Friday, January 12, 2007
Community: Day 3
Again yesterday, as we learned to do from Bonhoeffer, we began the day in prayerful gratitude followed by a Scripture reading from Philippians 2 and prayerful response.

We then continued our discussion of Bonhoeffer. He has some really harsh words for "emotional high" experiences, and so we talked about how that might translate into our own experiences with youth camp or retreats like Emmaus Walk. He writes,
Nothing is easier than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sounds, sober brotherly fellowship of everyday life (39).

He seems to have a very strong reaction against defining Christian community by emotional experience.

The proximity of location of members is significant as people live near one another. Also significant are shared meals, or the fellowship of the table, and its intersection with Eucharist, especially when they are done in the same space. There is a sense of Sabbath to regular mealtime as it creates a rhythm of rest throughout the day. You stop what you're doing. You sit down. You share and you eat together.

Several practices of sustaining community are implicit in Bonhoeffer's writing. There's the ministry of listening. If you're not listening to your brothers, then you are not listing to God. There's the ministry of helpfulness, a willingness to be interrupted because more often than not, opportunities for service come as interruptions. There's the ministry of bearing one another's burdens. The peculiarities of others becomes an opportunity for bearing. It is crucial that we have a sensitivity to others' frailties. There's the ministry of proclaiming the Word person-to-person.

There's the ministry of confession. Though, for Bonhoeffer, there is a limit to our self-revelation. We are not called to reveal all of our deepest, darkest secrets as confession can often become extremely manipulative within community. And with that we wrapped up the Bonhoeffer material.

Next, we poured over Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. Vanier has a PhD in moral theology and philosophy but is best known as the founder of l'Arche, an international network of communities that live with the mentally and physically handicapped. It's a great book, though a bit difficult to digest over a couple of days as I did. Sometimes I felt like I was reading Mr. Miyagi--these disjointed aphorisms, though extremely wise thoughts about life together.

He has this idea that a community is either increasing or regressing. That made me think about the Woody Allen quote about relationships being like a shark: It has to constantly move forward or it dies. Like Bonhoeffer, he's critical of emotion as he emphasizes the day-to-day ordinariness of community:
A community which is just an explosion of heroism is not a true community. True community implies a way of life, a way of living and seeing reality; it implies above all fidelity in the daily round (109).

He's aware of the dangers of idealizing community, and yet he's sensitive to the harsh critique of individualism. A Christian community is not supposed to be like the Borg where individual identity is dissolved and resistance is futile. A community needs individuals to be individuals. For a person to love community, it means loving the least and the poor. What it is we offer to others outside the community is an extension of what we offer to one another. Friendship that encourages fidelity is the sweetest.

He also makes an interesting comment regarding the bane of the existence of chuches everywhere: meetings...
If we are to love, we have to meet. Creating community is something different from just meeting one with another, as individuals. It is creating a body and a sense of belonging, a place of communion, and this means meetings! (284).

Here are some other quotes that jumped out at me...
But then too, as they lift their masks and become vulnerable, they discover that community can be a terrible place, because it is a place of relationship; it is the revelation of our wounded emotions and of how painful it can be to live with others, especially with some people. It is so much easier to live with books and objects, television, or dogs and cats! It is so much easier to live alone and just do things for others, when one feels like it (26).

It is difficult to get people to understand that the ideal doesn't exist, that personal equilibrium and the harmony they dream of come only after years and years of struggle, and even then only as flashes of grace and peace. If we are always looking for our own equilibrium--I'd even say if we are looking too much for our own peace--we will never find it, because peace is the fruit of love and service to others (46).

People enter community to be happy. They stay when they find happiness comes in making others happy (78).

It is only as we put our roots down into the earth that we begin to see the fruits. To be earthed is to come alive in a new sense of mission. A new capacity to give life is born, not by myself but in the body of community (83).

Yves Beriot, a French educator, has said how important it is for people to visit communities and act as sponges which soak up the anguish. All communities feel far from their ideal, and more or less unable to cope with the violence and anguish of the people they welcome. We are all far from the ideal of the Gospel and this causes a latent anguish and guilt which sap our creative energies and can lead to sadness and despair (129).

There's so much more, but it's a text I can go back and chew on over and over again.

Next we cracked open Gerhard Lohfink's Jesus and Community. This is a work in biblical theology is response to Adolf von Harnack who wrote, "The kingdom of God comes by coming to individuals, making entrance into their souls, and being grasped by them. The kingdom of God is indeed God's rule--but it is the rule of a holy God in individual hearts." Lohfink isn't too keen on this idea. Rather, his basic idea is that the reign of God is manifested in the people of God, not the persons of God.

Lohfink looks in depth at the synoptic Gospels, situating the words of Jesus in their Jewish context. He places the work of Jesus in continuity with the Old Testament, and then analyzes the faithfulness of the work of the apostles and later church fathers in this transmission of the message of the kingdom of God.

He's deeply concerned about the gathering and restoration of the people of God (again, not individuals). He recognizes the diversity of the first community of Jesus, the Twelve, and offers the symbolic and theological significance of these characters:
Some evidence suggests that Jesus deliberately chose the Twelve from different regions of the country and from different factions within the Judaism of the day in order to make obvious the gathering of all Israelites (11).

For Lohfink, the contrast-community of the Church is to look like the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Pohl broke us up into groups and assigned us each blocks of Matthew 5-7. The question she posed was, "What would a community look like for whom the Sermon on the Mount is a joy and not a burden?"

We had about half an hour to work this out together and then report back to the rest of the class. This proved to be a valuable exercise, and it ended our day.

I'll need to give you Fridays notes tomorrow. This is enough to ruminate on at once, and the bed is calling since work comes early in the morning.

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posted by Peter at 10:18 PM
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Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Community: Day 2
Today we discussed two of our texts--Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They make a pair, complementing one another quite well. Putnam is a contemporary American political scientist playing with social theory; Bonhoeffer is a German pastor during the second World War. Bowling Alone is a thorough analysis of the decline and renewal of American community; Life Together is a manual of what Christian community does together.

Putnam's key theme is something he calls "social capital":
By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital--tools and training that enhance individual productivity--the core of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so to social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups (19).
Throughout the book he explores the decline in participation in the politics, civic engagment and religious institutions. While his perspective is purely sociological, he recognizes a high value in religious communities:
Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America... Religious institutions directly support a wide range of social activities well beyond conventional worship (66).

It's purely a pragmatic view he has of the role of religion in communities:
Churches provide an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment.
It really is a shame that Putnam doesn't show any more interest in religious communities. That's a fascinating idea--the associative nature of churches and participation in other communal activities. But he never really hits the nail on the head as to what makes churches such catalysts for involvement. Just what is the unique nature of a church that inspires participation in the rest of the world?

This is where Bonhoeffer comes in. He identifies the unique character of Christian community as the presence of Jesus:
Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only though and in Jesus Christ (21).

I particluarly like the goal that Bonhoeffer sets for Christian community:
And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community (23).

In this, community is not something manufactured but a grace from God. I just like that image that I'm carrying your salvation to you, like a little wrapped present, and you're carrying mine. He's also very wary of the motivations for community, fully aware of the loneliness of some people that drives them:
The person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear. He is really not seeking community at all, but only distraction which will allow him to forget his loneliness for a brief time, the very alienation that creates the deadly isolation of man (76).

Bonhoeffer sees a symbiosis between time together and time alone:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone (77).

He saw that solitude benefited the group dynamic:
Blessed is he who is alone in the strength of the fellowship and blessed is he who keeps the fellowship in the strength of aloneness (89).

For Bonhoeffer, the Christian community is guided and shaped by prayer, intercession and Scripture reading.

After all that talk about social networks, social reciprocity and social capital, I couldn't resist a viewing of The Godfather this afternoon. Somehow, I'm going to have to swing a Godfather reference or two into my research paper.

I'm thinking I'm going to write about the ancient near eastern concept of the beth-ab (the father's house), the single most important social network in the Old Testament and its implications in interpreting the New Testament ekklesia (Church) as well as on contemporary Christian community.

Tomorrow we discuss Lohfink's Jesus and Community.

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posted by Peter at 11:15 PM
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Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Community: Day 1
Have you missed me? I've missed me. Since Christmas I've been frantically preparing for a class that started today. There were seven books and three papers I had to have ready this morning, and I'm proud to say I got it all done.

The class is called "Ethics of Community" and it's taught by Dr. Christine Pohl. So from 8 am to noon from Tuesday to Friday over the next two weeks I'll be in class. It's about the moral challenges of congregational ministry and looking at the practices necessary for community life. Four particular practices that will frame our conversations are promise-keeping, truth-telling, hospitality and gratitude.

I promised Kyle awhile back I'd take good notes, so maybe I'll let you follow along, too. Here's what I learned today.

As one of our texts is Life Together, we began our time reading Romans 12 and prayer reflecting on the passage. We had some general introductions of ourselves. There are about 20 in the class. Then we had some introductory thoughts on community. We were asked to reflect on a satisfying and fulfilling experience we'd had with community--the setting, what made it good, the tensions, and how it sustained itself. The first experience that came to mind for me was the small group experience I had with the good folks of Clear River in Centreville, VA just prior to my time here in Kentucky.

We then talked about what makes a community good and vital. According to Scripture, community is not an option; it is an expectation and a calling. Larry Rasmussen has a good quote about what it is exactly that Christian communities do: "Gather the folks. Break the bread. Tell the stories."

(By the way, while Googling trying to find Rasmussen's first name, I found this good article about Christian practices.)

So what does a congregation look like when its community is good? Here's what we bounced around, and feel free to add any more that you've experienced.
+Outward focus
+Attentiveness to one another and to God
+Openness in communication
+Eats together
+Sharing possessions/shared life
+Bearing one another's burdens
+Ability to tolerate weirdness in members
+Liking each other
+Shared prayer
+Intentional celebration
+Contact through the week
+Face to face relationships
+Mutual accountability

And here are some of the things that make community so hard:
+Having stuff/materialism
+Gulf between "have's" and "have not's"
+Cultural need of self-fulfillment, i.e., "What do I get out of it?"
+The three-headed monster of mobility, consumerism and self-fulfillment
+Shallow experience of community makes it difficult to build on new experiences

And then here are some of the things we talked about as being ways to sustain community:
+Discipline of leisure activity
+Accessing outside resources
+Daily rhythms of worship and prayer
+Openness to reinvent itself
+Discerning what is essential versus expendable
+Being a place to contribute
+Time together
+Freedom for failure

From Scripture we get a number of resources for community: Acts 2 and Galatians 3:28. There is also the imagery of the "family of God," the "body of Christ," the house of "living stones." In addition, the three-in-one Godhead embodies community in Trinity.

You can't do the practice of hospitality (welcoming strangers) without community, and the ability to sustain community is much more difficult that welcoming strangers. The trend among young people today is a deep desire for community, while at the same time a severe distrust of institutions and a wariness of commitment. And this makes the reality of community rather complicated.

There has been a recent emphasis on community in postmodern conversations as one critique of modernity has been the emphasis on the individual. N.T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas are two individuals who have emphasized the social dimensions of the faith. Robert Webber in his Ancient/Future Faith discusses how people are persuaded to the Christianity by community and not by rational argument. That's really not a new idea, as the old song goes, "They will know we are Christians by our love."

We can't live out the Gospel without being attentive to the social dimension of faith and communal relationships. But on the flip side, we really like doing what we want to do. We value privacy, and we resist calls for full disclosure. For busy people, it's hard to add more deep connections. When we make commitments, we forclose options, and we like having options.

In addition, fears of community are well-founded, as names like David Koresh and Jim Jones bring to mind negative reactions to the idea of community. Burnout, congregation manipulation and the poison of task orientation can all play a part in community. There is also the tension between loyalty to Christian community versus family relationships. People have been betrayed by the institutions they have been apart of, whether that manifests as suspicion of the government, corrupt corporations or disastrously fallen spiritual leaders. Our value of self-reliance and independence can tear apart community as can differences among leadership of the vision for the community.

There has not been a lot written about what a community does over time. A vital community is one where there is a high level of truthfulness and a place where forgiveness exists when practices collide. Through Christian history, these practices of promise-keeping, truth-telling, hospitality and gratitude have been viewed as duties, which seems to suck the life out of them. Other times they have been seen as virtues in an individualistic and abstract way. Rather, a community marked by these practices is what grace, truth and holiness look like lived out. The danger, though, is that it can turn into works-righteousness, i.e., "If we just get this practice right..." Instead, it's all about grace and the Holy Spirit working in us. Our lives are a response to Christ's love, so all springs from gratitude.

We brainstormed some characteristics of what a leader, or the people who make community look like:
+No fear of rejection
+Good storytellers
+Don't take themselves too seriously
+Reaching out to marginal people
+Not self-conscious
+Caring for people
+Willing to risk

When then began our discussion of Philip Hallie's Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed through the lenses of these specific practices. If you haven't read this book, you need to. This was the second time I had read it through. It's the story of a Protestant French village during World War II and sheltered and aided Jewish refugees, saving thousands of lives. It's kinda like Schindler's List, but it's a pastor and church community spearheading the movement. It's an amazing story. It's also been told in the documentary film Weapons of the Spirit.

That's where we ended the day and where we'll pick up tomorrow. We're also scheduled to start discussing Life Together and Bowling Alone.

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posted by Peter at 11:36 PM
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Monday, January 01, 2007

A brief compendium of tunes I've been listening to most recently. You should, too.

1. "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" by Yo La Tengo
2. "Black Lexus" by Joseph Arthur
3. "Living Like a Refugee" by Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars
4. "She's a Rejector" by Of Montreal
5. "Yankee Bayonet" by The Decemberists
6. "The Fatalist" by Robbers on High Street
7. "Goin' Against Your Mind" by Built to Spill
8. "Strangers" by Golden Smog
9. "Brother" by Annuals
10. "Satan Said Dance" by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!
11. "Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating" by Ben Harper
12. "Palimend" by Benoit Pioulard
13. "Easy to Be Around" by Diane Cluck
14. "I Feel Like a Fading Light" by Kim Taylor
15. "Five Stars and Two Thumbs Up" by Danielson
16. "Majesty, Snowbird" by Sufjan Stevens
17. "True Love Will Find You in the End" by Daniel Johnston

posted by Peter at 10:27 PM
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