The Meaning of Community

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. . . .But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. I Cor. 12:12-13, 24-27

In the middle of the first century the Corinthian church was fractured into several competing factions. The apostle wrote these words to remind the congregation that the reality of their unity in Christ was greater than the reality of their divisions. The few verses quoted above are only part of a detailed analogy comparing the Body of Christ to the human body. Just as it is unthinkable to contemplate the members of a healthy physical body struggling with each other to the detriment of the whole body, says Paul, so it is with Christ’s Body, which is the church. The divisive spirit at work in the Corinthian congregation was not merely unfortunate or regrettable, but was an assault on Christ’s Body and so an affront to Christ Himself. The message which Paul was attempting to communicate was that the Corinthian Christians should not think or act as factions with vested interests and competing claims, but as a community whose single interest and common claim is the Reign of God in Christ.

This message and way of thinking is almost like a foreign language in the modern landscape. We think of ourselves primarily as individuals who profess Christ as Lord and secondarily as communities of faith. The worldview of scripture reverses this order; the biblical writers think of themselves and those they address first as a community. While there are varied and complex reasons for this strong contemporary tendency toward individualism, it is undeniably the case that we do not readily connect with the communitarian emphasis which Paul presses in the passage above. We may be able to grasp the theory, but we struggle to embody the practice.

It is important for us to take this difficulty seriously, because the Bible’s first reference point is communitarian, revolving around their address to the people of God. While the people who constituted this community regularly struggled with disagreements and hostilities which developed in their communal life, they nonetheless conceived of themselves primarily as a community and only secondarily as individuals–a reality which made their divisions all the more serious. Paul regarded the existence of competing Corinthian factions as quite literally a threat to the continued existence of the Corinthian church. We too are uncomfortable with hostilities and disagreements which divide churches, but we construe and react to such problems differently because of our individualistic orientation–sometimes by moving from one congregation to another, sometimes by starting new congregations, sometimes by just dropping out of sight.

The reason that the absence of community orientation in contemporary society is important for issues like substance abuse is that these issues are clearly social issues. Substance abuse and addiction is not simply a threat to individual lives, but to groups–to families, to schools, to neighborhoods, to cities, to churches. For a number of important reasons, it is critical that churches recover and practice a vital sense of community.

    We cannot rightly apprehend the meaning of scripture absent a strong communal orientation.
    We cannot fully appreciate the harms of substance abuse and are less likely to engage the social problem of substance abuse as the people of God without a strong sense of communal identity and responsibility to the world.
    We cannot truly recover from abuse and addiction–whether we are abusers and addicts or the loved ones of abusers and addicts–unless we embrace critical responsibilities and accountabilities we bear to the communities that frame our lives.

The Meaning of Courage

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. (I Cor. 16:13)

In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)

. . . suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. . . (Romans 5:3-4)

Many of the references to courage in the Bible occur in military contexts. For example, Judges 20:22 says, “The Israelites took courage, and again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day.” Indeed, throughout human history courage has been extolled as a highly prized military virtue. Many of us are familiar with stories of battlefield courage which propelled soldiers to succeed in the face of overwhelming odds and extraordinary danger.

Some of the most compelling narratives in literary history chronicle the courage of the most unlikely protagonists against the most formidable enemies. Readers of every age are captivated by the grand vision of the cosmic struggle between good and evil in which the struggle turns on the courage of a few souls who seem not to possess conventional power but who make all the difference as the story unfolds. There is the tiny hobbit Frodo who carries the ring of power against the mighty Sauron in the Lord of the Rings. There are the children who venture through the magical wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia and eventually play a pivotal role in the undoing of the wicked witch who holds Narnia in her icy grip. There is Jesus of Nazareth, born to a peasant couple in southern Palestine under the nose of Herod the Great and on the fringe of the Roman Empire, who quite literally turns the world upside down.

In crucial moments in each of these narratives, the protagonists are overwhelmed with fear and dread, and all appears to be lost. Frodo is weighted down and nearly seduced by the power of the ring. The children are daunted by the strange world of Narnia and the unfamiliar roles of responsibility thrust upon them. Jesus is pursued by religious authorities, misunderstood by his own disciples, and feels desolation and abandonment in the shadow of the cross. Yet in every case, courage makes the critical difference: the courage to choose a seemingly impossible road for the sake of a higher cause, the courage to forsake personal comfort for the good of the many, the courage to face death because of an unshakable belief in the One who defines the mission.

While the familiar passage quoted above from Romans does not mention courage, it tells us something important about every Christian virtue, including courage. Courage is not a talent with which we are born, but a quality which certain experiences train us to acquire. We begin to learn courage by seeing it displayed in other lives and determining to follow their examples. We learn courage in the context of our own life struggles. When we move past the fear and apprehension that haunt every major endeavor, when we mount the strength to rise to daunting challenges, when we refuse to allow set-backs and failures to deter us, we acquire courage. This is sense of the Romans text: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This sequence delineates a difficult road, beginning with suffering and ending with hope. Courage and the strength of character that embodies courage do not come easily. Courage is acquired through difficulty, pain, hardship, adversity, and tragedy. Those who possess courage do not necessarily feel courageous, but the courage implicit in their lives nonetheless propels them through their deepest fears.

The Romans text and its place in the context of Paul’s message to the church at Rome also remind us of the difference between courage and foolhardiness. Foolhardiness is reckless and impulsive, often the expression of momentary whims. Courage, on the other hand, is borne out of a commitment to something larger than our own impulses and narrow visions. It is in fact the quality of choice that allows us to overcome our selfishness and narrowness to pursue a grander mission for the sake of a greater good.

We glimpse the deepest sense of courage in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ decision to go to Jerusalem:

While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. . . . When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Luke 9:44, 45, 51

The critical clause is the last one: he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Even though he knew what awaited him there, Jesus determined to journey to a dangerous destination because of his commitment to his calling and the One who called him. Jesus believed that the mission which framed his life was more important than his sense of impending doom. “He set his face to go to Jerusalem” is not an example of foolhardiness, but the embodiment of courage. This and every other genuine lesson about courage reminds us that we can never become courageous people until we willingly subordinate our lives to something greater than our lives. For Christians this means giving ourselves to the One who called us into being and gave Himself in our behalf.

On still another occasion, just a few verses before the passage quoted above, Jesus told his disciples about his death and the significance of the journey to Jerusalem:

Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Luke 9:23-25

For most of us who are strongly inclined toward self-preservation, the phrase “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” seems daunting and counterintuitive. Like Jesus, we are all too aware of the dangerous places and circumstances to which this calling may lead us. In all of the big and little ways we manage to “take up our crosses daily,” we understand and learn courage.

Discussion topics: What does courage have to do with: using or not using drugs; recovering from drug dependence and addiction; living with loved ones who are drug abusers or addicts.

Suggestion: The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (and Alanon, etc.) have played and continue to play a pivotal role in recovery. Thinking through the “courage requirements” of the Twelve Steps is one way to develop this discussion.

The Meaning of Truthfulness

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16)

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all. . . . Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No;” anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33, 34, 37)

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. . . . So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. (Ephesians 4:15, 25)

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:32)

Telling the truth seems simple enough. Just be honest, forthright, and don’t lie. At one level, this basic intuition certainly captures the essence of truth-telling. Yet, as the above passages show, the biblical mandate to tell the truth is multi-faceted and calls us to pay close attention to several aspects of truth-telling:

    we should not bear false witness against another;
    we should not swear falsely, and further, we should not swear at all;
    we should speak the truth in love;
    we should put away falsehood and speak the truth to one another;
    we are liberated by truth.

The teaching that we should not bear false witness is one of the Ten Commandments and is rooted in the legal traditions of ancient Israel. The crime of perjury was so serious for the Hebrews that bearing false witness against someone charged with a capital offense was itself punishable by the death penalty. The contemporary application of this teaching reaches far beyond legal contexts to the broad arena of truth-telling about others. We are enjoined never to speak falsely regarding another person, so as to injure that person’s legal standing, reputation, relationship with another person, or in any other way. In fact, because we can never know or accurately predict the impact of lies about others, we are never to tell such lies, period. That bearing false witness violates God’s own person is reflected in the self-disclosure which prefaces the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).

The injunctions against swearing reveal another aspect of truth-telling, i.e., plain speech. Against the background of first-century practices of bolstering the veracity of one’s speech by taking oaths (swearing), Jesus says let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” We live at a time when plain speech has virtually become a lost art. Advertising campaigns make extraordinary claims for products and services. Political campaigns make grandiose appeals regarding candidates and platforms. Marketing strategies have so penetrated the ecclesiastical sphere that exaggerated speech about church statistics is dismissed as harmless with the phrase, “ministerially speaking.” Ordinary conversation is littered with phrases like “honest to God” and “as God is my witness” with such frequency that at least in some contexts the absence of these oaths tends to diminish the credibility of the speaker.

Jesus teaches his followers to speak forthrightly and directly, without resorting oaths of any kind. The New Testament says that the credibility of our speech must flow from the integrity of our character, i.e., that we must be the kind of people whose plain speech is convincingly sufficient.

The admonition to speak the truth in love reminds Christians that truthfulness must always be attended by love. This teaching serves as a hedge against both “honest brutality” and “dishonest kindness.” It is wrong for Christians to verbally assault others with the explanation, “I was just being honest,” as it wrong never to hold people accountable in the name of kindness. Speaking the truth in love is both honest and loving.

Putting away falsehood and speaking the truth to one another also embodies the qualities of honesty and forthrightness, but suggest one other aspect of truth telling, namely, promise-keeping. An inevitable part of our communications with others involves the articulation of promises. Some promises are solemn and life changing, like marriage and parenting. Others are more casual and short term, like the promise to pay back a debt or the promise to return a phone call. Truth-telling implies for Christians that we are not careless with our promises, that every promise we make–implied or spelled out, direct or indirect, written or spoken–is a promise we take seriously.

A final element of truthfulness conveyed in the familiar verse from the Gospel of John cited above is that the truth is liberating and (by implication) that lies are enslaving. This teaching resonates with our own experience; one lie leads to another until we are encircled and trapped by our own lies. The context of this teaching in John centers on finding ultimate truth in Jesus Christ, but one immediate application to truth-telling is that the Word of God which confronts us in Christ demands and allows us to face the truth about ourselves .

Many of the lies we tell about others are rooted self-deception. Unable to face the truth about ourselves (e.g., our sinfulness, our mortality, our inadequacies), we live the lies of over-reaching (pride), under-reaching (sloth), and wrongful-reaching (lust). Living the lie, we are ensnared in a web of deception from which only the truth can set us free. That truth, says John, is the good news that comes to us in Jesus Christ: God loves us, forgives us, and makes us new so graciously and so radically that our experience of receiving this truth can only be described as being born again. Knowing the truth sets us free indeed.

In the end, truth-telling is central to Christian witness. It is certainly the case that our verbal witness to Christ has credibility only if we are known to be truthful people, but the issue of truthfulness runs even deeper than the credibility of our personal testimonies. In a world laden with lies, truthfulness is itself a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the world identifies Christians as persons who tell the truth because their characters require them to tell the truth, the world is gifted with a faithful witness to the truth of God in Christ.

Discussion topics: What does truthfulness have to do with: using or not using drugs; recovering from drug dependence and addiction; living with loved ones who are drug abusers or addicts.

Suggestion: The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (and Alanon, etc.) have played and continue to play a pivotal role in recovery. Thinking through the “truth requirements” of the Twelve Steps is one way to develop this discussion.