Community and Advent: Stories of patience and waiting

I love the season of Advent — well, really it’s the giddy expectation of Christmas I love — the only time of year where I gladly disavow cynicism and dive into the deep-end of peppermint sprinkles, the movie Elf, snow-laden pine boughs, carols, candles, and the rest of the shrink-wrapped, synthetic, and iridescent illuminated mess of the modern commercial holiday. This season, with its apocalyptic liturgy and frenetic fear of running out of time can seem like an amplification of the knotty and confusing reality we find ourselves in; where the tacky Hallmark card still manages to offer oblique references of the profound, the sacred, and the moving. It’s a time when tinny holiday jingles fill the unending landscape of fluorescent shopping centers with the dim soundtrack of soul-crushing bromidic blues, yet it’s also a time of gathering-in, of community, and of generosity. It’s frustrating when experience doesn’t allow you to neatly separate the bad from the good, and write it off at wholesale prices.

I didn’t begin this year of intentional community intending to “find myself” or “save the world” (though either would have been a nice surprise). And while I can’t say that I stepped off the plane in late August with a laundry list of expectations, the past three months have methodically dismantled most of my notions of community. It’s not playing board games together every evening, or organizing elaborate Thanksgiving dinner parties, or going on photogenic Christmas-themed group outings. Those things are all nice, but they’re a cosmetic notion of community that fails to acknowledge the deeper, more frustrating and rewarding mode of being together that we’ve been trying to live into.

Even less than halfway through our time here, I believe this community has been a transformative experience for all of us; but the changes that have come are quiet and slow, easily drowned out by the quotidian ups and downs of busy lives. Amid 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedules, dealing with annoyance at one another’s foibles, and participating in group meetings on important matters such as which shape of pasta we are going to buy, I think I’ve become a little more open to others, I’ve learned to sit better in uncomfortable situations, and I’ve realized that my view of justice and the world isn’t always the “right one.” This erosion of deep-set barriers is often a slow and frustrating process, but in the end it’s harder to stay angry with someone or hold them to impossible standards when you understand their story.

Community can be a scary thing — it defies easy categorization and forces us to extend the same grace to others as we give ourselves, even as we wrestle with questions of identity, or vocation, or purpose. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect service year, but as with the Advent season, when you strip away the tinsel and the noise of never-ending renditions of “All I want for Christmas is you” you can see that we’re moving toward something whole, toward something sacred, and I think that warrants celebration.