I’d like to start off by telling you about a dream I once had. I used to live in Chickasha and we had a small but prominent Mennonite community there. The men can be identified by their attire and their...beardiness. In my dream, I’m standing in a farmhouse with a Mennonite man. We’re looking out a window into a field. I turn to him because we’re having a conversation yet there’s no sound. When I look back out the window, I see a huge tornado coming right at us. There’s no way out. When I turn to my companion, he has transformed into a monster. I woke up.
I told a friend of mine about my dream. She said that it was obvious enough to her what it meant. The Mennonite man represented the church. I represented a challenge to the church. The storm and the monster represented the trouble that would come from both outside and inside the church. This dream has been proven to be true time and time again. More so now that I’m part of the Lindisfarne Community.
My life in the empirical Christian religion was normal enough for quite some time. Like a lot of us, I think, when I was a child, I didn’t really realize what was going on in the world or my connection and impact with it. And my adult spiritual life was pretty much the same as when I was in grade school, except that I studied a lot about doctrine, theology, and church history. And I mean a lot. But even when I changed denominations, the worldview, that is, the way of seeing, was pretty much the same. Certainly, there would be tweaks to this or that doctrine, but, overall, things were the same. It wasn’t until I was going through some life-changing issues a number of years ago, that I realized the faith of my youth would not carry me forward.
While going through those issues, I had to re-evaluate long held beliefs - including Christianity as the only “true” religion; that only the “chosen” people would be “saved” to escape this “godless,” miserable world and go to “heaven;” and that “god” was angry with everyone else and “he” would torture them for eternity. Yes, “god” in that worldview is always “male.” After much of what I had grown up believing was now shattered beneath my feet, I started the painful process of rebuilding my faith.
You see, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was not losing faith in Jesus. I was losing faith in the “church,” the institutional religious business that took the place of the way of living that Jesus embodied and inaugurated.
During this reconstruction process, I started reading and learning about the Celtic Christian traditions from the 4th to 9th centuries in England, Ireland, and Scotland. What I discovered was a way of following Jesus that was unlike anything I had known.
One of the things that set the Celtic Christians apart from others was they were arranged around a family unit. They had a shared community within a monastery led by an abbess or abbott. This was not a top down, hierarchy like most churches but a community built around brothers and sisters led by a parent figure.
While the ancient Celtic Christians were “catholic” in the sense that they were part of the universal church, their way of seeing was vastly different. For example, they saw no difference between “profane” and “sacred.” Since they believed that god birthed all that is, they saw the Light of god within all creation. The milking of cows, the stoking of fires, and the washing of clothing were considered just as sacred as baptism or the Eucharist.
Likewise, because they believed that Jesus demonstrated what god was really like and what true humanity was like, they saw people differently, too. They believed that the light of god was still deep within everyone even if people had forgotten what it meant to be human. Even if that light was covered with layers of falseness. When I read about those people, something deep within me began to wake up.
Reading through the Gospels again, I saw some of those same things. For example, in my old way of seeing, the reason ‘god’ was angry with humanity was because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Therefore, the Light of god was completely gone. But, in the Gospel of John, right there in the first chapter, the writer stated that Jesus was the Word and Light of god through whom all things came into being. That this Light and Life was for “everyone.” And, there in verse 5, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it’ (John 1.5; NLT). Seeing these things gave me the confidence that I was on the right path.
Because I was starting to see things differently, I began looking for a local community with whom I could explore these themes. My search led me to the Lindisfarne Community, an ecumenical neo-monastic religious order dedicated to deep spirituality and service. When I went to their website, though, I almost lost hope. They’re based in Ithaca, New York! (So much for local.) But the more I read about this group, the more excited I got! They had drawn a lot of the same conclusions I was drawing from my studies - equality, social justice, non-violence, and so on. Here was a group of people trying to follow Jesus in a deeper way - a way that I was yearning for.
So I contacted the Abbott, Dr Andy Fitz-Gibbon, and we started talking about the Community and seeing if we would be a good fit for each other. After a few weeks, we agreed that I should enter into an official enquiry process. I was introduced to the Community through their email list and then invited to another list with a few clergy where we talked about a lot of things including several doctrines of the church, women in ordained ministry, and the care of the planet. We talked about why the community refers to god as ‘Father-Mother.’ We talked about how the community views “all truth as god’s truth” and, therefore, truth can be found in other faith traditions. We talk about other things as well all the while maintaining that there was something special, something world changing about Jesus of Nazareth. And let me just say, those were some fantastic conversations!
One of the things that I was very interested in was their ability to ordain clergy. Ever since I was in college, I had felt that I was called to ordained ministry but I just didn’t fit in anywhere. Looking back now, I can see why. I wasn’t supposed to.
The Lindisfarne Community can ordain clergy because of Apostolic Succession. That is, they’re tied to the ancient followers of Jesus through a continuous succession of bishops. In fact, their lines of succession connect to all three major branches of the universal church - Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox. When I read about what was required for ordained ministry, and how they did that, I felt like I finally found a place where I belonged. The feeling was mutual from the others of the community, as well. So, after about two and a half years of intense study, I was ordained as a priest last summer at our annual retreat.
The Lindisfarne Community was started by our Abbess and Abbott, Bishops Jane and Andy Fitz-Gibbon. They’re from northern England and came to this country years ago. Through various encounters and experiences, they felt called to start something linked to the ancient practices of the church but in a fresh new way.
One of those encounters came from a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In it he wrote,
The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.
This, and another quote from him about a “religionless Christianity” had a profound impact on Jane and Andy. Since Bonhoeffer was executed before he could put these ideas into practice, it’s been left up to others to do so. These two quotes were part of the framework for what later became the Lindisfarne Community.
Unlike the monasteries of old, we are a global community with professed members from Germany, Indonesia, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the US. We seek to live out our calling, not in a walled community away from the world, but in the world. We’re a secular monastic community with ontological bishops, deacons, and priests. That is, we see that the calling to ordained ministry is not something we do but who we are. Like the Celtic Mothers and Fathers, we see that all of life is connected and not divided into profane and sacred categories. Since we’re all over the world, we connect through our Facebook page, email groups, and Skype. Once a year, we have a retreat in New York.
Like other monastic communities, we have a Rule of Life. In it we encourage things like mindfulness and meditation. We talk about a balanced life. We speak about daily practices and soul friendship. Our Rule can be summarized as “To love; to serve; to forgive.” Part of our Rule is to take the Understandings of the Community and make them our own. I want to briefly mention a facet of this.
Our first Understanding states that, “We seek above all else to be as Christ to those we meet - to find Christ within them.” This means that we are to be Jesus to the world. We are to love as Jesus loves. We are to live as Jesus lives. This means that our lives are to be lived in self-sacrificing love for all people. Jesus said that “everyone will recognize that you’re my disciples - when they see the love you have for each other.”
As an extension of this, we search for Christ within others, especially those whom would be considered our enemies. For me, this was life changing. This means that I don’t automatically expect the worse of others like I used to. I’ve learned not to think that people have a “hidden agenda.” I expect people to be the best of humanity. I expect them to treat me fairly and equally. I expect that we’ll treat each other they way we wish to be treated ourselves. And when they don’t? I forgive them and continue to seek Christ within them fully expecting to find him. I hope that they do the same for me.
The Lindisfarne Community has been a great for me. They have been a gift. They’ve allowed me to grow in my life with god in ways I hadn’t even thought of and realize that following Jesus is not about religious systems, but about a way of living. To go back to my dream for a moment, the empirical religious systems of our day don’t like that. At their best, they divide humanity into “us” and “them” categories. But at their worst, they have become places of control, fear, and power. I believe that the Lindisfarne Community pushes back against such things. We’re focused on loving god, loving our neighbors (including the non-human ones), and loving our enemies. We’re committed to lives of non-violence. We’re dedicated to acts of kindness. We recognise the equality and dignity of everyone, regardless of class, color, gender, or sexual orientation. And we know that the only way forward for creation, for us as a global family, is to put others before ourselves in loving service.