Dear Church Friend,
I’ve noticed for the past several weeks that your seat in church remains empty. You don’t really know my family and I well; we sit across the sanctuary from you. A few months ago you shared with the congregation about your struggles with addiction and how God, through a series of tragedies, brought you to church. What you said took guts. We know your parents and loved ones helped you through those dark moments of your recovery, but God must have tethered you to his wrist and pulled you along much like the gentle shepherd halters his sheep through the pasture out of the blinding, blazing sun, and guides them to the water-filled trough where all they need to do is drink.
Your seat is empty because you are back in rehab. So this letter, church friend, reaches across the miles to extend a handful of encouragement and to let you know that God loves messy people. It’s His expertise. I am a bit of a mess myself, honestly, aren’t we all? It’s through our messiness that we soon realize how much we need and depend upon Him. Until we are knee deep in trouble, we won’t succumb to the free grace waiting for us. Not much in this world is free, so taking something without feeling the need to repay something back seems like stealing. Grace, though, is different. Our debt for messiness was pre-paid for us on that scandalous night when the earth shook and the rocks split.
I bet you didn’t know that the lady who sits a few rows in front of you, the mother of three, poured out her untidiness a year or so ago. She filled the caverns of her heart with booze. She shared with us, how for years, she smuggled scotch to her kids’ soccer games by pouring it into her three year old’s juice cup. No one noticed that she got stoned on the sideline sipping scotch and not apple juice—not until she drove home after a game one evening and slammed her SUV into a guard rail. She was a thirsty woman but chose the wrong drink to satiate her emptiness. She traded her alcoholism for Truth.
Three years ago, the young girl to the left of the pulpit, the one that sits attentively three rows from the front, found out she was pregnant by her abusive boyfriend. At first she thought he would come around knowing that she was expecting. Evil doesn’t work that way, she soon learned. She went into a clinic for a late term abortion but came out still pregnant and clutching a pamphlet about Jesus. She made the right choice. You’ve probably passed her three year old in the hallway; she’s the cute, curly haired blonde with freckles. Two lives were saved through that messiness.
The simply dressed man that greets you every week at the church door was a former millionaire. He lost everything in the recession. I often passed his estate on the way to church. He and his wife gallivanted to exotic places that I only read about in National Geographic. After every tropical jaunt, he and his family would return to church tan, well rested, and full of thrilling adventure stories. The recession hit and their business bottomed out. When he and his family showed up at church nearly destitute, fellow believers stuffed his pockets with rent money and shared the gospel until his heart brimmed to overflowing. Now they rent a modest rancher and do stay-cations. He has time to attend Bible study and conduct family devotions. He got bit by the greed-serpent and the venom ran through his whole family. Jesus always kicks the serpent’s butt.
The Assistant Pastor’s wife sends her best. I mentioned to her that I planned to scratch out a letter to you. Her cancer remains. I watched her during worship this week. She tilts her scarf covered head and then stretches her hands heavenward; her face beams with joy. Their six children, all lined up in a row, exude happiness in the face of this trial. This chemo-filled, yet still radiant woman finds hope in her messiness, and she refuses to litter her hope with regret or anger. Her tattered Bible tells me where she finds her hope. I know what you’re thinking church friend, that this mother of six did not cause her messiness. You are so right. She told me once that she uses her cancer as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ. She emphatically claims that she must show her kids and others that her cancer is a golden opportunity to show that Christ is worth more than life.
When Jesus journeyed this earth, he chose to encounter people with scrambled, messed up lives. He didn’t just meet up with them, do his miracle, and scurry away. He often waited with them by a well or listened to their story in the middle of a busy town. To put a modern spin on Jesus: He would meet you at Starbucks for coffee or stand at the corner of Broadway and 34th and listen to your story while a myriad of humanity passes by and the only person in the world who matters is you.
Perfection, my church friend, is unattainable. There aren’t perfect people. When you return, look around and realize that the sanctuary is filled with imperfect, messy people who exposed their deep, inner hurts to the One who heals, not condemns. This time sell yourself out completely to the one person who unseals darkness and pain— whose well never runs dry and whose grace never fails. Sanctuary seats are filled with people who exchanged adultery for faith, materialism for faith, atheism for faith, the list trickles on. We bear consequences from our messy splattered lives, but the true beauty is that once we come to a heart-drenched saving faith in Christ we no longer clean up the mess alone.
Keep these wise words, written by English writer and preacher John Bunyan, close at hand:
“Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think… It is wounding work, this breaking of the hearts, but without wounding there is no saving… Where there is grafting there will always be a cutting, the graft must be let in with a wound; to stick it onto the outside or to tie it on with a string would be of no use. Heart must be set to heart and back to back or there will be no sap from root to branch. And this, I say, must be done by a wound, by a cut.”
Let God do his grafting on you.
Many who occupy a seat in our church experienced the wounding work of the heart, the breaking of the heart, and then the glorious grafting. There are no Pharisees among us. You will not be judged. When God forgives a messy sinner, the realization of such bountiful forgiveness means the potential for great love. Jesus pursues messy sinners and meets us at wells, at dinner parties, on bustling streets, and, yes, even in rehab.
He tethered you once to his wrist, now don’t let go this time. Follow Him into the pasture where immeasurable forgiveness and fathomless love await.
My family continues to pray for you friend. I look forward to glancing across the sanctuary to see you back in your seat, grafted.
Grace and Peace,
Your Church Friend
(Letter written to any broken, hurt church friend in America)
All stories are fiction