Almost twenty years ago, while I was at university, my parents decided to move back to the seaside village in Northern Ireland where I had spent the first twelve years of my life. We relocated several times during my teens and, for me, this latest move felt like a step backwards. I visited for their first Christmas “back home” with no intention of joining them on any permanent basis. On Christmas day a guy with ginger hair and a smile that was contagious gave the children’s talk in their new church. The response to his self-deprecating humor was evidence that he was not only well known but also well loved. Long story short, I ended up staying. Two years later we were married.
I went into marriage believing that there were some things I could fix about Glenn. One was what I considered to be a slightly infantile obsession with the town that would now be my home. I shared my plans with him regularly. I wanted to move somewhere that was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. I wanted to find a place where we could have a ministry together, fully exercising our gifts in a way that suited us exactly.
Again and again he agreed that it all sounded great, assured me that we would think about it and then carried on doing exactly what he always did: working in the same schools, being part of the same church, spending time with the same people. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.
This Christmas it will be twenty years since I first sat in the congregation and watched Glenn captivate the children in the front rows. Lots of those kids are married now and I’ve lost count of the number who asked him to perform their wedding ceremonies. I’ve begun to notice something over the last couple of years. When my husband is asked to speak at weddings or funerals, he rarely has to ask the families for stories to tell. He already knows them. Like the characters in Wendell Berry’s Port William stories, their lives have intersected and merged with his so many times over the past four decades that it’s hard to tell where his story ends and theirs begin.
To be untethered by roots or commitment is seen as a great achievement in our upside down world. Undoubtedly, there are particular callings and seasons in life that require us to set out, even temporarily, in search of new things. The world is full of rich stories and unexpected wonder and there is something irreplaceable about the adventure of meeting new people and discovering new places. I suspect that part of me will always be straining to see what is just beyond the next horizon. Having said that, I wonder how often my longing for something new has simply been an attempt to validate a pattern of dissatisfaction that no new church or town or community will fix. What if, sometimes, cutting your lines and setting sail just means you are adrift?
When Cain murdered Abel, his punishment was that he would forever be a vagrant and a wanderer. From that time on he would have no home and no permanent community. Genesis 4:13 tells us that Cain considered the punishment too much to bear.
I'm learning that deep community may be so slow to grow that we only get to do it once or twice in a lifetime. I'm learning that it's a choice to be present in a certain space and time with a certain group of people, whatever that costs.Heidi Johnston
When God called the nation of Israel to live as his people, he placed them in a specific piece of land. Its location was genius, making it a through route for much of the world’s trade traffic but one of the main weapons in the Israelite arsenal was their community life. By witnessing the way God’s people continued to live in relationship with each other, living intentionally according to the pattern God had given them, those looking on would see the heart of God.
My natural instinct is still to run away when things get hard or monotonous or overly ordinary but I’m learning that community at its best is a long-term plan. I’m learning that deep community may be so slow to grow that we only get to do it once or twice in a lifetime. I’m learning that it’s a choice to be present in a certain space and time with a certain group of people, whatever that costs.
It means continuing to bring yourself and your gifts to the table and offering them up for the sake of people who may not always understand what you are doing or why you are there. When others say or do the painful things, committing to community means choosing to stay and forgive when the voices in your head are screaming, “Pack up and move on.” If, like me, you have a tendency to say and do stupid things, sooner or later you are going to have to walk back into the room, look people in the eye and take responsibility for your own brokenness.
A friend of mine came to see me a few months ago, after a difficult season in her personal life caused her to withdraw for a while from many of the people she knew. Truthfully, I was surprised to see her. Many of my memories of our conversations end with me kicking myself on the way home for the stupid things I said or the wise things I didn’t say. When I asked, she told me she came to me because I had been there for her for twenty years. The reality is that I had done very little to shape her life in any intentional or significant way. When she said I had been there, she meant that I had literally, physically been present in her life for twenty years. It may be an obvious point but it struck me for the first time that to be in someone’s life for twenty years takes twenty years.
It turned out that while Glenn had been intentionally building community, I had been doing it almost by accident. While I was trying to fix Glenn’s devotion to the people he has spent his life with, that same community had been slowly teaching me how rare and beautiful it can be to commit your life to one particular patch of earth and the people who share it with you.
With the passing of two decades I have found myself living within the rhythms Glenn chose for us, unaware of the way the framework of my life has been shifting. In my own introverted, bumbling way I have become part of something richer than I have ever experienced before. I have no doubt that greater intentionality on my part could have made the experience richer still. I don’t have Glenn’s openness with people and my impact on our town doesn’t compare to his. Our church faces the same struggles with personality, politics, misunderstanding and brokenness that are common wherever you go. Left to my own devices, there have been many times when I would have given up in frustration. Honestly, it’s not uncommon for me to look around the place where my story has taken root and be overwhelmed in the same moment by a deep sense of belonging and a desire to be somewhere else. However, with the passage of time and to my great surprise, I have found myself in a place where I know and am known. Where I least expected to find it, because love would not let me leave, I have fallen clumsily into a place I’m learning to call home.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.