Guest Post Wednesday: “What I Had Been Looking For”

This week’s guest post* is from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a thoughtful writer, speaker, and new monastic who lives in Durham, North Carolina. Jonathan’s written a lot about community and stability, and he’s been quoted here at Texas Schmexas more than once.

Lately I’ve been thinking about staying put and paying attention. In a culture that is characterized by unprecedented mobility and speed, I am convinced that the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are. I am not advocating a stubborn provincialism or harkening back to a time before the Internet and the automobile when “things were simpler” and “life was easier.” Nor am I denying that God called Abraham, saying, “Go . . . ” or that Jesus left his disciples with roughly the same marching orders. But I am convinced that both our use of new technologies and our faithful response to God’s call depend on something more fundamental—a rootedness that most of us sense we are missing in our hurry to keep up amid constant change. I believe we need to recover the wisdom of stability.

Maybe this focus on stability is little more than a confession of my own need. I was raised in Christian churches by people who loved me well, charged to go out there and make a difference in the world, and given some of the best resources and training available for the task. I showed the Jesus film in the African bush, helped build schools for AIDS orphans, dug latrines in the Dominican Republic, played with kids from the barrios of Venezuela, built houses in Honduras, and tutored kids in Philadelphia’s inner city. A citizen of God’s kingdom, I tried to put my American passport to work for good in the world. But racking up all those frequent flyer miles for Jesus, I felt lonely. I wanted to share God’s love with others, but wasn’t sure where to experience it myself.

Hung over from all that travel, I stumbled into a little intentional community of Christians who were trying to love one another and their neighbors. It wasn’t easy . . . and it showed. But I saw something compelling in that little group’s experiment with faith: they had given themselves to God and one another in a particular place. They saw one another’s junk, and they could talk about it. In all the ordinariness of everyday life, they knew what it meant to need forgiveness and to receive it. In short, they were learning to love one another. God’s love became real for me in that place. I caught a glimpse of what I had been looking for.

Like the blind man who received his sight in the Gospels, I looked around to see my world again as if for the first time. I reread the Bible and saw in it God’s plan to redeem the world through a gathered people. Paul’s letters came alive to me as I imagined him leading a network of community organizers, convinced that they were part of the most important movement the world had ever known. When I turned to church history, I felt that same energy in monastic writings. Christians had a pretty mixed record when it came to living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, but the monastic movements seemed to have kept the dream alive. I fell in love with the desert mothers and fathers, with Benedict and Francis and Lady Julian and Teresa of Avila. Here was a movement of which I wanted to be a part.

And I was not alone. This God movement was a living tradition, and the gift I had glimpsed in one little community was alive and well in other places, albeit under the radar of mainstream Christianity. My wife, Leah, introduced me to that first community, beginning a journey that we’ve shared ever since. We traveled to Iraq together at the beginning of the second Gulf War, taking our cue from the example of Francis, who crossed the lines and sat with the Muslims during the fifth Crusade. In Iraq we met others on similar paths, representing a host of communities we had not known before. Inspired by the hospitality of Iraqis at a place called Rutba, we returned home to found a community called Rutba House in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina. We did not know at the time that rutba means “order” in Arabic. But we did sense already that we were caught up in a “new monasticism,” guided by the same power that stirred the early church and all those witnesses through the centuries.

We did not know what we were doing when we started Rutba House. We only knew that we had seen a glimpse of what God’s love looks like and that we had to respond. I do not write in praise of ignorance; I know too well the pain of our mistakes. But I also know that awareness of our ignorance sent us searching for fellow travelers and listening to ancient voices. Stumbling to find our way as a community, we happened upon the wisdom of stability.

Should you ever leave the place where you are? I don’t know. But I trust we are able to best discern the call of God in the company of friends when we are rooted in the life-giving wisdom of stability.

* If these paragraphs sound familiar, you’ve probably read The Wisdom of Stability. Thanks to Jonathan for graciously providing this excerpt to us as a meditation on community.

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