Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Power of Community


When we open our lives to the Spirit and the Spirit finds a home where the Spirit can express herself freely, we discover the joy, beauty, power, and meaning of community.

Unfortunately, we often read the letters of Paul from a post-enlightenment, westernized mind-set, which means that we tend to privatize and individualize much of what he says. In actuality, Paul is addressing the community corporately and should be interpreted and applied to the whole body, the church, not to individuals privately. Yes, much of what he says can and should be applied to our individual lives, but it’s important to first read Paul in a communal context.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about singing psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit “among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts” (Eph 5:19). The emphasis here is on community—“among yourselves.” The dominant emphasis in this letter is on encouraging, uplifting, growing, and edifying the body (the community) of Christ.

In his book The Haunt of Grace, Ted Loder tells a wonderful story about a former parishioner. Back when The Saturday Evening Post had covers by Norman Rockwell, they also had covers by Richard Sargent. One of Sargent’s covers featured a woman singing in church at the top of her lungs, blissfully oblivious to the fact that children were giggling at her and adults were singing somewhere between grimaces and chuckles. The woman’s name, says Loder, was Marion Poggenburg. He knew, because both Sargent and Marion were members of his church.

What the cover could not show was that Marion Poggenburg had just had a radical mastectomy and the outlook for her survival was not good. She had been unable to have children. She’d lost her husband. When she first got the news of her prognosis she was depressed. But then, as she put it, “I looked my faith straight in the face, or it looked me straight in the face, and frankly, neither face was all that pretty. But I realized that I had to leave some things up to God, just as God left some things up to me. Isn’t that what love is all about, after all? So it’s up to me to get on with living my days, however many they are. The best I can. With all that’s left of me.”

According to Loder, Sargent’s portrayal of Marion in church was very typical of her. Loder writes, “She was the last of the .400 hitters—she hit about 4 out of every 10 notes of every hymn. Yet she sang as loudly as she could, even though her vibrato sounded a little like a car with a low battery trying to start on a cold morning. She never finished the verses when everyone else did. So half the last line of every hymn was a Marion Poggenburg solo. . . . She prayed the same way, only faster as if trying to drag us by the collar to the throne of grace. . . . There was no way you could come to church and pray, or join in singing the hymns, without leaving feeling better and laughing a little on your way home.”

Just before Loder left that church to accept another call, Marion took him and his family to what she called her “hideaway,” a little place called Pea Island in Long Island Sound. As they sat there in the sand, she said, “I want to forgive you for leaving. But, you know, I’ll be leaving myself soon. Truth is, I’m as ready to die as to live, and I really believe either means the other, when all’s said and done, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I decided months ago, that part’s up to God. My part is being ready and doing whichever.”

Then she went tromping off into the ocean and began splashing around. Loder looked on with tears in his eyes. After a few moments, she turned and motioned for him to come in. She was laughing. She shouted, “Isn’t this wonderful? Come on. You’ll see.” So Loder joined her in the ocean and started laughing too.

That’s the church, that’s the body of Christ, that’s singing together and making music with one another from the heart. That’s the power of community. 

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