Years Ago in a Church Far Away

“Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” (Galatians 6:1 NLT).

Following Jesus means getting involved with people. Sometimes this means seeing people at their best, in their happiest moments. So, like Jesus, we find ourselves celebrating at a wedding. Other times this means seeing people at their worst, in their broken moments. So, like Jesus, we find ourselves with a person caught red-handed in sin.

Years ago in a church far away I found myself with a church leader whose extramarital affair had just been revealed. This brother had worked hard to present himself as a sincere follower of Christ. He was a master of disguise who could create the illusion of an honest and morally upright family man. When his mask was pulled off, he was revealed to be something very different.

Sometimes having your sins revealed, especially in a public way, can provide a much needed opportunity to come clean and have a fresh start. As ministers, elders, and other church friends responded to this unmasked adulterer, we had hopes the situation could somehow result in repentance and bring glory to God. We met with “Billy” – praying for him, listening to him, and providing counsel for him. We reached out to his wife and children. We cried out to God for healing. We discreetly did all we could, without broadcasting details of this restoration process.

What happened next surprised me. Billy stopped taking our phone calls, refused lunch invitations, declined prayer opportunities, and began missing church gatherings. But while he stopped talking to church leaders and friends who were reaching out to him, he began talking to others in the church. In fact, he would talk to anyone who would listen, even reluctantly, to his complaints.

  • “Nobody has reached out to me to help me.”
  • “The elders are hypocrites; they haven’t even tried to call me.”
  • “None of my so-called friends care enough to reach out.”
  • “I guess the minister doesn’t have time for a sinner like me.”

And so he left the church, but not before trying to do as much damage as he could on the way out. After we began hearing these accusations of neglect, church leaders and friends continued to reach out to him. After all, we knew he was hurting and his life was reeling in the wake of his scandalous behavior.

What happened next surprised me even more. People from the church began calling me, the elders, and friends of Billy. They had been getting the phone calls from Billy in which he lashed out against the ones who lovingly and graciously helped him get a fresh start. One family was so disgusted by the lack of response to Billy that they left the church and wrote an angry letter on their way out. The letter didn’t ask questions to verify the stuff Billy was saying. The letter assumed Billy’s stuff was true and blasted the church leadership for not reaching out to him.

What’s an elder, minister, or friend to do? Do we broadcast to the church (especially to the family who left) all that had been done to help Billy? Do we try to defend ourselves against the charges? Do we grow bitter and decide to never get involved in another situation like this? I think the answer to each of these questions is, no. We do what God has called us to do – gently restore the person caught in sin. We cannot control how people react, but we can control how we act.

Praying through the Story

O Lord our God,

May Your name be praised.
May You be exalted above all.
May You be praised!

You have created for us.
You have chosen us.
You have given us fresh starts.
You have delivered us.
You have taken us places.
You have always kept Your promises.
You have seen our misery.
You have heard our cries.
You have parted waters for us.
You have defeated our enemies.
You have led us, day and night.
You have come down and lived among us.
You have spoken to us to instruct and command us.
You have provided our needs.
You have invited us to enjoy generous blessings.

But…
We have been proud.
We have been stubborn.
We have ignored Your instructions.
We have refused to listen to You.
We have forgotten the ways You have blessed us.
We have been bull-headed and defiant toward You.

And still…
You forgive.
You offer mercy and grace.
You are slow to get angry with us.
You are generous with Your love.
You refuse to abandon us.
You continue to lead us, day and night.
You send Your Spirit to us.
You continue to provide our needs.
You provide for us, bless us, and multiply us.
You subdue our enemies.
You pour out blessings on us.

But…
We disobey.
We rebel.
We turn our backs on You.
We reject Your messengers.
We are bull-headed and defiant.

And so…
You let us turn from You.
You watch as we suffer at the hand of our enemies.

But then…
You see and hear our condition.
You respond with mercy.
You liberate us.

And again…
We immediately forget You.
We refuse Your direction and help.
We suffer.
We cry out

And again…
You see and hear.
You respond with mercy.
You rescue us.

But…
We are slow to learn.
We refuse to follow.
We stubbornly rebel.
We are faced with the consequences.
We are faced with what we deserve.

Great and Mighty God…
Awesome God…
O God who makes and keeps promises…
Your mercy and grace are as consistent as our sin.

Can we stop this roller coaster?
Can we break this cycle?
Thank You, merciful God for intervening.

As we review our story with You,
May we be moved to repent, confess, and change our behavior.

We pray in Jesus’ name,
AMEN.

**this prayer was inspired by Nehemiah 9

 

“It gots to be….”

For years Mary had abused drugs. It began with alcohol. Then she began smoking marijuana. In no time she was smoking crack cocaine. But her drug of choice was heroin. After being scared of the needle that first time, she lived for it.  Eventually, she would die for it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Mary and I sat in my office talking about life. I shared some of my struggles. She shared hers.  As we sat and talked about life, she eventually opened up about what was really on her mind. She recounted the years of shooting heroin. She recounted weeks living in a “shooting gallery” where addicts gathered to satisfy their cravings. She told details about her first time to sell her body for a fix, and mentioned the hundreds of times that followed.

Mary wiped tears from her eyes as she told me she had HIV/AIDS. Since she was dying, she needed to talk to someone about her soul. She needed someone to listen. So she sat in my office and she talked.

She talked, and I listened, trying to be fully present in the moment. She talked some more, and I listened, trying to care about her as a person rather than be entertained by the lurid details of her story.

She talked and I listened. But I confess, at some point I was ready for her to finish dumping her feelings so I could tell her of God’s love. I had good news for her. Good news of God’s grace.

And that’s when the conversation took an unexpected turn.

Mary surprised me by telling me of her desire to repent. Unfortunately, her idea of repentance–of coming back to God–seemed warped.  She did not talk of God’s love. She never mentioned God’s grace. She didn’t say a word about God’s desire to forgive.

“It gots to be the Church of Christ!” Mary said with conviction.

“It gots to be!” she repeated twice for emphasis.

Sadness filled my heart as I processed her words. Here was a woman who desperately needed God’s grace, but instead trusted in her membership in the right church. In that conversation and dozens that followed, I tried to tell her of God’s grace. She always responded, “It gots to be!”

I would love to tell you how she finally came to the end of herself and reached out to God, trusting in God’s grace. But, honestly,  that’s not how the story ends.

Mary’s “repentance” consisted of renewed acknowledgement of her identity in “the one true church,” as she said. She never stopped shooting heroin. I frequently saw fresh needle tracks on her arms. I always suspected the prostitution continued, though she never did admit it. Her repentance was never expressed in a broken heart or behavior change.

Her idea of  “repentance” was simply to say, “It gots to be the Church of Christ!”

Mary died a very proud member of the Church of Christ.

Mary was not the first person to ever have this misunderstanding of repentance. She won’t be the last. But I still think of her every time I read John the Baptist’s call to repentance in Luke 3:7-14.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Have you ever confused repentance with being “children of Abraham?”  Have you ever cried out, “It gots to be the Church of Christ!” like Mary? Perhaps we need to ponder the words of John. If God can raise children of Abraham out of stones, I think God can raise “the Church of Christ” out of stones, too.

“The sacrifices of God are  a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.”
Psalm 51:17

More Than Words

Our Heavenly Father,

We join with the heavenly host,
declaring, “You are Holy!”
We make that declaration with the utmost respect.
We stand in awe of You, O God.

And we pray that as we gather we would do so
with a desire to be Holy
as You are Holy.

Forgive us when we sin
and “repent” with empty words
and ritualistic “worship.”
For we know You desire our hearts,
our broken, contrite hearts
more than our going through 
the motions of worship.

As we gather Together to worship this week,
we want to see Your Holiness.
And we want to hunger and thirst to be like You.

As we gather Together for worship this week,
we want to see Your Holiness.
And we want to experience the life change
that can happen only when You change us
from the inside-out, O Holy God.

So…
Break our hearts.
Bring us to You.
Bind us Together.

In Jesus’ name,
AMEN.

A Season of Prayer: Repentance

Last week I began a new season of prayer that has led me to spend several days inviting God to search my heart and reveal to me any way in my heart that is offensive. My goal is to begin this season of prayer with a time of repentance.

This morning I spent time reading in the fresh language of The Message the familiar story of the lost son in Luke 15.

God’s Word has captured my heart today with three questions that I pray will about through the day.

1. Have I grown dissatisfied with being God’s child? Am I restless and demanding of my own way with God? Have I made demands of God that will serve to lure me away from my Father and my family to a far-away land? What fuels my dissatisfaction?

2. Do I grasp the faithful, enduring love of the Father? Do I allow that love to draw me back to God? Do I take time to ponder how God celebrates relationship with me? If God loves me like this, how can I go on sinning?

3. Will I allow the sulking of some who “don’t get it” rob me of my joy? God wants to joyfully celebrate. The older brother wants to sulk. Will I let God or the older brother determine how I live? Have I allowed the spirit of the older brother to slip into my heart to the point where all I do is rant about him rather than joyfully celebrate God?

Take a moment to read the story…and join me in prayer.

Luke 15:11-32 (The Message)
The Story of the Lost Son

11-12Then he said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’

12-16″So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

17-20″That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.

20-21″When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

22-24″But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.

25-27″All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’

28-30″The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’

31-32″His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!'”

A Time for Repentance

Here is a list that might help you have a time of repentance in your life.

I repent of the times when:

  • I didn’t honor myself and God’s gift within me.
  • I saw others as a means to an end and not as God’s Beloved.
  • I spent too much money on myself and didn’t share. I was cut off from gospel values.
  • I judges others and even demonized them. I enjoyed telling my friends what bad people others were. I watered and fertilized resentment and enjoyed doing it.
  • I cared more about being right than about another’s feelings.
  • I refused to face up to my part in misunderstandings.
  • I pushed some to the margins of society.
  • I was cold or uncaring; I turned away from another’s pain or gave them only cliches for comfort.
  • I took control; I took the spotlight; I took the highest chair.
  • I saw evil, but I didn’t let myself speak up.
  • I became cynical and spent, with no desire to move out of my condition.
  • I refused, out of fear, to get involved when I could have helped.
  • I just forgot about people who needed me to say even a word, send a card, or make a call. I was too busy.

from Healing Troubled Hearts by Lyn Holley Doucet, pages 87-88