Happy New Year!
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve reflected on my top reads of the past 12 months and my top plays seen, podcasts heard and adventures experienced. But what did I take away with me from the year?
One big lesson stands out: We need community.
This realisation came at me from lots of different sources. Darkest Hour was probably the first. I wrote after I saw it that the big difference between Churchill and Hamilton (at least as the musical depicts it) was that when the moment of crisis hit, Hamilton was out on his own and tried to handle things alone, whereas Churchill had friends who came around him and offered support, encouragement and wise counsel.
The leaders of the church network Newfrontiers have a sort of catchphrase they often say: “We’re better together than we are apart.” We all have complementary gifts and perspectives, and putting them together can create something far more wonderful than we could ever achieve alone.
Listening to and reading many, many interviews with the Hamilton ‘Cabinet’ (their name for the core team of four who created the show), the theme comes across loud and clear. Without the group working together, Lin Manuel’s big idea would still be just the seeds of a few great songs sitting in notebooks in his apartment. It needed people who would believe in him, catch his vision and make it come to life – and occasionally prod him to work faster, or stop tinkering! Individually each of them is extremely talented. Together they have created something that has delighted millions.
In church I’ve seen it, too – my church exists because a small group of people got behind one man’s vision and worked hard to make it reality. The team were committed to building not just excellent teaching and worship but strong community. It is a key value for us, and one we continue to work hard to maintain as we grow.
I’ve heard many people say how loved they feel by the people in church. There’s a warm welcome, but it also seems that people get knitted into the community quite quickly (for the most part – I know there are some who have not managed to find their place so easily).
I’ve seen it in my parents’ church, too. This Christmas I was particularly struck by the change in two people. One first nervously came through the doors about a year ago, the other has been around for a few years now. The first is very shy and quiet, and still rarely speaks unless addressed directly, but seems to carry himself with a lot more confidence now. His whole demeanour has lightened and he looks happier, more relaxed and as if he takes more care of himself.
The other, a lady who has been around for a few years now, spontaneously gave me a joyful hug when she saw how lovely the table looked set for our Christmas lunch together. To see the transformation in her knowledge of her acceptance in the community was really lovely. She used to feel useless and in the way; now she knows she is loved and appreciated.
This is all very warm and lovely, but it’s when difficulties hit that I’ve seen it matters the most.
When people are going through tough times they need a community around them – friends, family, and people who act like family whether they’re related or not. People who will accept them at their worst, who will think the best, believe the best, offer hope for tomorrow and strength for today. People who will show up and move furniture when their ceiling has collapsed (as happened to me a few years back). People who will help paint the walls of their new flat, and be happy to sit on the floor until they’ve bought enough chairs. People who will hug them, weep with them, bring them food, care for their kids, and help them to laugh again.
This kind of community takes time and effort. It rearranges your priorities and reorders your time. But, oh, it is worth it.
I’ve seen people on the fringes of church brought into a closer relationship with Jesus by the love of a church community. I’ve seen people battling anxiety find the strength to carry on. I’ve seen people grow and flourish through taking care of others. I’ve seen those in crisis helped, and those with things to celebrate cheered on and congratulated.
It has been such a joy to see my church family, and especially my Life Group, do their best to support, help and encourage one another.
And it has been such a sorrow to see some back away from this community right at the moment when they need it most. The shame of needing help, the fear of being judged and the expectation of rejection are just some of the things that have kept them away. And for the most part, they have continued to struggle. So much so that I have come to see it as one of the biggest warning signs of danger in a person’s life. If they withdraw from community, that is a huge red flag that things are not going well, and that they are unlikely to get better for a long time.
Yet I know that often the reason for people’s withdrawal is that they have been let down by community before. They’d love to believe that it will be different this time, but when they’re already in pain and struggling, the effort and risk involved just seem too high. I understand that, but I wish it wasn’t so.
It’s down to us
So my hope for 2019 is that we would learn to do better. We must love more generously, look to the needs of others as well as ourselves, look out for those around us who aren’t quite themselves, or who have a particular need.
I’ve held back from doing this in the past, not wanting to get sucked into people’s problems, not willing to give up my time for other people, not sure that I could really help anyway. I knew at the time how selfish and ungodly that was, but my selfishness won.
And, selfishly, I can say with relief that it hasn’t been anywhere near as hard as I had feared. A few text messages, a hug after church and an occasional longer catch up have been all that was necessary most of the time (and when the whole of a Life Group, or the whole of a church is doing the same the ‘burden’, such as it is, is considerably lightened). Only a few have needed more than that, and even for those, God has given me a love for them that means it feels totally normal and easy to help shoulder their burdens (again, alongside others).
As we learn together how to love our neighbours as ourselves, hopefully we will create an environment so safe that even those who have been hurt before will see how we love those who are struggling and will grow in confidence to let us know when they are in need. Let’s do all we can to ensure that no one ever thinks they would be better off alone than in community.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12