Portrait of a Bride
James Post | July 16, 2018
Every Wednesday night starting around 7:50, students start to gather in the Poultry Science building on the north end of Arkansas’ campus. Our Large Group technically starts at eight (which, in Fayetteville time, means “about 8:07, but really who’s counting”) but people will keep trickling in for the next half hour in ones and twos. In a world of pressure, stress, and deadlines, this is one place where time seems to lose its tyrannical grip on our hearts, even if it’s just for an hour.
Our large group is my favorite place in the world. It still surprises me that I’ve only been here for a year; I feel so knit up in this little family of students that it’s hard to remember the time when I walked into this room and only saw strangers. Now in their faces I can see their stories—some I know very well, others only second hand, still others waiting to be uncovered.
What strikes me most, as I reflect on my students — “my kids,” I call them, usually to eye-rolls—is just how different each one is. There is no “typical” RUF student—some are Greek, some are engineers. Some were homeschooled, some went to public school. One was raised in a fundamentalist home, wounded by the callousness of unempathetic dogmatism; another never lived in the same city for more than two years growing up; another who comes from a happy family that adores him; another who hides his pain as deeply as he can, terrified that someone might find it.
It makes me smile just looking out over them, laughing together or commiserating about the load of schoolwork (and how they’re hoping if they watch enough Netflix the assignment will go away)—because these radically different, totally broken, beautiful, messed up people are the ones I get to call “family” because Jesus calls us “bride.”
We confess our sin together every week, everyone standing side by side as someone reads out loud what the scriptures say is true of all of us. And in the stunning diversity of personalities and struggles, the verdict is always the same: no one, no, not even one, is good. No one has it together. Nobody gets a pass because they look “the most like Jesus this week.” The ugliness of self-righteousness is unmasked right next to the ugliness of drunkenness, and everyone in the room is brought to the same place: we all need to be rescued.
There also, in the plurality of pain and shame that we each harbor in our hearts, comes the same promise of healing. For confession must always lead to the promise of the gospel: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For the many different sicknesses in Christ’s bride, there is one and only one remedy: Jesus himself.
He also meets each and every one of them (of us) where they are. On our worst days as ministers, we view ourselves as workers in a factory: say the right words, do the right things, produce Christians that look like this. We often waste our effort trying to change our students into people they are not - or we feel deep shame for being people we are not—because it is so easy to look around in large group and see products instead of plants.
Ministry is far more like gardening than factory work. Jesus does not make humans like cars, with pieces that can be traded out, modified, and altered until every Christian looks the same. Rather, he creates people as different as the variety we witness in nature. Some of us are brilliant flowers, others unassuming vines. Yet the flowers may wilt easily, and the vines may hold everyone else together, unnoticed. No one is superior to the other; each is unique. My job is not to transform a cucumber into a rose; it is rather to ensure, now by pruning, now by watering, that the cucumber grows healthy, strong, dependent on the vine. One man plants, another man waters, but it is God who gives the growth.
This little garden of diversity is Jesus’ bride. He died so that she might be safe; he rose that she might be beautiful, with him, forever. That promise rings out from the word preached and sung every week, and it will continue until the day those beautiful words are finally fulfilled: “The Bride eyes not her garments, but her dear Bridegroom’s face; I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of Grace; not at the crown He giveth, but on his pierced hands—the Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s land.”
The Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s land—the Lamb is all the glory of RUF. Any other good is counterfeit. The image of God is here, reflected in a thousand eyes and hearts, proclaimed by the stories of loss and redemption and longing and hope. Jesus is present with his bride. And he is beautiful.
You can read more of James' work on his blog.