How Is Community Possible? by Henri Nouwen
In 2,000 years of church history, you will find an ebb and flow of opportunities seized and opportunities lost. While church history is often a study in fracture – who split from whom, when, and why – nevertheless, it remains remarkable that community is found even today among drastically different people. An illustrative moment comes to mind: a few years ago, a friend – a Methodist leader – found herself meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican. How much may change over 500 years.
If those of us in the United States can allow ourselves to be invited to take off our America-centric lenses for a moment, we have an opportunity to receive awe. Christians are worshiping together in Japan; Nigeria (where some recently have died due to their faith); Brazil; Nepal; Russia; Egypt; Switzerland; India; China; and a host of other countries. Just from this handful of examples, we know that China and Japan have a quite painful recent history with each other; but there are followers of Jesus in China, and followers of Jesus in Japan. Week after week, genuine believers gather in community in person (or virtually) to worship, hear Scripture, pray.
We believe in the holy catholic (universal) church, and the communion of saints. The global church is astounding in its breadth, diversity, and liveliness. Within the global church, the Wesleyan Methodist branch of the family tree is also astounding in its breadth, diversity, and liveliness – 80 Wesleyan Methodist denominations with over 80 million members in over 130 countries. Differences may remain, and yet community is also celebrated every five years at the World Methodist Conference, embodied in a procession of flags as representatives enter beaming.
How is community possible? Is it, perhaps, easier to interact with Christians from other nations who are a bit removed from more local controversy? Not always; iron sharpens iron, and sometimes believers outside of our own culture see clearly through our blind spots.
The truth is that the Christian faith has never approached community as possible solely in the confines of an echo chamber. The Holy Spirit destroys feedback loops; if we quench the Spirit, we lose our saltiness. Scripture burns; affirming the Creed tugs us into alignment; the Eucharist keeps us all beggars in a bread line; works of mercy force us to learn names, not just repeat talking points. If you approach community as a customer or a food critic, you will be hard-pressed to find it.
Like a virus, loneliness has grown to epidemic proportions. When an actual virus hit, the two collided. What does community look like when tent-pole communal rituals have to be put on pause? (What does community look like when there is significant difference in risk assessment among believers who have life insurance and health insurance, and those who don’t?) Rituals imbue time and gathering with layered symbols and actions that carry meaning far beyond the immediate and literal. When you and I lose rituals – from physically attending funerals to casually lingering in a store aisle, slowly browsing and picking up greeting cards – these actions, big and small, that mark our days and moor our identity are lost.
Who are we?
We are servants; we are the younger siblings of our sisters and brothers in Christ, who are leading believers through time zones and hemispheres and governments and languages and cultures. We are people of the Way, which means we do not belong to ourselves.
The late Henri Nouwen, a Catholic brother in the faith, lent his contemplative insight on community and solitude with these words:
“Community, like solitude, is primarily a quality of the heart. While it remains true that we will never know what community is if we never come together in one place, community does not necessarily mean being physically together. We can well live in community while being physically alone. In such a situation, we can act freely, speak honestly, and suffer patiently, because of the intimate bond of love that unites us with others even when time and place separate us from them. The community of love stretches out not only beyond the boundaries of countries and continents but also beyond the boundaries of decades and centuries. Not only the awareness of those who are far away but also the memory of those who lived long ago can lead us into a healing, sustaining, and guiding community. The space for God in community transcends all limits of time and place.
Thus the discipline of community frees us to go wherever the Spirit guides us, even to places we would rather not go. This is the real Pentecost experience. When the Spirit descended on the disciples huddled together in fear, they were set free to move out of their closed room into the world. As long as they were assembled in fear they did not yet form community. But when they had received the Spirit, they became a body of free people who could stay in communion with each other even when they were as far from each other as Rome is from Jerusalem. Thus, when it is the Spirit of God and not fear that unites us in community, no distance of time or place can separate us.”
Who are we? You and I are called to be Pentecost people, shaped not by national affiliation but by the holy catholic church, and the communion of saints. You and I are called to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us individually and in us as a community, whether gathered or scattered makes no difference. You and I are called to train our eyes and our hearts and minds to see that, “the community of love stretches out not only beyond the boundaries of countries and continents but also beyond the boundaries of decades and centuries.” This is no Sophomore crush love; it is the self-giving, pelican love of the Trinity that makes all things new, thunders and whispers, and loves us too much to let us stay small in our hearts, small in our holy imagination, small in our words, loves, and actions.
Featured image courtesy Simone Busatto on Unsplash.