by Brian Maher
Deep Christian fellowship comes through sharing burdens, risks, and dangers as we engage the world for God’s kingdom.
When I was jailed a year ago for being part of a human rights demonstration in Phnom Penh, I was detained with five other Jesus followers and three human rights workers whose spiritual beliefs were rather undefined. After twelve hours of negotiating our confessions, a rich bond was forged between us. This resulted in a real sense of intimacy that did not seem to fade with time, or discriminate between expressions of faith or non-faith.
Why was it that I could feel more kinship with those who were not self-proclaimed Jesus followers than with those whom I spent countless years with in corporate singing and worship services? Because somehow the key components of a Trinitarian type “fellowship” had been lost along the way. Some of the most rewarding times in my early teenage years had happened in an active scout troop where the more robust of us had experienced significant camaraderie as we climbed high peaks in wilderness areas. In some ways, we were flirting on the edge of real fellowship because it engendered real bonding and a deep sense of intimacy.
I wondered why I couldn’t feel the sense of community others claimed they felt in worship services. What was I missing? I used to catch myself thinking, “I don’t know these people, and these people really don’t know me.” I felt more at home in scouts or with my former drinking buddies. When I read The Shaping of Things to Come, I noticed Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch use the word communitas, a term first coined by Victor Turner in his book, The Ritual Process. Turner studied the initiation rites of tribal peoples in Uganda. His sense of communitas resulted from watching teenagers separated from their tribe, standing together outside of society, undergoing initiation rights, and then being reintegrated. This activity provided a fresh and enriching experience that pushed forward the whole community. It also gave me a clue as to what I might be missing.
The transforming agents of communitas were the hardship and risk the group took together outside of the safety of the community. I thought back to scouting and my years working with the grunts who scratched out a living doing tree care. We risked our lives swinging from tall trees, using chainsaws to remove large trees over houses and power lines. Powerful and intimate bonds were made (which don’t always exist in the pew) with those surly, crusty, and hard-living tree men. Why? Communitas never quite comes to fruition in the world because those risking their lives together are not usually integrated back into the same living community that is organized around Jesus. Additionally, it tends not to happen in the church if the church is not truly missional and believers are not given time to share and reflect on their missional experiences together.
Intimacy Requires Risk
There was calculated risk participating in a demonstration for the respect of human rights and social justice in Cambodia. Forays into an Andong resettlement village with Cambodian emerging leaders were not very dangerous, but they were risky. While there was some physical risk, there was also risk in that the students’ whole paradigms of ministry were challenged. These emerging leaders made significant adjustments to their perspectives and risked bringing those changes back to their leaders. The twenty-two students were paired off and sent out to interview squatter families, crossing small canals flowing with raw sewage and effluvia running alongside the shacks. Communitas made it possible for the students to feel a deep attachment to one another, especially after sharing reflections together. Tangible changes occurred in lives and ministries as a result. One young man committed a tenth of his business earnings toward the development of the village. The group took up a collection and organized a clothing drive. Others are bringing their youth groups to help with sanitation. Some will teach in a nearby emerging church. One student suggested having his youth group’s camp at the squatter village. The idea of being sent and crossing barriers begins with Trinity, is seen with Noah, Abraham, Israel, the prophets, Israel in exile, the apostles, the early Church, Jesus, and ends in Jesus’ final advent. Being missional pushes communitas past being just an initiation rite to put us in touch with the missional heart of God. Intimacy begins with catching a glimpse of the heart of God for the nations.
Being missional implies a certain level of risk. When Jesus followers cross economic, comfort-level, geographic, racial, educational, and environmental barriers to bring the good news of the kingdom to people of non-faith, there will be risk involved. I took a group of teenage expatriate Jesus followers to visit an Andong refugee settlement. Their simple presence required they get out of their comfort zone—and it turned out to be a great encouragement to the villagers. We met later that afternoon to share and reflect on our shared experience. Those who went to the refugee settlements connected on a much more intimate level. They felt a deeper level of intimacy with each other. I saw this transformation again when I brought a mix of believers to bring supplies to Cambodian juveniles in a detention facility. All were impacted; however, my Cambodian staff had a new respect for each other and a new intimacy that I noticed at the workplace.
Intimacy through Unique Forging and Bonding
An all-too-common falsehood has us believing that knowing more about God’s word immediately translates to spiritual growth. Hence, we are inundated with messages, sermons, and devotionals. We trust the Spirit to work only through paid professionals or experts, when in reality, each of us has the Spirit, and sharing our reflections from missional forays engages all our learning domains and makes learning experiential. Reflection is about learning; sermons are about teaching, and mainly engage the cognitive realm. My recent missional experiences have taught me that honest and transparent dialogue based upon reflection of a group’s shared mission are critical for building intimacy among Jesus followers, as well as excitement for further mission.
When a missional element serves as the DNA of a body of Jesus followers, many opportunities will arise where deep and meaningful dialogue can happen with honesty and transparency. Facilitating dialogue based upon the reflection of shared mission not only fosters intimacy but engages all the learning domains. Collective reflection brings out such rich dialogue, and each participant becomes a teacher and a learner simultaneously. The ground is leveled; there are no experts. Each participant’s experience reflects his or her own personal journey with God, rather than becoming an academic exercise where the right answers are the most important thing. Reflecting together on missional experiences is worth many “messages” because the Word of God as Logos is experienced and felt. We can freely question or explore each other’s rich perspectives. I suspect the communitas experienced as a result of this is the kind of fellowship enjoyed by the early Church in Israel and by those who risked their lives leading reforms or crossing barriers to bring the good news to others.
Intimacy: Both the Means and End
Intimacy with God or fellow pilgrims has a beginning but no measurable end. While intimacy among God’s people is a reward in itself, it is not an end in itself. Authentic intimacy with each other leads to greater intimacy with God. Intimacy among followers of Jesus happens along an arduous lifelong journey together. Remember the cost involved. Intimacy at any level is not cheap. The apostles’ journeys with Jesus were not joy rides. It cost them face, their jobs, reputations in the community, financial stability, security, and eventually, their lives. Likely, they were often hungry, dirty, tired, irritable, and frustrated, not only with their own lives, but with each other. Imagine living with their uncertainty concerning their future and security. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” they followed. They likely had days where they regretted that decision. They could probably draw up long lists of each other’s faults and character flaws, each seeing themselves as superior to the others. We know they had many conflicts; some resolved, some not.
Our Western society of performance and success leaves no room for failure, yet failure was one of the major components greater to bring more intimacy and maturity to the apostles, especially when Jesus appeared to commission them for further mission. “Failures” are often part of the divine plan that we humans work so hard to avoid and skirt around; yet these failures always seem to find us. The recognition of our failures and brokenness can be a powerful means to more intimacy; when we learn to love and accept each other in our brokenness, the world can tell, and it will know that we are disciples of Jesus. That is just one of the many ends of intimacy among Jesus followers. Intimacy itself is missional.
What Does Intimacy Look Like?
We talk a lot about intimacy with each other, but what does it look like? What does intimacy with God look like? What is it not? Is it romantic in nature, like many contemporary Christian worship lyrics seem to be saying? Should intimacy translate to “falling in love with Jesus”? Is intimacy defined by feelings alone? Frost speaks of contemporary Christian music and their romantic lyrics, noting that there is no mention in the Bible of falling in love with Jesus, and that the “Church as a bride metaphor” is used typically to illustrate “the need for the Church to remain pure, faithful, and obedient” rather than in a romantic context (2006, 305). Frost suggests that the term “Abba, Father” and the biblical relationship between a Jewish father and his son in biblical times is the most accurate metaphor used for intimacy in the New Testament (2006, 306). Consider Jesus’ relationship with the Father and how intimacy was demonstrated.
Consider those who gave their lives for God in mission and waded through the pain of shame, brokenness, sacrifice, and suffering. Some of them experienced significant moral failures. Sacrifice and suffering on the missional journey season the broth of intimacy with God and his people. The psalmists thicken the broth even further by turning up the heat of transparency and the flame of blunt honesty in their prayers to the God of the universe. They question him about his silence in the depth of their despair. In the same breath they list the great works of God from the past. They shake their fists in God’s face because they know of his character.
I’m sure intimacy with God happens in worship services; however, intimacy is born in mission and grows through communitas, missional risk, sacrifice, suffering, and in being brutally transparent with God. We don’t arrive there overnight, as it is a long struggle to overcome our idolatry, biases, comfort, and false and inflated view of ourselves.
The issue of trust is pivotal for us in developing intimacy with God and each other. The more we trust God, the more our level of intimacy with him develops. The more we trust each other, the more our level of intimacy increases. Trust, however, must be understood in the context of mission. It would help to remember that the Bible is the story of God’s mission to include the nations in his love. The level of our commitment to God’s mission is the foundation for both trust and intimacy. Mission is the crucible for testing our trust and obedience to God.
God increasingly continues to “up the ante” concerning our ability to trust him by throwing challenges into our lives. This way, he gives us more chances to draw closer to him. God’s people are called to live as strangers and pilgrims in the world. They don’t throw down deep tap roots. They don’t store up treasures on earth. The feeling of continual transition is most uncomfortable, but God will meet us there. Pilgrims and sojourners are catalysts for communitas by virtue of their continual separation and re-integration. The ingredients of intimacy stick to them like static electricity wherever they go.
Metaphors for Intimacy
“Journey” describes our lifelong walk of increasing intimacy with God; however, “trail” as a metaphor is usually left unexplored. Wilderness trails are about journey, risk, and adventure. Trails take you on a journey and can help forge you physically, emotionally, and mentally. Trails evolve with a particular purpose or destination in mind for the traveler. Trails are like living organisms, and often demand patience, endurance, energy, and stamina. Trails see to it that we are changed. Trails require agility and heightened awareness as they take you into valleys, along the edges of mountain cliffs, and across raging rivers on logs or rickety bridges. New trails or old trails, it makes no difference. On old familiar trails, travelers can still have new experiences, sensations, thoughts, feelings, and memories. The same trail over different seasons can be muddy, dusty, soggy, saturated, hard, soft, rocky, bare, slippery, covered with moss, leaves, ice, snow, or even various animal droppings. Trails are fluid, never static. Even though trails may cause physical discomfort, there are always rewards around the next bend or on the peak. Our life’s journey is designed to be traveled over fluid missional trails, together, providing the shaping through pain and struggle but also providing rewards of communitas and intimacy.
For shaping to take place, we are often called to venture out to follow unknown sections of trail (missional endeavors) which can be risky. How do we respond to God’s shaping? Or do we even get that far? We may become accustomed to a nicely groomed and surfaced trail that leads us to the worship service in order to be fed. For those in search of intimacy with God, it is time to discover the kind of trail where God will shape you and others.
Objects of Intimacy
I fondly remember my old Little League catcher’s mitt, which was well worn and oiled, permeated with the sweat, dust, and mud of many innings of catching. Although the mitt reflected more losses than wins, it also represented wear and tear, practices, endurance, high and low emotions, and bonding with teammates. The mitt was organic and served as an extension of myself. It was extremely comfortable, yet because it was worn, every fast pitch stung my hand. A new mitt would have provided more padding and protection, but would have taken a long time to become an extension of my hand. We, as Jesus followers, are called to be an extension of God’s hands working toward his mission on earth. At times, I was tempted to get a brand new mitt for reasons of comfort; however, my old one had been shaped and was effective, had more innings left, and it represented past, present, and future communitas.
I recently had my brother throw out my old leather hiking boots. I mourned as I recalled the many dings, nicks, scuffs, bare patched, water stains, and the endless miles of trails hiked in all parts of the northeastern United States in all seasons. These companions on many journeys also became an extension of myself and my immediate connection to the trail, and if allowed to speak, could testify of many hardships, pain, joy, and communitas experienced along the way. My boots could have lasted many more years; however, because of non-use, they became dry-rotted and had to be thrown out. Boots were made to be worn out. Jesus followers were made to follow Jesus—in sacrifice and suffering. This is where communitas and intimacy begin and end.
Frost, Michael. 2006. Exiles, Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. Hendrickson, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.
Brian Maher serves with Church Resources Ministry. In 1990, he took a mission trip to Cambodia, and with only two hundred believers nationwide, he realized training a new generation of leaders was critical. He and his family arrived in Cambodia in 1994 and began developing emerging leaders.
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