the dream of Christian community

In thinking about Christian community and the barriers to experiencing it, a friend wrote to me:

I think most Christians share the desire for community you talk about, but, as you allude to, a conditional version. You mention these conditions as barriers to community. Either it is a community made up of a particular subset of people (i.e. those they are not repulsed by)… or it is something they work to create, not just participate in (i.e. a problem to be solved). In thinking about these things I was reminded of this quotation from Bonhoeffer, which I find difficult.

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

On one hand I know that Bonhoeffer is right, that our ideas can become barriers to that which we are trying to seek, but at the same time I don’t know how to pursue that community while at the same time laying aside that dream.

In response, I wrote the following…


Tentatively, I’d say that our approach or posture toward community will stem from our posture toward God.

I wonder if the family analogy might fit in well here. The (archetypal) family is defined by a certain inevitability: you’re inescapably bonded by blood. Your connection is fundamentally secure. In daily life, we might try to please our parents and our parents might try to please us, whether out of spontaneous love, obedience to principles, or the desire to be praised. The dynamics of actually trying to act like family to each other are what take up most of our conscious attention. But it’s all within the bounds of inevitability, and more particularly, the inevitable and undying love of parent for child. There’s a deep knowledge that at some level the parent’s love for the child is a one-way street, and that the main thing the child is doing is simply being loved. The anxiety of disappointing or losing the parent is thus relieved for the (again, archetypal) child. Within that context of receptive love arises all the “action” of family life.

If we experience that same sense of inevitability in our relationship with God — if our justification is by grace alone, if our fundamental posture is one of receptivity, if God is our Father in this way — that will be the context for the action happening in our spiritual lives. The dynamics of trying to please God (i.e. repentance) are real, but they’re grounded on security and inevitability (in contrast to, for example, the dynamics of trying to please a new boy/girlfriend, where the anxiety to prove oneself and the liberty to leave is dominant). Which is why the passive reception of the Eucharist has become so central in my spiritual life, because it “embodies” that posture so well.

Regarding Christian community, it seems that “active surrender” will happen in this same way. If our community is truly familial — if our terms of brother/sister are real — then the work of pleasing each other and forging bonds will happen and be dynamic, but it will happen on a foundation of inevitability.

So, then, the obvious question is how to create a community founded on family-style inevitability, or where to find such a thing. If only it were as easy as showing up at the nearest congregation and immediately living like family with everyone there.

On the other hand, maybe there is something to that. And I only say that, with reservation, because I’m thinking of an experience I had last week. Long story short, there was some serious awkwardness and mutual suspicion between me and a friend of mine from church. We were having coffee, only to talk about church “business,” when he eventually brought up the issues between us, in a direct and uncomfortable way. We talked it through for a long time and ended it by praying for each other. I walked away from that conversation thinking about how rare it is to have friendships like that, where because of shared commitments to a shared faith, and to shared values of forgiveness/patience/etc, and also shared commitments to the same small church, we were basically forced to work through our shit. All of those shared commitments put us in a position of familial inevitability. And that brought about a moment of tangible “community,” in the sense of that word that we all seem to be longing to use it.

Moments like that are rare. But I can’t think of any other contexts, besides family and friendships with Christians where there is a recognition of mutual responsibility, in which I’ve willingly stuck with someone it would be easier to drift away from, and in which actual resolution and redemption have come about as a result.

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Rich White America

I’m from Rich White America, the human race’s one percent.

I’m from daily dinners with Dad and Mom,

cul-de-sac calm and patio parties

and nothing but failure to fear.

I’m from baby books, photo books

children’s books, classic books –

books that they would read to me so I would ace the SAT.

I’m from big grass yards and imaginary friends;

all the wars I fought were sticks and pirate ships.

I’m from homework help and holidays,

spring break trips and soccer games.

I’m from homemade meals and fresh fruit in the fridge.

I’m from innocence and warmth,

crystallized on Christmas with five presents just for me.

I’m from self-inflicted issues with a satisfied stomach

and a sheltered safe haven from violence;

even sickness was sorry to disturb the peace.

I’m from landlocked tears and

and keeping one’s emotions in one’s room.

 

I’m from everything you didn’t have.

Does it help if shame and loneliness are familiar faces in this fairy tale?

If anxiety and depression are the starlets on this silver screen?

Rich White America is the strangest of normals,

and I’m not saying that it’s fair.

So please tell me instead, where you’re from?

Home For The Holidays

I’ve been so proud of myself for growing up

and shedding this suburban scenery for more subtle forms of snobbery.

I the butterfly, you the broken cocoon. I the artist, you the coloring page.

I’ve proudly colored outside your lines.

But wintery tradition brings me back behind that picket fence

and I’ll whisper that I’m humbled by this homeyness.

I the weary traveler, you the cozy inn. I the prodigal, you the open arms.

This town pulls on my compasses.

 

On the way to that one coffee shop and who can think of anything else but that

the corner of 17th and Juniper is nothing if not the time I turned around to hear him out and welcome home another brother in the front of that movie-making robot

and that dirty donut shop is nothing if not the place I realized they were gone forever, interpreting the news of a shrinking world with coconut crumbs ignored

and the sidewalk across from Filippi’s is nothing if not the stage of my debut and the meeting of my first embodied inspiration at my entrance to the underworld

and that drive down the boulevard from Sunset to Grand is nothing if not the highway of my heart and the cornerstone of my conscience in every immanent sense.

The truth is that you made my good deeds good.

When You Left

When you left, I could hear you from across town.

Sure, she was a stinging drink that smacked you awake —

some girls are like that —

but slurring, stumbling is no good for steering.

When that door closed, it was you who closed it;

you, or God.

Not us.

 

Ten months later and I watch you at the coffee shop.

How are you, fine, I miss you, dear —

some words are like that —

but halting, hesitant is no good for hearing.

When that door opens, it’s you who’ll open it;

you, or God.

We’re waiting.

January Anniversary

For Laine and Walker, eight days till their wedding.

Family members filling up the family room, finally together.

She glances across the group with understanding peaking out,

sneaking out, and showing up in her smile.

She knows him and his habits and his way of wondering why.

She has seen him weak and worried about where he’s walking.

She was there last night.

No one like her man. Many may imagine themselves to be mighty

but he considers not his courage. Silently strong.

Lighthearted talking and loudness of laughing,

but he feels her looking, that lady he’s loving.

He knows her and her habits and that wild wandering in her.

He has seen her breaking, beaten up by bad timing.

He was there this morning.

Others audaciously offer themselves as if it were obvious

but she’s subtle. She takes seeking.

He glances back across the group and understanding glows in his gaze.

Holiday happiness and full hearts around the hearth

and a wedding waiting for one more week only.

That understanding will thrive over time, then in thirty years

–in a family room filled with old friends and new faces–

they will think back on January and be thankful for this.

Think About Me

For Kenia & Maria

Think about me, at night, when you’re the last one awake

And all the loves you take for granted are sleeping within arm’s reach.

Imagine me, behind your eyes, as you hold what you want most,

And greet the ghost of me in your dream world like a familiar friend.

Pray for me, as you thank God for the ones who need you

And for the one who freed you from your loneliness and searching.

.

I think about you.

Your life brushed up against me and encircled me and I was a child in its arms.

The hug ended

And I kept reaching

For something bigger than your little life of kindness and love to envelop me.

Like a crumbling tower I collapsed into the everlasting arms of eternity.

.

Remember me as the one with the awkward embrace

And the metallic face, rusted over from too much time in the rain.

Come to me with your greatness, with your service, in the morning

After a night of yearning and we will eat as one to end the hunger.

Think about me, at night, when you’re the last one awake,

And you recall the ache you felt in me when we brushed together.

take-home lessons from Honduras (pt. 2): hospitality

The hospitality of Abraham

The hospitality of Abraham

In the last post I outlined what I learned in Honduras about who missionaries are, and how they think. This post is about hospitality, because hospitality is what missionaries (read: Christians) do.

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 1 Peter 4:9

Hospitality means including people, especially lonely people, in your life. That is the best definition I can invent, anyway. In the passage containing the “least obeyed command of Christ,” Jesus shows us what hospitality really looks like:

[Jesus] said to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:12-14

Hospitality means being family to the family-less, and friends to the friendless, and giving homes to those without any place to go for love and unconditional welcome. It includes spending money on those whom you do not expect to return the favor. Acts 4:34-35 describes the effects of the early church’s hospitality, explaining that “there was not a needy person among them.” Imagine if we practiced that again!

Our modern American lives are deeply isolated from each other, with our family members, co-workers, social contacts, church friends, and neighbors typically occupying entirely separate aspects of our lives and rarely interacting. The following quote, though referring specifically to singleness as a marital status, describes this phenomenon:

“‘Singleness’ as we conceive of it in our culture is not the will of God at all. It is representative of a deeply fragmented society. Singleness in America typically means a lack of kinship connectedness. This was not the case…with Jesus who was not married. He never lived alone. He went from the family home to a group of twelve close friends who shared daily life with him until he died…. In contrast, singleness in America often refers to a person who lives alone or in non-permanent, non-kinship relationships.” –Karen Keen

Spectrum of individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures

Spectrum of individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures

Such isolation–the logical end of our bizarrely individualistic society–is totally foreign to the depth of community experienced by Jesus and his disciples and the early Church. Hospitality cuts away at our isolation, involves us in each other’s worlds, and brings “the [physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually] poor, crippled, lame, and blind” to a place where trust and restoration become possible, perhaps for the first time. Hospitality introduces the lost and lonely to the God who welcomes them into his family.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. 1 John 3:1

We are communal by nature. Being in other people’s environments and routines naturally involves us in their lives and takes us to where their hearts are. In your context, I see you as yourself: as another human remarkably similar to me, with needs just like mine. The artificial barriers we can keep up in public come down in our places of comfort and habit, and that is the only way significant relational connection and communication happen.

It is not complicated. It is taking people along with you in your life, and “hanging out” without any kind of agenda. It is creating environments where people can be who they are and be satisfied to be with one another.

In Honduras, where hospitality is a cultural cornerstone and people sit all day in their hammocks and are happy to talk about nothing, or not talk at all, as long as they are together, hospitality as a ministry model was easy and made sense culturally. In America, with our fragmented social groups, frantically busy schedules, and intolerance for silence or stillness, sharing even our external lives with one another is difficult, much less our hearts and souls. Here, hospitality still makes sense as the best ministry model–the best way to imitate the Incarnation of Christ–though it may take more logistical effort.

It works, though, and Jesus left us with a pattern to follow. He was and is the very best host.

Blessed are those servants who the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, [the master] will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. Luke 12:37

May the God of endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:5-7

visiting a widow

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

IMG_6752

I met her on Sunday. Mike, Ashley, and I were walking through the streets of La Fe, the village-community within La Ceiba, Honduras in which we work as missionaries. We took a picture of every family in front of their home, printed it, and gave the picture along with a Bible to each family as a Christmas gift. When we came to her house, she stood out to me because she was the oldest person I had yet seen in La Fe. She was seated in a plastic chair outside her home, slightly hunched with age, doing nothing but sitting and watching.

We took her picture and returned a few minutes later with the printed copy and the Bible. She admitted that she could not read, but assured me that she would give the Bible to one of her family members who would be able to use it. I encouraged her to do so, told her “God bless you,” and continued on to the next house.

On Tuesday, I looked for her again. At first, I found her house, but not her. Her son told me she was sick and in the house of his brother, a few streets over. When I found the house, I discovered her laying on a small couch, curled up, and clearly in pain. My heart felt heavy to see her suffering. I bid “good afternoon” to the house and gently explained to the young woman who came to greet me that I had met the “abuelita” two days earlier, had given her a Bible, had found out she could not read, and was wondering if perhaps she would like for me to read some scripture to her. They welcomed me inside and handed me a Bible.

I had not prepared a thing. I simply turned to some familiar passages and read them with reverence: Isaiah 25, John 10, Psalm 23, and Romans 5. A man and another woman soon came in from the back room and sat with us to listen in. The five of us listened to the beautiful words of God together and shared a few moments of peace in the midst of a crazy world. God blessed me with the words I needed to get the point across, in Spanish: God takes care of us when we feel helpless, like a shepherd guarding his sheep. Our hope in this life of suffering and death comes from knowing that Jesus suffered in our place on the cross. Without him, we have nothing at all. With him, we lack nothing at all.

The old woman said nothing during all of this, except to express her agreement when one of the other women stated her gratitude to me and to God for my unexpected arrival. I replied that God is a good Father, who gives good gifts at the very moment we think we cannot do any more. His word of promise is our hope in this life. After we prayed together, I offered to return in two days to read some more scripture aloud for them all, and they welcomed me back.

God’s mercy to us is profound. He came to us clothed in weakness: a child, a humble man. He spoke our language. He wore our clothes. He entered our homes. He visited us in the middle of our despair, called us back to the Father, and gave his body to us. The greatest gift he gave was his own self.

For us now, it is the same. God only approves of religion that is characterized by Christ-like mercy and Christ-like purity. When we enter one another’s homes, speak one another’s languages, and give ourselves to one another, with the Word of God, we find that making disciples is a reality within reach, as is joy. It is joy of which the principles and the gods of this world know nothing whatsoever.

There are many widows and orphans who need family, and many wandering souls who need to be called back to the Father. The best gift you can give them is yourself.

Receive from Jesus, give him away. Receive from Jesus, give him away. Receive from Jesus, give him away…

[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51

[Jesus said,] “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36

it’s a family affair

Joining a church is not about joining a culture. It is about joining a family.

Nearly every time the New Testament writers talk about the church, they use familial labels. Peter, James, and Paul call the recipients of their letters “brothers and sisters”; John, an old man at the time of his epistle writing, uses the phrase “little children.” Jesus called his disciples “brothers” (e.g. Matthew 28:10). Paul told Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). In other words, Paul told the young pastor to treat the members of his congregation as the members of his family.

One of the most important and beautiful teachings in the New Testament is that God is the father of Christians. He loves and cherishes them like a father cherishes his children, providing for their needs, disciplining them, patiently bearing with their faults, comforting them, always listening to their prayers. He is Abba, which in Aramaic means Papa, or Daddy (Galatians 4:6-7). Because of the amazing, unique father-child relationship that Christians have with God, Christians are, to each other, like siblings in a family (Matthew 23:8-9).

It is much easier for churches to act as social clubs than as a family, however, because family life on this earth is intrinsically messy and complicated.  Natural familial relationships are the most intimate and most permanent relationships on this earth. God’s family, the church, is the same, only more so. Earthly family bonds are not forever, but the church, the true believers of all times and places, will be united in worship for eternity.

Too often, churches are more like mini-cultural bubbles than they are like families. Church cultures are too often defined by social norms, accepted lingo, expected attire, musical styles, a preacher’s sense of humor. All these things are man-made. Artificial social expectations such as these are harmful both to those who do not “fit in,” as well as to those who, by fitting in, consider themselves safe with God. Jesus said:

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commands of men.” Matthew 15:6-9
In the early days of the church, the biggest dividing wall was Jews vs. Gentiles. Jews considered themselves “safe,” because they had circumcision, the patriarchs for their ancestors, and the law. But Paul makes a magnificent statement in the second chapter of Ephesians, saying this:
But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Ephesians 2:13-16
In Jesus, through the cross, the superficial things that identify and divide us in this world, such as race, as in the 1st century church, or differences in culture and “personal preferences,” as today, become annulled. By dying, he broke down the dividing wall of hostility so that he might create one, unified body of people with equal standing in God’s family.This is the church:

  • an assembly of people, united by a common identity – redeemed by the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-14)
  • for a common purpose – to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23)
  • with a common mission – to call the world to repentance and belief in Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20)

Anything more is inevitably artificial. This therefore is the responsibility of the church, the family of God:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me”… Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:1-3, 7
And Christians, how has Christ welcomed us, brothers and sisters? He came to us as one of us, sympathizing with our weaknesses, tempted in every way yet without sin, touching lepers, eating with thieves and prostitutes, preaching peace, dying for his enemies, turning reprobates into sons and slaves into free people. Let’s do the same with each other. We are a family, after all.

“scripture is useful for… rebuking”

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

The New Testament’s vision of “church” is a far cry from much of our modern experiences of it. The Bible takes for granted that the church will be a family: not merely in the sense of a group of people who feel generally friendly towards each other, but a real family, complete with squabbles, intimacy, and up-close-and-personal, long-term relationships.

The pastors who authored the New Testament’s letters expected the members of their congregations to know about each other’s sin problems (James 5:16), to be talking about heart-level issues every day (Hebrews 3:13), to feel the suffering of other Christians as their own suffering (Hebrews 12:3). To them, no people had closer ties or more fundamental unity than believers in the church. Jesus believed the same thing (Luke 8:19-21).

Because the Bible takes the family nature of the church for granted, it also treats something we cringe at as normal: rebuke. A rebuke is an urgent confrontation in which one person confronts another about sin in their life, using God’s word, with the goal of repentance and restoration to God.

Doesn’t even the thought of that seem uncomfortable? And anyway, didn’t Jesus tell us not to judge (Matthew 7:1)?

‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:17:18 (NKJV)

In the Bible, there is no such thing as “passive love.” God does not accept generalized wishes of well-being as genuine love, nor is that how he loves. God’s love was and is both active and intentional. This crucial passage from Leviticus presents rebuke as the opposite of hatred and the companion of real love. Clearly, if we are not practicing this, we are missing something big.

Rebuke very clearly may NOT be

  • an opportunity for angry accusations, bitterness, or revenge (“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge…”).
  • an excuse to express pride (“You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”). Herein comes the explanation about Jesus’ command not to judge. In Matthew 7:1-5, he attacks the pride and hypocrisy which so easily replaces genuine rebuke with the unforgettable analogy of a person who tries to help someone remove a speck of dust from their eye, meanwhile ignoring the 2 x 4 sticking out of their own eye. Love and self-righteous condescension are simply incompatible. He maintained the expectation, however, that his disciples would be people who are concerned with helping each other remove the “specks” in each other’s eyes.
  • motivated by anything at all besides love.

Rebuke takes love, and sin, very seriously. It loves the sinner enough to confront sin and hates sin enough to the help the sinner. As paradoxical as it might sound, love of people and hatred of sin go hand in hand.

The Bible gives a reason for rebuke in Hebrews 3:12-13. The reason is that sin is deceitful and hardening. It deceives us so that we do not recognize it for what it is: something evil and abhorrent to God; and hardens us so that we hate it less and less, and depend on it more and more, the longer we fraternize with it. Sin’s deception and the growing unwillingness to change it produces are the reasons Christians need rebuke from each other. Rebuke is designed to open blind eyes and soften hard hearts.

The Bible also provides a method. Jesus describes it in Matthew 18:15-17. First, he says, try to deal with it in private. Hope that the person will respond immediately by rejecting sin and embracing God (i.e., repentance). If not, bring along a trusted friend who will back you up as well place a check on you if your rebuke is unwarranted. If the person rejects them as well, church discipline – which is an important, but different, topic – may be the last step. Paul also gives direction on how to go about rebuke in Galatians 6:1, saying to do it in a spirit of gentleness.

Nearly everything about God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the Christian life, is uncomfortable. This is because we are a sinful race alienated by nature from the ways of God and the path of real love. God is good, though, and is not satisfied with leaving his children comfortable if it means they are deceived, or “happy” if it means they are far from him. We can never know true happiness away from God, anyway. That is why he commands us to rebuke each other, with frequency, urgency, and conviction.

One final question to test the condition of our hearts: are we ready, and eager, to receive rebuke, as well as give it?

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it. Psalm 141:5