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.

just enough loneliness

What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear — Dag Hammarskjöld

The second chapter of Genesis teaches that at the core of our make-up is a need for human relationships and the sharing of selves: “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” But then, the third chapter of Genesis teaches that one of the most devastating consequences of humanity’s alienation from God is our alienation from each other: “they knew that they were naked so they made coverings for themselves.” One of the implications of this relational alienation is that loneliness, to one degree or another, is our new normal.

In myriad ways, modern society aggravates this post-Fall loneliness, in our atomized living arrangements, our solitary commutes to work, our screens, our cultural divisions, our lack of shared spaces, the list goes on. Some groups are especially vulnerable—singles, old people, and gay men, for example—but no one is immune.

Too much loneliness can drive you into a deep, depressive hole. It’s physically unhealthy, as bad as chain-smoking or obesity. Measured against God’s design, it’s also deeply unnatural for no one else to know about the hopes and fears rattling around in your mind every day, and for your meals to be consistently accompanied by screens and not faces. Too much loneliness can literally take the life out of you.

There’s something more to be said, though, because it turns out that just enough loneliness can move us towards new ways of connecting with others that we may not have otherwise explored. When leveraged well, just enough loneliness can push us out of our vortex of self-centeredness, towards empathy and service.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that it’s easier for unmarried people to serve God wholeheartedly because they don’t have to divide their attention between what God wants and what their spouse wants. Perhaps we could also say that it’s easier for lonely people—those with more unscheduled time and greater openness to new relationships—to serve others devotedly. To say it another way, having a happy family to come home to every night provides innumerable benefits, but it also provides the spiritual dangers of complacency and indifference to the world’s pain. Just enough loneliness can push us out of ourselves, out of our living rooms, into the lives of other lonely people who need to be reconciled to God, and who need the gift of human company.

If you experience loneliness, try not to waste it. Use it well, in order to better understand the sufferings and shortcomings of others, and to serve others without needing to impress anyone. Don’t share your meal with a screen if you can share it with a neighbor.

To Christians who are single and celibate, whether as a temporary season or as a long-term vocation, this idea is especially poignant. To me it feels both painful and encouraging to think that God can use our loneliness to help us become better servants and lovers of our neighbors. I would love to say that empathy and service take away that loneliness, and that you’ll find the kind of relational connection you’re longing for among “the least of these.” But the truth is that they often don’t, and that you probably won’t, because service means giving of yourself without looking for repayment. What you will find, though, is God’s blessing (Luke 14:13-14). In that blessing there is a deep, sober joy.

I think of Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who fell in love with men various times over the course of his life and yet fulfilled his vows. Only his closest friends knew of his homosexuality. He spent the last decade of his life living and working among the mentally ill, and writing about the spiritual life. His loneliness was painful, yet it was that loneliness which drove him to a radical level of service, and to a profound depth of insight into the love of God. Both in spite of and because of his loneliness he was well-acquainted with the blessing of his Father and the joy therein.

More than anyone, I think of Jesus: the only righteous one in a world of sinners, the only one who loved God in a world of idolaters, the only one who saw the truth in a world of blind guides. He understood even their thoughts, and yet no one understood him. Who has known loneliness like the Son of God among men? Yet by his wounds we are healed—and by his loneliness we are known, accepted, received, and beloved. May we learn something about loneliness, and love, from him.