The relationship between community and freedom is foundational to the Christian worldview. First, we know that nothing happens apart from God’s directly willing it or permitting it (Rom 8:28 and many other passages). It follows that absolutely nothing happens by accident or coincidence.
Second, we believe that “no man is an island”, in John Donne’s immortal words. We cannot become who we are unless we are in community with others. I do not create my “self”. It is a gracious gift, given me by God and by others. Even secular psychology teaches that the self develops primarily in relationship with others, particular our parents and siblings. In Christian terms, the Body of Christ – life in Christian community – is not just one way of becoming who God calls me to be. It is the only way.
If all things ultimately flow from God’s will, then He has willed the presence of every person who affects my life. My boss, co-workers, employees, spouse, children, parents, siblings, fellow parishioners, pastor, President and Vice-President and Congressmen, are precisely the people I need to have in my life to become who God has designed me to be.
Accepting this truth is immensely freeing. It enables me to live in what is without wasting energy on how things could or should be different. It eliminates the “if onlys”. “If only my father hadn’t been alcoholic… If only my mother hadn’t died so young… If only my siblings understood me… If only my boss weren’t such a jerk…If only my husband hadn’t cheated on me…If only my pastor could preach well…If only my co-workers didn’t gossip so much…”
Acceptance doesn’t mean doing nothing to improve relationships and circumstances when I can. It means starting from the messy, flawed reality of my life right now before working on what “should be”. More important, it means that everyone who’s ever been or will be in my life is part of God’s perfect, loving plan. It means that each person in my life, however difficult, is a gift, if I only have the eyes to see it.
Last weekend, I was chatting with my son and his friend Nick at a Bible study we’re in. I told them that as a timid and unathletic boy, I was often excluded in grade school and junior high. At the time, I feared and disliked the classmates who most obviously left me out. I wanted them just to go away. But those experiences gave me a sensitivity to people who aren’t being included. In high school, I decided I’d associate with whomever I wished, whether or not others labeled them as “cool”. Now, if someone’s new to a group, I go out of my way to introduce myself and chat. In a discussion group, I notice who’s been trying to get a word in, and I invite him or her to share. Those bullies – whatever their intentions – taught me the importance of including the excluded. I can be grateful that God allowed them in my life.
The family is our first and most formative experience of community. A helpful psychological exercise to do related to accepting those God has placed in my life is to “choose my parents” and “choose my siblings”. Parents and siblings are givens. But I can say, “Lord, thank you for giving me exactly this father, this mother, this brother, this sister, with all of their faults and virtues.” Such a move is essential to self-acceptance. Each of them has something to teach me. I am who I am because of everyone whose lives have ever touched mine, for good or ill. This is especially true of those who formed me earliest and most powerfully.
My mother and siblings have blessed me, through their example, with an active sense of humor and a lively sense of how to have fun. They have made it impossible for me to take myself too seriously. The lively interest of several of them in travel, culture, and reading has deeply formed my interest in those. My oldest brother, Bill, inspired me with his passion for classical music. I’ve passed this on to my son. My siblings have been quite successful in their careers. But they’ve never forgotten our humble roots. Their down-to-earthness has helped me not get too swell-headed. My parents’ and siblings’ love for their kids has been obvious, helping me to make pro-family choices in my own life. My parents’ solid work ethic has empowered us all. The list goes on.
The Body of Christ is the ultimate community. It transcends time and space. It encompasses all believers past, present, and to come. How this “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) affects me is mysterious but absolutely real. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom, is a meditation on how our lives touch each other. Whether the author views Heaven as real or as a metaphor isn’t clear. But he traces how the main character’s seemingly sad, wasted life has meaningfully and powerfully intersected with others’ lives.
Similarly, we have no idea how the prayers and example of those who’ve died have affected us. My conversion happened on St. Patrick’s Day, 1977 – about 6 months the death of my devout Irish grandmother, Molly Shields. She was intensely prayerful. She lived across the street from our parish church, where she spent every spare moment. I am convinced that her prayers brought about my conversion. A friend of mine, Kevin Sullivan, was just released from the penitentiary yesterday after 18 or so years in prison. He had made a successful appeal of his case. But his mother’s prayers, my prayers, the prayers of many others had just as much to do with it.
I draw a great deal of strength and hope from the lives of the saints. They, of course, had no idea how their lives would touch the Christians who would live after them. Yet they have, powerfully. Stories of the Chinese martyrs – a world and a generation away – help fire my resolve to live unashamedly for Jesus. Similarly, none of us can calculate the ripples our own lives send out – for ill, certainly, but unquestionably for good. Several years ago, a friend I hadn’t seen since high school told me that my love of reading had made him a reader. I’d had no idea. A college professor who, I’m sure, wouldn’t know me from Adam turned me on to poetry, a love I still retain.
In Part I of this topic, I suggested that community and freedom have a kind of purgatorial relationship. Community prepares us for the freedom of Heaven, where all love all in eternal relationship. But really, community can be a kind of foretaste of Heaven right here on Earth. Each person I commune with is a link in a chain that stretches – right up to Heaven.