The joy (and challenge) of being in community

June 29, 2016

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder
Those who know me know that I love summer in Minnesota! I love the comfortable temperatures, the intense green in early summer, and the long days of sunlight. I love my garden. I also love that we all crawl out of the depths of our homes after the long winter and the neighborhood comes alive with the sounds of children playing and lawns being mowed.
Each summer, I find that my gratitude increases as I am so blessed to live in the neighborhood that I do. It’s beautiful and safe, which I realize is not the case for everyone in our communities. I am grateful that I have the best neighbors, who have also become good friends over the past 12 years. We’ve watched our children grow and parents die. We’ve been through a few challenges in dealing with the occasional disruptive neighbor or the acting-out teen. But overall it has been quite idyllic.
A few years ago, our neighbors just to the north accidentally built an enormous pond. I say accidentally because they never really intended for it to get so big. It has not one but two cascading waterfalls that produce the most soothing water sounds. We try to sleep at night with our windows open as often as possible. It has become a place of prayer and meditation for me. It is pure bliss and grounds my soul.
The most interesting thing that has developed with the pond is that it has become a source of community. I sit by the pond as much as my schedule will allow. My husband often joins me and, occasionally, other neighbors come out, bring their lawn chairs, and we chat about our lives. Even the critters join us. As you can imagine, the pond draws a lot of local wildlife. Deer, wild turkeys, muskrat-type animals, squirrels, and every type of bird comes to drink and play in the pond.
This summer, we have had quite the soap opera happening at the pond. Two ducks have moved in and made their home with us. My neighbor, Rose (owner of the pond), has named them Mel (the male) and Billie (the female). She talks to them and gives them treats. They have come to recognize her, and they talk back to her and even call to her when she is in the house. They have become very comfortable around us, which I know is not the best for wild animals but still we love having them around.
Recently, a second male has visited on occasion, and as you can imagine, both males can become quite territorial. Just today, I was talking to Rose and she was telling me about a terrible duck fight that happened yesterday.
As I pulled out my lawn chair today to sit by the pond, I noticed that one of the males was there and a little while later, a second male came and they sat peacefully together on the top of the pond. Now it’s possible that these are two entirely different ducks but they waddled around the whole area by the pond keeping in perfect step with each other. No fighting today. And now Billie (the female) is back taking a bath in the pond.
The pond has become for me a microcosm for the whole cycle of life. There is birth and death, summer and winter, solitude and community. There are times when everything is quiet and there is harmony, and there are times of disharmony and angst. The pond for me represents the powerful inter-connectedness of life. It reminds me of the words of Parker Palmer:
“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other.”
Christian community is like the pond. It is constantly changing. There are times when we are close and work well together. There are times when we sense the powerful presence of God in our midst, and our activities and worship are filled with purpose and meaning. However, sometimes there is breakdown in our Christian community and struggle. Sometimes there is a loss of energy and decline. Sometimes we are hurtful to each other and disappoint one another. In our highly consumer-oriented culture, it is easy to give up and leave Christian communities when the going gets tough. It takes courage and hope to stay in community with each other.
One of my father’s famous sayings was, “This too shall pass.” As a kid, I thought this sounded flip and it seemed to minimize what I thought were “real” adolescent problems, but there is deep wisdom in this saying and in the cycle of life together in community. Things will change. Cycles of connection and disconnection occur and we are all getting older. Each moment is precious, and I would rather immerse myself in the dramas of community than live in isolation. No community or institution is perfect. Believe me, I tried to find it and kept experiencing disappointment. But, living within the cycles of community brings wisdom and maturity. We grow in community as we experience ourselves being reflected in the eyes of others.
Wherever you are in your relationship with your brothers and sisters in Christ, be thankful. If it’s going well, rejoice! Savor every moment. If it’s not going well, still, be thankful! Ask God to show you the opportunities embedded in this downward cycle for there is much to learn from the disappointments and struggle. And, in all things keep praying.

Rev. Susan Nienaber is superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference's Big Waters District.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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