In my church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), congregations are organized into presbyteries, for mutual support and accountability. Historically, presbyteries have organized geographically. For instance, the congregation I serve is a member of Savannah Presbytery, which includes all of the PC(USA) congregations within certain geographic boundaries in Southeast Georgia.
This summer, our church’s national General Assembly is considering a proposal to allow congregations to experiment by forming new presbyteries which cross those geographical boundaries. These presbyteries could include congregations which decide to constitute a presbytery because of what they have in common. The impetus for the proposed change came from people who identify as conservative; they want to be able to associate with other congregations who share their perspective on theological and social issues.
This proposal has me thinking a lot about my lawn. I think the majority of the square footage in my front yard is still covered by centipede grass. But I also have a significant and growing patch of Bermuda grass and even some small, shady places where some of the more delicate St. Augustine grass took root long before I moved into this place. As you look closer at my lawn, you see a lot of other stuff, too: some dichondra; some dandelions; a few sandburs, which have been the object of some graphic language as I walked barefoot this spring; and a bunch of other, unidentified greenery. A few places, especially where it is shady and you can see the thick tree roots, there is plain dirt where nothing will grow. A week or so after I mow, my lawn has all manner of spikes sticking up, flowers budding, and broad-leafed vines trying to creep all over the place.
It’s the kind of lawn that probably makes some of my neighbors crazy. A few people on my street have lawns that are all uniform. Most of those lawns are made of the strong, thick-bladed bermuda grass, but whatever the variety, there are certainly no “weeds” growing in those lawns. As the blades of grass get longer, the whole thing is still uniform in height. There is no dirt exposed to the potentially critical eye of someone who might stop by long enough to, perhaps, let his dog pee on the perfectionist’s mailbox.
I do not refuse to keep a monoculture lawn because I am lazy. If I wanted to, I could get my lawn to look like the uniform ones on my street. I keep my lawn the way it is by choice. I have made that choice because I think it is healthier for my lawn, for myself and my family, and for the ecosystem I am a part of.
Suburban streets like mine were developed to fulfill a vision of houses dotting an otherwise peaceful, open meadow at regular intervals. But what I realized a long time ago is that meadows are always made up of a whole bunch of different plants. Nowhere in nature is there an open, green meadow which is uniform in species, much less in height. Sometimes the plants in a meadow complement each other, with one species providing extra minerals for the soil or a certain amount of shade which helps the other plants around it. Other times, some plants try to push all the other plants out of their way. Sometimes new species find their way in. But eventually, everything settles out so that the meadow can flourish together with all of its variety.
So why should my lawn be any different? Why should I work against what is natural and healthy to create a uniform height, color, and texture in my front yard? The person who owned this little piece of land before me tried. Soon after we moved in, my neighbor looked at a big brown spot in my front yard with a chuckle. He told me about the time that the previous owner had one of those nationally franchised lawn services come out and spray all kinds of chemicals on the lawn to get rid of the weeds. But he didn’t think the lawn service did an adequate job, so he bought his own weed killer and applied it to the lawn the next day. That night, it rained enough to make puddles in the lawn, and within a few days, the lowest spots began to turn brown and die. I have been trying to coax something, anything, to live in those low spots ever since.
Meadows are not monocultures, and churches are not uniform, either. Some people have a hard time when all the members of a church do not agree on the answers to questions that are significant to some members of that church. But I don’t. I think that it is only natural that there are different people, with a whole bunch of different views, in any community. I have never been a part of any congregation that can speak with one voice on significant issues; when pressed to make a decision, some people always disagree with the majority, and those people have to decide whether they will quietly submit to the will of the others or withdraw from that congregation. This is not good or bad; it is just the way churches are.
So why fight against the nature of the church? I worry that any attempt to create uniformity might be toxic: some people in the congregations which associate only with other congregations with a particular perspective on theological or social issues will be less likely to find a place in their church. Whether the congregations shrink or thrive in a monoculture presbytery, over time, maintaining that appearance of agreement will take a lot of work, use a lot of resources, and may still fail because nature has a way of throwing weeds into the mix despite our best efforts to suppress them.
There is something healthy about taking whatever happens to grow in certain geographic bounds and doing what we can with it. It is not uniform in any way. The neighbors don’t always understand it, and they might even be aggravated by it. We might curse at the burrs that come up in it and poke our bare feet now and then. But accepting variety means that we don’t have to fight so hard against what is natural, and we might discover ways of living together that are healthier for the church, for ourselves, for our sisters and brothers, and for the ecosystem around us.
Jesus spoke about the farmer who woke up one morning and found that a whole bunch of weeds had grown up among his carefully tended wheat. Everyone thought that he should pull the weeds right then and there. But he said no. He realized that, like it or not, the weeds were intertwined with the wheat, and pulling the one would harm the other. So he let it go until someone could sort it out at the end of it all. And Jesus said that the kingdom of God is just like that farmer.