Community, Diversity, and Mess!
Ordinand Helen O’Sullivan finds herself wrestling with three questions about what it really means to serve God in community together.
All through my journey of faith and discipleship there have always been more questions than answers and that is even more true now I am studying theology. Each lecture and piece of reading opens up new worlds of ideas and points of view; even a conversation over the lunch table can be a dangerous thing! Over the last couple of months there have been three overarching questions which have been making me reflect on my training and the values and qualities that are being shaped in me. Below are some of my initial thoughts, but these are questions I continue to wrestle with and I expect will do throughout my ministry.
The first was prompted by a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book ‘Life Together’:
‘Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.’
At college we speak a lot about community, living in community, studying in community, building community. We recognise that the church is called to be more than just a collection of individuals and is instead called to be a community woven together in the love and life of God. I’m sure I have used the word ‘community’ in more than a few assignments over the last couple of months! But this quote made me pause and consider.
Am I so busy talking about community that I fail to live it?
When I value the idea of community more than I value the actual community I am part of. When I only see the whole and not the individuals that make it up, in all our flawed, broken, God-given beauty, I run the risk of doing and saying things that knock down and undermine rather than build up and encourage. Because actually living in community requires the daily re-learning of who I am and how I relate to others, whether they are similar to me or very different. It is about learning that conflict is healthy and kindness and gentleness vital. That being present in each moment is far richer than always rushing to get the next thing done and that some of the most important work of this community happens over a cup of coffee, the snooker table or emptying the bins.
But for me, this question is wider than this college community I am privileged to be part of for two years. If this is true, how does it shape the way I think about community outside of these four walls? How can I transfer these lessons to the wider Christian community I am called to serve where difference and diversity are far more common and run far deeper? Which leads me to my second question:
How can I prepare well to live and work alongside those whose training and ideas differ in so many ways from mine?
One thing that has impressed me about Trinity is the breadth of training we are receiving and the ways we are challenged to engage with viewpoints that differ from our own. But, as even our lecturers admit, we can all only work within our own limitations and biases, and that will be true of all training colleges.
However, those studying at other colleges will be my colleagues, people I will serve alongside, whom I will support and who will support me through the joys and challenges of ministry. There is a need to recognise this difference and learn ways to have generous, open conversations that remind us of the bigger story we are all part of whilst respecting those things that may divide us. Being aware that unity is not about agreement on every idea but about an attitude of love, honour and respect that should shape all our interactions. In other words:
How do I learn to live in the messy reality of the community that is called to be God’s church?
Underneath all the essays, Greek vocabulary and sermon writing, this is the heart of what I am learning. How to show up each day and live in the space where conflict and love, tensions and peace, brokenness and wholeness are ever present because that is the reality of the now and the not yet of the Kingdom. Because every time we try to tidy up this Kingdom mystery we end up diluting is, taming it and making it fit our own comfortable expectations. We form God in our own image and place ourselves in control. Our faith and identity lose their integrity and we lose our prophetic voice which, God knows, the world needs us to own and use right now.
But this journey is raw and hard, and I am recognising that the only way to walk the path is with vulnerability and humility, Learning more about my own strengths and limitations, courage and fears. And I will forever be grateful for the witness and example set by our faculty as they seek daily to model this vulnerability and humility, helping to shape and prepare us for the messy and unknown journey ahead.