Community is Hard

Writing in The New York Times last month, Margaret Renkl brought back to me a key moment in this past season of “The White Lotus:”

Not quite halfway through the new season of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” a young woman, Portia, breaks into tears at breakfast. She is staying at a luxury resort in Sicily as the personal assistant of one of the wealthy guests. While her tablemate, a true vacationer, takes smiling selfies with the shining Ionian Sea in the background, Portia glances across the terrace at her despairing employer. “Is everything boring?” she asks, her voice quivering.

Portia’s problem is only partly the obscene wealth to which she exists in permanent adjacency. As her breakfast companion’s cheerful self-portraits suggest, she is also at odds with her era: “I just feel like there must’ve been a time when the world had more, you know? Like mystery or something,” she says. “And now you come somewhere like this, and it’s beautiful, and you take a picture, and then you realize that everybody’s taking that exact same picture from that exact same spot, and you’ve just made some redundant content for stupid Instagram.”

This is not a screed against Instagram, selfies, social media, or anything else in that category.  It does make me think about the nature of boredom, redundancy, and a vague feeling of being stuck in a loop that I continue to hear from so many, including pastors and church folk.

It sneaks up on us.  It is comforting to be with those who reinforce our view of the world, right down to taking the same picture of it.  It is a razor-thin difference, however, between feeling the comfort and support of a group that shares our worldview and entering an echo chamber of sameness – same religious views, same political views, same outrages, same likes.  How do you tell when you cross from one to the other?

It is incredibly important that each human being can experience life in community.  But true community does not consist of finding those who vote the same, think the same, or like the same people, places, or things.

The Bible assumes community.  It is on every page.  It is not often spelled out directly, like “please notice that when Jesus offered the Sermon on the Mount, it was not in the context of an individual life coaching session.”  But it is there.

“Jesus called the disciples and said, ‘follow me and I will show you how to fish for people.’”  Plural nouns all around.

Moses was directed to lead the people out of the promised land, not be a personal wilderness guide.

Mary and Martha didn’t run an individual retreat center. They were the hub of life in Bethany both in doing and in being.

And, of course, that is where the challenge lies.  God’s gift of community comes with the reality that I will be called, along with you, to be with, pray with, study with, talk with, listen with…people who are vastly different in every way from me.  This is the gift God gives us.

Sixty years ago, American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, and social activist Thomas Merton wrote:

The ultimate thing is that we build community not on our love but on God’s love, because we do not really have that much love ourselves, and that is the real challenge of the religious life. It puts us in a position where sometimes natural community is very difficult. People are sent here and there, and often very incompatible people are thrown together. … It isn’t just a question of whether you are building community with people that you naturally like, it is also a question of building community with people that God has brought together.

Leave it to me, and I will happily gather in all my circles – civic, religious, personal – people who will agree with me.  But God’s principal gift to us is that God never, ever “leaves it to us.”  And wonderfully diverse community is the result…and the challenge.

Thanks be to God.

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