Earlier this month, I was privileged to attend the wedding of a co-worker I teach with. What made it an amazing privilege is that I have only known her for the past 3 months. My co-worker friend proved to be one of the kindest and most helpful people to me when I arrived at the new school I began teaching at. Because of the bond we shared in Christ, she bestowed unto me a title as a “Dearly Beloved Wedding Guest,” normally reserved for family, friends and loved-ones. This is a reflection of what happens when God adopts us as his children: he bestows on us a title that we cannot earn, and that only he can give by his grace (Ephesians 1: 5-6).
Apart from being an immense privilege, going to her wedding turned out to be a thought provoking sight. It was by and large attended by what appeared to be a who’s who of the people from her church. And these people all seemed to be very strong and very beautiful.
Something in me was grieved – not just by what I was seeing at my friend’s wedding, but what I have tended to see in the evangelical church these days. By and large, many people in today's evangelical circles seem to fit this strong and beautiful mould. A casual observer seeing the sight and being presented the gospel might well reason that only strong and beautiful people repent.
Then I thought about someone from my friend Sandy’s church: "Lyle" (not his real name), who is becoming one of my closest friends. Lyle is not one of the beautiful and the strong. In fact, he has a speech impediment, and hasn’t developed a lot of the social graces that usually come from caring, healthy and substantial interactions with friends and colleagues. But one thing became clear as I was getting to know him: he loves Jesus.
What really struck me upon meeting Lyle is that he is one of the “poor brothers” of Jesus – not poor in the sense of economic poverty (Lyle holds a job, and a car; in this sense, he is one-up on me), but poor in the sense of having been largely denied the right hand of fellowship by those in the Institutional Church. As Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” and, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. (Matt. 25: 31-46)”
The point here is that Lyle isn’t some starving person on the other side of the world who I don’t know, or another such person strung out on Main Street. Lyle is royalty, on account of his faith in Jesus Christ, and has been largely denied the dignity ascribed to his position.
It really occurred to me from these aforementioned verses, at a time when I have been struggling with what I painfully perceive to be an immense fog and chilly ambient temperature in the organized church, that Jesus is to be found where Lyle is.
Indeed, I have been blessed by my time with him. For one, you can really see him light up when he is with another Christian who loves him. Secondly, I was privileged to meet his parents – two godly people who trust the Lord and who have devoted half a century of their lives caring and praying for Lyle. These same lovely people ministered to me by having me over for dinner several times at their place (It’s interesting to note, especially as I grow older as a single, that precious few ever minister to me in this way – even amongst those to whom I am closest).
It is a testimony of the love and grace of Christ, and the move of the spirit that is all too often to be found outside of the camp of church groups.
It should, however, be acknowledged that if it wasn’t for the institutional church, I wouldn’t have met Lyle. The institutional church does remain the market that brings together a whole mosaic of people with an even greater mosaic of motivations in coming out. Though it can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, it is largely the most practical place to connect and fellowship with other truly convicted Christians.
I for one only attended the church where I met Lyle for a short while after moving to Edmonton, because it was where Sandy was going (and Sandy is one of the precious few faithful brothers that I mentioned earlier). Lyle came to this church because he too had moved to Edmonton, and was looking for fellowship that often proved elusive. On Lyle’s third week of attending this church without anyone so much as greeting him, it was Sandy (in true character) that went up to him and greeted him. And through Sandy, I got to meet Lyle.
The good news does get better: there have since been several other Christians at Lyle’s church who have given him the right hand of fellowship, and have involved him in many aspects of the life of their congregation.
It is hard, nonetheless, to not have a cynical, Fitzgeraldian view of the aforementioned topic. But this is where the shoes of “walking by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7) and “running the race” (Heb. 12:1-2) hit the track.
It should be noted that I'm not experiencing any kind of lofty heroic sentiment from all this. Deciding to forsake all for the cause of Christ, and for his "poor brothers", often amplifies the isolation and loneliness that is exceedingly painful. It also visibly diminishes the prospects for substantial community and fellowship, and the relationships that can evolve from such, as people naturally scurry from the sight of the least of Jesus' beloved.
I for one take immense comfort in the words of Jesus: “upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18) – even if it remains largely invisible to my eyes (yes, like a needle in a haystack...).
I also take great comfort in Isaiah’s description of Jesus, long before he came. The entire 15th chapter of Isaiah is rich with the immensity of how God himself through Jesus took on the role of a faithful servant, devoid of any external appeal:
1Who has believed our message?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
3He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
4Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
6All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
7He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
8By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
9His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
10But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
11As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
12Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.
Hallelujah! Here is at least one other person in God’s "beautiful and strong" church, who is not one of the "beautiful and strong" people.
(Bible text from BibleGateway.com; images from tvcrazy.net and christiancrafters.com)