Jim had learned from his mistakes. This time, he called Thom, and asked how he should dress. When Thom and Karen rolled around at a quarter to nine, he was Sunday casual, and relaxed.
Thom was funny, in how he was uptight about everything. The church was only about a mile from their homes, and it would only take a second to get there, but he used that minute making sure that Brenda was OK at home alone, that Jim knew he didn't know exactly when they'd be back, and Jim knew he shouldn't feel compelled to choose Corner Church. He knew that Jim had to make a good choice for his whole family, and he would be happy just as long as Jim's whole family were happy.
Fortunately, Karen called him off before he could make sure of anything else.
They were funny together. They both wanted to please more than anything, but they did it in completely different ways.
They pulled up into the parking lot a good ten minutes early, and it looked like they were not the only ones. No one greeted them at the door, but upon entering a tiny man called out, "You must be Jim," and made a direct line for him.
"I'm Tim," he said. "Really good to meet you. Thom has told us all about you and Brenda. I know you're just checking things out, so make yourself right at home. No pressure."
Jim took his hand, and gave it a good shake. "Thank you," he answered.
Tim continued. "Thom tells me you live in the same neighborhood with him, so he and Karen will be your Den Mothers. If you decide to come back, Thom will get you library packet, too. The packet gives you everyone's phone numbers and volunteer skills. I'm a finish carpenter, so I list that as my skill. That way new folk know who to call when they need a little advice. Call me if your kitchen countertop is buckling, and you wonder what to do. Whatever."
"Wow," Jim said. "That's an idea. I guess I would list car repair."
Tim went on, "Of course, we call it the library pack because it contains pointers to all our teaching. Well, really it's not all ours. We link all the resources we've found over the years by subject. So, whenever you have a question about something, you can find all our favorite links and who found them. That way you can talk to the last few people who had the same questions, and see what they came up with.
"Am I boring you, yet?" Tim asked with a grin. "I can kind of go on about things sometimes."
Jim laughed. "No, not yet. What does my 'Den Mother' do," Jim asked, feigning an anxious glance at Karen.
Tim smiled, "Oh, pretty much the same things as a Cub Scout den mother. They'll plan all the events in your neighborhood, and make sure everyone's noses have been wiped. Whenever there's a little trouble, they make sure flowers and meals get sent over. They make sure all the young parents get a little kid-free time, especially the singles. And they set the knowledge-work agenda. You won't stay long with Thom, and not know your bible.
"Thom and Karen will also make sure you have a Barnie, your 'Barnabus.' Paul never went out alone, so we don't either. You'll have a pastor, a couple den mothers, and a partner to ease you into things. And the library packet has a step-by-step guide to what we believe, and to what we believe isn't really important.
"But, hey. It's almost 9:00. I should let Thom take you down to the Philippians class, while I get ready for my Ruth class. It's good to meet you, Jim, and I hope you have a good visit today."
Thom chuckled and said, "Tim is pretty direct."
"No, that's good," Jim answered. "I like knowing up front what your church does. Obviously, Tim knew I was coming, but I can tell that he would be ready to give the same answer to anyone who visited. I'm just glad I already know my den mothers. It would be pretty weird to just be 'given' to complete strangers."
"Yeah," Thom replied. "But you know, we don't let just anyone volunteer to be a den mother. We've got a couple really smart people that would be trouble as den mothers. We let them run the library instead. All the den mothers could make Goldilocks feel at home."
Upon arriving in the Philippians class, Jim asked Thom who all there was from his den.
"Just Bob and Karl, and Sarah and Jane. Everyone shares classes with their Barnie, but each den tries to have someone in all the classes."
It was a little bit of a surprise that Karl was only about 14, but Jim adapted pretty quickly. There were 3 teenagers in the class, which would not have struck him at all, except that at neither First Evangelical nor Bliss had he really even noticed any kids. It was all good.
The class began with prayer. Again, with the heads bowed. Jim guessed he would just have to get used to that. Then, they had introductions all around. Jim got to tell a little about being a mechanic and a Walker. Everyone knew about the Walkers, so that was kind of nice. And Eric was a mechanic, so he wasn't alone there, either.
They were looking at Phil 2, but they looked at it differently. There were sixteen people in the class, and each of the pairs took a verse. Bob and Karl had the first verse. They told that there were four things listed in the verse, Christ, Love, the Spirit, and mercy, and that we need to give all four of these things to each other.
John and Jerry had verse 2. They admitted that they had not done anything with it over the last week, but that it seemed to say love would make them of one mind. The group chipped in with insights they had, and Mark, the leader, had a couple observations to add as well.
Sarah and Jane, his other possible denmates, had verse 7. They did a fine job of tying together the whole idea of making yourself of no reputation. If Christ had humbled Himself, we needed to as well, and especially toward each other.
Mark listened as each pair told what they had learned. He added a little to some of them, and corrected Brian once. They were about 40 minutes into the class when everyone had shared their bits about their verses. Mark tied it all together. He made it clear how this passage was so often used a proof-text of Christ's divinity that it was sometimes forgotten that it was really Paul reminding the brothers and sisters to serve each other in everything.
At the end of his summary, he brought out a set of bingo balls, selected numbers 9-16 and put them into a mug. One person from each of the pairs chose a bingo ball, and everyone was ready for next week's homework. Bob and Karl had gotten verse 12, and since Jim was the new guy in the den, he was a "12," too.
After the class, Bob came up to him and gave him the rundown. "Karl and I will look at the verse alone, and then on Thursday night, we will have a 20 minute phone call to decide what we want to share. If you'd like, give me your number, and I'll 3-way you in."
Jim thought that sounded pretty good, so he gave Bob his number, and they headed out to the foyer together.
"It sounds like ya'll make this church a lot of work," Jim ventured.
Bob chuckled. "Yeah, we do. It seems like that's the way love's supposed to be. This is the hardest church I've ever been a member of, but I've never been alone here. My v-skill is landscaping, so I spend a lot of time at people's houses showing how deep to plant a shrub, or why you mulch. But then come tax quarter, John is always there for me. I know other churches are more polished in their teaching. I'd have sure added a couple things on the Philippians class, myself! But when the Master returns, I want to have been working more than I was learning. I want to have been busy, busy loving."
Bob spent the next few minutes introducing Jim to some of the other people who would be his denmates if he continued with Corner Church.
When they finally threw open the doors to the auditorium, Jim's eyebrows went up. There was a round podium kind of a thing in the middle of the room, and chairs were set up in a big circle around it. And "chairs" did not necessarily mean chairs. There were pillows, sofas, folding chairs, floor chairs, and even one big exercise ball. The only consistency was that small, low chairs were in the front, and big, tall chairs were in the back.
As Jim entered, he could feel something was funny, but he could not put his finger on what it was. He followed Bob to a seat, and got comfortable. He wanted to ask Bob something, when it dawned on him what it was that felt funny. Not a word was being spoken. Everyone was smiling and gesturing. It was not like being in a funeral. But, still, no one was saying anything.
After the last person was seated, Thom raised his hands and eyes, and called on the Lord to join them together in love. They would be joined in love for each other, and their love together for Him.
And someone started singing.
About a half-line into the song, everyone was singing along. They all knew the song, so they just started singing. At the end of the second line, someone called out, "Sixty-two," and there was a rustle papers as those who didn't know the song opened their songbooks to page 62. Jim was one of those, but Bob had already noticed that, grabbed a songbook, opened it, and handed it over.
The singing continued just like that for almost a half-hour. Between songs there were prayers, and each song started with someone singing, then a number being called out. It was strange how different it felt singing "to" everyone else across the room. And it was strange how loud it was to hear everyone this way. It was pretty cool.
The singing didn't so much stop, as it got interrupted.
Six people stood up, and went to the center of the room. It was three guys and three girls. They started a kind of a lover's debate between themselves. There was a taunt and a tease, and a rebuke. Some of it was pretty funny, actually. The audience was laughing before long, and everyone was involved, cheering for their favorite to win. Bob leaned over to Jim, and explained that each den took turns giving a ten minute skit each week. Thom's and Karen's den had next week.
Jim didn't know what to make of this skit. Once he figured out that the parts were those of the Son of God and His bride, he could follow it, but it was still a stretch for him. He was not sure that the bride really ought to be teasing the King of Kings that way. But, he had to give them that it was pretty funny. And it was making him think.
When the skit was over, Tim stood up. He had been sitting in one of the low seats almost straight in front of him, so Jim had not even remembered to look for him.
Tim made a couple comments about how hard it would be for him to follow after that act. Then, he pretty much started right in.
His message was on "Your will be done."
Jesus prayed that the Father's will be done on earth. Many, or most, or even all seemed to believe that the Father's will started with, "Thou shalt not..." and they didn't even not do the things they shouldn't. Really, though, the Father's will was much, much more than a "shalt not." The Father's will was that love conquer. The Father's will was that His Child lay down His Life.
And the Father's will IS.
Nothing has changed. The Father's will is that we love. The Father's will is that His children lay down their lives. First we lay down our lives for each other, but we lay down our lives for all. When we have layed down our lives, then we can appear before Him unashamed, knowing that we lived as He lived.
But Tim was not content merely to state the truth. It was hard for Jim to explain the difference, but Tim was not lecturing for a taped audience. He was speaking to Thom and Bob and all the others. Someone was very definitely being chided, and he got the impression that most everyone knew whom it was. Tim brought up some recent anguish they had all suffered together, and made it a part of his talk. Tim was telling everyone that God brought opportunities into all their lives to lay down their lives, and that it was praiseworthy when someone gave up their hopes for another.
Jim felt a little knot in his stomach.
Tim was standing up there, telling everyone that someone had layed down their life for another, and that someone else still had an opportunity to do so. And he was telling them that this was what God required. This stuff was real.
Tim reminded everyone that this life was both real and an illusion. It was an illusion, because everything that seemed to matter here was only passing. In just a few years more, it would all fade away, and all the work we invested in being comfortable here would be lost forever. But it was real because everything we did here would shape who we were forever. If we laid down our lives here, we gained an eternal benefit. We learn here to serve, even as the Son of Man learned obedience here. And the better we learn it, the richer our hearts become with the true treasure: Christ-likeness.
When Tim finished, it was obvious that the whole room was as sober as he.
He sat quietly. Bob got up to talk to another man in hushed tones. Jim watched as people all over the room moved into little groups to talk over what they had heard. There was no, "closing song," to a lecture like this, and no one started one. He fingered the dollars he had brought for the offering, and noticed that there had not been one. He would ask about that later.
For now, he watched as two groups of brothers and sisters talked to themselves, and then started moving toward each other. He was hardly sure that these were the groups Tim had been talking to or about, but they both spoke for a minute then traded embraces all around. He could see them making plans to get together, as everyone pulled out their phones to check their calendars.
Thom offered him a hand up.
He was pretty deeply lost in thought, and looked at it for a second before it registered what he was doing. Then he took the offer, and gave him a pat on the shoulder. "This is some kind of different church, Thom," he said.
Thom agreed, "In some ways, yes. But really, it's just like every other church, except that we work really hard to come up with ways not to be alone. It is not good that the man should be alone. So, we study a little together, we work together a little, and we eat together as much as we can. It feels like the way things were meant to be."
"Well," Jim replied, "I don't know exactly what I'm going to tell Brenda. I think she'll have to see this for herself. It's not like joining a club here, is it? I hope she'll like the idea."
Thom said, "Not to worry. The Lord will deal with that in His own way and time. She liked the Walkers well enough, though. There are a lot of compromises between this and the Walker way, but if she liked them, she ought to like this. And who wouldn't like Karen?" he snickered.
When they made it out to the car, Jim asked Thom about the offering, and why there wasn't one.
Thom said, "We all decided the offering was a pain in the butt. Take a meeting like today's. Which part would you want to see interrupted to take up money? And do you really want the preacher trying to coax a little more money out of everyone? Nah.
"Twice a year we get together to talk about our plans and budget. At the end of each meeting, every member commits to a monthly amount, and we mail in our commitments with all our other bills. At the end of each 6 months, the treasurer tells us how many people kept their commitments, and how many dropped them. Not who, mind you, but how many. Our goals and our budget are in tension, but we do the best we can. We felt a little guilty about it at first, but it's been really nice."
Karen smiled and said, "But if you need to give a little money, I can take it right now."
Jim looked her straight in the eye. He knew she was only kidding, but he was tempted to give her the money he'd brought anyway. These people were committed, to Christ and to each other, and he wanted to declare somehow that he would be too. He knew it would be misunderstood, though, and there would be time aplenty to prove these things.
He kept his hand out of his pocket, and said, "Thank you, Karen, Thom. I will look forward to Bob's call on Thursday, and I bet I'll be seeing you on Sunday. Thanks for everything."
As he got out of the car, he kept telling himself to calm down. He could not tell Brenda everything all in one breathe, or he'd just sound insane. Don't oversell, Jim.
Just let her see it for herself.