It’s been more than eighteen years now. And yet I remember the conversation like it was yesterday.
I’d arrived at the weekend intensive a broken woman. I may have been only twenty-six years old at the time, but life had dealt a few near-lethal blows. Emotionally and spiritually, I was dead inside. I could no longer trust hope, and my angry and bitter demeanor made that clear.
Until I met John. A counselor who saw past my hardened exterior to the fragile person inside. He was not put off by my pain, nor did he load me down with shame. Instead, He cracked open his Bible and read words that would one day set me free:
“…to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.” —Isaiah 61:1-3
Although detached, I listened. I wanted to believe the words he read were true, that God was not only real, but that somehow He would bring life from all the losses. But I couldn’t afford hope anymore. John must’ve understood, because he went on:
I know you don’t believe this right now, Michele. And that’s okay. But God is going to do this for you. One day you will be ‘an oak of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.’ I believe it enough for both of us.
He was right, you know. I didn’t believe it. Couldn’t. But he was also right about something else: God did exactly what he said. Somehow, in spite of myself, God rebuilt this broken woman into someone who believed again. And, every day since, through divorce and remarriage and blended family and cancer and adoption, I’ve seen him bring life from the ashes. Not because of my goodness, but because of His.
Five weeks ago, I launched a little something called “Undone Life Together.” Just as John offered an olive branch when I needed hope of life, I prayed that ULT would become just such an offering to someone else. Perhaps to the woman in a failing marriage or the leader questioning his faith. I hoped to create a safe place where people could expose their darkest questions and doubts, lean into the comfort of community, and maybe find the courage to hope again.
Now, five weeks later, I see that Undone Life Together accomplished that and so much more. Let me assure you—it had nothing to do with me. In fact, I did little more than create a space and send out an invitation. Turns out nothing more was needed. Nearly one thousand men and women joined in, simply because they finally had a safe place to do so. In the process, I was reminded of these truths about the beauty—and necessity—of community:
1. We’re all broken. Within the first days of ULT, dozens shared their hard stories. It was quite overwhelming, to tell the truth. Stories of betrayal and illness and loss that I can’t begin to catalogue or describe. As hard as my story is, the stark revelation of other hard stories brought comfort to mine. The truth is we’re all broken. Maybe in different ways and as a result of different circumstances. But pain not unique to me, nor is it unique to you. Which brings me to the second truth …
2. We’re not alone. We may feel alone at times. Pain has a way of making us feel separate, “other.” And the uniqueness of our circumstances can quickly make us feel isolated in them. But if we’ll dare to open ourselves to the stories of others, we’ll find relief. As alone as you and I may feel at times, we are not. There is a vast world of hurting people searching for the strength of community. We simply need to dig up the courage to connect with them.
3. We do better together. Human relationships are hard and messy. HELLO. And sometimes it feels like far more work than it’s worth. And yet, these past five weeks have reminded me that we do better together. Yes, it’s complicated. And yes, it will often be uncomfortable. But comfort rarely brings growth. Instead, we must create space for honest and imperfect relationship. In all the pressure to perform and impress and minimize risk, we mustn’t forget to lower the facade and love each other well.
4. We will disappoint each other. It’s unavoidable, you know (refer back to #1). In spite of good intentions, we will let each other down. Family members will say the wrong thing. Churches will fail us in our crisis. Neighbors and coworkers and friends will get “too busy” to call or show up in our struggle. I’m learning there are two kinds of people when it comes to the failures of others: (1) Those who resent it and replay it over and over, and (2) Those who learn from it, let it go, and become better at relationship as a result.
5. We shine best when serving each other. Our circumstances don’t dictate the quality of our lives. Our response to them does. When you and I face tough circumstances, the temptation is to turn inward, to isolate and nurse our wounds. Although this may serve a purpose for a time, to remain inward only complicates the loss. Instead, allow pain to drive new purpose. I have a friend who lost a child to suicide, a horrific and inconceivable loss. And yet, in the years since, she’s become a fountain of joy and light to everyone around her. It’s not that she doesn’t weep and grieve. But her pain drives new purpose, to love people well and create opportunities for honest connection. In the process, she’s discovered new life where before had only been death.
What have you learned about community? And what can YOU do to create it, right where you are?