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"Community: The Impossible Possibility"

"Community: The Impossible Possibility"

By Roger E. Olson
http://www.patheos.com/
August 17, 2014

"To dwell above with saints we love,
That will be grace and glory.
To live below with saints we know;
Now, that's another story!"

Why do I say that community is an impossible possibility? Simply because community is what we're created for and yet we never quite achieve it. At least not in this world. Community is something almost everyone longs for and seeks and yet everything we call "community" falls short of our hopes. But few of us ever give up entirely on community; to find it is in our psychological and spiritual DNA.

In recent years, at least in American culture, "community" has become a buzz word. And like most good words used too much it's lost a lot of meaning. A prime time network television sitcom called simply "Community" makes a joke out of it. At the other end of the spectrum some people make an idol of it. In between are all kinds of trivializations of it such as, well, "gated Community," "cat lovers community" and, believe it or not, "narcissism community."

Of course, as Christians we know that the original community is God himself. Or should I say "Themselves?" Father, Son and Holy Spirit--the perfect community in whose image we are created. Jesus prayed that the church would be a reflection of that divine community. In John 17 he asked the Father to make his disciples one even as he and the Father are one.

But we know from church history how, for the most part, the church has failed miserably in that calling.
And yet, here and there throughout history, real community has appeared. People have for a few brief hours, days, weeks, months and maybe even years experienced the beauty of true community--at least in part, imperfectly, but truly and sweetly nevertheless.

If you've attended chapel a lot this year you've heard many deep biblical and theological insights about community. I doubt anything I could say now would add anything significant to what has already been said.

But, I should give it a try. Not to supercede what has already been said; that would be impossible. But perhaps to uncover another dimension of community and then share from my heart a few examples of that elusive impossible possibility.

One reason community is an impossible possibility is that community is a costly gift.

Community isn't something we can program--as much as we Baptists love to program things. And therein lies one of the problems in our failed experiences of community. We think it, like everything else, is something we do. Rather, real community is something only God can do. True community appears among us when we let God do his work. Illusory community appears when we try to do it ourselves.

True community is the harmony of the individual and the group. Illusory community is either a bunch of individuals pretending to have harmony or a collective pretending to allow individuality. That's all we're really capable of--one of those two mirages of community. And too often we settle for one of them because we don't know how or don't really want to receive the gift of true community.

You see, real community is a gift; it isn't an achievement. That's why there's something paradoxical about the term "intentional community." We can intend community all day and all month, but we'll never have it just by intending it. We have to receive it. But that's not as easy as it sounds.

Although real community is a gift from above, it won't be given without our paying the price for it. But, you say, if we have to pay a price, if it's costly, then it's not a gift. But wait a moment. Don't we say that salvation is free but costly? Didn't Paul say it in Philippians 2? "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you...?" The paradox of grace is also the paradox of community.
So what is the "price" of community? In what way is the gift "costly?" We already know, but often we don't want to talk about it because it's too high a price for most of us. We'd rather settle for illusory community than pay the high price of receiving the gift of community.

The price, you see, is Self--not self as "this person God created in his image and gave to the world to glorify him and enjoy him forever." Not that self. Rather, Self as "my privacy, my rights, my esteem, my satisfaction." Individualism is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we hardly even know what giving that up means. From our earliest days on earth we're taught that "being true to yourself" is the highest value. Unbrainwashing ourselves about that is painful and almost impossible.

So how can we receive the gift of community? Well, I don't think we can receive it here, in this life, within history, in this world "below," in its fullness. We're too sinful for that. But I'm confident we can taste it.

How? We simply have to pray every single day "Father, show me how to bless someone else today. Show me how to meet someone else's need. Show me a way to put someone else before me." But first, many of us will have to pray "Father, give me the desire to put others first." You see, we often want the gift of community without paying the price.

Another reason I say that community is an impossible possibility is that it is not really a state of affairs--a static condition that we achieve like a plateau or mountain top and that's all there is to it. Now we can say we have it.

Rather, community, like the Kingdom of God, is "always coming, never arriving." At least not arriving wholly and completely in perfection--until Christ returns to establish his kingdom on earth. We should not think of Christian community as something we have achieved and now possess; rather we should think of it as something that happens among us. It has the character of event more than of state. We "have" a building and we "have" an administration and we "have" classes. But community isn't like that; community is more like, say, learning. We can't really say we "have" learning. Rather, learning happens. And never completely; there's always more.

What I mean is that complacency about community is deadly to community. The moment we think it is something we "have," it ceases to be all that it could be.

I know that sounds abstract and philosophical, but it's important anyway because if we misunderstand community we may miss it altogether.

So, if community is something that happens, if it's an event, how do we encourage it to happen among us? Well, there are many answers to that and we know most of them. Love one another. Put the other person before yourself. Be available, vulnerable and accountable to each other.

But I'd like to focus on one part of that which I think is crucial but too often forgotten or neglected. That is vulnerability. One way of being vulnerable is telling our stories to each other. Community tends to break out when people share their stories. That's because we ARE our stories. Our stories are our identities behind our masks.

Recently I've been encouraging students in one of my seminars to tell their stories and I think, and some of them have expressed agreement, that it lets community happen among us. And I've been the first to share my stories. I find it liberating and unifying.

But story telling requires vulnerability and transparency; something many of us struggle with. What if others who hear our stories misuse them against us? What if my story of weakness comes back to haunt me? But telling our stories is the norm rather than the exception the fear of being vulnerable dies away and we begin to trust each other. Then community happens.

So when and where and how have I experienced at least a taste of real community? Please allow me to share some of my stories with you.

When I was two my mother died. My father and brother and I became homeless. I'm not sure why. But we did. A poor family in our poor church took us in. At least they took in my brother and me. I don't remember much about my father for those two years before he remarried. Oh, I'm sure he paid them something, but I'm also sure he didn't have enough to pay them what it cost to house and feed and take care of two little boys in addition to their six children. Our church was like that; people had very little in terms of material prosperity. But they had each other and took care of each other. Later, after my father remarried, we took in children. One of my earliest memories is of a cold Sunday night after church--sitting in the backseat of our car watching my dad go into a house that was little more than a shack with no lights and bringing out two little children and putting them in the backseat with me and my brother and taking them home with us. We kept them for a few days and then they went somewhere else. I remember my mom burning their clothes because they had lice. Someone in the church who had more room than we took them in; we had only two bedrooms for the four of us.

Years later, another church. When I was eleven my dad took a church in another city and it grew quickly over a few years when I was a teenager. Ours was the only church in town that would allow hippies and drug addicts and Jesus freaks to attend without "cleaning up" first. It was an adjustment for some of the older folks in the church. But God's Spirit was alive there. Numerous people who came to visit and see what God was doing testified that they "felt something" the minute they walked in the door. That "something" is symbolized for me by a vivid memory of a little old German widow lady in her long dress and hair wrapped up in a bun hugging a one-legged, long-haired hippy college student in the church foyer after Sunday evening service. That wasn't unusual; differences didn't matter; everybody loved each other. People flocked to that church just to see and taste the love.

More years later. My first teaching position was at a well-known Christian university that was having tremendous financial difficulties. My salary didn't pay our bills. I don't know how many people my age remember their first full time salary. Mine--as a university instructor--was $14,000 a year. Even then it was almost slave labor. But I loved what I was doing; it was a dream come true. But one day an event happened that I greatly feared. Our little Ford Escort broke down and we didn't have money to get it fixed. The next day one of my new colleagues who I hardly knew called me into his office and said "Roger, God told me to give you this." He handed me a check for $500 that just covered the repairs. He didn't want my thanks because he said it was from God. He was just paying it forward and he asked that I do the same someday. By God's grace I've been able to.

A few years later I took my second teaching position at slightly higher salary at another Christian university. Again, just when I arrived the university was going through terrible financial problems and the administration was ordering cut backs and downsizing all departments. The Department of Sociology and Anthropology had just hired a young scholar and, as he was newest, they were told he had to go. Instead, everyone in the department voluntarily gave up part of their salary to make up his so that he could stay.

What I want to say to you is that real community isn't a static state of affairs; it isn't just "there." True community, or something approximating it, is an event. It doesn't "be." It happens. But it doesn't happen according to a plan. We can't create it by following a formula. We have to want it to happen among us. And it will happen whenever and to the extent that we create space for it and expectantly receive it by letting go of the God-like, independent, autonomous "Self" with all its rights and privileges and esteem and satisfaction and pray "Make me a blessing, make me a blessing; out of my life, let Jesus shine. Make me a blessing O Savior I pray; make me a blessing to someone today."

Roger Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University.

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