A Reflection on Rest, Community, and the Violence of Grace

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Rest is a good and beautiful thing.

The chaos of the past few months is slowly beginning  to fade to the background as Ashley and I recover a more “normal” rhythm of life. We’ve found some measure of peace and community in a church near our home, we’ve begun to take more time to intentionally invest in our marriage and enjoy one another’s company, Ashley has been setting aside more time to be with her family in Illinois… it is a good season.

Part of the delight for me has been re-discovering old interests and hobbies. When you are in Bible College or Seminary, or when you’re teaching regularly in the local church, you tend to use most of your free time for theological study, reflection, and writing. It’s a tough habit to break should you all of a sudden find yourself with no-one to teach and no classes to study for.

For a while after my withdrawal from Whitfield, I continued to study almost incessantly (and quite frantically, I might add). I’m not entirely certain why. Part of it, I’m sure, was sheer force of habit; I’ve been doing it for 7 years. Part of it was probably simply that I needed something familiar to cling to in a time of great transition. And, of course, part of it has to do with the renewed sense of ecclesiastical homelessness we experienced when we left our last church.

I have a compulsive need to figure things out, to nail everything down before finding a church home. That has in large part been due in the past to my desire to serve in ordained ministry; it just makes sense to figure out what kind of church would be a good fit before you go plunging in asking them to ordain you… enter the frantic studying.

Part of it as well has to do with a personal identity crisis and a desire for belonging. I’ve always felt, to some degree or another, like an outsider; certain, for some reason, that I would not be loved and accepted by those whose affection I craved. Over time, this began to manifest itself most clearly in church life; I began to simultaneously erect barriers between myself and others, while also desperately searching for a sense of belonging. One way I did this was by seeking positions of congregational leadership, another way was through theological distinction.

I grew up Roman Catholic. When I was 8, my parents and I moved to a new city, where we joined a non-denominational church affiliated with the Stone-Campbell movement (Christian Churches and Churches of Christ). As far back as I can recall, I was unsettled there. Fairly early on I began looking elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment, turning particularly to Reformed and Charismatic expressions of faith.

Regardless, I did end up attending a Restoration Movement affiliated school for my undergrad work. During my time there and through reading a bit of church history, it became clear to me that I would never quite fit the SCM mold. The result was at least a perceived sense of alienation from peers and professors, amplified by the general tenor of education at a Stone-Campbell institution. Though it was certainly unintentional, I was made to feel like a second-class Christian because I did not identify with the Campbell-ite heritage (there were some notable exceptions; I remain profoundly grateful to those few professors who recognized and welcomed my differing viewpoint and encouraged my spiritual search).

My search for belonging continued throughout my undergrad years and beyond. I went through catechism in the Eastern Orthodox church… then I met the woman who would become my wife, and converting to Orthodoxy was no longer an option. We went from place to place, eventually finding a home in the Anglican Church of North America. We served in an ACNA parish for three beautiful years, but various factors (including my ministerial ambitions) stirred up in both of us a feeling of discontent. We began to develop an idealized view of another church in town where a friend and mentor of mine pastored. Ultimately we left our Anglican church for this Presbyterian church. The rest, if you’ve been following this blog, is not news to you; there was a moral failure on the part of the pastor, we left, and I dropped out of seminary.

Shortly after all this, I began re-reading Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together; it has been a great catalyst for healing in my life. He writes these words:

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 try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

For Bonhoeffer, many of us bring ideals of what the church should be; ideals that quickly become idols. We seek to force that ideal onto the church, and when it doesn’t quite fit, the result is pain, disappointment, damaged relationships–all the things that inevitably follow when we “worship the creature rather than the Creator who is forever blessed, Amen” (Romans 1:25).

God is not content to let us simply continue on in our cycle of idealism, idolatry, and brokenness, however; he loves us far too much. In his grace he brings our tottering fortress of idealism crashing to the ground and invites us instead to find ourselves as members of the Beloved Community. There is no need to set up buffers and create distance in order to protect myself, because Christ Himself is my buffer; it is only through his reconciling love that I relate to my brother and sister. Community, then, is the sweetest of graces, and it is a grace we cannot experience if our ideals regarding the Christian community remain intact.

It seems to me that for a long time, God has been trying to teach me this lesson, inviting me to find my place in the Beloved Community, and to taste grace as if for the first time. He wanted me to see myself simply as one beloved of God, unconditionally accepted through His Son and welcomed into a community of people that exists solely for the purpose of following in the footsteps of Jesus. Truly, what greater sense of belonging could I ask for? And yet in desperation I clung to that ideal image of church, that idol of my own making that could not save me, and in doing so, I refused to let Him tend to my wounds and heal my brokenness as he longed to. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing…” (Matthew 23:37). It took God bringing my ideals crashing down for me to finally pay attention to the quiet whisper of the Spirit.

The joy of all this is that out of every little death, God inevitably brings the sweetness of resurrection. For the time being, we have found our little slice of the Beloved Community in a small church that isn’t the best “fit,” necessarily; but God in his mercy, continues to put to death my churchly ideals and invite me through his Spirit to experience grace and community afresh.

Only He knows what the future will bring, it is certainly beyond my fathoming. I am simply grateful for the present moment: The lessons the Spirit is teaching us, the love that fills our home, the grace that salves our wounds, and the little things that make life delightful.

Its time for me to go, I think; there are birds to watch, pipes to smoke, guitars to play, and people to love. Until we meet again, may the peace and presence of Christ be with you all. Amen.