A proper community is a commonwealth; a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members–among them the need to need one another. –Wendell Berry
This past week was the Texas Rose Festival in Tyler, and as I was at the parade on Saturday, I reflected on what a blessing it is to live in our community. As my girls are now grown and have the presence of mine to compare their upbringing with those of their college and work friends and peers from other places, they often thank us for moving here 30 years ago to raise our family. Tyler is a special place, where people truly care for each other.
As great as a community as Tyler is, for me it doesn’t compare to the sense of community, of family we have enjoyed at Grace. As Wendell Barry intimated, we are created by God to need one another. It is woven into who we are as those made in his image, the essence of our being. We are made whole in community; without it, we are something less than ourselves. We need it, like oxygen.
God made this truth real to me as a group of close friends and I were presenting a quick learning session at a Christian school conference recently in the Woodlands. As I’ve written before, God has gifted me with a group of four other guys who do what I do, heads of school around the country who have become some of my closest friends. We get together a couple times a year to share the joys and commiserate on the challenges of leading our schools, but mostly to encourage each other and to pray together. We text each other multiple times a week, often to ask each other questions, to comment on something that’s recently happened to one of us, or to make fun of each other the way only guys do as an expression of affection. These men breathe life into me.
So, when the call out came to present quick, repeating, ten-minute learning sessions at this conference, we decided to offer a session on biblical friendship. About 25 presenters offered sessions, each presenting his or her 10-minute session five times. Attendees would travel from table to table, attending any session that piqued their interest. At any given point in time, each session routinely had three to five attendees gathered around the table. By comparison, each of our five sessions on biblical friendship had 30 or so attendees.
We didn’t have such incredible turnout at our sessions because we’re great presenters; others were better. They came because we are a fundamentally lonely people, craving relationship. Leaders are particularly dry, but all of us are relationally deprived; I’m convinced that friendlessness is greatest crisis in western culture today. The fact that we’re a relationally-poor people who have a great deal of shallow social media contacts, but precious few deep relationships is the source of so much of the anxiety, depression and overall lack of emotional wellness we feel today.
A lack of true belonging also leads to the divisiveness and anger toward each other we feel today. When you feel truly known and connected to others, people who understand you, the real you, and love you because of who you are (and sometimes despite it), it transforms you. When you operate from that base of care, love, and support, you can engage those who look and think differently than you, and maybe don’t even like you, seeing them as someone to win and persuade, perhaps even befriend. But, because you need nothing from them, they don’t threaten you. It’s easy to walk away when you can’t agree, not be threatened by them, and not let them lead you to extreme anger. After all, your identity isn’t wrapped up in them.
Conversely, when no one knows you, when you have no deep connection to others, you have no such foundation. We’re created to need community, and when we don’t have it, we often substitute alliances around issues, causes, or interests, which is what modern tribalism is all about-loose groups formed around common interests, rather than relationship. Tribalism is counterfeit community. Because there’s virtually no relational basis supporting the tribe, the issues and interests themselves become your identity. Every contest with the tribe on the other side of the issue is a struggle for existential survival; therefore, everything is permitted. Those who aren’t allied with you on the issue, part of your tribe, become threats, not people to engage but enemies to destroy. Soon you find that even some of those within your tribe aren’t pure enough on the issues, or some of the issues, and they become your enemies, too.
True community and friendship aren’t like that. They’re commitments to be all for another. They are rooted in the God-breathed desire to know another, and to be truly known and loved for who you are, even by someone who doesn’t have to love you, like your mom or your spouse. Someone who chooses you.
That kind of community and friendship require certain characteristics that are very difficult without the faith we have in Christ. They require courage, the willingness to step out on a limb and initiate friendship and relationship with someone else. My friendship with my head of school friends began when one of them sent the rest of us an email saying, “I have no friends—I want you guys to be my friends.” Reaching out to other people like that risks rejection. Maybe other people are too busy, or won’t want to be your friend. Yet, it’s a pretty nominal risk in our culture, where everyone else is starved for friends, too, and are just hoping someone will reach out to them. And, if we don’t do it, we’ll never know.
True community and friendship also require vulnerability, the willingness to step out and share one’s heart with others. It’s risky, because people can use your heart to hurt and betray you. They might be your friend for a while, then walk away. They may fail you. All of these things are scary, because they force us to face our own insecurities. Being a real friend takes time and trust, yet without that vulnerability we can never really know others or be fully known, the way we have been created to be known.
Finally, true community and friendship require perseverance, being willing to initiate opportunities to spend time together. As a head of school, developing relationships is part of my job, my calling. I find myself in the position of initiator all the time, contacting people, trying to meet with them, checking in on them, letting them know I’m praying for them. It seems I’m always the one reaching out. I can’t tell you how much it means to have a handful of friends who actually want to spend time with me, who will actually connect with me with an offer to meet for breakfast or golf or watching a game. Perseverance also requires thinking the best of each other, not ascribing ill motives to each other, and, maybe most importantly, forgiving and extending forgiveness.
The Grace community, like other Christian communities, is different. It is a community of value, but not just any values– those rooted foundationally in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its key value is itself a relationship: the relationship that its people enjoy with their creator. As they love him, he transforms them so they can love each other, in ways and to an extent not possible without that relationship. As Henri Nouwen has said, “We have such a need for love that we often expect from our fellow human beings something that only God can give, and then we quickly end up being angry, resentful, lustful, and sometimes even violent. As soon as the first commandment is no longer truly the first, our society moves to the edge of self-destruction.” Only by loving God and being love by Him is the love for others that true Christian community is built upon possible.
Over the past couple of years, we have been deeply blessed at Grace with the gift of new members of our community: new teachers, new administrators, new students, and new parents. We’re so grateful to have these people with us, and people new to our community have often asked me what makes this place and these people so special, so different from what they have known before.
We felt like it was critical to help all our new Grace family members know and understand what makes our community tick, why we do what we do, and what makes Grace, Grace. So, our board and leadership created a community covenant, an explanation, really, of who we are and why. Over the next several months, I’ll be sharing parts of that covenant with you, as a way of celebrating this great gift God has given us, this gift of relationship, of friendship, of community, of love that only those who are themselves united by the blood of Jesus can know. We hope it will help give voice to that need that God has given you, the need to need one another.