The Strength of Community

By Mark Poindexter 

The best moments any of us have as human beings are those moments when for a little while it is possible to escape the squirrel cage of being me into the landscape of being us"

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

Last night on the national news, there was a story about a report that was recently published by the Journal of Clinical Oncology.  After looking at the data from nearly one million cancer patients, the authors of the report concluded that having a network of social support increases one’s likelihood of survival by nearly 20%.  One of the report’s authors, Dr. Paul Nguyen, said:

What this shows is that social support can really make a big difference, and that by being there for somebody – going to their appointments, helping them through their treatment – you can really make a real difference in their chance of surviving.*

I suppose this adds some validity to what we often say from a faith perspective, that the ministry of a loving presence is very important.  Being with people in the midst of their struggles and suffering does make a difference. We are created as social creatures with the need for relationship, for the giving and receiving of love. Such relationships bring wholeness and healing to our lives.

In the stories of creation that occur in Genesis 1 and 2, God calls all of creation “good” except when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  From the very beginning, the scriptures speak of the importance of human relationship and community.  Jesus speaks of that same importance when he says that the love of God and the love of neighbor are bound together.  The Apostle Paul makes it clear that living together in a community of mutual support is foundational to the Body of Christ; that we are to “live in harmony . . . rejoicing with those who rejoice; weeping with those who weep.” In his book, The Courage to Be, theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Only in the continuous encounter with other persons can one become and remain a person.  The place of this encounter is the community.”   It is only in relationship with others that we can ever fully be who we are created to be.

One reason I hold on to the doctrine of the Trinity, in which it is stated that God is Three-In-One – Father, Son and Spirit or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer - is because it helps me to grasp and proclaim the importance of community. In the Trinity, God’s very essence is defined as loving community.  God’s very nature is communal.  Our faith is to reflect the kind of God we believe in, so the nature of our faith should reflect the importance of relationship, community and love.

As we move toward an expression of the church that is relevant and appropriate for this day and time, I believe the mutual benefit of relationship and the importance of community, is an indispensable aspect of our Christian witness.  This is especially so in our culture with the hyper-individualism that is part of the American psyche.  The belief that there is something heroic in the idea, “I can pull myself up by my own boot straps” is a lie that too much of our nation has bought into.  As the medical study cited above shows, such an attitude can actually cost you your life. In the church, our care for each other, and hopefully all others, can be a powerful counter cultural witness.

Several years back, the church I was serving had the occasion to provide care for an elderly couple that was part of the congregation.  They were in their late 80’s.  They had no children.  Her name was Ivy and she had a stroke that left her incapacitated.  Her husband, named Bus, was incapable of caring for himself without her.  There was much that needed to be done.  I called the local Social Services Agency to find out what steps should to be taken to insure that the needs of these two people were met.  It took several weeks and a number of people in the church working together to get it all done.  Numerous church members provided companionship for Bus and took him to see “his Ivy.”  There were also several trips to various doctors that had to be made.  A lot of documents had to found, which was difficult because of Bus’ memory and since in their fifty years of married life it seemed that they had saved just about every piece of paper that had come their way.  Since they had no children to help, there was a lot that had to be done for this couple and the church stepped in and did it all.  One day, the church phone rang and it was the case manager from Social Services.  He said, “I just want you to know how much I appreciate what your church is doing for Bus and Ivy.  So often in these situations, people just start disappearing and don’t want to get involved.  I have some of those cases virtually every month.  But your church has been a deep blessing to these two people.  And I just wanted you to know it.”

I thanked the case manager for this phone call and I was glad that we were able to help Bus and Ivy . . . but I also believe Bus and Ivy were helping us too. They were helping us to be the people God created us to be.  People who are called to live in relationships of mutual love and support with others. People called to be with others in times of struggle and difficulty.  The medical study says such a presence might just help save someone’s life and that’s great.  But the truth is, being with people in such times is also what gives great meaning to our own lives.

*Source NBC News / www.nbcnews.com/health