Monday, February 1, 2010

A Lesson for the Church from America's past

I wrote my senior thesis on American musicals and how they reflected what it means to be "American." The musicals that I concentrated on were those from the 1930s (the earliest talking films) through the 1950s, though I did dabble a little bit in more modern musicals as well; though those were more for contrast to the ideals I found in the earlier films. There was element of Americanism that I was surprised to encounter nearly everywhere in these early musicals. It was surprising because it is not commonly thought of or appreciated in the same way as it was then.

The idea of a community in these musicals is inextricably tied to the idea of independence or individuality. Without going into lots of details and examples, I'll try to summarize the main thrust of what I discovered. Many foreigners come to America, and many little boys and girls grow up in America dreaming of what they want to do or become in the years ahead of them. And America has been known as the place where those dreams can come true if you set your sights strait and go for your goal with indestructible determination. In order to do this, people develop a certain set of skills that will allow them to work for what they want. People would often barter their skills for another's skills or the product of his labor. (For example, someone might mend a smith's fence in return for shoeing his horses... there are endless bartering possibilities.) This is how communities form. They are groups of people with complementary skills that rely on and help each other in a symbiotic relationship that allows each an opportunity to pursue his own personal goals. We need people. We can never do anything completely on our own.

These communities and the strength of the peoples' character is seen often in the towns on the edge of a frontier where there are no factories or big cities. People know each other and understand (sometimes learning the hard way) that they cannot survive if the community fails.

In an age when one can shop for everything online and essentially survive on other people's services and products without ever having to come in contact with them, it can be hard to understand the special power of these American frontier communities. People were held accountable to each other in their work, in their morals, in the raising of their children. No one had the option of shirking their responsibility. And when one worked hard and did well, they not only had the option of helping others, but it was expected and required in a way because the whole community would know that he did not succeed by his own strength alone.

The Christian church needs to understand how vital and powerful is this kind of community. By serving each other faithfully and working hard to develop our skills so that we cannot be accused of taking advantage of people, the church will develop a powerful system of trust, accountability, strength, ingenuity, and fun that will be markedly different from the rest of the word. It will be noticeable especially in modern society, and in our culture in particular, because people are fixated on "getting ahead" at the expense of one's coworkers, "looking out for #1" to the exclusion of all others, and taking all they can while giving as little as possible. Can you imagine a secular community today participating in a barn raising or a husking bee?

These events were not the imaginings of historical fiction authors. And their purpose was not solely to come together and "have fellowship." These were times when people did work together, freely, generously, and knowing that each person would have his turn of needing and contributing to the community help.

Paul talks about Christian communities in 1 Thessalonians and gives us many other instructions elsewhere. Speaking to the entire church of the Thessalonians, Paul says, "Now concerning brotherly love, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one." Later on, he says, "We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

We are to love all of our Christian family, not just those we "click" with. We are to honor all of them, to serve all of them, to be generous and equally available to all of them, and we are to accept criticism from all of them (even those we don't know or understand as well) because we know that they have been chosen by God to live with him for eternity. There will certainly be idle, fainthearted, and weak people in the community. But we cannot simply throw them out saying, "you damage the image of our Christian community... Leave." Rather, it is a further opportunity for a testament to the grace of God to deal with them patiently and to never return evil for evil.... and to always be thankful.

How often do you complain? Do you notice when others complain around you? Do you join in? If you instead expressed your thankfulness and gratitude that your life is what it is, don't you think the people around you would notice and be astonished? Thankfulness, gratitude, contentment. These are rare things in the world today, much rarer than diamonds.

We are commanded to not forsake the fellowship of our Christian brothers and sisters. This is not a call to go bowling every Friday night with a "small group." And it does not mean meeting every Tuesday with the bridge club which is comprised of ladies from church. No. We are called to serve each others' needs, even to consider them as more important than our own. We are to know our Christian brothers and sisters deeply, rejoicing in their victories and sorrowing with them over their failures. One Christian all on his own will struggle and fight with sin a pain and doubts, giving (maybe) a tiny little flicker of a flame to the rest of the world shining just so much much light on the work and glory of God. But a Christian community should be like a roaring fire showing the rest of the world how we work together in love and generosity freely giving and humbly taking, generously bearing with each others' faults and working together to become more like Christ. That is not to say that Christians in a community will not struggle with sin. But the context of Christian accountability, exhortation, and forgiveness will improve a sinner's chance of resisting temptation while it also shows the world a Godly response to sin.

In our minds we can never compare our worldly lot with our neighbors who have rejected Christ without also comparing our eternal lot. We are members of a different world, and we should not read the same things, watch the same movies, laugh in the same way, or even smile or shake a hand with the same attitudes and thoughts as the rest of the world. We are called to be different and we must show the world what this difference is. It does not mean going to Wednesday night Bible study instead of Wednesday night chess club. It means living every moment knowing that someone died so that we could walk and breath and smell with all the excitement of the most rapturous love... And we can do that because we are walking and breathing and smelling (and living!) a new life in the ridiculous love of a God who created the earth and the air and every fragrance there is so that we could enjoy it and praise him for it. And this is how he showed his love for us, that while we were living, ungrateful and hating him for putting us in this beautiful world, he punished his own son for our evil. He loves us that much.

Of course we still struggle with sin, but praise God that our destiny does not lie in our own ability! We have such a great hope. Paul says this at the end of 1 Thessalonians: "Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it."

Amen and Amen to that.


  1. For there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus... :)

  2. You should think about writing professionally! Nice post, sweetheart.

  3. If you take up your husband's suggestion to write professionally, be sure to enlist an equally talented proofreader! And what about Habitat for Humanity? Just today, I was trying to remember the words to "America for Me"! In considering lessons from the frontier, hope for the future could be another important aspect of a viable community. Do you agree?