Every so often, I find myself walking through some small group material curriculum with one group of friends or another on occasion. We would gather somewhere either on campus or nearby, shooting the breeze as we waited for everyone to drop in, collect themselves and their thoughts, and ready themselves for whatever we decided to discuss for the evening.
On one of those nights, I remember I was meeting with a group of students who had volunteered to be mentors to some incoming first-year students to the university. We had elected to gather at the Starbucks just down the street from where many of us lived. As the mentors trickled in and slid in line to place their orders, I paused for a moment to take a quick look around.
The glass windows of the coffee shop caught the light of the setting sun, casting a large swath of the place in a golden hue. Outside, where we had placed all of our books and bags, a gentle breeze swept in, turning a page or two in the notebook I had set upon a table a moment or two earlier. There was a faint whirring that grew in volume. My laptop, which I had opened before walking inside, had been taking its time starting up. As it did, it shed a blue glow upon the tabletop before it.
And then, my name. I heard my name somewhere being called. I looked back to where I was, back to the counter where the barista had just placed my order – a cold brew by itself. Nothing added.
I made my way to our table. The others, at this time, had already gotten their drinks and had set about touching base with their friends. As I sat there, sipping my cold brew with my eyes closed, I listened as some talked about this event or that class. It was as if I wasn’t even there for a moment.
When I came to Azusa Pacific University as a freshman, I distinctly remember unpacking all of my gear on the first day in the middle of the standard chaos of Orientation Weekend before spending three hours alone in my room, exhausted from all of the socializing that went on outside my door and around campus. I guess it was an apt response at the time to the community-building process, since I spent most of my first year only half-heartedly making connections. The reason, you see, was because in those early weeks of college, I used to ask myself a question that even I didn’t have the words for. It never fully formed on my lips, but had haunted me in the form of a specter since my days in high school. It was a question about the nature and value of community. It explored its impact and benefit. It wondered whether community was simply a thing we do to distract ourselves from the bigger problems.
I found myself finally putting the question to words in a quiet moment I shared with a mentor of mine late one evening.
“What if… what if…” I started, unsure if whether the next words out of my mouth was going to shock or horrify the man sitting across from me, “What if what we’re doing here is just a joke? Like, what is the point of relationships if in three years I’ll be packing my bags and will probably never see you again. What if these – these friendships that we seek, these relationships we crave – are just a waste of time in the grand scheme of things?”
As I look back on that brief snapshot of a memory, I can say that I am grateful that my mentor didn’t respond in the way that I feared. He didn’t dismiss my question as pointless. He didn’t admonish me for having such thoughts. He also didn’t simply provide some type of cop-out answer that many of us would tend to offer as a Band-Aid to place on an infected gash.
He just sat there in silence as I simmered in frustration and anger. As the minutes ticked by, the only motion that he made was to take an occasional sip from his tea. He could very well have excused himself from my place of darkness and pain, from my doubt and cynicism. And he could have tried to say something to correct my thinking. And yet, I think that if he had, it would have only denied the depth of the issue in the first place. We tend to do that with all sorts of our problems – sweep them under the rug and pretend they don’t exist. And yet, when we put off those problems, be they obstacles or questions or doubts, they tend to fester there in the dark.
In a way, though, I believe my mentor was answering my question in his actions, or rather, lack thereof. I was in a crisis about what community was and what role it was to play in my own life. And instead of simply seeing the question as another thing to answer for the sake of checking it off his list, he sat there for an entire hour, listening.
I used to buy into the notion that the reason why people get together in groups is for the sheer utility of it – that it was useful for some end in mind. Aristotle mentions it’s utility, pleasure, or virtue. Hobbes basically suggests it’s to keep another group of outsiders from killing us. In a similar manner, I bought into community by weighing my investment of time and energy against the profit I would receive further down the line. Community, for me, was only there for what I could receive from it. But, as I moved from high school onto college, flying more than six hours to a place I would learn to call home, I began to realize that what I invested here may not pay off in a long game, that my investment would potentially vanish in its entirety upon graduation.
My mentor knew this, probably more than I would ever know. But instead of receiving some satisfaction by providing an easy answer, he sat in the tension with me. And in that space, his willingness to simply give his presence and his time asked that frustrated freshman who sat before him whether by doing this, he was receiving anything.
Community wasn’t primarily defined for my mentor as what he could receive from it, but what he could give.
One of my favorite professors once mentioned that the point of any education a person receives is to affect how we live at our core level. If we are not changed or transformed in some way, we have just wasted our time. When I look back on that evening with my mentor, I think that my professor’s insight could not have been better illustrated than by that moment.
Lying on the table between the two of us, its pages dog-eared and marked up by pen, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. At one point, Bonhoeffer points out that the key to community was the mindset that it is not what one can get from the group that will matter, but what each person can bring to give away instead. It was about how each person could be Christ to one another, not demanding that others be Christ to us.
And yet, even though the words lay only two feet from my head, it was the eighteen inches from my head to my heart which proved to be the most difficult terrain to cross. Even though I knew what Bonhoeffer had to say about community in his book in my freshman year, I never let it begin to affect me until the start of my senior year.
When a half dozen of my friends and I gathered at my professor’s house around his fire pit, we broke bread and shared soup. One of us, Meredith, remarked, “I find it incredible that we get to read Bonhoeffer and talk about his thoughts on community, because… Well, because I think we’ve been living out an experiment of whether what Bonhoeffer was suggesting in his works really is what true and meaningful community is. We’ve been trying to live the question out and wrestle with it ever since we set our bags down in Engstrom.”
The rest of us were silent as we reflected on her observation. She continued by asking simply, “Well, how have we developed since freshman year? How can we live out Bonhoeffer’s message even now as this community?”
We sat there for a moment as we stewed over her challenge. It was a while before anyone else spoke that night.
Eventually, the other voices in the Starbucks began to peter out. I shook my cup. Empty. Well, I thought, All things must come to an end sometime.
Glancing upwards, I saw that the others were waiting for me to say something. I flicked the trackpad of my laptop, muttering to myself about what we were supposed to go over that evening again. Eventually, my browser helped me locate the appropriate file. It opened. Admittedly, even though I was excited to go over the material with my friends, I felt as though it might, in some way, be more productive to just remain in that amber time with those others.
I decided that it would be best to launch into the curriculum after all – it was the reason why I dragged everyone out for the evening in the first place. I remember noting how fitting it was that the material we happened to cover was on some element of community which leaders can foster in the people of which they are a part.
As the conversation continued, there came a point where one of the mentors, upon hearing all of the questions that I had been asking of them, turned and asked, “Well, what about you?”
In that moment, it was as if my brain decided to pull the carpet out from under my tongue. For a second there, I knew what I wanted to say, but in the next, what came out of my mouth was a jumbled, disorganized mess. I tried to backtrack, but what I had to say was noticeably absent from my mind.
And suddenly, I laughed. I- laughed because of my momentary clumsiness and because in this space, I knew that I could feel free to make mistakes. The others joined in after a brief second, perhaps out of the awkwardness of the mangled sound or out of sympathy. But I would bet that it was because in that space, there was a grace there that I have learned to expect.
Perhaps I might not ever see any of these young men and women after I graduate, but I don’t think that invalidates these moments. Instead, it makes them all the more precious, because it reminds us that community is a means of grace through which God can be most present. Where the Christ in me can rise to meet the Christ in you. Where instead of looking only to receive, we can look instead to give. Perhaps that’s what makes these amber moments what they are – they remind us of something close to home.