Over the years I have amassed numerous volumes of books on the subject of the church. As large as the self-help section is in any given bookstore, the religious book trends give equal footing to what I might call the self-help-for-the-church section. While there are certainly some gems on how to be / do / become church; for the large part, anyone who seems to be able to string a sentence together could market a book about doing church better.
Doing church better written by pastors, for pastors, to make them feel that they are never good enough, that the church congregation that they serve is not good enough, that the grass is always greener on the other side of a denominational fence. All these things lead to some very destructive thoughts about ourselves and the church.
Besides the piles of books on the church, another thing that seems to pile up in our household (and I am sure yours too) is the kitchen space devoted to food storage containers. Be it Tupperware, Lock’n Lock boxes, IKEA Förtrolig, or old margarine containers; there is a drawer, or shelf, located in the kitchen where we keep all these lids and containers.
Sometimes I think that the church is represented in that shelf of containers. While seeking harmony feels like the most pleasurable thing to imagine in the church, it is often frustratingly absent much of the time. The church is a lot like that drawer of tupperware for a few reasons.
- We start off well intended, but soon find it a mess.
- We really want to savour the moment, but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess.
- We have all the right stuff, but sometimes things don’t click.
We start off well intended but soon find it a mess: Let’s say it is a new school year and you’ve gone out an bought a set of storage containers. Our hopes and dreams of having a nice orderly school career are almost religiously symbolized in the new displayed and neatly stacked set of storage containers. However, with in a week (and often times sooner) you find that lids are missing, that the base of another set has shown up and it even has a sticker with some other persons name on it. I pretty sure that these storage containers reproduce all on their own when they are left in the cupboard in the dark. In fact, storage containers are the opposite of socks. Socks disappear in the wash, whereas containers multiply in the cupboard – so much so that the neatly organized system becomes a hodgepodge of lids and bases which now need to be crammed into a small shelf so that the door of the cupboard barely closes anymore.
We really want to savour the moment but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess: “Wow, that supper/lunch/desert/food brought by guests/ was tasty! Let’s keep some for later, maybe for lunch tomorrow.” You’ve said these words, only to find that either the food never makes it from the refrigerator to the container and after some time gets gently sorted to the back of the shelf with several bottles of half used salad dressing only to be discovered next time you give the fridge a good cleaning. OR, that yummy food goes into a container and is packed away for school/work/picnic and maybe you realize when you open up your storage box that the food doesn’t look as it did before, or that the only thing cold the next morning that really has any taste is a cheese pizza as you look at your now limp salad that you enjoyed so much the night before. The food get’s tucked away, unfinished in the bottom of the school bag, office briefcase, or on the floor of the car where after some months and seasons of sliding back and forth it has become lodged under the seat and we blame the dog for any strange smells whenever a guest rides in the car with us.
We have all the right stuff but sometimes things don’t click. You know the feeling of being on your hands and knees as you search for all the parts of your container system. Why is it that it is always the bottom shelf that these things go? You have all the parts: you have food, you have a base, you have a lid. Sometimes you can only find a huge base that is far bigger than the amount of food you need. Blue berries, and that cheese sandwich will bounce around for hours before lunch until you have your own (unwanted) smoothy. Or your box and the lid are a different size or shape. How many people knew that margarine containers are not universally shaped, but can be loosely (and ineffectively) held together with a rubber band? Then there is the real challenge that you think you have all the right parts, but they somehow don’t magically click together. That pudding desert has managed to find the crack in the seal and is partially pooled at the bottom of your bag, and you may wonder how you are going to put it all back together again in a nice presentation so that it can sit on the table amongst all the other items of food that were brought for the shared lunch.
What then do we make of this when we compare it to the church given that so many want to write books that make us believe that we can be better, do it more wisely, or be more effective.
In a multicultural setting we may have in theory the desire for harmony, but what we must be willing to live with is much more chaotic. We start off well intended but soon find it a mess. We need to learn to live with the mess. Money, sexuality, politics, and religion are all issues we want to find harmony in discussing or sharing, but culturally we come from diverse understandings so we should be prepared to find it a bit unclear. We may start off with a simple church activity only to find that like the multiplying tupperware, we are now dealing with different issues and perspectives. We may even be surprised that some unknown item has appeared and we don’t really feel that prepared to begin discussing it, or how to answer.
We really want to savour the moment but it usually comes back days later as a fuzzy mess. It is nearly impossible to copy a method or system of being church and reproduce it to everyones delight. The church self-help book market is great at making you believe that if you just follow these 3, 7, 10, easy steps then you too will be the pastor of a mega-church. Yes, it might be great, like that Tiramasue cake, but when we take it home with us and open it up the next night the colours look a bit off, and it seems the coffee has started to separate from the rest of the cake. Maybe we are surprised when what looked (or tasted) great, has grown into something else mysteriously.
We have all the right stuff but sometimes things don’t click. Here I think that there is the biggest area to frustrate as it seems like we have all we need, we are so close, but it doesn’t go like planned. If we take the parts of any kind of church event we have high hopes for having it all work out, but in reality, we may have all the right parts, but something has failed to ‘click’. People go to great amounts of effort to dream up, and provide that pudding that will be out for others to share. Some blame may get passed around as to what part didn’t live up to expectations – that lid should have held together, and it didn’t! Each of the parts of the package have been designed with the best of intentions, but when we mix a Lock’n Lock with an IKEA Förtrolig the design (and cultural) differences make it more challenging to ultimately what was desired in the first place – to share in the enjoyment.
In the end of it all, the whole desire was that something good was made and there is an equal desire to share it, or have it continue. Sometimes, however, our expectations are not met and we don’t have that harmony. In these kinds of moments it is like God trying to tell us something. Maybe it is not so much about the system, the containers, the organization, the desire to preserve, the desire to have it all come together; but that we have something truly good to share. We enjoy our enjoyment. Forcing things to harmonize can be a frustrating experience, but if we take a look at what God has given us and let things work out, maybe as God intends, and despite ourselves, we find that there is a lot of good stuff to celebrate.
Well intended. Savour the moment. God provides the right stuff.