One of the ways historically that Quakers have attempted to demonstrate the gospel—to proclaim it with their lives—came to be called the testimony of community. Essentially we as a church were once rooted in a robust theology of lived faith, interdependence, and ‘accountability on a journey’ toward greater personal holiness. If a person felt a leading, and the community discerned that leading to be right, the community would back that leading up with tangible action. Traveling ministers like John Woolman and others could never have done the great things they did or touched the lives they touched without the support of the whole community back home that took care of their farms and families to “release” them to pursue the call God had placed on their hearts.
There are some wonderful examples of community lived out in Quaker history that are deeply inspiring. The thing about community though is that it is deeply personal, and requires great humility and vulnerability. To be the community God intended requires us to practice forgiveness and grace, take loving risks—and really—it requires a kind of covenantal model where we are truly committed to God and each other in ways that require service and sacrifice. The ties that bind us together in Christ, become far stronger than those forces that would tear us apart.
My Quaker Values students are often amazed when they first lay eyes on a Quaker Wedding Certificate and I tell them about the accountability involved…where when a couple sought a divorce they would seek out the people who signed it and tell them why; or when they hear about a young couple using a clearness community to invite the community into discernment around things like whether to get married, buy a house, or choose a major. I think this clearly evidences the reality of our American sense of “rugged individualism” and independence, and while I admit there are many good things that comes from growing in maturity and self reliance, community it seems is not one of them.
Community requires quite a bit of vulnerability and trust, and these things seem to be in short supply in our often fragmented and disconnected world. Fear of legalism or abuse is very real, as many a personal experience of those who have left church behind could testify to… but I wonder at times how much greater the impact the church as a whole could have as salt and light to our society if we could reclaim a bit of our Quaker theology and heritage by embracing more of a corporate model of faith.
My theology is very much steeped in the idea that being created in the image of God means we were created for community. The Trinity itself shows us that God exists as a kind of community… a community early church fathers such as Basil described as existing in “perichoresis” a sort of inter-penetration, which some modern theologians have likened to a dance. We were never created to be alone, to feel isolated or to feel alienated. We were created to share love, and that seems to take more than one actor to be a lived reality. Love is a verb, an action word. Love, by its very nature, seems to require expression. It is a gift that cannot be kept under a basket, but must be shared.
Proverbs 27:6 says “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” And sometimes sharing love requires someone to love us enough to risk offering guidance and correction, not from a “holier than thou” place of judgment, but from a place of humility and love and freedom. I have recently had a few people show me this kind of love and for me, as awkward as it can be, it is also very freeing. It offers a place for the rubber to meet the road in my spiritual journey. It helps me to realize I have not “arrived” and still have a lot of room to grow along the path of Christ-likeness I am walking, but it also helps me see that I am not walking alone, that others care enough about our relationship and my growth to invest time in me.
In community, we all have our perspectives—perspectives that are very real. In fact for us, these perspectives are our reality. Somehow by God’s design, the human eye has a blind spot our brains tune out, right at the very center. We tune out that blind spot so well because we have two eyes, and many of us have long forgotten it exists and can’t even make themselves see it again. Community puts us in that place where inevitably we have to confront our blindness. It puts us in a place where we see the limits of ourselves and recognize that we need each other, that with more “eyes”—more spiritual gifts and talents—we better become the body of Christ alive and become alert to the needs of the world. We each have our perspectives, our piece of the puzzle that is our part of God’s tapestry-like story of the redemption of the world. In the spiritual community the voiceless is voiced, the blindness finds its sight as we find our place in the body, and we discover our calling and where we thrive in service to the kingdom of God.
Something I have found useful though is a visual tool called Johari’s window: Here is what it looks like:
One of the things it offers me is the reminder that there are things about me known by others but unknown to me, and there are things about me known only to God I or others may never even discover. Many of us are so used to living on the left side, the known side, that we have forgotten that there is still some mystery, some blindness in our perspective for good or for bad. But the truth is there are things about us that will only come out in community as we share our love and lives with others, and there will also always be certain things only God will reveal to us… if and when He chooses to do so. There are dimensions of growth that we are so out of our depth we need nothing short of illumination from God and the worshipping community. It is a part of being human.
As I have said, I have been this last month or so, breaking free of some of these boxes. I have been encouraged by exhortation, as well as correction and admonition. I can also say that though this sort of growth is not easy, it is immensely valuable. I have for instance asked for some accountability in certain areas of my life, and because of the vulnerability and love involved, God has blessed me in ways that I cannot help but be grateful for. I am so grateful the “wounds of a friend can be trusted” and that I have room in my life for more than an echo chamber of my own making, my own agenda, or my own ego. Rather I have room in my life for God to use others to speak into my life and help me take the next step with a little less blindness. Sometimes He even uses me to do the same…
I know I am not perfect. I know I make mistakes. I know I need God’s grace. I know at times I need to stop and ask for forgiveness, or offer it to others. And I know I am not alone in this reality that others are struggling in their own ways. And also, that they are finding victory in their own ways. I want to encourage you, as we enter this Autumn season, to think about the role community plays in your life, and the role you play in our College Avenue Community. We all have our issues, our unique obstacles to overcome. We all have our unique mix of strengths, weaknesses… passions and drudgery. But to be the body of Christ, we need to learn to trust and rely on one another… we need to learn to work together as a team, and hold our pieces of the puzzle loosely in the face of God’s will being revealed to us.
Walking together means walking in vulnerability, humility, and ultimately freedom. But we can’t forget we make the path by walking together. In our holy nudgings toward discomfort and growth, we also gain a greater sense of God’s peace and a better understanding of ourselves. If I have learned anything as a disciple of Jesus it is that ignoring hard truths is a path leading only toward destruction and death, not the new life that God offers us. But I have also learned that Jesus IS present and active in community—in his body—and that where all our blind spots converse honestly, with open mindedness and willingness in an earnest desire for God’s will to be done, God not only gives grace; He gives freedom. Those the Son sets free are free indeed, but we each make the decision of how free we will let ourselves become. Often our fear of vulnerability robs us of the blessings God wants to give us. It robs us of the body, functioning fully as a body. It robs us of perhaps our best way of seeking the future; by doing it together.