Our theme for the semester ties in with the theme for Jubilee about how “Everything Matters” and tonight, I am going to talk about community and relationships. I want to start with a strange paradox. We are more connected than any people in history, you can reach someone through Hangouts, Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, iMessage, regular message, Hangouts, Skype, 50 different email accounts and God only knows what I’m missing, and yet survey after survey such as one from the HRSA seems to demonstrate that people here feel alone. Loneliness, especially long-term leads to depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness and if you already have it, it’s likely to get worse. There are physical health risks as well, but the studies I found had comparisons to being alone is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which that implies you need to be around people all the time, which as we’ll see isn’t really accurate, let alone realistic. We could say that “Community and relationships matter because loneliness is a serious health risk” and leave it alone. But that’s basically telling someone who is an introvert or has had bad experiences with people or just isn’t great socially to just “go out there and talk to people”, which is completely against what they think they’re capable of. And it seems that Christian culture is more bent towards extroversion and being with all of the people, all of the time. In his book “Introverts in the Church”, Adam McHugh points to a 2004 study of Christian students to describe Jesus according to temperaments mentioned on the Myers-Briggs scale. Most showed a tendency to paint Jesus in their own image with one exception; regardless of where they were on that system, 97% of them said that Jesus was an extrovert. McHugh writes that “the perception of an extroverted Jesus might reflect a tendency within American culture to value extroversion over introversion…the slant toward extroversion in the larger culture has infiltrated the church”. He goes on to say he interviewed Christians who identified as introverted who said they were having difficulty finding their place in their church. He tells the story of one friend who was intensely closed off and so even the positive relationships she did have came with a caveat. The “ideal” he says of intimacy with the community was that people were constantly together and deeply involved with what’s going on with each other, and the more engaged people were, the closer they were to God. Her level of faith became tied to how outgoing she was. That standard, to me is terrifying, I barely talk about what’s going on in my life, which I’m about to do that quite a bit but there’s a purpose behind it
First, I think we need to give an overview of why being in community and having relationships with people are important. I’m not going to spend too much time there because I’m relatively new to the concept and I will get to why that is when we get to the dark side. To help with that side, I am borrowing rather heavily from McHugh’s book as well as “Life Together” from Dietrich Bonhoffer. We’re going to start there and primarily talk about why being in community is foundational to our faith and a couple smaller aspects of it, the second thing I want to cover is the dark side of relationships, what happens when communities fail and the damage that can do. Finally, how being with people is healing where I’m going to spend most of my time before adding a few caveats to create a perspective on relationships that isn’t going to terrify the introverts. Because frankly it’s hard to be in a group when you’re an introvert, and it’s harder when people you get close to have hurt you and you’ve lost the ability to let others any closer than arm’s length.
One can easily say that the best thing to say when discussing why community matters is to just say you meet great people and go on about how cool being with those people is? While that may be true, that in itself isn’t useful. I can tell you that I’ve managed to put together a great network (which I have) but the only thing that’s useful in a talk is if I just add “you can too” and we’re right back to “just get out there and talk to people”. Outside the social structure, I’m going to say instead that the best point for community is that it is foundational to our faith. It’s the best way to strengthen it. In his phenomenal essay “On Liberty”, which everyone should read before the election, John Stuart Mill states that whatever ones opinion may be “if it is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Life Together” ascents to this saying “Therefore, a Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.” Being in community with people who know what they’re talking about, have a deeper knowledge of Christianity, have more experience being a Christian, more experience being alive. You can only gain from that if you engage it and what comes from when we engage with those people is that we can prevent our faith from being that dead dogma. What’s interesting on my end is that I’m almost an entirely rational mind, I don’t connect with God through music (at all) or anything that starts with an emotional response, even prayer is difficult because that’s relational and I used to be very bad at that.
But I do want to take about the first of two things that I think church culture sucks at: the dark side of relationships, the problems that can come with being in community. And to that, I’m going to tell an interpersonal story, and one and a half group stories. I don’t really know how else to convey what happens when it goes wrong in part because I believe when there are sermons about this, it’s a surface-level examination, the church brings K-Love into the pulpit, evil and pain are not viscerally felt. First, I need to teach you a word you may not know, it’s called gaslighting. I’ve only come to understand what the word means over the last two years. Gaslighting is a form of abuse that is predicated on an attacker getting their victim to question their own sanity and to unmoor them from any stable foundation. In short, the goal is to control, manipulate, and demean someone, bonus points if they can get their victim to rely on them. Basically, my dad had a lot of power in our house and he would explode over anything, and you were eventually doing things just so he wouldn’t throw a tantrum. While mom was out meeting clients for her small business, which worked with a bunch of non-profits, checks other non-profits sent would wind up in an account he had opened in both their names without her knowledge or consent. Important things would disappear when we needed them and he would find them in a back pocket or something. Whenever he was called on this behavior, he simply responded “calm down”, no matter the tone you talked to him in. If you’ve ever seen Breaking Bad, Walter’s transition into Heisenberg is pretty much what we’re dealing with; a textbook narcissistic response to legitimate points.
Socially, the experience was not great, although in my reading I’ve come to see that my experience is actually the norm for people with my condition. I have something called Asperger’s Syndrome, I was diagnosed 8 years ago, which basically means I am predisposed to social ineptitude, I put people who are already on edge, in hell. In a nutshell, or more accurately, how it manifests with me is, I have the emotional expressive depth of a sloth. I can feel sadness, I can empathize with people, I can feel what some might call “love”, but I have intense difficulty saying or displaying any of this out loud. My face generally has two expressions. Intensely analyzing every single pore on your skin and staring straight through you and the difference between the two is imperceptible and it can creep people out. John Elder Robinson writes in his memoir “Look me in the Eye” that “sociopath and psycho were common field diagnoses for my look and expression” which they pretty much were, because of that, he notes that Aspies start to think that something is wrong with us, because we don’t pick up on social cues. So, the stage crew is stuck with me, they’re the only group I have, and they’re not particularly pleased with it. I’m gonna tell this story to lead into the second part of our story on the dark side. One day, in the early going of the stage crew this short, effervescent, beautiful woman, an artist on the crew walks up to me and goes “you know, you’re kind of creeping people out, I’m not sure how, but you are, they think you’re a serial killer”, my response was a dry “thank you for telling me that” in the exact same affect that was likely creeping people out. Her name is Megan Wilson, she’s been my best friend for over a decade, we actually consider each other brother and sister. Because of an incident where her ex, our lighting guy, blew up at her while she and I were at a hospital visiting a dying roommate of her’s the stage crew dissolved, but it wasn’t too much, I thought I’d find another group, and I did.
She went to college in Ohio Northern University and I’m basically alone. At CCAC, I run into and begin talking with a Mormon and was quickly introduced to their circle. Now, when it comes to religion, I’m kind of an inmate who insists on repeatedly breaking back into prison. It was really fun for about 8 months, but there was an explosion when I started to get cynical about it and there was a particular blowup that I don’t want to share with you because it hurt to write, this became another avenue of people trying to control me between the gaslighting in one corner trying to isolate me from this outside influence, and the Mormons trying to isolate me from that and my mother and brothers. So I came to realize that I really can’t trust either, which soon metastasized into I can’t trust anybody beyond a certain point. I got into Point Park, was part of the stage crew and really didn’t care, cause I have the same weird mannerisms. In Point Park, I was finally diagnosed, formally, with Asperger’s, which combined with the current stage crew, the old crew, the Mormons and the family created this idea that people are just waiting to take advantage of others either to exercise control or because they can just to screw with them. And this was always in the back of my mind, I do not believe in genuine goodness.
From then on, for up until about 2 years ago, I kept my distance at varying stages. This includes the Body at Point Park and Crossroads at Duquesne, groups I came into contact with initially out of a vindictive urge to bring people out of Christianity. You see how well that worked, but here’s the impact. I became a Christian at Jubilee, I went on two missions trips with my closest friends at the Body. One of my closest friends from high school committed suicide (March 9, 2013) For several reasons, most of which disillusionment and self-doubt and because I had been taught that I’m nothing without a certain someone, I left Point Park and I went to a few more meetings of the Body and Crossroads and then basically stopped talking to all of them entirely.
When relationships and communities fail people, the damage is incredible. Joel Osteen thinks you can just move on, he said as much in his Best Life book (yes, I read it, the things I do for you people), some well meaning Jobian friend might say “you just need to have more faith”, some other well-meaning platitudinous optimist will say “you just need to meet the right people”, and at a certian point, you just want to punch him because i’m just thinking “you don’t get it, I don’t believe “the right people” exist.” The stretch between leaving Point Park and finishing LaRoche is probably about 4 years. In that time, I didn’t really start many conversations outside of when I was scheduled to be with people. So I’d only really talk to Pat or Dan at church, I wasn’t involved with a small group at all and I was occasionally invited to things and went, but I never initiated the contact. Eventually, I didn’t have to worry about “being dropped” by any one group, I just disappeared entirely. During a particularly difficult frustrating final stretch here, I didn’t really feel like coming to LIFE until David intervened.
Which brings me to my final point about community, which is actually going to become two. The first and most important is that being with the right people is the only way we heal. You have to get involved again, at some point. And if you think that you can actually get on without really connecting with people ever again, you absolutely can. But it will eat at you. This isn’t solved by the occasional meetings you’re already used to, in fact there is no road map. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers this warning: Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone. If you neglect the community of other Christians, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your being alone can only become harmful for you.”
I hesitate to say this, but as Christians, there is this innate sense that may not be our own, that we are not meant to live life alone, or with only tangential relationships with people. But those who have been gaslit for any stretch, or who have had friends let them down in tremendous ways may find themselves in the position where they really can’t trust people, but I can’t really live life without them either. So, let us try to work through this.
The first major point here is that some may take this passage from Bonhoeffer to mean that you actually do have to be the extrovert, even if you have to force yourself. The only way to reintegrate into the church is all at once. Join a small group, invite people to things, do all that fun “extroverted” stuff you may not have the mindset or ability to do well. “Go do the thing you are woefully underequipped for” seems like bad advice. Or, better idea, return in a way that makes sense to you. Which is probably very slowly. The people you have now, that you trust, work to deepen that relationship. See each other more if you can, see if they need help with something. If you don’t want to hang out and talk, have something to work towards.
Truth is you don’t need to be a large group. In Ecclesiastes, we read the following in chapter 4:12
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves . A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
A three-strand cord is not quickly broken. You don’t need to be an extrovert, you don’t need to be surrounded by people, you do need at least three people. I’m going to say “at least” because just knowing only two people is impossible and making them your only contact isn’t fair to them. Beyond that, the interesting thing about that is once you get to that third person, you’re likely going to be invited to their small group, or feel like joining them and the reintegration begins from there. For this re-intergration to happen, you don’t necessarily need to start over and go out and meet new people and make this harder on yourself.
The worst thing that can happen by just saying more than “hey, how’s it going” is that the conversation just peters out and you never really try again, but when reintegration works, it’s incredible. The reason I’m flying here is because I’m probably already over time and because this is actually a shorter version of an essay I’m writing as a sort of therapy. The title of this essay is WKSK. Partly because I’m a radio nerd. We’re on the east side of the Mississippi, everything east of the river that isn’t KDKA begins with a W and I think it’s cool. Points off for being the actual, real-life callsign of a country station, also I couldn’t think of a title for an essay that didn’t sound like a collection of evangelical buzzwords like “authenticity” and “intentional” and all that other stuff. So what I was left with was a chance to pay a bit of an homage to the Westmans, Koerbers, Spallingers and Kuehls. These are four families that God has put in my life who, frankly, do for me what I can’t say I’d do to them. Even though I disappeared for a few years, (or at least tried to) they’ve still made an effort to involve me in things and to connect with me. The Westmans, years ago, invited me to their wedding, they brought me on a Memorial Day weekend trip out near State College and Hannah, who I have known for much longer than her husband has had an amazing impact on this burgeoning socialness. The Koerbers are my pastor family and I don’t remember how this happened, and neither do Chrissie or Matt, but they started inviting me to watch Steeler games with them, even though pretty much nothing about Pittsburgh is high on my list. The Spallingers, Pat and Katelyn are two people I work with at the church, I’m the teardown lead, Pat’s the main sound guy, Katelyn is the one making sure all the signs are up, laptops are out and generally is the main coordinator or helps whoever is running the service that week. They’ve invited me to their wedding, into their house and I’ve hung out with them a couple times even after we’re done doing our respective jobs at church, which two years ago would never have happened. I’d finish my work and get out. The Kuehls are kind of responsible for starting this in the first place. David in particular was always quick to catch on to sparks of “I don’t like who I am right now” and was there as I started to grasp that I had been gaslighted for 20 years and was starting to change. There are four conversations that I absolutely do not have any more time to talk about that I will remember for a very long time. Apart from the Kuehls, who I didn’t have to re-intergrate with because they worked here and I saw him generally every day, I had to sort of resurface and start to reciprocate what I was being shown. Which is why I think re-intergration is fairly easy. There may be people just waiting for you to come back out of the shell and are giving you excellent reasons to do so.
If re-establishing doesn’t work, the worst that can happen is an awkward tempering of a conversation until it comes to a dead stop. If it works, you may have them as some of the most amazing people in your life and the spark to start that process, I believe, is in your church, or with the CCO because those connections matter here and people can heal here and there isn’t a place like that anywhere else.
I want to make one more point that aims toward healing. The platitude “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is garbage. It sort of gives the idea that you should almost be thankful that you’re going through the loss of a loved one, or chemo or betrayal or something, like “you came out of it stronger, so that’s good”. Whenever a platitude fails, you’re more lost than you were before. The logic here is what doesn’t kill me made me stronger, by moving me towards isolation.
And you can say this about a gaslighter, an abuser, Satan himself, they come from the same place, the goal is isolation. That’s evil. For that reason, whatever you’re going through, you cannot withdraw. Nothing changes there. Like whenever you say it can’t get worse, that’s what “worse” is. So if you’re going through something, to say just “turn to God” and pray for his healing is not wrong, but it starts to feel like a platitude. Instead I want to say “turn towards the people God put in your life”, not as an idol, not as your primary focus but as a reflection of His care.
I don’t think healing is possible without God. By yourself, you’re left to your own thoughts, which is probably the worst place to be for anybody. In work or in school, there’s just a task to do, really. Like I don’t know many people who hang out after work. My crew generally didn’t, I generally didn’t see the people I was working with when I was photographing events and I’ve probably had gone to lunch with one or two of my classmates in the past. Here, the whole point is drawing closer to God as a group, we are a welcoming group. There are people here who you can talk to and who can meet you where you are and get you toward something better. One last thing, there’s no ending here, there’s no getting you to whatever healing looks like and then sending you on your way, this is a genuine community that can get you to somewhere better and be with you in that time as well. This place can be, and I believe is, as Bonhoffer writes about Christian community, “a source of incredible joy and strength”. All of that is a reflection because none of this, the church, the CCO, none of it happens without God.