Except within the parameters of a family, ideas on how to make a Christian community, like a church, work are beyond me. I've discussed this within my immediate family and none of us are sure.
How can you make people love each other?
Maybe in this case, then the metaphor of a family works for the Christian community. For example, I chose my husband and he chose me. However, I cannot choose my parents, my brothers and sisters or even my children. In this case we are "stuck" together because we belong to the same family whether we like it or not.
It's the same way in the Christian community. I chose Christ, but I do not choose who else will follow him. The beauty of the church environment is that there are a bunch of people "stuck" together who did not choose to be together. Yes, you can leave a local church, but you cannot leave the body of Christ unless you deny Christ. In the same way, I can't leave the Hart, Gossman or Steeves family unless I make that choice. And, even then, these people who I call family are "stuck" with me forever because I am part of their line and we are part of each others' respective memories.
I'm going to depend heavily on theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this post because, quite frankly, his book "Life Together" seems to be the difinitive authority on the matter of Christians being together. Of course, there is the "Rule of St. Benedict", but I haven't read that one en total.
In "Life Together," Bonhoeffer says that prayer and self-discipline are of utmost importance for a community of believers. His words are in italics.
PrayerA Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner. That is a blessed discovery for the Christian who is beginning to offer intercessory prayer for others. As far as we are concerned, there is no dislike, no personal tension, no disunity or strife that cannot be overcome by intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day.
Praying in this way for a believer who has wronged you (or for someone who is not a believer for that matter) is not easy at first (I say at first because Bonhoeffer seems to say so. I'm learning about this too). For this, I suggest finding what are called the "Imprecatory Psalms, contained within the Ketuvim (wisdom literature) of the Hebrew Bible (תנ"ך). These are the ones that invoke judgment, calamity, or curses, upon one's enemies or those perceived as the enemies of God. Major Imprecatory Psalms include Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, while Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, and 143 are also considered imprecatory (link to full text of Psalms)." (source: Wikipedia - I know, it's not the best source but this is actually a pretty good list).
If we are struggling to pray, reciting these Psalms in private may help us get the crud out of our soul so that we can actually begin praying for people with sincerity. Problems with people actually resemble a situation in our bathroom remodel at home. After ripping out the old shower we found that our water pressure problems may have something to do with the cankered shower valve that has been in there for 25 years. We're going to test it out and see, but this is at least part of the problem.
It's the same way with our hearts. Strife with people cankers up our ability to love. Praying the Psalms, which may seem a little harsh to us on the surface, just may serve as the cleaner our valves need. We may even find that some of those valves need to be replaced, like the one in our bathroom.
Self-disciplineEvery act of self-discipline by a Christian is also a service to the community. Conversely, there is no sin in thought, word, or deed, no matter how personal or secret, that does not harm the whole community. When the cause of an illness gets into one's body, whether or not anyone knows where it comes from, or in what member it has lodged, the body is made ill. This is the appropriate metaphor for the Christian community. Every member serves the whole body, contributing either to its health or to its ruin, for we are members of one body not only when we want to be, but in our whole existence. This is not a theory, but a spiritual reality that is often experienced in the Christian community with shocking clarity, sometimes destructively and sometimes beneficially.
Last year our family visited Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Alamosa, Colorado. It was in early fall, but the temperatures were still warm and we were at high altitude. If you ever visit Colorado, someone who lives there, like myself, will tell you to drink a lot of water because the higher altitudes will dehydrate you to the point of illness. You would think that since I know this I would take my own advice - but no. Instead, while everyone was drinking water, I took the opportunity to take pictures since no one was in my way. That afternoon, we left the park and went over to take pictures at a high school football game. Alamosa is at a lower elevation than the Sand Dunes and it was really hot. On the field, with its artificial turf, the heat was even worse. I drank water then, but it was too late. After we arrived home, I started feeling sick and for the next two days my body ached horribly. I had no interest in anything and I had to discipline myself to guzzle liquid when I was awake.
By not disciplining myself to drink water, I had invited high-altitude sickness into my body and it left me miserable. In the same way, like Bonhoeffer says, we have to discipline ourselves to love. We have to discipline ourselves to pray. We have to discipline ourselves to forgive. We also have to discipline ourselves not to sin. If we don't, we invite sin to come in and sicken Christ's body, making it miserable and ineffective. It's the same way in my immediate family. If I act selfishly and demand my own way all the time, my family will resent me and there will be hard feelings all around. How can we live together in peace and spread God's love if this is the case?
The good news, and this is really what I wanted to leave everyone with, is that the Holy Spirit of God will help us. We cannot be, and should not try to be, a community on our own.
I freely admit that without Christ's help, loving people who have hurt me is impossible. My natural self wants to fight back and restore my sense of self-worth. In Christ, however, I already have worth and nothing can change that no matter how I am treated. Because of this, I want to love others because I recognize that Christ thinks they are worthwhile as well.
I found these suggestions from Bonhoeffer helpful. What helps you? In what ways do you encourage community? If you have anymore suggestions, I'd love to hear them.
Grace and shalom,