Being immersed in a strong Christian community, as I was during both seminary and doctoral work in theology, is simultaneously challenging, gut-wrenching, transformative, and joy-filled. It was the training, discipline, stripping, and rebuilding of both mind and character that happens when one commits to follow a particular vocational path as part of one’s life of faith. I was, and am, grateful for this experience. It truly is all one can really expect from a program that wants to rigorously train someone to proclaim the Gospel in a nation that does not know the triune God of our Scriptures. But as with any immersive program, it can also form a type of experiential bubble.
Bubbles are not just found in Christian circles. Most companies have their bubbles. These bubbles occur simply because people within a given organization develop an ethos or way of life that is different from other organizations. There are distinct expectations about how one uses one’s time; how one behaves; how relationships work, their formality or informality; the ‘textbook way’ to do things and the way that organization does things. It includes language, often terms, phrases, words, descriptions, shortcuts, or subtext that one must know in order to participate and to ‘do well’.
The difficulty arises when people become so formed and shaped by the ethos of their organization that they become unable to empathize – to understand another’s perspective – with people outside their organization. This can be a particular problem for Christians and I would suggest that this is one of reasons that Christians either a) tend to alienate people outside the Church when they speak to them about the faith; or b) tend to be afraid to share their faith with those outside the Church and so compartmentalize ‘church stuff’, separating it from ‘life stuff’.
My sports bubbles
One of the best things I did during my seminary and doctoral training was to involve myself in communities where not only did I have an outlet from work and study, but I was also exposed to a diversity of belief frameworks. This pressed me to think constantly about how to communicate the faith to people who have no belief in the supernatural; who have been harmed by the Church, either by gossip, arrogance and envy, or by some form of abuse; those who are frankly indifferent to God, or who believe that while God might be great, his people are wicked, or potentially disprove God’s own words. These are all responses to the Christian faith that I have heard while being involved in university sports (rowing, rugby, cross-country skiing) and sports throughout the City of Toronto (track and cycling).
Whether they realize it or not, these teams and clubs actually form the foundation of community that carries with it the same potential for exclusivity (terms, phrases, fitness levels, equipment, financial capacity, talent capacity) that the Church does. However, this community also carries with it the capacity to gather others in – if it is willing to engage others with charity, love, peace, kindness, gentleness, self-control, discipline, focus, building others up, loving one’s neighbour, helping to nurture the other, and shunning bitterness, envy, prolonged anger, arrogance, and hatred – so they might learn how the particular sport is done. I have watched people go from novice cyclists (who would walk most of the obstacles on our local trails, were unsure of what to wear or what equipment to bring; how to get on and off the bike without falling over, used incorrect ways of speaking about training or equipment or totally failed in training for an event) to holding their own, setting both personal, and in some cases, community records. I have pointed out this analogy to team/clubmates who say that Christianity is exclusive and judgmental. This demonstrates that all humans have the propensity to indulge the sins that underlie exclusivity (acting out of fear, anger, bitterness, envy, arrogance, or evil inclinations) and it presses them to reconsider their own judgment of the Church.
Learning from my cycling group
My cycling group has taught me that every aspect of life belongs to God. Whether positive or negative witness to him, he takes all of it up. Having done this, he has set us free from the fear that God does not exist – is a figment of our collective anxiety – and the fear that we cannot accomplish our own salvation, or the salvation of others. And being set free from fear, we can actually step out of the ‘safety’ of the community in which we worship – the Church – into the world.
We can listen with the gifts of the Spirit that culminate in the concept of empathy (faith, hope and love). We can then find the common patterns of life, the common underpinning reasons – emotional, physical, experiential – that prevent people opening up to receive the grace of God that is there with them already, provident over all things. Thus, having travelled with God throughout our own experiences, we can share these in response to the particular issues of another person’s life.
In this way we communicate the faith not in propositions to be memorized or rules to be followed, but as a salve for suffering that is common to all, as an adventure of pursuing the universal origin, truth and order of all things; as a pursuit of love in hope and faith that casts out the fear that prevents us from receiving the fullness of who we are.