One of the things you will notice immediately overseas, if you are an English speaker in a non-English-speaking country, is that in your time there you will lose a lot of ambient background noise, and losing it will disorient you.
We have a certain level of familiarity that we’re used to: assuming you speak English, in America if you walk around a mall, or down a crowded street, or to buy groceries, you will constantly hear people talking – in your own language. Phrases slip in. You hear tidbits of a woman singing a song about little lambs to her son, and the woman emphasizing “no fat milk” in her latte at Starbucks, and two girls giggling about a hot guy. You don’t particularly pay attention to this, because your brain sort of assimilates it into everyday noise, but it’s there. Conversely, you’re aware that your conversations, too, are a part of other people’s background noise.
But when you are overseas, the understandable noise becomes simply…noise. I heard an Italian woman singing to what looked like her grandson, but my mind couldn’t follow the lyrics. Words and phrases constantly floated to me on the air, but I had no idea what any of them were. Sounds had little context or meaning. And my husband and I experienced the odd but amusing sensation of realizing very few people could understand our private conversations or comments. We were in a world unto ourselves, isolated.
That’s why it was such a jolt to get back on the airport shuttle.
My husband and I piled on, waiting for the ride to our gate, and then out of the chattering hum of people in the bus rose a familiar phrase:
“–man oh man–”
And with that other sounds suddenly slid back into comprehension again. A girl on the back of the bus was talking to her friend about being tired. An older woman shouldered past me and dropped her bag on the floor and said she was beat. A new, timid passenger wondered to her husband if this was the right shuttle. And when I told my husband I’d be glad to get a drink because I was thirsty, a man two people down glanced up, met my eyes, and nodded in fervent agreement.
And suddenly I felt home. My shoulders relaxed. I was still an eleven-hour flight away from my country. But I had returned to a pocket of understanding: here I could speak and be spoken to, and understand. I was, without even trying, a part of this group of people. If I needed something, if I had to speak, I knew that they would hear me. There would be no barriers or difficulties.
It occurred to me in that moment that the value of fellowship in the church is not much different. It’s deeply comforting to be around people who get it. Sure, we might not all agree on the fine points and we might all be very different people, but there’s something soul-soothing about not having to explain yourself or justify your perspective. About being able to ask for what you need without feeling strange. About being able to talk about something like faith or Jesus without feeling compelled to defend or explain it.
At its best, and as an ideal, Christian fellowship is (or should be) a place where we can drop pretenses, get comfortable, stretch our toes, look for and find and provide support, and enjoy the feeling of being somewhere that we’re understood, loved, and supported. It’s a community where the love of God is, at least theoretically, being made manifest constantly in surprising and wonderful ways.
You’ll note that I use a lot of qualifiers in that above paragraph: best, ideal, theoretically. And that’s because, if I’m honest, I’ve had some struggles with Christian fellowship in the past. If I’m really honest, I’ll say that it is sometimes (not always, but sometimes) my least-favorite part of being a Christian. I’ve faltered in small groups and grown uncomfortable with what I feel is sometimes an emphasis on fellowship at the cost of individual study and solitude. I’ve battled back against the vocabulary of being “plugged in” and against light acquaintanceship masquerading as real, deep relationship. I’ve stood uncomfortably on the fringe of crowds and focused intently on chip dip.
But then I remember that Christian fellowship is other things, too. It’s the long, thoughtful conversations I have on the phone with my mom. It’s the discussions and laughter and experiences with my husband. It’s the letter from a friend I knew in Bible study back in college. The comments and back-and-forth on blog posts. The resonant feeling I get when I read something another believer has written and I think yeah, yes, that’s it exactly. The unique sensation when I’m feeling or experiencing something that I think no one else has ever felt or experienced, only to realize they have. The strange chill I got in Rome when I looked at the graves of early Roman Christians and realized how far and long and vast over time and space is the love of God.
What I want, this coming year, is to dig deep into that sense of fellowship, because I’ve found it’s what works for me. To not worry so much about fellowship “trends” and all these related sorts of non-Biblical fellowship practices that fall in and out of fashion. That isn’t to say they’re bad or wrong; they work a lot for a lot of people. But it’s good every now and then to revisit what the Bible has to say about fellowship, which I will paraphrase here:
- Believers can be good for each other for a variety of reasons. They encourage and sharpen each other, can lend support, can pray for one another, and restrain each other when necessary.
- We shouldn’t neglect our little Christian community or get in the habit of going it entirely alone all the time. Believers need each other in good times and bad.
- We have a duty to those younger than us, to love them and help model for them what a maturing believer looks like – and we have a duty to those older than us, to respect them and honor them and lend them support and love.
- We should be able to rejoice with others when they rejoice, and sorrow when they sorrow. Sharing experiences and emotions is important.
- We should provide forgiveness when sought, mercy whether sought or unsought, and compassion in all things.
Those things don’t have to occur in a small group, or in official church-sanctioned activities or over a bowl of chip dip. They can happen on buses and in hallways, in phone calls and letters, through blogs and articles, in long discussions, gentle questions, and simple expressions of love, encouragement, and the kind of compassion that leaves people unafraid to be honest and vulnerable.
May 2017 be the year of reclaiming fellowship. At one time or another, we all need to hear the familiar sounds of home.
Thank you for reading my blog this year – and, if you’ve commented, for doing that too. I am blessed to “meet” all of you that I encounter through this medium. Due to the holiday schedule, this is probably the last you’ll hear of me until the New Year, and at that point the regular three-posts-a-week schedule will resume.
Oh, and I have an interesting writing project I’ve been working on…
Bless you and yours in the last days of this year.