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Learning the Life that Lasts Nurturing community is down-to-earth work b y J onat h an W ilson - Hartgrove


ommunity is “in” these days. Real estate agents offer homes to up-and-coming young Americans in “planned communities.” College students and young professionals stay connected through “virtual communities” of social networks and second-life alter egos. Community gardens, community art collectives, and community coffee shops have become the hallmarks of hip urban life. Madison Avenue knows this. A billboard advertising four-door sedans proclaims, “Buy a Saturn… Join the Saturn Community.” In a fast-paced and fragmented world, we feel our need for community intensely. But the paradox of community is this: Those of us who long for it most intensely are least capable of making the kind of commitments that make community possible. We feel the need for community because we have a sense that something is missing—that we’ve lost something essential. But like children who have never had parents, the lack that we feel so strongly makes us afraid, slow to commit, and unable to find the very thing we most want. In his Christian community classic, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Whoever loves their dream of Christian community more than Christian community itself will become the destroyer of every Christian community, no matter how honest, earnest, and sacrificial their intentions may be.” For the hardened realist, this explains why so many attempts at Christian community have been like seed sown on rocky soil, flourishing for a moment only to fade for lack of roots. Community as an ideal just doesn’t seem to last. But Jesus wasn’t an idealist, and the reason his community, started 2,000 years ago, has endured does not lie in Christians working desperately to fix one another and the world. The community that is Christ’s body is God’s gift to a world that cannot save itself. I don’t know how to overcome the paradox of community in our postmodern world, but I do know this: By God’s grace, I am learning to live a life that will last in

community with people who are just as broken and needy as the world around us. We have a garden at our community, but I don’t really understand gardening. Grocery shopping I get. I go to the store with a list of things I need, find them on the shelf, put them in my cart, pay at the checkout line, and come home with a meal. That process makes sense to me. But gardening is weird.We dig up our lawn, add some compost, bury a seed, and all we’ve got at the end of the day is a row of dirt in the yard. It seems like a lot of work for no immediate return. I’ve learned over time that there’s always work to be done in a garden—pulling weeds, watering, staking up vines, or running off groundhogs. But all of it is work that we do so that something else can happen—namely, growth. The crazy thing about a garden is that you’re always working, but there’s nothing you can do to force growth. In the end every garden is a miracle. Which is to say, it is a gift wrapped in mystery. Best I can figure, community is a lot like a garden. Somehow, there’s always work to be done — dishes to wash, meetings to go to, prayers to pray, meetings to go to, wars to resist, meetings to go to, meals to prepare… and more meetings to go to. After you’ve sat through a few hundred meetings and heard the same people say more or less the same things over and over again, you are tempted to think, “I know what this community needs. If they would just listen to me, we could get on with more important things.” But it never works. Because, like a garden, you can’t make community grow. All you can do is tend to a culture of grace and truth by listening to every voice, loving people who frustrate you, telling the truth as best as you can, and doing the dishes. The great temptation in community is to imagine that our life together is not like a garden, but instead like a repair shop. In the repair shop, cars are broken and need to get fixed. Normally, cars run just fine on their own. As a matter of fact,

PRISM 2009


and we can’t repair broken plants, but the good news is we don’t have to. God’s new creation has already interrupted our broken and dying world. Our work is to tend to the new creation that has already come. We learn (and relearn) how to tend God’s new creation in our community as we gather on Sunday evenings to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In silence we remember the past week. One member confesses a lack of trust that has been making him anxious. Another confesses anger. We try to tell the truth about our brokenness—how we’ve failed to trust Jesus and have hurt one another.We admit that community is hard. We can’t do this by our own strength. But then we also remember, in the words of our simple liturgy, that “in the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.” In God’s great story our fragmented lives have been put back together again by the love of Jesus. St. Augustine said that “the one who is properly said to eat the body of Christ and to drink his blood is the one who is incorporated into the unity of his body.” Jesus gives himself to us as bread and wine. So we share the gift with one another. Our weekly Communion is a simple act, often filled with the sounds of children crying, the kitchen timer beeping, a guest knocking at the door. But I think it’s where we remember that community is tending to God’s new creation by faith. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote that “we offer the bread in remembrance of Christ because we know that Christ is Life, and all food, therefore, must lead us to him.” This meal isn’t just a ritual. It helps reimagine our whole life. So we eat with one another, with our neighbors, and with the strangers who come along. Sometimes we get the feeling that we might have “entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). And sometimes we say, with the psalmist, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (23:5). But we keep coming back because we believe this practice of living as community opens us to life with God. We keep coming because we’ve seen enough to know that this way leads to a life that will last forever. n

that’s what they’re made to do. If you see one car pulling another on the highway, they’re probably on the way to the repair shop.There are people there who know a thing or two about cars. They figure out what’s wrong, get the parts they need, tinker around under the hood, and fix it. It doesn’t take long in community to realize that people are broken and in need of repair. And the minute we realize this, we’re liable to think, “I can name this person’s problem much better than she can. And I know a thing or two about people. Maybe I can help fix her.”We do this because we love her, of course. And we want to see her get better. We want to see her back on the road, doing the things she was made for. The problem is, people aren’t like cars.We aren’t made to run just fine on our own. We’re made for community. Which means we need to be more like a garden than a repair shop. Because broken people need what sick plants need. They need someone to tend to the soil around them, give them some extra attention, pull the weeds that threaten to choke them, and wait. It turns out we all need that at some time or another. But the repair shop won’t do, because we’re made for life in a garden. And the only way to grow up into life in the garden is to get your roots in good and deep and stay there. Just as communities are tempted to become repair shops for people, we can also deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re a repair shop for society. After all, it’s not just individuals who are broken; society is broken, too. We don’t just have some sick plants. Our problem is bad soil, polluted and neglected by years of misuse. Like the gurus of modern agriculture who want to save the soil with pesticides and fertilizers, communities can become captives to activism.We can spend ourselves on campaigns to make poverty history, end hunger, stop war, and promote reconciliation. Like the guys at the repair shop, we can say,“I understand the problem. I’ve got some resources and know-how. Maybe I can help fix it.” But the world doesn’t need a repairman.The world needs a Savior. Thank God, we already have one in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth,“If anyone is in Christ, behold—new creation! Old things are gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor.5:17). Just as God planted a garden at the beginning of Genesis, there is a new garden in the world. With Jesus, something new has come. We can’t fix bad soil,

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an author, speaker, and member of the Rutba House community in Durham, N.C. ( JonathanWilson

PRISM 2009


Learning the Life that Lasts  

Christian community is sustainable only when we acknowledge our brokenness and need.

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