Subtitle: Why is the one place grace should be easiest to give, the hardest place to give it?
By Michele Mann
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was a Wednesday night service. I hadn’t planned to be there. I was a newlywed and this was our first church. We’d only been part of the church for a few months and my husband encouraged me to go and get to know some folks. So I went. The service began uneventfully. A worship song, prayer, and then the announcement of a business meeting.
I had never been to a church business meeting, for good reason. All I wanted to do was run for the nearest exit, or maybe go hide under a pew. I’d heard horror stories about how “business” was conducted in church, and I really didn’t want to stick around long enough to see if the stories were true. But I was stuck. And sure enough, it got ugly. Something about the colors of the pews clashing with the carpet. It was so stereotypical and so shallow. It got so heated my young, immature, impressionable heart started to ache. I quietly excused myself and left the sanctuary in tears. I spent the rest of the meeting in a bathroom stall—discouraged, dejected, and just plain sad.
Growing up, church and I had a distant relationship. Oh, I rode the “church bus” from time to time when I was in elementary school (mostly for the bubble gum). But, strange as it may sound, by the time I reached middle school, Jesus and the Bible were integral parts of my life, but church was not. I started noticing the same kids I saw at church were the same kids who were cruel and vindictive and cliquish at school. I decided, as a very pretentious 13-year-old, if those kids were the product of the church, then I’d like none of that. I knew I was a sinner and needed Jesus, and I loved Him, but His church, no thank you.
This began years of struggle. As I read the Bible and grew as a believer, I knew I needed to allow God to change my stinky attitude. In college, I began to serve at a local church where I got a closer glimpse of the body, and it wasn’t pretty. There was gossip and judgmental attitudes and cliques and jealousies and conflicts. It seemed those who were most in need of the love of Christ were the ones who were the most soundly rejected by the church. The people who grew up in the church didn’t welcome the newbies, and heaven help you if you had serious mistakes or wounds in your past. After one dear friend was wounded deeply by a church member, it was all I could take. I was done. I’d be just fine with small group Bible study and campus ministries. Church was way too messy for me.
Then I met my husband. This godly man who grew up in church and saw the mess, but also saw the beauty. He knew how necessary and vital the church was to spiritual growth, to reaching the community, to serving others. I still wasn’t convinced. But I knew the Word. I knew my role as a wife was to be submissive and to follow his leadership. So when we searched for a body of believers, we prayed, we looked for a church that did not compromise the truth of the Bible. We looked for a church close to our community so we could really love and serve our neighbor. We finally felt God’s drawing to a local body. But it was hard. I’m so thankful for a husband who made me go on the weeks I really wanted to stay home. Pretty soon we found a precious group of friends, found places to use the gifts God had given us, and we settled in a bit.
Then came the business meeting. All the emotions I had been keeping at bay piled up and could no longer be contained. I wept bitterly in that church bathroom. I cried out to the Lord from a long wounded place, “This is not how church is supposed to be! This can’t be what you intended! God I want to love your church, but it is so broken. So fractured. All I see is the ugly stuff, God help me see the beauty of your body.”
After a while, I finally gathered up my fractured heart and went back in the sanctuary just as the “meeting” was coming to a close. As I quietly slipped in a back pew, I heard a sweet voice at the microphone. It was Mrs. Thelma. She was an older lady, a tiny thing with eyes filled with love and fire. “Friends,” she said sweetly and gently. “One of my favorite verses is Psalm 19:14, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Now I don’t think our words have been very pleasing to the Lord. Maybe we should spend some time talking to the Lord and making sure our hearts and minds are acceptable to the Lord before we continue.”
I was undone. My heart melted. God used this little lady with the boldness to speak truth in love to begin the alteration process in my heart. God whispered to me that day, “The body is broken because it is full of sinners, like you. But it is not beyond repair. My Saints are here. You’re looking for perfection. You won’t find it this side of heaven. But you can learn here, grow here, serve here. You need to learn to give grace and to offer mercy. You need to look for the true beauty in my Body. The beauty is Jesus Christ. I am the One who gave Myself for broken, messed up souls. I am the beauty, Michele. Seek ME and you will find ME—even in the broken places.”
I’d like to say the journey since then has been easy and pleasant, but it hasn’t. It’s been joyful at times, and it’s been excruciating at times. But what I keep remembering is Christ died for this. The body, as wounded and broken as it is, is His gift to us. We love each other through the ugly, through the pain, and through the victories. The body of Christ is not the perfect utopia I, in my immaturity, thought it should be, but it is a real place, with real people, who are really struggling and need the real love of a real Savior. So I can say, after many long years of seeking Him in the midst of the mess, I love His body and I am so thankful to be a receiver of grace–even in the hard places.