Today is the lesser festival of Timothy and Titus, Companions of Paul.
Today I am giving thanks for older Christians who have invited me into their lives, invested in me as a partner in their missional journeys, and released me into my own.
Thank you. You know who you are.
Through my experiences, and most likely building on my own ‘relator’ and ‘belief’ preferences, I have been ‘hard-wired’ for communitas – that particular quality of relationship between people that is forged by engaging in a common task in the context of the difficulty that exists outside stability, such as is forged between soldiers, or rescue workers, or Paul and Timothy and Titus: marked by a deep love, trust, respect; by a deep sharing of life. And like soldiers who struggle to re-enter civilian life, so I miss communitas when I am surrounded by people who have not experienced it, who know only of community – that particular quality of relationship that is forged by engaging in our own parallel tasks in the context of the luxury that exists within stability.
The vast majority of clergy in the Church of England work hard, but our shared understanding of ministry is ‘hard-wired’ for working in isolation: to prepare sermons on our own, to visit the housebound on our own. More recently, and for largely pragmatic reasons, we have put clergy into ‘teams’ – but without addressing the underlying paradigm. As a result, ‘teams’ tend to be individuals still working in isolation but now interfering in one another’s work, to the frustration of everyone. The feedback I hear time and again from people working in such ‘team’ ministry is of how frustrating it is, reinforcing the default to isolation as the most effective way of working.
For me, not only is isolation not my preference, it also goes against my fundamental belief that we should work in real teams, bringing our different gifts to bear. Yes, I believe those teams should include the whole church, the laity as well as the clergy; but that they should include the laity does not mean that they should exclude the clergy working together, not simply in the same place. And yet, at the present time, I am constrained. Communitas takes time to forge, and that only after you have persuaded others to leave the safety of the known world behind, to follow you on a quest on the doubtful success of which the ongoing existence of that familiar community (ironically) lies.
And so I am learning – slowly, painfully, still far from ‘I have learned’ – that God works through us even when we are constrained. For while I am not in a literal cell, as Paul was – and as other Christians have been much more recently, and even are today – I find myself in a cell without walls. But God is not constrained by walls – physical or otherwise – and neither is his working through us. It doesn’t look like what we might hope for or choose; but if we only lived as we hoped for or chose we would miss out on so very much of who God is and what he longs for us. He is enough, and that is more than enough. Which doesn’t make it easy – I am no saint. But it does mean that despair has no place, nor self-pity, nor what we see from an earthly perspective. As so often, what looks, from that perspective, complex and/or easy (“if my circumstances were x rather than y, everything would be much better; but they aren’t”) is in fact simple but hard (holding on to the truth that God is enough).
Our God-given preferences matter – I do believe God wants to release us to fulfil their potential – but how they are best put to use is not necessarily how we might believe them best released. Difficulty is, after all, the necessary context for communitas...and though I am constrained, I am not left alone in the world. Though at times the lure of community is tempting, in times such as those we live in, it would be a poor exchange.
Which brings me back to celebrating the lesser festival of Timothy and Titus, Companions of Paul; praying that I, too, may be a ‘Paul,’ who pours my life out into other men and women, investing in their call to partner with God in his mission.
Heavenly Father, who sent your apostle Paul to preach the gospel, and gave him Timothy and Titus to be his companions in faith: grant that our fellowship in the Holy Spirit may bear witness to the name of Jesus, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.