Monday, March 24, 2014

A Memory of Spiritual Community

New Life Drama Company made church much harder for me.

While some might assume that this happened because I went to so many different churches and saw so many that were messed up and got fed up with hypocrisy or something, that's not the case at all. Sure, I visited my share of dysfunctional churches, but that wasn't what made it so difficult to go to church when I went back.

It was the opposite, actually.

Being part of NLDC was the first time I felt like I was truly part of a spiritual community. Since I have spent a fair amount of time on this blog muddling through my current church struggle, I wanted to share a little bit about the one time in my life when I suspect I encountered what most other people encounter (or hope to encounter) at church.

There were two aspects to this, I think: the social and the spiritual.

The Social

The "community" part of this, the social aspect, came through in how unusually easy it was for me to connect with these people. There was such a strong sense of welcoming, of loving and accepting even the oddballs among us (and there were many of us).

When I first arrived and started meeting people, it was at first almost off-putting how enthusiastic everyone was to have me there, just because I didn't know what to do with it. These were people I had never met, but they were squealing happily as just the prospect of a new person being in their midst, proclaiming their love for me when I had barely spoken a word to them, and seeking me out to strike up conversations with me. It was overwhelming, but, I decided, in a good way.

As I got to know these people and realized their enthusiasm and eagerness to welcome me into their fold was genuine, it became less overwhelming and more like a huge, enormous support blanket. They got to know me and my personality quirks and didn't try to change them or make me more like them. They celebrated as I relaxed and came out of my shell more, but not because coming out of my shell was The Right, Extroverted Thing To Do -- it was because they liked me and like getting to know me.

I made most of the closest friends of my life here. It was hard not to. It's hard not to fall back on a support system that is so eager to hold you up, and it's hard not to want to provide them with that same support and enthusiasm and love.

This attitude was infectious. I was usually so reserved, but when we got a group of newbies joining the drama company, I found myself eagerly offering that same unconditional friendship that was offered to me when I first got there. I found myself opening up to people so much more quickly than I would in the "real world." While I typically take 2-3 years to build a friendship with anyone, I unequivocally called almost everyone in the group my friend in a matter of months. In this safe environment, building relationships became easy for me. We fed off each other and leaned on each other and cheered each other on.

I have never bonded so quickly with such a large group of people.

The Spiritual

This attitude of acceptance was very heavily in play when it came to our spiritual interactions as well.

NLDC was an interdenominational ministry. In recent years the ministry's become much more overtly targeted toward charismatic denominations, but when I was there as a quasi-Baptist (I don't know what to call myself, denominationally, I just know I don't speak in tongues) I never felt pressure to conform to any specific worship or prayer style. Everyone was encouraged to follow wherever God led them, no matter whether that meant jumping and dancing in the worship service or sitting quietly and just listening.

It was the safest spiritual place I'd ever been in my life.

While most of the time we were out traveling on the road, every ten weeks we'd come back into our homebase in Tennessee and switch up teams. Then we'd spend the week in Tennessee writing and learning new skits with our new teams.

Every morning during homebase week we'd start off the day with a half hour or so of corporate praise and worship after breakfast, and these are moments I remember vividly. We'd stand in a circle in the church building where we met. One person would be in charge of choosing the worship songs, another of leading us in prayer.

The worship format changed frequently, depending on who was leading. Some days someone played acoustic guitar, other days we played a worship CD and sang along. Some days we sang old church camp songs and 90s praise choruses, or hymns, or whatever Hillsong's latest songs were, or songs written by some of us. We sang and clapped and danced and closed our eyes and raised our hands and laughed and cried and prayed through the songs.

If I was unfocused that day, it could be chaotic with everyone doing whatever they wanted to do around me, but at the same time I felt such a sense of freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, because everybody was focusing on themselves and nobody was paying attention to me. If I wanted, I could stand with eyes closed and arms raised, not singing, just listening. I could sit down. I could sway back and forth. I could jump up and down. I could intersperse my own thoughts during the songs out loud, personalizing them so they could truly reflect what I wanted to say instead of what the songwriters wanted to say.

Prayer time changed structure as well, depending on the leadership. Frequently the prayer leader would briefly introduce the prayer "theme" for the day, if there was one -- "Today we're praying for our country," "Today I feel God wants us to pray for the church," "Today we're asking God to teach us something" -- and then everybody would pray, just all at the same time. There was a quiet, general murmur as people were earnestly talking to God, praying through memorized Scripture or asking for blessings or interceding on other's behalf.

Every minute or two, someone would feel something to pray publicly, and they'd speak out their prayer, loudly, with everyone listening and verbally agreeing. I didn't pray out loud often, but when I did, it felt unbelievably encouraging to ask God for something and have 25 or 30 other people all nodding their heads and saying, "Yes, God! Amen!" It really solidified that we weren't isolating ourselves and pleading our case before God all on our house -- we were all there, together praying for the same things and trusting that God would see all of our faces and hear all of our "Yes, God!"s and would answer our prayers.

When prayer time wound down, there was a third component that often came into play: relating to others anything we'd heard from God. It wasn't uncommon at all for us to finish worship and have someone say, "I feel like God wanted to encourage me today," either to the whole group or to just a few of us.

Sometimes God would put a message on their heart to relay to somebody else. There were quite a few times when I came away unenlightened by my worship experience, only to have someone approach me and say, "I just wanted to let you know God put you on my heart during prayer time, and he wanted me to tell you he knows you're stressed and it's OK, he'll take care of whatever it is." And a good chunk of the time, it was exactly what I needed to hear.

It wasn't always perfect. Sometimes I was distracted or unfocused or stressed or just didn't hear anything from God during my worship times. But that was OK. Because the community nature of the whole thing was what mattered most. It mattered that I was there, joining in prayer and agreement with my fellow Christians, standing before God and asking him to bless and forgive and teach and change us, and even if he didn't speak to me that day, hopefully he spoke to somebody else and I had been a part of that.

...And Now There's Nothing Else Like It

I truly do feel like my experience in NLDC was probably one of the closest things to heaven I'll ever experience while I'm alive. Not everybody I knew from that time had that same experience, but for me, that sense of big-group community, camaraderie, and uninhibited love and support is something I've never felt anywhere else. Not in a church, not at school, not in the online communities I love. There was something special going on there.

Sometimes I feel almost a little bit cheated, like God said, "Here, this is what fellowship looks like! Now you'll never get that again."

Because it doesn't happen that easily anywhere else.

When I first came home from NLDC, I tried to make it happen. I tried to make connections and reach out to people and form friendships like never before, but I hadn't realized how much I'd been leaning on the reciprocal love, support, and enthusiasm of those around me. What had been a mutual cycle of fellowship in the drama company became, at home, me emptying myself out into everyone and getting nothing back. Not because the people around me were cold or distant or anything, but because in the real world it takes a lot more time and effort to build friendships. So I jumped in with both feet, used up all my energy, had nothing left, and burned out very quickly.

Sometimes I feel like I still haven't quite regained my balance.

Now What?

I know you can't go through life trying to constantly recapture the emotional highs of your spiritual life. It doesn't work that way. A lot of spiritual living is about slogging through the everyday muck of work and bills and doctor's appointments and, sometimes, going to church.

And yet, I don't feel like this is an impossible, unsustainable type of spiritual community to be seeking. I see glimpses of it all the time, especially when I do get a chance to spend time with the friends I made at NLDC. That strong bond we built during that time is still there, and time apart doesn't ever seem to shake it. Spending time in prayer or worship with these people is still a powerful and freeing experience.

I hate the idea of settling into anything less than that. But at the same time I don't have the energy I need to be able to ignite that kind of spark in anyone. Part of what made NLDC work like it did was that the dynamic was somehow ingrained across the board, with just about everyone sharing that common goal.

Once you've seen a glimpse of something that is so much more than you ever thought it could be, it's hard to accept that you may never find it again on that scale.

So for now, I attempt to do this with individuals, with the strength I have. I attempt to pour encouragement and love into the people around me, though I don't always do it well enough or often enough or for as many people as I'd like. But if I can't build an entire community on the shoulders of my experiences, I can at least be a good friend to a few individuals.

Thoughts? Responses? Have you found a strong spiritual community? What was it about it that made it special for you?

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