Community and relationships are hard. Church relationships are the trickiest that I have ever known. I can work at a job hours and hours a week and experience a camaraderie with my co-workers that endears us to one another. But when the shift is over, when the job is done, I have no expectation of anyone calling me or staying in touch with me. “Nice working with ya. Good luck,” and off I go, not a trace of angst over the ending of knowing them all.
But in my church communities, probably just about every single one that I’ve ever been a part of for more than twenty years, there is always, always bruising and wounding from the lack of truly meaningful friendship. Church, it has been said, can be a lonely place.
Why is this? Why is there an expectation that people in my faith community must be my friend everyday of the week and not just Sunday? I have not expected this from my co-workers. My work life and my social life were two separate things. But in church, over and over again, there has been the expectation that my church and social life must be one and the same. And when it’s not, I feel rejected and wonder why my phone’s not ringing.
I began to reflect on this several years ago. I was in my late 30’s. My family and I were part of a large church that had many activities and ministries. I jumped in the swirl and began to form relationships with others who were involved in the same things as me. We enjoyed each other, experienced intense spiritual moments together, spoke the same language, voiced the same longings. All the things that make up friendship. Except for one detail; our involvement was limited to a church building and a church ministry. Most of my church friends, probably 99 percent, had never been to my home nor I to theirs. The people I would pray with and cry with and have spiritual intimacy with did not know my children’s names or know that I am an avid rose gardener with over 20 rose bushes in my backyard.
It was like an illusion, the illusion of friendship and the illusion of community.
What is community? It’s a word that is thrown around a lot in the blogosphere and the circles I travel in. What does it mean and why do we search for it, only to turn up empty handed over and over again?
Some people, I have known over the years, in an effort to create and sustain community, will choose to live together in a co-housing situation. I know of one such community in my neighborhood. These people have successfully lived together for almost twenty years. Not a lifestyle for everyone, sharing of property and living in such close proximity, especially for fiercely independent Americans, but they’ve made it work. I have also known others who will purchase homes in the same area or neighborhood. One family I know divided up a large piece of land they had inherited and parceled it out to friends to build homes on and live together like a commune. It worked for awhile, until families moved away and new families, unknown, moved in.
Are we so desperate for a tribe that we look for ways to create one?
I love my church. I have loved every church that I have been a part of, the big ones, the conservative uptight ones, the loud and rowdy one we now call home. And here’s the thing: Church is People. Church is my spiritual community. It is the place where others, like me, are in hot pursuit of God and meaning for life. That meaning, the feeling of significance, is found primarily in faith and community. At least it is for me.
My best friend in the world is staying at my house right now. She and her family live in China and are home for a summer break. (Eight people, one bathroom, good times!!!) We are experiencing an amazing level of community in my home right now. Other adults are helping me and Jerry run our home. We parent each others kids. We have big, noisy meals together. Kim and I go for long walks discussing everything under the sun that we’ve been saving up since we last saw each other. This past week we have been entrenched with talk about relationships and learning how to navigate the give and take — and certain rejection that we’ll receive and also dole out — to those around us.
She loaned me an article that she keeps folded up in her purse. It’s written by that great Catholic mystic, Henri Nouwen. Here’s some excerpts:
Community is not an organization; community is a way of living: you gather around you people with whom you want to proclaim the truth that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God.
If we do not know that we are sons and daughters of God we are going to expect someone in the community to make us feel that way. They cannot. We’ll expect someone to give us that perfect, unconditional love. But community is not loneliness grabbing onto loneliness.
Forgiveness and celebration are what make a community. Forgiveness is to allow the other person not to be God. Forgiveness says, “I know you love me, but you don’t always have to love me unconditionally, because no human being can do that.”
To forgive other people for being able to give you only a little love — that’s a hard discipline. To keep asking others for forgiveness because you can only give a little love — that’s a hard discipline, too. …still, that is where community starts to be created, when we come together in a forgiving and undemanding way.
(Leadership Magazine, 1995)
I am prone to feelings of rejection. I have a natural bent — from years of having a poor
self-image — to imagine that I am unwanted and forgotten. Overlooked. Insignificant. Invisible.
I don’t matter.
The past four years have been especially trying in regards to how I see myself in that raging beauty known as The Church. I am secure in the love of my Father, but I’ve been unsure about the family of God. My relationships in every single church I have ever been a part of have been based on ministry performance.
My phone rang off the hook when I was in the swirl at our former large church. But once I pulled the plug and pulled back, the little red light on my answering machine stopped blinking. What happened? People I thought I had a caring friendship with were suddenly no longer all that interested in me.
But how could they be? Our only context for relating was in church and in church related busyness. They loved me when we were in the building together. Sundays were awesome. For ninety minutes. But then, when the doors were closed and it seemed like I was usually one of the last ones to leave, I’d head home and for the next six days my life was disconnected. The phone quiet. Messages unreturned. Emails ignored. WTF?
I can understand why people get pissed off and storm out of churches swearing that the people in them are just a bunch of hypocrites. Really. I do. But here’s the thing: I think this happens because we have a distorted expectation… if we put that same expectation on ourselves we’ll quickly learn that it cannot be fulfilled. How many people have I unknowingly wounded because I didn’t notice they were gone so I didn’t call them? How many relationships have been jaded and disillusioned by how loving I acted on Sunday, yet did not invite to my table at my house on Monday?
I am the Church, and as St Augustine said, “The church is a whore…but she is my mother.” I am the dysfunctional one in the community. It’s me. Because I have expected other wounded brothers and sisters to get me and help provide meaning to my life.
These days, I am so very happy that I live in much greater freedom and peace about my church family. The red light still doesn’t blink. I rarely see anyone outside of a Sunday morning or other church organized gathering, and that’s ok. Just because they’re my church family does not mean they have to fill up my social calendar. I enjoy celebrating Jesus and being the beloved with my beloved sisters and brothers, even for only 90 minutes once a week. It’s not their responsibility to create meaning and significance for my life. That’s something I have to sort out inside of me.
Church is lonely, but so is life. At the end of the day, we each live alone in our own skin, with our shadows and secrets and longings and broken dreams. But our identity, the core of who we are, is not rooted in our failures or successes, or community or friendships, or blinking red lights. Our identity, my identity, is anchored in that I am the beloved daughter of my Maker. This is the meaning of my life.
(tattoo on my arm, by Aaron Goodrich of Portland, OR)