On Community

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. 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.

6 thoughts on “On Community

  1. Thank you for the great essay – or post – or message. Lots of things for me to think about. I am a layperson on the church council at a lutheran church; I’ve volunteered to preach in September while our pastor is vacationing. My original thought was to make it a “stewardship” sermon, since I am stewardship chairperson. Your thoughts about community are right on target for me – I hope it is ok with you that I share some of your thoughts with our congregation.


  2. David and I were at this event for a little while. I’m sorry we missed you. It would have been nice to see you again. 🙂

    How on earth did you manage NOT to get pictures of the spinners/weavers (or did you not notice the granery door that was propped open with a spinning wheel)? I know, they were not the main event and the granery is a little off the beaten path as far as where all the activity was taking place, but it WAS the coolest spot I found on that hundred-degree day! (I did not envy the bands playing music for hours in that weather!)

    Your thoughts on community really resonated with me today. I am a rather devoutly private, anti-social being myself, preferring to stay home and do my own thing rather than interact in person with other people, at least not in great numbers. In fact, church is just about the only place I go anymore that could be considered remotely social. But I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the hoards of like-minded (read: yarny) individuals that gather together online from all parts of the world in places like Ravelry and KnittingParadise. And Osbornfiber.com.


  3. @Dianna: You’re welcome to share what you wish. Good luck with the preaching! I’m taking homiletics next semester, but I’ve never preached a sermon in my life…

    @Tammy: We only stopped by for a little look-around on the way to a more significant outing; we didn’t even make it over to that side of the main road!

    I identify with that sense of being a private person, although for me it is more by socialization than temperament. I was raised among people who just didn’t seem to need much community, or weren’t in touch with the fact that they did. Some people genuinely don’t need a lot of social contact. But I can’t help but think, the more I study the human animal in its various states of sanity and maturity, that to really grow up in Christ we need deep, challenging, generative human connections. Or at least, growing up in Christ will take us in that direction.


  4. Hmmm…..as usual, your essays give me a lot of food for thought. I think that there are MANY, many forms of living that are OK. I think (after 53 years of life) that the main “should” is to say YES to God. We are so much a product of how we are raised, because surely that determines how we experience comfort, failure, and a basic sense of how we should live. In America there are SO many choices, we simply have to make some decisions…..and those decisions are often based on the above. And I think that’s OK, as long as we always stay open to Jesus, a willingness to say Yes to the Holy Spirit.

    For example, I grew up in the model that we are supposed to live mostly for ourselves, and our duty to community is minimal. Even still, my parents loved me, and gave me some sense of self worth. Based on that, and a deep sense of God’s love, I have tried to take new steps. I did not want to stay in a very frustrating marriage, but God kept encouraging me to stay and grow through it. Become more independent and less emotional. I did not want to become a VBS leader, but God encouraged me to do it anyway and learn new skills. I have not regretted either decision to push myself.

    Both those decisions required much community support….I could not have done the needed growing without close friends, family, and church warmth. I’ll never forget there was a day when my DRE (Director of Religious Ed) told me she was going on a retreat and said she was dedicating the whole thing to prayer for my marriage. (My husband and I were separated at the time.) That meant SO MUCH to me and still does. Just like the on-line community of knitters DOES mean a lot to us, so does ANY form of kindness, love, sacrifice. And the point is, the more you put yourself in community, the more you have opportunities to love and receive love, in all its forms.

    How intensely close we live together, or get involved……I think it’s all OK as long as we say YES to God. A lot of our choices are dependent on what culture we are living and how we grew up. And it’s all good…..if we ourselves choose to be open to growing and adapting to the Holy Spirit’s molding. As Rebecca’s mom, I am immensely proud of how she has embraced this. My children seem mostly unafraid of facing life and its challenges, and certainly one of those challenges is unveiling the meaning of community for oneself.


  5. I agree with you, and I feel the same loss when I look at those types of communities–Shakers included:) And I am seriously going to give a shot at living on the land one of these days (I do think the internet would be necessary just to keep abreast of time, but only just so; I want to live in a place, with the people that are there). As soon as I win the lottery.


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