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War of the Periwinkles

I wish you could have seen my garden this year. I didn’t plant anything exotic (just tomatoes and periwinkles), but the plot was something to see. This stretch of ground I call a garden is located between my carport and the sidewalk from the gate to my front door. I haven’t determined just how much land I have there, but it’s about fifteen feet long and ten inches wide–that’s right, inches.

One of the real pleasures of gardening in a warm climate is the liberal array of bugs. I think I’ve finally conquered the aphids community around my house and garden, and the lace bugs are now confined to one pyracantha out front; however, I still fight the black spots on my roses and the fire ants that Lewis-and-Clark-it into my front yard from my neighbor’s yard.

This year, neither the spots nor the ants were affecting my tomatoes, but I was concerned nonetheless: the sun seemed to be burning them up. I’d water, pinch the "suckers" off from between the blooms, shake the plants to aid the pollination process, keep Katy Mae (my plant-murdering dog) away, and providing the gate wasn’t open, I’d even talk to them once in a while.

It was while pulling grass one day from between the flowers and struggling vines that I made a startling discovery: my mostly brown vines were being attacked by the dreaded, red spider mites. The battle raged. In addition to everything else I’d been doing, I pumped insecticides into the war effort, and I’m proud to say I harvested two tomatoes before our first freeze wiped out everything–the vines, the mites, and the periwinkles–all in one frigid breath.

Up until the Big Freeze, I thought more than once about pulling up the whole mess (i.e. the garden), but I couldn’t do it. The tomatoes looked awful, but the periwinkles looked great. To uproot the one would uproot the other…not a good plan. So I suffered through the tomatoes and enjoyed the flowers as best I could.

This is a rough parallel, but it will hopefully serve as a reference point while I digress to another field in which you and I both have a share–the church. Using a parable, Jesus describe the kingdom as a plot of ground planted with both wheat and tares (a wheat look-alike that is really a weed). At first, He said, the workers thought to pull up the tares, but they decided against this (after talking to the boss) because to do so would uproot the wheat as well. So they allowed both to grow side by side–even intertwined–and waited for harvest to separate the two (Mt. 13:24-30).

It seemed incredulous, but Jesus said it Himself: Not everyone in the church organization is a member of the church organism, the fundamental distinction being that an organism has life while an organization is nothing more than an institution. There are lost folks and saved folks alike (tares and wheat) who meet together in a building we call the church. They look similar, act similar, and call themselves by the same name, yet they are at the opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum.

These church members who don’t know Jesus generally have their hearts wrapped around the organization. Consequently, they are involved with every aspect of the church. Most work to further the organization, have high moral and ethical convictions and are an overall asset to the system, but they don’t know Jesus…they are not a part of the organism. Their hearts are darkened and their heritage is death, for their father is the enemy of God (John 8:44).

We must not be so impressionable as to think the tares will have no effect on the wheat. It would be safe to conclude, based upon Jesus’ remarks in Matthew, that there might be tares (lost folks) in the committee of deacons, the board of elders, the finance committee, the choir, the educational structure…even the church staff. As a general rule, these people are not there maliciously, but the fact remains: lost folks don’t have a regenerate mind and heart, so how should we expect them to understand spiritual matters? Why should we assume that it is their priority to see the church propagate life?

If you remove Life from the church, what you are left with is not a great deal different from a country club. They are both social organizations committed to furthering the health and welfare of their members and the surrounding community. You pay dues to both (e.g. tithes, special projects), eat at both (e.g. Wednesday evening meals), meet regularly, share common interests (e.g. golf on one hand and church matters on the other), promote social awareness, provide healthy programs for the family, etc. The parallel is a little scary when you take the Life out of the organism, isn’t it?

Jesus made another statement that pertains to the issue at hand: "…be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves" (Mt. 10:16). In other words, don’t be naíve. Just because the organization is called a church doesn’t mean you’ve got a pure wheat field. There will always be some diseased tomatoes in with the periwinkles, and for now, if you are going to enjoy the flowers, you’ve got to put up with the dead vines. The church is not your standard, God’s Word is. Don’t hesitate to compare the organization to the Biblical principle.

Does this constitute heresy? you ask yourself. Isn’t the church the bride of Christ? What are you saying? Isn’t the church the vessel through which God intends to reach the world? Isn’t…? Yes, it does sound heretical…and "yes" to the other questions, too. But remember the definitions above. What we are calling the church is, in reality, comprised of both Believers and unbelievers, wheat and tares. It is both an organism and an organization. These two are not the same, nor are they interchangeable.

I have been involved with a couple of churches that have proven to be tremendous influences in my Christian life, but there have been a myriad of others that were more of a hurdle than a help. I’ve said more than once, after a frustrating Sunday or a disappointing committee meeting, "It’s a really good thing I’m not God…I would have used my lightning bolt by now." Chuck Swindoll, an ex-Marine, wrote, "We’re the only outfit (the church) I know that shoots its wounded." That’s a sad thing to write, but I know what he means: I have been shot at more by the "church" than by the enemy–and I don’t think he and I are the only ones who have had this experience.

I hope you don’t taste bitterness in my words…my intentions are quite the contrary: I want to encourage you. I want to see you survive, to walk in victory, to be wise to the enemy’s tactic. I don’t want you to get "high centered" on the organization, and most of all, I don’t want you to allow the spider-mited tomato vines to spoil the periwinkles. You must not be surprised if your needs are not met by the church; don’t be amazed if you find improprieties or if you catch a low blow when you’re down. If you run headlong into the organization and it reminds you of dealing with the IRS, don’t be bewildered…that’s the nature of organizations. As I said before, the moral of the story is this: you have to put up with the dead tomato plants to enjoy the flowers.

Not long ago, I was bogged down in the organization; I’d taken a few bumps and had a few bruises, and I was lamenting my predicament to a close friend over lunch. His counsel proved priceless to me: "Pres, I simply view myself as an infiltrator into the church."

We continued sharing and a plan began to take shape in my mind, a plan that I have since put into practice. Because the organization and the organism are inextricably interwoven, I must trust the Lord to keep me grounded within the organism as I infiltrate the organization. And I look for opportunities to take advantage of this "insider" position every chance I get. I set up lunches with individuals who are members of the organism; I diligently seek out the people I enjoy spending time with and together we feed with the Life of the organism…together we encourage each other inside the organization as representatives of the organism. As for the organization, I simply endure it.

You must be the judge of what distinguishes the organism from the organization in your church, but the rudimentary quality of any organism is life. Feeding and caring for an organism will reproduce life, both in you and others. Feeding the organization will only augment bureaucracy.

You’ve heard it said, "Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater." I have been tempted on occasions to toss the church, thinking I quit! I don’t need this hassle. But in quieter moments, I realize the profundity of saving the Life and pitching the bath water. All of my tomato plants were at one end of the garden. As their condition worsened and their fate became apparent, I began focusing primarily on the other end of the plot. This was my way of looking at the doughnut and not the hole Amazingly, this helped my perception and enjoyment of the garden. I knew the other end was there, but I concentrated on the life, not the death.

Several weeks before the first freeze, I gave up on the tomato defense program and let the spider mites procreate prodigiously (the logic: all the more to die in the freeze!). Besides, the spiders couldn’t have cared less about my real objective–the periwinkles, which still looked beautiful. The freeze of 1989 killed everything in sight, including our pipes. I cleaned out my garden plot until next year, and I don’t think I’ll try tomatoes again–they’re too susceptible to whatever the elements may choose to throw at them. But the periwinkles? They’ll be back in the Spring–of their own accord. Such as it is, the garden plot is theirs–they are the survivors, the perennials…they are the ones who have my heart.

Preston Gillham

About the Author

As a co-founder, Preston Gillham led Lifetime for 30 years. Preston is a writer, speaker, and leadership guide. He has authored numerous articles and several books including No Mercy and Battle for the Round Tower. He blogs on “Life and Leadership”. More about Preston, his writings, speaking, and his consulting practice can be located at PrestonGillham.com.