Eight years ago, I found myself in the midst of a church life situation that proved to be one of the most intense tests of my commitment to basic Christian principles that I ever faced. Anger, mistrust and hurt among the leadership of the church in which I was then serving manifested itself in some truly damaging and hurtful ways, leading to the dissolution of unity, the breaking of relationships and the scattering of the church family. Having arrived at the ministry full of optimism and energy with the prospect of many years of ministry service a virtual certainty, I found myself in the midst of a firestorm and ultimately without a church n which to belong and without a ministry in which I could vocationally serve.
By God's mercy, Luz and I were able to follow His leading in starting another ministry, and to be joined in that endeavor by others who had a common vision to live in a caring, multicultural community for the Glory of Jesus Christ. Yet, because of the proximity of the former ministry partners with whom we had worked, and by whom we had felt so betrayed, we wondered for several years if the forgiveness demanded by Jesus and the restoration that is a hallmark of the standard Jesus has set for His church was really possible - not just on the part of others, but for us. Could we really EVER consider the people that had hurt us so deeply to be our real brothers and sisters in the Lord?
The answer came gradually. Luz and I had a deep conviction that we had to live what we believed in front of our children and try with all of our might NOT to drag them into the fray. Because churches blend the personal and professional lives of vocational Christian workers, the families of the workers are not necessarily shielded from the fallout of church rifts and difficulties. We made a promise to ourselves that we would encourage our children to continue their friendships formed within the church and to always treat former church members with respect regardless of what we may have thought their role might have been in the church debacle.
Luz and I were especially touched when we ourselves were treated with the respect we had demanded of our children by the children of people we felt had hurt us. It was a clear indication that there were others that were wrestling with the ramifications of the church's struggle and committed to apply the basic loving principles of the faith by trying to turn the tide of the situation towards healing. It showed us that sometimes, responses to deep hurts can be slow, but one must be alert for signs that changes of heart might be taking place.
More than that, there were individuals along the way who served as torchbearers in the process of trying to live like Jesus who, in spite of the hurts, stubbornly refused to take sides and just tried to love everybody into loving everybody else regardless of which "side" of the church split they might have been. With these siblings of faith in the mix, the walls of separation gradually began to wear down. People who were not speaking, began to hold conversations. People who had secretly vowed not to fellowship with other individuals began breaking bread with those very individuals they had vowed to shun. People like me, who thought they would never find themselves singing, worshipping and fellowshipping in the context of a Sunday service in the midst of that heretofore painful setting, found themselves singing, worshipping and fellowshipping in that same setting.
This Sunday, my family and I were graciously invited by friends to attend a worship service at our former place of service so that those who knew us might be able to pray for us and bid us a loving farewell. When we arrived, former co-laborers and church members practically mobbed us in love. There were hugs, tears, laughter, and the expression of some regrets but more than anything, a warm and overflowing display of acceptance. This acceptance was made possible by those who tenacious clung to the good - good memories of ministry: baptisms, weddings, comforted grief, and daring outreaches. The acceptance was also made possible by good memories of fellowship: funny stories, great times around food and good times just hanging out. Most everyone had grown in faith, grown in service, grown in humility and grown in love. It seemed we shared an understanding that God's Kingdom was best served when we patiently expected Him to live out His truths in us as He patiently waited for us to respond in loving obedience to His Truth.
As I stood in front of that congregation being blessed and prayed for in response to our entering a new chapter of ministry service in Racine, WI I couldn't help but reflect of the great love passage of 1 Corinthians 13:
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails.
Love suffers long and never fails when we are committed to it. For a season in our service here in Metro Detroit, there was a lot of selfish foolishness but then we fooled around and acted out of love, and saw God glorified, His Word confirmed and our lives changed. Perhaps you've been deeply hurt in some church situation. Maybe you feel as if there is no way anything beautiful can emerge from your pain. I challenge you to remember that God's love is all about the Long Haul and that if you commit yourself to live in His love, you will not only see changes around you, you will see changes IN you! Let God's love get a hold on you. I know I'm glad I did.
Until next time...