Jesus went about breaking down barriers that separate us one from another. The sick, outcast, and alien were enfolded in his healing and reconciling love. We who claim to follow Jesus have been instructed to do the same, each as fully as able, constantly pushing the limits of ability. Thousands of years before Jesus, the psalmist celebrated a time yet to come when God would declare that Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, strangers and enemies of Israel, would be counted among God’s own. Paul, writing to the Galatians, declared that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for all are one in Christ Jesus. In our own time we sing “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” There are few sermons that fail to include a call to follow in the way of Christ outside the church in our ordinary daily lives.
None of it falls on deaf ears, but translating it into a more Christlike way of life isn’t easy. Instead, these heartwarming words are likely to be received as wonderful and inspiring ideals of hope, but set aside by Sunday afternoon to attend to the immediacy of personal lives overwhelmed by needs, anxieties, customs and habits. I think it has to do with the bubbles – social bubbles – in which all of us live.
I’ve been thinking about it given the example of several long time friends whose Christian faith is unshakable, but contained within social bubbles that if burst would destroy their sense of self. Whatever Christian faith calls one to be, it must be contained within one’s established bubble. Other long term acquaintances live in bubbles resistant to organized religion for the same reason. Fear, prejudice, ignorance, habits, and lack of intellectual curiosity create bubble defenses difficult to penetrate. It’s not true for every person. Some, perhaps many, live in permeable bubbles, highly mobile bubbles, or bubbles defined by unrestrained curiosity about life in other bubbles. One way or the other, we all live in bubbles.
So what’s a bubble?
Sociologists have been studying social bubbles for a long time. Bubbles are closed environments, bubbly human terrariums if you will, that sustain, defend, and give order to the meaning of life. In them we find comfort and security. Properly stocked, they are places of refuge against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fate.” In one sense, individuals live in their own unique bubbles custom designed by each to fit their needs and desires. In another sense, bubbles of like minded people interact with each other to form bubble colonies in which members can interact in mutual reassurance. Individual bubbles, having degrees of mobility, might even belong to more than one colony.
Bubbles are transparent, or at least translucent, so we’re not unaware of other bubbles about us, and we can know, or think we know, something about them. Even without verifiable knowledge about the other, we can assume things about them based on their similarity to, or deviance from, the norms of our own bubbles. Better yet, colonies of like minded bubbles reinforce each other with shared assumptions taking on the appearance of reliable verification that we find reassuring.
Faculty members of our two four year colleges often talk about the college bubble that enables staff and students alike to exist in the greater community without actually being a part of it. Since their bubbles have mobility, they can float through the greater community as curious onlookers, insulated in their bubbles from too much engagement. I’ve experienced a like sensation on cruises where stops at exotic ports of call feature guided tours in mini bubbles before returning to the big bubble in the harbor where all is comfortably familiar.
I live in a small city in the rural setting of the intermountain West where watching bubble dynamics is easier to do. It’s a college town, a center for premium wine making, and the primary market place for a region of large farms and ranches. The Corps of Engineers has a regional HQ here, and the state’s maximum security prison sits on a hill just outside the city. It means there are lots of bubbles and colonies of bubbles that keep bumping into each other in ways that force inter-bubble contact. It has a bubble watching advantage over large metropolitan areas where bubble colonies can be more easily isolated from one another Neighborhoods of richer and poorer are not separated by much, sometimes by nothing more than a fence or hedge. It’s an easy bike ride from the Symphony to the rodeo to the prison. Farmers, old time families, newbies, country clubbers, blue collar workers, professionals, they all live in their bubble colonies, but they can’t avoid bumping into each other.
Well insulated bubbles are like self created miniature universes in which residents live as their own imagined gods. They may need transactions with the outside world for supplies and entertainment, but each transaction can be interpreted to exist for no purpose other than adding value to the self created universe of the bubble’s godly occupant. Some bubbles are armored with strong prejudicial values acting like Star Trek deflection shields. Others are capable of a limited range of interaction with members of other bubble colonies. A few careen from one to another as if in search of home. There are bubbles with permeable boundaries, and persons willing to leave them for a season to explore the outside world. The point is that in a small rural city it’s possible to watch all of them at more or less the same time.
From what perspective?, one might ask. From the perspective of the bubble I live in and the bubble colonies to which I belong. “To know thyself” is an old and debated adage, but in this case it means to be honestly and critically aware of the bubble one lives in, of the existence of other bubbles, and of the nature of the bubble colonies to which one might be attached.
Which brings me back to Jesus. He continues to break down the barriers that separate us one from another, inviting our bubbles to be more vulnerable. He invites us to be among those who occasionally leave their bubbles altogether walking into the lives others as they experience it. My guess is that many regular church attendees are unaware of the bubbles in which they live because they’ve become invisible in the ebb and flow of daily life. It’s an act of disciplined self awareness to know one’s own bubble, and a leap of faith to trust in God to be present in one’s greater vulnerability if it becomes more permeable. Venturing outside doesn’t mean others will be more receptive to the invasion of their lives in their bubbles. Nevertheless, God invites us to give it a try. Offer God’s peace. Be agents of healing and reconciliation. Then go back home to a more permeable bubble.