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Jesus, the Lousy Politician: An Easter Story

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Once upon the time, there was a young man named Jesus who cared deeply about people and wanted to improve the way they lived their real lives in his community. So people told him, you should run for an election! We’d vote for you!

But Jesus said, “I don’t think that would be a good idea. I’d rather just tell stories to people and love them and show them that there is a better way to live and be whole.”

But people insisted: “But you’d have so much more power if you were a politician! You could change things!”

Jesus sighed. “I don’t like the idea of changing things with that kind of power. I think I have as much authority as there is love in my heart, truth in my stories and integrity in my actions.”

“Oh, bless your heart,” they said, “but that won’t get us anywhere. You’d be no better than a poet.”

Some of these people were mainstream politicians, and they said, “Come, meet some of our corporate lobbyists – I mean friends – and they can support your campaign.”

But Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor and woe to the rich. And I don’t have a campaign.” These friends didn’t find that very helpful.

concrete memorial cross

Cross misused at Spanish fascist memorial

Other people were populists, and they said, “Look at these crowds! They’re angry and want change! Tell them – and the other corporate lobbyists – what they want to hear. It doesn’t even have to be true! And we’ll be a huge voice together.”

But Jesus said, “I don’t think these crowds are really committed to the kind of love and challenge that I’m trying to encourage. Following me is hard on the ego – kind of like dying. I don’t want anything to do with an angry mob.”

Instead, Jesus kept telling stories and healing the sick, and he lived so much in solidarity with the poor that when he saw injustice, he did things like flip over the tables of exploitation. But he also kept telling people not to make such a big deal about who he was – and that everyone could do the kinds of things he was doing, if not better! He even said they shouldn’t even call him good!

But people were getting upset by it all anyway. So much so that the people in power decided he was their enemy, even if he wasn’t running for office. They threw him in jail, then mocked him and killed him – just to make sure that nothing big got started.

“Wow, what a lousy politician,” people said when they saw him dead – just hanging useless on a tree.

 

But then a funny thing happened. The women and men who had really been following Jesus were discouraged at first, but soon they started saying that Jesus was still with them!  And with some real enthusiasm, they were saying it was true that they could live with the kind of love and trust that Jesus had. That the Spirit of Jesus (which was the Spirit of God!) lived in everyone and made that possible. This started getting people’s attention again.

Then the people in power said, “Ah geez. You got to be kidding us. They’re just going to be a pain in the butt.” So, they started persecuting and killing the followers too. But it was like playing “Whack-a-mole”; the more they tried to eliminate them, the more they kept spreading – somehow without any campaigns or angry mobs. And without any help from corporate lobbyists. It seemed impossible!

This kept going, more or less, for a couple of centuries until an Emperor finally gave up. “Forget it,” he said, “Let’s stop killing them because it’s just a waste of money. In fact,” he said brightening, “Let’s brand our Empire with their logo! It seems like it’s trending!” It was like he didn’t even remember that the cross was a symbol of suffering and dying at the hands of Empire.

Jesus would have rolled over in his grave, if he’d still been there.

Sadly, the Emperor’s re-branding did more to wipe out the following of Jesus than all the persecution did. In a generation or two, people seemed to forget what a lousy politician Jesus had been, and they used his name to back up their own power, while conveniently forgetting that his love had been especially for the poor and hurting.

On the other hand. just like Empire kept getting mixed up in faith, the radical love of Jesus kept showing up in the stories and symbols that they were using, even when they were being used for the opposite purposes. From time to time, little communities of life and love would spring up and start spreading a healing message again.

Some people said it was getting confusing because Jesus and his symbols were so often being used by different groups for opposite purposes. But others said, it might not be that hard to tell them apart because true followers of Jesus were the ones actually trying to follow Jesus – by loving and serving others the way he did, even though he was a lousy politician.

pic of Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton adds a PS on “Loving Enemies”

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When I was preparing the second week of my workshop on “Loving Enemies in a Time of Polarization,” I was struck by a sense that I should pick up my copy of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968), my favourite among many favourites of Merton’s. It’s probably not overstating to say that this is one of the handful of books that has transformed my life, confirming a contemplative direction integrated with peacemaking.

I browsed through the countless dogeared pages that marked passages I never wanted to lose. Before long, pic of Thomas MertonI knew why I had needed to pick up this book. Of course, in a few pages, he was saying things more profound than my notes. When I summarized my workshops in earlier posts, I took this section out because I decided that I would just let Merton stand alone. So, without further ado, here are some of Merton’s thoughts on why we need our adversaries (all of the many emphases are mine and I’ve chosen not to update all the unfortunate male pronouns):

The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error. We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy – for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us and exactly the same basic policy by which he defends the “truth.” He has identified us with dishonesty, insincerity, and untruth. He believes that, if we are destroyed, nothing will be left but truth…

The one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us. In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own peculiar truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth….

We are all convinced that we desire the truth above all. Nothing strange about this. It is natural to man, an intelligent being, to desire the truth. (I still dare to speak of man as “an intelligent being”!) But actually, what we desire is not “the truth” so much as “to be in the right.” To seek the pure truth for its own sake may be natural to us, but we are not able to act always in this respect according to our nature. What we seek is not the pure truth, but the partial truth that justifies our prejudices, our limitations, our selfishness. This is not “the truth.” It is only an argument strong enough to prove us “right.” And usually our desire to be right is correlative to our conviction that somebody else (perhaps everybody else) is wrong.

Why do we want to prove them wrong? Because we need them to be wrong. For if they are wrong, and we are right, then our untruth becomes truth: our selfishness becomes justice and virtue: our cruelty and lust cannot be fairly condemned. We can rest secure in the fiction we have determined to embrace as “truth.” What we desire is not the truth, but rather that our lie should be proved “right,” and our iniquity be vindicated as “just….”

No wonder we hate. No wonder we are violent. No wonder we exhaust ourselves in preparing for war! And in doing so, of course, we offer the enemy another reason to believe that he is right, that he must arm, that he must get ready to destroy us. Our own lie provides the foundation of truth on which he erects his own lie, and the two lies together react to produce hatred, murder, disaster.

― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

To Merton and to readers, I apologize for ending this lengthy passage on a pessimistic note, fitting as it may be for our day.

So, perhaps I’ll just repeat some of the hope from the middle:

In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right.

If you missed the posts in this series, you can begin the first one here.

Ottawa monument to the unity of the human family

Loving Enemies – Pt.3 (Truth and Common Ground)

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One of my passions in recent years has been re-centering the concept of truth around “honesty” rather than “factuality.” This has partly been to distract from the pointless defence of theoretical “absolute truth” that is perceived, interpreted and communicated by flawed humans.  The crucial notion of truth is that we bear honest witness to our experience.

A huge benefit of this shift in understanding truth is that dialogue can respect that two parties are aiming at truth even when there is wide disagreement, varied interpretations of reality, and different memories and experiences. We expect these differences and can be enriched by them. Honesty, open-mindedness, and inclusion of marginalized voices can all add up to hopes that a larger “shared truth” can result.

In this third part on “loving enemies,” I am suggesting that a dedication to truth as bearing honest witness can make a significant contribution. We invite others to a similar honesty when we create a safe enough space in dialogue for others to share their full experience. Hopefully, the compassionate curiosity and invitation of personal stories emphasized in the previous part are a part of creating that safe space.

We can then increase the motivation in this direction by intentionally seeking “common ground.” You may recall the suggested questions:

  1. What’s your biggest/deepest concern in all of this? What are you mostly concerned about?
  2. What kinds of things do you find matter the most to you in all of this?

These are the kinds of questions that can begin the search for common ground. While our imagined solutions and positions may seem like they’re poles apart, very often the deeper concerns at the root come closer to values that we all share. After all most of us are seeking a world in which our loved ones can thrive in peace and safety. We may define the concepts differently, but most of us are hoping for a world in which beauty, justice, courage, faithfulness and compassion can increase.

Ottawa monument to the unity of the human familySo we ask compassionate questions about deeper concerns in order to dig down to the place where we find common ground. If the first layer of concerns that emerge still divide us, we may need to dig a little deeper. “OK, I hear those concerns that you have, but how have those concerns come to matter so much to you?” If we trust in our fundamental connectedness as human beings and that goodness (even the Presence of God!) is found within all, then we are determined to persist at this until that common ground is found.

Before exploring a few other tools for finding common ground, let’s be clear about what common ground does NOT mean:

  • Not uniformity – the blessing of common ground in conflict is that you get diverse points of view on a common concern. Common ground celebrates diverse thinking and multiple perspectives.
  • Not “meet in the middle” – it’s more about seeking a third way. If we start to find some common ground, we avoid the limited perspective that has locked us into the opposition of two rigid alternatives. Creativity sees more possibilities.
  • Not sacrificing passion for justice or truth – it’s (usually) about channeling emotions and motivations away from opposition toward seeking the best path to fulfilling the hopes that we care some much about.

With some hope then that finding common ground is both possible and valuable, here are some other ideas that can help us to find it:

  • Communicate vulnerability and movement – Aggression, rigidity and defensiveness tend to be mirrored in combatants. When we model vulnerability and movement, we invite the other to follow our lead and risk vulnerability and movement as well. By “movement” I mean demonstrating that one is not locked into a position; we concede a point or show openness to a new perspective. It’s much easier to find common ground when there is vulnerability and movement.
  • Leverage passions on both sides – Once a few common concerns are glimpsed, this opening can be expanded by reframing and leveraging the emotions that are present – We recognize the other’s passion as a shared desire for family, for peace, for autonomy, etc. Emotions can draw together instead of push apart.
  • Seek and name common (non-human) enemies – We’ve all heard of the unifying potential of finding a common enemy, and there is truth behind this. We just need to be careful that this does not create a new human enemy. Instead, we look for common “enemies” like: violence, family or societal breakdown, fear, etc.
  • Creatively seek common heart space – This takes more effort and skill, but there is huge potential in finding common symbols, music, art, and ritual – and having those become transforming shared moments – especially when these enable a celebration of small gains made toward mutual understanding and imagined future pathways.

A dedication to seeking and building on common ground does not naively expect that this will make entrenched conflicts disappear, but it can transform the long, patient work of building peace.

Sculpture of two men arguing

Loving Enemies – Pt. 2 (Stories and Compassionate Curiosity)

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In the first part of this series, the focus was on a two-part commitment aimed at helping us to avoid dehumanizing the other in the midst of conflicts and challenges. In this part, I want to focus on how personal stories and compassionate curiosity can help the opposite of dehumanizing: the building of Sculpture of two men arguingempathic connections with others, including those who so frustratingly see the world differently from us.

But first, I just want to name the fact that a lot of other factors besides our tendency to avoid difficult emotions can make us lean toward dehumanizing the other:

  • Decontextualization: so often we are interacting and relating to people whose histories and contexts are nearly completely unknown or very misunderstood
  • Depersonalization: it’s hard enough for us to remember the unique individuality of the people we live with, let alone remembering that the billions of people on our planet are just as much unique individuals
  • Unfamiliarity: it can be hard for us to see what we have in common with people whose lives are so different from ours
  • Capitalist exploitation: from algorithms that keep us in social media bubbles to systemic demands for cheap labour, there are huge forces at work that benefit from and encourage dehumanization
  • Prioritization of abstract principles and beliefs: ideological principles and religious beliefs can demand such loyalty and passion that we don’t see when they are crushing humanity

There are so many obstacles! And I will suggest that one attitude to help us overcome them is the development of “compassionate curiosity.”

Curiosity has occasionally had a bad reputation, but compassionate curiosity is “de-weaponized” curiosity. This is not curiosity that is used against others or even at the service of our own agenda, but curiosity for the sake of mutual compassion and growth. This is a desire to learn honestly and fully with open minds, with courage to see what can be seen.

Here are a couple examples of questions that grow out of compassionate curiosity when we disagree. Or when we hear someone say something that we hate, and we wonder what we can say or do:

  1. What’s your biggest/deepest concern in all of this? What are you mostly concerned about?
  2. What kinds of things do you find matter the most to you in all of this?

We can then deepen the potential of this compassionate curiosity by listening for the human, personal stories that form the context of people’s lived experience and the mix of prejudices and worldviews that understandably grow out of them.

In the early days of our most recent trajectory toward polarization, Parker Palmer made a post shortly before Thanksgiving. He’d heard that many people were dreading holidays and a shared dinner table surrounded by sharply opposing views. I’ve lost his exact words, but he encouraged us to ask each other about the stories that gave rise to the strong feelings we had. Listening to these stories and deepening our understanding of family whose views have felt toxic to us would be far more beneficial than argument around the table. I’ve had enough experience of both to know that he was right.

So the encouragement in this second part on loving enemies is to practice compassionate curiosity and use it to invite stories that help you understand why the points of view that you find so difficult matter to others. Asking with genuine compassion is far more potent than opposing.

If you’d like to read more about this, I’d encourage you to read this OnBeing post by Sharon Salzburg, and, of course, continue to part 3.

Rockwell's painting of the Golden Rule

Loving Our Enemies – Pt. 1

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[In November, several of us gathered for three workshops to explore this foundational but difficult invitation. In three posts, I’ll summarize the content.]

 

Is it human nature that we gravitate toward dividing the world into “us and them.” It seems like it begins when we’re a few months old and start to fear strangers. Social psychologists have determined that you can divide people into groups based on insignificant reasons (e.g. preferences for one painting over another) and that’s enough to make us start idealizing our “in-group” and start seeing the worst in the “others.”

It may be human nature, but wisdom traditions around the world have invited us into something better; perhaps this is best known through the various versions of the “Golden Rule.” And Jesus, in particular, made sure to clarify that this includes our “enemies,” and he invited us to “do good to those who hate us” (Luke 6.27).Rockwell's painting of the Golden Rule

This invitation is a huge challenge. To remember the humanity of our enemy is to risk all kinds of confusing and risky emotions. And it unsettles so much of what is familiar and homey. What if we’re wrong about stuff! What if our enemies have some good reasons for hating us? And what if we start listening to them, and our friends and family start to hate us?!

It’s so much more convenient to stick with our inherited prejudices and dehumanize those whose sufferings and worldviews would be so troubling to acknowledge. Then we can bomb them when “necessary” or pretend our sanctions are non-violent. Or we can just turn off the friggin’ news and hope it all stays away from us!

If we’re going to take the invitation to “love our enemies” seriously, we’ll need a serious commitment to take up the challenge. We will face inner and outer resistance, and we will sometimes fail, but a commitment helps us get up, dust ourselves off and continue toward a better place. It is very hard, but it’s also very invigorating and inspiring! This is the kind of thing that can help us get out of bed in the morning and hope that there is something worth working for.

I’m going to suggest that a two-part commitment can get us started:

  • I will see and treat all other individuals as human beings worthy of consideration, compassion and respect equal to myself, and

  • I will not let my emotions, or my limited (skewed) perceptions, memories, or beliefs lead me to dehumanize those who oppose me or inconvenience me.

This commitment to avoid dehumanizing the other is really a modest one – a beginning, but it’s still very difficult. I have found that one real key to the second half of this commitment is the practice of creating a safe enough space for us to accept those emotions and limits. In our rushed and competitive world, we often feel too stressed to handle difficult emotions and acknowledge our weaknesses. We can intentionally slow down and remind ourselves that hard feelings are ok; they can be survived. In fact, facing and accepting difficult emotions strengthens our personal foundation, grounds us. It gives us the capacity to enlarge our world to the point where we can see everyone’s common humanity.

We’re so used to a panicky reaction aimed at stopping our painful feelings that we miss the larger world that they are trying to open us up to. Many of the best ways to slow down and accept reality are to be found in what are called “contemplative practices.”

When it comes to conflicts and disagreements, I like to think of contemplative practices as being the equivalent of getting well-coached in the corner of a boxing ring – except that our contemplative coach is not trying to help us defeat our opponent but to use healthy conflict to transform our enemies into fellow humans, worthy of compassion and care.

With the help of contemplatively accepting our difficult emotions, we can stick with our two-part commitment as a starting place to loving our enemies. We’ll explore a few other resources in part 2 and part 3.

Contemporary Icon of the holy family in the rubble of Gaza, sitting in fallen bricks and mortar, buildings fall and burn behind them.

Christmas Eve at SCC

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Contemporary Icon of the holy family in the rubble of Gaza, sitting in fallen bricks and mortar, buildings fall and burn behind them.“If Jesus is to be born today, he would be born in Gaza under the rubble in a sign of solidarity with us… this is what Immanuel means – precisely that he is with us in the midst of our pain and suffering.”

 -Dr. Munther Isaac, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, occupied Palestine

This year, we began our Christmas Eve Services with a minute of silence in solidarity with the people of Palestine. Throughout the service we continued to hold the tragedy happening in Gaza close in our collective consciousness, reciting this liturgy written by Rev. Molly Bolton multiple times: 

A Palestinian boy is born under occupation.

A Palestinian boy is born under the rubble.

His mother walks for miles.

At the end of her journey, she has no place to stay.

Shepherds leave their work to search for signs of life.

Wise Folks squint through missiles to glimpse a star of salvation.

A Palestinian boy is born under occupation.

A Palestinian boy is born under the rubble.

He is the Hope of the World—

For when He is free, we all are free

With each reading, these words fell deeper into our hearts. 

The band played beautiful Christmas carols as well, many rewritten to better reflect the reality of our human condition and the world as it is. The following rendition of ‘O Come All You Faithful’ by Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee, Gary Rand, and Lenora Rand brought me to tears in both services:

O come, all you faithful,

you questioners and doubters

O come now, O come now to Bethlehem.

O come, all you weary,

brokenhearted brave ones

O come now, O come now to Bethlehem. 

O come, all you wanderers,

torn and lonely exiles

O come you, O come you to Bethlehem.

Come and behold now

Love that we’ve awaited.

O come for there is hope here

O come and know God’s peace here 

O come and find the joy in

Christ, child of Love.

Speaking of our human condition and the world as it is – my homily was written in the flurry of a very busy Christmas Eve Sunday. I was still putting the finishing touches on it just minutes before our service began! (Church note: Christmas Eve on a Sunday is quite the feat.) Alas, I leaned into our theme for the season, “Being Human Together” and welcomed my own human limitations this year. And you know what, I think 3 minute homilies could become a thing! 

This one is from my heart. 

A Christmas Eve Homily for St. Croix Church

December 24th, 2023

Well, I spent the last two days wearing an apron I bought myself this Christmas that says “Eat, Drink & Be Merry.” But if I could rewrite it for us I’d want it to say “Eat, Drink & Be Messy.”

Throughout the fall we’ve spent time contemplating what it means to be human together –to be real, authentic, messy, enfleshed, and imperfect people living alongside each other. You could say, we’ve contemplated incarnation together. What does it mean to be human –to become visible– to put on flesh? Taking a cue from The Velveteen Rabbit, we considered how becoming real is a thing that happens to you, and the way that it happens, is by being loved.

But opening ourselves up to Love isn’t always an easy thing to do. Often, this is because our culture and society, academic institutions and churches, peers and family even, have all (intentionally and unintentionally) placed pressure on us to hide who we really are, and asked us to live up to some kind of perfected human ideal. 

At Christmas, in the Christian tradition, we recall the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth – a baby born to a young refugee mother in occupied Bethlehem, in Palestine. This is not a metaphor — into  these conditions exactly, Jesus was born.

This morning, Mark urged us not to miss the real message this Christmas – that we are not waiting for Christ’s arrival at all. It happened already. What we do through Advent, and at Christmas, is remember that Christ is here. Love is here. It is in you

We are strikingly aware that life is full of heartbreaking loss, pain, and suffering. And life is full of beauty, hope, joy, and love, too. Both-and. We can’t be fully human without experiencing it all.

This year especially, I’ve been reminded that when it gets this dark, it is precisely the time to chase after everything that shimmers with a promise of light. It is precisely the time to cling to Love with everything you’ve got. 

So, deck the halls, friends. Bake your favourite Christmas treats. Eat, drink, be messy & merry. Love your people in all their imperfect glory, and celebrate together. 

The world is very dark, it’s true. And the world is full of light, too –of Love incarnate in every child on earth, in me and in you. We will not turn away from the darkness or the suffering. We will not pretend it isn’t there. But we will light candles tonight, and join our voices with people all over the world insisting that there is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. (Jn.1:5) His law is love. His gospel is peace. As Dr. Munther Isaac says, “If Christ is anywhere he is in the rubble of Gaza.” I believe that Christ is in the rubble of our own lives too. And this Christ Light -this Love Within Us- is the Life of the World. (Jn. 1:4)

Blessings on your messy Christmas my friends,

Jess

Featured image by Kelly Latimore
You can view Dr. Munther Isaac’s full homily here.

Additional Reading: This is a compelling article from MCC, with helpful action points and additional links.

A dove from a turret at Sagrada Familia

Communities and Spiritual Maturity: Rooted with Wings

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Presented by Walter Thiessen at 2018 Society for Vineyard Scholars (Kentucky)

Some communities are good soil (Mt. 13.1-23). New seeds – new life-giving ideas spoken and embodied – are received, understood and integrated into the individual and shared lives of such groups. Some communities are not; they are closed, hard and rocky or they are fragmented, choked by competing desires for the heart, the loyalty, of their members. A dove from a turret at Sagrada Familia

One factor that helps to determine the nature of a faith community is the explicit or implicit understanding of spiritual maturity that guides it. From a practical theological standpoint, this leads us into the territory of faith development or spiritual development models.

Assessing James Fowler’s Faith Development Stages

The most important such model, in both Christian and secular circles, is James Fowler’s Faith Development Theory (FDT; 1981, 2001). This model, based on “sequential, invariant, and hierarchical” stages (2001, p.167), has been widely taught and also widely adapted and simplified (or imitated) in the stage theories of authors such as Scott Peck (1987), Dave Schmelzer, (2008), or Brian McLaren, (2012).

Much good has come out of these stage theories. In my experience, people have responded the most to these three concepts: 1) the growth value of passing through a season of doubts and individual questioning, 2) the importance of embracing paradox, and 3) the rare possibility of developing a truly selfless and universal compassion. These are the central themes in the last three of Fowler’s stages, and they have helped to broaden a sense of what spiritual maturity looks like in those communities that have given attention to such theories.

Of course, there have been criticisms of Fowler’s theory. According to one thorough assessment, the focus on clear stages is only supported by research when its emphasis is on cognitive aspects (Parker, 2010, p. 245) and when it describes pre-adolescents (p. 239). Ironically, these are precisely the aspects of FDT that are most ignored in popular presentations of Fowler or his imitators. Clore and Fitzgerald (2002) likewise found no empirical support for the stage theory, concluding that “rather than a sequential set of displacements, faith involves a progressive integration of new elements into an existing base” (p. 104).

This certainly does not mean that the wisdom that has borne much good fruit when teaching Fowler’s discussion of the higher stages has been misguided; it only means that we should hold lightly the relationship between the important developmental themes of these higher stages and our need to pass through “sequential, invariant, and hierarchical” stages. We are highly complex and unpredictable beings. One danger in not capturing this human uniqueness and complexity is that teaching the stage theories often contains an implicit elitism with which someone (or even some communities), presumably in a higher stage, invites others in lower stages to come join him or her.

Introducing the Mosaic Model of Spiritual Maturity

Considering the limitations of FDT, and similar stage models, I have looked to other sources such as complexity theory, attachment theory and other models of spiritual development to propose a model that I call the Mosaic of Spiritual Maturity. This model (Thiessen, 2015), is based on two interactive dimensions: 1) an expansive trajectory toward increasing complexity, and 2) a pattern of four facets or themes that are present throughout our lives (in relation to spiritual development) and that recur for seasons during which they take “central stage” in our awareness and growth.

Spiritual Maturity

Most relevant to this paper is my understanding of the first dimension. It is the natural pathway of all organisms to grow in complexity. For an increase in complexity to lead to maturity, it must be organized and constrained by integrity: a sense of meaningful wholeness or unity among the diverse complexity in the midst of which we live and of which we are made. Therefore, I define maturing as increasing complexity held together by integrity.

There are two important aspects of integrity that are important. There is, first, the appropriate integrity of all those diverse experiences and understandings that contribute to our growth (i.e. the integrity of the “pieces”). For new experiences and new understandings to become well integrated into my life, I need to respect the integrity of each new “piece” and not violate or distort it before it becomes a part of me. For example, if I meet a young Trump supporter and instantly assume that he is a white supremacist brainwashed by fake news, I have not permitted this to be an encounter with a sense of integrity that contributes to my growing maturity. I have violated an understanding of a real human being to fit him into my pre-existing categories.

Simultaneously, when I experience and take in the complexity around me, my larger integrity – my sense of wholeness, meaning and identity – will be affected. There is a tension between these two levels of integrity: the integrity of the pieces and the integrity of the whole. Therefore, I use the metaphor of the mosaic as central to the model; each small and meaningful piece contributes to the larger pattern of the whole.

Sometimes the tension is too much for us, when our sense of wholeness and meaning are not flexible enough to adapt to what is new. Then giving way to the integrity of the new experience or encounter threatens to fragment our larger sense of integrity. We can then resist in fear and spit out that new piece that threatens. Or we can take it in and be broken. That brokenness, in turn, can lead either to a time of meaninglessness – a fragmentation that saps my energy and purpose – or a time of conversion and re-building that enables a larger and more flexible new integrity to emerge.

The “ideal” spiritual maturity, then, for us is not to reach any particular “stage” but to grow at the pace that allows us to respond by preserving the integrity of the encountered outside world (and one might add: inner, unexplored, world) with a minimum of either hardened resistance or crippling fragmentation.

Free-flowing “Facets” or Themes

While the second dimension is less important to the purpose of this paper, I will describe it briefly. In the common stage theories, like FDT, key concepts like conformity, individualism, and paradox define the stages. I reinterpret these concepts as part of facets or themes that are always present and (hopefully) maturing in everyone. Different facets will rise to prominence in our lives at different times in relatively unpredictable but recurring patterns. I suggest that they are all somewhat linked in that maturing in one facet helps to enable further growth in other facets.

While recognizing that there is an arbitrary sense to the naming of the facets, I have proposed four facets (for elaboration see: Thiessen, 2015):

1) Chaos and order (agency, consequences, in/justice)

2) Love, forgiveness and community (primary social dimensions of spirituality)

3) Freedom and change (a bifurcated facet often taken the shape of a or b)

  1. a) Revolution and resistance (naming and countering what seems wrong)
  2. b) Imagination and hope (seeing and trusting beyond what is present)

4) Mystery, peace and trust (deep acceptance, comfort with not knowing)

Within each of these facets or themes there are many spiritual lessons to learn or potential places to get stuck. We never master a facet or “arrive” at a stage, but we mature with either a smooth continuity or a discontinuous journey of stuckness and conversion.

 The Role of Community

While some theorists, perhaps most notably Hagberg and Guelich (1989), posit the significance of a time of discontinuous change (“the Wall”), my Mosaic model does not normalize this expectation. Yet I acknowledge that many do face this kind of developmental challenge. I suggest that this has less to do with the individual (though individual temperaments do play a role) and more to do with the primary spiritual communities with which people identify. Intentionally or unintentionally, communities often limit the maturing process of their members. For example, if a community’s beliefs and narratives are devoted to an actively interventionist God who always wants to act if prayerfully given permission, then many people are going to become spiritually stuck when faced with painful experiences of injustice, undeserved suffering or unanswered prayer.

In such cases, to mature, individuals must be open to possibilities outside of the spiritual resources of their own community. This is only a small obstacle if one’s primary community encourages a “wilderness experience” – the embracing of a time of “not knowing” during which one is openly seeking spiritual growth outside of the normal bounds of the community. However, if such wandering is curtailed because the “answers are already clear” or “absolute truths are not to be questioned,” then a “Wall” will most certainly be faced.

Attachment theory suggests that a primary caregiver provides a “secure base” from which toddlers begin to feel free to reach out and explore the world (Bowlby, 1988, p.11). Glancing back, they see that their parent remains available and non-anxious, and this empowers them to engage their explorations fully, reconnecting as needed. Communities likewise need to be a secure base from which individuals can explore the larger world. If the community clings, sets up rigid boundaries or “looks on anxiously” when an individual explores new things, individuals are faced with the difficult choice of staying too close to home or losing their home all together.

Healthy communities are hospitable to strangers, value journeying into the wilderness and regularly see the Presence of God in the “Other.” Such theological concepts of openness help keep the boundaries of communities flexible and permeable. Communities that embody these kinds of openness facilitate the spiritual maturity of their members, lessening the need for stuckness and fearful resistance.

Fear and resistance, on the other hand, are easily exploited by leaders who are limited in their own spiritual maturity. Church growth is highly correlated with the giftedness rather than the spiritual maturity of its leaders. So a gifted leader can easily grow a church by emphasizing a shared cultural fear and offering a community as a haven from the dangerous society that surrounds it. In fact, I suggest that the exploitation of fear is one of the hallmarks of the immature leader, whether that fear is the fear of hell, the fear of same-sex marriage, or the fear of being politically incorrect.

On the other hand, communities, like individuals, must also maintain their integrity. Communities that do not articulate and embody a living and orienting centre may find that emphasizing openness leads to a disorienting fragmentation. Shared meaning in the community dims, and there is little shared purpose. Such communities tend to drift toward dissolution.

Does a community, then, welcome the expansiveness that maturity requires, an expansiveness that will always challenge the boundaries and past understandings on which the community has relied? Does a community also offer a cohesive centring pull with an elastic worldview with which it can meaningfully integrate new and challenging perspectives? In our community in St. Stephen, we have asked ourselves whether we, while remaining rooted, provide our people with wings to fly. In biblical terms, we see this elasticity in the way that Jesus (like the OT prophets) simultaneously questioned the boundaries of his community (e.g. Lk. 14.26, Lk. 4.24-26, Mt. 5.38-39) while affirming his connection with it (e.g. Mt. 5.17-20, Jn. 4.22).

A healthy community, then, can be seen in its elasticity. It can be strongly stretched without breaking, but there is also a pull drawing its members back to its centre. I would suggest that for Christian communities, this centre is most clearly articulated in Jesus’ embodiment of, and invitation to, the inextricably entwined love of God and neighbour.[1]

YWAM: An Example

Just this past year, Tonya Stanfield, experienced YWAM leader in South Africa, published an article on faith development in a YWAM journal. She begins by stating: “Perhaps one of the greatest hurdles Evangelicals face in pursuit of spiritual maturity is a lack of understanding about the human development process” (2017, p.1). Basing her analysis largely on Fowler, she assesses how “embodied and contemplative practices” can mediate the faith development of participants.

In both her own research project and in her reading, Stanfield came to realise the very real concern that faith communities can and do restrain the spiritual development of their members. She cites Jamieson, for example, as concluding:

that 30 percent of committed, active believers who left a church did so because they transitioned out of its modal development level. They had no offense or disagreement with their church but felt they could not continue their faith journey within it. In particular, they did not feel they had the permission or safety to raise destabilizing metanarrative questions, much less the space or equipping tools to explore alternative answers to those questions. (2002, in Stanfield, 2017, p.11)

Using the language of Fowler’s stages, she labels the “modal level” of YWAM’s public meetings as stage 3, while the “classroom culture” is stage 4. She gives a common example from her own study that in public YWAM settings, “Stage 4 voices were stifled by the modal level unknowingly maintained by those in Stage 3” (p.11).

Stanfield describes that it is the internal valuing of diversity within YWAM that helps prevent the restricting effects from being even greater (pp.11-12). This appreciation for diversity enables a relatively mature openness in the classroom and presumably provides a safe enough place for Stanfield herself to study and promote such a critique of their own culture. Stanfield also stresses the value of individual participants finding “safe” and “liminal” groups (p.13) to support those who were left struggling with “metanarrative questions, unresolved ministry disillusionments” (p. 14). Unfortunately, working against this is YWAM’s official policy that “insists their actual beliefs remain in Stage 3, peer-defined and based on external-authority that has not been reconciled with personal experience” (p. 14).

While Stanfield’s article uses the stage-bound language of FDT, it demonstrates the very real limitation of a community on spiritual development. What I would add from the perspective of the Mosaic Model is that the YWAM community is simultaneously limiting and liberating thanks to individuals within it who are committed to theological openness regardless of the stage at which they may be labelled. It is their relative ability to combine the elasticity of openness while preserving the integrity at their centre that has enabled some individuals to move beyond the rigidity of their official policies and beliefs.

The Health of Vineyard Communities

The global Vineyard community has much in common with YWAM. I would expect that Stanfield’s experiences would be mirrored in many local Vineyard contexts. While Stanfield’s critique, and Fowler’s FDT, might suggest that the Vineyard should ask itself whether it provides “Stage 4 or even Stage 5 communities,” the model I am suggesting warns against the implication that we need communities that have a certain “modal level.” I wonder how such expectations would really empower a healthy diversification (particularly across educational levels) and the necessary multigenerational needs of any community. Maybe such an emphasis in the past has, unhelpfully and divisively, made it feel like those Vineyards (and their leaders) with a more educated or progressive congregation were condescending to those presumed to be at a lower stage of development.

An example of how it is more complex than this can be seen in the life of Henri Nouwen. As a very well educated and widely respected voice of spiritual wisdom, one would have good reason to assume that he represented a higher stage in Fowler’s model and that Harvard Divinity School represented a very mature community. Yet, relatively late in his life, he left his spiritually nuanced academic world to join a L’Arche community in Canada. He writes that “[I] had to let go of all previous notions of church and community, traditional understandings about who is in and who is not, and to empty myself of long-held opinions and judgments. But in return, I have found a home of deep joy and new purpose” (2010, pp.91-92).

So instead of the modal level that a community is at, I suggest that whatever diverse mix (or not) is represented in a faith community, the key to its healthy nurturing of spiritual development is that it embodies a healthy elasticity, an openness to its members seeking insight outside, in the Wilderness, while at the same time maintaining a meaningful integrity that sincerely welcomes “home” those whose understandings have significantly changed.

I will suggest an example that many of you have seen and others will soon see. Your young people, in high school or university, will come to learn about genocide as one of the most immoral acts in which a person can participate. One day they will be reading Joshua and their eyes will be opened, and they will see a God commanding genocide. If your community has not provided them with a flexible hermeneutic or if you are not willing to welcome and struggle together with those who refuse to worship a God who commands genocide, then you will lose these precious children of your community. And I am glad in that case that you will. But I hope, rather, that you have the elasticity to centre them without stifling their minds and hearts.

I leave it to others to assess whether the typical Vineyard church demonstrates this elasticity that encourages and welcomes the true spiritual maturity of its people. But I hope that we avoid dogmatic confessionalism or, its contemporary counterpart, public statements on cultural or political stances that rigidly draw a line in the sand. In such communities we will often find spiritual maturity most in those who are ejected or sadly walk away. When Nicodemus, whose paradigms were being blown apart, came to Jesus, he heard Jesus say, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8). The spiritually mature will always choose to follow the Spirit rather than being entrapped by the boundaries of a rigid community, but how many of them will we lose?

[1] And, yes, I am explicitly stating this centre over and above any doctrinal statements.

*For copies or references, email Walter.

The Gift of a Building

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Written by Peter Fitch in 2000

When we started our church outside of St. Stephen, New Brunswick in 1992 we didn’t think that we would ever want to have a building of our own. But we did hope that we’d be able to find a good place to rent somewhere in the town itself. We fasted and prayed about it, and four short (it seemed anything but short!) years later a new principal allowed us to use the elementary school gym. It was perfect except for the acoustics, and the fact that we could only have it once a week. Later, in response to a worship leader’s dream, we took a risk on an older building that was being modernized downtown, and we were able to set-up offices and a meeting place in a somewhat classier environment. But it wasn’t perfect either. In every temperature it was “too” something, the ceiling was so low that leprechauns would have been restricted in worship and, worst of all, we met above a pub and no one could concentrate on ministry time when they started grilling steaks downstairs. When we got a chance to move again, we did (fortunately, it was the week before, not after, the owners went bankrupt and everything was locked inside by order of the Sheriff’s Department).

Our new landlord was the local Roman Catholic church. They had an old school that they were using as a parish center and a new priest was willing to let us use it if we could work around their catechism classes. It wasn’t always easy to do that, but the place was larger than our last home and as time went on we felt quite comfortable there. We didn’t think of it as a permanent stop, but we were glad to not have to think about looking for awhile.

In the spring of 1999 my Dad died. That took all of my attention for a month or so. It was a hard one for me because although he did noticeably soften his position over the years, my Dad didn’t have the kind of conversion that I longed for him to have. I had to do the memorial service (he had asked me years before) and my greatest fear was that God wouldn’t show up, leaving me to deal with all of the strong personalities in my family with my own limited resources and strength. I walked a lot around my parents’ home on Salt Spring Island, BC during the days before the service. I sat in mountain meadows or by the water and thought and prayed. Finally something broke in me and I realized that it was God who told us to honour our father and mother. So I knew He would come. And when it was time He did. His presence was so strong that people said things like, “I don’t believe in God and I felt Him during this service.” Somehow this happened without me stopping to explain anything about Him. There were no psalms or songs. There was just the gift of my heavenly Abba showing up to help me honour my earthly Dad.

About two weeks after I returned to New Brunswick from Salt Spring Island, three things happened all at once. We got a letter from the Catholic church saying that they had decided to sell or close our building–we could have six months more in it at the most. And Donny Olmstead, a man from our congregation, came to me and told me that he had found a family in our area who lived in a tar paper shack that was starting to fall-in. He had spent the last month trying to figure out how to raise funds to build them a proper home. Now he wanted to know if the church was able to help.

The third thing was quite special. One of our senior intercessors, Wanda Brown, had seen a video about Israel. Conscious of the fact that my Dad was Jewish, she was struck by the men wearing their prayer shawls, and she decided that she had to get me one for Christmas. So, on a plane heading to Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship for a conference last spring she had said to God, “Father, where am I going to find a prayer shawl for Peter?” On the second day of the conference, surrounded by about 4,000 strangers, the man beside her leaned over and asked, “Do you have a prayer shawl?” She responded with some enthusiasm that she would like to know where to find one, so the man told her about a couple of stores that sold them in Toronto. This meant nothing to her because she didn’t have a car or any extra money.

About an hour later he leaned over to her and said, “Just give me your address–I’ll send you one.” It arrived about the time we were hearing about our congregational homelessness and the family that needed a home outside of town. She couldn’t wait until Christmas so she brought it right over, and we all marveled at the story. The man she had been sitting beside was the CEO of a company in Pennsylvania that imports prayer shawls from Israel. The cheapest ones were more than $50 US, and he had simply given it to her. And it was so beautiful. Along with it came an explanation that the prayer shawls were like “little tents” so that each man could have his own place of prayer, even when he wasn’t in the large tent of meeting where God met with Israel as they traveled through the wilderness.

God’s direction seemed clear through all of this. We decided that the three events in the same week meant that we were to focus first on the needs of the homeless family (we didn’t really know anything about them–as time went on we found that there was an older husband and wife with a disabled son, and that the husband was very sick). After that, when it was time and we needed a new place, we felt that God would give us a place to meet in to pray in the same simple way that He had given Wanda the prayer shawl.

That’s what happened. We had meant to take a building offering for ourselves in the spring, but instead we took a building offering for the house. Also, some of us painted it and one day about 40 of us of all ages did the landscaping. And lots of other groups and people helped with various parts of the project, too. The house is beautiful. The father lived in it for only one week before he died but he was overwhelmed with joy that his family was going to be cared for in this safe place. I drove by the house soon after his death, only three weeks after we had planted grass in ground that seemed as dry as desert. To my astonishment there was a rich, green lawn perfectly placed around the house. For me this has become an image of the promise of God’s life in the midst of hard things.

Then it was time to focus on our need. Over the years we had only saved $11,000 in our building fund. It didn’t seem like much. We wondered about trying to buy the building we were in, but the Catholic church was asking $225,000. Besides, we were already filling the downstairs hall that we met in for services, and none of us particularly liked the building anyway–it was an old, nondescript school with about thirteen horrible paint jobs all blended together.

The price dropped to $200,000. By part way through the summer it fell to $175,000. It was on a camping trip with our two families that our associate Carol Thiessen showed us how to see the building with new eyes. The upstairs, full of classrooms, could be remade into a sanctuary that could seat more than 400. That would give us room to grow, and we could make it as nice as we wanted. We already knew that the structure was sound. The property included adequate parking, lawns for picnics after services, and two small playground areas. We decided to go for it. Mustering together all of our faith, we offered $115,000. I know this sounds like a ridiculously small amount, but ever since the beginning we’ve loved having the freedom to give money away, and we’ve always been sure that we didn’t want to place so much emphasis on buildings that our giving would be constricted. And, of course, the bank insisted on at least 25% down on a commercial purchase. We didn’t think we had enough in hand to be able to offer more.

The Catholic church countered with $165,000. We offered $125,000 with creative financing, but they just weren’t interested. Then someone else offered $130,000 and they agreed. Our dream was gone. We were well into the fall by this point and everyday we wondered where we would find a home. The elementary school said we could return, but that felt like going backwards. We bid on another building that showed promise but someone else offered a lot more. We were stumped.

Still, there had been some encouragement. Our church was growing and we were bringing in more money than our budget required. That seemed good. And suddenly one of our folks came to us and explained that a family property had been sold and that a tithe of one portion was coming to the church–$15,000. The timing was great. When the news came that the new buyers for our building had been unsuccessful in raising their financing we were ready to match their offer of $130,000, and the building was ours.

In the early summer when we had taken the offering for the house instead of the church, a strong down payment had seemed unattainable. We had hoped that we would be able to add a little to the $11,000 we had, but we didn’t expect too much more. In October, when we got a second chance on the building, we realized that with the budget surplus and the promised gift of $15,000 we had more than $35,000 to offer as a down payment. And this was before we had even taken a building offering. When we did take a special offering we ended-up with enough money for all the legal fees and purchase costs, as well as for the first several fix-up projects.

Best of all, better even than finally having a building to call our own, was the sense that the whole thing was a gift of love from our God. The sale of the property that provided the only large gift (the $15,000) that our church has ever received seemed to point to that. First of all, the sale had nothing to do with our need–it was totally unrelated. Secondly, we heard that the money was coming just in time to make our final offer when the building was put back on the market. And third, after the money had gone through all of its own legal hoops it landed in a bank in St. Stephen, just one week before our closing date of December 30, 1999. The whole process seems governed by God’s providence from start to finish. Now we’re praying that He’ll help us to use the building well.

Toward a New Monasticism

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Written by Peter Fitch in 2003

Last fall I had an opportunity to spend some time at the Cambridge Vineyard’s new home, a Slovakian Jesuit monastery that lies hidden behind a park in the heart of the city. The grounds are beautiful and when I was there the buildings were in the process of being hastened back to life by an army of volunteers. I spent a quiet hour or two on the property one day and found myself reflecting about the irony of a new-styled church in an older-styled home. It fit so well with the cry for an “ancient-future” church that Robert Webber, Thomas Oden, and others have been raising in their books and articles.

It also fit with something very dear to my own heart. Over the past number of years I’ve been teaching a course called Ministry Skills and Issues in the Master of Ministry Program that I direct at St. Stephen’s University in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. In the course, students read many ancient Christian works, and together we sit at a round table and discuss the relevance of the ideas to the churches that are forming today. I’ve become convinced that older writings contain substance, wisdom, beauty, and attitudes that we must not lose as we ramble through postmodernism and head for whatever comes next. As we stretch for the future we need to be grounded in the past.

Sitting in an office (Art Rae’s—it’s a nice one), I looked out over the grounds and I rejoiced at the Lord’s gift to this church. Suddenly I sensed that He was leading my reflections. Most people who have lived their lives in monasteries have taken a three-fold vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Although I’ve appreciated the motivation behind the vows, I’ve always felt that monks missed an important part of “being in the world, but not of it” with this approach. I love a great deal of St. Augustine’s writing, for instance, but I’ve grown used to simply discarding anything that he has to say about family matters. From the time in the Confessions when he recorded his second most famous prayer,[1] “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet!” he consistently sought or wrestled with the need for a “full” conversion, not just to Jesus but to celibacy. That this was, in his mind, a necessary part of any conversion worth having is, to my mind, a tragedy.

On the other hand, I have to agree with Richard Foster and others who have chastised the contemporary church for looking suspiciously like the rest of the world in regard to issues of money, sex and power. It’s easy to believe that something is missing in this approach, too.

Where is the proper path? What is it like? Gradually I felt the Lord pointing me to something that went beyond the mistakes of the past or the present. “I’m not looking for poverty,” He seemed to say, “but for a prosperity of contentment, whether someone has a lot or a little, that issues forth in generosity. I’m not looking for chastity, but for a purity of spirit and body, whether a person is single or married, that allows him or her to be devoted to My purposes and yielded to My ways.” (I immediately sensed that for most of us this would include a level of sexual healing, and that the Lord knew this very well and was at peace with the idea. I also sensed that He was willing to offer it.) Finally, I heard this idea: “I’m not looking for unswerving obedience to a spiritual director or to a person or to an institution, or even to a way of doing things; rather, I desire a mutuality of submission in leaders and followers that allows them to bend towards the needs and cares that they find in each other and produces the kind of unity that pushes back darkness and shows the world something of My character.”

At the end of the reflection I was seeing a form of “spiritual monastery” rising up in cities and towns all over our land. It was connected to the passion and faithfulness that led ancient Christians to make so many sacrifices, but it was also full of serious engagement with the world as it now is. The “city of God” was being planted, not in a desert, or on a hill, but right in the midst of the “city of man.” The spiritual buildings seemed defined by balloons of joy that were leaving the hands of people on the ground and reaching for heaven. Every living church got to play its part, and all of the people, men and women and children, lived on holy ground as they kept thankful and obedient hearts in the midst of the various communities in which they lived. Their prayers, at times ordered and at times spontaneous, were like the Benedictine hours of the Divine Office. Their songs, whether gentle or wild, whether acoustic, electric, or digital, echoed the meaning of Gregorian chants. Their healing compassion for the broken ones around them was like the Franciscan care of lepers. Their devotion to the Word or to the teaching ministry of the Church was reminiscent of the Dominicans or the Jesuits as they traveled to spread the Gospel far and wide. And their growing intimacy with God was a picture of the Cistercians, particularly of Bernard of Clairvaux who preached 86 rapturous sermons on the Song of Songs, only to make it to Chapter 2, verse 1!

When I think of it now, I like to reflect on one additional aspect of a new monasticism: the cultivation of silence that in the end produces a powerful Word. Long before the Trappists, ancient Christians suspected that this was the truth. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred around 107 A.D., wrote this to the Ephesian church:

A man who has truly mastered the utterances of Jesus will also be able to apprehend His silence, and thus reach full spiritual maturity, so that his own words have the force of actions and his silences the significance of speech.[2]

Apprehending the silence of Jesus speaks of a maturity of character and a security in relationship with Him that allows consistent behaviour in all circumstances. It is found in the ebb and flow of all of life, but it represents a kind of quietness and peace in the soul that grows out of a long experience of trust. I think one part of it also grows as a fruit or result of simply spending time with God, not always talking, but being conscious of His presence and available to His leadings.

Along with this, and related to it, people who represent a living monasticism in today’s churches will be good at listening, not only to God but to others as well.[3] Instead of the cloister they will be found in the highways and byways of life and commerce, but they will have an internal strength to absorb the pain of the struggling ones around them, and they will have an authority and power to set them free.

The Cambridge Vineyard, with its strong but humble leaders, its wonderful worship music, its determined focus upon children and mercy ministries, as well as its emphasis upon camaraderie and fellowship, became for me a prophetic picture of God’s longing for a new monasticism in the 21st century. Not all of our churches will acquire monasteries or traditional church buildings. However, all can become strong and beautiful communities of faith and action that rise up and fill the land with the best intentions of the past and their appropriate fulfillments in the present and the future. May it be so!

[1] I think most would agree that “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee” comes first.

[2] Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Maxwell Staniforth (New York: Dorset Press, 1968), 80.

[3] This is similar to an important New Testament admonition: “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19).

Reflections on Christian Community

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Written by Peter Fitch in 1999.

The rain may never fall till after sundown,
by eight the morning fog must disappear;
in short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happ’ly ever-aftering than here in Camelot . . . .

Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe from the 1960 Broadway Musical

For the past twenty years I’ve been living in an intentional but loosely-formed Christian community that has grown-up in and around a Christian university in a small town in southern New Brunswick.  I am grateful for the privilege of Christian fellowship, and yet I’ve experienced some of the pain of it as well.  As I look back over my experience I see a mixture of rich moments and broken dreams.  

I’ve decided, therefore, to emphasize in this article the dangers of community, and only secondarily to focus upon aspects of community formation and the benefits of a healthy experience.  My hope is that these comments will relate to various kinds of shared living, including the expressions of community that are found in normal church life, and that they will serve as a warning of possible problems that might drain life and joy from those who are making the attempt.  

First of all, the experience of building community seems often to be linked with the desire to build a Camelot or a utopia (which quite literally means “no place”).  This is fraught with dangers on every side.  It is a form of romantic idealism, and it can keep people from appreciating the quality of fellowship that actually exists.  Probably no one has said this more clearly than Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together, a book based upon the common life of students at an illegal seminary that he led in Finkenwalde, Germany from 1935 to 1938:    

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams . . .

He also said,    

One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood.

In other words, one of the greatest potential threats to a strong community experience is the lofty notion that some participants will have of what it is supposed to be like.  Community does not mean that you will always be surrounded by people that are congenial and helpful, and everything will not always be fun.  Real life is not composed of a continuous diet of warm experiences.  The one who hopes for something like this is in need of a change of perspective.  The dream will become an idol, and the dreamer may become a destroyer of community even as he or she so earnestly seeks it.  Instead of appreciating and building what God has established, people who follow a wish dream complain and look for something that God never intended.  A far healthier approach would include gratitude for what is, and faithful work for continual improvement.  

Bonhoeffer also gives excellent insight into a second danger.  He says that Christian community is based upon Jesus Christ and is, therefore, a spiritual reality.  Many communities purport to be Christian, but are in fact psychic, or human, in nature.  They are filled with subtle processes of manipulation.  Bonhoeffer warns,      

Thus there is such a thing as human absorption. It appears in all the forms of conversion wherever the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of the weak has broken down under the influence of another person.

Communities like these often seem more devout than others, and members are capable of surprising sacrifices.  The problem is that people are not being drawn into healthy relationship with Jesus Christ; rather, they are drawn into dependent relationships with each other.  In a very real sense their devotion to their community separates them from Jesus as it successfully separates them from the rest of His body in the world.  A sense of elitism is fostered as people are continually presented with the community’s idealized view of itself.  And people are valued or devalued in connection with their acceptance or rejection of this perspective.  

A third danger has been noted by Jean Vanier, Canadian founder of L’Arche, an international organization that cares for handicapped people through the building of  caring communities.  In Community and Growth he writes,  

Too many communities form–or deform–their members to make them all alike, as if this were a good quality, based on self-denial. These communities are founded on laws or rules. But it is the opposite which is important; each person must grow in their gift to build the community and make it more beautiful and more radiant, a clearer sign of the Kingdom.

I think that this relates to both conscious and unconscious forms of structure.  In unhealthy places the structures or expectations actually keep people from becoming what God meant them to be by trying to force people to become what the community wants them to be.  This can be caused by too much structure, but too little can also be a problem.  Without some organization humans often tend toward the lowest common denominator. A healthy situation provides the necessary context for growth and yet sets people free to develop according to their own individual giftings and callings.  

A fourth danger is similar: just as individuals must be allowed to differ, so must communities be allowed to be distinct.  Vanier says,    

One of the signs of life in a community is the creation of links with others. An inward-looking community will die of suffocation. Living communities are linked to others, making up a huge reservoir of love for the world. And as only the one Spirit inspires and gives life, communities being born or reborn will be alike without ever knowing each other; the seeds the Spirit sows across the world, like prophetic signs for tomorrow, have a common source. It is a sign of maturity for a community to bind itself in friendship with others; it knows its own identity, so doesn’t need to make comparisons. It loves even the differences which distinguish it, because each community has its own gift which must flourish. These communities are complementary; they need each other. They are all branches of that unique community which is the Church, the mystical body of Christ. He is the vine of which the communities are branches.  

On reflection, I think that all of these dangers can be traced to a common theme.  Unhealthy communities do not set others free to be what God has intended them to be; rather, they play a destructive role by foisting an oppressive idealism upon them.  

If this is the main problem, it relates well to what some have considered the greatest challenge to true community life and formation: the necessary breakthrough into loving people as they actually are.  M. Scott Peck, in The Different Drum, has this to say about the stages of formation:  

Communities, like individuals, are unique. Still we all share the human condition. So it is that groups assembled deliberately to form themselves into community routinely go through certain stages in the process. These stages, in order, are: Pseudocommunity, Chaos, Emptiness, Community.  

In the Student Handbook for St. Stephen’s University I tried to explain it this way:    

People typically go through a process in the formation of true community. At first there is joy at the excitement of meeting others, and people are polite, rarely expressing all that they have to say. Over time they begin to notice how different others actually are, as acceptance brings greater levels of honesty. This sometimes brings discomfort and a feeling of alienation. Soon, however, these negative feelings are replaced by a diligent attempt to heal the others, by making them think and act more like we do. It is only after the frustration and emptiness of this failed attempt that we actually learn to accept people for who they really are, with all of their differences. This is the beginning of the learning of real love, and it is the beginning of true community. It must be this way. People must be accepted for who they really are, not what we want them to be.  

When it works it’s amazing.  I have a friend who calls it “Life at the Oasis.” In healthy community, as people are set free to be who they are and to grow in the direction that God intends for them, life takes on a joy that is rarely experienced in other settings.  It is like adding harmony to a simple melody: suddenly there is beauty that is more than the sum of the parts.  A context that is deeper than normal life is created, and shared learning results in deeper formation and shared anointings.  God works powerfully in true community.  From the Scriptures we know that community provides a basis for evangelism (Jn. 13:34-35), nurture (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35), and healthy body life (1 Cor. 12-14).  It also provides a prophetic picture to the world of what life in God can be  (Mt. 5:14-16).  

Best of all, though, is the teaching that Jesus gives of the community as the container of God’s presence.  He told His disciples on the evening of the Last Supper that if they would keep His commandments (particularly, in context, to love one another) that the Father would love them, and that both He and the Father would come and live with them (Jn. 14:23).  I think that God is irresistibly drawn to places where people who love Him encourage each other and help each other with practical acts of love.  This is real life and not Camelot.  I for one would rather live in the reality of God’s Kingdom than in the wish dream of a human ideal.