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Several years ago, a good friend of mine accepted a Music Director’s position at a church in Punxsutawney, PA (yes, THAT Punxsutawney – home of “Phil the Groundhog”).  He asked me to come up one autumn weekend and lead a choral workshop, as his choir prepared for the upcoming church year. I had been to Pennsylvania before and so was looking forward to seeing its beauty in the fall – and it didn’t disappoint.

The weekend was filled with laughter, music, singing, and much, much eating (those people know how to cook!)One morning, after our session and before our evening event, my friend asked if I’d like to meet “Punxsutawney Phil”.  What? See face-to-face the most famous groundhog in the U.S., and perhaps the world?!  Of course.

Now before we go further, I want to let you know that the town of Punxsutawney doesn’t look like the Punxsutawney in the famous (and favorite) film, “GROUNDHOGS DAY”That film was shot in: Woodstock, Illinois, Carey, Illinois, and Hollywood, CA.  The truth is, the actual Punxsutawney is a little isolated and not quite filled with the “character” which was needed for the film. In the real Punxsutawney, “Gobblers Knob” (where Phil is taken to see or not see his shadow) is a field out in the middle of nowhere (as opposed to the Town Square in the film) and when not performing his duties, Phil lives in the town library.

We went to the library to see Phil.  Phil lived in luxury in a large pen with a picture window looking out (and so that humans could look in, when the library was closed).  He shared this beautiful home with his wife, Philomena, and he was, quite possibly, the largest, slowest, groundhog I had ever seen.

Born in captivity (and descended from former “Phils”) he had known nothing of the outside world, he had been generously fed things that tasted good but weren’t necessarily nutritious: the children of the town were given marshmallows to feed him, and his wife, when visiting. And he had very little exercise.  Not surprisingly, he had to be kept inside because he wouldn’t have survived in the outside world…which was, ironically, his natural habitat. 

As my friend and I observed this “lumbering king-sized pillow of fur” slowly make his way through a human-made habitat of water, foliage, and concrete rocks, my buddy turned to me and said something very significant: “It reminds you of some Christians, doesn’t it?” 

Knows nothing of the outside world.

Generously fed things that taste good
but aren’t necessarily nutritious.

Very little exercise. 

When it comes to “the world” Jesus reminds us that we (as newly created in Him) we are “not formed from the world/or OF the world” (JOHN 17:14-16) but that we have connection to the world by loving our neighbors as ourselves (MARK 12:31), which infers that we actually know them.  We provide what is needed and by BEING AWARE of what is needed in the world.  Each time Jesus’ disciples, or the leaders of the church, tried to get Jesus to speak about the age-to-come, He brought them right back to the age in which they live, and the people that surrounded them, telling them they should concentrate on the “here and now”. 

Some people see the community of faith, in whatever form their “church” exists (traditional, contemporary, house-church, etc.) as a place where “they are fed”.  In fact, we hear that phrase all the time.  You and I also hear from people who have left their communities of faith because they are “being fed” things that don’t taste good to them…they want “good-tasting food” (sometimes marshmallows). At times that “good-tasting” food they crave is a lie, and if one has marshmallows as a steady diet, then salad isn’t going to taste so good to them, even though that’s what they need. So there are also times when THE TRUTH doesn’t taste so good to them, and they deem it ”bad”.  Sometimes people WANT to hear/digest only what they agree with, whether it is the Truth or not.  Sometimes people just want to relax in the oasis of love and good teaching/food – be fed and “fat and happy” in their Church.

But the entire POINT of “feeding” (teaching from the scripture and the Spirit) is like that of the human body.  Food that comes into our bodies is there to work with the oxygen which also comes into our bodies (like the breath of The Spirit in our communities of faith) so that we can MOVE, so that we can SHARE, so that we can EXERCISE our faith with the work that brings joy: lifting the fallen, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, a cup of water for the thirsty, clothes, visits, hugs…love-in-action to those Jesus has placed in our paths. 

Like Punxsutawney Phil, some Christians aren’t able to function outside their communities of faith. But be reminded: The Church’s role is not to sequester and hide people away from the world but to prepare, and yes FEED, them to be IN the world.  We should be knowledgeable about the needs of the world, connected to those around us, and help people to see the differences of a life “conformed to this time & place” and a life “transformed by Jesus” (ROMANS 12:2).

The point of reading scripture, of listening to the voice of God through the Spirit, and of continuous prayer is NOT so that we get overweight with the “good food”, but so that our “food”, combined with the breath of the Spirit, will give us a strength we don’t have on our own…to live the glorious life of service to others, love to others, that Jesus wants us to live…so that we will be happy, it’s what we were created to be. 

The ”Phil” I saw passed on, and another took his place.  He just passed, his heart, surrounded by fat, just stopped.  He never knew the joy of his natural habitat, the joy of providing for himself and those he loved…he lived in a “church” that separated him from the “Phil” he was created to be.

That should be a lesson to us all: is the meaning of our lives simply to be aware of our own shadows, or is it to “live” as Jesus created us to live?