The best thing about community is that we do it with other people. You know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? The worst thing about community is that we do it with other people. If you have ever spent time with other people, you know this.
The opposite of being in community is being by yourself. And the best thing about that is that you are by yourself, which is also the worst thing about being by yourself.
The truth is, we need both. Time with others and time alone.
Christians, mostly protestant Christians, tend to forget this. We place such emphasis on an individual relationship with Jesus that we forget the importance of community. When you think about being with God do you think about your religious community also?
Sometimes in small groups, the leader will ask each person to tell of a time they felt close to God. In my experience people mostly talk about experiences alone in nature. It is not common for someone to share an experience in worship.
I wonder why that is? Surely they have felt close to God in worship or other communal settings? But that is not what we talk about. My hunch is this reflects our cultures bias for individuality and not a little selfishness. The reality is that when one has an experience of God alone, there is no need to accommodate others. It’s easier. We pray what we want to pray, for as long as we want. If we sing we sing what we want. We read the Scripture we like best. We don’t need to be concerned about anyone but us.
Meeting God in community is more difficult. We have to share. Perhaps the most difficult part of the sharing of God is communal prayer. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what is sometimes called the prayer of the people, or the Great Thanksgiving. (You can read it here.)People sometimes complain about it because it is “too long”. If you consider how long it actually takes in a one hour worship service, it’s really not very long at all. I suspect this is another individual control issue. We think it’s not really “my” prayer. But it is “my” prayer and it is “your” prayer. It is “our” prayer and it is really important for the community to pray together.
This shared prayer reminds us to pray beyond our personal concerns. I’ll remember to pray for my children as they start school and on a good day, I’ll remember your children too. But without the prompting of communal prayers, I must confess, I might forget to pray for all children those who are starting school and those who have no school to attend, who work in fields and factories.
Many Christians pray the Psalms on a regular basis. The Psalms are very old prayers from our shared community. But how do you pray a psalm of lament with integrity when your life is fine? As a Benedictine nun once explained to me, you pray it for someone who cannot. That is how the prayers of people work each week in worship.
We pray together as a community because there are some among us who cannot pray. There are some who are afraid. There are some who doubt. There are some who have no strength left to lift up their hearts. Those of us who can pray, pray for them. Then, someday, in that same community they will lift up your heart when you cannot. They will believe when you cannot. They will trust when you cannot. They will pray when you cannot.
That is the power of community. We carry each other. Sometimes in material ways, a dish to the bereaved home, a hospital visit, a card, a hug. Most importantly we carry each other to God in prayer when one of us cannot.