Thursday, July 05, 2007

Am I my brother's keeper(Gen. 4:9)?

I picked up a veteran African missionary at the airport this last week who had just spent three weeks in Kazakhstan. After many complimentary remarks about her stay there and that the nationals often thought she was Russian, she remarked, “Nobody smiles. We were smiling all the time – that was one thing that set us apart from the Russians.” Not smiling – it’s the European way. I remember, as a very young woman with three children, moving to Amsterdam and learning very quickly, you do not greet people or smile at someone you do not know. Eventually, after seeing someone in the butcher’s shop over a six month period, some would begin to nod their head in greeting. I took advantage of my foreign-ness and would often ask people for help. The Dutch are perhaps the most hospitable people in Europe and love to help the stranger. In the butcher’s shop I might say, “I don’t know how to cook this meat,” and my American accent and youth, would bring me helpful answers and a recognition the next time I saw the same people. I have often found that asking others for help opens doors. The fact is, it’s harder - not impossible - to connect in The Netherlands. I often wondered if a newspaper article I read one day and the lack of connection between neighbors in Holland had anything in common. The article stated that one in three Dutch citizens needed some kind of mental health help. Sixteen million people living on 14,000 square miles might have something to do with seeking privacy, but in protecting ourselves from the crowds, we lose out on some much needed intimacy.

When I moved to York, Nebraska, we bought a house built in 1923. Of course, it had a front porch and a porch swing. All the houses in my neighborhood had porches and many had porch swings, but very few people took advantage of them. It was a lovely place to sit in the morning for your first cup of coffee or in the evening to wind down. But this was not a way to meet your neighbors. When we moved to the neighborhood there were no fenced-in yards. Over the years that changed. One way to meet the neighbors was to share produce from our garden. Mowing grass or shoveling snow at the same time as your neighbors brought more conversations. Holidays brought neighbors together as they exchanged cookies or took part in harvest parties at Halloween. With some effort a person could get to know his neighbors at some level.

I bought a house last year in a bed-room city for Fort Worth. I love my house. It is a peaceful place to go after working all day. But I do not live in a neighborhood – at least not yet. I have friendly neighbors on both sides of my house. The neighbors across the street are friendly, also, so I may be more blessed than most. There are only two or three women who do not work full time in my cul-de-sac. We all drive to work, come home, press our garage door openers, drive into our garages, close our garage doors and enter our homes. If we walk into our back yards, the fences are high enough that each of us has complete privacy. There is little opportunity to connect. Dr. Robert Putman, author of Bowling Alone: The Rise and Collapse and Revival of the American Community (copyright 2000), warns that our lack of connection with each other has plummeted and it impoverishes us. On the cover of his book he has several factoids:

• Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year.
• Every ten minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%

If being connected helps keep us alive, then connecting is pretty important!

Larry Crabb stated at the October 2004 School of Spiritual Direction in Colorado Springs that lack of connection was at the bottom of nearly all psychological and emotional problems. He reiterated those thoughts in his book, Connecting: Healing Ourselves and Our Relationships. If you have not read this book, then it would be a good thing to do. Another good book to read is The Safest Place on Earth. In this book Crabb describes how disconnected Americans are with each other. We rush through life – our conversations are shallow and our visits casual. His solution is a spiritual community who become real with each other, who listen to each other, who encourage and nurture each other, and who accept each other warts and all. In such a place, Crabb believes God can heal disconnected people and allow them to reconnect with each other and ultimately, with Him.

In 2003 a thought-provoking report, “Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities,” prepared by the Commission on Children at Risk, a group comprised of 33 prominent children’s doctors, research scientists, and mental health and youth service professionals, was released. This report found that there was a great deal of evidence that children who are connected to “authoritative” communities have fewer childhood problems. Children who lack these connections face more psychological and emotional difficulties. Lack of community means our children are floundering.

We need to reconnect with one another. That is the theme of Bowling Alone by Putnam; it is the theme of Connecting by Larry Crabb, and it is the theme of Hardwired to Connect, the Report from the Commission of Children at Risk. It is the crying need of our society today. The best place to connect should be the community of Jesus Christ.

Recently, Rick Atchley, preached his 18th State of the Pulpit sermon ( Two phrases from this sermon caught my attention: 1) Expect to connect; 2) Do good in the neighborhood. To accomplish this the community of Christ needs to concentrate on just a few things, i.e. become simple. A recent article in the Christian Standard ( by Randy Gariss, states that discipleship or spiritual formation cannot occur outside close, personal relationships. Academics alone will not get the job done. Gariss’ use of Gal. 5:13-22 is thought-provoking. Read the article and listen to the sermon. They are worth your time. The key to connection and spiritual formation is all tied up in godly, reciprocal relationships and servanthood. “When the church can get her key leaders to simplify their lives, to stop standing at a “dozen intersections” in the church and instead to focus on and share life with one primary group of disciples, then something healthier begins to develop.” That something is first of all caring community; second of all – a serving community. “The disciple-making church expects everyone to serve, and provides a clear, well-lit path to a place on a team where somebody’s needs are going to get met. As Jesus clearly stated, it is in giving your life away that you get it back. But when you get it back, it looks like Jesus. A church of “underemployed” believers won’t produce many disciples” (Gariss, see reference above). It would not be a bad thing to look like Jesus.
Somehow, community, caring, serving, and spiritual formation are wrapped up together.

There is so much more to be said on this subject. It seems the key is to simplify our lives and begin again to be our brother’s keeper. It will take time. It will take effort. I'm wondering just how I might simplify my life in order to be more. Are we up to it?