The Ethos of Community

Renewal takes a tribe, or in modern day terms, a community. Now this is another a loaded word! The first question that comes to mind when I hear the word community is, “What in the world do you mean when you say ‘community’?” Everyone has a different idea of what it is, and for every idea of what community is, there are hundreds of different ways that each idea could be lived out.

So I am not going to give my opinion of what community is supposed to look like; that task is impossible because of all the various contexts and cultures that exist. What I hope to do though, is to paint a mental ethos of community and lay a foundation of some of the earmarks of healthy communities.

Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher turned theologian, in 1964 founded a community called L’Arche in France. L’Arche communities are intentional places of living where those with intellectual disabilities are able to have a safe place to live and share life with others who have intellectual disabilities as well as those who do not.

A core ethos of L’Arche communities is for each community to display the “reality that persons with intellectual disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship.” They desire to explicitly display “the dignity of every human being by building inclusive communities of faith and friendship where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.” (see http://www.larcheusa.org/)

So as to not reinvent the wheel, I want to use the inherent qualities of L’Arche values as a means to lay a foundation or a framework for healthy communities, which I believe is a vital element of church renewal.

Welcome: an instance or manner of greeting someone with pleasure and approval.

Greeting someone with love and warmth is an acquired gift, especially when we’re greeting someone who is radically different than we are, and possibly offensive in the way they live. Community takes a welcoming spirit, or maybe as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, a spirit of hospitality. I was a Young Life leader for over a decade, and I have been associated with Young Life at an intimate level since 1994.

Young Life leaders (at least in my area in Phoenix) are some of the best “welcomers” I know. The spirit that Young Life exudes to kids in jr. and sr. high is one that is opposite of our everyday culture. Mainstream culture (Christian and non-Christian) typically says, “You can belong to our group once you behave a certain way and believe what we believe.” Young Life flips that cultural script and says, “You belong with us regardless of your behavior and beliefs.” This is risky business, but I believe it’s the right kind of business to be about.

For community to work and be healthy, it must start with a welcoming spirit that says, “You belong here, even though there are big differences between us.” Belonging precedes behavior and belief. This world view is at the heart of community.

Wonderment: a state of awed admiration or respect.

In the Christian, Judaic, and Sufi Islam world views, all humans have inherent value and worth because of the belief that we are all created in God’s image, which was later coined in it’s Latin form as the “Imago Dei.” If this doctrine were to be properly understood and fully believed, self-righteousness, biases, judgements, and racism would eventually fade away, and we will begin celebrating the beauty of our differences, rather than fighting about them.

Being thrilled about the gifts we bring to one another and respecting and valuing the differences of ourselves and other people is an essential element of healthy community. It is easy for us to be in a state of judgement and criticalness of each other, but to begin to be awed and amazed at the uniqueness and diversity of humanity is a part of every thriving community.

Wonderment ought to follow welcoming, yet this is a virtue that is mostly only attained after the church is caught up into the heavenly dimensions of the eucharistic life, which is the regaining of the mystery and the divine nature of the Lord’s table, and learning to see all of life as a liturgy of worship to God.

Spirituality: matters concerning the human soul (heart, mind).

To respect and admire someone and not care about the deeper parts of their heart and mind (the soul), are to not fully love and respect someone. As much as we can talk about being a community of welcoming and wonderment, we must not neglect being a community who cares for souls. With that said, welcoming people and finding wonder in our diversity is not an invitation to turn a blind eye to unhealthy living and destructive behavior. Much abuse is birthed inside the middle of tight knit communities, as the desire of a euphoric community becomes more important than individual human dignity.

In caring for the spirituality of a person and a community, we will be able to explore the deep parts of our hearts and minds and be changed in the midst of a welcoming community of wonder. It is in this context where behaviors are not coerced to get in proper formation, but challenged to promote peace and welfare for the individual and the whole. Caring for someone’s healing (body and soul) begins to be a natural corrective part of healthy communities, which will be able to offer space to those who need it. This type of community will respect boundaries, honors bodies and souls, and have self-respect and sincerity towards others.

Healthy communities labor towards minds being renewed, which leads to destructive habits and thoughts being challenged in love, and proper accountability that seeks the welfare of individual bodies and souls, as well as the corporate body. This might be the hardest value to embody in community, but we must labor towards this end, as spiritual realities always affect material realities.

As one is continually drawn into the presence of God on earth, it is clear to see that there is a spirit at work in this world other than the Spirit of God. It is a dark spirit that seeks to destroy body and soul (individually and communally). It hates diversity and destroys all creativity in community. It is a perverted spirit that seeks to twist and distort love, and it only has the the power to usurp, not to build up. This must be recognized in the spirit realm and addressed in community as the spirituality of individuals and the community is shaped.

Friendship: a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.

There are many forms of friendship that we could talk about, but at the most basic level, I take friendship to be a place where relationships are rooted, meaning, they do not run away after conflict and disappointments ensue. In our culture, where cars can take us far away from our neighborhoods and friendships, we have lost the sense of being rooted, and “sticking it out” with friends when trials come has not been a popular communal value among many believers.

In the local church context, it is easy with the advent of cars to find a new church community when friends and leaders stop giving us what we want, or stop serving our needs, seen only through the lens of what’s best for me. Friendship inside neighborhoods and communities seem to be difficult as well, since walking to stores and appointments isn’t part of our everyday culture. We get into our hollow metal shells and drive past neighbors daily, and most of our friends live a cars drive away.

A lack of rootedness in a particular place has made many friendships a shallow, social media type friendship that can cut you off if you offend, rather than a friendship that stays when things blow up. Friendship in healthy communities ought to include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, selflessness, mutual submission, compassion, confrontation, and the ability to royally “blow it” without losing the friendship. Friendships give, receive, and protect.

A lack of friendship may just kill community. When we love the idea of community more than we love people and desire true friendship, community will not thrive. Many seek community because of the good feeling they have in the beginning and the comforts than can be experienced. But for those who love the idea of community more than people, they will quickly run from community when the aura or people within the community stop offering what was desired. Love people more than your idea of community.

I believe church renewal depends on healthy expressions of communities in particular places and neighborhoods. I believe church renewal is dependent on new forms of community rising up being called “the church”. I believe church renewal will birth many forms of organic communities that embody the L’Arche values of community, that break bread together, regularly meet and gather and care for each other’s bodies and souls, and are a place of intimacy within the eucharistic life.

This is how fabrics of care can be created inside blighted hoods or disconnected suburbs, as neighbors form communities to band together to care for one another and for the needs of the under-served. Renewal happens holistically and organically, and until people know that there is a community to belong to, programs and organizations will not be able to have a sustainable impact.

I believe many Christ followers today are experiencing a “disorienting” call to step out of their current church expression and into something much more authentic and mysterious. And within this disorienting call, many of us struggle because we know of no other way to “do” or “be” church besides the modern, institutional approach. In addition, new believers are not embracing the formal way of “doing” church because in many ways it conflicts with their values, and they too are being called into something much more authentic and mysterious. I believe that new expressions of these types of ancient communities will lead the way in church renewal in the 21st century, as families, homes, businesses, and cities of those desiring to regain the life of the kingdom are transformed, and organic expressions of church communities become more of a norm.

I’m thankful for communities such as L’Arche, and leaders such as Jean Vanier, who have humbly and lovingly stepped out of the norm and allowed new forms of community to critique our old forms, and energize us to regain a new/old and prophetic way to live together.

When Dreams Are Fading

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Switchfoot has a song called “Sooner or Later (Søren’s Song)”, which is more or less a prayer of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813 – November 11, 1855), who was a nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian. Much of Søren’s work and thoughts were criticized while he was alive, but after he passed, many people realized his contribution to the break down of rationalism that was overtaking the institutional church of his day.

It seems to me that much of Søren’s work desired to bring together the spiritual and material realms, as the Christian “religion” had pitted the “material” against the “spiritual”, which had deprived the material life (eating, drinking, pleasure, etc.) of having any meaning or value. In other words, the good Christian was boring and unable to enjoy the better parts of God’s material world. Friedrich Nietzsche’s keen but sad critique of Christians of his day was that their religion made them boring.

This is where the lyrics of this song come in. Søren longed for more and was honest about his struggle with faith. I struggle with faith, the boring and taxing parts of it. The suffering for doing good, and the regret of my actions. The loss of a reality that movies told me life was like when I was a child. The let down that Christendom handed me when I entered adulthood and the formula for joy was a disappointment. The struggle is everywhere and the desire to hold on to hope is relentless for those who are willing to be honest.

Søren wanted more than a rational understanding of faith, and so do I. He longed for an experience of faith, of God; a faith that haunted him, met him in the mundane every day, followed him, swallowed him, consumed him; so do I. I’m convinced that anything less than the divine invading the material realm in every part of life will lead to a major disappointment in any spiritual journey. Here’s the lyrics to this Switchfoot song from the album, New Way to be Human (1999):

“Sooner Or Later (Søren’s Song)”

Come back and haunt me
Follow me home
Give me a motive
Swallow me whole

They say I’ve lost it
What could I know
When I’m but a mockery?
I’m so alone

Sooner or later you’ll find out
There’s a hole in the wall

Today is ours
Condemned to be free
Free to keep breathing
Free to believe

I look to find you
Down on my knees
Oh God, I believe!
Please help me believe

Sooner or later they’ll find out
There’s a hole in the wall
Sooner or later you’ll find out
That you’ll dream to be that small

I’m a believer, help me believe

I gave it all away and lost who I am
I threw it all away
With everything to gain
And I’m taking the leap
With dreams of shrinking
Yeah, dreams of shrinking

There’s much to leave open ended about this song and I do not want to draw too many conclusions, but one I must is that this longing to experience God for Søren, I believe, was a desire to enter into the presence of God in a different dimension than what was offered to him through the “religion” of Christianity.

That “hole in the wall” metaphorically refers to an entrance, an invitation if you will, into the dimension where a Kingdom utterly different than ours exists. And the entrance is small, so small that we have to shrink, become lowly, humble enough to receive a new set of lenses and senses, new wine skins if you will, to see and experience the God of this universe.

Søren’s prayer was honest, much like the father of the epileptic son in Mark 9, who believed, yet asked Jesus to help him in his unbelief. Jesus invited the father to enter into a new dimension of faith, faith that would redeem a broken part of his material realm, but for some, only to leave that person once again wanting more because life breaks down.

The material realm is so wonderful in so many ways, until it breaks down. Betrayal. Loss. Pain. Abuse. Neglect. Anger. Bitterness. Failure. Broken dreams. Broken bodies. At that point, we long to separate from the material either from our religion of choice, or through other false stories of salvation such as various chemicals or sex.

So we begin to live in this dualism. We love the material realm until it breaks down, and then we long to be in another realm, spiritually or imaginatively. We need the God of this universe to penetrate our material reality in every way so that our dual understanding of life and faith is shattered and we begin to embrace that every moment is a sacrament waiting to be noticed, not necessarily celebrated all the time, but noticed.

This is the beginning of experiencing God in a new dimension. This is the beginning of becoming small enough to enter the hole in the wall, to walk in to the real realm that is fully divine and spiritual, and fully material and fully good. This is the beginning of rightly understanding pain and loss, and joyfully receiving good meals and drinks with friends. This is the beginning of not giving up when life is unbearable and has broken you down. This is the beginning of learning to have fun and laugh and to have extended time of silence that heals and restores.

This is the beginning of experiencing the life of life, who is God, revealed to us through Jesus, the suffering servant who grew in stature and favor with God and man. This is the beginning of receiving the whole gospel that says God will never abandon you, and will relentlessly act in such a way for you to truly know him and hunger for him more than anything else. The life that God offers is his Son, the light that has always shone, not from the beauty into the dark, but out of the darkness pointing towards the beauty; reconciliation with God through faith in the Son who sines light out of darkness.

So today, I cry out with Søren for the faith to believe and to experience the light and life of God, and for it to shine with all of it’s brightness into my dark life, into this dark world, so that on the days of hopelessness, myself and many others may not abandon post and cause more pain to others and ourselves on this journey to the heavenly realm that will be our reality here on earth one day.

If this light in not true and is not experienced in our material world, then to what are we witnesses of? What have we to offer if we have not seen and touched with our hands? Where will we call others who are hopeless to? What can we offer?

Come back and haunt me. Follow me home. Give me a motive. Swallow me whole. Make of me a living liturgy that encounters the Eucharist today. Let me touch your body. the hands that were wounded with holes. Let me see and taste of your blood that was spilled in the darkness so that light would be shone for all. Give us something to truly be a witness of in the midst of despair.