Sunday, November 7, 2021

Community is NOT Intimacy

Community is not the same thing as intimacy, nor is intimacy what community brings as gift.  Years of yearning and disappointment are packed into this statement, though I am also smiling, now on this side of things.

A searing yearning has accompanied me most of my life. It’s really only been in the last years that I learned not everyone has this sensation inside of them. For me, it’s a waxing and waning emptiness within, met somehow in being seen, being deeply heard in who I am or what I have to say. Sometimes I’m acutely in touch with it, feeling its weight and drive to be met somehow, anyway, anyhow. More often than not, in these days, I’m less attuned to its urgencies and need. I know some of the stories underneath it, and can hold the ‘searing’ quality with a bit of watery ease. I also appreciate its contributions and gift in my life, the fruit of its drive.


Early on in my life, the searing yearning pushed me into some difficult situations--discounting my own worth so to be included in human groups that didn’t respect me nor have my best interest at heart. That happened a lot in college. Over the years, however, this part of me has led into diverse spiritual friendships, deepening relationships and a web of belonging that nourishes me as the creative contemplative I am. I cannot now imagine my life away from the busy intersection of widely divergent human beings with whom I have shared prayer, pleasure, practice, lament, laughter and more. Friends who are deeply committed to wisdom ways of being in the world and who held spaces for me to heal, grow, learn, and love anew. In the end, this searing yearning has made me a contemplative, a writer, a community organizer, a circle-way holder/keeper--all of which makes my life overwhelmingly rich, abundant. I am grateful. A long road to ‘here,’ wherever ‘here’ is, but worthwhile.  

Community did not provide for me what I have needed, however, nor was the intimacy I craved to be found in its valleys or mountaintops. Community is not the same thing as intimacy, nor is intimacy what community brings as gift. 


Parker Palmer’s essay articulated this for me in a way I could finally see it in my own experience. He names clearly that our culture today associates community with intimacy, which he points out is a trap.

When community is reduced to intimacy, our world shrinks to a vanishing point: with how many people can one be genuinely intimate in a lifetime?” A light bulb went off in my head when I read those words for the first time. I was both exhausted and exhilarated. The energy output in my life at the time, to craft a faith community for myself in which I could be seen and heard, in which I could feel safe, was huge. Ultimately unsustainable. I was attempting to be intimate with an increasing number of spiritual friends, across geography and even generations. I was seeking intimate community, or so I thought.

Palmer’s observation freed me to see my own finitude, accept my own limitations as gift. He was inviting me to relax into my created condition and be receptive to all around me apart from my intentions. Trust the gifts that would be given, that would emerge. Palmer crafts an image of community that resonated with me as soon as I read it, yet was also liberating me from this yearning that drove me so. 


Community must be an expansive web, he observes. It must be “capacious enough to embrace everything from my relation to strangers I will never meet (e.g., the poor around the world to whom I am accountable), to people with whom I share local resources and must learn to get along (e.g., immediate neighbors), to people I am related to for the purpose of getting a job done (e.g., coworkers and colleagues).” In this expansive sense of community, we are related to one another without any one of us being completely responsible for the relationship itself. I know that sounds arrogant and more--how is one person responsible for any relationship, after all?--but it’s how I was reared. It’s my natural (if unhealthy) way of feeling connected, important, valued in relationship. I assumed for decades that I am responsible to care for the other if I am to be connected, to serve others if I am to be seen, to expend my own energies for what the other desires I am not to be alone. In my unconscious need, I constantly "served others" out of my own need more than their own. Ego-driven ministry, which is not ministry at all.  


Parker conceded what is now acutely obvious to me, after forty years of living into the responsibility paradigm: “Intimacy is neither possible nor necessary across this entire range of relationships.” His question is worth repeating: With how many people can one be genuinely intimate in a lifetime? For an extroverted introvert like myself--one who thrives on one-on-one connection in multiple, serial fashion--the number of folks may be larger than some others. But it’s still finite. It’s still limited to decreasing energies as I age. I had been working so very hard to create a scaffolding of spiritual friendships that could hold seekers across traditions, differentiating from norms and expectations. I had thought community simply needed to be more intimate to do its healing work in the world.


But to be freed of this increasingly heavy responsibility paradigm? To realize that community was not intimacy, nor intimacy community? Really? I found myself wondering. I don’t have to serve to be seen, caretake others to be connected? I can learn to trust connection that I have not earned? Could my connectedness truly arise from a strengthened capacity for it, that contemplation strengthens in me? The invitation arrived at just the right time--enforced lockdown, in a global pandemic--and while I was terrified of being isolated and alone, I found myself more and more deeply connected. Somehow. 


To begin to open my assumptions and learnings about this sense of community continues to unfold and challenge me. I’ve lived in my community is source of intimacy for so long that I find myself there often, even though I know it’s not liberating or even true. Strengthening my capacity for connectedness is what ultimately connects me inside...to the earth (my prayer tree outside, Mama Elm, for instance), to sentient beings who don’t speak in words (my heart-dog, Nala), to strangers I encounter in the grocery store, to human beings across the globe whose eyes and voices touch me now in ways new to me… Strengthening my capacity for connectedness continues to challenge me in specific areas of my life where I have felt hurt or unseen--so, with church colleagues, or higher education colleagues of all sorts. So many unhealthy habits from those environments, so now, many opportunities to practice health and differentiation while loving, strengthening capacity for connectedness even there. With ‘them.’


When community and intimacy can be un-hinged from one another, I think there is also invitation to confront our habitual tribalisms--of nation, of church, of political party, etc.--with an increasingly larger web of relatedness that liberates. When you can pursue and participate in just a few of your most significant relationships that will deepen your own sense of intimacy--being seen, being heard, offering gifts of the same to those you love--then there is a freedom to broaden your sense of community...to include a whole slew of ‘others’ with whom you are related, whether you wish it were so, or not: strangers, colleagues, local-neighbors, more... You can begin to see all 'others' as part of a communal web, human being, belonging...being-longing...

Because like it or not, Parker names from the beginning of his essay, “we are embedded in community. Whether we think of ourselves as biological creatures or spiritual beings or both, the truth remains: we were created in and for a complex ecology of relatedness, and without it we wither and die.” So much of my life has been spent attempting to craft an intimate community around me, so be seen, heard, safe, loved. I’d like the remainder of my life to be spent honoring the community within which I’m clearly embedded, apart from my choice or preference, knowing now that those with whom I am blessed to be intimate will be fewer, sustainable, and free. Connect, so you can connect again later...


There is great gift in finitude, as I often tell my students...to really not being in charge at all. Responsive, not responsible or reactive. Responsive, curious, receptive, free... It becomes feasible, then, for me to focus on what is mine to do: strengthen my capacity for connectedness through contemplation, delight, receptivity. That feels do-able, human, humane.


I invite you into that as well. Join me?


Thursday, November 4, 2021

Community? ies? What...?!?

Connect, so you can connect again later… These seven words have become an aphorism for me these days, a bit of a mantra as I go about my workaday world. They are surprisingly minimalist for a relational person like myself. I got into theological education a long time ago, guided by a deep desire for deepening relationships, spiritual growth, a sense of belonging in Something Larger Than Myself. In my family, that’s what church was. Theological learning was a good connector with my father, and in an odd, negative-attraction sort of way, with a couple of my uncles. (One was a professed atheist, hence “negative” yet “engaging conversations” between us.) The pathway has been a beautiful one for me, now over decades, peppered with unexpected spiritual friendships and fascinating work across collaborative energies and multiple traditions (and no-tradition). I continue to struggle, however, in my understandings of and participation in community

What does that term truly signify today, given our global economies, political divisions, social-media algorhithms of fear, anger, hatred? How is it enlivening, life-giving, welcoming, even sacred? Can it even be any of those things anymore? How do we understand a community amidst the multiple-communities we can interact with now, every day?


As many who’ve traveled with me with know: In order to stay even remotely connected with my own root community of Protestant Christianity, I had to reach outward into other communities that valued faith and/or practice but were safe for a woman awakening to the Feminine long-denied within her own circles. I sat with Buddhist, Jewish, earth-centered spirituality, Muslim, secular-academic, Quaker/Friends, and more. The last 15 years have been an abundant buffet of welcome into webs of relationships that could hold the differentiation from my own root-tradition that was unfolding. This path of spiritual deepening required me to encounter and be broken open by the shadows of my own “community,” be it familial, marital, ecclesial. Shadows very few in my closest relationships were interested or willing to see, to be clear.


So now, I struggle to understand community as anything monolithic or unifying. While I only affiliate with maybe six distinct communities today (Presbyterian Church USA, United Seminary UMC, Women Writing for (a) Change, and now Awakening Women, Fire&Water Leadership cohorts, and CrossFit), I could point to my daily intersections with probably 10 more, in some fashion or another. These ones named are in addition to my own immediate family and families of origin (my own, and that of my husband). How is one to understand community when a life is built around several diverse communities, many of whom do NOT get along with each other…!? 


My Women Writing sisters downplay my seminary-prof-self; my Presbyterian community completely ignores my WWfaC self, or the woman deeply nourished by Awakening Women. CrossFit has a deep curiosity about my various selves, but our shared focus is fitness-in-community. Camaraderie and challenge go hand in hand, and we form a community together. But it also isn’t complicated or even bothered with all the ecclesial-feminine bits in the rest of my life. Curious, but not focused or necessary to name. Awakening Women and Fire&Water folks are the most distantly connected in my daily life, the first largely in online interactions and occasional retreats, the second in monthly contacts across an incredibly diverse (for me) learning community. I am committed and connected there, but not in the same “in-person” sorts of ways.


As such, all of this can be isolating for me. I can easily feel alone in each community because I am affiliated with all the others that no one in each community is ALSO affiliated with. I am sensitized to the judgments of internal-community-assumptions because I know and love folks who don’t fit within those assumptions, when spoken aloud. Regularly, I have to decide do I mirror this judgment to the one I love who is speaking? Do I share my experience of rudeness or malice, though I know it's not maliciously intended? Do I let it slide, honoring that s/he would have little reason to be so sensitized? And no one needs to be connected to all of my communities as I am for me to feel like I belong...but it can get complicated all the same.


Other times, I’m quietly astounded and delighted because of the overwhelmingly abundant web of connectedness I get to cherish, participate in, contribute to. I am regularly seen and connected with such a wide variety of human beings that I can feel the largeness of our own mysteries, the ways in which we ARE each other while being so vastly different. Human beings are fascinating creatures--of habit, of fragility, of humor--and each is so very lovable--no matter how hidden the divine spark may appear on any given day. Myself included. To encounter each human being as s/he is, when I’m open to it and curious, is a gift to me.


But is that encounter community? I don’t think so…


These questions sent me back to an old-familiar-essay I’ve cherished ever since I first learned of it: Parker Palmer’s 1998 essay, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Community...with a Fourteenth Thrown in for Free.” [He wrote it late at night, with the Shopping Channel on in the background 😆] As I reread it a week ago, I startled to see some things anew, reframe some things within me based upon my own wrestlings here with what community signifies. I’ll start with the opening two paragraphs, but I suspect there will be different observations rising here over the next several weeks and months. In reconsidering citizenship, I want all Americans to become more conscious of what we assume (or refuse) in our notions of community.


The first observation by Palmer is that community is not a goal to be achieved, but a gift to be received. In previous readings of this work, I think I have cruised past this first paragraph with a sense of “yeah, yeah, yeah...we know that already.” This time through, I’m newly appreciative of the observation and the need to pause here, to stop and listen, to deeply consider more underneath the surface. It returned me to my opening aphorism: connect, so you can connect again later. The practices underneath Palmer's opening observation are vastly different from how most of us are shaped, trained, even convicted to believe. The way of being in my aphorism is more aligned with his observation... Hmmm...


Most of my inherited and earned assumptions about community rest in the idea that we can be trained to form it. Theological education and ecclesial communities are founded on this notion of being shaped in a tradition, being formed for belonging in this particular community.


Folks come to seminary to become leaders in shaping Christian communities to be better Christians. Shaping. Folks find themselves as members of churches when they know how they belong, what behaviors are expected, what we do together when we gather and serve. We belong when our community sees us, welcomes us. I have long heard community-organizing as the intentional, well-trained work of creating community, which has basically meant achieving it, to me anyway. And yet, Palmer opens: community is not a goal to be achieved, but a gift to be received. He writes, “When we try to “make community happen,” driven by desire, design, and determination—places within us where the ego often lurks—we can make a good guess at the outcome: we will exhaust ourselves and alienate each other, snapping the connections we yearn for. Too many relationships have been diminished or destroyed by a drive toward “community-building” which evokes a grasping that is the opposite of what we need to do: relax into our created condition and receive the gift we have been given


This is writ-large in one of the communities in which I participate, contribute (who will remain nameless). All of us have shown up with a desire for our lives to be different in some fashion, more significance, deeper meaning, closer connections, whatever we might name for ourselves as our ‘heart’s desire’ in showing up. And it’s precisely those expectations that exhaust us, alienate us from one another, and snap the connections we say we yearn for. Very few of us came into the journey with the idea that we ought to relax together, accept our created condition as it is, and receive.


My own version of "activity instead of receptivity" stemmed at first from the fact that I’m a white woman in a mixed-ethnicity group. I was not going to be ‘one of those white women’ unwilling to do her own work. I had an urgency within me that I thought was nothing but virtuous, even prophetic. I now know it was masking a sadness inside of me, a deep frustration that I live in Ohio in the year I do. I’m surrounded by Trump Republicans (who I try to constantly humanize and honor, while sometimes failing in my own fear and frustration). I’m much more emotionally aware of the woundedness all around me, white, persons of color, economically-challenged, sick…and it hurts. Can make me afraid for who 'we' are becoming around one another. It’s exhausting to be around fearful white people when I’m fearful myself, as a white woman. When I relax, however, when I practice receptivity, there is an assurance that comes from elsewhere deep within me. I become patient with my urgency, and honor its value within me, potentially for those around me, but surely for myself.

The amusing part is that I was so consciously tending to learning in a racially-diverse community that I missed completely the much larger growth curve for myself: being in community with good-hearted people who serve in denominational structures. As I stay, I'm required to see "denominational executives" as living breathing human beings who matter. Very few people on the planet irritate me more than church denominational executives, by the way. Long, conflicted history in my own church travels...so of course, the universe has paired me now with several. As Winnie-the-Pooh says, "Oh bother." 😆😆😆

Part of this history comes from my extensive work in theological education, preparing folks for church leadership. Most of my work in theological education has pointed out the off-the-rails character of life in seminaries/div schools today, having little to no bearing on the relational skills of shaping community. Faculty are hopelessly shaped in more and more disembodied, abstracted, and emotionally-neglected skills, which means they arrive to “teach fledgling Christian leaders” with little to no emotional intelligence or endurance to actually participate in Christian community. Which is messy, conflict-ridden, disruptive and ultimately transformative, when held well by those able to hold ambiguity, uncertainty, and compassion for many. This is NOT what theological faculty do today. Most, anyway. Many come into teaching precisely to escape this work of Christian community. And theological students Zoom in from online portals, which means it’s easy to step away from something that upsets them ‘on screen.’ I’ve had to grieve my previous sense of learning community to allow the individuals that come to me from their separate portals to learn, be engaged by the words of their classmates, and weekly, by my own words in video-lecture, responding to their words. Vastly different animal than in-person Christian community.

So how to break the cycle of assumption then? How to begin to shape incoming seminary students so that community is not something they can create or achieve, but only something they can receive? No one likes the answer to this, which is part of why I love Palmer’s essay so much.


Practice receptivity. Do the inner work to learn how to become vulnerable in collective settings, such that you are receptive to whomever and whatever shows up there. Community will never emerge, be borne, until there is a “capacity for connectedness” deepening all around us. And receptivity requires inner work more than any external structure building. 


As Palmer states in his second paragraph: “Community begins not externally but in the recesses of the human heart. Long before community can be manifest in outward relationships, it must be present in the individual as “a capacity for connectedness”—a capacity to resist the forces of disconnection with which our culture and our psyches are riddled, forces with names like narcissism, egotism, jealousy, competition, empire-building, nationalism, and related forms of madness in which psychopathology and political pathology become powerfully intertwined.” Religious traditions today have lost more and more of the wisdom necessary for this "recess of the human heart" work. It's very challenging for traditional folks to get out of the way and relax, receive. Particularly when their sadness at apparent losses of tradition are so unconscious, so ungrieved.


Seems like next post invited is practicing receptivity in a world in which vulnerability can be penalized. How do we practice receptivity, so to develop our capacity for connectedness beyond what we’ve known in church, civic settings, family?


What is meant by inner work here, in a world demonstrating little but advocacy and resistance, posturing and proclaiming? More to come... Until then...


Connect, so you can connect again later. It may not seem like much, but it models a receptivity and a practice of connecting significant for what community might eventually come to mean.


Monday, November 1, 2021

Community Table...Not Yet

I sat down at the community table of the local coffee shop, noting the African-American women and small girl sitting at the other end. I smiled, belatedly realizing through my mask they wouldn’t know that. As I waited for my coffee drink, a treat for me on this Monday morning, I set about making my list for the week. I wanted to clear the decks a little, in expectation and anticipation, to see what writing might come. 


“We are expecting the rest of our friends to come soon,” said one of the women to me, motioning that she would need the space, the table. “Oh,” I said, with surprise. “This is usually the community table, so I didn’t know…” I let my voice trail off… “When will they be arriving then?” “In the next few minutes…” “Okay,” I said. I tried to attend to the words that might come before “they” arrived. Realizing the expectation was now disrupting getting my thoughts together, I packed up my stuff and headed to the back of the coffee shop. The corner booth had just opened up, as way would have it. I curled up in the corner chair, enjoying the quiet and the greater comfort around me.


The irony was not lost on me of course: the Community Table


What is required, from each of us, all of us, to rebuild any sense of trust in community in the American experiment? Is it even possible anymore? How do we rebuild something that has never truly been an expansive American phenomenon, made even more demanding now across differences exploited by late-era-global-capitalism and social-media algorithms bent upon fear, anger and hatred?


To be clear, this is not about being asked to move from a community-table by the woman who asked for what she needed. Happy to, and we both landed in what we needed--her, space; me, quiet. And she would have no reason to know I had just left my car, after letting it run for a while so I could listen to the end of a chapter of a book that currently has me. It’s captured my heart, my mind, even in the times I have to turn it off because I feel nauseous and sad.


The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. The woman at the the table and I have every reason to see one another in the sculpted-wounded perspectives we’ve both inherited. Yet it begs the question for me, within the river of listening from another friend who is asking, “Is reconciliation even possible?” Reconciliation between…? we might ask…? Between white/color, masculine/feminine, wounded/wounding…? The questions are stomach-punches, to be sure, but there is strength and courage in asking them aloud… We have to remember how difficult it is, what we ask of others… this friend also said. 


There will posts here to come, shaping what I mean by ‘community’ and what I am learning on my own journeying toward a more rigorous manifestation of that around me today. Enough for now to bow to the question, to move when asked, and to receive the graced quiet that comes when each of us receives what we need in the moment.


I will also always bow to my own sensation, yearning, however patiently I need to sit with my own sadnesses in order to participate in it:  


I want the world to be different, to heal...


I want to sit quietly for, or walk slowly toward, the more frequent days when it feels possible for a moment at a time…this new/old story of reconciliation.


As I say to all those who sit in direction: at your pace. Only when You’re ready. 

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