connectedness. There was a glimpse of the kingdom that night yet the fragility of moments like these slip through our fingers continually. They are so unable to be held for long periods of time. The next day things go back to normal. We put up our walls, we display our independence, we avert our eyes from one another. I think we have all experienced this glimpse into the kingdom at some stage and the sadness when it inevitably fades.
What stops us from allowing that connectivity to cultivate in our lives to a greater extent? Insecurity? Pride? Fear of the other? Fear of how that ‘other’ person might change us? Control? The thought of inconvenience? Once again I think it is something that we can have a bit more imagination about in order to see how the kingdom can break through in our world a little more. As we take risks to connect we radiate kingdom values in our world which is longing for the revelation of the ‘secret’ we hold. Most people are craving for real and deep connectivity. Most people I know no matter their status, are lonely. Most people don’t know how to connect. Could we have a bit more kingdom of God imagination here? Here are some things that we could do to grow deep connectivity but which require courage, release, risk and a posture of sacrifice.
Sometimes I think we are much too sedentary as Christians. We gravitate towards the status quo as though this is what Jesus commanded us when in reality he was someone who was constantly pushing boundaries and turning society upside down. Too often we wait when instead we could be doing something to take action. Evelyn Underhill wrote in The Spiritual Life,
Thy Will be done- Thy Kingdom come! There is an energy, drive, purpose in those words; an intensity of desire for the coming of perfection into life. Not the limp resignation that lies devoutly in the road and waits for the steam roller; but a total concentration on the total interests of God, which must be expressed in action. It is useless to utter fervent petitions for that Kingdom to be established and that Will be done, unless we are willing to do something about it ourselves. As we walk though London we know very well that we are not walking through the capital of the Kingdom of heaven. Yet we might be, if the conviction and action of every Christian in London were set without any conditions or any reluctance towards this end; if there were perfect consistency, whatever it cost- and it is certain that the cost would not be small- between our spiritual ideals and our social and political acts. We are the agents of the Creative Spirit, in this world. Real advance in the spiritual life, then, means accepting this vocation with all it involves.
Our first posture in the kingdom of God is, knowing what we have to do, we do it. We are made to connect with other human beings on a deep level. We must find practical ways to do that even though there are many factors which would try to stop us.
Think about your definition of family
We hear a lot about ‘family first’ in Christian circles today. I struggle with this even though I would consider myself a ‘family’ person (though some with limited thinking might not see that as I am single and child free). I love my family and see them as much as I can and offer my assistance when it is needed. However I also see and have experienced myself the utter self absorption that comes with this notion of ‘family first’. The implicit messages that come through with this seductive way of thinking are ‘Our needs come first’, ‘We deserve this’, ‘We are connected with one another and there is no room for the “other”‘, ‘Our time together is sacred’. The worse thing is that these messages are sanctified by stating that this is the way that God would interpret family! Nothing could be further from the truth according to Scripture. Scripture speaks of family for certain and that it is a good gift from God but the expression of family occurs in myriad ways. Krish Kandiah who is an evangelist in the UK and is also an advocate for fostering children says this in a very interesting article that you can access here;
There is no single Hebrew word that directly corresponds to what we in the West refer to as the Nuclear family
The Old Testament is replete with examples of varied family structures. Though the first human marriage is clearly monogamous it is not held up as a model of human flourishing- particularly as the first two children are a murderer and his victim. There are examples within Israel’s central story of polygamous families such as the patriarch Jacob with his two wives and thirteen children. There are instances of harems and concubines- most famously Solomon, the wisest man on the planet with 700 wives and 300 concubines. There are also references to single parent families, blended families, foster families, kinship carers and adoptions. Interracial marriage too was practiced and is both commended and forbidden. The New Testament removes any barrier to mixed race marriage, encourages monogamy instead of polygamy (especially for leaders), and forbids adultery. The New Testament both encourages singleness as a high calling and honours the relationship between a husband and wife as a visual aid for the relationship between Christ and the church…we must beware of anachronistic retrofitting into Scripture of the Western post- Enlightenment nuclear family as the norm…
Clearly there is a mix of models that convey the concept of ‘family’ in Scripture so we can’t then hold up the narrow definition of the nuclear family as the ideal. In fact Scripture seems to testify to ‘family’ as having an open structure which fosters connectivity between people rather than the typically closed view that we usually have in Western society which perpetuates disconnection.
Picture an open table
If the nuclear family is not the norm in Scripture what we can say is that Jesus encouraged people to include others into their family circle. Instead of the normal closed description of family that the nuclear model conveys Jesus seemed to encourage us to include others into our family and friendship circles. His comment to people who told him that his mother and brothers were waiting for him at home was ‘”Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?..These people are my mother and my bothers’ as he pointed to the people around him (Mark 3:31-35). In fact ‘family’ is supposed to be the place that those who suffer from not having it, find it through the generosity of others. In Mark 10:28ff Peter asks Jesus what they will receive since they have left their families to follow Jesus and Jesus says ‘I tell you the truth no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive an hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields- and with them persecutions) and in the age to come eternal life.’ Of course this is a promise of the blessings of life in eternity for those who leave families for Jesus and find themselves lonely however through Christ eternal life starts now and the kingdom is here! So it is incumbent upon those blessed by the gift of good families, I think to open up their circles and tables to include those who do not have families perhaps because of following Jesus . We need to be looking for these people and generously open our doors to them. In this posture of openness we create more opportunities for connecting.
Welcome the poor
Letty Russell in her book Church in the Round says
Hospitality calls us to be a community of faith and struggle that connects with those at the margin and celebrates the way God has called a diverse people, so that we may all share together at God’s welcome table!
We see in Scripture that Jesus calls us to include those who are different to us around our table with our family and especially those who are marginalised. Jesus countered the culture of the day in his time that is similar to ours, which encouraged those of similar mind and social status to connect. Instead he encouraged us to step out of our comfort zones and to create community with those who are not like us and those who are marginalised. He said confrontingly in Luke 14;12 ‘When you make a dinner or a supper call not your friends, nor your brothers, neither your kinsmen, nor your rich neighbours…but when you make a feast call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind..’
The wider extended family network that seems to be the norm in biblical history provides the possibilities of intergenerational connectivity. But also built into the law and prophets of Israel was the continual reminder to keep the boundaries between family and non-family. Kith and kin were to include the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the vulnerable
If we practice these things as Christ followers we truly are reflecting the image of God as trinity in a perichoretic relationship as we connect with one another, welcome the other, serve one another. When we do this we then change our world which gravitates towards self focus and closed boundaries as we have seen this week with the appalling refugee policy announced by the Australian government. As we model generosity, connectivity and openness, as we welcome the stranger, the kingdom of God breaks into our world and we can then proclaim that breathtaking message to a community that needs to and longs to hear it.