Happy New Year everyone! Welcome to 2011.
I spent the last evening of the old year seeing Another Year at my favourite London cinema, then watching the fireworks on the Thames.
The movie, written and directed by Mike Leigh, is a slow, quiet, gentle look at the lives of ordinary people muddling through an ordinary year. The central couple, Tom and Gerri, are shown happy, stable, generous and caring, as they touch the less-happy lives of family and friends.
The message of the movie seems to be ‘if you’re single, your life is likely to be falling apart’. Singleness seems to be the one great terror facing most of the peripheral characters. Some have already turned to drink in an effort to forget their misery. Others, such as Tom and Gerri’s son, are fine for now, but there is a constant pressure on him to find a nice girl and settle down – his parents are clearly afraid for him if he is on his own.
I came away wanting to say ‘it doesn’t have to be like that!’ Yes, loneliness is awful and can be incredibly crushing, but being single does not have to equate to being lonely. What Mary and Ken (the two terribly sad single friends) need is not a spouse, but a community. Ken says at one point “When I started work, we all used to go out for a drink on a Friday night, or for a curry.” now things have moved on, his colleagues have got married, the nice local pubs have changed into noisy bars, and Ken is left drinking alone.
Mary comes to Tom and Gerri for company and ‘someone to talk to’, but the two of them can’t be there for her all the time; she needs community.
After the film, I had a couple of hours to spare, so came home to see where the best place would be to view the New Year fireworks. Along with maps of the viewing areas, walking route and tube stations, the official website suggested repeatedly that “You’ll get the best view of the fireworks at home on BBC1”.
This of course is true. Unless you’d been standing in the cold for hours to secure the prime spot, any view would be obscured by trees, lamp posts, statues and even buildings, and almost certainly would be framed by other people’s heads. But that’s beside the point. The point of watching the New Year fireworks – or any firework display – is not to have a really good view, but to be part of an event.
I’ve seen the London fireworks on TV plenty of times, but this year was different, this year I was there. I was alone, but part of a community of people gathering together for a shared experience.
We’re created as relational beings. God designed us to flourish in relationships, both with him and with others. Our culture recognises this need, but as usual misinterprets it and tells us we need a ‘partner’. One weakness of Another Year was its suggestion that Tom and Gerri were happy because they were married and healthy. It is possible to be married and lonely as well as to be single and flourishing. The key is feeling part of something bigger than yourself.
A single friend of mine in her Christmas letter this year included a plea to her married friends not to forget about the singles in their churches. “All we need,” she said “is an invitation back to the house for lunch after church once in a while.”
Let us model to the world a way of living that goes beyond its drive to pair up and hunker down. Let us build strong, vibrant, loving, supportive communities in which all are welcomed and valued, and in which all have something to give. The main similarity between all the churches I have been a part of in my life, regardless of their age range, denomination or worship style, has been that they have valued every member of the congregation, and sought to have as many as possible involved in the life of the church through small groups and serving teams. They are true communities of believers, and strangers quickly feel welcomed and at home there, because they are given a place.
May you find and extend rich community in your family, your neighbourhood and your circle of relationships in 2011. To transform a culture we need to transform our ‘networks’ into a community.
Happy new year!