To be honest, I don’t have a Norman Rockwell image in my head of what a church looks like any more. That image of a sublime country church where kind, loving people gather each Sunday morning was wiped from my consciousness a long time ago by, you guessed it, much time spent in the real deal. In the real world, church life doesn’t always go well for congregations or pastors. In other words, conflict happens. One such brouhaha in church life occurs when a once cherished pastor leaves the church as a result of conflict that reaches critical mass behind the scenes. It can be especially ugly when the pastor does not recognize, for whatever reason, his contribution to the split. When the breakup happens, the congregation can tend to divide into four camps: those who are angry because they feel the pastor was treated unjustly, those who are relieved that the pastor left because they experienced the pastor’s questionable behavior firsthand, those who use the event to find another church, thus avoiding the unpleasantness (in which case they are no longer part of the equation), and those who are bewildered as to what happened (often the largest group). All four groups can include people who feel wounded by the event.
One of the reasons why people permanently sour on the church has to do with the unfortunate tendency of congregations and church leaders to overlook the wounded who get hurt in conflicts between congregants and pastors. When a pastor leaves a church due to conflict reaching critical mass, there is often an outpouring of support for the pastor, which can be a healthy and proper response (but not always). That said, I wonder why we do little to offer support to our fellow congregants who were wounded in the melee, as well. The use of social media exacerbates this problem. Some people think nothing of jumping on Facebook to express their fawning support of a pastor who leaves a church due to excessive conflict, yet it seems like nary is any support forthcoming for the wounded who left the congregation as well as the wounded who remain in the congregation. Granted, we all have a Biblical mandate to forgive those who hurt us and to apologize and seek forgiveness when we hurt others. But a valid question remains: is there an unhealthy one-way street when it comes to forgiveness and healing in church culture today? An example will help answer that question.
Steve (not his real name) was a pastor on staff at Good Shepherd Church (not its real name) before Cindy and I became members. Apparently some of the good folks of Good Shepherd had treated Steve poorly, which eventually prompted him to resign and join the staff of another local church. We started attending Good Shepherd about the time they recruited a new senior pastor, long after Steve’s departure. Our new pastor eventually became aware that a few people in the church had mistreated Steve in the past. One day our new pastor asked the congregation to go to Steve’s new church during an evening service so we could apologize for hurting him and seek his forgiveness. It was a moving and healing experience to witness. Our new senior pastor simply became aware of an injustice and sought to make it right in accordance with Romans 14:19. Our pastor discerned that the church would struggle to move forward until we made amends with Steve. But what happens when a pastor’s actions or words hurts people in the church? Should the church expect an apology from the pastor? What happens to the wounded if no apology is forthcoming? Should those who were wounded turn their backs on the church forever and retreat to their darkened bedroom with a bottle of vodka and a book of teachings by Friedrich Nietzsche?
People naturally want to move forward after a bad experience. But after a major conflict in the church, I wonder if moving forward too quickly sends the unintended message to the wounded that their pain and disappointments are inconsequential and they should get over it and move on. Also my gut tells me that The Almighty isn’t too pleased when some in his flock are left to nurse their wounds as best they can after a significant conflict. We humans are complex beings. Some of us recover quickly while others require years to work through anger and disillusion following emotional or spiritual wounding, especially if the wounds come from a spiritual leader for whom we had great admiration. When our wounds run deep and raw, God’s tender spirit often does not rush us through the healing process. You see, healing requires a malleable heart, which, like it or not, can require a lengthy season of crushing and softening on the road to healing. And even those who weren’t directly hurt in a church conflict may have their own issues to work through in its aftermath. All of this takes time to heal. It takes time spent in the Gospels or in the books of wisdom like Proverbs and Psalms. It takes prayer, patience, and time with other men and women of God who have the wisdom to navigate turbulent times in the church. A softer heart filled with God’s love can indeed emerge from the aftermath of conflict in the church.
Unfortunately, untended wounds can fester and rob us of contentment and spiritual growth. Such situations are stressful and destabilizing in a church. The best medicine is to forgive. And forgive. And forgive again. But we must also acknowledge our culpability, if any. Not sure if you have any flaws that made you culpable in the conflict? With a sincere heart, ask God and he will be glad to show you (and don’t I know it). And if you know brothers or sisters who were wounded in a church embroiled in conflict, encourage them to not give up on God, or the church, and what God wants to show them. Perhaps it would be wise of church leaders to provide trusted and credible professional or spiritual counselors to aid the wounded in the aftermath of a church conflict with the pastor. Yet ultimately our source of healing comes from God and the people in the pews who love us as we love them.
Metaphorically, I believe God wants the people of his church to experience the divine joy of singing, dancing, and making music in harmony. It can happen. Finally, pray that God will give our church leaders the vision, time, wisdom, and resources for healing the wounded that come under their care. This will help people grow in deeper faith that Jesus is real because the response of the church is very different from a world that chews people up and spits them out like rubbish.
Those on the political right viewed Bundy as a folk hero who stood bravely against the heavy hand of an overreaching federal government. Those on the political left viewed Bundy as a moocher (oh the irony) refusing to pay for grazing fees like all other ranchers using federal land. But just as things were beginning to settle down in the Nevada desert, Bundy, while answering questions at a news conference, launched into his personal views on the plight of African Americans on government assistance, likening their plight to idleness, government subsidy (ironic), jail, abortion, picking cotton, and slavery. I don’t know if there was a legitimate moral message somewhere in the midst of Bundy’s observations on race and government assistance, but the word’s chosen and his delivery were not politically correct or helpful. In other words, he indeed sounded like a racist. This left those on the political right scrambling to distance themselves from Bundy the person without distancing themselves from the issue of an overreaching federal government. Those on the left used the opportunity of Bundy’s words to discredit Bundy, his cause, and all who supported his cause.
Skip ahead a couple weeks to April 29, 2014, and the saga of Donald Sterling, owner (or possibly a soon to be former owner) of the LA Clippers. The NBA banned Sterling from all NBA activities for life because of news that he had expressed his desire to a lady friend that she not bring black friends to Clippers games. His comments, if accurately portrayed, reflected a racist mentality. Swift public outrage led some advertisers to drop the LA Clippers. Talk of a player’s strike was bandied about. Many players, former players, team owners, representatives, sports media personalities, and fans praised the NBA commissioner’s swift and stern decision to ban Sterling from basketball. Now Sterling can only watch basketball on television. Yet this writer (always the skeptic) wonders if NBA leadership acted for purely moral reasons or because this incident stood to cost the league substantial revenue. If you have the ability to take away a significant chunk of an organization’s money, that organization’s leadership will find a way to take action to staunch the financial bleeding. This is an example of market forces (and politics) at work on a moral issue. Of course the opposite can also happen: if you promise to infuse a lot of money (with strings attached) into an organization, the leadership of the organization might be enticed to take no action or take an immoral action.
As an aside, the response of the NBA in the Sterling case is the proverbial slippery slope. In the future, what is to stop an organization from firing someone or canceling their contract because they hold unpopular views on gay marriage, global warming, suffrage (just kidding) or whatever the moral issue du jour? In such an environment it becomes easy to slip across the line from opposing a legitimate immorality to persecution of people with legitimate beliefs of conscience. Go back and re-read 1984. I guess we all need to make sure our thinking is right.
The morally superior attitude of many who responded to the words of Bundy and Sterling made me uncomfortable. Why? Because they view those who engage in this loathsome sin as irredeemable, people who should be completely discarded. But the Bible tells us it is possible to renew our minds. People can change. With God’s help, a racist can eliminate racism from his heart. And yet many who decry Bundy and Sterling come off like these two men have no hope of mercy and forgiveness.
As for Bundy and Sterling, they have encountered a hard reality about modern society: “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.”
My medicine cabinet contains something shocking–medicine. Despite the fact that millions of Americans consume pharmaceuticals worth billions of dollars, we have developed a strange cultural tendency to decry the use of medication as somehow morally inferior. After a lifetime among fellow Christians, I can honestly say believers often share the same aversion to medicine. We might even be worse than the general population in our attitude about the use of medicine for healing.
Recently I listened to a Catholic priest being interviewed on the radio about the many confessions he had heard during his lengthy career. The priest said that a number of Christians he met for confession could not accept forgiveness because they had tethered their sins to clinical maladies. For instance, if John Smith has obsessive compulsive disorder that he believes is somehow connected to the sins in his life, it will be almost impossible for Smith to accept that he has been forgiven. Tragic! Even more shocking was the priest’s revelation that the vast majority of believers with a psychological disorder refused to pursue treatment. He said only 2 out of 20 would ever follow-up on his suggestion that they needed professional clinical help that might include counseling and/or medication. Many of these folks were convinced that their suffering was related to sin rather than something clinical. They refused to get the help they desperately needed. They resigned themselves to the belief that suffering was part of God’s plan for their lives and it was just their cross to bear. To this I say bull$&!#.
Back in my day (stop rolling your eyes, millennials), the medical profession was beginning to explode with new drugs and ways of treating diseases. Many of those diseases had formerly meant an automatic death sentence for people. We called them miracle drugs and we viewed doctors and surgeons with awe. These days I know people who argue with their doctor about almost everything. I am not suggesting that we idolize fallible medical professionals. And certainly the pharmaceutical companies have made grave (no pun intended) errors. But should we default to stigmatizing all medicines and their use?
In Luke 10:30-35, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. Recall that the Samaritan bandaged the victim’s wounds, pouring on oil and wine.
In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul tells some sick people in the church to stop drinking only water and start using a little wine for their stomach and frequent illnesses. Back then, wine was used like a medicine (today it seems to turn people into snobs). They didn’t have the water purification systems we have today. In essence, Paul was dispensing medical advice for their digestive health.
Here is my point: It is OK to take appropriate medicine for a legitimate injury or illness. We get no moral or heavenly kudos for going the natural route at the expense of our health. There is no glory in needless suffering. Of course it is best to eat right, exercise, and embrace healthy lifestyles. But using medicine does not make us worse Christians. At worst, denial about our ailments and refusing medicine can put us at risk of faulty thinking about sin, suffering, and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness does not require that we choose to suffer. Choosing to suffer needlessly is just obtuse, not noble.
Another scandal hit the news recently about some pastors resigning over inappropriate sexual and abusive behavior in the church. I’ll spare you the lurid details. It makes me angry when these things happen. Not just because of the betrayal of trust and the often predatory mentality of the pastors who cross that line (they prey on the vulnerable), but because such defrocked pastors too often finagle a return to full-time paid ministry as a pastor. When that happens, it raises serious questions about the hiring policies of some churches. It also makes me question whether the leadership at churches that hire defrocked pastors has a misguided interpretation of forgiveness and restoration so off the rails it puts their congregation at risk.
Here is a valuable tip for all Christians in a denominational or independent church: If your church leaders hire a pastor without doing a thorough background check (including reference checks), or they decide to hire a pastor who has demonstrated inappropriate or predatory sexual behavior in the past–RUN AWAY! That’s right, find another church. There are too many wolves out there these days for congregations to indulge a Pollyanna attitude about safety in their church. The sad truth is that some of those predatory pastors know how to weasel their way back into a church leadership position and often the only thing standing between them and a new congregation is the church search or hiring committee.
Don’t get me wrong, I support forgiveness and second chances with appropriate safeguards, but the process of rebuilding trust takes years. Often it’s better if fallen clergy find another career. There are simply too many damaged and vulnerable people sitting in congregations to expect anything from church hiring committees other than absolute commitment to the safety of God’s sheep over nepotism or misguided ideology.
If your church is in the process of hiring a new pastor, I believe it is appropriate for members of the congregation to ask those responsible for hiring to explain the process they will follow, especially the process of background and reference checks. It is OK to ask how they would handle a negative hit in the background check process. Granted, there are issues of confidentiality in hiring procedures and those responsible for hiring might not be allowed by law to share details about a specific candidate’s application. But congregations have a right to know if church leadership has a thorough screening process that they follow without exception. It is a red flag if the hiring committee is determined to hire a candidate without a background check (or they choose to ignore the results of a background check) simply because the candidate is a dynamic speaker, has years of experience, or is the friend or family member of someone in church leadership. In that case, church leaders may be putting vulnerable people in the congregation at risk. On the other hand, hiring committees may be so focused (with good intentions) on developing a dynamic and growing church that they don’t see a candidate’s glaring red flags. Either way, the congregation is at risk. The fix is for congregations to take a more active role in knowing their church’s hiring process.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. I need to get some flowers for the sunshine lady of my life. (Is it odd to get flowers for an Australian Shepherd?) I should probably get something nice for my wife, as well. When Valentine’s Day rolls around, mushy stories of romance abound. In the weeks before Valentine’s Day, we also get treated to nonstop jewelry commercials on television. Thinking back to my childhood, I recall how our school teacher organized the exchange of little Valentine cards that students placed in each others’ storage cubicles. On Valentine’s Day we would pull out our Valentine cards and count them up to determine our place in the classroom social hierarchy. (With the help of a good psychiatrist, I’m no longer bitter about that.)
Don’t get me wrong, I am indeed a romantic at heart. But I’d like to share with you an unconventional romance. It is the Bible story of Hosea. Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute. Yep, it does seem like a strange thing for God to do. Anyhow, Hosea obeyed God and married Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. And surprise! Things didn’t go well. Gomer conceived and gave birth to children in the midst of plying her craft of prostitution. The implication is that some of the children she conceived were not Hosea’s. (Duh!) God then instructs Hosea to take Gomer back and love her again, even though she was sleeping with another man. Here’s the astonishing thing: Hosea takes Gomer back and loves her and tenderly takes care of her. Not only that, he accepts the children who were not his own. Wow!
I do not believe this story is a fictional representation. It is my humble opinion that the marriage of Hosea and Gomer was a real marriage. God uses their uncomfortable story to demonstrate how his people cheated on him by worshipping other gods. But, just like Hosea took back his cheating wife, God took back his cheating people. This story applies to Christians today. We casually cheat on God by falling in love with modern idols such as money, careers, status, sexuality, food and drink, sports, technology, entertainment or whatever. Sometimes we try to worship our favorite idols and God at the same time, which is even worse.
Here is what Hosea taught me: I used to think of sins and idols with a sense of detachment. That is, I thought most of the sins and idols we dabble with in Christendom are not viewed by God as very egregious in the grand scheme of things. But Hosea’s story showed me how much it personally hurts God when we drift away and pursue other lovers. Still, God loves us so much that he takes us back even after we cheat on him. He does not always remove the consequences of our betrayals, but he bends down to loves us and cares for us, thought we don’t deserve it. That’s a great romance!
Was anyone surprised by Lance Armstrong’s confession about cheating at cycling? (If Oprah Winfrey could not tug it out of him, who could?) The problem of cheating has dogged humanity since the beginning. Remember that Jacob cheated by impersonating his older brother, Esau, to get his father’s blessing and birthright. Today we might not think of cheating as one of the more serious moral issues, but God does. In Deuteronomy 25:16 it says, “All who cheat with dishonest weights and measures are detestable to the Lord.” Ouch! I don’t cite this verse to make Lance Armstrong feel bad or to sound morally superior (I’m not even morally superior to my Border Collie, and he’s a miscreant), but to point out that something sinister occurs when people cheat.
Proverbs 16:11 says, “The Lord demands accurate scales and balances; he sets the standards of fairness.” This Proverb is for all who make rules, follow rules, and enforce rules. If we don’t accept that God is the ultimate author of fairness and his standards are much more important and perfect than our notions of fairness, we are doomed to compromise fairness to meet our own desires. Granted, Armstrong may have been competing on what he perceived as a level playing field while doping because most of the other top competitors were doping, but the ethical waters certainly got muddied. And people got hurt in the process.
God knows it is dangerous for flawed humans to think that ethics, morality and fairness are contrivances that society can create and manage for the sake of having a smooth-running society. If a society is to survive and thrive, its people must hold to the belief that there is a moral God who cares about our decisions and actions. Any standards of fairness without the foundation of God are ephemeral. In other words, ethics and fairness are not important because societies can’t survive without them (though that is true), they are important because they are part of God’s character.
Fortunately for Lance Armstrong, and all of us, Psalm 51:17 says: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, or God.”
Hopefully, Lance Armstrong has started the journey towards a broken and repentant heart. The thing he will need to watch out for is time. As time passes, he will likely desire to move forward and get on with life while people and other forces will want to keep dragging him back to his painful mistakes. It will be challenging to maintaining a broken and repentant heart until he weathers all the storms ahead and comes to the place where God desires to take him. Lance Armstrong can be a better man. But it can only be accomplished with God’s help. Maybe that’s the lesson for Lance Armstrong: this is one race he can’t win on his own. It is a truth that applies to all of us when we stumble.
Last Sunday I enjoyed a great homily. (Not to be confused with hominy, those bleached kernels of corn your parents forced you to eat when you were a child.) Anyhow, the pastor’s message was about loving mercy more than justice. The Bible reference used for the message was the story of Joseph, who was betrayed by his brothers because they resented the fact that Joseph was their father’s favorite son. Out of jealousy, they sold Joseph into slavery. The beginning of Joseph’s story can be found in Genesis 37. It’s a long story so we will jump ahead to one of the key elements that can help us navigate our broken relationships today. It’s found in Genesis 42:21-22. But first let me set the stage. Through a series of spectacular events spanning many years after being sold into slavery, Joseph has risen to a position of power in Egypt. His brothers, facing a famine in the region, have come to Egypt to buy food for their families to survive. Joseph is now in a position to repay his brothers for their horrible mistreatment of him. His brothers do not recognize Joseph when they meet him in Egypt. Joseph tests his brothers by accusing them of being spies. He wants to see if their hearts have changed for what they did to him many years before. His brothers fear for their lives. Here is how his brothers respond while discussing their situation amongst themselves:
“Then they said to one another, ‘In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.’ And Reuben answered them, ‘Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.’”
Joseph eventually reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. He tells them not to be distressed or angry with themselves for what they did to him because God used their actions to save lives. Joseph goes even further by providing financially for his brothers and their families. Joseph and his brothers reconciled because their hearts were all in the right place. His brothers faced up to the evil they had committed. They were contrite. Joseph’s actions demonstrated his love of mercy over justice.
Here’s the fly in the ointment: We often have broken relationships with family members or former friends who are unaware of, or adamantly resist, their responsibility to own their role in the mess. Human nature tends to ignore or rationalize its actions or inactions rather than own its role in wrecked relationships. In the ecosystem of the church, we often hear the imperative to forgive even when the other person does not ask for forgiveness. We forgive for our own healing and because it pleases God. I agree with this principle. However, we must somehow deal with the tragic reality that some people who have wronged us may never feel remorse and seek reconciliation. Others may wait to the last minute. My mother, literally on her death bed, expressed regret for some hurtful treatment of my wife and daughter.
So what do we do when someone who’s wronged us hardens their heart and refuses to face up to the relational wreckage they’ve wrought? Or how do we respond when our attempts at reconciliation get the cold shoulder? Do we suck it up and get on with life? There is a simple verse that packs a lot of punch on this subject. It’s found in Romans 12:18:
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Did you catch that? It says “so far as it depends on you.” This means there are limits to what we can do. This flies in the face of our American psyche that says we can do anything we set our mind to. Sure, we can land a functioning high-tech Rover on Mars, but we can’t fix all of our broken relationships. There is something reassuring about the inclusion of this verse in the Bible. It validates my responsibility to do what I can towards the goal of restored relationships, but also sets a boundary that guards my mental, spiritual and physical health. When we bump into that boundary, the broken relationship is in the hands of the other person and God. If I cross that boundary and try to do more, to make the other person see the light, I encroach on God’s domain.
So, as your extended family gathers for Christmas celebrations, and you face that insufferable uncle Fredo whom you loathe for failing to repay you for the money you loaned him to start that alpaca farm, remember the boundary and don’t cross it. (Or have a couple of glasses of wine to loosen your tongue and let the show begin . . . the choice is yours.)
When I was a teenager, my father would ride my case for trying to cook and watch TV at the same time. “You can’t cook and watch the boob tube at the same time,” he’d warn with emphatic flair and color in his choice of vocabulary. Sage advice, indeed! I still occasionally stray from my father’s philosophy on the culinary arts, only now I do it to answer the siren call of the computer (i.e. I get distracted by Mahjong as the bacon crackles in the skillet). Such is the strength of my convictions. Nevertheless, my clever efforts in the kitchen assure our family of a good night’s sleep knowing that the smoke detectors work quite well.
Forty years later I can still hear my father’s voice. I know what words he would use to guide me in almost any given situation. I know his carefully selected intonations. “Use your noggin, knothead!” was his go-to tool that frequently inspired me to immediately stop whatever I was doing and use common sense before suffering some eminent, and completely unanticipated, injury. I knew he could be gruff and direct at times, but his heart was always tender with me.
Too often I think about old sins. It’s frustrating how sins from the past can torment us in the present. While mulling over those old sins I catch myself thinking on some deep level that God can’t or won’t forgive me, that somehow my sins are more egregious than the rest of humanity’s transgressions. I don’t feel good enough. That’s when I sense God say, “Don’t insult me, knothead! I sent my son to permanently separate you from your sins.” Well, maybe God wouldn’t say “knothead,” or maybe in my case it’s a foregone conclusion. But you get the gist of what God might say in response to our thoughts of self-loathing and feeling unforgiven—“Really? You are still letting Satan shame you after all I’ve done for you?”
1 John 2:2 says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
And Psalms 103: 12 says, “. . . as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Just like nothing can separate us from the love of God, nothing can reunite us with our sins.