Love Never Fails
“My heart so wishes the rest of me was extroverted right now,”I thought to myself Saturday night as I fell back into my corner of the couch. My cozy corner—that quiet, rejuvenating place where I can lay my head down, eye my bookshelves, turn on the TV, grab a book from the side table, ponder all the art on my gallery wall, and cuddle the cat (if he’ll let me) all at once or in whatever order and combination I choose. You see, as this list might reveal, I’m no extrovert. No, I’m an introverted homebody who loves time in my cozy corner. There’s just one “problem”here: I also love people. I mean really love people and spending inordinate amounts of time in their presence. Herein lies the tension. And the questions I seem to constantly ask myself: Should I be with the people? Or should I be in the cozy corner? Or should I be at my desk writing, recording, designing? A list of other less-relevant “shoulds”often find their way into this dialogue as well, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.
Now back to Saturday night, when my heart was overflowing with amazement and that bone-deep sort of gratitude for all the people with whom I’d shared the day and the week. I wished I could handle more time amid all the activity, but knew that I couldn’t and must stop to recharge for my own health and for the good of others. Deep love for them or not, tired Sarah is a little monster.
That couch corner hadn’t seen me in the daylight all week. I’d worked overtime the previous weekend to launch a new liturgical arts project, which I did Sunday morning. Shortly thereafter while at lunch I received news that my friends were on their way to the hospital to deliver their first baby! I stuffed my face, excused myself from the table, grabbed coffee, and rushed to the hospital. It turns out the rushing was entirely unnecessary as that little boy didn’t enter the world before forty-one hours of labor and delivery had passed. But enter the world he did, and he’s a sort of precious I might never quite find the words for. During those hours of labor, I mostly camped out at the hospital with a crew of about fifteen wonderfully committed, caring, and hilarious family members and friends ranging between the ages of five weeks and seventy years old. We watched phones for updates and played games, everybody asking everybody else if they needed anything approximately every 20 minutes. When not at the hospital, I was hopping between my parents’house (because I had promised I’d finally bring the new boyfriend home for dinner), the local college (because a conference was in town at which I had lectures to hear, friends to see, and that new project I mentioned to promote) and, of course, I did sometimes go into the office (because I do have a job). This mostly all slowed down by Wednesday night. So Thursday, naturally, would be a day to play catch-up at my job and hopefully wind down a little early. Or so I thought.
Then I checked my e-mail.
I should pause to mention that work for me is helping run an internship for intentional Christian community at the Yellow House of Highland in Shreveport, LA. We live as one of many new monastic communities in the U.S. and abroad, and for the last five years or so we’ve been learning what it means to covenant to people in a particular place, living by a common rule of life, with hopes — in the vein of monastic tradition — to remind the Church in some small way who She is and to help preserve and cultivate the best of culture for the common good. Two years ago we started an internship for young adults that a team of us runs out of the Yellow House to offer an immersive learning experience in holistic, intentional community life.
I suppose it’s impressive that more didn’t fall through the cracks in that whirlwind of a week, so for that I’m grateful. But from Tuesday to Thursday a particular e-mail went unnoticed — an e-mail from a pastor on sabbatical who’d be passing through town Thursday (now today) and hoped she might meet up with us, hear more about what is happening in our community, and find a place to stay the night. She was coming from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where she’d spent time with friends of ours at the Missional Wisdom Foundation, and she was headed to Koinonia Farms, a community that has greatly influenced our own and that we also hope to visit in the near future. Not the right e-mail to miss. As a new monastic community, one of our core values is hospitality, so while I figured that making contact at 1:30 p.m. on the day she’d planned to come through town might be a lost cause, I knew I must try. I returned the e-mail and called the phone number she offered, leaving one of my notoriously awkward voice mails (as I had no time to write a “script”for it), genuinely hoping we could connect. It sounded like we’d have much to share, friends in common and mutually valuable stories to exchange.
Amazingly, Sharon returned my call. She apparently wasn’t scared off by my voice mail and did still have time to stop in for dinner. Wonderful! So I nixed the “wind down”plan for the afternoon, made myself a thorough list to guarantee sufficient catch-up on Monday, and went into hostess mode.
Who could join us for dinner on such short notice?
What will we eat?
Is the house clean? No.
Get Alex to call the others.
Can Amanda make the hospitality room bed?
Hang the art strewn across the kitchen table.
Have I showered today? No.
Speed-read Koinonia Farmswebsite for a refresher.
Say something rude to Jessie.
Eat cheese and crackers.
Apologize one more time.
“I think she's here!”one of the girls said.
Greet our new friend Sharon at the door.
On the porch she may still have been a stranger, but Sharon — like most folks who come through that door — felt like friend by the time we’d reached the living room. Genuine welcome and intrigue circulated in the introductory pleasantries. Just as I thought we should ask if she’d like a drink, I watched Jessie reemerge, one step ahead, handing her a glass of water. We asked our guest-friend how she found us and what sent her on her travels. She’d burned out on work in the institutional church. She thought surely there was something else somewhere that felt more like life than the overworked, underfunded, money-and-building-centric existence she’d walked away from, and she was looking for it. We know what you mean, we assured her.
Sharon asked us who we were and what our roles were in the community and what our community’s purpose is in the neighborhood. I shared that I’d been a part of the group that dreamed up the Yellow House and had helped found it with my friends, our first round of residents. I’ve moved to an apartment two miles from the house but I’m here each day to help run the internship. Jessie and Alex shared that they’d been interns living in the Yellow House for the last two years, had just finished their time in the program, and have moved two blocks down the street to add another home to our little growing village. Alex joined us on staff this month and we see Jessie at least once a day for Common Prayer each morning. Amanda shared that she’d completed one year of internship and decided to stay for another; she suspects there’s more growing to do as she’s finding purpose and family around here.
By default in that particular group, I was the one who jumped in to respond to Sharon’s question about our community’s purpose, neighborhood presence, etc. I’m one of the founding members of the community, and I love the stories. But by this point in the week I was also quite tired. About four sentences in, I couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice. Nothing in me wanted to be talking, and I didn’t trust my tired mind to make many more coherent sentences. Just before I started to panic, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t the only one in that room with the stories anymore. These three girls had stories in their heads and hearts and bones now, too — each in their own way — but certainly in ways they could and should be given space to share. So I wrapped up my rambling and sat back with the intent to just listen.
What did I hear?
Photograph by Sarah DuetI heard about how these girls aren't the same people they were before they met each other. About how they’re hiding less and sharing more — choosing vulnerability, asking and answering the hard questions of each other. I heard about how they’re finding the kind of friends they didn’t know existed and the familial love some lacked growing up. I heard about all the fights over who didn’t do the dishes (again) and how all five of the chickens died that one summer and how we still can’t manage to grow much more than tomatoes, peppers, and kale in the garden without some mass murder of vegetation. I heard about how they’re growing in self-awareness, making counseling appointments a habit for healing and cycle-breaking, and learning to relate empathetically to each other across the chasms of their different temperaments, viewpoints, and experiences.
I heard about how they thought they’d come to Highland — one of Shreveport’s “at-risk”neighborhoods — to save it and how hard they laugh at that thought now. I heard instead about how they’re learning to love the quirks of this place, to be good neighbors by befriending the good neighbors that are already here, to tutor the 8th-grade math curriculum at after-school youth club, and to listen to Tray when he comes by for a ride to camp or to cry about a breakup with the fourth girl this month. I heard about how they’ve chosen new majors at school or gotten jobs they actually like or quit ones that were killing them or ended unhealthy relationships or learned to love to read. I heard about our trip to the Arizona/Mexico border, and how we’re still aghast at what we saw but trying to share the stories.
I heard about how they see this place as a school where they can learn to live well, which first and foremost might mean to learn to love well — where questions are welcomed and answers are suspect (especially the easy ones), where creativity trumps consumerism, where the space is safe for all, where no one has to pretend he/she has it all together, and where we admit when we’re wrong (as we often are). I heard them asking the questions that laid the foundation of this place: What if Jesus really meant what He said? What would our lives need to look like? And if our lives looked like that, what could become of the world? I saw them hand our guest a poster with the 12 Marks of New Monasticism listed on it and explain that we’re trying to respond to those questions by relocating to abandoned places of empire, showing hospitality to the stranger, pursuing justice and reconciliation among the races, caring for creation and the plot of land we live on, peacemaking in the midst of violence, committing to a disciplined contemplative life, submitting to Christ’s body the Church.
Indeed, they are right. We’re giving ourselves to these things, piece by very tiny piece. But before and amid all of that we’re giving ourselves to God and to each other. We’re relearning that we belong to each other already, that all things and people are connected. We’re creating space where we can remember who we are and whose we are — where we know we’re not alone. We’re learning that some people don’t leave, no matter how much of us they see, and no matter how many times we have to look into the eyes of a heart we just broke and say “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I love you. Please forgive me.”There are places where we can relearn what it is to be human, what it is to be a family — where we can be restored to wholeness, compassion, and connection. Intentional Christian community is one of those places. The Yellow House, I believe, is one of those places.
During our conversation with Sharon, Jessie moved us into the dining room when dinner was ready. As conversation continued, I looked up at the wall and rested my eyes on the scrapbook-paper letters hanging over our shared table that read: LOVE NEVER FAILS. It really never does, I thought. And this place keeps proving it time and time again.
We wrapped up our time with Sharon on Thursday with a tour of the house, an agreement to stay in touch, and a round of hugs. My Friday and Saturday followed with a baby shower, a Highland girls’arts and craft gathering, and the coordination of a meal train for our first-time parent friends who’d just arrived home from the hospital. After dropping off their first load of food I sat in that living room at the Yellow House again with the rest of the house uncharacteristically empty and quiet. This time I sat over tea with my professor-turned-mentor-turned-friend-turned co-laborer in this life together (and in the meal train). We talked for two hours on a vast array of topics, as we always do.
It was then that I went home to that cozy corner on the couch. It was then that I wished I could somehow be more extroverted or anything that would keep me going — not wanting to need to break even briefly from all the beauty of the week. But the rhythms of rest and retreat are an essential part of this life together for us all, and I know this far too well. So I saw that it was all so good. Then I rested — grateful and growing.