Yesterday, we set up the Christmas tree, and, like last year, A was not here. Yet for two subsequent Christmases before last Christmas, she had been; the first year, she volunteered to watch Andrew while I bumbled about trying to borrow the right saw to saw off the bottom of the Christmas tree, and by the second Christmas, she was like a part of our family, participating in the tree-decorating etc. as a matter of course. And so perhaps this is one of the reasons that Christmas is one of the times I most keenly feel her absence. But perhaps there is a deeper reason as well. Perhaps around this time when we think of gift-giving and the bound-together communities these gifts ideally represent, part of the pain I feel is due to a thankfulness – that A was part of our family’s life, and that God saw fit to bless pessimistic people like us with the gift of unintentional community.
Why unintentional? I do not mean to sound pessimistic – or perhaps I do – but when I hear the phrase “intentional community,” it conjures images of dewy-eyed, emergent idealists more in love with an appropriated image of the church than the gritty realism of the Church herself. The idea that people can simply get together and “intend” a community themselves – however much they garnish it with ancient-future trappings etc. – is the height of modern individualistic arrogance. Let me be broken on and for community, but I draw the line at intending it.
In any case, as you might guess from the paragraph above, I am probably too cynical for things like intentional communities, as was A. We had all been around the block a few too many times in the Evangelical neighborhood. My wife, M, myself, and A had all faced various struggles – things like depression etc. – not often dealt with well in this neighborhood. And we were weary. And then A moved into the mini student-housing condo across from us. We did not become less weary. But we found the grace that God gives to Christians who do not stop meeting together, even in their weariness.
This grace was the love that could take a person for granted, in the best sense of the word. What I mean by this is that, since A only had herself to feed and since it is not hard to cook for an extra person, we simply expected her to come over for supper daily. One of the most heartbreaking moments for me in dealing with her death was the moment – a few months after it happened – when I inadvertently grabbed four plates from the cupboard to set the table, and then realized there was only a need for three. A was not there.
It is impossible to explain what we lost when she died. My then 2-3 year old son used to tease her like the sister he didn’t have. She joined us in working our way through most of the seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And then there was the presence of unpretentious hope. Not the kind of hope that uses big words and has navel gazing conversations about deep things. Rather, the hope that simply is, in the middle of blackness, when we are Christians clinging to a God as palpable as he is puzzling and frustrating. And in this we learned that there could be communion – community – even for those too odd and misshapen to be intentional about it.
I am thankful. I am thankful that God gives his grace to cynical, miserable, depressed people – that he bothers to intend community for those who can’t. And I am bitter. It sometimes takes all the faith I have – and more that God miraculously provides – to add “Blessed be the name of the Lord” to my recognition that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. But somehow I keep doing it – and reminding myself that the only reason I can miss A is because God was gracious enough to give ornery people like us the undeserved gift of unintentional community.