On a recent Sunday, we celebrated the sacrament of baptism, received by the child of a new family who joined that same day. After asking questions of faith and commitment of the parents, I turned to the congregation and asked them to commit themselves to this child and family: “Do you, as Christ’s body the church, reaffirm…?”
What is happening there? Christian community is established and extended. The congregation welcomes a new member or members into its common life. We agree on certain beliefs and behaviors, then express our thanks and joy at their joining us on this journey of faith together. The sacrament is a high and holy moment, but we also know well our stories of triumph and of failure in being a community that represents Christ.
The Big Idea
“Good communities and life-giving congregations emerge at the intersection of divine grace and steady human effort.” (p. 3)
In Living into Community: Cultivating the Practices That Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011), Christine Pohl examines foundational practices for any community seeking to become healthier and more authentic. The four practices she explores are gratitude, making and keeping promises, living truthfully, and practicing hospitality. After introducing the practices in chapter one, Dr. Pohl considers each of them one-by-one in four sections. The final section on hospitality is composed of a single, summary chapter that draws together the other practices alongside the practice of hospitality. This is because she has written an excellent book-length treatment on the ethic of hospitality in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.
The first three practices are considered in sections composed of three chapters each. The pattern goes like this: the first chapter expounds on the practice itself, the second looks at the complications involved in faithful practice, and the third chapter explores “what weakens and what strengthens” each practice. In adopting this format, Dr. Pohl takes practices we think we know a great deal about and helps us see their many facets more exhaustively and with greater clarity. We get a robust description of gratitude, promising, and truthful living, and we are shown what contributes both to their formation and deformation in actual experience.
Promises Need Community
“The promises associated with marriage and baptism are difficult for any human being, and it is naive to think that anyone can keep them without the help of a community.” (p. 107)
Covenant-making is an activity of God in Scripture, and therefore an activity of ours. The most significant promises we make have potential to bring us deep joy and fulfillment, but at a cost that is impossible to fully estimate prior to making them. For our word to endure, we need the strength of a community that is endeavoring to practice fidelity to its promises and who reminds us of the faithfulness of Christ, even in the face of incredible difficulty.
“Being truthful is not only about speaking hard things, but discerning the whole picture with gentleness, humility, and patience.” (p. 115)
Simply telling the truth is not so easy as we may first think. Pause to consider how many times we speak quick lies for the sake of expediency, to protect our own or another’s image, or in order to avoid uncomfortable conflict. Truthful living is a large endeavor. “The discussions… narrow when we assume that truth-telling primarily involves telling someone something they don’t want to hear” (p. 114). Jesus, as the way, truth, and life, demonstrates that truthfulness is embodied and not just spoken.
“The ways we’ve been formed by church and culture have not given us the skills or virtues we need to be part of the very communities we long for and try to create.” (p. 4)
One strength of Living into Community is its realism. Dr. Pohl offers a hopeful vision of these practices in community life (applicable to families, congregations, intentional communities, or some other expression). But that hopeful vision is also tethered to the very real faults and fragilities of human beings. Dr. Pohl holds together these tensions plainly and truthfully, and in so doing provides reliable wisdom for those seeking to form and sustain the sort of communities capable of giving witness to the transforming power of Christ in their life together.