| Rev. Carolyn Lesmeister |

When I was younger, finding community seemed easy. As a child, I simply had to go into the backyard and yell the names of the neighborhood kids until someone came out to play. School, sports, and extracurricular activities provided plenty of opportunities to bond with others over shared experiences, goals, and triumphs or losses.

I spent most of my 20s in similarly structured spaces – college, volunteer corps, and grad school – where proximity to people with common interests was something that could be taken for granted. Add in the fact that most of us lived in practically identical housing, and there wasn’t much to worry about as far as what other people would think of my dorm room or apartment.

Exposure to so many people made it easy to find friends, and if I wanted company for a meal, an event, or pretty much anything, I could always find someone who would enthusiastically join me. When some students would graduate, new ones would move in, and my circle of friends naturally evolved to accommodate these changes.

Now, however, community seems a lot more elusive. My neighbors and I exchange passing greetings, but we don’t know each other well or hang out together. I chat with folks at the gym about work or family life, but it feels superficial. My best friends are scattered across the country, and the local ones don’t know one another, so even the community I do have is fractured.

Then, in the space of a few days, I came across two articles: “Friday Night Meatballs” and “How to Host a Crappy Dinner.” I fell in love with the concepts described, which seemed so reminiscent of the low-maintenance gatherings around simple meals that had made my 20s so full of community. “I want to do that!” I thought enthusiastically, imagining delightful new connections happening as people from all my and my husband’s different worlds came together at our house over dinner. It seemed so doable: no need for impressive menus or fussy table settings. Casual acquaintances would become friends. Neighbors would get to know one another. My husband and I would get to spend more time with people we love.

That was well over a year ago. We’ve hosted exactly zero dinners.

Despite the convincing arguments made by the authors of those pieces, I can’t seem to let go of my own self-judgment: My cooking’s not good enough. Our house isn’t fancy (or clean!) enough. How many people would really want to spend their Friday nights hanging out at our house? What if I invite everyone and no one says yes? Or what if people come, but we sit in silence and eat crappy food and it ends up being totally awkward?

So I’ve let my fears trump my longing for community.

When loneliness sets in, rather than knock on a neighbor’s door or invite a friend out for a spontaneous meal, I distract myself with social media. After a few minutes on Facebook, I know what’s going on in the lives of dozens – potentially hundreds – of current and former friends scattered all over the world. I can laugh at their jokes, “like” their cute babies and pets, offer support to ones who are struggling. It’s just like the real thing … except when I log off (usually long after I meant to), the loneliness comes back immediately. The sense of connection disappears the moment I put down my phone.

I’m not sure where this leaves me. I only know I want to keep paying attention to this dynamic. I know whenever I’ve shared these struggles with others, I’ve found kindred spirits with similar fears and longings.

By the end of this round, I hope to be able to take a risk and host some dinners – dusty mantle, awkward small talk, and all. I wonder if it will change my life the way it has for others who have tried it.

This week, in groups, we’ll be exploring these ideas, including the "Friday Night Meatballs" article, as well as other common barriers to community. We’ll end our time by continuing to listen for what our own communities and relationships need now. We’d love to have you join the conversation; sign-up for a group and come check it out this week. Or, if you cannot, the above articles as well as this one on the impacts of technology are great places to start.