Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Art of Community and Mission, Life Together Pt 4

I'm a fan of the Impressionists. Prints of Monet, Renoir and others bring life to a room. However, when I saw one of Monet's famous paintings in person, I viewed what no print can capture. The light bounced off the brush strokes. The characters sitting around the tables popped looked like I could sit with them. I stood in front of it mesmerized. I didn't just view it. I did not see it. It saw me. It engaged me. It's beauty moved me.

Life together is like a work of art. Each one is a masterpiece, but none are the same. They cannot be copied, replicated or mimicked. Every life together experience is unique, a one of kind expression of God's love. Life together is the life of God put on display in such a way that it engages the world around us. It is lived in the midst of life, revealing God's beauty in a world that lacks it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer opened his book Life Together with these words:

"Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, there work."

Bonhoeffer began his discussion of life together with words about how the community engages our neighbors. This challenges many commonly held practices of modern group life. Most of the time, when we think of life together we think about the  connecting of community. We focus on what happens inside the boundaries of the group. But Bonhoeffer's point of view challenges this. Over the years, I've observed that boundaries fall on a spectrum. On one side the boundaries are hard and fast while on the other the boundaries are almost non-existentant. When hard and fast, everyone knows who is in and who is out. The insiders connect and there is little to no room for others. Sometimes these fixed boundaries come in the form of official barriers (theology, rules, etc.) but most of the time it is unofficial. The insiders connect in such a way that excludes anyone else from participating. Most often this is experienced in established churches.

When the boundaries are non-existent, the people come and go as they please. People connect for a while, but then they stop connecting when they want to move on. I've observed this in churches that are more progressive and growing.

Of course most groups fall somewhere between these two extremes. But groups tend to lean to one side or the other.

The two extremes on this spectrum might seem like they have little in common. The first is an exclusive group while the second is open to all who might come. But in reality they have more in common that what you might think. They both are focused on grouping the people who will come to them. Usually this means that the groups focus on meeting felt-needs of those within the church. They just do it differently. The first does it for those who want to be exclusive. The second for those who want to come and go. And if a group falls somewhere in the middle, it's because that's what the people in the group want. The focus lies on how those inside want the group to work. This spectrum represents varying ways of "cloistered" group life, as opposed to putting on display God's love "in the midst of his enemies."

In contrast to cloistered community, life together is diasporatic community. The diaspora was the Greek word used to describe the scattered nature of God's people throughout the world. Life together is not just about community. It's about living in a way that engages the world around us. Bonhoeffer continues: 

"According to God's will, the Christian church is a scattered people, scattered like seed 'to all the kingdoms of the earth (Deut. 28:25). That is the curse and the promise. God's people must live in distant lands among unbelievers, but they will be the seed of the kingdom of God in all the world." (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 27-28).

God's kind of community does not happen in an enclave or as an exclusive club. God's kind of community happens in the midst of life, right in front of those who don't understand why we worship and love the way we do. We are called on a mission of loving each other and God in such a way that people in our neighborhoods can actually see, feel and know what we are doing. We are called to let those who don't know what God is like taste and see that he is good by the way we love each other.

Life together boundaries don't fall anywhere on the spectrum above. In life together the boundaries are tighter while at the same time more porous. The group bonds are stronger, but the openness to others is greater. Those who are "in" know that they are "in" but the insiders open to outsiders. In fact the reality of who is "in" grows as it is given away and shared with those who are "out." This is because part of what defined what it means to be "in" is self-sacrificial love. Belonging is characterized by giving that belonging away. In other words, life together is not defined by a  boundary that clearly marks who is in and who is out. In life together, all belong. Every person who is related to the group in some way belong, but those at the center of the community are at this center because they imbibe this ethos of belonging to give away belonging.

Life together is not a safe enclave from the world. It's a dangerous haven in the midst of life. It is another paradox. Life together is discovered through scattered community.

This is great art, art created as it is shared with the world.

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