Community

It’s inevitable, really. Whenever I join a new group of friends, or even whenever an older group gets to know me well, I get singled out as the group monk. Maybe it’s my lack of love life, maybe it’s my pursuit of knowledge, maybe it’s my dedication to God — or maybe it’s all the above (or none of the above). Whatever the reason(s), someone will eventually decide I would be a great monk. As one friend remarked a few months ago:
“It could be you. ‘We’ve not heard from Chris in a while.’
“‘Oh, yeah, he’s been reclusive learning the words of creation from a book of exalted deeds.'”

It’s funny, you see, because it’s true.

But when we talk about monks, we need to remember there are two categories of major monastic traditions. Anchorite monks, such as Saint Anthony of the Desert, are solitary hermits. On the other hand, cenobitic monks live their lives in monastic communities. Even though the word “monk” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “solitary” (monachos), it would seem some of those solitary figures realized a Christian life must still be lived in community. The life of faith cannot rightly be lived out alone in the desert.

I think we all have an innate grasp of that reality. We realize first that humans are gregarious creatures; we are social animals. One dimension of the imago Dei is the relational image. Like God, then, we are relational beings, and our lives are meant to be spent in relationships with others of our own kind. I specifically say “with others of our own kind” because some attempt to replace relationships with other people with pets or machines or some other surrogate (Crazy Cat Lady, anyone?). But none of them are equivalent replacements for another human soul, another being made in the image of God. As much as we’d like to believe Fido can understand every word we say, he’s incapable of expressing his doggy views on campaign finance reform, soteriology, and Mrs. Nesbitt’s low opinion of your casserole at the last potluck. Can we love such creatures and have a relationship of sorts with them? Yes, but it is the love and relationship of a greater to a lesser, a master to a vassal. It cannot serve as a substitute for the love among equals, for genuine human relationships and real human community.

If it’s impossible to be fully human without being part of a community involving other people, why would we think we can live a life of faith estranged from other Christians?

Recently I attended a dinner for one of our Sunday School classes. I have a standing invitation to their get-togethers, so I hastily made some macaroni and cheese (not the kind that comes in a blue box, either, but the real deal) and went to supper. Sitting at the table and listening to everyone swap stories, I was struck by two thoughts. First, I realized how much I myself missed being around the same group of people on a daily basis (a staple of academic life). Second, I wished each of our classes would do something similar. It doesn’t have to be a supper, although a common table has been the hallmark of Christianity since the time of Jesus. It could be a trip, a party on game day, anything. Anything which would bring people together and give them a chance to share their lives with one another. In the church of all places, we need those moments, those chances to rejoice, to weep, to laugh, to simply be present with each other without worrying about what comes next.

In an age defined by digital distractions, being mentally and emotionally present is increasingly difficult — and increasingly rare. We can all tell stories of going out to eat and seeing every person at another table on their phones. None of them were willing to be as present soulfully as they were physically. Things like that have repercussions. For one example, we use things instead of people as babysitters, and it turns my stomach. I admit I have no children (monk, you know), but it seems to me if you truly valued your children, you would spend time playing with them, teaching them, discipling them, disciplining them. You wouldn’t say, “Here’s my phone; now shut up and leave me alone.” You wouldn’t let an iPad raise your child for you. (Yes, you need time for self-care, but is that truly the best way to achieve that?) It’s a new form of absentee parenting: Dad didn’t leave, he’s just on the couch playing video games while the toddler sits glued to the tablet. There’s no interaction there, no community, only two strangers sharing space and a bloodline.

If parents can’t even live in community with their own children, it will take an act of countercultural revolution to get Christians to engage with one another on a personal level. Fortunately for us, Christianity has always been countercultural.

To live out this new counterculture, to reclaim the community which has been lost, we need to revisit a favorite verse we always quote for something else and add its context. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” We’ve all seen v. 25 used to tell us we should be going to church — and rightly so. But v. 24 adds another dimension to it. We come together to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” That can happen at a class supper, a lunch meeting, a trip with friends, a weekly time to check in with one another. It may find its fullness of expression on a Lord’s Day, but it needn’t be limited to corporate acts of worship. It is about living out our faith in a community of faith — the church. It is about being a part of a body (1 Cor. 12:12ff.). After all, a single body part can’t live on its own; it needs everyone else.

As the physical body, so the spiritual body. We cannot live out a vibrant Christian faith without being connected to a larger community. We can’t go off into the desert; we have to live and laugh with other people. Without others around us, our love grows cold, and without a love for others, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). So go be social. Live life in community. Be fully human, fully alive, and fully connected to God.

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Table Talk

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the common table. When we think about gathering around a table, most of us remember family meals. (If you don’t, then you probably at least have a mental image of the stereotypical idealized 1950s Leave It to Beaver sort of family dinnertime.) Perhaps another dominant association of the table, at least in Christian circles, is the Eucharist (a.ka. the Lord’s Supper, a.ka. Holy Communion). But regardless of specific functions, I think we can all agree the table is a gathering place, somewhere we go to be with other people, people whom we love.

What greater way of expressing community, solidarity, and love is there besides sharing a meal? Think about it. What do families do at holidays? They eat together. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, relatives and kin who haven’t seen each other for years sit at the table and eat. And what is probably the single most common date? Dinner (sometimes with a movie to follow). There’s something about food and table that brings people together.

Part of it is simply the opportunity to slow down. Some of us rush meals, seeing them as an annoying necessity to keep us fueled until the next pit stop. We wolf down whatever we can get our hands on wherever we are, including the car, the sidewalk, and our desks. Such hurried, furtive mastications fall far short of being a true meal, regardless of calorie count or nutritional value. A true meal, eaten with other people, doesn’t have such time constraints. The stressors awaiting us after we push in our chairs disappear, if only for a few stolen moments. When we tuck in to the table, we slow down, savoring each moment — and each bite.

When we slow down like that, something amazing happens: we encounter other people. Really. Our focus shifts from the cares of the workaday world to those at the table with us. A common meal means common conversation. We check in with one another, asking questions about work, about relationships, about family, about hopes and dreams and fears and setbacks. People become real at the table, whether it’s a family feast at Thanksgiving or a private luncheon after a funeral. Friends go to lunch to discuss problems — or comic books. Couples are free to ignore the rest of the world and look into each other’s souls, daring just for a few minutes to be intimate and drop all pretenses. And none of this could happen without the table.

Apart from this, a table can also be a means of conveying status. The head of the family sits at the head of the table. A bigger table means bigger coffers, and those seated farthest from the host are all too cognizant of their perceived inferiority. King Arthur’s round table symbolized the equality and fraternity of his knights. Roundtable forums even today are meant to show the same egalitarianism, and they become places where every person and every opinion is considered equally valid.

None of these table-y insights are particularly new. We know from the Bible and other ancient authorities that the table has long been filling all of these roles. This is part of what makes the fact of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors so scandalous. To sit with them at table was to mark them as equals. It was to say he loved them, considered them friends and family. To share a table was to tear down social boundaries and false senses of self-worth and self-importance. To eat with the Son of God was to recognize the playing field was level, and everyone had a chance at a relationship with the divine.

The best part? We receive the same invitation as those called by Christ in Scripture.

I’ve already mentioned the Eucharist being a common image of table fellowship in Christianity. I’ll even say it’s the dominant image of the table in Christianity. We even order our corporate in two parts: Service of the Word and Service of the Table. Different denominations — indeed, different congregations — celebrate the Table differently. Some require a formal liturgy led by a clergyperson to consecrate the bread and wine (or Welch’s), and some ask only a simple prayer offered by any believer. Some will allow only the baptized to the Table, and others open the Table to anyone who might come to faith by the grace offered in the Supper. One church might believe the elements to become true flesh and true blood; another might believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine; and still another may say it’s all symbolic and no grace is conferred in the Communion.

Regardless of one’s eucharistic theology, we all share the same fundamental principle: Jesus calls us to the feast. He wants us to unite around the Table to unite around him. When we come to the Table, we recognize we are equals. We reach out to those around us and see, perhaps for the first time or perhaps for the millionth time, we are all friends, family. We see our worth in the eyes of God, and we see His grace and love towards us. And when we leave the table, we leave with a renewed sense of the divine, for surely we have spoken with our God.

It’s possible, I suppose, our own perceptions of the table and all its connotations and associations stem from the Eucharist Table. It’s also possible the reverse is true, and we love the Table because of our love of the table. No matter which way it works, however, we gather together, as the hymn says, to ask the Lord’s blessing at each of our tables. We have conversation, community, love, and grace in a unique way — a way impossible aside from the table.

Maybe that’s why Our Lord came in the form of a carpenter.

Next Up: What is this whole “public theology” thing, anyway?