Community is one of those words that floats around. It fades in and out, it is always something that we seem to want more of and always something we perhaps take a little for granted. It is there when we don’t need it and not enough when we do.
It is not the fluffy comfortable stuff made up of laughs and inconsequential conversation, but nor is it just those chats that fall into the accountability category when we talk about our sin and where we’ve got it all wrong, and where we pledge to do better next time. I’ve been turning this one over for a while, several years kind of a while.
Last week I sent out an email, I invited some friends around for dinner. And the problematic word in that sentence is some. On Saturday we ate food, we threw popcorn at each other and we played Jungle Speed. But I was wrestling with an awkwardness and was ill at ease. I’m not very good at curating social space, it doesn’t come naturally it causes me to fret and fear, it encourages the anxieties of social isolation and the vulnerable liminality between the invite and the acceptance.
I’d not invited all of my friends, and there was some ad hoc rationality constructed. Mostly I’d set a number in my head and stuck to that. There was no exclusion intended, but I think it was felt. And the irony was that this vague idea of community was what prompted my rare foray into social organisation.
I have a hunch that we’re not always very good at finding that line between the organised spiritual and the casual friendship, the space where the hard questions get asked. I want to be known by people who do not shy away from saying the difficult things. I want to be known by people who can ask why I didn’t invite certain people, who can kindly, carefully, question my actions.
Church makes a grand play for providing community, where else are the young and the elderly, the rich and the poor, the South American, South African and South Korean stood side by side? It makes the play but doesn’t always follow through, it has the potential, but not always the result. Sometimes I am at my most lonely when I am in the biggest crowds. And it concerns me how frequently those large crowds are in church.
Community is something I long after. Maybe it is the absence of more permanent relationships that prompt the searching, maybe if I had what I thought would fulfil me I would not be frustrated that nothing else quite made do.
And then are the times when I need a smack round the head, when I need grabbing by my ankles and some sense shaken into me and my maudlin mood shaken off. Tonight Lauren Dubinsky did that for me:
Community is not accountability to sinless-ness. Jesus has already given us that.
Community is the people who surround you that ease your burdens.
Community is the people who fight the same battles that you do; laugh when you laugh, cry when you cry.
Community is the people who are in the exact same predicament you are in. All the same struggles, all the same questions.
Community is the group of people where, when you enter the room, you can collapse on the sofa and not care if the way you’re sitting makes you look like you have a double chin.
A beautiful story follows, if you didn’t before, pause now to read it all, but it draws to an end with this: Community is just… life. Willing to give, willing to receive. Willing to believe that we are all equal, and no one moves forward without the other.
It threw me over the edge and forced some perspective into my myopic vision. I’d been fretting over social gatherings and awkward subsets and limited invites, all of my own creation. I’d been frustrated that the community I wanted to be a part of was not forming in the ways that I would like. I got a little angry when things didn’t go my way.
I was worrying about whether I stood a chance at building the relationships I wanted, relationships I imagine I need.
All I was doing was trying to turn the community that I have into the community that I want.
Last year I wrote that: “Community is the gradual unravelling of the layers that we shroud our innermost being with. It’s the place where we find the courage to bare our souls. It’s the people with whom we can share the things that hurt more than the words we muster can convey.”
And yes, I suppose it is, but I think it is also where the layers of clothes stick together like swimming in the river fully clothed. Community is not only where the good stuff happens, where the spiritual impartation, the rebuking and correcting, the admonishing and training in righteousness, community is where we sometimes don’t manage to do so much of that.
We are in community, we are swimming together, but frequently we are swimming fully clothed.