If I’m being honest, community has sometimes felt like an artificial sort of word to me, an abstract man-made word for an abstract man-made concept – like that favored buzzword of the business world, synergy. I tend to be suspicious of words like these. It helps me to boil community down to its basic ingredients: Relationships, and a Place of Belonging. Each of those is still covering a lot of ground, but already feels more down-to-earth and relevant. Because life up to this point has taught me I need both relationships and a place of belonging.
I learned very early how to be by myself and be content that way. I say “learned,” but I don’t actually remember a time when I didn’t live mostly in my own head, so maybe that’s just the way I was put together. I do remember learning, empirically, to be wary of people, because they weren’t safe. The more interaction with I had with them the more often I seemed to get hurt. To move out of myself and engage with a wholly different personality already felt foreign to such an introvert as I was, like venturing to an unknown world. That so many of these worlds seemed hostile and unpredictable made continued voyaging feel excessively risky. So seldom did I land somewhere I seemed to belong, that I came to depend on not belonging. I climbed up out of the valley of the shadow of youth having mostly dammed up my deep need for relationship, as well as any outflowing streams that could ever pour into others.
To spiritually wall off your front door – it’s a crippling defect at any time, but the holidays especially seem to show it up for what it is. It’s not an accident that Ebenezer Scrooge’s story takes place at Christmas time. When we talk about Scrooge we tend to think first of his greed, but it seems to me his scorn for relationship is the more deadly. He’s been living in self-imposed isolation and contempt for his fellow man all year, every year since as long as anyone can remember, but come Christmas the state of his heart stands starkly visible against the fellowship, charity, and goodwill all around him. It is here the choice before him becomes most clear. A London Christmas becomes a sort of arena for Scrooge to confront past decisions that have hardened into habit, until he stands before that ultimatum: is the man he’s become going to be the version of himself he’ll live out, to whatever end awaits such creatures? Is he truly self-contained, is his money enough for him? More to the root of it, is he himself enough for himself, in the end?
If Scrooge walled himself off from his fellow man with money, building stacks of coins into ramparts around him, maybe I walled myself off with books. They stack just as well, if not better, and when misused can be a convenient portable back exit to duck out of. Growing up, most all my relatives lived an eight- or ten-hour drive distant, so I only saw them a few times a year. We always made the trip for Christmas. But at any family gathering, I always had at least one book spacious enough to disappear into, and did so as often as possible. My father would roust me out of the furthest, quietest corner of my grandparents’ large house and lead me back, like a cowboy with a wandered-off horse, to rejoin the crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’d small-talk when pressed, field questions about school for a bit, and within minutes had slipped off again to another nook to submerge in my novel.
My habit of constantly absconding was no reflection on my extended family members; I liked them well enough, so far as we were acquainted. But acquaintances they mostly remained, because I never opened myself to anything past acquaintance. I was self-contained, had what I needed, thank you. If I had some deep-seated need for community – and I would never have confessed any awareness of such a need – well, I was spending hours a day with all sorts of characters in all sorts of books. Folks who didn’t demand anything of me, had no claims on my time or convenience beyond what I felt like giving.
Decades later, it is still too easy for me to go through the motions of life that way. Yes, achieving a semblance of adult functionality has required I learn to be more tactful about how I withhold myself from people, but it’s still avoidance and surface-only interactions that I default to if I’m not careful. This is as true with loved ones as it is with strangers. It is a sorry thing to be celebrating Christmas with extended family and still holding people at arm’s length with reserve and a polite façade. Giving presents without being fully present. Thanks to God’s extensive renovations on my heart over the years, I’m thirsting for more and better than a bland, civil specimen of Scrooging along. I see that to go on removing myself from fellowship leads to a shriveling of my own soul, and derails me from living out of love and service to the people Christ died for. It sits ugly in my gut to think back on all the people I’ve robbed. People who deserved for me to show up in ways other than merely bodily when we were together, people who deserved a chance to know who I really am. People who might have helped teach me who I really am.
This, then, is what little I know about community: the first condition, the soil in which community can grow, is the willingness to know others and be known by them. For many of us, to reach even this starting point is a long road that needs much courage. It means believing that you have – that you are – something worth offering to others. It means knowing you will sometimes be hurt by people, and moving toward them anyway. It means exercising that forgiveness-muscle until it’s first sore, then strong. It means caring about people more than about our own time and convenience, taking seriously the idea that we are not our own, we were bought at a price.
I suspect – and I may be wrong, being a tenderfoot when it comes to community – that this first step is the hardest, but throws the door wide open. That when we become ready to know and to be known, relationships will blossom, often unlooked-for and surprising. I believe God will bring community to us, when we let Him. (Not that He never uses a season of isolation in order to do some work in us, but when He sees His purpose fulfilled, He brings us back to relationships.) When I turn and look over my life thus far, all the important advances were brought off by Him, and the most I contributed was my willingness to submit to what He was doing. I expect it is much the same with community. Will He not provide it, knowing we need it and, indeed, having created us for it?
After all, community and relationship are not something we invented. They pre-date us and the earth we walk on. They have always existed in God, whose three persons have been eternally in relationship to each other, each loving and being loved by the others: a complete and self-sufficient community. We might even say Community is an inseparable, essential part of who God is, since God is Love and always has been, and love is impossible without an object to give it to. A plurality of distinct entities is needed, Lover and Beloved. Look at what this means: God needs relationships in order to be loving, but can love even before creating anything outside Himself, since He exists as a community within Himself. Might we say that even God needs community to be Himself?
If this is true, what does it say about us, who are made in His image? If the Author of everything can’t exist outside of community, can we? We need relationship and belonging, they’re more vital to who and what we really are than oxygen. Surely, had it pleased Him, He could have formed our bodies in such a way as to not require oxygen, but I think even the Most High could not have fashioned us to do without community, if we were going to bear His image – not without being something other than who and what He is. The need for relationship, it is innate to us. And being derivative, finite beings, we can’t carry our community around within us like He can. We have to move outward and become a part of a greater whole. It is our nature as humans that anything big enough for us, has to be bigger than us.
We have an enemy who knows this and fears the power of it. From the very first it has been our community that he’s attacked, as much as anything else. You know the story. The Almighty creates a material universe and peoples it, in order to have more Beloveds on which to pour out His love and to invite others into the community within Him. He starts with a garden, and a man and woman who walked and talked with Him in the space He prepared for their fellowship. They belong here, and to each other. But by the time the serpent’s work is finished, the community is broken. The created hide from their Creator, both physically and verbally, and with their link, their spiritual umbilical cord to Him severed, their bonds between each other begin already to break down and become corrupted. “That woman that you sent me,” Adam says with accusing fingers pointing in two directions, “got me to eat the fruit.” As the story ends the couple is ejected from the garden – the “place of belonging” they no longer belong in.
That story, I think, continues to play out in every human life. Our Father invites us into relationship with Him and with each other, offers us a place of belonging. The serpent calls us into ever-greater aloneness and isolation, into a curving inward upon one’s self. I sense all around me the same choice that loomed before Scrooge, and every day, every hour, I choose either fellowship or myself. And by choosing myself I mean a lesser self, a self that fades away a little every time I choose it.
We are made for community, and cease to truly be ourselves without it.
This season we remember and proclaim how God gave us Himself, when no lesser gift would suffice. We sing out the birth of that baby who would one day tear down the veil of separation and crush the serpent’s head. The way into loving fellowship has been opened; in this as in all things, the real work is already done for us. This Christmas and always, Lord, give me strength to follow your example in self-giving.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.