Posts Tagged ‘renewing a church’

I expected skilled and seasoned men.

I got little girls.

They were fine, better than fine. They were more fun than the tough guys; they took orders well, and more than that, they took the job by the throat and finished it off!

I asked the nine year old if she had ever pushed a wheel barrow. She said that she hadn’t, but she was ready to try, and off she went with the handles, plants swaying wildly but getting to their destination nonetheless.

The five year old, she could dig, and stand in the hole up to her waist, and roll a Raphiolepis into it and cover it up with a bag of garden soil.

When the job was done, we high-fived, and I was happy. It was a good workday at the church. My people came out.

Earlier that week, I’d had a similar experience. “Where did you get your skills?” I asked the guy who was kneeling in the doorway, hammering in a new threshold in our new worship leaders office.

“I learned a bit of everything when I was incarcerated,” he replied.

I needed him. We needed him. He was the perfect man for the job, the job of restoring fifty rooms at the church.

I drove him home. We were both happy.

The day after that, it happened again.

I was sitting in my office, with some of my church leaders ” We are a motley crew,” I said and laughed. We all laughed. A quiet artist, a retired school principal, a young Navy instructor, a former media repairmen, and me, the pastor, with an MA in literature from a secular university rather than an MDiv from a seminary — we are the ones driving forward a successful renewal at the church.

It’s Biblical. Jesus gathered a ragtag group of people around him. They got a shot at leading. They did good.

Recently I met with the leader of our food ministry. When she came to us she was a silent figure in the line — now she runs the place.

The transformation is stunning. She talks!

I look at her. One day she was a quiet follower, the next she was an empowered leader. We laugh thinking about it. “I know you can do this,” I say. “With your help I know I can too,” she replies.

Joaquin called me on the phone today. “Yeah I got your text. $1,800 is fine,” he tells me. We discuss capping the sewer, running the new water line.

We are unlikely partners, moving houses, building a big, beautiful new courtyard at the church. I prayed for the safety of his workers the other day after Joaquin and I finished lunch together.

“That was different,” he said, “I’ve prayed for myself, but I’ve never had anyone pray for me.”

Our church is undergoing a fairly dramatic renewal.

It’s being led by children, felons, and introverts, even by those just on the edge of the inside of belief.

A motley crew of successful leaders, bringing about astonishing changes — that’s different. That is so God!


P1030190There is a bison, with eight legs, running underground in the dark. It’s beautiful. There is also a horse with its quadriceps bulging, flexing and moving, graceful and lovely.

There are mammoths, lions, leopards, panthers, bears, owls, hyenas, and
rhinos. They are all together in a ancient, hidden place, drawn on limestone in the famous Chauvet cave in southern France.

What should we make of this beautiful ancient art, these creatures, these fluid lines, their shading, their placement in a cave on a cliff, their simple, graceful beauty?

Scientists and art historians are still working on that, but at the very least Chauvet tells us that ancient people understood the grace and dignity of animals, the beauty of motion, the power of place and of art

Last week my friend Joaquin and I stood in the inner courtyard of my church in Chula Vista, California and looked around. The patio was a bit cave-like, and not.

A two-story classroom loomed like a stucco cliff on the south side, the church sanctuary sat like a stately piece of art on the west side. The sanctuary is Spanish Revival, stucco, tile, with arches, and a bell tower. It’s nice, some good lines, but by way of contrast, in the center of the courtyard squats a small house — old, chipped, worn and out of character.

Joaquin and I walked into the little house to check the electrical subpanel, then came back out and looked around, like spelunkers, blinking upon returning to the surface. Ugly, cracked black top covered the ground at our feet. Overhead was better, a nice Ficus tree in a bright cerulean sky. At the east end of the courtyard reclined a patio garden room, recently renovated, very nice, with brick pavers in circles, trellises with vines, curving areas of grass bordered by Agapanthus — good lines.

But the house in the middle, as we turned back to it, pointing out this and that — very un-Chauvet — no art, no grace, a minimum of dignity. This little two-bedroom bungalow was the true eyesore on the property — nothing revival or Spanish about it — cracking paint, decaying wood, composition shingles, a huge, warty, rusted swamp cooler on the roof.

Joaquin and I looked up from the swamp cooler to the bell tower on the church sanctuary. A decorative design graced the stucco tower; dignified arches and a lovely red tile roof capped the top. There was no match here, between the swamp cooler and the bell tower. In fact the entirety of the little house, by its very design and essential character, broke the dominant architectural theme, like a blotch on a canvas.

On Tuesday of next week Joaquin’s property developer and I will sign an agreement for him to jack up the little house, roll it down to the street, put it on a truck and drive it away. It is going to a new home, in a residential community, where it will get a facelift. I’m glad to see it on the move, finding its legs, repurposed in this way.

And the church courtyard, it will at last open to more light, it will begin to breathe freely, be given eight legs, a beautiful stucco wall, with lovely arches, and bright green grass and flowers and climbing vines. And the courtyard and the bell tower will run together at last, like the horses and the bison at Chauvet.

People will come here, I know it, to this artful courtyard, with its Spanish Revival motif, as if to a destination. Children and young adults and their parents will meet here and they will luxuriate in this sacred, open cave, and like the ancients, take joy in the beauty of motion, the power of space and the redemptive power of art.

How will that happen?

This is a church, and I believe that God himself do that.

It’s odd what juts out from the past, in our minds, as we story and restory what we live through. Bits of narrative lift above the landscape, like mountains pushed up by continental drift, and we grab on to these, to make some sense of the past.

The parking lot lights weren’t working, but we were —  seventy to eighty people swarming the buildings,  fixing, cleaning, painting, planting. We were renewing our church. Then suddenly in the outer hall there was a guy in front of me saying, “I’m an electrician. What would you like done?”

“Really?” I said, “That’s perfect! I’ve got something for you.”

I didn’t know his name, and I wasn’t sure how he knew about what we were doing, but there he was, offering free labor, and I knew what to do with that.

“The parking lights don’t work,” I said, and as I opened a closet door on a couple of old, rusted, steel boxes mounted on the wall, I added,  “We think it’s these timers.”

That was enough. He went to his truck, came back, and he was on it. In short order — problem solved.  He replaced the old boxes with new — clean, bright, functional —  perfect mechanisms that light up the church, on command.

I drove home coasting! Happy! Thankful! Surprised.

That day, that fix, that surprise stands out for me because it’s part of a pattern.

It rained. We found a roof leak in one of the church buildings. It was serious — $5,000 worth of serious. There was no offer of free labor. Right around that time, I can’t remember the exact chronology,  a woman came to me after church one day and said that in her retirement settlement she had received some money, and she wanted to give some to the church. It was a check, for $5,000.

It was odd, in a way I like — the numbers were the same.

There’s more.

As part of our site remodel, we ripped into the old nursery, the  old carpet,  the broken furniture, the chipped walls, the horrific curtains. About that time an older couple began to attend the church. One day, after church, he came to me and said, “You mentioned needing a couch. What about this one?” and he showed me a picture torn from an ad.

“Great,” I said.

“What day would you like it delivered?” He asked.

I remember a couple of us ripping off the protective plastic and cardboard that covered the new couch when it was delivered. Then we just gasped and hooted. It was gorgeous, the perfect shades of brown and dark brown to match our newly painted nursery. The babies and their moms would now repose, in style! Then he bought two more new couches. It was like Christmas, a furniture Christmas.

There were also the cabinets, in the upstairs kitchen. They were a piece of work, right out of the seventies, pine, burnt with a blow torch, and then coated with thick shiny layers of polyurethane. They looked like what they were — remanents of a fire!

What to do?

I went down to Dixieline,  the home repair store just down the street from the church, and asked if there were any cabinets that had been brought back from a job, something that hadn’t worked out, and were being sold for less than they were worth. There were some, but I was told I would need to talk to the manager.

So I made an appointment. I went up to his office, upstairs, nice, impressive. We talked. I’ll always remember his question to me. It took me back. I wasn’t sure how to respond. The cabinets were gorgeous, a whole bank of them, and drawers and doors beyond what I had expected.

He looked across his big desk at me in his big office and asked, “What do you want to pay for them?”

My mind raced. If I said too much I would miss the chance for a deal. If I said to little it would be insulting. They were worth between $1,500 and $2,000, by my best guess.

I said, “We can give you $200.”

“Good,” he enthused. “I’ll have them delivered for you next week.”

The other day I was in the upstairs kitchen. The cabinets are in, installed free by a local cabinet-maker who not only donated the labor, but also gave us the counter tops for them.

I could get used to this. I have.

A donated landscape design by a local landscape architect, a restoration consultation by a woman specializing in historic building remodels, the no-cost installation of huge, new sanctuary windows by a man who had formerly worked for a glass company — all this and more has landed our our doorstep. Surprise!

At every turn we have been given — gifts.

When we decided to install new lighting in the worship center we were looking at an $8,000 project, at least $16,000 if we paid for labor. We didn’t. All the lights were purchased at cost through a friend who works for a lighting company. All the labor, hours and hours, plus the use of a lift were donated by an amazingly generous electrician and a few of his friends. All the labor, days of it, free.

The lights in — beautiful, functional, lovely, perfect for the building.

A patio garden — the dirt, irrigation, labor — free!

A hardwood floor sanded and refinished, free except materials.

The painting of the interior of our worship center — free, even those difficult upper levels, brushed in by a local professional painter, done safely, nicely, a gift, more than we could have asked for

There is more, but the more that really sticks out to me is what has been added to us that is human, not mineral or material.

A renewed site, a growing congregation — we needed staff to care for them.

We went to our local seminary and asked for an intern.

In asking, we were taking a risk. We weren’t controlling who we would get, we didn’t know the outcome, we didn’t even know if we could afford it, we just knew we needed help. We were a continent, of people, drifting.

That was two years ago.

The result of that inquiry is now on paid staff, well-funded for this next year, uniquely suited to our needs, trusted by our people — she is perfect for us! I almost don’t feel surprised anymore.

Things stand out, in the past, bits of narrative rise up, pieces of our continuing story. Our past has a pattern in it. The pattern is good. One could almost draw certain conclusions — that  it was orchestrated.

We have.