Restoration is in the midst of season of community groups and a sermon series centered on joining God in the restoration of the Church. In this time, we are studying some of the selections from an amazingly good collection of essays titled Called to Community. The collection is rich and challenging while remaining accessible. If you have been on the fence about whether or not to buy it, please buy the book. You will continue to value it beyond this season at Restoration as its fifty-two short readings are meant to be read over the course of a year, perhaps in the context of your TIE group.
As we’ve been working our way in, though, we should pause and make sure we aren’t just playing make-believe. Sometimes the idea of—even the word—community can lead us to imagine a nostalgic, picket-fence world of harmony and friendship. We imagine that once we find community, things will be easier, happier, more convenient. In a series of selections titled “Illusions”, Arthur Katz reminds us that Christian fellowship isn’t actually aimed at any of those objectives. He writes:
In community, our vain illusions will be quickly shattered. But disillusionment is a grace from God, and the only way to be disillusioned is unhappily a painful way, yet far more painful and far more disastrous is to continue in an illusion that is unreal, and which, at the judgment seat of Christ, must be revealed as false.
If we are going to walk down this path together toward a way of living together as the family of God, we have to consider frankly where we are headed. We are headed into entanglement, into conflict, into uncomfortable dependence on one another. And though, as Jean Vanier writes, “at the beginning, we idealize others”, slowly in depth of relationship, we will discover (shock!) they are not much different from us. Perhaps even worse, when we are only after an idealized community, we may only seek out and welcome people who seem ideal. That may be pleasant enough for a while, but once the novelty wears off, we find that even the ‘favorites’ aren’t so perfect. And then we are left despondent, thinking that this whole ‘community’ didn’t really work out.
But building this sort of community together isn’t going to be a perfect process precisely because no one who is entering into the process has achieved perfection. Because we are Christians, we don’t approach community from the starting point that if we believe hard enough or work hard enough that we can make something beautiful. Quite the opposite! All of us have come to trust in Jesus because we have come to recognize that even our best efforts are doomed from the start. Individually, we are sinners; in community, we are sinners. So our formation of community begins out of our great need for grace, and it is propelled by our shared pursuit of God’s grace.
This should calibrate our expectations for community, both for ourselves and for one another. We shouldn’t be shocked or scandalized when conflict arises. We shouldn’t give up when we see in ourselves pettiness and pride creeping into our relationships. The more we try to pretend that part of us doesn’t exist, the more we will hide it from one another—and from God. But when we allow our vulnerability, even our ugliness, to be a part of the relationships we build, then community won’t merely be a self-motivated project to build a convenient network of peers. Instead, it will become a “school of love and a source of healing” for the church (Vanier).