Read an Excerpt
Living into Community
CULTIVATING PRACTICES THAT SUSTAIN US
By Christine D. Pohl
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2012 Christine D. Pohl
All right reserved.
Chapter One Introduction: Four Practices That Sustain Community
Stop wasting time running after the perfect community. Live your life fully in your community today. Jean Vanier, Community and Growth
This breakdown could have been avoided. But then, few breakdowns in community are inevitable. In this case, some folks made several poor decisions. Other people responded poorly to the poor decisions. More decisions, more responses, more trouble. Words were exchanged, positions hardened, sides drawn up. Rumors flew, and even when folks knew they were rumors, they repeated them until it was very difficult to discern what had "really" happened.
People were angry and hurt; some conversations stopped, and new alliances were formed. Only certain people knew about key meetings. A lot of energy was expended in determining motives, justifying decisions, and anticipating "the opposition's" next move. Regular activities continued, but the life was drained out of them; everything seemed hollow. Small acts and casual comments were freighted with huge symbolic meaning. Everyone felt undervalued and betrayed by someone; a number of people threatened to leave. The meltdown had taken on a life of its own.
Friends questioned one another's commitments; grumbling and weariness became highly contagious. Disagreements took strange turns; old differences and hurts came to the surface and played into the present trouble in unpredictable ways. Some people ducked, determined to weather the storm without being drawn into it. Others "defected in place" — showing up when the occasion required it, but emotionally and relationally absent or detached. A few seemed to add fuel to the fire, reporting the latest outrageous development and speculating on what might happen next. Still others tried to keep conversations going and looked for resolution, but were often battered or sidetracked in the process. Several years later, members of the community continue to live with the wounds, even as they move forward.
Is this a description of a church? A school? An intentional community? A parachurch organization? An extended family? Because these breakdowns are common and painful, even general descriptions can evoke many memories. Places, events, personalities, and consequences flood our thoughts. We've been there. We remember the feelings of disappointment, hurt, helplessness, betrayal, and anger. And we often remember the sense of having been sullied by the experience. Perhaps we wanted to make things better, but found it nearly impossible in the moment. We'd been caught in the downward pull of a whirlpool that was not leading to anything good.
When these breakdowns happen in Christian communities, the costs go beyond the shattering of valued relationships, important projects, or a shared future. The best testimony to the truth of the gospel is the quality of our life together. Jesus risked his reputation and the credibility of his story by tying them to how his followers live and care for one another in community (John 17:20-23).
If we could cut through our complacency or despair, we might be shocked at what is really at stake here. The character of our shared life — as congregations, communities, and families — has the power to draw people to the kingdom or to push them away. How we live together is the most persuasive sermon we'll ever get to preach.
The beauty of loving communities does not replace the importance of the verbal proclamation of the gospel, but Jesus explicitly linked the truth of his life and message to our life together. The Word who became flesh and lived among us — full of grace and truth — expects that our relationships with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth. And so, for two thousand years, Jesus' followers have been forming communities built and sustained by love, though often also fractured by sin and corruption.
The desire to be part of communities that are vibrant, caring, and faithful keeps us working at the task of building and repairing congregations. When folks enjoy being together, share celebrations, and walk through hard times with grace and love, the beauty of their shared life is deeply compelling. Human beings were made for living in community, and it is in community that we flourish and become most fully human.
Unfortunately, experiences of moral failure, group meltdowns, personal pettiness, and partisan harshness in congregations and communities make us wonder if our efforts in building community are worth the trouble. We often invest great hope in our Christian communities, and when there are serious ruptures, it feels as if part of the kingdom has been trampled. How is it that people who want closer relationships and deeper experiences of shared life sometimes find themselves in terribly difficult situations — sorting out betrayals, broken commitments, and creeping cynicism?
Longing for Community
Growing into the likeness of Christ and into the church as it's supposed to be cannot be separated from the messiness and disappointments that are part of human relationships. We can protect ourselves from such difficulties only by cutting ourselves off from our relationships, and that is rarely a satisfactory option. Nevertheless, we can build and maintain congregations — just like we do with marriages, families, monastic communities, and businesses — in better and worse ways. Good communities and life-giving congregations emerge at the intersection of divine grace and steady human effort.
Biblical descriptions of the church as God's household, as the body of Christ, and as a new family of brothers and sisters leave many of us dissatisfied with church life that is defined by a weekly worship service and an occasional committee meeting or mission project. The biblical images suggest closer and more significant relationships and a life together that draws people in.
Religious as well as secular researchers have recently rediscovered the human need to "belong," and describe various versions of our longing for community — a place where one is known, or at least a group where everybody knows your name. Our cultural emphasis on personal freedom and self-fulfillment has left many people lonely and emotionally fragile. Many of us are looking for community.
Our yearnings to belong and our desire for lasting relationships, however, are often accompanied by uncertainty about making commitments. As one person put it, it would be so much easier if we could be "connected without being encumbered." Despite the fact that many of us claim to be dissatisfied with individualism, we cherish our capacity to make individual choices and to seek opportunities for personal growth.
While we readily recognize the ways in which the larger culture challenges Christian beliefs and commitments, we don't always notice how profoundly our expectations, desires, and practices are also shaped by our culture. We bring the values of self-actualization, individual success, consumption, and personal freedom — and the choices that result from them — to church life, just as we bring them into family and work.
The ways we've been formed by church and culture have not given us the skills or virtues we need to be part of the very communities we long for and try to create. While we might want community, it is often community on our terms, with easy entrances and exits, lots of choice and support, and minimal responsibilities. Mixed together, this is not a promising recipe for strong or lasting communities.
When I've asked students and friends to describe an experience of community, they often tell stories about a time of intense emotional bonding with a group of people: a weekend retreat that was deeply affirming, a camping trip with friends, or a short-term mission project where participants began to feel like family. Such experiences of community tend to be brief, occasional, and intense. Communities in which we grow and flourish, however, last over time and are built by people who are faithful to one another and committed to a shared purpose. Community life certainly has moments of incredible beauty and intense personal connection, but much of it is daily and ordinary. Our lives are knit together not so much by intense feeling as by shared history, tasks, commitments, stories, and sacrifices.
But communities need more than shared history and tasks to endure. A combination of grace, fidelity, and truth makes communities safe enough for people to take the risks that are necessary for growth and transformation. That same combination makes it possible for groups to handle disagreements without being torn apart and to minister to the world in ways that are far greater than the sum of the individuals involved. Shaped and sustained by gratitude, such communities grow by making room for others, whether friends or strangers.
Sorting Out What's Going On
Turning back to the opening description of a community meltdown, we could interpret that experience in several different ways. We could observe that some of the personalities involved were dysfunctional, codependent, or passive-aggressive. We might conclude that leadership styles were outdated, or that better procedures for handling disagreements should have been in place. Each of us comes to challenges in relationships and in community with some framework for interpretation, a lens for making sense of what's going on.
In this culture, we tend to use the language of psychology or therapy for interpreting interpersonal difficulties. We also turn to management models and business language when we need to figure out how to make relationships or institutions work. These approaches are useful, but they are not adequate for the challenges of building communities.
Though less familiar, we could also use more explicitly theological and moral categories, and language that connects us to the wisdom of the Christian tradition. In reflecting on what builds up and what breaks down communities, we can also ask about fidelity and keeping promises, speaking the truth, gratitude, envy and grumbling, exclusion and welcome. A framework that focuses on practices allows us to see issues in congregational and community life from a different angle and helps us to get at the moral and theological commitments that structure our relationships.
Practices are at the heart of human communities; they are things "people do together over time to address fundamental human needs." Every community has practices that hold it together; for Christians, practices can also be understood as responses to the grace we have already experienced in Christ, in light of the word and work of God, and for the sake of one another and the world. Our practices include hospitality, making and keeping promises, truthfulness, gratitude, Sabbath-keeping, testimony, discernment, forgiveness, worship, healing, and many others.
This book will focus on several practices that are basic to human life. In families, communities, and congregations that are vibrant and sturdy, we notice certain patterns in relationships. We see folks making and keeping promises, living and speaking truthfully, expressing gratitude, and offering hospitality. Some aspect of each of these practices is evident in almost every group of people whose connections or interactions with one another are more than temporary.
Strengthening these practices won't necessarily mark us as unusual or exemplary. Unless circumstances make a particular practice very costly to us, these practices are the ordinary, taken-for-granted dynamics of good relationships. We don't usually make a big deal over keeping a promise or telling the truth unless there's a problem associated with it.
In general, practices are most powerful when they are not noticed, when they are simply an expression of who we are and what we do, a way of being in the world and relating to one another that seems "natural." But, for a variety of reasons, we can no longer assume that these practices are affirmed consistently in the wider society, nor can we assume that Christians always recognize their importance.
Each of the practices we will be exploring is important to the biblical story and to expectations about the ways in which the people of God should live. Each is also at the heart of God's character and activity: we worship a God who is faithful and true, gracious and welcoming. Theologians and philosophers have often written about the importance of promise-keeping, truth-telling, gratitude, and hospitality, though rarely in terms of their roles in sustaining community.
These four practices do not address every aspect of community life, but they do hold together and intersect in surprising ways. If we consider one particular practice, the necessity of other practices becomes apparent very quickly. When communities offer hospitality to strangers, they soon discover the importance of truthfulness, gratitude, and fidelity. Speaking truthfully is difficult and often risky in the absence of commitment or fidelity to one another. Gratitude without truthfulness looks a lot like a manipulative form of flattery.
Certain attitudes and actions shatter community life rather than sustain it, and make life together unhappy and sometimes dangerous. When we engage in betrayal, deception, grumbling, envy, or exclusion, we violate connections between us. While we might describe these as practices, they are better understood as deformations of one of the four practices. For example, betrayal depends on and perverts a larger commitment to promising, just as deception and lying are parasitic on some notion of truthfulness.
In addition to the damage they do to relationships, these deformations also affect our capacity to engage in other practices well. Small deceptions and habitual grumbling make the practice of hospitality troublesome for hosts and guests. Even something as ordinary as complaining can become a way of life that eats away at the bonds that hold a community together. Deformations threaten to undermine every practice and every community.
Promise-keeping, truthfulness, hospitality, and gratitude have often been understood as duties or obligations, things we ought to do. They are much more than duties, however; they make living in community possible as well as good, sometimes even beautiful. When we see them primarily as duties, they can seem burdensome rather than life-giving. Understanding them in terms of virtues can also be limiting because we tend to view virtues individualistically and in a static way. Considering them as practices opens up the possibility of recognizing them as the relational dynamics of grace and truth — what grace and truth look like when they are embodied in community.
It is tempting to talk and write about community life in abstract and idealized terms, but when we focus on actual congregations and communities, we often notice the failures — the betrayals, the hypocrisy, the grumbling, the closed doors. While we don't usually notice practices when they are functioning well, we surely notice when they have failed or are violated. Giving attention to practices opens up a more textured and grounded approach to community life. It also allows us to draw important insights from very ordinary experiences and situations.
An emphasis on practices also fits well with the current interest in stories and formation by connecting the attention to narrative with practical concerns about our communities and social contexts. Thus we can locate contemporary challenges related to responding to strangers or dealing with frenetic work schedules within rich traditions of hospitality or Sabbath-keeping. Furthermore, working with practices allows us to move beyond important but individually focused literature on spiritual formation so that we can also attend to the formation of good communities.
Excerpted from Living into Community by Christine D. Pohl Copyright © 2012 by Christine D. Pohl. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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