The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV).
Discipleship and Spiritual Warfare
Uuggghh! It was so frustrating talking to this woman.
Of course I didn’t let it show and my smile was more or less genuine but the truth still lingered in the corners of my eyes.
It was like I surrounded myself with these people, misfits and homeless and emotionally unstable and even a bit crazy. I started to tick them off in my mind one by one. Charlie, Leticia, Silvana, Fernando….
I said goodbye and started to walk away thinking about my life and how I had gotten here, to this place surrounded by difficult people everywhere I looked.
Every one of them was a problem. What did someone call them? Yes, I remember. Well-intentioned dragons. They sucked at your energy and drained you of your motivation. What would Jesus do with these people?
I stopped in my tracks. My smile fading….
What would Jesus do?
That was easy. He had surrounded himself with these same type of people and he had done so on purpose. Peter, always jumping in before he thought things through. James and John with their reputation for fighting. They even had a nickname, “The Sons of Thunder.” I bet there was a story behind that. And the way James was always working the power angle, trying to get himself and his brother into the best seats beside Jesus. And don’t forget Simon the zealot and Judas Iscariot. One ready to lay down his life in the battle against Rome, paranoid, even obsessive, no doubt. And the other? Urbane, sophisticated but really a scoundrel and a thief, ready to betray his Master for thirty pieces of silver. Maybe it was a trick to get Jesus to commit to the revolution against the Romans, to use his power to free their people, but that was no excuse. It was still betrayal and it was still wrong. Ultimately it cost him his life and his place in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus had it a lot worse but he had chosen each one of them knowing who and what they were. I was trying to avoid these people like the plague.
And what about you? The thought came into my head just that instant. Me? It was a good question. I wasn’t much better. Yes, I might be the Pastor but that didn’t make me any great catch either. I could be a pain in the neck too. Just ask my wife.
I chuckled out loud.
In any event, it would be resolved tonight at a special meeting with the Board. They made the mess. They can clean it up.
I straightened out some of the chairs and picked up a hymnal and put it back on the shelf. I heard the front door open and someone come in.
“Hello Pastor,” he called. It was Hank, one of the members of the church. Never on the Board or in a leadership position. He made people uncomfortable.
“Hey, Hank. How are you?” I hoped my lack of enthusiasm wasn’t evident in my voice. I liked Hank. Really I did. It was just that he was…….what was the word? Difficult. Yes, that was it. He was also a dragon and well-intentioned no doubt, but still a thorn-in-my-flesh. Prophets usually are, the thought came into my mind but I shook it off.
“Just stopped by for a chat,” he said with a big smile. “That is, if you have some time…”
“Yeah, sure, no problem.” It wasn’t easy to say no to Hank. I always felt like I needed to be careful with him around. He was different. Smart as anything and very knowledgeable about the Word of God but he always had an opinion about everything and it wasn’t always positive.
We walked over to a couple of chairs and sat down. Nobody really came to the church during the day so we would not be interrupted.
“How can I help you, Hank?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about this meeting you’re going to have today,” Hank said. “I just wanted to pray with you a bit beforehand if you don’t mind.”
How can you say no to prayer? But I wanted to know why he thought it was important enough to come over to the church in the middle of the day. So I asked him.
“It’s probably the most important meeting that you or the church will have this week, maybe even this month,” he said.
Really? Why? It was just a short meeting with one of the ladies that claimed to have been treated badly by the church before I had arrived to become the Pastor of our little international congregation. We needed to resolve the problem by talking it out and getting some reconciliation going between people, especially when it involves the elders.
“Don’t you think it’s important?” Hank looked at me carefully.
“Of course I do,” I said. “We’ve talked about this before, Hank. I believe that reconciliation is the key to pleasing God and receiving his anointing on our ministry as a church. If we want to grow, we need to do things God’s way and this is at the heart of the matter.”
“I hear the words, Pastor John, but I’m not sure you really believe them yourself.”
Well, that was blunt. I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to get angry. I was hurt but I was also confused. I took a deep breath and asked him quietly, “Why do you say that?”
“I’m sorry if I offended you. That was not my intention. In fact, I agree with you totally and most churches and many pastors don’t even go there. The ministry of reconciliation is difficult and dangerous and can even be deadly if we don’t treat it carefully with much prayer and fasting.”
“You think I’m not praying or fasting?” I blurted out.
“Of course I am.”
“When, what? Are you checking up on me now?” Yes, I was getting bothered. Even angry.
“No, you’re right. Don’t answer that. I just know that I tell people all the time that I will pray for them but I don’t really do it much or with much passion. Maybe I’m just projecting my weaknesses on to you.” Hank hung his head for a moment and I didn’t know what to say.
Then Hank began to talk to Jesus. It wasn’t prayer like I normally prayed. He just started talking to him as if he was sitting right next to us. He poured out his heart and asked for forgiveness. At one point he grabbed my hands and tears squeezed out of his eyes. I was watching him covertly while pretending to pray with him throwing in the occasional “Amen” or “Yes, Lord.” He prayed fervently for the meeting later that afternoon and called on God for protection for me and the board and for Silvana.
When Hank was done, he waited in silence and I realized that I should pray too. Five minutes later Hank was on his way and I walked a bit bewildered into the kitchen where my wife was making lunch.
“Who was that, dear?” she asked.
“Oh, Silvana was here earlier and then Hank came for a few minutes to pray.”
“How is Silvana doing? Is she ready for the meeting this afternoon?
“She’s scared,” I confessed. “She doesn’t want to come alone. She wanted to invite Hank’s wife, Anita, to come to the meeting with her but Anita said that Silvana needed to come alone.”
“Why was she scared?”
“I don’t know. I don’t get it.” I started to get a bit hot under the collar. “She makes this whole thing a big deal when it really is quite simple and straightforward. The board handled her situation badly. Everyone is going to apologize and we will move forward. That’s it….”
“Well, it’s not quite that simple, dear. I heard her testimony at our women’s conference last month and Silvana is someone who has lived with rejection and pain most of her life.” My wife put the stove on simmer, then took my hand and we both sat down at the kitchen table. “Listen,” she said. “You’ve got to take this a bit more seriously.”
“You sound like Hank,” I said.
She just smiled at me.
“Okay, okay. I get it. She has been rejected all her life. I heard she was adopted. That couldn’t have been easy for her.”
“Not just adopted but also rejected by them. They have money but refuse to help her and have practically left her on the streets with nothing to her name. Sure, she has emotional problems. Wouldn’t you? But she loves God and she is always willing to seek reconciliation with the people she’s offended.” My wife paused for a moment. “You always say that seeking reconciliation is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in someone’s heart. Right?”
“Yes, of course,” I said. “I believe she’s a Christian and loves the Lord and I understand the pain our church gave her when she was living here. They handled it badly, apparently. She needed to go and find her own place but they were too abrupt and not very helpful in the process.”
“It’s more than that, John,” my wife said. “One thing is the specific need she had at the time and the other is the relationship that she has with the church, especially the leaders. They told her to go away and never come back…”
There were tears forming in my wife’s eyes and I had to look away.
“And it isn’t the first time this has happened,” she said quietly. “It’s almost as if they just want to get rid of problem people and not deal with them at all.”
I thought of my attitude a couple of hours earlier. I was just as guilty as they were….
My wife sat silently. Probably praying…
Maybe this was more important than I realized. I hesitated, wanting to say something else….
“Just before Hank left, he said something strange. He said that the ministry of reconciliation was spiritual warfare. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”
“Some things only come out with prayer and fasting,” my wife said. “Hank’s wife told me that once. I thought she was talking about demons or something but I think it applies to all kinds of evil.”
“Do you think we are dealing with evil here?”
“Yes, I do,” she said quietly. “It’s in us as well, not just the board. We have to take it seriously.”
I sighed heavily. “I guess anything that gets in the way of God’s anointing is evil.”
“That’s a good place to start,” my wife said. “You are always saying that the ministry of reconciliation is the key to spiritual power in the church.” She smiled.
“True.” I was quiet for a long moment. “Hank doesn’t think I’m taking it seriously enough,” I said.
“Is he right?”
“I’m not sure how to take it more seriously.” I shifted in my seat. “I feel like I’m out of my depth, like I’m drowning in a pool of good intentions and nice people that haven’t a clue as to what’s really going on. And I’m one of them.”
My wife laid her hand on my arm and said, “That’s a good start. Confession is where truth can get a foothold, you always say. Go take your nap and then get ready for the meeting and let’s see what God does with this mess.”
I nodded wearily and trudged up the stairs to lay down for a few minutes.
An hour later I was up, took a shower and got ready for the meeting. “Lord,” I prayed silently. “I put these people and this meeting in your hands.” Then I went downstairs and met with the prayer team and had them focus on the spiritual battle that lay ahead. They would surround the church, walking around it while they prayed.
Our board wasn’t very big, just three people. One of them brought their wife with them. That was unusual but not a big deal. Silvana showed up on time and I called the meeting to order. We prayed for a moment before we started and then I got down to business.
“Everybody knows each other here so let’s just get started,” I said.
“No, no,” Silvana said. “Let me talk first. May I?” She was always a bit abrupt in her manner but I wanted her to feel comfortable so I waved at her to indicate that she could start.
“I just want to apologize to all of you for what happened last year. It was my fault. I was off my meds and having a rough time emotionally and I took it out on you.” She went on for a bit explaining what was going on in her life at that time and we all listened quietly. Finally, she was finished.
“Apology accepted,” said the head elder. His name was Arnold. He was a preaching elder that had led this small congregation for years. He was a pillar of the church and his wife, Annie, was involved in everything from the fellowship committee to the potlucks once a month to singing in the choir. They were good people. Solid. God-fearing. “But I have something to say as well…”
I looked up at him sharply. This was interesting.
“I also need to make an apology. I handled the situation all wrong. I treated you badly, Silvana and I am so sorry.” His eyes glistened. Was he crying? “It wasn’t just the fact that you needed a place to stay. After all, we gave you a place in the church in the back room for almost six months. We also gave you some money to get you started somewhere else. But that isn’t the point. I was just trying to get rid of a problem. ”
“You told her never to come back,” his wife said gently.
He nodded, his head hung low, unable to look anyone in the eye. “I’m sorry. That was wrong. Please forgive me.”
I was holding my breath. It was absolutely silent in the room. Silvana didn’t say anything which was very unusual for her. Finally, one of the other elders spoke up. His name was Peter. He was talking to Arnold.
“You know I always supported you, Arnie,” he said. “But when this happened, I was uncomfortable. I didn’t like it but I went along with you anyway. I thought I was being loyal.” He paused. “But maybe I was being loyal to the wrong person.” He turned to Silvana. “You are a sister in Christ. We have a bond that goes way beyond family or friendship. I am sorry that I didn’t have the courage to protect you from this abuse of our authority. I am ashamed of myself. Please forgive me.”
Again, silence in the room. It stretched on into agony. Suddenly, I thought maybe I was supposed to say something, but before I could speak, I heard a sob from Santiago, our third elder.
“I don’t know what I’m doing being an elder,” he said. He was having a hard time maintaining his composure. “This is the second meeting this month that we have had with someone that we’ve hurt as a board. And I can think of three or four others that we should probably talk to as well and that’s without half trying.” He stopped, gulping.
“Pastor John has been preaching on the ministry of reconciliation and the priority of healthy spiritual relationships, healed through confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s hit me hard. I’ve never really heard this stuff before. Pastor John and I have been getting together a lot to talk about this and praying but I really have no business being an elder. I just make things worse.”
“You and me both,” Arnold said, and Peter nodded as well.
I had to tell myself to breathe or I would pass out and spoil everything. Even I knew that I was in the presence of the Holy Spirit and He was coming in power into the lives of these people. There seemed to be a bubble of protection around us and we were able to share our hearts without shame, or fear or any other hindrance.
Silvana finally started to speak again.
“Of course I forgive you and thank you for your help last year. I really needed a place to stay and get my act together again. I had nowhere else to turn and you graciously gave me a place to stay in your church. Thank you.” She was quiet for a moment. “But when you threw me out and told me not to come back….. I almost died.” She looked at the floor, unwilling to meet their eyes, wounded and afraid to tell them her secret, to look even weaker than she already was. I knew what she was going to say.
“I tried to commit suicide, right here in this room, that same night,” she whispered. “I was going to do it right there in front of the altar, hanging myself from the cross, so you could see what you did to me first thing Sunday morning.”
Now even I was crying.
“Why didn’t you do it?” Arnold asked quietly.
Silence. Everyone waited.
“I don’t know,” she said, finally. “I guess because Jesus was watching, and I knew he wouldn’t be happy about it. Kind of lame, I know. I remember thinking that this wasn’t over yet. Something else had to happen.” She paused. “Now I get it.”
What did she get? I didn’t get it. What was she talking about? But the others were all nodding their heads and I felt like the outsider here.
“He’s like that,” Peter said. “Uses our stupidities and sin and makes them into something beautiful.”
“Only if we do things his way,” Arnold said. “Otherwise we just make things worse.”
Heads nodded in agreement. The Spirit of God was bringing the power of fellowship and spiritual unity into play.
“I hear that you need a place to stay again,” Santiago said.
“That’s not why I came,” Silvana said quickly. “I’ll figure it out myself. Don’t worry about it.”
“I get it,” Santiago said. “One thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other. But we still want to help, don’t we?” He looked around at the others. “You could stay here at the church again for a few months and save up some money and we will all start looking for a place for you.”
“Yeah, and I got a truck that we can use to move your stuff in here this weekend,” Peter said. “We’ll all pitch in and get you moved.”
“You know that old furniture we have in the downstairs room?” Arnold was talking to his wife. “She might be able to use some of that.”
“Great idea. I’ll get together with Silvana and find out what she needs,” Annie said, smiling at Silvana. “I’ll also get some of the ladies together to make a lunch on Saturday after you move her in and we can eat together afterward.”
“Sounds good,” I said finally finding my voice. I took a deep breath. “Let’s talk to Jesus for a minute and thank him for a great meeting and then we can get things organized.”
We grabbed each other’s hands and I bowed my head to start praying…..
and woke up with a start.
I was in my room, the air heavy, the windows open but no breeze, not even the sound of birds chirping. Where was I? What was happening? Then I realized. It had all been a dream, a very vivid one at that. My heart sank. Did that mean it had never happened? I looked at my watch. The meeting was scheduled in forty-five minutes. O bother….
I got up and took a shower and shook off my lethargy.
“Are you alright dear?” I could hear my wife’s voice calling from the bottom of the stairs.
“Down in a minute,” I called out.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Yes, there was something off about that dream. They talked as if I had preached about this stuff a lot when it had only been one sermon so far. I knew that sounded off even when I was in the dream. There was no prayer team coming to pray around the church. I hadn’t met with any of the elders before the meeting to talk about their walk with God.
I was upset with myself and nervous. I was winging it. Hank was right to challenge me. I hadn’t even prayed much for this meeting myself. And fasting? Forget about it. It wasn’t happening. I realized right then that I was going into battle totally unprepared.
But it was too late. I heard the doorbell ring.
Our board wasn’t very big, just three people. One of them brought their wife with them. Silvana showed up on time and I called the meeting to order. We prayed for a moment before we started.
“Everybody knows each other here so let’s just get started,” I said.
“No, no,” Silvana said. “Let me talk first. May I?” I waved at her to indicate that she could start.
“I just want to apologize to all of you for what happened last year. It was my fault. I was off my meds and having a rough time emotionally and I took it out on you.”
“Apology accepted,” said the head elder, interrupting. His name was Arnold. He was a preaching elder that had led this small congregation for years. “But I have something to say as well…”
I looked up at him sharply.
“I understand that you are looking for a place to stay again? Is that why you’re here?”
“No, no,” Silvana said. “One thing has nothing to do with the other.”
“I’m not sure why we are having this meeting then.” Arnold’s wife, Annie, had decided to speak up. “I thought we were going to talk about whether or not she could move into the church again.”
“No,” I said. “We are here to see if we can reconcile with one another.”
“We already accepted her apology,” Arnold said. “Maybe we didn’t handle things so well last time but, like she said, she was off her meds and not in a good place. We did the best we could.”
“You told me to leave and never come back,” Silvana burst out. “How is that doing the best you can do?”
“We gave you some money so that you could find another place,” Annie said. “You should be thankful for our help.”
“It was Hank and Anita who helped me move, paid for the moving truck, got me a place and paid for the first month’s rent,” Silvana said heatedly. “They even signed the documents as guarantors. You didn’t do anything.”
I was holding my breath. It was absolutely silent in the room. Finally, one of the other elders spoke up. His name was Peter. He was talking to Arnold.
“You know I always supported you, Arnie,” he said. “And I support you now. Maybe we could have handled things better but we did the best we could at the time. Enough said. I’m ready to go home.”
Again, silence in the room. It stretched on into agony. Suddenly, I thought maybe I was supposed to say something, but before I could speak, I heard a sob from Silvana.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she said. She was having a hard time maintaining her composure. “I have nowhere to go. I’m supposed to leave the place I’m in this Saturday. I don’t have the money to pay a real estate company or the money for a deposit and I don’t have a guarantor.” She stopped, gulping. “I was scared to come here today. I never wanted to come back and ask for anything but Pastor John encouraged me to come.”
“We have a room upstairs in the church she could stay in for a couple of months,” I said softly.
“No,” Annie said sharply. “Not upstairs. We need that for Sunday School classes.”
“But we have had other people living up there this past year…”
Annie waved her hand to dismiss the idea completely. “There’s a small room in the back where the gardener used to stay. It has room for a single bed. She can stay there for a couple of weeks.”
“No, it…it’s all right…” Silvana stammered.
“Maybe you can talk to the owners where she is right now and ask for more time,” Peter suggested, talking to me.
“Well, I really don’t know anything about….”
“Great idea. I think that settles it, then,” Arnold said. Problem solved.
No reconciliation. No healing. No anointing from God.
Problem. Definitely. Not. Solved.
Santiago, the third elder, had not said a word. He was going with the flow. Peter and Arnold were in agreement. Doing the best they could. Nothing more. Fine, upstanding elders. Pillars of the community. No spiritual maturity or discernment but nice people in the wrong job. Cannot be trusted to lead the church. That was the truth.
Silvana was speaking again.
“Thank you for your help last year. I really needed a place to stay and get my act together again. I had nowhere else to turn and you graciously gave me a place to stay in your church. Thank you.” She was quiet for a moment. “But when you threw me out and told me not to come back…. I almost died.” She looked around at them, holding their eyes with hers, angry but still afraid to tell them her secret, to look even weaker than she already was. I knew what she was going to say.
She hesitated. Then stopped.
“I don’t need your room in the back. Thank you anyway,” she whispered. “I came here for something else.” Then she said again, quietly, “I’m sorry.”
The silence was uncomfortable. The elders looked at me.
“It looks like we are done here,” I said, finally finding my voice. “Let’s have a prayer and get going. We all have things to do.” I couldn’t believe what I was saying but I was tired and discouraged and things were going nowhere fast. It was time to end it.
I grabbed Silvana’s hand, but the others already had their heads down so I just started praying…..
and woke up with a start.
I was in my room, the air heavy, the windows open but no breeze, not even the sound of birds chirping. Where was I? What was happening? Then I realized. It had all been a dream, another one, a very vivid one at that. My heart soared. Did that mean it had never happened? I looked at my watch quickly. The meeting was scheduled in forty-five minutes. Thank God….
I grabbed my phone and called Hank. Told him what I needed and hung up. Prayer cover was on its way. I sank to my knees and started to call out to God earnestly. Forget about a shower. Forget about eating. There was work to be done. The ministry of reconciliation was spiritual warfare and I was damned if I was going into battle unprepared.
Not this time. Not ever again.
Jesus said, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.”
Mark 9:29 NIV
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Spiritual Warfare requires prayer….
Lord, I’m scared of spiritual warfare. I don’t understand it very well. I know I am protected by your blood and, so long as I am walking in the Spirit, I have nothing to worry about. It’s important work. I never really thought of it in the context of relationships and reconciling people to you and to each other. That ministry is the heart of the gospel and is my main work as your disciple. I accept that job description, Lord. But I cannot do anything without your anointing. Teach me your ways, O Lord. In your name I pray. Amen.