August-September 2009 - Vol. 32

New Girl in the Community

This is a taste of heaven on earth… the way life was meant to be lived

by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Twelve months ago, I heard about community. Six months ago, I visited it. One week ago, I immersed myself in it at the Sword of the Spirit North American Region Summer Conference in Hillsdale, Michigan, from June 18-21. 

I’m super new to this way of life (I had to ask one of the community members to define the different level of commitments over dinner in the Hillsdale conference center cafeteria) but I’m exploring community with gusto and found the conference enlightening.

I’m a 26-year-old entrepreneur who has been following God on an amazing adventure over the last year. In July 2008, I was participating in a 40-day Christian leadership-training program in the northern woods of Minnesota with an organization called Tentmakers. There I met four men from the Servants of the Word, Nico Angleys, Brian Laba, Stu Ferguson, and Mike Kramer who were also participating in the Tentmakers program. 

I quickly discovered that these guys were “urban monks” from an ecumenical missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord and they were also involved in an ecumenical Christian community, called Word of Life, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, composed of married couples, families, and single people. They invited me to visit the community in Ann Arbor. 

I took them up on their offer with an overnight trip in December. Then I felt God calling me to learn more by living in Ann Arbor for January and February and participating in the Word of Life community. I had a lovely time with Dan and Stephanie Smith and their four children. And after a period of discernment, I decided to move to Ann Arbor to stay with the Word of Life community.

Since my arrival on June 1 of this year, I’ve truly been welcomed by the community —several guys helped me unload my moving truck (which I had driven 16 hours all by myself!) and my three amazing housemates, Esther Benson, Elizabeth Crabtree, and Hannah Gornik invited me to outings almost every night for the first couple of weeks.

But the summer conference truly took my understanding of community to a whole new level.

Covenant Commitment
“This is the way life was meant to be lived,” was a phrase that Steve Clark, one of the founders of this modern communities movement, shared during his sessions about the second table or list of the ten commandments, the one about loving other people. And Dan Keating, a lecturer in theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and one of the key teachers at the conference, also emphasized the point that the ten commandments reflect “the way the Lord made things.”

During the conference, I began to grasp that God’s intention for covenant community is supposed to truly permeate every aspect of community life.  And from my short acquaintance with the community, I can certainly testify that this observance of God’s divine order gives community a richness, blessing, and security that I hadn’t previously witnessed in my twenty-odd years of following Christ.

Because the conference drew people from many communities in North America, I seized the opportunity to talk with as many people around me as possible. One of my favorite questions to ask was, “How did you join community?” One response that I heard again and again was… “Some years ago someone invited me to a prayer meeting on a college campus where I met Christians living in community…” 

What I want to say to those who have lived in community for many years, “Do you realize how precious that is?” I’ve heard a bit about the ups and downs and trials the Sword of the Spirit has encountered over the years , but the fact that people from all over the world have committed themselves to one another and to a lifestyle for even four decades is priceless. In a disposable culture, lasting relationships, let alone communities, are rare gems.

The in-depth teaching on the ten commandments showed me how important the Sword of the Spirit considers the keeping of the covenant – both with one another and also with God. Because God has so richly blessed us, we long to love him by obeying his commandments. Also we want to experience the blessing of community as he intended it by following what he tells us to do and encouraging those around us to do the same. 

In this covenant commitment to God and to one another, I truly saw a little taste of heaven on earth. 

Charismatic Worship
I had grown up exercising the gifts of the Spirit, but during and after college I ended up in Christian groups and churches that weren’t charismatic. For me, Word of Life and especially the prayer meetings during the conference brought me back to my spiritual roots. It was like coming home to a good and true place. At the conference, the Spirit of God was awakened in me in a new, fresh, and vibrant way. Each time we sang together, I imagined we were the choruses of saints surrounding the Lord’s throne and I just felt like the cares of everyday life seemed completely insignificant in comparison. 

Over the past few years, I’ve gone to churches where some people were super engaged in worshiping God and living out his call for their lives and others weren’t. I’m sure that this is true in any body of faith, but I’ll admit that it has sometimes been discouraging when not many people are singing during worship time or seem to be indifferent to what they are learning.

But at the summer conference, the prayer times were electric! I couldn’t see a single person not singing out to God and praising him with their whole heart. It was amazing to hear the voices from the chairs ring much louder than those onstage and to feel swept away in a chorus to our God. As we were singing, I felt like I experienced truly being part of the one body of Christ in the unity of the Spirit. 

It was also encouraging to hear people share words from the Lord and to review past prophecies to the communities during the final session at the conference. The presentation was entitled “Darkness in the Abundant Life” given by Paul Dinolfo, President of the Sword of the Spirit’s North American Region. It was encouraging and strengthening to be reminded that God is living and active and bringing his will to pass.

Ecumenical Calling
As a Protestant, I knew I was in the minority at the conference but was a bit thrown off when I found out on Sunday morning when we split for church services that we Protestants were about 10 percent of the 260-person conference. This is quite a new experience for me, but as my Protestant pastoral leader and I like to say, “They need us or they wouldn’t be ecumenical!”

Although this dynamic takes a bit of adjustment, I am learning about the richness of tradition and about  intentional living from my Catholic brothers and sisters. And I’m told that we Protestants add our own special flavor to the group. I found it especially helpful to share our viewpoints on applying the lessons from the talks during our discussion group times. It helped me to better understand the perspective of my Catholic brothers and sisters who may come at situations from a different angle.

But more importantly than these philosophical musings, I loved seeing ecumenical community lived out. Both on a personal and global level in my walk as a Christian, I had already seen the devastating effects of a lack of unity. But on Saturday night during our prayer meeting I stood next to a lovely Scottish Catholic woman and sang in chorus with her and all the saints, “Be thou my vision…”

And I thought, This is a taste of heaven on earth…this is the one body in Christ… this is the way life was meant to be lived.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a part of the Word of Life Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She works as a freelance writer and a time coach and speaker empowering women in business to achieve work/life brilliance through Schedule Makeovers.

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