Monday, March 31, 2014

At first, they were in the balcony...

…then, they were everywhere.

I long ago discovered that the balcony is a good hiding place when someone attends a church and doesn’t want to be noticed. Though we left behind our balconied (is that really an adjective?) auditorium a number of years ago, I often reflect on a family who sat there. Week after week they attended our church. I think I met the husband once or twice as they quietly slipped away after a service, but I didn’t know them. I might never have known them, in fact, if I hadn’t recognized the man’s brother as a community leader. I knew him a little bit and noticed times when he arrived for a service. One day, someone told me that the quiet brother (the one with his family in the balcony) used to be a pastor. Now, I have been a pastor for a long time and it’s not common behavior for a pastor to simply blend into the woodwork for weeks on end; there had to be a story and I wanted to hear it. I invited the man and his wife to come in for a visit.

A few days later, they arrived at my office and we spent a few minutes getting acquainted. Then I popped the question: “Is it true that you used to be a pastor?” Still uncharacteristically shy, he said, “Yes.” I began to ask him about his conversion to Christianity, his calling and what happened that caused him to leave the ministry. The answer to that last question was more than a little painful, but can be described with two words: “Spiritual Abuse.” His family had started following Jesus in a church founded by a very authoritarian leader. After he became a pastor, they went to meetings once or twice a year in which they knew they might have to go home and pack because they were being relocated. They wouldn’t be given a voice in the matter; they just had to go. The day came in which one of the key movement leaders stood up to the founder and both men demanded that their pastors take sides. My friend refused. He was not only fired immediately, but his two young children were harshly shunned by kids who had been their friends just one day earlier.

I still have vivid memories of my friend’s story because, by God’s grace, they stayed in our church. It took years before they felt they could trust those of us in leadership, but gradually they became key leaders at Stone Ridge. Both he and his wife have become huge blessings to us personally and in ministry. Tragically, their now-adult children still suffer some of the effects of that ugly time in their lives.

After that first glaring experience with the damage religion can do, I have begun to notice how many people land in our church who have a history of being shattered by religion. One of our key leaders wouldn’t even attend a church until her husband checked it out in advance and pronounced it “safe.” Jesus came to love the world and to lay down His life as a ransom for sinners, but those who follow him have often been guilty of destroying the very people He loved so deeply. The statement may be old and dusty, but it still communicates: “The church is the only army that shoots its own wounded.” Tragically, many of them are wounded by what turns out to be friendly fire.

We ought not to be surprised. When the Son of God came into the world, the very people God had chosen were fractured because of religion. Religious groups were constantly sparring with each other over who was right. Their very religion was hardening their hearts and shattering their own people. One of them, a man named Joseph of Arimathea, opened his eyes wide, saw the hatred around him and became a key figure in the account of Jesus’ passion. We will learn from him this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can’t join us? Catch the podcast!