June 5, 2020

What Have I Learned From Living In Community? (Part 1)

When you’ve lived in an intentional Christian community for almost 17 years, you’re a pretty sorry excuse for a person if you haven’t thought about how your life has affected that community or how that experience has shaped you as a person. You live together on the same campus, eat together for most meals, live by the same rules, worship together, serve one another, labor together, suffer together, counsel one another, sin with and in proximity to one another and offer your particular gifts and ministries together. You make an impact and the community impacts you.

It’s not like church. Many a day, when times have been tough, I’ve longed for the old days when I worked on church staff and I spent only a few hours a week with members of the congregation. A couple of hours on Sunday morning and, unless there was an emergency, that was it for the week with most of them. I could even have friendships that were outside of the congregation and no one noticed!

But in intentional community, all of that sort of thing is offered up. I see my students and co-workers for many, many hours a week. And they see me constantly; ad nauseum, I fear. Sometimes when someone will be having a social occasion and we’re invited, I think to myself “These people see and hear me so much, if I show up for this, they will all be depressed.”

The past couple of weeks, my experience of community has been diminished by the loss of a friendship that meant a lot to me, and my reaction is to look at my life and ask “How did I fail?” Answers aren’t hard to find. If I were counseling someone else, I’d also say that’s a good question, but don’t go overboard with it. It’s likely I contributed to the failure of the friendship, but it’s also likely that there are entire sides to the whole business that I’m not even aware of.

But 16+ years of community is a different matter. If I were to leave this world tomorrow, what would I have contributed to this particular attempt to live together on the reality of the Gospel? What did I learn from God and how did I apply it? How did the whole experience make me more like Christ? Where did it show me how I’m not like Christ? How did it make me want more of Christ?

Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had as I’ve considered my own experience of Christian community the past 16+ years. Obviously, some of these lessons are found other places than in intentional community, but community is where I’ve found them.

1. It’s amazing how important it becomes to simply speak to another person; to give them the grace and dignity of a friendly greeting. It can become legalistic (there have been times I’ve waved at the same person 20 times in a day), but I don’t know how to over estimate the value of treating another person like they are THERE. Some of the biggest obstacles come when you feel people are doing small things that amount to “You don’t matter.” I’ve sinned a lot in this area, but God has put it in my heart to be more open in this area, and I’ve made slow progress.

2. Kindness. The most convicting sentence ever spoken to me in this ministry was an out of the blue comment by an older person who has been a mentor and grandparent to me. With sadness, but with firmness, she said “You aren’t a very kind person.” It was a lightning bolt. I wanted to defend myself a dozen different ways, but I’m convinced that would have been missing the point. Now, I pray for the kindness of Jesus over and over and over. My students know it is important to me. Of course, I’m deeply aware of the failure in my life that made that observation necessary on the part of my friend. How can I say Jesus is my God when I am not kind?

3. Staying with people who are not easy to relate to. In community, a person with chronic personality flaws has no place to hide. Christian community is about change, but not everyone has the same possibility of change. Some brothers and sisters are going to be challenging to love, to befriend, to include, even to sit and eat with. But over and over, God has pointed out those people and said two things to me. 1) You, Michael, are every bit that obnoxious and I love you. 2) That person is Christ to you. The conviction I carry over this one is heavy. The hard edges and difficult seasons of relationships are extraordinarily easy to walk away from, but I cannot. God hasn’t walked away from me, and people have loved me when I’ve been rotten. Did I learn anything from all that love?

4. Accepting criticism….from all sorts of directions. I’m an only child. Criticism doesn’t appear on my menu. I’m constantly surprised at how difficult it is for me to process criticism without the argumentative, defensive instincts I developed growing up with my dad coming to the surface. Don’t get me wrong: I have always felt a lot of criticism in the Christian community was unnecessary and hurtful. Still, no one living in community can declare him/herself immune from criticism, or determine where it’s going to come from. A fundamental of Christian community, at every level, is a recognition that the Holy Spirit can and will shape us with the tools available in community. If we declare ourselves above any work of the Spirit done through a brother or sister with their own flaws, we are refusing Christ himself.

5. Surrendering your own agenda. If you come into Christian community with your own plans and agenda, one thing is certain: you are going to be frustrated, and quite possibly disillusioned to the point of giving up. Community is not an effort to fulfill the plans and agendas of every member of the community. It’s a mutual embracing of the missio dei, the mission/Kingdom of God. Wow….has this been my adventure. I’ve always been a person with a clear vision and plan B was always a carbon copy of plan A. Whatever else happened, at the end of the day, I was going to do what I wanted to do. Now I sit here with absolutely no idea what I could possibly ever do beyond what service I perform for Christ in this community. I have held on to my agendas and fought for them. And God has sent the angels to tackle me, pry those agendas out of my fingers and toss me the Gospel. This is one area where I have the answers for you, but I’ll punch you in the nose if you try to do a reverse and apply it to me.

There’s more to this “curriculum” and I may write another post sometime in the future. For now, a prayer….

Father, I thank you for the privilege of living in community with other Christians for most of the past two decades. This calling has been a gift to me from your hand. I confess that I have been a stubborn project, but you know my heart, my flaws and my journey to who I am today. You understand far, far more of me than I do of you. You know why this community is the place for me, and I know that, in your love, this is your place to prepare me to be a vessel for your glory. I am grateful for the friendships I’ve enjoyed here, and I grieve those that have failed because I did not love like Jesus. I can see in my life the evidence of my sinful resistance and of your overcoming grace. I claim your promise to finish in me what you started, and to vanquish every enemy, even my own ridiculous refusal to allow your hand to shape me into the image of Jesus. I ask for a clear vision of Jesus, and his love for all of us in this community. Help me to love as he did, to love the people he loves, and to love with his willingness to sacrifice, suffer and do your will. As long as I can be useful to you, let me be exactly where you want me to be. Where I am grieved and disillusioned, renew my calling and commitment. When I need you, send me someone who can incarnate your presence, your words and your healing compassion. And may I be that brother for others as well.

For your glory and the Kingdom of your Son I pray. Amen. So be it.

Comments

  1. [MOD edit: Thanks Joel. I’m not on that journey. But thanks for your positive comment.]

    People: Stop discussing my “conversion” please.

  2. Treebeard,

    You were asking about leaving a close Christian community and wondering if that were a failure.

    I would call that a success. I see that you were just trying it out, and discovering that it wasn’t for you. I understand because I am called to the celibate life. Once I reconciled myself to the Catholic Church, I did explore the religous life. Many of the convents tend toward social work, and that is NOT my calling. I am called more toward the solitary life. Am I a failure, no because I see how God is leading me.

    Besides, we need good Christian men, and women raising children who want to love Christ. I have a hard time calling that failure.

  3. Martha:

    I’m called of God to preach and I’m ordained by the church to do so. Renouncing ordination and despising the call are big deals. Some Catholics are so excited about my “imaginary journey to Rome,” that they don’t think about the fact that callings and ordination exist in our “ecclesial communities.” Just another silenced Protestant.

    For me to become RC, I would have to embrace at least two things that are “not the Gospel” in my view: purgatory and RC view of justification=sanctification. Plus a bunch of stuff that I believe scripture teaches are completely wrong: Marian devotion, modern view of the papacy, indulgences, RC view of other religions.

    Oh….and I’d have to believe Luther is in hell, which is ridiculous.

    ms

  4. treebeard says

    Anna A, thanks very much for your words of encouragement.

  5. Michael: you wrote

    No, leave us who preach alone. Pray for us, but for the sake of the 20 atheist students I’ll share Jesus with tomorrow, leave me to do what I have the opportunity to do.

    well said, and maybe the point is to let the Roman Catholics to do what they do well, and perhaps GOD has a Jesus shaped niche for each group. I think the error is demanding that one group, or one leader/teacher have it all figured out…and then we follow him/her/them. maybe this is not at all what GOD had in mind concerning unity of the faith. Maybe it’s actually a step backwards.

    Love your teaching and your community of friends
    Greg R

  6. im — I’m torn between two things, in light of your protests against what you would have to accept upon taking the “swim”:

    Either we should take up a petition drive to beseech our German Pope to release Luther from hell, since his predecessor Polish Pope let Galileo — the Italian who had proved the theories of the Polish astronomer Copernicus — out of prison, albeit posthumously (sorry Martha, but it must be said 🙂 )

    or

    We should add a line to the Nicene creed —

    “We believe Luther is in hell,” right after “The Communion of Saints,”

    Maybe we could add a prayerful cheer —

    “We believe Luther is in hell (yay)” 🙂

  7. “I’d become AMiA tomorrow if I had any prospects of ministry.”

    if you mean the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), i would think there are indeed prospects if you’re serious.

    closest contact might be:

    Email
    petervance@alltel.net

    Network Leader
    River of Life: The Rev. Peter Matthews

    (I’m Catholic myself, but keep up with AMiA as my wife’s there..in Church of the Holy Spirit – The River in Blacksburg, VA..part of Apostles network. The AMiA “networks” are sorta like dioceses)

    the AMiA network page: http://www.theamia.org/networks/home
    has list of network contacts

  8. from the AMiA networks page:

    River of Life Network

    The Rev. Peter Matthews

    petermatthews@insightbb.com

  9. “I’d have to believe Luther is in hell, which is ridiculous.”

    ?

    You are not required to believe *anyone* is in hell. We are constrained to believe that hell does exist, but we cannot speak with finality as to the damnation of any individual soul, since that knowledge lies with God alone (even – pick a villain – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Luther, Julius II).

    Luther has as good (or bad) a chance of being saved as you, me or Surfnetter.

    You would have to accept that Luther in some of his theology was mistaken, and obviously that’s not what you accept. For myself, I don’t see you converting to anything outside of what you are already.

  10. Besides, it might do the Protestant side no harm at all to consider, even briefly, the possibility that Luther might be in Hell (as against being convinced that My Guy is okay, but Their Guy – whether Calvin, Zwingli, or Arminius – is toast).

    Dante had no problem whatsover in putting Popes in Hell (and relatively few clerics in Purgatory), but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a Catholic.

    As an exercise in humility and a caution against presumption, it does wonders for the examination of conscience 😉

  11. By the foregoing, I mean if one’s visceral reaction is “He can’t be in Hell!” Why? “Because he was right! and if he’s in hell, what does that mean for me, who follow him?”, then might I remind one and all –

    – we are not saved by Luther, Benedict XVI, or even Pastor Bob, we are saved by Christ.

  12. Martha – Can’t we at least put Luther in jail …? 🙂

  13. To say I somehow indicated I think we are saved by Luther is….well…..words fail.

    Saved by Luther’s Gospel….yes. Big time.

    Luther was personally anathematized by the church and never repented of his teachings and beliefs. If Catholics believe anyone is in hell, surely it’s an unrepentant personally anathematized “boar.”

    I can’t agree with the RCC on Luther’s condemnation and excommunication because I agree wholeheartedly with Luther’s Gospel.

    ms

  14. Im — The people you have an argument with died centuries ago. Most the problems between the “two Houses” of Christianity are political rather than theological. Everyone agrees that Mary was a special figure — the difference there is a matter of degree. At the Communion table it is one of timing — Does it become the Body and Blood of Christ before or after the faithful communicant eats it?

    The reason the Mageisterium has not invited your House to our table (and forbids us from dining at yours) is not because of anything you do or do not believe about the Gospel — it’s what Luther and others said about us and have refused to take back.

  15. Ky boy but not now says

    “Everyone agrees that Mary was a special figure — the difference there is a matter of degree.”

    But it’s a fairly big degree. I somewhat feel you’d call the Grand Canyon a big ditch.

    “At the Communion table it is one of timing — Does it become the Body and Blood of Christ before or after the faithful communicant eats it?”

    Uh, no. Again a lot of us don’t think either of the choices you give are correct.

    The Tiber is fairly wide from where I and a lot of faithful others sit.

  16. Who doesn’t believe that symbols become real through faith …? Words are just symbols, you know ….

    And you are looking at the Marian issue through a Protestant fundamentalist microscope. A keyhole looks like the Grand Canyon from there.

  17. Flatrocker says

    Interesting, there’s a note from Leo as well….

    Little Marty is to report along with Leo to detention hall. Something about there being hell to pay for all the trouble they each have caused.

    They both should bring plenty of chalk.

  18. Flatrocker says

    You can learn so much here at planet imonk.

    I didn’t know there was such a thing as Luther’s Gospel. Strange, I thought there were only four.

  19. Im — So Luther is self confirming, too — along with the Bible confirming that it — and only it — is the entirety of the revealed truth.

    And so Pepsi IS the real thing and we ARE in good hands with Allstate — I guess.

  20. I was actually kidding about the letter from Luther.

    If anyone has anything to say in this thread that is substantial, please write me at michaelATinternetmonk.com and I’ll open the comments back up for you.