Faith is born, deepens and grows in community. "This is most certainly true." And what Luther calls "the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints" happens in all kinds of communities: between parents and children on the way to school, in formal Bible studies, around dinner tables and at pot lucks, at the grocery store and while walking the dog, over coffee hour and while sharing the peace. We experience God's mercy and forgiveness often most often in community: when another person bears our burdens, shares their faith, weeps or rejoices with us, walks with us in doubt, teaches us a new thing.
And in a world of isolation and loneliness, real community is a great and a rare gift.
But there's another part of it, something just as true but that we rarely talk about.
Bonhoeffer, I discovered, also talked about this other aspect of community in his book, Life Together. He writes:
The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves. (pp. 26-27)
In other words, just as we experience God's mercy and forgiveness in community, so often we are most likely to experience sin and brokenness in community: other people's, and our own. In community we allow ourselves to be both loved and hurt; we love and hurt others as well. Perhaps that's why Christian community is not embraced by everyone.
A friend of my whose parents divorced when she was a girl explained her mother's decision to me once: "She finally decided what she wanted to do with her life," my friend said. "What was that?" I asked. "Live by herself."
I don't want in any way to belittle the hurt and pain inflicted by dysfunctional Christian communities. But even in the healthiest churches, we will experience both grace and sin. We will be disillusioned by the church's failure to live up to its ideals, we will be let down by other people on whom we depended. And, as Bonhoeffer says, if we are fortunate, we will become disillusioned with ourselves as well.
If we are fortunate. Odd words.
If we are fortunate, we will in community realize our deep brokenness, and God's constant and unending love.
In the poem, The Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost writes of a broken down man who goes back to one of the places he worked. He is dying. The wife wants to give the old man, unreliable though he was, a place to die. He doesn't really have another home. The husband wrily observes, "Home is the place where, if you go there, they have to take you in." The wife replies, "I should have called it/Something you somehow haven't to deserve."
A true community is a place where, if we go there, they have to take us in. It's where the hired man goes to die. It's where we come to feel useful, to lean and to be leaned on, to rest and to work. And, in community, again and again we see ourselves for who we are: brokendown, unreliable, lonely, mean and beloved, beautiful, forgiven and whole.
When I was a little girl, my brother had a rock tumbler. I was fascinated by the machine, which with grit and lots of noise tumbled dull old rocks into beautiful agates. Now, sometimes, I think of the church that way: as a rock tumbler, where we are bound to rub each other the wrong way, but where God is making us beautiful.
And that's why it's called Faith in Community