Luke 6:37; John 12:47; James 4:11
My grandmother had a constant and unswerving call to include and affirm people. She would often tell me that, “If you’re gonna go through all the trouble of inviting folks into the church shouldn’t you ought to do what’s necessary to make them feel as though they are a part of what’s going on?” She would be quick to get to the heart of the matter when it related to what God wanted humanity to do in His name. Loving, including, and uplifting people was what my grandmother understood about the who, what, and why of God.
Because of this deep and sincere calling to share what God represented to her there wasn’t much of a chance she would let someone sit around at any church function as though they were there to just take up space. Because of this personal commitment to include others, she would also take a rather aggressive stance against anyone else who either intentionally or unintentionally separated folks from each other. She called that kind of thinking “nonsense.” It wouldn’t take much for her to take some church leader aside and remind them they were charged to “make friends for Jesus.”
She would tell them, “You can’t make friends with anyone if they feel separated from you.”
As an example of how she would demonstrate what she believed, I will take you back in time to one of the many marvelous scenes from my childhood. It was at one of our family’s many excuses for coming together under the banner of eating some “big-deal-meal” where my grandmother shined as a divine beacon of light toward the inclusion of God’s loving and validating nature.
Like all the rest of these “big-deal-meal” gatherings, my grandmother was faced with a seemingly impossible task of including and affirming everyone that arrived at this particular event. As it was her custom any time that I happened to be in her presence, which was often, she would include me in the lesson of the day. She had the greatest habit of intentionally interacting with me in an on-going conversation and commentary about what was going on around us so that I could not only learn from the experience but also feel a part of it. The following scene is an example of how my grandmother included me, or for that matter everyone else, in the process of learning the bigger lessons about God.
My grandmother’s house was for the most part the unofficial destination for not only our family but at times it seemed the surrounding neighborhood and the church’s as well. Under normal circumstances her house was ample size except when it came to the special circumstances of an announced, pre-planned, official gather of our relatives and friends. Any gathering at my grandmother’s house always involved lots of people and food. It didn’t matter whether it was Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, New Year’s Eve, church event or the every-other-year Family Reunion that had drawn people to her house. There were always far too many folks for her house to comfortably hold. My grandmother would always smile and enjoy the mass of humanity and at the same time look as though she must have been, as she was heard to say, “Out of her last mind” to keep subjecting herself to these kinds of gatherings. I suspect that within every identifiable group of human souls…whether they are Black, White, Chinese, German, Jamaican, Mexican, Russian, Korean, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or whatever….everybody has had similar experiences.
I was dropped off at my grandmother’s house one day to help her prepare for an early evening gathering of souls who were coming over to enjoy each other’s company and eat far too much food. As I arrived she gave her standard big hug and warm kiss and said to me, “Are you ready to go to work?” I of course told her yes because it was never really work hanging around her. She would always make my time with her fun. She had some bags of groceries sitting in the living room waiting to be brought back to the kitchen area so she told me to pick them up and follow her.
As I walked into the kitchen I began to smell the delicious aroma of her cooking. I knew it didn’t matter what the final menu actually ended up being because it was always assumed that people, mostly the women, were responsible for helping my grandmother in the preparation and delivery of the food necessary to feed the hungry throng of family and friends. That’s exactly where the inevitably good intended confusion and social mayhem began. Even before the extra cooks and food would arrive my grandmother would always start cooking and preparing food and the house several days prior to the expected incoming wave of humanity was scheduled to arrive. While standing in the middle of that blue and white checkerboard kitchen floor I asked her, “If everybody’s bringing stuff why are you working so hard?” She told me she never wanted to take too many chances when it came to “preparing the way” for a successful party.
My grandmother’s kitchen, although great for her and a few other people was considerably too small to hold all the cooks that would eventually show up to, and I use this next term with the greatest of sarcasm, “help.” My grandmother would always try and find a way to welcome each person and each dish being offered for the event with a smile, a hug, and a warm kiss. However, truth be told it was sometimes more than a little difficult to keep things running smoothly in such a small kitchen when there seemed like there was 62 cooks crammed into a 4 foot kitchen.
Soon after my arrival the doorbell started to chime and my grandmother gave me the assignment to stand at the door and welcome those who would be coming. She pulled me over to her while she was stirring something that smelled fantastic. Put her arm around me and told me, “You direct them to the kitchen if they’re carryin’ food, to the bedroom upstairs to drop their coats off, to the living room if they look all dressed up, to the TV room if they seem rowdy, and to the bathroom if they look like they need it.” She smiled, gave me a kiss on the top of my head, turned me toward the front door, gave me a gentle swat on my rear, and told me to “get to it.”
After a few folks came into the house it became fairly obvious that the kitchen was going to be the main place I was suppose to be sending most of the early arrivals. With each arriving cook there came another dish that was being offered and of course advice about this or that being given. Whether each cook brought something already prepared or planned on creating it while they were there, they always had great confidence that their particular concoction was just what the party needed.
After the first 20 or 30 people came into her home my grandmother came out of the kitchen on one of her periodic breaks and whispered into my ear, “Where we gonna put all these people?” I don’t know why she would always say that because there always seemed to be just enough room no matter how many folks showed up. What was odd to me at the time was that my grandmother only had an 8 foot table and after everyone finished cooking their contributions there seemed like we had 50 dishes to put on top of it. Why 16 or so of the eventual 40 plus people wanted to sit at it I never could figure out. I know you can visualize this because every family goes through this at one time or another.
I remember watching my grandmother trying to work through the “organized mess” so that she could keep “her last mind” intact while artfully balancing the wearing of two distinct hats; gracious hostess and traffic cop. Sometimes I would just watch her in utter amazement at all the things she would attempt to do to make people feel at-home while the food preparation was going on. On occasion I would catch her eye and she would just wink at me as to let me know she had the “organized mess” under control.
Eventually it was time to gather together and pray for the bounty that was placed before us. What was truly great was when everyone present came together and held hands to bless the food. When it was prayer time in my grandmother’s house it seemed like all the madness of the world went away. It seemed as though “the mess” of the “big-deal-meal” had paused and the crowd began to stop all the extra movement while focusing on something other than themselves. The peacefulness of collective harmony and human consensus was only to last a very short time because as soon as everyone said a collective “Amen” the next level of “mess” started all over again.
Its bad enough we had just gone through the trauma of food preparation and table placement, now we had to figure out where everyone was going to be seated at a very small table already filled with every dish imaginable. My grandmother assigned the task of seating and eating organization to her trusted cousin May and left the room to go upstairs to freshen up before she rejoined the activities. As she started up the stairs I was still at my assigned place at the front door. She waved me over to her. Gave me rub on my head and told me to keep up the good work.
While pointing assertively toward the other end of the dining room table next to the couch, cousin May told Aunt Susie and Uncle Jacob to, “go over there.” Uncle Jacob’s long-time friend Louis came by unexpectedly because his wife got mad at him so he had to come eat with us. Sharon and Tony, the young married couple that every one was thrilled with, are told to sit next to Grandma Jo who is the “other grandmother” from our family who came by to be with us. Everyone is always polite not to mention that she needs two chairs just to hold her up. The cousin that wears thirty year old “high fashion” and the worst smelling cologne that he inevitably pours on himself in abundance, Maurice, is already loosening the belt-buckle on the top of his pants and he hasn’t even eaten anything yet. He’s the one that folks are always whispering about.
By the time Cousin May has things marginally situated here comes the family’s most successful entrepreneur Barbara into the room carrying the forgotten sweet potatoes. At this point it is important to remember that the table is completely full with food, drink, people and decorations. There isn’t one inch unaccounted for on the table. At that moment my grandmother comes back down the stairs and enters the fray of hungry people. She quickly assesses the situation and looks at Grandma Jo and asks her, “Baby, can you work this out?” And that is exactly what she did.
So what did the other grandmother in the room prompt the gathering of souls to do? She started moving things. No committee meetings. No focus groups. She just started the process of making room. As she led the early process of inclusion others almost immediately followed. She was great. She handled the room of hungry souls just like my grandmother would have. In a loving and yet direct way she took charge. “OK….tell Tony to lift up his elbow and put the corn over there.” She told someone else, “Sweetie, pick up the gravy and put it by the tomatoes.” Somebody chimed in and said that she would put the salad dressing by her. So if anyone wanted any, “just let her know.”
As every plate was initially filled with each person’s preference of favorite food folks began to notice the faces of those whose dish you had not thought enough of to sample on your plate. So what do you do now? Somehow you find room on your plate where there seemingly was no room before. You stack this on top of that and something under whatever. After you have squeezed in a spoonful here and a spoonful there you become acutely aware there is much left to go.
Now how does that relate to an inclusive and affirming church? Simple.
What’s most important for every church and every individual Christian is the attitude of making sure each “searching soul” is not only enthusiastically encouraged and appreciated but honored as well for their efforts at joining in. It’s the attitude of the welcoming any believer, or for that matter any potential believer, that makes all the difference. It’s the attitude that, “I’m not going to let you feel that you are not a part of what’s going on.” It’s the personal attitude that someone who is on the same journey of growing in the awareness of Will-of-God is not only important to this gathering, they are essential to its success.
Being included and authentically welcomed must be a reality that each person experiences regarding their value and inclusion into the church’s corporate life. As each new person is brought into the fellowship of the faithful they must bring with them their own gifts and graces and we must truly look forward in experiencing each of those same gifts and graces. Inclusion doesn’t mean assimilation. All are welcome doesn’t mean, “We’re glad to have you as long as you promise to blend in.”
The Christian faith journey and the Christian Church experience should always be about changing and transforming a life and the “life of the church” itself. It has always been about change. Changing the life of the believer and the world around them as they view it is a continual process. What “use to be” should never exclude what “could be.” With each new member comes the reality of a transforming local body. If you have a glass of warm water and you add a teaspoon of cool water to it the temperature is forever changed. It becomes new and different. That same glass of water which is crystal clear is forever changed with just a single drop of dye. Each church, each denomination, and even each individual Christian soul, cannot remain the same and continue to be a viable representative of what the Bible tells us that Christ calls all of us to be and to become. We must search out the newness of our faith and the divine possibilities of new expressions of “the faith” through others we haven’t met yet.
Just like what my grandmother did at this “big-deal-meal” when she would find a way of including me in the process by hugging and kissing me as I entered her presence as well as placing me at the door to welcome and direct all the visitors, all of us need to keep our attitude directed at making others feel welcome and included. Just like my grandmother’s home, our churches and our individual lives can also be awesome expressions of God’s grace and empowerment. When people who have been changed by the love of God do whatever is necessary to make people feel a legitimate sense of belonging then a remarkable transformation begins in their lives and continues in ours.
Just like my grandmother’s gatherings, Christians should also be focused on working together as Ambassadors of God’s love. When we continue to move toward a continual awakening of Christ-centeredness and away from a life of self-centeredness we point to one of the larger lessons of “who” and “what” God is. At my grandmother’s gathering when an uncomfortable situation was presented they simply adjusted and moved on to more important things. It was more important to include folks than to find out who was right and what side of an argument was worth committing to.
Right outside my office is a “motivational sign” that I have used for teaching purposes for the last 15 years of more than 3 decades of service to God’s church. It says; “It is useless to INVITE if you do not INCLUDE.” The other day I had a visitor point to the sign and ask about it, as so many others have asked before. What it means is this; inviting people into Christ’s family and then treating them as though they are some kind of outcast within the sanctuary of the church they just joined is not only ridiculous but an embarrassment to the call of Christ. It also means that saying the common invitational phrase of; “all are welcome, in the house of the Lord” means little if what you are actually demonstrating is “all are welcome, if you agree to be just like us”. This phony invitation to membership is profoundly hurting the need to expand Christ’s church as well as God’s message of love and acceptance. All of us who have been changed by the loving acceptance of the Creator of all that is known and unknown need to stand up…just like my grandmother…and do something about it. We need to lead the way and not just sit back and hope that someone else will do the right thing.
The fact of the matter is that our individual faith journey as well as the congregational expression of Christianity has never been the “right thing” to do. It has always been and will continue to be the “Christ thing” to do. The Church of Jesus Christ has been established to not only share the words of a Gracious God, but also to demonstrate the life and mission of Christ. Every believer and every church must openly and urgently invite and affirm anyone and everyone who wishes to learn about who and what God is, as well as who and what God is THROUGH Jesus Christ. Our Bible tells us, “Let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in Heaven.” In the end, it’s not about what you are able to do for YOU that matters, it is what you are able to honestly and profoundly demonstrate to others that will glorify the creating God that gave you life.
It is the faithful expression of Christian love that prompts and guides the searching heart to discover intentional new ways of including people as they come while affirming their divinely given gifts and graces. Just as God graciously accepted us with the goal of nurturing us into a more fully developed life under the will and ways of that same Creating Force, it is also our privilege to accept and nurture those who come into our lives and our churches.
My grandmother was keenly aware of this understanding and never let me forget the privilege we have in presenting God to others as Ambassadors for Christ. Each Christian has a real need to remember they are not representing anyone else but God Almighty through the life and mission of Jesus Christ. That should always be at foundation…at the center… and at the top of our goal list of what we do, say and think. With each new member of the Body of Christ comes the potential increase in the gifts and graces in the congregational dynamic. With each new member’s affirmation, inclusion, and legitimate empowerment comes each church’s opportunity to reconfigure how they can practically advance the cause of Christ. With every new member, once this process of affirmation, inclusion, and empowerment happens, each church literally continues to transform into something new and exciting.
How practically powerful it was when my grandmother came up to me as I was falling asleep on the couch after a long evening of way too many people in such a small house, leaned over while putting her warm arm over my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “How did we do tonight?” I told her, “I sure hope that God was happy because I’m tired of telling all those people where the bathroom is.” She smiled. Then she gave me a kiss, said thanks for the help, and told me to go back to sleep.