Babies are being born in my circles of the church. They are bundles of disruption who demand that their parents and those who love them abandon most self-oriented pursuits. They insist we focus on what else really matters: the weaving of community.
Community makes regular people ambitious
I have followed my dreams and ambitions my whole adulthood, and I am sure I have been led by God to do so. But the Lord also taught me, early on, that family and friendship — the basic, personal relationships that pull us to develop community, are the home of the love that keeps my ambitions humming. It is the momentary revelations of love that remind us we are alive. Here’s an example of a moment. When I was a child I would shake my hands with glee when I was excited – my family never forgot it. (One of my grandchildren paddled their belly with similar enthusiasm – and probably still does when no one is looking). When my younger sister was brought home from the hospital, I was about 2 ½. I was standing in the driveway jumping up and down and shaking my hands with glee — so eager to meet her! No one ever forgot my joy – or the wild way I showed it! It was one of those moments people love to recall — a moment when love and joy ruled the family. I suppose we keep going to meetings of the church because, so often, something happens that reminds us that God is with us and love is possible — joy and love rule the family of God.
In the U.S. society, we are so overrun by philosophies of autonomy and individualism that we spend all our time mastering them at the expense of weaving the fabric of community together. It’s not that both movements aren’t important. Individuals make up the community and communities make individuals. They are always running in tandem. But it is easy to see that individual pursuits often overshadow making relationships. One obvious example is how often people wait to get married until they have settled their careers these days. “Millennial men and women are more concerned with establishing their own lives before agreeing to share them with a partner” (Cosmo). Likewise, once those thirtysomethings are having children, the pursuits of their individual families often remove them from their extended family, much more does it removed them from the life of the church or neighborhood. Very busy people often become very successful in the economy at the expense of their community; this is an old story now.
Weaving individuals into community is a Bible theme
Balancing our God-given uniqueness with the weaving of community is one of the major themes of the Bible from start to finish. It is a basic story about love. The story about Joseph and his brothers is a great example. The fabric that makes up Joseph’s “coat of many colors” is desecrated by his brothers. But it is his understanding and leadership skills, combined with his capacity to forgive, which saves his family and supplies the strong ties that will keep God’s people together in Egypt. The next big story is about Moses and the themes are similar. Just as the social fabric of Israel is unraveling in slavery, God commissions the uniquely gifted Moses to lead the people into their own country. Over many years on their heroic journey, they learn to weave the fabric of authentic community. The unique vision of Israel and their authentic community go together, or there is no promised land.
A good way to see God’s people weaving community is in the Ten Commandments Moses delivered from the mountain. One way to look at these famous sayings is that they install disruptions to individual ambition and personal glory in honor of maintaining community ties. They are all about honor, which is the foundation of life in community. When we honor God and have no other gods, we love the Lord with all our heart, soul mind and strength. We devote our energy to the innate desire of all creation for communion with the Creator. The obvious extension is to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
As the list of commands are completed, they enjoin us to honor our parents — being trained to give fundamental respect to others by giving respect to the community who formed us. We are called to honor the Sabbath — to cease our self-directed work and honor who we are and in what community. The rest of the commandments honor individual rights: to life, to marriage, to property, to honest public affairs and to individuality. The communal fabric is sustained if we have respect for the individual. The individual is sustained if they have a supportive communal fabric.
For all my life, people in the United States (and other societies) have been having quite a contest about whether they will be subject to these principles. With all our capacity to be autonomous and an acceleration in our preoccupation with individual rights and the technology to exercise them, we are all experiencing a dangerous unraveling, it is even hard for the church to hold together.
Healthy ambitions spring from extravagant honor
When I am counseling couples, especially before they are married, I often end up using an old metaphor to make a point about honor. If we want to stick together, we all need to “doff our hats” to one another, like a chevalier meeting a lady or a lady curtseying to another. These kind of behaviors used to be common and they made sense. It is easy to see the flaws in a society, of course, but most of them have something quite brilliant built in, too. In the 16 and 1700s the nobility of Europe were trying to hold on to their power in the face of the pressure of individualism and democracy, not to mention capitalism, individualism on steroids. Back then, they developed systems of rank and honored people accordingly with great expressions of courtesy, which they thought hearkened back to better days in the past. So Alexander Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers in 1844, looking back to 1625, when d’Artagnan was learning the elaborate ways of courtesy. Movies ensued and so we all know about it. Try this one you’ve never seen at ~24:45:
I often tell marrying couples to figure out how to express that great clause in the great Romans 12: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (ESV) – “prefer” one another, “take delight” in honoring the other, “eagerly,” “excelling” at it. If you want to be ambitious, be ambitious about that. When your mate enters the room, bow before them as if they were really something. If you are wearing a hat, ceremonially, sincerely, let it sweep the floor before them. At least put down your phone for a second and look them in the eye! Honor is the foundation of community. It is the practical expression of our love for God. When the Ten Commandments says “Honor,” it does not mean “obey” and it does not merely mean “respect;” it certainly cannot be reduced to “sending thoughts and prayers.” Honor is profound regard for the innate value of others before God. It is the life of Christ bowing before sinful humanity with forgiveness and self-sacrifice and then Jesus trusting his followers with his own Spirit. Honor is Joseph finding that his uniqueness is valuable for the preservation of his community even after they had left it unrecognized and squandered it. It is Moses taking on a job he does not want for the sake of the people.
This month, all sorts of things have happened to me and those I love that reveal how important community is. As a result, the fabric of our community has been strengthened. When the baby is born, when the wedding happens, when people change, when we find ourselves in a funeral, we are reminded that our individual pursuits happen within a community. When people die alone (and they increasingly do) it shows how unraveled we have become. As usual, God, in Christ, has made us the alternative to dying in general and dying alone in particular. To be that alternative, start with the easy stuff and recalibrate your schedule, if it needs it, to honor our community. Weave the fabric. Your unique contribution is crucial.
If you let yourself do this, be sure you have spent time being prepared by God before you leave the house, because that kind of love can take over your life. You might be drawn to honor each person you meet, not just your mate or friend, with at least a doff of your hat. You might even smile at people who think their headphones make them invisible, untouchable and safe from alarming contact with other humans. You might risk talking to the needy. You might ignore the resentments you think have made a boundary between you and someone. We need to keep weaving, since we all know how fast things can unravel, often just in time for the baby to be born to remind us just how much those relationships mean to us and to the world.