In the margins: Outside the box

given on Sunday, June 23, 2013

Before annual conference began, registrants received the “21 Days of Prayer,” which introduced a variety of different prayer forms to prepare attendees for the conference, but more importantly to pray for the church in today’s culture.  The theme of conference sets the tone for the coming church year:  “Praying Hands and Dirty Fingernails,” sets the expectations of service in the communities around the churches, but also the global community through a range of outreach programs.

When I located the picture of the dirty hands in a familiar posture of prayer, I thought how interesting it was to see that image which is actually more real to me than the traditional praying hands image attributed to German artist Albrecht Durer.  The grime that so often covers working hands, even gardeners hands, symbolizes the intensity of the effort, the labor, and the difficulties as compared to individual desk jobs.  Work does not necessarily call for dirty fingernails, but lately when a call goes out for aide, the work is dirty.

But look at the phrase created for the conference’s theme—Praying Hands and Dirty fingernails.  It takes God and man to serve one another.  It takes God and man to transform the world.  Prayer is so critical, and so often we dive in without talking to God first.

We have a tendency to fit our ideas of church into a box.  The box has long been a sanctuary located in a section of town or along the road where we have seen it year after year.  That is not what Jesus would have called the church, he would have seen it as people.  Jesus would see the church as all the people reaching out to serve other people with little regard to a church building or a specific time of the week.  Church is praying hands with dirty fingernails.

We are living in communities that no longer function as a community.  The 19th and 20th century rural nor small town community simply does not match the 21st century culture any longer.  We need to get outside of our church box and figure out how to reach all those living without God in their lives.

In the article from the prayer study, Bishop Schnase writes:

. . .on the other side of the margin [are] the people who are not part of the community of faith.  The church fulfills its mission at that edge, where those who belong to the community [of faith] engage and interweave their lives with those outside the community.  There, at the margin, we fulfill our mission through service and justice ministries—helping, serving, relieving suffering; and through our sharing the good news of Christ—seeking, inviting, welcoming, and nurturing faith.

These words echo those of Peter as recorded in Acts.  Even though the disciples were still gathered and trying to determine what they should do, the community of faith was under persecution—the culture was devouring the faithful.

In fact, today’s culture probably would place the Christian community on the margins of society.  We have taken a laizze faire approach to evangelism and even to service.  What has happened?  Why can’t we reach the unchurched?  How do we stop this downward spiral of Christianity?

When I go to a conference or any meeting at which speakers share their ideas, I find myself writing thoughts in the margins of my notes.  When I get home and review them, the new ideas listed there seem so doable, logical, even simple.  But, when I get hoe, I also fall back into the box, put away the notes, and continue with the status quo.

There is no excuse left on the face of this earth for me to get locked back up in that box!  What struggling churches are doing today is the same thing.  We are locked up in a box that was filled up and taped shut well over 50 years ago and has not been opened since.

Stop and consider all the changes we have witnessed in our lifetimes, not to mention what phenomenal changes our parents experienced.  Yet the most important factor in our lives should be the church and not the secular world surrounding us.  We need to open up the box, match it up with some of the ideas written in the margins and reclaim our mission.

Last week I shared my own sense of failure.  I know how essential my faith is to my own life, but I let myself slide back into the box, lock up the notes in the margins, and safely, methodically go through the routine of the school year, the calendar year, even the Christian year.  Thank goodness the prayer study showed up in my inbox and I read it.

We all must honestly face what we are doing as individuals, as a church, as a community member, and as a disciple.  Wesley wants us to maintain the acts of piety and the acts of mercy, which we discussed last week too.  By returning a focus to these basic disciplines, we should be able to move ideas from the margins of our notes into action.  We should be able to reach those unchurched on the outside margins of our faith community.  We should be able to rip open the box and find something brand new to share with today’s world that makes a difference.

Look back at the verses of the hymn, “O Breath of Life,” we just sang:

O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us,

revive your church with life and power.

O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,

and fit your church to meet this hour.


O Wind of God, come, bend us, break us,

till humbly we confess our need.

Then in your tenderness remake us;

revive, restore, for this we plead.


O Breath of Love, come, breathe within us,

renewing thought and will and heart.

Then in your tenderness remake us;

revive your church in every part.


This hymn is a prayer to the Holy Spirit.  The call to God is the same call that was written in 1920 by Bessie Porter Head.  She wrote this prayer based on Acts 2 and John 20:22.

Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”  –John 20:22 from the Message


What are we to do?  How are we to do it?  When do we do it?  The answer may not be an easy one to carry out for us, but God does have an answer, we just have to talk to him and listen.  Remember, “we can do anything through Christ who strengthen us.”  We just have to depend on the Holy Spirit to guide us.  We need to be spirit-driven, not culture-driven, not budget-driven, not box-driven.

During the next few days, weeks, even months, lets make notes in the margins about serving with the guidance of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Take a prayerful look around your world and ask God for direction.  Identify those in your own spectrum who God is trying to reach.  Open up the box you have wrapped your images of church and see if there are some surprises you can share with others.

The Bishop, and the generations of Christian leaders before, have challenged us to look at the community around our church.  He wrote,

Within a mile of your church, an elderly person lives alone, feeling abandoned and isolated.  Within a mile of your church, a couple struggles to strengthen the last threads of love that bind them together.  Within that radius, children live with no one to invite them to the spiritual life or to the community that can help them discover God’s grace.  A idle class family struggles under the anxieties of losing a job, and an immigrant family lives in fear.  A teenager contemplates suicide.  Within a mile of your church, dozens of people wrestle with personal addictions related to alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal substances.  Hundreds of people carry burdens of unresolved guilt and grief and despair, and do not belong to sustaining communities who surround them with love.  Hundreds ore wonder about the purpose and meaning of their lives, and do not have the vocabulary to express their inner longings and searching as spiritual hunger.


The people at the margins of our church represent the mission field entrusted to us by God.  They are the reason your church exists.  Your church is the means of grace God uses to reach them.

The mile maybe more like five or ten miles when in the rural areas, but the list of descriptors of the unchurched or those who have faded away from the church is the same.  The technology and the corporate world of agriculture redefined 21st century rural life, but those changes have not drained the basic human need for God.  Society has tried to de-emphasize religion, but humans thrive with God.

Pray.  Use any form of prayer you know to ask God for guidance.  When you feel called to act, act.  When you have an idea to share, share.  When we meet, call on God to join us at the meeting.  No God-driven ideas written in the margins should be ignored.  No box is so tightly shut that it cannot be opened.

Closing Prayer:

Dear God,

Thank you for the words you share

through song, through creeds, through leaders.

Thank you for the open hearts of your faithful

who pray and who listen for you.

Thank you for those with open hands

willing to get dirty because you ask us to serve.

Thank you for those with open minds

willing to lead, willing to take risks.

We ask you to give us the tools, the time, and the skills

to carry out the missions you call us to do.

We ask you to give us the physical and mental strength to risk

serving one and another in love.

We promise to do as much as we can do for all we can

in order to transform this 21st century world.

With praying hands and dirty fingernails

to the glory of God:  AMEN.

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