The local church is the crucible in which we are forged as the patient people of God. We have been united with each other in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. As we mature together into the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), over time and in our places, we learn patience by forgiving and being reconciled to one another. Our brothers and sisters may incessantly annoy us. But we are called in Christ to love and to be reconciled to them. Just as marriage vows serve as a covenant bond that holds a couple together in difficult times, our commitment to our faith community is essential if we are to learn patience and practice stability. Patience can hold us together when other forces conspire to rip us asunder.
The forces of fragmentation often emerge through the sufferings of others—including financial difficulties; addition to pornography, infidelity; the alienation of members based on economics, race, age, sexual orientation, and so on; and fears that lead to divisive behaviors like gossip and power grabbing. In those difficult times, it's natural for us to want to fix these struggles from a distance or to run from them altogether. But we learn patience by immersion, journeying faithfully alongside those who are suffering. It's easy, for example, to lob advice or judgment when a friend's marriage is falling apart. It's more complex, and more demanding, to sit down with the couple, to listen, to work slowly and conversationally toward healing, to celebrate reconciliation, or to grieve a divorce.
Some members of our churches will inevitably leave, be sent elsewhere, or die, but our commitment to grow deeper with the same people in the same place—come what may—will provide a rich context through which God will bring forth fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5). The health and the fruitfulness of a plant diminish each time it is uprooted. In the same way, our growth toward patience is stunted each time we uproot ourselves from the sustaining soil of our local community. As we learn patience through the exercise of compassion in the local congregation, it flows outward from our church, making us more patient with neighbors, coworkers, other churches, community groups, civic officials, and people with whom we do business.
The Presence of Community in Tragedy
In the decade since I (Chris) have been a part of the Englewood Christian Church community, my sisters and brothers here have taught me much about compassion. There was one five-year period during which my wife and I were especially worn down. We were raising three very young children, one of whom was adopted as a toddler. We grieved the loss of a stillborn daughter. Our preschool-age son was diagnosed with cancer. And we were shocked by the unexpected death of my wife's father. Through all this, the church community was there, providing us with flexible work, helping financially at several points along the way, and taking care of all the funeral arrangements (and costs) for our daughter Hazel. But most important of all, they were just with us. They didn't feel the need to bombard us with religious platitudes. Grief, as Wolterstorff and others have observed, is isolating. Our family experienced that isolation, but we also had a deep, reassuring sense that our brothers and sisters were entering into that suffering with us.
In a recent lecture he gave on Slow Church, theologian Phil Kenneson told the story of something that happened at the United Methodist church he belongs to in eastern Tennessee. On Christmas Eve 1989, as the church was preparing to celebrate, they discovered that the 10-story building across the street was on fire. This building was the largest in the city, and it served as apartments for the low income and elderly. The church immediately canceled its holiday service. It became an operations hub for firefighters and rescue personnel, a triage center, and even a morgue, as 16 people lost their lives. Kenneson observes: