Friday, October 20, 2017

the challenge of community...

In a self-absorbed era like our own, filled with fear and mistrust, it is a daunting challenge to try and build true community. Not impossible, by any means, but always complicated and often incomplete. Michael Ignatieff, in the recently published The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, notes that as our world becomes ever more interconnected, globalization has yet to give rise to a shared ethic of the common good. "While we once may have thought that democratic values and human rights advance hand in hand, we are learning that the contrary may be the case. Democratic sovereignty and the moral universalism of human rights are on a collision course everywhere."

Because human beings do not agree on the Good, even though they can recognize goodness, they also disagree about who has moral standing; in other words, who is to be trusted and believed... (everywhere) democratic majorities have been rejecting universalist claims - the right of asylum in one place, the right of strangers to nationality in another - all in the name of a democratic defense of local values. (pp. 206-207)

Let me suggest that in a small and humble way authentic Christian communities offer a potential alternative. Henri Nouwen once wrote that honest Christian adults know that the "church is holy and sinful, spotless and tainted." He wrote:

The Church is the bride of Christ, who washed her in cleansing water and took her to himself "with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless" (Ephesians 5:26-27). The Church too is a group of sinful, confused, anguished people constantly tempted by the powers of lust and greed and always entangled in rivalry and competition. 
When we say that the Church is a body, we refer not only to the holy and faultless body made Christ-like through baptism and Eucharist but also to the broken bodies of all the people who are its members. Only when we keep both these ways of thinking and speaking together can we live in the Church as true followers of Jesus.

This is not to say that local churches always honor or appreciate this truth. But it is core to our identity. Jean Vanier amplifies this call to humility when he writes in Community and Growth:

Community means communion of heart and spirit; it is a network of relationships. This implies a response to the cry of our brothers and sisters, especially the poorest, the weakest, the most wounded and a sense of responsibility for them. And this is demanding and disturbing. That is why it is very easy to replace relationships and the demands they bring with laws, rules and administrative devices. It is easier to obey a law than it is to love people. This is why some communities are swallowed up by rules and administration instead of growing in gratitude, welcome and gift.

The key here is relationship rather than regulation. I have seen blessings ripen in a local church when relationships built on the Paschal Mystery - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - are primary. I have also experienced the total opposite, too as creativity and verve are sucked out of the community by those who get lost in rules and administration. Nouwen suggests that these two polarities require vigilance and regular reformation.

Over the centuries the Church has done enough to make any critical person want to leave it. Its history of violent crusades, pogroms, power struggles, oppression, excommunications, executions, manipulation of people and ideas, and constantly recurring divisions is there for every-one to see and be appalled by. Can we believe that this is the same Church that carries in its center the Word of God and the sacraments of God's healing love? Can we trust that in the midst of all its human brokenness the Church presents the broken body of Christ to the world as food for eternal life? Can we acknowledge that where sin is abundant grace is superabundant, and that where promises are broken over and again God's promise stands unshaken? To believe is to answer yes to these questions.

After nearly four decades of leadership and participation in the local church, I am soon to step away from ministry for a season. My retirement, however,t is not about resignation, but rather entering into new encounters with community. More than ever before I believe that people of faith must strengthen small groups of those committed to the love and justice of God, and, that these communities can serve as a sign of hope in a broken world. Brother Roger of Taize used to speak of his community as symbol of festival amidst a world of suffering. This rings true in my heart, too and is one of the places I sense new life for me.

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