Mildred always dressed like a rainbow. Not a particularly attractive woman, she wore designer clothes, pounds of makeup, and offered her faith to everyone she met. She had come to call on the new preacher’s family. In the course of the visit, she told story after story of answered prayer. She capped it off by telling us she had heard of Dad through a parishioner from my father’s previous appointment, and she prayed that God would send us there. As she left I asked incredulously, “That wasn’t true, was it, Dad?”
During our four years at that church, I watched this outlandish Christian woman model abandonment to God in ways I had never before witnessed. Each Sunday evening when it was time for words of witness, Mildred would jump to her feet with words of thanksgiving for God’s great grace. “I’m not what I ought to be,” she would always say, “but thank God, I’m not what I used to be.”
After prayers and a devotional message at our last Holy Thursday Communion service at the church, the invitation was given: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins and are in love with your neighbor and intend to lead a new life, draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament unto yourself.” As I knelt at the railing, Mildred knelt beside me. As the bread was placed in her hands she began to weep, the deep tears of remorse and forgiveness. Her weeping became, for me, a holy song of gratitude and sheer love for the one who had delivered her from a life of human indignity. I never really knew her past, but somehow I knew that Mildred had seen the worst of the human condition, and somewhere along her journey Jesus Christ rescued her.
From time to time I meet people who declare that they have no regrets. I have come to suspect that these individuals either live in perpetual denial or have conveniently chosen to forget the indiscretions of their past. Paul never forgot his path. Conversion for Paul never could erase his sense of shame and indignity at having demeaned Christ and having injured the young church through torture and execution. If God could forgive the persecutor of the early church, then indeed God’s grace was large enough for the gravest of sinners. Paul had been humbled by the cross.
For Paul, the greatest danger was not the threat of death but the everpresent “false teachers,” who lay in wait until Paul had moved on to another town. These well-meaning teachers wanted folks to be good Hebrews before they could become Christians. Paul contended that salvation is available to all because of Christ’s work, and that no amount of work on our part can bring peace with God. If anyone qualified for salvation based upon heritage, Saul of Tarsus had the bloodline. But he refers to those Hebrew accolades as “loss” and garbage in comparison to the “surpassing value” of knowing Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:8).
Paul could live a life abandoned to Christ because he had come face-to-face with the profound power of the risen Christ. He calls us to the simplicity of surrender to Christ. Similar to the opening lines of a 12-step program, Paul “came to believe that he was powerless over (you name the addiction).” This is the abandonment of one who could not do for himself, but who called on the one alone who could put his life right.
Somewhere between his conversion on the road to Damascus and his prison letter to the Philippian church, Paul faced his failures. Perhaps it was in those dark days after his ride to Damascus, or alone as an outcast from the infant church in the Syrian Desert. Paul came to grips with his failings and inadequacies and discovered true meaning and authentic humanity.
I know something of that struggle. I reached a point when everything seemed lost. Day by day our home, instead of being a haven of blessing and peace, was a battlefield. Months had passed without one day in which mental illness had not reigned supreme behind the walls of the preacher’s home. No doctor seemed to offer any hope. I had no idea how to help my wife or my children. Desperate, I found myself in a meeting of men who had gone through similar family circumstances. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I was because of my need to go to a meeting like that. . . . I really should have been lecturing those men, shouldn’t I? Then I began to weep unashamedly; the years of stress, the months of brutal living, came up through every pore of my being. I realized that I could not do for myself what was needed, and there was something powerfully freeing about being among others who would hold me up when I couldn’t stand.
Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer chastised the church in his book The Cost of Discipleship. His argument that the church had become the dispenser of cheap grace still rings loud. Cheap grace demands nothing in return for God’s costliest gift. Jesus simply said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
The 21st-century church in the United States needs a conversion. We need conversion from believing that we can put things right, and that we are in control. We need fresh abandonment to God, who can work in us all possibilities. God can set us free from having to know where the Spirit is leading the church, and give us renewed conviction that God’s abundant love holds us. May God make us willing to be lost even for the sake of Christ. The future is completely uncertain — we don’t have a written rule book for successful churches or living in this day. No, all we have is the risen Christ.