Hope Network Newsletter: Big Gulps and Damaged Goods (Sep 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Art McNeese, Guest Writer
Introduction by Lynn Anderson
September, 1992

For several nights in a row, during the invitation song at the country revival, Jack’s eyes had turned watery and his knuckles turned white as he gripped the back of the pew in front of him. But he did not move.

So I dropped by to see Jack that long-ago afternoon and found him in the cotton field. First we talked of crops and weatehr. Finally I asked, “Jack, you seemed convicted again last night. What is keeping you from giving your life to Christ?”

Jack’s eyes averted mine, and his hoe moved faster for a moment. Then the hoe stopped and Jack blurted out, “There is nothing one can do. It’s not that I don’t want to be a Christian. It just can’t be helped.”

Puzzled, I explored further, “What could possibly be so big that God can’t help?”

“Sarah had been divorced when I married her,” Jack explained. “We’ve been married for years now. Wife’s a Christian. We’ve got three fine Christian girls. I go to church with them all the time. I’ve wanted for years to be a Christian. Even went forward at the summer revival once. But the elders told me right then, ‘twarn’t no use being baptized ’cause Sarah and me weren’t rightly married in God’s sight. Said the only way I could truly repent was to divorce her. We’ll, I ain’t seen much good come to kids onc’t their folks get divorced. Figured they’re more likely to be Christians if we just leave things the way they are. I decided I’d just stay lost and married to Sarah, so my kids would have a better chance of goin’ to heaven. Besides, I just don’t have the heart to break up my family.”

Some 30 years later, I still haven’t fully recovered from that conversation. But we have come a long way since those days; we are learning more about God’s grace and how to be redemptive congregations. Even some fallen ministers are receiving grace and not only being forgiven, but restored to useful ministry.

I commend to you the following article which I solicited from Art McNeese, who has himself been restored to ministry after divorce. Art’s article is flooded with hope, not only for those who feel “damaged” but for the future of our fellowship.

Monty was a youth minister whose marriage was in trouble, and people in the church were aware of some of the problems he was facing. Many were kind to him, but they didn’t want to get involved. Some treated him like he was contaminated. Like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, he felt like crying out, “I’ve been slimed!” But one brother who was especially sensitive came to Monty’s office one day with a couple of Big Gulps from 7-11. “I don’t want to be nosy but I love you and I care about you and I’m here.” He was a brother who had not given up on Monty – nor given up on the possibility that Monty would some day re-enter ministry.

Sadly, there was a time in the church when roles of leadership were denied to those with some “mark” in their past. We seemed blind to the fact that Moses the murderer was used by God to champion the cause of Israel, and David the adulterer was called a “man after God’s own heart.” It made no difference that Rahab became a part of Jesus’ ancestry, or that Peter the denier became an early church leader. “Damaged goods” were refused leadership positions because they were in or near the scene of the accident, often without regard for how God might be willing to use them.

But there is hope. We seem to be a kinder, gentler fellowship – with a broader vision of God’s power to utilize those whom others might stigmatize.

The church for which Monty now preaches received dozens of applications for his position. His shepherds concede that other resumes were more impressive, but they felt that the pain of Monty’s past (a divorce a few years ago) equipped him for ministering to others with hurts. He was hired, he says, not in spite of his past, but because of the valley through which he has walked. The elders told him, “God has made you a better man as a result of your struggles. You can now empathize with the walking wounded. Most of us have lived pretty charmed lives, but you’ve walked in the shoes of people in pain.”

As Monty puts it, “If we can’t deal with our own people who hurt, how can we deal with those on the outside who are maimed and bleeding?” The possibility that we can heal and restore people in the world is nil unless we can accept and reinstate those in our church family. And while the church has often seen itself as squeaky clean, our fellowship seems to be waking up to the fact that we are fellow-strugglers, all of whom have some dirty laundry.

John, a preaching friend, says that the vast majority of our people will forgive, forget, and place in niches of leadership the spiritually scarred. “Ninety percent of our brotherhood knows the need to be healers.” After announcing his drug dependency from the pulpit, 600 letters of encouragement flowed in from Christians in 20 states and several foreign countries. Rather than consigning him to the dugout as a benchwarmer, they understood that after recovery, he belonged on the mound.

“Sometimes,” says John, “elders have assumed that the brotherhood was not equipped to restore to service. But because people recognize their own warts and trust in God’s ability to transcend those warts, they allow the fallen to resume their ministries.” Increasingly, church leaders seem betteer able to separate sin and the sinner.

Although there was a time when preachers and elders were selected only when they had no baggage, more and more churches are realizing that ministry does not require flawlessness but faithfulness. If a man or woman has asked for forgiveness and received it from God, dare we withhold our forgiveness and put people on indefinite suspension? Today, people sense that just as the woman who had been married five times (John 4) was able to lead a whole community to Christ, those whose lives are checkered with failure may also be equipped to witness to the power of God.

A preacher who committed adultery years ago and has now been restored to his wife and God’s service says: “I know how bad it is in the far country.” It is not that sin in any way qualifies a person for leadership; sin is an insult to God’s holiness. But people decimated by sin often grasp its ugliness more than most. And those who return to God are gripped by the grace that allows them to come back. Who is in a better position to describe sin and announce forgiveness than those who have seen both firsthand? There is no ministry apart from brokenness. Some are crushed by physical disabilities, some by depression, some by financial loss. But some, broken by their own sin or the sin of others, come to depend on God by walking through the valley of spiritual hurt.

Thankfully, more elders than ever before are willing to say, “I am a sinner desperately in need of God’s grace.” This awareness prompts them to place in positions of leadership other sinners as well, including those whose sins are more conspicuous. No longer are pulpits and podiums reserved for the perfect, but for the prodigal as well.

Some twitch when others move to accept the tarnished. “Church leaders should model character and integrity,” they say. And they are right. But one would be hard pressed to find biblical leaders whose lives were exempt from failure. Even Paul could say without false modesty, “I am the chief of sinners.” God’s leaders seemed not to be chosen on the basis of past infallibility, but present sensitivity to his will. A few claim to be self-appointed experts in judging the hearts of others, but as a friend recently observed, “Judging is not one of the gifts of the Spirit.”

Admittedly, discretion should be exercised, because those who lead need to be responsible models before the church. A person who has shown no penitence for drunkenness, for example, has no place occupying a position of leadership, but neither, for that matter, does a person who shows no sorrow for gossip, greed, or lying. However, some people once gripped by alcohol exhibit much deeper for their sin than others guilty of less public offenses.

To automatically screen the damaged from positions of responsibility overlooks what God has done with those with blemished backgrounds. Abraham fathered a great nation in spite of his dishonesty; Solomon penned words of wisdom that would inspire faith for generations of readers even though his life was less than stellar, and God assigned Peter the distinction of preaching the first Christian sermon although he blatantly denied the Lord. Since God conferred roles of leadership upon these whose lives were marred, can we automatically write people off without prayerful consideration?

While Jesus loathed sin, he saw people as the victims of Satan. Yes, they were people who had made bad choices, but also people who had been worked over by the enemy. So jesus didn’t spend a lot of time berating people for their failures. Instead, he appealed to them: “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

John says that once he left his pulpit for a period of rehabilitation, he sat on the back steps of the hospital and wept for half an hour. “Will I ever be okay again?” he wondered. Then, a roster of names began rolling through his mind – giants of Scripture whose sin-tattered lives were used by God for great purposes: Abraham, David, Peter, and Paul. These were people who had, spiritually speaking, sat in the sewer and bled on themselves. Their problems were of their own doing, yet they had not been scratched from God’s list.

Again, some of God’s most prolific servants were those whose lives were pocked by serious mistakes.

Kimbrough Johns is a deacon who has personally witnessed and experienced the shift in attitude toward the damaged. His words tell the story of a transition from legalism to grace, and from exclusion to inclusion.

“Until recently, we in the church placed man-made limits upon God’s limitless grace by essentially denying the ‘divorced-single’ and ‘divorced-remarried’ much, if any, real role in the body life of the church.

“I think we practiced that misguided, graceless theology with the best of motives: to preserve the sanctity of church and family, and doubtless out of fear that a broader definition of grace might actually encourage divorce.

“Until the ’70s, I was one of those who believed in the spiritual disenfranchisement of the divorced.

“Then I became one of the disenfranchised. I was divorced in 1973; I remarried in 1977. I was outside the church from 1973 until 1980, when God sent us to the Richland Hills church. There, an extraordinary elder named Bill New explained God’s grace in terms that thrilled me. At Richland Hills, there has been a tangible progression from rejection to tolerance to acceptance, and even encouragement of the divorced-single and divorced-remarried Christian into the mainstream of the fellowship.

“Could it be that the unconditional and limitless grace of the Lost Sheep/Lost Coin/Lost Son trilogy of parables in Luke 15 applies to the sins of divorce and remarriage?

“I believe it does. And I thank God that his grace is alive and working in the hearts of his people!”

A few years ago, I attended a dinner party one night in north Dallas. I sat in the back seat of the car as a college friend and his wife drove us home. He must have gotten a little heavy-footed, because we soon spotted the flashing red lights of a patrol car bearing down upon us from behind. You can imagine our surprise when we peered through the rear window to see the patrolman. It was my brother! Greg served as a law enforcement officer, and he had caught us red-handed. The driver had little defense; he was guilty as charged. But since the driver and my brother knew each other well, he was treated leniently. Rther than issuing a stiff fine, Greg handed the driver a warning along with a firm but friendly word about not putting the pedal to the metal. While he was guilty of having violated the law, because of Greg’s mercy, he did not have to pay a penalty, and went free.

God has treated us much the same way, as he freed us from the penalty of our disobedience to the law. But when Jesus went to the cross, he not only lifted the penalty of our wrong, he also removed our guilt.

It is this grace that mandates graciousness to others. As recipients of grace, church leaders no longer exclude people who have been ravaged by alcohol, drugs, illicit sex, divorce, and crooken business dealings. They understand that to ignore the damaged is to simultaneously ignore God’s mercy. They refuse to put up roadblocks where God has put out welcome signs.

More and more, the critics are the exception. Our fellowship has awakened to realize that if God grants his gifts and the heart is right, he does not disallow the use of those gifts. “Damaged goods” need no longer be shelved – they can be put to significant use in God’s service. They are not beached, but launched for ministry.

Oh yes – one thing I forgot to mention. Remember Monty’s friend who had picked up the soft drinks at 7-11? Monty calls it the ministry of the Big Gulp. Thank God that more and more church leaders are exercising the ministry of the Big Gulp – a ministry that exhibits confidence in those whose lives have been marked by trouble and pain.Wineskins Magazine

Art McNeese

Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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