And if the folks will have me
Then they’ll have me”
The little neighborhood church that Angela and I have been a part of for more than a dozen years, the church where we were married in the last days of the last century, whose members all held their breath for us when Mara came into our lives and again when Millie came along, and sorrowed with us at the several heartbreaking disappointments between, held its quarterly business meeting this afternoon right after a pot-luck lunch in the basement following the morning service.
There was nothing unusual about this. We heaped our plates with ham and mashed potatoes and potatoes au gratin and pasta salad and green salad and deviled eggs and hot dogs and strawberries and carrots and yellow and orange peppers and coffee and soda and cookies and pastries, and sat ourselves along the long tables to eat it all while catching up on each other’s goings on. Children ran around in adjacent rooms, safe and wild. The agenda was the usual stuff, which I can’t tell you about, except that there was a motion to vote on whether one longtime attendee among us should be accepted as a member of the church.
Becoming and being a member of our little church is not a big deal, and it isn’t that different from not being a member and just participating anyway. We are a small community. As I’ve said before, we’re really a small bunch of families and individuals who happen to like hanging out with each other and who happen also to have a church building to do it in. There aren’t tons of people joining this church. And when they do it’s a pretty informal process.
Back in the days when the church body was bigger there was a class you had to take, just so you’d know the basic stuff about what the church stood for. But nowadays, anyone who joins the church already knows what the church stands for, and what we stand for is each other. We embody the love Jesus handed out without conditions. Anyone joining the church is joining for that reason, because they want to tie up with that ethos and give something back, serve the community in some way. So these days the joining process is a relaxed meeting with the church elders, an exchange of stories about our faith journeys, after which, at the next church business meeting, a vote is put to the membership as to whether so and so should be accepted as a member of the church body.
And then there is a resounding “Aye!” because the vote is always unanimously and joyously affirmative. That’s what happened today, which made me feel really good, because the person the church was voting on was me.
Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows that I’ve been an outsider, faithwise, and sort of prefer it that way. I quit being a joiner sometime in junior high school. But my family, and I in particular, have benefited much from being a part of this little church community. Though I do not have many close personal one-on-one friends anymore — lost, all, to argument or neglect, a few to geography and time — many of the friends of our family are here. The pastor comes downtown in jeans and slippers to have lunch with me at my favorite diner and pick up conversations that we’ve carried on for years. More than once, untraceable money orders sent by anonymous donors have showed up in the mail just when we have been financially pinched, and we suspect our church friends. Angela joins the women of the church for twice-yearly retreats on Whidbey Island where they all read books and play cards and stay in their pajamas all day and don’t have to refill any sippy cups for anyone.
I began to feel several years ago that it was time for me to join the church. It would be the first time in my life I had ever become a member of a church, even though I’ve been involved — sometimes to a degree painful to myself and others — in many since I was a child. If it was ever to be, it would be with this group of Christians. We lost Peter a couple years ago, and we lost old Ted this past summer, and I’ve been feeling that we are in danger of becoming insufficiently stocked with old farts, and since I am headed swiftly in that direction myself… well, it was time that I declared my intention to be here and to be accountable, to say I’d be happy to grow old here and be known, to help hold down the fort in whatever way I can.
Still, there is absolutely never any pressure at our church to join or give or do or think or believe or feel anything on any schedule or in any prescribed way. You’re simply welcome to be with us and celebrate God’s love and care for us and the mystery of Jesus in the way you best understand it. Consequently, I have dragged my feet. Life is busy. And as I said, besides having a vote at business meetings there is little discernible difference at our church between the members and the “people just being there unofficially”. In fact, Angela and I have always stayed for the business meetings after the potlucks and no one has ever told us that we had to leave before the church membership started to talk money issues, and once recently Bob, the facilitator, asked me to open the meeting with a prayer, which I did, conscious though I was that I must certainly be contravening a breach of church bylaw in asking the Most High to bless our time together. And today Carolyn, Ted’s wife (technically widow) hailed me after the business meeting and with a look of delight across her face declared that she had thought I was a member all this time.
That’s sort of the joke; by the time a person gets around to joining our church, everyone looks around at each other and says, “I didn’t know they weren’t a member!”
It’s funny, but it’s also an indicator of something that I hold important about this bunch. It jibes with my sense of how the Kingdom of God really is. The official rules may be one thing, but how they play out in human life is another. At our church, you’re accepted as soon as you show up, and coming further in is more a matter of becoming further known. Yes, you can join by the official channels if you feel moved to, and over time most do, but you don’t have to do anything to reap the full benefit of belonging to the community. It’s yours just for being, just for walking the earth.