February 17, 2019
Fellowship Seminar – Session 4
When Mo and I first got married we didn’t have a lot of money. One luxury we went without was cable television and, in a day before DVDs were invented, we had three VHS tapes of movies to watch. When I’m studying or writing I find it easier to play a movie that I’ve seen before in the background; I can look up and enjoy the scene and go back to my work.
One of the movies Mo owned, that we owned when two became one, was “Sleepless in Seattle.” Little did I know at the time that we would eventually plant our family near Seattle, nor did I realize what a profound impact that movie would have on my thinking for now over two decades.
It is one scene in particular that still elevates my mind. Meg Ryan (Annie) and Rosie O’Donnell (Becky) are watching a movie as part of the movie, and Rosie’s character tells Meg’s character, “You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.” True love, romantic and otherwise, is difficult. True love on earth takes work. True love in a sinful world, between sinful people, is a real mess.
Is it a mess worth making? Even those who put the extro in extroverts and those who come out of the womb not running from hugs must, at times, ask the question. In our seminars over the last four years we’ve talked about the difficulty of raising kids from diapers to be disciples, and we’ve talked about some of the challenges between a man and wife in the marriage relationship. Obviously these talks today about fellowship expand the relational circle outside beyond spouses and parenting to extended family and church family and the Christian community and to our neighbors. What does fellowship look like?
In our Omnibus Tenebras class we just finished discussing The Last Days of Socrates by Plato. It’s a series of dialogues between Socrates and his friends as Socrates prepares to swallow poison given to him by the government as capital punishment for Socrates’ crimes against state and the gods. Socrates himself never wrote anything, so what we have is Plato’s presentation of what Socrates supposedly taught him. It’s reasonable to suppose that Plato stuck in his own philosophy with a Socrates sticker.
Plato did not like life on earth, life in the flesh. He became known as a philosopher of Forms, by which he meant that things here are only imperfect copies of the original and perfect form of the thing somewhere else outside of time and space. For example, the reason we recognize a chair is because it has enough “chairness.” It shares the qualities of the ultimate Chair, even though the qualities of the copy couldn’t be complete. Beauty and Justice never exist perfectly here on earth, but we can still recognize them if they share enough of the attributes of Beauty and Justice.
Even for human beings, the perfect form was not something that could be experienced in our meat wrappers we call skin. Plato’s vision of the ultimate human form included a sort of intelligence that was free from external pressures and demands. A body that gets tired can’t be free, let alone one that gets hungry and dirty and that must work in order to make money to buy or fix clothes, grow and cook food, et cetera. This was part of Plato’s argument, through Socrates to his friends, about why suicide was not merely endurable, but desirable. Socrates was about to be freed from all his problems, including his people problems.
Perhaps some of Socrates’/Plato’s philosophy of forms could work with certain concepts. I don’t claim to have seen the ultimate chair. I agree that in one way we’re limited to imperfect, finite versions of what is true, good, and beautiful. Even without considering the effects of sin, as Christians we look forward to understanding a number of things better in heaven.
But, even without having read all of Plato’s ideas, and though it may be just kicking the tires of his philosophy in flip-flops, I still have some questions regarding some serious limitations of his philosophy that also bring us through the backdoor of some serious problems that we as Christians have.
Let’s say that there are perfect forms of all things somewhere out there. What we see on earth are merely copies of the ideal, some more accurate and complete and some less so. For the sake of argument, what if that’s true? What would perfect forms include for food, fatherhood, and fellowship?
Food isn’t food if it’s only an idea. Ideas can be a sort of food for the mind/soul, but that’s an analogy because those ideas satisfy. But if, as Plato argues, the ideal is to never be driven by hunger, or distracted by pleasurable sensations such a taste, then how could there be a perfect food? Food—bread and butter and wine and coffee and steak and salt—could never be any good if in its ideal state it doesn’t exist.
Maybe food is too mundane, but fathers aren’t. I don’t know the ranking system for ideas, but the idea of fatherhood, even for pagan philosophers, has to have upper-level importance. Fatherhood is life-giving; it begets generations. But what does fatherhood look like without a body? Without some sort of intimacy with another, a woman/wife? Without offspring, without a son? Even the ideal form of fatherhood, which I’m not convinced Plato could give a consistent answer for, demands navigating relationship and depends on the more mature begetting the less mature and taking responsibility to provide and guide the offspring for sake of their own eventual reproduction. In other words, ideal fatherhood still involves mess.
Let’s kick one more tire on the Platonic car: fellowship. One dictionary defines fellowship as “friendly association, especially with people who share one’s interests.” But is fellowship good? Is it necessary, or nonessential? Friendship is more satisfying than isolation. Having interests is more satisfying than having ennui. Sharing interests in a friendly way with others certainly must be better than having no interests and/or having no friends.
But if everyone cared about the same things at the same level as everyone else, what would make the fellowship special? It certainly couldn’t be categorized as perfect or ideal if there weren’t others that we weren’t fellowshipping with. In other words, the constraints of fellowship, and even the challenges of it, are features that work to make fellowship better, not points of failure.
If you want to be in fellowship in a movie then what you really want is to share a short time of pretend with others, you don’t really want to share your life and interests. This isn’t really Neo-Platonism, it’s Pop Plato, where rooms have three walls and the soundtrack is provided by Kenny G and the fellowship is artificial reality.
Not everyone has this sort of perspective fail, but I think it is perhaps even more of a temptation for Christians to romanticize fellowship in a way that is not actually perfect, as in God-like/Trinitarian, but is pretend. And such pretending is actually a special sounding type of rebellion against God who defines and determines true fellowship. We’re frustrated because we have this ideal vision of what it should look like. We’re frustrated because we have expectations of getting down to the underwear of the soul in the first five minutes. If we aren’t at the soul skivvies level sipping Starbucks, it’s no good.
We want fellowship to be unhurried, unburdened, and unbothered. But that is a Platonic dream, an often selfish dream, and not why God took on flesh.
Platonic fellowship problems are not the only problems. I started with it because I think if we have a wrong image of what we expect have we’ll inevitably make faulty diagnosis of other problems. But even with a faithful receiving of God’s design for fellowship, when we add in sin things get very practically problematic.
Consider the definition of fellowship I gave earlier: “friendly association, especially with people who share one’s interests.” Our problems with fellowship are usually with people who are close to us rather than the ones who are far from us.
We don’t tend to be bothered that we’re struggling to be on the same page as those in Tacoma, let alone Tallahassee, or Tokyo. We tend to be bothered that we’re struggling to be on the same page as others at TEC, or the team at work, or the living members a couple branches over on the family tree. It is, in one sense, because we share interests that we get out of fellowship due to pride, competition, envy. When you throw an elbow, it’s the ones who are close who get hit.
You are not really trying to have fellowship with the Mormon who lives on your street. It’s not that you wouldn’t, but you know that until he trusts in Christ by faith alone for salvation, you really don’t have much in common. You are trying to have fellowship with your mom. She might live in your house, or outside the state, but God’s Word requires us to honor our parents. How frustrated are you when your older mom or dad, mother- or father-in-law, share your name but not your parenting style? Your communication preferences?
It happens in Christian communities. You could have level 2 of 5 fellowship depth with a Charismatic buddy at a 1 out of 5 on the fellowship difficulty level, whereas you could have level 4 of 5 depth with a 5 of 5 difficulty with someone in your L2L group about Charismatic teaching, or approach to the Sabbath, or understanding of eschatology.
There are other practical problems that come up more often with those we see more regularly, because they have opportunity to frustrate us more frequently. “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you“ (Proverbs 25:17). You’re going to step on his nerves. Why did we think it would be easier with those who we see more often? Why did we think that there would be less competition between those who are hearing the same truths about the glories of image-bearing in a particular field? It’s one of the reasons that Bible-colleges and seminaries especially are so not fun: Christians competing at Christian things like cutthroats.
Some of you have siblings that constantly make fellowship, directly or amidst the family, a real drag. For others it’s your parents who’ve decided that you are the dishonoring kid. Others have issues with co-workers, past and present. Most of us have issues with fellow Christians that we used to worship with on a weekly basis. There are two exit doors out of the fellowship hall, but one of them, come to find out, has a plank to walk.
Others, who claim to share your interest in Christ, think that you are in ongoing rebellion to Christ based on where you worship Christ. Others, who claim to be humble, call you arrogant and unkind because you won’t listen to their drama (though Solomon said to leave the presence of a fool, Proverbs 14:7). Others think you’re wound too tight, or they think you’re much too loose; you’re as organized as un-balled yarn in a game of badminton played in a closet full of blind cats.
What are we supposed to think about these fellowship messes? What are we supposed to do? What can we say, how can we behave, what tips are there for fixing fellowship problems?
Ideal fellowship is incarnate fellowship, and that means that it’s messy. It’s messy, but meaningful. It’s messy, but God-given for our good and also for our glory as we reflect Him. Ideal fellowship acknowledges that what we share brings us together, and that if we come together like two magnets with the positive side out, we’re going to notice some push back.
The magnet metaphor is good. When it comes to our expectations and best behaviors for increasing fellowship, we need to spend less time trying to change the orientation of the other magnet and more time increasing our own gravity. Maybe you should stop being so plastic. In other words, when it comes to fellowship, watch your step, not theirs.
Solomon told his son, “Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure” (Proverbs 4:26). Don’t worry about how to get everyone else onto the path. You walk where and how you’re supposed to.
In the book of Proverbs there are four main abstract characters: the simple, the fool, the scoffer, and the wise. The three not good are described in chapter 1.
How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
how long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? (Proverbs 1:22)
The “simple ones” love where they are at. They love the lack of responsibility that goes with not knowing enough. The “fools” hate knowledge. They aren’t interested in learning, let along changing. And the “scoffers” delight in their ridicule. It brings them pleasure to point out how everyone around them is doing it wrong.
So, do you suppose that there are simple ones, fools, and scoffers in families? In churches? In schools? In neighborhoods? In workplaces? You don’t need to draw an org-chart in your booklet, but could you categorize some of the people you struggle with as fitting into one of these groups?
Earlier in chapter 1 Solomon said that “fools despise wisdom and instruction,” so isn’t it likely that they also will despise those around them who desire wisdom and instruction?
Wisdom calls to the simple, the fool, and the scoffer, and they “refused to listen” (1:24), they have “ignored all my counsel” (1:25), and “would have none of my counsel” 1:29). They don’t listen.
Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle
along with crushed grain,
yet his folly will not depart from him.
They don’t listen to Wisdom, and probably not to you. There is not likely to be a lot of fellowship between those who fear the LORD and those who choose not to fear Him.
But we want to FIX IT!
Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:7-8)
Maybe by God’s grace you will fix the relationship, but start by fixing your expectations:
Solomon does not say that we shouldn’t say anything. But he mostly gives us wisdom so that we can recognize who we’re talking to, so that we can see the problems. But he actually gives little counsel to rebuke them. Instead he says in most cases that we should take greatest responsibility for how we respond.
Interestingly enough, the Proverbs, the only ones we’re regularly supposed to focus on “changing” is our sons.
Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears. (Proverbs 26:20)
Recent snowed in passive aggressive dog ear grabbing.
When your fellowship seems like it’s in the toilet, what can you do?
First, repent. Do you wonder why you have a hard time fellowshipping? Is it because your heart is hard? Is it because you’re anxious? Angry? Petty? Bitter or resentful?
Stop comparing, competing, complaining, and criticizing.
Ponder the path of your feet;
then all your ways will be sure.
Second, give. Give the benefit of the doubt. Give a charitable mindset. Give a coffee.
The liberal soul shall be made fat,
and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.
(Proverbs 11:25, KJV)
How does God deal with us when we are out of fellowship? His discipline arsenal is fully stocked, and lots of times He gives us more.
While it could be its own point: give thanks. Don’t you want to be around thankful people? Don’t you think they would want to be around you?
Third, don’t lie. It is a lie to blame fellowship problems on the world. That’s what Plato did. But this is the world God made for us to fellowship in, these are the bodies He wants us to use, and these are the people with whom He gave us shared interest.
It is a lie to refuse to call fools fools. Maybe you don’t want to call your friend or your dad a fool, you can at least acknowledge he is acting foolishly. Maybe they are acting naively. Maybe it’s scoffish. But don’t lie about it.
And don’t lie about it if you are being the fool.
Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips
and harbors deceit in his heart;
when he speaks graciously, believe him not,
for there are seven abominations in his heart;
though his hatred be covered with deception,
his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
Whoever gives an honest answer
kisses the lips.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:9-10)
Are you ever going to increase fellowship by lying to someone? NO?
Complaining is often a way of talking around the truth and especially of avoiding changes we need to make. It is much more comfortable to complain than to repent.
Fourth, go first. Think about it like others drafting off of you. But that means you’ve got to be out front, going forward, going somewhere. Stay in your lane, stay close enough for them to come along.
Be in fellowship with your spouse and kids first, then let that .
Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good success
in the sight of God and man.
Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness
will find life, righteousness, and honor.
When a man’s ways please the LORD,
he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
The joy of your fellowship will not rise above your joy in the fellowship. Those with serious fellowship problems who have focused on their own presence, for years, have seen friends and family make small movements toward them.