I’ve been thinking about community lately. It seems to be something that is difficult to find and, perhaps, not as common as it once was. I recently had an interesting conversation with some people much younger than I about the subject. We all wondered what the impact our diminishing community groups was having – on how we understand each other; on how we understand ourselves.
The idea of community is one that involves gathering together people with something in common. This can be anything. Politics, religion, family ties, culture, heritage, activities, geographic location, neighbourhood, work…. anything. But it’s more than just having things in common. It’s also about the bonds that develop. The ability to connect beyond the shared interests. The ability to both celebrate successes and carry the group and its individual members through challenges. The ability to share lives.
In a world where we barely know our neighbours, and are often bombarded with the idea that strangers are somehow dangerous, how does community develop? We need to gather. And many of us are not great at that, myself included. Making time for our communities requires effort.
This hymn was written around 1597, but first appeared in a 1625 collection of Dutch folksongs. It has a bit of a strange origin in that it was written to celebrate a Dutch victory in a battle that was largely about being able to worship as Protestants. I’m not a huge fan of military songs, but they were singing to celebrate their community’s new found freedom at a complicated time in church history. They gathered to celebrate. They gathered for strength. They gathered for support.
We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.
Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine.
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
thou, Lord, wast at our side, all glory be thine!
We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still our defender will be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation.
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
While I am uncomfortable with the literal battle imagery evoked in these words, I am interested in the idea of gathering as a community. Of developing such strong ties, that we are able to withstand the metaphorical battles we all face. If I really think about this honestly, I have to say that this kind of community is much more complex than what seems to have become the norm. Most of us have a handful of friends that we really like – and these dear ones become our communities. But many do not have communities of any sort that include people of diverse ages, or backgrounds, or perspectives. We stay with those who are like us – which, while being a real treasure, is not quite the same as being part of a healthy, thriving community.
There is something to be said of learning from those who are different than us. There is something to be gained by hearing the wisdom of the old, the young, the tired, the strong, the sad, the newcomer, the enthusiastic, the joyful, the inexperienced, the differently experience. There are so many ways to view this world. There are so many ways to be good. There are so many ways to offer kindness, love and compassion.
These remain uncomfortable words for me. They speak to a kind of divisiveness that I’m not entirely sure promotes the ideal of community that I might desire. I’m not terribly interested in winning a battle between my group and another’s. However, if I stand back and think about how we can gather to become a force of strength, I am comforted. I am sure that the writer of these words was looking to God to be that unifying force in this gathering. Some may still do that. Others will look to values or interests or ideas. But, wherever we choose to look for the foundations of our communities, I suspect we should actively consider building with bricks of many colours, textures and materials. There is beauty in our diversity. When we cease gathering, and cease looking for gatherings, we miss it.
So, gather together and enjoy all the blessings.