Ten years ago, my wife and I packed up our bags to join a Christian community, the Bruderhof--a fellowship of men, women, and children who live, work, and share a common purse and a common life together. By "community" I mean a gathered life involving a total commitment to each other. Our homes, work place, community center, and school are all together in one geographic space. We possess no private property and share daily life together.
Why would I, a seminary professor, and my wife, a high school teacher, drop everything and move across the country to join a Christian community? We were both well on our way to a fulfilling and fruitful life of meaningful work. So why the change? In short, because we were living a slow death of gradual disintegration.
As for myself, the explosive energy of my youth had fast become dissipated, not because of reckless living, but as a result of obsessively attempting too much and of trying to hold everything together. It was a meltdown of my own choosing. I was obsessed with trying hard, being good, meeting needs, pleasing God, and doing the right thing. There were so many good causes to join, so much knowledge to master, so many people to meet, so many relationships to build, so many obligations to fulfill, and so many opportunities to explore. But as I plunged into the whirlwind of possibility, I became systematically fragmented. Peace of heart slipped away, peace of life was lost.
How all this happened is easier for me to see now than it was then. My "self" was simply unable to integrate the disparate, dangling threads of an over-committed existence. Individually and singly, the threads could not be joined together into a meaningful whole.
There was my work as a philosophy and theology professor, and my graduate studies. Both demanded my time; both demanded my allegiance. Joined together only in "idea," these two parts of my life were in fact worlds apart. Belief and practice were often at complete odds. I thought they could be bridged, and indeed, some attempts succeeded. But as life's demands increased, my strength did not. Besides, I was more than an academic self. I had other concerns, other interests.
There was my personal life--my wife, Leslie, my friends and hers, my family and hers--with multifarious dimensions that never quite seemed to intersect. Sometimes they overlapped, but they never came together.
There was the church I attended and served at, but that was separate from the small household community Leslie and I were part of, and from the outreach ministry we were involved with in our depressed neighborhood. There were events organized by the activist groups I belonged to, functions at the institutions where I worked and studied, family gatherings I felt obliged to attend. I wanted everything, and I got what I wanted. But there was no existential coherence. I was fragmented inside and out.
Try as I did, I couldn't "get it together." Unable to let any one thing go, yet overwhelmed by keeping everything simultaneously under control, I created elaborate coping mechanisms that I perceived would get me through. I had a confidential counseling relationship with a close therapist friend; I made opportunities for "release" through leisure, entertainment, retreats, etc. with my wife; I learned to reschedule my graduate studies and readjust my teaching load; I backed out of this or that relationship, and so forth. But paring down, adjustment, and mending never did the trick. Well-intentioned and dedicated as I was, I was frazzled and frayed, and my life remained disconnected.
Now that I look back, it seems ironic how full, yet how incomplete, my life felt. I had virtually everything I ever wanted: meaningful employment, intellectual excitement, altruistic outlets, caring friends, material success, and freedom to adjust my schedule whenever I felt the need to do so. But I was not at peace. The boundaries of my life were wide, I kept all my options open, but I had no real way of escape.
In retrospect, I see I was playing right into our culture's grand deception: It's your life; do with it what you want. I had made my life the center of the universe, even under the guise of serving God. Our society is egotistical, individualistic, materialistic, and compulsive; it has little room for community. My needs, my desires, my strengths and weaknesses, my potential, were the driving force; and my life was a fortress--fenced-off, guarded, and opened here and there to a select few and on my terms. Despite my spiritual commitment and my efforts to live out my faith, I was trapped in the madness of a middle-class lifestyle that revolved--not only ultimately, but in the most mundane ways--around my wants and desires. I just couldn't see that this kind of living was unreal, untrue, and unfit for the purpose God created us. Such "freedom" was entrapment.
No matter how many ways I tried to compensate for the lack of synthesis in my life, it wasn't until I stopped living in terms of personal fulfillment and independence that I began to find some sense of coherence. And I saw that I had a choice to make: I could continue living in that way, negotiating a multiplicity of demands and relationships of my own choosing, or I could begin anew on an altogether different foundation, one where community (not self), mutual service (not personal fulfillment), and God's kingdom (not mine) was the premise.
When my wife and I heard about the Bruderhof, we asked to come for a short stay, and after a couple of years of visiting back and forth, we decided to come for good. The issue for us boiled down to whether we were really willing to surrender everything--ourselves included--to God's rule and reign and to fellow seekers committed to doing the same. Life at the Bruderhof is not for everyone, and neither is "community," as such, the way to peace. But the wholeness that I feel today is inseparable from the integration made possible by a life shared with others. In our community, the personal and the communal, the family-oriented and the work-related, the practical and the spiritual, do not have to compete, but become as one. All are nurtured and upheld by mutual commitment.
My quest for personal peace has never gone away entirely. I still struggle with the fact that who I am is far from what I should be. Though Jesus' cross bridges this chasm, and I cling to it in faith, the battle of imperfection and sin still goes on. But the intent of my heart and the course of my actions are no longer at odds: The inner and outer dimensions of my life actually cohere, and they are held together, not strenuously, by force of will, but by a deep sense of God's peace. I am more ready to surrender personal projects and goals and to let go of my own life pursuits. God rules in my life in a new way. He has given me wholeness and a peace that is more sustaining than it is fleeting.
Since becoming a member of the Bruderhof I have learned to enjoy a number of different tasks: woodwork, teaching second grade, doing grounds maintenance.
Currently, I work in our publishing house. Whatever I do, I try and keep my main focus on service: What will benefit the needs of the community? For in the end, God created us not just for others but for community, and for the generative, life-sustaining peace it brings. Community is no cure-all, but when our lives are centered on God and his will then life is brought together into a living whole. Divisions cease to exist. Competing interests dissipate. One is at peace with oneself, with others, and with God. Now when I lose this peace, I have a basis for fighting my way back to it (or being helped there by others). Instead of expending my energies on keeping my life together, I can forget myself and throw them into something much greater; a common life with others that pulls life together rather than ripping it apart.
The peace I experience is far more than a personal blessing, for it is not really mine. It belongs to and springs forth from a greater whole: Christ's body, where members are not merely numbers or associates but brothers and sisters. It is the rich gift of God's peace. And the mystery of it is that it has come into my life not because I've struggled for it, but because my eyes were opened to see past the myth of self-fulfillment and into the reality of a more abundant life. To experience this is to experience the grace of God. But it is also a choice.