Tuesday, October 20, 2009

We Celebrate the Sense of Each Other: Jonah, Pt. 3

I’m going to sing a song for you that once upon a time I thought I would never hear the end of, but recently realized I hadn’t heard in years: “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.

Celebrate good times, come on! (Let's celebrate)
Celebrate good times, come on! (Let's celebrate)

There's a party goin' on right here
A celebration to last throughout the years
So bring your good times, and your laughter too
We gonna celebrate your party with you

Come on now

Celebration
Let's all celebrate and have a good time
Celebration
We gonna celebrate and have a good time

It's time to come together
It's up to you, what's your pleasure

Everyone around the world
Come on!


I used to hear this at every wedding, every bar mitzvah, every block party, everywhere two or more were gathered. It was the eighties—those were heady times. Now I don’t hear it so much, probably because when you get right down to it, the song says almost nothing. It’s nothing more than a suggestion: Come on—let’s celebrate.

But the song didn’t die because people no longer believed its message; it died because people discovered they no longer needed it. Celebration is almost instinctual: when people gather, when people congregate, their first instinct is to face one another, to engage one another.

That instinct makes some people uncomfortable. Some because they’re introverted and too much face time with too many people drains their energy out of them. Some are uncomfortable because they’ve not been trained in social graces and realize that they don’t know how to begin, sustain or gracefully exit such times of socialization. Some are so affected by their circumstances that their ability to enjoy a crowd is at the mercy of the day they’ve had, or the day they’re anticipating tomorrow. Some are so driven by social politics that they can’t simply enjoy the people around them without worrying if this crowd will erode their social capital, or wondering if there’s another crowd nearby that could make them more popular.

There are a million things that make gathering together challenging, even sometimes emotionally exhausting. And yet our first instinct remains to engage with the people we find ourselves with. That’s what people do, duh. It’s ingrained in us: we intuitively recognize that there’s something that binds us to one another.
Maybe it’s that we share genetic distinctions that give us more in common with each other than we would have with, for example, a cat or a squirrel or a snake. Maybe it’s that there’s ultimately so little variety in human physical features that each person we see reminds us in some imperceptible way of someone we’ve always known—a parent or grandparent, a sibling or a childhood friend. Maybe—and I think this is really the crux of it—it’s because we intuitively recognize that these other beings, like us, were made from the dust of the earth and given life by the spirit of God; that they, like us, are made in the image of God and bear the same privileges and responsibilities that we ourselves carry, as God’s image bearers. We instinctually engage (or feel the need to engage) one another because we recognize the miracle, the gloriousness, inherent in each other that in turn reminds us of the miracle, the gloriousness, inherent in us.

I like that instinct. It’s one of God’s gifts to us; one of his first. Before his benediction to the newly created Adam and Eve—“go forth and multiply, live long and prosper,” whatever—God recognized that being made in the image of God and being filled with the Spirit of God isn’t enough: “it’s not good for the man,” he said, “to be alone.” So his first gift to humankind—I mean, besides the whole of creation—was one another—the end of our aloneness. Sufjan Stevens hints at this special, yet common, grace in his song “The Man from Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”:

“We celebrate the sense of each other. We have a lot to give one another.”


It doesn’t take much, however, and it doesn’t take long, to ruin this sense of celebration that’s rooted in our very existence. All it takes is a concentration on what distinguishes us from each other and a deliberate decision to disregard one another. That’s what we see Jonah doing.

Jonah is not what you might call a celebratory fellow. While we see him in the company of two groups of people—his shipmates on the way to Tarshish, the Ninevites he’s prophesying against—he’s never really with any of them. His shipmates are fighting the storm; he’s below deck, enjoying a nap. The Ninevites are repenting of their sin and enjoying the mercy of God; he’s outside the gates, whining. Given a choice, Jonah prefers to be away from people—so much so that he goes in the opposite direction of Nineveh, leaves the city when he might be honored as the city’s deliverer, and asks to be thrown overboard rather than struggle for survival with his shipmates. Jonah is, you might say, a misanthrope. You might even be inclined to think of him as a sociopath.

So much gets in our way of celebrating the sense of each other. Some of them are clearly wicked: we’ve decided that we’re better than these other folks, and so we only tolerate them until we find something else that entertains us more or irritates us less. Sociologist Christopher Lasch declared contemporary society a “culture of narcissism” and demonstrated that a pervasive sense of entitlement and self-promotion or self-centeredness has brought us to a place where “even the most intimate encounters become a form of mutual exploitation.” Marriage researcher John Gottman has recognized that a key factor in the success or failure of a marriage is the pattern of turning toward one another versus turning away from one another: couples who consistently take opportunities to engage each other are on the right track, but couples who neglect, ignore or show disdain for one another are in deep doo doo.

Jonah shows us that this is not just a contemporary problem. He sees his shipmates not as fellow bearers of the image of God but as means to an end, his ticket from point A to point B. He sees the Ninevites not as sheep without a shepherd but as irritants, competition for the earth’s limited resources. Jonah shows us that Lasch is right, that if even a prophet can be a self-absorbed jerk, then all of us had better beware of ourselves.

But we have to look past the manifestation of this self-absorption, this misanthropy, to its root causes. Why is Jonah like this? Why are we like this?
For one thing, it’s far too easy to be alone. Direct TV and downloadable movies keep us even from seeking entertainment outside our homes. In new home construction, fences go up while sidewalks never get laid down. Houses are castles, complete with virtual moat. By our living patterns we declare our independence; we have no need of one another.

Pastor and media critic Shane Hipps suggests that what we often call “community” today—in virtual or physical settings—is more accurately described as assemblies or collectives. We’re not facing each other, even in church—we’re facing the backs of each other’s heads. We’re not engaging one another, even in “social media”; we’re stalking and spying on one another, while occasionally tagging one another’s walls with our own graffiti. Our relationships too easily devolve into mere drive-by commitment.

I don’t say this to dog on Facebook or to challenge the way churches organize themselves. I’m suggesting that truly, consistently celebrating one another is as difficult as it is fundamental to who we are. Remember, God said “It’s not good for the man to be alone.” The psalmist, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recognized “how good and pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity.” When Jesus describes the world’s happy ending, he describes it not as an assembly or as drive-by relationships but as a party, a banquet.

Jonah is a cautionary tale. Even God’s last words to him are words of caution to him and to us:
“Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”


Jonah sees a crowd and imagines them to be idiots, and he sighs in exasperation. God sees a crowd, knowing their fundamental flaws, takes pity on them and calls them great. As bearers of God’s image, may we go and do likewise.

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