Friday, June 01, 2012

Even Hermits Need Community!

Grace Episcopal Church
Madison NJ

The Messenger
June 2012
Associate’s Message

Even Hermits Need Community!

Summer always gets me thinking back to my childhood. Maybe the same is true for you. I grew up in Jersey City during the 1970s and ‘80s, a bleak time of dramatic change for that old industrial city on the “left bank” of the Hudson. In an all too familiar story, many manufacturers such as Colgate-Palmolive and Dixon Ticonderoga were closing up their massive operations and moving to states - or other countries - with much lower labor costs. While the industrial base of the city’s economy was collapsing, many middle class people were moving out to the suburbs to take advantage of advantages many of us enjoy here in Madison and the surrounding towns: low crime, fine schools, spacious backyards and the rest.

Thanks to my parents, we lived in what was then the least urban part of Jersey City, a 1960s housing development called Country Village, located at the city’s southern boundary with Bayonne. It was designed as a little bit of the suburbs in the city, with winding streets with names like “Sycamore Road” and even “Suburbia Court.” Although I admit to more than a little nostalgia, it was in many ways an idyllic place to grow up. In my memory, there were always lots of kids around. We walked in small herds back and forth to school. In the afternoons we were all out playing on our little elbow-shaped street until one by one our mothers called us in to supper.

And in the summer, it seems like we were out playing every day from dawn to dusk during the long, hot season that seemed to have lasted for years.

My parents still live in that same house. Country Village has remained stable, still one of the more desirable Jersey City neighborhoods though there are many other attractive options that didn’t exist (and couldn’t have been imagined!) a few decades ago. But, in at least one way the neighborhood has changed. It’s almost always quiet now. There are still many young families around but the street is no longer teeming with kids in the afternoon or all summer long. Maybe they’re all busy with school activities or maybe they’re inside texting their friends or checking Facebook. And since the children aren’t out playing, the adults aren’t outside supervising and chatting with one another. In Country Village as in so many of our communities we’ve retreated behind closed doors into our own little worlds.

As lots of people have noted, this is a dangerous development for human beings and particularly troubling for Christians. Being in community with other Christians is essential to living out our faith. I recently read a book that was in part about the life of Thomas Merton, the well-known Trappist monk and spiritual writer from the last century. As a monk he felt especially called to life as a hermit and eventually convinced the abbot of his monastery to allow him to live in a hermitage away from his fellow monks. Maybe unsurprisingly, it was as a hermit that Merton realized most clearly the need for community. He carried on extensive correspondence with all sorts of people around the world, received visitors to his hermitage, and even did some traveling beyond the monastery walls. Apparently, even hermits need community!

Now as adults, our responsibilities and maybe limitations keep us from experiencing the seemingly endless summers that we remember from childhood. But, if we’re fortunate, life’s pace does slow down or at least change even just a little. Many of us will go away on vacation while others may just enjoy a “staycation.” (After all, this is a pretty nice place to live and play!) We all know that summer is not endless and will most likely seem to fly by, so it’s important to think about how we want to spend this precious time.

I’m mostly preaching to myself here, but I hope that we’ll all take some time to reconnect with the people in our lives and especially the people we may have allowed to drift out of our lives. For me, I’m looking forward to some time off to get away for a few days but also to just be around here catching up with family and friends. At Grace, I’m excited about our summer reading group and look forward to great conversations (both in person and online) about our book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright. Plus we have some wonderful First Friday potluck suppers planned and there’s Vacation Bible School and our mission trip in August to West Virginia.

Summer can be a time not only to reconnect with other people but also with God.

I love that our congregation for the most part doesn’t go on “church vacation.” So, when you’re in town I look forward to seeing you in church. Who knows, maybe during the slower pace of summer there will be more time to pray for a few minutes before the service and to linger at coffee hour, reconnecting with, or getting to know, other parishioners. And when you’re away be sure to check out a local Episcopal church.

Remember, even hermits need community! Have a great summer!