We gather late in the week in the stifling heat of Chicago.

Every July.

We are called the Ekklesia Project – a pretty cool name, I think, but one that does not fully convey what this scattered-then-gathered-then-scattered-again assemblage of Christians is about. We are Catholics and Congregationalists, Mennonites and Methodists, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans, New Monastics, House Church Christians, and others. We come from our far-flung communities across North America (mindful that there are others of us in other parts of the world) to be in community intently, intensely for three sweltering days on the campus of DePaul University.

Each year our Gathering has a particular theme: Church and Empire, one year; Wealth and the Household of God, another. Other topics have included race and racism, language and word care, congregational formation, and the Kingdom of Heaven is Like . . . . Next year we’re thinking that we’ll take on the subject of violence, framing it around the church’s call to “learn war no more.”

So we do this thing every year in Chicago where we meet up and try to think and talk about what it means to be the Church, the body of Christ, in the world. We know that it is fashionable to love Jesus and hate the Church—or at least to scorn the Church, belittle it, distance oneself from it. But we love the Church, pained though we are by its spectacular failures, its accommodations to consumerism, nationalism, militarism, and other idolatries. (We spend a good bit of time lamenting this reality).

Yet for the EP, “the Church is the material, living people of God that crosses all borders and human divisions.” It is not an organization of our own making, an instrument for effectiveness in the world, a haven for the like-minded; rather, it is a gift of God meant to be a sign, servant, and foretaste of God’s good shalom. One of the most important ways that Christians bear such witness, we believe, is when we wash each other’s feet. And so we do this, too, when we gather every summer.

And this is what EP is really about: Friendship. As we we are fond of saying when we gather (and when we’re apart), the Ekklesia Project is about discovering friends you didn’t know you had.

In friendship we worship together. We eat meals together. We pray and practice lectio divina together. We throw a Chicago-style pizza party for ourselves. We talk and laugh and argue and laugh well into the night when we gather informally in the dorm’s lobby and lounges. (Did I mention that we like to laugh?). This year we hosted an open mic event so that the talented among us could sing songs, read poems, and tell funny stories.

Our theme this year was “Slow Church: Abiding Together in the Patient Work of God”:

In a world addicted to speed, violence, and the immediate we worship the God who walked with his people for forty years across the wilderness, sat with his people for seventy years in exile, attends to the impoverished and down-and-out, considers the lilies of the fields, loves this world enough to become human, died on a cross rather than kill, and took three days to be resurrected.  Known among us in broken bread, poured-out wine, and a gathered people, we abide in him, and in so doing we are learning to abide with others, and with all creation.

In plenary sessions, break-out discussion groups, and workshops we wondered together what it means to cultivate this kind of slow, patient witness in a fast, anxious world. Jonathan Wilson framed the challenge as two competing narratives: the story of death and the story of life. In the latter story, our story, we claim “the fecundity of the kingdom” as a means for living into the gracious plenty of God’s abiding peace.

In a conversational-style presentation, Stanley Hauerwas and Kyle Childress talked slow. I mean, slow church. (They’re Texans, after all). Evident in all they said was the deep, abiding friendship between them. Their well-delivered one-liners (Kyle: “My church members get called ‘socialists’ because we believe in recycling”; Stanley: “You resist the church growth bullsh*t by going limp”) communicated wisdom born of a lifetime of trying to live faithfully as pastor and professor, respectively. And they made us laugh a lot.

Phil Kenneson patiently, skillfully reminded us of what we know to be true of our life together and our life in God: the gift of God’s presence in the church and the world makes possible the gift of our being present – truly, fully, faithfully – to one another. Three dimensions of this real, human presence are abiding (the condition for receptivity), devotion (the lavish giving of ourselves), and attention (an intense openness toward another). In taking the time to know and be known, to see and be seen, we practice something of the mutual indwelling that is the very life of God.

* * * * *

Does it sound overly dramatic to say that this company of friends – some of whom I know intimately and some who are new to me – have more than once saved my sanity and saved my faith? If so, then happy drama queen I am. But as I’ve just returned from Summer Gathering 2012 where “the slow, patient work of God” was not only an idea to be explored but a reality to be embodied in time spent together with friends, I am reminded of how these enduring relationships are powerfully formative and transformative of my own attempts to practice patience and to be a worshiper of the indwelling God.

And I am grateful.