Just last week, my family went camping in Michigan’s upper peninsula at Tahquamenon Falls (rhymes with “phenomenon”). While we were there, they had an educational time for the kids called a Wolf Walk. A park ranger took us on a small hike and told us all about the gray wolf living in the UP. It was quite informative and my kiddos loved it. I learned that wolves in the UP (and in Michigan’s mitten) had been hunted to non-existence in the area by the ’60’s and only recently started coming back through migration of lone wolves.
One thing that struck me was when the park ranger explained how the wolf pack worked. There was an alpha male and an alpha female. Only the alphas were allowed to breed. A wolf pack could contain a number of wolves, but were controlled by the alphas. Once a young male is roughly around 10-54 months, it leaves the pack to go on its own. This is usually due to conflict within the pack. Females will stay in the pack until, as the park ranger put it, the get fed up with the female alphas attitude and leave to find a new pack.
The wolf pack is all about control and survival. It is about who is strongest. Only the strongest survive and others split off and do their own thing. Very brutal. Very hard. Very tough. Though considered a social animal, their community is very stressful.
As I think about animals, I’ve always had a fascination with gorillas. I’ve always loved gorillas. They remind me of…well, me. Gentle big brutes. Once at the Lincoln Park Zoo, we were at the Gorilla House. My son had to be around 3 or so. There was a giant silver back looking back at us through the glass. My son looked at it, then at me, then at it again and explained happily “Daddy!” Yeah, my son thought I was a shaved ape.
Gorillas are social animals. They live in troops. Each troop is led by a silver back. The silver back protects the troop. He mediates disputes between troop members. But he also plays with the young and trains them. There are minor silver backs who act as second in commands. Then there are black backs who act as sentries, look outs, for the troop. The troop works together, grooms each other, helps raise the young. When a young male gets to be around 11 he slowly leaves the troop. This is usually because there is no role for him to take up. The young male usually joins a group of other young males on their way to start their own troop and find a place where they belong. Females slowly leave around age 8 to look for their own troop to join. Sometimes it takes multiple troops before a female finds one she fits into. Each gorilla is prepared and taught how to live in their environment and how to interact with one another. (Now, don’t get me wrong, gorillas have their flaws too and are, well, wild animals and so do things wild animals do).
Thinking about the wolf pack and the gorilla troop, I’ve been reflecting on some of the books I’ve been reading lately. They are all about building community. Community is so important. There are huge community development projects in all sorts of areas. We have community centers in towns. We have community gardens. We have community this and that.
But when it comes to spirituality, we don’t do it in community. It’s a DIY (Do It Yourself) type of spirituality. We want to do life together, yet when it comes to spiritual matters, it’s about how individual feelings. It’s about what we get out of our own spiritual experience. It is private and we don’t share it. People pick their spiritual places, especially churches, based on personal preference.
And I think there are good reasons why too. Some churches are like the wolf pack. You have your alphas and you don’t cross them. And when things get rough, you leave because you can’t handle it. And for good reason. It’s a toxic spiritual environment instead of a healthy one.
Other churches are like gorilla troops. Many people have their roles. Yet when you can’t find your role within the group, you slowly leave until you’re completely gone and then go from place to place trying to find a place to belong. Each church has this to offer or that to offer, but when needs aren’t met, or you start to not like the sermons (even if they are biblical) or the music, you find a place where you think you might fit in better.
But that’s not community. That’s not living together. That’s doing it on your own looking at what you can get out of it. Looking how you can be served. In an authentic community, we look at how we can participate in the group. How we can be involved, how we can participate, how we can be honest and public with who we are in our own journey of faith. In a community of believers, true spirituality begins to grow and to thrive.
Many times people talk about their own spiritual journey. Yet the journey seems to be self-centric. Yet it is the community that helps you walk your faith journey. It is the community that walks with you during the good times and bad. Yet without building a real community, there is no place to go to seek this out. And so we strike out on our own instead.
How can you help grow real community in where you’re at? How can you use your community of faith help build you up in the faith and journey together with Jesus, growing spiritually, developing spiritually, and becoming alive spiritually in the community of believers?