A Common Bond

Early last week I cleaned my 29-gallon aquarium, draining roughly half the water, using a razor blade to scrape the algae off the sides of the tank, replanting the plants that my Plecostomus—who is 17 years old and 10 inches long—continually uproots. I refilled the tank with clean water and scrubbed the filter, repositioned the aeration stone, and within an hour or so, the water was beginning to clear and the fish were looking happier. A few days later I decided it was time to add a few more fish to the tank, and so I went to Meijer—I know that might sound funny, but I’ve discovered that the fish I buy there always seem to do really well. I quickly saw four gold-tipped tetras that would fit in with the tank community (Tetras are schooling fish so they swim together and usually get along well with others). I stood there waiting for a clerk. There was a man a few feet away also looking at the fish. He glanced over my way. “Use that phone,” he said, motioning toward the red phone on the wall.

The clerk who came to help was a young man perhaps in his late 20s. He towered over me—and over the other man standing there—and he had long reddish hair and a curly beard. He was quite a contrast to the other gentleman, who was perhaps a few years younger than me, small and thin, clean cut, perhaps from the Philippines. He had an accent that made him a bit hard to understand but his smiles said a lot.

So the three of us must have made an interesting sight as we stood there together in the pet aisle at Meijer, sharing experiences with fish through the years. The clerk talked about a Plecostomus he’d had that had grown to a great size and become the star of his tank. The Asian gentleman pointed to a tank of orange-colored cichlids and said, several times, “I’ve had these 10 years! They never die!” We laughed and traded stories and admired the fish together. The clerk bagged up my four new family members and I said goodbye and walked up to the checkout with a smile on my face and a glow in my heart. How uplifting those few moments were. Connection doesn’t have to be any more difficult than that—and it feels good. We find our common bond. A shared interest. A little goodwill, and a joy, a love we can share together. There’s something very basic about that, something deep about just appreciating the goodness of life, together. Our age, gender, ethnicity, or political interest has nothing to do with it. We know it when it happens, and our hearts celebrate together.

The Old Testament reading we heard from Proverbs was taken from The Living Bible, and it talks about the connecting power of the common bond. The passage we heard begins with the negative: “The common bond of rebels is their guilt.” We’ve probably all seen that in action—and we’ve preached it to our kids—that the type of friends you choose shapes—for better or for worse–the values you live by. If you hang out with folks who push boundaries, sidestep rules, stir up trouble, and put other people down, soon you’ll be doing it yourself.

But the verse that follows highlights the better side: “The common bond of godly people is goodwill.” That sounds like such a simple thing, doesn’t it? That a person with God in her heart and life will simply want what’s good—want the best—for others. And goodwill really is a simple concept. Merriam-Webster defines it as, “a kindly feeling of approval and support.” A secondary definition is similar: “Benevolent interest or concern.”

When I was standing there in the fish aisle at Meijer with those other two fellows sharing fish stories, we were definitely all feeling goodwill toward one another, sharing stories, smiling and laughing. There was approval and there was support. That’s goodwill, evidence of a common bond.

We may find it pretty natural as we go about our day to extend that kind of goodwill to others, being gracious to the clerk in the checkout line, holding the door for someone with her hands full, encouraging a friend who’s having a hard day. When we carry that sense of goodwill with us, we are interested in others; we care about their well-being and want the best for them. It’s a pretty simple thing to do, if our hearts are open. It is an expression of basic human kindness.

For us, as Friends, this idea of goodwill connects to our desire and intention to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” George Fox included that important and inspiring phrase in a letter he wrote to Friends ministers in 1656, when he was in prison in Cornwall, England. Fox saw this action—the act of sharing goodwill with others—as a key part of sharing God’s love and light in the world, which he saw as the ministry of all believers. Here is a longer quote that shares the larger context for that important phrase:

“Keep in the wisdom of God that spreads over all the earth, the wisdom of the creation, that is pure. Live in it; that is the word of the Lord God to you all, do not abuse it; and keep down and low; and take heed of false joys that will change.

Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground… And none are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him which he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then the planting and the watering and the increase from God cometh. So the ministers of the Spirit must minister to the Spirit that is transgressed and in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; whereby with the same Spirit people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, and do service to him and have unity with him, with the Scriptures and with one another. And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”

It is notable that George Fox had such keen insight into what it meant to be imprisoned—not only outwardly, through his various jail sentences for flouting the religious and social expectations of his time. He also understood what it was to be inwardly imprisoned, caught in darkness and confusion and doubt, locked in depression and disappointment with his fellow man and frustration that no living person seemed to have the answers to the questions that tormented him. At that point in his life, it would have been impossible for a young George Fox to walk cheerfully, much less “answer that of God in every one.” He hadn’t yet found it in himself.

What changed everything for Fox was the moment when he heard the voice of Christ, speaking directly to his heart, saying, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” The moment before that happened, Fox was 23 years old and in a state of despair. The moment after, he was still 23 years old, but now he had been given the insight that would serve him all his life, leading him to change not only many lives at that time but continuing lives, all around the globe, across all time. The great gift Fox received that day on the hillside was not knowledge about God but the gift of God himself, the living presence that showed George he was not alone—and he never had been alone. But now he could live with full knowledge of that, with his eyes and heart and mind open to and guided by God’s holy loving Light. He had been introduced, unmistakably, to “that of God” in his own soul.

Paul’s letter to the Romans, the source of our New Testament scripture today, was intended to serve as a kind of guidebook for the growing young church in Rome. Paul knew he was writing to a diverse group—Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free, most of whom wouldn’t have been able to read. They were practical laborers, living busy lives as they provided for their families, raising their children, nursing the sick and elderly, caring for those who were grieving among them. In the passage we heard from the opening of the 16th chapter, Paul is getting ready to close his idea-packed letter and he mentions—by name—26 men and women in the community that he wants to lift up to those who are hearing this letter. He lifts them up as people he appreciates, as examples of the gospel, as people of good faith—people of goodwill that Paul wants those listening to know about, and support and encourage.

He commends to them a woman named Phoebe and asks that they “welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints,” and then proceeds to introduce the readers to many friends and family members -by name–who have served alongside Paul, helped in his ministry, spent time with him in prison, and much more. Over and over again, Paul invites his hearers to greet these special friends and colleagues of his and he ends with, “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.”

What is Paul doing here? And isn’t it nice to see that Paul spends as much time thanking and lifting up women in this passage as he does men? What must it have felt like to be one of the first hearers of this letter, as all those names were read aloud? First, we would understand that this letter wasn’t just about the leadership of one man, Paul, doing his best to serve God; rather it was a whole community of people serving God in a whole host of ways. As each name was read, we would understand how much Paul valued the gifts of that particular person and we’d identify with that. We know how good it feels when someone recognizes something we’ve done—and we can see how good it makes others feel when we appreciate their gifts and generous spirits. When we share our thankfulness with each other, a glow of gratitude comes into our encounters. We feel God at work in the small thank yous and thoughtful gestures, the kind words and receptive hearts.

In Paul’s letter, he was shining a light on that common bond they all—and we—share together. As he tells the stories of these people who are helping to spread the light of Christ’s ministry, the people of Rome no longer see themselves as a small isolated church struggling to live according to the teachings of Jesus. They can feel their kinship—and they can picture themselves—reflected in the care and accomplishments of the people on Paul’s list. You can do this too, Paul is telling them. Care for one another in prison. Care for the least of these in your meeting. Come alongside those in trouble. Share the gospel through your words and actions. All loving, simple, community-building efforts, done in the name of Love.

In the late 1960s, there was a theory called the social bond theory developed by the social scientist Travis Hirschi, that identified the qualities individuals have, both when they create community and when they disrupt it. Hirschi’s research found four characteristics that make a difference: People feel part of a community if they have (1) connection with others and strong personal relationships; (2) time they spend in conventional activities, like going to work and school, attending church or social events; (3) a sense of commitment to a conventional lifestyle—that is, wanting to do well, to be healthy, to engage in things we enjoy; and (4) a sense of moral belief—that doing the right thing matters, and that faith, however we practice it, offers a value worth seeking.

In contrast, research participants who had broken the law were found to be low on those four qualities. They showed poor attachment to others, they had little engagement in group activities that felt affirming and comfortable; they didn’t have a lot of interest in traditional lifestyles, and moral beliefs weren’t a high value—they indicated that it was more important for them to “look out for number one” than it was to care about others. Hirschi’s later research found that these factors, combined with a low ability toward self-control, created the right conditions for a person to make impulsive choices that broke the law, perhaps over and over again, maybe never comprehending what was driving them or how they might begin to create a more stable life for themselves. I wish we could bottle up George Fox’s hillside experience and send the Light their way. It’s the perfect answer for that kind of darkness.

Part of what keeps peoples’ darker impulses in check is the ability to grasp that we are all connected, to recognize our interdependence–and feel empathy for others, whether we know them or not. Our ability to feel that common bond helps us keep our views of life in balance. When we care about others, we remember it’s not all about us. That shift in perspective—liberation from the prison of self-centeredness—is the beginning of love, the secret of community, and the living, beating heart of the Gospel.

George Fox knew all about that prison, and he’d been set free by its antidote—the presence of Christ who comes to teach his people himself. Once the Light of Christ shines into our lives and we know we are not alone, we have found the common bond that links us, heart to heat and soul to soul. We can laugh with strangers in the fish aisle at Meijer. We can forgive those who hurt us because we see their fear or distrust or know their own wounds haven’t yet healed. We can shower our gratitude on others and shine the joy and peace God brings into every corner of our experience. We can let things unfold as they do, knowing that God is with us, beside us, before us and behind us. There is no greater gift than that. God’s own presence—“that of God” in us—smiling and sharing life’s goodness with every other being on the planet.

In closing, words from the poet Tagore:

“Love is the ultimate meaning of everything around us. It is not a mere sentiment; it is truth; it is the joy that is at the root of all creation.”


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