“Don’t you want to sit on the couch next to Laurie?” she asked Gary. We’re at a home gathering of people from our congregation.
“No, that’s fine. We sit next to each other all the time,” Gary responded.
“You don’t want to be separated from each other, do you?”
“It’s actually good for us,” I chime in. “There is such a thing as too much togetherness. Anyway, we’re only six feet apart.”
“Yeah, it’s like being retired,” someone else said. “I keep trying to find ways to get my husband out of the house!”
“Nobody is really separated from anyone else, anyway,” offered another one. “Remember the six degrees of separation? We’re all in this together.”
The concept of six degrees of separation likely derives from a theory originally posited by Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 that everyone and everything in this world is no more than six steps away from each other. A “degree of separation” is the social distance between people. We are one degree away from everyone we know and two degrees away from everyone they know, and on down the chain.
Even though the world’s population as of today is estimated to be 7,172,657,364 (www.geohive.com), with an estimated increase of 215,060 people daily, the world is shrinking because of the increasing connectedness of people on our earth. We are only six introductions away from any person on this planet. John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation popularized the concept that, despite the physical distance between many people in our world, our social distance is far smaller because of the density of human networks.
Researchers at Microsoft tested this theory in 2006 by studying the records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million different people in various countries. This accounted for about half of the world’s instant-messaging traffic in June 2006. Considering two people to be acquaintances if they instant-messaged each other at least once, researchers analyzed how long the average length of a message chain would be to link 180 billion different pairs of users in the database. Their conclusion: the average chain connecting two users was 6.6 steps, thus confirming on a very large scale that we are more connected with each other than we think.
“So that we can get to know each other better, why don’t you tell us a bit about who you are?” we asked at the home gathering. “What are your passions? What gives you joy and connects you with God and others?”
Amy said, “I’m part of a musical group called Detroit Area Threshold Singers. We sing a capella at the bedsides of people who are at a life threshold. Some are struggling with living, others are struggling with dying. We sing lullabies to newborn babies and give a graceful send-off to those who are dying. We sing to heal and comfort.”
Grace was a nurse but is on disability because of a chronic illness. She volunteers in many areas of the church and especially loves to provide child care for working parents.
Tony is a Hospice volunteer in his retirement from engineering. He goes into homes to help families in any way he can. Even after the patients die, Tony often keeps in contact with the family because he has developed close relationships.
Tara is a retired teacher who now volunteers to offer tours to children in a nature center.
Barry is on disability but volunteers to paint at the church and for other organizations that need assistance.
Bonnie has a passion for helping those who are less fortunate and volunteers to assess people who ask the church for help. She relishes the opportunity to form relationships with the people who come to see her and believes that she receives much more than she is able to give.
Angela can’t wait to retire so she can volunteer and, in her words, “share the love.”
As Bonnie said that night, it only takes one person in this world to welcome you and connect with you. Even though there may be six degrees of separation between us and the farthest person in the world, one person can make all the difference in a person’s life.
In the most famous monologue of John Guare’s play, Six Degrees of Separation, Quisa says, “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.”
Indeed, there is comfort in knowing that we are all in connection with each other. At the same time, our challenge is Christ’s mandate to form and maintain loving and life-giving relationships with people, especially those who are not like us.
Over many years of ministry I have come to believe that Christians are called to lead the way in eliminating any degree of separation between us and the people we are called to serve. United Methodists, in particular, take John Wesley’s words as our mantra, “Do all the good you can; by all the means you can; in all the ways you can; in all the places you can; at all the times you can; to all the people you can; as long as ever you can.” As evidenced in our home gathering, many United Methodists are as heavily involved in volunteering in the community and around the world as they are in the church.
There may be only six degrees of separation between us and people in the far corners of the world, but with God there is no separation at all. We don’t have to go through five other people to get to God. The veil between earth and heaven was torn apart through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We direct access to God through Jesus. One step and lots of grace.
Whenever I meet with people who are considering becoming United Methodists, I emphasize what makes United Methodism distinct from other Christian groups. At the top of the list is grace. God’s grace, which is present in our lives before we even recognize it, saves us so that we can be examples of grace to others.
We do not become Christians simply so that we are guaranteed a place in heaven. As far as we know, God has a place for everyone in heaven! Rather, we profess faith in a God who asks us to be that one person who can change the course of another person’s life. We do that by taking the initiative to connect with them through a kind word, a warm hug, compassionate listening, and encouragement to use their gifts to make a difference in the world.
We claim faith in Jesus Christ so that we can share with others the good news that nothing can ever separate them from God’s love – or ours. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
In the midst of an ever-shrinking world, we have an ever-expanding God. We are bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people and a God who reminds us that it only takes one person singing to help another cross the threshold between life and death; one person serving to inspire someone else to recover their hope; one person praying to encourage another toward wholeness; one person loving to be Christ for another. Separation: six degrees or none?