The Common Good
November 1994

When Community Comes Apart

by Wes Howard-Brook | November 1994

"And so the disciples returned to their own
homes..." —John 20:10

"And so the disciples returned to their own homes..." —John 20:10

Scent of cedar smoke and candle wax, a whiff of sage. All the years' struggles, hopes, and dreams gathered into a smell in the back of my mind, settling in among other images of our community's life together, now gone.

With fits and starts, faith and fear, laughter and confusion, we walked the path of Christian community together for five years, calling ourselves "Galilee Circle." Each former member has their own way to describe what happened: movement of the Spirit; the cycle of birth, death, rebirth; "murder"; cutting off artificial life-support systems; running out of gas. What God had brought together had now come asunder, and few guideposts lead the stumbling journey from this desolate outpost.

How do faithful followers of Jesus continue when a once-vibrant community experience comes to a grinding halt? We hadn't a clue. We promised ourselves we'd have a grand closing ritual, inviting all the friends and associates of our actions over the years to ritualize our ending. It hasn't happened. After hundreds of gatherings for Bible study, action planning, seasonal rituals, and potlucks, we haven't been able to do a single blessed thing together.

My own feelings have run the predictable gamut: anger, frustration, relief, freedom, sorrow, confusion, in no particular order. Remaining is an empty gnawing at the pit of my stomach, a terrible yearning for a new start, a call from Above to come together, to renew the discipleship adventure, to return once more to Galilee with a Word from a corpseless tomb.

But no call has come, or at least not been heard. Like a recent divorcee who believes in marriage but lacks a suitable partner, I wander through my days, missing a piece of myself. My God, why did you abandon us? Or did we abandon you? Or? The options seem endless, and without possible resolution. Onward we trod, every man and woman for themselves.

IN THE MIDST of darkness, a few glints of light shine through, perhaps illuminating a way out. One thing's for sure: This suffocating culture that surrounds us is incredibly effective at undermining resistance. Nothing new there, I suppose, but a reminder of the meaning of "hating our life" in this world. So long as the economics of individualism—which includes the so-called "nuclear" family—calls us to separate jobs, separate houses, separate schedules, how can we find the critical energy to nurture the fragile mustard seedling of faith community? That, to my mind, more than anything else, was a root cause of our spiritless demise.

Others looked on from outside and thought, shuddering, "I couldn't possibly commit to meet every week for Bible study!"—let alone gleaning and cleaning cast-off produce, sharing meals with street brethren and sistren, planning and performing occasional exorcisms and other extracurricular acts. But following Jesus in community cannot happen from 7-9 p.m., first Tuesdays. Only the desperately poor (like in Latin America) and "socially demented" (like Catholic Workers and their ilk) have the "luxury" of time to give to the life of faith. The rest of us, like Nicodemus, find ourselves fading into the dark muttering, "How is it possible?" (John 3:9).

But, as Ched Myers pointed out in his poignant conclusion to Binding the Strong Man: The gospel does anticipate all this grieving and confusion. After glimpsing the empty tomb, John's gospel reports that Peter and the Beloved Disciple "went back to their own homes" because "they didn't understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead" (20:9-10).

Somehow, someway, we lurch past the walls that divide, and seek, once more, the Spirit that entwines hearts and minds, challenging, cajoling, enticing us to be the body of Christ in a broken and dark world. So, with antennae up and healing heart exposed, I watch and wait, trying to stay awake, hoping not to succumb before the Guest arrives to set the feast table once more.

Wes Howard-Brook was program director of the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle and the author of Becoming Children of God: John's Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Orbis Books, 1994) when this article appeared.

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