community and presence

This week I had the pleaures of hearing Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove speak in Vancouver. Hailing from North Carolina and founder of a place called Rutba House, Wilson-Hartgrove lives and breathes community. Influential in the popular New Monastic movement, Wilson-Hartgrove brings a refreshingly humble and prophetic presence to evangelicalism in North America.

The topic for discussion was "Somethings Old, Somethings New: Ancient Wisdom for Communities Today."

Wilson-Hartgrove did well to highlight the various dynamics of faith, community, and culture. Based on my blog's descriptor, the talk was taylor made for me.

He outlined some of the problems of community in our culture. In a time when people yearn for meaningful community, we've "lost the practices of knowing one another." And in community's absence, we're left at the whim of marketers, where the primary solution to the absence of belonging is to sell community (local example: "We are all Canucks").

This reality reveals the paradox of community. As Wilson-Hartgrove elaborates, "We're always disappointed with how community is promised but it never works out...What we want most we have the least skills to get."

At first glance, Wilson-Hartgrove summarized, Christianity seems to have so much to offer in terms of community. A God defined by relational love; a church defined by diversity and Spirit-infused acceptance; a mission of justice and enemy-love. Yet history shows such examples are the exception rather than the norm. What do we do?

This is what Wilson-Hartgrove's topic - Somethings Old, Somethings New - addressed. He suggested we need to look to examples in the past, glimpses of hope in the Christian story (in Scripture and in history - e.g. Benedictines). But also recognize the necessity for such hope today amidst the reality of our culture. Rather than retreat from pluralism and globalization, Christians need to "commit our struggles to the story of God," past, present, and future. This is the "liturgy" of community that creatively engages faith today (the point of Christian liturgy is far beyond times of worship, but essential to community formation).

To summarize, Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us that to find and experience authentic Christian community in our times requires the dynamic view of faith and culture that engages, as Jesus taught, "new treasures as well as old" (Mt. 13:52).

All of this content was inspiring enough - much to think about and reflect on. Yet the talk was inspiring mainly for another reason.

In his presentation, Wilson-Hartgrove went beyond talking about community and was present in community. He had us sing together (black spirituals!). We interacted. We prayed. His engaging style of story and wisdom, inspired us, no doubt. But more importantly, his very presence invited community. The listener didn't hear about community; the listener was part of community. Wilson-Hartgrove's talk on community carried the presence of community.

We can get carried away with all sorts of things when it comes to articulating and practicing Christianity in the 21st Century. And boy, do we like our celebrities! Wilson-Hartgrove, a somewhat significant figure in North American evangelicalism, would have been completely justified to focus on his areas of expertise, to share his wisdom of leading community in a variety of contexts. He's an "expert" in community after all! No one would have noted a problem with such an approach. But he didn't present as an expert. He didn't focus only on ideas. He didn't even name drop! No, Wilson-Hartgrove chose instead to talk about community by being present in community. And for this I learned far more than any lecture.


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