UNDERSTANDING FAITH COMMUNITIES AND THE CHURCH

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CHAPTER 6 A JOURNEY FROM BEING THE STRANGER TOWARDS A SHARED MEAL AMONG FRIENDS

They seem to take the sun out of the universe when they deprive life of friendship Cicero (quoted by Carmichael 2004:31)
The greatest need in modern civilization is the development of communities – true communities where the heart of God is home, where the humble and wise learn to shepherd those on the path behind them, where trusting strugglers lock arms with others as together they journey on. Crabb (1997:xvii)

INTRODUCTION

In the past three chapters I have argued that humans are essentially relational beings. In Chapter 3 I argued that in a predominant culture of individualism, we are lured away from this fundamental truth about our being. We have lost our image of ourselves as relational beings, believing that we actually can make it on our own. However, as Myers (2000:178) points out, when individuals pursue their own ends and all goes well, it can be rewarding; but when things go badly, there is less social support. Although communities who embrace a mostly individualistic, materialistic lifestyle infected by consumerism, often have a relatively high number of “very happy” people, they also have high suicide and homicide rates. The story of Linda and her family is testimony to the reality that we cannot make it on our own. Therefore, I agree with Crabb (1997:xvi) when he argues that “beneath all our problems, there are desperately hurting souls that must find the nourishment only community can provide”.
Although many authors write about the importance of community, few write about how to create the nourishing community we long for. This thesis attempts to explore through the lived experience of the participants to the research practical ways in which communities can overcome the obstacles in their way to connect to each other through ethical ways of loving and doing friendship. However, I first have to explore what these obstacles are. Therefore, this chapter will be about our struggle as finite human beings to find our roots in our connectedness, to be truthful to our calling to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. It will be a journey from “hostility” towards “hospitality” (Nouwen 1976:43). I will first introduce a letter from a young person addressing his congregation, pouring his heart out onto his congregation whom he believed had abandoned him and his family in the face of their struggle against the devastating effects of drug addiction. I will then reflect on our vulnerability and the obstacles we face in our individualistic and materialistic culture obstructing our journey in becoming participating communities as friends of God. At the end of the chapter I will relate a story where a community overcame these obstacles and, through practical acts of caring, connected with a wounded family.
My intention is not to suggest a prototype of connecting through friendship, but rather to offer through the lived experience of a few people, together with the insight and wisdom of philosophers, theologians and other authors, some ideas about the “how” to do friendship.

 A LETTER TO THE OOSTERLIG CONGREGATION

I received the following letter from a young man who was in the vice of drug abuse for a long time. His road to recovery was marked by several relapses. He wrote this letter during this period of recovery. It was published in “Netwerk”, the monthly magazine of Oosterlig Congregation.
“This letter is from me, a brother in Christ who survived the hell of drug abuse. It is also from the other brothers and sisters who suffer.
Only recently I called out with Job: “My spirit is broken – I don’t want to live anymore! My own family keeps their distance and acquaintances have forgotten me! Since my difficulties have begun, people who live blissfully despise me, and they will even kick me when I am down.”
But with the grace of Jesus everything has changed.
Christ Jesus sacrificed His life to pay for my sins and to save me from the hell of drug abuse! Only now do I know that through my difficulties the Lord educated me and through suffering, He showed me what obedience really means. I can now rejoice and say that I belong to God! Fortunately, I now also have someone in heaven, Jesus Christ, who can present my case and who will protect me! But here in the congregation of Oosterlig, where God had long ago prepared a place for me, I don’t have anything significant.
Inspired by my love for the Lord, I address this letter to you today:
Why have I never felt at home among you? Why have the congregation and its pastors never taken pity on me? Why did I have to search through rubbish bins when I was hungry? Why did I have to drink at strange fountains when I was thirsty? Why did I have to use newspapers to cover me when I was cold?
You know, my dear brother and sister in Christ, we are all the same in the eyes of God; I too am only a person moulded out of clay.
I try to walk the straight line to help those who follow me and struggle to walk to become strong, and not powerless. I try to help them to gain hope that will bring relief, but I am stumbling and battling to stand up straight. My growth is exceedingly difficult!
Are those who are strong in their faith not supposed to notice the difficulties of others and help them to carry their burdens? Are we not supposed to think of others and do what is necessary in order for them to enhance their faith?
I take the liberty of asking: why was my family punished for my drug abuse? Amongst you, community of Oosterlig, they experienced no warmth or acceptance. Over a period of nearly twelve years they had merely five calls and one visit from you! I praise God for my family! They taught me something of the unconditional love of Jesus Christ.
Let us love one another with the genuine love coming from God. If someone is capable of this love, then he is a child of God who knows Him. We should not think only of ourselves and our own pleasure. To love means to be patient, friendly and compassionate. We should accept one another the way Christ accepted us, because if we do, we honour God.
I greet you all. May God have mercy on you! The God who always has been and who is, and who always will be”.

PARTICIPATION IN COMMUNITY – AN OBSTACLE COURSE?

When reflecting on this letter, I have to agree with Guder (1999:45) when he contends that there are obviously profound contradictions between the message of the gospel of love and the unloving way in which Christians frequently live as communities. He refers to “the what of the gospel and the how of our witness”. I also have to agree with Carr (1989:53) who contends: “[I]t looks like evidence that we, the Christians who glibly speak of God’s love and ours, have in practice proved insufficiently loving”.
However, I also have to agree with Clapp (1996:200) that the Church is a way of life lived not with the expectation that Christians can, through “managerial arts or sudden heroism”, make the world right. It is instead a way of life lived in the confidence that God has, in the Kingdom of Christ, begun to set the world right – and that someday Christ will bring his Kingdom to its fulfilment. In the meantime, through ethical ways of loving, through creating space for the other and through evaluating the consequences of our actions on the well-being of others, I believe that we have the responsibility to alleviate the worst effects of the predominantly individualistic world we are living in.
I sincerely believe that the members of the community to whom this letter has been addressed, are more ignorant than intentionally wicked and unloving (Clapp 1996:153). The question remains, however, why does it happen that the how of our witness does not reflect the what of the gospel? What stands in the way of our faith communities to live out their calling to love God and to love their neighbour? To embrace them all in friendship? When Nouwen (1976:43) argues that a characteristic of our spiritual life as Christians is to reach out to the many strangers – and I take the freedom to include the wounded – whom we meet on our way through life, why do so many strangers find it so hard to find “a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found”?
Wadell (2002:42) joins in this argument when he argues that despite our inherent need for friendship and togetherness, in many respects we seem much better at loneliness than we are at intimacy. With him, I ask: “Have we sabotaged our happiness by becoming more adept at isolation and loneliness than we are at intimacy and friendship? Is it true that we have learned best how to be strangers to one another – even to the people with whom we live everyday – but that this has happened so quietly and gradually we hardly realise how disconnected we have become?” Kotzé (2006) wonders whether we are “trapped” in the discourses of our culture to the extent that we cannot escape at will. It is as if we know what has to be done, we know we should do it, but we are incapacitated because we are at the same time also the stranger in need of friendship and community. How can we “feed others while at the same time we are starving”? When discussing these ideas, my teenaged daughter responded: “Why, this is so true! I saw that on our recent holiday in the behaviour of the youngsters around the pool. It seems so clear that all everybody wants, is to find someone to be keen on, and to be liked in return. Why is it then so difficult to find that someone? Why are the girls so mean to the boys, when all they want is the boys to take notice of them, to be liked by them? And the boys behave in the same way towards the girls. It was quite amusing to watch this game”.
It seems to me that participating in community life as friends of God, to journey from hostility towards hospitality, or from a narcissistic preoccupation with the self towards ethical ways of loving where we create space for strangers and take into account the well-being of others, moving from position 3 to position 1 in the Friendship Position Map discussed in Chapter 5, can be as full of obstacles and challenges as participating in an obstacle course! In the following paragraphs, I will explore some of the obstacles and impediments to friendship and communal life. I will explore a few ideas, trying to understand why, despite God’s merciful word and our inherent need for friendship and intimacy, a young man finds it necessary to address his community of faith in the way he did in the letter above. Although many of the ideas discussed in this paragraph were discussed in earlier chapters, I will revisit them again in the context of being obstacles on our journey towards participating communities as friends of God. This section is therefore not a detailed discussion of any of the ideas presented, but refers to some ideas that intoxicate our participation in friendships and communal life. As I explained earlier, being a white South African woman, and relying to a great extent on individualistic, Christian insight while doing this research, most of my arguments are flavoured by an individualistic, Christian tradition. Due to my experience during workshops I presented and which were attended by people of European descend as well as more traditional African backgrounds, I do believe that the experiences of people in South Africa, from a more traditional African background, will differ to a large extent from those described in the following paragraphs.

 The lifestyle in modern times

Where we live and how we live has changed in ways that are not always healthy for friendship and intimacy. Few people immersed in an individualistic lifestyle know what it is to “live in a true neighbourhood”, and our neighbours “are strangers who happen to live next door” (Wadell 2002:43). Although our increased mobility offers us the freedom to go where we want when we want, it uproots us and works against the stability necessary for relationships to begin and to grow. Developing friendships demands that at least occasionally we slow down and stay put. According to the French philosopher Derrida (1997:15), “engagement in friendship takes time”. Friendship therefore requires people who are able to slow down long enough to get to know one another, who can be “available to one another long enough for friendship to take root and grow” (Wadell 2002:43). If Magda (Chapter 5, paragraph 5.2.2) was not prepared to slow down long enough to make time for the tea-drinking sessions at the coffee-shop with her neighbour, and if her neighbour did not respond by giving up her own time to get to know her new neighbour, both of them would have missed the opportunity to develop a friendship which made a difference for both of them. If we are caught up in the rat race, we often have no energy left to reach out in friendship to others. Although we are in need of friendship, we often have no resources left to make the effort. Therefore, when we really are in need of a listening presence, we would rather pay a therapist than make a friend! Magda could have offered her neighbour the telephone number of our pastoral centre or another good therapist, and in terms of time it would have been more “productive” for the neighbour to make an appointment with a “professional” instead of the weekly sessions with her neighbour in a coffee shop. I cannot help but wonder if the outcome would have been the same? Have they found more in each other’s company than the “solving of the problem of violence” in the neighbour’s house? Magda responded to these questions with the following remark: “This happened a long time ago, and it was not as if we became the best of friends. But I still remember it clearly, because of the effect it had on me. I was rattled by the simplicity of it all: that something as simple as a few cups of tea could have an effect like that! I actually did nothing! It opened my eyes to possibilities I have to offer that I never thought of before. I also learned a valuable lesson: My first reaction to the sound of violence from my neighbour’s house, was one of confrontation. Fortunately my husband talked some sense into my head. At the end I took the longer road and befriended my neighbour, investing more time in her, which I learned was the better thing to do. I used this knowledge ever since”.
For Magda it was worth the effort and time spent to build a friendship with her neighbour. It happened many years ago, and still has an impact on her life. If she took the option of sending her neighbour to a therapist or call in the police, she would have lost out on a life changing experience.

Individualism

In Jesus’ times, friendship was “significant and much sought after” (Southard 1989:210). However, today friendships are impaired by the “haughty individualism” (Wadell 2002:44) of the individualistic culture. We live in a society that teaches us to put ourselves and our needs before the needs and well-being of others. Southard (1989:210) argues that the multiplication of choices we have, has made the difference: The variety of personal preferences came out of the Seventeenth Century philosophies of universal benevolence, made possible, and extended by the emerging capitalism and exploration that opened myriad opportunities for economic, social and political advancement. The ancient, enduring choice of a friend was an encumbrance to entrepreneurs. According to Southard (1989:211), the “elitist, restrictive elements of friendship have not survived in an opportunistic society”.
According to Goodliff (1998:153), what he calls “narcissism”, stops us seeing the world through the other’s eyes. Therefore, blinded by our own ego-centrism, we refrain from evaluating the consequences of our actions on the well-being of others, impairing our capacity for the ethical ways of love I argued for in Chapter 5. In the context of the Friendship Position Map I discussed in paragraph 5.5, a person whose primary concern is individual rights and his/her personal well-being, would, as a “poor candidate for friendship” (Wadell 2002:44) be positioned mainly in the third quadrant together with selfishness and hostility. Sweet (1999b:307) refers to “felt-needs” as opposed to “God-wants”. Felt-needs leave people feeling content with themselves and at peace with the world. However, according to him, faith is more than selffulfilment; faith includes loving God and loving one’s neighbour. It also calls for the creation of space for the stranger, positioned in the first quadrant in the Friendship Position Map, together with hospitality and ethical ways of being.
The very qualities requisite for friendship, such as generosity and thoughtfulness, the capacity to evaluate the consequences of our actions on the well-being of others, are “hardly nurtured in a society that tells us we must look after ourselves first because nobody else will” (Wadell 2002:44). Such an understanding of the self sees us not primarily as social and relational beings who need others in order to develop and flourish, but as “essentially private, solitary and autonomous individuals for whom relationships are more likely an unwanted restriction than the key to our humanization” (Wadell 2002:44). If this is the way I see myself, what happens then when I become wounded, and find myself in a situation where I am in need of support of others? When I admit that I need someone else, am I a “failure” because I am not the autonomous individual the discourse of my culture wants to convince me I should be? Could this be the reason why many people decline the invitation to join the support group for the parents of young people trapped in drug abuse, with words like: “Thank you, but we are fine” or “Thank you, but we are coping. We will attend when things get worse”? Will they perceive themselves as failures when they did not succeed in making it on their own? Jane remembers her reluctance to join the group: “I am so trained to believe that I have to cope on my own, I truly believed that I did not really need the support of others – I believed that Martha’s support was enough. In fact, being a very private person, the idea of spilling my guts in front of others was very scary. I kept thinking: What will they think of me for not being able to get my own house in order?”

TABLE OF CONTENT
Declaration
Summary
Acknowledgements
CHAPTER 1: A RESEARCH JOURNEY TOWARDS PARTICIPATING COMMUNITIES OF FAITH AS COMMUNITIES OF FRIENDS OF GOD
1.1  INTRODUCTION
1.2  THE INSPIRATION TO THE STUDY
1.3  MY COMMITMENT TO THIS STUDY
1.4  RESEARCH CURIOSITY
1.5  PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
1.6  RESEARCH PARADIGM
1.7  CHAPTERS OUTLINE
CHAPTER 2: DISCURSIVE POSITIONING 
2.1  INTRODUCTION
2.2  PASTORAL THEOLOGY OF PARTICIPATION
2.3  A PASTORAL THEOLOGY OF PARTICIPATION THROUGH PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH
2.4  UNDERSTANDING FAITH COMMUNITIES AND THE CHURCH
2.5  THE RESEARCH JOURNEY
2.6  CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 3: LITERATURE OVERVIEW: A JOURNEY FROM INDIVIDUALISM TOWARDS PARTICIPATING FAITH COMMUNITIES
3.1  INTRODUCTION
3.2  THE FACE OF RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM
3.3  THE THEOLOGY OF UBUNTU
3.4  A RICHLY TEXTURED INDIVIDUALISM
3.5  THE FUNDAMENTAL RELATIONALITY OF HUMAN EXISTENCE
3.6 INDIVIDUALISM, RELIGION AND ETHICS IN A POST-MODERN RELIGIOUS CONTEXT
3.7  WHO IS THE OTHER?
3.8  TAKING SIDES FOR COMPASSIONATE PARTICIPATION IN FRIENDSHIP
CHAPTER 4: A SPIRITUALITY OF FRIENDSHIP: RE-MEMBERING THE METAPHOR OF THE CHURCH AS A COMMUNITY OF THE FRIENDS OF GOD
4.1  INTRODUCTION
4.2  A PHILOSOPHY OF CHRISTIAN FRIENDSHIP
4.3  JESUS AS FRIEND OF SINNERS
4.4  CONSIDERING VOICES OPPOSING A METAPHOR OF GOD AS FRIEND
4.5  CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 5: AN ETHICAL SPIRITUALITY OF PARTICIPATION AND MUTUAL CARE: DOING FRIENDSHIP 5.1  INTRODUCTION
5.2  TALES OF LIVING FRIENDSHIP
5.3  THE GIFT OF FRIENDSHIP
5.4  LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP
5.5  DECONSTRUCTING FRIENDSHIP: FROM ARISTOTELIAN, EXCLUSIVE FRIENDSHIP TOWARDS CHRIST-LIKE, INCLUSIVE NEIGHBOUR-LOVE
5.6  FAITH COMMUNITIES AS COMMUNITIES OF FRIENDS
5.7  CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 6: JOURNEY FROM BEING THE STRANGER TOWARDS A SHARED MEAL AMONG FRIENDS
6.1  INTRODUCTION
6.2  A LETTER TO THE OOSTERLIG CONGREGATION
6.3  PARTICIPATION IN COMMUNITY – AN OBSTACLE COURSE?
6.4  A NEW SENSIBILITY
6.5  INVITING STRANGERS TO THE SHARED MEAL OF FRIENDS
6.6  A TALE OF HOSPITABLE PARTICIPATION IN COMMUNITY
6.7  CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 7: A SPIRITUALITY OF HOSPITALITY: TOWARDS HEALING COMMUNITIES
7.1  INTRODUCTION
7.2  HEALING AS CREATING SPACE FOR THE STRANGER
7.3  THE NARRATIVE QUALITY OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE
7.4  NARRATIVES OF WOUNDEDNESS
7.5  WHEN STORIES ARE SHARED
7.6  A LISTENING HABITAT
7.7  THE COMPASSIONATE HEART OF THE HEALER
7.8  WITNESSING THE HEALER
7.9  CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 8: HABITAT FOR GROWING LIVING FRIENDSHIP 
8.1  INTRODUCTION
8.2  LEARNING THE ART OF CARING-IN-FRIENDSHIP
8.3  HEALING GIFTS OF OUR FAITH TRADITIONS
8.4  ENGAGING COMMUNICATION STRUCTURES IN THE INVITATION OF BECOMING FRIENDS
8.5  CANDLES OF COMPASSION
8.6  A SPECIAL KIND OF COMMUNITY
8.7  FAITH COMMUNITIES AS MIXTURE OF FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
8.8  CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 9: REFLECTING ON THE RESEARCH JOURNEY 
9.1  INTRODUCTION
9.2  MY REFLECTION ON THE RESEARCH JOURNEY
9.3  REFLECTIONS OF THE PARTICIPANTS
9.4  CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE FIELD OF PRACTICAL THEOLOGY AND PASTORAL CARE
9.5  SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER ACTION
9.6  MISSING PIECES
9.7  IMAGINATION OF AN ALTERNATIVE KIND

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