To those who would say that the Church is an antiquated and dying institution that continues to cling to the myth of an all powerful God:
Mission trips, Sunday nights, summer beach campouts, and food fights in the fellowship hall were all part of my church experience. We got into our fair share of trouble. But our youth group was the place where I could be myself and discover myself at the same time. It was also one of the few places where I felt loved, welcomed, and even trusted. It’s that last part that I remember the most.
I was not a star athlete, nor did I aspire to academic achievement. I was a typical kid who spent his week looking toward Friday nights with friends, weekends of sleeping in, and Sunday nights at youth group. Yes, I was a church geek who would do what it took to get to youth group (including staying up into the wee hours of the morning after Sunday youth group to finish homework I told my parents was already done so I could go to youth group—that may have something to do with the afore mentioned lack of academic achievement).
You see, church was not a place I went, it was a people to whom I belonged, no matter what trouble I caused or good I did. At church was where I received love and learned how to give it. At church was where I learned who I was and to whom I belonged. At church I discovered over the years the existence of a loving and compassionate God who really did love everyone, whether or not we were willing to admit it.
There are many threads that shape the tapestry of scripture, but one that has captured my attention more than any of the others is the sense of community shared by God’s people. From the beginning of Cain and Abel fighting for birth rights, through the anguish of slavery and the hardships of freedom, to the dire prophecies of strange men from the countryside who oddly tried to reignite hope with their fiery words of damnation, the people of God have sought to discover themselves and the presence of God within them. And yet, as I read, it is God who is intimately involved in all their happenings throughout.
As we enter a new year a new light begins to shine with all sorts of possibilities and mystery—really it is a very old light, but annually seen in a new way. Last month we celebrated the birth of a person who would become the archetype of one in whom God is known so much that the people came to know him as Emmanuel (God with us). If there was one thing Jesus knew it was his own need and the people’s need for connection through which we paradoxically discover and discern our own individual identities. He knew early on as the stories in the Gospel According to Luke tell that to be fully human is to be fully present to God and other people. Stories are told of his early childhood sitting at the feet of the great teachers (Rabbis), challenging their assumptions and changing their conclusions. Soon, he would be forming his own community as he recognize the gift of God not in the great thinkers of his time, nor the very powerful, but in a ragtag band of tax collectors, fishermen, and prostitutes. In these very real people with their very real struggles and their very real fragility, Jesus found a raw truth that to this day can still only be found in ordinary people. And they became his community.
While the Christmas story is full of pageantry and we try to make pretty and sanitary a place where animals eat and do their business, the real story is a story of relationships and all the messiness they bring. There is something beautiful and tragic in every relationship, and add the layers of a whole community and it’s bound to be a story that will make even readers of supermarket Romance novels blush. The stories of Jesus’ community are raw and full of the nasties as much as the beauties. In them the people are not made beautiful, but presented with their flaws: Peter’s obnoxious over-achieving; Judas’ betrayal; the prostitute in Jesus’ family tree; Thomas’ doubts; the disciples’ fear; and even Paul’s participation in murder.
My food fights in the fellowship hall and doing donuts in my car in the back part of the church parking lot pale in comparison to the rawness of the stories of God’s people. For me, what makes scripture so awesome is that everything about human nature and our self-destructive tendencies are laid out for the world to see. Despite our best attempts to make them “nice” and “tolerable” and “polite,” those of us who have actually read them know both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are anything but. Everything from jealousy, murder, and profanity are contained in the parchments of old, and they are as much a part of our tradition as the crusades, the Inquisition, and even the treacherous and murderous attack on blacks, homosexuals, and anyone else who might be different or disagree with us. I do not in any way condone such actions, but I recognize they are part of our sordid and varied history. There are also a lot of good things that have been done in the name of Jesus: feeding hungry people, trying to at least curb if not eradicate the AIDS epidemic, and working for the civil rights of those on the margins.
The Religious Right calls their fight a life-and-death fight. They’re right. We have done so much killing (literally and in effigy) in the name of Christ, you’d think he nailed himself to that cross. But I don’t think it’s life-and-death in quite the same way our evangelical conservative sisters and brothers believe. So, let’s just cut the crap and get down to the bare bones truth: what Jesus did was nothing short of a miracle. Jesus, with a group of social nobodies, changed the human story forever, and most of us (myself included) have time and again missed the boat by warping the story and trying to make it edible. This story doesn’t taste good, and anyone who tries to tell you it tastes like strawberries or angel food cake is probably trying to sell you something (like an indulgence?) or get you to bolster their own ego by padding the numbers of their worship attendance or annual budget.
Being in community involves some serious personal risk in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to attack, ridicule, and even abuse. It doesn’t mean we just lie down and allow these things to happen—we need to carefully protect ourselves while still remaining vulnerable to allow God’s love to pore through (another paradox of community life). It’s scary and hard work being in community. It requires constant attention, reflection, and faithfulness to both God and the other people. It requires being honest and loving at the same time (how do we tell someone we love them but they’re just being a total jerk? Or how do we receive that news ourselves and still believe the one telling us is doing so because he or she loves us?).
Why submit one’s self to all this tough stuff? Because, as I have seen time and again, no matter what arguments, disagreements, or even knock-down, drag-out fights we’ve had, when the chips are down and the life-and-death stuff comes up (financial distress, serious illness, or tragedy), it’s ultimately our community with whom we’ve taken all those risks over the years that will walk with us and even carry us through it all—and for me that is the most palpable evidence of God’s presence. I have rarely found this kind of community anywhere outside faith community. Sure, we have our problems (we’re all a bunch of hypocrites most of the time, we all struggle with really understanding what the heck we’re doing here, and we all hurt each other at one time or another), but there is a love and a bond, created by God and shaped by our constantly failing and trying again to follow this Jesus, that cannot be broken and I wouldn’t give up for anything in the world.
You can have your fraternities, your volunteer organizations, your PTAs, your bridge club, your drinking buddies. I’ll take my church community over any of that and anything else you can throw at me, because they’ve loved me no matter how much I mess up or hurt them. So long as I keep trying, they will always make me a better me. They will always help me live up to the hope and vision God has for me, and that will always help me grow deeper in my relationship with the One who calls me to this rag-tag band of misfits in the first place. And, I hope you might come be a part our community if you aren’t already a part of one!