One of the wonderful things that happened at The Festival of Faith and Writing last month was that I had the opportunity to meet singer/songwriter Justin McRoberts. We had some good conversations, and he was very interested in Slow Church. Justin recently wrote a wonderful book entitled CMYK: The Process of Life Together — which I read in one sitting this past weekend! — and which I hope to review very soon for The Englewood Review of Books. He recently sent me an excerpt from this book that is very pertinent to Slow Church, and I am delighted to share it with you here.
The emcee at a friend’s wedding reception asked the married couples in attendance to stand. “If you have been married more than five years, please remain standing. Everyone else can sit.” A few sat down. He counted upwards past ten and to twelve years, which is when my wife Amy and I sat. “Thirteen years?” More couples sat. “Fourteen years?” And so on past twenty and well beyond. Eventually, only one couple was standing, he with his cane and she holding his arm. They had been married for fifty years. They weren’t standing alone for long.
The room rose and applauded. For almost three minutes we stood and clapped while they waved and nodded thanks. Now, had that beautiful couple stopped our applause and said “Thank you. But this is not at all necessary. It’s really been quite easy. We’ve been in bliss for the entirety of our marriage,” we would almost certainly have laughed aloud, assuming it was a joke. Any couple married more than a few minutes knows that couldn’t be true. Of course, it wasn’t their state of happiness we were celebrating, it was their commitment to be with one another in seasons of happiness as well as in seasons of “everything-you-do-is-annoying-right-now.”
In 1999, my friend Sean and I planted Shelter Covenant Church in Concord CA. And to be quite honest, our motives for planting a church weren’t altogether pure. Specifically, we were pretty sure we could improve on what we’d seen up to that point. Church often seemed like such a mess. In-fighting, politics, squabbles over carpet color etc. It looked like a bunch of people being people and we were fairly certain we could improve on that. In thinking this, we had separated the Idea of Church from the people who brought that idea down to earth. The problem we had with churches was that they were made up of people who were making a terrible racket and keeping the real business of church (whatever that was) from happening. But when we started our own church, people showed up who acted a whole lot like the people we’d encountered in other churches. Furthermore, we realized that we looked a lot like the leaders and staff we’d seen in those same congregations.
Fast-forward fourteen years. As we continue to gather with people who want to follow Jesus, we recognize and even celebrate the truth that there is no escaping the human element of religion. As it turns out, religion is all about people. Church is people in the process of life, together. To expect otherwise is to miss the essence and beauty of religion and particularly Church. It’s not about improving on or transcending human frailty. It’s about loving one another the way God does; just as we are – frailties, fears and fighting included. Church, in practice, is about embodying the word God has most persistently spoken to His people throughout His turbulent relationship with us:
“I am with you.”
That’s when a church looks most like Church to me. Not when the building is clean and the coffee is hot and the walls and the chairs are comfortable. Not when the band is polished and the preacher inspires and the people stand to raise their hands in worship. Not even when we are generous and socially engaged. Those things are beautiful, true and good. But church looks most like Church to me when, after fifteen years, after twenty years or after fifty years, people stand together and say
“I am with you.
For better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
until death do us part.
I am with you.
When you fell apart, I stayed.
When I fell apart, you stayed.
When you couldn’t pay your rent, I did.
When I broke down, you drove out and found me.
When I no longer believed, you believed for me.
I am with you.
When you forgot who you were, I reminded you.
When I thought too highly of myself, you helped me laugh at myself.
When you and I did not have enough strength on our own and could not find it between us, we reminded one another that Jesus holds all things together and that we are included in ‘all things.’
I am with you.
And He is with us.”
Sean and I have grown to see The Church, and our community specifically, as far more than an instrument of social and personal change, though it is that as well. The people who make up Shelter Covenant Church are a beautiful declaration of God’s goodness before we accomplish anything at all. Yes, we are a people bound together by common purpose and by common need. But more essentially, we are bound together by the love of God, whose encouragement to us has been, is now and will always be “I am with you.”