Life is strange sometimes.
Take this, for example:
I was the pastoral staff person responsible for the
care and maintenance of small groups
in our congregation for 14 years.
Yet, my husband and I found it very hard
to be in a small group ourselves.
We tried twice in the early years.
One a Bible study,
the other a sermon study.
(You see, I developed and suggested all kinds of different formats for groups to try - ours is a congregation of eclectics, different-strokes-for-different-folks kind of mentality - and I always kept a couple of shelves available with study guides/suggestions for anyone wishing to form or join a group.)
But every time we joined one,
it began to fall apart fairly early on.
It was a mystery to me, that whole small groups thing.
Some groups worked so very well that the people in them stayed together for years, sometimes decades.
Problem there was -
they weren't open to anyone new.
Other groups would start off with a bang,
then disappear with a whimper,
despite training for leaders and
regular check-ins to see how things were going.
So it was with a feeling of dread mixed with anxiety that I began my last round of small group organization during that final year of employment at the church.
With a gifted and committed lay leader,
I had planned a marriage retreat in the spring.
Twenty-six couples came away for a weekend of worship, learning, practice, prayer.
It was very, very good.
And from that group, I attempted to form several follow-up groups, choosing to let the groups themselves decide what kind of schedule and format they would follow.
And, very hesitantly,
I offered our own home and hospitality,
without much hope, frankly,
that anything would work.
But God had other ideas.
About four successful groups came together and
stayed together from that project.
And one of those
was the one that meets once a month at our home.
We meet on Sundays, after church, at 1:30 in the afternoon.
We meet for two hours - some couples have kids and two hours is long enough to entrust them to a sitter.
We gather in the yard - in sunny weather -
or in our dining room, when it's cooler.
Someone brings dessert, we provide beverages.
We keep it very, very simple.
We catch up with each other for the first 30 minutes or so. Sometimes that catching up spurs some deep sharing, sometimes it's just a check-in time.
And some weeks, one couple is given
the opportunity to use the Group Bucket -
a small colorful container containing
slips of paper with thought-provoking questions on them. Questions designed to elicit some deeper story-telling.
The couple of the week has the option to refuse the question they draw or to edit the question in any way they like.
And then, we go round the circle.
We have shared about all kinds of things,
most of them have brought us to our knees,
in prayers of thanksgiving or supplication.
And that's the other thing we do each time we gather:
we pray for one another.
This is not a study.
This is a time to share,
sometimes to confess,
often to laugh, to cry, to be honest about where we're struggling,
to ask for prayer for ourselves or our kids or our parents,
depending on where we are in the life cycle.
And that's the other thing that has been really rich about this group.
We are very intentionally inter-generational.
When we began, we had one couple newly married,
two couples of 40+ years,
one of 20 and another of 12.
Some have moved away and we've been open to newcomers.
And each time, the Lord has brought exactly the right people, the right 'demographic,' even!
As I look back over our time in this place,
I can see and understand God's timing
a bit better.
During those earliest years,
it was tough to do community authentically
with people we were just getting to know.
We had come from 20+ year in the same congregation,
where our ties ran deep, deep.
And it was tough to find the lines between my job
and my desire to know and be known
at a deep level.
And the demands of both job and family during most of my employed life
left little space or energy
to build the kind of couple connections we
were used to having.
We each found avenues for service and for worship,
Not so much.
Somehow, at the end of my pastoral life,
the door opened for this kind of connection.
We were ready for it,
God provided it,
and we are grateful.
But I gotta say - it was a long time coming.
And it's a very fragile thing, this community building.
It needs tending and commitment
and it needs the baptizing presence of the Spirit of God.
Because all of us are a mess, you know?
we're afraid to let the scars show
for fear we'll be judged or rejected
or, God forbid, 'fixed' in some way.
It is a great gift to feel safe with a small group of fellow strugglers on the way,
one that I do not take for granted after several years without it.
I thank God that we have found such a place of safety.
How about you?
Are you connected to people who love you, warts and all?
People who will pray for you and with you when things get dicey?
People who will let Jesus shine through them,
right into your heart?