by Brian Jones
Brian Jones is pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Philadelphia.
This essay is adapted from Second Guessing God. ©2006 Brian Jones. Used with permission of Standard Publishing, It appeared in The Christian Century, April 18, 2006 pp. 12f. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The author’s contact with a wedding in a “Biker Society” surprised him with the care, concern and empathy each had for the other. Christianity could learn a lesson here, for we need the church as these bikers seemed to need each other. Christianity is not a solo activity.
“The early Christians were not people of standing, but they had a secret power among them, and the secret power resulted from the way in which they were members of one another.” — Elton Trueblood
I’ve performed more wedding ceremonies than I can count, but there is one wedding that I will never forget. A woman who was not connected to our church had begged me to officiate at her wedding. She was six feet tall, with spiked hair, and thighs like a professional football player’s. “Please,” she pleaded. “It’s going to be a small ceremony, just friends and family at our house.”
When I showed up on the day of the ceremony, dozens of “choppers” were parked in the front yard. Men with long handlebar moustaches wore black leather jackets covered with leather straps, and German-style helmets with spikes on top. The women with them looked as if they’d been picked up from a Las Vegas showgirl convention. People streamed into the house with a case of beer in one hand and a food dish in the other.
Inside I was greeted by heavy-metal music and a haze of cigarette smoke. A woman noticed that I was the only one wearing a suit and screamed over the music, “You must be the pastor. Take a seat, and we’ll start in a moment!” I looked around for a chair, avoiding the couple that was making Out on the couch. Soon after I sat down, the best man stumbled into the chair next to me and passed Out.
Forty minutes and five beers later, the bride’s sister called everyone into the living room. A few guys propped the best man up against the wall and someone hit the tape player — “Misty Mountain Hop,” by Led Zeppelin. As the bride walked into the room, the guys hollered to one another. The lace of the wedding dress covered her massive arms but couldn’t hide the tattoos that stretched from her wrists up to her shoulders. I quickly delivered my standard wedding sermon and pronounced the couple husband and wife. Then someone screamed, “Let’s party!”
Within seconds everyone in the room swarmed the couple with smiles, hugs and kisses. I waited my turn in line to congratulate them and then explained that I needed to leave. But the father of the bride overheard me, grabbed my arm and yelled, “Let’s make a toast!” Someone handed out bottles of vodka and wine.
The bride said, “I want to make a toast myself. I want to toast you guys. You are just like family to me.” She looked over at her maid of honor and said, “Jackie, you are just like a sister.”
Jackie immediately stopped her and said, “No, you’ve always been like a sister to me.” With her arms around the bride’s neck, she sobbed, “Do you remember when I lost my baby three years ago? I wouldn’t have made it without you.” Then she turned to the group and said, “Or without all of you. I wanted to die. You gave me a reason to live.”
The bride continued. “Richard, when my brother passed away, you were there for me. You were driving a rig cross-country at the time, but you still came over every weekend.”
Someone interrupted her. “You’ve been there for us too. When I lost my job, you brought groceries over to my house and bought school clothes for my kids. I’ll never forget that.”
This went on for ten minutes. People shared stories of friends in the group who helped them buy cars when they couldn’t get to work, who watched their children when they were in a pinch. One man told how two guys in the room picked him up from jail and let him live with them until he was able to afford his own place. After everyone finished, the bride looked around the room as she lifted her beer and said, “To friends.” I looked around the room and thought, church should be like this.
Most Christians don’t view the church as a place to go when tough times hit. They become so disappointed with a church’s lack of response to their needs that they stop reaching out. They sign up for Christianity expecting to find authentic caring relationships like those I witnessed with the group of bikers, but over time they settle for superficial handshakes and “thinking about you” cards.
People yearn to be part of something real and life-giving, and I believe that they can rediscover and help create this in a church. First, I would remind them what the church should look like. When the community of Jesus’ followers is operating the way he dreamed it could be, there’s nothing like it in the world. It is truly miraculous. What I saw in the living room at the biker wedding can’t compare with the power and beauty of the church when it is working the way Jesus intended.
Second, I believe that people can create, or re-create, this kind of experience in their own churches. But it requires their decision to do so. It requires that they take a risk. And it requires that they stick to one church for the long haul.
The apostle Paul compared the church to a human body: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). He points out that when we followers of Jesus become spiritually intimate with one another, it is as if our souls grow together and we begin to share spiritual nerve endings. If something happens to you, I can’t help being affected by it. We are connected soul to soul. In the same way that a twisted ankle affects every part of a human body, the hurt that one church member feels touches everyone else in that community. In a healthy, functioning community of Jesus followers, people are deeply connected to one another.
The other thing you find in a healthy church is people inspiring each other by the way they handle the tough circumstances of life. In one church that I served, I became friends with Bill Clift. Bill isn’t a spiritual celebrity. He’s never preached before thousands or written a best-selling book. Bill is a regular guy — a former industrial arts teacher who was forced to go on disability because of a degenerating hip. I never saw Bill walk without a cane, and when he walked his hips wobbled side to side with each step he took. Yet Bill was always the last one to leave worship and hobble out to his car.
Bill had an amazing gift of empathy. When someone in our church went into the hospital to have surgery, Bill would arrive first, greet that individual as he or she came in, pray with the patient and wait with the family. Many times I arrived at the hospital only to see Bill with an entire family standing around him holding hands in prayer. I picture Bill hobbling around with his cane, and am reminded of theologian Kosuke Koyama reflecting on his days in the tranquil rice fields of Thailand:
Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. . . . It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, whether we are currently hit by storm or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.
Bill and God had a lot in common. Bill kept me going through dark days, and that’s what I love about the church. When it is working the way Jesus intended, there is always a Bill we can look to for inspiration. Whenever I shared a problem with Bill, he would pinch his lips together, look down at the ground and shake his head. “Brian,” he’d say, “we’re just going to have to trust God on this. He’ll take care of us.” Trust God? Take care of this? Coming from a man who, if surgery were an Olympic sport, would always be the gold-medal favorite?
That’s what happens in a healthy church. There are always two kinds of people to keep us going: those who rally around us when times get tough, and those who inspire us as they walk ahead, clearing the brush and pointing the way Without either group of people, the church just isn’t the church.
I’ve noticed a severe “go it alone” approach among Christians dealing with pain. They will read a book, pray, read the Bible, meditate or journal — all in an attempt to work through their struggles by themselves. These things are fine, but none of them can replace authentic community with other followers of Jesus.
We need the church. Christianity is not a solo activity. We come up with endless reasons why we can’t or won’t or shouldn’t reach out to others in Christian community. We must ignore those rationalizations and decide to step out, take a risk and seek authentic community with other followers of Jesus.