I’ve spent a lot of time recently pondering the idea of community. Because I left mine behind in the recent move to Tennessee, the concept has moved the to forefront of my mind. Shauna Niequist first introduced me to the idea in her book Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way. She defines it in this way:
When you walk with someone, listen to their story, carry their burden, play with their kids, that’s community. When you pray for them in the middle of the night because their face popped into your mind, when you find yourself learning from them and inviting them more and more often in the family places in your life, that’s community, and whenever you find it, it’s always a gift.
Community happens slowly and often by accident. Oh sure, it can be purposely created, but for a semi-introvert like me, community is formed in the midst of life – sometimes in the most painful parts. Either way, those friendships forged out of pain or through simply sharing life are the ones that last for years.
Case in point, my friend Meredith (names changed to protect the innocent) came into my life just as Keith and I were embarking on our marital adventure. Bringing her into my community was one of those happy accidents. In fact, when I asked her to sit by me during a high school football game (our husbands were coaches), I had no idea the role she would play in my life. For hours that night, the two of us sat and laughed hysterically, the kind of laughter that cements a friendship connection. Now, twenty years later, she is my secret keeper, my sounding board, my safe place. It’s very rare to have someone in your life where you can say aloud the awful, ugly things we women often think. She and I have listened to one another’s stories, played with one another’s children, and carried one another’s burdens for a long, long time. What a happy providential moment of sharing a bleacher for a few hours that turned into a life-long friendship!
While one friendship was forged in joy, there have been several constructed in the midst of heartbreak and suffering. I met Sally (name changed again) at church, we sang on the worship ensemble together. We laughed together and often chatted about creative teaching ideas. (We were both educators.) Not long after we met, she faced a critical turning point in her life. Her marriage had been falling apart for a long time, but as the dutiful Christian wife, she was doing her best to hold it together. There are many ugly details to her painful disintegration of marriage, but there’s no need to share them. The only important thing to know is that during that tumultuous time, God melded our hearts together. While professional marital advice isn’t my forte, I did have a listening ear and praying voice. She spent many nights around our family’s dinner table, finding respite in the community that God was forming between us. There were days she would call in utter anguish, and I had no words to relieve it. I listened. I prayed. And for a while that’s what we did. Eventually, God healed wounds and helped her move on. Our friendship still stands. Although the tears are much less frequent, her face is still the one that pops into my mind in the middle of the night, so I pray for her and her new little family. I won’t lie and say that those initial days of friendship were fun. They were hard and heavy to carry, but those were the moments that sealed our friendship – that made us a part of one another’s community. I wouldn’t trade the pain for anything if it meant she never became a part of my life.
Moving away from interacting weekly with my community has been painful and lonely for me, sometimes excruciatingly so. When we are torn from our community, we feel its impact more deeply and value community so much more clearly. I remember the power and comfort of those friendships even though they are hundreds of miles away. It’s not like I can go out and recreate those friendships, those bonds, over a single cup of coffee at Starbucks. Those relationships take months – and years – to develop. On the other hand, it is the hope of recreating another community like those I’ve left behind that keeps me going. That keeps me looking around every corner for a new friend, one who will chose to weave her way into the fabric of my life.