If I had to choose a section of Scripture that best exemplifies the Community of Christ Redeemer Anglican Church over the past year, Galatians 6:1-3 would be that section.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
There are some who would read this passage and see it as a blank check to search out and ‘catch’ those secret sinners. The warrant to go looking and to expose the evil people in our midst. Unfortunately we have seen this play out innumerable times throughout the ages. I think this is partially our own fault. Our english translation does not do justice to the original. To get at the heart of this verse we should read;
“When anyone is ensnared, trapped, enslaved by their transgression, you who are spiritual (which is all of us since we have the Holy Spirit), must restore them in a spirit of gentleness (remember I said gentleness is fruit of the spirit right?).
Paul is asking that the church at Galatia to be a community of restoration, not a community of retribution. These verses came home to me in a profound way when I took leave from my parish to spend 40 days in a residential treatment facility. I entered the facility severely depressed, anxious, and burnt out just as the church I helped plant was entering its third year.
There were a number of things happening beyond what one could see on Sunday mornings. My relapse was the result of lots of small choices that began months if not years before I entered the Herrington Recovery House.
There are and will be a number of scenarios in which this is not the case. There will be those who fail to recognize the situation they find themselves in, or those who understand but refuse to repent and turn back to God. But I was able to see my wrong because those closest to me made decisions that forced me to see that I had become enslaved by my transgressions.
My willingness to admit my wrong and seek help was not what made our community so unique or beautiful. What was unique and beautiful about our community was the choice to restore me and not condemn me. Some only watched from the periphery, but my Bishop, my Dean, my staff, my vestry, my family and close friends engaged in the beautiful work of restoration. Deep sacrifices were made by all of those closest to me in order to help me come to myself again, including the church members and our staff. My church continued to support me financially while in treatment, when I was released they asked me to take time I to begin the hard work of reconciling the many damaged lives I left in my wake.
It was definitely not painless, nor was I necessarily good at it. For the first month home, I did not want to be seen. I basically hid in my house. But after much conversation, therapy, work with my sponsor, and prayer, I began to reach out to members of my congregation for one on one meetings. There was a lot of tears, a lot of anger and sadness expressed. I spent forty days coming to terms with my own brokenness, and now I began the hard work of seeing what my brokenness had done to others.
I approached each conversation with a ton of anxiety and fear. I had so many scenarios playing out in my head that included yelling, punching, and spitting. Thankfully this did not happen (especially thankful for the not spitting). They were very honest conversations, but never once did I feel like I was being looked down upon. I cried a lot. Others cried a lot. I learned the full weight of what it means to be a priest and to hold the fragile and precious trust that so many in my congregation had given me. The wounds ran deep, and I don’t think I nor they know just how deep. What is more amazing to me is the fact that these people chose to express their anger, sadness, and fear instead of choosing to move on to another church.
It was an incredible act of faith for my congregation to restore me as their priest. I hurt many people, I lied to many people, some of my relationships will never be the same because of what I have done. But through it all, only one family left because of the damage I had done. Our parish grew in my absence, in both size and health. No one had to stay. In fact, there is no reason that the church plant should have survived at all.
I see so many pastors being ‘released’ for moral failure of one kind or another. I’ve heard too many stories of pastors committing suicide when their failings were discovered. I’m not saying every pastoral failure should have restoration to the pastorate as the appropriate end. In my case, it seemed best to God and to my church that I be restored to my place as priest.
I love my church family. My failure has not led to my disgrace, it has done just the opposite. My failure has shown me what it means to be part of the family of God, to learn the meaning of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. This experience changed me. God loves me enough to let me fail if that is what it takes to learn the extent of His love for me. I’m a slow learner, but I am eternally grateful that God did for me what I could not do for myself. And I am even more grateful that my community chose to restore me in a spirit of gentleness.