by Karen Turner.
For the last two years I’ve been involved in setting up an intentional Christian community for university students in Bath, as part of my work as a chaplain. The first cohort is now 4 months into this adventure of sharing their lives together. Considering the high expectations of this community – to pray together daily, to share a meal together once a week, to serve in the community and to join with an ‘extended’ non-student community once a month – I wasn’t sure that we would find 8 full-time students on demanding courses who would want this to be part of their lives. I was delighted and amazed to discover that there were.
The student community had to work out a pattern of prayer that would fit 8 diverse timetables and sleeping patterns. Likewise, they needed to make rotas for cooking and eating and cleaning and to work on ways to enable honest conversation with each another. Being community requires real effort.
A question that I was asked several times when I spoke to people about the vision was, ‘Yes, but who will lead the community? Will that be you?’ I wasn’t sure what was behind the question, but at times it made me doubt whether the community would be able to stay on track.
In the early days I wondered if we should appoint one of the students as a leader but the experience of the last few months suggests that might have inhibited the emergence of gifts in the community. And although I try to pray with the community once a week, and regularly meet individuals for coffee, I am only an ‘extended’ member of this community.
In my early 20’s I was part of an intentional community myself and while there took part in a vocational discernment process. Although no ‘lightening bolt’ moment occurred, one sentence stayed with me when someone said, ‘I wonder if you might have the gift of community’.
It was a mystifying suggestion as it isn’t a job or a gift that is listed or named in the New Testament and neither does it feel at first like a specific role. If there is such a thing as the spiritual gift of community, I don’t think it looks anything like what we might conventionally understand as leadership. It seems to me that it might be primarily about attentiveness. How is the Spirit moving among us? What gifts, words, dreams are emerging in our midst that we must not ignore? Though we may feel despondent or without hope, what new thing is God already providing in our community if we would only see it?
At its heart, enabling the gift of community isn’t about ‘getting young people’s voices heard’ or giving everyone a turn at leadership roles (though it could be). It is a belief that God’s Spirit is at work in all of us – and believing it enough to become aware of our own biases and prejudices as we commit to journey together.
And God is at work in this community. As I meet up with them, one by one, I hear amazing stories of grace. I’ve picked up that one of them serves the others by doing more than his fair share of the washing up. Another has offered wisdom in enabling people to get on. Several are excellent cooks and there are those who lighten the mood, who ask good questions, who are faithful friends and those who pray with others when times are hard. The Spirit moves among them all, offering the gifts that are needed, including the gift of community.
In this season of Epiphany, I’ve been wondering what Mary might teach us about the attentiveness that is a gift in community. Jesus gives us the shape of ministry – self-emptying love – and what Mary does as she listens, believes, dares, ponders, and endures is ministry in that pattern. We see at the wedding in Cana that she is attuned to those around her (John 2). Of course we don’t really know the part she played in the fledgling Christian community but she is certainly there with the others in Acts 1, constantly devoted to prayer, and so we can only imagine that she is touched by the tongues of fire and practices the holy habits with the others in Acts 2.
We see that Mary’s near-impossible challenge was also the way God chose to love the world in all it’s messiness, and that, understanding this she would have witnessed to the emergence of the life of the Spirit in their midst. I wonder if there are ways we could make space for this challenge and this gift in 2019?