Our family had the great pleasure of getting to visit a rural Christian community in New York this August. It felt like something from a dream or a movie. Beautiful countryside dotted with houses and animals, with families walking barefoot down the winding roads that led from building to building. I’ve never experienced such radical hospitality in my entire life. Our room was filled with welcome notes, coffee, snacks, and fresh-cut flowers. But it didn’t end there. That same love and care trickled into everything the community brothers and sisters did. It brought to mind the Mother Teresa quote: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” That great love was everywhere. From all the welcomes and smiles and handshakes, to how the kitchens were cleaned. From how our laundry was washed and so neatly folded, to how someone always stepped in to babysit so we could attend the community meetings and campfires…or simply sleep after driving through the night.
Radical and Simple
I’m convinced that love is the purest and most radically simple answer to all the world’s questions. Jesus said in John 13:35 “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Not by the cars we drive, the politicians we vote for, or by what we complain about on Facebook. Pure, unselfish love will change the world.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
I often hear these verses read at weddings. It’s a nice reminder at weddings, but realize that we aren’t just called to love our spouses. We’re called to love our neighbors. We’re called to love our enemies. Yes, our love toward our family is vitally important. But if it ends there, we’re missing out on the true meaning of God’s kingdom. Believers are called to so much more than nuclear family love. We’re called to radical, world-changing, love.
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
This is why Jesus said they will know we’re disciples by our love. Because our love will look different from the love the world gives.
Community and Commitment
We all have more in common than you would think. At first it might seem like life in such a community is quite different – and yes, it is quite different from the “American Dream.” But I daresay all believers are called to community in some shape or form. We aren’t meant to walk this Christian faith alone. I can only imagine how lonely and difficult that would be.
The community members made a lifelong commitment when they decided to join the church. When I first heard this, I thought it must take extreme dedication. But then it occurred to me – aren’t all believers called to a lifelong commitment? Aren’t we all called to “take up our cross and follow Jesus?” To surrender our lives to his plan and his purpose, going where he calls us and serving where he asks us to serve? In that mindset, the lifelong commitment to the church wasn’t so radical at all. It was simply an extension of what we’re all called to do after we give our lives to Christ. And with all that community support and accountability, it might actually be easier to follow Christ in a group than in isolation. It was all summed up in a song we sang around the campfire under the stars:
No man is an island,
No man stands alone,
Each man’s joy is joy to me,
Each man’s grief is my own.
We need one another,
So I will defend,
Each man as my brother,
Each man as my friend.
Benefits and Surrender
There are numerous benefits to living in a community such as this. Quality childcare. No unemployment. No poverty. Lifelong friendships. Meals, housing, and even laundry are provided to all members. But everyone I talked to shared the same sentiment: that one can’t simply join a community because of the benefits. One must join because they feel called to follow Jesus in such a way. The benefits of community are simply the fruit that grows when a group of people surrender themselves to the Lord’s work and die to themselves.
I noticed a beautiful appreciation placed on children and the elderly. The ones who our society deems “the least of these” were elevated to a place of honor. Mothers didn’t need to worry about childcare. The elderly didn’t need to worry about retirement or care in their old age. Single men and women weren’t living alone, waiting for a spouse. Families were there to surround them, support them, and live alongside them. No one was lonely or forgotten. How lovely is it that all these benefits come from complete surrender!
Listening and Sharing
I think we all mutually encouraged one another during our stay. We’re living out our faith in different ways, but it’s all pointing to the same Jesus. His example is the inspiration for everything. I enjoyed how the community brothers and sisters listened to what us visitors had to say. There were ongoing conversations, not just preaching. In fact, there was no main speaker at any of the meetings we attended. It was a big circle where everyone had a chance to talk and everyone was listened to. Iron sharpening iron. Just seeking together. You know it’s working when someone asks a question, a couple other people share their thoughts, and then a lightbulb goes off in your own mind and you have something to contribute. I found myself scribbling pages and pages of notes, some of which I still haven’t finished processing and reflecting.
Come and See
A lot of people I’ve talked to about the trip are interested in the details of daily community life. That’s good and all, but if you’re stuck on the details then you’re missing the real point. Communal life is simple. No one owns private property or their own money, yet everyone has what they need. Everyone is seeking the good of the group rather than their own good. It’s not perfect, they all readily admit, but they’ve been doing it for generations so I’d call that a successful history. Other than that, the details are just merely details. If you’re interested in learning more, there is standing invitation for anyone who wants to come and see. That’s what we did and it was incredible.
Sometimes Community Hurts
I’m well aware of the fact that some people carry scars left from so-called Christian communities that have hurt them. I’m also aware that some communities are accused of living life “in a bubble” and not interacting enough with the outside world. These are very valid concerns, and need to be pondered and addressed. It’s far outside the realm of one blog post to address and fix all these problems. The brothers and sisters at this community didn’t shy away from questions about these things. They realize that they are only human and no matter how idealistic their lives might look from the outside, that they have to practice forgiveness on a daily basis. They have seen people hurt. They have seen people leave the church. They have also seen healing and reconciliation in some cases. There’s no way around these kind of issues when you’re dealing with imperfect people. All we can do is give one another a small portion of the enormous grace God has given to us.
What Does This Mean for Us?
I’m still processing how everything we learned might impact our lives here at home. Josh and I have felt inclined toward some fashion of community living ever since we read The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. We don’t, however, feel called to join a community existing somewhere else. We strongly feel that our place right now is St. Louis, and we’re in this area for a reason. So right now we’re waiting with open hearts and minds for the next opportunity. It might mean staying where we’re at and continuing to open up our guest rooms when a need arises. It might mean selling everything and downsizing to an abandoned school or other facility. It might mean living alongside refugees in an apartment building. We have no idea.
What I do know is that God desires us all to willingly surrender our plans and our belongings into his will. Even if he doesn’t call us to give it all up, just knowing that we’re willing to do it is liberating. We aren’t tied to anything except God and one another. That means no matter happens to our home, our finances, our belongings, we know we’ll be content. And as long as we have the means, we’re ready to be that safe place for someone else who needs it. That’s the essence of community.
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
How can we create a thriving community in our daily lives, with our church, our friends, and our neighbors? What does it mean to surrender our plans and resources completely to God? How can we “do small things with great love” everyday as a way to impact our world without words?