So the other day I got a notification on Facebook that said “Larry has tagged a photo of you.” Larry was my date to my senior prom. He was a good friend from my church youth group who went to another high school. Plus – he had a GREAT car. A brand new anniversary edition Mustang convertible. I knew we’d have about 30 minute drive to dinner and I was looking forward to going in that sweet ride. But I had forgotten about something really, really important. When I was in high school it was all the rage for girls to wear hoop skirt formals to the prom. You know – the big southern belle kind of dresses where you are basically wearing a lampshade. Well – imagine, if you will, riding in a convertible with the top down in that get up. I spent the entire ride trying to keep my dress in the car. But I loved that car, so every time he’d look over and see me frantically shoving my billowing dress back into the car and say do you need me to put the top up I’d say “No, no it s fine really.” When Larry posted our prom picture on Facebook – with him standing three feet away from me and my hoops – he commented on it – “Remember we saw a shooting star that night?” I thought – “What shooting star? All I remember was trying to keep myself from taking off out of the car with my skirt as a parachute.”
Virtual communities like Facebook and Instagram are an interesting phenomenon. I asked friends through my status update recently if they thought of Facebook as a community. I got a lot of interesting replies – mostly affirmative. One friend replied “YES…in that it certainly aids ANYbody in STAYing connected or REconnecting with a community that already exists: a person’s “family” of origin/choice or both.” Pretty good description of virtual community – which really is a snapshot of all of the multiple communities we connect with on a daily basis- family, friends, neighbors, church, school, work. How much each of these actually functions as a true community for us varies widely. In some we may have deep connections where we truly care about each other’s daily status. In others we may have more surface relationships where we just occasionally give each other a thumbs up and move on to what is next.
Though the field of sociology has no commonly agreed upon definition of what a community is, what has been more concisely expressed is exactly what constitutes a “sense of community” – that perception of connectedness with others that we all need for our well being. According to researchers, a sense of community is “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”
My virtual community actually gives a great clue of how a community like this is built. Some of my Facebook friends are people I grew up with who like to post and tag class photos from elementary school, including my sixth grade class photo where I am wearing shorts and terry cloth knee socks with bright pink, yellow and blue stripes. Nice look. These people also like to post dance pictures of me with people I forgot I ever went out with…and slumber party morning after pictures. I retaliate by posting church camp photos. Our camp was in the mountains. And let me tell you, nobody looks good in these pictures. But what happens when the photo goes up? There are immediate comments and the stories start flying. Oh I remember that night! Oh my gosh – do you remember what happened right before that picture was taken?! We share the memories with these communities of our past lives and one of the pillars of community is revealed. Shared story – which over time becomes shared history. Nothing changes your shared history with a community. When you experience life together – you are forever changed – and you are forever connected. There is great power in that.
The Bible tells the story of a people like this. Throughout the Old Testament and the story of Israel’s birth – their triumphs and their failures – we see the establishment of a community. A community that was built very deliberately. God gave very clear instructions that helped give them guidance about how to include people, make its members matter and feel they had a place. There was sharing of resources and division of labor. There were given clear guidelines on how their needs would be met and how they would stay committed to each other. When they messed up – the community suffered. And they did mess up – but they also had times when they got it right. The community grew, and they lived life together with a common purpose – they took care of each other. They experienced the ups and downs – the victories and defeats – and they built a story. And through that story they experienced God’s provision for them and the reminders of who they were and who they could be. They built an identity – through their shared origins, experiences and purpose. And with God’s guidance the community built into its very being – through holidays and festivals, Sabbaths and Jubilees – the reminders of their story. Over and over again – they were reminded of the stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brother, of Moses and his sister Miriam, of Esther and her faithfulness… Their story had power – it had meaning for each of them – it gave them identity and a shared purpose – it made them community.
When we share life together and create a common story – we are bound together – forever. Each individual’s contribution may vary – at times being significant – at other time maybe minuscule – but it is shared. And when we feel a part of a group that shares a common purpose and is committed to a common value – the power that comes in building that story together is formidable.
My husband and I used to live in Vancouver British Columbia Canada. We served as missionaries working with immigrants and refugees from around the world. One of the major groups that we got to know during our time there was the Afghan community. My closest Afghan friend’s name was K. I met her at a women’s group that I helped to lead at a community center. As we got to know each other, I began to go to her house several times a week. Over the course of time, we got to know her entire family and other neighbors and friends. I learned a lot about Afghanistan and its history and the turmoil that has ravaged this country for years. One day I asked K about her father and she told me the story of how he and her brother were both killed by Russian soldiers. As she told me this story the tears ran down her face. I felt as if I was being given a precious gift as she revealed her grief to me. She said “it hurts like it happened just yesterday.” Something changed in our relationship that day. We began to share more personal things as we spent time together. We learned to trust as we shared life together. I moved away two and a half years later – after the many months of cooking and laughing, hosting each others families, dancing after dinner and telling jokes, cleaning kitchens, celebrating pregnancies and grieving miscarriages. The day I last saw K I gave her a ride to work. When she got out of my car she said to me through both of our tears, “You are not just my friend – you are my sister.”
We were from different countries, spoke different languages, practiced different religions, viewed marriage and family very differently, but we had become community. Difference and diversity sometimes made it more of a challenge, but it also made it so much richer and precious. We don’t all have to be the same to be a community. We just need to belong, to matter to each other, to meet each other’s needs, and to share life together creating a common story valuing each step of the sometimes messy process.
My church just recently went through a visioning process. It involved months of gathering, sharing, and dreaming together. Lots of story telling from the past, the present, and imagining stories of our future together. It was a beautiful picture of community. We heard stories of belonging, of struggle, of having needs met by each other. We laughed and cried over shared story and imagined what new chapters might unfold in the years ahead together. When you ask people why they go to church and why they keep coming, you will hear that people come for growth and guidance, to stay grounded – but you will also hear a lot about relationship and community. People stay committed to church when it is their community – when there is shared life, mutual care and belonging. Whatever growth opportunities there are available – there must also be a sense of community and belonging, and room for new community members.
Author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman wrote “Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers.” – or sisters.
The newness and change keeps things fresh and invigorating – like a lake with rivers that flow both in and out keep it vibrant and growing. But our community must constantly make a place for these new and undiscovered sisters and brothers, hear and accept their stories and trust them with ours, make a place for them, and let them make a place for themselves and new places for us – and in so doing – continue our story together. We have to keep on showing up, listening, sharing and creating new stories. For in each of the stories there is truth to learn, lessons to value, and life to embrace.
A story is told of a disciple and his Master. The diligent disciple would go to the great teacher day after day, month after month and would sit at his feet basking in the Master’s instruction. The Master would always teach his disciple through stories. One day the disciple asked, “Master, why do you labor to teach me through stories; would it not be faster to teach me directly?” The teacher answered, “Bring me some water.” Now the disciple knew his teacher to be a very formal and disciplined man. He had never asked for water at this time of the day. Nevertheless, he went immediately to fetch it. Taking a clean brass waterpot from the kitchen, the disciple went to the well, filled the pot with water and returned. He offered it to his teacher who then spoke: “Why have you brought me a pot when I asked only for water?”
Just as the pot carried the water – stories are the vessels that carry truth, values, and beliefs.
They connect us to each other. They help us to remember. They bring healing and hope. They build community. They build a church. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught in parables.
For the kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price, like a mustard seed, like a prodigal child welcomed home.
Like prom memories and striped terry cloth socks.
Like cultural barriers broken down by sharing a story of grief.
Like cups of tea shared and tears shed.
Like singing together, building together, laughing together, praying together.
Shiny brass pots all – full of truth, learning, connections to be made, relationships to be nurtured, and communities to be built.
To build a community – a church – we must share our stories –
and build a new one together –
Our story –
Full of grace and truth.