Friday, June 26, 2009

God made dirt and dirt don't hurt.

This morning on the Tavis Smiley show (WNJN, one of the local PBS affiliates here in the Matawan area), he welcomed one half of the contemporary Gospel Duo, Mary Mary. Erica and Tina (Atkins) come from a Gospel-centered family out of Inglewood, CA. Tina was on his show to represent the duo. I grew up with a solid dose of Gospel music through my mom's father, who was a church organist and a devotee of Mahalia Jackson, among others. I wasn't a big fan of the contemporary scene until a friend brought it back to me with the gift of one of Yolanda Adams' The battle isn't yours during a tough time in my life.

Mary Mary is another voice in that pantheon of great Gospel artists who preach faith in addition to offering praise to God. What I liked about the interview this morning was the way the artist focused on her work as a conduit of ministry and grace. What gifts we are given in this life are meant to do two primary things: to return glory to God and to offer service to the other. Ministry happens in the here and now, and to the people who are right next to you. The difficult thing is that we forget that we don't often get the opportunity to pick and choose between the people we are called to serve alongside-as Tina Campbell spoke of her family's context, it was a witness her family made in her neighborhood that gave her the formation she needed to make her career and ministry happen. It was her parents' example of caring for all of their neighbors in Inglewood, the merchants, the drug dealers, the homeless, the idle standing on the street corner near the liquor store and the hard-working middle class struggling to make the community a better place for all.

The witness of Christ is not restrictive, nor is it limited (or limiting). It is expansive and expressive.

What caught me particularly in the interview was Tina offering a snippet of lyric from one of their tunes as an example of how the duo's creative process worked. It was from a tune called God made dirt and dirt don't hurt. Here is a snippet:
God made dirt and dirt don't hurt
Funny thing about a garden
Beauty lives within its gates
Bugs and thorns and weeds they grow there
But they all help to create
Vivid color variations
Sweet aromas and sensations
Realize under it all
Something not so beautiful but we all
Need a little bit, I need a little bit
Need a little bit of dirt to grow
We need a little bit, I need a little bit
Need a little rain to wash our souls
We need a little bit, I need a little bit of dirt to grow.
We don't always get to choose who it is that we are called to minister to, nor can we build walls around our communities to keep those we would have around us apart from those we would not rather be around. The truth of being Church is that when the doors open on Sunday morning (and God willing throughout the week), it doesn't matter who crosses that threshold. They are Christ to us, if the Gospel is to mean anything at all. They are Christ, even if their house cost less than $500 K, or if they don't have "appropriate" clothing for worship or service that day. They are Christ if they control millions of dollars and dispense influence and power like others would offer you a cool drink upon visiting their home. If all are welcome, then we as the Body need to be willing to embrace "all" when they show up. And believe me, if we tender that invitation then God will put in on their heart to show up. The invitation is God's and we are the host...but we don't control the guest list!
I need a little bit of dirt. We all do. Dirt is the great equalizer. When we are willing to get our hands dirty laboring in the garden of God's love for us, then the bits under our fingernails and creased into the ridges and wrinkles in our fingers and palms mean so much more than that we forgot to put on gloves in the first place. That sign of spiritual soil on our palms offers a testament to our willingness to put our physical selves at stake for the ideals we espouse in assembly. It is one thing to ask that we act "in a Christian way toward each other." It is another entirely to live that witness out with everyone, regardless of station, or of what we can get in material return for our efforts. Success in Christ has nothing to do with amassing wealth, status or power if we are not willing to put it all on the line again and again for the grace of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Putting it all on the line, risking all for the Gospel, is a hallmark of the mature Christian if we are to follow the precedent that early leaders offered up. People like Stephen, Paul, Peter and Mary Magdala risked themselves in testimony to the rich life of baptism in Christ. MLK, Jr, Bob Marley, Desmond Tutu, Jonathan Daniels, Robert Dubose and Lord knows how many else took those same risks in their day as well. Can we do any less than offer up our willingness to get our hands dirty for the sake of the Gospel?
A number of times in my ministry I have been asked "what does priesthood look like?" I offer up the vision of a priest being dressed up in fine robes and ready to lead worship who then has to take plunger in hand to unclog the toilet in the parish hall. It has happened...and don't worry, I did wash my hands afterward. The metaphor, in the end, is what matters. Being a servant of Christ means being willing to take on relationship to anyone, anytime, anywhere in the name of the Him who sent us.
It means taking risks with our own selves and the collective sense of propriety that tends to define most human organizations. Dress codes and income minimums aside...this club doesn't require any initiation fee other than being willing to put our lives on the line and get our hands dirty in the vineyard that is the kingdom of God.
I need a little dirt...

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