Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cross purposes

It is quite easy to found a community. There are always plenty of courageous people who want to be heroes….The problem is not in getting the community started—there's always enough energy to take off. The problem comes when we are in orbit and going round and round the same circuit. The problem is in living with brothers and sisters whom we have not chosen but who have been given to us, and in working ever more truthfully towards the goals of the community. A community which is just an explosion of heroism is not a true community. True community implies a way of living and seeing reality; it implies above all fidelity in the daily round. And this is made up of simple things—getting meals, using and washing the dishes and using them again, going to meetings—as well as gifts, joy, and celebration. A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets.

—Jean Varnier, founder of the L'Arche communities

I grew up in a complicated, conflicted family. This doesn't qualify me for anyone's "most interesting" list, 'cause we've all been there--most of us have the uncles who fight at Thanksgiving, or the sister-in-law who believes that you're out to get her, or the child who doesn't feel like he fist in with the rest of the clan, or the imperious mother-in-law, or the grandfather who grieves the distance between him and his son and grandchildren. These are relationships that we all understand, on some level.

Where two or three are gathered, there will conflict be also. So is it in families, and so is it in the church. I think the church is a particularly complicated place to be community, to be family together, at these intersections:
  • We come in our hunger to be fed, and we come in our idealism to feed others.
  • We come in our hope to make something grow, and we come with our egos to wield power & create legacies.
  • We come in our gentle honesty to care for one another, and we come with our floundering blindness, hurting one another--sometimes repeatedly.
  • We come in our generosity to give of ourselves (even though the world suggests that we're slightly nuts to do so), and we come with our fear & brokenness, bricking ourselves into our safe rooms (just like we do anywhere else).
  • We come in our joy, to share it, and we come with our pain, for help to bear it.
  • We come to cooperate in building something for the glory of God & the good of the neighborhood, and we compete for resources, energy, time in the schedule & volunteers.
  • We come with all our levels of aching, hopeful complexity to lay them before God, in the context of a community.
Multiply all those (and other) factors by the number of people in your church community. Up the ante a bit by throwing God into the mix--with all the doubt and certainty and intentionality that implies. Stir in several cups of our humanity and of chance, simmer over a low flame, and presto! Cross Purposes Stew.

It's not a simple thing to be in a long-term relationship with a community. Especially when you throw your whole heart into your work. Especially when you don't get to choose the other people at the table, and the person next to you gets on your last nerve.

I really like what Varnier says about "liv(ing) each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets." Because it's so unbelievably easy to get focused on our own part of the big picture, on our own purposes and our own pain. To keep our eyes on the things that matter to us, sometimes to the exclusion of what matters to others. To act as if we're all at the same place on the journey toward the cross, when in fact we're not. To let the conflict be bigger than our own call as Christians.

It's hard to get out of God's way, sometimes. Remembering that God sees a broader canvas than we do is not a natural way for us to act. We're geared to want what we want, and to go after it. Sometimes with the kindest and best of intentions, we inadvertently smack into one another. And the bruising is real, despite what we hoped would happen, despite the heroic picture we had in our mind's eye.

So...then what?

How do we bounce back from that? When we in a community are at cross purposes, how do we heal from the hurt and re-orient ourselves toward the cross? And how do we learn to maintain that focus even in the presence of hurt and mistrust?

Peter, in this week's gospel lesson, steps out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus. Easy to be Peter (at least for me), as he's stepping out of the boat; how inspiring! How great to get to do what Jesus does, to do such a spectacular thing as walking on water, to be chosen for that task in the presence of all the other disciples. He's special! He's going somewhere new!

And then he takes his eyes off Jesus. Starts to sink. All of a sudden, he's not so special, and this is definitely not somewhere new. But he does the right thing, I think--he turns his attention, which had been diverted by his navelgazing and the howling wind, back to Jesus, who saves him.

I love Peter, because I do the exact same thing. Over and over. I don't know about you, but my own circumstances are rarely as starkly defined as a literal drowning. Maybe, though, it'd be useful for us, when we're drowning in smaller ways--sidetracked by our own vision, our own hurt, our own need to make an impact--maybe in that moment we must try to focus on Jesus, as Peter managed in his scary moment. (Nothing like a crisis to snap things sharply into focus...)

Because the cross's purposes have little to do with safety. They don't protect us from pain, nakedness, frustration, fear, hunger, or the sensations of being lost, misunderstood and unappreciated. There's nothing easy about this. Maybe it isn't supposed to be easy. But really, what point is there in working at cross purposes with one another when it's the cross's purposes that mark the way of salvation? If we can't live that way in the community of the faithful, how will we do so in the wilderness? (Hmmm...maybe it's actually easier to do so in the wilderness, some days...)

I joked about conflict earlier, but want to close with this thought: Jesus promises, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there will I be also." If there's hurt and mistrust in the spaces between us, there is Jesus as well.

Each of us must decide which we want to embrace, and who we want to be, in order to live together over the long term.


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Lovely. I've had various and sundry experiences of community, and what you write is so true.

don't eat alone said...

Your wonderful post makes me think of a quote from Alan Alda, which I heard many years ago, when he was asked how he and his wife had managed to stay married in Hollywood. "Because we intended to keep our promises," he said. "Everyone is looking for a custom fit in an off the rack world."

Community works when we pledge to be together and then keep the promise. God resides where faithfulness lives.



Choralgirl said...

Milton, that's fantastic. I'm going to use it!

Mrs. M and Turbo--sorry, comments were lost thru the vicissitudes of Blogger, but thanks so much for sending them!

Oh, and Ruth--thanks. :-)

FranIAm said...

Oh my... I spent 3 hours at church this morning discussing community with 3-4 other people, but we were really trying out our recipe for Cross Purposes Stew.

This is brilliant - thank you. So reflective, insightful and really well put.

Plus you can almost never go wrong with Jean Vanier. Deep sigh.

Thank you.