"...and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near."Believers in Messiah the world over are familiar with this verse from the writer to the Hebrews, especially if you regularly attend weekly services. Who hasn't been niggled with guilt for staying home to watch the football game of the season, or taking a day just for yourself on your chosen day of worship instead of sitting in the pew?
I have been faced with these words more and more recently. I ponder these words and wonder what was the original motivation of the author. They obviously were very familiar with human behavior, or else they would not have had to record the admonition.
In my own mind, it is a no-brainer to think that we are to encourage each other; not only in the faith that sustains us, but in bearing one another's burdens of everyday life. Dealing with family, financial and work issues can be harrowing enough without enduring the struggle every week with people who are simply out to disparage you. Somehow laying in wait to criticize or call out perceived sin doesn't seem like 'stimulating' each other to good deeds to me.
It is no wonder that so many people who claim faith in the Almighty do not attend services. Why would they? The more they give, of their time and effort, the more is expected. The more exposure means more opportunity to be judged. I suppose it's not unlike politics; when you put yourself out there you're gonna develop enemies, especially if you have strong opinions and a loud voice. But wait...enemies? Among believers? How can that be?
Self-righteousness spreads like a poison through congregations, at least that has been my experience. I have now logged about 16+ years being an active adult member of a congregation, that is after not being "raised in the church". My parents raised my brother and I to be strong, independent and justice-loving people, but it did not include attending worship services. That is not to say that we weren't told about a loving, protecting G-d, it's just that my parents didn't want to play the 'church game'. They just didn't fit, it would seem.
There are a lot of benefits to being a part of a believing community - I have reaped those benefits over the years. The warm feeling of belonging, friendship and group worship can be a wonderful comfort and source of pride. But, just one voice spreading dissension or strife in the group starts a domino effect that can bring division and pain to the closest of communities. What is the solution to this age-old dilemma? How do we avoid this situation from starting in the first place?
Matthew 18 is cited frequently - I'm sure you are familiar with it:
"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.This all sounds well and good, but what if there is no actual sin on the part of the accused? What if the judgment is meant to hurt and destroy? How is that to be handled?
"But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.
"If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
In my family, when there was a serious issue that needed airing out, my parents would call a Family Meeting. I guess I was spoiled with this open, fair discussion. Somehow, don't tell me how, we all knew the rules of fair debate; the first of which is no personal attacks. Perhaps the rule was easier to keep because we all loved and cared for each other, taking special effort not to hurt unnecessarily. It was something I learned well (thanks, Mom & Dad). It is still shocking when that rule is violated during debates I have witnessed. Damage is wrought, friendships sundered due to the disregard of this simple rule. I guess you could call the rule 'love your neighbor as yourself'...
So, I suppose I will have to decide if being a part of a believing community is still good for me and my children - weighing the risk vs. the benefit. I hate to 'forsake the assembly' and walk away, defeated as it were, but is it really walking away in defeat? Or is it walking away because it's wise?
It is sad when someone you know becomes someone you knew.