The Blessing of Challenge
Recently my family returned from some travels that included a two-week stay with an intentional Christian community called the Bruderhof. We took this rather unusual vacation of sorts partly because we are a family of adventurers who like to go new places and have new experiences. We (especially I) grow bored with routine and like to shake things up a bit. But we also saw this as an opportunity to continue building the nascent relationship that has been developing between the Bruderhof and our own intentional Christian community, the Eden Community. Since God led us into initial contact about a year ago, members of the two communities have been contemplating how we might learn from each other, challenge each other, and serve each other through the exchange of ideas, practices, resources, and people. So a visit seemed a fitting way to continue and deepen the connection. Our visit was a lovely one, and it proved to be both a blessing and a challenge. We arrived with little in the way of conscious expectations about who or what we’d encounter and how we’d spend our time. But it became very obvious very quickly that expectations were unavoidable and that ours were going to be confronted head on.
There is so much that our little family and our community share in common with the Bruderhof. This was apparent throughout our stay. There was a shared understanding about so many things—theology, community life, mission, etc.—that we’re much more used to having to explain in detail to an audience who still sometimes find us incomprehensible. What a joy to find ourselves speaking the same language!
And yet, despite the many fundamental similarities, the differences between the norms of the Bruderhof and the norms of our family were vast—and very revealing. Some of the differences were overtly theological. Though we shared much in common, there were also points upon which we disagreed, albeit graciously and lovingly. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it was actually the primarily pragmatic differences of roles and rhythms that proved more challenging to us on the whole, both personally and theologically.
Rising early enough to begin the day with a 6:00 a.m. shared breakfast was a wakeup call, almost literally. Handing off our 2-year-old son to others for full-time care was another unanticipated rhythm. (He handled it wonderfully. It just came as a surprise to us how little time we’d have with him.) Being assigned to work at community tasks and business ventures for six to nine hours per day challenged our individualistic notions about independent schedules and our thoughts about gifts and vocation. Sharing closely connected living quarters with other families, all while also spending most of our days and evenings with the many people who wanted to connect with us during our visit, pushed this introvert, and even her extroverted family at times, to the max.
And yet it was precisely in the midst of these very noticeable, very practical (and, admittedly, sometimes not very welcome) differences from the way we typically go through our days that we engaged the most important theological questions of our visit and discovered delights we had not anticipated.
Starting, sharing, and ending our days in the presence of people who cared about us, who brought joy to us and received joy from being with us, who encouraged us to begin anew each morning and end in peace each evening with a sense of groundedness in God’s presence—this was a grace more invigorating to us than sleep or perhaps even solitude.
Seeing that our son was receiving loving, attentive care from people we trusted and that he was forming good relationships, learning a ton, and experiencing life so very richly, all while building healthy habits of community—this was a gift to our family rivaling the alternative gift we often experience of a great deal of time shared together as a family.
Knowing that the unselfish, conscientious work ethic of the community not only benefitted many through the community’s mission efforts but also meant that the community’s practical needs (and therefore ours for this time period) were all taken care of and that we could thus relax about certain things that burden most self-reliant Americans—this was a blessing beyond what we individualistically imagined it could be. So were the many rich conversations that our shared work facilitated (not to mention the communal snack and coffee breaks that punctuated the daily work rhythms).
The very things that challenged us the most also proved to be the most revelatory, the most formational, and, in some ways, the most joyful. We were able to experience life differently, to engage others differently, to see God differently. Certainly, there are things about the Bruderhof lifestyle that I don’t anticipate adopting in my own routines anytime soon. There are even things I observed and experienced that led me to reaffirm my own life’s and community’s rhythms and practices over and above what the Bruderhof shares in. But many things I encountered in our time with these wonderful, faithful people made me reconsider my own suppositions about the way life is supposed to work, caused me to contemplate that daunting and daring question, “what if…?”
My point here isn’t that we should all adopt the 6:00 a.m. breakfast routine or that we should do our laundry collectively or even that we should all live communally in the same ways that the Bruderhof has chosen to. I do think there’s an argument to be made about the craving for and necessity of community among us all too individualistic Americans, but that’s another post for another day.
No, my point is that it is often through the differing—even radically differing—practices of other people and other communities that we are best enlightened about ourselves and molded into God’s desires for us. It is in getting out of our cloistered individualistic lives that we encounter those who are other and who thus challenge our norms and our perspectives on reality. It is far too easy for us to get caught up in our own lives—our habits, our routines, our expectations and experiences, our thoughts about life and the world and God—and forget that there are others out there with vastly differing realities than our own. Not only that, when we do remember or recognize the existence of such people and such communities, we may be inclined to dismiss them as irrelevant or even as a menace to our closely guarded norms. What gifts from God we miss out on when we do this! For it is through interactions with those who are different from us that we can see ourselves and our God more clearly, that we can be encouraged, challenged, and molded more into God’s intentions for us and the world!
So as I close, I have a few parting questions for you. First, what opportunities has God put in front of you that would allow you to get outside of your own set of norms, to be challenged in what you think to be true or best? If you have the eyes to see, these opportunities are certainly all around you. Second, what unexpected gifts might be hidden for you in the midst of these opportunities, even among the aspects of the experiences that prove most difficult? And third, given the beauty of the possibilities that await, what are you letting hold you back? Get out there and see what God has for you to see!