A personal reflection on fifty years of life together in covenant community which began in Ann Arbor, Michigan USA in 1970
When asked to reflect on life together in covenant community over the past 50 years, I thought of many things worth sharing. But the one I want to talk about is the reason for it all. This was not our idea, not something that even the cleverest of us gathered in the “Ann Arbor Prayer Meeting” could have anticipated back in the late 1960s. It was a “move of God,” a call he put upon our lives.
I walked into this vortex of God’s action somewhat differently from many others, who heard of it, felt God’s call, and came from great distances to be part of it. But I was born in Ann Arbor, and I have always taken it as a great kindness to me that God chose to do this great work in my home town. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to travel afar to respond to his call. But I was in before I, or any of us, knew what we were in for.
What was this call? To be a people for God. To be a people for God, a people after his own heart. From the very beginning of his dealings with the humans he created, this was God’s goal. Of course, he wanted individuals who would love him, obey him, follow him where he led them; and he frequently got that. The catalogue of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 is a testimony to only a few of the many who have responded to the call of God throughout the ages. But that was only the first stage of his plan. He wanted families to grow from committed parents, mothers and fathers who would train up their children to know, love, and follow the Lord. And he wanted this culture of faith and loyalty to spread to whole peoples, as an example and a stepping stone to the conversion of all men and women and their inclusion in his Family. And this he has never gotten in any full and complete way. One generation, yes, frequently. The second generation, sometimes. The third generation, only rarely.
And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work which the LORD had done for Israel. And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the LORD or the work which he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were round about them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger.Judges 2:7,10-12
God keeps trying, down through the ages, with his first people Israel and with the new people his Son has gathered for him. He has called many different groups together to reform those gone astray, to be an example of what God is aiming for, and to call the world into the kingdom. Most of these have been small groups, but some, like some monastic orders, have grown very large, and have exerted a profound influence for faith on his whole people. But in almost all cases, after a few generations the vision was dimmed, the reformers needed reformation, and the people drifted apart.
In our time, in my own country, even in my own city, God began another of his efforts to call people together to live for him with a common vision, to be one small part of his plan for the eventual conversion of the world. And the particular mission he called us to was covenant loyalty among an ecumenical people, a people gathered from all the separated branches of his pathetically divided people. He started on a university campus, and once he had a couple of hundred enthusiastic young people, he spoke to us about covenant love, unity and love of the brethren. He called us to give ourselves to him and to each other so that we could be, as it were, a demonstration project that it was indeed possible for Christians from different backgrounds to live together in love. And we responded, we promised him and each other to give ourselves fully to God and live as members of the communities that eventually became the Sword of the Spirit.
Now we are seeing the second generation generously embrace that call. The older generation are watching as they move forward in an increasingly hostile world, a world in desperate need of the word that God has given us to share. Many of the people we meet have never known even healthy natural families, let alone the divine Love that calls us to total love. They are hungry to the point where starvation drives them to eat anything offered, thirsty to the point of drinking poison to satisfy their drought. And we can offer them the Living Water and the Bread of Heaven. The God we have loved and served calls us on in this day. We are not to grow weary or faint, but to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12-13). We are called to “run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). And we are called to train up our children and our children’s children to the third and fourth generation to love the Lord and follow the call that he puts on their lives, which may not be the exact same call that God put on our lives. But as long as they join themselves to the “one body and one Spirit, …to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all,” (Ephesians 4:4-6), we can “see the fruit of the travail of (our) souls and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11).
Top photo credit: photo collage of community activities past and present, (c) 2020 Living Bulwark/The Sword of the Spirit
Ellen Gryniewicz is a senior woman leader of The Word of Life Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.