The following is among the first articles I wrote as pastor at Saint John's. It comes less than a month after arriving.
Monday Morning, July23
I’m saying goodbye to a friend today. Harold died Friday. It’s not like I would have known of his death except that someone called the house Saturday morning, and asked if the “Harold” listed in the obituaries is the Harold I know.
Or the Harold I knew.
My family had known him since my childhood. During my childhood, I sat at his dinner table, and he sat at ours. Harold served in this annual conference for 40 years. He pastored, buried, married, baptized, presided at Table, and preached to countless people across West Tennessee and Western Kentucky.
His mind was as sharp as any you’d ever know. Photographic memory made names and faces come easy to him. His recitation of poetry as a part of his sermons was both masterful and inspiring.
I used to work for Harold. I was on staff at one of the churches he served.
But something happened about ten years ago that changed the nature of that relationship. As talented, as cordial as Harold was, there dwelt within the shadows of his soul a truth of his nature he never felt safe to share.
There was no sanctuary, no safe harbor for him within the systems and structures of the Church he had given his life to. Trying to suppress this truth was like trying to push a volleyball under water - you might can hold down for awhile, but sooner or later, it’s going to ascend into the open air, like it or not.
And it did.
He got caught trying to live out in secret what was his secret.
Because the church couldn’t or wouldn’t hold him in love, it asked him to take his leave from it.
And he did.
In one fell swoop, the totality of life and ministry was negated, in some eyes, because someone’s mask slipped and we were in a position to see what he’d worked so hard to hide.
Like the secret that won’t go away, the rumor mill of who Harold was metastasized throughout the community called to be the body of Christ. Try as people might to explain what happened, or to act as if they always knew something was up, the church was far more interested in excusing itself the embarrassment of dealing with one of their own around an issue it doesn’t know what to do with rather than to consider that there was a name, a person, one of its own, for whom it could not or would not offer sanctuary.
For ten years I’ve thought about Harold. I never called. I wrote once, got no response.
I ran into him in a restaurant a few years ago. It was painfully polite on all sides...but it wasn’t community. I’m not sure I wanted it, and I’m quite sure he didn’t trust it would be authentic.
I’m going to say goodbye to Harold today.
But before I do, I’m going to ask his forgiveness and God’s forgiveness because the same institution that exalts me, exiled him. The same institution that speaks of love and grace, loves doctrine more than the people Christ came to redeem.
See, the issue that changed our relationships with Harold was not his issue, it was our inability to handle it with love and grace. Because we couldn’t or wouldn’t love perfectly, love was cast out by fear.
Harold is home, he’s free. No more secrets.
In fact, I understand Harold reached peace with himself and made great contributions again for those in his network of care. But we’re left. And if forgiveness means anything it means that we will strive to repeat none of the mistakes of our past.
I know that there are more “Harolds” in the church’s life.
In my life.
God help me be the person of grace I can be...God help the Church be the community it’s supposed to be. The only way that can happen is when we push ourselves aside to let “perfect love cast out fear.”