My favorite book in the New Testament is the book of Philippians. The whole book is about love and relationships. From the first chapter, as Paul pours out his thankfulness and caring for the people of the assembly at Philippi, it becomes clear how much they mean to him, and we are shown, in his very personal expressions of concern for them, the fundamental need for supportive, loving relationships within the body of Christ. As I read the scripture, I see how much the fellowship of other believers was a comfort and support to Paul in his very literal prison, and I realize how much it also means to me.
This means that when I find real fellowship in the Lord, it becomes very precious. I am overwhelmed when I think of the people I have known throughout my life whom I have loved in Christ, and who have loved me, and with whom spiritual fellowship is not just a mutual assent to certain truths, but a real sense of family.
Recently I had to have my cataracts removed. When I went into the surgical suite to have the first eye done, I must admit I was a little apprehensive. I have had a lot of surgeries over the course of my life, and I am not afraid regarding most parts of my body. This, however, was different. It involved my eyes. All my life I have been squeamish about eyes. Before the cataract surgeries, I had to have a biopsy done on a tiny section of my eyelid. It was done with a local anesthetic, and I had seen the needles coming at my eye and felt the incision and the pain from the cauterization to stanch the flow of blood ~ and even with the anesthetic it had been extremely uncomfortable. Now I was facing an even more extensive procedure, and I was dreading it. I had prayed, and others were praying, for my confidence in the Lord and for courage for me.
My nurse was a nice young man named Friday. He was pleasant and reassuring, and went through the routines. I got into my gown. He attached the blood pressure cuff and put the little sensor on my finger for my pulse. He positioned me in the special little pillow designed to help my head stay still. He then said, “Please give me your hand ~ I need to insert the IV line.” Oh, no! Not my hand! I hate having IV lines in my hands ~ it is usually painful and I would so much rather have it further up on my arm. He told me to trust him ~ and mentioned something about his own trust in the Lord. My ears immediately picked up and I said something about my own trust in God, and we carefully felt our way through conversation to the realization that we were both believers, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t afraid any more. I could not believe God’s grace in alleviating my fear by giving me a brother to hold my hand and make me comfortable. There was an immediate sense of fellowship and trust. The needle went into my hand almost painlessly, and didn’t hurt after that at all; due partly to my nurse’s skill, but also, I think, due to my being relaxed in the hands of a brother. In a very short time, we had found a certain kind of fellowship based on our mutual trust in God and our kinship with each other in Him.
True fellowship in the Lord goes much deeper than an intellectual consensus. It is also being able to trust the other with questions and fears. It is the freedom to reveal failures as well as victories and to know that others have had their own failures. We are able to comfort each other and share how, with God’s grace, we found our way out of the Slough of Despond, or found peace within the trial. We can say to one another, “Isn’t He WONDERFUL!”, and know that we are understood. It is in being able to assure one another of how much He means to us, and affirming to each other the deep and abiding joy that we find in Him. True fellowship is really in finding the ability to worship together.
I am always searching for this kind of fellowship, and have often found it ~ but over time I have realized that even within the Church it is not always available. I have had a lot of my innocence and naiveté stripped away and have come to see that not all believers are prepared for real fellowship.
Nevertheless, I long to be able to be transparent with others. I find it so tiring having to maintain my masks. What I have found is that for many people, it feels too unsafe to remove the mask, so we skim along the top of real relationship and pretend that this is sufficient. We find it easier to speak abstractly about spiritual things than to tell one another that we care, or that we hurt, or that we may have doubts. We seem unable to let go of our need to impress others with our “victory”, rather than being authentic and admitting that we are still struggling with some things, and don’t always have it all together. We live performance oriented lives, rather than authentic ones. I understand this and try not to judge; we all have different baggage we bring to life, and I have my own areas of inconsistency.
However, I have become convinced that when possible we need to tell one another who we really are and what we want, and when we care about one another. I had a friend who, in speaking of his best friend, said, “We speak truth to each other.” That is genuine fellowship. How can we encourage one another if we all hide our fears behind a mask of spiritual competence? How can we find comfort in each other if no one knows we are struggling? By our insistence on always wanting to appear to be victorious, we turn away the support and love from others which would be there to help us. We also deny others the opportunity to minister to us, and so we are both robbed of something precious.
Of course, unfortunately, one obstacle to transparency is the number of people who need to play the game of “all-wise”, and who, instead of just letting you share and offering compassion, insist on giving you a course of action and demanding that you follow their solution. This is where one needs to exercise discernment about who can offer real fellowship, and who just needs to be right. It is much better to keep your concerns for the Lord than share with well-meaning bullies.
For my part, if I want to let someone know I care, I can find little ways to express it. People show their caring with kind deeds toward each other, and sometimes words aren’t necessary. The message is received, and people are warmed and nourished by these small demonstrations of love. Sometimes, though, an encouraging word may be the only thing which helps. We need to say, in real words, in human speech, some reassurance of just how much someone means to us. A loving word can last a long time in the heart of a lonely and discouraged friend.
How can I know that someone needs this encouragement if no one can admit they are hurting? I need to look for opportunities to express my love for others even if they don’t express need, and I also need to be open about my own needs. This might be the catalyst which would give them the freedom to let down their drawbridges and trust me with their own struggles. We need to be courageous enough to let our vulnerability be seen, to live less self-protectively. It is a matter of accepting the risk of trust, believing that I will gain more than I will lose.
In these times of uncertainty about so many things, it is wonderful to have the knowledge that not only are we surrounded by God’s love, but also have access to the support and caring of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I hope that I will always be able to make myself available to others. I think the key is in trying to listen with Spirit-opened ears; being aware of those little clues in words and gestures which give us the real underlying meaning of what is being said. We need to listen with ears of love, and tell one another that they matter to us.
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (I John 4:10,11 NKJV)