Friday, September 4, 2009

Mess Makers

Where no oxen are, the trough is clean;
But much increase comes by the strength of an ox.

Proverbs 14:4

Just kind of thinking about this verse today. It always makes me think of church. Not necessarily my church in particular, but at times so, but at the moment I have no overwhelming complaints. Though if I did, I am learning more and more that the issue leading to it has more to do with my heart condition than the condition of my church, but I digress, that is a topic for another day.

So back to this Proverb, you might be wondering what in the world it has to do with church, and complaints for that matter. You see, when I read this verse, I read it like this, Church would be a perfect place without people, but people make a church a church."

I suppose it's not true of just churches, it could be a workplace, a family, a class, a club, anything. It's the "messiness" of having people in it that make it a challenge. People you see, are a mess. I know, because I am a mess. And I would be willing to take odds on a bet that you are a mess too.

Now I will grant you that not all messes are made equally, but we all have our own (vast) amount of issues, we all have our "stuff." And the fact of the matter is, as much as we would like to believe otherwise, our "stuff" effects other people. And when we commune in places and groups like churches and families the power of that increases.

(Warning, this seems to have already turned from a complete different direction than I thought I was headed, I have no idea where we are going...)

But just like our bad "stuff" can have a detrimental effect on those around us, our good "stuff" can bring a benefit, there's the part of the proverb that read, ...much increase comes by the strength of an ox. The fact of the matter is, we need each other.

I'll stick with my church analogy. I think of a time when my kids were littler and my E was quite the handful at times. He was and has always been a very good hearted boy, but an active good hearted boy just the same. So one Sunday after service I went to pick him up from Sunday school. The teacher sort of let me know she had been having a problem with him, I didn't like the way she said it to me, but it wasn't until we got about 15 feet from the classroom that I got really ticked off. I looked down at my four-year-old son and he exploded into tears so profoundly I couldn't calm him down. Finally I got square in his face and held him by the shoulders, "What is wrong?" Amidst sobs and gasps for air he choked it out... "My teacher said I was such a bad boy that if I didn't change, I was never going to be allowed to come to church again..."

Exhale. If you are a parent, particularly a mom, or if you have any tender spot towards children, you can imagine the internal combustion that happened in that single moment. I pulled my very active, but also extremely tender-hearted 4-year-old of mine into the deepest hug of his life. I tried my best with my mother's love to impart so much love to him through that hug that every bad word ever spoken to him would disappear, especially the ones he's heard just moments before. Then I was angry. REALLY ANGRY. First I went in and asked his teacher if that was indeed what she had said. It was. I stood there a moment in disbelief, I think my mouth was actually agape, and then I turned and spun out of the room. I talked to one of the ministry supervisors first, then I talked to the Children's pastor's assistant... I probably looked like the superhero "The Flame" blazing from place to place seeking judgment for my son. At the time I felt extremely justified. I think I felt probably a little like Herodias, because all I was looking for was a head on a platter.

Now, more than four years later, I realize that although this woman was wrong to have said what she did, I didn't really handle it very well either, though I do give myself a little credit for holding my tongue with the teacher, that's not always (usually) my strong suit. I never stopped for a moment and looked at a bigger picture. If it wasn't for this woman and people like her, I wouldn't even be able to enjoy the luxury of sitting in a church service to listen. If it wasn't for people willing to volunteer and give their time, I would have been sitting in a pew trying to control that active 4-year-old for myself, and that really would have proven difficult impossible.

So although that day she made a bit of a mess, it's through her dedication and sacrifice that mommies like me could take a short break, and little kids like my E could learn about Jesus. And even that day, (all things together for good) he did learn about Jesus. When I, "the Flame" finally came to a stop before the children's pastor dragging my wounded 4-year-old behind me (did I fail to mention that?) He took the time and opportunity to bend down to my little guy's level, take him in his arms and assure him, "there is always a place for you here. We love you no matter what." Ahhh, bringing the increase.

There have been many times in my church, as in my family, I too have been wounded. I have had careless words spoken to me, about me... a few occasions about me in front of a crowd, but somewhere along the line I learned it is better to respond than to react. I started to write, "I have learned to react rather than respond," but that isn't actually always true, sometimes I still react, but afterwards, I always realize it would have been better to respond.

Some people are "natural" responders, I'm married to one, but I am not one myself. I am more the passionate immediate reactor, like Peter cutting off the soldier's ear? Yeah, I love Peter, I can so relate to him. You see, that part of my personality, it's part of my "stuff," part of my inclination to make a mess, and maybe wound people along the way. But I have good stuff too. I can be a very good encourager. Just as I can be dangerous with my words when not careful, I can also build up, inspire, heal even, on occasion I even do it in prose. It's where I have the potential to bring an "increase."

It's funny though, how when you are in the midst of being the one wounded (or it's your 4-year-old or your husband, or your best friend) how the one who is wounding can suddenly be viewed as evil or mean. Grace takes a back seat to outrage and justice, and we no longer see the person, but rather only see their act against us... or the act we take personally and perceive as being against us. As quickly as we might say to someone else, "give me the benefit of the doubt," it isn't even on our radar when we're hurting, or seeing someone we love be hurt.

I have seen a lot of people leave churches over situations like the one that happened to us. It's like the whole church is hanging on two strikes, one wrong swing, and they're out. If I had left my church every time someone hurt me, I would have run through every church in Orange County by now. And on the other hand, if every person I ever wounded left the church, I could probably take credit for several empty rows. But I have never left, because somewhere along the line when I was feeling really wounded, the Lord brought the Proverb above to my attention, and pointed out, that anywhere where there are people involved, things will get messy.

So at some point I determined that grace would have to win out over judgment. There have been times when it was only for the sake of someone else, mainly my husband or one of my kids, that I stayed, but I determined if I was ever to leave, it would have to be at the direction of the Lord, and I was pretty sure He'd never send me off in an angry huff stomping my feet and lighting a fire behind me.

The same is true in families, maybe if we thought like this, divorce rates would be lower. Someone told me once that there is a statistic that the average attendance at a single church for an individual or family is about 18 months. Then come and sit in the pews and a year and a half later, they move on. I wonder if in that short amount of time you are more likely to have made more messes or more increases. I am guessing if it were increases, you wouldn't be inclined to go.

We have been at our church for going on 18 years. I hope my increases outweigh my messes. I do know the longer I stay, the more and more mindful I become at trying not to make them. I love that being a part of my church I have watched people's children grow up into adulthood, get married, even start families of their own. I love watching the cyclical rhythm of life there, kids that Neal and I led in youth group now leading my son, perhaps someday he will lead their children. It's such a huge blessing, such a huge increase.

We are all "mess makers," with our bad days, misspoken words, wrong hearts or attitudes on a given day, no matter how hard we even try not to be, there will be days where it simply happens, and that's true whether you're a pew sitter or a pastor, every one of us is gloriously human, and messy in nature. But also, we each have within us this incredible potential to be "increase makers." We have the power and ability to build up, encourage, help along the way.

I may have days where I live life as "dumb as an ox," but I have the potential to live days "as strong as one" too, and so do you.