I was a very broken person when Jesus found me. I experienced much healing when I first came into intentional relationship with him, and chose to leave behind my sin and my own will in order to serve him. Please don’t think that I stopped sinning all together, or that I served him perfectly, but my journey had begun.
Over the years God healed me further, and I actually began to experience joy and happiness on a regular basis. My relationship with him at this time was very intimate and personal.I had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, and was blessed by the life in the Spirit program, a wonderful Bible study for teens led by my Aunt Jeanne and Uncle Joe, and had some wonderful foundational experiences. I continued in the Roman Catholic Church in college, and it was a positive experience overall, but found that when I went to some of the services, if I brought a friend who did not know Jesus, there would not be a clear message that would bring him or her closer to Jesus.
I started going to different churches in medical school, and in my second year of medical school met and married my husband, who was an Episcopal priest involved in the charismatic movement. It was amazing and wonderful to be able to go to a church that talked about a living relationship with God, had the beauty of the historic liturgy, and sang praise songs and hymns with enthusiasm and joy. I was so excited about my relationship with God and being able to walk out this relationship with God within the church. During the remainder of medical school, and throughout my internship and residency, we had the joy of serving in many churches(my husband did most of the serving), as he sacrificially and kindly moved with me throughout my training.
Sadly, the Episcopal church we were part of began to endorse many practices forbidden by Scripture. My husband spent more and more time arguing, pleading, and preaching about the importance of obedience. We saw many people try to hang on to their own pleasures, and follow Jesus some of the time. I knew from my own experience that this would not work. I knew that this was not what the church was about. I was very sad, and often confused by the conflict. When we moved to Southern New Hampshire, it became obvious we needed to make a change. We joined the Charismatic Episcopal Church, and started Trinity Church in Kingston New Hampshire.
I had no idea what I was doing, (after all, I had married a famous international speaker and author, and not a pastor)and found this to be an incredibly difficult and painful process. I found that I was often hurt by others, and got plenty of feedback that I was not able to meet their needs. In retrospect, I made many mistakes. Our church grew, slowly, but after about 10 years, there was a painful split. At much the same time, our denomination went through a very painful conflict, and change in authority. The very same thing that we were experiencing on the local level, our national church was experiencing. It was so painful! Many of the people that I had come to love and trust left our denomination, and our church. Many of the people I had disappointed left. I began to question whether church was really part of what God wanted for me. After all, had he really saved me and healed me only to have me be broken again?
I did many things wrong. But I did one thing well. I continued to pray. In my pain I cried out to Jesus “ The church has hurt me!”
“Me too!” I heard Jesus reply.
His answer floored me! I began to think about all the problems of the church, all the disobedience, all the times when people have done the right thing for bad motives, or bad things with the right motive. I thought about all the people that I had hurt, by giving pat answers, or by being too busy to spend time with them, or simply by not being enough. I thought about all the times that the church had been swayed by political power, influenced by riches, a tool of racism, or hypocritical.
For the first time I began to grieve, not just for myself, but for Jesus who died for the church, and who loves her as a bridegroom loves his bride. I began to grieve who we should be as the church, rather than who we are.
In my pain, I started looking for excuses not to go to church. But it’s very clear from Scripture that there are no loopholes for Christians. The book of First Corinthians makes it clear the involvement in the church is necessary for anyone who named the name of Christ. Chapters 11 give detailed instructions on communion. It also makes it clear that these instructions were given because there was conflict and difficulty in the church. Chapter 14 goes on to talk about expression of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, specifically tongues and prophecy. Again it is clear that the reason the letter spells this out is because there had been problems.
This brought me to a new revelation as a human being, and as a Christian. I began to realize that there was no time in my life that I would not face problems. This was a surprise to me, as I had always thought that I would reach a point where all the problems were solved, and I would just be happy. I began to realize as long as I am alive, there will be conflicts and difficulties. Jesus does not tell me that I will not experience this, but rather that he will be with me in the midst of my trials. This is true of my relationship with the church, as well as in my whole life. My relationship with the church will not be trouble free, anymore than any of my real relationships are trouble free. My deepest relationships are marked by my degree of commitment to them, and that commitment involves working out problems and difficulties. That does not mean that I will be able to solve every relational issue with every person in the church.
Jesus makes it clear in the parable of the weeds and wheat (Matthew 13) that there are those in the church who will bear fruit, and those who are just taking up space, and perhaps even destructive. You may remember that parable ends up with the landowner leaving the weeds and wheat together, and that is a parable for the nature of the church. Not everyone who is in the church belongs to Christ. Even those of us who belong to Christ retain our free will, and continue to hurt each other, accidentally, and sometimes intentionally. That is why Matthew 18 talks about how we should deal with sin when someone in the church hurts us. We need to understand the church is not a perfect experience, but rather dynamic, living, and relational. Relationships require work, nurturing, and patience. Relationships, and the church, require forgiveness that I give, and that I receive.
It was important that I also understood that christians need to be around each other. It is important for us to go out into the world, and share the good news, but we also need to be around brothers and sisters in Christ. The second chapter of Acts makes it clear that it is normative for Christians to need to spend time with each other. It is important for us to spend time with people who are quite different from us. The church has been the place where I have been most exposed to people from other nations, races, and languages. I have spent time with people who have very different educational backgrounds than mine, who spend their days engaged in different crafts or trades than mine. It has caused me to stretch, rather than to be comfortable. The purpose of the church is not to make me comfortable, but to make me more like Jesus. Sometimes that hurts. Hebrews 10:25 tells us clearly that despite the fact that church is sometimes uncomfortable or inconvenient for us, we should not give up meeting together.
Lastly, as much as I like to think that I understood everything in scripture, and had a clear understanding of what a Christian is supposed to be, Acts 15 made it clear that Christians had to come together and discern God‘s word and will to understand how we are to work together. It was sheer arrogance on my part to think that I could go it alone. How deceived I was to think that I had the last word! And of course this was the source of a lot of my pain, humility is sometimes learned the hard way.
So where does this leave me? It leaves me in the church. It leaves me on my knees, asking for God’s help, mercy, and patience with myself and others. It leaves me inviting others to church, recognizing that some will come and some never will. It leaves me humbled as I see my failings mirrored in the eyes of others, and encouraged when they are blessed by my gifts, or by the fruits of the Holy Spirit in my life. It leaves me forgiving others, when they fail me in their actions, or their absence. And lastly it leaves me recognizing that I can always go to Jesus for healing. I do not come as a person who has arrived, who is healed, and needs to run away from any conflict to avoid wounds. I can be sure that God will help me with whatever circumstances I face. I can offer comfort as I have been comforted, and share the good news that Christ forgives, and gives us grace to forgive. The church belongs to Jesus, and we must belong to the church if we belong to him.