Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Cost of Fellowship

A dear woman, who I admire greatly, has often been heard to make the statement, "sometimes people break your china." What she was referring to (in my understanding) is that sometimes, when you are in relationship with people, they're going to hurt or offend you. It's a fact of life.

It's similar to my thought process on interpreting Proverbs 14:4 which says, "Where no oxen are, the trough is clean; but much increase comes by the strength of an ox." I always thought that was a beautiful way to describe church. Church would be a perfect place if there were no people in it, but if there were no people in it, nothing would be accomplished for the kingdom of God.

I guess what I'm saying is, relationships are messy. People offend you, or rub you the wrong way. They can hurt you, unintentionally, or even with purpose. Being in relationship with people gives them power in your life, makes you vulnerable and can be extremely challenging at times. And yet, God has indeed called us to be relational, intimately so.

Being in relationship is work, it's not easy or natural, it takes effort. I don't think that is better exemplified anymore clearly than in marriage. Now as wives go, I don't know there could be any more crazy about her husband than I am. I love that man beyond words, but I can honestly say one of the happiest days for me in our marriage was when we sat counseling a struggling couple and I heard him say the words, "marriage is hard." You see for a long time... a long, long time, my husband held the same misconception that so many others I know do. He thought marriage should be easy, simple, natural even. I'm not sure why he thought that but he did. So I was hard pressed not to stand up and do a happy dance that day, some eighteen years into our marriage, when he finally confessed the challenges.

Although it is well illustrated in marriage, I think the reasoning of the complications of relationship are the same in other relationships too, like family, friendship, authority - all a challenge.

I'll grant you that some friendships are easy, fun, and with few or no complications, but I would challenge you to examine the depth of them. When they are that simple, it is in my opinion because of one of two reasons. Either, it's not all that deep, it's very surface, built on a common interest, like say a golf buddy, or because the relationship has gone deep enough, and had enough effort put into it that it's got a really strong foundation and is built with clear guidelines.

Guidelines? Yes, that's what I said. I have a few friendships in my life built in this manner, but I have one in particular that is really well structured. My friend and I even call the guidelines our "rules." Both of us being women, she being very open emotionally and me being one who over thinks everything we decided that if anything even ever seemed off between us, we had to check it out. We had to be open and ask one another and clear the air as soon as either of us felt things were off. She's been my friend for over 10 years, and although we have had bumps in the road, I can honestly say it is one of the strongest relationships in my life.

Has she ever broken my china? Probably. Have I ever broken hers? Undoubtedly, and yet our friendship remains. But through the years, and through the process we've managed to build something to last, and something that I believe benefits us both. When I'm out of line, no one calls me on the carpet faster than my friend. Not because she has some power in our relationship to harm me, but because she loves me, she cares about me, and she sincerely wants what's best for me. She doesn't let me wander off God's path for me without throwing a rope to pull me back.

I think God's heart is for His body to be filled with relationships like that one. People who are willing to be real and transparent with one another, intimate. People who are just as willing to share their struggles as their victories and just as open to accept criticism as accolades. It isn't easy, even for me and my friend, but the benefits are worth it, most of all the fellowship that comes from walking arm and arm, looking out for one another and encouraging each other along the way.

There are many costs to fellowship like this one though. You have to be willing to forgive, to overlook offenses, when they "break your china" whether it's a chip, or it's been completely smashed - because both will happen, probably more than once. My son and his friend have this running joke. One will slap the other, and in response he will "turn the other cheek," bringing along with it a vengeful hand that slaps back bigger and harder than the friend who slapped first. In teenage high jinks it's all fun and laughter, but underneath it lies an attitude in life, in "the world" that to many hold truth, and it destroys relationships in the process.

Another cost to fellowship is accountability. It's tough to be accountable. It gives permission to those around you to do that "calling on the carpet" I was talking about. It means not letting your friend off the hook when they should have been holding to a higher standard. It's often when accountability pops into the picture that I see people run from relationships. I know I have experienced that myself. I have seen people around me who have appreciated hearing truth until they are questioned about why they aren't living truth. Funny thing is, being accountable probably births as much benefit in spiritual growth as anything. Teachable people are growing people. Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid. Proverbs 12:1 - Ouch! Did God just call someone stupid? He did, strong words... I guess we should take in that point. So many people run from accountability and I think when they do they set up a huge stumbling block in their own path towards spiritual maturity.

The benefit of the doubt, there's another challenge to fellowship. We have to choose to assume the best about one another. If someone does, in fact, "chip your china" you have to choose to assume they didn't mean to. For some people that's in their nature, for me others that's not totally the case.

Actually, I know I'm not the only one who struggles with that. Have you ever accidentally cut someone off on the freeway? I did yesterday and it was followed by an emphatic and heartfelt series of single finger salutes in my rear view mirror. I felt bad, but wasn't too much worse for the wear, but it's a different story when you're in relationship with a person. Neal and I often drive home from church in caravan when we've had to start our day at different times. If I accidentally cut him off to find him making the same gestures in my rear view mirror I would be wounded that he would think I had cut him off intentionally. But if I did cut him off, he would have to give up his "right" to display his displeasure for the sake of assuming I meant him no ill will. It's part of being in relationship.

Messy, a hassle, an inconvenience, sometimes even wounds, some earned, some undeserved, but wounds just the same. All are costs to fellowship.

But God has indeed called His children into fellowship. And truth be told, the benefits far outweigh the challenges and inconveniences. True fellowship, with one another and in the body as a whole, brings light, and life and hope. Having people in your life who truly know you and accept you, despite your "china breaking" ways brings strength, it causes there to be a security that knowing even when you fail, you have people in your life who will still love you and stand with you. Accountability isn't fun, but brings forth the truth of "iron sharpening iron." Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so people can improve each other. (NCV) There is growth and strength in relationships like that.

Being someone who gives the benefit of the doubt makes us a people of grace. It makes us clearer reflectors of God's goodness, and being on the receiving end of the benefit of the doubt gives us hope, and courage to press on and step through doors that might otherwise intimidate us, doors that lead to true and intimate friendships, where people can be counted on, and where we ourselves long to become better friends, better spouses, better parents, better Christians.

God meant for us to be in relationship, close and committed to one another. The old charcoal analogy speaks well, a single briquette alone can neither burn well or even keep warm for long, but when many are brought together the power of the flame and the evidence of the heat are strong and effective. Likewise fellowship not only benefits the individual but the body of Christ as a whole, whether observed in the church or the kingdom, the benefits of fellowship are vast.

So what holds you back? Do you prefer to be a golf buddy to a true friend? Even a "church buddy" alone lacks the benefit if you aren't willing to make a deeper investment. But if we each take that step of faith from independence to interdependence, we might just find the body to be effective within the kingdom and toward the world in a greater way. So, let's be real, be available, be open, the inconvenience could pay off for a lifetime.

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it;
if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:26-27 (NIV)