What is Church?-Where they have to love you

November 4th, 2010 – by Maggie Page, Issues, November 2010

I want to be honest with you, so you should know that I’m not a “real” Anabaptist, meaning I was not raised in nor am I technically a member of an Anabaptist congregation. On the other hand, I am in one way technically more Anabaptist than many of you, in that I am, in fact, “twice baptized”, the literal meaning of the word. I was first baptized as an infant in a small Methodist church in Virginia, which didn’t take too well. Nineteen years later I was baptized again by my best friend in a river in the woods in the small Minnesota town where we attended college. There were maybe 10 of us, mostly college freshmen, standing on the banks and in the waters of the Cannon River in between final exam sessions. Someone brought a guitar, someone snapped some photos, and those of us in the river risked frostbite to form a makeshift but beautiful family.

In the six months leading up to my baptism I had attempted suicide, been hospitalized for a drug overdose, ended a two year romantic relationship and nearly failed out of school. Those kids- because that’s what we were- who were with me in the river that May were literally the only reason I survived my first year at college. I honestly didn’t much care for these friends at first. They were Christian, they went to Bible studies nearly every night of the week, and talked about things like abstinence and transubstantiation at the dinner table. When the shit hit the fan, however, they were there. They put everything on hold when they saw someone in need. They cared about me and cared for me, not because I loved them, or because it was easy, or because it gave them any reward. They loved me because they were, and are, Christians, and that’s what Christians do.

That was my first understanding of Christianity and the church: that Christians love people for no good reason. They love deeply, relentlessly, selflessly, and often until it hurts. They love with an intense, absurd, all-consuming and sometimes confusing love. To be on the receiving end of that kind of love, knowing you don’t deserve it but desperately need it, is humbling and scary and wonderful. Before I understood the theology, before I wrestled with any Bible passage, before I ever prayed, I knew I wanted more of that. I wanted it for me and I wanted it to radiate out of me the way it does them. So half blind and perhaps more than half crazy I took the icy plunge in loving arms, dying to myself and rising to be part of the church. Not any particular denomination, not any particular building or sect or set of rules, but to the global, broken, wonderful church.

Since then the decision to be a part of the church has taken me to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Kenya, Serbia, and Bosnia, to Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, non-denominational and Mennonite churches, to work in orphanages, and in schools where there isn’t a single child with shoes, with crack addicts in Baltimore and refugees in the Balkans, to live in community and to live alone in a country where I knew no one and could not speak the language. It’s been kind of a wild ride- as it should be- and every single experience has been a chance to not only show the love of Christ, but to be on the receiving end of it.

It turns out that my original assessment, that Christians are people who love recklessly and seemingly without reason, is not far off.  It also turns out that my college friends aren’t the only people who live this way. There is a pastor in Nicaragua who struggled to feed his family and, when given a refrigerator full of food from a missions team, turned and gave the majority of it away to families hungrier than his. There is a Kenyan family who felt called to take care of orphans in the slums of Nairobi. They started by taking a few unwanted children into their home. Last year they opened the second home to care for more than 20 children. These children will never be adopted out. They will grow up in a stable home with loving, devoted, constant caregivers in their own country and culture. They will have a deep sense of being very treasured. There is a woman in Bosnia, my supervisor while I was working for MCC, who flew from Sarajevo to Belgrade, then from Belgrade to London, and London to DC at when my father unexpectedly passed away while I was serving in Serbia. Upon landing in DC, she turned around and flew back. She didn’t have to go, and MCC didn’t have to pay for it, but she came to me the first chance she had and went with me on the longest, hardest journey of my life so that I wouldn’t have to do it alone. That’s love- and that’s church.

Robert Frost wrote, “’home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I think that church is the place where, when you go there, they jump at the chance to take you in, or take you to the hospital, or take you on a tough trip home. Not because you’re beautiful or easy to love or fun to be around, though you very well may be, but because that’s who they are, that’s what they do, and that’s what church is. Ω

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