And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32
In 2007, my sister-in-law died of complications from cancer. Her memorial service was held at Applewood Baptist Church in the Denver area. By that time, it had been seven years since I had resigned my pastorate in Littleton begin to mend my marriage that I had nearly destroyed.
Suzanne was dearly loved by the folks at my former Church and her new church. The 800-seat auditorium was nearly full. As I looked out at the crowd, it seemed that half of them were former church members. I hadn’t seen them since I had left the church in 1999 in disgrace. In my mind, there would be many hard feelings in the hearts of those former church members. I didn’t want to talk to them. I was afraid of what some of them might say to me. I was ashamed of myself. It was not a good time. I didn’t want to be there, but I loved Suzanne and wanted to honor my sister-in-law.
We filed in with the family and sat towards the front of the church. I had written a tribute to her on my blog and my brother-in-law read it to the congregation. It was just one of the many tributes offered that day for this godly woman.
Like most funerals, there was a reception offered at the end of the service in the fellowship hall. I didn’t want to go. I knew there would be former church members there and I didn’t want to be in a position of re-opening a very painful wound in my heart and theirs. But Lynette was insistent that if I ever wanted to get a kiss from her again, that I would go to the reception.
So, I went. But I told her that she had to stay very close to me—joined at the hip. I believed that no one would say anything nasty to me if she were right beside me. Church folks always have loved my wife more than me. They imagine her a woman of great faith and grace to live with someone like me.
We went to the fellowship hall and I tried to be as inconspicuous as someone 6’4” and NFL-lineman-weight could be, which is not very.
I saw Tom and Mary Jo Turner enter the room and they made a beeline for me. Then I saw Mike and Julie Moot, Mark and Cindy Maynard, Randy and DeAnna Gallop, Dale and Belinda Wiest, Virginia Hildebrand, and on and on and on they came up to me. A line began to form. One after another, I was scared out of my mind.
As they approached, I was on red alert. All my defenses were up. And then the strangest thing happened, they, everyone—every single one—came up to me and gave me a hug and told me that they loved me.
I wept. They wept. We all wept. We laughed and laughed with such deep affection.
The reception for my beloved sister-in-law became a sacred space of healing for a pastor who had hurt so many people.
I had wronged each of them and had not ever had an opportunity to ask for their forgiveness, and yet they had forgiven me long before they stood in line to give me and Lynette a hug in the basement of that church.
In my imagination, I envisioned Suzanne with a small committee of angels going up to Jesus and saying let’s turn the reception at my memorial service into a healing service for Joe, Lynette, and the folks at Lochwood Baptist Church.
Healing, restoration, and reconciliation began in the fellowship hall of a Church in Wheatridge, Colorado.
The reason that I have never given up on the Church is that the Church has never given up on me.