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