Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Mystery of Community

I have always been fascinated with the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. As a child I used to love the stories of the Jewish traditions and festivals but it wasn’t long before I realized that stories about “the Jews” and their traditions seemed to change regularly – it seemed that the “tradition” always managed to fit whatever point the pastor happened to be making. Recently, my interest in the matter was rekindled by the works of Rob Bell and this time I decided to do my own research and ordered myself a ton of books on the subject. So far I’ve read some fascinating books and I have also started watching some of the Jewish religious broadcasts on TV and I have to tell you, I’m learning a lot! However, in the midst of all this learning, there has also been a rather sad realization. I started to see that there is something important out there, something amazing, something beautiful and worst of all, something I have no part in. Family. Community.
See in Jewish thought the two are not really that separate. In the Hebrew, the word mishpahah means “family”, but it doesn’t simply refer to parents and children, it is a whole social unit that includes grandparents, uncles, aunts and even remote cousins. Furthermore each mishpahah sees itself as part of a single worldwide Jewish family. Honestly, it was the last thing I expected to find. For some reason I thought it would be something else, something different, something more ... I don’t know, more spiritual? Yet the more I look, the more I find that it is central to pretty much everything. To God, it seems, togetherness/family/community isn’t an important thing, it is the important thing. Once you start looking you see it everywhere.
You can start for instance by looking at God – what is the Trinity other than the most perfect and harmonious family unit? What is the first thing we find God doing? Creating people (after creating a home for them) so that He could spend time with them. Most of the Old Testament is just the story of God, having a relationship with different people. Look at the Ten Commandments – God doesn’t command you to honour Him, instead He commands people to honour their parents!
When Jesus comes to Earth, what does He do? He surrounds Himself with people! Also in this matter, where the disciples come from is important. The area in Galilee where almost all the disciples came from wasn’t a rich area or a famous one, it wasn’t a great centre of learning or culture. However they did have two things in that area that must have mattered to God because that is where he went to find the people he would build his Church with – a love of the Scripture and close-knit family units.
In fact, these close-knit family units play an integral part in the teachings of Jesus. Back then in Galilee, a family would live in something called an insula. Here the entire clan – the whole mishpahah lived together in combined living units around an open courtyard. Whenever Jesus used the word “household” this is what he was referring to. This is what He referred to when he said: “In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you”. See when the disciples heard this, they didn’t picture heaven as we do – each one in his own special mansion. No to them, heaven was living as a family together with Jesus in the same house, the house of His Father. When a boy of the family got engaged, he first spent time adding room for him and his bride-to-be on this insula – the house of his father. Then when it was ready and the father approved of the work his son had done, only then the son could go out and pick up his waiting bride, have a wedding and bring her home. Sound familiar?
And so it goes. Now, every time I read the Bible I can’t help but see that it is written in terms of family/community. Even at the end of days when the people are separated into the sheep and the goats we find that they aren’t separated on grounds of correct dogma or right belief system, amount of souls won or personal holiness. The final criteria for Jesus boils down to how well did you take care of your fellow human beings when they needed you?
Only it seems that this community message has gotten a little diluted through the years. Communion went from being a social meal round the table, where everyone talked and remembered Jesus while sharing a common cup and loaf of bread to something sanitized where we all get our little bit of communion to go “enjoy” privately. In fact most of our faith has all become a private thing – just me and God, no one else allowed in. But this was not always the case. Every aspect of the faith used to be a community affair. Everyone read the Scripture together, everyone from young to old got a chance to read out loud, everyone discussed it together – there was no private interpretation of the Bible. Prayer was done communally and it wasn’t always this me-and-my-needs thing either. In fact some Rabbi’s taught that a prayer that cannot be offered on behalf of all Israel is not a prayer worth praying at all. It is still a rule among devout Jews that a man must regularly pray together with a full quorum (at least 10) of other men. I once heard a young Jewish doctor tell of how he sometimes doesn’t feel like going out to the synagogue early in the morning for the prayers, instead tempted to take some “me-time” to replenish himself, but then he always chooses to go and he says that this is because this community prayer does exactly that – it replenishes him, more than an extra hour of sleep would. Community was everything to the early church – just look at the images Paul uses, a household, a building, a body. How much of that is still true of believers today? Many of us still use the Christian family vocabulary (brother, sister) but do we still mean it?
So I think we might have a problem. Correction, I can’t really speak for “us” so I shouldn’t even be using the word “we” – that’s part of the problem, I don’t have an “us” to speak for. Really, all I can say is that I think I have a problem. See there is this incredible mystery that seems to be at the heart of all that is important, this mystery of family, community, togetherness, being a part of something greater than yourself that makes you more than just an individual, makes you part of a greatness you cannot have by yourself. Problem is that I have no connection to this mystery. Like so many in this information age, I am connected but I am alone. I have friends in the UK, the USA and the UAE but I don’t know anyone in my own street. To be honest, I have no friends in the same suburb as me, no one within walking distance I can call on. I have family, but I see them about once a year. Maybe. I recently realized just how disconnected I have become when I filled in a form at the hospital and had trouble thinking of two numbers to put down as my “in case of emergency” contacts. No one in my family even knew I was going in for surgery. Somehow, I have managed to become incredibly disconnected from the world around me, but it was not always this way. While I was growing up, every day, every meal was family time. We always sat around the table, we ate together, we talked together, we would listen to the radio news together and my dad would quiz me on random things to see how well I understood them. I was an only child so even back then I was alone a lot of the time, but those times kept me connected. Later, when I went off to study I lived in a residence complex with a bunch of other guys and that was probably the most connected I have ever been. I was rarely alone, we were always hanging out, going out together, talking, visiting room to room, studying, living and eating together. It was an amazing time. But I guess after my parents died, things started changing.
Aloneness is like a disease. Its not loneliness, loneliness drives you to find others. Aloneness is different from singleness, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being single. Rather, aloneness is the opposite of togetherness, it is being disconnected from all around you, being separate from everything. I used to see that as strength, something to be proud of, but I’m starting to have second thoughts. I used to pride myself on being a One in a world full of Two’s but I’m starting to think that is not really something I should be proud of. I am part of nothing, I belong to nothing, I am building nothing, I am supporting nothing. This is not right. Not right at all.
See what I’m starting to realize is that community isn’t about losing your individuality, it’s not about becoming part of a “hive-mind”. I’m starting to think that instead it means living outward, giving out (not giving up) everything that makes you unique and special to benefit those around you. Maybe you are only really become fully human through your relationships with other humans – or as the Zulu’s say: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, a person is a person through (other) persons.
Now realizing this is all good and well, but that still leaves me with the problem of what to do about it. I have been so happily alone for so long that I’m not really sure how to be a part of a community anymore. How do you start to connect when you have been so disconnected for so long? Reaching out to people feels foreign to me now, depending on others feels wrong somehow, having others depend on me feels frightening. Honestly, I don’t really know where to go from here.


GumbyTheCat said...

As I get older, I prefer solitude more than the company of others. I am apparently afflicted with the disease of aloneness, lol. I like your point about being acquainted with people from around the world due to the internet, but not knowing anyone on your own street. Things are definitely different than when I was a wee lad. Used to be when a family moved into a neighborhood the entire neighborhood would show up at your door as the "welcome wagon". Now, no one gives a rat's ass if someone moves into the neighborhood, as long as they don't bother anyone. We have lost our sense of community, and although I enjoy my solitude, I can't help think that we've lost something important.

TPluckyT said...

I really enjoyed this, one of your best posts to date . . .

You are really on to something important here and I encourage you to "sell all you have" and "buy the field with the treasure" . . . Sorry for the biblical reference, sometimes old habits die hard . . .

This line of thought could lead you to some life-changing discoveries and I am excited for you . . .

scoey-d said...

I resonate with this - & really with your take on aloneness vs. singleness. Isolation is terminal. And potentially contagious...

Thanks for this.

plf5403 said...

In our modern disconnected world there are still many communities out there. Any group of like-minded people in common pursuit of a goal could be considered a community. There are morally positive communities like churches (most?), morally neutral like food co-ops, pilates class and morally negative like regulars at a strip-club. My hunch is you wouldn't necessarily want to reach out to the morally negative clan right off the bat. You probably won't get much traction offering to wash your brother's feet while they're stuffing the 1's in the G-strings. But you can find communities wherever people are in need. Are these the "kind" of people you want to fellowship with, not me, but that's where the greatest need is. And perhaps that's where the greatest sense of community can be achieved.

RandomSue said...

Hey Eugene, I know I am way behind on this but I have to comment. Tim told me that this was an amazing post and that I should take the time to read it the day you posted it.
I have a friend that expressed almost these exact same sentiments to me a couple of weeks ago.
(she happens to be a super hot 30 year old woman :)
Anyway, she is working through the same process.

Tim and I are a bit unusual in that we have friends on other continents as well as an amazing church family that actually acts like family. The strangest thing of all, is that we are friends with almost every family on our street and we actually socialize with them on a regular basis. I get the impression that this is unusual no matter where you live in the developed world.

I like what you said about community not being about giving up yourself but rather giving yourself away. The uniqueness that makes you, who you are is a gift to be shared with those in your path.

a little side note is that plf5403 happens to be my brother. He happens to live as far away as he could possibly live from me and still be on the same continent. We manage to talk to each other just about every week but it sucks to have him and his family so far away. A little ironic i suppose.

RandomSue said...

the last paragraph of this post gave me incredible personal insight...into you