Four years and two months ago I moved to Kansas City from St. Paul, MN. In St. Paul I had the best friends I could have ever imagined. It was really hard to move away knowing that I wasn’t going to be easily and instantly surrounded by “my people” - people that knew me and really got me. And, worst of all, if you’re like me and have a propensity to tell really lame jokes, a new environment comes with many uncertainties. In St. Paul I had relationships that mattered to me: relationships where I could simultaneously just be myself and work on the more selfish and stubborn parts of myself. When I got to Kansas City, I didn’t know exactly what to expect and I spent the first few months just going to work and not really getting to know anyone else. After that, my life changed again when I started meeting in a small group with some guys and started getting really close to some of them. Now, once again, there were people who knew me, accepted me, but also challenged me to improve and wanted me to be the person I was created to be.
I bonded with these guys and eventually some really great girl friends and I started to experience the kind of community I left in St. Paul. Both the St. Paul community and the community in KC changed me and I encountered people - when I was vulnerable enough to have real conversations - that gave me new experiences and insight that I had never had before. Now in KC a lot of the friends I made at first have gotten married or our lives have taken us in different directions. But they still impacted and changed me nonetheless because I was vulnerable and accountable to real friends that truly knew and cared for my growth as a person and disciple of Christ. Over the past year, I’ve been getting to know a new set of friends that have become a new community for me. Every year continues to be the best year of my life because every year I know people that know me, accept me and my lame jokes, and want me to be better than I am currently. All of this is because over and over God blesses us with the people we need to have authentic community by giving us relationships that truly matter.
With relationships that truly matter comes a series of experiences we thought we could never have. We enjoy a new type of happiness that is ultimately satisfying a natural inclination found deep in the way we are wired. I’m not talking about the short-term pleasure-kind of happiness, but a deep and lasting sense of “this is who I am and where I belong.” In these kinds of relationships there is a peace that says “all is right with the world when I’m with these people.” Now, it is absolutely certain that - in this life - no one will ever experience that type of contentment all of the time. But, if we don’t have it some of the time, we may need to reevaluate the depth and significance of our relationships.
Without a deeper type of community, we are left to conversations with people that are simply a kind of fleeting pleasure in themselves. If you’re like me, it’s fun to enjoy a conversation that doesn’t really matter - that doesn’t actually influence my life or their life in any significant way. There are conversations to be had that are pleasant, but not important. Pleasant conversations are fine most of the time, and I am certainly not advocating for every conversation to be super deep. But if we only have pleasant conversations, soon enough we will realize that the true purpose of community is not being realized in our lives.
Like the two greatest commandments, there are two places this deep and satisfying community is found: God and others. Jesus says, “Come to me you who are burdened and I will give you rest.” What gives us rest? Going to Jesus and having communion with him. If we go to Jesus with our burdens, he wants to be our community. He wants to be the place we go to say that all is right with the world. At some of the hardest times in my life, I found this to be especially true about adoration. We were made for God’s love. Without Jesus as our first and most important relationship, we will always strive and struggle to find some finite thing to fill the void in us that longs for an infinite kind of community. In terms of others, we find that the deepest kind of community participates in and reflects our relationship with God. We get to know people that we share our lives with. People that, practically speaking, know everything about us because we become vulnerable with and accountable to them. People whose presence we enjoy and people who truly want what is best for us.
So what is the true goal of authentic community? In the course of our lives, community is important for many reasons. It’s a place where we find understanding, belonging, joy, kindness, compassion but also honesty, candor, and challenges from people that come from genuine concern for our well-being. But ultimately, the most important reason for community is love. It is a place we receive love, where we give love, and the primary school of formation for a life of love lived for God and others. In the context of our relationships, love - the true purpose of community - has a chance to be cultivated.
Because love is choosing the good of others even at the risk of our own detriment, we cannot grow in love without others. And ultimately this is important for our salvation because true holiness and sainthood is found in the perfection of love, first for God then for others. So how does community teach us love? It’s easy to see in the day to day course of life that our friendships give a chance to enjoy others’ sense of humor, abilities, talents, different ways of thinking, different unique purposes, etc. But what they should really give us is that place of belonging. But not simply in helping us be comfortable though. (Insert dramatic music in your mind here.) The universe needs each and everyone of us to become who we were created to be. You are the only you in the world. You are the only you that has ever existed and will ever exist. There’s is something you bring to the universe that no one else ever has, ever will, or ever can. We do this by learning how to love with every fiber of our being. When we know ourselves: our gifts, strengths, our deepest desires we begin to learn our personal mission in the world, but no matter who you are the goal is to be truly you while learning to love to the best of your ability.
Since we all have shortcomings and failures and we all need to strive to improve, community is so important because it is our school of formation for the most important adventure of our lives. What adventure am I talking about? The key adventure of life: Learning to love. We all struggle to love God as well as we should and we all struggle to love others as well as we should. In community we have role models of love, we are challenged and encouraged to love better, but also we have relationships with the very people we are called to love.
In the end, there’s a difference between knowing that the point of community is love and actually choosing to live it. For me, the gap is often wider than I recognize. And I have a lot of work to do. Nonetheless, nothing less than heaven is our goal and, when we have true love in our hearts, we will want to bring as many people with us as we can. With love, we strive to become what God has created us to be, first for him and then for others. We often struggle seeing ourselves without biased, but you can bet your friends - the ones that truly know you - know some of your shortcomings even better than you. In my life, from St. Paul to Kansas City, I’ve had friends who see parts of me clearer than I do. The ones that truly love me challenge me to become better, and one day maybe even a saint. Looking around me, however, I see people all over who are deprived of true community that teaches men and women how to truly love. When you find yourself in this situation, take aim to find friends with which you can be vulnerable and accountable, friends that truly challenge you to better yourself become who you were created to be: a man or woman who loves well in every circumstance.