Will We Hold Tightly to Our Wish Dreams of Christian Community?
I witnessed and participated in a time of reconciliation between men who had wronged one another. Several men stood up in front of an area-wide church conference and confessed their sins and apologized face-to-face to one another. They knew many of their disputes were public, some had been confronted the night before at a small session, and a few accepted to move the reconciliation process into the larger session the next day.
So the conference organizer called each of the men who had been divisive or wronged others to come and humbly explain his actions and reconcile with one or more people during a general session of the conference. One man never came around to saying what he’d done wrong, but the whole conference knew. So the conference organizer gave the microphone back to the headstrong man and asked him to be more specific about his role in division and sinful behavior. The man continued being coy and vague. He even claimed that Jesus taught that we should come to one another face-to-face and that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to share problems in this public setting.
When they came to pray, the conference organizer said the man had misused the teaching of Jesus to hide wrongdoing, and that indeed individuals and then multiple brothers had come to this man and followed the model of Matthew 18 reconciliation, and this public time was now the equivalent in Jesus’s teaching to “take it to the church.” So the organizer said they would go forward and pray over all the men who had spoken and call them back into leadership. But to the man who resisted taking responsibility for his actions, the leader said, “We’re going to pray a blessing for you, but we do not accept your leadership role among us right now, because we all leave here wondering if you really understand your role in divisions because you’ve been so vague and had two opportunities to clarify.”
All the men gathered in a large circle, arm in arm, and prayed for one another. One of them prayed Psalm 133:
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
This psalm of ascent to the temple is a beautiful image, but we must remember that the image is of Moses pouring oil on his brother Aaron to anoint him into the priesthood, and those brothers had a fair bit of conflict! When that oil was poured, I imagine they neither ignored the fact that they had their differences nor had some fairytale sense about how “good and pleasant” unity among brothers and sisters can be attained.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in Life Together, “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.”
What is Bonhoeffer saying? Disillusionment with fellow Christians is a necessary step to Christian community. Huh? Yes, Bonhoeffer continues, “By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. ... Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”
Some people, however, are not prepared or willing to be disillusioned with others or themselves. One of the big problems, says Bonhoeffer, is our “wish dreams” of community. We’d like to think of our churches or organizations as centers of genuine Christian community, and we hold those views more as a wish dream than as a result of actual ways we face conflict and resolve differences and seek lasting reconciliation. I joke that, “Everywhere I work, everywhere I’ve been in a church, there is conflict! What’s the common factor in all those places where I go? I’m there.” Part of the wish dream is a naive or prideful sense that we are not involved in the problem. We all are part of the human problem of conflict, and we all need to be part of specific reconciliation events and continued moments of reconciliation.
Sometimes Christian community and reconciliation fails because good people do nothing. Often circumstances are a catalyst for division, but good people doing nothing to recover and reconcile brothers and sisters is what proceeds the cracks in Christian community, and the corrosive drip of assumption and avoidance enlarges those cracks and eventually leads to broken relationships. I have been in many dysfunctional fellowships where I have been responsible for divisive, discouragement, derogatory actions toward others. I have sinned and fallen short of the love that characterizes Christian community. I have been part of the problem of broken Christian community.
Bonhoeffer adds, “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
In spite of our own roles in causing ruptures in relationships and Christian fellowship, here are a few of the steps or attitudes we can all take up as churches and communities. I have been part of churches, a mission team, non-profits, and family settings where the following ways forward have moved us away from our wish dreams of Christian community and into a more durable, genuine, loving fellowship that is willing to face our own disillusionment.
- Pray for the Holy Spirit to move in our hearts in ways that may not feel possible otherwise.
- Accept I am part of the problem and make that public knowledge with any apology for behavior that contributed to a problem.
- Admit that I alone can’t fix myself, much less am I here to fix others.
- Use “I” statements that do not accuse but state what I perceive as a problem.
- Actively listen as others pray, accept, admit, and use “I” statements as well.
- Ask for clarification about what I do not understand. Say, “What I hear you saying is …” and restate what I hear the person saying.
- Discuss what we, as two or more people, want for the future, and decide the next step or steps to move toward improved relationships.
- Pray again for the courage, strength, and love to reconcile and forgive one another and to be forgiven and loved in spite of our faults.
Bonhoeffer says, finally, “The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insist upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse.”
Will you and I hold tight to our “wish dreams of Christian community,” or are we ready to face the realities of your own roles in the failures of Christian community, accept the failure of others, and move into a deeper level of genuine life together?