Becoming The Beloved Community

The human heart longs for community—a place to belong, to be known, to be understood, to be accepted, affirmed, and loved. Yet whenever we become part of a community, it doesn’t take long before we begin to experience tension, misunderstanding, jealousies, irritations, and conflict. Why is this? Because life in community reveals who we really are. It reveals the gap between what Thomas Merton called the false self and the true self.[1]

The people who know us best hold up a mirror that reflects our deepest wounds and greatest fears. When my brokenness rubs up against your brokenness, it begins to reverberate, causing discomfort. The people who really know us end up knowing us too well. In our casual relationships over coffee or on Facebook, we get to choose what aspects of ourselves to reveal. But in our closest relationships, we can’t hide so easily. Perhaps this is why we often prefer the company of casual friends to the intimacy of our closest relationships or families of origin, or why so many of us move from group to group in search of the “perfect” faith community or spiritual companions. We can learn to embrace the tension, irritation, and conflict we experience in our closest relationships as invitations into a deeper path of healing, growth, and soul transformation.

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[1] Thomas Merton, “Things in Their Identity,” in New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Discovery Books, 1961), pp. 29–36.

 

Moving Communities Inward

David Johnson is senior pastor of Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota. The website describes the mission of the church as follows:

God invites us to take Next Steps inward. We use the word discover to describe the journey inward. There is no greater journey of discovery than to personally discover how good our God really is! To discover that your God is for you that no matter what, God loves you with an unbreaking, never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love and even though you forget God and even run away sometimes. God is watching, waiting and longing for you to come home.

But to discover God in this way, you must be willing and intentional about taking a journey inward. Willing to be brutally honest about what is real in the deepest part of you. The Bible calls it your “soul,” and makes it clear that caring for your soul is of utmost importance (Matthew 16:26).[1]

How does a church community become centered on this journey inward? What does it take to build the kind of community that can help deepen and facilitate this kind of journey? And what prompts a pastor to send numerous members of his church staff through Ruth Haley Barton’s two-year Transforming Community experience? Conversations editor Cindy Bunch was curious about all this and more, so she had a conversation with David Johnson about how a pastor moves his or her community inward.

[1] http://www.thedoor.org/#/discover. Accessed December 17, 2014.

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Emmaus Among Us

They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

—Luke 24:17–18

Transforming community begins as we choose to walk together, trusting that Jesus is in our midst as we talk and share about all the things that have happened. But it doesn’t end there.

Transforming community continues to unfold and deepen among us as we ask good questions and learn how to stand still and wait with one another in the midst of shattered hopes and dreams and the great unfixables of life. There is a quality of listening and being together with Jesus in the stuff of our lives that can open us to fresh perspectives and true spiritual insight, or at the very least an ability to let go and lean in to the situation just as it is.

I remember one experience with our youngest daughter, Haley, that continues to remind me of the power of this kind of listening and being with. It was Christmas Day, and she was ten years old. We had invited some dear family friends to join us for Christmas dinner, and everyone was looking forward to a wonderful day together. The only problem was that Haley had contracted pneumonia, and our friends had twins who had been born prematurely and could not risk being exposed to an infection. For several days leading up to Christmas, we watched and hoped and prayed that Haley would get better, but it was not meant to be. Our plans had to be canceled, and Haley was devastated; she had been looking forward to the day so much, and she also felt responsible for “ruining everyone’s Christmas.”

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Way Leads To Way

In 2004, my husband, David, and I found ourselves in a place we hadn’t anticipated: jobless. Because of some soul-crushing experiences related to our pastoral roles within a local church, we both resigned. It wasn’t premeditated. It was simply a choice of soul survival. For several years after, I pined for a vocational role that fit me the way that role had. So I did what many do when they have lost something important and meaningful. I kept looking for its replacement. And I kept looking where I’d found it before—on the staff of a local church. I tried that twice, but both times I never could “root” in the soil. It wasn’t my place.

Simultaneously, I felt a gnawing inside me that seemed to grow and intensify with time. It felt vague and yet persistent, and as best I could describe it, it was a longing or urging to give birth; to start something new. During that time, my good friend Ann quoted Robert Frost to me. She said, “Remember that ‘way leads to way.’” That seemed like wisdom and resonated with me; that each way, though it wasn’t where I would ultimately land, led to the next way and then the next. So, I continued to turn down roads that looked promising and walked through open doors that seemed to have potential. One of the doors was a training course to become a spiritual director.

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Contagious

Many years ago, I was speaking at a church about the importance of believing at “gut level” that God loves us when a man asked me, “How did you get to the place that you really believed that?” I’d just led them through a meditative exercise that had helped me immensely—what else could I offer? But in that moment of face-to-face interaction with him, another answer came to me.

Several years earlier I’d gotten involved in a twelve-step group. With head down and hands over my face, I had struggled to confess my mistakes. I’d expected to look up and see disapproving, shocked faces because some of these people knew I was married to the pastor at the church down the road. Instead, I looked up and saw nodding heads, warm smiles, and sympathetic eyes. Those receptive, understanding faces became the face of God for me. They communicated grace in accepting me amiably (passive grace as unmerited favor), and their encouragement somehow equipped me to change (active grace as empowerment). This set me up to start seeing God continually inviting me into a life of fullness and freedom. As I described this to my questioner, I began to grasp that we really need other people on our transformation journey.

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Front Page

“The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with Himself included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.” —Dallas Willard

When I shared with a friend of mine—someone who’s been a pastor, missionary, and is now a retreat leader in the mountains of Colorado—that this issue of Conversations Journal would be on the topic of “community,” he more than rolled his eyes. As someone who helps the burned out and burdened recover from the often unsustainable demands that get placed on those attempting to love and serve God, he is deeply skeptical of Christian buzzwords like community or mission. And like many followers of Christ, myself included, he has been deeply wounded in the name of maintaining or protecting “community.”

As Dallas Willard so wisely points out, God’s intention in history is the creation of the very thing: an all-inclusive community of loving persons with Himself in the center. Yet, how audacious is it to say the Lord’s entire purpose revolves around the thing that—in its currently fallen and broken state—has hurt or alienated so many of us?

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