“Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Lk 7.49b-50)
I know that this weekend is filled with tension for Reformed Church people. How will our delegates speak to the issues at hand? Will they be the church, allowing the grace of Christ to unite us, or will disagreements tear us apart?
Well, how does the church behave when tensions threaten to undo us? Maybe a story of a pastor’s blunder will give a little hope.
One summer Sunday morning I had a conversation with one of the leaders of the women’s group. I’ll call her Joan. Nothing special about that day, so I was puttering around with the usual tasks, checking the sanctuary and Power Point equipment, making notes for the prayers. I saw Joan arrive—she was usually among the first because her husband was an usher—and made small talk for a minute before checking with her on a detail about the upcoming youth mission trip. I had asked whether the women could make sack lunches for the youth trip again, as they did the year before. Food is something that Lutherans are especially good at, and I assumed the ladies would repeat the favor annually.
Somehow the conversation went south, and I left the office fuming. I got the impression that the ladies felt put-upon, taken for granted. My anger simmered for a few days. I loaded my arsenal with ammunition, and then I fired off an email to the entire women’s executive team. I had that moment of hesitation before hitting the send key, then self-righteously landed on it. Hard.
(Note to self: That small moment before hitting “send” is verrrrry important. The hesitation is telling you something!)
I can hear the groans. Yes, this was a low moment in my ministry. I must have hit myself with a stupid stick, because I had a mess to clean up.
To her credit, the president of the congregation (in this case a woman) called me the next day and set up a meeting with her and the co-chairs of the women’s group two days hence. And to their credit, they did not yell at me. They were visibly anxious, however. “Pastor, you made a lot of people upset with your email. The women do a lot of things for the youth. We’ve always loved the youth. We support their fundraisers.”
I didn’t see it the same way, but it didn’t matter. The tension of the past week had coiled steadily tighter in my chest, and now it unwound in one torrent of apology and not a few tears. I was embarrassed. I was also still angry, but I had to lay it aside. I had let my anger loose on my keyboard, lashing out and making a case when asking questions and listening would have been a far better strategy. The congregational president, a wise leader, gently encouraged us to talk about it, forgive one another, and move on.
Though I left with my tail securely tucked in, I found that I was able to move on, mostly. The church—the people of God—had behaved with maturity. I had a newfound respect for those three women. They faced the difficulty instead of sweeping it under the rug where it might cower and reemerge later on. They made the decision to forgive, and I needed to do the same.
It wasn’t easy to forgive. Joan had clashed with me in the past, and I had confronted her in private. Ours was that kind of relationship where you feel the energy of the other in the room, and your mind is occupied with imaginary conversations where you always come out ahead. Forgiving wasn’t easy for Joan either. At the end of our ‘come to Jesus’ meeting, three of us hugged each other, but Joan busied herself with pushing chairs under the table and avoided sealing the deal, so to speak.
As luck would have it, the text for the next Sunday was Ephesians 2. Great. I had to talk about reconciliation, about Jesus bringing hostile groups together in his death. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (v.14)
Word spread fast about “pastor’s email,” so there was no speaking in the abstract. The elephant in the sanctuary was me, the pastor who had carelessly offended the ladies populating the pews. The way I saw it, I had no choice but to use my story as Exhibit A, admitting my carelessness and commending the leaders for acting according to Scripture, forgiving me and restoring me to the fellowship, promising to move on and not mention it again. It was one of the most difficult but heartfelt sermons of my career, and I think the Holy Spirit did some healing among us in the process.
But the healing came not through my sermon, at least not in the carefully crafted message. It happened afterward. I was back in the robing room, putting things away, when Joan appeared in the doorway. She is a short woman with grey hair in a stylish short cut, always fashionably dressed. Because she was on the level of the chancel and I was one step lower, she could look me in the eye. She seemed to speak quickly so as not to lose her nerve. “You did not have to do that, Pastor.”
“Yes, I did,” I replied. A sigh. “I realize that I can be hard to work with sometimes, and I have to face it.”
“Well, I’m not always easy to get along with either!” she admitted, and opened her arms for the hug she had resisted only three days earlier. The tension melted away. The sermon for the day was unfolding right there in the closet.
Neither Joan nor I felt like forgiving each other, but the president, with clear head and deep faith, implicitly reminded us how Jesus’ followers conduct themselves. When we faced the problem honestly, first around a table, and then around the Word, we found that the One who forgives us all is truly present in our vulnerability. He enables us to see ourselves as we are—broken, every one—and to forgive one another.
After that Joan and I smiled at one another more often, even though there was an unspoken question between us as our eyes met: Am I still forgiven? It was an invisible thread that connected us, thin and taut. The air was clearer, no longer fraught with the suspicious tension of the past. We were marked by the grace that surprised us both.
The secret of the body of Christ had been revealed to us, that we can make a safe place together in which to live the good news, where we forgive one another for not being Christ himself, and hold our frailties gently so as not to let them soil the fabric of mutual love.
I had this quote taped above my desk for the past few years of ministry. Like Jonah, I had to let amazing grace happen, and let it happen in me.