What I'm Learning in Christian Community

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com·mu·ni·ty /kəˈmyo͞onədē/ noun

  1. a group of people living together in one place, especially one practicing common ownership: "a community of nuns" synonyms: brotherhood, sisterhood, fraternity, confraternity, sorority

  2. a particular area or place considered together with its inhabitants: "a rural community" synonyms: district, region, zone, area, local area

  3. the people of a district or country considered collectively, especially in the context of social values and responsibilities; society: "preparing prisoners for life back in the community" synonyms: population, populace, people, citizenry, public

  4. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals:"the sense of community that organized religion can provide"

  5. a similarity or identity: "writers who shared a community of interests" synonyms: similarity, similar nature, likeness, sameness, comparability

  6. joint ownership or liability: "a commitment to the community of goods" synonyms: joint ownership, common ownership, shared possession, joint liability, joint participation

  7. a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat: "communities of insectivorous birds"

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I woke up the other day aware of the gift of community. I looked around and felt provided for, cared for and part of something bigger than myself. While reflecting on my moments of weakness in the days gone by, I became aware of how I’d experienced Christ in those around me. I noticed Jesus in the way they responded to me. As I sit today, unable to do much else in my body’s current state of viral infection, I let these things percolate. I’m becoming aware in the “too good to be true” moments, where the script on repeat of “I am misunderstood” is being bashed on the head. The fact that someone remembered details about my life as if they’ve actually been listening to me talk feels like a dream. The fact that a friend biked to my house to bring me love-made ham soup without the things I’m allergic to shoved the lies of “not being worth it” out of the way. All this gold feels like boots my community wear that crush serpents heads beneath the feet of Christ through the words and actions of those I’m doing life with.

At the same time, I’m all too familiar with the swirl of thoughts that disconnect me. My mind sometimes gets flooded with “they don’t actually love me” and questions like “why do I not belong” and “why does everyone hate me” (yes, it sometimes really gets that extreme.) When the tornado hits, I find the facts I need to validate my emotions. I turn to social media and feel the weight of being on the outside more than what’s even real. I feel like keeping it at my and Jesus. Pursue connection with any of these dang people who just keep hurting me? No thanks!

By the grace of God, I choose not to isolate in the name of Jesus. Increasingly I’m choosing to believe and enact upon my need for people in the lie storm. I’m growing custom to confrontation and confession. I usually confess to the Lord in private first, but rarely these days is that enough. Confession with my mouth heard by the ears of a brother actually precedes repentance (James 5:16, Matthew 10:32.)

It seems that in that honest, raw and human state that I counterintuitively breakthrough the cloudy swirl and experience community in all its beauty. When I have nothing left in the ideal department to offer, when people get to see what’s beneath the Instagram tiles, and calculated word selection, I experience connection.

All this makes me wonder about the word “community.” It makes me believe it’s more meaningful than getting my needs met and having friends.

Twenty two years ago I was about to be born. If my “baby book” is any proof, I’ve had people that loved me and cared for me from the start. Since before I was breathing polluted air, people celebrated my heartbeat, and before I could offer them anything, they appreciated me. Still I so often felt alone, and sometimes still do. Why? I’m pretty convinced of the enemy’s strategy, seeking to destroy Christian community, probably more stealthily than lots of other things. After all, if people feel alone, there’s a suddenly infinite possibility for more torment galore. Seems like a logical place to start attacking… too bad for him that we figured it out.

Most of my understanding of community has taken shape in the past two years since starting to attend a new Church. Beyond the building, it’s been a place that’s housed gifts of truth-telling relationships. It’s provided space for me to reflect on my experiences of community growing up and how they’ve been impacting my capacity to engage with a new one.

My concept of community isn’t always accurate and my expectations of the people around me can be unrealistic or inappropriate. I’m learning that as a member of something bigger than myself, I need people. I’m experiencing the tangible and sacramental reality of being loved by God as I’m letting others love me.

To “rely on God” or to know “God as provider” or even “God as Father” or “friend” often means to rely on people, let people provide for you, and let people parent you and be your friend.

I’ve been surprised by how God makes it known to me that He sees me and knows my needs through others. He is big enough to nudge someone in my community to text me at the perfect time to build me up in my broken state without me telling them a word. He is good enough to remember my strongest childhood desire from years past, being a big sister, and satisfying it in the perfect season through the gift of investing in youth I can pick up from school and be a sister to.

Regardless of who I do life with in the future, I’ll always choose to be humbled in community - so help me Lord - because of what I’ve learned in living it out here. When it feels nicer and safer to stay in my claims of knowing what’s good, I intent to commit to choosing surrender and facing relationships. As painful as it can be, it’s also exponentially more rewarding than the other options.

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A community of humans isn’t everything, but communion with God is. He created us to host His presence, however, so we cannot escape the reality of communing with God through life with others, Christian or not, extroverts or not.

If we are His body, that means to depend on Him means to depend on each other. A teacher once said it like this: “you cannot behead Jesus, put the head in a sac and be OK with having a little head in a bag with you in your room all the time.” (I’m paraphrasing)

In Christ, there’s more than just a “sense of community that organized religion can provide.” One of the online sourced definitions alluded to community being classified as a feeling. I disagree. It describes community as a sense of fellowship with others that flows from the reality of "sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” I think yes, that’s an element of Christian community. But at large it is more of a choice. Love is a choice. And community is bound together by Love. It isn’t a feeling of fellowship. It’s a choice to be in fellowship. The more we choose though, the more we will feel. It’s part of this mystical reality of being united with Christ. We share a similar nature with each other as image bearers, and we are drawn to Christ in each other (whether we can articulate or not.) Christianity is the only way of life that I’m aware of that consists of people being bonded together because of the same victory Jesus won once and for all, yet it looks so vastly different in each person’s story. This “common interest” is beyond sharing key verses as foundation for identity. It’s an unseen reality of Heaven that infuses each mind’s each day with new mercy. It’s a kind of supernatural experience too deep for words.

I’m convinced that true community can only be consistently experienced by those who are living together in one place. That’s why your first community is your family. That’s why people who don’t heal their hearts from inevitable family wounds have issues in community, probably even issues even getting through this blog post! Genuine community requires of each man a deep vulnerability. Where there is vulnerability there is pain. If the wounds are left untouched, a distorted understanding of the Father, distorted relationship to Church, and distorted capacity to live in community is likely.

In a more mysterious way, the proximity factor is also why through Christ it’s possible to survive in times of transition or solitude. Because God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit abide together in one place, because they are mystically united, and I am too united to them in Christ, I can access community always.

Because community is also commonly defined by a particular area, region or zone, you cannot choose it. Sure, you can choose to live wherever the heck you want. But you can’t choose who else has chosen to live there. It’s probably quite rare that people move houses just because they have don’t like their neighbours.

The Lord has more than likely destined you to be where you are right now geographically. Most importantly He’s destined you to abide with Him first and then to exist in a particular country, province, region, city, area, neighbourhood, street, home, for a reason. It’s not a mistake that you are where you are. It’s in the passing by conversations that we have opportunity to bear each other’s burdens with authenticity and grace.

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To begin experiencing the gifts of community, begin taking ownership for it. You can’t expect people to do it for you. As much as community is a gift by which we benefit, a people from whom we receive, it requires from the individual a positioning themselves outside of their comfort zone. It requires them to step out of hiding and into the light. Passivity in community is sad to see. I notice such a hunger in the hearts of those crying out for the nourishment that only human connection can bring. Like the one definition says, community is a “commitment” and requires “ownership or liability.” It compares community to “joint or common ownership,” to “shared possession.”

We must take ownership over how we relate to community, and participate in the ownership of the Church body (and sacramentally the building) itself. We are all part of it. For example, I felt like no one would care about changing the toxic chemicals in the infant’s nursery to ones that won’t slowly kill their health. I spent a year trying to perfect my letter to the elders. Then I realized the most helpful thing for me to do is to be me, and act on the way I see the world in this context. Because my perspective is a gift to the body and to assume others will adopt my perspective is far less effective than just buying the non-toxic cleaners and putting them where they’ll be used. It was much easier to spend 100 bucks than to pout about my inability to craft the ideal budget for new supplies, all the while hoping someone else will deal with it. I claim ownership as a cell in the body and believe that my perspective matters.

When I first moved to Lethbridge, Alberta and started doing life with this new Church, I didn’t just expect that people would offer to drive me to family dinners and community events, I walked 1.5 hours to get there with two frozen pizzas in a bag over my shoulder, and entered strangers’ homes uncomfortably. I’m not saying I’m perfect at this. But I have discovered the secret to crushing loneliness: showing up. I encourage you to do the same. If you want to be part of a community group, don’t wait for a community group to start, or expect people to invite you. Start your own. Invite other people. Or at least invite yourself to something! Position yourselves to be in the light. Not the limelight, but the Light of Truth. The Light of Life. Come out of hiding. God is Light. I’ve recently been choosing not to escape my feelings when I feel like I don’t belong. Instead, I call it what it is, and remain in a posture of connection, even when I don’t feel like it.

Church, it will sometimes feel like you don’t belong. The enemy’s working to amplify our speculations and cause perceived offence. The reality is, where there’s humans you will even be offended by people! But no one else can claim your responsibility to live comfortably in that tension.

Your individuality matters, don’t let that be taken away from you. A healthy community will be made of healthy individuals who have a healthy perspective about themselves. There was a time that I could not give myself to community. I didn’t know who I was yet defensively said I did. It wasn’t until admitting my not knowing that I found life in connection. Individuals in a healthy community can depend on one another, but are not co-dependent. They can receive offers of “the drinks on me” and even ask that someone cover their bill when in need. But they need not expect this from any particular person. One definition for community was “a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat.” We are independent, but we are interdependent. Our individuality depends on our reliance to each other. We need to come to the end of ourselves and recognize our need for love from a brother. We need to allow others to be themselves. That’s the way it works. Each cell plays a specific part in a specific system. Each system in the body must live in harmony with it’s members in order to contribute healthily to the body at large.

Where we have that, let us celebrate. Where we don’t, let us pray, and act.

Where we are convinced we are good with “Jesus’ head in a sac",” purge us of our pride.

Where we are too preoccupied with the humanity of community, draw us back to Your heart.

Where we are longing for connection but unwilling to participate, forgive us.

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I have been blessed to have people who have given me what they have received. And likely so have you. Both spiritually and physically, our needs are met and gifts are given. The blessing of family! We have blood-line ancestors and forefathers of faith who fought for things that we don’t have to. We can receive an inheritance from Christ through our parents and older siblings (both blood and spiritual) in faith. Their breakthrough will rarely be our struggle. Their ceiling will commonly be our floor.

The book of Acts paints a beautiful picture for Life Together. As does Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“Human love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false for the sake of genuine fellowship, and human love cannot love an enemy, that is, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it… Life or death of a Christian community is determined by whether it achieves sober wisdom on this point as soon as possible.”

There is a distinction made between human love and spiritual love.

Human love is fine. But it only goes so far, and then it hits a wall. We direct and project all our needs onto others and commit to the quest of finding what we want out of relationships. We play within our safe zones, guarding our means of control. We rule over our own relationships, and pick and choose to do life with people who are like us. We withdraw from those relationships that cause new pain, that tap on old wounds, or don’t consistently give us the benefits we’re after. In human love we live “by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires” and results in rigidity that could never breed the healthy fruit we crave.

Spiritual love on the other hand does bear that healthy fruit. Part of the package is the pruning process. It moves past polite and tells the truth. It is love for the sake of Christ. It is divine and has no fear of missing out on benefits, but rather honouring one another. Spiritual love “lives in the clear light of service” and it is “ordered by truth.” It is committed regardless of what it feels like because it is for the glory of God.

Bonhoeffer, the one who writes of this contrast, communicates the central idea in comparing these two types as the Church being the fellowship of Christ, by Christ and for Christ. He touches on the lifelessness and eventual death that will happen when community is viewed as merely an association of people with a common purpose. He shows that human love and actions are related to a desire for human community, but Christian love, spiritual love, comes from Christ. He unpacks the truth of Christ standing between me and others, and displays why that liberates us to be authentically ourselves and draw the same out of others.

I’m finding within myself that there is a dissonance between these loves. One feels genuine and the other a counterfeit. It feels uncommon, even in churches, to witness such genuine love. It feels like we bow to this fear-mongering “safety” net and miss out on the beauty and benefits of true Christian brotherhood, sisterhood.

It seems to also rub people wrongly or stir up a fight or a flight. It’s why a man who’s never been to church can come into a service and be inexplainably uncomfortable at the sight of genuine affection between two straight, married, men. It’s why it’s culturally abnormal to see a pure and undefiled cross-gendered 20-year-age gap friendship. It’s why people think it’s strange that I willingly spend time with 12 year olds and genuinely enjoy (most) moments.

Because both loves take up space inside of me (and I allow them to) I have an awareness of this mysterious thing called authentic Christian community. Because I’m growing and giving myself to community, the good, the bad and most often the ugly, I’m being strengthened to choose spiritual love above human love.

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