a beautiful disaster {giveaway}

Marlena Graves is a wise woman who loves Jesus and knows the Scriptures intimately. Our paths crossed at the Festival of Faith & Writing this spring where she appeared on an engaging panel about race and Christian publishing. Graves writes with the winsomely rare combination of authority and humility, and her new book, A Beautiful Disaster, is a study of truths hard-learned in the wilderness. 
There are no pat answers here--just the wisdom of one who's walked the valley of the shadows and kept the faith. She doesn't romanticize or trivialize the desert but illumines how God can utilize even heartbreak for growth and good, drawing from the wisdom of the Desert Father and Mothers as well as modern mystics like Kathleen Norris, Dallas Willard, and Thomas Merton. I'm so happy to have Marlena here today with an excerpt from her book, a worthy title for personal or group study.

Stability in Community (Especially When Community Irritates Us)
We cannot love well unless we are continually being transformed into loving human beings. How are we changed into more loving people? Through reliance on the Holy Spirit while observing those who love well, allowing ourselves to be loved well by others, and being open to receiving the love of God. Bernard of Clairveaux notes, “The more surely you know yourself loved, the easier you will find it to love in return.”i
We cannot love well and be loved ourselves if we are not committed to a community of Christians. Loving and being loved require that we become stable and active members of the local body of Christ. Drawing on the wisdom of Abba Moses, Bradley Nassif advises that we “stay put and be content with our lives. . . . We must not move from place to place or dwell on what we do not have. . . . We are to learn how to deal with ourselves and our environment where we are as we are.”ii
It is very important to find a good community. A good community doesn’t mean it will be a perfect community. And sometimes God places us in communities we would not have chosen had the choice been ours alone. Initially, none of the life-giving communities I’ve belonged to met all my expectations (as if they exist to serve my preferences). I had to give up some of my expectations in order to accept the work of God in my life and the work God wanted to do in the community, some of it through me. Once we’ve found a community that accepts the way God has made us and is within the bounds of orthodoxy, we stay. We grow roots. We take a vow of stability.
Stability becomes a spiritual discipline when the theater seating, contemporary music, and strobe lights get on our nerves. Or when the uncomfortable pews, organ music, and liturgy irritate us. Maybe the messages leave much to be desired—or the building blandly frames a Sunday experience devoid of beauty. Nevertheless, we stay, grateful for the many gifts of grace God offers through the community. We don’t flit place to place, rootless, like souls without a home.
I am not advocating that we remain in a toxic and abusive community. That we do not do. In that situation, we do what needs to be done for our health and the health of our loved ones. Employment and other familial circumstances may also remove us from a community. But I worry that too often we let superficial reasons, like laziness and being too busy, keep us from living a life of discipleship in our communities. Dennis Okholm writes, “Stability means being faithful where we are—really paying attention to those with whom we live and to what is happening in our common life.”iii
Changing into a more loving and generous human being is a slower process than we’d prefer. It takes longer than we want it to because our unloving ways are so deeply ingrained. But change in general involves, as James Bryan Smith says, “adopting new narratives, spiritual disciplines, community, and the help of God.”iv These modes of change do not have instantaneous powers of transformation in and of themselves. But together, over time, they transform us.
We might wonder what a transformed, loving person within community looks like. Jan Johnson provides a concrete though not exhaustive list of loving capacities that will develop in us as we abide in Christ—which as we have noted entails abiding in Christian community. She tells us that abiding in Christ will turn us into people who:
• live with joy and gratefulness
• bless enemies (difficult people)
• don’t hold grudges
• care deeply about others
• don’t run off at the mouth but offer caring words
• go the extra mile
• live with purposeful intentionality
• are humble (letting go of pride and not grabbing credit or engaging in power struggles)
• never, ever judge (that’s God’s job) (Matt. 5–7)v

Learning to Love Well
We grow the most and learn to love the best when we are around those who are different from us. If our ability to love is never challenged, how will we know if we really and truly love? There’s nothing wrong with befriending and hanging out with those who are like us. But if we are to live with joy and gratefulness, not hold grudges, and learn to go the extra mile, we must be open to living among and befriending those in our communities who aren’t like us.
We might ask ourselves if we have good friends who are of different races and ethnicities, friends with different political views, friends from different socioeconomic statuses, and non-Christian friends. If not, why not? We are limiting our experience of the life of God and our resemblance to Jesus if we do not frequently and closely relate with those who differ from us. We need to tear down walls, not erect walls. In our cultivation of friendships, we must be careful not to exclude others. Our relationships aren’t for us alone.
The wilderness opens our eyes to the intrinsic value of Christ’s body by stripping us of our independence. It shows us how dependent we are on the gifts and graces of God. Most often God infuses these graces into our lives through the lives of other believers. Among others we can better figure out what is good for us. With them we can discern what is necessary for our well-being. It’s together that we live a robust life in the kingdom of God and bring life to others. It’s together that we survive in the wilderness.

Marlena Graves, A Beautiful Disaster, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2014. Used by permission.

Want a copy of Marlena Graves' A Beautiful Disaster? Leave a comment related in some way to community, the wilderness, or books, and I'll draw a winner Sunday night.

i Bernard of Clairveaux, “On Loving God,” in Bernard of Clairveaux: Selected Works, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 179.
ii Bradley Nassif, “The Poverty of Love,” Christianity Today, /2008/05 (accessed September 24, 2008).
iii Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 91.
iv James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 189.
v Jan Johnson, Invitation to the Jesus Life: Experiments in Christlikeness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008), 19.
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