Becoming a Friend: A ★★★★★ Book Review

The Catholic Church doesn’t start the canonization process until after a person dies, but if there were applications for living saints, Jean Vanier would be top of the list. He is the founder of L’Arche, a network of intentional communities providing hospitality and care for those with developmental disabilities. He resides in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he has lived with people with disabilities for the past fifty-three years, regarded them as his teacher. The author of more than 30 books, Vanier’s gift to the church (and to me) is in imparting a vision of ministry that is inclusive of those margins, without being paternalistic. L’Arche is not a charity in the sense that they ‘do for the disabled’ but a community of welcome where those with disabilities, and those who are able, find themselves bound together in friendship and community.

9781640600966We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together is vintage Vanier. The text of this book is drawn from talks Vanier gave at a retreat he led in 2008 for the community of Saint Martin in Nyahururu, Kenya (a community especially devoted to responding to Kenya’s HIV crisis). Vanier brings together scriptural reflections—especially on the life of Jesus— personal remembrances, and hard-won-wisdom on what it means to follow Jesus in being a friend to the poor and marginalized, facing our own fears and disabilities, and becoming more open toward the other.

The book is short but not what I’d call a quick read. It is only 138 pages and not overly complicated, but  I found myself reading and re-reading, reading slowly,  mulling over words and phrases, and underlining whole paragraphs. I will resist my urge to quote the whole book here, but here a few passages I found meaningful. The first passage discusses what it means to become friends with the poor, instead of just serving them from a place of privilege:

I can be generous:  I can volunteer to help someone living in an institution, or I can go into a slum area and listen to the people, or give them money. However, when I am generous, I hold the power. In my generosity, I give good things when I want. The initiative is mine. When I extend my generosity to you, I become superior. The equation changes, however when I become your friend. The generosity becomes a meeting point for the two of us, and the journey of friendship begins, When I become your friend, I become vulnerable with you. I listen to your story; I hear how much you have suffered: and you listen to my story. In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become a friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change (54-55).

On Spiritual growth:

If you read any books on the saints, you will discover that as one grows in spirituality, one feels less and less perfect. So, if you are feeling less and less perfect, it means you are getting closer to God! Those in religious life, when they entered the novitiate, had wings. After that, the wings were clipped and they began living in community, a life they found painful (65).

On the preferential option for the poor:

Those who are the most rejected must be respected. It is not a question of a preferential option for the poor. It is the fact that the Church is constitutioned by the presence of the poor. The poor are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security (72).

On vocation and calling:

Sometimes I am a bit concerned when we talk of vocations, making reference only to the priesthood or religious life for sisters. I believe in the priesthood and I believe in religious life, but I also believe in the vocations of people with disabilities. I believe in the vocation of hearts filled with love of people like Maimanu and Dorothy and many others. We each have a vocation. We are all called by God to grow in love and be a sign of tenderness to the world. Our vulnerable Jesus is calling us to grow in love (118).

Sometimes people speak romanticly about ‘the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled.’ Vanier has dedicated a lifetime to sharing life with the disabled in L’Arche and knows how difficult the journey can be. But he also knows the gift of love when we are open enough to share our lives with others. When he describes those with disabilities whom he calls friends, he describes what they have revealed about his own poverty of spirit and disability and ways they have spurred him on to greater love and humility. I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: Paraclete Press provided me with a copy of this book. I was not asked to write a positive review.

Intentional Christian Community Handbook by David Janzen: a book review

My experience in intentional community is limited. About nine years ago my wife and I did  Mission Year in Atlanta. We lived in community with three other couples and invested in our neighborhood there. After a year,  we moved with one of the other couples to Miami  and continued  community living.  At the end of  that year, they went their way and we went ours.  Community living had its headaches and there are things we would do differently, but my wife and I grew from our experience (and still love the couple!).  Currently, my wife and I live in a house in a gated community. We do not know our neighbors beyond polite pleasantries. We commute to church. We often feel isolated from those who know and love us best.

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: for Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus by David Janzen

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook was written as a guide for those in community, or those who are interested in intentional community living. The subtitle of the book  indicated it is “For Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus.” I happen to be all three, so I read with interest.  David Janzen helped found the New Creation Community in  Newton, Kansas in 1971. In 1984 he moved to Evanston, Illinois to be part of Reba Place Fellowship and has been there ever since. He is someone with a wealth of experience living in a ‘thicker’ style community where community members pool possessions and resource and share life together. He is also in conversation with  a variety of other intentional communities.  In these pages, Janzen offers his wisdom for thos who  interested in community, and what practices will sustain communities for the long haul.

This handbook  is divided into six sections which address different aspects and stages of community life. In part one,  Janzen talks about the longing for community in our  individualistic, consumeristic culture.  Trends in society have contributed to the break down of families and communities. Those who long for intentional community are bucking those trends.

In part two Janzen helps those interested in community discern ift a particular community context is right for them. He asks probing questions about what the calling of that particular community is, and whether or not you as the individual can find a place in that context. However he  also cautions this is not an individual decision. He suggests interning with the community, finding mentors and discerning your personal call with the wider community.

Part three examines considerations which precede community formation.  What will community look like? What is the calling and purpose of this community?  Where will we put down roots?  How will your community commit to racial reconciliation and gender equity? Or will it?  This section is fairly practical, and Janzen shares examples of what various communities have done.

Part four talks about the first year of community living. He urges new communities to work-out  leadership structures,  to thoughtful navigate careers and schedules and  advises  new communities to connect with other more established communities.  he challenges communities to clarify how they share life together (be the church).

In part five he discusses some of the growth edges for young communities. A community rule of life or a covenant may seem unnecessary in the early years of community but as a community matures they clarify identity and purpose.  Likewise, there will be growth and change in some community practices. Justice around food and creation care may occupy a more significant place than in earlier years of community life.  Communities also faces challenges when people leave, or fail to live up to the community’s ideals. One major challenge for growing communities is the presence of children. It is easier for single people to commit their life and resources to a cause and live in a ‘risky neighborhood.’ As families grow, communities change and often members move to ‘safer’ outlying neighborhoods.

Finally part six addresses issues relevant to the mature community. The communities need avenues for healing  hurts, uniting for a common mission, sustaining prophetic vocations, accountability, nurturing new communities, and caring for and challenging the ‘execptionally gifted person.

Janzen has numerous examples from his own community life and from a variety of other intentional communities.  I was pleased to see one of my mentors (Leroy Barber) profiled in the book. Because each community is different, this book is by necessity non-comprehensive. However it gives good food for thought and sage advice to all who are on the road to intentional Christian community. People in their twenties and thirties who have read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove or Shane Claiborne (who wrote the forward)  will find Janzen to be a wise guide as they seek to live in community.  Longstanding communities will also find places of challenge and growth. This is a very thoughtful resource!

I do not currently live in intentional community, but part of me still longs for it. Maybe this book will sow the seeds of something new for me and my family. Maybe it will for you too. I give it five stars ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for Providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

Common Practice: a book review

I continue to be challenged and inspired by the New Monastic movement.  I live in a sleepy suburb  isolated from my Christian community, but the challenge of  Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Shane Claiborne  stirs me to delve deeper into intentional community and invest in a particular place.  In The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common FaithJohnathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores the habits which shape convictions and sustain God’s people. The accompanying six-session DVD and discussion guide explores each of the themes in the book from a different angle. In the review below I will discuss the book first, then the DVD and the discussion guide.

Wilson-Hartgrove  has culled together a set of Christian practices into a type of catechism intended to inspire hope, conversation and action.  He shares inspirational stories and also delves into the reason behind each practice.  He focuses on the convictions that ‘undergird a way of life that makes witness possible (15).’  This book discusses these practices:

  • Why We Eat Together
  • Why We Fast
  • Why We Make Promises
  • Why it Matters Where We Live
  • Why We Live Together
  • Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill
  • Why We Share the Good News

Wilson-Hartgrove shares personal examples (and those of friends) which illustrate the meaning of each practice. In his reflections he challenges us to greater community, radical hospitality and identification with Christ’s suffering, a consistent Pro-Life ethic, and integrity in Christian witness. The chapters are short, easy reads, but they offer some significant challenges.

I really appreciate Wislon-Hartgrove’s writing. I like how he thoughtfully draws together theological and biblical reflection, church history and lived experience.   He is a thoughtful writer and has thought and lived deeply each of these practices.  But he manages to share his deep insights into the Christian life and his experience without sounding arrogant or self aggrandizing. There is humility in his prose and while I am awed by his theological insights, street smarts and wholehearted commitment, I never feel like reading his books is like ‘going to one of the experts.’  He is a smart man, but there is humility and grace here too.

In the accompanying DVD Wilson-Hartgrove and his co-conspirator Shane Claiborne bring together material which complements (but does not reproduce the book). The six sessions discuss each of the practices in Wilson-Hartgrove’s book (Eating together and Fasting, are discussed together).   Each of the sessions has an example of what people are doing. There are several inspiring interviews. On the Eating/Fasting session, much of the video portion focuses on an interview of Chris Haw of Camden, NJ and what his community is doing with urban farming. In subsequent sessions there is an interview with Jean Vanier (Why We Make Promises), Civil Rights leader Ann Atwater (Why it Matters Where We Live), Ethan’s Mom Dayna (Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill–this is a story worth hearing in its entirety) and Reverd William Barber (Why We Share Good News).  In the section on ‘Why We Live Together, Shane and Jonathan both share about their lives in their respective communities. Each of these voices adds color and depth to the topic.

In the discussion guide for the DVD (located at the back of the book) there are questions on the DVD presentation and chances to delve deeper into Scripture and tradition by examining Bible passages and quotations from church history. And of course, there are challenges you to live out the practice.  Intentional communities and small groups will be able to use this book profitably to spur one another on in faithful living.

So get this book and accompanying DVD and find a group to discuss it with. Yes, you could just get the book and read it yourself, but you will have done it all wrong. This is the sort of book that is meant to spark deeper conversation. It gets five stars from me. ★★★★★

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.