I grew up playing the trumpet, loving baseball, and eating too much. My heroes as a kid were Herb Alpert, Willie Mays, and Chef Boyardee (not necessarily in that order). Unfortunately the Chef and his “pizza in a box” was an all-to-frequent experience for me on lazy Saturday afternoons. In fact, I became quite a connoisseur of pizza at an early age, which prepared me for college life.
After sensing God’s calling on my life during high school, I went to Bible college in Lincoln, Illinois, in the early 1970s. That big city of 17,000 (compared to my village of 800) had three different pizza joints. They ranked as follows: LaForno’s (if you had a coupon), Sorrento’s (if you had insomnia), and Guzzardo’s (if you had a date). These by far outranked the chains. The pizza places had mostly thin crust back then. This was way before personal pan, thick ’n’ chewy, and stuffed crust.
While I’ve had my share of good pizza through the years, the irony is that for the absolute best pizza I ever ate, I can’t recall the type of crust or the toppings. I have no idea if it was thin ’n’ crispy or thick ’n’ chewy, sausage and mushroom or beef and onion. Let me explain why I’m fuzzy on those details.
I had been in youth ministry for about eight years or so and was serving at my second church. The first church experience was great. Older people there were very patient with young guys like me. They were especially patient if the guy “married in to the church family” as I did.
But the next church had some challenges I wasn’t quite ready for. I was in for a lot of “navigation” that would test and develop my leadership, and in all honesty, expose my weaknesses (that’s what happens many times when God wants us to develop and grow).
After a year at this new church, I unfortunately “got sideways” with one of the key volunteers in the youth program. It was a classic struggle of conflicting styles of influence. After trying to get on the same page, but never quite getting there, I asked the man and his wife to step aside as leaders of that group and to focus on another ministry. The other ministry wasn’t their passion, but I thought they would do a good job and avoid some of the conflict we were experiencing.
That didn’t go so well. The couple ended up leaving the church, as did some others who were close to them. While the church recovered, we all felt the sting and ache of an unresolved relationship in the body of Christ, which is always contradictory to the passage that says people will know we belong to Jesus by the way we love each other (John 13:35).
Whoever said “time heals all wounds” must not have been very wounded at the time. Time doesn’t heal. God does. But only when we cooperate with him. For our alienated former youth workers, healing took about three years. They got involved with another church in the area and became a vital part of the leadership in that youth program.
This was around the time Rich Mullins was arriving on the Christian music scene. That church actually hosted Rich for a concert late that summer. I was going out of town that night, but I sent a bunch of our high school kids to support the concert. The next week, my estranged friend called and thanked me for sending the much-needed support. He then caught me off guard by asking me to speak at his church’s next event, and I quickly accepted.
The event was in two weeks, so I prepped, prayed, and went to rejoin forces with a person who helped me realize how big the kingdom of God really is. And that’s where my story will hopefully begin to make sense.
Our families went out for pizza after the event. And it was the “best pizza I’d ever had.” I have no idea the type of crust or topping or how many pieces I overindulged in. All I know is it tasted better than any other pizza before it.
One thing led to another, and before long my friend acknowledged the personal calling he felt to go into formal vocational ministry. And he graciously asked me to be part of his ordination, where I sang a song by Morris Chapman, ironically titled, “Nothing Can Separate Us from the Love of Christ.”
That was 25 years ago. I’ve served in four churches since then. I’d love to say I learned my lesson in guarding relationships with an Ephesians 4:15 type of “speaking the truth in love” and avoided any other “sideways” experiences with brothers in the kingdom. But that would be quite a stretch.
I have however, rediscovered that nothing tastes better than “reconciliation suppers” with formerly estranged friends. Nothing is more painful than relationship pain, and nothing is sweeter than when God brings us back together again.
As I write this, I’m preaching a series titled “Love Rules,” which takes a close, five-week look at 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. My next focus is verse 5, “It (love) is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” My emphasis is on forgiveness and letting go of obstacles that keep us from truly loving the people God has put in our lives. And just as I am working on my heart of forgiveness, others are working on their heart of forgiveness toward me.
In the first scene of the movie Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner believes he is bleeding to death during a battle in the Civil War. The battle is at a standstill, so he decides to ride out in front of both opposing troops to get the shooting to resume. What does he have to lose? He thinks he’s bleeding to death! He was willing to get shot just to get the ball rolling, so to speak.
I pray that God helps us all to get the relational “ball” rolling as he conforms us to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). And in that process, he might need some of us to saddle up and run the risk just to get things going in our messed-up relationships. May he grant us many meals of reconciliation like the early church in Acts 2, which took their meals with “glad and sincere hearts.”
I know my heart does a lot better when there is harmony between friends. And I’m guessing your heart does too.
George Ross serves as senior pastor with Northside Christian Church in New Albany, Indiana.