“I love mankind,” he said, “but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,” he said, “I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience.”― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
It is 8pm on Monday night and we are gathering in the lounge after tea. There is a little tension in the air, nothing hostile, just tension and suspiciously loud laughter. It is ‘house meeting’ time and tonight is ‘What am I like to live with?’ night.
I live in a community house in Bristol, one of 13 houses set up as Intentional Christian Communities, where we aim to live together encouraging each other to live wholeheartedly for Christ, to deal with our stuff and to demonstrate the reality of the kingdom of God in everyday life. In this setting, we have found that the question ‘What am I like to live with?’ helpfully focuses the community mindset but also stirs up a host of submerged fears and insecurities. “What will they say about me?”, “What if I can’t handle it?” and “What if I am humiliated?’” ― the ‘What am I like to live with?’ nights have punctuated the life of our community over the years with laughter, tears and many prayer-filled moments!
Of course, intentional communities are not new ―there are loads of them all over the world and they come in all shapes and sizes. For Christians, the one we keep on harking back to is that mysterious community of the early Church, formed out of the crisis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and shocked into life by the man himself as he blew the Holy Spirit into their tired disillusioned bodies. Jesus ignited a movement that would still be going strong 2,000 years later and this new community simultaneously fascinated and terrified the local residents with its scary miracles and holy fire. Oh to have been there!
Even though the Bible really only gives us the bare bones of the stories, a sort of text message version of the roller-coaster ride of early Christianity, it does seem like that community really had something going on! The story of Jesus’s ascension gives way to toe-curling accounts of persecution, stories of miracles that leave you with stretch marks and personalities that surge through the text ― full of passion for Jesus with their strengths and their weaknesses fully on display. They were real people with real lives, real courage, real fears. In the soil of first century Judaism, obsessed as it was with measuring things, a new community was born wielding the measuring stick of God’s extraordinary grace, and to this community Paul has some bracing advice:
“God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love – like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, and robust in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16, The Message).
Grow up and tell the truth in love. The radical impact that the Acts community had on the surrounding culture was accompanied by a radical lifestyle of loving honesty that urged its members on towards maturity. In our community the ‘What am I like to live with?’ evenings have been at once challenging, revealing, hilarious, painful, and tender. But the presence of the Holy Spirit has always helped us to grow and learn.
So how about an Acts-shaped challenge for your community or family? Do you dare to ask the question ‘What am I like to live with?’
If you do decide to go for it, here are three things it might be helpful to remember:
- The question is best answered by someone else, not me ― it’s all about blind spots!
- The nature of our response will determine whether or not they will try it again;
- What people are afraid to tell you can ultimately become a barrier between you. So do everything you can to help them be honest with you.
For Paul there was a profound connection between this mature and loving honesty, and being the embodiment of the resurrected Christ on earth. For us, ‘What am I like to live with?’ has provoked us, reconnected us and welcomed the Spirit of the resurrected Christ into the heart of our small community.