Grace & Truth: A Case Study
"I do not appreciate how things were handled, therefore we will not be coming back."
That was the last text message I received from her. I fastened my eyes on it, read it a few more times, but slowly my gaze drifted past the phone and onto the concrete floor beyond it. My stomach felt cavernous. My chest sagged. I began filing through memories, scanning for where I had veered so ungraciously, searching for the place where I "handled" things inappropriately. I found a few places. My batting average certainly isn't a thousand in every conflict. Despite my best examination, however, I couldn't find anything that would result in such a retort.
I had asked her to step down from a volunteer position at our church, not because she had made a mistake, everybody makes mistakes. As Paul taught us, "No one is righteous, no, not even one." It was the purposeful cover-up that did it. It was the intentional secrecy to ensure that no one would ever discover her transgression and double life.
It was a surprising revelation. She had been one of the best volunteers in our children's program, willing to set-up, prepare food, clean the kitchen, monitor the kids, chaperone camps. Over 75% of the kids and students in our struggling program attended because of some connection to her family.
So, the day she offered even more of herself to the ministry, I had no reason to say no. I whipped up a list of various weekly responsibilities, entitled her Children's Ministry Coordinator, and gave her the authority to borrow the church credit card for purchases.
Less than two weeks later, a deacon and I were meeting with her to take it all back.
The trouble began over a contentious relationship with two other women in the church. I've worked in Jr. High ministry before and the situation felt like countless interventions I've had with catty 8th grade girls. I called one of the women to get to the bottom of the conflict. She rattled off a litany of weak allegations as to why woman number one wasn't qualified to volunteer in this capacity. "She's a moocher. She comes over to mama's house, offers to help her, then demands to get paid. She was receiving money from another church member, but when the money stopped she turned on her."
On and on it went. The entire time I was thinking, "Why is this any of your business? Why are 40-year-old Christian women acting this way?" Furthermore, none of her "allegations" equaled disqualification from serving. It was 30 minutes of pettiness.
I called the third woman involved to see what she had to say. Woman number three was less eager to divulge the secrets of woman number one. She was cautious to release every word, loosening them like a rope slowly slipping the fingers. She was hiding something more, I could sense it. I've worked with people enough to know when someone is withholding. I questioned hard to squeeze it out of her. Finally, the rope fell from her grasp. "She was arrested in January for shoplifting. She's also homeless and has been living in her minivan with her daughter for several months now."
"Uh-oh," I thought. "That's a more serious accusation."
All the other stuff I could have dealt with, but this had bigger implications. First, the trust factor had been severely damaged. Could I trust her with the church credit card? Could I trust her alone in the church building? She's already desperate enough to steal, who's to say she wouldn't buy food for Wednesday night and slip a little extra in the shopping cart for herself? It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. More disturbing, had she been planning on taking advantage of our church this whole time? Surely not...but then again, it was possible.
Whether her motives were honest or dishonest, the optics were extremely negative. In layman's terms, it just didn't look good. What would the rest of our congregation think when they caught wind of this, as they most certainly would? I might be more understanding, but would the finance committee, the deacons, the church council? What did it say about my judgement and discernment as the pastor?
Furthermore, I was just plain hurt. I assumed we had a good relationship. Our church had reached deep in their pockets for a scholarship so that her daughter could attend university and prepare for a career in the church. As a matter of fact, every Monday I met with her daughter and we studied a book that guided students in discerning a call to ministry. I poured a lot into this family's cup. So, why didn't she tell me all of this already? Why had she been hiding what was really going on?
With my leadership on the line, I had to make a decision. And like so many pastors before, I felt that old tension between grace and truth.
It's an intersection that every church and Christian must strive to get to. Truth: This is what's right and good. Now that you know what's right and good, fix yourself. Grace: We can't fix ourselves and achieve right and good. Only through Christ can we be made right and good.
In the Jewish culture, right and good was defined by the law of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. If you could live your life by that law, then you would achieve right and good. The problem was that nobody could do it. No matter how many tried, they all came up short - Abraham, Moses, David, all of them! No one could achieve right and good. It's the whole reason they came up with animal sacrifices. Someone had to pay for failure to do right and good, but instead of paying with your own blood, here's a goat. Even that wasn't enough, because it was a constant, never ending ritual and we all figured out a loophole - do whatever you want and sacrifice an animal! All the while, the true transformation that God desired of his creation eluded our grasp.
That's why the Father sent Jesus, to achieve right and good when no one else could. And then through his sacrificial death, he gifted us with the opportunity to be made right and good if we would only believe in, trust, and follow him - grace.
"Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." - John 1:16-17, NIV
So, I did my best to stand at the intersection and hold my ground. Truth: "No, you can't volunteer for us in this capacity anymore. You've lied to me and the trust is gone, but trust can be earned again. I can't let you in the building alone and I can't let you take the church card to make purchases anymore." Grace: "Yes, we still want you here. You and your daughter are family. I love you and want you to be a part of our church. In fact, it sounds like we need to be helping you more than you need to be helping us right now."
I did my best and that is why her words stung, still sting, so much: "I don't appreciate how things were handled, therefore we will not be coming back."
Was it perfect? Probably not. But I gave it my best attempt. That's the tricky thing about trying to locate that intersection. We all seem to be using a different map to find it. Or, if we are using the same map, we interpret the directions a little differently. Just when you think you're smack-dab in the middle of the intersection, there's always a person on the left yelling, "You're too far right!" and a person on the right yelling, "You're too far left!" What matters is that we search anyway. What matters is that we listen to, spend time with, and study the one person in the entire history of the world who ever lived it perfectly. If I'm convinced of anything, it's this:
The closer we stand to Jesus, the better. Because the closer we stand to Jesus, the closer we are to finding that place were grace and truth perfectly intersect.
Prayer: God of justice and love, perfect in me what I cannot perfect in myself. My desire is to be, above all else in life, more like Jesus. Above pastor, husband, father, brother, son, or friend, make me a better Christ-follower. In every word on my tongue and in every act of my hand, make me like Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit's inward transformation in me, push outwardly into the world the image of Christ. Where I am in error, correct. Where I am proud and certain, humble. Where I am extravagant to the point of damage, hem. Where I am reckless, stir and guide. Where I am dull and deaf, hone and hearken. Where I am heartless and unfeeling, plant within me seeds of empathy. Guide me to the place where truth and grace abound in harmony, that I may be a lighthouse for others who also search.