// the past year

One of the sections that I love most in Donald Miller’s latest book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which I’ve just finished reading for the second time, is where Don talks about the way in which people are bonded together by their experiences. In one chapter talks about resolving to cycle across the country with a bunch of other men, a group where he felt kind of out of place, and then he writes of how on the first day “we climbed more than ten thousand feet into the mountains, and we were in such pain it no longer mattered how old we were or what we thought was cool or whether we knew who was in what band.”

He writes,

I think it was about the third week on the bike trip when we began to bond. You’d think it would have been sooner, but you don’t have a lot of time to talk about life when you’re trying not to get hit by a car or when you’re chewing on a lung because you’re breathing so hard. But it was after Arizona, after we did 112 miles through 108-degree temperatures. It was after the mountains of New Mexico and those hot, wet hills of Texas. It was after we slept under an overpass, and after one of us fell and broke her tailbone. It slowly happened in our subconscious that though we were different, there was nobody else having these experiences with us. It was just us. We’d call and talk to the people back home about it, but all we could do was say some words about how hot it was or how much our legs hurt. But when we said those words to each other, each of us had a mental catalog of similar experiences, and those experiences bonded us together…

It’s on my mind at the moment because today marks the end of the community of fourteen people that I have been living with for the past year as part of my time working with St Aldates church in Oxford, and I have been wondering what I will tell people when they ask about it. I will tell them stories, for sure, about the time when we found maggots in our sofa or the day I had a breakdown on the floor of a bathroom in an Indian hotel, and if I am good at it then, hopefully, I will tell those stories well enough that people will laugh, and also that they might get a glimpse of what it would have been like to have been a part of that group.

The truth is, though, nobody really knows exactly what it was like to have been a part of that group except us. No matter how close somebody is to any one member of the group here, there will always be some degree of distance, and so, whilst it will perhaps be possible to see the way in which we have grown over the past year, we may never really be able to articulate just how much effort it took to get out of bed some mornings, or what it means for us to have survived to the end. That is one of the strangest things about community – when you are a part of it, working in context, with a sense of having undergone shared experiences and with shared histories as a result, it is incredible, but if you were to walk in from the outside it would be impossible to really comprehend the depth of that.

A lot of people have this problem with church, and I understand why. They walk in and they don’t see community, just people who don’t know them and don’t seem to care. And they do care, and they would care, most of them, if they got to know you, but to get to the point where that is even possible you have to immerse yourself in community, saturate yourself in people and their lives, jump in with both feet and let yourself be a part of things. That is not an easy thing to do.

I am convinced that when we do that we will become more compassionate, less critical of our surroundings. It is like that in any community, and the same goes with any church. When you have seen, for example, the struggles that your worship team has battled with and fought through, when you have lived through them with those individuals over a period of time, then you will see less of their failings in the present and more of how they have grown instead. When you have witnessed the difficulties in managing a church and a family on top of writing sermons for three or four events a week, you will become less brutal in your judgements of how the Sunday sermon measures up. It will change your perspective, guaranteed. Unless, of course, you are sufficiently stubborn to close your mind to any prospect of change at all.

That has been one of the great joys of the past year; you look at these individuals who you have shared a house with and suddenly you realise that you can’t do so without seeing the way they have fought and overcome the stuff that has faced them. The times you have shared together stick you like glue, and arguably more so with the bad times than the good. Somebody asked me recently what my best memories of the past year were, and it was hard to tell them, not because there weren’t any, but because the moments that really shape you tend to come out of conflict, difficulty, challenge – or at least from the resolution of that conflict. We are not the same as we used to be. The process has changed us. And maybe, meeting each of us now, you might see our flaws, and they are certainly still there, to be sure. But if you had been through what we have been through, and if you had seen who we used to be, then maybe your view would be different.

Perhaps if I had been picking housemates for the year that’s gone, I might have chosen people who understood my sense of humour a little better, people who were more prepared to compromise on things on my behalf, but for precisely that reason I’m grateful that I wasn’t the one making that choice.

We will all head on to other communities in the next year – some of us in the next few days – and one of the most worthwhile lessons I will take away from living with thirteen others is how great is that need to let yourself dive into the middle of a group of people, to spend time with them, risk your energy and money and emotions and the million other things that go into relationships on people who may not understand or reciprocate, and then go with them anyway.

This is a large part of the life that we were called to, I reckon, and if we dare to jump in and take that chance on people, I don’t think that we will be disappointed with what we find in the end. Just don’t expect it to be an easy ride.

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