Mud and the Masterpiece

One of my favorite pastors in the USA is John Burke in Austin TX at Gateway Church. John wrote a book sometime back called No Perfect People Allowed, a book that told stories about how his church was formed by imperfect people finding the grace of God and forgiveness in the face of Jesus. So I was glad to hear that John had a new book called Mud and the Masterpiece (Baker, 2013).

As I read this one it forms the mode or the means of how a No Perfect People kind of church was formed. That is, it was formed because people learned to see through a person’s externalities to see them as people made in the image of God.

Questions: Why is it so hard to make a church a healing center instead of a center for the healthy? Why are churches for cleaned-up people instead of muddy people? Why is a eucharist-centered church space designed so often for the already forgiven? Why are these features so in contrast to how Jesus created sacred space for the muddy people of Galilee?

So, here’s John’s thesis — and pastors you will love the stories in this book. The ruling metaphor of this book is a Rembrandt masterpiece that is (fictionally) discovered in the alley all covered with mud. Do you see the mud or do you see the masterpiece beyond the mud? That’s the whole aim of the book — getting people to see beyond the mud to see what God can make of a person. And John’s got stories of muddy people who have become God’s masterpieces. (Yes, “masterpiece” is his translation for “handiwork” in Ephesians 2:10.

What Mud and the Masterpiece is a witness to the transforming power of God’s grace in the lives of real people. Here are some highlights:

John contrasts how Jesus saw people with how the Pharisees saw people (and I would add, ahem in light of my long post yesterday, “some” Pharisees as stereotyped in the Gospels). There can be no doubt that the Pharisees chafed at Jesus’ relations with muddy people and Jesus chuffed right back at them for their lack of mercy and love. Which is the point: they saw too much mud, Jesus saw the masterpiece that grace would create.

We need more people today who have the eyes of Jesus and who see beyond the mud to the masterpiece. “Is it possible that many Christians today who desire moral reform, love the Word of God, and pride themselves on teaching truth could be missional on the wrong mission — failing to demonstrate the heart of God to a broken world?” (31)

“Do you realize that Jesus was not shocked by the shocking things people do?” (40)

“What you hold in your heart toward a person, the mental framework in which you picture them, is what people react to interpersonally” (54).

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  • I know John means that the other person can be see as a masterpiece or just a muddy mess. But sometimes I think that when I don’t see the masterpiece, it’s because the mud is on me and some of it has got into my eyes.

    Mud and planks of wood have this in common, they prevent me seeing clearly.

  • Joe Canner

    The problem with mud is that is…well…messy. I know intellectually that I should welcome those homeless folks who recently started coming to church. But when they talk amongst themselves, and get up and go out for a smoke, or disrupt the service in some way, it’s hard for those of us brought up in quiet, contemplative churches. This is not at all to excuse my intolerance, but to ask for prayer and patience as us old sticks-in-the-mud wrap our heads around embracing the “muddy” who grace us with their presence.

  • MatthewS

    Great metaphor. I love his previous book and will definitely want to read this one.

    Joe, I empathize with you. When I was in my teens, my family was in a church that had a very significant outreach to homeless people. The honest truth is that many of them seemed to be intentionally difficult. They would track mud all over the place when it would have been easy to knock some of it off, they would talk loudly about anything they didn’t like in the meal you were providing and how some other meal was better. Some of them were easy to relate to and some of them truly seemed to change. Many of them had a deep loyalty and respect for the older man who ran the homeless shelter. But some of them were truly difficult people. I’m not sure that there is no place for calling some of that behavior out, though I imagine some of it is a defense on their part as well (as in, I am not sure if you will reject me, so I will take charge and make darn sure you do!).

  • Dana Ames

    Why aren’t churches places of healing?
    We’re afraid of being honest about realities in our lives. To admit struggles and failures feels like death, and we avoid anything that gives off the slightest whiff of death.
    We concentrate on behavior, and think behavior is an accurate indicator of the condition of a person as a whole. We don’t consider “emotional health” as something about which God is concerned.
    We have a theology that makes morality the point of God’s redemption. Our theology is deficient. We have not understood that it is love that engenders life, that as N.T. Wright said, love is not a duty – it is our destiny.

    Scot, I would like to understand why you said, “Why is a eucharist-centered church space designed so often for the already forgiven?” Thanks.