Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A Brief History of a Church That Should Never Have Been

2 Samuel 7:1-9 (New International Version)

2 Samuel 7

God's Promise to David

“1 After the king was settled in his palace and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 he said to Nathan the prophet, "Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.
3 Nathan replied to the king, "Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you."
4 That night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying:

5 "Go and tell my servant David, 'This is what the LORD says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? 6 I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. 7 Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"

8 "Now then, tell my servant David, 'This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. 9 I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth.”

This series of posts is something I’ve hesitated for some time in writing. It’s because the events that took place are deeply intense and deeply personal. But I believe it’s now time for me to recount those events that took place over thirty years ago.

The catalyst for me in this has been reading one particular post from Feeble Knees a few days ago. Something she said in that post about a series of experiences she had had in a church setting really hit home with me:

“The following night I went back to the next service, completely expecting the senior pastor to take the pulpit and gently explain in so many words that they had sent this wacko packing, but no. He was back again, sitting on the platform and waiting to take the mic. I groaned. How could this be happening? Why are they letting this man go on?”

So, with thanks to “Feeble” (I believe that’s what we bloggers call her) I am now prepared to go back to those times and share my experiences, hoping that in so doing that someone out there will be instructed.

I was just about done with my second semester in seminary when this all began. I was doing well, so I thought. But there were a few nagging doubts about what I was doing. I did not then, nor do I know, feel what I can best describe as pastoral instincts. Mine were, and are, more prophetic. I’ve always had this sense that I’m a man walking around with a pin looking for balloons to burst. That, I can assure you dear reader, is not a healthy pastoral instinct. Pastors are leaders and they are comforters. When someone is confused or hurt or wandering in the wilderness the last thing that person needs is a prophet. He or she needs comfort or reassurance. Once that person has been given that then the prophet can step in and sink the teeth in.

Now I need to clarify, because I’ve seen lots of people with prophetic instincts who are downright mean. That’s not the prophetic instinct I try to live by, nor is it the instinct that I endorse. While it’s true that the role of the prophetically inclined is to disrupt, that role has a context. In the Old Testament the prophets prophesied within a context. Look at what they said and you’ll see it. They were constantly reminding the people of two things – their obligation to the law and the truth that God had brought them out of bondage. In the New Testament, under Jesus, there was a new paradigm for the prophetic instinct. The context for the Church of Jesus Christ was love and grace.

As I was wrestling with these ideas in 1977, my ex-wife got a call from a relative in Louisville, Kentucky. In the course of the conversation she was told that the people in Kentucky had just joined a new church. They had been in existence for about a year and now felt they needed a pastor. They had heard about me and had decided that I might be a good candidate for the position. When my “ex” relayed the word to me my first thought was to drop it altogether. But in the next couple of weeks the idea grew on me. It got to a place where it got deep enough that I decided to pursue it. As I look back on it now I see that my ego played a significant part in my decision. But I don’t want to be misunderstood even before I start. I believe that God had His hand in the decision I made and in the subsequent events as well.

The next step was to go to Louisville, to preach a Sunday sermon. As I prepared I seemed to instinctively know what they were looking for. So I prepared accordingly. On the appointed Sunday I preached a message from Micah 3:9, about a people who “abhorred judgment.” I aimed it particularly at the few young people who were present; I chided them for their lack of responsibility, for focusing on pizza parties and fun stuff rather than the weightier elements of the gospel. Well, the pulpit committee, such as it was, loved it. When the service concluded the opinion was unanimous – “He’s our man!”

Looking back at it all now I am certain that those who said I was “their man” only heard one word out of everything I said that morning. It was the word “JUDGMENT.” In time I learned that they loved that word and reveled in its workings. It was, as they saw it, the foundational principle of this church.

One more aside. I am not going to name the church. The reason I won’t is that I believe there may be other churches out there with that same name that are perfectly healthy. I want to be sure that what I share does not assign itself to the reputation of a perfectly good church.

I’m now able to see clearly what I couldn’t see when I first arrived in Louisville. In this first post of the series I’m going to recount three incidents that served either as instruction to me or metaphors of what a church should not be.

The first event came about a week into my tenure. I decided that the “seminal thinkers,” who occasionally challenged me to open my faith horizons might be right. Maybe my faith wasn’t big enough for the task. I decided to do something about it. “I’ll look for a building as big as I can find and build this church into it,” I mused. So I launched out into the deep, so to speak. I checked the real estate section of the newspaper for properties for sale. Now I have to admit I didn’t “enquire of the Lord” at the time, but I thought my faith would propel me in the right direction. And, sure enough, I found what I was looking for. A large property, about ten thousand square feet, that was empty. And the asking price seemed good. I got excited and decided I just had to see it. I even took my three kids with me. When we arrived on scene I saw a ramshackle building that looked like it was ready to implode. The walls were caving in and they were caving out. “But, no matter,” I thought. “The big ministries always start this way. They start with nothing and the next thing you know there are thousands attending. I’m sure there’s potential here.” We went inside and saw that things were even worse than the outside. The floor was full of fallen plaster, garbage, and needles. Still I wasn’t dismayed. “God can take a drug house and make it into something beautiful.” I started walking along the walls, symbolically measuring cubit by cubit. Then, Jarrod, my oldest son, who was eight years old at the time, interrupted me. “Dad, can we go now? I don’t like this place.” The other two, Beth and Michael, who were six and four respectively, seemed to agree with their older brother. “Let’s go dad. This place scares us.” Now children can be notoriously unspiritual little creatures at times. They wiggle around in church. They spend inordinate amounts of time getting up during church services to go to the bathroom. And, in this case, my own kids could not see the possibility before them. I continued to walk around, ignoring their pleas. As I did I decided this would be the appropriate time to “enquire of the Lord” about this great possibility.” As soon as I did the answer came. “You’re kids are right! I don’t like this place either.”

What’s astounding to me now is that I left that building with the sense there are even times when God seems to be unspiritual. In other words, while I left heeding His wise counsel, I was now more determined than ever to make this church in Louisville happen. If it wasn’t this building it was going to be another.

This now brings me to metaphor number one. That building was God’s way of telling me that unless a building, or a house, has a solid foundation it is not worth building on.

The second event came a few days after number two. I found myself spending a good part of my days sitting and talking with one of the “seminal thinkers” of the church. I would go to his store and we would sit, with him talking and me listening. He seemed to be a man of considerable influence and wealth. He was also very persuasive. I don’t recall what we were discussing when it all happened. A man came in to the store and the “seminal thinker” knew him right away. The man also seemed to be a man of considerable influence, and like the shop owner, seemed to be quite wealthy also. The three of us sat down and started up a conversation. The first thing I noticed about the visitor was that when he spoke of God the language seemed strained, filled with clichés like “the Man upstairs.” Now they were harmless enough, but I also sensed that he was distant from God. As the conversation ended the man opened his inside suit pocket and produced a check book. He wrote out a check and handed it to me. It was for ten thousand dollars. I took the check, but held it lightly. “Why are you giving this to me or to the church?” His response confirmed what I had sensed about him. “I just need to be sure to keep “the Man upstairs” on my right side.” I was now glad that I held the check so lightly when he gave it to me. I handed it back to him and told him I couldn’t in good conscience take it. He seemed stunned. “Why?” he asked. “Isn’t my money good?” I responded, “Oh I’m sure your check won’t bounce, but I can’t leave you with the impression that you can buy God off. You’re eternal soul is worth a lot more than ten thousand dollars. Sir, you need to have a conversation with the Almighty. He wants to talk with you. He loves you far more than the ten thousand dollars.” That’s as far as our conversation went. He left. I don’t know if he ever understood what I was trying to tell him. I hope and pray that he did.

The most surprising thing that happened, though, was the reaction of the “seminal thinker.” He was furious with me. “Don’t you know that God wants to take the riches of the heathen and use them to bless His people?” he bellowed. The only response I felt I could offer was that the man’s soul was worth more than the money.

I left a while later, metaphor number two in tow. Money is no substitute for truth or living faith.

Incident number three came about a week after number three. It was a Saturday morning. I had just finished mowing my lawn and decided to take a walk around the block. As I did I noticed a man about a half a block from my house working on his lawn. As I passed I offered a short greeting. “Hey, how are you?” I was going to pass on, but he started moving in my direction and offered his greeting in response. “I’m fine. How about you? I’ve noticed that you’re new to the neighborhood.” He then introduced himself my name and I reciprocated. The next question on his mind was my profession. I told him that I was the pastor of “the church.” When I mentioned the name of “the church” he flinched. It seemed to me to be an instinctive reaction. Our conversation went on for a few more minutes and then I came back to what I’d noticed. He told me that he had been a member of “the church’ when it had started up, but had left. “Why?” I asked. He told me that he had a daughter with cerebral palsy and that one point in his membership he was challenged to have more faith for her healing. He went on to say that in time he decided because of this to leave “the church.” Before he did he felt the right thing to do was to let the “seminal thinkers” know what he was doing. When he did he was told that if he and his family left “the church” his daughter would die because of his lack of faith.

His words stunned me. I felt a fury rising in me. I told him that I had to go and drove over to the home of the greatest of “the church’s” “seminal thinkers” to confront him with what he had said. Now it’s rare when I use graphic language, but I need to know to let you know just how deeply I felt. When the door opened the first words out of my mouth were, “If you ever tell anyone at this church or any other church that their children will die because of their lack of faith I will kick your ass and drag you around the gravel and then staple your ass shut! Have I made myself clear?”

I don’t know exactly how the situation was resolved because was trembling with anger as the “seminal thinker” responded. But he promised not to be “misunderstood” again and we decided to go on from there.

There is no third metaphor here. I began to see that something was seriously wrong in Louisville. The first two metaphors and the experience on that Saturday morning told me so.

Knowing what I now knew I felt I had to think my way out of the situation I was in. That, and more, will be the subjects of my upcoming posts.

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

King of Fools said...

I'm tuned.

Thanks for sharing - I think we can all learn from the mistakes we have seen and participated in. Unfortunately, most feel that mistakes are to be buried and forgotton.