|Photo by Rebecca Siegel|
January 2018, on a trip back to Maryland:
I’m sitting in friends’ living rooms, and we’re talking about Big Ideas: community and faithful living and hospitality and parenting.
Only, we aren’t just talking about ideas, because their fridge is full of homemade hazelnut milk and granola, their backyard has chickens and a garden, their guest room is occupied by an Ethiopian asylee, they are on the ground entering their kids’ world through some delicate balance of play and instruction, structure and freedom. These friends are imperfect yet living embodiments of the ideas; they are an invitation into an alternative way of being.
And as I drive back to my parents’ house that evening I’m thinking how something in me—some part of me that longs for this deep, hard work of faithful living—is awake.
It is, of course, not the first time that they have invited me in. These are the same people who were once roommates. Who taught me to bike to work by literally showing me the way, who taught me to garden by handing me a shovel and a fresh tomato, who taught me hospitality by letting in the Jehovah’s witnesses for a glass of water, who brought rhythms of community prayer and laughter to my life at a time I needed it.
I have been shaped by them and others like them.
It’s a point that sticks with me, especially this month, this year. Here we are: February now, the time when just about everyone has given up on those New Year’s diets and gym habits. And is it honestly any surprise? Trying to muscle change through on the strength of our individual will is, except in the rarest of cases, a futile effort.
A pointed example—we recently marked the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. And I think of all the chatter, the determination a year ago:
The morning after the election when my husband told me, “we might have to hide people in our home,” meaning immigrants in danger of deportation.
The pro-refugee rally we attended with a friend, and spent the whole drive back brainstorming an alert program that could notify people of an ICE raid, so that allies could flock to a home or business and put their bodies in the way, to block violence and dissolution of families.
The millions of desperate calls and letters I wrote—my senators on speed dial, calling once a week at first—determined to do something even though this didn’t feel quite like the something that could make any difference to anyone.
Now, it’s a year later and there is no one hiding in our home. There have been no recent rallies, and far fewer calls to legislators. Maybe I need to muscle up and push through. But if I’m honest, it’s not a different law I’m longing for, not a different governement that will bring the changes I seek, because it’s about spirit and community. It’s about something that has to be lived.
And by the sheer force of my own efforts, I just haven’t been able to keep up the energy.
When I talk about the need for community, this is not just a hippie commune idea. It’s the same reason monks live in monasteries, because who could pray the psalms all day long on their own strength? It’s the same reason we have AA or study groups or meetings for prayer or parenting. Because we are better in community.
Growing doesn’t come naturally. Most of the best changes in my life have been painful, like pruning. Which is why we need each other to become the people we want to be. God knows I do.
A Tanzanian host family taught me to give up my private “me-time” in exchange for the treasure of belonging over kerosene-lit dinners of ugali and greens—and my sense of family expanded. That first group house in Maryland inculcated in me the hard work and discipline it takes to bring about a garden and a daily practice of prayer—and I grew more open-hearted. My chaplaincy group this year has given me a devastatingly honest glimpse of myself and in the process taught me how to love better.
I’m grateful for all that. And now I’m longing for a new level of engagement. I felt something real and important last month as I saw the effect of one afternoon in Maryland, soaking in shared wisdom. I’m not sure exactly what this new engagement will look like, or who it will help me be. I don’t know if it means deepened engagement in a current community, or embarking on something new. And I don’t know if it will make climate change stop or save a single person still under threat of deportation or make me better at prayer or teach me to speak more gently when I’m tired.
One thing I do know is that there are a few characteristics all of these great communities in my life have in common:
-Some version--often explicit but sometimes implicit--of a covenant, a commitment to one another. For my group house, or the folks at a summer camp, it was written out. In chaplaincy, we negotiated our norms and expectations with one another.
-A shared vision or purpose. Neighborly life together. Deepened spiritual practices. Reducing our impact on the environment.
-Grace. For ourselves, and for each other, because it’s messy and we couldn’t get far without grace.
Commitment—vision—grace. All of this sounds an awful lot like church. What church could be, should be. Deeper than showing up on Sundays and abstract reflections on Bible passages. The vision that beckoned me to be a pastor.
I’m currently seeking a position as a pastor in a church. So it all comes together, somehow, and the hope and prayer is this: that I may be so lucky as to find myself in such a place of authenticity and growth. That I may have the discernment and courage to commit when the time and place is right. That I may play some part in helping to shape and be shaped by deep community.