My teens were hurt by our church. In fact, they were so hurt that they quit attending services. This is not the norm for my family. We've been so heavily involved in church and ministry that some of the older children have trained as full-time workers. The two youngest, however, were burned-out and fed-up. To be honest, they had some cause. Our church had been through a period of turmoil with folks responding in frustration and anger. It was a sad situation, and my teens were disillusioned that the church members, the pillars, were not acting more Christlike. Their argument for not attending church was along the lines of the old bumper sticker, "How can I soar with the eagles when I work with a bunch of turkeys?" Or, in more theological terms, how can we grow spiritually by associating with Christians who don't model Christ? They would, they thought, be better served staying home and reading the Bible on their own--not the first disenchanted Christians to so conclude.
At this point they had no interest in finding another, "better" church; they didn't want to go at all. I continued to soldier on with my activities at our church. They stayed home. This not being a situation to my liking, needless to say, as well as being worrisome spiritually, we began a year-long research project that could be loosely titled "How to Handle Offenses." We prayed. We talked--a lot. We read the Bible, of course, but we also read other books that helped us understand why church people can behave badly and how we should respond to it.
What we discovered was the concept of grace.
Not that we didn't know about grace, mind you. We knew what grace was, or at least we knew the dictionary definition, "unmerited favor," and had been singing "Amazing Grace" since forever. Philip Yancey's book What's So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) was one of the books that opened our eyes to how grace needs to be applied in our lives as well as to the "turkeys" around us. Having begun as a way of helping my kids, I began to experience some deepening and softening in my own heart as we made our way through our study. We learned the following:
First, we all long for grace and unconditional love, but we are slow to extend it to others. Others' offenses are enormous; ours are "little boo-boos."
Second, there are no "special cases" in God's command to love; it applies to even the most unlovable of folks--no exceptions allowed. I had an inkling of this during the civil rights movement in the 60's, which I followed closely as a teen. I noted that we judged it wrong for racists to hate people of other races, but it seemed almost virtuous to hate racists. Something was wrong with that picture, I thought. This insight was reflected in the books we read.
Finally, a quote in Mr. Yancey's book seemed to speak directly to our righteous indignation. Grace is particularly hard to extend when it's God's honor, rather than our own, that seems at stake. My kids felt justified in their judgment against their church, and I could find no argument against theirs, except this: when we forgive we aren't saying we've judged wrongly, only that we are wrong to judge. The quote that brought this home to us was by Dorothy Day, quoted in Philip Yancey's book: "I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least." We were reading aloud when we came across this, and it was followed by a small silence, a quiet gasp, a faint groan, as if we'd been collectively punched in the stomach. I only love God as much as the person I love the least
It proved to be the crack in the dam. Shortly afterward my teens admitted they missed going to church, and we eventually shifted to a congregation where we once again attend as a family. Their hearts continue to heal as we learn to soar on wings of grace.
By Margaret Mills