There really wasn’t anything we could do to help. And certainly by the time I got there it was pretty much all over. But there we were—neighbours, friends, family—standing shoulder to shoulder with another neighbour, friend, and family member who had just seen the work-shed behind his house burn down. Thirty years of tools, equipment, projects and puttering all gone in a matter of hours, reduced to rubble and ash. The local volunteer fire department was doing their job with precision and care, making certain the area was safe. The rest of us simply stood around, offering more presence than words.
Community can be defined in a number of ways: as a municipality, a district, a neighbourhood, or a population centre. None of these definitions, however, manages to capture the experience of community. These definitions only bring to mind demographics and statistics, by-laws and infrastructure; and so they leave us cold (though who doesn’t enjoy a scintillating conversation about what the statistics are on how the breaking of by-laws affects the infrastructure of our community?).
But there are better words: kinship, unity, support, cooperation. Being in community is the difference between facing life in isolation, cut off from relationships of intimacy, and living life surrounded by those who rejoice when you rejoice and mourn when you mourn. Community is more than living in a neighbourhood; it means knowing the names of your neighbours. It’s sharing our lives with others.
Living as a community, though, comes with its challenges. My wife and I have three children: a daughter who is 8 and twin sons who are 4. As a result our home life is not only busy and often noisy, but usually messy. Toys get left on hallway floors, only to be stepped on the way to the bathroom in the dark of night. Laundry sometimes forms formidable piles. On top of this, family life is not always cheerful. We can step on each other’s toes and feelings. Voices can get raised as much in irritation as in laughter. Relationships are intrinsically messy. As much as I’m something of a neat freak, I accept this because it’s part of being a parent, a part of being in a family: accepting that we all make a mess once in awhile in part because each of us can be a mess!
Community life’s no different. It’s messy. And the more people in the community, the messier it’ll be! Whatever form our community takes, whether it’s in the Moms and Tots group, a string of neighbours along a particular street, the local church, or some extended family, we can be sure that there’ll be nothing neat and tidy about it. Open ourselves to connecting with people around us, make ourselves vulnerable, and we take the risk—yes, the risk—of getting hurt, of hearing harsh words spoken in our direction, of experiencing rejection.
And yet in those moments when we need someone to talk to over a cup of coffee, to have someone simply be present in times of discouragement, disappointment, or even despair, there’s no greater comfort than in having someone willing to do exactly this. Proverbs 17:17 tells us, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” We all need people who are with us through thick and thin. We all need people standing alongside us when our hopes and dreams end up a pile of rubble and ash. When we find such people, that’s when we’ve truly found community.