What it means to be Despised
Romans 12:9-16 CEB
Right now my daughter sits and watches Sesame Street while she slowly drinks her milk. She is 19 months old. From her birth she has lived in two states, and four houses. Unlike my 6 year old son, she has never received a baby dedication because we never had a physical church to call home. My heart breaks a little each time I see the dedication outfit, now too small for her to ever wear. It breaks a little more when I realize I can always pinpoint how far I am from my most tragic moment of faith based on how old she is.
Twenty months ago I was a full time minister in a small rural church. During my 1 1/2 year tenure I had spent months without my son and husband by my side, I had broken my ankle, and 20 months ago was pregnant. I can still remember the exact thought that kept crossing my mind twenty months ago: "Now I can really get things done. I will not be broken or pregnant. I can go and do more than I have done before." I so wanted to give all I could to the church, I had finished two months of sermons in advance, working through them on my day off. I had only a little vacation time because I had to use some the previous year so we could sell our town home, and I was saving four days for Christmas break. I was pregnant, tired, and I was not taking maternity. No one had offered and I never felt it was my place to ask.
Then, a week after my daughter was born, I was pulled into a room with a few of the Elders and told it just wasn't working out. I had done everything they had asked of me, but it just wasn't a good fit. As the weeks continued many in the congregation were surprised. It seemed everything was working well. They came to me upset and wanted me to personally know they had nothing to do with the decision. There were even a contingent who left. The story concocted to justify my departure continued to change as the Elders realized their reasoning really wasn't sound. My favorite comment was said by someone unrelated to the church who will remain anonymous, "Usually a church has a little more grace." With the help of the Church Secretary I did research, sifting through decades of board notes, to see the awful truth: This congregation had a history of exploding, and asking for resignations of ministers since 1978.
Matthew 23:37-39 rang in my head and I wept: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is left to you deserted. I tell you, you won’t see me until you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” In the beginning, there were days I was rolled up into a ball mourning and crying. I always kept my faith in God but my faith in humanity failed. More importantly, my faith in the congregation had failed. It was my ultimate crisis of faith. When I struggled with family issues as a child, I ran to the congregation for support. When my 21 year old friend died from cancer, I ran to the congregation for support. When other friends suffered the same fate, I turned to the church. During spiritual famine, it was the church who became the well I could run to. So it had been until 19 months ago.
Nineteen months ago the well was poisoned. Now, there are some awesome congregations out there. After everything happened I served at an extremely small congregation who normally took student pastors. Their theological well dried out when Lexington Theological Seminary closed their doors to physical students. This tiny group of people were so loving and caring. I wanted to give them more than two months of my life. I would have if I stayed in the area. Yet, as more churches suffer loss or are damaged, the pool of good churches will start to dwindle. The people who really could heal the issue will just leave. There was one couple I begged to stay at the church. Even as the congregation had hurt my family and myself, I wanted the congregation to find restoration. Restoration could only happen with dedicated Christians to lead it. This couple still left. They could not do it.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago. As y'all know I have felt a different kind of call. It has been through the above experience God has stepped in and given me an option. A little over six months ago I began this internet ministry. I felt called to reach the people who have felt the pain of the institution of church in a real way. To reach those who are not going to easily step into a sanctuary on a Sunday morning. As you already know, I have been struggling with what a true internet ministry looks like. Through prayer I believe Fig Tree can't look like a worship service. It can't look the way it has looked for the past 65 years.
Well, two weeks ago I was invited to join a group: The Despised Ones. It is a rather new group. It is filled with bloggers and online writers who feel set apart from what church has been. Members have been posting to their community, sharing what it means to be part of it. My time to share has come.
The first obvious truth is in the face of my 19 month old toddler. She is a happy child who smiles and laughs all the time. The first truth is, there is hope. Despite what we are and what we have been through, there is always hope that tomorrow will be a better day with better choices made. There is also always knowledge that something good can be taken from the muck given to you. I left with a daughter. I would go through the entire experience again if it gained me that precious life.
The second truth, one of the key reasons I accepted my place among the 'Despised,' is realizing I am a despiser. When I left the aforementioned church I heard congregants say, "Well, it happened again." There were those who knew this thing happened in the church and they were the silent group who were against it but did nothing to stop it. It crushed me to know status quo was more appropriate than what was right. It crushed me even more because on further reflection I could pinpoint in my past where it was easier for me to stay silent than fight for what was right. I was part of the problem when I chose to do nothing. There were people from my past who needed someone to be their voice when so many were voiceless. Nineteen months ago I swore, never again. Never again will I remain silent while others suffer. I am despised because it took being the one in pain to see how I have hurt others in pain. I was part of the problem.
The third truth lies in Paul. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in jail. His time was nearly up. He was going to be executed. If anyone knows what it means to be despised, it was him. In his darkest hour I hear his words, "Bless the people who harass you- bless and don't curse them." At the eve of his death love was the answer. I can live in this internet wilderness because this wilderness takes on an almost scandalous version of love. We should love the ones who despise us. We should love our despised brothers and sisters. We should love ourselves, as despised as we are. We are called to be lights when the world darkens. We are called to be salt to bring out the goodness in our existence. We are called to this at the edge of a sharpened pen. With great humility I accept my place in this community. I am a despised one. As a member of this group I shall end with this:
To the church I served. I know there are some of you who quietly follow what I am doing and so I write this to you. On a cold February morning I forgave you. I still forgive you. Every day I feel my heart harden I soften it with forgiveness. I call you out by name in my prayers and say I forgive you. So, I do not wish to do that today. I wish to share my hope. I hope you find the person God is calling to you and listen and learn from that person. I hope with that special person, a person you do not call but God does, you will find the healing your church has needed for 3.5 decades. I hope your healing spreads like a wildfire to other hurt congregations. I want the best for you so you may be gathered by God like a hen gathers her chicks. No matter how everything went down, you are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Beyond death, that truth remains. I love you.
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