Four Seconds One Saturday

By Name Wittheld

As the elders of [this church], we have allowed too much time to pass before seeking reconciliation with you.

The words cut through the gray afternoon with the effect of a razor on paper. It was the opening line of a letter I had long since decided would never—could never—come. Now, in the fog of awakening from a nap, it was in my hands, dropped there by my wife with only the warning that it had made her cry.

There was no soft lead-in to the thing, no opening paragraph to set the stage or hedge the bets for what was to follow. It was as if six years of silence had suddenly exploded into expression without any margin for context or pretext, only pure text. The festering wound had been immediately lanced.

The dispute that had simmered in 1998 meant everything—and nothing. A small group of us former elders and longtime church members had grown increasingly disturbed with the direction of the church. We thought the church was becoming too success-oriented, too obsessed with numbers and buildings and dollars. The then-leadership saw it as effective outreach to the unchurched. We both quoted Scripture: we, the reminders about false gods and compromise; they, the mandates regarding unity in the body.

Whatever justification we felt in our posture 6-7 years ago is not relevant now. What is relevant is that pride and frustration influenced our handling of your criticism and contributed to the gulf between us.

Now the letter was a mere three sentences old, perhaps four seconds in my reading of it. Four seconds had redeemed more than six years of anger, confusion, and hurt. The church dispute, the problem, the issue—all of the enormous emotional resources we so carefully invested in proving our rightness and defending against wrongness—all of it had been neutralized in four seconds.

Paul’s powerful challenge to us to make a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21) promises not only sweeping change but immediate sweeping change. The painful leaving of our church home of many years and subsequent wonderings about how such a thing could happen had been put aright by this single piece of paper in my hands. But my hands hadn’t been the healers, for they, too, had clutched knots of pride and frustration in their time.

Of course, we were right, and they wrong! Surly right and wrong—the “what” of the issue—was all that mattered. Until something else became more important one Saturday.

We know we did not make it easy for you to follow us and that our leadership has not always measured up to our God-given task. Thankfully, God is gracious and forgiving.

There should have been a “but,” or, for a more well-oiled transition, a “however,” or a “perhaps,” or an “incidentally.” There was none of these. By rights of self-defense, and all of the other personal justification rights we hold sacred, those elders could have balanced the letter a bit.

“But we were, as you may recall, under enormous pressure at the time.”

Or, “However, leadership sometimes demands decisions that will inevitably hurt someone.”

Or, “Incidentally, our leadership has experienced some change since then.”

Or—the kind of face-saver I probably would have insisted upon—“Perhaps all of us on both sides of the issue were not at our best during that time.”

All of these were true. None of them was mentioned.

Our dissenting group often discussed what to do with the baggage of our less-than-lovely feelings toward fellow believers. Wasn’t it a sin to carry (we didn’t dare say nurture) such feelings? Should we seek forgiveness, or at least understanding on that score? Is he trying to tell us something? We hesitated . . . for years.

We see God’s moving in [this church], perhaps in spite of us all, and sense his calling us to greater faith in him and less in ourselves.

An emphasis on him? What he might want? With so much justifiable anger to be readily drawn from the well?

But hadn’t we felt “led” to voice our concerns? Hadn’t we been doing it for him? Hadn’t we? Hadn’t we?

We know firsthand he forgives and blesses those who come to him with broken and contrite hearts.

Ah, so that’s it! They went to him first, then to us, to me. There was a third party to the letter who paid the postage.

“Broken and contrite.” What to do when the spiritual ace of trump is played? When deprived of our righteousness? Of our hard-earned enemies? I had always assumed Paul’s “burning coals” were mine to wield, not to wear.

In the same spirit we seek your forgiveness and the blessing of reconciliation.

There followed an invitation to a dinner with the elders and their wives, “not to relive the past, but to begin enjoying a future blessed by restored relationships with dearly loved brothers and sisters in Christ.” Then, in language that powerfully reminded me of Jesus humbly waiting at the door, “If you accept our invitation, you need not reply—we will be waiting to greet you at the church entrance.”

We had been waiting more than six years for this, always assuming it could come only on that one-way track running from them to us. Now it was said, without compromise (“and we forgive you, too”), or face-saving vagaries (“let us all, in the spirit of forgiveness . . .”), or careful qualification (“forgive us if we may have offended . . .”).

These men and women weren’t asking that we rejoin their church (we are all resettled in other churches), nor that we ask their forgiveness, though our very thoughts toward them had condemned us on many occasions. They hadn’t even asked for the standard courtesy of an RSVP for the dinner invitation. Simply, “as we forgive our debtors.”

Reconciliation. Not resignation, or realignment. Reconciliation, then redemption.

I was stunned. In eight sentences, two short paragraphs, these nine leaders had reconnected the arteries pumping blood to the heart of the ecclesia, the church body. Into what should have been just another church division, with the inevitable years of hurtful gossip and well-watered wounds that always seem to follow, these elders had injected the raw, reversing power of the New Testament church.

Just when I thought I had the church “placed,” as the young atheist C.S. Lewis once said of the larger Christian faith, just when I was yielding to the despairing thought that the church is ultimately and inevitably more about an institution than an incarnation, a letter came in the mail one gray Saturday afternoon in March. The few words of it could barely contain the searing heat from the divine pen. It instantly burned up several promising “what’s wrong with the church” article ideas that had queued up before me for written expression.

Maybe, just maybe, there is a better way to do this thing we call church.

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