Beautiful Community: Rhythms of life together.


Last week I wrote about the expectations surrounding community and how to adjust them to be more accepting of what living alongside other people actually entails, how to cultivate an inner acceptance. 

Today I want to talk about the next thing to make community work well, an outer bit of practicality that has everything to do with putting things in the correct order. I think this is one of the easiest things to fumble over. I know we have, many times. 

To have a healthy community, you need to ask and answer questions on a regular basis and come up with community rhythms that help and challenge everyone.

There is a set of questions that I've sketched out, to help with finding out where your community is now, then setting the schedules that will work best for you. I can't tell you how important the order is, here. In a world and culture where we are always scrambling to fit the bill, we tend to come up with ideas of what we should be doing,  and then, when leaks inevitably spring because we've overextended ourselves, we run around and try to plug the holes. So. Here are the questions that seem to work, in the sanest order.

1. What is your vision?

2. Who do you have?

3. What will you do?

4. What/who do you need to do more?

What is your vision?

I strongly believe that a community will be healthier if it has an idea of something it wants to accomplish, if being together is not the end goal, but the way of life that enables everyone to thrive in doing what they believe in. For my community, that would be living and teaching Christian practice among the international community of travelers around the world. For some communities, it may be restoring permaculture methods,  rebuilding a neighborhood in an urban setting, or working with children who are at risk. It may also be something small, like knitting or eating soup or putting photos in albums or listening to stories.

Once you've decided what you are hoping to accomplish, you can dream and make your vision more robust, and you can look at who you have and what kind of community you want to create. Community means togetherness, and you can do togetherness in anyway you want, as long as it is committed. You can be together twice a week, you can live together, you can live near each other. You decide, and you come to  agreement.

Who do you have?

Look around and really see each other? What are you skilled at? What are you passionate about? How much time do each of you have to work with? What are your capabilities? Longings? Dreams? How many families do you have, and how will their children be involved? How will singles and families work together?

What will you do?

When you look at who you have with you, you'll be able to decide what you will do. For example, this year when Chinua and I were in Goa, we and Miriam had a talking circle, as we always do, at the very beginning of the season. We asked each other, "What can we do this season?"

There were three of us who were experienced at guiding meditation, so we decided to have three meditation sessions per week. In past years, when we've had more people with us, we've done them five days a week.

Chinua, a skilled musician, was inspired to be out playing music as much as possible, so we decided to worship together on the beach once or more a week. Chinua was also really excited about leading workshops on aspects of the life of a Jesus follower, so we added that into the week. We all loved Devotion Circles, so we kept that in place on Saturdays. I am in love with gardening and Miriam wanted to learn more about gardening together before she took on the care of our community gardening, so we added a community gardening time. And we took Sunday as a day of rest. Our week ended up looking like this:

Monday: 10:00 AM meditation, 1:00 PM lunch scheduling circle, 5:00 PM worship on the beach
Wednesday: 10:00 AM meditation
Thursday: 9:00 AM community gardening
Friday: 10:00 AM Workshop, 5:00 PM meditation on the beach
Saturday: 5:00 PM Devotion circle and dinner after
Sunday: Rest

These were the rhythms that we cycled through, week after week. In addition, we would meet once a week (during the Monday lunch scheduling circle) and talk about whether there were other things we wanted to do during the week. There were always things we wanted to do, and we managed to make time for a few of them! We hosted two night time concerts. Miriam would often make lunch on Wednesdays, inviting friends from the larger community in our neighborhood. Miriam also had a daily group prayer time, from 8:00 to 9:00 every morning, which was always optional since some of us have children and felt that it wasn't something we wanted to add to our days, as well as preferring a private prayer time.

Some people, looking at this schedule, will say that it is a LOT for a group of people to do together. Some people will say that it's not a lot at all. "That's not community," they say. "You barely do anything together!" That brings me to something that I will write about next week. To form a community that will work, you will need values that do not change, because people's opinions about your community will be many and varied, and you cannot shift with opinions. The things that are unchangeable will allow you to be flexible with other things, the things that can change. Your rhythms and schedules are like crops in your garden, you can change them depending on the season, but you always have the soil underneath, you feed it and take care of it, because your harvest depends on it. This is the deep stuff.

We have a long page of these values. One such value for us is that we do what we are able. We look at who we have, then we decide what to do. It works.

What/who do you need to do more?

Is your vision larger than your current community is capable of sustaining? The answer is not to get everyone to do more, but to ask what you need to grow. Do you need more people? Or more skills?

In our circle of deciding how our seasons will look, we take into account the fact that we have a musician and people who are experienced with guiding meditations. We also have good cooks and people who love gardening and are willing to champion it as a community practice. If we want more, do more of us need to learn to play music? Or do we need to invite more musicians to live with us? If we want to build an earth building, does one of us need to take a course on earth building? Do we need more gardening skills? More people to make our community healthier?

And after all this time, I can say that we always seem to need more skills and more people. We need people! It's something that comes up in our prayers all the time. You can pray for the things you need, and you can work on ways to find what you need.

There are so many variations on making your own community rhythms. I think that often people imagine there's only one way to make a community and see it grow, but the truth is that the need for community lies within all of us and there are as many different ways as there are walks of life. Be free to explore yours!

Next week I'll write about forming community values.

Beautiful Community: Adjusting Expectations.

Many people joined.

Community is such a loaded word, isn't it? There seem to be words behind words whenever we bring up the topic of community. Sometimes I don't even like to call what we do community, because I know the word is stacked with meaning.

If there is anything I've learned in the fourteen years that I've lived in intentional community, it's that every person carries his or her own definition and expectations of what the word community means, what community IS. These expectations, which tag along whether we like it or not, can bring more trouble with them than almost any other part of living in community. They create a scenario where no matter what the current situation of our community is, there will be disappointment or frustration at how it's not measuring up. People have different ideas, different dreams. We bring our blueprints to the circle, lay them side by side, and nothing matches, the building feels crooked and clumsy.

The heart of these expectations, troublesome though they may be, is good. It's here that our deepest desires for connection lie, and in a community of people desiring true Christian practice, there is an even deeper and more central desire for the Kingdom of God.

What is the Kingdom of God? It's something Jesus talked about almost more than anything else, and it can very simply be described as a place where things move and breathe and sing in the exact way they were designed to, the way God wants them to. Where we truly love and feel loved. Where we see others as who they truly are, as beloved to God, no matter their rank or usefulness or stature.

At the heart of who we are as believers, we desire connection with God and connection with the way he wants things to be, and we carry all of these infant dreams and desires to our new community and lay them gently and tenderly down on the altar we've constructed.

But then we come up against the very worst thing about community. Its made of --ugh-- other people, with their own desires and dreams and weird breathing and annoying ideas and strange morning rituals and the way they look when they chew their food. What a contradiction in wishes we all are, made of our desire to be side by side and our longing to get away. The very substance of our answer threatens to tear itself apart.

But I think there's hope. There are some things we can do to soften this jarring difference between expectation and reality.

The one I want to talk about today is a very simple changing of expectations. It's so simple, but so profound that it moves everything off a shaky foundation and onto a solid one, right from the beginning. We need to come to the table of community with the understanding that a part of community is suffering.

It is the suffering that Jesus underwent as he loved and longed to be loved. He knew, though, that this love would be partly grief and disconnection.

But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

John 2:24, 25

At some level, because we are not God, we will disappoint each other's ideas of love and togetherness. You will insult my neatness with your messy scrambling, I will insult your spontaenaity with my desire for rules and schedules. (In reality, it will most likely be just the opposite.) Community, in many ways, IS suffering, a beautiful, refining, redeeming, abundantly joyful suffering.

Henri Nouwen says, "Within the discipline of community are the twin gifts of forgiveness and celebration that need to be opened and used regularly. What is forgiveness? Forgiveness means that I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not fulfilling all my needs and desires."

Of course it's not all suffering. The most amazing moments of my life have taken place in the garden of community: playing crazy games, surprising people on their birthdays, being surprised on mine, singing around a bright fire under the trees. It has been a wonderful, wild dance. But when I come up against my own desires and see the difference between the fantasy of community and the truth of it all, the fact that I disappoint and am disappointed, I remind myself that this pain is a part of any true, committed community. Walking through this suffering together produces beauty in friendship that goes beyond a simple similarity of interests. Walking through this, I have gained friends unlike any I could have imagined, in my first fluffy daydreams about Christian community, when I had no idea that it would hurt.

If you want to form a community, adjust your expectations. Have everyone adjust their expectations! And you will all be surprised by the brilliance that can come from the simple act of loving other people and experiencing life together.

Next week I'll address a more practical aspect of a thriving community: Finding your community rhythms.

The meditation of scrub scrub scrub.

We are back in Goa and there is much to be done. Miriam will be here for the full season (she'll stay until the end of March) with several people who will be coming and going to join in meditation and devotional practice with her.

Chinua and I (Rae) will be here for six weeks before going back to Pai to have our baby and continue on in our quest to form another Jesus devotional community there. While here we plan to soak in as many beautiful moments together with our dear friends, Miriam and Johanna.

But first, there is work to be done.

First step of getting the meditation space ready. Scrub scrub.

And I probably shouldn't even say "first", because there is so much community and meditation involved in good, physical work.

First step of getting the meditation space ready. Scrub scrub.

Especially the work of preparing a beloved space for time spent together.

Miriam has been the superhero here. With some help from the kids, our new friend Ulli, Johanna, and Jaya, she has been scrubbing all the monsoon mold from furniture and floors. We have to do this every year, and every year it feels like a big giant task.

Getting the meditation space ready.

But soon it is done, and the mattresses and cushions are out, the floor is clean, and we're ready for another season together.

The truth about new things.

Here's the truth. In the beginning of any new practice, you will encounter resistance. You'll encounter your own resistance and the world's resistance and even the devil's resistance.

Until something is a habit, it often feels too new, unsafe, something that you could fail at. Even after it is a habit, there are often reasons to put it off, or if you get out of habit due to sickness or sadness or worry, it can take a lot of bravery to restart.

-Imagine that you want to begin a practice of hospitality in your life. You dream of it, you're inspired by someone you know or have read about. You dream of weekly meetings of dozens of people in your home, all of them eating and happy and enjoying life. In your preparations, you begin to get a little worried. Where will you put everyone? Do you really have energy for this? Aren't you the most awkward person the world has ever known? What on earth will you say?

There is always a simple answer. The only thing people want from your hospitality is to feel welcome. Invite one person into your home and make her welcome. Feed her tea or feed her dinner. Do it with love, do it regularly, and when you feel like it's a simple thing, make your circle wider.

-Imagine that you want to begin a practice of Lectio Divina. You think your circle of friends will really benefit from it, and when you invite people, they express excitement, but don't show up at your early morning circle. They slept in. After one or two times, you go back to sleeping in as well.

Keep getting up. Make one verse the song in your heart that sings all day long. Invite one other person who you know will come. When your practice begins to transform your days, let everyone know. Don't stop waking up with this song in your heart.

-Imagine that you want to begin a practice of deep prayer. You try but it seems that you are "troubling deaf heaven with your bootless cries."* You feel dry, you feel old, you begin to question this practice of prayer. Why ask God for anything if he knows everything already, you wonder. Why talk? You begin to grudge any words, you begin to be stubborn and silent.

Ahhh, try something new. Write your prayers in tiny letters on long sheets of paper, sing your prayers, paint them into canvases, keep a prayer journal, look up old Orthodox prayers and pray them, pray the Psalms.** This miraculous communication is never unheard! Don't give up. Don't turn to entertainment. Don't let the struggle quench you.

Life changes quickly and without warning. In our community we've had to learn to be flexible. The way we do things these days is we take a quick look at who we have with us and decide on what we'll do. We have three people who like to cook? Very well, we'll have an open lunch twice a week, to give a break to one person every week. We have a musician with a loud voice? Cool, we'll have worship circles on the beach. Each season demands its own practices, and we've become skilled at figuring out what we have the power to do. These are some of the most valuable times I've ever had, singing together, eating together.

I'll tell you a secret. I meet resistance every. single. time. Every time I'm cooking, or decorating, or getting ready for an evening on the beach, I run into it. I find myself wanting to pick fights with my husband, or run away, or go to sleep for a day. And I know now, after many years, that this is part of doing things that are hard and important. I have learned to grit my teeth, ask God for help, and go on with it. I know that the resistance only lasts up until I'm actually at the beginning whatever it is we've decided to do. It hasn't won, and I relax into enjoying the time with friends-- meditating, sharing life, singing, enjoying food.

I know that you can, too.

 *Shakespeare Sonnet 29

**I have prayed in all of these ways.