When I was a kid, my parents were pretty protective. I was prevented (by mom) from going hunting (with dad) because I could get shot by the evil (and apparently blind) hunters who could not tell a fat kid in a bright orange vest from a squirrel. I was steered into music and away from all things athletic because the “disabled list” was calling my name. I blame this on my brother as much as my parents, since he was always getting hurt in sports. I was on the football field for every home game, but I carried a drum.
The propensity to exchange a potentially harmful practice (hunting and competition) with something safe (reading and music) even extended to my stomach. When I was finally allowed “coffee” my dietary supervisors offered me Postum, a disgusting coffee-colored drink made from some kind of seaweed. Sure, it had no caffeine, but it also had no taste (although my sensitive palate did pick up a hint of fish poo). It was years before I tasted “real” coffee, and decades before I discovered that the Holy Grail of brewed beverages was guarded by St. Arbucks.
We are protective of our kids, protective of those we love, and protective of ourselves, but this causes us to exchange authentic, deep, and life-changing experiences for “safe” ones, hoping to avoid the possibility of potential pain or inevitable injury. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our propensity to protect ourselves from potential relational injury by remaining “shallow.” If we keep people… literally… “at arms length” we think we are less likely to get hurt. This is probably true. It will also prevent us from experiencing true friendship and the company of friends who can help us on our journey towards Christ-likeness.
Many churches have developed a high value for what my friend Jody calls “Grippin’ and Grinnin’.” We shake hands and smile. We ask “How you doin’?” expecting a one word response (“Fine.”) that requires no further conversation or action. We have discharged our responsibility to be friendly. We have chosen “friendliness” as a safe alternative to the potential dangers of true friendship and community.
We may risk a quick hug with some or even dare to ask about a tough meeting, a troubled kid, or our ultimate concern: test results (either medical or academic). We appear concerned, friendly, welcoming, and engaged, without actually being engaged in a person’s life. That would be dangerous. It would require time. I might have to sacrifice something in order to listen to some loser’s tale of woe.
C.S. Lewis famously said,
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Grippin’ and Grinnin’ is a mud pie in a slum compared with the offer of true community. True community (multiple committed friends in a stable environment) can only develop over time and with trust… both scarce and dangerous commodities. We must sacrifice time to develop trust before we can really know others and be known by them. It will require sacrifice. And a lot of coffee.
We need to change a church culture that encourages shallowness. Practices like formal greetings and short handshakes within worship increase our willingness to settle for the “pseudo-community” of Grippin’ and Grinnin.’ It will be painful to fight our addiction to the familiar, even if it is fake.
If we want to experience the lives we were designed to enjoy, we cannot settle for the imitation. True community is just a few sacrifices away.