Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Band Of Brothers

by Alvin Ung, iBridge Band of Brothers

This is the story of four ordinary men who loved each other and confessed their sins to one another. I met them during a class at Regent College a month ago.

All four men are in their fifties. John, tall and large, holds a Ph.D in conflict resolution and taught for decades in South Africa. Jerry is a soft-spoken accountant who provides consultation work to small businesses. Murray is a financial planner. And Peter is a lawyer who specializes in facilitation.

They are church leaders and family men. They are all busy figures in the marketplace. But for every week, over the past six years, they have been meeting on Monday mornings from 6.00-7.30am.

“It all started years ago when I was looking for friends who were going to push me to open up at the deepest level of my being,” said Peter, the lawyer. “I wanted friends who would not let me run away and hide. They had to be people with the courage and creativity to really challenge me – because I know how good I am at hiding.” He didn’t know what form or shape this group would be. He simply knew he wanted spiritual friends.

Lessons from the Trinity

Such a craving is a God-given desire. Our Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – share an intertwined and interpenetrating relationship with each other. Theologians call this relationship “perichoresis.” And God has implanted within us a deep desire for perichoretic friendships too.

Unfortunately, as we grow older – as we inch day-by-day into our thirties, and then forties – the harder it is for us to find and maintain meaningful friendships. We part with our university buddies. We rise up the corporate ranks and find ourselves increasingly isolated. We serve in church but can’t connect with Christians in a deep way.

How many of us know of church leaders who don’t talk deeply with one another? How many of us are in that position ourselves? We are afraid of embarrassing ourselves. We fear honesty – with our friends and with ourselves. As we grow older, we grow lonelier. This is the tragedy of sin. This is the tragedy of our own misplaced pride.

An Alcoholic Beginning

Peter, who owned his own law practice, knew this very well. He wanted to lead an integrated and authentic Christian life but he knew he could not do it alone “because as humans, we’re very good at deceiving ourselves.” To discover how we’re truly human, we need friends who care, who are real and who love enough to risk.

As Peter prayed and expressed to God his heart’s deep desire, several names came to mind. He approached each person, one by one. All of them said they were keen. Thrilled, in fact.

They started their first Monday meeting by using the questions found in the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, adapted to Christian needs.

Step 1: “Admit what you are powerless over.”
Step 2: “Acknowledge that only God can heal me.”
Step 3: “I choose to turn my life over to God.”
Step 4: “I take a fearless moral inventory of my life.”
Step 5: “Share the thing I am most ashamed of in my life with my friends.” And etc.

They took turns sitting on the “hot seat.” The rest would listen and ask probing questions. This would go on for weeks until everyone in the group was sure the person on the hot seat been completely honest with them and with himself. Some steps took more than a year to answer. After six years, they covered only six out of the 12-step program.

“We needed time to earn one another’s trust and confidence,” John said. Speed wasn’t the issue. The key thing was to be real, and to do everything out of love. They discovered that each one of them mounted an array of defense mechanisms to avoid shame, embarrassment or confession of sin. The latest exercise which they are doing together is to challenge one another on how to be better stewards of money. They are doing this by bringing ALL their personal finances, spreadsheets and spending patterns to the table for the group to scrutinize.

Honest Lessons

From the grilling, Peter learned that he sought praise too much, had difficulty saying no and avoided making important decisions by purposely making himself confused. He had boundless energy which he channeled into his or Messiah complex. Through the group, he learned to be more selective and not to avoid making hard decisions. As a result his marriage had also grown so much. “There’s so much joy and fullness of life that we won’t experience unless we choose to do so by sharing from our hearts.”

What makes this group so different from any other bible-study, cell or prayer group?

* They desired to be intentional, penetrating and vulnerable.
* They spoke out of the depths of their heart and out of love.
* They did not allow one another to get away with self-deception.

“Tragically, we spend most of our years climbing the corporate ladder,” said my Regent classmate, Audrey Lim, a former director of marketing in an international pharmaceutical firm in Singapore. “We invest all our time in work but not in relationships. That’s because we do not want to know or ourselves. But if you don’t want to come to terms with yourself now, then when will you do it? Do we love each other enough to dare to do what they did?”

More Ordinary Heroes

Anyone can do this. But it takes courage. A few months before his death, Rev. Hwa Chien, the former president of the English-speaking Methodist churches in Malaysia, urged me to form an accountability group of fellow men.

He, too, had four other friends who kept him accountable. They were all prominent church leaders. They’d been friends for a long time and they met once a month in a mamak stall next to the Ipoh Chicken Rice restaurant along Jalan Gasing. They would meet to share their stories, encourage one another and then pray. They organized a retreat once or twice a year. “Together, we kept each other from yielding to temptation. We confessed our sins to one another,” Hwa Chien said. “And we stand behind one another.”

The older we grow, the more we need such groups of like-minded men and women. There’s no formula in forming such a group. But here are three helpful principles:

1. Cultivate a desire to live an authentic and integrated life that’s pleasing to God. Resolve that you want to be honest before God and other trusted friends.
2. Pray that the Holy Spirit may work in your heart and lead you to other people who share this same desire. Such friendships are a gift from God.
3. You can start the first gathering by sharing your personal story with incredible honesty. Then others might be inspired to take the risk

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