Yes, Christians and church can sometimes show us the worst side of Christianity. But they can also show us the best side of Christ.
Thanks to all of you for taking time to read the ramblings of (arguably) the “World’s Worst Pastor!” After the first two posts, a couple of you have taken me to task—perhaps rightly so—for being a bit too harsh on the church and Christians in general.
This week, I want to present the alternate take.
Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I was immersed in this church gig from the day I was born. I’ve pretty much seen it all in church, including the warts and brown spots and skeletons in the closet.
But I have also seen the good, the life-changing events, the heartfelt and uplifting spirituality that comes in a Christ-centered community.
Yes, church can be hard, and Christians can be infuriating. But there are also people, places, and relationships that continually lift us out of the muck and mud to a place where we genuinely see Jesus at work, through unfailing love. I would like to show you that side of the church coin as well.
A few weeks after my unfortunate and untimely demise into “Worst Pastor” status, I got a text from David Burgess, my friend of 20+ years who lives in Camden County, NC. I served as David’s pastor at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist Church, in my first experience as the head honcho. David served as my chair of deacons and occasional partner in crime in leading SCBC into the future.
David’s contact was a simple offer to come to Camden, stay a few days, be with old friends and clear my head. There were no queries into what was happening or why, just the extended hand of fellowship and concern.
I got to take him up on that offer on Father’s Day weekend (not an easy thing for me either), escaping the moment for a joyous journey to the past.
It was a glorious homecoming. I celebrated the graduation of students that I dedicated as infants, on the same weekend 18 years previous. I saw a 19-year old who was my daughter’s childhood friend playing the guitar and singing his own songs on stage. It was amazing watching this same kid who used to run around our house looking for “Abbie-baby” belting out his own tunes!
For a pastor, few experiences match that of your first church. Whether it’s good or bad, that taste stays in your mouth for years to come. And you never quite forget it.
Fortunately for me, my time at Sawyer’s Creek was a wonderful journey of growing together with David and others. I was 27 when I took the position as pastor, and David took over as deacon chair at the age of 30. Our lessons learned in that early era are influencing people at SCBC even today.
I got to David’s house very late (as usual) on June 14, about 1:35 a.m. Even in the dark, the first thing that strikes you when you see Camden County is the land, a flat palette of golden wheat fields ripe for harvest, mixed among glowing green corn and soybean plants with months to grow.
These fields weave a pattern between woodlands and swamps where deer and bear and wild boars run free.
Wind from the coast and inland sounds blows fluently across the paper-flat landscape. The stars are brighter than anything you can see within 10 miles of a city, a glorious sky unencumbered by the glow of any urban sprawl. These stars brighten the fields across from David’s house, and I am swept up in the night breeze and the waves crashing across ripened wheat.
The minute I stepped out of the car to feel the night wind, I know that I am home. And I ask myself: Why did I ever leave this place?
The short answer gets right to the point. We left because of our sense that God was calling us in a different direction. The longer answer is that we never left this place.
I’ve had two “Stone Tablet” moments in my life that I can clearly identify, where the call of God on our hearts was so clear that it was almost audible. The first was when we decided to go to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The second was when we decided to go to Sawyer’s Creek.
Through a wide range of circumstances, we discovered three amazing couples and some younger folks willing to walk this journey with us. David and Laurie, John and Dina, David and Sissy, and the Williams boys (fresh out of high school) got together to form the Young Adult Class at SCBC.
Offering an accurate picture of the bonds we formed is almost impossible. This is surely a church that raised me from a raw, know-it-all kid into an actual pastor (recent events notwithstanding). Suffice it to say that, in so many ways, ALL of us “grew up” together. As we raised our children, labored together, and shared the trials of life, we saw a church full of children and youth evolve into a mission and ministry of love.
We banded together to fight more than one or two church battles—and lost a few of those. But the lessons learned have led to a new era for Sawyer’s Creek.
Now, these same sisters and brothers are the ones who are leading the congregation as it fosters another pastor into a new era of people growing up together. It was exciting to go back and see so many people in church that I knew when I was there.
It was that much more exciting to see a ton of people that I did not know, as people had to scrunch and fight to find a seat in that small historic sanctuary (circa 1790). It was a place of laughter and fun and joyful expressions on the faces of the people.
And that’s where we see the shine on the other side of this coin. While there may be so many in the church who are hurtful and judgmental and destructive to faith, there are that many more that will call us and lift us and raise us up when the struggles of life crash down on our heads.
It filled me with misty tears and nostalgia to see the same view that I caught outside the kitchen window of the church parsonage every day for six years. But the hugs and the laughter and the joy of these people who saw me through so much gave me something that I’ve been missing for a while: Hope.
It would take too many pages to mention all the names of the people in this place that made a huge difference in our lives. As much as the geography of this narrow county moves me, nothing speaks to my soul quite like the hearts and lives of those who molded us and formed us through the ongoing bonds of love.
And this is what church is supposed to be. It’s not an organization, a building, a town, or the ridiculous minutia that turns our hearts and heads away from what is truly important. It is the people of God, seeking to follow God by loving one another.
It is the knowledge that there are those who will wrap their arms around you, no matter where you are or what you do or how badly you mess up. That’s something that we all need, not only in the hard times but at any time in our lives.
Just knowing that those people are there, whether 450 miles away or right down the street, gives us hope to turn the good to great, and the unbearable to manageable.
As much as the church of Christ misses the point, there are always those that remind us of the goodness that God brings in relationship with others. We can find hope in knowing that a piece of our heart remains in every community, and that loving others is never a waste of time. That love continues in them and in us, if we are willing to let it shine. As the people of Sawyer’s Creek, Camden County, and so many other wonderful places continue to do for me.
That is what makes a real church. While it is sometimes hard to see this bright side of the coin, it is a view that makes the fight to follow the Living Christ more than worth it.
4 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Church Coin”
Beautiful! As you recall, Sawyer’s Creek was my first pastorate 32 years ago. God’s beautiful people, warts and all. May God bless you my brother.
Joe, this was actually wonderful, painful, and challenging to write. I could have gone on for days, and finally had to cut it back. That text from David Burgess was one of the most uplifting messages I have ever received. The bad can be really bad, but it still does not overshadow the life-giving “stuff” that we find in places like SCBC.
Just know your feelings are shared with all of us that had the chance to know and love you and love you still!! There will always be a place in Camden for you! Always a kitchen to pull up a chair at the table and always a bed to lay your head! No matter how many miles apart we are – the heart strings have no end!! Thank you for all you did for us then and all you continue to do for us today! I loved calling you my Pastor but feel blessed to call you my Friend. You remain in our prayers!
Much love “The Kights”
[…] No, I did not spend my childhood or school years there. The growing pains (and joys) that I experienced came as a very young first-time pastor of a country church. As I have written previously, it was a glorious experience. […]