This week I was struck by the phrase "live among God's faithful people" in the baptismal and confirmation liturgies of my denomination. "To live among" is different than "to live with" isn't it?
Those with whom we live form us. Our values, assumptions, skills, and responses were mostly formed by the people we lived with as children. Our circumstances were shared; our observations of cause and effect parallel. We loved the same people and knew the same places. We shared a world view.
The people who we live among, on the other hand, re-form us. They challenge our values and assumptions. They rank our skills on a different scale and make us wonder why we respond to certain stimuli in particular ways. They love different people and different landscapes. They have had different experiences and see the world differently because of them. This broadens our perspective and re-forms our vision of the world.
I think this is a good thing. My family of origin was an exceptionally loving place. It has taken me a lifetime to realize that not everyone was so fortunate. On the other hand, unlike most of my peers, I never lived anywhere where I could go to school with cousins or other relatives. Still, most of the people my family lived among welcomed us into their lives and made us part of their community. When I moved to Austin as a 20-something I learned to better appreciate living among God's faithful people.
Austin, unlike the small towns of my childhood, did not welcome me just because I was someone new. In fact, in 1982 people were driving around with bumper stickers that said "Thanks for visiting, now go home" and "Native Texan". I didn't feel like I was living among, I felt as if I were living outside some charmed circle. There was little southern hospitality extended - even some of the churches I visited were unwelcoming. It was an unsettling experience.
Then one Sunday I walked into the congregation that became my place to live among God's faithful people. It was friendly but not desperate. I was allowed to settle in at my own pace and find my own niche. When my children were born I promised to help them live among God's faithful people; and I did. For more than 25 years I have had my assumptions challenged, my perspective changed, and my world-view broadened by God's faithful people.
I am remarkably re-formed by this experience because living among doesn't mean just brushing shoulders with others. It means living connected: comparing our stories, lightening each others burdens, celebrating and sorrowing together, and building a collection of shared experiences. It means arguing about God's intended messages in scripture and gathering together at table like a family. It means being God's faithful people to other children from other families.
We don't send our children to go swimming without a buddy. We know that they are safer swimming with friends. Likewise, we shouldn't send them out to test their faith alone. Even as we are forming their values we need to bring them to live among God's faithful people and be re-formed. They'll swim more safely in their baptismal waters if they aren't swimming alone.