Posted by: Dan | February 3, 2007

Living with Exiles

It is a lot easier to pray for the ingathering of the exiles than it is to live with them.
~ an anonymous Israeli, quoted in From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman

I am beginning to believe that it is not the major, one-time sacrifices that make it the most difficult for us to love our neighbours. Rather, I suspect that it is the small scale, ongoing annoyances that really test the depth of our love. The big events can be twisted so easily into either grand epics (if things go well) or romantic tragedies (if things go poorly). The little things, in general, are what they are.

Let me provide an example from my own life. A few friends and I live in a Christian community house in the heart of what is probably Canada’s most notorious neighbourhood. We have decided that loving those who had been abandoned means living alongside of them. We have come to believe that solidarity is not something that can be practiced very meaningfully from a distance, and we are committed to being friends, and neighbours, and lovers of those around us, instead of being social workers, or volunteers, or outreach workers. Furthermore, because of the especial violence and isolation faced by people who are sexually exploited in our neighbourhood, we have committed ourselves to learning how to journey alongside of this specific group of people.

This is the big step. The step that is easy to romanticise or glorify (actually, I am increasingly wondering how I can even speak to audiences about this without automatically being romanticised our glorified into some sort of fiction that is then safely removed from the lifestyle decisions of my audiences). The surprising thing is that, although it takes some courage to make this decision, it turns out that transitioning into our neighbourhood has been surprisingly easy.

However, it has been the little things that have proven most difficult. Little things like choosing to go out at least one night a week to talk to the people in the alleys and the girls on the corners. Sure, that’s exciting for a little while… but then, you know, other things come up, or I get tired, or I get lazy, or it’s just too cold and rainy out so I put it off. Besides, I’m an introvert and sometimes the thought of going around talking to strangers is just too daunting (or so I tell myself).

And then there’s little things like continuing to develop relationships and invite people into our home that are, well, just plain annoying. People are people and we all naturally connect with different types. Some people annoy us… but the thing about solidarity is that we don’t get to choose to just hang out with people that we really hit it off with (unlike the way in which most of us approach Sunday church). Christian community, Jean Vanier reminds us, is about being a family together. It’s not that we are friends, we are brothers and sisters — and, although we choose our friends, we don’t get to choose our family members.

In my work as a “street youth worker,” I can schedule in the times when I hang around with annoying people and I can reserve large chunks of time to myself (i.e. like when I’m at home and not at work). When I live in a Christian community that is trying to be an open community, I lose a lot of that freedom. Now, I’ve got people hanging out with me when all I want to do is grab a book and veg out in my room.

In a way, I think that this experience is comparable to the way that people describe the first year or so of marriage. In marriage, they say, you learn how selfish you are. You realize how much you just did what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it. In marriage you, more often than before, have to do what you don’t want to do when you want to do something else. Living in a Christian community is something like that (and, by the way, that’s why I think marriage is not the end of our journey away from selfishness but is a good first step to learning how to, as a couple, live other-centred lives in the community of faith — instead of, as a couple, just doing what you want to do when you want to do it).

It is developing the daily discipline in the little things, it is living patiently with small annoyances that is the most difficult aspect of this transition. Yes, it is a lot easier to pray for the ingathering of the exiles than it is to live with them. But that is the only option we have. Our prayers for the ingathering of the exiles are mostly meaningless unless we are participating in that ingathering.

I think that our failures in all of these small ways shows just how shallow our love is for others in comparison with the love that we have for ourselves.

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