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.

mouth-tape-man

I am a part of a men’s group that meets every Tuesday morning. Our topic for the moment has been reading Epic by John Eldredge and discussing the themes, paradigm changes, and formational revelations we are experiencing. What has happened more often than not however, is rather than discussing the book, we are sharing what is currently commanding our attention. You know, those things that keep you up at night and really expose the messiness of life. For some it’s relationships, for others it’s a captivity they struggle to find freedom from, and yet others are just beginning to understand that how their story intersects with the Larger Story. The thing we all share though is that the formulas we’ve depended on our entire lives are no longer working for us. And when things don’t work like they use to, life can get, well … really messy. So we use this time to process our stories in community rather than worrying about finishing the book in 6 weeks. It’s been beautiful … and revealing. New layers of authenticity are being expressed and spiritual gifts are being exercised in response to the needs that bubble up.

One thing I’m seeing through all this is that group life, just like our own lives, can get difficult and messy at times. Here’s the deal, we have one group member lately who has completely dominated the conversations. Not only that but most of his monologue has been directed at providing solutions to others’ problems.  He doesn’t really share what’s taking place in his own journey, but how other men can get their life in order if they just following these simple instructions.   We meet early in the mornings and some of the group has to leave a little early in order to be at work on time. What’s happened of late is these individuals haven’t had much of an opportunity to share or  comment because of the one dominant voice. Another concern is that those who share their messes aren’t necessarily looking for a nice, tidy fix to their problems. Often, they just need to share what’s been causing pain so they can better process what’s really going on. The group can encourage and draw out the strength of these hurting men without necessarily giving them three points to solve their dilemma. It’s gotten to the point where this talkative person has actually begun to hold our group “hostage” by taking over the conversation and others in the group are unsure how to respond. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you experienced this difficult group dynamic? What did you do?

Well here’s what I did. I had a private conversation with the group member who invited the person who was dominating our group discussion and who knew him best. We both agreed that it had become a problem and a conversation with this person was needed soon. I gave him the following talking points to use in his conversation:

  • Because of the limited time we have and some who have to leave early, it’s really important to allow time for everyone to share.
  • You have some really good thoughts and suggestions but the priority is for everyone to talk about their own journey.
  • Not everyone is looking for a solution when they share a problem. Sometimes they just need to speak it in community to process what they are feeling.
  • We value authenticity and often times that will mean leaving someone with a messy situation where there are no quick fixes…and that’s OK.
  • Our group is more about listening to each other and hearing what’s being said than responding to every problem that is shared.

I also have found guidelines from the Samson Society meetings to be helpful, which calls for the following during group discussions:

  • We address our statements to the group as a whole rather than directing them toward any one person.
  • As a rule, we refrain from giving advice to others or instructing them during the meeting, believing that such conversations are best reserved for private moments between friends.

As it turns out, the conversation between these two went great and the dominating person displayed great humility and understanding. I’m excited for our group to meet again and share how God has used this messy situation as yet another expression of His redemptive nature. Our group will likely experience a new level of intimacy because of this and my hope is that everyone feels a more profound ownership of the group.

It would be great if you could join in on this conversation! What are some situations your group has experienced that are similar to this? What action was taken and what were the results? What happened if no actions were taken? What would you have done in the case of my group? Do you have any other suggestions or comments you could share for us?

Remember, group life is organic and you should always be ready to change and modify your group dynamics based on other’s experience. But you should always, always make sure you are living life in community. As I heard recently from a friend,

I’d rather drown in community than swim alone.

In order for a small group to be authentic, it helps to remain aware of these 7 perspectives:

The Mysteries of God Found in the Bible
Even God has secrets (Deuteronomy 29:29). As we’ve grown up surrounded by empiricism, vast amounts of information, and the cognitive focus of the modern age, we have been led down a theological path that requires us to come to final conclusions about everything … assuming we’re smart enough. There is a place for proposition. There is also a place for awe and wonder. Allow the mysteries of life and faith to captivate.

That Life Is Messy
Life is a series of surprises—some good, some bad, and some downright debilitating. Ecclesiastes 3:4 just blows out of the water any proposition that summarizes life as formulaic and mundane. Small groups should acknowledge this without giving into it.

Personal Imperfections
Yes, you have imperfections. If you don’t think you do just ask your spouse. (I prefer to own up to it without asking my spouse.)

That God Is Always Present Even When He Feels Distant
God doesn’t always seem close to us. There are times His silence during our struggles is intended to help us face our deep desire for connection and intimacy with Him or to persevere with hope through those dry times so that He can bring unexpected joys to us and others through them. God’s presence can be manifested in authentic community.

Honor Others as Individuals Without Having to Agree with All They Do and Say
God created us as individuals, and no two of us are exactly alike physically, philosophically, or spiritually.

Confessing our Failures at the Right Time with the Right People
Fear of exposure makes the mere thought of confession seem intimidating. Many people are afraid to become vulnerable. In a small group, the confession of sin will be most possible if members naturally, by their own accord, confess to those specific people in the group they have come to trust.

Satan Is at Work in Our World

To most people, Satan is a fictional character instead of “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) until Jesus returns to establish His eternal kingdom. Satan is an enemy who is on the attack, “looking for anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He destroys friendships, family members, and belief systems. He kills hearts.