Spring inspires us to take on new Adventures.
As the season of spring erupts all around me in the blooming tulips and blossoming trees, I am hearing about people starting new adventures as well. Several of my pastor friends are starting new congregations, and others are teaching historic churches how to create new life. I have friends who are beginning new jobs after long periods of unemployment, and others who are moving into new companies with new responsibilities of leadership. Each of us at some point will enter into a new environment and begin the work of creating a community within. Whether we are involved in new church starts, new jobs, or starting a new venture, I have been thinking about the questions, “How do we create a new community?” and “What makes a community sustainable?”
An experiment in creating a community: a tropical fish tank
Our daughter won a goldfish at a county fair two years ago and remarkably it was still alive at Christmas. As her parents we decided that she was mature enough to have a tropical tank as her Christmas present. For five months now my daughter and I have been hard at work creating a tropical fish tank of community fish. In a very tangible way this experiment in creating a tropical tank has my daughter and I discussing how to start a community, what makes up a good community, and how it can sustain itself.
The first step of creating anything, is coming face to face with nothing. Unlike typical Christmas toys that you open and begin to play with right away, what sat in front of our daughter was a 30 gallon square tank with nothing inside it. We all looked at that empty tank and began to fill it with our expectations of what it would be. Our imaginations flourished with ideas of a tank that would entertain our family. Our son imagined miniature sharks swimming around the tank. I imagined graceful angelfish darting here and there. Our daughter imagined schools of neon tetras moving about the tank in formation. There would be live plants and the water would always be crystal clear.
Sometimes what we imagine is not such a good thing…
If we had magical powers, we would have blinked our eyes and that imaginary tank would have appeared before us and soon that tank would have become a place of carnage and destruction. The angelfish would have terrorized the neon tetras stressing them out and they would begin to die. The sharks would have eaten the angelfish for dinner. What we hoped for was not possible; angelfish, sharks, and neon tetras do not play well together. We had to be more thoughtful about who we welcomed into our new community. We gathered some basic information about who plays well together and what kind of environment each fish needed to thrive.
Creating community was going to be harder than we thought…
We had to wait for a week while the aquarium water cycled before we could introduce any fish. In the meantime, my daughter began reading up on which fish would start the tank off well. Ones that were hearty and could withstand a great deal of stress were the best choices as first fish. She had wanted neon tetras, but she discovered that they are too sensitive and would die in an unstable environment. So she began her community with 2 platties and 2 mollies. Little did she know that the female molly was pregnant and soon would give birth to one little fish, a “fry” and then the mom died. So we now had a baby to worry about and a dead fish to take care of. Even as we proceeded with caution, there were unexpected blessings and challenges.
Learning patience in the midst of setbacks…
We learned patience as the water and the fish began to establish the necessary bacteria required to create a sustainable environment for a tropical fish community. We eventually added another female molly to the tank because we thought the male molly was lonely. Slowly we added beautiful tetras. Even under careful watch, many water tests, and loads of research, we still lost several tetras as we built our school of fish. We had setback after setback, but we remained steadfast to our commitment of creating a sustainable community.
Discovering New Life
One day we were especially concerned when an orange residue began to form on all the decorations. We were worried we would experience more loss. So we took in a water sample and it tested perfectly—everything was in balance. In fact, what happened is our water had begun to grow algae—a sign of new life! We did not know what new life would look like, so when it showed up we were worried. To keep the algae in check, we brought home a new fish, an algae eater, and two mystery snails. The tank was sparkling clear in two days. We have since added a dwarf frog, zebra danios, and colorful guppies—all fish that will play well together in a community tank. If in the future we want miniature sharks or angelfish, they will need their own separate tanks.
I wish I could say that all is well and our tank is filled with crystal clear water after 5 months. But I can’t. I can say we have two litters of baby mollies and lots of baby snails crawling about. We learned how to treat for a fish disease called “ick”. Sadly, that treatment killed our dominant male molly and more than half of our tetra school died as well. We learned to keep trying, keep testing the water, and keep talking to the experts about how to proceed.
Questions for a New Adventure
Whether your new adventure is planting a vegetable garden, moving to a new neighborhood, beginning a new career, or starting a new congregation…here are some questions to think about…
What is the nature of the ecosystem that I am entering? What are the elements that make it what it is?
What is the vision for this new community and how will it contribute to the common good and “Shalom” of our world?
How is my presence going to impact the community for better and worse?
Who are the heartiest people to bring into the community first? Who will play well together?
What would new life look like? Would I recognize it if I saw it?
How can I view challenges as opportunities for growth and learning?
Genesis 1: Day Five of Creation–new life is added
And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. (To read all of this creation story click here.)
This journey of creating a community has been spiritually enlightening. I have thought a lot about the creation story in Genesis 1. It is no wonder that animals and human beings were not put on the earth on the first day. There would have been no environment, no ecosystem in which for them to live. First God built the environment that would sustain life, then God put the life within it.
In our individualistic way of thinking, we often argue for the rights of the individual, for the right to do what we want without considering the implications of those things on our environment. Seldom do we ask the questions, “How am I a part of the larger community?” or “How can we create a sustainable ecosystem in which we can all thrive?”
God Created us to live in Community
God did not create us to live alone, to remain isolated behind our computer screens and hidden within our text bubbles and FaceBook posts. God created us to be in relationship with one another—to live together as part of a larger ecosystem of relationships so that we might strive for the common good. And God created us to be stewards of that creation—we are called to learn how to both create and care for our communities for the benefit of all. When one of us experiences loss, we all grieve. When one of us experiences joy, we all celebrate. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.”
When we learn how to live in community, and practice caring for one another as God would want, then we experience fulfillment at a whole new level. There is a sense of peace and wholeness when the communities we create are healthy vital communities. This is known as shalom. There is a resounding “yes” in heaven and on earth when we get it right, when we discover our greatness inside of a community. When this happens, we do not say, “Look at what I accomplished.” Instead we say, “Look at what we accomplished together.”
I invite you to explore the communities and ecosystems around you. Notice how the tulip does not live on its own, but in the good earth, during the cool spring days after the winter-freeze is over. Pay attention to the timing of God’s seasons, how the tomatoes of August need the warm soil of May and the pollinating bees of summer to bring forth the fruit of the earth. You also require a community and a healthy environment in which to flourish. If you are flourishing, look for ways to thank the people in your community who create and sustain the environment around you. If you are not flourishing, perhaps the ecosystem is out of balance—what would bring new life and balance into your community?
May we each take the time to create healthy flourishing communities around us. And when we experience setbacks, may we have patience, understanding and perseverance to continue to care for the whole community, and ourselves within it.
Peace and Love,