A few years ago, while walking up a street in an exurb of Kyoto, Japan, I noticed that houses on both sides of the street had a swift stream about where an American sidewalk would be found, that is, nearer to the road than house. The stream, three feet wide, was channeled by concrete. To get to their houses, people had to walk over the concrete waterway on flat, wooden bridges. Every home had it’s own little bridge.
The road meandered along the crest of a long hill. To the right, far below the backyard property lines, was a beautiful valley with a wide, fast-moving river. The water in the stream up at the crest must have been brought there for naturally that water would flow downward to the river without filling the concrete channel.
Why were these streams made?
I quickly discounted my first explanation which was that the Japanese enjoyed the sight of a stream flowing past their house. This stream wasn’t beautiful. It flowed through a concrete pipe sliced long-ways. No rocks or trees had been consciously placed near it. Clearly, it was not meant to be aesthetic or decorative.
So, the stream must be functional. Was it for irrigation? The need for irrigation could explain why there was a stream on both sides of the road — every house needed water for the sparce trees and plants growing in the front yard. But it seemed like a lot of water for just a few trees. I couldn’t see any irrigation equipment either.
As I was pondering and walking, I watched a squat, middle-age woman carrying a large basket in her arms. She walked toward the little stream in front of her house. On bent knees she began to wash clothing in it’s cold water.
Directly across the street from the woman, an old man came out of his house with a small basket which he also put down by the little stream. He walked over his bridge toward his neighbour who was bent over, intently washing clothing.
When she looked up and saw the old man she stood to greet him. As they spoke, they constantly bowed and nodded their heads toward each other. They exchanged little nods. Bigger nods. Half-body bows. Full body bows. They bowed and bowed and nodded and nodded as they spoke, moving crabwise toward the woman’s little bridge. For less than a minute, they both stood on the bridge nodding and talking, then made one final bow and separated.
Their bodies never touched.
This little scenario made a big impression on me though I’m not sure why. I recorded what I saw in great detail in order to not forget anything, describing the muted green-greys and odd bodily motions. It seemed like a vignette that would be paralleled in every culture including mine. I wondered if what seemed like an excessive bowing and nodding may have been compensatory for the lack of touch.
“What do I do when I see my neighbour,” I asked myself in my notes.
“Mostly, I ignore my neighbours. I try not to greet them. I look away.”
If my neighbour and I accidently meet eyes or I feel a social compulsion to greet him, we generally shake hands. This brief touch is followed by a quick pulling apart to reposition ourselves at a distance that seems innately proper and right.
The few people I care about get a little shoulder hug, particularly if it’s a sitting woman. Sometimes, I put my hand on her shoulder. With the few men I care about, I sometimes put my hand on his chest near his heart. Is this a form of social submission? I don’t think so. I think most people like to touch, but only in a manner restrained and ritualized. Perhaps greeting rituals seem more genuine if accompanied by touch.
Here, in Paris, I’ve been watching people greet each other. The French are much more physical than either the Americans or Japanese. They kiss on both cheeks, often several times — “air kisses” with a slight touch and sound. This is mostly done by women though men also greet each other with kisses. The French kiss is ever so light. As I kiss, my hands rest on a shoulder or arm to keep myself balanced while my upper body presses forward.
That’s a lot of touch. I’m still a bit uncomfortable with it, to be honest.
All humans have greeting behaviours. These are culturally specific. Yesterday, I watched two little French girls, about ten years of age, kiss left … kiss right … pull back. At such a young age, they’ve imbibed the routine.
Last Sunday in church, I was thinking about how I both crave and feel repulsed by touch. This may be a consequence of my emotionally distant upbringing. There was little touching in my family: in fact I cannot remember my mother or father ever touching me except to hold my hand while crossing a street.
Recently, my father showed me a picture in which he and my mother were standing close to each other holding hands as my sister clung to my mother’s side like a little leech. I was at least three feet away from them staring at the camera while biting my lip. My father said it was a “sweet” family picture, which is how he sees it. He was looking at himself.
I was thinking about this photograph during the “traditional” early morning service last Sunday. This service is for the older folk which in this church are male “silverbacks.” I like services with minimal distractions and music so choose to attend the service in spite of them.
While there, I noticed that the silverbacks – this a British Anglican church in Paris, France – touched each other quite a bit. They shook hands while leaning forward slightly. They clutched each other’s forearm. Some were so bold as to put their hand to shoulder. This touching was ephemeral and nothing like the French kissing cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek.
Many years ago, I watched gorillas greet each other on a television nature program. If I remember correctly, male gorillas touched noses as well as hugged. Don’t tell the old silverbacks at church this … but they remind me of the “real” silverbacks in mountain jungles. Both of these animal “clubs” have ritualized greetings.
In the Anglican church, the way we greet each other is seemingly innate. It’s also deeply cultural. And, psychological — it’s a thread woven into the dark fabric of social behaviour that hides in our mind’s shadows, out of sight but always there.
Many online websites describe in formulaic detail how to manage small group in church. Though they say that establishing trust and intimacy between participants is important, they never drill down to what this actually entails.
If I were a group leader, I’d secretly observe how people greet each other as a way to gauge the health of the group. Do they touch?
In the morning service, the small group dynamic applies, but not perfectly. As long as the service is attended by fewer than, say, twenty members, it qualifies as a small group. (Ideally, small groups are between six and fifteen, so they say.) But this group is not fixated on each other as in a traditional small group but rather on the minister and the old, comforting rituals and liturgy of Anglicans.
The greetings of the men in the morning service reminds me of children who play next to each other without interacting – “parallel play,” it is called. I need to watch these men more intently, which I’ll be doing over the next few weeks, to see what sort of relationship they have with each other. They appear to be Sunday-only Christians, men who come once a week and then live out their lives as Christians apart from fellowship.
This isn’t necessarily bad: I’m not judging the silverbacks. Not at all. The frontier faith of isolated American pioneers, for example, was sustained without any church or fellowship but only the constant presence of one’s beloved spouse and children. This created a viable faith. Often, a strong one. With just two books on the shelf, a Bible and a Farmer’s Almanac, the words of the Bible formed the lens through which their lives were refracted — theirs was an intramural faith, like that of Bunyan.
Similarly, some people can sustain a strong faith in God, grow in character and understanding and live lives of service to Him with only a weekly dose of fellowship. This, too, can be sufficient. For the silverbacks, it seems to be.
So why the hype about small groups? The underlying presupposition is that these groups are necessary because a weekly church service is insufficient.
I do think small groups make sense, however, at this time when generational ties have been severed, children have flown away from the nest never to return, marriages have been broken and rebroken, ties to neighbours have been tenuous and fleeting, moving house happens every three years on average, and hopping from job to job is the path to success. Particularly in a foreign country, a small group provides stability and solace, love and affection … and those all-important greeting rituals. That’s not a small group’s stated purpose, of course, but it could be a positive, unintended consequence.
The stated purpose of a small group falls into two categories.
First, it can be a social affair, often a family substitute, a place to “find my future Christian best friend.”
Second, it can be a tool for evangelism and church growth. Functionally, if this is the purpose of the group, it’s a bit like the Amway pyramid scheme — I sell to those who sell to others giving me a cut of the profit, a multi-level marketing company. Pyramid schemes do work. Some grow into huge conglomerates. Just ask the DeVos family.
Using small groups to grow the church makes me squeamish. It seems wrong, that’s all.
Maybe the purpose of a small group is a bit more spiritual than church growth — a small group could be a place where, to a limited degree, I “let down my hair” and struggle with others to move forward in faith. It may be more individualized than this: I listen, absorb and become solitary, again, to do what I think I must do to grow closer to God. If so, I am using others to grow myself spiritually, piggy-backing on other’s insights to shorten the road for myself.
There’s a selfishness, here, that again makes me squeamish. It seems wrong, that’s all. Kant’s idea that we should never use people as a means to an end seems appropriate here. But, I wonder if it even possible to treat a person as an end-in-himself without taking into consideration my own selfish ambitions and desires? I worry about this.
I should shut-up and stop worrying and just allow myself to touch other people spiritually as I touch them physically — to let one touch engender the other.
To greet may be to group.