**Note: When I speak of the Church with a capital “C”, I am referring to the organization as a whole, not any one, individual body of believers. **
Recently, I have been privileged enough to get a glimpse into the Kingdom of Heaven. Really, I have had short glimpses of this since January. You see, in January I began substituting at the most amazing school! It’s completely unique and wonderful. It’s a mixture of special needs and general education kids and deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing kids. The kids all take classes together. In other words, there aren’t special education classes and general education classes. So, when I first began working at this school I thought it was a cool concept, but I don’t think I fully comprehended what was happening at this school until the last 2 days.
The last day we had our Honors Assembly. I’m only a sub, but before we went to the gymnasium, I still gave my typical speech before these assemblies about being respectful to their classmates, supporting them, not teasing them, only positive comments, etc. However, I had forgotten where I worked. This is no typical school. During this assembly students of all abilities (severe special needs to advanced/gifted) were recognized for their accomplishments. They weren’t only recognized by the staff, their peers genuinely cheered for them. Some of the students bounded up on stage to receive their awards, others took some time to get up on stage due to their physical limitations, but it didn’t matter, they were cheered for the same. Some of the students were given the opportunity to speak from the stage and some of them had prepared speeches that were clear and concise, while others spoke unintelligibly, but still from their heart, and still they were all cheered for the same.
There aren’t words to accurately describe this experience. I wanted to take pictures, but due to confidentiality issues I couldn’t. This school embraces diversity. It celebrates individuality. It encourages kids to be exactly who they are, rather than fitting into some mold. At the same time as it is doing all this, it also encourages them to work together and live as a community. These attributes – acceptance, individuality, diversity, creativity, community, love – are why I say that working there is a glimpse into the Kingdom of Heaven. You see, this is exactly what I think the Kingdom of Heaven is like. God made us as individuals, but created us for community with him and each other.
Being at this school and seeing these beliefs lived out has caused me to reflect on how the Church represents these same values. I have to say this school looks much different than most churches. When most people think of churches they think of having to dress a certain way and act in a specific manner (mostly putting on a cheerful face). That is not the way this school operates. People dress however they are comfortable. Some have gauged ears, tattoos, and multi-colored hair, some wear ties or dresses while others wear sweatpants and t-shirts. And because they are a community of people living life together, occasionally people have really bad days, but they love each other through it. They show grace and love, and they move on. People are able to express themselves the way God created them.
Do not get me wrong. I am in no way advocating the “everything is permissible” and “we all make our own truths” mentality that is so common today. However, I am saying that as the Church we have to be intentional about the culture and reputation we are creating. We have to be open to things that are different and willing to accept things that are outside of our comfort zone. There are ways to honor God and glorify His name that do not match what we’ve always done. And our community, the Church, becomes so much more beautiful when we allow people to express themselves in exactly the way God created them to do so. There is a beauty and splendor in allowing people to be who they are. That doesn’t mean that we don’t still disciple and study the Word together in an effort to grow closer to our Savior. Of course, we do that! And, yes, that will inevitably change us. But what I’m talking about is our individual personalities, our quirks, the things that make us who we are. So many times, the Church tries to dampen those qualities in us because they don’t “fit” our idea of what a Christian should look like. If someone likes to dance, let them dance to the glory of God; if someone likes tattoos, let them honor God with what they put on their body; if someone enjoys rock music, let them praise God to Skillet and Red; if someone enjoys all things nerd (sci-fi, anime, comic books, D&D, superheroes, etc.), let them relate to those people who have similar interests and share God’s love in that setting.
When we celebrate our quirks and our individuality, the Kingdom of God is expanded and taken into parts of society it may not typically be welcome. We are not called to create cookie-cutter Christians, we are called to love people. It’s hard to look at God’s creation and argue that He does not love diversity, so why would he not want that among His people? I think He rejoices in diversity. I would even go as far as to say that when we do not allow diversity and individuality in the Church, we dampen the Holy Spirit. Yes, God will still bless us, because He is good and gracious and He loves us. However, what blessings are we missing out on when we imply that His creations are only welcome when they worship like we do, act like us, look like us, and so forth.
Adam and I got a tattoo of 1 Corinthians 15:10 for our 30th birthdays. It says, “By the grace of God I am what I am and His grace towards me was not in vain”. If we are going to accept God’s grace towards us to be who we were created to be, we have to accept other people in that same love and grace. Often times that will mean that they look and act different than us, but that is the beauty of God’s Kingdom.