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The Divine Art of Throwing Things Out

5/31/2011
by Jon Riedel

A few weeks ago, my new church and I had a peculiar day of celebration. We cleaned house. Amid the vacuuming, dusting, mopping floors, and tightening loose screws in the bathrooms, we discovered closets full of old minutes, expired catalogs, and reminders of some of the hard times and anxieties they had with their last pastor, who had left a troubled legacy behind. I found myself looking through boxes of catalogs and handwritten notes for reforms to the Christian Education programs and to the worship service that had managed to stir up more disharmony and difficulty than they had any lingering benefit. I tried sorting through the piles, trying to figure out if anything was worth salvaging. I was soon frustrated by what I was reading and by the age of all the catalogs so I opened up the recycling bin and threw the lot of them into it. When I went back out into the hall, I noticed similar behavior going on in all the closets. A few items-canned goods for the food bank, assorted paper plates and plasticware, and a few older historically-interesting photos-had been put to one side, but most of what had been stuffed into those closets was no being stuffed into recycling bags, into boxes to go to Good Will, and into trash cans.

A strange grace began to appear . . .The more bags we stuffed, the lighter the mood grew. People began to marvel at the empty shelves and how easy it was to organize what remained. A few asked each other, with smiles on their faces, why they hadn’t done this earlier. Several of us went from room to room to see if there were more useless items we could get rid of. Most of us were laughing and teasing each other about how many things we were kicking out the door. A tension that had been floating below the surface of our conversations and our vision for the future of the church was now missing. It went out with the recycling and the garbage.

God's grace works like this. When it comes in, it always pushes something we don’t need out. We are then faced with a choice: do we push back and try to keep what is past close at hand or do we let the pushed aside items go and let God do some housecleaning in our lives and in our work? I suspect that many small churches in particular carrying the scars of bad pastorates, failed projects, dashed dreams, and lost members long past their educational value. Because so much of what we do in small churches depends upon relationships and personal dynamics, we carry the reminders of all these things because they represent for us relationships that failed us in some way. We keep working over this clutter, trying to make it less disappointing and less painful, until it prevents anything else from coming in, prevents new and healthier relationships with God and each other from emerging. I think one of the finest moves of God's grace is when God blows open out closet doors and asks us to do a thorough cleaning out. Oftentimes much good comes out of listening to that moment of grace and pulling out, sorting, and throwing out that clutter.

I remember one keen example of this. I was serving a church in South Dakota that had lost its pastor and its very part-time associate pastor through a series of violent disagreements. As the interim pastor, I had to lead them through some very painful discussions about past decisions and sometimes poor decision-making. It was hard but good work. It involved much unpacking, much sorting, and much letting go. On my last Sunday there, I wanted to leave them with some commemoration of the work they had done and what they needed to continue to do. After much prayer, I came upon an image. At the end of the service, I walked out into the middle of the pews with two sets of 3 X 5 cards, one white and one pink, some pencils, and a garbage bag. I passed out the pencils and the cards and let them look at them. Then I asked to write on the white card all about the frustrations, the problems, and the anger they had felt over what had happened to them as church during the past two years. They scribbled for about five minutes and then got quiet. I asked them to put the white cards and write on the pink cards three things about their church that made them proud. On the back of the card, I invited them to write down three ways that God was leading their church to a better future. They were thoughtful and took their time with their answers, but everything found something they could write down.

When everyone had finished writing, I asked them to pick up their white cards and hold them up into the air. I walked around the church and had them throw the white cards as hard as the wanted into the garbage bag. People were timid at first but by the time I got to back pews people had crumbled up their cards and tossing them in like basketballs. When everyone had gotten rid of their white cards, I shoved open the back door of the church and tossed the garbage into the snow outside. I turned around and asked them to share their pink cards with the new pastor when he arrived. That pastor has served there for over twelve years..

I trust that all of this was God's grace at work. God was simply helping us practice the divine art of throwing things out.