Emergining church

A Story of Forgiveness: A Chapter From The Relationship With My Father

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The only story any of us can truly tell is our own . . . and yet all our stories are part of another’s story. The chapters of our lives are chapters in the lives of others as well. This is my story of how I learned about forgiveness.  It involves the story of my father and his father also.  My grandfather died two years before I was born. I tell it so it might become part of your story.  Most of us have a chapter or two from our lives that involve forgiveness.  Or at least we should. Maybe this will help you write yours.

My father was an alcoholic.  During the years that I and my siblings were at home, Dad drank on a regular and excessive basis.  The alcohol was a true demon for him.  It brought out anger, cruelty and bitterness.  There were many a night that our home was filled with voices yelling and threats being made.  Once, when I was seven years old, I remember my teenage brother and my Dad screaming at each other and a butcher knife being held in my brother’s hand. I buried my child’s head in the couch.  I do not remember how it all was resolved. I do remember the sound of the yelling, the smell of the liquor, the rage in the eyes, the hot air as I cried into the couch, and the knife.

We were all hesitant to have friends over because we didn’t know what kind of shape Dad would be in.  If it was not a good day for Dad, it was not a good day for anyone.  There were nights after work when he didn’t come home, nights when his entire paycheck was lost on drink and losing at the pool table.   It was only many years later that I realized how hard all this was for my mom.

As you can imagine, Dad’s alcoholism affected our family in numerous ways – the efforts to keep it hidden from others, the inability of our family to ever deal with it directly or in a healthy way, the guilt and shame that comes to nearly everyone who lives in a house where unaddressed addiction is a dominant member of the family.  Four of us grew up in that home where indeed love and faith were present, but also deep human brokenness that evidenced itself through drunken anger and cruelty.  Each of us have had to deal with it in our own way. 

I know I had a deep sense of anger at my father for many years, and some of those years we barely spoke.  I spent many hours in a therapist’s office dealing with the dynamics of my family and the shame, guilt and depression that arose in my life, at least in part, because of those dynamics.  But there came a precise moment when I began to understand things differently and see my father in a new way.  It was not a moment that came from the wise counsel offered in a therapist’s office.  It was a moment that came at our family’s kitchen table and the words that changed things were spoken by Dad.

It was the summer of 1989.  It was an especially difficult year for my family that involved divorce, tragic death, and bouts with severe depression.  The moment came on a warm July evening.  Late one night, I found Dad crying at the kitchen table.  His forehead held in the palm of his hands.  We started talking about all that was happening in our family and in the midst of the conversation, Dad said to me – what prompted it I do not remember -  “When I came back from the war my father told me he wished I had been killed so he could have gotten the government money.”  Then Dad just cried, and cried and cried.  I sat there completely stunned as he got up from the table and headed back to his bedroom.  Dad’s tears that night were about all that was happening to our family, but they were also about the painful and horrible words spoken to him more than forty years earlier.

The next day, I asked my mom if Dad had ever shared that with her.  She said no.  None of my siblings had heard it either.  It had lived painfully within him for all those decades.  He kept it a secret within himself.  Like many young men in that time, Dad came home a hero from WWII.  A chest full of medals including two bronze stars.  But when he got home his father said, “I wish you were dead, so I could have the money.” In that moment at the kitchen table I learned why there was a whiskey bottle in the garage, and why that drink released such bitterness and anger in my father.   It is simply true, hurting people often hurt others.  Learning of my father’s own emotional pain, brought on by the words spoken to him by his own father, helped me to understand Dad differently.  It helped me to forgive him in a way that all the hours of counseling never made possible.  And I think it helped Dad to speak of his pain, because it was about that time that he quit drinking and for the last twelve years of his life, he never touched a drop of alcohol again. 

As we live the stories that are our lives and our chapters become interwoven with the chapters of others, there are often aspects of someone else’s story that we do not know.  Maybe things they have buried so deeply that they themselves do not talk about them, but those things still affect how they live.   A note to this story is to tell you, that I bear no ill will toward my grandfather for what he said to my father.  Chilling words whose impact was profound on my family.  As I said, my grandfather died two years before I was born.  All I can do is wonder about what terrible thing happened in his life that caused him to say such a horrible thing to his son.

As you encounter people whose ways are painful to others, there is likely a story that you do not know.  It doesn’t excuse their behavior.  It doesn’t make their behavior okay.  But knowing that there might be a story that you are unaware of, it can help you to understand.  It helps you to be slow to your own anger.  It can help you to break the cycle of blame and guilt and infliction of hurt that we continue in too many of relationships.  It helps you to have grace. Understanding that you don’t know all the chapters of anyone’s story, well, it can help you to forgive.

Forgiveness has the power to free both the one forgiven and the one who forgives.  I came to love my father deeply and knew his great love for me and for all of his family.  I came to have deep admiration for the courage he showed in his victory over the demons that haunted him for so many years.  After he stopped drinking, the kind and gentle man that we had seen glimpses of over the years, shined through beautifully.  We spent many hours after that fishing together and laughing and telling stories to one another.  But we never mentioned again that night at the kitchen table and what was said there or forty years before. I think we both knew nothing else needed to be said about that night.  That chapter in our lives had the end that it needed to have.

So much of what I understand about grace, forgiveness and love are not the result of study in a seminary classroom or from the works of the great theologians. They are lessons learned from the brokenness and the healing, often painful, of our lives.  I suppose it is the only way we really learn.                 

Fundamentally Surprised

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

This past week, I read Frank Schaeffer’s newest book, “Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes in God.”   Those who read [D]mergent on a regular basis know that earlier this week J.C. Mitchell in his article, “Actions Speak Louder Than Doctrine” wrote of his appreciation for Schaeffer’s book.  I have the same positive sentiment.  With an honesty that is beautiful, Schaeffer speaks of that place where I think many people live. In-between times of belief and disbelief, times of faith and doubt.

A brief history for those who don’t know who Schaeffer is.  He is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, well-known figures in the Christian fundamentalist movement.  Francis and Edith believed that the Bible was literally true in every aspect and thus “inerrant.”  Correct doctrinal belief was sought along with a strict moral code.  Frank Schaeffer, in his younger years, was likewise a darling of the American Christian Right.  Overtime, however, Frank could no longer hold to the fundamentalist theology that had been taught to him.  It did not balance with the world that he experienced.   He has not left the church.  For the past quarter century he has worshipped in an Eastern Orthodox congregation.  He prays every day and he finds in Jesus, if it is to be found anywhere, what God is really like.  His book is an honest acknowledgement that he lives in the paradox of belief and disbelief.

I have a deep appreciation for his book especially as it helped prepare me for a recent encounter.  Though Frank writes that his parents were “deluded by their fundamentalist certainties,” he also writes that they did not always live up to their fundamentalist doctrine which sometimes ended up being for the good.  He wrote about his mom.

She thought that to follow Jesus meant declaring every word of the Bible is literally true. My mother affirmed this belief, again and again and again. . . .Luckily for people she helped, my mother was glorious inconsistent.  She lived according to the more enlightened parts of the Bible and ignored the rest. For instance no matter what she claimed the Bible taught about homosexuality, Mom acted as if being born gay was just another way to be human.  She provided refuge, love and compassion to many gay men and lesbians at L’Arbi, long before the secular world began to acknowledge that gay people are normal and healthy.

Dad and Mom had a lesbian couple living in our chalet for several years in the early 70’s.  One was Dad’s secretary, the other Mom’s helper.  They shared a room. Fortunately, my parents were hypocritical and acted as if, no matter their official religious absolutes, the higher call was to ignore what the Bible said in favor of what they hoped it meant. . . The result was that Francis and Edith Schaeffer were nicer than their official theology.”

The statement that his parents could be nicer than their official theology was in my mind recently during a meeting I attended.  A local minister in our community has been spearheading a good faith effort to bring together congregational leaders and helping organizations with the hope of better addressing the issue of poverty in our community.  The goal is for us to begin working together not only to meet immediate needs, but also to address some of the systemic issues that perpetuate a culture of poverty.  It is an honorable effort and a conversation that I am glad to be part of. 

At our last meeting, we had about a dozen people representing different congregations with various theological perspectives, along with several helping agencies, including our local family shelter.  It is the only family shelter in a five county area.  The shelter has both emergency housing for short-term immediate needs and long-term transitional housing.  Fifteen years ago, the congregation I presently serve was instrumental in the development of this shelter.  Presently, the interim director is a member of my church.   When it came time for her to share about the work of the family shelter, she began my saying, “When we say family we mean families of all different shapes, sizes and configurations, including same-sex couples.”  I held my breath.  I knew that at least three of the congregations represented at that table would have a very conservative understanding concerning same-sex relationships. I was waiting for the meeting to explode and for folks to walk away from the table.  I didn’t hear another word the shelter director said.  I was watching with great intensity the faces of all those around the table.  I was sure this meeting was going nowhere.  To my great surprise, nothing happened.  I’m ready for somebody to be pounding the table and telling us that there is no way they can be part of this conversation and the promotion of “that lifestyle.”  But what I saw was everyone at the table, except me, paying close attention to what was being said.  There was no explosion.   And when the shelter director was done talking, I was surprised at the next person who spoke and what he said.   It was a person I would have pegged as the most conservative one there.  He is the pastor of a church that once had on its sign “This Sunday: What God’s Word Really Says About Same-Sex Marriage.”   The congregation he serves has a middle school and high school.  I know a family who sent one of their children there.  I know how conservative this family is.  The mom told me, “It’s kind of strange to be at a place where we are considered the liberals.”   

But when this conservative pastor of this conservative congregation spoke after listening to the director of the family shelter where same-sex couples are treated like everyone else, what he said touched me deeply.  He said, “We are grateful for what you do.  Because you do good work there.”  After he said that, I immediately thought of Frank Schaeffer’s words that I had read earlier in the week about his parents, they were “nicer than their official theology.

Like Frank, and so many others, I have made a journey away from the fundamentalism that was part of my early walk in faith.  Through my studies, experiences in my own life, and lessons I have learned as a pastor, I have found that theology and way of understanding the Bible to be a house of cards that can collapse very quickly.  I also have seen that way of understanding the Christian faith do a lot of damage to people as it heaps upon them unattainable ideas of perfection both in behavior and belief, ideas which ultimately collapse into overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.   

Though I have come to a point in my life when I have been able to dismiss that way of understanding the Christian faith, I need to be very careful and not dismiss all the folks who still think that way.  Whenever they are willing to sit down at a table with me and work on an important matter like addressing the root causes of poverty, I need to be willing to sit down with them.  I’ve learned recently both in print and by experience that people can be nicer than their theology.  There are folks who can still be motivated more by Jesus’ compassion than their understanding of God’s judgment.  I was “fundamentally surprised” by what I experienced at the community meeting on poverty and for God’s surprising ways I am grateful.      

Don't Give Your Heart to the Church

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Last week, I wrote about why I have decided to stay with the church.  It was in response to the numerous reports out there about the number of people leaving the church and the reasons they are making that decision.  I ended that article by stating that even though I have decided to stay with the church, I have not given the church my heart.  That is, I have not given it my deepest commitment.  I also said that this week I would explain what I meant by that. Since it might seem strange to some that a congregational pastor would say “I haven’t given my heart to the church,” I thought I should offer an explanation.  The following is a sermon that I have preached a couple of times over the years.  The scripture text for the sermon is Revelation 21:10; 22-22:5.  The verse of focus is 21:5; “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.” 

"Don’t Give Your Heart to the Church"

However one experiences something depends a great deal on the perspective one has during that experience.  In baseball, the pitcher and the catcher and the batter are all part of the same event, but because of their particular perspectives their experiences are different.  The infielders and outfielders, the coaches and fans are, likewise, all part of the same event but their experiences all come from their own perspective.  Umpires are part of the same event as well, and most people think umpires always have the wrong perspective.

Over the last twenty-five years the perspective from which I have participated in the life of the church has been that of a pastor.  On forty-eight out of fifty-two Sunday mornings I find myself standing in a pulpit instead of sitting in a pew.  And in regard to the life of the church the perspective of the pulpit has both advantages and disadvantages.  The church has been the source of some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in life.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of people I’ve visited over the years, people who are in the midst of a major crisis – an illness, a death, a personal struggle, but what they have testified to the love and support of the church.  So often, wherever I go to offer pastoral care, I am able to follow the footsteps of Christians who have already been there – sending a card, writing a note, bringing food, sending flowers.  Folks, don’t ever say, “Well all I can do is . . . ” - for the things you may think are so little, so inconsequential are the very acts of care that keep many hearts going.  I know.  I have been there.  They’ve shown me the cards, told me you came by to visit, said there was so much food they didn’t know what to do with it all.  I’ve often heard these words, “I didn’t know so many people cared.”  There are times when from my perspective the church is beautiful and it bears witness so well to the God of love and care that we believe in. 

The church has also provided me, just to be honest with you, a continually flowing river of laughter.  Just like in a lot of your families when you get together and tell stories on each other and start laughing until your sides hurt,  I sometimes get to laughing so hard at the things that happen in church that I have trouble breathing.  I’ll never forget the Sunday I was preaching, when in the middle of the sermon I heard a loud thud.  A woman in church had fallen asleep while I was preaching, slumped forward and smacked her head on the pew in front of her.  She shook my hand on the way out of the church that morning and as I noticed the red mark across her forehead she said, “Mark that was one of the best sermons you preached in a long time.” 

Beauty and laughter, I have seen them both from the pastoral perspective in the church.  Yet, sadly, I see all too often from this perspective ugliness and bitterness as well.  I’ve seen Christian folk treat one another in some of the most cruel and spiteful ways imaginable.  I’ve seen people grab for power in the church, often because they couldn’t get power anywhere else, and once they have power run over everyone else.  I’ve also had people in the church who when they didn’t get their way on a matter come in and tell me that they would do whatever it took to get their way and that it included “gettin’ rid of the current pastor (me).”  I had a colleague who once wrote in a letter:

It is sometimes ridiculous to take the church seriously as an adult institution.  Does everyone come to church to be coddled? If they don’t agree with what the church is doing they resort to blackmail by saying they will just quit giving.  And how immature some people are, expecting that pastor to show up on their doorstep and take their side every time there is even the slightest hint of conflict.

I sometimes laugh at what the people are missing in church, because if I don’t, I’ll spend all my time crying.

And, of course, it’s not just conflicts at the local level that are troublesome.  The church is fragmented in so many different ways.  I once served a church in which there were five different congregations located within a block of each other, all of us seeking to do our own thing.  All of us struggling to maintain our building and run our programs.  Think about what a witness if could have been if those five congregations became one – working together as one body, instead of each of us limping along.  Could you imagine trying to preside over a meeting that brought those congregations together?  Jesus prayed that all who believe might be one even as he and his Father are one, but we are so far from that.

Then there are the times when segments of the church have simply opposed the movement of God’s Spirit and the Gospel’s call for justice.  The Civil Rights movement in America was at the same time perhaps the American church’s finest hour and saddest witness.  The Christian spiritual strength of many was what undergirded the Civil Rights movement and I am proud that that movement was led by a man who first and foremost considered himself a preacher.  But at the same time there were white congregations in the south and the north, in the east and the west, who were taking votes that said they as a congregation would not integrate, black people would not be welcome to worship the God who made us all. 

And history has shown us as well that a contributing factor to the Jewish Holocaust of WWII was Christian anti-Semitism.  And while our Jewish brothers and sisters and their children were being murdered, too much of the church remained silent.  In recent years, several denominations have been issuing apologies to the Jewish people for the failures that led to the death of so many.

So, from my vantage point as a pastor, a preacher, and a student of the Christian faith, I see the beauty, I experience the laughter, and I wince at our sin.  And with all that I have experienced and from the perspective that I have experienced it, I have to be honest with you.  As much as I love the church, and even though I plan to serve in it until the day I die, just to be honest with you, I have not given my heart to the church. 

Now that may sound like a strange thing for a pastor to say, “I have not given my heart to the church,” but I believe that if I am going to be faithful and honest as a pastor I have to say that and even more.  I have to say to you, “Please, don’t give your heart to the church.”  You see, I think we should save our heart for that which is Ultimate, for that in which beauty reaches its holiest heights and in which hate and ugliness do not reside at all.  And the church isn’t the Ultimate.

The text for this sermon is from the book of Revelation.  John is getting a picture of what the final consummation will be like.  The day when God will redeem all of heaven and earth.  And in this final consummation, John bears witness to the Ultimate.  He says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty.”  The temple represented the faith of the Jewish people.  They believed it held God’s very presence.  Remember one of the charges against Jesus was that he said he would destroy the temple, the very thing that represented their faith.  But here is John, saying there would come a time when there would be no temple – “for the temple will be the Lord God Almighty.”

The Ultimate is not the temple. The Ultimate is not the church.  The Ultimate is God.  The church isn’t the Ultimate, the church bears witness to the One who is the Ultimate, the One who is not only light, but the Source of all light.  The church tells God’s story which goes from eternity to eternity and of which we are only a part.  We tell of God’s purpose for all of creation to know holiness and righteousness, to walk in fellowship with the Divine.

To give our heart to the One who is the Ultimate is to give our heart to the One who welcomes all who wish to come, while the church argues too often about who is welcome.  To give our heart to the Ultimate One is to give our heart to the one in whom all racial and ethnic and cultural barriers are broken down.  To give our heart to the One who is Ultimate is to give our heart to the One in whom no evil dwells, the One in whom evil is out of place.  Though the church has great beauty at times, the church has also been the harbinger of things that are less than beautiful, prejudice, denial of truth, deceit, abuse of power – sometimes these evils creep into holy places.  But they do not creep into the One who is holy.

If you give your heart to the church, thinking that the church is the-all-in-all, the Ultimate – you will be disappointed.  And if we, as the church, ask people to give us their heart we will be leading them in the wrong direction.  What we need to invite people to do is to give their heart, the deepest part of them, to God, the God we know most fully in Jesus.  There is nothing more vital to accomplish the mission God has given us – which is to bear witness to the ways of heaven, the way of blessing and life – than for us to have hearts not devoted to ourselves but to the One who is the Ultimate Source of all that is and ever will be. 

About John’s words in Revelation, the theologian Karl Barth wrote, “Nothing is more finally significant than the church’s complete absence.  No place of worship, no temple, no synagogue or church building is needed any longer – because there is God."  God is the Ultimate and it is to God that I encourage all of you to give your heart.

Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on the right track, for when we are tempted to keep everything just the way it is because that’s what makes us comfortable – we will remember the God who makes all things new.  We will remember the God who pokes and prods and disrupts, moving us ever onward from living in comfortable complacency toward a fuller expression of justice and righteousness.

Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on track, because when we think being a Christian is all about filling a pew, saying a prayer, and dropping something in the offering plate with an attitude of moral superiority toward those who aren’t there, we will remember that through the prophets God said there is nothing more important than justice, mercy and humility.  We remember the God who said to the religious folk of that day, if you are worried about the outward appearance you better stop concentrating on the outside and let love fill your insides or you will be in trouble.  We should always remember that Jesus was indeed particular about who he hung around with.  He always made certain he was surrounded by sinners in need of love.

Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on track and we desperately need that, because it’s so easy for us to get off track.  And it is those hearts committed first to God that will help us to get straightened out if we dare to listen.

Most of us are aware that commitment to the church as we have known it is in significant decline.  The present generation does not have the same level of commitment to that church that many of us do.  There is much grief attached to this decline, and sometimes a finger of blame is pointed.  It is said that something is wrong with the present generation and their level of commitment.  But I will not say that.

The changing focus of commitment may well be a blessing from God, in that God is reminding us that the church is not the Ultimate, and surely then no form or structure that the church has taken over the last 2,000 years is the Ultimate.  We are being reminded that our work is not to get people to give their heart to the church, our work is to invite people to give their heart to God.

From my perspective as a leader in the church, the church at times can be beautiful and the church can be a source of great joy, but it can also be a place that has lost its way.  The only true way I feel that I can be a leader in the church, is to not give it my heart.  I am trying hard to give my heart to God.  That’s where I encourage you to give yours.  Amen

A version of this sermon was published in “Keeping the Faith: Best Indiana Sermons” by Guild Press, 2003.