After 23 years of living within community, I'm a good deal mellower. I've discovered something about forgiveness, mercy, and tolerance. Not as much, perhaps, as I should have learned, but more than I knew before. I can accept the deficiencies of other people, just as I can live with my own deficiencies, which, believe me, are legion.
Back in the Spring of 2010, we came together to form a group that would meet once a week to support one another in our journey of recovery from addiction. “We” were three married couples with one child among the six of us. Two of the couples had recently “dealt” with sexual infidelity. In both of these situations, various addictions and co-dependency were being addressed through full disclosure, 12-step meetings and rigorous boundary-setting.
We were looking to form an authentic community of support and solidarity as we pursued a path of healing & recovery from the vicious, cunning addictions (sexual, substance, work/achievement) that held us back for years. Like a 12-step group, we kept to a rigid structure, starting every weekly meeting with a reading of the “Safety Guidelines” and “How It Works.” These formed a liturgical reminder of why were doing what we were doing. Every week. Here are some highlights:
It is important that we avoid taking or sharing another person’s inventory or using statements that are baiting, button-pushing, case-building, self-righteous or judgmental...
Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked God’s protection and care with complete abandon...
Remember that we are dealing with addictions—cunning, baffling, powerful...
If we are honest about our commitment and painstaking about working the 12-steps together, we will quickly be amazed at how soon our love returns. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will learn how to play and have fun together. As we experience mutual forgiveness, we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. Trust in each other will return. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace...
…the process of loving and communication grows in us and with each other one day at a time.
At the core of our time together was a “couples check-in.” Each couple had 7-minutes (on the clock) to talk about how we have been acting out of our pain and unhealthy patterns of control, escape, blame and shame. Theologically, we believe that each and every one of us has access to an Inner Teacher (or as various Faith traditions have rendered it: the Inner Light, the Seed Within, the Divine Spark, the Inner Christ, God-In-Everyone) within us. We believe that living in accord with the Inner Teacher will naturally lead to a life of integrity, simplicity, equality, peace and sustainable/authentic community. The goal in life is accessing, amplifying, cultivating, recognizing, discerning & responding to the Inner Teacher within.
In A Hidden Wholeness (2004), the Quaker author, educator & activist Parker Palmer details communities called "circles of trust," who commit to 2 basic beliefs:
1. We all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution or leader.
2. We all need other people to invite, amplify and help us discern the inner teacher’s voice (our journey is too taxing, our path is too hidden and our destination too daunting to go solo).
Over the years, we have allotted a good chunk of time for our literature reading. We started with a couples recovery workbook called Open Hearts. This functioned masterfully to give us all a structured guide into our pain and coping, as well as a format to understanding the origins of our pain and coping pattern within our respective family systems.
During this phase of our development, we wrote out our genograms which helped us discover how our patterned ways of relating (within our respective families of origin) become like "scripts" with each family "actor" performing their parts without conscious thought. It also provided a template to more fully and authentically introduce each member to the community.
Eventually we added a 15-minute Bible reading and dialogue component to our time together. We always read the Gospel passage from the weekly lectionary (utilized by both Catholic & mainline Protestant Christian communities all around the world) and share questions, comments and concerns with the group. We read the passage out loud. Then, we take turns reading aloud each of St. Mary's Theology professor Michael Barram's 14 "located questions" to focus our biblical interpretation on "God’s mission relative to the concrete realities of our contemporary world." As Barram writes:
To the extent that our presuppositions, practices, and products with respect to the Bible and mission remain unexamined, we are always flirting with idolatrous self-delusion. In this light, critical questions can serve as one of the Spirit's greatest gifts for faithful discipleship.
We have come to realize that a faith recovery within our coupleship is vital. We are compelled that both family systems and faith systems need redemption. We all uniquely comprehend the mystery and power of God, faith and everything else there is much differently than we once did, and we are actively reclaiming Christian language and concepts that we had become jaded with along our journeys.
About two years ago, while reading Ched Myers’ Sabbath Economics, a short book on rediscovering God’s biblical call to simple living, rest, generosity & compassion, we found ourselves in a conversation about the major obstacles that our Orange County context threw between who we were and what our convictions were becoming. Perhaps, we pondered, we can only truly start to live out this Manna & Mercy (the name of Dan Erlander's deeply resonating book that we had read) lifestyle by living Together!
But this was a rather silly notion. Wasn’t it? Property is far too expensive to buy in Southern California. And, besides…moving in together? Married couples aren’t supposed to do this sort of thing. But we talked and dreamed, mostly laughing at the radical absurdity of it all. But it still nagged at us. And then some circumstances during the Summer of ’13 just sort of worked out to make it, at least, plausible.
All three couples had yearly leases expiring at about the same time. One of the couples traveled all over the continent for 75 days and actually met a bunch of communities living intentionally under one roof: sharing meals, purses, duties and adventures. Meanwhile, the other two couples started looking for properties to rent! These fateful steps led into a time of serious discernment and eventually…a move in date: October 1, 2013.
For the past couple of years, we have considered what we are doing together as “church.” It’s not a small group or Bible Study. We believe that what we are doing is far more than just gathering togethr once a week to learn more about each other and the Bible. Like the original followers of Jesus who met in homes on Sunday mornings to pray, confess, listen to the Word of God and share meals together, we have highly valued the kind of spiritual intimacy and solidarity cultivated in our homes by the structure that has been created. We believe, as we look back over the past few years, that the Breath of God has been blowing, blasting and breezing us down this alternative (but certainly not original) ecclesiological path.
The earliest Christians borrowed the word “church” (ekklesia in the Greek) from first century Greco-Roman culture. The “ekklesia” was an assembling of the citizens of a region, a town hall meeting to make decisions and cast a vision for the community. Indeed, the first disciples of Jesus believed that they, too, were making decisions and casting a vision for a different kind of citizenship altogether. These people of “The Way” had an alternative, rather subversive, politics of their own!
They gathered in homes of fellow “citizens of heaven” and committed themselves to the virtues and practices taught and modeled by Jesus: humble service, sharing resources, extending forgiveness, loving our adversaries, pledging solidarity with the marginalized and demonized (including foreigners, handicapped and addicts) and the audacious claim that God is all about grace, mercy and unconditional love and could be (and would be) found by anyone, anywhere (even and especially outside the official places of “worship”).
Indeed, this divine force of Love is everywhere: this is the One "in whom we live and move and have our being." The “churches” who celebrated and proclaimed this God were safe places, laboratories of Love, where people yearning for healing and freedom could experiment in creative, compassionate and communal living far different than the hoarding, hiding, lonely, isolating, addictive, competitive, violent and narcissistic culture at large.
The Manna & Mercy House is attempting to heal from the Southern California post-war Suburban legacy characterized by the profit motive instead of the prophet motif, by obsessing about image & health instead of spreading the opportunity & wealth. We are committing ourselves to a different Way of life, characterized by sharing, caring and bearing the responsibility of how we are each a part of a destructive system. We do all of this imperfectly, yet we are grateful for God’s grace and forgiveness and we covet prayers from all people of faith & conscience as we pledge allegiance to the Way of manna & mercy one day at a time.