Thursday, December 30, 2010

What I Want: A Wasted Life

This BBC report tells about one-man's fifty-year plus project, undertaken after being expelled from a monastery for contracting tuberculosis.

The story appealed to me in several ways. Justo Gallego, the builder of a church building made of junk, who has no training in art or architecture, wanted to glorify Christ even though he could no longer be a monk.

One can argue whether this not-yet-completed and extravagantly unnecessary structure does glorify Christ. Some might dismiss the whole thing, perhaps rightly, as an eyesore. Or, as a danger to any who walk in it or near it. (There have never been any architectural plans or inspections of any kind.)

But before dismissing Gallego's church structure, consider some of the things this fifty-year effort may tell us about the life of faith and about Christ Himself.

Fifty-plus years ago, massive vaccination against TB had not begun in so-called developed countries, though there were treatment facilities that had some success. My mother, just a few years younger than Gallego, contracted the disease and spent some time at the Franklin County Tuberculosis Sanitorium in Columbus, when she was young.

Maybe the monastery lacked the capacity to care for Gallego as the sanitorium did for my mom. But his dismissal will do as a metaphor for what the institutional church sometimes does with those it doesn't know how to handle.

I myself have often experienced the institutional church as an organization peopled by gatekeepers whose function seems to be to tell people, "No." No, your service is not needed. No, you can't try to get that ministry started. No, you can't ask people for money to build that building.

When I was the pastor of a start-up congregation in the Cincinnati area, at least four times, our fledgling church hit goals for membership, giving, and worship attendance we were told would bring us a loan from our denomination to build our first facility, only to be told, "No" every time. The last time occurred after we'd had a capital campaign that raised precisely what our denominational officials told us we needed to raise. Our building committee, flush with excitement over the successful campaign, was shot down on lift-off by the denominational official with whom we met. "If you think you're going to build a church now," he told us, "you're smoking something funny." He wasn't done. "You're not the first ones to make a mistake like this, folks," he told us. "I make many mistakes," I finally said, "but this was not a mistake. We did exactly what you told us to do and now, you're saying that we can't forge ahead."

That night, we decided to forgo the "No" of the gatekeepers and, with the empowerment of God, erected the church's first building unit...after fourteen years of worshiping in a school gym. We found commercial lenders more excited about what we were doing as a church than our own denominational gatekeepers were.

You can't stop glorifying Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, the lifeline to God almighty, just because people with institutional power say, "No." Justo Gallego has lived that truth!

And how about the practicality of Gallego's structure? Is it necessary? Certainly, there are other churches in the Madrid suburbs, where he's built this building. And, who's to say that a Mass will ever be said there?

If the building is extravagantly unnecessary, then it is in good company. You see, that's exactly how I think of God's love for the whole human race. Extravagantly unnecessary. Richly superfluous.

Often, when I discuss Genesis 3, which recounts the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, people get (understandably) hung up on questions like: Why did God allow the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the serpent to be in the garden of Eden in the first place? Where did the serpent come from? Is the serpent the same as the devil?

They're all good questions which we might take up with God some day. But to me, the most baffling question is this: Why didn't God give up the whole idea of creation as a bad project right then and there?

His most beloved creatures--the only ones created in His image--turned on Him and so, consigned the whole creation to centuries of groaning under the weight of their sin.

When I was a kid, playing with clay, and didn't like what had become of my creation, I smashed it and maybe, I'd start over again or, likely as not, put it away and move onto the next thing.

God didn't move onto the next thing! He kept His focus. He keeps it still. For God only knows how many centuries, He has been focused on one thing: Bringing the lost home. Being reconciled to the rebel human race.

God hasn't done this by forcing our return or coercing a forced reconciliation. He's been patient. He let one group of people in on His plan so that they could be a light to the nations until the moment was right.

Then, the one light who is life to all people showed up to live among us. Of course, being human and thick of head and thick of heart, we didn't recognize the Light when we saw Him. God blanketed the human race and the whole universe, in fact, with His extravagant love and all we could think to do was kill it. So we did. On a bad Friday we now recognize as good, we killed the Giver of life.

But God wasn't done loving us yet. Christ, the Light of the world, rose from the dead. His love is available to all who dare to turn from sin and turn to Him in trust. God's extravagantly unnecessary love turns us from God's enemies to God's friends.

A final aspect of Gallego's story that appeals to me is junk: The entire structure is made of leavings, left-overs, junk. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote a couple of letters to a first-century church in Corinth whose members had gotten full of themselves and were starting to do the Adam and Eve thing, rebelling against God's will. Paul said some interesting things to these folks. Among them:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
Hey, big britches, Paul was saying, the world considered you junk. God loved you anyway. Died for you. Rose for you. In Christ, God turned what the world calls junk into gold. Don't start acting like junk!

In another place, Paul, then being persecuted for sharing the love of Christ with others, tells the Corinthians about the treasure of God's love they carry in their bodies as baptized, believing Christians and says:
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12)
If you don't understand everything in that passage, don't worry about it now. Take this away from it: God's extravagantly unnecessary love can come to live inside you, no matter how broken or filled with sin you may feel you are...or may actually be.

And here's the thing: God's love is a real extravagance. He's got plenty more where that came from. God's got so much love for us, in fact, that those of us who get it, can give it away and still not lose any of it.

When God's love comes to live in what the world calls "junk," the junk, like Justo Gallego's useless church building, can be a beautiful testimony to the greatness and grace of God. I want my life to be that kind of testimony.

There's a congregation in Denver, whose name I've mentioned before on this blog, a name I absolutely love. It's called The Scum of the Earth Church. It takes its name from more words from Paul's correspondence with the Corinthians, as translated in The New International Version (TNIV) of the Bible. It says:
To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. (1 Corinthians 4:11-13)
The church web site explains:

It doesn’t sound like a church name … on purpose. We really want to connect with people who have no interest in “church” by society’s definition. There are plenty of churches for “normal people” and we think we have a unique calling to reach out to our otherwise unreached friends. Our name is integral to that process. Whether outcast by society (e.g., punks, skaters, ravers, homeless people…) or by the church itself, many who come can identify with the name “Scum of the Earth” since they have been previously treated as such.

More important to us, however, the name implies that being people of faith does not mean we are better than anyone else. We know many non-Christians who think Christians are out to cast judgment on them. Our name makes it clear that we aren’t about that. We are just aware of our need for God, as Scum of the Earth. Fortunately, God never sees us like that! But the name is humble and we like that.
For all I know, Justo Gallego may be certifiably looney. He may have wasted the past fifty years. And Scum of the Earth Church may be a collection of crazy people.

But I want to waste my life glorifying Christ in whatever ways I can. I want to do it out of gratitude for the God Who "wasted" His extravagantly unnecessary love--His body, His blood, His grace--on me. I want to do it so that, in the end, none of that extravagantly unnecessary love is wasted, but accomplishes all it can do when God spends it on me...and you.

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