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July 27, 2007

The Society Page

trunk.jpgI inherited an old trunk that sat in my grandma's basement. It had belonged to the generation before, who had used it to bring their possessions across the sea from Sweden. It sits in my dining room. It smells a little musty, but I treasure it as a link to my heritage.

I was thrilled to receive the trunk, but even happier when I opened it and saw my bonus surprise. The bottom was lined with pages of a newspaper from May 14, 1912. I framed these pages and hung them on a wall in my house. Whenever I look at these pages, I find something amusing. They're full of advertisements for remedies to cure everything from kidney trouble to headaches, dandruff, and excessive perspiration. They contain news stories that remind me of the fleeting nature of some of the things that seem newsworthy today. They also remind me that some things never change. But Page 7, the Society page, makes me a little sad.

The Society page contains updates about the travels of Mrs. Northrup, Mr. Graham, the Brooks family, others. It tells who has out-of-town guests. It provides announcements for bridge parties and an upcoming Cooking Club get-together. It gives tips for hosting a perfect dinner party or afternoon tea.

Big deal, I know. So Colonel and Mrs. William Allaire had a bridge party. What's so sad about that? Well, it's not the bridge parties that make me sad. It's my feeling that we have lost something these turn-of-the-century folks had. They actually cared to read about these things in their city newspaper.

I know, we can read plenty of gossip in the newspaper any day. But this seems different. These aren't stories about movie stars, sports stars, criminals, famous addicts, or people who are famous for no particular reason. These were people they actually knew. People they wanted to keep track of. They belonged to a community.

I've been thinking a lot about community lately. I'll confess I believe I'm missing a skill set. I don't really know how to form community. Is this a lost art, or is it just me?

Sure, I know how to make friends. I have terrific coworkers, whom I consider friends. I have friends at church, I'm friendly with my neighbors, and we get together regularly with other families we consider our friends. Many of our friends are scattered throughout the country, and some of them overseas, but we keep in touch.

But I don't think a network of friends necessarily equals a living, breathing community of people. Come to think of it, most of my friends don't even know each other. I can bounce from one friend to another - or one group to another - without a second thought. Even my church feels like a nice weekly gathering of people I barely know. I am not surrounded by a tightly woven web of people who experience life together.

This is what the Society page on my wall reminds me of. Perhaps community life has become a lost element of our society, its formation a lost art. Where are the bridge parties, ice cream socials, dinner parties, barn dances, and block parties hosted by people who actually live on the block, rather than sponsored by Pepsi?

I used to think it was weird to see silver serving sets, complete sets of beautiful china, ice buckets, crystal glasses, and other entertainment accessories in the homes of people who had been around for a while. Seemed like a waste - all those beautiful maybe it was a waste, I don't know. I'm not planning to go out a buy a silver set anytime soon. But something about it actually makes sense to me. It suggests that people valued hospitality and community and saw those special occasions as worthy of something extra.

As Americans in the 21st century, we tend to undervalue the sacred nature of community. We're all about the family and the rugged individual, the lone hero. And we are a lonely people. I wonder if we realize how desperately this loneliness eats at our souls.

Was it just out of convenience that God chose an entire nation of people and taught them how to live well in community? What it a coincidence that Christ created the church and gave us sacraments to practice in community? Should we be surprised that as we watch communities and their institutions disintegrate, the world feels like a more dangerous place?

In community we ground each other, encourage each other, hold each other accountable. When the Holy Spirit is present in a community of people, that community is sacred. We form the body of Christ. By ourselves we're just isolated body parts. And like body parts without a body, we struggle to survive.

Could it be that the most important job of Christian leaders is to foster strong healthy, Christ-like community?

So how do we seek community in this individualistic society? How do we foster it among people who are so starved for time and rest, they don't feel their needs? God has called us to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:3-5). How do we do this?


Amy, it was different in the past. It's not your imagination. I am taking a Ministry Communications course online. One of the texts by Graham Johnston, Preaching to a Postmodern World discusses this issue. He writes, " individualism grows, it comes at the expense of the individual who fails to perceive his or her sense of connectedness to the world. Postmodernity, when taken to its logical conclusion, can create a kind of solipsism in which th only world one can ever know is one's own private existence." (p. 38).

Until reading this book, I never made the connection of the lack of community with postmodernism. Thank you for sharing.

I totally agree. I work with College students and they are into FACEBOOK, which is a contemporary idea of the Society Page. However, it doesn't replace the community building that should be going on.

I totally agree. I work with College students who are into FACEBOOK, which is a contemporary idea of the Society Page. You can keep up with where your friends are going, how they are feeling, what books they are reading, pictures and home movies, etc. While it does help people to network, it seems to be more surface level and does not seem to be creating the type of authentic community that we are created for and desperately need.

We were rooted in a solid community and then we moved across the country. What a shock. So we knew how to live in community but we didn't know how to build from scratch. And so we start-one person at a time, one family at a time, one dinner at a time, one church event at a time. It takes a very long time to build a community. This emphasis on "community" in church, I fear, is over done with the emphasis on the pastors or church leadership trying to " build community". I, for one, have let them off the hook. I have to do the hard work, making dinner, clearing the space on our calendar, making the time and space and yes, even money for food, for others. After 2 years, we have a very small community but it is growing. I truly belive "hospitality" is the lost gift that needs to be reclaimed. Karen Mains in Chicago wrote an awesome book years ago=Open Heart, Open Home (or maybe the other way around.

Hello! As I live at the Y Residence in my city, I cannot begin to express how much it means when Christian people choose to open up their hearts and their homes to me. It's the stuff that friendship is made of, especially since I am very limited as to the amount of entertaining which I can carry out at my place. Kudos to those who see a crying need like this and try their level best to fill it. Praise the Lord!

I find that building community begins in my own family--creating rhythms of life together that help us celebrate, mourn, find inspiration.

When I do these things first with my family I get a taste for wider bonds. I know that sometimes this can work the other way, producing an isolationist family. But for me, it is a microcosm taste of what is possible on a wider scale. And it helps me get outside of myself.

michelle mc queen, 176 Condor Drive, Bon Air Gardens, Arouca, Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies.

I believe that we have lost the touch of the community spirit in today's modern worldl. We have to try our best and bring it back by keeping functions in our community, picnic, bbq, family get together
so that those who feel outcasted could feel love and welcomed.

Okay, so I'm reading The Suburban Christian and blogging about it. And it turns out that the next chapter addresses community. So for more views on the topic, feel free to stop by. And I'll let people know you're having a similar conversation over here.

I'm not sure you can build community in the suburbs as we live them today.

I grew up in the same small town my mother did ... lived 19 years in Boston, which is a city of neighborhoods where you see your friends daily on the street ... married and ended up in a suburban town in North Carolina.

People who think city life is frantic have never been to the suburbs, where 2.6 kids, each with their soccer games, music lessons, dance lessons, and afterschool activities, keep their two parents (both working more than 40 hours a week) driving constantly when they're not at their jobs--to which they commute 48 minutes round trip, on average. Church potlucks are charming arrays of Bojangles chicken boxes, Chik-fil-A nugget platters, and supermarket veggie trays.

Having married late, my husband and I don't have kids so we've skipped the overbooked years. But this doesn't look like childhood as we remember it or life as we like to live it. Parents who have time to play bridge with their friends instead of having to "build their resume" of church, community service, house, car, and accomplished children ... kids who have time to play instead of constantly building their pre-college transcript ... neighbors who have time to be neighbors instead of rushing here and there ... That's what makes community possible. And in today's ambitious suburbs, we just don't give ourselves the time.

Something I forgot ...

A number of years ago, someone I know went to Mother Teresa, seeking to make a retirement commitment to the Missionaries of Charity. And she told him:

"Stay in America. America has a poverty of loneliness that exists nowhere else in the world."

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