First Published May 12, 2015, on Leah's former blog, "Being In Berkeley".
My youngest child, Gwen, recently turned three, which means as a family we've, for the most part, evolved past the sticking-everything-in-your-mouth phase, the screaming-uncontrollably-for-no-intelligible-reason phase, and hopefully soon will be mostly done with the pooping-in-your-pants-at-totally-inconvenient-times phase of family life. Instead, we are fully immersed in what child development specialists often refer to as "the imaginative play" phase. Gwen is forever playing mommy, or doctor, or Elsa. Among her most used words right now is the phrase, "pway wif me!!", which would be heart-meltingly adorable each time if it didn't usually come in the middle of picking up a hundred small toys before a guest comes over, or trying to get dinner on the table before one more small person vehemently demands another snack.
Thankfully for me, Gwen has two siblings who are also immersed in their own more sophisticated versions of imaginative play, and will often provide the outlet for her. Junia (five) makes up elaborate fantasies, usually involving Disney princesses, and Elliott (nine) has taken his version of imaginative play to the next level by turning his play into stop-motion animation shorts or other such film making endeavors. People with expertise in such things often tell me that play is the child's work - their way of growing cognitively, socially, emotionally. It's an important process for them to engage in, in order that they might develop into well-adjusted adults doing "real" work someday. And so, even if I've layed on the couch five times in the last hour so that Gwen could listen to my heart and take my temperature, I try to make space for that; to engage in my kids' play and the wonder it includes.
All of this focus on play gets me reflecting on this other life-project I'm giving myself to called "Haven". In a sense, in the beginning, it felt like what we were doing on Sundays was not that different from what I see my kids doing seven days a week. At times, especially in the early months, it has often felt to me like we have been playing "church". We have the elements of church (a sermon, musical worship, communion), but we're meeting in a living room with only a handful of people, and the kids keep coming in to get more toy cars. It's hard in that early phase not to be dismissive of what's taking place. At times it feels like child's play, which would be fine and good if I was three or five or nine, but I'm thirty-seven and, on a bad day, perhaps prone to a wee-bit of insecurity about potentially being stuck in the "imaginative play" phase long past my time. Spending a week prepping a sermon and then preaching it to five people can make you wonder. I'll admit that on more than one occasion I've found myself looking to the future and wondering if and when Haven will ever become a real church.
But kids develop gradually, and apparently so do churches. When you start from scratch, you don't go from nothing to full-blown-established-organization over night. It's a process that can't happen all at once, and whose progress you might miss if you're not paying close attention. Well, I'm trying to pay attention and lately I've noticed an interesting shift in my experience of Haven.
It comes in little moments that catch me off-guard. It might be when I'm depositing checks in the bank from folks who have begun to give real money to this thing; money with which the baby church is now paying me a small-but-real salary. Or when my phone buzzes with the text to go to the hospital hours after the newest Haven-ite has been born, to meet and bless and pray for the wee-one and his parents. It comes when I get the calls at 10:00 at night from one of my community members who is in crisis - their partner barely hanging on in the hospital, or their relationship in trouble, and I listen, and coach, and pray for them. Or when I notice that it feels much different to preach to a living room with fifteen people in it, than it does to a room with five. It comes when within hours of sending an email to a few folks letting them know of a practical need in our midst, I have people sacrificially giving to more than meet it. Or when I'm planning our first Receiving of Members ceremony, and our first Baby Dedication. It comes when I meet for coffee or drinks with someone who wants to know more about my vision for Haven, and find myself telling them not just about my hopes for what this community will be (as I used to always do), but I'm actually telling them about what it already is.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Margery William's The Velveteen Rabbit: the story of a stuffed animal wondering how and when it might become real. The sage of the nursery, the old Skin Horse, explains how this happens.
“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
Maybe our little Haven is not that unlike the Velveteen Rabbit. It's in the process of becoming something real, but it's not the Articles of Incorporation, the 501c3 status, or the building we meet in that makes it so. It's the impact Haven makes on peoples lives: the love it fosters and grows, the real friendship it nurtures and sustains, the connection to Jesus it sparks and solidifies. So in these moments of early faith community life, where I find myself wondering sometimes if we're merely playing pretend, I sense an invitation from Jesus to look beyond my preconceptions or ambitions for the future, and notice the now. Notice the becoming. Because bit by bit, Real is happening.