Made New: Spirit of Community

There’s an old Comanche legend called ‘She-Who-Sits-Alone’ that tells of a time of terrible drought, where the land was dying and the people were too. In great desperation the people call out to the Great Spirit– pleading “what do we do?”  They prayed and danced and waited but no answer came.

But there was one small girl who had not yet died of hunger called She-Who-Sits-Alone. She had a treasured doll that was her intimate companion, her second self, gifted to her by her parents. It was dressed in warrior clothing with a bone belt, beaded leggings and Blue jay feathers on its head.

She watched, along with the people, as the elders went to the mountain top to receive wisdom of the Great Spirit. The elders were gone for several days.

On their return the people gathered on the mountain top before the elders to hear this answer: “For many generations, people have taken from the earth whatever they needed and wanted, but they have given nothing back to the earth. Now the earth is in great distress and the people must make a sacrifice.  The ashes of the sacrifice must be scattered to the four winds, then the rains will return and the earth will live again.”

The people returned to their teepees to search out their most treasured possessions. The Archer considered her bow, but thought ‘surely not that!’ The mother considered her treasured blanket and dismissed the possibility. Likewise the medicine man with his herbs… and so everyone had a reason not to give the Great Spirit their greatest treasure.

You might guess the end of the story – She-Who-Sits-Alone was convicted about what she must do – one night in secret, she offered her beloved doll by burning it and scattering the ashes to the four winds. On awaking the next morning, she discovers a shining feather of the blue jay lying where she sacrificed her doll, just as the first drops of rain fall. From then on, she was given a new name – One-Who-Loved-Her-People.[1]

This legend beautifully articulates the value of love – of standing back and noticing what is going on, what is driving people, what holds the attention of people, and what is the challenge or need in that community.  And then being willing to give up something personally precious in order to meet the current challenge.

The thinking and actions of One-Who-Loved-Her-People led me to thinking about community, and what helps communities thrive. The story illustrates that the leaders and the girl were the main answers to the challenge in this case, but of course for communities to thrive it takes everyone’s participation for the greatest good to come about. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” is a line we have all heard to be crucial to our identity as Christ followers and as Christ communities.  But is this something we practice in our everyday lives as individuals and communities? In today’s culture, in contrast to loving and putting others first, a prominent belief is ‘me first above all else’, be comfortable and increase: your comfort, wisdom, appeal, wealth and power: pursue your own dreams and store up your own treasures for the future. Life according to the advertisers and the market place, is all about me. These preferences and thoughts when held uppermost in  our lives strike right at the heart of our ability to worship God and care deeply for others, because the focus diverts our attention away from God and others toward self and all that we care most about. For many of us, our attention is about avoiding suffering, and pandering to our current emotion. To think about what is good and great for the whole group and wider, to put my needs and preferences 

secondary, or last, is in reality often inconvenient and uncomfortable. For example - what does it take to get informed and able to decide at election times about what is the best way forward for our community? Or country? How many of us really put energy into engaging with this?  For me it would be time consuming and involve a whole new area of learning and exploration instead of something else important to me.

As I think about the Comanche story and how it applies to us, I realise these tendencies in myself and the people around me. We give up some things but not the most costly. What is costly to us might be: how and where we spend our time off, our sense of proficiency eg operating in areas of strength rather than serving out of weakness or mystery, our reputations, time with family and friends, fitness and health of the body, being productive which often leads to deep tiredness/sickness, avoiding discomfort or situations that are unpredictable. One tension then for us in seeking to worship God and care deeply for others –which I think is the essence of community - is realizing that before giving away my treasure, I need to look at the big picture, and work out what will be beneficial to the community while also keeping myself in good functioning order so I can interact in life giving ways. I need to care more about the community to be motivated to give myself for it. Am I willing to offer what is most dear to me for the good of the community, for God? Is the timing right to offer my treasure? What need or challenge is attracting my attention? And is my gift or treasure what God wants now? The tension here is a battle – my personal wishes and comfort versus the needs of a group or God. A story that connects with this question is the account of the poor woman who gave a few small coins in offering for the community- it was not a large amount of money, but she gave all she had. Jesus noticed this and praised her.

One consequence of this preferred way of living [only giving what is slightly inconvenient] means that one avoids living in the faith sphere. Faith, that God is present and sufficient as we are willing to risk comfort, control and treasure.

I notice that the most difficult thing to give up somehow is eventually asked of us by life, by the circumstances of life. The question about how tightly we hold on to what is cherished is challenged. We often assume that it is God who asks hard and painful things of us when actually we don’t know fully; at times it is just life and other people or even nature that can bring about suffering. I think of earlier years when in Christian circles, people often expected that following God would eventually mean having to give up your most treasured thing, most longed for thing, and this thought communicated that we follow a mean God who just wants to just take all the joy out of life, we don’t know why. This assumption really needs to be explored because fear of God, and how we see God, is so crucial to the kind of people we become, and the attitude with which we live and give. In the legend I noticed how the little girl gave out of generosity, love and freedom. She trusted that her doll had value and was an acceptable treasure.

According to Christine Pohl the practices that keep a community healthy include hospitality, making and keeping promises, truthfulness, expressing gratitude, Sabbath keeping, testimony, discernment, forgiveness, worship, and healing among others.[1] For me loving, caring communities are places where people can experiment with emerging gifts and skills, make mistakes and blunders, and the community will be trusted to shepherd you back on track, encourage or maybe sharpen up your skills and thinking, with grace and truth. The challenge of lovingly, truthfully and ‘long sufferingly’ accompanying others who display ‘warts and all’ character, is potentially what transforms and renews all parties. To be renewed, we ourselves must be humble and willing to reflect and 

consciously change when others point out our errors. We have to be deeply honest and vulnerable as we reflect on our thinking, words and actions. All these habits or ways of being in community are expressions of true caring and love. These dynamics show that one’s presence is highly valued.

The dictionary defines community as ‘a group that shares common attitudes or interests’. While true that it’s natural to be drawn to others with similar interests, ways of being and views about faith, if we all lived in groups that have only similar preferences to us, where would the vital activity of ‘cross pollination’ happen, where and how would each of us be challenged to think outside the box and be drawn to new ways of being and doing in the world? Besides, it would be pretty boring.  The metaphor of living together as a body of different parts only works when there is diversity.

Within communities it’s likely you will find all kinds of people with differing drives: some are idealists, helpers and improvers, some go after success and others are creative romantics. There are those who are keen observers and thinkers, ones who want peace and are ordinarily content, some are born leaders and champions of the underdog while others are fun lovers[1]. What potential for chaos! All these kinds of people will have the ‘flip side of the coin’ challenges and weaknesses. What we are talking about here is very hard work, uncomfortable, unpredictable and messy. How this intermingling of people work out how to be interdependent and loving is the very dynamic that shows the quality of community spirit.

There are plenty of tensions and challenges living in diverse community. The tension of clashing aims and desires or having to talk with people foreign to us can be scary; maybe having to serve with someone wired very differently to yourself might be uncomfortable. Our expectations about levels of commitment and preferences about how we operate differ. These all cause tension and potentially divide.

In today’s world we are forced to explore ways of being with people who have different lifestyles or preferences that once were deemed ‘out’, or strange. When we meet with these ones, we have to work out what we think and how we want to behave so that love, truth and high grace are the motivating drives, and work out what will open the doors to God’s kingdom for this person, family or group.  We must search out literature and the wisdom of trustworthy others, to listen to other viewpoints, and keep vitally connected with Jesus who is the Way.

For our communities to be constantly made new, each of us need to ask, what priority do I give to community life and to sharing my life with others? Does that priority need adjusting? What in my life hinders me from putting the community’s needs in the correct order of priority? What are the actual reasons I tell myself I can’t attend, serve, give, tell the truth, keep promises or extend grace when that need arises?  What stops me from connecting with Jesus in a vital way, as He is our source of community? What stops me from allowing others to see my own weaknesses and challenges and receive help? What actions or attitudes help me engage in all of the above? A wise person once said ‘we have to live our way into right ways of being and our thinking will catch up’. These are the things that, if identified and engaged with, will cause our communities to shine brighter and be renewed.

Gay Cochran
January 2018


[1] These descriptors are based on Enneagram personality types –see ‘The Enneagram’ by Helen Palmer; Harper Collins, New York 1988

[1] Pohl, Christine: Living into Community: cultivating practices that sustain us; Eerdmans; 2011 edition (December 20, 2011); p124

[1] Silf, Margaret: One Hundred Wisdom Stories from around the World; Lion Hudson plc, Oxford 2003;ch 84


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