I remembered Ed as a trouble maker. He was big for his age and he used that to his advantage, often pushing late bloomers like me out of his way. Worst of all, he got busted for drugs, an offense made more offensive because we attended a Christian school.
I vaguely remember hearing something about his having family problems. But he didn’t let me or anyone else get close enough to him to find out if it was true.
And now, here he was, decades later, talking openly about his life-changing encounter with Jesus. It wasn’t just talk. The spiritual change in him was palpable. His whole countenance was changed. Ed was a totally different person.
So stunning was his transformation that I had to ask, “What church did you get plugged into to bring about such a change?”
I will never forget his response. He sneered, reminiscent of the guy I remembered in high school, and said, “I didn’t find Christ in the church. I found Him at A.A.”
I share that story in one of my talks. Church people don’t like it much. But rather than be offended by Ed’s comment, I encourage Christians to be challenged by it.
For those not familiar with A.A., Alcoholics Anonymous is a place where:
- Sinners are safe from judgment, no matter what you’ve done.
- There is no reason to pretend that you have your act together because no one there has their act together.
- No one cares how you look or dress or talk or vote--all that matters is that you know that you matter.
- Shame is never used to try to make you conform to a particular standard of behavior.
There are many wounded souls like Ed who would not apply that same definition to today’s church. Many struggling people have turned to the church for acceptance and love, grace and forgiveness, only to leave with an even deeper sense of regret and shame.
If you asked Christians for the first thought that comes to mind when they hear the word sanctuary, most will make reference to the big room in a church where worship services are held. But there is another definition of the word that we often don’t consider. Sanctuary is also defined as: a safe place; a refuge for the oppressed; a place that provides protection.
Most churches have a sanctuary. But how many churches are a sanctuary?
For far too many--particularly those who are entangled in sinful behavior--the church is the least safe place for them to be. It is the place where they feel most oppressed. It is the place where they feel least protected.
In all His encounters with struggling and sinful people, Jesus never once used shame to modify their behavior. Truth is, there was no safer person to be with. Jesus was called Refuge, Fortress, High Tower, Strength and Shield. Jesus met people in the midst of their deepest sin and offered grace, not guilt; serenity, not sermons; healing, not more hurt. Jesus not only took all our sins to the cross to die, but all our shame.
One has to believe that He would want His church looking a lot more like A.A. and a lot less like what it has become for way too many people.