Synod School, people. I know that inviting people to things isn’t exactly my strong suit, but this is my one exception: July 23-28, 2012. Storm Lake, IA. Put it on your calendar now. Every year I come back refreshed, energized, and full of the great ideas that come from spending a week with 600 of my closest church friends.

One of my favorite things about Synod School is that I get to share the experience with people from all parts of the church’s life. By their nature, most continuing education events are full of professional clergy. Synod School, by contrast, has great representation from people who don’t do church work for a living. While we full-time ministers are a fine bunch of people, the particular education and experience that qualify us for this work also tend to shape our perspectives in distinctive ways. I find that sharing an event with Ruling Elders, Deacons, and non-ordained church members gives me a much more well-rounded sense of how these ideas might work.

There, that’s my invitation.

One gift I brought back with me this year was a particularly telling metaphor one of my classmates used. Borrowing from church-development researcher Graham Standish, she said that churches can be like different kinds of gardens. There is the picture-perfect “flower garden” where everything is perfectly weeded and ready for display. There’s the “cottage garden” church: idiosyncratic and usually a touch unkempt, but a welcoming space for those who could do to sit and rest a while. The “vegetable garden” is a church intent on feeding the world. And there are “wilderness” churches that seem to grow in a jumble according to some pattern we can’t easily see.

All of these kinds of churches have their place, but it helps to know which kind you’re dealing with. Most real-life vegetable gardens wouldn’t make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, but why should they try to? If a church is a wilderness, thriving on the chaos of its varied ideas, it shouldn’t measure itself against a standard that would require more coordination and weeding. One garden’s weeds are another garden’s valuable crops or beautiful wildflowers.

I’ve been chewing on this metaphor, trying to discern how I see our congregation. My first thought was that we’re a vegetable garden, a church that wants to feed the world (or at least our local neighbors). We’re looking forward to our CE barbecue on September 11, and by the time you get this newsletter, we will have held our annual all-church/outreach picnic. Later in the year I expect we’ll eat together on Election Day, before Thanksgiving, Easter morning, and several other times. Throughout the year, we’ll feed our college athletes regularly, share potlucks together, and serve the families and friends of those who mourn the loss of loved ones.

But I wonder. Not that we don’t care about people going hungry, but I suspect that the food is more of a means than an end for us. I think we feed our college athletes because that’s how we know to welcome people who have just arrived from a thousand miles away. Coffee and bars are essentially an invitation to remain after a funeral service and continue the celebration of a life transformed. Even the emergency financial assistance you so generously make available strikes me more as an opportunity for conversation than as a hard-nosed solution to intractable social problems.

All that is to say, are we perhaps a cottage garden? I suspect that our impulse to feed people may actually be a sign of our desire to create a welcoming space in the community. To be sure, we grow some hearty vegetables, useful herbs, and beautiful flowers – such as fried chicken, Reiki, or Sunday School. However, I don’t think it would belittle any of these ministries to think of them as essentially vehicles of welcome and rest. Of course, the literal flowers in the Memorial Garden provide a chance for people to rest their eyes or even their bodies as they pass by our busy street corner. Our location is certainly perfect for a ministry of hospitality and sacred space.

Maybe that’s my real invitation. Or rather, maybe it’s our invitation: a place in our community where all are intentionally welcomed. May we come away, rest, and receive others into this blessed space.

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

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