Needing Each Other
I sometimes have a hard time admitting that I need other people. I'm pretty obstinate when it comes to the things I think I can do on my own. Even when I convince myself that I should collaborate with others on ideas and projects, I fear that too often my heart mistakenly believes I can do it without help. This does not seem to be a new phenomenon, though from my experience it looks like an epidemic at this point. This individualistic, independent streak permeates our nation, neighborhoods, churches, nonprofits, and homes. I've been trying to fight this spirit of self-reliance in my own heart, but it has not been easy. There are areas where I've had more success, such as here at CCC, where goals are so big and far-reaching that to go without partners would mean immediate and unequivocal failure. But there are so many facets that resist collaboration and interdependence.
One of those places for me is at church. Pride and arrogance whisper that relationships don't matter that much for me at my places of worship. Some part of me keeps arguing that I don't need the folks around me. It happens so subtly on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening, when my natural proclivity towards laziness is joined by the part of me that devalues the contributions of others.
"Does it really matter if you go to church tonight?"
"Are you really going to get anything out of worship this morning?"
"Who cares if you see (person) again today? You don't really need them..."
I don't think I'm alone in struggling with this kind of thing. I think we all have an instinct to ignore the importance of others. And while by no means do I have a magic bullet to defeat this feeling, I have been trying to find ways to push back against my pride and independent streak.
In the book of 1st Corinthians, chapter 12, Paul talks to a fractured and fighting church about unity. His exhortation to work together and value each others' contributions still ring true today for me, and hopefully for everyone regardless of faith. His analogy is that of a human body, and Paul goes on to explain our interdependence.
"Now if the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don’t need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don’t need you!'"
The illustration is apt. Even if my pride gets the best of me and convinces me that I'm a more important part of the body, the heart, the brain, or the eye for instance, none of those body parts do especially well when separated from the rest of the body. No matter how inflated my sense of self becomes, these verses remind me that I am nothing if not connected relationally to those around me.
I'm trying my best to sear this image into my consciousness, and it's taking some intentional work. One of the ways I've been trying to keep myself from thinking to highly of myself and properly valuing others has taken place at Freedom Fellowship, a church I attend on Wednesday nights that is located in the heart of the Butternut/Chestnut neighborhood. I've been asked to teach a few lessons there over the last couple of years, and have been able to use the opportunity to teach myself just as much as teach others.
If you're not familiar with Freedom Fellowship, it's a pretty fantastic church, at least in my opinion. The congregation is mostly made up of people that most churches would consider "the least of these," like working poor and homeless folks, as well as folks dealing with addictions and mental health challenges. When given 30-40 minutes to speak in front of such a group, I worry that I'll fall into the trap of categorizing them as people that need me and my lesson, while personally feeling like I've got the answers all figured out. That's a dangerous place to stand, and it sure doesn't sound like a body that is interconnected and relying on mutual love and support.
So I've been trying to break myself out of that mindset in a couple of ways. The first is to start out by taking myself down a few notches. As a White, middle-class male with a college degree in ministry speaking to a racially-diverse crowd of people typically living below the poverty line, this is crucial. Luckily for me, I've had a great deal of incredibly embarrassing stories that I've found help level the playing field a little, or at least humanize me some. For example, I shared some of the humiliating details about how I tried to get my now-wife Amanda to date me, complete with inviting her to be my date to the dance party she was throwing at her house that I lived four hours away from. By calling her at the number she had listed on her application to work at the camp of which I was director. Not flattering. Kinda creepy. Okay, really creepy. (I also shared another story that is so excruciatingly embarrassing that I have only told that church, my wife, and three very close friends. That story is NOT going on the internet, just in case I ever need to be important someday...)
But self-mortifying is still rooted in me talking about myself, which isn't ideal for elevating others. So my other strategy has been to make sure to include time in each of my devotional talks to break up into groups of two or three to discuss some question, then open the floor to the wisdom of the folks in the pews. I've been trying to hammer home to everyone, especially myself, that each person experiences the world differently, and that each point of view has inherent value. My views of God and how best to live out of love do not have the market cornered, and I lie to myself if I discount the thoughts and experiences of others.
I think it's been healthy for Freedom folks to hear they aren't less important than me. I think saying that has been even more healthy for me. It helps to view the people around us as vital to our survival and our thriving.
All this had been percolating in the back of my head for a few months, when I ran into an image that was both inspiring and illustrated this idea of needing each other. It is a series of photos of two friends who have been planting trees together for many years. One man is a double amputee with no arms. The other is a man who is completely blind. Together they do what neither could do alone. For me, a person who far too often forgets my own blindness, it means a lot.
May we be people who know we need people. Now and always.