In the past fifty years “church” has been something we have mostly imported from our neighbour to the south. Our imagination about what it means to be God’s people has been shaped by a variety of traditions — you can name the one you know — but those traditions themselves have been conditioned by the preachers, leaders, books and churches that have dominated the scene in the U.S.A. The most prominent of these, we all know, being Willow Creek.

We are now in the intriguing place of recognizing the limits of an imported imagination of ecclesial life. There are signs that the work of theology, and of mission, in place — in THIS place — and the interaction of these two, is being taken with new seriousness by Canadians. Thus this series of posts on the work of Canadian authors.

My first post considered A Happy Ending, and my second considered the “Book of Hours” from St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg. This time we’ll look at Jamie Arpin-Ricci, The Cost of Community.

There is probably no larger buzz word in western churches than the word “community.” It is as ubiquitous as soap, and considerably less useful! Like other great words (ie. missional, or leadership) it’s too important to leave behind, but there is generally so little substance in its use that one wonders whether it should simply be abandoned.

coverUntil — the word is storied — reconnected to a living community, a people on a faith journey in all the weakness and glory of the Cross. Suddenly the word has substance again.

Jamie’s book is like this, something of an icon — a window through which one glimpses an alternate world, and the faithfulness and goodness of God. In that vision we regain some hope that maybe it really is possible to follow Jesus, even in the hectic pace of life, and amidst all the distractions and imperfections that mar our lives as disciples.

The book is more confessional than didactic, but unlike other recent books on the life of Francis of Assisi, it shows forth something of the real life of the one it emulates. In this it is a call to others to follow, as the Little Flowers community offers a “sign and a foretaste” of the kingdom of God, an uncompromising call to justice, peacemaking, and kingdom living. Jamie writes,

“We are called to believe the gospel in our hearts and minds. We are called to proclaim the gospel in our words and deeds. We are called to live the words of Jesus at all costs and without compromise. This is what it means to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” (177)

Idealistic? Maybe. But Jamie is also realistic, recognizing the challenges of life in the real world:

“This isn’t something that can be achieved, but by his grace and his Spirit it is a shared way of life to be pursued more and more each day. Little Flowers Community has not ‘arrived’ at this high ideal, but rather we devote ourselves to living with such faith one day at a time.” (177)

Other readers, and not just those living in the inner city, found that the confessional style, combined with Jamie’s stories from community life, connected with their own attempts to live out the kingdom. April writes,

“Although I live in the suburbs, in a townhouse complex where the gates close automatically at night, The Cost of Community speaks into my life too. I think of the widow grieving her husband’s suicide after more than a decade struggling with mental illness. The single mom trying to stay clean so she can see her children who were taken away because of her addiction. For reasons of privacy and confidentiality, I won’t name names, but here in the suburbs there are also many challenges, and we need authentic Christian community as much as the inner city.”

That’s a helpful reminder that people everywhere are struggling with brokenness and need healing. In sharing the stories of pain and brokenness from the experience of the Little Flowers community, Jamie touches something that is both personal and universal. I” give Jamie the last word, this from his introduction:

“In Canada the day after Christmas is Boxing Day. I’ve read that it’s the largest retail spending day of the year up there (akin to America’s Black Friday, which follows our Thanksgiving feast). Inheritors of the largest economy to ever exist on earth, we North Americans celebrate our holidays on both sides of the border with great demonstrations of abundance—and we come down from our consumption by . . . shopping.

“But for Christians, the day after Christmas is a day to remember Stephen the Martyr. Our great celebration of Jesus coming to dwell among us is followed by a solemn reminder of what Jesus
actually said about following him—that it leads to a cross in this world. Incarnation is good news not because it offers us a way out of the mess of this world, but because it shows us what God’s love looks like here and now. Jesus’ birth is followed by his death and resurrection, just as the birth of the church is followed by the witness of those who are willing to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel. And so the good news spreads.”

This YOUTUBE clip is an interview with the author.

IVP, The Cost of Community, 237 pages.

Jamie blogs at Missional.

Next Up: Craig Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place