I see the nice dad, sitting on the big gym floor with the first graders. I’m sitting on the floor too — both of us helping kids unpack their lunches and juices. The dad and I are volunteer chaperones, helping a hard-working, first grade teacher wrangle twenty-two, excited, tiny children on a field trip downtown to see a play. The dad’s son is in the group, and my little granddaughter is too.
But the dad and I aren’t really talking to each other. Well, I introduced myself, and he smiled politely and told me his name. He then returned to helping with the children, and I did the same. After riding a school bus downtown to watch the play, followed by a workshop on the drama, the dad and I help the kids settle down to eat lunch.
The teacher does the same, and the kids in the meantime are being kids – talking, laughing, making funny faces, twirling their coats around their heads, having fun, enjoying themselves and each other.
But the grownups?
We’re quiet and polite — almost withdrawn? We act almost afraid of each other, fearful of getting too chummy too fast or of crossing some grown-up social barrier. Adding it all up, we three grownups act nice enough, but we’re failing big time at “doing community” — yes, at solving the secret of everyday love.
That’s how American novelist Wendell Berry described the mystery of getting along and living together, or as he said, “doing community.”
As Berry wrote, community “is the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time.”
Reflecting on it later, I thought how my failure to “do community” that morning could’ve melted if I’d answered the simple golden call of Jesus: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
What, then, do I want from others? The same as most of us. I just want to be seen, not to be overlooked. Next, I want others to listen when I speak – yes, to hear me and my concerns, ideas, and opinions. Altogether, I desire others to know me and not a stereotype of me or assumptions about me.
Yet, there I sat, holding back, waiting for the dad to make the first move – to stand up, walk over, and ask something simple, like “What’d you think of the play?” or “Would you like a cookie?”
When that didn’t happen, I held back too, which was sad because I longed to ask him this: “Are you a pastor?”
Watching his kind interaction with little children, I saw a pastor’s heart. If I’d asked him to share his story – whether he was a pastor or not – I would’ve learned about his life, and at the least, we could’ve peeled back the first layer of “doing community.”
It’s a mystery to me, indeed – this alchemy of building relationships. As a cautious introvert, I don’t totally understand how connecting works, but I’m certain that on that day I made it harder than needed.
So, how can I do better? How can you? Especially now at this Christmas season? Just look at Christ. When I do, I see our Savior discerning a sick woman’s touch by simply asking, “Who touched me? Or I can hear the Lord talking to a hated tax collector, and then, seeing the man crouch in a sycamore tree, calling up to him, “Zacchaeus, come down . . . I must stay at your house today.” So, Zacchaeus “came down at once and welcomed him gladly” (Luke 19:5-6). This is doing community, and as Christ shows us, it’s not that hard to do.
First, we ask, “Tell me your story.” Then we just settle in and listen.
When we do, we learn something vital about ourselves. We learn we can love just as Wendell Berry says: “to be neighborly.”
But Jesus already said that — “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” No mystery there. But in this blessed season, may God help us simply to obey.
Building community can start with a simple request: 'Tell me your story.' Then we just settle in and listen. #community -@PatriciaRaybon: Click To Tweet