Well, it really has been a while!
I was thinking overnight about how deeply my heart beats for community. Actually prior to that, a few weeks ago I was starting to let myself dream about attending a church again. I was thinking how amazing it would be, the friendship etc! And I quickly caught myself, and I reminded myself that that is exactly how people get drawn into bad romantic relationships, by sitting down, dreaming of something that could be so beautiful. And then spurred by the yearning inspired by the dream, you throw yourself into something, which turns out to not quite what you’ve dreamed of. Well for me the “bad romance” in my life has been with churches. So I will set there dreaming of a beautiful church “romance” (that is, not an actual romantic experience but rather a beautiful church community, a beautiful experience of belonging) and I will throw myself in prematurely and invariably I will end up being totally disappointed, and I will walk away.
So as I said, overnight I was thinking about community itself, what it means for me, why the yearning for this thing has so often propelled me into these negative church situations.
I have previously written on this blog that I love living in our modern times of technology, that I would prefer to live now than in any other time of history. However I was finding myself rethinking that, realising that actually, that may not be true. A few months ago, perhaps up to a year ago, I found myself listening to this song by Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Rain Rain Beautiful Rain (YouTube). I found it so poignant that I honestly could not listen to it without crying, specifically these lyrics:
When the sun says good night to the mountain
I am dreaming of the sun
Say good night
When the sun goes down, the birds on the trees
Are singing sweet for the night…
Now why would that make me cry?! (And what does that have to do with community?!) To be honest it is the thought of the sun saying goodbye to the mountain, or going down, thereby introducing night. It makes me think of the cycle of time, and life, sunsets that lead to sunrises, and all the work that is done on a cyclical basis, the rhythm of life, specifically the rhythm of life that is defined by the rising and setting of the sun, that is, life as it has traditionally been lived for thousands of years before the advent of electricity and technology.
And then Ladysmith Black Mambazo are an African group, so it made me think specifically of African sunsets, and my own African heritage. It reawakened in my heart the understanding that despite being thoroughly a child of modern civilisation, something within me still beats so powerfully for that ancient rhythm of life as lived by so many countless generations.
I have only ever lived in cities during my entire life. I have never in my life lived in a village or small local community, African or otherwise. And yet this strong yearning for this life of olden times is just there.
Now whenever I think of life back in those times, I always think of it in terms of community. I can vaguely picture groups of women winnowing grain together. If I were to think of it further, I could probably picture kids running around, I could mentally distil elements from different expressions of old style community I have seen, read about, watched movies about. Whenever I think of those old style communities I always think of people cooperating, working together towards the shared goal of day-to-day life. I think about the sense of belonging of growing up in a community where everyone knows who you are, where people have watched you grow up; I think of implicitly knowing you belong, never needing to question it. I think of a community where people just accept one another with their different attributes, different strengths, different weaknesses.
I think of getting a sense of purpose from the work that you do, applying yourself to make or build beautiful things that are made to last, that will even outlast your own life. I think of using things that have been passed down through the generations, making in your own turn heirlooms that your descendants will still be using a hundred years from today; knowing where you belong not only in geographical space, but also in terms of being anchored to your history through your ancestors.
Not to say that any of these ancient communities would ever be perfect, of course. In any community you can guarantee that human nature would still be human nature. So there would still be jealousies, petty rivalries, rejections and excommunications, even, on rare occasions, murders or executions, but hopefully these would be very very rare. And I also do not want to overly-romanticise lives that may often have been quite gruelling, dealing with the realities of life without modern medicine or piped water; dealing with back-breaking chores that would often have resembled real drudgery, like hand-washing clothes. And yet I’m sure that even with that there would often have been a real sense of peace, and satisfaction that comes from living your life in tune with the seasons and nature. Much of life would have been spent outdoors, unknowingly absorbing the calming effects of nature; even during the most arduous task there would often have been cause to take a moment’s break to appreciate life around you, or share a joke with your coworkers.
In most ancient communities I seem to have read about (or watched in Disney cartoons Moana being the most recent example! If you’ve not watched it yet it is pronounced Mo-ah-na, to rhyme with Joanna) – money is not really a thing, because the whole community works together to provide for everyone’s needs
Why do people get so confused about sharing?! It does not mean that we share literally everything! These are definitely my shoes and my clothes and my toothbrush and my husband. (If you desperately need my shoes or my clothes then yes I can lend them to you or even give them to you – obviously not the toothbrush or husband!) Rather it means that we provide enough within the community for everyone to have their own without anyone going without. And this is the way humanity has sustainably lived for thousands of years.
I believe that historically the reason why people have cooperated in communities is because they have had to, for the sake of sheer survival. It might be a cliché, but it is a cliché because it is true: together we are stronger.
Money when used in these times would often be used between communities, as a simple, lightweight way of exchanging value without having to herd around whole cattle etc. I concede that it is obviously easier to administer this and live “money-free” in a small community of a few hundred people rather in a huge sprawling metropolis of perhaps millions of people.
However in our crazy times money has become an end in and of itself and in our crazy quest to make more and more and more and more we are desperately depleting the world’s resources in a way that is definitely not sustainable. We are filling our lives with cheaply made junk that in many cases will most likely not even be in our own lives in the next ten years, much less in the lives of our descendants hundreds of years from now. I often sit and shake my head at this simple fact: even though we have so much more technological and scientific knowledge than previous generations, the artefacts and buildings that they created have lasted decades, or centuries, or even millennia, whereas the things that we create are often designed to break. It’s like we’ve swapped wisdom for endless knowledge. For instance, I was appalled to discover that the standard guarantee for new build houses in the UK is a paltry 10 years. (That said, apparently many new build houses do not last even that long, but come riddled with serious faults right from the beginning). My ancestors built the pyramids and they have lasted for five thousand years! Oh for some good old-fashioned African engineering!
I emphatically assert that we were not put on this earth to be consumers. There is absolutely nothing “normal” or “natural” about our supposedly “modern lifestyles”. Rather we were put here to live our lives together, in communion with our God and in community with one another. I think that this is the reason why there is such a significant mental health crisis – because we are not living in the way we were designed to. Life is all about community – working, sharing, laughing, eating together. Facing challenges together, facing triumphs together, mourning together, celebrating together.
Another aspect of the mental health crisis I believe is spending your life on what deep down you know to be worthless. It might be well-paid, but deep down, you know it is not making any real positive contribution to society, it might even be detracting from society. This concept has been articulated and explained in the book called BullSh** Jobs by David Graeber. (I’ve not actually read the book itself, but I have read a few analyses of it.) We were designed to work for real purpose and meaning. This does not necessarily mean striving after status in a world with warped values, where the wrong things get applauded and celebrated and rewarded, but rather working towards what we know is good and true and noble and truly worthwhile, something that is bigger than we are.
I believe that this is the reason why my heart yearns for community – because this is the way we were designed to live. This is actually the strongest consistent yearning of my life. It is far stronger than the yearning for a husband. In fact the yearning for a husband is a facet of the deeper yearning for community. And I know a single man could not by himself satisfy the yearning for community.
This “true community” is not exclusive to Africa, or Christianity of course. It has historically been found worldwide. However any true community I believe will share these same fundamental aspects: love, cooperation, unqualified acceptance, putting the community above your own interests, an effortless sense of belonging. And yet community is absolutely fundamental to the story of the Church. In the New Testament, the disciples shared everything (see my explanation of sharing above)! They went around from house to house sharing food. Community is what is being described here. Community is also absolutely fundamental to the story of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Even though they were a whole country, they effectively functioned as a single community, or many small communities making up one big one.
Furthermore, while I may never have lived in a village, I have certainly grown up in a true community of love, acceptance and cooperation. And that was in church. That is why I just don’t get it, when you go to a church and the leaders themselves do not even seem to truly understand what true community is, or why it is desirable. Sometimes, out of petty insecurities, or just cluelessness, or wanting to be at the centre of everything at all times, pastors themselves work to sabotage whatever true community might be arising in their churches. Sometimes in my experience pastors have said “together we are stronger” but then they have not backed it up with any real effort to empower their members. Many pastors I’ve come across seemingly set up their churches not for the sake of fostering true community, but for their own self-aggrandizement.
So this is the reason why my heart keeps yearning for it, and why I have so often been disappointed. I know it is not to be found in the world at large, but surely the Church will be different. But no. Thus far it has been simply a microcosm of the world at large, often celebrating the same warped values.