I’ve just finished reading a lovely book by Rod Dreher entitled The Little way of Ruthie Leming. It tells the story of his sister’s struggle with and eventual death from cancer – but the book offers so much more besides. It is above all a story about place and belonging, and a reflection on what it means to be at home, to stay at home, to leave home, or to return home.
Rod Dreher’s sister Ruthie was the one who stayed home, in small-town Louisiana. He was the one who left home and then (following her death) returned home. The book is also a plea for us to acknowledge and rediscover the gifts of deep community – the kind of community that can only be built over generations and by way of a commitment to life in a particular place. His story and reflections are a plea for the humanizing of our lives, a humanizing that he discovers in Ruthie herself.
Dreher’s book gets me thinking, in the first instance, about my identity as the son of a minister. Being a preacher’s kid has meant that an establishment of the kinds of local roots described by Dreher has been impossible for me. I spent formative years as a child in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and then in the towns of Beaverton and Hagersville in Ontario – calls to new congregations meant calls to new towns and schools and relationships. And while I have some sense of attachment to these places, that attachment and identification does not go very deep. In my youth I never had the experience of needing to run away from the suffocating life of a particular small town (in the way that Dreher did). Rather, it’s that I was never given the opportunity put down roots in any such place.
My wife’s experience has been altogether difference. Becky was raised her whole life on one street in Scarborough. Her family moved only once, during her university years – and then moved only 15 houses down the street!
This is not to suggest that my experience growing up was somehow unique – military families tell similar stories. Also, we live in a context where migration defines many individuals and families. My own parents, in their teenage years, were uprooted from home and language and family and place in the Netherlands to start a new life in Canada. For a great number of Canadians, the possibility of belonging, and the possibility of deep roots in a community, are something that we reach toward, rather than something that we have experienced. The isolating nature of modern urban life only exacerbates the problem.
The church in our time and context can become part of the answer to the challenge of community – an answer both for those within the church and for those in the wider world. In fact, in many places Presbyterian congregations (whether urban or rural) have put down the deep roots of community and of connection to place that Dreher describes, and thus can provide a substantive haven for searching, migrating populations. And where our congregations lack such roots and such a connection to place, or have lost track of them, we perhaps have a unique ability reclaim this communal dimension. What is the church, after all, but a community of friends who invite others to share the way with Christ with us, through every experience and season of life.
Perhaps only a word of caution in all of this. Given our intense longing for community on the one hand, and given our modern, Protestant tendency to conceive the spiritual life in individualistic and deistic terms on the other hand, we can easily reduce community to its strictly human dimension. We reach longingly toward it, but diminish it at the same time.
In our modern context, we tend to conceive of community as something we create and shape and manage. Our language and practices often reflect our conviction that the church is simply a collection of individuals who happen to find something interesting and intriguing and hopeful in this place called church, or in this person called Jesus. This approach also often means that our mission and service to the wider community will only ever be add-on to the life we live together, if we happen to decide it should be.
But if such an approach to community comes to define our congregations, then we lose the depth of our shared life in Christ and in the Spirit, a life that is expressed in the language of “the body of Christ.” The church is not simply a collection of individuals – one community among many. It is the Body of Christ, mysteriously and powerfully uniting those who belong to Christ – past, present future – near and far – in one life. This reality, and the truth of this mystery, will, in turn, shape our prayers, our language around the Lord’s table, our mission to our neighbourhoods, our openness to one another in our homes, and our commitment to put down roots in each other’s lives.
And a beautiful, shared life it will be – shared not only with one another, but with the risen Christ who draws us all to himself.