Community

Long ago, before any of us can remember, two people huddled together for warmth. Perhaps they were in the crook of a tree where they had climbed for safety from animals on the ground. No one knows for sure and since we are uncertain, our imaginations can make up quite a story. What we know is that getting together was good for the people. It felt good. They were able to do more than they could do individually. They formed families, tribes, clans and communities. And it was this desire to have others around that was a strong motivation for their actions.

That, of course, is only one way to tell the story. Our people have preferred a slightly different version: In the beginning was God. And God is love. And in love God created people in the image of God. All people were created in love and have love in them. That love brings people together. Early in the creative process, when there was only one human it became evident that it is not good for people to live alone. We were made for each other. We were made to live together.

Almost every version of the story, no matter how you tell it, comes to the conclusion that there is great value in human community. Somehow, together we are more capable, more creative, more productive and happier than we are alone. Even folks who chose to live in the most remote and isolate locations on the planet chose to have someone with them. There are a few stories of hermits and others who live alone, but they are always the exception and never the general rule.

I’ve been reflecting on this because it seems to me that at the heart of the Christian church is the quest for community. People want to have a place where they belong, where their presence is honored, where their gifts are recognized and where they find genuine relationships with other people. Much of what I do as a pastor is to build up and strengthen community. We gather regularly for worship and worship of God is important, but if you watch the people gather for worship and if you watch them when the service is ended, you notice that one of the great motivators for participation is to be with other people. They enjoy being with the others who come to this place. The sharing of a meal, after all is a sacrament. So, too, is making commitments to raise children in the community. We see community as holy business.

Sadly, however, we are not always good at nurturing that community. More frequently than I would like, I hear stories of people who have been insensitive to others. Even in the church, cruel words get said, feelings get hurt, people feel attacked. Even in the church, a kind of selfishness sets in that results in a lack of sharing. As a pastor, I spend a fair amount of time going around the community and listening to those who have been hurt and trying to patch up relationships that are frayed and broken.

Life in community demands a ritual of confession and forgiveness. We are human and we make mistakes. We need to be able to admit our failures. We need to receive forgiveness. We need to be able to forgive ourselves. We have a formal process in the church, but often we are a bit inattentive to that process. We think of sins in terms of personal excesses and self indulgence and forget that our deepest sins are the way we relate to others. We go through the process and say the words, but don’t really forgive those who have hurt us. We hang on to our griefs and grudges way longer than is good for our own health.

As we witness the crumbling of religious institutions in the 21st Century in America, it can be painful to see the ways in which our culture has changed. Attendance at church is optional - something that is done when there isn’t something else that is more interesting. The same person who will wax eloquently about the foundational necessity of faith in the life of their children will report to me that they can only attend worship when it doesn’t conflict with soccer. When we have a guest minister, people want to know who is preaching before they decide whether or not to attend worship. I can cry and complain about these phenomena, but they are realities with which we need to learn to cope in the life of the church today.

I rely on my belief that despite the trappings of contemporary society, despite the trends away from institutions, especially the institutional church, there is, deep within all people, that desire for community. We do not long to be alone. And the church can offer genuine community. A sports team can be a community for a while, but it is rarely a lifetime commitment. When your prowess and ability fades, as it will for all people, your role on the team fades as well. Those relationships are for a while and then they are gone. That is why so many other institutions in our society divide people by age. You won’t see 10-year-olds playing with grandparents in any of the city’s baseball leagues. Watch a family go into the YMCA. They might enter the building together, but they quickly divide to activities that are appropriate for their ages.

The church still holds the ideal of intergenerational community where people form all walks of life meet in a community that endures. The congregation I serve has been a part of this community since 1878. It has literally been here for as long as the city has existed. We plan to be here for many more generations. And once in a while we experience our community at its best. This weekend I will officiate at a wedding where the maid of honor is the first baby that I baptized when I came to serve this church 23 years ago. Despite our flaws, we have endured through time.

Much work remains. Our church is imperfect. But the promise we hold is tremendous.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!