Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

musing about community...

Years ago, a man came to the church where I pastor to teach for a few days.  He mentioned something in passing that has stuck with me for more than a decade.  He said that, every year or so, he and his wife get away to a cabin with several other couples for a few days.  They share good food and drink, relax, and connect with one another in ways that you can only when you're spending extended time away from phones and internet.  

That's not the unusual part though.  What struck me so profoundly was when he shared that these couples lay everything on the table with one another:  goals, financial choices, the state of their marriages, the struggles and joys they're having with their children.  They challenged one another, prayed for one another, expressed their love for another through this investment of listening, laughing, encouraging, truth telling... and then they went home.  

There'd be lots of ways to acheive this same kind of intimacy, so I don't want to get stuck on the form, as if we need a cabin, five days, and good wine to know community.  What I am "stuck on", is the awareness of how rare this is, how difficult it is to find genuine depth of intimacy and community anywhere at all.  

Can the church "create" community?  Increasingly, I'm convinced that the answer is no.  We can teach about, demonstrate to some extent through our own lives, invite people to nurture it in their own lives, practice some measure of hospitality, and provide structure.  But this is nothing more than pointing a hungry man to the refrigerator and saying, "help yourself".   When the day is done, the hungry person still needs to open the door, pull out the ingredients and cook.  

Made for intimacy, myriads find it lacking anywhere: absent from marriage, absent from friendships, there's a loneliness that pervades, and it strikes me that people of faith aren't immune from this struggle.  Why is this?  I think there are several reasons:  

1. Ambivelance:  We like intimacy and we like autonomy.  "Sure, I want intimacy - when it's convenient, and safe, and doesn't infringe on my right to make my own choices without the intrusion of other people's opinions in my life.  I like the "kum-by-ah" kind of campfire moments, the holding hands and hugging.  I like it when my views of reality are reinforced.  But I don't like the challenge, the accountability."  

2. Mobility:  These people I referenced at the beginning get together intentionally, even though they've moved apart from each other.  Unless there's intentionality about sustaining relationships, they won't be sustained.  Of course, this intentionality is, for many of us, problematic, because the little phrase, "not today...I'm too tired, or too busy, or..." becomes a mantra, and the years pass without connecting.  It takes work to stay connected in a mobile society and twitter updates are no substitute for physical proximity.  

3. Our fallen nature:  This isn't a technology problem; this is a human problem.  It goes all the way back to the garden, when Adam and Eve made their little coverings, and hid from God.  We've been running and hiding ever since, but baptizing our running and hiding, too often, in the respectable busyness that defines our times, or in self-righteous indignation when intimacy exposes our own issues.  It's easier to cut and run 


At 28/5/09 09:25, Blogger Kevin said...

You've mentioned this several times before (here and in your sermons), but I wonder if placing autonomy and intimacy in polarity with one another is somehow missing the point of both. I would argue that intimacy does not come at the loss of autonomy but through a full realization of it. After all, our ability to love corresponds to our freedom of will; in order to love fully we must first freely choose to love. Is it possible that true intimacy implies not a connection through blurred personal boundaries, fates tied together, but through a union of individual wills: two people, autonomous and separate from one another, freely choosing to be bound not by a sacrificing of their persons but through an embracing of a common destiny?

At 28/5/09 09:51, Anonymous Andrew said...

While I don't think "the church" in general has done a good job of creating community, I also think it is possible for someone to be part of community which is also their church.

Ideally I'd like to see the church be a better facilitator of creating community, but this requires people be willing to embrace the community that is developing and also to put their time and effort into its success.

The concept of "Third Place" came up in a discussion that I had at work during lunch yesterday. Before yesterday I had never heard this term before, but it was interesting to consider the concept. I wonder if I should consider my home church my third place? Also what happens when I don't get my social needs met at my church/third place, do I attempt to add a fourth of fifth place, to create try and create community, but this act unfortunately dilutes the ability to be intimate in community since our "loyalties" are now split between even more groups and people.

At 29/5/09 09:42, Anonymous Geoff said...

Richard, I think [and I'm just conjecturing here...] you should add a fourth reason (or perhaps expand upon your third reason): the pervasiveness of consumer selfishness. This is certainly a part of our "fallen nature", but it is more specifically, I think, a primary factor in our struggles to develop community.

What I mean is this. The structure of our Western democratic-capitalist society has allowed "freedom of choice" and "human rights" to become the central truth of our culture. Everyone grounds their identity on the ability to make decisions that are based upon their own best interest.

While there is certainly a positive element to individual freedom, when coupled with the ever-increasing desire for "more, better, faster, stronger, younger, etc..." it creates an environment where more and more options are available, each of which claims to be better than the last.

If this is our grounding world-view, it is not surprising to see many people struggling with community. There is always, in the back of our minds, the thought: "Could I do better than this?" We constantly suspect there might be another community that is more open to letting me be 'me', that respects my rights, and that has the potential to give me what I feel is lacking in my current community.

In short, our freedom of choice is stifling our ability to genuinely connect, because nothing is ever good enough.

This is why, Kevin, although I see your point, I take issue with your definition of love. Free will certainly plays a role in love, but there is a point at which human beings must, paradoxically, freely choose to sacrifice their freedom! This takes place both in relationship to God and to others.

We do not need to realize the fullness of our autonomy to fully love; we need to make the free decision to give up our freedom -- this is the correspondence. Inasmuch as I am unwilling to give myself for the sake of the other, I will never truly experience love or community.

Or, to use your terminology, Kevin, when Christians "embrace a common destiny", that very destiny means embracing our own self-sacrifice so that we can ultimately gain ourselves, in God's resurrecting love. Translating this into our human lives seems extremely difficult, and I submit it is, in part, due to the reason I stated above.

Thanks! :-)


At 29/5/09 11:55, Blogger Kevin said...

Good thoughts, though I don't fully agree with you on your definition of self-sacrifice (either that or we are using different terminology to speak of the same thing). Perhaps you can help me better understand your position, because the one true instance of self-sacrifice appears to me as though it was a wholly autonomous act. Although Christ did submit to the will of the Father (giving up his freedom, one might say), he did so freely and thus in no way was he sacrificing his human freedom. A freely chosen act can never negate the freedom through which it was made, however self-sacrificing it may be. Freely Christ made his choice, freely he went to the cross, and freely he gave himself up to death; all of this, we believe, was an act of truest and purest love. There was a union of separate wills--Christ's human will and his divine will--but there was not a sacrifice of freedom.

I think it misses the point to blame a consumerist mindset for an inability to enter into community, though I can see why one would do so. It's is not a new indictment to call our culture a consumer culture, but I increasingly find it to be a narrow-sighted critique. What human culture has ever existed that has not been centered around consumption? Even Christianity is a culture of consumption, but with a very crucial distinction: consumption within the Kingdom of God does not focus on the "how" or the "what", but rather the "why". We consume as an act of remembrance that honors the promise, given by Christ, that one day we will be reconciled to the Father, that we will consume not to dull the anxiety of estrangement or because of some biological impulse, but for the sheer joy of it.

For now, we have many options before us, but not any more so than humanity has ever had. Certainly, the panoply of distractions that daily entice us have taken on forms unseen before in history, but they are merely iterations of the same reality that we have always known, and seeing beyond them to the promise of the Kingdom is no more or less difficult than it has ever been.

At 29/5/09 14:18, Anonymous Geoff said...

Hi Kevin,

It could be a terminology issue; I'm suggesting a particular theological definition of freedom. As Bonhoeffer liked to say, true freedom is "freedom for" rather than "freedom to." Now, I don't think this negates individual freedom, but it re-positions it, and that's part of the paradox.

To my mind, Christ's freedom can only be equated with his autonomy precisely because of his decision to surrender his right to autonomy. I guess I would reverse the process: Rather than saying that Christ "gave up" his freedom by submitting his will to the Father, I would say that he actually GAINED his freedom in that submission.

Our freedom as humans is always a priori provisional and limited. The same seems necessarily to apply to Christ as human. The difference is that since Christ's will was completely submitted to God, Christ's autonomous freedom became complete in the power of God. It was not in his human freedom that Christ went to the cross, but in God's freedom.

Does that make sense at all?

As for the "consumer mindset" issue, I take your point, and certainly the eucharistic aspect is a very intriguing way to approach the issue of consumption. I have questions about that, but I think that should be another post! ;-)

However, I strongly disagree with this statement: "For now, we have many options before us, but not any more so than humanity has ever had."

I think we might have to enter into a sociological discussion of urban cultural shifts and what not, but I think it's very easy to argue that a few hundred years ago (or even more recently in rural America), in any primarily agrarian, pre-industrial society, there were FAR fewer options that could distract people from community.

Certainly, the option to avoid community has always be available, but let's face it: there are simply thousands of "community" options available to us - on the internet alone - that did not exist even 20 years ago. And every "community" vies for our attention... So the fact that people might have greater difficulty in establishing community allegiances doesn't seem that odd to me.

I think facing this fact is necessary if we are to seek any solution.


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