Guest blog by: AmyJo
I think about the church a lot, perhaps more than is healthy. I work in the church. I have always liked the church. I think the church is important. I hope that Jesus likes the church. I feel like I need to defend the church. I am not always certain about the definition of the church. The church causes me to hope and despair, sometimes simultaneously. I am a pastor and the more I read about the church, the more I think about the church, the more I wonder, “What if?”
Matthew 13:31-32 (NIV)
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
What if the community of God’s people, the earthly representation of God’s Kingdom, was really like that mustard seed? Mustard is not a plant that must be carefully cultivated. It does not need to be minded. It does not need fuss. In fact, it has a tendency to take over the garden, to grow beyond one’s control. Mustard, if left to its own devices will choke out all the other good and useful plants until the garden ceases to be anything more than a mustard plant, until the garden becomes nothing more than a big mustard tree, full of noisy birds which really is not a garden at all. What if the church was like that? What would happen if we allowed the wild parts to take over? What if we stopped insisting on neat rows and orderly cultivation? What if the church became something that we could not control?
As a pastor, I must confess that I am always, continually, involved in a never-ending cultivation scheme. I am planning and plotting and laying out the garden of my church. We have daily, monthly, and yearly program plans which fit into our 5 and 10 year visions. We are programed and scheduled. Our goals are S.M.A.R.T. and our yields have been carefully calculated. I am figuring out which programs and people can never under any circumstances be planted next to one another. I am propping up the bent and wounded and fertilizing this program which has existed for far too long in a space without the life giving nutrients of good leadership, planning, and purpose. I am watering the programs that have existed in spiritual drought and busily trying to divert a little stream from the programs that at the current time are overflowing. Frankly, a mustard plant would freak me out and perhaps that is the problem.
1 Corinthians 12:22-23 (NIV)
22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,
What if we treated the weaker and the indispensable with special honor? What
if the church believed that “those” people were valuable? “Weaker is the comparative of asthenes, ‘sick.’ The word emphasizes the apparently complete unimportance of these members.” What if the very people that we could do without are the ones we need the most? What about the mentally ill? What about the frail and the difficult? What about the children who disrupt the service? What about the smelly and the unintelligent? What if they were really the most important people in the church?
In a way, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of themselves, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” (1 Corinthians 1:26 NIV) Every one of the powerful, wise, and important in the church was at one point and without Jesus Christ would have continued to be, none of these things. If our relationship with Jesus Christ is the number one thing, than without it, we do not amount to much. Our value in the kingdom, in his church, begins and ends with the strength of our relationship with the king. What if we began to evaluate someone’s importance, perhaps especially our own importance, on that simple truth?
Yet, I have come to think that Paul might be talking about a more profound shift. What if the difficult, the needy, the frustrating, were important not because they might one day be the wise or powerful? What if they mattered apart from any important or life altering lesson that we might gain from them? What if they mattered simply because God tells us that they mattered? What if the only evidence we ever had for their value or worth was the simple fact that God loves them enough to make them a part of his kingdom?
When Paul speaks of the less honorable parts, he is most certainly referring to those parts which have to do with waste removal and sex. As a matter of fact, no matter how we might try, those parts probably are never going to be used for anything else. Butts will always be butts. While I am convinced that God has the power to sanctify my whole body, I am not sure I want him to use those parts for anything else. Paul suggests that even those parts should be treated with “special modesty,” literally something should be placed around them. What if instead of seeking to push the difficult, the ill, the frail, the less valuable to the margins, we sought to bring them closer to the center? What if the church placed itself around them, protected them? What if we learned to love our unmentionables?
Revelation 19:8 (NIV)
8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
What if we were naked without our righteous acts? What if the things that we do are so important that we will parade around in them for eternity? “Acts” is plural and frustratingly inaccurate. God has given us this thing called ministry. He has equipped us. He expects us to do something, but the quantity is a mystery. Is each action a singular thread, a patch in a quilt, a whole robe of white? Perhaps that is the problem. We spend an incredible amount of time and effort quantifying our righteousness, counting up our good deeds, recording them in books and blogs and journals. We search for the outcomes and weave together our narrative in hopes that all of this amounts to more than the emperor’s new clothes. What if it does not? What if we have been more busy stitching together models and buildings and programs then wedding dresses? What if there is truth in the chorus of voices telling us that we are irrelevant and out of touch, naked?
I suppose there is good news here as well, because the material from which the dress is made has already been provided. God has given us this thing called ministry. He has equipped us. He has guided us. I believe that God likes the church too. If we are naked, it is not because God has failed to provide the finest linen, but because we have employed the wrong tailors. We have not wrestled with our own doubts and fears. We have not been courageous with the Holy Spirit. We still have “what ifs” to ponder.