The Crucible of Community

November 07, 2016

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by Dr. John Neihof


The Heartbreak Outside the Crucible of Community

My wife and I met Melissa in the spring of 1995. A high school sophomore at the time, she served our table at a local banquet. Her outgoing disposition, darting eyes, and winsome smile won our hearts.

Melissa became one of my college students two years later. Her family of origin had been shattered with drugs, alcoholism, abuse, and divorce. Her adoptive family had left her feeling rejected and unwanted. Melissa quickly became part of our family. She was my student assistant. She spent Christmas with us that year.

HeartbreakCaught up in a romance leading to moral failure, Melissa squandered a 4.0 GPA, her scholarship, and a bright future. The day I presided over her suspension from school was one of the darkest days of my professional life. She looked at me with pain and frustration: “How could this happen to me?”

After Bible college, Melissa continued in a disastrous downward spiral. Her boyfriend forced her to dance at strip clubs to raise rent money. They had children out of wedlock. They married. They divorced. She lost custody of the children. We lost touch. In 2014, we received shocking news that Melissa had died in 2011 of a heroin overdose.

Ultimately, Melissa determined her life trajectory, but those of us around her still couldn’t help feeling that we’d failed her in some way. Christian community could have given this young lady an opportunity to flourish in faith and life. If only she had reached back when we reached out! Maybe we should have tried harder…maybe there was something else we could have said…

It broke our hearts.

Living Within The Crucible of Community

Truly embracing Christian community involves suffering, sacrifice, and surrender to God’s plan. It’s not all holding hands and singing Kumbayah. Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the truth about Christian community powerfully in Life Together:

“Many persons seek community because they are afraid of loneliness…Christians, too, who cannot cope on their own, and who in their own lives have had some bad experiences, hope to experience help with this in the company of other people. More often than not, they are disappointed. They then blame the community for what is really their own fault. The Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium. Those who take refuge in community while fleeing from themselves are misusing it to indulge in empty talk and distraction, no matter how spiritual this idle talk and distraction may appear. In reality they are not seeking community at all, but only a thrill that will allow them to forget their isolation for a short time. It is precisely such misuse of community that creates the deadly isolation of human beings”

(Life Together, 1939, pp. 81-82).

Even in the middle of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer lived out the weight and importance of Christian community. He risked intense personal danger to provide a discipleship school and underground seminary. His writings continue to shape disciples today. He famously wrote: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship, 1959, p. 89). This Christian community in which we are called to live involves a death to self in order that we may be formed to love others. This, friends, is the crucible of community.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary:

noun cru·ci·ble ˈkrü-sə-bəl
: a pot in which metals or other substances are heated to a very high temperature or melted
: a difficult test or challenge
: a place or situation that forces people to change or make difficult decisions

A foundry is the place that produces the metal castings resulting from the first definition:

noun found·ry ˈfau̇n-drē
: an establishment where founding is carried on
: the act, process, or art of casting metals

Fire and GuyHere we find an incredible metaphor of grace lived out through the heat, the fire, and the melting influence of the community of faith. Yes, Christian community will turn up the heat. Christian community will seek to melt us down within its crucible. That experience may be agonizing. We may even feel a loss of identity. We will long to flee the heat. But if I remain in the furnace, the foundry of God’s holiness will purge me in the fire of community. The crucible of community will become a sanctifying blessing that will form our lives and ministries in holiness. The crucible of community extends to us the invitation to be melted by the heat of the Holy Spirit and recast into His likeness. The pounding of the foundry of grace further shapes and refines God’s chosen instrument, humanity, to be useful tools in His hands.

As I ponder the crucible of community, I have to consider the Triune God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in community, demonstrating perfection of relationship, intimacy, and holy boundaries within the Holy Trinity.

Our communion with God and each other is tragically damaged by the far-reaching effects of the Fall. The Triune God longs to recreate community in us. Recreating community in a Trinitarian way is about self-giving love, relationship, intimacy, and holy boundaries. Learning to live in community is part of our sanctifying formation in Christ’s image.

The Church of Jesus Christ is called to holy community. This call to holy community is a call to a cross—a call to die to self. Paul understood this call when he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NKJV).

Remaining in the Crucible When the Heat Turns Up

Here are some reflections on embracing the crucible of community. We must…

  • allow the heat to form us. Instead of fighting the formation, we must humbly embrace God’s work in our own lives.
  • …embrace the community as a safe place to grow. Within holy community, we have a freedom to fall and get back up again. We shouldn’t leave when we fail!
  • recognize that we will have to sacrifice certain rights to enjoy the blessings of community.Fire
  • realize that the point of living in community is not our personal comfort. Along with sympathetic shoulders to cry on come necessary slaps across the face when we need them.
  • understand that God intends community to be a sanctifying experience. As we consecrate and die to ourselves within the ebbs and flows of community life, God purges, cleanses, and fills us with His Spirit.
  • hold fast when Christian community brings our impurities to the surface. Uncle Bud Robinson wrote about his sanctification experience. He found himself between the cornrows, hoeing in a field. “The only way that I can describe the feeling is that anger boiled up, and God skimmed it off, and pride boiled up, and God skimmed it off, and jealousy boiled up and God skimmed it off, and envy boiled up and God skimmed it off, until it seemed to me that my heart was perfectly empty. I said, ‘Lord, there won’t be anything left of me.’ God seemed to say, ‘There will not be much left, but what little there is will be clean.’”

Don’t leave the Christian community mourning your story. Instead, embrace the fire of the furnace, the crucible of community, the melting of the Spirit, and the pounding of the foundry, until you are whole and holy—complete and clean.

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