Almost everybody says they want community. If all community meant was human beings gathering together for shared interests, Seattle would not have a community problem. But everyone knows that we do.
I think what most people really mean when they say they want community is that they want the sweet, satisfying feeling of belonging. One of the great joys in life is feeling at home in the company of good friends. Likewise, many who have had mystical experiences of communion with God, including me, describe it as an experience of “total belonging.” However, this total belonging comes not only with the feeling of unconditional acceptance, but also with an invitation to change — to become better, wiser, deeper. It is a magical feeling to be accepted as you are AND provoked to transformation. That is one of many paradoxes of community that make it so wildly desirable and so difficult to attain.
Total belonging comes not only with the feeling of unconditional acceptance, but also with an invitation to change — to become better, wiser, deeper
Another paradox is the clash between individual and group needs. Some of us are trained to pursue our own goals no matter what. Others are trained to consistently surrender our agenda in favor of the needs of the group. This is an inherent tension in community. A community is healthy only if its members are getting something out of it on a personal level (otherwise the community just uses its members). But most communities would collapse rapidly if their members quit caring about the good of the whole, and often supported that above their own interest. True community is the place where the conflicting needs find balance and harmony.
True community is the place where the conflicting needs find balance and harmony.
One more paradox of community is that it must be both strong and weak. Jean Vanier, the author of “Community and Growth,” said, “wounded people have taught me that I must learn to accept my weakness and not pretend to be strong and capable.” Real communities create space where we can reveal our vulnerabilities without shame. Yet, real communities must also take action in the world. A community that exists for more than its own maintenance can avoid the pitfalls of internal bickering and power struggles. The true community is both strong and weak.
Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, often uses this metaphor for community: “the body of Christ.” For me, this enlightens paradoxes. The body of Jesus showed unconditional love as-they-were AND challenged people to grow. The body of Jesus cared for both the individual soul and the need for collective liberation. The body of Christ was something both wounded and powerful. The early art of the Church depicts the Resurrected Christ with pierced hands and feet and side. I love that these artists refused to depict him as only strong, but insisted on drawing the wounds.
In these dangerous times, may we work toward creating communities that are accepting and challenging, personal and collective, and strong and weak together.
Rev. John Helmiere, the Convener of Valley & Mountain.
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