Reflections on Community

I was going through some old files tonight and came upon this meditation I wrote on community several years ago. I like it (I think) and share it with you:

Community is a phrase that is easily thrown about in the church today. All manner of preachers, theologians, philosophers, social theorists, biblical scholars, and even church custodians muse on the nature of community. “What does it look like?” “Who’s included or excluded?” And the most common refrain in seminary communities: “Have we got it?” Community is a concern of the modern church that seems to be everywhere.

Part of the reason that it seems so elusive is that the concept is so nebulous. Just look at how the word is used. We can build community. We can be a part of a community. We can have a community event. We can experience community. Community is a notion for which all sorts of images have been created. And it seems like everyone has a different image when they talk about community.

Community, at its most basic level, is the description of a group of people or animals who are bound together by some common thing. Persons who live in the same vicinity are said to live in a community. The same thing can be said about sheep, cattle, or geese–although generally people aren’t called a herd or a gaggle as well. This communal commonality is often a common identity, such as human nature, or sheepness or cowness. Thus, this notion of community requires only a simple point of commonality with an other. This of course means that any person or thing can be a member of multiple communities–such as all the humans in the world with brown hair and brown eyes. That community would be the brown haired, brown eyed community of humans. This can be carried on ad infinatum.

However, when religious people begin to talk about community, they seem to suggest something more than this definition of commonality. Oh sure, they recognize that commonality is an important identifying point for community. But they want to go deeper. They want to create community, to see it blossom into its full potential so that all persons can be fulfilled. They want to experience community at its fullest, to let it inform their very being and confirm that indeed they are persons of worth to the world.

What these persons seem to be wanting is not community per se, but rather is relationship. Relationship is a word that has come to represent for many an exclusive notion of an emotional, sexual connection between two persons. It is often used to speak of romantic liaisons, seeming to designate an intense emotional connection between parties. “I’m in a relationship,” my friend tells me sweeping her hand across her forehead. “Oh, you’re dating,” I say. She looks at me as if I’m a throwback to the ‘60’s (a charge for which I’m guilty). “No, it’s more serious than that,” she says. “We are bonding…”

Yet “relationship” is exactly what folks are looking for in community. Webster’s defines “relationship” as “the state or character of being related or interrelated” with a close tie to “kinship.” What does it mean to be related? It means to be allied or connected to our “kindred,” that is to become a part of a family.

Now I have to say that I am somewhat uncomfortable with using family language in the church, since we currently do it so often and so poorly. Sam Parkes suggests that churches often call themselves by the name family not for any theological reasons, put to perpetuate “a cultural myth that idolizes a certain hierarchical structure of power that is, in fact, contradictory to the church’s purpose …” Many persons’ experience of family is less than positive, a place of abuse, pain, and despair without notions of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. It seems to me that the church’s appropriation of this image in self-definition is problematic.

Yet, part of the reason we so easily fall into that language is that we want the church, or for that matter any other community we participate in, to fulfill the longing we have inside for the ideal family. It is a description of what we want more than what we have. It is an attempt to grab hold of the reality of our identity as children of God, and to share that identity in love with other children.

What is behind this longing for family? What is it that we really want? I propose that ultimately what we are looking for is “home.” “Home” is different from family. It is not a physical location (although that may be a part of its reality) nor a particular grouping of persons (although they may serve to facilitate it). Home is a state of being, a place where a person is at one with themselves, comfortable with their being, and affirmed in their worth.

Home is a place where people can be their true selves, unburdened by the ways that others would have them to be. It’s a place where you can pull your shoes off, even though you have holes in your socks, and plop your feet up on the sofa. It’s a place where one can burp freely, without fear of rejection. Home is the place where one can try out new ideas, knowing that they may be challenged, but never belittled. Home is the place of the front porch swing, sweet tea, and singing around the piano in the parlor. Home is the place where we can sit quietly with one another in the same room while we all read a good book.

Home is also a place where we experience our interrelatedness. During my college years, my “home” (in all senses of the word) was in an old house that I shared with three other guys. We were all idealistic religion majors, all Baptist, and all broke all the time. The house was a dump, but the rent was $80 per person per month, and only a ½ block away from the main building on campus. It was an interesting place, that soon became the center of life for a varied group of people, primarily college age Christian folk who didn’t quite fit into to the formalized student ministries on campus. It was a place where one might walk in and find six persons talking philosophy in the living room, and another couple curled up in your bed studying.

The home on 356 Center Street was a lesson in interrelatedness for us. We were all broke, living on student incomes with little help from our family. Yet we learned that by pooling our resources we could make ends meet. Our home soon became a place where resources were freely shared. It was a place where whoever had money at the time would feed the others with no expectation of being repaid. We all knew that in the end, it would work out evenly. Thus we were able to put aside our concerns about our personal rights, and enjoy the experience of one another’s company.

That is the way it is with home. Home is a place where the rights of an individual, while being honored to their fullest, do not have to worn as a badge on one’s sleeve. It is a place where one can share one’s resources, one’s time, one’s self without concern for repayment, because you know that all have a commitment to doing likewise.

Don Henry, a Nashville songwriter, has written a song about a trip to his childhood home that goes like this:

This used to be a place called a neighborhood,
with picket fences made of wood.
Tire swings and daydreams
grew wild in the backyard.
There used to be bells from an ice cream truck,
a treehouse fortress built on luck.
A friendly game of kick the can
grew wild in the backyard.

Now it’s just a mall, that’s all.
Artsy-fartsy tourists on parade.
Bermuda shorts, white legs, black shoes.
Polaroids to capture all the dreams gone blue.
Time just turned it all into a mall.

It seems to me that our current wave of desire for community has, in a sense, turned it into a mall. Rather than doing the simple, yet profound work of being at home, we instead turn to the mass produced consumerism, trying to build and sell community like it was any other product. We want to be able to go to the mall with it’s plastic trees and recycled air and faux marble floors and get us some community.

Home isn’t pretty like the mall. Unlike the perfect plastic trees at the mall, home has real plants with their imperfections, and one or two even somewhat wilted. The air at home isn’t freshened with some sweet floral fragrance, in fact, home may be musty in places, or may smell like the rich, earthy smell of fresh baked bread. The floors at home aren’t smooth marble, but old wood, wobbly and textured and full of the scarred places where our human frailty has caused us to fall down. Home is not an artificially created experience. Home is reality, embracing all that we are in unity with others.

Come home.
Come home.
Ye’ who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
Calling O’ sinner
Come home.

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