Community vs. Autonomy

In my last letter I made reference to living in community. Indeed, learning to live in community has been a turning point for me, but I feel like it needs some explanation.

A lot of people toss around the word “community” these days, and I’m not sure we’re all talking about the same thing. By community, I don’t mean the neighbourhood in which I live or even the small group in which I participate. It is neither of those things, and yet it could include them both. When I talk about living in community, I mean intentionally choosing to do life with others. Which is a huge paradigm shift for someone like me, who loves, loves her autonomy.

In the States I had built a life for myself upon the core value of autonomy. I set my own hours at the church, I did work that I could manage on my own, I invited the participation of others (but on my terms), and I defined the limits of my relationships. I had read Boundaries, and I prided myself in my ability to manage my time and resources as I saw fit. And honestly, this way of living served me well for a number of years. I was healthy, productive, and effective. Until I wasn’t.

My instinct at that point was to pull back, and regroup. But we had just moved to a new town for ministry, and the place where were called was a new church plant that was all about living in community. We were expected to be at prayer meetings every morning and every evening, extending hospitality to neighbors several times a week, and engaging in activities within the community.

At first I thought, “These people are crazy! They need to read Boundaries! Isn’t it unhealthy to be so involved with each other’s’ lives?” But in all honesty, I was scared. I was scared that I would have to give more than I had to give. I was scared of being overwhelmed by other people’s needs. I was afraid to be vulnerable with people I’d just met. I was reluctant to let others see how lost and broken I was. And ultimately, I was afraid of losing myself.

So it was with great apprehension and serious reservations that I dipped my toe into the pool of community. I decided to try it so that I could tell them why it wouldn’t work. Quickly, I got sucked in, and before I knew it, I was losing myself. But it turned out to be just what I needed. Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it.” I’ve known that verse all my life, but I never knew what I needed to do to “lose my life.” Now I think I know.

There was the neighbour who didn’t come to church, but helped me with my sermon prep in French. There was the child that always seemed eager to greet me on the street. There was the mentor who saw beyond my present mess to the beauty deep within. There was the running partner who seemed to know just when to make chit chat and when to keep quiet. There was the elderly couple that listened and listened and listened and never judged. There were the prayer warriors that humbled me by their faithfulness. And there was the friend who could speak harsh truths as needed, while assuring me with her love.

Each of those relationships breathed life into my weary soul, but they also asked something of me in return. And the truth is, the healing came through both giving and receiving in community. The community not only ministered to my brokenness, it welcomed my broken ministry in return.

I don’t want to glamorize the experience. It’s lovely, but it’s hard! People are complicated, and while all of these people minister to me, you should know that our community (like most communities), includes addicts and recovering addicts, people who suffer with mental illnesses, parents of wayward children, some who are highly educated and others who can barely read, immigrants, disabled people, sick people, and socially awkward people. They’re not all kind, and some aren’t very clean.  All of us are needy, some more than others.

Living in community requires a level of openness and commitment that challenges my American independent self. It requires, in some ways, a thousand daily deaths to self, so that the True Self might be resurrected. It requires a trust in the process, a willingness to give out of poverty, and an appreciation for the other that goes way beyond tolerance. It has been, for me, the deepest part of my downward journey and my greatest comfort along the way.

You mentioned in your last letter practices that you’ve put into place. Can you tell me more about those?