“But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as first fruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

I’ve lived in and travelled to places around the world that have significantly more trash in the street than we see in the US. Some years ago, the United States invaded one of the places with more trash in the street. Depending on who you talk to, the invasion was driven by different motivations. Roughly you might say it was cataclysmic events leading to fear and the need to respond. But the motivation doesn’t matter. What matters is that there was too much trash in the street.

The trash in the street wasn’t primarily an aesthetic problem. It was a life and death problem. Piles of trash provided the perfect place along any street in which to hide explosive devices. These explosive devices killed and maimed and destroyed routinely. If the streets were cleaner, they would be safer.

Bright minds got to work on the trash problem. What if trucks were purchased and people were hired to pick up the trash? In fact, those trash collectors could even be allowed to sell anything they found for extra income! Job creation and cleanliness seemed to be a win-win in any context. But that didn’t work. Kids started being sent out by families to collect all valuable material in the trash piles so that those families could make money at the recycling collection points. By the time trash collectors arrived, nothing of value was left. And, on some streets, trash collectors were targeted. So they stopped picking up trash. Since that didn’t work, maybe big metal dumpsters in each neighborhood would work. People could throw their own trash in the dumpster, keeping their neighborhoods clean. The dumpsters did attract trash. All around the base of the dumpster, piling high. Kids often took out the trash and couldn’t reach the top of the dumpsters, so would dump the trash at the base of the container. Strike two.

Next idea: Give every family a receptacle made of plastic that could be placed at the curb. Families enjoyed these new receptacles. They stored food in them, filled them with gasoline, and found various other creative ways to use large plastic containers. Various ways that did not include the placement of trash in the containers. Basically, nothing worked. To this day most of the streets are still full of trash and bombs are still being hidden and are going off and killing or maiming.

In the end, the problem may not have been so much about trash piles as about the hearts and minds and motivations of the people who lived in those streets. You can imagine that if the hearts and minds weren’t with the trash-managers, that trash problem was flat out never going away. This story reminded me of the Christmas Story. God looked down on the world and, no doubt, saw a lot of trash in the streets. More importantly he saw universally distressed hearts and minds. I suppose you could say He decided to invade, but not out of the typical motivations of fear or power dynamics. Instead, His motivation was love. The interesting thing to me is how hard it has been for Him to win over hearts and minds even when His motivation is love. Suspicion and doubt reign. Human agents on the ground do a terrible job representing Him. But He sticks with it. He pushes forward. It’s almost like He doesn’t care about taking territory or counting numbers. All He cares about is moving one more heart. Every heart is a win and makes all of the challenge of His mission worth the cost. Even if there is still trash in the street. I find myself incredibly grateful that He loves with that kind of love.

Adapted from “Team Update” (December 24, 2017) by Daryl Tol