I am part of a small intentional community that has seen a lot of changes over the past few months. We have been subjected to a lot of pressure from different sides and have had to come to terms with beginning over in new surroundings. Having lived in a shared house in Thun for the last five years, we were known as the “Stadtkloster Thun” (i.e. the monastic community in the “large town/city” of Thun). But our rental contract for that house expired last spring and we have had to move.
The move itself brought us many losses. We are no longer living in a city/large town, so how can we call ourselves a “Stadtkloster”? Added to that, we no longer live in Thun – no longer in the place we so firmly felt called to, but in a smaller town that feels to us like a transitional place. And if that isn’t enough, we no longer really know what our larger purpose is (next to loving God and each other). In Thun, we had a common mission that was strongly connected with the neighborhood we were living in, and since that is now gone, we need to re-define or re-find our purpose as a community. Who are we called to serve in this new place, and how can we do it? (Or, perhaps, are we simply here to learn something that will be crucial for the next step? What? How? Where?). All of this has, at times, felt overwhelming. With one blow, we lost our name, our place and our purpose.
On the one hand, these changes have been a source of great blessing. We have experienced God’s incredible provision for our daily lives. We have rejoiced in his attention to details that have made our move so much easier than it could have been. And on the other hand, we have often felt bewildered, lost in the dark, trusting mid-step that there will be ground under our feet when we put them down, whether we see that ground or not.
Being asked to share a little of our story at the New Monastic Round Table (NMRT) this year, we took some time to talk about the things that have helped each of us individually and us as a group during the last few months. I want to share these points with you here again.
Resilience is so much more than a buzz word. We see it as a vital part of our faith and lives, and also as a strength that we can encourage in each other. But what do I mean when I talk about resilience? Let me use a very simple illustration to demonstrate a basic definition of resilience.
Let’s imagine a series of different balls, each one representing a person or a group. All of these balls are round, but they may come in different colors, sizes and materials. As long as the ball keeps its shape, it is intact and healthy. But life is full of surprises and is sure to come with its share of difficulties. Let’s imagine different kinds of difficulties expressing themselves as increasing pressure on or as sudden blows to the ball.
So picture your own ball. What color is it? How big? Is it a balloon, or is it made of glass, rubber, wood – maybe plasticine?
What happens to your ball if it is struck by a hammer? Or if it is squashed with increasing force? Will it shatter? Will it crumble? Be permanently bent out of shape maybe? Or will it recover its original shape and function once the pressure has stopped?
A ‘resilient’ ball will bounce back when the pressure is removed and not show permanent blemishes or damage. This does not have to happen immediately – recovering from injuries or stress may take quite a bit of time (and of course the illustration is simplistic, implying that it will go back to its exact original shape without any trace of what it has been through. Let’s not overstretch the illustration!).
So when we are talking about “resilient faith – resilient communities” (the theme of this year’s NMRT), I picture myself and my small community as an inflatable rubber ball which, for the time being, has been squashed so that all the air has been forced out of it and it has caved in upon itself. But it is one – of this I am sure – that will slowly refill with air, pushing the dented parts back into their normal shape. It may not spring back immediately when the pressure ceases, but it will recover slowly and steadily.
But why can I be sure that we will recover? It is because we have discovered a number of methods to train ourselves to be resilient. I want to share with you a few things we have been practicing which we have found to be life-giving and which have encouraged us to gradually bounce back after the pressure we have been subjected to.
1. Refusing to give up on our commitments.
Our commitments shape how we live, and through that, in a profound way, who we are. We define ourselves partly by them. We know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are committed to God and to this communal lifestyle that he has led us into.
And with the same degree of certainty, we know that we are committed to each other. Never for a moment did we begin to wonder whether this might be the moment for us to let go of each other or to seek a different community. We have not allowed ourselves to doubt that we continue to belong together even if we are at a crossroad and about to embark on the next leg of our journey. Our commitment to each other has been of immense importance in this phase. It has given us strength and has made up in part for our loss of place and purpose – even if we don’t know exactly where we’re going next, we do know that we will go there together. And even if we haven’t found the next thing we could label as our “purpose”, we have each other to look after and encourage in the meantime.
Not losing our commitment to each other has a few consequences, like that we remain committed to our shared rule of life. This includes keeping up our daily rhythm of praying together, which shapes our lives and directs us to seek God together. It also means that we are intent on serving others, on impacting the lives of those we find ourselves surrounded by, on bringing light to dark places and love to the lonely. We remember to pursue hospitality, taking time to invite the people we meet into the spaces of our hearts and homes. These things all point us back onto the road of knowing that we have a job to do and actually wanting to do that job. It is how we can make sure we “run our race… and keep the faith” (2 Tim 4:7) to the very end.
2. Holding on to God’s promises
In times of change or pressure, we can easily begin to think we have lost all sorts of good things. Everything looks bleak and hopeless and broken. We can feel like there is no way to escape the sudden dullness of a life that we used to think of as exciting and worthwhile. We seem to have been forgotten by God, left to fend for our measly selves. We haven’t seen divine intervention in our lives producing the effect we’ve been hoping for, so we dismiss the idea that God is at work at all anymore.
One of the best ways to combat this feeling is to take time to remind ourselves of God’s promises. When we do this, we must refuse to wonder when he will fulfill them (to our liking or according to the image we have of him fulfilling them), but simply focus on what he has promised to do and be for us. Repeat the promises. Give them space to grow and take hold of our hearts. And, as we do so, let go of our wish to control the outcome as well as our notions of what it will look like when he does do what he has promised. Learning that God’s timing is often nothing like our own, sometimes feeling too fast to keep up with and at other times slower than we think we can stand.
One of those promises for us in the last few months has been from Genesis 12:1, where God calls Abram out of Ur, telling him to pack up all he possesses, take his family and leave the land of his fathers. Where is he to go? That is something God will reveal to him as he goes. Multiple times, people who were praying for us sent us this verse and whenever that happened, we focused on the “not knowing” part of it. We didn’t really want to hear that the road God was leading us on may be a little longer than we expected and a whole lot more obscure than we wanted it to be. But really, what we should have been focusing on is that He was promising to lead us to a place that was for us. What a promise! He is the God of promise and we, as his children, are people of promise.
3. Telling stories
Life is full of ups and downs. There are times when we are on cloud nine, running before the winds of favour, feeling unstoppable because it seems that whatever we put our hand to succeeds. But there are also times when we feel powerless, when our dreams and endeavors go up in smoke before our very eyes. When every path we follow seems to lead us deeper into swampland instead of to the high places we were aiming for.
Those darker times can hold a lot of power. Not only can they make us lose hope, but they often make us forget the good times we’ve experienced. Why is it that God commands the Israelites to continually tell their children the stories of how he intervened on their behalf, how he rescued them when they were despairing in the wilderness? It’s because without these stories, we so easily forget who God is and that we are HIS.
In the last couple of months, we have had many opportunities to tell our stories. We have told our stories, of what God has done in our lives, to people we’ve only just met, and heard their surprise turn into wonder or praise as they began to really hear what we were telling them. We have told our stories to each other – reminding each other of moments when we experienced God’s love in profound ways, coaxing each other into believing once again that He is still here, and He is still in charge. And I have told myself the old stories, training my own heart to remember His faithfulness and not doubt His goodness.
Re-living these stories grows our trust in God. And because we trust him, we know that these moments of confusion in the swamplands of not knowing where we’re going will pass. We forget about our immediate surroundings and lift our sights to his light. We suddenly fall back into his peace, letting go of doubt and worry and trusting that his story with us will continue.
It’s sometimes tempting, in the busyness of life, to let the weeks and months slip by without noticing how time is running through our fingers. But we have decided to shape our lives by paying attention to what is happening. We put time and energy into marking and celebrating occasions, acknowledging their significance and using them to connect us to the people around us.
On the one hand, we celebrate church year events like Easter, when we invite friends who are on different stages in their journeys with God to join in. But we celebrate life events like birthdays and graduations with equal zeal, seeing them as holy opportunities to be thankful for the good gifts God has given us. And finally, we celebrate the steps we take on this journey of following God together, whether they be small or large. For instance, right now we are planning a party to celebrate the opening of the brand-new prayer room we have just been able to start renting.
5. Following God’s whispers
God’s word tells us clearly that He speaks to us. Just consider John 10:27, where Jesus talks about how his sheep know his voice and listen to him.
But have you ever noticed how easy it is to overhear that voice? Sometimes it seems like we are in the middle of a crowd of people and all of them are talking, gesticulating wildly and trying to grab out attention. Jesus’s voice is seldom like that. It is more like a whisper at my shoulder. I am often aware of it at the moment I hear it, but can easily let it get drowned out by the clamour of all the other voices. I need moments of calm and quiet where I reflect on what has been going on, to help remember and focus on what I heard his voice saying.
As a group, we are learning to discern the whispers of God in the middle of our hectic lives. Often, when we are simply chatting about this and that, there come moments when we feel that what the other person has said holds significance for us all. They may be telling us about a chance encounter they’ve had with one of the neighbors or reporting an item of news that has caught their attention. We have noticed that God brings things to our minds to tell the others when He has some kind of message or plan for us in them. When we feel like this may be a whisper of God, we treat it differently from other things. We may store it in our hearts or act upon it, depending on what it is, but because we feel like God is speaking to us through it, we know that He continues to work his mystery in and for us, and this reminds us that we are his, that we are loved in order that we may love, and this fills us with purpose.
So these are the simple practices we have discovered. We have begun to incorporate them into the rhythms of our community life, and this strengthens our faith and our resilience as a group.
What are your thoughts on growing resilience in your faith and as a community? Have you got tips to share? We would love to hear your comments!