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There’s an impulse in the human heart that makes us want to belong, to be on the inside. We want to be justified in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.  When it comes down to it we crave acceptance, don’t we? There’s just about nothing we enjoy more than the value and significance that comes from being welcomed by others. This desire for acceptance exists within every person. It’s part of the “make-up” of being human.

It’s also what C.S. Lewis called the desire for the Inner Ring. The way this desire plays out is that we identify a group or individual within a community of people and say to ourselves, “If I could only make it into the good graces of that group or person then I will feel like I belong. Then I won’t be a bum. I will feel better about my life because I will be able to look at those on the outside, and relish in the fact that I’m in and they’re not.” Lewis claimed that one of the most dominant drives in life is to be on the inside of the Ring. We feel pleasure when we get inside, but great anguish when we’re excluded. We base our identity, our very lives, on whether we’re in or not.

I’m not saying that the desire for acceptance is bad in itself. What I’m saying is that it’s bad when our value and worth depend on our acceptance by others. Because here’s the thing: “The quest for the Inner Ring,” writes C.S. Lewis, “will break your heart unless you break it.” He explains why:

The Ring cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic. Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends.

Lewis is saying that soon after entering the Inner Ring we grow bored. It doesn’t satisfy us or serve our identity after a while. There comes a time when we’re rejected, or when the elation of acceptance wears off and we’re forced to move on and identify a new Inner Ring. This goes on and on. We’re never ultimately fulfilled. The real acceptance and belonging we’re after is elusive. We think we’ve found it each time, only to be disappointed in the end. When acceptance by others is a driving motivation in life we become enslaved and distorted.  We do whatever it takes to gain that acceptance even though it never delivers on what it appears to promise. When we experience rejection we’re inflicted with deep wounds that linger and shape our lives dramatically.

Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, contains a parable called The Gatekeeper in which a man from the country comes before a gatekeeper requesting to be admitted before the “law.” The gatekeeper denies access, but implies that admission might be granted later. The man is tantalized since he can peer through the gateway into the interior whenever the gatekeeper steps to the side. He wants so badly to know what’s on the other side. The gatekeeper assures him, however, that unless permission is granted by him there’s no way in.

The man is given a stool upon which he waits and waits, and waits for years. He persistently requests access, only to be denied. Over time, he gives his possessions away, attempting to entice the gatekeeper to change his mind. The gatekeeper gladly accepts the bribes, but refuses entrance. Early in the process the man from the country curses his luck, openly and loudly. Later in life he simply becomes bitter and grumbles to himself. As an old man, he is but a child, unable to think about anything other then entering into the presence of the “law.” Darkness surrounds him in his later years, and in his darkness he see’s a light radiating from the gateway of the law. He’s grown obsessed. He must get inside. Time is running out. Before his death, unable to move, he gathers himself enough to formulate one final question. He wants to know why, if everyone strives to reach the law, is he the only one who begged for admittance all these years? The parable concludes with the reply of the gatekeeper: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. And now, I am going to shut it.”

Wow, those existentialists were real uppers, huh? Avoid reading Kafka when you’re depressed – or happy for that matter. There is something powerful, however, about Kafka’s parable. He captures the desire within every person to be on the inside, to be welcomed and invited in. Kafka’s parable, as do our feeble efforts to be welcomed and accepted, ends disappointingly. Kafka’s saying that the ultimate welcome and invitation we’re after is elusive. It’s unattainable. It doesn’t exist.

But what if it does? What if our striving for acceptance points to our need for welcome and acceptance on a cosmic level? What if our chasing after the Inner Rings of life, and their inability to provide ultimate security, is meant to show us that what we’re really after is God’s welcome. Lewis is able to get at how the drive for the Inner Ring is broken: “Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an ousider you will remain.” The good news of what God has done for in Jesus Christ uniquely addresses this fear. The biblical story tells us that we find acceptance with God, not based on who we are or what we do, but on who Jesus is and what he’s done. Therefore, as we lean on Jesus and entrust ourselves to him, our identity is firmly rooted. We have been reconciled to God through Christ and have no reason to chase after the acceptance of others because we have been embraced by God. In the ultimate sense, we are no longer outsiders. We belong. Philip Yancey talks about how sociologists have a theory of the looking-glass self. The idea is that you become what the most important person in your life thinks you are. What if we really believed that God has accepted us in Christ? How would that change the way we live? How would that change the amount of power we allow others to have over us? Acceptance by God through Jesus has the power to drive out our fear of being an outsider. Jesus became an outsider for us so that we don’t have to. God looks at us in all our guilt, shame, and woundedness and yet still embraces in Christ. We are known intimately (a scary thought) yet still belong.

C.S. Lewis writes in his essay The Weight of Glory:

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

The good news of the Christian faith is that we have been summoned inside by God himself. We are treated with glory and honor and given all the value and significane we need. Can you actually believe this? Do you believe it?

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Check out this blog post by Lance Lewis, pastor of Christ Liberation Fellowship in West Philly. Christ Liberation is in the same denomination in which I pastor. I thought this would be good to post with the upcoming Friday Night Forum on race that my church is sponsoring. This post by Lance Lewis, an african-american, highlights some of the major differences in how white and black Christians view race and approach political issues.

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You should consider attending the next Friday Night Forum sponsored by my church if you are able. The forum is next Friday, March 14th from 7:00-8:00 PM at the Barnes & Noble on 4801 Concord Pike. Join us for coffee and conversation as Rob Prestowitz, executive director of Urban Promise in Wilmington, speaks on “The Content of Your Character: Conversations on Race and Justice.” The brief lecture will focus on issues of race and justice in 2008 and our responsibility for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream. There will be time for discussion afterwards. Please come regardless of your religious persuasion. This is a community forum, not a church forum. I hope to see you at Barnes & Noble next Friday! Click here for more information and to hear audio from previous Friday Night Forum lectures.

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For those of you who live around Wilmington, you should consider attending the next Friday Night Forum sponsored by my church. The forum will take place next Friday, January 18th from 7:00-8:00 PM at the Barnes & Noble on Concord Pike. Join us for coffee and conversation as Dr. Barbara Shaffer, a licensed psychologist, speaks on “Relationships: Connecting Out of the Box.” The brief lecture will focus on the difficulties that plague relationships and how we overcome them. After the lecture there will be opportunity for discourse.

Please come regardless of your religious persuasion. This is a community forum, not a church forum. I hope to see you at Barnes & Noble next Friday! Click here for more information and to hear audio from previous Friday Night Forum lectures.

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“I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.” – Frederick Buechner

I’ve heard the story told of an old Russian priest who early one morning was walking through snowy woods toward the cathedral. The fog made it hard to see, but he could hear someone approaching in the distance. Finally, a guard appeared and called out: “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?” The priest’s response was unexpected. He came close to the guard and replied, “I’ll pay you 50 kopecks (Russian money) a week if you’ll ask me those same questions every single day.”

This priest desperately wanted to be known. He wanted someone to show an interest in him and his story. He wanted somebody to care. We all identify with the priest to some degree. We long to be known by others as we really are. At the same time, the prospect of being known also scares us more than anything. It causes us to shut down and shrink back from entering into meaningful relationships with others. This tendency represents a significant barrier to authentic community. How can genuine community form if we are unwilling to open up and share our real stories with one another?

The reason we resist being known is that each of our stories is marked by beauty and brokenness; dignity and depravity; glory and shame. We invest a great deal of energy into covering up the negatives – the brokenness, depravity, and shame. More than anything, we want others to believe we have it all together so sharing our whole story seems counter intuitive. Why would we share the very things we try to hide? Why would we share the things which make us vulnerable? So out of self-protection we keep our stories to ourselves. We don’t open up and allow others in. Even though we want to be known, we decide the risk just isn’t worth it. The longing to protect ourselves proves to be stronger than the longing to be known by others.

This is why the story of Jesus is so relevant to community. The fundamental question is who or what makes me safe? The gospel (good news) tells me that I’m far more broken and flawed than I ever dared to admit, but that I’m also more loved and accepted in Jesus than I ever dared to dream. In other words, trusting in Jesus makes me completely safe with God. God looks at me in the midst of all my ugliness and twistedness, yet still accepts me. I’m both fully known and completely safe with God. This means I don’t have to obsess over winning the approval of others because I have the approval of the One whose opinion matters most. Because God approves of me, I’m free to be the real me. I can look without fear at who I really am. I don’t have to justify my existence by performance or by lying about myself. Knowing I’m safe with God enables me to open up and share my story with others. Since my identity isn’t dependent on what others think of me, self-protection no longer has to enslave me.

When the gospel brings this kind of freedom to our lives, community is enhanced. As Dan Allender says, “Stories obligate.” Truthful storytelling enables us to learn each other’s joys and struggles, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and fears. Stories obligate by reminding us that we’re all in this journey together, that we have an obligation to know and be known. Only the gospel creates this kind of community because only the gospel deals with our fear of being known. What do you think?

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This post was written by guest blogger Jeff Robinson… 

People are inherently communal. This is non-negotiable. Wherever people are, they’re trying to do things with other people. And for the most part, isolation is seen as either punishment or as a fool’s idea of independence. The question for those of us wrestling with our humanness in what theologians call the “already but not yet” age, a time in which brokenness is prevalent and redemption is imminent, is how do we “be” (act out) community in such a way that bows only to the King who is coming.

Community happens, and it generally happens among people with a common set of presuppositions. We generally surround ourselves with people like us, and often (sometimes without intention) distance ourselves from those not like us. I’m sure we can all come up with ways we have done this or seen this happen. The ways our presuppositions affect us and our communities aren’t all bad, however I’ve found that true community has to call them into question.

As I’ve been reading the Bible and thinking about community over the past few years, certain passages have stuck out to me. Passages like James 3:13-18 which contrast the wisdom which is common to man and wisdom which is from God. The passage shows the “earthly wisdom” (that which is common to man, sort of like a human default position) to be divisive and self-centered. It also paints the wisdom from above as seeking peace and full of mercy and uses a number of other words which help us see that it is other-focused. As in all wisdom literature, the underlying question is always which way shall you live?

Colossians 3:1-17 is another place where the contrast between the human default and the way things should be is laid out clearly. Paul, the author, is calling the early church to live like those who have been united to Jesus and to imitate him in their interactions with people. There’s a clear command to put to death the broken and sinful, self-centered human default way of living, and a clear command to put on a new way of living. A way that is focused on forgiveness and loving one another as Christ loves us and which sees all of life to be lived to honor God.

In my college years I had opportunity to see community done well and community done not so well. Like I said, people are communal, so when you stick 22 guys on a floor in the dorm, some sort of community will form. After a few months of living with the same guys my junior year, I found that our floor community basically consisted of watching movies, eating junk food, making fun of each other, and procrastinating as much as possible. It took me a while to realize it, but that wasn’t a very healthy community. All of our interactions served our desires to ignore our work and make ourselves feel more important than someone else. I don’t think anyone really felt a strong commitment to the others, and we certainly didn’t go about finding ways to love and forgive each other. While everyone talked about how much they loved the community on our floor, I found myself longing for everything our community lacked.

In the times that I have seen community done well, it has always been intentional and focused. The next year, I found myself among a group of guys that all felt the need for our community to be something more. We were just as broken and sinful as any other group of guys on campus, but we made a point to set our minds on Christ (as Col. 3:1-4) as a group, and walked alongside each other as we wrestled with what it means to put on the new self, and to become more like Jesus. It was really a struggle. None of those things described in Col. 3:10-17 are easily done.

It may seem like a simple lesson, but I keep finding it to be relevant in my life. There are two ways for us to go about living in community in our world. We can either keep to what’s comfortable, the self-centered way that is ultimately unsatisfying, or we can bind ourselves to each other as we seek to be renewed in the image of the Creator-God who bound himself to us. Community must force us to wrestle with our common understandings of how things are in our world and our understanding of who we are. We must confront our past and see what has shaped the way we commune. If we are under a new Lord, if we are part of his new creation, then our community must confront us with these realities and help us to live in them.

The conversation continues… (next week, when I get back from Mexico)

If sharing life together is foundational to what it means to be human, why is it such a struggle for us? The underlying assumption here is that casual social involvement with one another isn’t the same thing as authentic community. Simply being together – whether with friends at a coffee shop or family members in a home, doesn’t guarantee that true community is happening. We all know what it’s like to participate superficially in community. We gather with others, we spend time with them, but our interaction is shallow. We don’t really know them, and they don’t really know us. Our tendency to build walls that keep others out of our lives seems to contradict our inbuilt desire to do life together. Something has gone wrong. Our ability to participate in community has been compromised. If you ask me, we’re up against something powerful when it comes to forming substantial relationships.

The second act (The Fall) of the biblical drama sheds light on what this something is. Genesis 3 tells the story of the human race falling away from God in rebellion. At this point, life ceases to operate the way it was intended. We enter into a post-Eden world marked by the not the way it’s supposed-to-be-ness of life. Immediately after Adam and Eve rebel against God they turn against each other. We catch a glimpse of this through their practice of blame-shifting. Neither accepts responsibility for what they’ve done. The principle at work here is that a fractured relationship with God results in broken relationships with others. After the Fall, human history is filled with envy, deceit, gossip, disloyalty, distrust, sabotage, murder etc. It might surprise you to learn that all of these vices are found on the pages of the Bible. This is why the biblical story often reads like a soap opera in case you’ve ever wondered. Not that I’ve ever watched a soap opera, but anyway…

The entrance of sin (rebellion against God and his good ways) into the world changes everything. Sin shatters the good thing God had going in creation. A catastrophe has occurred and we find ourselves in the middle of a mess. Ever since the tragic events of the Fall, humans have (consciously and unconsciously) been trying to find the way back to Eden. The following lines from Mo Leverett’s song, Autumn Rain, captures this well:

We are, but exiles from Eden, abandoned.
Banished in Babylon, lost and cold.
Wandering remnants of this ruined race,
Startled and still staring in Adam’s face.

We’re all trying to “cope” with life this side of Eden. We’re trying to figure out what the heck has happened. How do we make sense of our yearning for real community, but also of our deep-seeded resistance towards it? It’s quite the paradox, isn’t it? It’s a paradox, though, if considered in light of the biblical story, points us to the truth of human existence. We’re up against personal bentness as well as the general brokenness of life – a combination that has serious ramifications for our participation in community. This is why I believe the not the way it’s supposed-to-be-ness of life caused by the Fall accounts for why we humans struggle at sharing life together. What do you think?

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“I think it’s because people need to get together.”

This was the explanation given by someone in a local newspaper as to why the crowds grow larger each year at the annual Italian Festival here in Wilmington. It makes sense, doesn’t it? People get together because they need to get together. Living in isolation from others has never been viewed as ideal by most. Someone who is lonely or alienated from others is typically someone we feel sorry for. We humans have always valued being together. We’ve always needed to be part of community somewhere. But why? Why do people need to get together? Is it because we have been conditioned by our environment to live in community with others? Are we simply living out what we have been trained to do all our lives?

I don’t find these explanations very satisfying. My personal need for community runs deeper than what a purely naturalistic explanation can account for. There seems to be an ache or yearning in my inner person to be connected to others. I have an inbuilt desire to do life with others. As human beings, I believe we are compelled to share life together. Our longing to be together flows from our identity as humans. It is part and parcel to who we are.

The biblical drama makes sense of this. We learn in the first act of the drama (Creation) in Genesis 1 that we were made by Community. This brings us in on a remarkable reality: God himself is a community of persons. He is three in one (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This accounts for why Christians use theological lingo such as triune, trinity, trinitarian, etc. Don’t ask me to diagram or explain what God as three in one means with any sort of precision. The Bible just doesn’t go there. And we shouldn’t be surprised that there are truths about God that boggle our minds. In fact, I would be a bit skeptical if this wasn’t the case. It seems logical to me that since God is God, since He is bigger than us and distinct from us, there should be some mystery involved in knowing Him. The Bible avoids presenting the Trinity as some abstraction we are to figure out. What the biblical story is apparently trying to tell us is that we should devote less time to analysis and speculation and more time to experiencing and knowing the Trinity. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “the thing that matters most is being actually drawn into that three-personal life.”

Among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit there is an other focus – a constant giving of themselves as each person of the Trinity is out to make much of the others. The Trinity is a community of divine love and delight. This assures us that God did not create the world because he needed something, but rather because He wanted to share and spread the wealth. Think about your own life, for example. Have you ever experienced something so meaningful that the joy you felt was virtually uncontainable, compelling you to share it with someone else? This gives us insight into why God made the world. He wanted to bring us in on what He experienced. The creation of the world was an overflow of the Trinitarian community. God desired for us to experience that community through knowing Him and living with and for others.

We also discover in the first act of the drama that humans are made in the image of this triune God. Since God is a community of persons, it would follow that one significant way we image Him is by being in community ourselves. We can’t help but to gravitate towards others because we were made by Community for community. Our “being together” is a reflection of our being made in the image of God. We are inescapably community-oriented. This is why Adam by himself was not enough. God declared in Genesis 2, “It is not good for man to be alone.” So He made Eve to compliment Adam. We are made for relationship with others. It is in our DNA. This means I’m not myself by myself. I’m incomplete when I live independent of others. I need community to live a fully human life.

I believe the biblical story explains why we need to get together. We were made by Community for community. What do you think?

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