Eye on the Sparrow

This weekend, our worship band played during a revival for Glory Cloud ministries, a charismatic African-American church in one of the less florid neighborhoods of Jonesboro. I came not knowing what to expect. I left with a reminder more valuable than I could have anticipated.

We were there on the last night of a week-long revival to celebrate the church’s tenth anniversary. They were thrilled to be the little engine that could. “No one thought we’d last six months,” the pastor said. “Ten years later, what do they have to say?” The fifteen or so acts sang and played and danced for nearly two hours—enough time for me to appreciate their stamina as well as their determination. And when the congregation cheered our band after three songs, it felt for all the world like I was a real musician, and not just a preacher posing as one.

Inspiring scene, right?

But what if I told you that the little church that started in the tiny north half of a small warehouse was, ten years later, still in that same warehouse? And that the crowd barely numbered fifty, including visiting musicians? What if I told you that the sound system was full of static, the carpet was tattered and dirty, the electricity was sketchy, and the hand-me-down pews looked a sickly green in the dim fluorescent light?

Not so terrific now, I know. Yet the place was alive and so was the amateur music—mostly, I think because of their sense of audience.

This is the lesson I remembered this weekend: that God accepts our work as an offering, regardless of the setting in which it is offered. And God judges our work not based on the results it produces, but on the beauty it expresses.

The youth choir did it for me. When they stood to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His

Glory Cloud youth get ready to sing.

Glory Cloud youth get ready to sing.

Hands,” they were nervous.  But why should they be, when no one  in this dingy hall was any more beautiful or talented than they were, and most were less so? If anything, they should have resented being trotted up in front of parents and grandparents for a show that means nothing to the wider world.

Except that they understood their audience. God, of course. But more so (I would guess) the friends and family gathered there, who as a community serve as the incarnation of God, the body of Christ. Each person in the congregation mattered to them, and their unspoken attitude was, “They’re watching. We need to give our best.”

I grew up in a small church, in which I took so seriously the Christmas plays and Easter skits we did for maybe sixty or seventy people. But those things mattered so much to me! Could my time in larger settings and the pressures and glamor of big churches really make me forget that lesson so easily.

Apparently—and sadly—yes.

As a college freshman, I traveled with a choir from our Wesley Foundation to several local churches. Dawn, one of our seniors, would occasionally sing an acapella version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” She would close her eyes and sway, and the small sanctuaries and uncomfortable pews would melt away. We would find ourselves on holy ground, humbled and in awe of God’s grace to us all.

This weekend reminded me of those moments, and called into question my learned perception. The holy enfolds us regardless of the surroundings. In fact, the trappings of spiritual success often end up as mere static, blocking out the truth.

We are sparrows. And in our smallness, we are lovely, cradled together in the hands of God.

Construction Lessons

Done! Sort of. After several weeks of work, staff and volunteers have finally gotten our building up and running again. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in the process:

1) Be grateful for–but don’t necessarily accept–every offer of help.

New kitchen complete!

New kitchen complete!

2) Experience is a great teacher, and a tutor an even better one. But never underestimate what you can learn by watching YouTube.

3) The uses for silicon caulk may rival duct tape.

4) Measure twice, cut once,” is at once a brilliant and impossible strategy for me.

5) Tile saws can literally freeze up if the weather gets cold enough.

6) Imagination and ingenuity are at least as important as resources available.

7) Those with less to give tend to offer the most. Our biggest single donor to the reconstruction effort was a church of about 50. A sister organization collected money throughout the fall to help with the repairs, despite their own budget difficulties. This is one of the more humbling lessons.

I’m sure there are others, but that will do for now. I would say I’m happy to be back to full time ministry again, but the truth is I never left it. Making space is as much a task of ministry as preaching or counseling. How many other jobs require so much of you, but also teach so much to you? It’s a good time to be in campus ministry.

 

Necessary Destruction

Part of re-building is tearing down. That, it seems, is an unavoidable lesson, and one that I’ve learned through water.

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We spent a lot of time destroying the old at Wesley Foundation in the past few weeks, all in preparation for something new.

Once it gets into a place it is not supposed to be, water can do all manner of damage. It ruins fabric, rusts metal, warps flooring. It rots away wood and seeps up into drywall, inviting mold and mildew that can range from unpleasant to toxic.

Before anything can be put back in its place after a flood, the ruined material has to be taken out, lest it weaken or corrupt the new. The first step in reconstruction is necessary destruction.

This, I think, provides a pretty strong and pretty clear metaphor for the way life goes: we can’t fully move into something new without tearing out something old. It’s the same advice the Apostle Paul gave. Consider the past rubbish. Throw it aside. Forget what is behind, and full steam ahead.

I have to admit, however, that I am uncomfortable with the metaphor of destruction, true though it may be. For one thing, it feels like a lesson in theoretical physics: just because we know (or think we know) something doesn’t mean we can put that knowledge to any practical use. That, in fact, is one of Paul’s laments, that he cannot seem to bring himself to banish evil and do the good his heart desires.

I’m also hesitant to talk about destruction because we deal with so much of it already–loss and fear of loss that take away precious things or people, or that steal the joy found in those things. I confess that I sometimes cringe when I hear rhetoric of change, especially in church settings, because I know it will mean imposing yet another loss on someone else.

Still, the metaphor of destruction holds, regardless of how much I dislike it personally. So I try to think of it in a more positive light.

My favorite example is from a book we read to our youngest son at least six times a week when he was a toddler. In it, a group of friends plants a garden together. Everybody’s plot grows except one–that is, until another friend harvests his sunflowers, allowing light to fall on the empty strawberry patch. Once the sunlight hits the bare plot, it too begins to grow and produce fruit.

The thing that was keeping something else from growing had to be removed, but that could be done with a celebration of what it had produced.

I try to present this to my college students when we talk about relationships. A breakup doesn’t necessarily invalidate what was a good thing. It may only be a time of tearing out–painful, yes, but necessary to allow for a strong rebuilding. Other examples abound.

It’s not a neat process, of course. Some necessary destruction looks downright awful and feels even worse. And truthfully, most of us experience tearing down and rebuilding as overlapping processes.

Then again, I’ve lived through enough changes (my own and those I care about) to know not to expect tidiness, not when it comes to internal or external change. Necessary destruction is still destruction, but by God’s grace it doesn’t have to destroy us. Rather, it can pave the way for something new.

Germs and Seeds

This $0.29 clamp cost our ministry $15,000.

The clamp, which had fastened the water line to the back

The ice machine clamp that destroyed 2200 sq. ft. of Wesley Foundation

The ice machine clamp that destroyed 2200 sq. ft. of Wesley Foundation

of A-State Wesley’s ice machine, gave out quietly on a Saturday evening last October. By the time we discovered the failure on Sunday morning, the open line had dumped hundreds of gallons of water into Wesley. Several volunteers pitched in to clean up, attacking the problem with a veritable army of mops, shop vacs, and even repurposed dust pans.

But the damage was done. By the time Wednesday rolled around, we had gutted the building—baseboards, laminate, carpet, cabinets, and half our drywall reduced to a dumpster full of mush and mildew. We lost the space for nearly three months while we made plans and organized work crews. Our community had to meet elsewhere. Our staff worked in chaos.

All because of a half-inch clamp that didn’t hold on quite tightly enough.

This has made me reflect a lot in recent weeks on the impact of little things. I come at it from two perspectives.

One is, for lack of a better word, a destructive perspective. It takes into account the loss that results from little things. A tiny virus invades cells and causes widespread suffering. A penny costs double its value to mint, and adds up to a yearly deficit of $55,000,000 in monetary productoin. A cheap clamp wrecks a campus ministry for an entire semester.

Much of the religious jargon in my part of the world reflects this perspective. “Give the devil an inch and he will become a ruler,” so the bumper sticker has it. Allow for the smallest of sins, and you open yourself up to an avalanche of ruin.

And this perspective is, in a sense, true. But it’s also incomplete.

Another way to consider the little things is from a constructive perspective. Under the right conditions, a tiny seed can grow and bear fruit, from which more seeds emerge. The seed can be a choice, an idea, a kindness, a photograph. The form does not matter so much as the premise: every good thing, from love to life itself, first manifests itself in the smallest of ways.

I think it’s significant that Jesus chooses this second perspective to talk about the kingdom of heaven. He did not shy away from calling out evil, either in individuals or in socio-political structures. But his teachings about God’s great endeavor among us usually focused on the potential held within something small: a healed woman, a recovered coin, a mustard seed.

Here’s another way of looking at our Wesley flood: a $0.29 clamp provided new opportunity. We were (thankfully) insured for the mini-disaster, and so had enough to fix the damage. We found ways to use what space we had left in a more functional way, and we learned that much of what we had in storage really wasn’t worth the space it cost us.

The tiny clamp, which I have cursed with a thousand curses while cutting laminate and grouting tile, gave this generation of Wesley students something no amount of planning could ever provide: a uniting memory. The flood will forever be something that brought us together.

It just goes to show not all tiny things are germs. Some are seeds.