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.