Friday, December 15, 2006

Behold, How Good and Pleasant It Is

When I started this blog, I never expected or intended to say much about the Christian community that Molly and I are part of. I didn't really mean for this to be a 'Christian' blog, although I certainly didn't intend to hide who I am or what my life is about. When I started, I mainly intended to talk about my family, and my marriage to Molly, and a little bit of married sex, just to keep you all interested. I didn't think that our community would be all that interesting to you all, and besides, it's a little hard to explain. But, in recent weeks, it has become clear to me (and probably to many of you) that I can't really tell you about myself without being pretty up-front and explicit about our community (and a few of you have asked me to tell more about it). So, here goes. . .

Back in September, I made this post, describing my spiritual journey, and it might be helpful if you read that before plowing ahead here. As I said, when I went to college, I was introduced to what, to my eyes, was a really cool prayer meeting.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Christian stuff was popping up all over the place - Jesus freaks and all that good stuff. This was a 'charismatic' prayer meeting (for a brief description of the charismatic movement, this isn't too bad). By the time I got there, in the fall of '73, it was a weekly prayer meeting with around 200 people in attendance. Of course, enthusiastic young Christian that I was, I was fairly blown away by it, and immediately made it part of my regular routine.

At the time that I arrived, there was quite a bit of ferment going on in the life of the prayer group. There was a growing conviction among many of the folks that, in order to 'go deeper' in the Christian life, we needed to have some kind of a 'life together'. In order to really grow in Christian life and character, we needed to have some more definite, structured way to support and encourage each other, and 'call each other on'. So, most of my freshman year, there was a series of meetings and presentations aimed at exploring what such a 'life together' would look like, and how it would work. At the end of the school year, about 80 people, my 18-year-old self among them, made a commitment to live in community together with each other, whatever that would mean. I went home to my parents for the summer.

When I returned the following fall, the life of the new community was underway. Most of the members had moved into households with each other, and those of us living on campus in the dorms arranged to live on the same floors in the same dorms with each other, so we could have enough direct contact with each other to actively support each other. We would pray together, a lot, and meet to discuss issues in our lives, and how we could more effectively live as Christians in the circumstances of our daily lives.

The community had a 'pastoral' structure, with each member having a 'pastoral head' with whom they met regularly (usually weekly, in those early days) to discuss their lives. In those early, 'formative' days, pastoral input was often direct, challenging, and, um, intense. Sometimes, the leadership crossed lines into some overly rigid and controlling stuff, and I suppose that I experienced some of that myself. I was usually able, though, to see the component of it that had my best interest in mind. Some folks quit the community because they felt overly manipulated and controlled; I can acknowledge what they experienced, while still saying that I experienced far more benefit than pain.

Words like 'cult' were occasionally thrown our way, but I can't say with any justice. No one ever tried to keep me from my family, or get me to sign away my paycheck. I've already told you the story of how Molly and I met and married; you can rest easy that no one 'arranged' it for us. I discussed 'major life decisions' with my leaders, but the decisions were mine alone.

I should be clear here that the community is voluntary, and intentional. We are also not a church - virtually all of our members belong to their own churches, and our community life is independent of our churches or parishes. We're also 'ecumenical' - our members belong to a whole range of churches - Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, and probably a few others that I can't think of right now. Catholics might best understand us as a kind of lay religious order, akin to the Third Order Franciscans or Opus Dei.

I graduated from college, and took a job that would allow me to maintain my involvement in the community. Once I was more or less 'established' in my job, I started looking for a wife; Molly and I began our 'courtship' that fall, and we were married the following summer.

In the early '80s, the community went through a period of major upheaval, prompted in part by some pretty extreme abuse of authority on the part of one of the 'senior' leaders. We went from a membership of around 500 to less than half that in the course of about a year.

But I also think that a large component of it was that community members were becoming 'grown-ups'. When we began in '74 with 80 or so members, there were five or six married couples, and one child; maybe two of our 'founding members' were over 30. In the late '70s and early '80s, dozens of community members (Molly and I among them) married each other, and by '82 or so, the character of the community had pretty completely changed over from a group of mainly young singles to a group of young married folks. And as we started having children and families, we started drawing more lines in terms of what we were available to do (looking back, I don't know how the families that joined us in the 'early days' managed to do it; the 'single-ness' of the community in those days was pretty clueless when it came to how families needed to work).

And, for the last 20 years, the life of our community has been more or less like that - couples and families, and young singles (we have maintained a campus 'outreach' all along), pursuing a Christian way of life together, mutually supporting and encouraging each other in that life.

I don't know if I've been able to do justice to the task of describing our community, but perhaps this will help you all understand what I've been talking about. If I've left something unclear to you, please don't hesitate to ask for clarification.


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