He [Jesus] said therefore, "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches." – Lk.13.18
Now there was a garden in the place where he [Jesus] was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. – Jn.19.41-42
I'm a lawn guy from way back. When I was nine years old, my weekly allowance was 30 cents—an amount I got, as my mother put it, "Because I was part of the family and still breathing." I suspect it was also part of my parents' effort to teach me how to manage money. My earning capacity changed when I got to be 10 years old. That was when I grew just big enough to manage a self-propelled gas-powered mower. On the weeks I mowed the lawn, I got a whopping 35 cents added to my Saturday allowance. The prospect of more than doubling my weekly take home "pay" meant that we had one of the best-kept parsonage lawns in all of Seattle. It was a wonder to behold.
Nowadays a great week for me is when I'm able to cut the lawn while still short enough to leave the clippings on the yard without even noticing them. I read somewhere that the clippings are natural fertilizer for the grass, that they really do green up the lawn over time.
Kathy is a gardener. She delights in planting, weeding, and harvesting … and informing me about the shrubs that need cutting, moving, or removing. Different facets of the Braafladt ecosystem captivate our attentions. We do share something in common, however. We're both focused on the future—Kathy on the harvest, and me on the improving the health of next week's growth in our lawn.
The work we do in the church and its relationship to the future can be fickle, especially these days. If author and theorist Phyllis Tickle is correct, every 500 years or so the Church goes through a time of crisis, an upheaval, from which it eventually benefits, but through which there is a ton of pain and messiness, the very stuff of death and resurrection.
As one called to be a Christian public leader, it feels like getting it right is a lot harder than it used to be. The harvest isn't coming forward and the grass isn't greening up like it used to, at least using the methods and messaging we've employed in the past. All churches, regardless of denomination or non-denominational stripe, are in decline. Even the "megas" are facing the reality of shrinkage.
Here on the west coast, we've long known something of the challenge as those who have never pretended to have majority status in the culture. As Greg Rhodes, Project Manager for Messiah's North County ministry, has often repeated, 70% of the people with whom we live are two generations away from knowing anything of the story of Jesus and the Christian message. This means that the last persons to know anything of the Christian story in most families are two generations ago. That figure is daunting and worthy of our best efforts to discern new ways to connect with our neighbors, new ways to be the church, new ways to carry our ministry and message into the future.
By the time this article is published, you will have just welcomed Hannah Norem and Zach Croonquist as college summer interns. It's one of the best things Messiah is doing for the future of the church. The congregation has become a seedbed for encouraging and supporting young adults to become church leaders. Partnering with Luther Seminary to host pastoral interns is an even greater investment. Future iterations of church community and activity will undoubtedly be different, and be measured by metrics different than we use today. But I am confident the Church will always benefit from faithful leaders skilled in the pastoral arts, thoughtful in theological reflection, and filled with love for the people they will serve. Thank you for giving yourselves as gardeners in an enterprise that certainly brings us joy in the present, but is primarily focused on benefit to others in the future.
Thank you too for your participation in Messiah's recent discernment process. We began the process with the idea that it might move us toward the purchase of land in north Clark County. Through it came a growing awareness of something more profound and important—that for the sake of our neighbors, and the larger Church, Messiah itself should become a seedbed and a laboratory for learning, risking, and experimenting in how to be church in a very different world than the one we typically assume. It will probably mean we'll be doing some planting, weeding, cutting, moving, and removing for the sake of the future harvest.
If there's one thing I have noticed about the Messiah community, it's unafraid to focus on the future for the sake of the neighbor. We know with certainty that God promises to provide the resources as long as we are part of God's family and still breathing … and even beyond our last breath. We are, after all, people of the harvest. And that is definitely a wonder to behold!