“The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.” (from G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Thomas Aquinas)
In 2000 Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist, released a landmark book entitled Bowling Along: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (The interesting title came from the observation that although people were bowling in greater numbers than ever before, league bowling had plummeted.) In Bowling Alone Putnam documented various forces behind the demise of community life in America that began in the mid- to late-1950s.
Our drift toward individualism, isolation and consequent loneliness in America is still, it seems, moving inexorably forward. The 2000 census showed that 25% of American households were single person households: one person living alone in one house. This is an astonishing proportion and something that’s unparalleled in human history! A recent large study found that between 1985-2004 the number of people with whom the average American could count on to discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of those who had no one in whom they could confide tripled! Social networks may ease the pain, but what if in general they’re no different from pain killers: they make you feel better for a bit, but they usually treat the symptom and not the underlying problem. Putnam points out that lawyers are like that. For over 150 years the number of lawyers per capita varied little, but when community life eroded then the number of lawyers per capital shot way, way up. When we can’t live well together we hire professionals to settle our differences. Without transparent communities where we can unload our pain we hire therapists. Maybe when when we forget to talk to each other in deep and meaningful ways social networks actually flourish.
If some of what the world neglects is “enfleshed, face-to-face community,” then maybe we begin the work of “restoring the world to sanity” by exaggerating hospitality. We exaggerate being together in non-virtual ways; we put a premium on table-time. I think one of the simplest yet most powerful practices we can embrace is that of sharing meals together around tables, promoting a culture of hospitality.
One of the things I’m so grateful for in the community of Vineyard Central (and her friends) is the rich community life we have. Could it be better? Of course. But it’s way beyond what the general population experiences. I tend to forget that. My experience of our community isn’t necessarily the experience of others, although it’s easy for me to to imagine it is. (We humans tend to project our experiences and view of life onto others.) As a pastor and follower of Christ, my desire is to enfold, to not leave a single person out in the cold. Nevertheless, those who need enfolding far outstrip my limited capacity to enfold. For that I need (and you need) a community. Hospitality and table-time (along with all the other practices of the people of God) are meant to be communal efforts — which is why I’m writing. Let’s be very intentional about making this a firm part of our culture, one of the more prominent ways in which we demonstrate the hospitality of our God. What if we said, as a community, that each week we’ll have at least 1 person from outside our home in our home and around our table? That to me would be a step in the right direction.
Peace to you,