A New Community

In the weeks following Easter, the lectionary schedule of scripture readings includes gospel readings that tell how the risen Christ reassembled his disciples. The post-resurrection journey of these disciples is shared in the record we know as the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the birth and spread of the Church. To this mix are added passages from the Hebrew Testament and Psalms that describe God’s children living together in a new community characterized by powerful feelings of belonging and purpose.

Today, feelings of belonging and purpose like those experienced by the first Christians are elusive, says Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. He cites many contributing factors: more time required for work, greater geographical distance from extended family and friends, the way technology tends to substitute virtual relationships for interpersonal relationships. Even in churches, says Putnam, Christians are spending less time together than they were a generation ago[1], resulting in church members who are not quite strangers, but not quite friends, either. What is true of congregations is true of regional presbyteries, too: greater distance, less time spent together, a diminished sense of common culture and goals, not quite strangers, not quite friends.

Psychologist Martin Seligman argues that this context fosters more depression in younger generations today, because a belief in personal control and independence is stressed more than a commitment to duty and the common good. This heightens expectations about what can be achieved through personal choice and individual labor, and leaves some young people unprepared to deal with failure. Where once they could fall back on families, friends, and churches, often these connections are lost, and not available to cushion the fall.[2]

When I think about such changes in society and church, I sincerely hope that are less a permanent change, and more a phase in a pendulum-like movement as we see in the Bible. If you look at the history of Israel, then you’ll see periods of community decline, but also periods of community revitalization. Following the death of Saul, Israel’s first king, there was a time of fear and confusion. This was followed by a great impulse of unity surrounding the newly anointed King David. After the death of Solomon, the feeling of unity was lost again in fierce divisions between northern and southern tribes, and a long period of strife.

The words of the 133rd Psalm stem from the time of David, when God’s people experienced strong feelings of belonging and purpose.[3] In the anxious and troubled period that followed, it was natural to remember and sing this song from the golden years of Israel’s power. The psalm proclaimed a truth that had been obscured by strife and bloodshed: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

The figures of speech that the psalmist uses are simple but beautiful. He chooses first the most fragrant thing used in the worship of his time, comparing the spirit of harmony to the precious oil with which the High Priest was anointed. The psalmist describes the extravagant way in which the oil, when it was poured out, ran down the priest’s beard, over his garment, and diffused itself over his entire person.

From the realm of worship, the psalmist moves next to the realm of nature to find another symbol of the beauty of community. This time he compares the spirit of harmony to the dew of Mount Hermon. Especially in the heat of Israel’s summer, the snow-capped peak to the north is a symbol of cool refreshment. The psalmist says that the same moisture which rises from its wooded slopes and deep, snow-filled ravines under the warmth of the summer sun, is carried down to bring water and life to the foothills of Zion. The psalmist proclaims that in this refreshing dew — the community of God’s people – “the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.”[4]

We might wonder about the human reality at the heart of this poetic passage. Does the psalm merely represent a sentimental wish for unity among those tired of diversity and conflict? Or is there actually something life giving and nurturing about belonging to the community of God’s people?

Turning once again to Robert Putnam, I’m fascinated by the sociological data he has woven together to support the assertion that participating in church is life nurturing and health promoting. It’s not only that belonging gives us a network for finding jobs or a helping hand, though those things are important.[5] Even more impressive are studies showing that social connectedness is one of the most powerful determinants of health and happiness. Putnam carefully describes data demonstrating that “people who are socially disconnected are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes, compared with matched individuals who have close ties with family, friends, and the community,”[6] and that “the single most common finding from a half century’s research on . . . life satisfaction . . . is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.”[7]

Putnam has created his own index to assess the relative benefits of belonging to one another in close relationships. He says that getting married is the happiness equivalent of quadrupling your income. He says that regular church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income. He says that regular participation in a small group is so powerful that, if you smoke and belong to no groups, it is a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.[8] In a very tangible way, Putnam’s work demonstrates that when we live together in unity, there is life!

When I hear the 133rd psalm, I’m reminded me of a news item I clipped years ago, entitled “The Rescuing Hug.” A set of twins was born prematurely. Each one was in her respective incubator, and one was not expected to live. A hospital nurse argued, against neonatology rules, to place the babies in the same incubator. When finally the twins were placed together, the healthier of the two placed an arm over her sister, like a hug, a rescuing hug. Almost immediately, the smaller baby’s heart rate stabilized and other vital signs began to improve.

The story of the twin sisters bears a simple, beautiful, powerful witness to the truth of our text. How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity . . . . For there, the Lord has ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

            [1] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, p. 72.

[2] Martin Seligman, as summarized by Putnam, Bowling Alone, pp. 261-265, 335.

            [3] Traditionally ascribed to David, the psalm is not easy to date precisely. A date before the Exile is suggested by linguistic analysis in Mitchell Dahood, “Psalms 101-150,” The Anchor Bible vol. 17A, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1970, p. 250-253.

            [4] In my remarks about the psalmist’s symbolism, I draw heavily from Henry Van Dyke’s “The Story of the Psalms,” Sixth Edition, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905, pp. 235-246.

            [5] Putnam, p. 20.

            [6] Putnam, p. 327.

            [7] Putnam, p. 332.

            [8] Putnam, p. 331.

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~ by JohnH1962 on April 12, 2015.

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