Monday, October 27, 2008

Defined by the reach, not the grasp

I met a fellow at a coffee shop last month. He was sitting next to me reading The Brothers Karamazov, and, knowing that to be among the best novels of all time, I couldn’t restrain myself from alerting him of that fact. We spent the next half-hour immersed in conversation regarding the many common authors we admired and the religious views we sympathized with but didn’t share. By the time he needed to leave, we had exchanged email addresses and were mutually hopeful for future conversations.

The next time we saw each other, he had gathered a group of thinkers of various religious persuasions to discuss various editions of NPR’s Speaking of Faith program. Initially he wanted to discuss the program regarding Shane Claiborn and a movement of intentional Christian communities called the New Monasticism, and later he settled on a program about Jean Vanier and a community called L’Arche in which developmentally disabled people and their assistants live together and share life.

I listened as my friend spoke of these communities with wonder and admiration, but the conversation felt awkward for me. As much as I agreed with the philosophies and theologies behind these movements, they could not feel the same for me as they did for my wide-eyed friend for two reasons:

I recently lived in a New Monastic community, and one of my best friends works at a L’Arche community.

It’s been odd to get an outside picture of something I’ve only ever known from the inside. On the inside, I know these places are built of well-meaning but broken people whose selfishness and hang-ups often get in the way of the very ideals they long to follow. I’ve struggled to live with housemates and have questioned their decisions, my own Jesus-complex coming into conflict with theirs. I’ve listened to my friend’s frustrations at co-workers who seem unwilling to accept some of Vanier’s fundamental teachings: “We all need help, and it's only as we discover that 'I have a handicap,' that 'I am broken,' that 'we're all broken,' and then we can begin to work at it.”

It’s been very odd. Odd enough for me to look up an old video a missions conference once recorded at my old community and various programs NPR recorded with an old housemate. I am trying to see my community from the outside, remembering that its fumbling members are no more or less well-meaning and selfish than I am. It’s odd.

It’s especially odd because infamy will not remember these communities like I do. It will remember them the way these articles and radio programs and videos do. And in a strange way, it is right when it does; despite the failure of our grasp to extend to our reach, the story seems to be defined by the principles rather than the accomplishments.

Maybe God is already re-writing his own story.

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