It's All About Relationships...It Really Is

Currently representatives from all across the United Church of Christ are gathered in Milwaukee, WI for our General Synod. This is a gathering when we come together as One United Church to discern God’s will for us as a people, to make big decisions about how we will operate over the next two years, until the next Synod. We hold our siblings of faith in prayer as they learn, preach, experiment, and help lead our church into this unique moment in history.

It’s a great opportunity to remember that our work as church is all about Relationships. It really is. Sometimes I feel like a broken record saying this over and over. The reason I place so much emphasis on this is because I somehow made it through 18-25 years in the United Church of Christ without really hearing that message. All religious organizations determine the regulations, the statements, the norms and values that determine the nature and identity of their community. For evangelical churches it has traditionally been adherence to a common doctrine of faith. For the Catholic Church it is rooted in the historic Roman Church. For Baptists it’s all about…can anybody guess?…Baptism! For the United Church of Christ, God’s call of Covenant Relationship is what has defined us as a community.

Not only is the work of deepening and strengthening relationships with God and one another the PRIMARY work we are called to do; it’s also the work that determines our success at anything else we try to do. It’s really difficult—if not impossible—to “love your neighbor as yourself” if you don’t first understand the power of love in your own life, and then have some kind of relationship with your neighbor.

The work is so essential, that I have recently shaped our entire June Bible Study around the ways in which scripture informs and shapes our relationships throughout life. I share that outline of the study with you here, with the hope that you might start experimenting with these ideas and frameworks in your own life and in our church community. If you have thought you have to believe the same thing as everyone else in order to be a person of faith…or if you’ve wondered what purpose can religion and spirituality serve in your life…perhaps this way of looking at the power and promise of God’s Good News will help you on your journey:

We’ve all heard the idea that we “must” have a “personal” relationship with God in order to be “saved.”  In our particular faith community, we have questions and comments for all the words used in that sentence, but especially the ones in quotation marks.  What does this mean?  What does it mean to have a “personal” relationship with the mysterious One Creator of All Things?  Is such a thing even possible, since the Wisdom writer in Ecclesiastes teaches we are all “but dust” (3:20)?  

If we think critically about what the word “personal” denotes, it seems unlikely that the ancient authors of Sacred Scripture were even able to form the concept of a “personal” relationship with God.  The word “personal” meaning “pertaining to the self” only came into use in the 14th century, which was about 1,000 years after Christianity had become the official religion of the western world.  It wasn’t until the 1600’s that the word took on the meaning of a  “particular person.”  This is because prior to the Enlightenment, which birthed much of the philosophy and technology that shapes our present-day world, it was not possible to exist in the world as an individual.  Before that time, all humans thought of themselves as part of a larger tribe, or as a family clan, at the very least.  It was only when modern technology made it possible to survive and thrive as an “individual person,” that our entire culture began shifting its focus and thinking toward particular individuals.  The notion that we must have a “personal” relationship with God may be great teaching for some, and it may be unhelpful teaching for others; but regardless of our own feelings about this language, we have to recognize that it is a fairly modern invention in our extremely ancient faith tradition.  

What is undeniable is that, whether we think about our relationship with God in “personal” terms or in larger, human, socio-political terms, the Bible directly addresses the question:  What does correct human relationship with God look like?  I think when we turn to scripture, we discover that we are not taught about a particular category of relationship, but a particular Quality.  Scripture asserts that God’s primary way of existing in relationship to humans is through Covenant.  Covenant can be understood by groups and individuals alike…indeed, certain individuals may have a different understanding of Covenant than the larger communities they are apart of, which is why we teach about having a personal “call” or “vocation” issued to us by God.  Covenant is not defined by the specific parties involved in the Covenant with God…it is, rather, defined by the quality of relationship with God and others.  By looking at the patterns of Biblical stories, we start to see some qualities that define “Right” Relationship, initiated by God and shared among humans.  

1) Humility—The first ingredient for all relationship. All Relationships begin with the experience of “Humility.” Not as in “humiliation,” but as in “being humble.” The root word of “humble” is “hummus” which means “earth” or “dirt.” To be in right relationship with God is to understand that we are mortal creatures, made of dust, but beloved by God. If we think too highly of ourselves—too much pride or privilege—then we tend to excuse ourselves from responsibility, and most of our attention goes toward being pleased and contented. If we think too lowly of ourselves—if we possess too much shame, or guilt—then we believe we are not worthy of any love, attention or affection from anyone at all. Our only way of entering into “Right” Relationship, which we discover first in relationship with God, is too balance our identity as God’s Beloved Child with the humility to accept that we are not the center of the universe. Scripture: Adam and Eve Genesis 2-3; Job, Job 38; Rahab, Joshua 2: 1-21; Eli and Samuel, 1 Samuel 1-3; Elisha heals Naaman 2 Kings 5: 1-14; Jonah is called by God to save his enemies, the Book of Jonah; Jesus is baptized, Matthew 3: 13-17; Jesus learns an important lesson from a woman, Matthew 15: 21-28; Saul’s Conversion, Acts 9

2) Trust—When we first enter into relationship with anyone or anything, it is our natural impulse to want to Control it. God said “let’s make humans in our image” and God gave us “dominion” over all the earth. It has been our understanding that this means we get to do what we want with all that God gives us. But when we remember what we know about God, we begin to critique our own impulses. For example, in the story in the Garden, when Adam and Eve directly break God’s ONLY rule, there are consequences for their actions…but God does not wipe them off the earth, or stay angry with them for all time. God clothes them, gives them instruction, and sends them out into the world with the gifts of Divine Love and Divine Presence. It seems that control is not God’s primary way of being in the world, or God’s way of relating to humans and Creation. If it were, we would be robots who are forced to do God’s will, whatever it may be. Instead, God seems to enter into relationship with all that is not by controlling it…but through Trust. It’s the scariest part of all relationships…trusting the other person to do what’s right…to care for us as well as we care for them…to show up when needed…to meet our needs. We expect and require a LOT from those we are in relationship with—including God—and being let down can be devastating. This is why it is essential that we remember God has given us signs and symbols, promises and consequences that help to shape the Trust we are to place in others…through the gift of Covenant. Covenant is the expression of God’s trust in us, and it shapes how we can place our trust in God, other humans, and nature. Scripture: God’s Covenant with all Humanity, Genesis 6-9:17; God’s Covenant with Abraham; Genesis 17; God’s Covenant with the Freed People Israel; Exodus 19-24; Samuel anoints David, 1 Samuel 16; Jeremiah prophecies a New Covenant to replace the one Israel broke, Jeremiah 28-33; Mary chooses to carry God’s child, Luke 1; Jesus initiates the New Covenant with a New Commandment, John 13: 30; John of Patmos envisions the logical conclusion of God’s Covenant, The Book of Revelation

3) Commitment—The ongoing question throughout most of the Bible is: Will Israel remain faithful to their God? How deep does their commitment go? The individuals called forward as heroes, representing their people on the cosmic stage, are challenged in a number of ways, and every challenge begs the question, “Will you lead by example, remaining faithful to the God of Israel, even in the face of _______?” Moses wrestles with his sinful past, and with his inability to speak. Samuel, the only one with a direct line to God in his time, wrestles with how much to intervene in history, and how much to allow the free will of God’s people to potentially ruin everything. David wrestles with lust, greed, power. Future Kings of Israel will wrestle with how to balance earthly political concerns with their call to follow God’s Divine will. Elijah wrestles with fear and isolation as he single-handedly tries to keep a corrupt young empire from destroying God’s chosen people. All along the way, the question that hangs in the balance is, “How deep does their commitment go? Will they remain committed to their Covenant with God, or will they forsake it for one reason or another?”

When Israel is divided, and then invaded and conquered, her people exiled and enslaved, the question takes on a new, desperate dimension.  What will they do now that it seems their God has forsaken them?  Is there anyone or anything to remain committed to?  The Prophets boldly and clearly declare: Yes.  Even in the face of devastation and ruin, God’s People will renew their commitments to God’s Covenant.  

In the New Testament, we find Jesus of Nazareth—an itinerant Rabbi, a prophet and a healer, the Christ—demonstrating that the commitment to God’s Covenant is demanding something new again.  Can Israel—and, through them, all of humanity—commit to serving God as if there is no separation between the earth and the Divine?  If it turns out that God has actually designed the universe to exist as One…even though it has the appearance of division, diversity and separation…can the faithful commit themselves to treating every one, every thing, and every situation as nothing more or less than God’s Beloved?  Even in the face of sickness, sin, isolation, a changing economy, fear, violence, and death?  Is it possible to commit to God so completely that, even though you live in a land occupied by the largest, most deadly empire the world has ever known, you can view all things as part of God’s Kingdom?  Those are the questions that the Apostles, and Paul, and John of Patmos wrestle with from the Book of Acts through the end of the Bible.  The question of commitment may be the central question of the Bible.

Genesis 22; Exodus 3-4; The Book of Psalms; 1 Kings 19: 1-18; The Book of Proverbs, The Book of Ecclesiastes; The Book of Jonah; Matthew 4: 1-11; The  Book of Revelation

4)  Boundaries— It is commonly viewed that the only way to be free is to eliminate all boundaries.  Upon further reflection, this does not seem to hold up.  All human beings spend their lives existing within very specific boundaries: our bodies.  From time to time we are able to use technology, money, and wit and wisdom to expand our limitations, but our bodies do, in fact, age and, eventually, die.  To live life without tending to the health of our bodies is to disregard the importance of the most natural boundary that will determine our life on earth.  Every body has limitations, every body requires care and tending, exercise and nourishment.  To disregard this reality—not caring for ourselves, ingesting whatever we want, doing dangerous and desperate things—is to welcome chaos into our lives.  Just focusing on this one image of boundary, we can say that a life without boundaries is not “freedom,” but rather “anarchy.”  It turns out that freedom is dependent upon healthy boundaries being carefully tended and nurtured.  It’s true for individuals as much as it is true for all form of relationships.  In our time, we have a difficult time drawing our boundaries:  How much do we give to others? How much do we expect in return?  Who has the authority to make certain decisions?  Who is included in our group, and who is excluded or cast out?  How do we divide our resources and practice good stewardship of them?  When do we go to war and when do we refuse to fight?  What does love look like for all people?

What we see throughout the Bible is that God never breaks Covenant with humans, regardless of how often humans break Covenant with God.  This is an important detail of the Biblical story to note.  Our culture is of the mind that “good” actions should be rewarded and “bad” actions should be punished.  This cultural attitude has more to do with our thinking and beliefs about “heaven” and “hell” than anything actually found in scripture.  When we look at the Biblical narrative, we see that God never brings an end to the Covenant.  God sometimes rewards good behavior…but just as often gives abundant blessings to those who don’t necessarily “deserve” them.  There are stories of God punishing “wrong-doers”—sometimes grotesquely and violently—but there are also plenty of stories of harm coming to those who have done nothing to “deserve” it.  There are many contradictions and paradoxes in scripture regarding the extent of God’s care and power when it comes to human existence.  There does seem to be, however, an overarching reality that is never contradicted.  Every time humans break Covenant with God…God redraws the boundary lines.  God never actually gives up on God’s People, never truly abandons them, never offers a death sentence (well, not since that one time with the flood, anyway) or eternal condemnation.  Almost all the terrifying teachings about what will happen when humans break Covenant with God end with the teaching that God will, eventually, reconcile everyone and all things.  

The point, I think, of entering into this Covenant Relationship with God is so we can learn to become more like God…willing to redraw our boundaries to remain in relationship with our fellow humans…rather than giving up on them or seeking to control or dominate within them.  

Covenant Relationship with God is not just a matter of belief or doctrine; it is genuinely an alternative Way of Life.  It is a way of life that offers what no political design or economic system is capable of offering.  It is a framework for how to hold life together, how to shape the course of our living, how to guide us down untravelled roads into brand new territory of human existence.  For the Ancient Israelites, it was known as “Torah” or “Teaching.”  For Jesus’ followers it was the Greatest Commandment, “to love God with all you are,” and a second one like it, “to love your neighbor as yourself.”  Only when we understand the endgame, the entire point for our own lives and our relationships with others—all of which are influenced and shaped by our initial Covenant Relationship with God—only then do we understand how to draw the healthy boundaries that set us free, while remaining connected to one another and all Creation. 

Genesis 3; Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 6; Leviticus 19, 26; All Stories about Jesus eating with Sinners; Acts 10

5)  Service or “Out Flow.”  Service is the end-result of Covenant Relationship.  As opposed to relationships that are rooted in self-interest or defined by “transactions,” Covenant Relationship is a mutually-agreed upon dance of care and concern, love and generosity.  Because it is a relationship offered freely, without coercion, it only builds and grows.  There comes a natural point in which there is so much loving life-energy within the relationship that it spills over into our environment, creating new relationships as it goes.  Father Richard Rohr has written an entire book on this subject called “The Divine Dance,” in which he articulates this life-giving relationship as “Flow.”  It is not static, it is not any one thing that is established forever…it is rather, a “flow” like a river.  If you are part of a healthy relationship in which you are being loved and nurtured, it will naturally lead to “Out Flow,” that river of love and forgiveness and mercy flowing OUT of you to go feed others.  This is our work as a Church, as a Faithful Community, to love one another so well and so faithfully that we are naturally lead to offering love to others.  That is what we mean when we use the word “Service.”  It doesn’t mean doing good works for people, or just choosing to do things that no one else wants to do.  It has more to do with a quality of life and love that we seek to offer to others, because we have been so transformed by it ourselves. 

This gives us an important way of examining ourselves when we feel stuck where we are.  Because service is visible, we have a lot of judgmental ways of describing people who are not serving others in proper ways.  Folks who are not seen out and about being of service to others are seen as “lazy” or “selfish” or “greedy.”  We tend to be equally judgmental of folks who are seen as doing TOO MUCH for others; we get suspicious of these people, believing they are compulsive “people pleasers” or that there is secretly something they stand to gain from their service.  

For People of Faith, service to others is not something we do because we “should.”  It is something we do because it comes as naturally to us as breathing.  After all, the teaching is to “love others AS yourself.”  If we don’t naturally understand how to be of service to others, it may be that we are not in the “flow” ourselves.  If we are missing love and service in our own life, then we are like a riverbed without water…we have nothing to offer to others, because we need to be watered first.

If this is our understanding of what service is, and what it means, then our service—or our LACK of service—can lead us to much deeper, more pointed and helpful questions about our lives:  If we are in a season when we find it hard to serve others, or we don’t feel like doing it…that is probably an indication that there is something in our own lives that is not being properly nourished.  Rather than feeling lazy and selfish and forcing ourselves to go out and do something for someone because we “should,” it may be more beneficial—for both ourselves and others—if we take time to reflect on our own lives, and what may be missing there.  If you find that you are doing TOO MUCH for others…if you find that your own well is becoming depleted…that there is more need than you can possibly meet…then that is an opportunity to revisit the boundaries that helped you to feel loved and served in the first place.  Do those boundaries need to be redrawn?  Do the boundaries simply need to be reaffirmed and renewed?  Maybe someone is not asking as much of you as you think they are…they’re just new in your life and you haven’t properly identified the boundaries yet.  

How can you get back into the flow?  If we are stepping into this eternal river of life-energy and love, then God will take care of the rest.  

Genesis 18: 16-33; The Book of Ruth; The Book of Esther; All Miracle Healing Stories; Acts 3: 1-11

Brian Gruhn