December 2010


While a graduate student at a notable school in the great state of Georgia I participated in a seminar class that studied the works of Edmund Spenser. (“Why?” you ask. Holding down a full-time job allowed limited options. But you make the most of it.) We spent a little time on lesser works like Muiopotmos and “The Shepherd’s Calender,” but the bulk of the semester we spent on The Faerie Queene—a 1,000 (not a typo) page poem that addresses practically every aspect of Elizabethan culture. It’s actually fascinating, assuming would-be readers can manage to stay awake.

The Faerie Queene employs allegory in treating its subject. The allegory takes place on two levels: the Christian and the political. The former takes up the story of the Red Cross Knight and examines the moral, philosophical, and religious of the human condition. The latter draws from various allegorical manifestations of Elizabeth I while diving very deep into expressions of the political, social, and religious conversations of the day. But that’s not important. (I included it because I’ve waited more than 10 years to be able to find a way to use this information. Admittedly, it’s a stretch.) What is important, though, are the knights that represent Justice, Chastity, Courtesy, Temperance, and Friendship. Each has a charge to carry out and each has his, or in the case of Britomart, her, own personal villain—or obstacle standing between him or herself and his or her duty. It’s epic in a poetic, Renaissancey, got-to-read-it-so-I-might-as-well-enjoy-it kind of way.

Each knight has his own villain, that is, except Cambell and Triamond—the knights of friendship. In Spenser’s Faerie Land Cambell and Triamond must battle almost every character and practically every allegorical expression of social depravity, wickedness, and evil over the course of The Faerie Queene. And believe when I say, that is a long course. Presumably this is because true friendship, authentic community, stands to do the most damage to the many villainous plots and schemes both in the fictitious Faerie Land as well as the real world that it has been created to represent.

During my late 20s and 30s a friend and I would debate the merit of friendship and whether it belonged in the pantheon that includes justice, temperance, and chastity. He, ten years my senior, passionately believed that friendship belonged in the most lofty places. I, on the other hand, really just didn’t get it. Not only did friendship not belong on the grandest stage, but maybe it was even trivial. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends and loved them. And even though I had intimate friends I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand community. Maybe it isn’t until a little later in life that we can truly appreciate the depth of community, what its absence means to our spiritual health, and how God works through group life, authentic relationships, and intimate friendship.

It’s no happenstance that Cambell, Spenser’s Knight of Friendship, possesses a ring that renders him almost invulnerable because the ring had the power to heal Cambell’s wounds—his battle wounds. That’s because what was true in 1590 is just as true now. There is power in community. There is strength in community. God heals through community. Episode 7 of Small Group Life, Connections, in which we examine the many connections of our life, addresses the levels of community in our lives and leads groups on a journey into the ways we are connected, should be connected, and must stay connected. These connections represent the cords of Ecclesiastes 4:12—and Cambell’s ring.

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I finished my Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving this year — gifts wrapped and under the tree. My cards are done — complete with handwritten notes. My decorations have been up for weeks.

Now, in an ideal world, I’d be sitting back with my peppermint mocha enjoying all the sights, sounds, and smells of the season.

But wait … I just got a card from a friend I marked off my list years ago. And last week I had lunch with someone who came bearing gifts. We’ve never exchanged gifts before. Should I run out and buy a gift? Or does that make it even more obvious that I didn’t intend to get her anything? And while I was out running errands the other day I saw some decorations that would look great outside my house. I do need to add to my collection this year — all the neighbors did.

And then there’s that holiday baking I wanted to do. But I’m running out of time, so I’ll probably just pick something up at the bakery. I’m sure my friends will enjoy that more anyway. I’m not much of a cook.

Funny how it seems as if it’s never all done. I’m exhausted. I thought by getting ahead of the game I would eliminate the stress I experience every year when I focus on everything I think needs to be done —  and done perfectly, of course.

Maybe the real stressor isn’t the dozens of things I feel I need to do but, instead, why I choose to do those things. Do I send Christmas cards because I genuinely want to stay in touch with all those people? Or do I send cards because I feel an obligation to those who send cards to me? Do I give gifts because I want those special people in my life to know I think they are special? Does the gift have to be the “perfect” thing? Or can it be something that reminds me of my friend or a memory we share? And what about those decorations? Do I really care how I measure up to the neighbors?

This year I want the reason behind everything I do to be a reflection of Jesus. I want my Christmas cards to serve as a way to catch up with those I don’t talk to often but care deeply about. I want to give gifts out of love. I want to bake so that the important people in my life have something I took time to create just for them. I want to decorate because it makes me happy and makes my home welcoming to others.

Things don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be special. After all, the stable wasn’t perfect, but it was special because Jesus was there. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, and I pray your holiday will be about those things that are closest to your heart.

Until next time,
Signe

And so here we are in another Holiday Season. As a kid it seemed like it took forever to roll around again. When the air got cold it meant just one thing: an honor roll of holidays, school breaks, presents, and the promise of a warm respite from the cold, blustery exterior every afternoon. I loved it then and I love it now. Even though some of the promises have changed, the magic of this time of year (I won’t talk of January and February just yet) remains electric.

One of the transitions from where I was as a child in western Kentucky to my role here with LifeWay Small Groups is embodied in what the team “new year” has come to mean. Then it meant some new classes and a new date on the top right-hand side of a test paper. Now it means a new pipeline, new small-group experiences, and new resources. We’re really excited about what we’ve got in the pipeline in 2011—but it begins now. We’ve got two new Life Connection studies in progress. We just released our first small-group experience on the topic of social justice. Seek Social Justice is not about convincing you to be active and give, but about equipping group members with the tools for making a difference. And in January we’ll release Building Biblical Community by Steve Gladen and Bill Donahue. We believe this small-group study will become a staple for groups, new groups, and mature groups alike for years to come. Building Biblical Community has been created to help groups members know what it means to be in a celebrating, learning, loving, and serving community—that is, how to be a great group member. We’ve also got two new releases in the popular Platform Series scheduled but, shhh, I can’t give away who we are working with just yet. (I’m thinking about waiting to deliver the news during a live broadcast on ESPN.) And of course we’ll deliver 4 new studies in the Small Group Life series: Kingdom, Awaken, Connection, and Cacophony

The Small Groups Guy recently posted LifeWay Is Back on his blog. It’s great to see this kind of affirmation out here in the blogosphere. As LifeWay Small Groups celebrates its 1st anniversary this season, we’re celebrating both the rich legacy that Small Groups Guy references and the coming years.