Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Cost of Community





                                                               The cost of Community

    Have you ever driven through an Amish area? Americans seem to have a certain fascination with the plain people. If you have ever been to Ohio or Pennsylvania it is easy to become enchanted with the sweeping fields, the white picket fences, the clothes lines blowing with hand stitched works of art. But perhaps the thing that draws you most as you slowly drive by is the quietly dressed figures animating the scene.

    Their simple lives seem so far removed from both modern comforts and modern struggle that they seem almost other worldly. Like a beautiful piece of history brought to life. The children especially: dressed as miniature figures of their parents, captivate. Even more astounding than a group of people who live without electricity or other modern convenience is the sense of unity that is apparent in all that they do.

  At first glance they seem to represent the best of a tight knit committed community that both rejoices and sorrows together. Difficult tasks, or tragedies, and great blessing are born together by those whose lives are intertwined. It would appear that simple dress and living, and adherence to community ideals allow a society where mutual support and care can flourish in ways that is enviable.  These families live and work in an environment completely created and preserved by unconditional loyalty and unwavering adherence to the traditions that bind their lives together. In some ways it seems so appealing.

    Until you consider the cost.

 This simplicity and conformity does not come cheaply.

    For each family to find its place of acceptance and love, and care from the others in the group, one thing is nonnegotiable. It requires human sacrifice.

  We were not created the same.

   Achieving a community of conformity and unity where individuality is suppressed and outward expression of uniqueness is erased can only be achieved one way. Every child born into an Amish family knows that the incredible loyalty, love and acceptance we see are only offered to those who conform.

   The only way to create a community of those who are the same is to cast out anyone who is not.

    Family, friends, love, acceptance, a community; paid by denying the unique, majestic identity that is not just each person’s undeniable right, but their divine responsibility. It seems like the ultimate choice. Actually it is no real choice at all. The right to live here; can only be paid with your life.

   Parents raise children who know they are a ‘worldly button on their shirt’ away from losing everything and everyone they know. If this sounds like an unhealthy way to grow up as a child, imagine living this way as a parent. The price of having a place in a community that provides the structure for all they know in life requires that they are willing to cut off anyone in their life who does not perfectly obey.

    All relationships hang in the ultimate balance; because an individual’s value will never be greater than conformity.

    Acceptance and love are by definition conditional and for the express purpose of accomplishing a goal; compliance.  Nothing matters more than the edicts, the standards, and the idea of what each person is supposed to be.

   To live in such a system requires regular and necessary death. It means the death of hopes and dreams, death of relationships based in fear of loss, death of individuality, death of unconditional love and acceptance.  Death of the very core of the beings God created in his image.

    Death to the pursuit of love and connection no matter the cost (God’s very nature) traded for a deceptive sense of conditional belonging and acceptance. The counterfeit of approval and acceptance based entirely on outward, mindless compliance replaces the power of the only force on earth can reach beyond barriers, differences and all resistance. To live in a world that seems to practice such incredible devotion means rejecting everything that is true love.

     I don't know what it is like to grow up Amish. But I do know something about growing up in a closed community.

   Growing up, my ‘Amish’ did not live in picket fence homes within buggy distance of each other, instead we were scattered far and near and our homes and lifestyles varied considerably, which added to the illusion of diversity. We did not reject all current advancements, just random ones that we considered a threat; mostly books, music, television, or things that made us feel too knowledgeable or connected to modern culture.  We definitely had a dress code; pretty much anything that was a few decades behind current fashion, or a mixture of styles, like dresses and sneakers under the label modest.

   We did not have a council of elders in buggies, but here and there sprang up leaders who effectively used fear of living anything less than a much expounded ‘best’; of disappointing a gracious God who was trying to be patient in our progress toward real victory and holiness.

  There is a kind of comfort in being part of a group. There is an excitement in feeling that your commitment and perseverance is stronger than others, and believing that like in other areas of life, extra effort means bigger payoff. There is a false but alluring sense of purpose in developing and protecting a tightly defined culture.

    If you don’t know who you are, you do not feel that you are sacrificing anything to become who you are ‘supposed’ to be. After all, - perhaps it is true. Perhaps that sense of longing and emptiness is because you hadn’t fully applied the ideals of prescribed holiness to your life.

    We thought we believed in love. We thought we knew about acceptance. After all, - we accepted each other! We were intensely loyal. We wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice for each other. We tended to be polite and respectful to those who were not ‘like minded’ but would never allow them too close. We considered it our duty to confront others (or at least condemn behind their backs) the parts of their lives that were farthest from our convictions with the weight of punishment, consequences and rejection waiting in the wings. Ironically we called that love.

   We thought we knew God. We thought we knew how to make him happy. We thought we were standing in grace (obviously; we were committed). We tried to convince others that God really loved them; he just hated everything about them and wanted to change everything about their lives from top to bottom. After all, that is how we loved others.

   That actually made sense if you grew up in a culture where love was really just the word you used to describe enjoying your reflection in someone else’s carefully scripted nearly indistinguishable life.

   After all, isn’t that what God wanted in us?

    Or maybe not.

    Sometimes we are blessed to be broken by life, and then through the cracks we are able to see the light for the very first time. At this point in my life I met a God I did not know before. This God was not concerned about controlling my life, nor did he support confined, controlled communities.

  “This is a fundamental principle of freedom. We were designed to be free. How do we know? God put two trees in the garden. He gave us the choice. Without a choice, we don’t have freedom, and more importantly, we don’t have love, which requires freedom. God chose us, loves us, and wants us to love him in return. So he gave us a free choice even though it meant necessarily risking our rejection and devastation of a disconnected relationship. The tragedy of the fall actually proclaims that he doesn’t want to control us. He didn’t want to control us in the garden, and he doesn’t want to control us now.”

   “Many people find this hard to believe. If you were raised with a powerless, fear driven mindset based on the belief that you can control people and they can control you, then you will naturally perceive God as a controlling punisher. You will take the laws of the Old Testament – all the verses and stories about wrath and judgment and the fear of the Lord and conclude, ‘see, God wants to control us, and we need to be controlled. Our hearts are desperately wicked and we can’t be trusted, so God uses the threat of punishment to maintain the distance between us and Him’.”

   “God’s number one goal with us is connection, and nothing, neither pain, nor death, will prevent him from moving toward us, or responding to us with love.”

   “His perfect love toward us is fearless. He is not afraid of us, and never will be. His Gospel message is: I love you no matter what. I am not afraid of your mistakes and you don’t have to be afraid of them either. You don’t have to be afraid of other people’s mistakes. They may be painful; many things in this life may be painful. But pain and the fear of pain no longer have to control you. You are always free to choose. So what are you going to do? Remember, I love you no matter what you choose.

  God is continually moving toward you in love and giving you the choice to love him. He never takes your choices away. 2 Cor. 3:17 – “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’.  The more God fills your life, the more freedom you will have.”     ‘Keep Your Love On' by Danny Silk

        The thing about tight community living and ‘love’ is that connection and relationship can only happen when any and everything that seems to stand in its way is erased. When there are no major differences, and when individuality and personal choice are silenced.

    God’s love is an irresistible force that makes everything standing in the way insignificant. Nothing is a match for God pursuing connection with us.  We were created for love.

     Without understanding the nature of God’s love we become obsessed with looking for anything (sin) in others as a legitimate reason for separating and rejection, which is often the only way we know to handle hard differences in life. When in an attempt to maintain ‘unity’ personal expression and choice are seen as sinful, it is not hard to find.

   The whole point of the gospel is that a powerful, holy, perfect, sinless God acted out of love (that cost him everything) toward those who were very far away and could not be more different, no strings attached.

   He even sent his son to tell us in his own words.

   So you think you are a good person because you love those who are in your group – the people who think and look and believe like you? Even the people you think are the most sinful do that. That isn’t God’s love. I tell you to love those not only who just politely disagree with you, but those who hate your guts. I tell you to give freely, not just to the deserving, but  even those who take more than their fair share.  Be kind to those who treat you badly, pour graciousness and love on everyone around you and embrace those who you have every reason to reject. Know why? Because that is what my Father did for you. It is what he does every day; he pours out his love like the rain on the just, the unjust, the humble and unthankful. That is love.   (my paraphrase of Luke 6)

   One thing I love about Jesus is his commitment to connection. He pursued connection with individuals, even those that horrified the ‘good' people of his community. Even the evil were still worthy of his love and forgiveness.  I’m glad. In my past, I’ve been part of (theological) mobbing, and (verbal) stoning.

   –Father forgive me, I knew not- I really, truly knew not -....... (of so much- but especially love).

    Each heavy stone of judgment hurled, landing on battered heart, simultaneously destroyed my own. Human sacrifice; the cost of appeasing a holy God, which I believed to be barbaric in other cultures seemed totally justified when it was the only way to protect my own carefully, community endorsed  view of God and righteous living.

     Thankfully, even modest, submissive, and lovely murderers (whether in heart or in flesh) are forgiven by the God I now know.

 Through love. Because of love. Love that didn’t back down at my fear, my hate, my shame, my righteous indignation.  Love that didn’t push me away; ever. Love that stayed. Love that was willing to do whatever it cost, even if I never said yes. Love that was so pure, so clean, so real, that eventually I could do nothing but turn toward its white hot light.

   My hands bruised and stained with the blood of the wicked, the vile, the undeserving, who I in righteous fury had destroyed so I could live a right life, feebly reached out and found healing, and forgiveness.

     Perfect love casts out fear.

Fear of difference. Fear of rejection. Fear of unworthiness. Fear of shame. Fear of loneliness. Fear of others mistakes. Fear of my own. Fear of the depth of my own darkness. Love.

   Much of my life has been in community that believed it knew what love was.
   The thing that completely wrecked my world?  The real thing. I am forever changed.

This Present Mom,
Rebecca