(Part 1 of some reflections on living in intentional Christian community)
Room 101 is the creepy torture chamber in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In it, the sinister “Ministry of Love” attempt to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia. For Winston Smith, Orwell’s main character, this is to be attacked by rats.
My Room 101 would be a massive, dark, tank of water, containing just a great white shark – and me. Maybe I watched Jaws too young, maybe it’s the sharks’ jagged down-turned maw and lifeless, black eyes, maybe it’s because sharks have us at such a disadvantage in water, their natural element.
Luckily for me, living in Coventry, I’m hardly at daily risk of shark attack.
In Coventry, I, like many others in the Jesus Army around the UK, live in an intentional Christian community. I like living this way. I find it inspiring. I find it brings out the best in me. There are times when it can be hard (more on this anon). But generally I’m a fan of Christian community living, and I recommend it to Christians everywhere.
But I know that for some people, the very idea of sharing home with other people (beyond their actual family – or maybe even including their actual family!) is downright horrifying. Some agree with Sartre: “hell is other people”.
For some, living in community may even approach their idea of Room 101.
I remember a Christian colleague, when I was a teacher in a Coventry secondary school, saying to me, “I could never live like you do” (she meant community, rather than my poor dress sense or any other undesirable feature of my life; I know that because we’d been talking about it.)
“I could never live like you,” she said. I was tempted to retort, “Of course you could, if you let the Holy Spirit fill you with love like the first church in Acts 2” or some similar biblical harangue. I’m glad I didn’t – not least, because it would have been rude, and love isn’t rude according to the same New Testament that glowingly describes the first Christians’ communal living.
But I’m also glad I didn’t because it would have been glib. Living in Christian community isn’t the kind of thing anyone should do on a whim. It is a tough call at times and in order to stay committed to it, you have to have a strong call – from God. You have to know God is in it. I passionately believe that Christians living together in community demonstrates God’s new society in a way that shouts louder than any words can. I urgently wish more Christians would embrace such a call. Hang it all, I’d love some to move in with us.
But I’m not going to say it’s easy.
What I might have been better saying to my colleague is something like this: “You’re right. You could never live that way. Neither can I. It’s a daily miracle.” And then, maybe, I could get away with asking, demurely, “Do you believe in miracles?”
You can’t live in Christian community – long-term – without believing in miracles.
There’s the miracle of forgiveness. Any long-term relationship needs that for survival, but in community, forgiveness has to happen without natural ties that help marriage and family life to survive (like children, sex and in-laws) – it has to be sought and found in God’s heart. Believe me; we don’t spend all day in Christian community floating around on clouds contemplating one another’s perfections. Sometimes I want to wring some of my fellow-communitarians’ necks (if I can get to them before they wring mine).
There’s the miracle of financial sharing. We share all our money and are therefore accountable about how we spend: it’s not “my” money, it’s “ours” (actually, it’s God’s, which ups the ante even more). We tread the constant fine line between being answerable to one another in our spending and living simply, and not “policing” one another in a way that limits trust and hinders maturity.
There’s the miracle of harmonising our differences. I like bold wallpaper. He likes hot curry. She likes peace and quiet. They like board games. He likes to take the paper to his room to read it (and often leaves it there). She likes people to say hello in the mornings (and can feel offended if they don’t). He likes slightly risqué humour. I like to talk with my mouthful over dinner. She likes... well, you get the picture. And (as if I needed to say it) each of these likes is someone else’s loathe.
There's the miracle of the mugs. Where do they all disappear to? (Actually, I think that one may be a demonic miracle...)
There’s the miracle of one heart. Despite all our differences, in our shared community and church life, in its weekly pattern of meals and meetings, being and doing, commotion and calm, we find, over time, that we have one shared set of deepest desires. It’s difficult to put into words.
Perhaps some words that we were given say it best:
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”