The Unpredictability of Community

How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! – Ps 133:1

This month I’ve been thinking about what makes community authentic. I’m sure we can trade stories over well-meaning groups that never quite satisfied. We don’t want to just occupy the same space at the same time. We want to be involved in a community – a tapestry of relationships that goes deep. We want to share and be shared with, to know and to be known, to care and be cared for. A place of refuge, but not just a retreat. We want our community to be a place of growth and dynamic activity.

Tucked at the end of a series of 15 Psalms called the Song of Ascents, we have this Psalm that consummates the worshipper’s ascension to Jerusalem. These psalms were sung annually during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the devout literally ascended to Mount Zion. I find it interesting that the two Psalms that conclude these songs are about community. They exclaim the beauty of worshippers being together and experiencing the blessing of the Lord together. It’s almost as if the climax of experiencing God’s presence in Zion is a corporate one. That is, the fullest  joy that comes from experiencing God’s presence is one in which it is shared, not privatized. Community, then is a canvas on which to experience the fullness of God. In other words, community maximizes our relationship with God. Let me explain two ways this is so.

1. I learn about who God is from the way you uniquely interact with him. Too often, my own relationship with God is fit neatly along the lines of my own experiences and categories. These categories might resemble my own denomination, cultural upbringing, ethnicity, etc. However, God is big! Too big to be contained by my own small experience/understanding of him in fact. There are therefore aspects to God’s glory and excellence that you understand in unique ways from me. How can I learn about these? By being in community with you.

C.S. Lewis added an interesting example of this when he reflected on the death of his friend Charles Williams and the community he was involved with called the Inklings. When Charles Williams died, aside from the expected effects on the community of loss and grief, Lewis supposed that his relationship with a mutual friend, J.R.R. Tolkien would grow deeper.  Surprisingly, he found the opposite to be true. In hindsight, Lewis realized that Williams brought out a side to Tolkien that would otherwise go unseen because there was a dynamic between Williams and Tolkien that was different than the one between Williams and himself. These two dynamics (not to mention the ones between him and Owen Barfield, and Tolkien and Sayers, etc.) influenced one another such that the community was deepened as a result. That’s the way community works. You see, community is not merely a collection of one-to-one relationships, but a synergistic web of relationships that each affect and enhance one another. Imagine this same scenario with God in the midst of that community, and that’s why we need each other.

2. My sharing with you completes my joy. It’s the simple observation that when we see or experience something cool, we have to tell someone about it. I borrow this from Lewis again that in fact, praise completes the joy. Jonathan Edwards said something similar in that praise maximizes joy. Praise, that is, outward expression, is a corporate function. It’s why the most tragic life stories are the ones in which someone achieves unimaginable success, but has no one to share it with. How much does your community add to, or even complete, your joy in God?

I think an understanding of the way community affects my own relationship with God can make community indispensable, and isn’t that the motivation that is most often lacking? I have seen communities fail for lack of needing to be together. When life on life participation is just optional icing on the cake of my own relationship with God, I prioritize other things above it. Community becomes a great luxury when I am needy, but not something essential to my survival as I walk with God.

Psalm 133 reminds us that the cumulative exclamation of our pilgrimage heavenward is the participation in a dynamic, Gospel-centered, Christ-exalting community. After all, as Gordon Fee said, “God is not just populating heaven one by one, but redeeming a people for himself.” And when we see the work that God does to bring people of all races together, it might just lead us to exclaim, “How GOOD and PLEASANT it is when brothers dwell together in unity!”

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