So, you stumbled on this website with an intriguing title and you’re wondering if you should spend a few minutes learning about the Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals (HOCN). The purpose of this introduction is to give you the information necessary to make that decision. I’ll give it twice. [NOTE: whenever you read “monastic” think friars not monks]
I’m casting a vision for a monastic order called The Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals. This is not your grandfather’s monastic order. It is a totally different paradigm. It is temporary, adaptable, task-oriented, co-educational and without formal connection to other groups in the order. Its purpose is to create an environment where 21st –century Christians can experience intentional, intimate relationships for the purpose of increased godliness and ministry/life success.
God said that it is not good for man to be alone. It still isn’t. God created marriage. It is good. Later, God said that it can be better not to be married but focused on following Jesus. He said this as He was creating a very different paradigm for relationships within His chosen (Church) community. The Church is modeled on family, and the New Testament Scriptures consistently use family terms to describe the relationships contained in it.
Despite that fact, contemporary Western Christian culture generally resists real intimate fellowship outside of marriage. At the same time there are many people who for many reasons are in no position to marry, but their life is happening NOW! They’d be much more successful at being what God has created them to be if they were experiencing the God-ordained blessings of real, intimate community, but they see no way for this to really occur in their current social and cultural context.
So, I’m casting a vision for a monastic order that does not require a lifetime commitment but does require a real commitment. Its structure provides a context to be live in a tight-knit, intentional community, while its (few!) rules are clearly defined and fuel initiative to work together on common (but often very personally-sensitive and socially-awkward) life challenges. What structure exists is very strong, but we try to have as little structure as possible. This allows for flexibility and openness to adapt according to the particular people and environment involved. The authority is all local, simple, strong and clear, and the exit doors are always easily accessible by all. It does not require a lot of time to maintain cumbersome infrastructure. God, the members, and their callings are what this order is about.
Instead of being named after an old-timey saint, the order is named after an animal that is created to be social and lives in a harsh, dangerous, cold and dark environment. And it has a giant spear coming out of its mouth. The symbolism isn’t exactly subtle. While swimming together fosters encouragement, safety and thriving in the midst of a painful and harsh environment, we understand that our tendency to selfishness and other expressions of ungodliness will add to the pain and difficulty of those near to us. The resulting frequent (and painful!) tusk-pokings and fluke-slappings will require love to cover a multitude of sins…
So there you have it in two nutshells. Are you interested?
Immediately below is our monastic rule. It is intentionally short and simple. Seriously—it takes less than 2 pages of a Word document:
A Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals community (called a “pod”) consists of 3 or more individuals who have bound themselves to one another for the purpose of mutual growth in godliness and ministry/life effectiveness. There is no requirement for how long this bond must exist. In fact, a member may resign from the pod at any time without notice. However, while they are there, they are expected to whole-heartedly embrace the HOCN community and live in a manner consistent with the concept.
The abbot/abbess is the owner of the actual house [think friary not monastery] and has the authority to ask any member to leave at any time for any reason. He/she has no other authority over individual members’ lives, but he/she has absolute authority over who and what comes into the house. Each member is considered a novice for at least the first 3 months of living in the pod. They are not permitted to provide any finances to the cost of the house during that time (other than food). At the end of that period, the pod will consider covenant membership. If the pod does not offer covenant membership, the novice will move out of the house. If the novice becomes a covenant member, however, he/she will remain and be given a covenant sign (e.g. ring, bracelet, necklace) paid for by the other members. If they leave the pod before the pod dissolves, they will return it to the remaining members.
The following are the obligations of membership:
1: Chastity: All non-married members of the Order will refrain from sexual relations (defined as touching anyone’s skin in an area that would be covered by bathing trunks on a man or a conservative strapless bathing suit on a woman or intentionally sexually stimulating one of those areas through clothing). Married members have an exception of their spouse only. Non-married members may not engage in acts of physical affection on the Narwhal house property with someone they are dating. The Narwhal house is a porn-free environment.
2: Stewardship: The stewardship obligation is divided into three parts: financial, physical and temporal.
- Financial: All members will be debt-free. No members will incur any new debt without approval of the pod. All members and novices who are not debt-free will work together with the rest of the pod to make and implement a plan to become debt-free. All members/novices will tithe to their local church unless the pod approves otherwise. Each member will make a financial report to the pod monthly and be able to account for all significant income and expenses. Each member is responsible to maintain medical insurance, a savings account (of at least 3 months expenses in case they need to leave the pod) and a retirement savings plan.
- Physical: All members will achieve and maintain a healthy BMI, cholesterol level, and age-appropriate (or disability-appropriate) physical fitness. Smoking, illegal drugs and more than 2 alcoholic drinks in a day are prohibited. As in the financial area, members/novices who are not where they need to be will work with their pod to develop and implement a plan to get there.
- Temporal: All members will give an honest estimate of the amount of time they spend each week in at least three areas: work, entertainment (TV, internet, recreational reading, video games, etc.), and prayer/study. There are no prescribed minimums/maximums as far as time is concerned, but all members will be consciously aware of their time habits on a weekly basis and receive any input that the pod chooses to offer.
3: Community: All members will live with the pod in the Narwhal house and share a meal together regularly (daily if possible). They will pray together, and individually, on a daily basis for each other and “our” ministries. Each member will memorize I Peter 4:7-11 and John 13:34-35 and strive to live accordingly in the context of the pod. They will meet together weekly to “staff” their lives and ministries (and submit a financial report monthly). They will be honest. Each member will take the initiative at this meeting to confess any violations of the Order requirements. While their relationships within the pod are extremely important, it is understood that each pod member will also be an active member of a local church and maintain important connections there as well.
4: Holiness: The Narwhal house is considered holy ground. This serious tone will affect the way things are decorated, cleaned and maintained (as well as the activities conducted within it). Inside the house, when no guests are present, all members will be addressed in a formal manner using their title “Princess” or “Prince”. [This sounds extremely silly, but will be explained in a later chapter].
“The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” I Peter 4:7-11
“A new commandment I give you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-3
What follows are 7 (intentionally very short!) chapters that explain what, why and how we live in the context of our “rule”:
1: Conviviality: The Role of the Pod
2: The Golden Rule: The Role of the Abbott/Abbess
3: Good Fences: The Role of the Obligations
4: Predicate Adjectives: The Purpose of Non-Traditional Elements
5: The Pieces That Don’t Fit: The Place of Sex and Children
6: The Floating Foundation: The Vision and Values
Epilogue: Marital and Non-Marital Intimate Relationships
Chapter 1: Conviviality: The Role of the Pod
“Convivial” is not a word that is frequently used in our experience. Definitions include “enjoying good company, sociable, genial, companionable” or “occupied with or fond of feasting, drinking and good company”. It comes from the Latin word “convivium” (feast). It is made of two parts: the prefix “con” (together, with) and “vivere” (to live).
A pod, when functioning as it should, will be characterized by conviviality–and not just in the etymological sense of living together. There will be a general atmosphere of delight in our good company and a shared passion to guard it and nurture it. The members of the pod will love one another faithfully, serve one another humbly, know one another intimately and invest in one another enthusiastically. A pod may be best imagined as a family with all the aspects of marriage except: a promise of permanence; husband/wife roles; joint ownership of resources/debt; legal status; and sex (except between married members). Seriously—I’m really saying that the members of the pod relate to each other exactly like they would if they were married (if you can imagine a “marriage” that had no promised future, no husband/wife role responsibilities, no co-ownership of resources/debts, no legal status, no sexual expression of any kind, and more than two participants).
So, what does that look like, in real life?
1: Shared Ministries: “We work together!”
In marriage both a husband and a wife have unique opportunities, abilities and vocations. While in practice the activities involved may be very diverse with very little overlap, in marriage these all came under one umbrella and can really be considered as a unified whole. Neither spouse can make a significant decision without considering its effect on their family ministry (which could be defined as the stewardship of his and her opportunities, abilities and vocations). They could say, “We’re all in this together, no matter what!” They are all in. There is nothing held back. Only death will end their joint vocation.
Similarly, the members of a pod are not only aware of the stewardship issues of the other members, they are actively engaged in helping the other members fulfill their calling. It is their responsibility to do what they should do to help each member be all they should be. It is sort of like a mud run where the clock doesn’t stop until the whole team is across the finish line. Unlike in marriage, though, the finances are not pooled and the team membership could/should end at any time. Obviously, wise stewardship may require limits to the extent one can go in the support of a fellow member. Additionally, there is no individual authority that necessarily requires other pod members to fully embrace the ministries of each member. The pod as a whole, however, does have an authority and sometimes will speak into a member’s decisions. The member may or may not agree. The pod cannot force a member to do what it recommends; however, the Abbott/Abbess may require a member to leave if he/she is felt to be outside the vision of the individual pod. Therefore, they could say, “We’re all in this together–for as long as we are together.” Members will always consider the effects of their decisions on the rest of the pod, but, unlike in marriage, they may sometimes need to continue to consider options that could require them to leave the pod.
Bottom line: The ministry of the pod is the sum of the ministries of its members. In reality, though the whole is actually greater than the sum of the parts, because the structure of the Order allows/requires all members to be intimately aware of what is going on in each other’s ministries. The individual member is out there doing his thing—but from a strong base of pod support/participation (prayer, input/counsel, encouragement and practical assistance).
2: Shared Lives: “We’re with you”
A Baptist friend of mine told me a joke, “If you’re going fishing, take two Baptists. If you take one, he’ll drink all your beer. If you take two, they won’t drink any.”
The fact of the matter is, it is easier to resist temptations and maximize our endurance when we’re in the company of like-minded others. Community just helps. This is true everywhere—you’ll lift more weight at the gym if you are working out with someone; you’ll run farther when you run with a team; a dieting woman will eat less if she’s eating out with other women; a man will turn past certain channels faster if he’s watching TV with his Christian friends. Community brings out the best in us!
Well, actually, it can be a mixed bag…
“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissentions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21
Living in community will help you resist temptations in the first 5 and last 2 sins in the list. However, living in community can actually serve as a petri dish for the middle sins, though. Think about it–we’ll hardly ever have outbursts of anger, enmities and strife, disputes, dissentions and factions when we’re living alone with no one to annoy us. So, in some areas, you could argue that community brings out the worst in us.
Nevertheless, God said that it is not good for man to be alone.
A HOCN pod is a place where people share their lives. We believe that our fellowship in the Gospel encourages us to excellence. An African proverb states, “If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.” We are running the race with endurance and community is good for that. We share our lives and work together to achieve our goals. We understand that this will require a degree of openness and honesty (with the consequential vulnerability) that is a bit beyond the socially-awkward line at times, but we really want to be in this together.
This isn’t a marriage, though. There is no promise of a future and no joint ownership of resources. It is not necessarily a virtue to persevere in the pod relationship. We are required (as noted in our core verses and many others) to love one another, but there will be times in most pods when a member must leave—and this is not necessarily a bad (or unloving) thing. Stewardship (a core virtue of the pod) requires us to hold our pod allegiance with an open hand to God (and the Abbot/ess). However, as long as they both leave it there, we will whole-heartedly support and promote and assist and defend and encourage and teach and rebuke and serve our brothers/sisters by God’s grace as appropriate. All members can depend on this
So, a HOCN pod is an intentionally-united group of people who are bonded together for a season for the purpose of increased godliness and ministry/life success. We believe that we are better together and will live accordingly. However, we also recognize that this advantage doesn’t come without cost. We lose a significant degree of speed and flexibility when we live and function as a community. We also have the increased risk of friendly-fire injuries. To quote C. S. Lewis, “The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” Nevertheless, we are taking that risk, paying that price and faithfully sharing our lives with each other until God leads us apart.
3: Shared Holiness: “We have the same Father”
We have been adopted by God. It was His idea. He wanted to do it. He paid an incomprehensibly huge price to make it happen. We are co-heirs with Christ.
If I really believed that the purpose of my life is to manifest my Father’s beauty in whatever circumstances He designs using whatever resources He provides, my life would be different if I knew that my Father was God. Imagine how your experience of ministry and temptation and relationships would change if you could visibly see Jesus walking beside you all the time and constantly referring to you as His brother. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to hear Jesus’ voice praying the Lord’s Prayer beside you, “Our Father…”. How awesome that would sound!
If I was the Devil, I would work really hard to distract Christians from believing and experiencing the mind-boggling, too-awesome-for-words reality that they are adopted into the actual family of God Himself. How much harder would it be for me to get them to sin if they were keenly aware of the reality of that holy familial bond and the benefits that logically follow?
I am a co-heir with Jesus Himself! God loves me (and relates to me) as His adopted son! This adoption was His idea! He paid a huge price to make it possible! It is in the context of this love-saturated and God-initiated relationship that I relate to Him every minute of my life! How could I have a boring day with nothing to do if I believed that?! How could I ever be anxious or despairing if I truly believed that?! Why would I care for the praise of men, dread my job, or be jealous of others?! What wouldn’t I want to do to help my brothers and sisters manifest our Father’s glory, love and beauty?!
But, the sad truth is, I am often very concerned about the praise of men. I do sometimes dread my job. I am sometimes jealous of others and even anxious! Sometimes, I don’t want to be involved in (or even know about) the weaknesses and struggles of my family. I must conclude that my faith in the truth of the Gospel has significant room to grow.
The members of a pod realize that failing to believe the truth about who we are in Christ is at the root of much temptation and spiritual conflict. Therefore, we are committed to believing the truth and helping each other believe the truth. This is why we address each other formally as “Prince ___” or “Princess ___” when we are in the house and no guests are present. It is so awkward/weird/uncomfortable-sounding (and yet so absolutely true!) that it will make us think about it. If we are thinking about it, it should have several positive effects:
- I will do better when faced with spiritual conflict and temptation when I am consciously aware of who I am in Christ. It will have the same effect on your experience.
- I’ll be less likely to treat you with disrespect or unkindness if I’m consciously aware that God has adopted you, loves you and is present with us. It will have the same effect on how you treat me.
- I’ll be much more willing to forgive you or overlook a transgression. It will have the same effect on how you forgive me.
- I will think more carefully about how my actions will affect you. I will be very unlikely to treat you in a thoughtless or ungodly manner while I think of you as a daughter/son of God. It will have the same effect on your treatment of me.
- I will pray for you and help you and support you more enthusiastically when I see you as a daughter/son of God. No small thing that bothers you is ever a small thing as far as I’m concerned since we’ve both been adopted by God for His glory. It will have the same effect on your concern for me.
There is another important effect, however, that goes to the functioning of the Order. The awkwardness and weirdness of referring to each other formally as a “Prince/Princess” will constantly remind us that we are not just a bunch of friends living together to save money. We really exist as a monastic order! Just because we have a silly name and no massive infrastructure or culturally impressive identity, does NOT mean that we are causal about our mission or less authentic than a traditional institutional monastic order. However, I fear that it could begin to feel that way. I believe that it is a functional necessity to create something (in addition to the covenant sign) to keep our holy identity in front of our faces on a daily basis. Everything in our culture and heart will drift us towards the more culturally-appropriate and détente-friendly relationship of roommates. This drift must be constantly resisted or the pod will cease to meaningfully exist as a Holy Order.
So, we share our ministries, we share our lives and we share a holy calling. We believe that seeing ourselves, and each other, in the context of our relationship to Christ is critically important to growth in godliness and ministry/life success. We recognize that while certain temptations are heightened by community, many others are avoided. We really are in this together, but unlike marriage and traditional monasticism, we hold our bond with an open hand to God and recognize that the time may come when we will part. Our resources and vocations are bound together but remain distinctly separate within the bond. Love can always be expected at all times. However, a particular expression of giving and/or support, can never be taken for granted.
Chapter 2: The Golden Rule: The Role of the Abbott/Abbess
In order to function effectively and guard the vision of the community, there must be an authority who can make decisions on practical in-house functional matters and who can accept a member or evict a member from the pod. If we were a Roman Catholic order, that authority could be delegated from the Pope, and that would work. But we are not under that or any other mutually-recognized earthly authority.
If we can’t have an episcopal style of authority, we could be presbyterian–the members could vote to establish an authority structure and then on who should fill the office(s). Or, they could be strictly congregational and make all decisions voting as a group. The problem with these approaches is that they add an additional purpose to the relationships within the pod. They are no longer united for only mutual encouragement in godliness and effectiveness in ministry. They must now be united for the administration of their Order. This extra purpose brings much more potential for discord and wasted time. Efficiency is diminished, and relationships are cluttered.
So, if we cannot use an episcopal, congregational or presbyterian model as the basis of authority, what is left? The HOCN authority structure is based on the “golden rule”–defined as, “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
As noted in the Rule, the Abbot/Abbess is the owner of the house and can ask any member to leave the house at any time for any reason. While the Abbot/Abbess has no other authority over the members, he/she does have absolute authority over his/her house. So every member of a HOCN pod is technically a “guest” in the home of the owner. The Abbot/ess is a host not a landlord.
This is important for many reasons, not the least of which is legal. If a member becomes a tenant there may be legal obligations that could become very distracting, expensive and burdensome to a pod. This issue will be discussed further in chapter 7. This chapter is about the role of the Abbot/ess and the basis and extent of his/her authority.
Why have an abbot/ess?
The authority of the Abbot/ess exists for the following purposes.
1: Practical Efficiency
I had a friend years ago who was a ruling elder in a Presbyterian church. He hated it. “All we do is sit around arguing about the budget!” Because the Session was the owner of the physical property, they had to work as a group to make decisions about insurance, repairs, savings plans, upgrade priorities, etc. This took so much time, they had little time (or energy) left to do the more relational tasks that “shepherding the flock” required.
A Narwhal house is not owned by the members of the house. There is one name (or one married couple’s names) on the deed. That individual (or couple) has absolute responsibility to do what is necessary to maintain the physical house and absolute authority over who and what becomes a part of it. While the pod is free to make recommendations and/or contributions, they never have ownership or authority over the house or its contents (except for themselves and the personal belongings that the Abbot/ess allows).
As noted above, the purpose of the HOCN community is to encourage and facilitate personal growth in godliness and ministry effectiveness. They are not encumbered by the responsibility to maintain physical infrastructure. Certainly, any and all significant environmental matters related to the pod could be discussed at the regular meetings. However, having a single authority allows for a more objective discussion. When members aren’t responsible for the consequent decision(s), they can discuss, and experience, any issues in a totally different way.
2: Quality Assurance
If all members of a pod are looking increasingly more like Jesus while passionately and efficiently pursuing their individual callings with the support, guidance and encouragement of the group, the pod is succeeding. However, to successfully live in community, household responsibilities will need to be shared among the pod members. Efficiency is a guiding value of the HOCN. In-house responsibilities (cleaning, cooking, shopping, food money organizing, etc.) should be delegated for maximum efficiency/effectiveness. Ideally, everyone can trust that stuff that isn’t their responsibility is being done so they are free to focus solely on the things that are their responsibility.
Unfortunately, ever since Genesis 3, people generally do better with supervision and feedback. It is very inefficient (and ineffective) for everyone to supervise/evaluate everyone else. The Abbot/ess will see to this. Again, the Abbot/ess doesn’t assign the duties–this is done by the pod. The Abbot/ess merely supervises and evaluates the performance of household responsibilities and gives feedback as appropriate.
3: Relational Simplicity
Being a supervisor is a really hard job. It is, however, a necessary job. We all know from experience that there is no guarantee that people will fulfill their responsibilities just because they are a professing Christians. In order for a pod to function effectively, all of its members must be committed to following the Lord and fulfilling their calling. Certainly, no members will ever do this perfectly; however, there is a big difference between a committed member who is struggling and occasionally failing and a lackadaisical member who is not struggling (yet still failing).
It would be very detrimental to the relationships in the order if everyone had to evaluate everyone else and then vote them in or out every so often. It creates an environment of safety and encouragement if all actions of the pod into each individual life were always for the purpose of encouragement and spurring one another on to love and good deeds. Since the rule forbids the pod from accepting or evicting a member, they are freed from a terrible burden. The default pod action is always to help.
The owner of the house is the host. He/she must decide when having a particular guest is contrary to the purpose for which they were invited. It is his/her responsibility as host (and his/hers alone) to ask someone to leave. He/she is free to do this at any time. This will be understood by all potential members before joining. Nobody in the Order is ever a tenant. You are a guest or a host. What authority exists is clearly defined and simple to understand.
The Abbot/ess has authority over the house and the admission and dismissal of members. He/she has authority over all things that affect the property. For example, if a member wants to get a pet or paint the walls, the Abbot/ess must approve. Obviously, the spirit of the HOCN pod is such that the group will likely discuss all these sorts of things. However, there needs to be someone with executive power for the purpose of simplicity and efficiency (stewardship).
It is critically important to stress, however, that the Abbot/ess is not “mother superior”! The Abbot/ess does NOT, have any unique authority over the individual except in whether he/she can live in the Narwhal house and what he/she can bring into it. As we saw in the previous chapter on the role of the pod, the Abbot/ess is no different than every other member in regard to the relationships within the community. The Abbot/ess does not lead the pod—he/she hosts the pod (of which he/she is but one member). He/She is no less subject to the obligations of the Order and the direction of the pod than any other member.
While their authority is limited, the fact that they have absolute authority over the membership of the house makes them a potential danger to the members. Just as in marriage, an Abbot/ess who betrays a member could cause them a significant amount of inconvenience, expense and pain. Members should only join a community if they believe they can trust the Abbot/ess.
The Abbot/ess must also have a great deal of trust in the people he/she accepts into the order. It is obviously a big financial commitment for the Abbot/ess to buy a Narwhal house and have guests rather than tenants. He/she must believe that these non-tax-deductible expenses are facilitating effective giving (financial and ministry activity) by the members. This is one of the reasons for the monthly financial report and weekly ministry staffing. The Abbot/ess must be sure that his/her expenses and efforts are really serving a God-honoring purpose. On top of that, he/she takes a big legal and personal risk by having long-term guests in his/her home. If a member betrays the Abbot/ess, they could cause a significant amount of inconvenience, expense and pain. An Abbot/ess should only accept a member if he/she believes that they can trust them.
Do we really have to have an abbot/ess?
It could be argued that the “golden rule” will only work if one member has a lot of gold and is willing to make a major investment. While the model of administration described above may work great in theory, what is the point if the start-up resource requirements price millions of potential members out of the game?
Adaptability, as will be explained later, is a major value of the HOCN. The HOCN is a concept not an institution, and we want to make this concept accessible to everyone—not just people who are friends with a rich person who wants to host a monastic order.
This will be discussed later in chapters 6 and 7. But, for now, let’s just say this—the HOCN concept is designed to be adaptable and accessible. The Order is not an end in itself—it is a means to the end of worship, obedience and love (growth in godliness and ministry/life success). The “golden rule” of the Abbot/ess is good theory, and it is the classic approach of local pod authority. However, an individual pod may need to invent and apply something significantly different in order to succeed in its particular situation. The point of the Order is not the Order itself but the godliness and ministry of its members. Adapt and thrive! But, be very careful to consider the consequences of any significant modifications to the structure of a pod.
Chapter 3: Good Fences: The Role of the Obligations
The Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals is designed to be functional, adaptable, practical and meaningful. Cumbersome infrastructure and institutional connectivity might be helpful in the “meaningful” category, but they would be a big handicap in the other areas. Simplicity and local autonomy score high marks in the first 3 areas but can hamstring the meaningfulness of the community. The obligations structure the environment to ensure that the “meaningful” happens. Or, to use the iron sharpens iron figure, the obligations insure that the irons touch.
A pod exists to create an environment where Christians can experience intimate community for the purpose of increased godliness and ministry/life success. The HOCN does not exist to institutionalize a legalistic formula for living the Christian life! The obligations exist to free the members to meaningfully relate at the socially-uncomfortable level of intimacy necessary to deal with commonly difficult areas of one another’s lives. It gives this freedom by: 1. Requiring it, 2. Specifically directing it. and 3. Specifically limiting it.
The obligations are called the obligations because all members are obligated to embrace them in theory and practice. They are not optional, peripheral or private/personal. They are required, at the core of our fellowship and are a community effort. Any so-called HOCN community that does not embrace, and consistently work together to fulfill, all of the obligations is not a real HOCN community.
The reason we are so uncompromisingly firm on this point is because without the obligations, the vast majority of people will not be willing to honestly disclose the reality of their struggles in these commonly difficult areas for at least 3 reasons:
1: They don’t know if it is appropriate to disclose these things to others.
2: They don’t know if the others are willing to receive them.
3: They are embarrassed/ashamed and do not want to appear weak.
The obligations won’t help people with #3, but they do a lot for numbers 1 and 2. Because the obligations are firmly and clearly required, there is no question that if you are a member of a pod you will deal with all of the obligations as a community–without exception. You know for sure that you should disclose this information and you know for sure that you will receive these disclosures from the others. These issues are no longer just mine—they are ours. In the obligations, the pod most resembles marriage. Chastity, stewardship, community and holiness are our calling not just my calling.
The obligations flow out of the HOCN vision for a holy community that promotes increased godliness and ministry/life success. Our “monastic rule” is not intended to be an end in itself but a means to promote and facilitate the corporate pursuit of this vision. They obligations are specifically and clearly defined and can be objectively evaluated. The HOCN obligations are not: “don’t lust, don’t be greedy, don’t be gluttonous, etc…”—those are God’s obligations. The HOCN obligations deal with actions, not the heart, because we just can’t. The heart is an arena where only God and the individual can stand. The obligations allow a pod to work together in a few particular visible manifestations of the heart. That is all we can do.
I think that most Christians who get deeply mired in these common problem areas don’t get there because they decide to rebel against God. I think they usually get there because they decide not to think about what they are doing. Never underestimate your ability to choose your thoughts! “Ignorance is bliss” is a proverb for a reason. This is one of the biggest dangers of living alone—intimate community provides the best mirror (apart from the Word of God) to see the reality and consequences of your bad choices.
The goal of creating these obligations is not to become pharisaical. We understand that you can be full of lust without looking at porn in your house and that you can be really greedy and still tithe. However, by specifically defining particular obligated behaviors and creating a context for group involvement, we seriously limit a member’s ability to not think about these things. And thinking about these things is the important first step to successfully stop thinking about these things (in the taking thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ sense).
These 4 areas (chastity, stewardship, community, holiness) are, obviously, not the only ones that a person needs to be concerned about. They are not necessarily even the most important areas that a person needs to be concerned about. They are, however, areas where people living alone commonly have problems. We are intentionally bringing the blessings of community to areas where it is needed and can greatly help.
There are, obviously, many other specific actions that God requires and other problem areas. However, if the list of obligations was too long (or too hard), it would collapse under its own weight and be impossible to meaningfully maintain. People would cut corners and détente would set in. If the list was too short (or too easy) the holiness of the Order and the comprehensive effectiveness of the fellowship would be compromised. We are really trying to hit that “critical mass” of commonly significant problem areas that can be objectively defined and group-owned by real people who live in the real world and have real responsibilities.
As noted above, we are required to confess only certain actions to the other members. Obviously, perfection is a weight that no individual or fellowship can lift; however, significantly diminishing opportunity for sin is something that can be practically accomplished. Just think how much less porn a man will watch if he never sees any in his house on holy ground (because he’d have to confess it) and purchases would show up on his monthly financial report (or the household cable bill)!
So, the obligations are few (critical mass), clearly stated, and meaningfully focused on common problems and maintenance/strengthening of community.
Obligations are always resisted
Ever since Genesis 3, we resist obligations. We understand that joining a HOCN community will not change that fact. Most of what was written above was mainly concerned with the first two obligations (chastity and stewardship). The last two deal with the community and its environment and these will also be resisted. The two biggest threats are efficiency and fear.
Efficiency is the most dangerous one because it can be so easily rationalized from a ministry point-of-view. Efficiency is a good thing—in fact, it is a major value of the Order. The problem, though, is that community doesn’t feel very efficient. Frankly, it takes time and life-energy to be meaningfully related to others, and that time and life-energy will have to come from somewhere. When you feel it is cutting into your ministry time and resources, you’ll feel justified in applying some détente. The obligations of community will seem to be safely postpone-able (or even wisely avoidable!) as some opportunities are lost or fumbled. The devil has used the rationalization of efficiency to build a lot of détente in the marriages of effective Christian ministers through the ages.
Remember the African proverb quoted earlier, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.” It is so easy to forget that community is not just for community’s sake. In community, God has actually equipped you with a valuable resource to strengthen your foundation, sharpen your focus and manifest His beauty in love. What is the Lord’s work? What is his ministry for you? Love Him with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Here are the people he has bound you with. Love them! Be loved/helped by them! Community is not a nice optional luxury for those that have the leisure to experience it—it is a valuable provision of God, and you will give account of your stewardship of it.
The second major force is fear. The obligations require you to expose yourself in certain areas to the members of your pod and invite them to be involved in sensitive areas of your life. This will be painful if I really don’t want to change where the obligations require it. This will also be painful if I do and I’m not perfect in these areas yet. Am I ashamed to disclose my purchases to the pod (and if so, will I disclose them anyway)? Am I so committed to chastity and the holiness of the house that I will confess to my pod if I look at porn in it? Am I willing to share my disappointments or failures in ministry and ask for prayer where I really need it most? Will I risk embarrassment to grow in godliness? Will I trust these people to really love me—the real me that I actually am? Will I humbly and lovingly accept and help carry the weaknesses of a brother or sister without harboring pride in my relative superiority in that particular area? “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because He first loved us.” (I John 4:18-19
While there are certain things we must confess, the bigger assistance to holiness comes from the love and fellowship of the house. I remember remarking to a friend at church shortly after I got married, “I don’t know how people have affairs–if for no other reason that there is no time.” When you live in community you will have significantly less opportunity for many sins just because you have way less unaccounted-for time. When you have a daily meal with people who are like family, you know someone will ask, “So what did you do today?” They’re not asking like an accountability partner, they’re asking like a spouse—they are actually honestly interested in you and your life. This is way better than accountability and probably more effective. If you are really living like a family, people aren’t keeping tabs on you—they are living with you and “your time” begins to feel like “our time” “Your life” begins to feel like an expression of “our lives”. My wife and I always know where each other is and generally why we’re there. It would just be weird not to know, and it has never felt like we were keeping tabs on each other. We’re just genuinely interested in each other’s lives and enjoy sharing them together.
If a pod is working well, this sense of “our” may be the single biggest benefit to personal growth in godliness. There is a proverb, “Idle time is the Devil’s workshop.” If that is true, then I’d say that idle time spent alone is the Devil’s petri-dish for sin. Community is one of the “big 4” because it is so very valuable. Life really is different when there is a strong sense of “us” instead of simply “me”.
Another word about legalism…
I stated above that ever since Genesis 3, obligations are resisted. However, it would be more accurate to say, “…obligations are resisted except when they are used to replace loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself as the evidence of being born again. Then they are embraced—with devastating consequences.” Living a disciplined life and striving to obey God is a good thing, but this side of heaven our flesh patterns will often attempt to spin this into legalism.
God said that at the judgment there will be people who will tell Him that they did great works, but will hear, “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matt. 7:23). Living according to rules is not the purpose for which you have been saved. You are loved to the point of redemption and adoption! Love your Father! God says that loving Him with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself is the whole law and prophets, but our flesh likes things a good bit more objectively measurable. So we make up rules and keep them so we can feel good about ourselves and bad about others. Legalism is a danger. Seriously—it is. The solution, however, is obviously not lawlessness (read Matt 7:23 again).
Please don’t join a HOCN pod to showcase your amazing rule-keeping skills! Don’t join a HOCN pod to prove to yourself that you are serious about your faith. However, if you do join a pod, don’t focus on the obligations as an end in itself. The “rule” of the HOCN is merely a tool to promote increased godliness and ministry/life success.
Important question: How would you know if you actually were experiencing increased godliness and ministry life success?
Important good answer: You would love God more and love your neighbor better.
Unimportant bad answer: You would be really good at fulfilling the obligations of the HOCN.
The HOCN is about loving God and loving your neighbor. Really. That is what this whole thing is about. If it wasn’t, it would be a total waste of time.
So, if you weigh 400#, have $40K of credit card debt and are tempted daily to look at porn but you really want to obey God and truly believe that joining a HOCN pod is God’s will for your life, welcome home! You will be loved and helped! And, you will have abundant opportunities to love and help the other less-than-perfectly-sanctified saints in your pod. Believe it or not, I suspect that the outworking of that last sentence will cause you more pain and bring you more joy than the one before it. We’re all in this together. Love is of God! Let’s be glorious and Christ-like and hungry and thirsty for righteousness together!
Chapter 4: The Predicate Adjectives: The Purpose of Non-Traditional Elements
The introduction stated that the HOCN is, “temporary, adaptable, task-oriented, co-educational, and without formal connection to other groups in the order.” In this chapter we’ll discuss the purpose of these non-traditional elements.
Traditional monastic orders are very much like marriage in that there is a life-long commitment, pooled resources, and an authority structure. There are obvious advantages to this approach. However, there would also be advantages to a model that did not require life-long commitment. I’ll list some below:
1: Diminishes fear of commitment:
The Bible requires a life-long commitment to the Church and to your spouse. While God may direct specific individuals to other life-long commitments, these should be embraced with great caution. I would be very hesitant to recommend a life-long commitment to anything other than what God specifically requires. God just isn’t likely to tell you what He wants you to be doing 10 years from now.
In an HOCN pod, you can experience the blessings of real, intimate community without having to promise anyone that you’ll be with them forever. However, you do promise them that you will be with them until God directs you to leave. This is different (and therefore less risky) than marriage because the Bible only offers (depending on who you ask) very few, if any, situations in which divorce is an option. And, if you do divorce, it takes quite a lot of time, effort and money to make it happen. Conversely, it doesn’t cost any money to join or to leave a HOCN pod. You not only should but are required to have savings and insurance such that leaving will not be hard, if it becomes necessary. Further, the power of the Abbot/ess is such that it is very easy to remove anyone he/she recognizes is not really embracing the purpose of the order and participating accordingly. The clear Biblical commands to love and minister to the brethren are enough to motivate the intimate fellowship necessary to make a HOCN house effective in fulfilling its purpose in the life of its members—growth in godliness and ministry/life success. So, the benefits of real, intimate community come with significantly less cost and risk. And, unlike marriage, it is ok to join even if you strongly suspect it won’t be a permanent commitment.
2: Good training for marriage:
As discussed in the epilogue, marriage is God’s original solution to man’s aloneness. Many people want to be married and hope to be married in the future but are hesitant. Some are afraid of the commitment, and #1 above addresses how some time in an HOCN pod may help with this. Some, however, just aren’t ready for marriage for various reasons, and living in a HOCN pod may be a great way to develop the relational skills and spiritual/personal/vocational maturity necessary to become the person it will be in the best interest of their future spouse to marry. Living in a HOCN community allows a person to experience a marriage-like society without the sinful and psychologically-damaging consequences of “living in sin”. The “rule” of the HOCN facilitates/mandates the fellowship/love of others, which can only help in the personal development of the individuals involved. A person with great up-close and personal relational skills (skills that have been tested and honed in the iron-sharpening-iron environment of the HOCN) and who is also a good (proven!) steward of his money, body and time is a very good candidate for marriage.
3: Provides the opportunity for real community when circumstances may prevent any other options:
Some people are called to something that may prevent then from experiencing the blessing of intimate community for a particular season. I’m imagining a missionary home on furlough, a military spouse whose husband is overseas for 2 years, a woman whose husband is in a nursing home with advanced dementia, a college student in town for 3 years, etc. Why must these people be doomed live alone for years? They may not expect to be a part of a pod for a long time–but for now they are meaningfully and intimately related to real family in a home where they belong.
Because of the lack of infrastructure and small number of obligations, a HOCN pod is able to adapt to fit the needs and opportunities of a particular group of members and/or their environment. It could work with a bunch of young college students or 70-year-old retirees (or better still a mix!). The classic look would be a traditional house with 3-8 members living in it. However, a church could build a more commercial-like dormitory structure holding around 100 people in it with a staff-person serving as the Abbot/ess. The key is that the HOCN is a concept not an institution. Where the concept exists in theory and practice, a HOCN community exists. The specific “how it is done” structure can be can be adapted as needed by the local community. [NOTE: This is particularly relevant regarding the role of the abbot/ess and the financing of the house. See Chapter 6 for a fuller discussion of adaptability]
A HOCN pod has a purpose. This purpose, as stated before, is to create an environment where Christians can experience intimate relationships for the purpose of increased godliness and ministry/life success. We recognize this is not a passive process. The obligations require certain actions of relational intimacy, but they can’t make it meaningfully happen. Superficiality, and/or détente along with all the lingering residual effects of Genesis 3 remain real dangers that can (and will attempt to) undermine the effectiveness and beauty of the pod relationships. The beauty and strength of our community is a priority to which we devote a significant amount of life-energy. The consequences (for good or ill) of our home will manifest themselves in every area of our ministries and life. Therefore, we intentionally persevere in love for our mutual benefit and, ultimately (and most importantly) the glory of our mutual Father and Lord. We have a holy calling and we have bound ourselves together for a season to work together in love. This is why we are here—our increased godliness and ministry/life success to the glory of God and our mutual good.
In addition to this task (common to all pods), it is possible for a pod to have an additional, unique-to-the-people-at-hand task. It could be anything. I’ll give some examples to clarify the point.
- Perhaps it is a pod of graduate students who believe that together they can be more successful in their mutually-held ambition for a Ph.D. So, in addition to the non-negotiable obligations they add a requirement of study time and academic achievement. So, in addition to the rather generally-stated “godliness and ministry/life success” they add something. Their goal is “godliness, academic achievement and ministry/life success.”
- Another example might be some individuals who are overcoming a history of addiction. They might add another category “sobriety” to the existing obligations: Chastity, Sobriety, Stewardship, community and holiness and add some corresponding required confessions.
- Perhaps there is a group of individuals that wants to begin a community ministry in a needy part of town. They could form a pod, and move into a house together in that area that becomes a base of community ministry. There are already some people doing this sort of thing without the HOCN structure, but this structure might be helpful to individuals undertaking such a task.
Yes, a HOCN pod can be co-educational. This is not a requirement—it is perfectly OK for a pod to consist of only one gender. However, it is also possible for a pod to contain both, and, honestly, I believe that there are some significant advantages if it does. I’ll list a few:
1: Men and women complement each other. This is by divine design. Men and women have different perspectives and are more sensitive to different things. When staffing our lives/ministries on a weekly basis, it is very beneficial to have both a male and female perspectives in play.
2: Men and women bring out the best in each other. Colleges learned this long ago with co-ed dorms—there are fewer discipline problems and less property damage when two sexes share the space. The holy ground obligation will be helped when both male and female members are sharing the space.
3: It is good preparation for marriage. As noted before, there are a lot of people who should be married but just aren’t prepared for it. Living together in a co-ed environment will enable people to learn how to relate to the opposite sex in preparation for marriage. This can only be good.
4: It is a refreshing blessing to those who cannot be married. It is good when a woman feels like a man loves her and cares for her. This is a different experience than when a woman does. It is good when a man feels like a woman loves him and cares for him. That is just how we’re wired. While the scripture is crystal clear that sexual interaction outside of the bond of marriage is a sin, love (in the true sense of the word) is not. In fact, it is a requirement. The HOCN environment—with its clear, objectively-defined relationships–allows for appropriate expressions of love without having to stress much over the undefined, subjective, and cultural mystery of propriety and meaning.
5: It helps to promote chastity. In a co-ed pod the requirement to confess sexual sins will be harder to a person when they must confess to a co-ed group. When they are relationally bound to someone of the opposite sex, failures in the sexual realm are simply less attractive.
Many people probably reacted in horror when I suggested that a pod could be co-ed. It just looks bad when unmarried, un-related men and women are living together in the same house. We are to avoid all appearance of evil, and that should be enough to prohibit such a thing!
In response to that concern, I suggest we should ask yourself the following questions: Who is more likely to engage in fornication—a person living in a co-ed HOCN house where any and all fornication must be confessed to the rest of the house on a weekly basis OR a single man or woman living alone in their own apartment with no required confession or intimate relationships? Who is less likely to look at porn in his residence—a single man living alone or with a male roommate or a single man living in an HOCN pod where this would need to be confessed to a co-ed group at the weekly meeting? Who is less likely to “go too far” in the heat of the moment—a single person kissing their significant other alone in their own house, or a man or woman living in a HOCN house where acts of physical affection are not allowed on the holy property and specifically-defined actions would need to be confessed as a violation of the obligations if they occurred?
Community does not preclude sin (and certainly not temptation). However, community truly helps. There are hundreds of ways to sin and only a few of these require confession to the HOCN pod. Fornication and porn in your residence are two sins that require confession. Having a co-ed HOCN house is not without risk, but it is also not without benefit. In the area of obedience to God’s requirements on sex, I think the HOCN model has benefits that significantly outweigh the risks. Seriously—are we more concerned with looking good or being good?
Another concern may be the fact that living together in such intimate community may incline people of the opposite sex to “fall in love”. C. S. Lewis says as much in his book The Four Loves
“When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass – may pass in the first half hour – into erotic love. Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later.”
This is a legitimate concern for at least 3 reasons: 1: that sort of attraction could have an adverse impact on the functioning of a pod; 2: that sort of attraction will affect the involved individuals’ experience of the pod; 3: It could incline them to sexual temptation. We will discuss #1 and #2 in the next chapter. However, #3 is addressed above. All things considered, living together in intentional Christian community is probably the greatest help to resist sexual temptation that there is—especially when mandatory confession is involved.
Without formal connection to other groups in the order:
If you like to wear a new Rolex watch, you probably wouldn’t want to buy one for $50 off a guy in Times Square with coat pockets full of them. It is either stolen and used or, more likely, an imitation. It may look like a Rolex on the surface, but it really isn’t on the inside. Similarly, when you eat at a Chick-Fil-A, you know that you could pay less for a lemonade and chicken sandwich elsewhere, but it would be a risk of taste and quality.
The reason this is true is because you can’t call yourself “Rolex” or “Chick-Fil-A” unless you are authorized by the central “Rolex” or “Chik-Fil-A” authority to call yourself by that name. This insures quality, as the central authority is going to spend a lot time and money doing quality assurance checks on all vendors using that name to be sure that the product they are selling is equal to their corporate expectations. The time and money necessary to support this activity comes from the consumer who pays more for that sandwich and/or watch than they would have had to if they didn’t have to finance the expensive corporate infrastructure.
HOCN pods don’t pay money to a central authority because the central authority doesn’t exist. On the plus side this saves a lot of money and time. This money and time will hopefully be invested into the local HOCN’s ministry. On the down-side, there is no external quality assurance. Joining a HOCN pod is like buying a chicken sandwich from a guy on the corner with a cooler he says he filled at Chik-Fil-A. You just don’t know what you are going to get.
This is a problem.
Seriously, this is a problem.
However, this is a problem common to all relationships. When you get married, there is no corporate quality assurance to insure you are getting a good marital product. You pretty much have to do your own quality analysis. We call this courtship, and it is rather unreliable.
God actually has designed a corporate quality assurance program. It is called the elders of the local church. They are to shepherd the flock with diligence and would be a good QA resource to evaluate someone as a potential spouse. However, they can only do so much even if they make their best efforts. So, similarly to marriage, a person should be very careful about joining a HOCN community (and the community should be very careful about accepting someone). Prayer, the input of relevant spiritual authorities and one’s own personal investigation are helpful to make wise decisions here.
The truth is, even very expensive external corporate oversight does not guarantee that the quality of the product is going to be good. We’ve all heard stories of franchise restaurants selling sub-par product or denominational church congregations being led by pedophiles. This side of Genesis 3, there are no guarantees in anything. Everything (which includes absolutely everything) you do involves some degree of risk.
The HOCN has taken the low-overhead (actually, no overhead) path in the name of ministry effectiveness and financial efficiency/accessibility. Poor people should be able to start and maintain a HOCN pod without having to pay franchise fees. The Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals is a concept, not an organization! It has no President or Board of Governors or any earthly authority. God is in charge, and we commit it to His care. He will hold all participants to account at the end, and He reserves the right to intervene at any time. All participants (and potential participants) are urged to keep this firmly in mind.
So, while the risks are great, there are also great benefits. Each individual pod is free to adapt and thrive according to God’s specific leading in their specific situation. There is no cookie cutter. There is no wasted time and money on maintaining external corporate infrastructure or worries about what outsiders are going to require your pod to do. Each pod stands alone before God and each other. If that doesn’t make a pod want to be careful and serious, why should we think expensive cumbersome external oversight would?
Chapter 5: The Pieces That Don’t Fit: The Role of Sex and Children
Have you ever put something together and then found a couple of pieces still left in the box? That’s how it feels to write this chapter. It looks great, but there are still pieces left…
Sex and children just don’t fit well within the context of a monastic order. This is a problem for several reasons.
- People are sexual creatures and crave sex and reproduction. Some fish will swim up waterfalls for sex and babies. Some people aren’t that different.
- When men don’t have sex they are (often) biologically inclined to unwise (really more like “stupid”) and often sinful behaviors. Women can also have problems here.
- Reproduction, according to God, is generally a good idea. It appears that this is often His will for people.
- There are a lot of single people with children who are not good candidates for marriage that would really thrive with the benefit intimate relationships. The HOCN exists to create these environments! There really ought to be a way…
A HOCN community is only a HOCN community if the concept is whole-heartedly embraced and practiced by the individuals involved. An individual pod cannot subtract any obligations; however, it could temporarily add one or more (see the section on “task oriented” in the previous chapter) if necessary. There is nothing in the concept and obligations that would necessarily preclude the presence of children in a HOCN community. However, the presence of children would certainly add a very significant dynamic that would require some very careful adaptation. While sex is not necessarily precluded, it is specifically defined and significantly restricted by the obligations. Additionally, from a functional point-of-view, it is made significantly more difficult by the consequences of living in a shared space.
The ability to adapt to the environment and individuals involved is a foundational value in the development of the HOCN. I believe that it can probably adapt to fit even situations where sex and/or children are involved. I also believe that the adaptations will be as unique as the pod involved. Nevertheless, there are factors that will be common to most that we’ll discuss in this chapter. We’ll start with the easier (and likely more common) of the two—sex.
Yes, married couples can belong to a pod. In fact, one of the classic images of a pod would be an older married couple serving as an abbot and abbess of a pod. Perhaps they already own a large house and now that their children have gone they have the space to start a pod. The sexual inconveniences caused by group living probably won’t be that big of a deal to these folks. They have already had 20+ years of practice being discreet while they shared their home with children. However, if a newlywed couple is part of a pod, I’m imaging it will be significantly more difficult—and not just for them. Imagine a pod of 30-somethings and one gets married and her husband joins the pod. The relationships and experience of fellowship will be significantly impacted. Even more challenging might be a scenario where two members of a pod decide to marry and remain.
It really may be best in a particular circumstance for a newlywed couple to leave the pod and start their own home. After all, they are now experiencing the original provision of God to end aloneness. However, I can imagine scenarios where God may call them to stay in the Order. In this case, everyone will just have to embrace and adapt and deal with the awkwardness involved. At the end of the day, though, the abbot/ess has the responsibility to take action if he/she believes that it is not working.
In the last chapter I quoted C. S. Lewis on how two people of different sexes walking the same path are likely to experience romantic attraction. For many people, this is reason enough to prohibit co-educational membership. The fear that two people who live together and fall in love will be likely to engage in fornication was addressed in the previous chapter. Now I will address the fear that two people who live together will likely fall in love.
First, let’s remember that most single people are going to experience romantic attraction whether they live in a pod or not. While living together may make particular individuals more likely candidates for attraction, that doesn’t mean that a person in a pod is more likely than a person outside a pod to experience romantic attraction to another person. That is just life.
Second, as many a married person has learned, sometimes people are less attractive when you live with them than they were at a distance. Living in community may, in fact, diminish sexual attraction in many cases…
Third, this isn’t just an ‘opposite sex’ issue–traditional monastic orders and prisons illustrate the reality that ever since Genesis 3 the heart can desire sinful sexual activities even in a single-sex environment. The expression, “Any port in a storm!” exists for a reason.
Fourth, this isn’t just a singles issue. As I keep saying—we live on this side of Genesis 3. It is apparently not uncommon for married individuals to experience sexual attractions outside of their marriage. We are at war, and the world, flesh and Devil are against us whether we live in a HOCN community or not. God has warned us that our hearts are deceitful; therefore, we should not be surprised when they attempt to deceive us.
Fifth, is it necessarily bad thing if two single people living in a monastic community develop a desire to marry? Wouldn’t an intimate and supportive community who knows each individual well be an amazing source of guidance and support?
Bottom line: People, even Christian people, are likely to experience sexual desires. Sometimes this is good and God-honoring. Sometimes this is a residual effect of Genesis 3. Living in community will make some things easier and some things harder. On the whole, I truly believe it is very likely to be an overall plus. Nevertheless, there are risks. Be careful!
Children In a Monastic Environment
Honestly, I just don’t know.
I do know that there are a lot of single parents who desperately need community. I do believe that some form of monastic living would be appropriate and very valuable. Whether the specific style and obligations of a HOCN community would be the most effective form for this I just don’t know. Maybe if the HOCN becomes popular someone else, who knows something about children, will invent another sort of adaptable model for monastic living that specifically incorporates adults with dependent children. I think an HOCN pod could adapt well if someone had a child who was very young and could easily be excluded from the relational intimacy of the members. However, once a child gets old enough to relate intelligently with the adults there will be a very difficult dynamic to adapt to. It will affect the pod in at least these areas:
- Their presence at the common mealtime will significantly restrict the topics of conversation and the degree of seriousness. The weekly meetings and other interactions are just going to have to carry the weight.
- Their presence in the home requires a lot of attention and it can be an unpleasant distraction for other members. However, since this is the ministry of the member parent, the whole pod is committed to support it to the degree appropriate.
- Children just can’t be trusted the way an adult can. An unregenerate child is a slave to sin and could easily be used by the enemy to sow seeds of discord. However, we are more than overcomers in the power of Christ. He will give us what we need. We must work hard to overcome evil with good.
- There is great risk in raising a child in a living space with non-related adult men (or related ones, for that matter). We’ve all heard way too many horror stories. And, there are also stories of false accusations. This whole dynamic of risk and fear would be a hard one to overcome. As Christians, however, we believe that fear should never stop love. It may be a risk that just has to be taken. The pod could work together to create procedures to promote safety for all.
Where there is a will, there is a way. People are social creatures, and it is not good for man to be alone. I truly believe that if God calls people to a pod for a season, He’ll give them the wisdom to make it happen—regardless of what particular difficulties exist for the individuals and environment involved. But be really careful!
Chapter 6: The Floating Foundation: The Vision and Values
As stated before, the HOCN is not an organization/institution—it is a concept/idea. Nobody manages it or sells franchise rights. It is published for free on the internet, and anyone is free to take this concept and run with it. I’m not going to try to sue the pants off a group that calls itself a HOCN community but really functions in a manner inconsistent with my original vision. As stated in Chapter 4, this can result in quality problems. In this, the HOCN most closely resembles a church.
There is one Church in the world. It is huge, but it is very hard to set its particular boundaries. People have invented thousands of ways to do church, and this has resulted in no small amount of discord. Millions of people have been criticized, judged, tortured and/or killed in a centuries-long effort to delineate the Church. In the end, God promises to separate the sheep from the goats. Until then, the wheat and tares (to change the biblical figure) are sown together. We understand that some “tares” will join (or even start!) a church (or pod).
If the HOCN ever became popular, there would no doubt become pods that would be comparable to what a cult is to a church—something that is fundamentally different to the point that it becomes something else. The majority may judge it so—but it can still call itself a “church” (or “pod”) with impunity (at least for the short-term). If Church history teaches anything, it teaches that no amount of cumbersome infrastructure—no matter how vast or expensive—can stop this from happening. Legal action, torture, and even war have been tried. Nothing works. So, we won’t try.
So, how can you evaluate the quality of a pod? I suppose the best way would be to see how its practice lines up with the vision and values of the HOCN. In this chapter, we’ll clearly state our vision and values with some brief commentary.
VISION: The Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals is a paradigm for communal living wherein Christian members are intentionally united together for an indefinite season for the purpose of increased godliness and ministry/life success.
VALUES: The Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals is values-driven. The first four values are clearly evident in the obligations of the order. There are other values, however, which are more evident in our overall design. These values are:
People are created by God to be social creatures. It is not good for man to be alone. For practical ministry purposes as well as personal psychological reasons, it is good to live in community. The HOCN recognizes that community is expensive—in both time and money and life-energy. However, we firmly believe that the benefits are worth the cost. We don’t just live together–we belong together. God says that we are to love one another. Oh, what a delight it is in this dark world to be loved! But this is not just for our own sakes. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” Community is good.
We are a “set apart” people because we have been adopted by God. And, as if that weren’t enough, we have been personally indwelt by God, Himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit. We are a family set apart to manifest the truth and beauty and power and love of our Lord Father wherever we go to whomever we encounter in whatever we do. It is, sadly, a significant side-effect of Genesis 3 that we can so easily lose sight of who and why we are. The HOCN delights in our identity in Christ and believes that a very effective way of spurring one another on to love and good deeds is to remind each other of it regularly.
We are not our own. We have been bought with a price. All that we are and have belongs to God, and that is delightful to us! The HOCN realizes that, this side of Genesis 3, we are in a constant struggle with the world, flesh and Devil to keep ourselves, and our resources (body, money and time), on the altar. We are so tempted to be selfish or careless with all God has entrusted us! Therefore, many of the Order’s obligations exist to help us persevere and succeed in this fundamental expression of worship and ministry.
We are created by God as sexual creatures, and the world, flesh and Devil seem to see this as the great Achilles’ heel in many Christians’ lives. God has given us some very specific (and often difficult) instructions in this area, and ever since Genesis 3 it has been hard to walk in obedience here. The HOCN believes that our community can and must be a source of strength, comfort, and assistance as we live as sexual creatures in our current context. We recognize that this will require a certain degree of uncomfortable relational intimacy. Nevertheless, we must work together to the glory of God even when it is socially awkward. We are all in this together.
The HOCN does not have a giant constitution with lots of bylaws and instructions. We have two paragraphs that cover everything on membership, authority and structure; and less than one page of obligations grouped under 4 values. There is no cumbersome infrastructure, no required minimum investment, and no franchise fees. The HOCN is understandable and accessible to all.
A major benefit of simplicity is that it facilitates adaptability. The value of community and the benefit of the HOCN values don’t change much from context to context. However, people and resources, environments and opportunities vary greatly. The HOCN recognizes the wisdom in the famous Patton quote, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” The HOCN provides the vision, values, structure and obligations. It is up to the individual pods to work it out in their context, trusting that God will supply the necessary wisdom, strength and resources. There is no virtue in following a paradigm! There is, however, great virtue in uniting together for the purpose of increased godliness and ministry/life success. The vision and values are a constant. The application of the structure and obligations may need to be adapted to fit a particular context. This is especially true in the ownership of the property and the role of the Abbot/ess. This will be addressed further in the next chapter.
The world is different today than it was hundreds of years ago. People are much more mobile and their circumstances are much more volatile. The value of adaptability refers to the ability of the HOCN structure to adapt to a particular context. The value of flexibility refers to the ability of an individual member to freely adapt to the leading of God. This is best reflected in the ability of a member to leave the pod at will and also in the obligation of individual insurance, savings and retirement.
SUMMARY: The HOCN has a vision, values, structure and obligations. The Order is merely a paradigm for the effective following of Jesus. It is a means to that glorious end, and it must never become and end in itself. The vision and values are the heart of the HOCN. Individual pods may need to adapt the structure and obligations to stay true to the vision and values in their particular context. Sadly, that freedom opens the door, to people who would adapt the structure and obligations for other, selfish, reasons. No amount of strengthening the structure can prevent this. All we can do is point people to the heart of the Order, warn novices of the potential dangers and pray like crazy for the strength and wisdom to stay true to our holy calling.
Chapter 7: FAQ
What about legal issues? If a pod is co-ed couldn’t someone allege that they are a common-law spouse after living together? Similarly, couldn’t someone allege tenant rights if this is a permanent residence?
I am not a lawyer. However, it seems to me that it would be wise, if you are an Abbot/ess, to have all novices sign some sort of legal document that specifically addresses the nature of the relationship and the freedoms involved. Laws may vary by state and municipality, so a local attorney should be consulted. I would think that the language should contain clear statements about the following:
- They are a guest and will willingly move out when asked for any reason
- There is no marital relationship implied or intended (common-law or otherwise)
- There is no expectation of rent, and they may leave at any time without cost.
The attorney should also be consulted about the taxableness of any monies given towards household expenses. Would they have to be counted as rental income? Is it even legally possible for a person to contribute towards household expenses and consider this a permanent residence and not be considered a tenant? Again, this may very by location, so I strongly encourage that an attorney be consulted before a pod is begun.
While this may seem overcautious, remember that this is really a real monastic order. The lack of outside corporate infrastructure makes it feel like we’re just trying to put a serious label on a roommate situation, but that is a lie. This is the real deal, and we must take it seriously. You have to sign a bunch of legal forms whenever you take a job, why should it seem unreasonable to sign a form to join a monastic order? In any case, it makes good sense to make sure that everything is legally clear and agreed to from the very beginning. If I was the devil and saw a potentially “dangerous” pod forming, I’d try to get one of my people on the inside. Never forget that we are at war! Innocent assumptions can lay the groundwork for a future legal and financial nightmare. Build a pod on a strong social, spiritual and legal foundation. Yes, this is expensive, but it is money well spent.
There is something to be said about risk and love. They tend to go together. Maybe it is better just to love the people you unite with and let the chips fall where they may. At the very least, the expectations and risks of pod living would be discussed in their weekly meetings—especially in the beginning (and with new members). Maybe even unofficial in-house documents could be created with copies to all.
I think if a pod is started by a church or other organization as an extension of its ministry there might be a greater need for legal documentation. Each pod must make its own way here. Pray it through and think it through. Ask God for wisdom and follow to the best of your ability.
The rule of the Order, states that a pod contains 3 or more people, but the footnote says there is a provision for just 2. How can this possibly be OK—especially if the pod is co-ed or contains individuals who experience same-sex attraction?
A pod should contain at least 3 people. However, if a pod experiences members dying or leaving resulting in just 2 remaining members, there needs to be a contingency plan. Must they scramble to recruit someone in a hurry? Must they immediately dissolve? Should they be allowed to just continue as is? Then answer to all 3 questions is no
Adaptability and flexibility are core values of the HOCN. The particular circumstances and the individuals involved will have a huge bearing on whether it is appropriate to continue as a 2-person pod. However, for the sake of propriety, the remaining two individuals are not in a position to make the decision to continue independently.
Since there is no outside HOCN corporate infrastructure that can make a ruling on this, the leadership of both individuals’ church(es) must approve and endorse the two-person pod in order for it to continue. They may want to establish some oversight or accountability requirements (I hope they do!) in order to avoid any impression of immorality/impropriety. If the leadership of the individuals’ church(es) do not approve and endorse the continuation of the pod, it must dissolve. If it continues anyway, it is doing so in violation of the requirements of the Order and is, therefore, not an authentic HOCN community. More importantly, the members’ churches may be inclined to apply church discipline.
Even with the approval and endorsement of the local church leadership(s), the individuals should be prayerfully open to receiving additional member(s).
It is never acceptable under any circumstances for a pod to begin with only 2 members if it is co-ed or contains two people with same-sex attraction.
Why is it such a big deal that members be “guests not tenants”? It would be a lot easier in several ways if the members bought a house together. Or, an abbot/ess could buy a pod-sized house with the expectation of rent.
I’ve re-written my answer to this question several times. Originally, the concept of an Abbot/Abbess was an absolute non-negotiable requirement for a HOCN community. As discussed at length in Chapter 2, having a single authority for admission/discharge from the house frees up all the other relationships in the pod from the burdens associated with that responsibility. Sole ownership of the residence provides an objective meaningful basis for that authority, and gives weight to the supervisor-like evaluation of household responsibilities. It just works, and I hate to give it up.
However, is a requirement to have this authority structure more valuable to the general/overall success of the Order than what could be gained by the freedom to apply a more “congregational” approach to pod governance?
After much thought, I have come to believe that our core value of adaptability requires us to be open to other approaches to pod management. I strongly recommend that the role of Abbot/ess exist and its authority be based in the ownership of the house. However, when it can be done a better way, adapt and thrive. But, think it through carefully and consider the consequences.
It is true that a bigger house could be purchased if there was the expectation of rent. Apartments could be utilized more easily. A group of people who want to form a pod, but don’t have a member rich enough to buy a house, are not necessarily priced out of the game. Churches who want to fund a pod but don’t have a staffperson as a resident Abbot/ess could adapt the structure more easily.
Re-read Chapter 2 before you make such changes and consider the implications for the relationships in the pod. Also, consider legal issues and how they might come into play if a person is out of step with the vision of the pod. It is risky.
However, as I write that last paragraph, I’m struck with how that would make the pod much more like a church and a family. I’ve never joined a church that would charge me a certain fee to be a member. If a friend told me he was going to sign a pre-nuptial agreement before the wedding, I’d try to talk him out of it. Why, then, am I so concerned with authority, legality, money and safety in a pod? So, maybe there is a spiritual benefit as well in a different leadership approach.
Conclusion: There are many advantages to having an authority structure with an objective, meaningful basis. The role of the Abbot/Abbess, as described in the “rule” and Chapter 3, is the classic design for a pod and should be embraced whenever possible. However, it is recognized that it may not work best (or may be downright impossible) in many circumstances, so an individual pod is free to adapt and thrive. [But be careful!]
So are members expected to contribute money to the Abbot/ess or not?
Each pod is free to do what it wants to do in this area. The Abbot/ess should be forthcoming about expenses, and any real expectations should be honestly communicated before a person becomes a member (or even an apprentice for that matter). However, the potential legal issues raised earlier must be understood and considered before money starts changing hands. Be creative, be loving, but be legally above-board. Understand, however, that any monies given to any other member are a gift. The Abbot/ess can ask anyone to leave at any time no matter what gifts he/she has received in the past. Similarly, a member may choose to leave at any time no matter what gifts he/she may have received in the past. It would be very unwise for any member to owe any other member money.
Food is another area that each pod must deal with. There are no rules about how the food is paid for or handled. Each pod must make its own way on this point. Beware! As anyone who has ever shared an apartment with a roommate knows, that this will likely become an opportunity for a variety of relational temptations. Work honestly together in love!
Members are required to be debt free. Won’t this severely limit the potential membership pool? No college student could probably ever join…
Members are required to be debt-free or work with the pod to develop a plan to become debt free. Perhaps the required “plan” only involves limiting optional expenses to make the loan go farther and developing self-control in money now so that after graduation they will be able to aggressively diminish their debt. The pod may agree that a member is on the right path and should continue to incur debt to finish their schooling. A pod may approve new debt for a car or a house or it may not. Bottom line, everyone is on a plan to become debt-free, even those who are expecting to get 3 more years of student loans or buying a house.
Having said that, though, a member going deeper into debt with the approval of the pod is an extraordinary occurrence, which will only occur after careful consideration and prayer. The vast majority of the time, members will be working hard to get out of debt.
Similarly, each member is required to have a retirement plan and 3 months of living expenses in savings. This is also unreasonable for some people. That is the ideal and must be pursued when possible. However, when it is not possible it is understood that this requirement can be postponed with the approval and understanding of the pod.
You really think 5 adult people could all be home for dinner at the same time on a regular basis?
Yes. My wife and I both work and have been doing this since day one. A pod is not required to have dinner together 30-31 days/month. The requirement reads, “…share a meal together daily if possible.” It is understood that some days this just won’t happen, but these days are to be the exception. Each pod will need to adapt to the needs of its members; however, the shared meal is not an optional requirement—it is a critically important discipline to maintain the “conviviality” of the pod.
We are not roomates! If we want to experience intimate unity as a group, we need to actually spend time together as a group. The meal is kind of an ordinance of the order, so it must be prioritized accordingly. It must be done regularly, but each pod is free to decide exactly how often this will be in their particular context. At the weekly meetings the pod can discuss whether the meals are too infrequent or too inconveniently frequent and then adjust accordingly.
This would be similar to the requirement for daily prayer together. On certain nights all members may not be able to pray together. The pod will have to adapt as necessary. Perhaps 2 members could pray together at one time and the other 3 at another.
In an earlier chapter you stated that a pod could be really big and run by an institution. How would that work?
A “typical” pod would be 3-8 adults living in a house. However, I can imagine situations where a church or parachurch organization might organize a pod of scores of folks living in a commercial fraternity-like building. I use the word “imagine” because adaptability is a major value of the HOCN.
Having said that, though, relational concerns practically limit the size of a pod—a person can only be intimately connected to relatively small number of individuals. Therefore, a pod of 100 people in a commercial building would need to create smaller cells within the megapod. These cells would share their meal and staff their ministries just amongst themselves. There would be a meaningful (but significantly less intrusive) relationship with the other members of the “megapod,” but the uncomfortably intrusive parts would be limited to the cell.
Well, limited to the cell and the abbot/ess. This is would be another tricky part. I’m imagining a church creating a megapod in a college town in a former apartment building. The abbot/ess is a member of the church staff who lives in the building. However, if this megapod contains 6 distinct cells, how will the abbot/ess relate to each of the members in each of the cells? Will he/she belong to a cell? Will there be a deputy abbot/ess in each cell reporting to him/her? Again, this will require creativity, adaptability and wisdom. I think it could be done, but it would take a lot of creative adaptation…
That sounds totally different. With so many alterations, would that even technically be a HOCN pod?
Again, the HOCN is an idea not an organization. The idea, which exists to create an environment where Christians can experience intimate relationships for the purpose of increased godliness and ministry/life success, can be adapted as necessary. However, it is true that something can only be modified so much before it actually becomes something totally different/other.
So, is a megapod of 100 people (divided into 10 cells with an administrator Abbot who is not a member of a cell) a bona fide HOCN community or is it something else? I don’t know. Since there is no external organization that can sue the pants off of someone who uses their brand name without permission, it may not really matter.
That raises a good point, though. If there is no official governing body of the HOCN and there is no formal organizational connection between pods, couldn’t a few rapists or thieves call themselves a HOCN pod and trick people into joining it for some kind of horrible evil purpose?
Yes. The sad reality is that every individual and organization exists in the real post-Genesis-3 world. Couldn’t a rapist or con artist join a church singles ministry long enough to trick a woman into marrying him for some kind of horrible evil purpose? A con artist could create a scam where they appeared to be an employer and “hire” someone as a ruse to get their personal information and get them to sign forms for a horrible evil purpose. Or, similarly, a thief could take a job in a store as a ruse to get access to the cash register and inventory.
Be careful! Just as in marriage, you won’t want to join a pod with random strangers (and they probably wouldn’t want to take you in). I can imagine exceptions (a megapod in a college town run by a church, a home for recently-released Christian inmates run by a para-church ministry, etc.), but even there, you’d need to have a good deal of trust in the organization or individual founding the pod. An existing pod needs to be very careful when considering new members, and the 3-month novice period is a safeguard (but no guarantee that your evaluation of the novice is accurate). Any kind of intimate community involves a great deal of risk! PRAY, Evaluate, Beware! Then love, accept and endure as God directs.
Is it really OK to do this? It sounds dangerous and culturally edgy.
Yes. It is dangerous and edgy, but the HOCN provides a context for meaningful, intimate Christian relationships in the midst of a world that fights hard against them. People are social creatures, and we function best in the context if intimate, loving relationships. The blessing of intimate community is a powerful, if expensive, provision of God—a means of grace! If you can get this community in a better way, get it there. If not, pray that God will provide it for you and work hard to become the person that can offer it to others. Who knows—maybe you’ll start a pod…
Epilogue: Marriage and Non-Marital Intimacy
“It is not good for man to be alone.” –God
After long and careful consideration, I think that what God meant was: it is not good for man to be alone.
Seriously—it really isn’t.
God’s solution to this first (and only!) problem in creation was to create marriage. Honestly, that is the best solution. However, the reason that this chapter didn’t end at that last period is that marriage isn’t the best solution for everyone at every particular moment in time. Nevertheless, being alone is always a “not good” situation for every particular individual at every particular time. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we take the doors off our bathrooms and spend all our time living in giant wards. Seasons of solitude are a wonderful blessing from God, but those are very different than the state of actually being alone.
Hundreds of years ago, very few people were living alone. A man would live with his parents and then take over the farm with his wife. Or, he would marry and move to his own place with his wife. If he didn’t marry, he may leave home to join the army or join the church or go into domestic service or live in a mill town. It has really just been in the last hundred years or so when it was common for a man to live alone in his own house or apartment. For women, it was even more rare until recently. For the most part, they lived at home or with relatives until they married, went into domestic service (or a mill dormitory) or joined a convent. Culturally, it just wasn’t generally acceptable for women to live alone, and very few could afford it, anyway.
On top of that there were a lot of built-in incentives to marry which don’t exist today. Opportunities for sexual experiences were significantly less abundant and harder to come by–especially for young men. Most were busy working, there were no cars, and girls were rarely alone in their presence. Porn was limited to drawings or erotic literature (and even that was somewhat difficult to discreetly obtain). Social constraints were strong. So, from puberty onward, boys were strongly biologically motivated to become the kind of man who could successfully compete for a good wife. Similarly, a girl who wanted to bear children and raise them securely could clearly see that she needed a husband to do it–and not just any man could enable her to raise these children in the way she desired. Therefore, from puberty onward she was strongly biologically motivated to become the kind of woman who could successfully obtain the attentions of a potentially good husband. Marriage was almost universally seen as something that was in everyone’s best interests (at least where society, biology and the Church were concerned).
This universal perception no longer exists today. For women, a husband is not necessarily needed (or helpful) in raising a family. A woman no longer needs a “provider” for money or a husband for kids. In fact, from a purely financial point of view, a poor American woman can provide for her children better as a single mother than she could being married to a poor man. From a social point of view, there is absolutely no stigma. From a safety point of view, we’ve all heard a lot of horror stories—if marriage is anything, it is dangerous. Bottom line: women really don’t “need” a husband in a financially- or biologically-compelling way today. For men, sexual experiences, of one sort or another, are readily available. Why should he saddle himself with a wife and kids? From a social point-of-view there is significantly less stigma, and even in many churches pre-marital sex and porn ranks with speeding and complaining on the heinous-ness scale. I once heard a “joke”, “What’s the difference between sex for money and sex for free? Sex for money is less expensive.” Bottom line: marriage is no longer necessary for a man or woman to get what they want. In fact, it may very well be a hindrance.
The fact that biology doesn’t compel us to marriage anymore isn’t the only problem, though. Autonomy has become a major cultural value, and it inclines us away from marriage.
Today, it is understood that people will live independently as soon as they turn 18 or graduate from school. Even legal adults who live in their parents’ basements are expected to be (and expect to be) unfettered by any relational bonds and live as “single” people (even when their parents are paying all their bills).
The sad truth is that many men think that casual hook-ups, or at least cable TV and an internet connection, are better (or at least safer, cheaper, more efficient and easier) than meaningfully uniting with a real woman for sexual satisfaction; while the state of singleness “frees” them from outside entanglements that would limit their ability to be totally in control of their lives. And, if few would ever think about it long enough to put it in those words, the effect of countless hours of videogames, porn and irresponsible living anesthetize them as their relational aptitude and moral fortitude wither away into weakness. Fear and weakness (disguised as freedom and strength) dominate their lives. Similarly, many women enter adulthood with the general expectation that a good husband would be great, but a typical husband would most likely become a minus rather than a plus as far as her security and quality of life is concerned. They think, and increasingly feel over time, that, all things considered, they are much safer being in charge alone, avoiding the variables and risk that a husband brings. Therefore, they move into adulthood with a view towards living successfully alone until they are pleasantly surprised by a quality husband (a possibility that seems significantly less likely as time marches on). Sadly, this is not just the state of non-believers. The Church is full of ill-prepared men and maritally-cynical women.
Nevertheless, the innate, God-given longing for community does manifest itself. Many who live with parents still have a strong sense of familial bond. College is a common first step, and most live in communities—shared apartments, dorms or (more seriously) fraternities/sororities. But even in the context of these communities/families, people still have a strong sense of autonomy. They may enjoy a sense of friendship and camaraderie, but there is really no comprehensive, self-limiting, purposeful, and comprehensively-dependable interpersonal bond for adults except in the military, monastic orders, AA meetings, gangs and marriage. And of those five, marriage is probably the weakest in common practice. Most still get married or live together in “permanent” relationships. Most eventually end in separation (to one degree or another).
I strongly believe that in almost all cases, life must be lived in community to maximize one’s effectiveness, godliness and happiness. However, this epilogue is not an attempt to defend that thesis. Many authors have written extensively on the value of community, and I have nothing new to add.
Instead, this epilogue is written for people who already believe in the importance of community, but wonder if it really is possible to live in a comprehensive, meaningful, purposeful, dependable real community without joining the military or a gang; people who find the idea of marriage attractive, but for various reasons have no real prospects for marriage in the foreseeable future. Perhaps the idea of monasticism is even attractive, but they don’t feel called to the life-long vow (and maybe aren’t even Catholic).
You Should Probably Get Married
“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24
I’m a big fan of marriage. I’ve been married for over 25 years. I hope I’m married to Lisa until I die. There are many reasons that this is true. I have a very pleasant and comfortable, warm, secure and loving relationship with my wife. She loves me, and I can’t help but smile just typing that statement. I love her; I enjoy her as a person, and I miss her when we are apart. She is a person that I respect, and I’m proud of her many accomplishments. If we had a city gate, she’d make me look good in it. Oh, and sex.
However, as wonderful as all that is, my enjoyment of my wife and our relationship is not primarily why my marriage is so important. The fact is, I’m more successful at being the person I was created to be because I am married. Marriage is many things–not the least of which is a spiritual discipline.
Two lives united in marriage learn about the pain and weight of sin, the cost of forgiveness and the comprehensive nature of love in the 24/7 laboratory of shared life. Marriage provides a never-ending conveyor belt of opportunities to serve and give and encourage and forgive and repent and support and pray. You are forced (over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again) to see that everything you do (and don’t do) affects the person bound to you. Your thinking will change as a result. Add some children to the mix, and you never have a moment with nothing to do. This will affect your experience of time and incline you to be diligent in its stewardship. Married life is often delightful and fulfilling! However, the moments where it is painful, inconvenient, unfair and downright annoying are not all that rare. One of my favorite quotes on these marital moments is from Mike Mason in The Mystery of Marriage, “…instead of falling into love, we may now have to march into it.”
While we may never actually say it out loud, inside I think we can sometimes feel like our little foibles and less-than-perfections are certainly not ideal but are really pretty understandable, given the circumstances. Marriage, however, puts you in the crosshairs of someone else’s “foibles and less-than-perfections” and they suddenly feel more like ugly sins that are not very understandable at all given your circumstances. Nothing can teach you about the ugliness of “foibles and less-than-perfections” like being irrevocably bound to a person who exhibits them. Then, the Holy Spirit (like a ghost of Nathan) will haunt your marriage whispering, “You are the man! You are the man!” And, like David, you can wind up broken and contrite, humbled and at peace.
We often quote Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”. I think we like that verse when we think about the outcome—sharpness! We all want to be strong and sharp! I wonder, though, if the proverb is really more about the process than the outcome. The image clearly suggests that sparks, heat and pain are plentiful as two heavy, iron-strong dull things bang against each other so hard that one’s out-of-line rough parts get violently knocked off by the an other’s out-of-line rough parts. Why are we surprised when this hurts and offends?
Do you want to be sharp? Then God tells you in Proverbs that you must submit yourself to the spiritual discipline of rubbing against other big, heavy dull, out-of-line, rough people who will scrape against you so hard that parts of you are knocked off. Without anesthesia.
I think the reason that most marriages fail is because ever since Genesis 3 we all want to be sharp but we don’t want to be sharpened. When I say most marriages fail, I’m not just referring to those that end in divorce. While those obviously fail, there is a very comparable failure that exists in many marriages that endure. I call it “marital détente”.
“Détente” is a French word that literally means “loosening”. It was applied to the state of loosened international relations that allowed relatively peaceful co-existence during the cold war. In marital détente, a couple stays married, but loosens their community so they don’t rub against each other. No pain, no heat, no sparks, no sharpening. The spouses silently agree to turn a blind eye to each other’s dullness and out-of-line-ness and leave the relational space for it to continue unhindered. As long as they both exist in a comparable degree of dullness, they are content to live and let live (which is, more accurately, die and let die).
Earlier in this chapter, I said that men and women often saw singleness (aloneness) as the safest path to the freedom/security of autonomy. We long for community and find a new romance thrilling and exciting! Then, the newness wears off and the faults become noticeable and the fears begin to rise. “What if she/he doesn’t make me happy?” “I’d love a marriage like ____(one or two happy marriages they know) but most aren’t so great.” They then conclude that their happiness probability is better alone.
Everyone wants to be happy. This is not wrong. If someone wanted to pursue unhappiness, we’d think they were crazy. The question is: “What will make you happy?
I don’t think many people really ever ask themselves that question. Instead they sort of close their eyes and attempt to feel their way down a happy path. If walking in a particular direction doesn’t feel happy they conclude they are on the wrong path and choose another. Some people (the wise ones, I believe) decide what will make them happy and then take path that leads there—no matter how the path feels. While the first group seeks a happy path, the second seek a happy destination.
One thing that all Christians should have in common is the belief that their happiness is directly related to their godliness. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are fruit of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, the more experientially evident those qualities are, the happier a person will be. Sadly, the world, flesh and devil are consistently sending us a different message, and we are not immune to its allure.
How much will you endure to be happy? How much will you endure to obey your Lord who said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”? How much will you endure to “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.”? How much will you endure to “fervently love one another from the heart.”?
Do you believe that happiness is found in closeness to Christ? Do you believe that Satan is actively trying to distract you from Him? Do you believe that life is a battle to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself?
To what lengths are you willing to go to hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest.”? Will you submit to sharpening in order to become sharp?
It is not good for man to be alone. You should probably get married. It is very likely God’s will that you do so. What good reason can you possibly think of to choose to live alone?
A lot of you have reasons. I can imagine several:
1: You just don’t have the ability. This is the most common one. If everyone was offered $1M to run a marathon in under 4 hours, most couldn’t do it–no matter how much they wanted to. A person has to undergo significant training to become the kind of person who can accomplish this. Similarly, being a God-honoring and spouse-helping marital partner does not come naturally. Nothing good this side of Genesis 3 does. If you want to honor God in marriage, you must become the person it would be in the best interest of your spouse to marry. If you aren’t that person, please don’t get married until you are.
2: The circumstances of your divorce don’t allow it. Christians disagree about what circumstances would result in this situation. However, if this is where you are, marriage is not an option.
3: You don’t have the desire. Perhaps you are not at all attracted to someone of the opposite sex. Perhaps you were molested or raped in the past, and the very thought of physical intimacy is repulsive to you. Maybe you have only ever experienced same-sex attraction. Lack of desire may, actually, not be a deal-breaker, as God may provide you with a spouse who will love you and work with you through whatever struggles you are facing. Nevertheless, it is also possible that marriage is not the best option for the foreseeable future.
4: You don’t have the opportunity. You’d like to be married and you’ve worked hard to be the kind of person who would be a good spouse. You just don’t know any single people who would be a fit for you. Or maybe you do know someone, but they do not see you as a potential spouse.
5: You don’t feel called. You have nothing against marriage, but you resonate with I Corinthians 7 where Paul says it is better to be single to follow the Lord. This is becoming more common, I think.
6: You are scared. And not without good reason! In marriage you are permanently and absolutely united to another. You get their resources and debts (present and future), and you give them yours. You share a name, a house and a bed. Your reputation and relationships will be significantly affected by someone who is beyond your control for the rest of your life. You forsake all others and pledge absolute fidelity until death. God, Himself, supernaturally joins you and refers to you as one flesh. If that doesn’t scare you, it probably should.
Marriage is a Big Deal
I remember a time, over 20 years into marriage, when the “big dealness” of marriage overwhelmed me. Certainly, I had thought about marriage many times before. I have always had a very high view of marriage, and I took my calling as a husband very seriously. Then, one night God overwhelmed me with a lesson, and my life has never been the same.
I was folding the laundry while my wife was at a meeting. I was getting increasingly irritated, as pretty much every piece of her clothing was inside out. I was seriously considering putting her socks together inside out (I can be that petty!) because I was so annoyed. Then this thought came and hit me like a hammer:
What if in the summer of 1991 I’d seen a burning bush in my back yard that was not being consumed. What if after I took off my shoes and fell on my face I heard the voice of God say,
“Mark! I have a daughter that I love very much. I love her so much that I was willingly tortured to death so that I could adopt her. There is nobody on this whole planet that I love more than her. She wears My name and bears My image and I am with her (very alertly) every nanosecond of her life. I could tell you exactly how many hairs are on her head, how many tears she’s ever cried and how much potential and aptitude I’ve built into her life. You’ve never met a more important person.
I want you to marry her and love her like I have loved you. I want you to take her into your house and give her your name. You will do whatever you have to do to help her know and fulfill her calling. I expect that you will treat her in a manner consistent with her relationship to me. She is a princess. She is My princess. You will treat her accordingly. Do you have any questions? Is there anything I have said that is not clear?”
Would I ever consider not turning out her socks if I thought about what it meant to be married to a daughter of God? Is there anything too much to give her? How overwhelming it is that I am called to lead her in following our Lord and will give an account to Him for what I have done?
It is actually pretty overwhelming for a woman too. She is called to submit to a man’s authority and treat him with respect–an actual, real, man living after the events of Genesis 3 and manifesting the fruit of it regularly. Seriously–how terrifying, frustrating and risky is that?!
The plain fact is that all husbands and all wives are (to put it delicately) incomplete in their sanctification. Lest there be any doubt, living with a person who is “incomplete in their sanctification” occasionally feels like living with someone who is “a selfish, inconsiderate, offensive and infuriating sinner.” Iron banging against iron is significantly more painful than détente (at least in the short term).
Do you want to live for the long term? Do you want to be strong and sharp more than you want to be comfortable and pleased with yourself? Marriage is the way to go! Get married! It hurts like fire, and it is more delightful than you can imagine–sometimes on the same day.
But what if you can’t get married? As noted above, there are many reasons why a person may not be a candidate for marriage at the present time. Does this mean that you precluded from the blessings of real, intimate community? Must you live your life independently, singly, alone? Is there any other option?
Paul Wasn’t “Alone”
Paul is famous for his statements in I Corinthians 7 that it is best to be single like he was. He said that a married man is concerned with the things of his wife and a single man is concerned about the things of the Lord. Yet, whenever he went anywhere he traveled with others, and the text implies that these people weren’t just loose associates but intimate brethren. Why would he split with Barnabas over taking Mark if these guys were just warm bodies in an entourage? There was certainly a level of intimacy that required absolute trust. His long greeting sections at the end of some letters certainly suggest that he very highly valued his relationships in the Church. He wants people with him. He understood the importance of community. He was not weak in this. He valued seasons of solitude when necessary (like when he went to Arabia early in his career). However, as I see Paul in Acts and his letters, it would seem that ministry (read life) was pretty consistently a team experience for him.
So, God made marriage. It is good. But then God tells us in I Corinthians 7 that now there may be a better way. A way similar to the way Paul did it—temporary, task-oriented, profoundly intimate, whole-life fellowship in the Gospel.
But who could do this today? Our culture fights against real community. With few exceptions (gangs, marriages, AA meetings, military units and monastics) we celebrate the independent individual. No one should put any chains on me! I’m free! I’m strong! I’m independent! I will do it alone! Anything less than autonomy is weakness!
But look around the Church—are we all strong in the way God says we should be? Are we all experiencing freedom in the way God says we should be? Are we all succeeding at our calling in the way God says we should be? Are we all at peace in the way God says we should be? Are we who we should be?
I think we have no room in our culture for real, intimate, task-oriented, loving, relationships outside of marriage. Relationships like the ones Paul had. Relationships that we really need. Relationships that God prescribes and will provide so that we can experience the freedom, strength, success and godliness that He intends for us.
So, to address this problem, I’ve invented a monastic order. How crazy is that?!
I remember being 24 years old and single. I was living alone in a city I’d moved to after graduation with hopes to go to seminary. My engagement to the girl I’d been sure I would marry was freshly broken. My family was a 12-hour drive away. I was working two jobs. I thought I knew a lot about life (I didn’t). I was struggling, and I knew I needed help. I asked my pastor if there was someone at church who could disciple me. Although our church had over 1000 members, he said that he couldn’t think of anyone. He suggested I hire a professional counselor.
The next two years were hard years. They were good years, but they were hard. God used that season in my life, and I’m a better man because of it. God frequently uses solitude to teach a man to be content with (and depend on) Him and Him alone.
At 26 I got married. The next two years were hard years. They were good years, but they were hard. They were hard in a different way, but they were hard. God frequently uses un-solitude to teach a man to be content with (and depend on) Him and Him alone.
I grew a lot in my solitude years. I have no doubt that they were a gift from God. So, this epilogue is certainly not saying that everyone should always avoid solitude seasons. However, I do believe that those seasons should be an exception rather than a rule. Humans are social creatures and the language and images of the Bible emphasize (and I would say require) intimate relationships with others.
So, what happens after you’ve learned what God wants to teach you in solitude? When you are ready for community, can you find it?
Many people (particularly women) are able to make intimate connections with other members of the local church. This helps, and this is actually enough in many cases. They are able to be honest with each other, and they are able to speak into each other’s lives. This is how the church is supposed to work and it is exciting when it does.
Many people have my experience, though. They’d like to have some intimate relationships for the purpose of spiritual growth and ministry effectiveness, but they just don’t have the opportunity. And, to be honest, even if they had the opportunity they may not be as honest and open as they’d need to be in order to give and receive what is needed. Men are especially bad at this. For one thing, they aren’t particularly inclined to be relational (especially if they are married) and, two, they don’t have the time (especially if they are married). On top of that, they don’t feel particularly equipped for this and are uncomfortable with discussing areas of weakness/failure.
Many churches employ personnel who are able to devote a large part of their time to meeting with members of the congregation for fellowship/discipleship. Single people in college often have exposure to para-church ministry staff for this purpose. Small groups are also effectively used by churches and para-church organizations to provide the intimate fellowship necessary to encourage spiritual growth and ministry effectiveness. Frequently, though, church relationships stay comfortably on the surface level. Marriage, as discussed in the previous chapter, is the classic provision for intimate fellowship. Many take that route with success. If you have the money, you could hire a life coach.
There are opportunities out there for real fellowship. I’m not saying that everyone in the world should live in a Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals community. What I am saying is that in some cases it would be good to create an environment where people can truly belong together without the permanent bond of marriage. Just as a season of solitude may be used of God to build people into what He wants them to be, maybe a season of un-solitude could be used of God to build someone into what He wants them to be. Or, perhaps, like a Pauline missionary journey, a season of mutually-embraced togetherness can be effective in the accomplishment of a particular common goal.
Personal Development Isn’t the Only Issue
I know single people who I want to get married, but I can’t think of anyone I’d like them to marry. They are lonely. How I wish they could know the joy of coming home to a house where they are loved. “I’m glad you’re home. I love you. How was your day?” They spend a lot of their life energy just persevering down their lonely path. Aloneness exhausts people. It is emotionally inefficient.
I know single people who live alone. They spend the vast amount of their paycheck just maintaining their living space and lifestyle. They buy groceries in small quantities, but leftovers frequently go bad anyway. Honestly, it is just easier to go out. This is expensive and bad for you, but who wants to cook for themselves and eat it alone? Together, one person pays a mortgage and all the rest live free! Together, one person pays the electric bill and all the others get free lights. Living alone exhausts your resources. It is financially inefficient.
I know single people who live alone. Every household chore must be done by them. Every meal to be cooked, every dish to be washed, every room to be cleaned, every blade of grass to be cut, every supply to be purchased must be done by them. Living alone exhausts your time. It is temporally inefficient.
God gives different callings to all of his children. There are some aspects, though, that are common to all. Not all are called to be pastors, not all are evangelists, not all are teachers, and not all are prophets. However, we are all stewards by divine decree. We need to take this seriously. Generally speaking, living alone results in poor stewardship.
So, there are two basic reasons why living in a Holy Order of Convivial Narwhal house may be a good idea.
1: The discipline of structured community and expected relational intimacy promotes godliness, ministry effectiveness and general personal well-being.
2: The practice of community facilitates good stewardship of kingdom resources.
Intimate community is difficult. Intimate community is socially resisted and extremely awkward to obtain and maintain outside of marriage (or within it, for that matter). Intimate community is risky. Intimate community is a valuable spiritual discipline. Intimate community reflects a loving God (“We love because he first loved us.” I Jn 5:19).
The Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals
I believe that community is worth the effort. Therefore, I’ve designed a versatile monastic order that creates an environment where real intimate community can occur. Certainly, there are no guarantees—just as in marriage, a person could join a Narwhal community and live in détente. The Holy Order of Convivial Narwhals can only provide the structure. The members must bring the life and the love (and the sharpening friction).
Thanks for reading this. I pray that God will bless you and use these thoughts in your life in whatever ways will be good for you and the Kingdom.