Sounds Dreadful, Right?
I’ll bet my sister invited me ten times to that church before I finally visited. But once there, I was hooked. People were genuine, kind, they engaged with me. They didn’t seem to care that I wore patched jeans instead of “cleaning up.” Small group involvement was at about forty percent, an amazing percentage for the most vital of churches. I felt included, accepted, and loved in a way I’d never experienced in any church.
The family I worked for also attended this small congregation. I had known them nearly all my life. They operated a small mailing list and bulk mail business, and I was one of two employees.
And I was in love with “my poet.” I moved myself and my children into his home. We had lived together before, but I moved out for religious reasons. Still, I was in love with him, and when he said, “Prove it by moving in,” I conceded. I was afraid to lose him, and did not trust God to fill my need for a mate.
My boss expressed concern about my living arrangement. I insisted it was okay, saying my lover and I would marry soon. Then my boss and the youth pastor made an appointment with me in a public place. Again, they asked me to not live with my lover outside of marriage. Still, I insisted.
Under censure now, I stopped attending church. (Because who wants to go somewhere that nobody talks to you, right?) I was peeved; both angry and hurt, though I knew the choice was my own.
A couple of months after I married, I went back to church. I had missed it, and I thought everything was square. The pastor approached me, suggesting some kind of closure for this situation — it had, after all, included the entire church. They had voted together to impose biblical discipline.*
I recognized the fairness and necessity of that, and agreed. No one had been unkind. I was nervous about how my confession and request for forgiveness would appear. But it felt more like stage-fright than a soul-crushing burden. I planned to send a letter to each member family in the church, then follow up with a short personal speech to the entire congregation at worship. Piece of cake, right?
I used my boss’ bulk mail business to send the letters outlining my failure, and asking for pardon. Unbeknownst to me, two letters fell between machines in the mailroom. The letters were sent, minus the two dropped ones.
The week that I was going to address the congregation at church, the pastor was absent. The youth pastor took his place. I thought for a minute I would not need to speak after all. (Off the hook!) The youth pastor spoke briefly on the Prodigal Son. Within two minutes, I realized he was speaking directly to me. I felt plunged into icy heat, overcome by healing floods of tearful repentance before I was ever invited to the stage. I was utterly undone.
Once on-stage, I struggled to speak, but was overwhelmed with emotion. I stood at the microphone, looking out at the upturned faces. Tears streamed unchecked down my face; I could feel a blush rise. I remained speechless.
Finally (after how long?), from separate places, two women rose and made their way to stand on either side of me. They held my hands while I stood there sobbing, until I was able to say what I needed to say, and sit down.
After that service, the congregation never brought up — by word, action, or attitude — what had happened previous to that day. It was an outstanding model of forgiveness: to not hold the offense against the offender. Forgiveness asked and granted, then it was “remembered no more.”
Days or weeks later, I found the letters that had been dropped between machines at my job; unsent, undelivered, unread. The names on the letters? That of the two women who stood with me that day, women with whom I had been in small group, women who knew my struggles. Now, why were those the letters that were dropped?
Would they have come to stand with me if they had received the letters? If they had known that I needed the lesson of confession and forgiveness, and trust?
*see Matt 18:15–17, and 2Cor 2:6–8 about the basis and guidelines for church discipline