Friends In Church. Do or Die

In 2007 I packed my bags and was driven to Keele University in the midlands of England. I arrived with no friends, zero. I didn’t know anyone who was going to the same university, much less anyone who was pursing the same degree as I was. I quickly started to interact with my suite mates, and faces that were nameless in my 200 strong Law class started to have stories and experiences attached to them. We also debated in labs made up of 15 or so students, and we rubbed shoulders in social activities that most remembered through the fog of a rabid hangover, “the morning after the night before”. I listened, slept, missed and suffered through dozens of lectures each semester with the same people. Yet our shared experience of listening to a talking head for two hours at a time, for two years didn’t magically draw all 200 of us into intimate relationships with each other. The same is true in church family, our shared experience of listening to a sermon, may lift our spirits, but it doesn’t magnetically draw us to each other.

Paul in Romans 16 is getting ready to “land the plane” as it were, he is no longer navigating heady theological concepts, rather he is wrapping up his book with greetings to friends and family. Paul’s greeting reveal the church in Rome consisted of units ( affinity groups if you wish) that he acknowledged and addressed : v16:1-5 Phobe, Priscilla & Aquila and the church that meets in their home, v14 Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, v15 Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints.

The church that Paul was writing to was not a single thumping entity, but rather an aggregate of families, and groups. There were congregations meeting in homes, and some were bound by blood ties as well as spiritual bonds. Additionally Paul mentions by name his relatives v7 Andronicus and Junia  v11. Herodian  v21 Lucius, Jason and Sosipater. Lastly Paul sends a heartfelt greeting to individuals that he was especially close to through shared experiences.

Acts 2:42-47 is sometimes hijacked to mean “the church must be a commune of people with no property rights, sharing daily potlucks and bank accounts.” Another train of thought goes like this: “if this church was really Christian then we would all be friends, one big happy family and everyone would know if I was sick and didn’t come to church. My church isn’t like that, therefore it is full of uncaring hypocrites.” I can understand the frustration of being a young person in a church, and feeling utterly disconnected with the larger body. I know what it feels like to debate going to your local church or visiting “bedside Baptist church” for the third time in a month. I get it, really, I’ve been there got the t-shirt, and taken the instagram picture.

The problem with this expectation of church being a grand perfectly connected organism of happy people is that it’s not even biblical. Paul’s greetings are to groups of people who constitute a body. It is not sinful to be drawn to people in church who share similar passions, interests or jobs, and we shouldn’t begrudge such natural groupings. Of course if they intentionally and systematically segregate themselves to the exclusion of others, that is a problem. So please, if you are a young person who is drifting from church to church, looking for the congregation that lays out the red carpet for you and where every family and group invites you home for lunch – good for you, keep looking. I mean that sincerely, we should aim for welcoming atmospheres for outsiders, but the day will come where you have to mourn for your dead expectations of homogenous friendship groups. Unless you intentional set out to make friends, connect, and attach you will be continually disappointed by your 11am Sabbath experience. On many levels if you want a satisfying experience on Sabbath, you need to cultivate the ground before you can realistically expect seeds to flourish. Do not begrudge those who naturally form groups within your church if they are loving Christian people, they have the right to do that, and they are not being “worldly” by doing so.

Friends

What can you do this week (at church and outside) to meaningfully connect and build a relationship with some one?

Biblical betrothal and Ghanaian marriages.

I am currently reading a fascinating book by Robert Alter “The Art of Biblical Narrative”. One of the many discoveries that I have made as a direct consequence of this book, is the realization that there recurrent narrative episodes attached to the careers of biblical heroes.

One of the ritual type scenes that occurs is the encounter of the main character with their betrothed. The average Jewish reader, being familiar with this particular archetype of prose, would expect the moment of the heroes betrothal to unfold in particular circumstances, according to a fixed order.

The expected convention would begin with the future bridegroom (or surrogate) travelling to a foreign land and meeting a young girl “na’ arah” at a well. Water would be drawn by either party, and then the girl would rush home bearing tidings of the stranger. Finally a betrothal would be finalized between the bridegroom and the bride after a meal has been shared. This repetitive compositional structure is repeated with deliberate suppression and omissions, to hint at the future lives of Moses & Zipporah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob & Rachel, Saul, Samson and finally Jesus Christ.

Flower

It was while digesting this intriguing information, that I suddenly realised I was born into a culture that loosely practices a betrothal framework akin to the biblical one. The traditional Ghanaian marriage ceremony similarly moves at a set cadence of ritual expectations. To begin with it is the bridegroom who must leave his home and travel to a ‘foreign’ land. When he arrives at the home of the bride, the groom has to partake in a knocking ceremony called (kookoo ko) by way of entrance into the house.

Then like Eliezer in Isaac and Rebekah’s story, an intermediary from the family of the groom, speaks stating the intentions of the visiting party. When the intention is accepted, the next step can commence. The spokesperson will then explain in the most dulcet and expressive language, that the groom, has seen a “beautiful flower” in the house of the brides family. The delegate will continue by stating that he desires to “uproot” that flower, not steal, and would like to know how to make his dream a reality.

If you have stayed the course thus far, hold on because it gets very interesting. Once the invitation is accepted by the bride’s family, the groom presents a dowry to the bride. A token both of his affection, but most importantly of the economic value of the bride to her household. When the dowry negotiations have been finalized, the bride is brought into public. Historically decoys were sometimes used to “tease” the groom, so the groom is asked to verify if this is indeed his bride (if only Jacob had been a Ghanaian :-)) Once he confirms, she is asked three times by her father if she agrees to marrying the groom. The conclusion of the preceding is prayer, breaking bread, and dancing until the small hours of the night.

I suppose my excitement at this hazy parallel of biblical composition and culture, with traditional Ghanaian customs might seem trite to some, but it is important for me. Most Adventist would agree with the assertion that when we read the biblical text our presuppositions must be neutered, so the power of the text is untainted and unimpeded. It made me wonder if there is place for reading certain narrative structures in the bible through cultural lenses (especially if it is perennially patriarchal culture) as an apparatus to better identify with the text.  I am not for a moment suggesting cultural impositions on the text that distort the message, but I think there are times when our culture can legitimately bring the text alive. Ultimately the bible is a predominantly middle eastern, Jewish work, and I look forward to unlocking more narrative keys as I encounter and am transformed by its depth and beauty.

Have you found any instances while reading the bible where your traditional or cultural heritage dovetailed with the text and enriched your experience?