Community: Alienation to Transformation

There [isn’t] any such creature as a self-made man or woman. We love that expression, we Americans, but every one who’s ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people.
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We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we are headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forebears—and not just in the 18th century, but our own parents and grandparents—did for us, or we’re not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away.

~David McCullough, Historian

It’s early morning. I got up before five today. Figured I’d try getting up when I awakened in the morning rather than waiting for the alarm—something about the obeying natural rhythms. We’ll see how that goes today in the early afternoon!

I’ve been thinking about history. Not just the grand sweep of past events and world-forming circumstances, but the quiet passing of days and years in a community. It seems to me that the measure of a community of faith is the history that the community has been willing to enjoy and, at times endure, together. Real community is formed when its members set a course and follow it, regardless of the cost of the course.

So often these days the cost of traveling together is too high—not that it is in fact, only that we perceive it to be as a matter of convenience—and rather than pay the price we abandon the enterprise and one another. That we “go to church” as though it were a location or an institution makes it all the simpler. We’ve had people announce that they were going to “leave Summit” (the name we’ve applied to the little band of travelers here) and move on to some other place. I’ve always been intrigued by that choice of words. It strikes me that it’s easier to “leave Summit” than to say, “I have grown tired of you,” or, “you displease me.”

Steve Meeks, a Baptist preacher, pointed out that there are four stages of community. The first, he calls “initiation,” the honeymoon stage when relationships are new and the excitement of discovery empowers the group. Anything negative is swallowed in the glare of brilliant newness.

The second stage is “alienation.” Here is where the challenges begin. Romance collides with reality. The flaws and blemishes—they’ve always been there—start attracting more attention than the positives. Here is where history is made. Here is where the mettle of the group is tested. At the point of disappointment is where heroes emerge and relationships are forged. Traveling from Independence, Missouri to the West Coast today is not remarkable. The same journey in 1850 made history, and the story lives on. The difference? Perseverance and determination against the obstacles that would deter and destroy. Yet, at the point of resistance is when people abandon community. On the eve of history, they “go somewhere else,” not realizing (or admitting) that it is not a place they have abandoned but companions, which are the stuff of history.

Meeks points out that the step beyond alienation is “transformation,” where real love begins. The lights are on, but not as brightly—glare has become illumination. The flaws and blemishes are in full view but they no longer matter. Love has covered a multitude of sins and the community is transformed—and each member. Later, as new members trickle in, the old ones tell the story of their history together and the new ones are drawn into it. Mere companionship moves toward covenant and the community is no longer defined by name or place but by a people.

What then? If a community is transformed what comes after? Meeks suggests that “incarnation” is next. It is a community that has learned to live together with wisdom, depth and grace. Incarnation takes time, but it is what the world is longing to see. It is, I think, what Christ-followers are longing to be, too. But the price is high and is paid by staying together long enough have a history to share. The motivating question for such followers is not where do you “go to church” but “with whom have you been called to be the church?”

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