Thinking about the attempts by our institutions and organizations to redefine our relationships got me thinking about family. Family is a group that often appears to have characteristics similar to man-made institutions, but family is clearly natural, God-given, and not just a human fabrication. I think the clearest difference has to do with the relationships involved.
In our human institutions and organizations, the “relationships” among the members of the group are clearly “created” (I’m using a lot of quote makes here because I don’t think the relationships are actually real) and defined and enforced by human beings. And they only have any reality among those people in the group who believe in them. Such “relationships” are only ideas, figments, in certain people’s minds. We see evidence of this in how easily they are redefined, shuffled, or dissolved. And also how human power and money are required to enforce respect for such “relationships.”
Relationships in a family group, however, have markedly different characteristics. They are not just an idea. There is flesh and blood involved and a deep psychological connection (I would say also a spiritual connection, in that God’s giving of children also includes a spiritual call to care for them, and a call to the children to care for their parents as well). Not at all easy to dissolve or redefine.
Our human societies do try to redefine family relationships, however. These human groups often try to impose family roles and authority structures in accordance with their own laws or religion. That’s where families can start to look like other human institutions, inasmuch as they adopt the rules and roles of the society pressed upon them (or try to impose their own peculiar inventions). But there are real, natural, God-given relationships in families that struggle against these false impositions, making us yearn inside for a real father, perhaps, or maybe for the freedom to be a real child. We can try to redefine these relationships, or renounce them, but God and our own inner being resist when we attempt this.
That gives me hope for family. It’s not just another human institution, for us to shape and enforce and defend. It’s real relationships that God has created. Relationships that can be discovered and honored and submitted to, as we recognize how God has connected us to others with the love that is as real as He is.
There's been some reorganizing going on in the community here, and some of the changes have left me feeling very uneasy. Not that they're unusual at all. They are very common, even expected in most organizations, but that doesn't mean they're right or good, of course. And they don't seem to me to be the way of the body of Christ.
First is the introduction of leases for housing here. Not strange, except we've never had those before. Didn't seem to need them either. Everyone knew each other and there was friendship and trust to provide a sense that we wouldn't take advantage of one another. So it feels odd to have to sign a written agreement now, after six years living in the community. It feels as if the relationship is changing, from one of friendship to a business arrangement, a legal contract. And there'll be a signed document to prove it.
Second is the introduction of a "rule of life." I think it's really just an official belief statement for the community. I don't think anyone actually plans to guide their life by this document, as monks have done with their Rules over the ages. It seems to be an attempt to achieve more unity among the diverse people in the community here, by more clearly defining what it means to be a community member. I'm not sure to what extent allegiance to this document will be required. I may be able to avoid it by accepting the lowest level of "membership" (which puts us first in line to be bumped out if housing space is needed). In any case, again, not a good feeling. And again, an apparent redefining of relationships.
But, as I struggled with these developments, I realized that this redefining of relationship is not something an organization or institution can really do. Relationships are personal, between persons. Institutions (including churches and intentional Christian communities) claim to create and re-create relationships by vote or legislation, but that is an illusion. A lie. The reality depends on the individual persons involved in the relationship and the love between them, not any decree or document.
I don't care so much about signing a lease (if that's what is required to live in someone else's house). And the content of the community "rule of life" doesn't bother me. What bothers me is the group's attempt to define or control our relationships; that's the lie I want to resist. That's not a power granted to any human institution.
Jesus' little community offers a powerful contrast to this. Where was their "rule of life"? How were they united without a clear belief statement that all members publicly swore to? They were united, not around any document or doctrine, but around a person. And it was their relationship with that one person that held them all together as one. It was love. Love, which exists not on paper but only in relationship, is what kept them close to Jesus and to one another.
And it is this love in relationship that is the presence of God that still unites us. God unites us. God makes our relationships real. Not a piece of paper, or the human organizations that keep churning out those pieces of paper.