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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kicked Out: A Parable

A young couple came for pre-marital counseling with their pastor as was required. The pastor warmly welcomed the young people into her study and began to chat with them about the matters related to their upcoming wedding. The bride-to-be, who was a member of the church, shared from their dating history, shared her own ideas of what marriage would be and why it was the right choice for them from her perspective, how they had grown through ten years of dating, and of their decision to pay for the entire wedding themselves. The groom was coaxed into sharing his simple story of being a hard-working and fiercely dedicated small dairy farmer with 60 head of cattle, and new small business co-owner, (and apparently a committed reader of TIME magazine, as was offered by the prospective bride). As the conversation unfolded, the bride was comfortable, chatty and at ease, but the groom was morose and answered only in the most basic terms the questions put to him.

After an hour and a half of conversation and sharing, as the couple got ready to go after a departing prayer, the pastor suddenly realized, she had never asked the prospective groom about his religious affiliation. She corrected this error and received the response,"none." But then he paused and added. "I was kicked out of the church."

The minister curiously inquired how such a thing could be... teasing that HAD to be a good story, but when the young man opened up and shared his story, the teasing stopped. Three generations of his family had faithfully attended a small, main-line denomination congregation near their rural, mountain home. Since his Grandmother had been a little girl, she and her children and subsequently her grandchildren had all attended, been baptized, married in, and buried from that same little church. The life of a dairy farmer is not conducive to frequent worship attendance, and they were not regular in their participation, but did give readily whenever they could.

The congregation decided to hold a financial campaign for a new furnace in the church, soliciting the financial support of all of their member families. The groom-to-be's family gave what support they could afford as farmers, and Grandmother gave a bit more, a gift totaling $350; significant for them. The project was completed, and the furnace installed. Exactly three weeks after the unveiling of the new furnace, another letter came in the mail, this one informing the family that they had been "removed" from the rolls of the church.

The groom-to-be, suddenly animated, shared: "We were 'thrown out'. After giving that gift, we were removed from the church for not being in attendance often enough. And what's more, when the next capital funds campaign came around, the church sent us a letter for another donation." The grandmother subsequently died, without being reinstated in the church of her baptism, and was buried out of the local funeral home, instead of her beloved church.

An embarrassed silence descended on the pastor's study. Then the pastor said the only thing that seemed possible to say: "I'm sorry. On behalf of the [mainline denomination] church, I apologize for the treatment you received"

The level of tension in the groom's face and across his shoulders and in his muscular forearms gradually relaxed. The cross that this quiet dairy farmer's family faith had been hung on by the church they loved, had been lowered to the ground and offered back for possible resuscitation. The bride-to-be quietly thanked the pastor, and said, "That means a lot to [the groom]."

When the church of Jesus Christ stops seeing the names on its membership rolls as being individual people's lives on their own journeys of faith, and see them as numbers only... 2,000 worshiping; 3,300 in three services; over 12,000 members... we have chosen an accounting model of ministry, instead of the ministry of sharing of the promise of love in Jesus Christ. And we wonder why mainstream denominations are declining in attendance to near oblivion.

Who are "those people" who are calling you and your church to give them back their faith, small though it may be compared to yours? Who will look past their poor attendance? Who will look at their hearts and struggles at faithfulness in a world that fights them every step of the way to be anything but faithful to their love for Jesus? What crosses are we erecting that establish barriers between the Christian "extraordinaire" and the Christian "inadéquat"? I'll warn you they may not be the ones seminary and progressive education have taught us they are. The gift of love in Jesus Christ may have been denied to someone who looks and acts and sounds and lives a lot like you. Do you have any idea who they may be?

Faith is a fragile thing until it is given good ground in which to grow. Or in the case of this parable, new milk cows don't give birth to themselves. It takes a birth mother, a sleep-deprived farmer, and a whole lot of daily feeding, nursing, cleaning, pasturing, hay-mowing, field inspecting, animal doctoring, medication administering, and time, time, time to produce a calf that will become a milk-producing cow. I wonder what it takes to plant the seeds of faith in a Christian and prayerfully, patiently, with care, love, joy and anticipation bring forth a "Christian extraordinaire"? I wonder?

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