Archive for March 2013 – Page 2

Gift-Based Community

I used to feel alone in the world. I felt cut off from the kind of human relationships that I wanted – a group of people who would love me for who I really was, and not simply because I conformed to their expectations. I yearned to be part of a community. I had all sorts of ideas about what this imaginary community should look like and how it would fulfill and complete my life.

Something remarkable about my early visions of community is that none of these fantasies required me to change at all. I wanted others to fulfill me as I was, not to transform my perceptions, actions and character. I could not see it at the time, but my ideas about community were largely an idol. I had turnedcommunity into a product that would fulfill me as I was, rather than shake me to the core.
Idols die hard, and I clung to this one for many years. Slowly, however, I started to see that my own attitudes, habits and ways of treating others were keeping me outside the circle of community. I began to understand that I was not going to find a magical solution out there unless I was willing to be changed in here.

It is no wonder that I clung to my ideas of the perfect community for so long. With my false images of community firmly in hand, I demanded that the world love me, even though I was doing very little to show love to the world. The truth was, I often hated others – hated them for not giving me what I wanted, for not loving me, for not seeing me for who I was. In the height of silliness, I blamed them for not loving me, when I hated them. How could I ever have expected others to return love for my hatred?

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus did for all of us. Though we hated him, spit on him, tortured and murdered him, he loved us with every fiber of his being. He was secure enough in his Father’s love that he could return good for evil, love for hate.

In this, we discover the secret to authentic community. Real community requires me to make myself vulnerable to others, even when I have no reason to expect to receive anything good in return. Genuine relationships are built on the foundation of the self-giving love that is a pure gift from God. We cannot produce it, we cannot sustain it – we can only allow this abundant life and power to flow through us and fill our lives and relationships.

Is this all sounding too mystical, too theoretical? In practical terms, true community demands that we make ourselves available to people that we do not always like. It means renouncing the right to shut down the conversation. These kinds of relationships are made possible because our trust is not primarily in other people, or even ourselves, but in the living presence of Jesus in our midst. In a mature community, we love one another because Christ loves through us.
Without the presence of Christ in the midst, community cannot endure, because our relationships are based on fulfilling the needs of each individual through transactions. When we try to live in relationship through our own strength, community ends up becoming a marketplace for unfulfilled desires. This marketplace-community breaks down quickly when some of its members have nothing to sell.

The Kingdom of God stands in sharp contrast to this brittle, transactional style of community. In the kingdoms of this world, we haggle and trade; but in the Kingdom of God, we share gifts. In merely human communities, we each seek our own fulfillment; but when we are gathered by Jesus, we become capable of laying down our lives for each other.

What challenges do we face in a world where most of our communities are based in the idea of exchange, commerce and transaction? What might it look like for us to live in the gift-based community of Christ? Where can we find the encouragement we need to start giving to others without thought of being paid back? How can we speak to the deep loneliness and anxiety of our neighbors, freely giving the love that we have received from God? What would it be like to create a loving environment where real transformation can begin to take place?

Our Words & The Living Word

One of the greatest strengths of the Quaker tradition is that each of us is encouraged to discover the risen presence of Jesus for ourselves. It is not enough to read about Christ in the Bible, or to recite theological statements. Our faith is not based in our ideas about God, but in our lived relationship withGod. This kind of faith is an encounter that comes through the daily practice of dwelling in God. We learn to say together with the apostle, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Through this lived experience of Christ’s indwelling love – and through the practical application of his love in community – we come to know who God really is. Through this process of growing and maturing in faith, we come to believe and share the core teachings of the New Testament. As we grow in love, we are drawn together in the reading of Scripture, the retelling of the gospel story, and the application of biblical principles to our lives.

But the experience of the risen Jesus, and the power of his love in our lives, must come first. We love because he first loved us, and we trust his words in Scripture because he first spoke his word into our hearts. When we claim to believe certain ideas about God, this is not simply because we have been told these things or read about them in the Bible. Instead, our starting place is this living experience of God. Our intellectual beliefs are simply an outgrowth of a life lived in relationship to God and the community of those who are seeking to follow Jesus and love one another.

Our beliefs are testimony to those things that we have experienced first-hand – that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our hands. The words that we speak and the beliefs we hold are meant as a reminder of and invitation to the full-bodied experience of God’s Spirit. Such beliefs are the fruit of a life lived in God’s love. How could we not want to share that kind of beauty, grace and power?

Are there weaknesses to this approach? Absolutely. Individuals and even whole communities often deceive themselves. We easily become too subjective, allowing our personal feelings, assumptions and interpretations to dominate when we should be listening to the reasoned witness of others. This is why it is so important for each of us to live in relationship with a rooted community, and for each community to be in humble conversation with the wider body of Christ.

Despite the dangers of subjectivity, Friends believe that the lived experience of Christ’s power must be the foundation of our faith. Without his presence and love, all our religious rituals, all our beautiful words, charitable actions and correct beliefs are nothing but empty forms. We trust that, as we dwell in the love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will move within us and among us, gathering us together into lives of faithfulness that fulfill the New Testament witness – not according to the legalism of words, but by the grace of the Spirit.