Setting the Table
If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
One of the consistent metaphors for paradise in every major religion is that of a great banquet. When we gather at the sacramental table of community, we are, in essence, practicing eternity now. So let me set the table for our time together in this book.
This is not an easy book—not in terms of content nor in terms of the nature of the realities being shared. It hasn’t been easy to write. It’s confessional, more about making mistakes than celebrating successes. It’s about the cost of community, not positive spin. In community, there will always be a series of losses, giving something up to gain something more. But in the giving up, we find better versions of ourselves. And that’s not easy either.
So in the face of all that’s hard with community, why bother?
It might be bad theology to suggest that the creation of humanity was predicated as much by God’s love as by God’s loneliness. Maybe somewhere in that thought there’s an echo of an underexplored truth. After all, love, by its nature, is self-giving and needs a subject.
In the face of all that’s hard with community, why bother?
And if there is such a thing as divine loneliness, I imagine our need for relationships is one of those subtle indicators that we actually are made in the image of God. We need friendship. There is a deep longing in each of us for authentic and intimate human relationships. Could it be that we possess a sort of existential hard wiring for community, something that touches us in the most vulnerable parts of our identities and draws the divine out of us?
FAILING IN COMMUNITY
For as long as I can remember, I’ve found myself exploring this complicated part of myself, my yearning to know and be known. I’ve always been in a variety of communities. The most authentic ones are on a continual journey of failing miserably. In those circles of relationships we’ve let one another down and disappointed one another: Many of us haven’t been the kind of friends we hoped we could be to one another. We haven’t always fought fair. We’ve made plenty of mistakes. Sometimes we have given up on one another. But I believe tragic flaws bear unexpected gifts. I trust in the reasons to stay, even though I’ve experienced more than adequate excuses to leave most of the communities I’ve participated in.
I’ve grieved the loss of community members who could have stayed, who maybe should have stayed longer. I’ve lamented the ways in which I contributed to their premature departures and how I continued to fail them in their transitions.
Though some of the most complex community issues do not have clear solutions, the best of communities still work for resolutions that affirm the difficulties they experience. As I’ve stumbled in community, I’ve mostly stumbled forward.
FRAMING THE TENSIONS, STUMBLING INTO SOLUTIONS
The reflections throughout this little book illuminate the rockiest of my paths in community. These chapters illustrate what I’ve learned and am still learning. They are honest and vulnerable pieces of my story—a story that has been written in community and one that continues to be written through community.
These pages testify to the discovery of unlikely gifts when we stay in community—especially when we stay after things get hard.
This is a book about the unexpected gifts of staying in friendships, relationships, and communities. These pages testify to the discovery of unlikely gifts when we stay in community—especially when we stay after things get hard.
The format is simple: I’ve named challenges many communities face and then suggest pathways toward resolution. But here’s the dirty little secret: in community there really are no resolutions, only ambiguous and messy attempts to find our way back to one another. Attempts that, in our humanity, often create new tensions.
Ironically, as much as we yearn for deep friendships and meaningful communities, many of us seem to be unable to find our way into them. Even if we know we’re made for community, finding one and staying there seems almost impossible.
Though we hate to admit it, if we stay long enough in any relationship or set of friendships we will experience failure, doubt, burnout, loneliness, transitions, a loss of self, betrayal, frustration, a sense of entitlement, grief, and weariness.
Yet it’s these painful community experiences, these tensions we struggle to navigate, that hold surprising gifts. And so each chapter of this book introduces one of the tensions listed in the figure below, then offers ways to work toward the resolution.
The Unknown Self
It’s these painful community experiences, these tensions we struggle to navigate, that hold surprising gifts.
Of course, the fear of experiencing many of these tensions in our deepest relationships is enough to keep us from giving ourselves to the intimate places of vulnerability in community, but when the risks are high the rewards are more satisfying than we could ever dream of. The very ways we fail one another are the clearest invitations into spaces that affirm our need for one another. If we can experience these challenges as reasons to stay rather than justifications to leave, unexpected and unlikely gifts await us, even in the most trying of relationships.
Stepping into community is far riskier than expected. It’s far worse than you expect it to be. But in the end, it’s far better than you could ever imagine.
We can do this. We can be better. We can do better. We can live better. We can find the courage to rest in ambiguity. Together.
A TALE OF TWO LOOMS
On the south side of Omaha’s Old Market district, just off the 10th Street bridge, sits an unassuming club called the House of Loom. An old, repurposed building, it’s now a place of creativity and beauty, where all are welcome. With a tasteful Victorian aesthetic, the intimate space is framed by old brick walls, dark hardwood floors, vintage ceramic ceiling tiles, and a fireplace hidden in a little library at the back of the building. Local art hangs salon-style on the wall, like a shrine to our city’s creatives. A discerning selection of liquor bottles lines the space behind a long wooden bar, said to be the oldest bar in the state. The dim pendant lighting is enhanced by glowing candlelight.
I first discovered the House of Loom’s charm when my wife, Phileena, and I stopped by after work for a drink. We didn’t leave until the bar closed at 2 a.m. Phileena is normally asleep by 10 or 11 o’clock at night, but the magic in this place kept us out. Old friends kept appearing and new friends kept emerging.
The eclectic mix of patrons was unlike anything I’d experienced—international folks, air force officers, hipsters, young professionals, and plenty of university students. Our dear friends Emily and Noelle, two women in a long-term relationship, spent most of the night standing at the bar with us. We chatted about life and faith. Noelle shared how she’d been kicked out of a Christian college—ironically named “Grace”—because she was in a same-sex relationship. We commiserated, and we listened.
As Phileena and I surveyed the club that night, we were struck by how accepting everyone seemed. Strangers bonded, friends laughed, and diversity was celebrated. People from all walks of life gathered in a shared space and felt free enough to bare their true selves. The House of Loom lives out its name—it’s a place where the social fabric of our city is woven together.
On the drive home late that night, I couldn’t help thinking about the depth of community I’d felt in that place. I witnessed more love in that bar than I see in some churches. Could it be that the House of Loom fosters community more than many Christian houses of worship?
Too many people think of church as an event rather than a community.
Too many people think of church as an event rather than a community. They attend the church that they imagine can best meet their needs, but that expectation often falls flat. When they feel disappointed by the commodity they’ve bought into, they jump ship and look for a new place to worship.
Yet I wondered how much the people we had rubbed shoulders with were committed to the community beyond the club’s hours of operation. They were united around a common cause, perhaps, but how deep was their common commitment? Were patrons dedicated to staying involved if things got complicated? Were they devoted for the long haul? I didn’t know, but based on the openness and acceptance there I suspected that surprising friendships awaited us. I found myself desiring to be more connected to this community.
The House of Loom had provoked a deep curiosity within me.
I’ve spent my life promoting the idea of community—how to create it, how to sustain it. About a half dozen of us started Word Made Flesh twenty years ago to serve Jesus among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. The language of community blanketed us, and we spoke it fluently.
Word got out, and soon people came to join us. But things changed. Those who joined us didn’t know us, and many didn’t stay long. Rather than friends who chose to work together, we became a group of coworkers trying to be friends. Though we were invested in a common cause, we maintained different ideas about what community should look like. Eventually, in some corners of our community, we began to lose our common commitment.
What we realized was that community isn’t the romantic ideal so many believe it to be. It’s difficult.
Community is made of relationships that demand hard work.
Community always comes loaded with expectations and demands.
Every community has its tragic flaws.
True community requires sacrifice.
Today many of the Word Made Flesh communities operate with a covenant process. If someone decides to join the cause, she or he can. All are welcome. But if they decide they want to commit, they enter into a covenant with the community, meaning, in essence, that we will bring the best and worst of ourselves together, that we’ll submit our vocational decision-making processes, and that we’ll remain open to the move of God in our lives as individuals as well as a community.
This small act expresses what we’ve learned—that community is not just a collective of people united around a cause. Rather, it’s a group of people bound by a commitment to one another—and community becomes the loom that weaves them together. A loom that takes all our colors and pieces, fabrics and faults, and interweaves us to create something greater than ourselves. A loom much like the one I found in a small Romanian valley.
THE LOOM IN THE VALLEY
Galai, Romania, is the quintessential European industrial city. The Danube River slices through the urban steel factories that churn dark smoke into the air. Dull architecture of gray concrete matches the overcast winter skies. Galai’s blue-collar citizens walk to and from work, keeping to themselves as they go.
Buried within the city is a small valley inhabited predominantly by Roma. The residents here face poverty daily, and adolescents fill the streets. The children, most of whom can’t afford to attend school, are headed to the Word Made Flesh community center, Centrul Comunitar “La Vale” (The Community Center in the Valley). There children participate in literacy classes, computer training, counseling, and art therapy. They receive hot meals before playing a pickup game of basketball, a favorite pastime of the young girls and boys who are reclaiming their plundered childhoods (many of them were sent to work when as young as six or seven years old).
A chapel sits quietly at the edge of the center. Though modest and unspectacular on the outside, the interior is a place of mystery and miracles. Our community members use the space as a contemplative retreat away from the chaos of the city. Each morning they begin the day with liturgy. From time to time, covenant ceremonies are held in the chapel. Nine icons adorn the walls, each representing one of our community’s Lifestyle Celebrations, or marks of intentional spirituality (including, among others, commitment to mutual submission, personal brokenness, and an acceptance of suffering).
And then there’s the loom.
Part of the morning liturgy includes praying for other international communities serving among those in need. In an effort to bring texture to the prayer time, community members built the loom to weave a prayer rug, which took nearly two years to complete. The rug now sits in the center of the chapel as a reminder of unity. One community member commented that the rug should be placed in the center as a “reminder of the centrality of Christ and those who are poor whom he weaves into his life in the center with him.”
In their morning sessions, seated around the rug, they pray for mercy for our friends in poverty. Once a week, they take scraps of cloth they have collected from friends in our various international communities and weave those pieces of fabric into the rug. Each piece of fabric is a prayer, a reminder of friendship and community. The rug is always being created, never finished.
Today the loom is a symbol of hope, an image of unity. It’s a metaphor of what is required to build and hold a collective of people together: useful only as long as it creates something more beautiful than its individual parts.
In community we join together lives that are bursting with promise and potential but that are also marked by grief and sorrow. We exist as individual strands of a larger narrative. When our lives are woven together with others’, something new emerges—rich in texture, vibrant, and transcendent. The diversity and richness that arise out of being bound up with others produces a holy space. It invites God to meet with us and among us.
When our lives are woven together with others’, something new emerges—rich in texture, vibrant, and transcendent.
Whenever our international communities gather, we engage in the practice of storytelling. We break up into groups of four to six people from different parts of the world and share the stories of our individual journeys. We refer to these small groups as “loom clusters.” Each time we gather in this way, we’re surprised to find unexpected connections between such different and unique individuals. People who have never met before uncover common experiences, mutual friendships, and similar reasons for choosing their vocations. We call these points of commonality “knots” because they tie the threads of our lives together. When we walk away from this practice of storytelling, we are always more confident that we’ve been woven together by grace.
My mind wanders back to the rug at the chapel in Romania, and a truth arrests me. Just as the threads of the rug are bound together, so the individual members of a community are joined. To separate the threads of the rug, one would need to tear the rug apart and dismantle a composition of beauty.
So it is with community.
The contrast between Omaha’s House of Loom and the loom in Romania is nuanced. In the former, we find good and true echoes of community: celebration, joy, acceptance, and diversity. The latter offers the same echoes but roots itself in shared space, lives, and spiritual practices.
Grabbing a drink with friends on the weekend nudges us toward our deeper longings for connection, but if we gather only to forget the week behind us, it’s hollow. Likewise, serving and praying together without taking time to celebrate leave us longing. It’s not a case of either/or. It’s both. We need the echoes and the substance.
GRAVE STRUGGLES, GREAT GIFTS
Growing up in Omaha, a firstborn child and consummate overachiever, I thought I’d be a fireman. Or a priest. Or a pet store owner.
I never imagined that I’d have to bury children I’d helped name. I could not have envisioned that among my dearest friends would be women who had been trafficked into the commercial sex trade or forced to work in sweatshops for companies like the Gap. I never dreamed that my inner circle of closest friends would include Muslims and Hindus. Though I celebrate my home and love my neighborhood, much of my life has moved far away from Omaha.
On Sunday afternoons during childhood, my parents would take us to our grandparents’ house, where we would play street football with neighborhood children. None of us knew one another, but we recognized one another and that was enough. The familiarity and openness between strangers were inviting. My grandparents lived in their house for more than fifty years, and my grandfather had one job spanning the time from when he returned from World War II until his retirement. Life seemed simpler, and the predictability of that life made me feel safe.
Children saturated the subdivision where I grew up, reminiscent of the setting for the classic film The Sandlot. Following school each day, we’d climb a fence and tumble into the backyard of whoever was hosting the daily Wiffle ball, kickball, or soccer match. We’d pick teams, roll up the sleeves of our dingy jersey T-shirts, and play till just after dusk, when we could no longer see a tennis ball thrown over home plate. The diversity of the kids I grew up with seemed to diminish with time—as I aged, my schools, churches, and social circles grew more homogenized.
In high school I cultivated quite a few deep friendships, many that have lasted into my adulthood. So by the time I arrived at Asbury University in Kentucky, I missed my hometown friends. I recognized my longing for community, though I had little idea what the word actually meant. At that point in my life, community was defined by friendships.
It wasn’t long before I made new friends. My six closest college friends and I did everything together, and we ended up calling ourselves “The Brotherhood.” My roommate and I were two Nebraska boys, but we found ourselves bound to a blue-collar football player from Ohio, a pensive and talented artist, two country boys from the swamps of Mississippi, and a philosophical missionary kid who had grown up in Taiwan. We discovered that what we had in common was more substantial than what made us different.
What we have in common is more substantial than what makes us different.
We traveled to the beach on spring break, as well as a few other times that weren’t exactly recognized as “breaks” by the university. We prayed together, shared most meals together, and made memories around campfires. A couple of the guys wrote songs about our friendship that became anthems for our little community.
We shared our frustrations with one another, fought when we were angry. But we always drew back together because we had decided to stick with one another through the good times and the bad. One rainy night in my dorm room, we sat on the floor around a candle with safety pins and a jar of calligraphy India ink. We made a commitment in friendship and community to one another and marked it by cutting a tattoo into each of our ankles.
At the time, I never would have sat down and analyzed our friendships, but now I recognize that I was already awakening to the realities of true community. I realized the need for both joy and sorrow, for a common spirit and an obligation to stay. Those moments formed the foundation of the work I’ve done since graduating.
Years later, I’ve found myself serving within a collective of contemplative activists called and committed to serving Christ among people in poverty. Our communities exist all over the world where we bear witness to hope—or at least the possibility of hope—that a good God exists in a world that has legitimate reasons to question God’s goodness.
In some of the poorest megacities around the globe, we have set up drop-in centers and day centers for youth who live on the streets, in sewers, or in slums. We have established small businesses to offer alternatives to the commercial sex industry in some of the world’s most notorious red-light areas. Our communities have opened children’s homes, hospices, and a variety of advocacy-related programs that are locally owned and usually initiated at the grassroots level.
Weaving lives together in a community is hard, especially when you’re planted in places like these. Our communities have wept over the premature deaths of friends, we’ve grieved over the atrocities we’ve witnessed. But we’ve done so together. Against the loom of community, the collective shares the pains of the individual.
THE UNTOUCHED ELEMENTS
Our community in Romania consists of a wide array of Christian faith traditions: Baptist, Pentecostal, and Orthodox. They live together like a laboratory experiment for Christ-centered, ecumenical community. A large black crucifix marks Christ as the center for all in the middle of the Romanian chapel. It is constructed of pieces of discarded scrap metal and other bits of industrial litter found scattered throughout the neighborhood. Below the cross sits an altar. During the community’s liturgical ceremonies, the elements of Eucharist, the traditional Christian communion, are placed upon the altar. Yet they remain untouched—the bread never eaten, the wine never consumed. They abide as a symbol of lament, a sign of grief, a reminder of broken unity.
Since Orthodox and Protestant Christians have different doctrinal commitments regarding the Eucharist, the community is unable to share this meal together. The Orthodox priest doesn’t allow our Orthodox community members to participate in liturgical services and prayer practices with Protestants. And the Protestants are prohibited from taking communion since none of the staff is ordained and therefore permitted to preside. At the communion table in the chapel in Galai, what should be the image of Christian unity has become a lament of brokenness.
It’s in facing and walking together in the struggles that we find the greatest gifts.
But the loom calls us back together.
Though we exist as individuals, each imbued with our own unique identities and expressions of faith, the loom reminds us that we’re bound together, committed to a common life. Our grief over our broken unity mingles with joy over our collective bond. From morning prayer times to evening ceremonies, the loom whispers a reminder that we are more significant together than we would be on our own.
This, then, is the “Why bother?” of community. This is what moves and motivates us to endure the inescapable struggles in community. Struggles that you will face, too, as your time in community grows.
But remember, it’s in facing and walking together in the struggles that we find the greatest gifts. And although resolution may not come easily—or, sometimes, at all—it is worth it.
The Patches Make It Beautiful
The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound.
Lots of communities talk a good game about grace and acceptance, but when one of their celebrated members messes up, you find out how much they really understand grace. How a community handles failure—the failure of the group or the shortcomings of an individual member—demonstrates more than anything the strength of that community. And nothing can destroy a community faster than a spectacular failure handled poorly.
BRING ON THE PATCHES
My favorite part of every Sari Bari blanket is the patches.
Sari Bari is a small-business initiative that seeks to secure freedom and restoration in the red-light areas of Kolkata, India. It offers dignity-ascribing employment opportunities to women exploited by the commercial sex industry.
The name Sari Bari comes from two symbols. A sari, the traditional garment worn by Indian women, seen by some as oppressive, is an image of what can be reclaimed in a new way. In Bengali, the word bari means “house” or “home.” Sari Bari is a safe home where women who have been exploited in the sex trade can find their humanity restored and experience a new life in the making.
Something that appears used up, discarded, valueless is artfully transformed into something beautiful—even more, something valuable.
Women are trained to make beautiful quilted blankets, scarves, and purses and then offered jobs in the Sari Bari community centers as a way out of prostitution. The products they sell are made from old, recycled saris, a symbol of restoration. Tossed-aside or thrown-away saris are recovered and cleaned. Something that appears used up, discarded, valueless is artfully transformed into something beautiful—even more, something valuable.
These products symbolize restoration. The process is a prophetic image of what the Sari Bari community is doing within the sex trade—allowing women who have been victimized and abused to recover their true identity.
A common psychological coping mechanism of those who experience prolonged sexual abuse and trauma is creating false identities, or alter aliases, that they hide behind. Most of my friends who are forced to sell sex usually use a false name when they are working, names such as “Pinky” or others that clearly aren’t the names they were given by their families. As a form of self-preservation, they externalize those aliases so that the abuse and exploitation they experience happen to their alter personalities and not to who they truly are.
In the early stages of Sari Bari’s development, Sarah Lance, the project director, gathered all the women together to admire the beauty of their work. She held up some of the blankets and drew attention to each as an exquisite piece of art. Explaining that artists sign their name to their work, Sarah asked the women if they’d like to begin sewing signature tags on each of the blankets they made. The women agreed. When asked what name they’d like to use, in a surprising eruption of grace, nearly every woman chose her real name—the precious name given to her as a baby girl.
Reclaiming their names is a significant component to the slow and patient work of healing, to the journey toward true identity.
A few years ago, Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin, and others involved in the Passion Movement included Sari Bari in their “One Million Can” campaign. They identified eight organizations they thought were doing important justice-related work in the world, and while on tour, the Passion musicians invited one million college students to give at least one dollar each to make the world a better place. Chris Tomlin had a tour stop in Omaha, so we took him out for lunch.
Our community gave him a Sari Bari blanket as a thank-you gift for the advocacy work he had done on behalf of the women. He was kind enough to invite me to his show later that night. The energy was great—an electrifying light show with huge video screens and amazing music. Toward the end of the night, Chris dialed things down and set aside his guitar. He stood alone center stage, with a single spotlight shining on him. Behind a microphone, he gently held up his new Sari Bari blanket and began telling the sold-out arena the story of the Sari Bari women. He shared about the aliases the women took as means of coping with the horrific abuse they experienced every day. As he reflected on how the women each had chosen her given name to put on her work, he searched for the signature tag on his blanket. Upon discovering it, he said, “And this one, this blanket, was made by a woman named Mukti.”
Surrounded by thousands of people in that packed auditorium, I suddenly felt alone.
I began to sob.
For much of her life, Mukti has been held captive in the small prison of her brothel room. Forced to have sex with as many as ten to fifteen men a day, she has been called awful, unspeakable things. But that night, somewhere in mid-America, her name was spoken of with honor and respect. Love was extended to her, and her story of grace and restoration was an invitation to worship.
A few weeks later I was back in Asia and recounted the story for the Sari Bari project director. She told me that in Hindi, mukti means “freedom.”
Mukti, a woman named “freedom.” We fight for the freedom of our friends enslaved in the sex trade, and Mukti’s namesake inspires us to carry the struggle forward, especially when life gets difficult. Especially when the unexpected happens.
Freedom is beautiful, but, like all things, it has a dark side. Though hard to believe, some of the women we’ve worked with end up going back into prostitution. This is often the case with those who have been institutionalized, incarcerated, or systematically held in bondage for long periods of time. Their captivity ends up becoming an experience of security. In such situations, we all desperately need one another.
Freedom is beautiful, but, like all things, it has a dark side.
Each woman who lives into the gift of her freedom needs the others in her community. Every day the Sari Bari community comes together to create beauty. The blankets they stitch are vibrant, colorful works of art. I’m always drawn to the blankets that are saturated with oranges and reds, but regardless of the color of the blankets, the delicate little squares of sari material sewn on each quilt never fail to catch my eye.
Stitched onto every blanket, if you look hard enough, you’ll discover tiny patches cut out of the same material the sari quilt is made from. Some of the little patches are intricately sewn so that the pattern of the quilt lines up perfectly with the pattern on the patch. Other times, the patches stand out, a bold statement of color that enhances the quilt’s design.
Generously added to some, sparingly on others, these little patches add a gorgeous layer of texture.
One day while with the women, sitting on the floor of one of the Sari Bari community centers, I was admiring their work and pointing out the patches, trying to communicate how beautiful I found them. Upendra, one of the English-speaking staff, overheard my fumbling attempt to get my ideas across and helped translate. He laughed out loud when he understood what I was trying to say.
He explained that each finished blanket is washed before being packaged. After they’ve been washed and dried, there’s a quality-control check before they’re shipped. It turns out that the patches aren’t added to make the blankets more beautiful but to cover the flaws and tears on every quilt; they’re an inevitable part of recycling and restoring each sari blanket.
Even more ironic, the women hate having to go back and repair their work. The patches are time-consuming and tedious. Yet it’s the patches that make the quilts so beautiful and unique.
As is the case with us. In our own freedom, we still go about making mistakes, disappointing ourselves and others, living with guilt, shame, regret, or fear that the consequences of our worst moments will catch up to us. Many of us have a hard time accepting the flawed parts of ourselves when we’re alone—a struggle that’s even more difficult when we’re in community.
SURPRISED BY FAILURE?
Every community is, at one time or another, plagued by failure. We all know that. So why are we surprised when people fail?
Why are we surprised when people fail?
In my own community we routinely find ourselves wading through the murky waters of failure, navigating our way forward in grace while trying to retain high standards. The very things that make us great at what we do often have a shadow side. Many of us find that disturbing, yet if we are to receive the gifts of our vocations and benefit from the best of what our humanity has to offer, we must acknowledge our propensity to make great mistakes.
In true community, it’s vital to create a culture that embraces failure as part of our journey. That we keep on. Stumbling forward. Knowing we’ll fail but failing toward grace. More than that, though, we need to know how to respond when failure comes. Too often in community, our response is less than grace-filled.
Usually it’s a lot more grumpy and unaccepting than we’d hope.
If we can’t give ourselves grace, we often won’t let ourselves receive God’s grace. When we don’t love ourselves, we can’t forgive ourselves. When we can’t forgive ourselves, we don’t let God forgive us.
Some of us feel that God can’t or won’t forgive us for some of our worst moments. I can’t count the times I’ve felt as though I needed to plead and plead with God for forgiveness—even when I believe that God’s already forgiven me. Painful parts of my past and present seem to haunt me, and I let myself think that God still looks on with unfavorable resentment. But it’s not that God isn’t forgiving us.
The problem is that we’re unable to accept and forgive ourselves.
Here’s the thing, though: if we’re not failing once in a while—or for some of us, all the time—odds are good that we’re not living a life that presses us into the possibilities and risks necessary to grow into the people we want to become. If we haven’t failed, we won’t know how to handle someone else’s failure, making us harder to be trusted during some of the most fragile and vulnerable periods in people’s lives.
To be in community, you must be authentically human. Being authentically human means you will fail.
FAILING WITH FAILURE
Handling failure is sometimes harder than recovering from it.
In my experience, when folks are asked if people are generally good or bad, most Christians respond “bad” while most nonreligious people say “good.” On a fundamental level, this speaks to our perspective on the nature of humanity. Our view of the inherent evil or benevolence of people is reflected in how we respond to our own and others’ failures.
These assumptions also have a great deal of power over how we accept people in their failures. Peter Rollins writes about this in terms of our trajectory from belonging to belief to behavior.
When a child is born into a family, she belongs; she is part and parcel of the home. When she is a vulnerable baby, there really is not much she can do to separate herself from the parents who conceived or adopted her. As she matures, she begins to adapt to the expectations of her family, learning to behave appropriately and live within the rules of her home. When she disobeys she may be punished, but she still belongs. It’s not until she grows up that she comes into conflict with the beliefs of her parents, grappling with those values and coming to terms with her own.
However, even the most accepting communities, especially those who use family as a metaphor for what they desire to become, turn the belonging-behavior-belief continuum around.
To belong to many communities, especially Christian communities, requires a commitment to belief. Though disagreeing on subjective beliefs such as issues of faith should lead us to deeper levels of trust, disagreement too often introduces exclusion in many religious communities. However, if you do happen to believe the “right” things, you are expected to demonstrate the integrity of your beliefs through proper behavior. Once you’ve believed and proven you’re able to adhere to behavioral expectations, you finally belong. So although community should be the place where we address our failures, communities often reject those who fail.
The most tragic stories of failure usually focus more on a community’s mishandling of the failure than the failure itself.
However, the most tragic stories of failure usually focus more on a community’s mishandling of the failure than the failure itself.
Shortly after graduating from college, Caleb, a close friend I looked up to, made some awfully messy mistakes. Allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced from both men and women. There were also accusations of financial misappropriation. Questions even emerged about the authenticity of his faith. People I hadn’t heard from in years were calling me, detailing shocking accounts and stories unfit to repeat. From all sorts of random places and people, his trail of shortcomings caught up to him. But the biggest failure wasn’t Caleb’s; it was that those who were hurt, disappointed, or angry didn’t approach Caleb directly. Rather, they brought their concerns to me.
How did I respond? The more information I received, the worse and worse things seemed. I didn’t know what to do. Incredibly disappointed myself, I penned one of the cruelest letters I’ve ever written in my life. I compiled the accusations, neatly structuring them in topical order, starting with the lesser sins and ramping up to a heartless crescendo of judgment toward his most humiliating failures. I signed my name and sent the letter off. Not only that, but I cc’ed copies of the letter to a number of Caleb’s closest friends (for the sake of accountability, of course).
At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing—the right thing for him and the right thing to appease my own value commitments. Now, though, I look back on that letter with profound regret. It was one of the worst things I could have done to him. I failed my friend in his failure, in his most vulnerable moment. I held my beliefs over Caleb’s belonging and used his inability to live up to my standards as an excuse to exclude him. I demonstrated fidelity to a set of behavioral expectations rather than taking the opportunity to love. If I’m honest, I had been unable to extend grace to myself for my own failures, so I wasn’t able to extend grace to him, either.
Fast-forward several years, and I suddenly found myself bumping around the bottom of my own life, my own failures. I lost my way. I lost myself. I gave up on the notions of my ideals. The standards I had held against others crashed down on my own head, and in the rubble of my life, I was broken.
Thankfully, friends rushed in to help me. People in my own community reached out, lifted me up. To my great surprise, grace was offered as I confessed my failures and did my best to find a way forward in them and through them.
In a loving response, most of my friends didn’t mash me deeper into my failures, overidentifying who I am as a person with my actions. They talked me through the pain. They offered hope. They gave me the courage and hope that I would find my way back, that even if I failed again, those things wouldn’t define me. They were patient, giving me time to grieve, confess, and mourn the consequences of my mistakes. When I was at my lowest, they climbed down with me and helped me up.
In true community, failures give us the chance to choose people over principles.
Years earlier I had thought my principled stand with Caleb was justifiable. But suffering the consequences of my own failures illuminated in deeply personal ways the real failure I had made years before, opting to cling to expectations or a love of my sense of moral conduct over the basic human call to love one another.
When I held my expectations over Caleb, I demonstrated a love of my set of beliefs and acceptable behaviors—making rules the subject and people the object, using rules as a standard for belonging.
But that’s not the way of true community. In true community, failures give us the chance to choose people over principles.
Communities don’t fail when they experience failure. The real and lasting failure comes when we use our broken and wounded members’ mistakes to control them. When we do that, we perpetuate the strangling nature of failure, using someone’s behavior to stoke the fires of shame, guilt, humiliation, fear, disappointment, or resentment.
God doesn’t use shame, guilt, humiliation, fear, disappointment, or resentment to motivate us or discipline us. Those are forms of emotional manipulation and abuse. They are punishment, not discipline.
Discipline is restorative and redemptive; punishment is dangerous and retributive. When we don’t handle failure well, we push people away. We add to the shabby scaffolding of fear that keeps those closest to us from feeling the safety of confession.
I was wrapping up a breakout session at a large Christian music festival. The venue was a large circus tent; close to four hundred people had come to hear me speak about one of my books, Friendship at the Margins. After completing my talk, I had a little time at the end of the presentation for some Q&A. The first hand that shot up belonged to a young man, probably thirteen or fourteen years old. I anticipated what his question might be, but I—along with the rest of the crowd—was stunned when he made a brief and direct statement: “I’m addicted to pornography.”
Discipline is restorative and redemptive; punishment is dangerous and retributive.
It wasn’t a question per se but a statement of confession begging for help. The vibe in the tent shifted. My talk had been on mission among populations of desperately poor people, so his confession seemed disconnected from the flow of the breakout session. You could almost hear the gasps of people who were shocked, taken aback by the young man’s statement. Side glances darted in his direction, some communicating disgust or disapproval.
I looked the student in the eyes and thanked him for his honesty. And I meant it. I told him it had taken a lot of courage to share that with so many. I offered to find someone there for him to talk with, and after the session we did exactly that. But even now, several years later, my heart goes out to that kid and so many others like him. To those who feel so desperate, so afraid, that they’re compelled to confess their most intimate struggles to a crowd of strangers.
Why does it feel easier to share our personal failures with strangers rather than our closest friends? We need support in our failures, and we need our communities to be safe places in which to find it.
SUPPORTIVE, NOT SURPRISED
It takes a mature community to create the safe space where being honest is the expectation.
We’re not as bad as our worst moments, nor are we as good as our best. Those who are closest to us usually get this, so when we mess up they aren’t surprised. Yes, during the darkest moments in my life, even when surrounded by lifelong friends and tried-and-true community, I have felt the loneliest. I have felt unsupported. My deep feelings of isolation perpetuate the fear that if I share my most vulnerable struggles, be they tender wounds or rough edges of my soul, the confessions will only lead to rejection.
And yet . . .
In community, I have been surprised by grace.
Grace in community brings us closer together, not in a way that creates unhealthy fusion but in one that validates the human struggle we all face.
It takes a mature community to create the safe space where a culture of confession is celebrated, where being honest is the expectation. In those kinds of relationships we don’t have to be afraid to share our deepest struggles or tragic flaws. And we learn that confession is the first step of truth telling in that painful dance of transparency.
Confession is hard, both making it and hearing it. It requires trust. It necessitates vulnerability. It invites the possibility of forgiveness. Communities that practice failure are communities that know how to forgive. However, forgiveness doesn’t imply acquiescence. Truth telling means that we acknowledge the consequences of our mistakes. When consequences are part of our failures and accountability part of forgiveness, that takes us deeper into grace than we’ve ever been.
When we’re afraid to confess, there’s usually a corresponding fear that our secrets, our sins, and our failures won’t be forgiven but rather held over our heads. But communities that forgive work toward wholeness and restoration. This is important not only for the individual who’s fallen but for the strength of the whole group.
Restoration is one of those messy paths toward illumination. When we reduce restoration to formulas and checklists, it becomes another form of idealized failure. When we make restoration prescriptive, we simply reinforce the idea that the principle of restoration is more important than the person needing it. Instead, let restoration become a journey toward brokenness. For in brokenness, our woundedness is best addressed, our fears are calmed, our shame is lifted, and love is extended.
Of course, when relationships fall apart, moral boundaries are crossed, or laws are broken, there will be painful consequences. The fallout of these is often more than one can bear alone. That is where community can show up. That’s when failure creates a place for an eruption of acceptance and love.
Failure, as an unexpected gift in community, creates opportunities to practice confession, forgiveness, and restoration. Sharing our pains and failures is a test of courage, as well as a test of the health of community. Grace reminds us that acceptance is support.
In our failures we need to feel safe. Shock or disappointment only pushes us deeper into isolation. And the practice of some communities, in which public confessions are demanded, sometimes lacks sensitivity and understanding. There’s a huge difference between keeping something a secret and holding something private.
It’s the patches in our lives that make us beautiful.
It’s usually fair to be concerned if someone is keeping his or her failures a secret. Secrecy can lead to all sorts of additional problems—especially when we try to cover up our failures.
But as failures are exposed, an understanding of the need to keep some of these things private can be one of the most supportive responses community can offer. Privacy protects people in their vulnerability.
Failure has been the greatest gift in my spiritual journey. Failure has opened my eyes to new ways of seeing others and myself. Learning to love myself has surprised me with layers of acceptance and deeper understandings of grace than I ever imagined.
THE PATCHES MAKE IT BEAUTIFUL
Those little cloth patches on the Sari Bari blankets are actually sewn on to support each blanket and keep it from tearing even more. Rather than the whole thing being discarded, little patches are added to cover the holes. The patches are not randomly placed but intentionally woven into the blanket. The patches hold each quilt together.
It’s kind of funny that something intended to hide flaws actually draws more attention to those flaws. Even funnier, the patches used to cover up the mistakes are what make the blankets so pretty.
It’s the patches in our lives that make us beautiful.
After stumbling around in my own life, I now know the secret of the Sari Bari patches. I now see that people who haven’t explored the gift of their failures aren’t really safe yet; they’re still trying to make sure the version of themselves they put forward is perfect, and they expect perfection from others. People who wear their patches with confidence are the most beautiful—people who’ve failed, messed up, and gotten things wrong are the most accepting and can be the most loving.
Wearing our patches, the little bits of healing and restoration that cover up our flaws and holes, brings extra strength and stability to the fabric of our lives and communities. It lets the world know that we’re not perfect and we’re okay with that—even more, that our imperfections make us who we are.