Last Saturday, as part of my church’s “Love Portland” campaign, about 40 of us went to Alder Elementary School in SE Portland to do some cleanup and get it ready for the fall.
It was the work you might expect—weeding, spreading mulch and woodchips, painting over graffiti.
By the time we left, the gardens were transformed from weedy jungles into tidy rock-lined beds filled with flowers, vegetables, and herbs. It was enormously satisfying to sweat and get dirty with people that I’d only seen dressed in their Sunday Best. It was rewarding to see such a tangible difference.
Then I overheard one of our leaders as she brainstormed what could be planted in the “secret garden” at the center of the building, surrounded by classrooms. Every time they came back to weed this garden, they found all of the flowers dead and the pathways overrun with weeds. Hearing that, I was discouraged. Was all this effort was in vain, then? It was only going to be erased in a matter of months as they forgot to tend and water the beds? What was the use in our cleaning if they weren’t going to keep it that way?
As I asked myself why we would be working so hard on something that would need to be done again next year, it occurred to me that maybe that was exactly the kind of love that we needed to be giving to this community. It wasn’t a gift that we could give and then walk away; it allowed us to come back and keep creatively and diligently building on what we had done before. It gave us the chance to remind them every year that we cared about them. It opened the possibility of a relationship.
I may have mentioned before that the name of my church here, Imago Dei, means “Image of God.” Kind of sacrilegious to say that a church, a group of very flawed individuals, looks like God, right? But ideally, that’s exactly what a church should look like—a reflection of God’s desires and attitude. It should be a group of people who work together to creatively love and restore others just like God loves and restores us.
This past weekend, as I listened to our leaders plan what we could do for this garden so that it might have a chance at remaining beautiful, it struck me that this might be the kind of conversation God sometimes has with Himself: “now, what could I do to make these people really understand that I care about them? How could I show how much I love them in such a way that they will remember it a few days from now?” He knows we'll forget and probably screw it all up, but He does it anyway. Repeatedly.
This church may never become a mirror image of God, but it just might be headed in the right direction.