The Awkward Feast of My 'Ideal' Church
Image: Seth Hahne

There is literally no bread to break this evening as we gather together. The serving table, stained with the juices and sauces of potlucks past, is full of pasta. Five pasta dishes, to be exact.

That would be fine if there were more than six families bringing meals for our weekly Friday night potluck.

We are gathered in the Common Building of our intentional Christian community on 180 acres in the rural Midwest. We share the physical and emotional burdens of land, finances, and housing. We make decisions as a community. We come together around the shared value of Christian faith.

To some, this can seem like the ideal church community: living locally and communally, caring for the earth, welcoming the misfit, and crying for social justice and peace. But community is complicated.

And as we are all sagging from the weight of the farm season, our jobs, and nurturing our children, pasta, at least, is simple.

So we sing a song of grace—quite possibly “For the Beauty of the Earth,” “Johnny Appleseed,” or “The Doxology”—and grab the plastic white plates from a stack. They are etched with knife cuts, witnessing to the 30 (or more) years of use they’ve seen, of being washed in the Common Building’s sink by the helpers chosen from a rotating list every week. (Everyone tries to avoid making eye contact with the person calling names for dishwashing—except for Meg, whose servant heart urges her to clean even when it’s not her turn.)

We help our children pile their dishes with vegetable pasta, mac-and-cheese, or spaghetti meat sauce, knowing whatever is heaped on will be scraped off into the compost, half-eaten, in a few minutes when they run outside to play. And we sit and eat together.

Conversation can be easy. We have history together. We have spent the week sharing prayer requests, joys, and the mundane tasks of daily life, like farm work or childcare swaps or Saturday projects.

Living in intentional Christian community is like being a part of a family, one that you choose, but then you can’t decide if you want to keep choosing them or not.

But it can also be awkward. Our vulnerability with each other can bleed into a melancholy that we pass back and forth. In these moments, I feel a kinship with the early church: their quarrels and broken relationships. Sometimes I imagine the apostle Paul rebuking our nitpicking, our tendency to see the worst in each other. I see Jesus pointing at me, saying, “Is it so hard to be kind when I have given you so much kindness?”

Living in intentional Christian community is like being a part of a family, one that you choose, but then you can’t decide if you want to keep choosing them or not, because they keep bringing up the same issues that trigger you to anger or frustration. You realize, after years together, that each of you has scratches, certain points in your album that keep skipping and repeating the same needs, the same hurts, the same prayers.

Fish for Breakfast

Delighting in the repetition of our neighbor’s needs and wounds—or our own—must be a spiritual practice that I haven’t yet grasped. Sometimes, I just want to eat my food and leave.

The scent of Louise’s baking—caramel pecan, apricot cinnamon, and butter horn rolls—delights me as I push open the heavy door of the Common Building. On bakery days during the summer, I can expect these smells when I dash in to collect my community mail or food from the co-op room downstairs. But today is a special worship service. I’m hungry, breathless from the walk up the hill from our house in the valley, and relieved to be free from doing music for once.

October
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Christianity Today
The Awkward Feast of My 'Ideal' Church