The year was 1903, and my great-grandfather arrived at the evening worship service at a chapel in eastern Kentucky. The newspaper report is sketchy, but we know that Granddad never went under his own power to that church again. A fight broke out, resulting in him getting mortally wounded, with my distant cousin stabbing the assailant before fleeing himself.
Though the surviving records end there and it is hard to trace what judicial punishment was meted out, one fact is certain: my great-grandpa will not be the last one in the family line to get stabbed in the back at church. When people get close to one another, it does not take long before someone gets rubbed the wrong way. Even dancers who are in love are known to occasionally step on each other’s toes.
While it is always amazing what God can do, people’s actions should never be surprising. Soldiers are not trained to be idle, and when soldiers of the Lord are not locking arms to attack the gates of hell, they often turn on one another.
Much energy is needed to resuscitate relationships. For many, starting over is easier than reconciliation. Each time a relationship is discarded, however, the shards of bitterness stick deep in the soul, and the wound festers like a splinter that wasn’t removed.
Most people will not get fatally stabbed at church, as my granddad did, but all churchgoers that stay around long enough will be hurt and disappointed at some time. Before getting to the point of giving up on one another or on the church, here are some suggestions to keep from getting discouraged:
1. Brush off isolated pettiness. If it would not warrant legal charges or a civil suit, is it even worth making a big deal over? 2. Legitimately bless and pray for those who are your enemies or who have done you wrong. If you commit to praying good things for them every time they come to your mind, you may find that you stop thinking about them as frequently. 3. Raise your fences and lower your expectations. Sometimes people do not need to be told to stop hurting others as much as to be denied the opportunity. Are there simple measures you can take to prevent yourself from being so vulnerable? 4. Distinguish between malicious behavior and personality quirks. Challenge malice and celebrate the quirks. 5. If action is needed, deal with it only with the person present. Matthew 18 establishes a pattern of going to a person, going again with two or three witnesses, and then getting the whole church involved. The common denominator is you and the other person. Everyone has the right to face their accusers, and talking only to third parties about the situation will generally not bring satisfactory resolution.
Like weeds in a garden or cancer in a body, bitterness only multiplies if it is not removed or destroyed. It takes on the characteristics of a snowball pulled downhill by gravity, accelerating as it amasses new victims.
As stories are told and retold, each generation of the tale receives a spin that is a little bit further away from the center of the truth, a little bit more damaging, and a little bit more resilient to being fixed by a cure. Everyone is susceptible to disappointing you, and God is the only One who won’t. Though we risk getting our toes stepped on every time we dance, it sure beats dancing alone and maybe it won’t hurt as much when you know it is coming.
As a church planter and pastor, Dr. Phil Wood has worked on the staffs of everything from mini- to mega-sized churches during the past 30 years. He is also the director of Urban Youth Ministries and a trained consultant under the Society for Church Consulting.
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