Good Ol’ Words: Member

I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to know what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it…I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William. {Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter}

More than a few years ago, ecclesiastical authorities pulled me from my seminary womb, spanked me on the butt and scribbled my name on an ordination certificate. They sent me into the world, green and ignorant but effusive with zeal. One of my enterprising ideals was to de-bunk the ossified notion of church membership. I tinkered with the possiblity that the whole affair was a formality offering little more umph than signing up for the YMCA. We wanted ‘organic community.’ We wanted to ‘authentically live life together.’ We didn’t want structures but wanted to do ‘life on life.’ Apparently, we also wanted to prop up a few clichés.

While it is true that the deepest forms of community do not require an official roll or imposed framework, there is also something about the commitment and responsibility inherent in the old ways that I too easily dismissed. The older you get, the more you realize that relationships and communities rarely happen – and are never sustained – naturally. Friendships require effort. Families require us to make difficult decisions about priorities, budgets and lifestyle. Neighborhood gardens need a plan for when folks plant seeds and pull weeds. This fact shouldn’t surprise us because it’s woven into the way of the universe. Those who are supposed to know tell me that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics insists that most every substance left to itself degrades over time, naturally.

My life with Miska is the most natural, hand-in-the-glove, reality I know. We certainly have made a practice of life-on-life. You could even call us organic lovers if you like. But I’ll tell you – this marriage gig is work, and it requires a kind of radical commitment best represented by solemn vows spoken before God and pastor and every witness who hears us say I do.

St. Paul spoke of life in Christ’s Church as one where we are all members of one body. We’re fixed to one another. We share space and blood and history. We don’t get to walk away from one another. To do so would require a violent severing; and after, we’d only shrivel and die. This is one of the beauties of family: you don’t get to choose who your family is — and we all have to learn how to be ourselves and how to let others be themselves even when those selves are very different. Love has to take priority.

While the wise apostle helped to reform my wayward views, Wendell Berry probably helped even more. In his novels, we’re given a picture of a community bound by history and heritage and land to a particular place and story. This bond makes them who they are. The neighbors who settled in his fictitious landscape are known as “the membership of Port William.”

I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our towns or neighborhoods merely as habitats where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order intertwined with one another’s past and future. I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our churches merely as institutions where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order where bad sermons and good pot-lucks, wise pastors and grumpy pew-mates (or grumpy pastors and wise pew-mates), dry seasons and fits of joy all contribute to the long story, the long membership. This membership is not a means to some other vision; this membership is itself the good work, the beautiful narrative enacted by the gracious fusion of misfit souls. As Wendell says, “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.”

When Hannah Coulter found herself gathered into the membership, without judgment or resistance due to her status as a late-comer, she described the grace she received. “They let me belong to them and to their place, and I needed to belong somewhere.” We all do.


image: canjosh

8 Replies to “Good Ol’ Words: Member”

  1. I’m with John – I believe it, too. I probably don’t wrestle quite as much as he does, but I give it the old college try, ya know? Thanks for this. It’s important.

  2. Your writing is very thought provoking and sometimes probing.
    You could write a book on the forth paragraph. Thank you for making us dig deeper and see life through a different lense.

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