My heart broke as I sat across from an elderly woman who began to weep in front of me. I didn’t know her and she didn’t really know me. Her husband displayed little emotion directly next to her…as if he was internally numb. Both of them were sitting in front of me because of their deep love for the church that they attend.
Periodically, I am asked by an organization I am associated with, to enter churches and survey members of the congregations that are having deep division and conflict. I provide them with prompts for them to begin speaking, but really they set most of the agenda as they share what is on their heart. The experience is not only used to collect data and the “pulse” of the people who attend the church, but also serves as a cathartic experience for those who are hurting.
The elderly woman in front of me was sobbing as she spoke about what the church was going through. This church was experiencing division, backbiting, and disorganization. At first, her posture was one of anger and bitterness. She had complaints about surface level issues like music style, carpet color, and men not always wearing a tie. She thought, so many times, about leaving the congregation and seeking one with less issues. Over a period of about 15 minutes, though, her attitude changed as she explained the deep impact this local worship family has had over the span of her long life. She told stories that truly embody what the Church is supposed to look like. Her past highlights include service projects, care for unknown people in the community, laughter, and changed lives. She truly loved this church. She was just so heartbroken to see what it was going through.
At first, I silently judged her (just being honest) based on the fact that her initial complaints were rather trite by my standards. If I would have stopped there, I would have jumped to the incorrect conclusion that these type of attitudes were the things holding the church down. What I realized, is that these complaints were simply a symptom of a larger conflict. The woman in front of me had trouble processing the deep division and simply wanted to experience something that made her comfortable in the moment. I can’t really fault her for that.
As imperfect as we are as Christians, and as many times as we all get it wrong, I can’t help but think that there is something redemptive in this woman’s tears, and a lesson to be learned. As a pastor, it is so easy to look at everything with an intense, theologically driven eye, and use my time to criticize people’s underlying motivations. I can give a class on why we are failing as a Christian culture and how value the wrong things. This all, however does not take the sting out of the genuine pain that this woman was feeling.
More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that, the church does not need more charismatic leaders, insightful Bible studies, church growth tactics, or even upbeat music. We need to mourn more losses together, cry, stay determined, keep an open heart, and most importantly; we need unity.
This woman was crying because the community she loved was struggling. Whether she was a shining example of a perfect Christian or not is neither here nor there. She loved.
So, perhaps you are reading this today thinking, “this lady was putting too much faith in people instead of God”. Or, maybe you are ready to lash out at me in an attack on “institutional religion”. Well, you may be right on some accounts, but I surely won’t fault someone who has seen such transformation in people’s lives, and for better or for worse, connects those events to a body of caring, loving, serving, and mutually-accountable people who desperately want God’s will to be done (on Earth as it is in Heaven).
Love you all.
Ladies and gentlemen
Welcome to the main event
A fight of the century
The bout worth every cent
In this corner, Daddy
Big, strong and wise
In the opposite; daughter
With the biggest blue eyes
This fight will put chills down your spine
It’s bound to be a thrill
Let’s listen to this verbal match
Lean in quietly and be still
The smallest one starts it off
Let’s hear her first swing
With a phrase she starts the brawl
Then Daddy steps into the ring
“I love you so much” she begins
We can almost hear the crowd roar
Their eyes stare each other down
She gets the very first score
“I love you more than you will ever know”
Daddy says with a smug grin
Then little lady fires back
The intense struggle is about to begin
“No, I love you times a million”
She says thinking she was going to win
But Daddy was ready for her joust
He cracks his knuckles, takes a breath, and leans in
“You are out matched little one
You don’t have a prayer
Mom and I asked God for you
We loved you before you even breathed air”
Daughter tried to fire back
But Daddy didn’t let her go
There was more that needed to be said
He was not nearly out of ammo
“I love you more than wide is wide
I love you farther than the planet Mars
I love you all the way to God and back
Way past the twinkling stars
Don’t try to defeat me in this
Because you have already lost
I would do anything for you
No matter what the cost
Sometimes mom and I can get mad
And raise our voices to correct
But never forget how much we love you
You are mine, despite whether or not you object
And with that final blow
The 4 year old accepted defeat
Not a thing could be said
As she stated at her little feet
Then, suddenly she looked up
with joyful tears in her eyes
She kissed Daddy on the cheek
And he realized this was all a guise
All she really wanted
Was to hear her Daddy say
That He loved her without conditions
And then she ran off to play.
Do you ever wonder why people are born with disabilities? If I were to be honest, I have these thoughts and I know many people have similar questions. One may wonder, “If God is good, then why are people born this way?”
I have many theories on things like this, but I imagine 90% of the theories I maintain would be nothing more than religious platitudes that seek only to push the issues aside and “Jesus” them away. In these conversations, it can be unhealthy to give canned “Sunday School” answers that are often spouted by people with the greatest intentions.
I do not really know why people are born with various ailments, malformations, and general physical obstacles, but I do know that so many times, people in these circumstances can bring the most inspirational value to the people around them. For instance, we may ask why Down syndrome exists, but if you have a family member with this genetic makeup, you know that people in this situation often love more deeply and enjoy life on a different level than others. I use these folks as an example because one could argue that many of them often have different hurdles to overcome.
People who are born physically or mentally “different” than your “average” person often do a lot to inspire the world around them. Now, don’t hear me saying (somehow) that I believe that people are born with disabilities, conditions, or ailments for our amusement or selfish gain. No, in fact the story in the Gospel of John comes to mind regarding the man who was born blind. The disciples asked Jesus why this man was born blind (thinking it was because of the sin of him or his parents). Jesus, however gave them a shocking answer. “This man was born blind so that the glory of God would be seen in him”, was the odd response. In this example the man was released from his life obstacle, but this also shows us that anyone’s story can be used for His glory!
My Uncle Jay was very much like this man described in John. Jay was born with cerebral palsy and early on his ability to walk was taken away. Despite this, Jay led a very active life. He worked, engaged socially with the world around him, and even dated from time to time. On top of this, he was a volunteer minister for a long time at his local church. He lived independently until several years ago when he entered into a nursing home.
We, as a family, knew that his life expectancy was much shorter than your average person, but when he finally passed away this year, he was just shy of 57 years old; which is far older than the doctor’s predicted.
Jay never complained about his lack of mobility or grumbled about his situation. He exhibited joy even when we knew he was tired and weary.
Funny story that turned into a lesson: In Jay’s final moments, we stood around his bed battling with the decision to remove him from life support. We gathered as a family and said goodbye as we cried together and shared stories of our life with him. The hospital wanted to give us our necessary privacy, and respectfully drown out any background noise of beeping monitors and nurses socializing so they turned on the radio. The music started playing and we weren’t really paying much attention to the words, but my ears perked up as the radio began to play “another one bites the dust” at the same time my uncle struggled to take his last breath. I brought this to the attention of the rounding doctor and the music was turned off. We had a little laugh about that, and it reminded us that there was going to be joy just on the other side for Jay. We were happy and sad simultaneously.
My Dad decided to choose the music and turned on a Christian station via a radio app on his phone. The song that played was “Eye of the Storm” by Ryan Stevenson. This song became our anthem throughout this hard time in our lives. It was also played at his funeral.
Here are some of the lyrics:
In the eye of the storm
You remain in control
And in the middle of the war
You guard my soul
You alone are the anchor
When my sails are torn
Your love surrounds me
In the eye of the storm
In my next post, I will dive further in the concept of dying. I know this seems morbid, but it can be joyful as well… All I will tell you is, sometimes, we all just need a tour guide…
My belly’s full of food
My heart is full of love
My family is all around me
And even more looking from above
I can’t thank God enough
For everything I possess
I deserve none of it
It is all by grace; I confess
Sure, these material things are great
And the money I earn is fine
But I honestly can’t say
That the any of the credit should be mine
I owe absolutely all I have
To the one who gives grace and hope
When I am standing on the mountain
Or at the end of my rope
I know I do not have much
In comparison to most
But, I can say I am content
Even though I cannot boast
I am truly grateful this year
For all the little things
And I pray that I will continue
To thank The Lord for what He brings.