“Community” is one of those words that, when not used in conjunction with a certain TV show that really needs to come back on the air soon, usually causes me to roll my eyes whenever I hear it. And I hear it a lot in Christian circles.
It’s a lovely concept, this idea of living and sharing life together as a body (to use Christian terminology). But it’s often a concept that we only pay lip service to. We extol its virtues… and then we move on to something else. Because real community requires work. It requires the work of looking past our own lives and preoccupations so that we can take stock of the lives and needs of those around us. It requires the hard work of exposure, of making our lives vulnerable enough to let people into them, regardless of the messiness that lies within. And it requires the really hard work of loving people in spite of their messiness, and being willing to believe that people will love you in spite of yours.
Living in community, in other words, requires us to humble ourselves enough to put others first and to be willing to be humbled when others discover the more unflattering aspects of our lives.
Every week, a group of women in my church take turns going to each other’s houses to help out with various projects: cleaning, rearranging and decorating, painting, or in this particular case, setting up a new nursery for a baby girl. To be more specific, my baby girl. They call it “Project Help”, a simple title that doesn’t need to be anything else, because it’s all about helping . . . and building community.
My friend Tara explains what happens during a typical “Project Help” visit:
[B]efore we go any further, let me clarify that when we all show up at a house, we are asking said members of that house to sort of bare all. There is a good chance we are gonna get right up in your business. We are gonna see the dust bunnies behind your bed, and possibly know the color of your underwear (or at least what drawer it’s in). There is a vulnerability in inviting people into your home to work, a likelihood that there will be a moment you will want to apologize or prepare people for what they are about to see. But who can judge, when we all have things like moldy dried up apples rolled up behind our couch (that was me) or sippy cups of spoiled milk found at the bottom of toy boxes (me, too). There is no judgement here. But there is a something quite wonderful exchanged when vulnerability, need, and love-in-action meet.
Later that day, as my wife and I reveled in our baby daughter’s lovely new room, she told me how humbling it is to walk into a room and see your friend on her hands and knees, scrubbing away at a particularly nasty spot on the floor. A nasty spot that’s been there far longer than you care to admit, but that you just forgot about — or more likely, were never able to get to because of the hundred other things on your “to do” list — and so it just sat there, mocking you and making you more frustrated about the state of your house, your responsibilities, your competence, etc. A nasty spot that is a small, seemingly trivial reminder of the fact that our lives are rarely what we want them to be. Again, from Tara:
If we could more richly delve into each other’s lives, we could be part of healing some of what is broken. Intertwining our lives in a way that would combat and push back against what many of us struggle with: purpose, isolation, fear of man, insecurity, pride, and believing we are loved just as we are. It isn’t magic to do this, but it is work. We have to show up. We have to ask questions, good ones. We find out more about our friends, our neighbors, and the people we share life with. We learn and look for opportunities to take whatever we have been given — our gifts, our experiences, our hurts, our joy, our resources — and we volunteer them to be used. We pray.
This is probably the cynical introvert in me talking, but I don’t like the thought of being open and humbled. I like to be seen as competent, self-made, and independent. I want people to think of me as a good husband, a wise father, a reliable co-worker, an interesting blogger, and so on. I want people to think that I have it all together — even though the reality may be that I’m just getting along by the skin of my teeth. On top of that, because I am selfish and arrogant, I don’t like other people to intrude into my life and upset (what I think are) my priorities.
Pulling together a nursery for a baby girl, or any other such project, puts the lie to all of that. These ladies love our family, pure and simple. And they refuse to love only from a distance. They want to be a part of our lives, nasty spots on the floor and all, and they want us to be a part of their’s.
Obviously, one doesn’t need to be a Christian to live in community. But Christians, given our shared inheritance in Christ and our collective identity as His body, have an especial duty and responsibility to do so. As Jesus Himself said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, ESV). If we truly love one another–if we truly seek to be His disciples–then we ought to be gladly willing to do the hard work of building community. Doing so not only brings benefits to us, including a deeper union with one another, but more importantly, can serve as a powerful witness for Christ and His Church to the surrounding culture.