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Give Thanks: Give Your Best  ©

Matilda found a fancy dress in the dumpster and wore it to communion. The dress was torn along the zipper in the back, and had the odor of Chinese carry-out, which must have been somewhere nearby in the dumpster, but it was the only dress Matilda could afford. Out of gratitude to Jesus she wanted to look her best.

Everyone in our little church had watched the odd-looking Bag Lady who walked the streets undergo an amazing transformation from societal cast-away to daughter of the Most High. We needed to repent because Matilda was a non-person we saw everyday. Some people had given her the nickname Whispering Jane because she muttered words beneath her breath constantly. When a college kid took the unusual step of buying Matilda lunch at the Elvis Cafe the dominoes began to fall: Matilda became a person again, with a real name, and in just a few weeks of she became a Christian.

The transformation was remarkable. At first Matilda continued to live on the streets and attend our church. That’s when she dressed up for communion. In following months she beat alcoholism and moved into a halfway house near the church. At first we gave her plenty of space at church. Parents steered their kids away. Most adults didn’t try to connect because after all--what do you say to a Bag Lady with dirty clothes and crazy hair? But we watched her become another person: cleaner, saner, safer, approachable, and--well--more like us. And always, when the church celebrated communion Matilda looked for ways to look her best. Her best kept getting better.

“Jesus cleaned me on the inside,” she would say. “It’s the least I can do to spruce up the outside.”

Months turned into years, and the transformation continued. Her change was quiet but constant. Matilda became the kind of person who could hold a job. The halfway house gave way to an apartment of her own, and eventually that same woman who used to push a shopping cart on the city streets bought a used car. She was more like us than ever. Everyone at church knew her now. She was easy to talk to. And always, on communion days, she dressed up. You could count on it: the cleaner she became, the more spectacular her Eucharist dress.

Still, we had to put up with some odd behavior from time to time. I came forward for one communion-day in jeans and a T shirt. “Honestly? That’s the best you’ve got?” was all she said as I returned to my seat from the altar. I wasn’t even sure she said it to me until next week’s church newsletter included a submission from Mattie (everyone started calling her that after she got a stylish haircut and blonde highlights). The newsletter piece ended with:
If God has washed away your sin then you can do something special for Him on Sunday. Leave the blue-jeans at home and tell Him thanks by looking good. I think everyone has more to give, don’t you?”

Everyone still counted Mattie as our church’s success story, even if it was years ago. If she wanted to exhort us to all do a little better, what’s wrong with that? Look how far she had come. Between the chatty, conversational style of her writing and the fact that no one ever reads or edits the church newsletter, who wouldn’t give her grace to indulge her convictions?

Eventually Mattie organized a communion ministry team. She talked the pastor into serving communion once a month instead of once a quarter. He would still serve the elements, but the ministry team came in early to decorate the place, and practice special music, and distribute a pamphlet Mattie wrote about why communion is the “Passover of the New Testament,” and how we should all take God’s word seriously and observe the traditions handed down from the time of Moses. Mattie’s Communion Ministry Team baked the communion bread according to the standards in Exodus. Everyone in the church got an email the Thursday before Communion Sunday, with suggestions of how we can color-coordinate with the sanctuary decorations, so the entire church can “become an acceptable sacrifice to God.”

Mattie’s gratitude for God’s grace had welled up into an entire ministry of “Give Thanks: Give Your Best.©” She copyrighted the phrase and began speaking at other churches. Eventually she hit the Christian-ministry big time. After guest-spots on two Christian TV networks, Mattie relocated her ministry to Nashville and said good-bye to our church. We all wished her well.

In the months after she left the Communion Ministry Team became less enthusiastic and eventually quit meeting. We still got the Thursday emails because Mattie took the email list with her to Nashville--the graphic design was amazing, and her email list swelled to 50,000.

Our little church went back to serving communion once a quarter, and people went back to blue jeans and T-shirts.

Reader Comments (11)

I have a feeling your trying to spark a conversation so ill go first...Is this a story of humbling yourself before the Lord. Because in my experience the lower you are the higher you are...its a backward kingdom.

Or is it a story of a church accepting the lowly, giving them a platform and letting them excel higher than they are. Either being a story of being humble.

Or is it a story of the Love one shows to the lord being shown back to that person through a church that was willing to accept the lowly. Respecting that person and launching them into their calling and then returning to its original state only to be positioned to do it again?

I may have missed the point all together I don't know. But I like the story.

Peace

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercurious

Or is it a story of not pushing your convictions on others. Or a story of trying to earn what is already been given freely.

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercurious

Hi Curious: Well, I'll certainly be pleased if the story sparks conversation. I'm fascinated that you see four possible interpretations, but I'm not (yet) going to talk about what was on my mind when I wrote it. So let me ask you--which of the four directions you suggested resonates most with you?

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Of the ones I mentioned probably the love of the lord being shown through the church. But on further consideration a fifth emerged. What if the church never considered the bag lady to be honest or normal. She may have never been given the platform for her ministry and the call on her life may have never been filled because she was judged by human intellect and not the heart of the father. She may never been thankful or gave her best for the Lord. Or would she have anyway?

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercurious

Or change is a process and building ministry requires being humble being thankful and more times than not takes years of pressing in to accomplish!!

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercurious

I think I could post an endless amount of possibilities. It'll keep me pondering until you reveal what was on your mind when you wrote this one.

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercurious

The thing that strikes me the most is that it seems like Matilda's transformation was completely her own. It doesn't seem like the church had any part in it. And eventually Matilda left the church went somewhere else, and the church returned to how it had always been. The church never invested in Matilda until she was already "acceptable" therefore when Matilda left the church, they had no access to the fruits of her labor. Because the church was only willing to accept their definition of acceptable or average they could only operate at that level as a church, they could go no higher or no lower. Matilda came from the lowest and went higher than just acceptable. Isn't that how God has often used people taking the lowest and putting them higher than the average? I don't know, I have trouble looking at this story past what literally happen. I don't think Jesus would have reprimanded someone for wearing jeans to communion I usually see Jesus as more concerned with the heart, it makes it hard for me to see Matilda as the protagonist and yet the church didn't seem to live up to that role either. So does that mean that the church maybe failed to inform Matilda that Jesus loves us no matter how we look, that his grace is free? Were both Matilda and the church at fault? The church because they failed to invest and Matilda because she focused so much on her outward expression of thankfulness that she might have neglected her heart?

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I like that comment.

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercurious

This story glorifies God (though He's more implied than anything else) and shows up the failures of people. God saved Matilda and gave her abundant life. (huzzah!!)
Like Andrew says, "The church never invested in Matilda until she was already 'acceptable'". They let her be in their midst, which is evidence of Christ in them, perhaps, if you consider that other communities might not have. But it's still a poor welcome, and poorer love.
Matilda herself responded with gratefulness to the Lord, which is wonderful. But she, too, fell short of the glory of God, even after He transformed her life.
And that's mainly what I get out of the story, I think. On earth, even the Saints fall short of the glory of God... we're still in process. It's sad, really. I wish that the story had talked more about God than it did. Maybe that would've made it less heartwrenching.
On the other hand, it does remind me in some ways of films like "Once" and "Kabluey" that tend toward realism instead of fairytale endings and stereotypical interpretations.

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Andrew and Kate: Thanks so much for weighing in with your views. I assure you this is entirely a fictional story, that quite literally began with a picture in my brain. I just went with that picture and let the characters tell me what happened.

And "Curious" -- isn't it better to have other people interpret the story rather than me tell you what I think it means?

Peace to all!

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

I feel like Matilda gets in the way for people. Yes, her focus seemed to be more outward than inward, however, God grants gifts in all aspects of life. Think about how nice it is to be in a church where the pews are new and everything is well decorated. The design of the building does not inhibit us from worshiping any more or any less, but the effort put into making things beautiful are a sacrifice of worship. When God had Moses and his people build his temple only the best of the best were able to dye the cloths and make the garments. God had given them a skill and they used that skill in bringing glory to him. The same with Matilda - she used her hearts convictions (and obviously something she was good at) to make service extra special and by doing so she brought glory to God in her own way. God makes builders and servers alike. He gifts everyone with special talents so that, together, we can be the best possible and simply by using our gifts, bring God glory.

September 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie

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