Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Character Formation Happens in Relationships with Other People

The River Raisin, in my back yard
Many years ago, in another church I was in, there were two people who hated me. Mary and her husband Bob (not their real names) seemed to be against everything I was and stood for. One day when I went out for a five-hour prayer time I could not get Mary and Bob out of my mind. They were trying to undermine me! I was angry inside. "I hate these people," I told God, all the whole knowing how anti-Christ those words were. They hate me; I hate them too. If I had said it any other way it would have been a lie. So at least, on that day, I did not lie to God even though in my hatred our adversary's great lie was enfleshed in my heart. This sinful anger was not some aberration but was the real me.

I spent at least an hour just being angry. At some point I asked God to help me. This included asking him to forgive me for my disgust at Mary and Bob. I confessed, "God, forgive me for my hatred towards Mary and Bob. But I do not know how to love them!" Then, my prayer became this: "God, if you're not going to take Mary and Bob out of my life, at least change my heart so I can love people who dislike me, like Jesus did." And God told me, "John, I am trying to change your heart to be more loving, and that is exactly why I have allowed Mary and Bob into your life." That did it for me. My pain turned to praise as I thanked God for Mary and Bob being in my life.

I left that prayer time thanking God for forgiving me and feeling genuine compassion for them. I drove to our church. It was early evening. When I pulled into the parking lot Mary was, unexpectedly, there in her car. When I saw her I felt God tell me, "John, give Mary the devotional book you have been using." I got out of my car holding the book and walked towards her. She rolled down her window and said, "I just found out that my sister is very sick." She had tears in her eyes. "I want to give you this book," I said. She appeared grateful as I handed it to her. I thought, "God, you are now working, and healing, the pain between myself and Mary." Perhaps she and Bob had also been praying, asking God what they were to do with someone like me in their life?

"Character formation happens in relationships with other people." (David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship, 73) Who we really are is who we are in community. God uses community to form our hearts into Christlikeness. One who shuns community because it is so hard to be with other people forsakes the formation of their own character. Augsburger says the real church is "to be a community of disciples obeying the particular ways of God that are revealed in Jesus. It models neighbor love, transformative redemptive justice, inclusion of the stranger , servanthood to each other and beyond, creative love, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the humility to recognize and confess its own need for repentance and forgiveness." (Ib., 75) Since you and I are the church we don't need to waste any time looking for some other church that models these things. And "going it alone" is never a Jesus-option, since he is the one who became flesh and dwelt among us.

Shortly after I gave Mary the book Linda and I got together with her and Bob. We confessed and forgave and got things right. We set a date to go out together for dinner. And we thanked God for bringing such different people together so we could all have our hearts formed more into the loving, grace-filled heart of our Lord Jesus.