One of These Things is Not Like the Others

One of these things is not like the othersCommunity. It’s that thing, the way of life, that we all want but we’re just not quite sure how to pull it off successfully. It’s that tantalizing concept that promises so much reward, and yet it seems so elusive. Its promise sometimes causes us to cut ties where we are and move somewhere else where we hope to find greener pastures, better friends, and/or become part of a different community. Then when we do get a taste of real community, it’s only a matter of time before our hearts are stunned with hurt or insult. But a lack of community causes us to feel despondent, alone, and often times as if we’re missing out on something significant that was intended for us all along. This community thing can really be disappointing!

-Lisa
“Community Disappointment”
Following the Ancient Paths

I wrote a lengthy response to this blog post, but when I pushed “Post Comment,” I received an error message and my comment was lost forever. It was a rather lengthy comment (go figure) and I suspect the blog application was complaining to me about it. I thought about re-writing the comment but decided to blog instead.

Lisa’s blog post addresses what we should already know. Being part of any group or community is hard work. It’s hard to join, it’s hard to sustain, it’s hard to adapt over time. This includes families, employers, and Lisa’s specific topic, religious organizations.

I can sympathize. A little over a year ago I “went back to church” and in that time have had many interesting, educational, and dismaying “adventures.” But as Lisa’s blog post suggests, this is to be expected. No group that involves multiple human beings is always going to run smoothly.

Over a year apart, I wrote the blog posts Why I Don’t Go to Church and Why I Go to Church, chronicling my internal struggle, the same one Lisa seems to be describing.

We live in a world that seems to praise isolationism, yet we instinctively know that we weren’t created to be loaners (sic). Somehow it’s considered a good thing when we can handle things alone, when we can appear stand tall with a backbreaking burden strapped to our backs, when we live such private lives that nobody knows what is really going on with us. Deep inside we know that it isn’t right to go through life all alone. We wrestle with wanting something yet not wanting the very same thing, pursuing it and rejecting it all at the same time.

-Lisa

As Lisa says, we want to go it alone to avoid all of the messiness of being part of a community, but when alone, we know that being isolated from community isn’t right, either. Sort of a “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” situation.

The main point of my lost comment was the issue of competing interests. Affiliation with one community may conflict with another affiliation. In my case, I’m a Christian living with Jewish family members while attending a Christian church. How does that work?

Another set of competing interests has to do with entering into and finding a niche within a community. I recently declared that I’m a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism, and yet I attend a very fundamentalist Baptist church in Southwestern Idaho. If you’ve read any of my blog posts about my conversations with my Pastor, you know that although we get along, we disagree on a number of fundamental (no pun intended) elements of what faith in Messiah means, particularly to the Jewish people.

Can a square peg successfully integrate into a church of round holes? Good question.

I recently finished the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It tells the story of Pi, born and raised in India, from childhood to adulthood through a series of flashbacks, with the main action taking place aboard a lifeboat shortly after Pi’s family died in a shipwreck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Pi is the only human survivor, but finds that he must share the lifeboat with an injured Zebra, an Orangutan, a Hyena, and a 450 pound, male adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker (Pi’s father was a zookeeper and they were transporting a number of their animals from India to their new home in Canada).

life_of_pi_by_megatruh-d5noigdThe other interesting thing besides how Pi manages to survive seven months adrift at sea sharing a lifeboat with a Tiger (the other animals didn’t make it), is that as a child, Pi adopted three religious traditions, first Hinduism, then Christianity (Catholicism), and finally Islam. Pi practiced all three religions simultaneously, ignoring the basic tenet of each that these religions are exclusivist. That is, if you belong to one, you cannot also belong to any other religion.

Pi managed to observe each religious tradition in parallel without arousing suspicion for a while, but eventually it caught up with him, and he was finally confronted by all three congregational leaders at the same time in a public place in front of his parents.

When questioned about why he thought he could be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim all at the same time, he responds by saying that he “just wants to love God.” (Martel, pg 69)

The book follows Pi’s life into adulthood and middle age where he is married with two children and a small dog and living in Toronto. He still practices all three religions, with no mention of any conflict in his family or in any of the involved congregations, but “Life of Pi” is a work of fiction and operates often at the level of religious allegory (I still haven’t figured out what the carnivorous island is supposed to mean).

In real life, Pi would never be able to successfully manage practicing all three religions, not only because of the conflicts between those communities, but the likely conflict with his own family, particularly his wife, who almost certainly had formed her religious or irreligious affiliations before she ever met and married Pi.

I have to admit, when I read about the sheer audacity and innocence of Pi’s devotion to three different religious branches, cherishing the best in all three, I felt a moment of admiration and even envy. What would it be like to open your arms wide and to take in and accept humanity’s vast range of traditions in worshiping God just for the sheer love of God?

It isn’t practical, which I suspect is one of the reasons why Martel’s novel is called a fantasy.

But Interfaith communities aren’t unheard of in our world. Author Susan Katz Miller maintains the On Being Both blog which celebrates a variety of interfaith families and communities, but such celebrations aside, one does not easily navigate the stormy seas that occur when theologies, doctrines, and dogmas clash in the narrow straits between one religion and another.

The solution in my own family, as it stands now, is something of a compartmentalization of each religion. In my home, Christianity and Judaism exist in separate silos, rarely communicating across the gap between them for the sake of peace. I do occasionally get emails from my wife containing links to news or information items on Israel or Judaism but I’m very careful not to bring up Christianity.

The ugly times is where our communities can grow stronger, more dedicated to one another, where each member grows in righteousness and in the image of our Master. The challenge is on the table. Are we ready to accept it?

-Lisa

Sesame StreetIt is true that adversity can produce stronger communities, but there’s a line that, if crossed, means that adversity has exceeded manageable limits and is destructive, not constructive. Sort of like lifting weights at a gym to build strength but overtraining resulting in injury, sometimes serious injury.

The television show “Sesame Street” sometimes has a lesson in the form of a song called One of these things is not like the others and I know what that experience is like in spades. There are interfaith communities that (seemingly) successfully co-exist within the same larger group, and there are interfaith families that are created and thrive for decades (such as my own), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy (which is what Lisa’s blog is all about).

But beyond being “not easy,” there are times when “not easy” becomes impossible or at least highly improbable, like a fourteen-year old boy from India who is a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, or the same boy two years later who manages to survive for seven months in the Pacific Ocean sharing a lifeboat with a large Bengal Tiger. How long can such a relationship between communities last before something gives?

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16 thoughts on “One of These Things is Not Like the Others”

  1. You bring up excellent points, my friend. I’m sorry my blog is misbehaving, I’m not sure why that is happening but I’m working on figuring it out.

    When the two communities that we’re somewhat involved in recently had their own blow-ups, I found myself in a discussion about how being part of a community doesn’t mean we live lives without boundaries between ourselves and others. Boundaries are necessary, and a necessary part of a healthy community. The trick is to find healthy boundaries – healthy for the community, for our families, and for ourselves.

    As for you and your involvement with the local Baptist church, I do admire you. A few years ago we tried to re-integrate into church, and it was hard! We didn’t continue pursuing this integration. But that was years ago and I often wonder if it’s time to give it another shot. Yes, the square peg in a community for round holes, the black sheep family of the bunch. It’s not that we’re not already accustomed to that reputation in our town, after all I think I’m the only woman in this county who wears a head covering and one of the few who dress modestly (that I know of anyway). I think our hesitation is more closely related to what you’ve shared here – it’s not easy being on the outside and after a while, it’s downright depleting.

    I watched the Life of Pi movie with my daughter the last time my husband and son were in Israel (she and I stayed home). It was the strangest movie until the last little bit where everything began to make sense. We admired his ability to find the good in the religions he was exposed to and we appreciated his desire to just worship G-d. And we also identified with him regarding his ostracism at school, being considered ‘weird’ by others, and the struggle to figure things out. There was a kinship of sorts, but I wonder if that’s not what everyone else who saw the movie (or read the book) might have felt. Truly I think that most people feel like they are outsiders, even the ‘insiders’. When I listen to ‘insiders’ talk, they say the same things we do and feels confusing to hear this from them.

    How long can an “outsider” relationship between communities last before something gives? That is a very good question. I think part of what helps maintain sanity in such situations is to have at least one community where we’re not outsiders. Maybe it’s the community at work, maybe it’s the neighborhood community, maybe it’s a group of people we meet with once a week, maybe it’s something else. It’s necessary that there be at least one place where we aren’t floating around on the outside, at least one group of people where we are more comfortable with. If we have at least one place where we have people who walk with us, who “get it” like we do (whatever “it” is), then I think we have a better chance of walking on the outside of the other communities and not imploding. And what I’ve found a few times in my life is that the ones that are my “sanity saving community” sometimes isn’t so obvious to me, and sometimes it’s right under my nose and I’ve just never really noticed. Then there are those times when the only sanity saver in my life is my Bible and my prayer life.

    May you be blessed with a strong community of men who walk with you, committed to you and your family. And may they be “people with skin on” and not just on the other side of a computer screen or a telephone, but people in real everyday life.

  2. For a lot of people, family is the one community that is stable across time (at least hopefully) when all others come and go, but that’s not always true. There are some pretty unstable and dysfunctional families in the world, and for some of their members, the community of faith is what stabilizes them.

    For the most part, my family is my home, though we don’t necessarily share the same vision on certain things like God, faith, and religion. What we do have is a shared history and a shared set of people that we love and like to spend time with.

    Beyond that, I do have a gentleman I meet with every other Sunday for coffee that is a stable and enjoyable companion. He’s been a Christian for forty years and is very familiar with the Messianic and Hebrew Roots communities, so we have a lot in common. We also have similar tastes in fiction, so that helps as well.

    God intended His people live in community and the Children of and nation of Israel is an abundant example of that. Messiah expanded that community to potentially include the entire world, but as usual, we human beings made a mess of what God intended to be a unity. We all await the return of Messiah to be our King and to bring us to peace with each other and with ourselves.

  3. It is hard when there is instability at home and in the faith community, both at the same time. That’s when it’s critical to focus on what we do have in common with those in our home. It’s not always easy, and it’s harder when we can’t share some of the most important things in our lives with those in our home(s). But I think this is what makes it even more critical to have at least one person with whom we can “do community” with, even if it’s our own strange looking community.

    May Messiah come quickly, and in our days. May we be able to taste even a bit of the peace that passes all understanding until then.

  4. James, perhaps the idea of, “One of these things is not like the others,” is only what is apparently observable. For example, although most Christian (and perhaps other) groups have, “statements of faith,” if you questioned every member of the congregation, it is likely you would find a wide variance in thinking. So maybe it is just, “One of these things doesn’t outwardly look like the others.” Most religious communities are very big on outward conformity. Even the ones who claim to accept everything; that is still an expected conformity.

    One thing I had to do was prioritize. Robert Heinlen said, “I never learned from a man who agreed with me.” Some people don’t want to learn and are afraid to learn. I received this advice, “Don’t look for people who are like-minded, look for those who are like-hearted.” Then the person who gave this advice failed to follow it himself and went way off the rails.

    In the same way, every young girl would like to find her Prince Charming: A man who is handsome, wealthy, brilliant, witty, elegant of manner, composes spontaneous songs and poems of devotion and caters to her every whim. But she learns she won’t find all these traits in the same person, and has to decide what is most important to her.

    So, in my faith community prioritization, I knew some things were deal breakers: Insanity, chaos, arrogance, SSS (silencing, shunning, shaming) heavy-handed leadership… I realized there were things I could flex on: theology, ecclesiology, style of worship/music. My husband could care less about theology or brand, but is especially intolerant of crazy, irresponsible people; looney successful people are welcome. Unlike your situation, no one is seeking to change my thinking or practices.

    I tried to organize my thoughts about these issues, and I still haven’t really put it together the way I would like. But here is it: http://endtimechaverim.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/honesty-the-best-policy/

  5. I have had a year to touch base with a few folks about what’s under the hood, so to speak, and have found some variance, but only within certain tolerances. Pastor keeps a pretty tight rein on who gets to preach and teach, but those few people I’ve explored issues of theology with hit a pretty hard limit early on in the discussion. I even gave a link to my blog to one couple becuase they seemed pretty receptive to some of what I was saying in a conversation after Sunday school, but they didn’t have much to say to me afterward.

    No one is crazy, looney, or irresponsible, and everybody is friendly and welcoming for the most part. I couldn’t care less about the music, but the sermons and the conversations with Pastor are what keep me going.

  6. Looking for those who are ‘like-hearted’. I like that.

    I would venture to guess that the Sunday School couple felt overwhelmed by your knowledge and ability to articulate things so well. Most people, not necessarily these people, but most people aren’t such deep thinkers and the deep thoughts of others are intimidating. They probably haven’t discovered that you’re really a very nice guy because they’re unfamiliar with your theological position and that’s intimidating in it’s own right, and then they may be afraid to talk with you because you just simply know so much more than the average person. Unless you’re talking about something like sports or the popular movies, most people in general feel inadequate to have such deep conversation about matters of faith and religion. I had to learn to talk about things other than faith, theology, the Bible, etc with people I meet in town. Even still, I don’t quite know what to talk about and feel a little awkward… It makes for an uncomfortable “community experience” – that’s for sure!

  7. Well, the wife is a Pastor’s daughter so she grew up in a theologically rich environment and the fellow has done some Bible studies. I just think they read whatever I had written that day and were either unimpressed or thought I was some kind of nut.

  8. Well, then I’d chalk it up to a topic (or series of topics) that they weren’t interested in.

    But don’t assume that a PK grew up in a theologically rich environment, because not all do. Even King David didn’t seem to impress good theology or morals into some of his children. It is a tremendous blessing when one generation does impress godly values, character, and observance (or theology) into the next generation.

  9. James, what I suspect is what I have experienced. People get to know you, like you and respect you. Then they find out you view important beliefs differently than they do. That doesn’t fit in their box. See, they have to view someone who crosses the thought boundaries as, “other,” and have to put up a safety barrier. It would be different if they could put you in a category of not likeable, not respectable or ungodly. Witness the recent camp debates James and others have touched on, you also see that. At least they didn’t start attacking you and suggest you be excommunicated for your aberrant doctrine.

  10. The full title of that blog post was “or something like it,” Marie. Call it a “slow down” rather than a hiatus. 😉

  11. I had a thought over Shabbat that though the church community may not feel like “home” for you, you can be assured that haShem is working in you and developing things in you through your time among this group of people. It is a hard place to be when we don’t feel welcomed or accepted, when we feel outside of the group. But whatever He is working out in our lives, He uses these people and these places too. Knowing what it is at the time is a whole other story, though…

  12. Lisa, as a person, I feel welcomed and accepted, but some of my ideas aren’t always a good “fit” for the church. Occasionally, I get a picture of what God is doing in my life, but a lot of the time, I have no idea what His long-term plan is for me relative to my current context.

  13. That you are welcomed and accepted by the whole is tremendous!

    I have no idea what His long-term plan for me is either. I suppose we’ll find out when we’re looking back in hindsight. 🙂

  14. I had an interesting time at church this morning. God reminded me that he’s still there, both through the testimony of a missionary to Ireland who was diagnosed with cancer last August and the prayer of one of the associate Pastors.

    But then, Pastor’s sermon has elements in it like “election” and was somewhat reminiscent of the “Fighting Fundy” philosophy and support of “Strange Fire,” though he didn’t actually use any of those words in his message (Acts 18:1-17). On the other hand, Pastor’s grasp of history and other information related to passages of scripture is always a revelation to me.

    I wonder if he’s been reading my blog lately?

    Edit: I also meant to say that a number of people approached me and welcomed me this morning. I wanted to go to Sunday school class but when I got to the classroom, everything was closed up and dark. Oh well, maybe next Sunday.

  15. I would guarantee you that he is reading your blog. 😉 Maybe not everything that you write and maybe not following all of the discussions that they produce, but he’s well aware of what you’re saying. Your dialogue with him takes place even when you’re not face to face.

    It sounds like you’ve found a wonderful church. Maybe we will try it again sometime soon. Our experiences in the past led us to believe that there is much more that we have in common with “the church” than things we don’t have in common. We most often left with a sense of excitement, feeling that we were on the same page on many issues and at least in the same book on the other issues.

    I’ll tell you about our final straw, though, when we received threats with Mein Kampf quotes and nazi insignias from a young man at the church and “I know where you live, I know which rooms you sleep in.” That kind of thing has happened before over the years in other settings, but it’s quite a large turn-off you might say. Trying to explain to the children (who were much younger at the time) that this is NOT representative of the church as a whole, but of a very mixed up young man can be difficult when the kids remind us of some of the ignorant messages that various pastors preach – as if all Christians are like this because their theology is so different. After that our youngest son would tremble when we would get to a church door – so we stopped going. Now that he’s a young adult, I think it might be time to try it again.

    You are blessed that they welcome you and accept you into the club. 🙂 May it be so for all of us.

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