Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a "lurker" a lot. I belong to several mailing lists. On most of them I hardly EVER contribute to the ongoing conversation; maybe on a couple of lists do I rise to the status of "intermittent contributor". In fact, with one mailing list, I more often than not hit the "delete" key than read the posts. Oh, I'm interested in the topic, and the discussions are pretty interesting. It's just that I don't make the time to follow the threads, let alone throw in my two-cents' worth. And, yet, every so often, someone from the list will claim that the "community" is hundreds of members strong.
I've been in several situations recently where the concept, or ideal, of community has been raised -- usually in the context of "we need more of it!". That always gets me thinking. Over the years I've been associated with four different theological seminaries (well, three -- but with one of them I had two different levels/time-periods of association). These are institutions of like-intended, spiritually-involved, folks -- most of whom were, upon graduation, heading out to foster community in one way or another. And at every one of the seminaries, I would hear students crying for "more community!" I even preached my senior sermon on the topic when I was in seminary!
The sub-text to this plea often has seemed to me to be: "I want community! And it's someone else's responsibility to create, foster, and sustain it. I simply want the benefit." Or in American political parlance, "They're the problem!" (pick the "they") "So somebody else should fix it! I reserve the right to complain from the sidelines regardless!" (sarcasm mode off!).
Clearly at the heart of the plea is some un-met need for connection, some respite from the competitive nature of any academic pursuit-we all want the top grades, we're after the same jobs, etc. And who supports us? Who comforts us when we fall short of the ideals? And, now, many of us are looking at those very intimate communities of which we're a part: families at the holiday season. Many of which are drama-filled, tense, splintered in numerous ways. (Of course there are also numerous healthy, nurturing, families!) The desire of a lot of us, at this time of the year, is for connection and reconnection, for rich community with those we love.
The other day I heard an interview on the topic of happiness with Rabbi Johnathan Sacks of Great Britain. While it wasn't directed at the issue of "community", his words struck a chord: "One very great Hasidic teacher once said, "Somebody else's material needs are my spiritual duties."In other words, my friend's, or my colleague's, real appeal for "community" (or connection) suggests that I might have something to offer - indeed, that I have an obligation to address that need.
And how many opportunities we miss-even little ones! I was in a meeting the other day with DU colleagues, some of whom I knew "by face", others I was sure I'd spoken to on the phone (or by email), but hadn't met in person. It might have taken a few minutes to go around the room with brief introductions, but the community-formation might have been richer.
So, who's community? And, yes, whose community? The difference between the two is important. The latter suggests the answer "mine", or "ours." The former demands, I believe, the answer "I". To claim to want community, but not to be engaged in the creation of it, suggests that I simply want to be a "lurker". That may be okay for me on some email lists, but I need to take my own initiative to create the kinds of community and connections I desire. In the tense and challenging situations in which we will no doubt find ourselves, what a gift that would be!