"Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness."
Isaiah 41:10 KJV
This morning we are in our mountain home and as is always the case our Sundays are different, providing an extra window for rest given no rush to ready ourselves for church. If you are "unchurched" you may wonder why I would not choose ever Sunday to be as such!
Church has always been a part of my life, in fact I recall being placed on a blanket under the piano which my mom would play in each service during my early childhood.
The bulk of one's faith truly is shaped in childhood, perhaps why Jesus spoke often of children, their spirits more open to truth, less likely to rationalize away the moments that nurture peace deep within us, or as with me, unexplainable childhood visions and voices while at play.
Unless exposed to trauma, children soon fully grasp the concept of love, long before they can comprehend the need for the doctrines used to define and control human behavior.
Unfortunately, we adults tends to blur the concepts of love, mercy and grace by way of laws and requirements. To the child they are soon reduced to simple do's and don'ts. Then, the teenagers first test comes when they seek to rediscover true love, distracted by the hormones that prepare them for procreation. That's a topic for another day.
I actually enjoy church, given the relationships formed with those who's intent is rediscover a child-like faith, and exhibit a willingness to love whomever they meet, whether they be the homeless who wandered in hoping to find warmth, or the wealthy hoping to find something their money can't buy. Unfortunately, community does have its downside, especially if leadership is one's lot.
Ironically given this peaceful mountain moment, my trek through scripture this Sunday off from church once again confronted me with a mile marker in my spiritual life, Isaiah 41:10. A very emotional moment in 1987 after serving a congregation bi-vocationally for almost 13 years.
To my knowledge, beyond my "Living Room" moment at Dad's, no other moment has ever so changed my life trajectory, a seismic shift, followed by two career changes, and but for grace, could easily have destroyed my home life. It most certainly upended my dreams for at least a couple years, if not a decade!
Up until that moment, my life was at its best in many ways. I had just completed my first graduate degree and had transitioned from the classroom into an administrative role in community relations for the local school system. My income was at its highest ever, our first home paid off, with our daughter well placed in an elementary school only two blocks from home within that same system.
Given my responsibilities, I would visit her school almost weekly in my new role, shaping her life as well as hundreds of others. Later even the possibility of a superintendent's position before retirement at age 50!
The church construction that had taken much of my spare time during the first five years of our marriage was now years behind us, and we had navigated through our first pastoral transition, we were well positioned to become a thriving congregation, one deeply impactful!
I was now geared up to step into that "City Seeking Word" given to me in 1978. "Turning cities upside down" was what I understood to be the mission of the Early Church, so why not still! I was dreaming large, well positioned professionally and was in fact already reaching our city on several fronts.
I mistakingly assumed that our newly built church facility, one usually vacant except on Sundays and Wednesdays might have been providentially placed in order to serve the surrounding somewhat high needs community. The concept of a community center offering adult education, preschool, etc. was easily within reach given my new position, one with almost free reign of my time within our small school system.
As well, my denominational leadership role, both state and national seemed well timed should a model for such community engagement emerge.
I'll never forget explaining this idealistic model to my then "Sunday, Wednesday paradigm" senior pastor. The near scolding words that followed would run through me like poison in one's blood stream. His exact words are forever etched in my memory, "You need to settle down, serve God and forget this city vision stuff!"
Stunned by his advice, I challenged his discernment. His next words, "this time you have stepped over the line," his right hand traveling between our faces in furry, as to indicate some physical demarcation, a line in the sand now crossed.
He then applied a somewhat unfair leverage based upon an earlier divorce prior to my reentry into the church world. He went on to share that once fully disclosed, it could bar me from all my denominational leadership opportunities. You can imagine the false realities that were surfacing in my young and naive life as a devoted churchman.
I resigned that evening while standing in the church parking lot.
My wife was the bookkeeper for the church, and we were one of the larger donors. He immediately reached around to her, with a message that she should get me some psychiatric help. That was likely the first time, though not the last that I would feel the sword of power, often the last resort when the institution is threatened. Just ask Galileo, Copernicus or Hus, not that my relatively miniscule false charge merits comparison to those revolutionaries.
Keep in mind my use of nomenclature in referencing the Institutional Church versus the Body of Christ. They are not one and the same, for one is purely organizational in approach, structured, even controlling. The other organic in its essence, grace based, love stained, even mystical, as is the voice of the Spirit heard when one is sincere in reading scripture texts.
The truly life changing moment that I am getting around to was surely precipitated by that chaos, but delivered up a much more positive and promising freedom. It would occur several weeks afterwards, and only after one more rather intrusive moment by way of a home visit by the pastor in order to reclaim church documents.
It was during this second, but quite different from my "Living Room" moment with Dad, that my wife and I agreed to passively avoid any congregational trauma given our influence.
Coincidentally, a visiting missionary was scheduled for a week long "revival" and that would be our window for transition from any platform presence.
I'll never forget the first night that this respected man of faith, whom until then I had never met approached the pulpit. My wife and I were seated for the first time deep in the congrgation. He began his message with a story about a "Word" from the Lord recieved just before he was to leave his post in Africa to begin a series of ministry bookings stateside, ours being the first. He then went on to say that he believed the word was for a man in this church.
He asked that he might share the words given him by the Lord, then quoted Isaiah 41:10. I sat equally stunned as was the case in that prior parking lot moment, seeing simultaneously as his voice shared from Isaiah, the right hand of my pastor passing between our faces.
Some weeks after that final night in our first church, I followed up with this trusted man of God. It was then that he informed me of the exact timing around his "Word from the Lord". Were I to use King James language, it was near "the self same hour" as our parking lot confrontation! I kid you not!!
You can only imagine the encouragement that came as I later read the verses that followed, 41:11-20. Those words would inspire me toward next steps and even deeper engagement in cities, eventually my own consulting practice. I would name my practice, Master Counsel, Inc., words given to me some ten years later.
Our lives would shift dramatically from that day forward, and hard transitions were never again quite as difficult, for my wife and I would learn the meaning of "til death do us part" for spiritual and marital death had been tried!
Now 50 years into our marriage, we have learned to respect the mantle that seems to cover and prosper our lives and our calling to cities.
On this open Sunday, I am grateful for God's provision of a community of faith and a pastor willing to risk our involvement as wounded warriors, now more transparent than compliant, a risk in the eyes of those who's preferred paradigm is more institutional than organic.