Friday, January 21, 2005

Singed But Not Burned

Isaiah 43:1-2 (King James Version)

Isaiah 43

“1But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.
2When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”

I suppose if I were you after reading the first part of this series I’d be asking, “Why didn’t he just end things right then and there. It’s a good question.

First, I don’t want to offer defenses or explanations. I just want to tell you what I was thinking.

First, I think it was a matter of pride. I somehow felt that I could work through the situation, that I was smart enough or clever enough to make things better. Also, I was too proud to go back to the church that had sent me to Louisville. I was really concerned about what people would say about me. I’m sure that was not only my pride but also my immaturity.

Second, there were practical reasons. I had a wife and three children to support. “Where else am I going to go to support them and what am I going to do when I get there?” was my thinking. I suppose that might be called a lack of courage or vision, a trust problem.

And third, I was stubborn. I believe now that was the prophetic instinct in me. It was this instinct that kept me there and, in the end, it was that instinct that was needed to confront the problems at “the church.”

As I said at the end of my first post on this subject I reached an accommodation of sorts with the “seminal thinkers” of the church. That accommodation seemed to work for a while. There were no more major flare-ups for about two months. The church didn’t grow, but I was beginning to hope for better things. My approach was to encourage people there, especially the younger ones. It seemed to me that in their family settings they were under tight control and needed encouragement. It’s difficult to put into words what I was seeing, but I’ll try. Any time I was around the younger people I had two senses, one that they were very careful about what they said and another that they acted as if someone was watching them at all times, someone that was going to pounce on them at any moment.. I tried to break through that veneer, but wasn’t successful.

In terms of development we made little progress. In our business meetings the time was spent talking about the dire need for a radio ministry to reach out to Louisville. I believe the way one put it was, “If God is going to bear His mighty arm in this city He’s going to need radio to do it.” The notion that God “needed” radio to get His word out seemed almost laughable to me, but I went along with the idea to avoid conflict. That was clearly a mistake. Before long the “seminals” wanted as much of the church’s money as they could get their hands on to “grow the ministry.”

There came a time when my thinking and theirs had a serious parting of the ways. I wanted to send some support money to some missionaries in Mexico. When I mentioned it in a business meeting there one would have thought that I was asking for something akin to the GDP of New York state. Actually all I was asking for was for fifty dollars a month. The concern raised was that the fifty dollars to a couple of missionaries in Mexico was going to put the radio ministry on a shoestring. After a vote I lost the battle. The radio ministry was going to “thrive” and someone else was going to have to support the missionaries.

Things went downhill from there. The “board,” the “seminal thinkers” began to question me about why I wasn’t preaching and teaching more about judgment. I told them that I believed that we needed as a church to focus on love and grace and that, in due time, I would get to judgment. That didn’t seem to satisfy them. Sundays from that point one found me facing a scowling group of “seminal thinkers,” arms folded, sitting (I’m sure now) in judgment of my failures and shortcomings. Their task was easy since my flaws were many and manifest.

It was at this point that I began to see that the younger members and the others who were not part of the inner circle of “seminal thinkers” were sitting on a fence of sorts. They were trying to figure out what was going on. They were looking for leadership, looking for which way they were supposed to go and they were getting conflicting messages.

My next big mistake came on the heels of these subtle conflicts. I began to tune out. While I didn’t give in to the pressure to get on the judgment track I wasn’t entirely tuned in either. I spoke and taught about love and grace, but I now see that my message was muddled. The words were the right words, but they weren’t being delivered in a whole-hearted manner. I needed renewal.

The church I’d left in Kansas City was having an annual minister’s convention at that time. I had been given an invitation to attend along with the “seminal thinkers.” I don’t know why the accepted the idea, but I was glad they did.

The convention was just what I needed. The three days were days of refreshing for me. I sensed as we left that I was very close to God. On the drive back from Kansas City to Louisville I sat in the back of the van and alternately pondered and prayed about the direction “the church” was headed in. during the times of worship in Kansas City I saw what I should have seen was so obvious all the time in Louisville. The situation needed to be addressed. There was no room for compromise.

We got back to Louisville and I spent the next two weeks outlining the direction I believed we as a church needed to go. The outline was simple really – love and grace had to be the order of the day. The Biblical rationale was also to be very simple and very direct:

Matthew 7:1-5 (New International Version)

Matthew 7

Judging Others

1“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.”

The question for me now was how to address the problem without creating conflict. I wrestled some way to smooth things out, even hoping that the problem would magically go away if I said nothing at all. Of course it didn’t.

I wrestled with my thoughts for two weeks. Then the first catalyst came. I was at home. It was after eleven at night. I was reading and noticed a car pulling up into our driveway. It only took a few seconds for me to see it was the “seminal thinkers.” I got to the front door about the same time they got there and invited them in. On entering they told me that they had gotten together and had decided that what they had to tell me couldn’t wait. I told them to have a seat and that I was “all ears.” In truth I was more than a bit upset. I felt that my privacy was being invaded and that they were up to no good. But I told them I was “all ears.” My hope was that we would finally get things flushed out.

The conversation, if you could call it that, was brief. The most seminal of the "seminal thinkers” laid their cards on the table. “We fully intend to make this church the biggest thing Louisville has ever seen and you’re the man who is going to get us there. This city is under judgment. You know it and we know it. Now it’s time for you to get off this love and grace thing. You can concentrate on that after you tell this city the truth about judgment.” I had a very brief answer. “Thanks. I’ll see you on Sunday.” I went to the front door and opened it, motioning for them to leave.

What happened next amazes me even now. I knew what I had to do; it was clear. Yet for almost two days a fear of the future set in. I knew how the “seminal thinkers” would respond to love and grace; they had already demonstrated that. “How?” I wondered, “Will the rest of the people at “the church” respond. I look back at it now and see how my lack of trust clouded my good judgment. My lack of faith was alarming, so alarming in fact I had quietly decided not to address the issues at hand. In doing so I mistakenly believed that at least my family would be fed and secure.

I woke up on the Saturday prior to that day of reckoning feeling conflicted. I knew once again what needed to be done, but I also knew that I had family responsibilities. At about 7:00 am I got a call from a man who had occasionally attended “the church.” He was an interesting man, a good solid thinker, from Jamaica. He was attending Southern Baptist Seminary and was planning on going back to Jamaica to plant a church as soon as he graduated. I was surprised to hear from him and even more surprised at his request. “Phil, I need you to take me to the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Meeting this morning.” I politely told him that I couldn’t. “I insist, Phil.” “Earl, please, I’ve got a lot on my mind this morning. I can’t.”
“I insist,.” He responded once more.

I picked him up about a half hour later and started out for downtown Louisville. We were only on the highway for a few minutes when he turned and said, “There’s something I’ve got to tell you Phil. Actually I think it’s something God wants to tell you. Phil, He’s given you something to say and you need to say it.”

Earl didn’t need to say anything else. I had not told anyone about my intentions. Only God and I knew, at least that’s what I thought. I was overwhelmed with what I heard. I pulled off the highway, stopped the car, and slumped over the steering wheel, weeping. This was my epiphany, the second catalyst.

That experience has always been, in my mind, a monument to my lack of faith. Before Earl had ever heard from God I had too. I really knew what had to be done, but fear and lack of faith had overwhelmed me. It had taken drastic measures for God to get through to me.

The day of reckoning came. When it came time for me to speak I took a deep breath, said a brief “Help me Lord” and proceeded. I began by reading from the passage in Matthew 7 I cited earlier. As soon as I did I could hear some of the “seminal thinkers” muttering to one another. When I got to the words “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” the leader stood up and shouted, “Stop this right now. Stop it.” The rest of the congregation was startled at first, but regained their composure. “We want to hear what Phil has to say. Please sit down.” I went on and outlined what I believed the core of the church needed to be, that love and grace had to be the operating foundation of the church. I had been speaking for about five minutes since the initial outburst when the real explosion came. The leader of the “seminals” stood up and started striding toward the pulpit where I was standing. At the same time others of his group began to “pray.” The leader got to the pulpit and shook his fist at me. “I’ll show you judgment. I’ll show you judgment.” I’ll always remember my thoughts at that moment. “Lord, he’s going to kill me isn’t he? Would it be alright if I just give him one good lick before I go?”

The commotion went on for several minutes and then ended as quickly as it had started. The leader never was able to get his arm unhinged enough to do what I’m sure he wanted to do. How can I put it? God protects fools and Irishmen. In this case I was doubly blessed and protected. No blows were ever exchanged.

I am certain that there may have been other ways to handle what happened in Louisville that morning. I’ve had some tell me I should have taken more authority. They may be right. But I’ve always taken great comfort from two things that happened that morning. One was that those who observed what transpired told me that they needed to see the “seminals” for what they really were. They had been conflicted and confused and that Sunday morning was a vivid example of all that a Christian should not be. The other is that love and grace are far more powerful than any force on earth or any other realm.

Well, the “seminals” left that Sunday morning. And so did the earthly treasure. The people who were left didn’t have enough to support a pastor. So over the next month or so I spent my time finding good healthy churches for those who were left when the dust settled. When that was done I moved back to Kansas City.

There’s more that could be told, but I believe I’ve said about as much about my experiences in Louisville as I need to.

I hope there are lessons for others in what I’ve shared, lessons about pride and egos, overcoming fear and learning to trust, lessons about the need for love and grace to reign supreme in the Church.

I and a small group of others learned those lessons in Louisville. In a situation that could have crushed our faith, God saw us through and strengthened it. We were battered and bruised, we were singed but not burned.


Messy Christian said...

I am sorry this happened, Phil! But I'm glad for what you did - you stood your ground - and that takes so much bravery especially since you have to face your fears.Thank you for sharing with us ..

violet said...

Phil, what a story! I can't imagine the turmoil for you and your young family.

We've been in some nasty church situations too - never at the very top, but my husband was chairman of the board a couple of times when pastors resigned. As someone privy to the games played, it made me very cautious about what I said and who I trusted - almost enough to turn me off church. How our Lord, who wants us to be known for our love for each other, must be grieved.