Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community
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PREFACE

Setting the Table

Community—Why Bother?

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

—African proverb

One of the consistent metaphors for paradise in every major religion is that of a great banquet. When we gather at the sacramental table of community, we are, in essence, practicing eternity now. So let me set the table for our time together in this book.

This is not an easy book—not in terms of content nor in terms of the nature of the realities being shared. It hasn’t been easy to write. It’s confessional, more about making mistakes than celebrating successes. It’s about the cost of community, not positive spin. In community, there will always be a series of losses, giving something up to gain something more. But in the giving up, we find better versions of ourselves. And that’s not easy either.

So in the face of all that’s hard with community, why bother?

It might be bad theology to suggest that the creation of humanity was predicated as much by God’s love as by God’s loneliness. Maybe somewhere in that thought there’s an echo of an underexplored truth. After all, love, by its nature, is self-giving and needs a subject.

In the face of all that’s hard with community, why bother?

And if there is such a thing as divine loneliness, I imagine our need for relationships is one of those subtle indicators that we actually are made in the image of God. We need friendship. There is a deep longing in each of us for authentic and intimate human relationships. Could it be that we possess a sort of existential hard wiring for community, something that touches us in the most vulnerable parts of our identities and draws the divine out of us?

FAILING IN COMMUNITY

For as long as I can remember, I’ve found myself exploring this complicated part of myself, my yearning to know and be known. I’ve always been in a variety of communities. The most authentic ones are on a continual journey of failing miserably. In those circles of relationships we’ve let one another down and disappointed one another: Many of us haven’t been the kind of friends we hoped we could be to one another. We haven’t always fought fair. We’ve made plenty of mistakes. Sometimes we have given up on one another. But I believe tragic flaws bear unexpected gifts. I trust in the reasons to stay, even though I’ve experienced more than adequate excuses to leave most of the communities I’ve participated in.

I’ve grieved the loss of community members who could have stayed, who maybe should have stayed longer. I’ve lamented the ways in which I contributed to their premature departures and how I continued to fail them in their transitions.

Though some of the most complex community issues do not have clear solutions, the best of communities still work for resolutions that affirm the difficulties they experience. As I’ve stumbled in community, I’ve mostly stumbled forward.

FRAMING THE TENSIONS, STUMBLING INTO SOLUTIONS

The reflections throughout this little book illuminate the rockiest of my paths in community. These chapters illustrate what I’ve learned and am still learning. They are honest and vulnerable pieces of my story—a story that has been written in community and one that continues to be written through community.

These pages testify to the discovery of unlikely gifts when we stay in community—especially when we stay after things get hard.

This is a book about the unexpected gifts of staying in friendships, relationships, and communities. These pages testify to the discovery of unlikely gifts when we stay in community—especially when we stay after things get hard.

The format is simple: I’ve named challenges many communities face and then suggest pathways toward resolution. But here’s the dirty little secret: in community there really are no resolutions, only ambiguous and messy attempts to find our way back to one another. Attempts that, in our humanity, often create new tensions.

Ironically, as much as we yearn for deep friendships and meaningful communities, many of us seem to be unable to find our way into them. Even if we know we’re made for community, finding one and staying there seems almost impossible.

Though we hate to admit it, if we stay long enough in any relationship or set of friendships we will experience failure, doubt, burnout, loneliness, transitions, a loss of self, betrayal, frustration, a sense of entitlement, grief, and weariness.

Yet it’s these painful community experiences, these tensions we struggle to navigate, that hold surprising gifts. And so each chapter of this book introduces one of the tensions listed in the figure below, then offers ways to work toward the resolution.

TENSION

RESOLUTION

Failure

Support

Doubt

Acceptance

Insulation

Absence

Isolation

Inclusion

Transition

Stability

The Unknown Self

Identity

Incompatibility

Boundaries

Betrayal

Friendship

Ingratitude

Celebration

Grief

Contemplation

Restlessness

Faithfulness

It’s these painful community experiences, these tensions we struggle to navigate, that hold surprising gifts.

Of course, the fear of experiencing many of these tensions in our deepest relationships is enough to keep us from giving ourselves to the intimate places of vulnerability in community, but when the risks are high the rewards are more satisfying than we could ever dream of. The very ways we fail one another are the clearest invitations into spaces that affirm our need for one another. If we can experience these challenges as reasons to stay rather than justifications to leave, unexpected and unlikely gifts await us, even in the most trying of relationships.

Stepping into community is far riskier than expected. It’s far worse than you expect it to be. But in the end, it’s far better than you could ever imagine.

We can do this. We can be better. We can do better. We can live better. We can find the courage to rest in ambiguity. Together.

A TALE OF TWO LOOMS

On the south side of Omaha’s Old Market district, just off the 10th Street bridge, sits an unassuming club called the House of Loom. An old, repurposed building, it’s now a place of creativity and beauty, where all are welcome. With a tasteful Victorian aesthetic, the intimate space is framed by old brick walls, dark hardwood floors, vintage ceramic ceiling tiles, and a fireplace hidden in a little library at the back of the building. Local art hangs salon-style on the wall, like a shrine to our city’s creatives. A discerning selection of liquor bottles lines the space behind a long wooden bar, said to be the oldest bar in the state. The dim pendant lighting is enhanced by glowing candlelight.

I first discovered the House of Loom’s charm when my wife, Phileena, and I stopped by after work for a drink. We didn’t leave until the bar closed at 2 a.m. Phileena is normally asleep by 10 or 11 o’clock at night, but the magic in this place kept us out. Old friends kept appearing and new friends kept emerging.

The eclectic mix of patrons was unlike anything I’d experienced—international folks, air force officers, hipsters, young professionals, and plenty of university students. Our dear friends Emily and Noelle, two women in a long-term relationship, spent most of the night standing at the bar with us. We chatted about life and faith. Noelle shared how she’d been kicked out of a Christian college—ironically named “Grace”—because she was in a same-sex relationship. We commiserated, and we listened.

As Phileena and I surveyed the club that night, we were struck by how accepting everyone seemed. Strangers bonded, friends laughed, and diversity was celebrated. People from all walks of life gathered in a shared space and felt free enough to bare their true selves. The House of Loom lives out its name—it’s a place where the social fabric of our city is woven together.

On the drive home late that night, I couldn’t help thinking about the depth of community I’d felt in that place. I witnessed more love in that bar than I see in some churches. Could it be that the House of Loom fosters community more than many Christian houses of worship?

Too many people think of church as an event rather than a community.

Too many people think of church as an event rather than a community. They attend the church that they imagine can best meet their needs, but that expectation often falls flat. When they feel disappointed by the commodity they’ve bought into, they jump ship and look for a new place to worship.

Yet I wondered how much the people we had rubbed shoulders with were committed to the community beyond the club’s hours of operation. They were united around a common cause, perhaps, but how deep was their common commitment? Were patrons dedicated to staying involved if things got complicated? Were they devoted for the long haul? I didn’t know, but based on the openness and acceptance there I suspected that surprising friendships awaited us. I found myself desiring to be more connected to this community.

The House of Loom had provoked a deep curiosity within me.

I’ve spent my life promoting the idea of community—how to create it, how to sustain it. About a half dozen of us started Word Made Flesh twenty years ago to serve Jesus among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. The language of community blanketed us, and we spoke it fluently.

Word got out, and soon people came to join us. But things changed. Those who joined us didn’t know us, and many didn’t stay long. Rather than friends who chose to work together, we became a group of coworkers trying to be friends. Though we were invested in a common cause, we maintained different ideas about what community should look like. Eventually, in some corners of our community, we began to lose our common commitment.

What we realized was that community isn’t the romantic ideal so many believe it to be. It’s difficult.

Community is made of relationships that demand hard work.

Community always comes loaded with expectations and demands.

Every community has its tragic flaws.

True community requires sacrifice.

Today many of the Word Made Flesh communities operate with a covenant process. If someone decides to join the cause, she or he can. All are welcome. But if they decide they want to commit, they enter into a covenant with the community, meaning, in essence, that we will bring the best and worst of ourselves together, that we’ll submit our vocational decision-making processes, and that we’ll remain open to the move of God in our lives as individuals as well as a community.

This small act expresses what we’ve learned—that community is not just a collective of people united around a cause. Rather, it’s a group of people bound by a commitment to one another—and community becomes the loom that weaves them together. A loom that takes all our colors and pieces, fabrics and faults, and interweaves us to create something greater than ourselves. A loom much like the one I found in a small Romanian valley.

THE LOOM IN THE VALLEY

Galai, Romania, is the quintessential European industrial city. The Danube River slices through the urban steel factories that churn dark smoke into the air. Dull architecture of gray concrete matches the overcast winter skies. Galai’s blue-collar citizens walk to and from work, keeping to themselves as they go.

Buried within the city is a small valley inhabited predominantly by Roma. The residents here face poverty daily, and adolescents fill the streets. The children, most of whom can’t afford to attend school, are headed to the Word Made Flesh community center, Centrul Comunitar “La Vale” (The Community Center in the Valley). There children participate in literacy classes, computer training, counseling, and art therapy. They receive hot meals before playing a pickup game of basketball, a favorite pastime of the young girls and boys who are reclaiming their plundered childhoods (many of them were sent to work when as young as six or seven years old).

A chapel sits quietly at the edge of the center. Though modest and unspectacular on the outside, the interior is a place of mystery and miracles. Our community members use the space as a contemplative retreat away from the chaos of the city. Each morning they begin the day with liturgy. From time to time, covenant ceremonies are held in the chapel. Nine icons adorn the walls, each representing one of our community’s Lifestyle Celebrations, or marks of intentional spirituality (including, among others, commitment to mutual submission, personal brokenness, and an acceptance of suffering).

And then there’s the loom.

Part of the morning liturgy includes praying for other international communities serving among those in need. In an effort to bring texture to the prayer time, community members built the loom to weave a prayer rug, which took nearly two years to complete. The rug now sits in the center of the chapel as a reminder of unity. One community member commented that the rug should be placed in the center as a “reminder of the centrality of Christ and those who are poor whom he weaves into his life in the center with him.”

In their morning sessions, seated around the rug, they pray for mercy for our friends in poverty. Once a week, they take scraps of cloth they have collected from friends in our various international communities and weave those pieces of fabric into the rug. Each piece of fabric is a prayer, a reminder of friendship and community. The rug is always being created, never finished.

Today the loom is a symbol of hope, an image of unity. It’s a metaphor of what is required to build and hold a collective of people together: useful only as long as it creates something more beautiful than its individual parts.

In community we join together lives that are bursting with promise and potential but that are also marked by grief and sorrow. We exist as individual strands of a larger narrative. When our lives are woven together with others’, something new emerges—rich in texture, vibrant, and transcendent. The diversity and richness that arise out of being bound up with others produces a holy space. It invites God to meet with us and among us.

When our lives are woven together with others’, something new emerges—rich in texture, vibrant, and transcendent.

Whenever our international communities gather, we engage in the practice of storytelling. We break up into groups of four to six people from different parts of the world and share the stories of our individual journeys. We refer to these small groups as “loom clusters.” Each time we gather in this way, we’re surprised to find unexpected connections between such different and unique individuals. People who have never met before uncover common experiences, mutual friendships, and similar reasons for choosing their vocations. We call these points of commonality “knots” because they tie the threads of our lives together. When we walk away from this practice of storytelling, we are always more confident that we’ve been woven together by grace.

My mind wanders back to the rug at the chapel in Romania, and a truth arrests me. Just as the threads of the rug are bound together, so the individual members of a community are joined. To separate the threads of the rug, one would need to tear the rug apart and dismantle a composition of beauty.

So it is with community.

The contrast between Omaha’s House of Loom and the loom in Romania is nuanced. In the former, we find good and true echoes of community: celebration, joy, acceptance, and diversity. The latter offers the same echoes but roots itself in shared space, lives, and spiritual practices.

Grabbing a drink with friends on the weekend nudges us toward our deeper longings for connection, but if we gather only to forget the week behind us, it’s hollow. Likewise, serving and praying together without taking time to celebrate leave us longing. It’s not a case of either/or. It’s both. We need the echoes and the substance.

Together.

GRAVE STRUGGLES, GREAT GIFTS

Growing up in Omaha, a firstborn child and consummate overachiever, I thought I’d be a fireman. Or a priest. Or a pet store owner.

I never imagined that I’d have to bury children I’d helped name. I could not have envisioned that among my dearest friends would be women who had been trafficked into the commercial sex trade or forced to work in sweatshops for companies like the Gap. I never dreamed that my inner circle of closest friends would include Muslims and Hindus. Though I celebrate my home and love my neighborhood, much of my life has moved far away from Omaha.

On Sunday afternoons during childhood, my parents would take us to our grandparents’ house, where we would play street football with neighborhood children. None of us knew one another, but we recognized one another and that was enough. The familiarity and openness between strangers were inviting. My grandparents lived in their house for more than fifty years, and my grandfather had one job spanning the time from when he returned from World War II until his retirement. Life seemed simpler, and the predictability of that life made me feel safe.

Children saturated the subdivision where I grew up, reminiscent of the setting for the classic film The Sandlot. Following school each day, we’d climb a fence and tumble into the backyard of whoever was hosting the daily Wiffle ball, kickball, or soccer match. We’d pick teams, roll up the sleeves of our dingy jersey T-shirts, and play till just after dusk, when we could no longer see a tennis ball thrown over home plate. The diversity of the kids I grew up with seemed to diminish with time—as I aged, my schools, churches, and social circles grew more homogenized.

In high school I cultivated quite a few deep friendships, many that have lasted into my adulthood. So by the time I arrived at Asbury University in Kentucky, I missed my hometown friends. I recognized my longing for community, though I had little idea what the word actually meant. At that point in my life, community was defined by friendships.

It wasn’t long before I made new friends. My six closest college friends and I did everything together, and we ended up calling ourselves “The Brotherhood.” My roommate and I were two Nebraska boys, but we found ourselves bound to a blue-collar football player from Ohio, a pensive and talented artist, two country boys from the swamps of Mississippi, and a philosophical missionary kid who had grown up in Taiwan. We discovered that what we had in common was more substantial than what made us different.

What we have in common is more substantial than what makes us different.

We traveled to the beach on spring break, as well as a few other times that weren’t exactly recognized as “breaks” by the university. We prayed together, shared most meals together, and made memories around campfires. A couple of the guys wrote songs about our friendship that became anthems for our little community.

We shared our frustrations with one another, fought when we were angry. But we always drew back together because we had decided to stick with one another through the good times and the bad. One rainy night in my dorm room, we sat on the floor around a candle with safety pins and a jar of calligraphy India ink. We made a commitment in friendship and community to one another and marked it by cutting a tattoo into each of our ankles.

At the time, I never would have sat down and analyzed our friendships, but now I recognize that I was already awakening to the realities of true community. I realized the need for both joy and sorrow, for a common spirit and an obligation to stay. Those moments formed the foundation of the work I’ve done since graduating.

Years later, I’ve found myself serving within a collective of contemplative activists called and committed to serving Christ among people in poverty. Our communities exist all over the world where we bear witness to hope—or at least the possibility of hope—that a good God exists in a world that has legitimate reasons to question God’s goodness.

In some of the poorest megacities around the globe, we have set up drop-in centers and day centers for youth who live on the streets, in sewers, or in slums. We have established small businesses to offer alternatives to the commercial sex industry in some of the world’s most notorious red-light areas. Our communities have opened children’s homes, hospices, and a variety of advocacy-related programs that are locally owned and usually initiated at the grassroots level.

Weaving lives together in a community is hard, especially when you’re planted in places like these. Our communities have wept over the premature deaths of friends, we’ve grieved over the atrocities we’ve witnessed. But we’ve done so together. Against the loom of community, the collective shares the pains of the individual.

THE UNTOUCHED ELEMENTS

Our community in Romania consists of a wide array of Christian faith traditions: Baptist, Pentecostal, and Orthodox. They live together like a laboratory experiment for Christ-centered, ecumenical community. A large black crucifix marks Christ as the center for all in the middle of the Romanian chapel. It is constructed of pieces of discarded scrap metal and other bits of industrial litter found scattered throughout the neighborhood. Below the cross sits an altar. During the community’s liturgical ceremonies, the elements of Eucharist, the traditional Christian communion, are placed upon the altar. Yet they remain untouched—the bread never eaten, the wine never consumed. They abide as a symbol of lament, a sign of grief, a reminder of broken unity.

Since Orthodox and Protestant Christians have different doctrinal commitments regarding the Eucharist, the community is unable to share this meal together. The Orthodox priest doesn’t allow our Orthodox community members to participate in liturgical services and prayer practices with Protestants. And the Protestants are prohibited from taking communion since none of the staff is ordained and therefore permitted to preside. At the communion table in the chapel in Galai, what should be the image of Christian unity has become a lament of brokenness.

It’s in facing and walking together in the struggles that we find the greatest gifts.

But the loom calls us back together.

Though we exist as individuals, each imbued with our own unique identities and expressions of faith, the loom reminds us that we’re bound together, committed to a common life. Our grief over our broken unity mingles with joy over our collective bond. From morning prayer times to evening ceremonies, the loom whispers a reminder that we are more significant together than we would be on our own.

This, then, is the “Why bother?” of community. This is what moves and motivates us to endure the inescapable struggles in community. Struggles that you will face, too, as your time in community grows.

But remember, it’s in facing and walking together in the struggles that we find the greatest gifts. And although resolution may not come easily—or, sometimes, at all—it is worth it.
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