(Note: This is the fourth in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God. You can find a link to earlier posts in this series at the bottom of the page.)
Community has become a buzzword in church circles. A cursory search for community and church will lead you to enough links to keep you occupied for days – some from know-it-all preachers, others from hipster church planters, and the most honest writing comes from young believers desperately trying to find it – their pearl of great price. (This is one of my favorite recent posts on community if you are looking to read more about it.)
It is an important word, because like most cliches, there is a lot of truth in our desire to be in community. Scripture calls us to it and reminds us again and again, whether we like it or not, that you can’t live in fidelity to the God of the Bible apart from covenant and community.
Western culture does its best to shape us into self-ruling individuals, and the church isn’t immune from the siren song of creating a new trinity of Me, Myself, and Jesus. But when we actually read Scripture and take a minute to listen to the wisdom of those who have been at this a while, we are painfully reminded that we have no shot of actually living into Jesus’ kingdom call if we try to do it by ourselves.
Throughout my almost twenty years of trying to follow Jesus I’ve been drawn to community – largely because it isn’t good for any of us to be alone, even those of us who are serious introverts. But I also find community compelling for a more honest reason – I’ve become aware of how much I need it.
I know well the need to live out my faith in community because I need others to hold me accountable to the standard of Jesus instead of the standard of my own idols and creations. To be faithful I need to be around other people – people who challenge my assumptions, people who name and convict my sin-shaped habits, practices and actions, and people who prevent me from settling for a shallow faith and instead shove me into a committed Cross-shaped life.
This, of course, is very Methodist of me. Our movement and understanding of the Christian life is shaped so heavily by the practice of community – of meeting together to hold one another accountable by creating holy places and spaces where we can confess our sin, receive and experience the forgiveness of a pardoning God, and return to the world with a God-given commitment to become more faithful followers of Jesus.
Lately, however, I’ve begun to view community from a different angle. During the last several weeks, a common theme in so many of my conversations is how hard faith can be. It is easy to focus on how so many of us seeking to be Jesus followers have become blinded to the ways our lives fall short of God’s standard. (This is why it is so easy to charge us with being hypocrites.)
But in my conversations and in the faith communities I lead it seems the opposite is true – we are very much aware of our sin-scarred shortcomings, we have no shortage of understanding about the gap between God’s glory and our lives, and we know all too well the feeling that we have short-circuited our connection with God.
I don’t know many Christians who don’t experience guilt about their prayer lives, who don’t feel inadequate in their Scripture study and who don’t dread getting to the end of their lives with the suspicion that a deeper life with God was theirs for the receiving if only they could have gotten out of their old patterns and learned a beautiful new way.
It is here, I believe, where we can experience the true gift and grace community can be for us. In our fears and longings we realize that we need one another – not only to challenge and wake one another up, but to commiserate together, to offer insight and advice to each other, and most importantly to encourage and pray that God might show us that new way.
We do need community to call us to account, but I’ve become convinced we need it more to lift one another up, to provide a hand up beyond the roadblocks that deter us, to remind each other that while guilt and despair are the path to destruction, persistence and trust in God’s grace and power lead to that greater destination of fulfillment and joy.
That’s one of the things Roberta Bondi has been teaching me this month as I’ve been reading her wonderful book on prayer and the early church – To Pray and To Love, with some friends. Prayer doesn’t come easy for a lot of people, and there are days, many days in fact, when the encouragement of community can be the gift and grace that reminds us that every day we can begin again.
“Perhaps most significantly, the ancient teachers have taught me not to be discouraged with my own prayer but to persist in it, for prayer, like love, as a way of life is not something that comes to us ready-made simply by deciding we want it… Christians friends that we trust to know us, share our values, and speak the truth as they understand it are even more valuable.”
That’s not too far from the words of the Letter to the Hebrews. Our task as fellow travelers on the long road with Jesus is to push one another forward. Life can be hard, and we need each other – to be pushed and spurred, and yes, sometimes even shoved towards love and faithfulness.
So if you find yourself in a season of life where you are veering off the path, don’t get discouraged, you aren’t too deep in the woods. Don’t lose heart, because you aren’t that far gone. Just find some people, hang out with them, read and laugh and pray together. You’ll be encouraged, they’ll be encouraged, and before long you’ll find yourself a long way from the ditch and a lot closer to the One you are trying to follow.
Ways Off the Path
Week 2: Paralysis by Overanalysis