I looked out across our living room and dining room. People were crammed onto the couch and into chairs drawn tightly together. Some sat on the steps, all the way up the stairs. Some were bunched in the doorway of the kitchen. They were here for a house concert, an evening of live music, performed by me and a friend. Could this be my new community?
Since retiring from my ministry as a parish priest, this was the first sizeable gathering I had hosted, or even attended. It was thrilling. I missed my church community, the natural gathering that happened each week, where we greeted each other, worshipped together, and then mingled easily afterward over coffee and homemade baking. This wasn't that. But it was friendly, warmly sympathetic, and fun.
But there was something unsettling about it, at least for a former parish priest. This assembly of strangers was gathered around a single focus, and that focus was ... me. In church, I may have been a focal point, leading worship, preaching, presiding, but it wasn't about me. We were all looking beyond ourselves, to the God whose Spirit we were invoking in our prayers and in our hymns.
Also, something was missing. While we seemed a cohesive lot, joined by a love of music, or perhaps simply by knowing the musicians, we didn't know one another. More significantly, we hadn't suffered together, unless the songs were worse than I thought. Community forms, not only through shared interest but, even more, through shared suffering. A community that sings together only really gels when that singing becomes a lament, when our hearts are broken, and we hold one another up, lest any fall.
This is the problem with the feeling of community on retreats and at conferences, in seminars and at weekend workshops. For a short while, with a clear focus and good leadership, a group of strangers can feel like friends. Perhaps they are. But they're not a community, not until they've suffered together. Not until the smiles are replaced by winces and the laughter by tears. It's in suffering that our bonds form. Anything else just feels good ... for the moment.
So I learned something that evening. It was good to be together, this assembly of strangers.
But it was not a community. Not yet. For that, we'd not only have to gather together, we'd also have to travel together, to where the going gets tough, to a common destination beyond the purview of any one of us. And this was not that.
Next week: Intentional Friends
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