The best blackberry cobbler I ever ate was served in the mid 1960s during a family reunion. Four generations of the Neal clan harvested pail after pail of the big, juicy fruit from the hillside behind the house in the Oriole Valley where my grandfather was born and raised. The next day some of those berries were baked into a huge cobbler and served up with home-made, hand-cranked ice cream to anyone who could lift a spoon. But it tasted best, I believe, to those who wore the badges of harvest: the cuts, sunburn, and chigger bites we earned in picking those berries. I believe no one on the face of the earth that day was happier and more content.
The bonds of labor shared, and the way we celebrated the fruits of our common life, are blessings I’ll remember with gratitude the rest of my life. Sure, our family was as dysfunctional as any other, but during that weekend, as our choices narrowed to the moment we shared, we invested ourselves in what we shared, our problems and conflicts fell away, and we were at peace. In some small, mysterious way, as if cobbler and ice cream had been turned into bread and wine, I think we tasted the banquet of heaven.
My grandparents, who kept those reunions alive, died long ago. We no longer harvest blackberries from that hillside; as far as I know, no one in the family takes time to make hand-cranked ice cream or to have the conversations that took place while the cream was setting up, and the reunions are only a memory. We’ve grown scattered and hardly ever choose to invest ourselves any longer in the things that made us a family in those days. Some blessing has gone from our lives, something that made us who we are.
That’s not merely my story; it’s also our story as a nation. Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Yale, adviser to U.S. presidents and other world leaders, and author of Bowling Alone, has described how in the U.S. since the 1960s we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how our social structures have disintegrated. His findings are echoed in the findings of many others across the political spectrum. Here is some of what they have learned about how much we have changed since the 1960s.
Ten years ago the number of people who voted in the presidential election had decreased 22%; who attended a public meeting on town or school affairs is down 35%; who served as an officer in some club or organization, down 35%; and who served on a committee for some local organization, down 39%. The average membership rate in thirty-two national chapter-based associations is down almost 50%; the percentage of parents with children under age 18 who are members of the PTA: down 61%; times per year when people entertain friends at home: down 45%; United Way contributions as a percentage of personal income: down 55%.* And of course we’ve all seen the steady decline in membership and participation in mainstream Christian congregations that once were the heart of our communities.
Putnam and many others agree: the fabric of civic culture that made our nation unique in all the world is unraveling and in time could make the national life we have known unsustainable. Perhaps it is already so. The value of community, and the practice of investing ourselves in creating and maintaining it, are disappearing as surely as blackberry cobbler and hand-cranked ice cream at family reunions. In ancient times the worst punishment of all was not death; it was banishment from the community. In the slow, relentless loss of community today, are we all facing a fate worse than death?
It needn’t be so. There still lives a vision of something else. God has a vision of a community in which we are gathered from all the places where we have been scattered in life (Isa. 43:5-7); a community that includes people who live as strangers and enemies of one another (Ps. 87); a community that includes even those who live as enemies of God (2 Cor. 5:16-19). And God raises the vision that we might live in true community not only for our benefit but for the benefit of the world (Isa. 49:6; Matt. 28:19-20).
That vision of community defines us as the church – not that we think alike or worship alike or practice our faith alike, but that we are committed to valuing one another as essential, each of us, to the happiness and well-being of all of us. It describes any congregation’s best asset, and it describes the best we have to offer to the world, beginning with our neighborhood, our village, our city. When we affirm our relationships within a community of Christian faith, we’re really saying that we are here to be a laboratory for how to live in true community, to forge the kind of relationship with each other for which God is creating us, and to invite others to join us in this living experiment to transform the world.
Discovering or defining how “true community” looks and acts is something we must do together, all of us. But here are some initial ideas about it. True community means being in real relationship with each other in which we feel comfortable in ourselves, a relationship in which no one feels intimidated or silenced by others, in which we can be truly ourselves without trying to be who others think we should be. True community includes companionship, love, and a deepening understanding of who we are as individuals and as a congregation. And it includes a sense that we have “come home” in the best sense of that term. What traits or characteristics would you add to our vision and definition of “true community”? What is your vision for authentic community?
“Write what you see,” the prophet Habakkuk urges us. “Write it large and plain so even someone in a hurry can read it. It’s a vision that points to what’s coming, and it aches for the coming! It’s a vision of truth. If it seems slow in coming, wait for it; it’s on the way! It will come at the right time” (Hab. 2:2-3 alt.). That ancient vision challenges and calls us to invest ourselves in creating and maintaining true community and to invite others into it, so that we will transform the world.
Let’s begin today by following the urgent advice in the letter to the Hebrews and “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24-25). Identify one or two people you know who are members of the congregation and who have not been here for a while, and invite them to be regularly involved in the life of this community. Invite, ask, suggest, plead, bribe – provoke if necessary – the building of this community of love as a witness to God’s vision for us and for the healing of the world.
* Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2013), 245.