Life in Community

Scenes from the Circle of Life

November 5, 2020 by

Scene 1: Young man sitting in a circle with other students
Place: College campus in Maine
Time: November 1975, evening

Across the circle from JOHN HENRY MENZ and four or five co-ed Christian CLASSMATES there is a YOUNG COUPLE; the HUSBAND is answering the question, “Why are you here?”

HUSBAND: We are seeking Christian fellowship. You see, this past summer we spent a month at a Christian community where, from the oldest grandparents to the littlest babies, everyone is cared for with love.

JOHN: (aside) He says it so simply. Like he’s stating a fact. (aloud) That’s it! That’s how we should all live! (He gestures with arm outstretched over the circle, suddenly speaking from a heart burning with enthusiasm.) A new life!

The Christian classmates disagree.

CLASSMATE 1: (incredulous) Hey! Not so fast! Think about it a minute. People like that – the lovey-dovey type – folks like that live in a bubble. They spend their sweet lives loving each other while the rest of the world goes to pieces! It’s pie-in-the-sky Christianity!

CLASSMATE 2: (emphatic) Yeah! That’s only half of it – what about evangelism? The Great Commission is to go out into all the world and tell everyone the Good News! But they just sit at home and preach to each other.

CLASSMATE 3: (nodding) And if we throw in the towel and give up our studies, it would be like burying our talents in the field. No! Jesus freed me from this subsistence living you’re describing of a community that works only to feed themselves.

The YOUNG COUPLE: listen to these three assertive challenges, yet remain silent.

JOHN: (thoughtfully) That response impresses me more than if they had tried to argue in defense of the community they visited.

The meeting breaks up in an electrically charged mood. The next day, a female CLASSMATE from the meeting approaches JOHN.

YOUNG WOMAN: Sounds like you want to join those “Early Christians” in New York!

JOHN: Well, I was thinking of at least visiting them . . . Don’t you also want to see for yourself, before you make more criticism?

YOUNG WOMAN: No; you seem pretty gullible. You’ll soon see right through it. (She laughs.) If you ever get there!

Cut to: Three years later.

JOHN: walks across the stage, on a journey of living with people who practice forgiving and loving each other at the nitty gritty level, day by day.

From backstage, an ECHO. From the oldest grandparents to the littlest babies…

Scene 2: A man reading alone in his room
Place: Bruderhof community in England
Time: February 2020, late afternoon.

The same JOHN HENRY MENZ, now an old man, is reading The Wolf at Twilight by Kent Nerburn.1

JOHN: (looks up and exclaims). That’s it! All these years I have been holding on to the image that life is a straight line from birth to death. But I have been aware of the circle of life even while living in this community. . . my next door neighbors . . . dear Ankela Sarah is 94. The way she relates to her two-year-old great-granddaughter – they know each other when they look each other in the eyes, when they hold each other’s hand . . . .

JMEmbedAnkela, or grandmother, Sarah with her two-year-old great-granddaughter.

(He looks back at the book in his lap) There are other people who live the circle relationship of life! It is such a beautiful encouragement!

He READS ALOUD from the chapter titled, “The Longest Night,” beginning with the phrase in the native Lakota language,

Mitakuye oyas’in.
And what does that mean?
All my relations.
That’s right. All my relations. Not “all the things I can use to make my life better.” All my relations. That means everything in the world – the plants, the animals, the sky, the trees, the rocks – everything. When you feel that everything is your relation, you feel that everything is connected.
That is the secret to living a life of the spirit. If you see that everything has spirit and that everything is connected, you honor everything because you know that it has a part to play in creation.
Now, this is where the trail leads back to the children. The way we are living today is not good for them. It takes the light out of their eyes, because it does not teach them to see the spirit in all of life. It takes away their connection to everything else. It does not allow them to see the part they play in creation.
Instead, they think of themselves as part of a straight line that runs from birth to death, and their task is to wait their turn until they reach the place in the line where they are strong and powerful. They are not taught that they have an important role to play just where they are, and that it is they alone who can fill that role.
Remember when I said that the children have pure hearts because they are closest to the Great Mystery? This is their gift, and that is their part – to remember the goodness of the Great Mystery and reveal it to us. The rest of us get hard with life; the children remain soft with hope.
Your way harms the children because it confuses being useful with being important. The little children are not useful because their hands are not yet strong and their minds have not yet been filled with knowledge of how the world works. But they are important because of where they stand in the circle of life. Like the elders, they are weak. But like the elders, they are closest to the Great Mystery. They allow us to see the morning of creation.
This is something we have tried to share with your people. We have tried to remind you that life is not a straight line from birth to death, but a circle where the young and old hold hands at the door of the Great Mystery.
If you see life as a straight line, where the young and old are weak and those in the middle are strong, and if you think that to be important you must be useful, you do not see value in the young and the old. You see them as burdens, not as gifts, because they cannot lift their hands to be of use to the community.
But the young and the old both have other gifts. The young have enthusiasm and hope. They give us dreams when we get weary, and they fill the future with promise. The old have the wisdom of experience. They have travelled far on the journey of life and give us knowledge about our own road ahead.
In our Indian way, we honor these gifts, just like we honor the gifts of all creation. We do not call our old ones “senior citizens” and put them in buildings away from the rest. For us, they are the elders. They have lived what we are still waiting to learn. We go to them; we listen to them. “What do you know?” we ask. “What has life taught you?” They are the keepers of the memories. Their hands have touched the hands of our grandfathers and grandmothers. Their stories are alive with the heartbeat of the past.
And we do not look at our children as full-growns waiting to be. We see them as special beings who bring us the freshness of wonder. They keep our hearts soft and our hands gentle. They keep us from thinking only about ourselves.
And they give the elders a reason to live, because we entrust the elders with the shaping of their hearts and with setting their feet straight upon the path of life.
This is an important task, and one that the elders hold close to their hearts. They understand that once you wander far from the good path, it is hard to find it again. But they know that the children have not had time to wander far, so they share the wisdom of their life with them. And the children listen and know that what the elders say is true, because in their little hearts they know that the elders are closest to them in the circle of life, not the farthest from them on the road from birth to death.
“Do you understand this?” he said. “How the children are a gift to the elders and how the elders are a gift to the children? How they complete the circle of life like morning and evening complete the circle of the day?”

JOHN: closes the book. There is a pause.

(Resuming thoughtfully) And for this old man, these words complete a circle in his personal story, when he first heard of a place where, “from the oldest grandparents, to the littlest babies, everyone is cared for in love.”

Outside, the light is shifting toward sunset. From backstage the strains of a hymn are heard, as the CHILDREN’S CHOIR begins their practice.

Those words had entered the core of my being. Words that had set my heart’s rhythm beating in harmony with a brand new insight: Joy! Excitement! Wonder! Jesus lives today! Here on earth, among people who have invited him into their homes. (Emphatically, with joyful feeling, and deep conviction.) Jesus is real!

From the book The Wolf at Twilight. Copyright © 2009 by Kent Nerburn. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.


About the author

John Henry Menz

John Henry Menz

John is an amateur astronomer, photographer, and gardener who is currently living in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England...

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