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Good Church Folk … and Unconditional Love

December 16, 2006

Is it any wonder that people have a hard time grasping the concept of “unconditional love” and the people who are supposed to show it? Surely, God’s ways are higher than our ways. I even wonder, is there any or has there ever been true unconditional love between human beings?

There’s a song that I used to sing called “Unconditional Love.” Here are the lyrics.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to fit in
I was wanting to be like everyone else but fooling myself.
Finding out that people, tend to let me down.
When trouble is near, they all disappear,
Then I met You and found.

Unconditional LOVE, Lord I never thought I’d find,
Unconditional LOVE, through both good and troubled times.
You knew me way back when, still you take me as I am,
And you always give to me, Unconditional LOVE.

Lord, I get so busy, You’re the last thing on my mind.
I take you for granted, think of myself, put you on a shelf.
Then I get so empty, I have to cry out to you.
You keep taking me back. Put on the right track.
You prove your love is true.

Unconditional Love. Lord, I never thought I’d find,
Unconditional Love, through both good and troubled times.
You knew me way back when, still you take me as I am,
And you always give to me, Unconditional Love.

I guess I’ve never found a song that spoke truer words about my condition.
(Maybe “Who Am I” by Casting Crowns)

But as I used to sing that song, I would think, “This is TRUE. God’s Love IS UNCONDITIONAL! I feel it! Why is it that we (or maybe just I) have such a hard time embracing it … on some days, believing it!

I think a good reason (or excuse) is that we try so very hard to find it first on the human level. (for some of us, anyway)

I was 17-years old before I ever knew that God loved me. In those 17 years, there were a lot of life lessons teaching me just the opposite of “unconditional love.” I grew up with unsaved parents — unsaved people all around me. The only godly influence I had for those 17 years was a grandfather who knew the book of Revelation beginning to end. A grandmother, whom I loved dearly, but her relationship with God was one of fear and just hoping she could be good enough someday to be accepted. (ahhhh…there’s a mile-marker)

My own daddy never darkened the doors of a church except to marry or bury someone. And my mother, being divorced, had been so ostracized by “good church folk” that she was living proof that “unconditional love” was absolutely reserved for those who could “behave” properly.

My uncle, Cooper, and my aunt, Donnie, did go to church every Sunday. Often they would take me with them. There were some people at the church that I really admired and viewed as godly people. And yet, there was this overwhelmingly accepted concept that if you weren’t a part of the “kinship” that mostly made up this church, then you were and would always be a visitor.

I remember once that my sister became friends with the preacher’s daughter … but soon, the friendship had to end because my sister was the daughter of a divorced woman. Hmmm? Do you grasp the devastation that one “ideal” had on a family.

So, at 17 when I actually had someone who knew “unconditional love” share with me about God’s love and salvation … well, I felt like I had been … oh yes, “RE-BORN.” But let me tell you this…

The day after I accepted Christ as my Savior, I wanted to call some friends who had always been “good, Christian folk — who had gone to church all their lives — whom I thought would be elated that I had been saved.”

So I called up one friend … I viewed her (and she viewed herself) as the ultimate “good girl.” I said to her, “Guess what, I got saved last night at the revival in Delano.”

But she was not excited. All she said was, “Oh yeh, I heard who you’ve been dating.”
She was implying that my salvation experience was based upon me trying to impress Kenny. It hurt my feelings terribly. Luckily, John Powers discipled me to help me get past her attitude and words … but I admit, they still loom over my heart.

I called several other friends … but none were as excited about my news as I was. I guess I processed it as “they didn’t believe me” or “they didn’t think that I deserved to be saved.” I remember this one guy, a star athlete, who was a member of FCA and attended church every week. Before I was saved, he would often (quite hatefully) put me down with a comment like, “You need to go to church. You are a bad girl.” Honestly, those were his words. But I think they came from the fact that he had tried to fondle me at the concession stand behind the school one day and I pushed him away.

But those were all incidents involving kids … and maybe they didn’t understand “unconditional love” either.

I was at my best friend’s house right after my salvation. We were sitting at her kitchen table, when her mother walked in to the kitchen. My friend said to her, “Mother, Carole got saved last night.”

Her mother’s response was, “Well, it’s more than just saying it … you have to live it.” (as she poured herself two-fingers of vodka from the kitchen cabinet.

Again, I am grateful that through Delano Baptist Church, God put people in my life to show me and prove to me that there are people who “get it.”

But alas, Satan is not going down without a fight.

Seven years later, my marriage fell apart and Kenny and I divorced. What I thought was unconditional love … a love that could and would last forever … ended!

ONE LIGHT in this era … ONE GLIMPSE at unconditional love … surprisingly came from his mother. She loved me even though I was no longer married to her son.

But it came about that I had to leave DBC and find another church. I remember visiting around. My daughter Catie was about six-years old, and she had become sweet on a little boy that was about ten-years old. This little boy was always so nice to her and so respectful to me. He even talked to me about church and things that he did in church. So, I thought we might visit that church … since he and his family seemed like “good people.”

So there we went … and took out seats. Then one member of the church came to where we were sitting and said, “Now why are you here?” Taken back by her question, I said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “Well, why would you come to our church?”

I said, “I don’t know.” And we never went back… in fact, we didn’t even stay for the service.

Then I went to another larger church in town. This was an incredibly unfriendly experience.

I remember once, there was congregational singing, and I was singing along. One woman turned around to me and shook her head…and did a “shhhhh.” Apparently, I was singing louder than was acceptable.

In this same church, I was assigned to a Sunday School class of about nine ladies who were 40-49 years old. I was 26-years old. The pastor’s wife asked me one day how I was enjoying their church. I said that it was fine, but that I thought I might try another Sunday School class. Specifically, I wanted to go to another class down the hall that a friend of mine was teaching, and that had people who were closer to my age and stage in life.

The pastor’s wife said, “Oh, you can’t do that!”

I said, “Well, sure I can. They are my friends … it’ll be okay.”

She said, “Well, let me ask you a personal question. ”

The question she asked absolutely floored me. She said, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

Now there is only a handful of “confessing” Republicans in Polk County … and sure enough, most of them were in that Sunday School class down the hall. Realizing that I was a professing Democrat, she advised me to stay in the class I was in. As kindly as I could I said, “No. I think I just need to find another church.”

I didn’t fit in anywhere. I resigned to the idea that I would not be able to go to church anywhere. But I tell you, I missed being at church … I missed sitting at the feet of Jesus … I missed fellowshipping, singing and worshipping. I missed experiencing that “sweet, sweet spirit in this place.”

I went about a year without going to church. And my heart stayed empty and cold and messed up. That’s when/how I started trying to fill it with anything, anyone … who showed me any resemblance of “unconditional love” and acceptance.

Finally, God put someone in my path who actually and genuinely invited me to the church he attended. I mustered the nerve to go and found once again … a people who loved the Lord … a place I could study and serve and fit in. It was a good, healing place. (not perfect … but the better than anything else I had experienced in the most recent past)

I made friends with this older gentleman. (I tend to do that)

Anyway, he sat on the second pew … by himself. So I sat on that pew with him. My girls sat with me there too. It was less distracting … as I was able to concentrate on what the preacher was saying rather than looking around and watching other folk. This older man was also a very supportive friend. He asked me to sing quite often … reasoning that when I sang, “he could actually hear and understand the words.” (so back at you…lady at the other church who shhhhh’sd me)

It was a safe place for me to sit … and surprisingly, I never heard one derogatory word about me sitting there.

After I moved to Cleveland, I began to go in a different direction than this church. (but it wasn’t church, right off the bat) It’s just that things came about that I no longer felt led to attend there. My eyes were opened to ideals and attitudes that I could not accept. So I left, and for about two years, I did not attend church. And again, I felt empty, cold, hungry, and “missing” the life I felt in church.

I started going to Westwood. It was such a large church and though intimidating, I thought it was somewhere that I could go and not be noticed. I could just sit, listen to God’s Word and leave. This I did for quite a while … but soon enough, the Holy Spirit began to draw me in more and more to the church family.

I did not jump in with both feet, mainly because I did not want to start something that I could not finish … either from my own lack of commitment, or by not being received by those at the church.  I didn’t trust people at all.  So, being a writer, I started off being a notewriter … I thought, “what harm could that do?”

I went to the choir a time or two … but I was intimidated by what I deemed as overwhelming talent, and I just didn’t think I could ever sing as well as those in the Westwood Choir.  I tried the singles Sunday School class, but felt completely out-of-whack there … so I just kept on going to church and leaving … never really making any friends or connections with people.

I remember once during these early days of attending Westwood, Pastor Bell made some remark from the pulpit about “voting” and how we need a change in leadership and it is up to godly, Christian people to make that change. Well, considering my former experience with politics and church, and knowing full well that I might possibly be the only Democrat in the building … I was offended that he would interupt my otherwise pleasant worship experience with politicking.  So I figured that I’d never fit in here, and that my political bent would always have to be on the “down-low” if I was going to continue attending Westwood.  And there was something in my mind that said, “Don’t get too attached here … they’ll never accept you … you’ve got that one other secret.”   Oh yeh. That!

I’d carried an incredibly horrible secret for years … one that I knew if people knew about me … I would never be able to attend or be a part of church again.  But it was not long until Bob Bell started preaching against the very secret that I held in my heart…and he was so adamant (and even insulting to me) against it, that I found it hard to sit there and take it without some response.  The subject?  Abortion and pro-life vs. pro-choice.

The heat became so hot that I finally was so “mad” about his convicting (tho’ I viewed it as condemning) sermons/comments, that I wrote him an anonymous letter explaining what he was doing to someone in his audience.  I didn’t mail it … because for all my life I have felt that if you feel strongly enough about something, you can’t take an anonymous approach.  You must stand by your words.  So I scheduled an appointment with him … realizing that once I had this talk with him, I would probably be expected to go to church somewhere else.

I went to my appointment.  He led me to a room behind the worship center … sat down in a metal chair and look intently at me with his piercing, brown eyes, and said, “What’s the problem, Carole?”

I proceeded to tell him that I had been quite offended by some of his words from the pulpit and in particular I did not think he realized who was in his audience and the condemnation he was passing down regarding pro-life vs. pro-choice. Still staring at me, he said, “What are you wanting to say?”

Our eyes were locked … then tears began to roll from mine and down my cheek, and for the first time ever, I uttered the words, “I had an abortion.”  And I promise that I fully expected him to stand up and condemn me to hell and ask me to never darken the doors of Westwood Baptist Church again.

But do you know what he said?   ” Do you think that you are only person in this church who has ever done something like this?”

I said, “Well, YES I DO!  This is Westwood … and they don’t stand for such as this.”

He said, “Westwood is a good church, but Westwood is made up of people who carry these same kinds of things around in their heart and life.  Carole, I’m going to tell you something.  I KNOW you … and I SEE your heart … and I know that if you had had a loving, church  family to stand beside you when you were faced with this decision, that you could have and would have made a different and better choice.”

I was awed by what he said.  He thought I could and would have made a better choice … but for my circumstances?  He wasn’t condemning ME?  He gave me some credibility even in my poor decision?

I then related to him how I had begged God for years and years to forgive me … but that I didn’t think He could. Afterall, this is the worse thing a mother could ever do, right?  Once again, I felt lucky just to be able to sneak in to church … to just be close enough to hear God’s Word.  I knew there was no way that God would ever have any other use for me.

Pastor Bell then said something very prophetic.  He said, “Carole, what happens when we confess our sins and ask God to forgive us?”

“He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I replied.

“And what does God do with our sins?”  he asked.

“He tosses them as far as east is to west.”  was my reply.

“Well, then, know this…God has forgiven you. He loves you UNCONDITIONALLY. And now it is time for you to forgive yourself, because one day, God is going to use this story to minister to others who have had the same experience.” he said.

“Oh NO HE IS NOT,” I said, “because I’m never going to tell this story again.”

“Yes you will, Carole.”  And that’s all he had to say about that.

It was several years later when my life came to a stand-still and I revisited these moments of counseling with Pastor Bell.  It was about midnight one Saturday night in late June 1999, and my early pregnancy test was confirming that I was pregnant (again).  Scared out of my wits and knowing the heavy, heavy burden I had carried for all those years of the “bad choice” I had made before, I went to my knees and begged God to give me the courage to see it through.

Immediately, He brought to mind the conversation with Pastor Bell, specifically his words, “If you had had a loving church family to support you…you could/would have made a better choice.”

Could it really be true?  Would a supportive church family make a difference?  What’s more, is it possible that Westwood is a genuine, loving church family?  Was Pastor Bell for real?  Could there be “UNCONDITIONAL” love?

In my mind, this was the ultimate test of this ideal.  There I was, 36-years old, un-wed, pregnant … and one more secret that would be a “BONUS” question on this test … the child I was carrying was bi-racial.  HOW UNCONDITIONAL could “good church folk” really be???  (This was the South after all)

Well, in February 2007, my son Jack will turn seven years old.  Did Westwood pass the test?  Did God pass the test?

Well, about two months after I realized I was pregnant, I was offered a job as ministry assistant at Westwood. Pastor Bell knew I was pregnant, but not many others did. He provided a safe haven for me to heal, live and work.  One month before Jack was born, I told him about the race thing.  It took him back for a moment, but then he said, “well, it doesn’t matter … we’ll deal with that too.”

God showed me beyond a shadow of doubt that HIS LOVE is never-ending, BIGGER, WIDER, HIGHER and UNCONDITIONAL.  He used HIS PEOPLE to show this to me.

That’s not to say that I have not met some ignorance and resistance from people who “like myself” do not always “get it” — but I have a marker in my heart and life that I know… I KNOW … that UNCONDITIONAL LOVE does indeed exist…and I found out that indeed, there are GOOD CHURCH FOLK … in spite of those who are not.

When I first realized I was pregnant … and then even throughout the pregnancy … I wondered “where in the world would I ever be able to go to church after this was all over.”  I always doubted that I’d be accepted and loved anywhere because of the diversity of the situation.

I assumed that at best, I would be tolerated and expected to “keep my place” because of the situation.

But alas, God did have another plan.  About a year after Jack’s birth, I stood before 450 women and shared my story about abortion and getting past the stigma of an “unpardonable” sin.  Afterwards, eleven women came to me and shared that they too had had an abortion and had been carrying the guilt and shame for years and years.  That night was the first time that they felt secure enough to even utter the words.  Pastor Bell was right.

Good church folk do exist … and UNCONDITIONAL LOVE is available.  We need to share it UNCONDITIONALLY!

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