catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 22 :: 2009.11.13 — 2009.11.26


Open hands

Even in the midst of great pain, Lord,
I praise you for that which is.
I will not refuse this grief
Or close myself to this anguish.
Let shallow men pray for ease:
“Comfort us; shield us from sorrow.”
I pray for whatever you send me,
and I ask to receive it as your gift.
You have put a joy in my heart
greater than all the world’s riches.
I lie down trusting the darkness,
for I know that even now you are here.

Psalm 4, adapted from Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell

My fascination with Christian intentional communities materialized during my senior year of high school, when my English teacher challenged our class to write final research papers on topics of our choice that interested us.  Two years later, that intellectual interest became incarnate as I applied with a group of friends to live in a college-owned house as an intentional community.  Our core purpose was a dream come true for me: a cooperative household focused on faith and art. 

From the moment I took over the writing of our proposal, my trajectory within the community was clear: I needed to be in control.  Moving into the house in the fall of 1998 wasn’t just a group of eight students, but a volatile combination of teen hormones, various disorders and mental illness, strong personalities and my overdeveloped firstborn tendencies. In most ways, our community was a failure.  We managed to have one concert in our back yard and eat together most weeknights, sharing the responsibilities for cooking and clean-up.  And certainly there were glimpses of true community-playing whiffle ball after dinner or lying on the roof to watch vast flocks of birds undulate endlessly in the Iowa sky.  But for myself, the backwards success of that experience in terms of what I learned regarded what not to do: don’t do all of the grocery shopping so you can have control of the food and the budget.  Don’t bring in a kitten and assume it’s okay with everyone in the house to keep it.  Don’t nag about chores in the place of constructive collaboration on the best way to do things.  The list could go on and on…

I don’t spend much time making impossible wishes to do my sophomore year of college all over again and make different choices, but I have invested energy into considering how I contributed to the un-health of that community through my need to control myself and everyone around me.  My interest in intentional community has persisted, but in order for what I cultivate not to be merely a manifestation of self-centered motives, some serious reflection and reorientation has been in order.  I hope to be on a life-long journey of learning how to listen well, how to discern between times to defer and times to lead, how to maintain a gesture of open hands even when I desperately want to tighten my fists.

Of course, such high ideals are much easier to observe when they’re not being tested, just as the ropes on a sail can seem perfectly strong enough until a storm blows in.  Recent months have been trial by hurricane for what my husband Rob and I have been attempting to learn and embody together in the years since that college community.  As we’ve seemingly endured one ridiculous crisis after another, I’ve begun to feel like Giles Corey at the end of The Crucible calling for “more weight.”  A note to a friend during the lowest point in the valley sums it up well:

I keep wondering out loud to Rob why in the world shit keeps piling on top of shit for us lately-car breaking (over and over again), theft, overwhelming work with the apartment…  There are people around us who are struggling with things so much more insurmountable, but “comparing” our burdens seems crass and uncompassionate and only leads to some sort of sick gratitude that someone else has it worse than we do.  I wonder if we are being prepared for even more difficult roads ahead….  We are asking for wisdom, peace and the grace to maintain open hands, giving our tunic to those who would steal our cloak.

That was at the end of September, in the middle of a series of thefts, which resulted in the loss of about $6,000 in personal property and functioned on both literal and metaphorical levels.  We were being robbed over and over again of things, but also of a sense of security and trust.  Our hearts were broken as we experienced helplessness like we’ve never experienced before.  Thank God for the community of people surrounding us in the middle of anger and fear, challenging us to remember and honor the people we truly want to be-people of the upside down Kingdom.  They shared fully in lament and reaffirmed hard decisions to lock up some things, but not too much, in collective resistance of a culture of surveillance.

Thankfully, we’ve staunched the outflow of possessions; unfortunately, it required almost entirely breaking a relationship with someone we liked and trusted.  We are slowly emerging from the valley, but the terrain is far from easy.  As our car broke down again this week, I tried to remember my friend’s response to my note as one of many mantras: “Remember, when your hands are open…it is easier for the Creator to put stuff in.”  I don’t believe in the magic formulas of the prosperity gospel, but I do believe that God provides, and that sometimes what seems to us a reckless lack of provision and absence of answers is really the full presence of a gracious Wisdom teaching us what we really need.  And as long as we continue to frantically grasp after our own solutions and control all outcomes-to “pray for ease: ‘Comfort us; shield us from sorrow’”-neither our hands nor our hearts will be open to receive that which is so much more satisfying than what we can attain for ourselves.

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