Stewardship, VII: Community
God of faithful surprises, throughout the ages you have made known your love in unexpected ways.
Community is one of the great, good, God-given gifts we need to be careful stewards of for the 80 or so years we occupy space on this earth. Because I cannot be I without you, and you cannot be you without me. In other words the self is other people.
The great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann says “you cannot find yourself in yourself. It is only the person who goes out of himself who comes to himself. It is only in other people that we find the way to ourselves.”
And so God has placed us in overlapping, sometimes concentric circles of community we need to nurture and care for and cherish till the last of all our days.
The smallest, most intimate, and, for most of us, most important, community is our family. Are you a good steward of your family? Think hard. Are you always in Dubai when your daughter stars in the school play?
I’m thinking of you teenagers out there, for whom, for many of us, our relationship to our parents is often tense and fraught, as it probably should be, but still. I heard of a great book title a while back: Get Out of My Life, but First Will You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall. In our teens we’re trying to grow up and get out and be free but we need our family so crucially; that’s what makes these relationships so hard. Are you teenagers’ good stewards of your family, to your parents, and your siblings?
This happened 24 years ago when my daughter was two. I still remember it. Taylor worshiped her brother, four years older. To Taylor, Michael was always the coolest thing since peanut butter. He was the only hero in her world.
He is a wonderful brother to her today, but when he was six, I always wondered why he didn’t do a better job of leveraging that adoration. She would have done anything for him, anything. He would have had his own personal valet if he’d wanted it.
So anyway one day when my daughter was two and my son was six, Michael had a friend over and they were playing Power Rangers, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or something, swinging their plastic swords defending civilization against the monster hordes that were always threatening justice and innocence.
And then these two six-year-old boys decide they don’t need a pesky two-year-old interfering with their thrusts and parries and retreat to the basement and slam the door behind them.
And then this ear-splitting, blood-curdling scream from my two-year-old. I thought maybe she’d gotten her hand caught in the door or something, but, no, it was just brutal, naked, existential angst because she was being left out of this little club. We all need a place to belong. I Am Not I without You. Especially in the family.
Our friendships are another of these overlapping, concentric circles we need to steward.
Anna Quindlan was a columnist at The New York Times for 20 years. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. She’s written nine novels.
And yet this is what she said in a commencement address to the Class of 2000 at Villanova University: “Here is my résumé.” Here is my résumé, she said.
I am a good mother to my children. I am a good friend to my husband. I no longer think that I am the center of the universe. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.
I am a good friend to my friends, and they to me. Without them, there would be nothing to say to you today, because I would be a cardboard cutout. But I call them on the phone, and I meet them for lunch. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.
I would be terrible, or at best mediocre, at my job if those other things were not true. You cannot be really first rate in your work if your work is all you are.
So here’s what I wanted to tell you today: get a life.
Here is my résumé, she said. Not nine novels. Not columnist at The Times. Not Pulitzer Prize. But: “I am a good friend. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.” What is your résumé?
I hope your church is one of these overlapping and concentric circles you are a good steward of.
Tom Long was part of a church group where people were asked to describe a moment when God was especially real to them. A young woman spoke up. She was a dancer, part of a ballet company. Dr. Long says it was clear that she was more comfortable dancing than speaking, because she spoke haltingly.
She reminded the group that she’d grown up in this particular church and had been baptized there as an infant. As she grew up, her father would tell her the story of her baptism. He was so proud of her and so fond of that memory. He’d always say, “O sweetheart, the Holy Spirit was in the church that day!”
And so through all the years growing up when she sat in that church, she would wonder to herself, “Where is the Holy Spirit?” She’d look up at the brass organ pipes. She’d look at the stained-glass windows. She’d look up at the impressive rafters of the church. And she’d ask herself, “Is that where the Holy Spirit is?”
And then she told the group: “Last winter, I lost both of my parents to cancer in the same week. It was the worst time of my life. One Wednesday afternoon I was driving home from visiting my parents at the hospital and I stopped at the church to pray. It was dark; everything was in shadows. And I sat in a back pew and just poured out my heart to God. My broken heart. My tears.
“Ruth was in the church kitchen that day, preparing food for a church meeting. She took off her apron, and sat beside me in the pew, and held my hand, and prayed with me. That was the day when I found out where the Holy Spirit was in this church.” Yes?
Our towns, our state, our nation, these are some of the overlapping and concentric circles we’re responsible for. I think of Scott Myers and King Poor who work so hard for the Town of Winnetka. I think of Bob Dold and Mark Kirk who served Congress and the Senate so faithfully.
My previous church, First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich, somehow had a lock on the Greenwich Board of Education. While I was there, four straight Board of Ed Chairs came from my congregation. I don’t know how this happened. There were only 850 of us, but somehow the Presbyterians established hegemony over the Board of Ed. I was so proud of their stewardship of our town and of its schools and teachers and schoolchildren. I like to think that they learned to be such good stewards of our town by being part of our little virtuous circle of Jesus disciples.
One last overlapping concentric circle of community. It’s All Saints’ Sunday. We steward the communion of the saints. On this day, we lift up to higher profile something we do quietly every other day of the year: we pay tribute to our dearly departed, because they are still part of our community.
In undying memory and everlasting gratitude, we continue to honor them, because that third-grade Sunday School teacher who taught you the 23rd Psalm 40 years ago, that Board President you learned so much from, that ancient Stephen Minister who walked the Via Dolorosa with you, that Confirmation mentor who encouraged your 14-year-old dreams, they continue to shape our character, to sharpen our virtues, to inspire our sacred imagination, to guide our feet into the way of life.
An honorable nation kneels at the feet of its departed heroes: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, both of them. An honorable congregation kneels at the feet of its saints.
The English raconteur Gilbert Keith Chesterton says that a faithful community will honor “the democracy of the dead.” Don’t you love the way he puts that? The democracy of the dead. That is to say, a faithful community “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. We will have the dead at our councils.” Yes? We will give the dead a seat at the table where our decisions are made.
Not only are they sitting at the table where our decisions are made; we are standing on their shoulders. The New Testament exhausts its imagination piling up the metaphors for what the dead mean to us. The Letter to the Hebrews calls them “a great cloud of witnesses.” Isn’t that an apt image? When you are flying to Boston, the clouds envelop you, they surround you, they engulf you; you are in the midst of them; sometimes the clouds are all that you can see. Sometimes the great cloud of witnesses is all that you can see.
The Letter to the Ephesians says that we, this small oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about, are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints in the great Commonwealth of God. Citizens with the saints.
But that’s not enough. The author of Ephesians tries again. The Church, he says, is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. And Jesus himself is the cornerstone. In Jesus the whole structure is jointed together as the household of God. With them we build our House. With them we make our home here. Cloud of witnesses; citizens of a commonwealth; foundation; the joints and bolts and pegs and screws that hold the whole place together. This is what our dearly departed mean to us.
Oh, Kristi; oh, Christopher; oh Timothy; oh, Marye; oh, Tom; oh, Carl; Oh, Alison; oh, Charlie: if I forget thee, may my right hand wither, and my tongue cleave to roof of my mouth.
Slightly paraphrased from Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), p. 95.
Anthony E. Wolf, Get Out of My Life, but First Will You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002).
Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), pp. 127–128.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Thomas More, 1985), originally published 1908, pp. 58–59.