Yesterday, Old Economy Village was open for free for a big antique car rally. I don’t care much about antique cars, but any chance to see Old Economy for free is a treat I try to take. The place is full of inspiration, a living testament to the potential power of human community, and reeking with the sadness of that community’s failure.
Like so many children of postmodernism, I long for community in the deep parts of my soul, despite – and because of – the fact that I don’t really know how to find it. We were raised after generations in which the nuclear family became the ideal, cut off by industrialization and (ironically) easy mobility from our immediate neighbors. The primary activities that perpetuate our existence are no longer those creative, productive endeavors that forward humanity, those basic things like growing, making, building, and caring, which require community roots, involvement, and support. Instead, our primary activity is entertainment, and we work at relatively meaningless jobs which do little more than spin one more cog of our impossibly huge infrastructure and provide a paycheck to perpetuate our self-entertainment.
So it’s no wonder that I long for community. But I’ve learned first hand how fragile community can be.
There’s hardly a better example of this than those amazing folks called Harmonists, who built and lived in Economy in the nineteenth century. In the hundred and some years that they lived in this country, these devout, Lutheranesque, celebate people built three towns like this. Economy was their third, and their sturdy brick buildings stand as a testimony to their hard work, efficiency, creativity, and commitment to each other. They had unified goals – even a unified aesthetic (the object of my greatest coveting!) – among them, and they accomplished their aims with skill and excellence.
But they’re gone. The pews that they built and worshiped from three times a week, and the weathered steps that led there, still exist and are in use by others. Their stuff persists. But the community is gone.
Well, I shouldn’t say gone. A community does persist in force at Old Economy, maintaining the Harmonists’ sturdy buildings and glorious gardens, harvesting grapes from the vines they brought from Germany, restoring their things, teaching about them, and fighting to keep this historic landmark open well after their funding was cut by a state budget during an economic downturn. What stands is as much a testimony to the hard work of this new community as to the original.
But you know what I mean. The living, breathing body that used this place, and didn’t only love it, is gone. There are many reasons, the most obvious of which maybe the failure to reproduce, but I suspect a bigger reason was a failure to direct energy outwards. The Harmonists were incredibly, impossibly productive, but what is being businesslike if there is no love? I hope I am wrong (perhaps Tammy’s David will happen across this post and correct me?). Sometimes something that is good for a while just ends because its it’s time is over, and thats okay. But it’s all too easy for communities to become relationally inbred, to serve their own purposes. And when nothing is being poured out, there’s no room for anything new to come in; energy is expended until it’s just gone.
It makes me sad every time I visit. I would live there, start a new community there, just to experience the life they built. I would wear the garb, work the land, live without power or toilets. (I sort of want to do that anyway.) All I’d require is enough power to run a laptop and access to the internet and I would be content, I promise!
Community is one of the main reasons I became as obsessed with knitting as I did. I liked knitting for its own sake, but as I started to read the Yarn Harlot, use Ravelry, and get more exposed to this network of needle-wielding fanatics, everyone kept talking about how great the community was. There were people out there who are as crazy about this as I am, who will encourage me. Just the knowledge of the existence of that community was enough to spur me on, growing my craft and connections until I found it. It’s not as fluffy or ideal, or even as connected, as the paperback novels would have you believe, but all community is in tiny pockets, and is never the same twice.
If you haven’t forgotten, this is an essay series about Pentecost. Pentecost was the date when the church was born. The church, at its most basic, is the community in which union with the Triune God is sought. Behind all the programs and services, behind the committees and rules of order, is the crest of the wave that is the Kingdom of God. The church isn’t the Kingdom itself; at least I (and most Protestants) don’t think so. But it’s the community that has the singular job of being the crack through which the Kingdom comes in.
And good heavens, we’re awful at it sometimes. The Spirit is merciful, and has not allowed God’s church to perish from the earth. But that’s the thing about being human – the risk if sin is always just around the corner, and even our best efforts are tainted by it. This can be especially true in tight communities. Communities amplify whatever is inside their members; that much I learned from living in one for a year. Living in a community, I could no longer avoid the fact that I am a workaholic, that I ignore people, and that I’m bad at relationships, because there were people beyond my family system who were in my space being affected by me. This dynamic makes communities the ultimate and most intense place to deal with your sin. It also makes them potentially very fragile. Synergy, especially in the Spirit, is a powerful thing, but it can’t overreach the people that comprise it. The fact that yeast and sugar and flour make bread is a pretty cool miracle – but they can’t make a peach pie. But try living on just flour. We need community, we can even rely on it (at least so I hear), but… well, let’s just say my idealism on this subject is broken. All for the better, says me, since I still haven’t given up.
It’s taken me a long time to be okay with the fragility inherent in community. It’s too easy to blame people, or groups of people, for their failures, and it’s easy enough with or without blame to sit back and analyse someone else’s miracle. It’s rather harder to go out and do it myself. To risk myself – my actual self – on people. To build something, and let it be good for as long as it’s good, and let it go when it’s time. To adapt my vision so it can work with someone else’s, and still pour my heart into it. To work with what I have instead of what I read about. I cannot stress how awful I am at it. I’m barely at the point that I know this is what I have to do, and that I’ve let go of useless idealism, and I’m a ways away from being able to really do it, with actual intention and more than just luck and organic personal chemistry.
But good grief, that’s what life is made of! If I can’t do this, I can’t seek union with God – because I won’t know how if I refuse to seek union with others. What will I be but another sad little postmodern, hunched over my MacBook reading blogs about other peoples’ lives?
It’s terrifying sometimes, especially when I’m out of practice. I’m not a natural at connecting or at investing in others, and I’m easily discouraged. But I don’t have to be spectacular. I don’t have to be the sort of person with thousands of people at my funeral. I just want to be alive, while I still am. And do that, I need community. Community of the new creation, community of and with and in the Triune God.