On Saturday afternoon I was at our church school for the Summer Fair. The weather was brilliant! I even caught the sun! I spent a wonderful hour on the gate with the deputy head and I hae really valued spending the time getting to know her better. What was wonderful was that between us we spoke to everyone who came into the fair today - fab. Lots of people, lots of fun, building community.
Today has made me think more about what community is. Wikipedia tells me '...Communis comes from a combination of the Latin prefix com- (which means "together") and the word munis probably originally derived from the Etruscan word munis- (meaning "to have the charge of...'
Community must be about bringing people together. It must be about shared hopes, values, and ideals. But how often do we think of our communities being in charge of anything?
That said any community we may well be part of must be about a shared perspective or ideal, but they must also be about a group of people being in charge of at least their destiny. Despite another low turn out, that is one brilliant thing about elections - communities in charge of their own destinies!
Some time ago now I read, enjoyed and empathised with, 'Utopian Dreams' by Tobias Jones. He searches for a 'perfect community.' He starts his search in Damanhar, a village 30 miles north of Turin, where a messianic figure called Falcon has founded a New Age community based on what he experienced when he travelled 6,000 years back in time. They have their own currency, their own flag, their own shops and factories, and each of the residents is given their own silly name (Goat, Crab, Vulture). They believe in alchemy. At the annual sports day, there's a telepathy competition.
From there, he soon flees south to Tuscany and then Sicily, before leaping back to England. He visits Quaker bungalows, Catholic foster parents and farms built on confiscated Mafia land where recovering drug addicts press premium olive oil.
Everywhere, he finds elements to admire or condemn, but he doesn't feel passionately about any particular place until he reaches Pilsdon in Dorset, a Christian community which welcomes "wayfarers" - tramps and drifters - alongside anyone trying to put their life back together and overcome addiction or trauma.
Bells ring throughout the day, announcing meals and services. Priests and nuns form the backbone of the staff. There's no need to be a believer, although an atmosphere of "undercover Christianity" fills the place. Here, he finds a community that he admires, even loves, and where he can be happy.
Contentment does come at a price: he also discovers the real cost of living with others. "At the beginning of this trip I thought living in community would be tough because you're living cheek by jowl with people you might have little in common with, people who you wouldn't necessarily choose as friends ... But the true difficulty of living here is that there's nowhere to hide. The place holds a mirror up to yourself and shows you what you're really like."
When he offers his own definition of a perfect community, he describes a place which sounds pretty much like Pilsdon. It will be a group of between 15 and 25 people. They will be self-sufficient and often silent. They'll have to have "a full-size snooker table, a chess set, a library, a football pitch and a piano". Most importantly, they will share a common belief, a shared purpose, one faith - "something for which one is prepared to give one's heart".Hmmm a common purpose and belief, something for which one will be able to give one's heart... A place that hold's a mirror up to oneself so that we can see what we're really like...
I wonder if those are words that we could use to describe the church? There is certainly a common belief but would members of any our churches say that they would be prepared to give (or had given) their heart for Christ and His church?
There's a lot of "heart imagery" in the Bible. One example, '...That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved...' (Romans 10:8-9).
Belief in our hearts. The seat of the emotions. The place where the world engages with us in love and pain. And yet this is what the church is and how that community is as Tobias Jones suggests, a mirror in which we see ourselves. For the church is a disparate group of people gathered to engage with each other, with God and with the love and pain of the world.
By the end of the book, Jones has finally decided what he's been looking for. It's not a house, a plot of land or a group of people. It's just a place where he can express his faith and live according to his beliefs. He and his wife decide to stop travelling - "rather a daft decision for a travel writer" - and settle in Bristol. On a map, they draw a circle with a radius of one mile, the bullseye being their own red front door. "We were, in some way, responsible for everything inside that tiny community."
Community - together, to have charge of. If only we took the Jones model and saw our parish like that. That somehow, with each other and with God engaging with us, we are responsible, in charge of things within that imagined boundary. It becomes a place to where we can express our faith in God and actively live out those beliefs.
I am reading Rob Bell's 'Velvet Elvis' at the moment. He talks about actively living out what Jesus teaches. He reminds us that Christianity was orignally known as the Way. It was about living a certain way, the way that Jesus teaches us. He writes:
"... [T] kind of way that Jesus taught is possible. And I think that the way of Jesus is the best possible way to live.
This isn't irrational or primitive or 'blind faith.' It is merely being honest that we are all living 'a way.'
I'm convinced being generous is a better way to live.
I'm convinced forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to live.
I'm convinced having compassion is a better way to live.
I'm convinced pursuing peace in every situation is a better way to live.
I'm convinced listening to the wisdom of others is a better way to live.
I'm convinced being honest with people is a better way to live...'
This is Jesus' way to live and it is as challenging and enthralling as it always was. It is as compelling and community-building as it always was. If only we opted to actively live it...