“Love is patient” –St. Paul
In Dostoevsky’s novel The Brother’s Karamazov, there is a scene where a rich woman asks an older monk if there is a way to know that God exists, and he tells her the only way to experience the presence of God is the practice of “active love”. So the woman tells the monk that she has considered drastically changing her life. She has dreamed about selling her possessions, becoming a nun to serve the “least of these” and taking a vow of poverty. But this woman is smart enough to realize her romantic notions of the “least of these” are a parody for actual people. She starts to imagine that some of them might be ungrateful for her sacrifice and service. She pictures them complaining that the soup she served wasn’t hot enough or that the bread wasn’t good or their bed was too hard. And then she tells the monk that she couldn’t deal with people like that, leading her to abandon her dreams about living a life for others, and leading her back to the place where she finds herself wondering if there is a God. And at this point in the conversation, the old Monk tells her something that I think every Christian in the West needs to remember,
“Love in Practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Later on Bonhoeffer would touch on this in his book Life Together, where he would tell us that anyone who loves their dream of community more than the actual people would eventually kill that community.
I think this is at the heart of the challenge facing Western Christianity right now.
Last week, I wrote about the need for Christians to stay connected not just to church, but to the same local church, and I got understandable pushback from people, I don’t want to condone authoritarian pastors, or abusive systems that perpetuate injustice, but I want to keep talking about it because I am still convinced that we don’t hear this one sentence enough:
“Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
There is no perfect Church, and to really belong somewhere is deciding in advance the ones you are going to allow to hurt and disappoint you.
I live and serve a local church in America, I serve in a place where individual freedom is often the highest ideal. We get freedom, what we don’t understand as well is how to live in community.
A few years ago, I read a book by Mark Sayers that described the Western world as Post-Covenantal. We don’t think in terms of covenants anymore, and so when the difficulty of sharing life in human community rears its head, our temptation is to simply change communities.
In their book Follow Me to Freedom John Perkins and Shane Claiborne points out that the upcoming generations are passionate about making the world a better place. We have more global awareness than ever before and are zealous about getting involved in justice and mercy ministries. The problem, they say, is that young people want to be involved with everything…for about three months.
And so Claiborne recommends approaching community in a different way. Here is what he says:
Stability is a traditional monastic vow… it is to commit to a group of people and to be submitted to them. Stability is something poor neighborhoods are starved for. There are so many things that don’t last – like landlords. And missionaries. Things come and go, and people are moving all the time, not far, but often. It’s part of the culture of poverty that is so unhealthy. And it takes commitment – literally a commitment to become a stable part of the neighborhood to change that.
Last week I argued for people to approach joining a community of faith with a kind of internal pledge to stick it out with the same group of people. I think it is important to decide ahead of time that joining a local church means being committed to the same local gathering of people, not because I don’t take sin seriously, but because I do.
All of us have moments in our life where the thing we need the most will be something that we want the least, and if pulling the rip cord on community is the easiest option, we will be much more inclined to do that than to work out our salvation with each other.
That is why I appreciate Claiborne’s reminder about a vow of stability so much, after all, this is how vows work. A Christian marriage assumes sin and brokenness in the very people who are promising their lives to one another. Those promises may sound innocuous, but there is a reason that we need to say them, it is for precisely the moments that we would like to have and hold another that we must vow to renounce that right.
I get the pushback here, I really do. Without going into much detail, let me just say my own family has gone through the worst things that can happen in a church. We have been on the abused side of neglect and abuse and scandal from church leadership (and we left that church). But I still believe in the church and in staying as long as possible with the same people, because the human condition is universal and wherever we go we eventually find the same people…including ourselves.
It is kind of like the way G.K. Chesterton wrote about why he thinks loving our neighbor is such a difficult command to keep:
“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. We may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy… But we have to love our neighbor because he is there –a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.”
Chesterton’s point is profound. Loving your neighbor is such a hard commandment to keep because you actually have a neighbor. They don’t have the luxury of being an idea, they are a person whose sin will find you out, and it is in real human community that we find out whether or not we really care about the things we think we care about, or just want to be the kinds of people who appear to care about them.
Because real people are no dream but at least they can be really loved.