Grace for the Community
I spent this past weekend in community. While camping up in the mountains with a few dozen of my wife’s teammates and their families, I had nothing to do but share life with others. That can be a scary thing.
In my “normal life” I can distract myself with the countless gadgets I know. These gadgets effectively keep me isolated from real community, while at the same time fooling me into thinking that I am “socially networked.” In reality, technological isolation allows me to interact with community on my own terms, keeping it arms length away while dialogues occur in one-sided statements no longer than 120 characters. I have grown comfortable in this. The personal benefits appear immense. My public persona is chosen and directed with all intentioned, allowing for only an intentional self to be displayed. I can even adopt multiple personas to meet the perceived desires of different groups. Michael the pastor can live alongside Michael the comedian with few being any the wiser where the real person lies.
Camping does not afford one this luxury. Everything you are and everything you aren’t is on full display when you are camping. Even if well prepared in advanced, most people can only prepare a few hours worth of persona-based talk and actions. Without the ability to sneak off and replenish the well of image, the facade quickly crumbles. Despite the bugs, heat, and lack of technological entertainment, I think the facade-crumbling closeness of true community is what I dislike most about camping. What a sad revelation.
For years I have been a part of various ministries, all claiming to be authentic communities. Yet in that time I have never felt free to be me. Each church “community” was a carefully crafted image of community, not a true community. Almost every one of those groups had a clear mission statement about who they were as a community. The community was always XYZ, which left very little room for the 23 other letters. This group was a community of families who lived up the American dream and all things wholesome. That group was a rebellous antithesis to the group that spawned and paid for it, an authentic community of gritty people from the (suburban) streets, and please, no one over 30 need apply. The next group was theologically sound and confrontational to an evil world (no matter how much they imitated it). The next was all about love (as long as you fit in). No wonder church hopping is so prevalent. It’s not that I can’t find a church like me, it’s that I am not the same me every week. So I move around to find a community that fits my mood on any given day. The community values homogony, and I just want to fit in.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who ministered against the backdrop of Nazism, sought out community. In a sea of oppression and violence, Christians had to band together for survival. What he discovered was that there was no perfect community, because communities were made of people like me and him, imperfect men and women who struggled with finding spiritual and emotional respite. In his book Life Together, he explorers not only how community really works, but explains the danger of longing for the fictional perfection that one never stops hoping to find in community. He calls longing for a perfect (or even better) community idolatry, because we are seeking for more than what God has already given us.
What would it look like if we stopped searching for the better community? Would our churches be places of grace and humility? Would they be welcoming to people who clearly don’t “fit in?” Would pastors and church members stop abandoning the dilapidated city neighborhoods their churches are in for the “perfection” of the suburbs? Would churches cease trying to “fix” America and start showing God’s love to the nation?
I suppose what is most important for me to figure out is whether or not I can let the community suffer by allowing the real me to be a part of it. Can pastor Michael let loose of control long enough that the real Michael, whoever that may be, can come in?