Here is my prayer lately: “Oh Lord! I am connected to people who can’t stay reconciled with others or with you, and they are not going away. What will we do?”
They are a bit like the person I disappointed the other day when I gave him the outreach number for Project Home (215-232-1984). I was in my local Rite Aid and a man immediately began following me through the store looking for carfare somewhere, then he was hungry, then he was mad I would not help him. I would not give him what he wanted — he did not want us to have a life together; he wanted to feed on what I have. I did not have time to make a deep relationship, but I did manage to give him the number and even an address on the back of my receipt after I borrowed a pen from the cashier[Where To Turn]. He did not really want my help; he wanted my money to support his unspoken program. But he did take my receipt
Some days I feel like people are following our community around with similar designs and some unspoken, maybe unconscious program. A trusted partner does not want to stay reconciled with our “institution” but they do want the free childcare someone gives. A person leaves their spouse in the lurch and divides up their friends. Another wants the pastor to keep their impending divorce a secret while they pretend nothing is happening. Another wants their adulteries to be none of our business while they prey upon innocent people coming into the church. Another creates a faction based on their ideology. Someone else loses their faith but they don’t want to lose their friends, so they stick around. These are all the kinds of things that have happened recently or are happening now.
Sometimes people wonder if they can handle so much stuff! They think, “Why can’t these people stay reconciled with Jesus and his people, at least with their spouse!”
Well, sometimes they can’t.
Some churches tidy up and don’t let certain people in or get rid of outliers quickly. We have always been committed to just the opposite. Let these untidy people in! — and stick with them until it is just impossible to do so. We make it hard to leave. We know there are no unmessy people for whom Jesus died, ourselves included. Loving with a self-giving love will never be easy — being loved isn’t even that easy! So we are not very tidy. Every situation is unique to the person in it; their journey toward or away from Jesus or our church is their own — we’ll just have to work it out.
Or maybe they won’t work it out. Sometimes people leave “the church” but stay in the community. Some people don’t like most of us or Jesus and still stay, picking people off to be their friends. These folks end up being a living example of lack of reconciliation — the reconciliation we prize so much! If you go with their self-realization, you’re in, if not, you’re out. It hurts.
What to do?
So what do we do when people just can’t do it as right as we want them to, when they are distressed and doing self-destructive things, or when their mental or physical health causes them to do what they might not otherwise do? What if they are wrecking things? What if it is like they are following you around the Rite-Aid?
The New Testament is mainly written about these kinds of situations, especially Paul’s letters. Try reading them again with the question, “What do I practically do about the people who feel too messy for me to handle?”
What do I do when…
- …I want to cut them off? — You might need to, but you better have a word from the Lord before you give up on reconciliation.
- …I want to get even with them? — Don’t.
- …I want to play according to their rules and win? — A fool’s errand.
Here are a few of things I advised last week when I talked to people facing these dilemmas:
- Stick with Jesus. Jesus is in the middle of the mess and there is really no place else to go, ever, than Jesus. I was trying to encourage one of our pastors after they were told how much they and everyone else were doing wrong. Only Jesus can help us bear that kind of criticism with grace.
- If an accusation doesn’t come from Jesus, pause before you react. You don’t have to receive every accusation. When people desert and betray you it hurts! Troubled people are troubling. They will get your natural defense system to kick in, for sure. Note that, don’t just be defensive. Act out of your heart connected to Jesus, not your heart in fear for its life! You have the life. You can’t be condemned. If you have sinned you can repent without fear. But you are not subject to someone’s self-centered or arbitrary rubric, certainly not their condemnation.
- Make sure you are following Jesus, not someone who does not love you. Desperate people exercise a lot of power trying to get stable. Many people just want others to follow them; they want power. They are kind of like drowning people who desperately cling to their rescuer and threaten to drown them both! People get themselves into situations where they did not and do not trust Jesus or anyone else. They work out of a survival instinct. You don’t need to join them in it if it does not really lead to survival. You don’t need to join with someone who does not love you, or Jesus. You might not be able to discern what’s going on with them and God, but you can probably tell if they are acting out of love for you.
- Check your distress level. You may need to decompress lest you think this turmoil is real relating. Suffer creatively don’t merely suffer with. The compassion of Jesus is leading somewhere, it is not just a tank of healing and neither are you. You know that people drink of your love and are thirsty again, and then blame you for not having enough of the “love” they crave. They need living water. Jesus has overcome the world (go back to number one).
- Beware the urge to tidy up after messy people all day. We always have house guests and boarders in the church who don’t keep our house like we do. It can be downright painful to listen to them when we just want to clean up the peanut butter they just left on the countertop. We don’t want to speak honestly to an out-of-control person in our cell. We don’t want to run into someone on the street who is unreconciled to us and Jesus. But there will be no tidying up until the final day when the world is renewed. Attempting to control everyone before then is not our job. People don’t need to make us feel good before we love them.
Sometimes we just have to meet someone on the street who is unreconciled to us and Jesus. We will try to make things right, as far as we are able, but we will not stop following Jesus, knowing He is able to do more than we ask or imagine.
We may not all be in one of these messy situations right now, but we probably will be. Let’s keep praying for one another, keep being honest, and keep following the One who will bring it all to right in the end.
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