The Truth About Community

I’m just back from our annual winter retreat with the community at Rutba House. Sometime early on, someone told us intentional communities have to retreat to survive. Thank God, we took them at their word.

Just before we left, I opened the mail on Friday to find an old article from Clarence Jordan that a friend had copied and sent. It was called “Impractical Christianity,” and opened with these words:

You can’t put Christianity into practice. You can’t make it work…. For Christianity is not a system you work–it is a Person who works you.

I love the by-line at the end of the article: “written from personal experience as director of Koinonia Farm, a Christian agricultual missionary project in Georgia.”

It is, after all, personal experience in trying to practice our faith that demonstrates most clearly how impractical it is.

Our guide for this weekend led us in an Ignatian-style reflection on the relationships that give us energy, the relationships that drain us, and where we see God at work in all of that. I live in community with people like myself–people who think Jesus really meant the stuff he said. We got into this life of being a hospitality house because some Muslims in Iraq showed us what God’s love looks like three days after our country bombed their hospital. They saved us when we were their enemies. How could we not be about welcoming the stranger, like Jesus said?

Still, we know from experience that Jordan is right. You try to do the stuff Jesus says and you inevitably come to the end of yourself. On your worst days, you get so exasperated that you yell at your children. You don’t even like yourself.

Where, then, is Jesus in all of this?

He is working us, Jordan says. From the receiving end of it, it feels like He’s an awfully hard worker.

But when we have a chance to retreat–when we can step back and listen to one another, to see one another as whole people–what we glimpse is that this Person who works us also loves us–loves us beyond our ability to know. What is more, this Person is with us. He is present in the very souls whose mundane lives are being knit together in this mysterious gift we call community.

Our retreat leader left us with these words from Thomas Merton:

Do not depend on the hope of results… you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to the idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

Any more, I can’t make any sense of my personal relationship with Jesus apart from these dear and broken people with whom I share my life.


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