My wife and I are moving to St. Louis at the end of the year. Not a decision we came to lightly. In fact not a decision we came to at all–more of a word of direction we have decided to follow. God has told us that our time here, our time in this community is done.
It’s still something of a shock to me, every time I tell someone or write about it. But what about stability? What about loyalty, commitment, solidarity, and rootedness? Those are the things I focused on so much when we were starting the community. I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. I didn’t want to let people down. I didn’t want our neighbors to feel abandoned once again by someone else. I didn’t want to hurt anybody.
At the beginning of this year, all of us in the community chose a single word that we felt God was wanting to give us for the year. It’s really been wonderful to see how each word chosen has continued to come up for everyone and speak into hard situations and changes that have happened in our community this year. God is good.
My word for the year is obedience. For the first six months I learned things about obedience. How it is something shared with the father, not a following of orders. How obedience is a surrender to love, and that those who love obey. And how it derives from the latin word that means, “listen.” But never did I imagine that the word would be of such importance because I would need to obey to the point of leaving my community.
And in a way, that’s just the point of it. I was so focused on being committed, on being loyal to the community, that I had, in practice at least, put these values above listening to God. For this is not “my” community. This is God’s community. This is not my life. It is God’s. Do I still hold those values of stability and loyalty? of course. Does that make it hard to understand why God is uprooting us once again? yes. But ultimately it is all about our life with God. Our loyalty and our stability is in God. Community can be a lot of things for us and for others, but it must not take that place in the center of all we do and are.
Maybe one of the hardest things about all this is that I can’t seem to find how to express all that is in my heart. To leave after four years of investing so much of myself in this isn’t at all easy, even if I know that God is in it. To believe that God is doing this not only for my own good, but also for that of the community and that it will be better and stronger without me there is humbling. To have such mixed and deep emotions around it all–I don’t know how to offer them to those who I care about more than they know. I don’t know how to try to tell them that they are not abandoned, that they are not alone, that God is so good, that…and a hundred other things.
And what do I tell myself? I don’t know yet. But underneath all the struggle, below the pain, within the loss, there is peace. Peace in being in the will of the father. In living in obedience as best as I know how. It is scary moving off to somewhere you don’t know anyone, to changing that place you always come back to–home, to somewhere else. It is exciting too though. It is time to write. Space to listen more. A place to figure out what it looks like for me to truly offer life to others, to be fully alive, to keep seeking the land of the living–knowing that his goodness is around me wherever he leads me.
I highly doubt this is the end of community life for us. We are not slipping away into the American illusion (dream). We still hold so many of these values. I hope for future community life. I don’t know what that might look like, or where. But once again it is all about listening to the voice of the Father. He doesn’t always lay it all out for us, and very rarely is it given in advance if he does–for then we don’t need to abide. Our leaving community is not a farewell, it’s a temporary hiatus. At least, I think so. It’s not really up to me though.
Community is just an idea. A practice. A structure. I have wrestled with it for 10 years. I have fought through many disillusions this last year, many of which are on this blog. It is nothing if God is not at the center. And sometimes for God to be our center requires a desert. Sometimes it requires a community. Sometimes it requires emptiness. Sometimes it requires overflow. Whatever it takes. Lord have mercy. Christ be the center. And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
the iphone 5 came out today. i am highly susceptible to gadgets and like apple products myself, but just so happened to read this poem today. hear it not with any self-righteous tone, but rather, perhaps, a bit of perspective:
You talk on your cell phone
and talk and talk
and laugh into your cell phone
never knowing how it was made
and much less how it works
trouble is you don’t know
just as I didn’t
that many people die in the Congo
thousands upon thousand
for that cellphone
they die in the Congo
in its mountains there is coltan
(besides gold and diamonds)
used for cell phone
for the control of the minerals
wage this unending war
5 million dead in 15 years
and they don’t want it to be known
country of immense wealth
with poverty-stricken population
80% of the world’s coltan
reserves are in the Congo
the coltan has lain there for
three thousand million years
Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Sony
buy the coltan
the Pentagon too, the New York
Times corporation too
and they don’t want it to be known
nor do they want the war to stop
so as to carry on grabbing the coltan
children of 7 to 10 years extract the coltan
because their tiny bodies
fit into the tiny holes
for 25 cents a day
and loads of children die
due to the coltan powder
of hammering the rock
that collapses on top of them
The New York Times too
that doesn’t want it to be known
and that’s how it remains unknown
this organized crime
of the multinationals
the Bible identifies
truth and justice
and love and the truth
the importance of the truth then
that will set us free
also the truth about coltan
coltan inside your cell phone
on which you talk and talk
and laugh into your cell phone
Every now and then, or rather often really, a book will come out espousing the secret to living a happy life. Or it might give you the 10 steps to being an effectual individual. Or it may be about the best life you can have for $24.99. Or the philosophical proof of what consists of the good life. Let me save you $24.99. Or the hundreds you would spend on a conference for the best life now. Here’s the one step you need: forgive everyone, including yourself, endlessly.
Normally I’m a little hesitant to oversimplify things, especially the whole of life itself, but I feel pretty good about this one. I think we’re on to something here. I think if you live a life filled with forgiveness and grace, if you forgive those who wrong you (or who you think have wronged you), if you forgive yourself your failures, if you forgive others their shortcomings, if you hold nothing against your neighbor but instead forgive, then you will live a happy life. It’s as simple as that, right?
Does that sound too wishy-washy? Does that discount that you can and should disagree with people at times? No. Does that mean that you ignore justice and let people walk all over you? No. Of course there are complexities here. But the truth still remains: forgive and you will be free.
Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds. People wound us. Sometimes it’s in small ways that build, sometimes it’s in huge ways that go very deep. Sometimes we find ourselves harboring ill feelings at people we don’t even know for whatever reason. The power to forgive is not easily gained. Especially if we hope that forgiveness to be full and true to the depths of our hearts. The human heart is capable of some amazing things, but it is only the full, overflowing grace of Jesus that can fill our hearts and overcome the deepest wounds and the sharpest hurts.
As Nouwen talks about, we learn that we can forgive when we realize that others are not God. They cannot save us. They cannot love us to the depth that we need. They love weakly, even when the love well. Acknowledging our own weakness in how we love is what can give us the power to also forgive ourselves when we hurt others or ourselves. It is God’s unending love in us that allows us to do this. When we know the source of that love we are able to freely give that forgiveness without expecting anything in return, because we have what we need in his love.
In a lot of ways this is pretty basic Christianity stuff. But then why do I so often live differently? Why do I hold my anger against others? Why am I so hard on myself when I make a mistake? When will I truly learn to forgive? Can I forgive myself for living so often without a heart of forgiveness? It would seem that’s the best place to start. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. Luke, have mercy.
Three quoted sections from Henri Nouwen. They were all so good I couldn’t decide which ones to use, so I share them all in this post. In the next I will share what I see in them.
From “Forgiveness: The Name of Love in a Wounded World”:
“Forgiveness is made possible by the knowledge that human beings cannot offer us what only God can give. Once we have heard the voice calling us the Beloved, accepted the gift of full communion, and claimed the first unconditional love, we can see easily–with the eyes of a repentant heart–how we have demanded of people a love that only God can give. It is the knowledge of that first love that allows us to forgive those who have only a ‘second’ love to offer.
“I am struck by how I cling to my own wounded self. Why do I think so much about the people who have offended or hurt me? Why do I allow them to have so much power over my feelings and emotions? Why can’t I simply be grateful for the good they did and forget about their failures and mistakes? It seems that in order to find my place in life I need to be angry, resentful, or hurt. It even seems that these people give me my identity by the very ways in which they wounded me. Part of me is ‘the wounded one.’ It is hard to know who I am when I can no longer point my finger at someone who is the cause of my pain!…
“It is important to understand our suffering. It is often necessary to search for the origins of our mental and emotional struggles and to discover how other people’s actions and our response to their actions have shaped the way we think, feel, and act. Most of all, it is freeing to become aware that we do not have to be victims of our past and can learn new ways of responding. But there is a step beyond the recognition and identification of the facts of life. There is even a step beyond choosing how to live our own life story. It is the greatest step a human being can take. It is the step of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour–unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family. The voice that calls us the Beloved is the voice of freedom because it sets us free to love without wanting anything in return. This has nothing to do with self-sacrifice, self-denial, or self-deprecation. But it has everything to do with the abundance of love that has been freely given to me and from which I freely want to give.”
From “Parting Words”:
“Forgiveness has two qualities: one is to allow yourself to be forgiven, and the other is to forgive others. The first quality is harder than the second. To allow yourself to be forgiven puts you in a dependency situation. If someone says to me, ‘I want to forgive you for something,’ I may say back, ‘But I didn’t do anything. I don’t need forgiveness. Get out of my life.’ It’s very important that we acknowledge that we are not fulfilling other people’s needs and that we need to be forgiven. There is great resistance to that. We come from a culture that is terribly damaged in this area. We find it hard to forgive or ask to be forgiven…It’s not just individuals who need to forgive and be forgiven. We all need to be forgiven. We ask each other to put ourselves in that vulnerable position–and that’s when community can be created.”
From The Road to Peace
“Everyone is a different refraction of the same love of God, the same light of the world, coming to us. We need a contemplative discipline for seeing this light. We can’t see God in the world, only God can see God in the world. That is why contemplative life is so essential for the active ministry. If I have discovered God as the center of my being, then the God in me recognizes God in the world. We also then recognize the demons at work in us and the world. The demons are always close, trying to conquer us. The spiritual life requires a constant and vigilant deepening and enlivening of the presence of God in our hearts.
“This process includes the real tension of discerning with which eye I see God: my own eye that wants to please and control, or God’s eye. Life therefore needs to be lived in an ongoing process of confession and forgiveness. This is the ongoing dynamic of community. The demons lose their power when we confess that we have been in their clutches. The more deeply we confess, the more we will experience the forgiving love of God–and the more deeply we will realize how much more we have to confess. Community life encourages this confession of our demons and our enchantment with them, so that the love of God can reveal itself. Only in confession will the Good News be revealed to us, as the New Testament with its focus on sinners makes clear.”
Not long after moving to 43rd and Prospect, in the middle of Kansas City’s urban core, I realized something. It was something I felt immediately but couldn’t quite put into words. It came from the strange looks we received from our new neighbors. It came from the subtle or not so subtle questions of many friends and family members. It was a smell in the air. It was a tingle in my skin. You don’t belong here.
Some might say this fact should have been obvious. We were, after all, a group of white kids moving into a neighborhood that is 98% black; college-educated folk from one side of town crossing the borderline of the city into the underserved and high-crime area where the schools have lost their accreditation; settling in along the streets I had only known from the news, the ones I had been told to avoid.
So why didn’t we realize right away that we didn’t belong? Because God told us to go there.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
Marcus Borg says there are three major narrative themes in the Bible: 1) The Exodus; 2) The Exile; and 3) Sin and Salvation. The third theme is the one major and overarching story of the whole Bible, as well as everything since. But the other two themes are also important storylines in the Bible and are continually brought up throughout all of Scripture. In fact, Borg says that often we focus so much on the third theme that we fail to learn valuable lessons from the first two. It’s easy to think that’s all part of the old story, and everything changed with Jesus. But then why are we are still living out those stories today?
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.
-Hebrews 11:13, 16
The exile story in the Bible tells us that the feelings of estrangement, the creeping loneliness, the tingle in your bones are actually pretty normal. Sure, our society does its best to try to make you feel comfortable in cozy houses, to sell you on the next gadget, to distract you with endless programmed entertainment, sports, and games, all offering kinship or intimacy or happiness in one form or another. And we run from one to the next trying to find some sense of contentment, rather than face our inner feelings of estrangement. Kids do it too.
The exile narrative is one we must remember, especially when working with youth. They so often feel their estrangement acutely. You could chalk that up to adolescence, or you might argue that they just haven’t become comfortable with the order of the way things are around us. A bit of both most likely. And we would do well not to forget the latter.
If we’re honest, we can probably still sense some of these feelings within ourselves as well—they aren’t just a product of adolescence. If we look back over the years, we see that much of our energy has gone into the search to belong, the struggle to be accepted, and the desire to feel safe and comfortable.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek community, belonging, and acceptance. In fact, it is almost always in the context of community that we are finally able to face our fears and inner demons. We can and should come together with folks who are on this journey with us. But we must realize that we actually don’t belong here. We must not become too comfortable. We must remember that we are pilgrims in exile; our task is not to settle in and think we can find all our contentment here.
The truth that is constantly subverted in a multitude of ways is simple: This is not your home.
“In that day,” declares the Lord, “I will gather the lame; I will assemble the exiles and those I have brought to grief. I will make the lame my remnant, those driven away a strong nation.”
God is the one who sends the Israelites from their promised land and into exile. God is also the one who leads them home again years later. Some do not get to see the promise realized, just as Moses never got to see the promised land, or how all the disciples died in persecution or exile.
There is a common thread here: We are not in control. God is the one watching over his children in a foreign land. God is the one who will call the remnant home and gather them together. This is not just about the future resurrection. We live in the now and not-yet kingdom. There is a future homecoming we hope for, and we are called to faithful service and love here and now.
It is in this reality that we find our freedom in exile. We no longer have to invest our energy trying to win by the rules of our society. We no longer have to try to create the perfect home, the perfect church, the perfect community. We don’t have to convince kids that having God in their lives will solve all their problems and make everything perfect. We don’t have to pretend we are perfect.
I am no more a stranger in the urban core than any of my neighbors, despite their funny looks, because that is where God has called me. Our place in this world is only found through God’s leading, but our true home is something for which we still wait. We are aliens and strangers. So take those funny looks in stride—they just might mean you’re closer to home than you think.
A simple thought for today, sparked from reading Vanier’s Becoming Human:
“If we deny our weakness and the reality of death, if we want to be powerful and strong always, we deny a part of our being, we live an illusion. To be human is to accept who we are, this mixture of strength and weakness. To be human is to accept and love others just as they are. To be human is to be bonded together, each with our weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other. Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging, so it is at the heart of communion with another.”
In a culture obsessed with winning and success, these words don’t really go with the flow. You’re not going to find them on an inspirational poster. These words will not serve as the prologue to strength finder 3.0. And yet, there is something really intuitive about them, right? There is something within us that longs to be accepted and known for all of who we are, including our weaknesses. We may be terrified by that thought–but the desire is there.
In fact I would guess that the desire is more than there. I would guess that the desire is paramount. Because it is true what Vanier says, that it is at the heart of communion with another.
But we don’t go around introducing ourselves by answering the standard “what we do” question with a list of things we do poorly. We hide our weaknesses, and then reveal them slowly as intimacy grows–sometimes. Or we just continue to try to hide them from others as well as ourselves. But true communion, true community, and true intimacy cannot happen that way. So we have a spouse or a few close friends that reach that level, but we deny others our weaknesses, and therefore deny them ourselves.
I am reminded of a community whose motto is that they aim to disappoint. That doesn’t mean that they don’t do good things or work hard at them. But they refuse to fall into the trap of competition and expectation, trying to bolster themselves up in the eyes of others by all their good works. They first offer their weakness. And not out of false humility. It is refreshing. They don’t feel like they have to prove themselves to others. In this freedom they somehow belong to others because it doesn’t set them apart as doing some great work that only holy saints can do. In offering their weakness, they can be accepted because it is the same weakness we know we have within ourselves.
What does it look like to offer our weakness to others? What does it mean to accept another, or ourselves for that matter, not based on what they have to offer or their strengths, but because of their weaknesses?
When I tell people that I live in intentional community, a lot of times they look at me funny. So I tend to obscure my answers to their common questions often enough. If I sense someone really actually wants to know, or perhaps will actually somewhat understand what I mean–then I will tell them the whole of it. Either way, people seem to generally either think that I am crazy, or that I am some sort of saint, and go on talking about how they could never do it. Yes, community is quite a blessed and beautiful thing you see. Or at least that’s what we’re generally ok with letting people believe (We also let them believe we’re crazy though too–better not to try to argue your way out of that (or then again of course, maybe we are)).
I suppose it is a part of every person in a community to come to the place of disillusionment. You always knew that community would be hard–or at least that’s what you’ve always been told. And it comes at some point that you realize that life in community is still life, and it is just that: life. You are still who you are. Maybe a little different yes, but not vastly. You have not been transformed by the power of the community. You have not become the saint of quiet wisdom and steady work. In short, community has not saved you.
I never thought of community as utopia, just as the best way to live. Sure I would tell others that it isn’t the only way to follow Christ well or is the truest expression of church compared to the book of Acts. It wasn’t the only way, sure. And in the back of my mind, but it is the right way now. This is what people really need. We have become too individualized and selfish. We have isolated ourselves from our brothers and sisters and found solace in entertainment. We have relegated church to an extra-curricular activity that occupies two blocks of our free time.
etc etc etc.
And the answer to all of this? Community of course.
But the truth is, community is just another place. It is another garden, complete with weeds and rocks, rabbits and insects. We try and put up the walls and structures that keep them out, but soon we find our that our fellow community neighbor is letting them in the back door. And we get upset and blame them for these obstacles and hindrances. Then we realize we are letting them in as well. They are coming from inside of us. None of us are innocent. And our great little garden is just like everyone else’s, still with so many of the same problems.
What we need, or rather, who we need, is Jesus of course. I think the problem though is that we like to need Jesus on our own terms, in our own favorite ways. Most of these ways are of course still not easy, but they are often not as hard as many of the words of Christ in scripture indicate–those words that we tend to pass over for other verses that don’t challenge who I am so much. A Jesus so full of grace and love wouldn’t really confront the way I live, right?
Community certainly has its values. I’m not saying it doesn’t. Community is really great at taking things beyond my own preference and perspective. It gives you other people to share life with, to strive together, to grow with–encouraging and supporting each other. It keeps you from wasting away too much time watching tv. It reminds you every day that life should not be taken for granted, and that each day really matters. And so much more.
But it will not save you. It will not magically make you closer to God or more the person you want to be. If things are going right–and believe me, they are not always going right–then it should be a place to help you along in those things. But it will take work. It will take effort on your part. Sacrifice. Struggle. And not giving up in the face of all those things and more. It’s still on your shoulders. Well, you and Jesus of course. And it’s usually better if he carries more of the load. More than you. And more than the community.
I could have been a monk. I love my wife very dearly and it has nothing to do with her. It’s the singularity of purpose in life, the dedication in common rhythm to a life about one thing. That’s what the word monastic means, not just to be alone, but the singularity of the will to one thing, that is, to God.
But instead I was part of group that sought to form a new monastic community. New monastics are kind of like monks, though not really hardly at all. They are often married. They don’t wear habits. They do pray together, and they normally share a common living space, but what similarities are there really beyond that?
I’ve been reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. It’s about her time spent as an oblate amongst a Benedictine monastery. I’m somewhat surprised that it was a NY Times bestseller, not because it isn’t written well–far from it–but because so much of it is about life at a monastery, reflections on problems faced by monks and monastics of old. What does all of this have to do with modern western society? How does it connect at all to modern, working, single-family dwelling Americans?
Norris does her best to make the connections, and there are some. But I don’t believe that’s why the book works. The book connects to people because they have a buried desire to escape from the seemingly endless trappings of modern life. They long for a simpler way to live. The following quote speaks to at least one of those trappings:
“Workaholism being a symptom of the desire to control and to fabricate our lives…I find that Benedictine liturgy counters that desire very well. It speaks poetry every day, and it is not productive.”
This is of course not to say that there is no work. Work is essential as well, not only for provision but also as a fundamental activity in the rhythm of life. This work is not fixated on efficiency and performance though, but is interlaced with levity and is often with the goal of community building. Completion of the task is not the measuring stick for what constitutes a good day of work. This is hard for Americans to grasp.
Another reason I think the book works, is that it touches upon that desire for simplicity, but without the impetus to actually truly pursue it. None of the readers are expected to become monks. And the reflections, interesting and extremely well written, are not intrusive at all. Change the way you think about your life perhaps, in the midst of your busy struggles, but don’t think the monastic life, or anything close to it really, is within your grasp through means of external, logistical change. A monastery is other-worldly enough to not feel any guilt in personal disconnection from that way of life.
New Monasticism is something of a go-between. “Ordinary Radicals” is what we’ve been called. Radical as the monk, but ordinary as the guy next door. Or something like that. We’re meant to be in the world, working to make a difference, not like the retreated monastics of old. We can be surrounded by all those trappings, but turn our eyes away. We don’t need the cave. We don’t need to cast off the world, for that is not what we are called to. We are called to be a part of redeeming the world. So we are monks, we are husbands and wives, we are pastors, we are laypersons, we are missionaries, we are neighbors.
Sound like a tough job description? Maybe it would have been easier to just be a monk.
I struggle with this impetus, with this pressure. Even though it’s probably not far from the truth to say that a degree of it is self-generated. Still though, it’s a lot of stuff to try and get done with just 24 hours in the day.
What is it that people are really longing for? As I read how Norris talks about the simplicity of the monastery, I can’t help but think about my community and how different it is in that way. We have not become about one thing, but rather tried to sanctify the many things–in a way attempting to baptize our workaholism, to sanctify our control, and to bless our pride. Because after all, it’s ok if it’s for the kingdom.
Can our communities still be places dedicated to the one thing? Can we be active in the world without taking on its character and seeing our communities become the very thing we needed rescue from in the first place?
Because that “one thing” of course is God. And “God” is not a subheading for whatever work we seek to do. God is a person whose love for us is our greatest lesson to learn, and for whom giving our love is our chief task. I’m sure any monk would say the same thing.
We have collected a lot of eggs recently–today we went out with the kids and gathered 90 eggs! Crazy. We’ll give you some, just come visit us. Very fresh!
Our church being a good typical baptist church, it does many things you might experience in your average baptist church (though being missionary baptist, there are also a lot of other things you surely won’t experience in your average baptist church). One of these things is your weekly altar call at the end of the sermon. Only they don’t call it the altar call. In the program, the altar call is when we all come to the center of the church, hold hands, pray, and then give nearly everyone in the building a hug.
They call it “invitation to christian experience or candidate for baptism.” It’s easy to be cynical about these times, especially if you’ve grown up in some form of baptist or conservative church setting. But I’ve seen a lot of goodness in these times. I’ve seen God work in people’s lives on many occasions.
After people have come forward, Pastor Howard always walks around down off the pulpit stage to the area by the front pews. He gets down on his knees and prays for them, often after he gives them a pointed admonishment (he knows many of them–he knows everyone). Not long ago, he finished praying and the deacons supported his arms to help him get up. And then he said, “It’s a privilege just to be able to get on your knees.”
Being a young man, I don’t usually give a second thought to something so simple. And yet it truly is a privilege. It’s easy to take things for granted when you are young and mostly healthy.
His statement also struck me on a deeper level as well. For what are the things that we usually think of when we think of having a privilege? We usually think of opportunity. Of power. Of uniqueness. Of access. And some of these apply to his statement.
But our opportunity is the privilege of access to commune with the God of the universe through the humble act of giving up our power, of a submissive action that we can share with anyone else who would invoke their freedom to lay themselves down and offer up a few words to something greater than ourselves, to someone greater than ourselves. To do so is to acknowledge that we are not the boss, that we don’t have the power to control our lives. And our privilege is to know that we have don’t have to let ourselves be ruled by the authority of ourselves, freeing us from all those limitations and fears we hold.
Now if only we could really believe and trust in that reality. Then we could see who are the real privileged among us.