Church can be close: On fostering relational intimacy
"You yourselves know these hands." v. 34
I WAS ON FACEBOOK FOR ONE YEAR OF MY LIFE.
One very long, very humbling year.
My primary motivation for joining had been to give family and friends a window into was happening in my life. But I quickly realized that the “me” they were getting to know was a sham. A highly edited, carefully crafted, patently false rendition of me.
Fakebook Kruse I called him.
He was thoughtful, witty, pleasant, and always tanned (even though he lived in frigid New England). He oozed consideration for his wife, patience with his children, and generosity with his money. His days were filled with constant successes at work, happy laughter at home, and frequent dining out with selfies to prove it. Sports, trivia, cooking, recycling: the man excelled at all of it.
You would have loved getting to know this guy.
Except that you would have been getting to know a ghost. A virtual version of me, invented at a keyboard, brought to life thanks to the distance afforded me from any real encounters with my audience.
This distance, of course, is a big part of Facebook’s appeal. We prefer to live our lives at a safe distance from others whenever possible. We love hiding the messy, grumpy, petulant, needy, overwhelmed, sinful-but-true versions of ourselves behind a sanitized veneer.
And we’d kindly ask that others do the same.
Facebook enables this by making it possible for us to keep up appearances while not getting entangled in a web of real-life relationships. Nobody has bad breath on Facebook. Or needs a ride to the airport. Or pees on your toilet seat. Or eats that last donut. If anyone does frustrate or annoy you, you just log off. And if things go really bad, you are always one anonymous click away from ending the “friendship” entirely.
No physical contact. Divine editorial powers. Come and go as you please.
This is the Facebook life.
But it is not the way of gospel ministry.
EVEN A CASUAL READING of the New Testament shows that Jesus’ church was marked by a beautiful, messy, holy, real-life relational intimacy. These saints knew each other’s names, stories, sins, strengths, weaknesses, issues, dreams, fears, all of it. The lived in real community. Close. Tight-knit. Long-term. Face-to-face.
They were known.
When Euodia and Synteche dug their heels into a nasty conflict, everyone knew. When Alexander abandoned the faith, everyone knew. When Trophimus was terribly sick down in Miletus, everyone knew. When Archipus needed a kick in his skinny jeans, everyone knew. When the household of Stephanas first converted to Christ in Achaia, everyone knew. When Pheobe was thriving in her diaconal role, everyone knew.
And because they knew – the good, the bad, and the ugly, without edits, for real - they were able to love, serve, gospel, admonish, encourage, and disciple each other well. Euodia and Synteche were encouraged to make peace. Alexander was lovingly held back from the Table. Trophimus was prayed for. Archipus was encouraged. Stephanas was celebrated. Pheobe was recognized.
Relational intimacy enables fruitful gospel ministry, and we are called to give ourselves to it.
THIS TRUTH EMERGES BEAUTIFULLY in Paul’s speech with these five simple words:
“You yourselves know these hands…”
I love this. Paul was able to look these men in the eye and say, without hesitation, “You yourselves know. You personally. You specifically. You. Not because somebody else told you. Not because it came across your Twitter feed. Not because I am pitching it to you now. You yourselves know.”
Paul’s ministry among these men was so intimate, so near, so close, that they didn’t just know his theology or cadence or face, but his hands. You can know someone’s reputation from what others says about them. You can learn their gait by observing them from across a room. You can pin down their personality from listening to enough podcasts. But knowing their hands? That only happens if you are really close, really often. This is how Paul was with his people.
The word “hands” in this text is especially powerful when you remember Paul’s trade. Tent-making was manual labor of the fiercest kind, and it did a number on a man’s hands. Have you ever asked a pair of hands what job they would prefer their owner to not take up? Lobsterman in Gloucester and Tentmaker in Ephesus would top the list.
Here’s how tent-making works: get a dangerously sharp knife and slice it through stubbornly tough leather, over and over again, all day long. Paul’s hands would have been constantly cut up and calloused. And Paul’s ministry was such that His people would have known his mangled hands on sight. They witnessed those hands toiling in the shop. They watched those hands gesture as he taught them gospel doctrine. They saw those hands pass the ketchup, tickle their kids, and break bread. Those hands wiped tears from their eyes.
They knew those hands.
And when you’ve gotten close enough to a person to know their hands, you’ve gotten close enough to know their soul.
IF YOU CROWDED ALL the hands in the world into one giant police lineup - hundreds of millions of thumbs, pointers, rings, and pinkies in a pinstriped row - I’d spot my father’s hands in a second. They’re the electrician’s hands, nicked by a lifetime of snipping wires and installing panels. The softball pitcher’s hands, right index finger curved inward from throwing countless sinkers. The broken sinner’s hands that trembled violently when he repented of a year-long sin that nearly broke our family. The justified saint’s hands that he loves to lift when he worshiped King Jesus. I can still see that crooked index finger pointed up to heaven.
I know my dad’s hands.
I know them because he has given himself to me for 42 years. Those hands held me the day I was born in 1973 at Saint Vincent’s Hospital. Those hands worked summers beside me in hot, humid, New England attics as we wired stubborn ceiling lights. Those hands dominated the Greater Boston Men’s Softball League for two decades, he on the mound and me at shortstop. Those hands clung to my neck as I dragged him into the emergency room the day he almost died of food poisoning.
I know my dad. I know his hands. And I know his soul.
This is what Jesus calls us to with our people.
SADLY, THIS KIND of willingness to know and be known is rare in American church culture. We love to do gospel ministry from across the room, across town, or across the web. We have mastered the art of keeping ourselves at arms distance from our people.
Imagine what Paul’s speech might sound like if it was given today:
“You yourselves don’t really know at all how I lived among you, since I didn’t really live among you, but more like somewhere in the general vicinity of you (although you did see me from a distance on Sundays, and at some important church meetings here and there, and I think once in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, although that might have been someone else) from the first day I set foot in my newly constructed home that was several zip codes removed from where the church was actually located, serving the Lord with vanity, and emotional distance, and trials that came upon me through the plots of annoying course managers who wouldn’t give me the tee times I requested, how I did not shrink from recommending to you several things that I found uplifting from various devotionals, teaching you in public and, uh, well, only in public, having never actually stepped in your home as I have no idea where you live …. oh, and you yourselves would not ever, ever be able to recognize my hands.”
If we are not careful, this could be the tenor of our ministry.
It’s easy to understand why we end up there. Relational intimacy comes with a warning label attached that would make a pharmacist shudder.
Getting close to others is a good way to get hurt. When some admissions counselor at a far away college rejects your application, you get over it fast. When a member of your church whom you’ve loved and served and preached your heart out to and visited in the hospital suddenly flips you an email (always at midnight) explaining why they are leaving the church, you can’t sleep for two days. The nearer you get to someone, the easier and deeper they can hurt you.
Relational intimacy also takes time. As a ministry grows, calendars fill up, inboxes clutter, and more and more (and more) tasks need accomplishing. Time with people can be pushed aside. While no one is saying that faithful gospel ministry requires we be on a first-name, in-home basis with every single member of the church, it does require being deeply invested in the lives of somebody – lots somebodies. And that takes time. How much depends on our context of course. Paul gave the Ephesian saints 1000 days of his life, and it was enough to develop a life-long bond that left them weeping on the beach at his departure. Depending on where we live, it might require 3 months or 30 years, but it will take time.
Relational intimacy doesn’t come fast. Or cheap. This begs the question: if relational intimacy is so emotionally-dangerous and time-consuming, where do we find the motivation to actually give ourselves to it?
THE DOCTRINE OF THE INCARNATION is the theological foundation on which our happy embrace of relational intimacy with those to whom we are sent must be built on. In the incarnation, God the Son “took on flesh (hands!) and dwelt among us.” He moved toward us - into the neighborhood, onto the block, into the apartment upstairs - in love and with abandon. Day and night for years and years He walked and talked and ate and slept with His disciples. They saw Him exhausted, frustrated, elated, troubled, delighted. They smelled His morning breath and sweaty-sandal feet. They knew His voice. His stride. His hands.
Do you remember Jesus’ last meal? His beloved disciple John was so near to Him that he was literally reclining on Jesus’s chest at the table. I love that. This was no anomaly. This wasn’t Jesus suddenly chumming up to the nearest warm body because He knew His time had come. This was Jesus’ way. It’s no wonder that, as a grizzled old Apostle, John begins his first letter with these tender, intimate words: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands…” The Savior drew near to sinners, chest-to-chest, hand-to-hand.
Of course, Jesus’s hands were unlike any other hands in history. His were the righteous hands that were violently pierced, nails What His hands have accomplished is the ground from which we give ourselves to our people.driven through so that He might win a sinful people to Himself. His were the glorified hands that Doubting Thomas knew on sight. The ones with the holes. You and I and all the saints will one day see those same hands, and we’ll recognize them immediately because no one has ever given more of themselves to anyone than Christ has given to us.
So let’s ask ourselves:
Would anyone in our church know our hands?
Let’s live in that direction.
Let’s be around, near, close. In their homes, at their weddings, by their pools. Let’s share meals, confess sin, and greet them with a holy kiss. Let’s help them move and paint and get to the airport. Let’s know their favorite band, their go-to outfit, their deepest wound, their highest joy.
The closer we get to them, and they to us, the more helpful we will be.
- Blueprints -
1: Know names.
I love the end of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. After fully wielding his Apostolic authority and dropping mind-dazzling theological argument after argument, he shifts effortlessly into relational-intimacy gear. He is not only able to rattle off name after name (after name after name) of his gospel coworkers, but he is also able to comment specifically and appropriately as each of their names come to mind. This big-shot, capital-A Apostle was on a first name basis with His people.
To some degree, you should be, too.
When Seven Mile Road was first planted, we had two children between the ages of 0 and 15 in the church. Both were mine. Our ‘nursery’ was my wife standing in a dusty hallway, half-listening to the preaching and half-making sure our boys didn’t wander outside into the traffic on Highland Avenue. 12 years later there are over 60 children in our community. Every Sunday, before sending them to their classes, we disciple and pray for them up front during our liturgy. As they careen down to the front, I greet each son or daughter by name. Getting there has taken some work (we have 3 Ada's), and some mornings my brain freezes over as I miss a name or two. But what I am trying to model for our people in the idea of relational intimacy. I want our children and parents to grow up knowing “my pastor knew me and I knew him.”
2: Write notes.
Handwriting notes is another way to forge intimacy that we are talking about. You can’t write anyone a personal note if you are not aware of something personal to write it about, so becoming a note-writer demands that you to move toward people. A note communicates, “I know you personally. You matter.”
A 3rd grader in our church recently made the All-Star team in his little league. (At his age, I believe all this meant was that he knew to run to first and not third.) When I found out, I wrote him a note with ALL STAR! in big letters, complete with illustrations of a glove, bat, and ball. He raved about it for weeks with his parents. He knew I knew him, and will now receive gospel encouragement and correction in a deeper way from me as he grows up.
3: Be in homes.
Perhaps nothing has been more helpful for me in fulfilling the essentials of my pastoral ministry (Word, prayer, discipline) in the lives of our people than making time to be in their homes. This is intimacy at its most intense. Walk into a young couple’s home and find unwashed dishes piled up all over the kitchen and dad sitting on the couch drinking a beer and playing Madden? Time to rebuke. Ring the bell and have a young dude answer holding a cat? Time to seriously rebuke. Sit on a second-hand couch with an unemployed dad and pregnant mom with 3 children who can’t offer you anything but water or milk? Time to encourage and give. Being in homes is the anti-Facebook, and we belong there.
The reverse is true as well. The people you are discipling should know what the inside of your home looks and smells like. Over and over again for 15 years the door of our home has been open. This is more than simple Christian hospitality. This is an invitation to the people Jesus has sent us to: come and see my home. My table. My couch. My family. My life. My hands.