They came bearing casseroles and cakes, paper plates and folding chairs. The tiny house in front of the dairy barn was filled with folks from all over the surrounding countryside. My grandfather died during the night, quite unexpectedly and word of it passed quickly in the farming community of Putnam County. I was 12 years old, confused and devastated, but comforted by all those older women who mothered me in the days ahead. Solemn men wearing weathered Liberty overalls stood out in the yard, kicking dust, telling stories that made me laugh and reminded me what a fine man my grandfather was to so many.

That is church.

I was a young preacher and remembered the time I saw church members surround this well-loved, but now devastated middle-age lady. Her son was arrested the previous week on drug charges. I had visited the young man shortly after his arrest, held his hand while he cried out of shame and disappointment, and assured him that our love was steadfast. His family was not giving up on him and neither was I.

That is church.

One Sunday we awkwardly sang songs in a “blended” worship service – a curious hybrid of hymns, modern praise choruses, drums, guitars and pipe organ. A guy with tattoos running up his neck wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, belted out his praise right beside a demure widow who was a bit uncertain about it all, but grateful for the big crowd that Sunday. Some people groused and complained, but I still carry that image with me of the big man with tattoos beside the little elderly lady holding a hymnal together.

That is church.

A phone call was taken and in the brevity of a few words it was learned that John’s only remaining relative died a couple of days ago. John is an adult with developmental disabilities and was living alone in a dilapidated trailer. He was afraid and lonely and heart-sick, living in a world that too quickly values intellect and power. Once the urgency was discovered, a minister stepped in, rallied her church to do something, and a group home was founded. John now lives safely and lovingly with friends not far from where he grew up. Oh, and John sings every Sunday in the choir.

That is church.

Church can be incorrigible and narrow-minded. Church can be political and short-sighted. Church can be disappointing and frustrating. I can say this about every institution I have ever been a part of, including my very own family.

Often I read and have conversations with people giving up on the church, leaving the church, or never being a part of the church in the first place. I understand, I really do. I have wanted to storm out from time to time too, for all of the above reasons and more. “I can just love Jesus on my own, beyond the walls,” I say to no one in particular.

It is helpful to remember that Jesus was quite frustrated with his religious community too. Yet he kept going, kept worshiping alongside men and women, and kept challenging others to a higher way of knowing, living and behaving. Jesus engaged the community of faith – Pharisees and sinners; Scribes and nobodies; tax-collectors and harlots – with the unyielding hope that together, in community, it is important to love one another, love the neighbor, and love God…Together.

I need a place and a people to love and be loved; I need a place and a people to find community; I need a place and a people who will hold me accountable as we seek to live out God’s purpose and mission for this world. I need a place and a people to practice the faith in community and in the world.

By God’s grace we are kept in this grace…together. There is always room for more.