Entering into a new place and finding my way into a new community is providing an instant refresher course on the in’s-and-out’s of forming and living in community. You’d think I’d have learned this by now and so it feels a little like remedial breathing lessons. Call it “Belonging 101.” Probably better titled “How I can’t do it alone but why is it so hard to do it together.”
Although we are so deeply discipled in the way of individualism (the demon is in so deep we have no idea how misshapen we’ve become because of it), there’s still a longing for something more than “not doing things alone.” We struggle to live it, sometimes don’t want it, chafe against what it demands of us, but mostly yearn to be part of a living, breathing, interdependent, covenant community that shares life together and is devoted to one another’s shalom.
As I try to find myself in that sort of community, here are a few things I’m being freshly reminded of lately:
While I’d prefer friendships to be at no cost to me, in fact, the gift of community requires costly investments of myself, giving some of my most precious resources, like time. You can’t microwave community; it’s a “slow-movement” type of thing where bonds of trust and companionship are formed through shared life over time. Which means community and friendships make demands on my time and availability. Am I willing to allow others to place such obligations on me?
One of the crazy ironies of a community that is “natural and safe” is that it requires risk and vulnerability. In the communities I’ve entered, I’ve lost count of the times we’ve invited people over, taking the risk of seeking relationship and not had it reciprocated. It’s a hard, vulnerable thing, isn’t it, that unrequited desire for friendship. But it will happen along the way; get used to it.
Which means that the gift of community and friendship will likely be extended by some wonderfully unpredicted people. So get ready to be surprised who actually ends up being part of your long-term community – it probably won’t be the usual suspects.
But to be open to that, I need to let go of my idol of the perfect community. Filed somewhere in the back of my heart is this notion of the ideal community – all the cool kids who hit the right cafes, are well connected, know how to pronounce Goethe, dress well, engage in meaningful conversations (but never press their opinions too hard), are relationally low maintenance and yet gladly put up with – even enjoy – my flaws, love me unconditionally but don’t expect too much from me, and practice good hygiene. Isn’t that the temptation, to yearn for some ideal community that no reality will ever measure up to?
Which is why church can be so hard for many because we come expecting an experience of distilled divinity but instead find raw and uncooked humanity. I get to hear a variety of people lament their disillusionment with church, talking about people who have hurt and disappointed them. But what other sort of people are there? Isn’t part of the difficult gift of community directly related to the challenge of differences?
Another one of the quirky paradoxes of community is that the very dynamics that provide a deep sense of belonging are the same that can exclude others. The power of the inner circle almost seems to be equal and opposite to the energy to include; its like trying to simultaneously balance both centripetal and centrifugal forces. So if you’re newly entering a community, be gentle with people there and realize that many are likely blind to the fact that they may be excluding you; and yet if you do enjoy a rich experience of community, understand that unless you intentionally take steps to decisively include others, know that you’ll be giving off an elitist, exclusionary vibe.
All this reminds me of the gorgeously beautiful song by the Avett brothers, The Perfect Space (you can listen to it below). They sing my heart: “I want to have friends that I can trust, that love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was … I want to fit in to the perfect space, feel natural and safe in a volatile place.”
We get tastes of that perfect space here and now but all the friendship and community we enjoy will always be a partial wholeness, a trailer for life in the new heavens and new earth. But that hope of a perfect space gives me the grace to receive the lovely imperfect gifts of community today.