An atheist single mom set out to shock the religious fanatics and ended up staying
Sibyl Sender (1934–2014)
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At twenty-five, Daniel was living in the German university town of Mainz, wrapping up his master’s degree in communications (he also studied psychology and philosophy), and wondering what he should do next.
I kept circling around the question, “What is life all about anyway?” I didn’t have a religious background, yet in the end I went to a Buddhist monastery to try to find out.
Later I moved away from Buddhism and began a long journey through Christian communities and monasteries. I lived with a group of Franciscans. I also made a final foray back into Buddhism, at a hermitage in Sri Lanka.
Looking for life’s meaning on your own terms is tempting because you can arrange everything just as you like it. But I think it is also an illusion – the idea that it is the way that leads to God. One of my more providential encounters in this regard was with an old hermit in Scotland. He taught me that if you are always in the driver’s seat, nothing will work – that God will not bless your search. He said, “You need to find someone to be obedient to.”
Looking for life’s meaning on your own terms is tempting because you can arrange everything just as you like it. But I think it is also an illusion – the idea that it is the way that leads to God.
Sometimes Daniel wasn’t even sure what he was after. He knew only that he could not settle for the “fragmented, materialistic lifestyle of Western consumerism.”
In 2007, Daniel visited Sannerz:
Outwardly, the forms were totally alien to me. I was used to the silence and solemnity of monasteries, and here it was all bustling activity and lots of children – a very different spirituality. Like every newcomer, I was a stranger to the particulars of Bruderhof customs and culture. Finally, there was the whole idea of giving up my “freedom” and being accountable to others, and trusting people in a position of leadership. That’s not something a liberal academic upbringing prepares you for. Despite all this, Sannerz was an oasis for me in a time when I was pretty much in the desert – or to put it another way, a beacon of real hope, pointing to the kingdom of God itself: to the essence of all that is good. I didn’t choose the Bruderhof. I was called here.
He became a member the next year, and in 2009 married Jessica, a teacher. They have a daughter and son. Today he does marketing for Community Playthings and translates books for Plough Publishing House.
Living in community means giving up things. That includes your wishes and plans. If you join a community in order to answer God’s call, you have to really do that, and give up everything else.
Everyone has a different path, even within the community: there is a huge range of lives that are lived and can be lived. But in every case, the key question is, “What is God calling me to?” There’s the person I might like to become, but then there’s the person that God wants me to become. The two might be quite different.
Living in a community doesn’t always mean experiencing true community. That has to be sought anew each day. Inner fellowship and heart-to-heart encounters can happen, but they’re not a constant. There’s no guarantee against frustration.
Community is not the be-all and end-all. It’s more like a marriage partner. It will never be perfect. If you’re looking for perfection, you’re going to be disappointed. And it can’t replace your relationship with God. You won’t survive without personal communion with him.
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With photography by British photojournalist Danny Burrows, this 300-page hardcover book celebrates what is possible when people take a leap of faith. It will inspire anyone working to build a more just, peaceful, and sustainable future.
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