The headline in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Lorain Edition, read, "An Unholy Mess: Dispute Over Pastor Continues to Divide Church." The story began:
It is a house of God, but for the past year, the nearly 100 year-old Second Baptist Missionary Church has been a house divided.
The police have been called to the West 13th St. church numerous times, lawsuits have filed and locks on the church have been changed.
About one-thirds of the 150 member congregation, including third generation members, church deacons and trustees, have been accused of "Un-Christian-like behavior" and have been dropped from the membership rolls.
The focus of the fight? The Rev. Terrance Bivins, who was installed a year ago as pastor.
"The church has basically split down the middle. You have a minister who is closer to a rock star. All we're looking for at this time is that he step down, and we gain access to the church," said Ronald Riley, attorney for the ousted members.
Bivins' supporters say that the disgruntled members only want a preacher "to preach, teach, marry, and bury," rather than someone like Bivins, who is doing community outreach and radio ministry and has an outgoing preaching style. "They didn't want changes. If they wanted changes, it had to go through them," said Anne Higginbotham, whose husband is chairman of the trustees (Cleveland Plain Dealer, Lorain Edition, Section B, pages 1-2, Monday, July 31, 1995).
Sides were formed. Battle lines drawn. The church fight was on. It turns out Rev. Bivins hadn't attended schools he claimed to have attended. Then followed four congregational votes for dismissal - all which failed for a variety of reasons. Rev. Bivins was charged with assault and robbery at a Lorain dry cleaner. The trustees changed the locks.
But it was the Mother's Day showdown- when both sides came to worship at the same time - which tested even the love of all the mothers. After a two-hour delay of the service (with the Lorain police surrounding the building for fear of violence) Rev. Bivins got up to preach at one microphone while his opponents stood at another microphone reading a letter declaring he must go. Someone turned off the electricity and the police convinced Bivin's opponents to leave peacefully. The next Sunday was Pentecost Sunday and the opponents changed the locks. Everyone ended up in the police station asking the chief to mediate their church fight.
Bivins' supporter Maneera Hitchers said, "We're all growing spiritually and mentally." Opponent Rouse said, "How can you be put out of your church by a stranger?' Police Chief Rivera said, "Deep down, they're all pretty good people!"
I say, somewhere along the line, the "pretty good people" of Second Baptist Missionary Church in Lorain lost touch with Jesus' admonition to love one another.
While many of us have experienced the pain of church fights, Second Baptist Missionary Church's "ultimate church fight" was analogous to what Paul was up against in the divided church at Corinth. There the Church was split into cliches and parties. People attached themselves to various leaders and teachers in the church. Some were in the "Paul Party," others in the "Apollos Group," still others in "Cephas' Party." Claiming they were baptized into one or another leader, the people couldn't see their common bond in Christ. Essentially, they too had lost touch with the love of Jesus.
Paul believed these divisions had emerged because the Corinthians thought too much about human wisdom and knowledge and too little about the grace of God. They were brilliant men and women, but they were in a state of spiritual immaturity. They depended on their "heads" to sort out their faith when God called upon the "heart" to follow Jesus. For all their so-called wisdom, they had not learned about spiritual gifts and most important, they did not understand or live out Agape. In I Corinthians 13, Paul addresses Agape.
Agape means love. Unlike eros which is akin to romantic love or Philia, which means reciprocal, affectionate love, Agape love means overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of people. When we love on the Agape level, we love men and women not because we like them, not because their attitudes or ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the level of loving the person who does evil deeds while hating the deeds he does.
Paul's poetic "Hymn of Love" speaks to the church in the first-person voice: He says:
I may speak in tongues - possessing both human eloquence and angelic ecstasy, but without love, I am like brass playing off key and cymbals hitting all the wrong notes. I may be a prophetic and powerful preacher - saving souls, revealing mysteries, and making everything as plain as day, with faith that moves mountains - but without love, I am nothing. I may even give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be martyred for the cause of Christ, but if I don't have love, I have gained a huge zero in the sum of things.
Paul is clear. Without love, our great words, our powerful and convicted preaching and teaching, our intellectual knowledge, our faith, our charity to the poor, and even our human sacrifice add up to nothing.
Psychologist, Erich Fromm has written in The Art of Loving: "If a woman told us that she loved flowers and we saw that she forgot to water them, we would not believe in her "love" for the flowers. Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love." Love is an action, not a thought or a word, but a deed.
Paul goes on to list fifteen characteristics of Christian love.
1. Love is Makrothumein - or patient - which describes patience with people and not patience with circumstances. It is the patience of one who waits and considers acting, rather than stepping out and stepping on another person.
2. Love is kind. The early Christian writer, Origen said that "love is sweet to all." While too much Christianity is good, but not kind, the love of Christ is good and kind.
3. Love is not envious. In other words, it does not covet the possessions of other people. It does wish that others would not have those things, either.
4. Love does not brag. There is a self-effacing quality in love. True love is more impressed with its own unworthiness rather than its own merits.
5. Love is not arrogant. Love does not inflate its own importance.
6. Love is not rude. In other words, love does not behave gracelessly. There is a kind of Christianity which takes delight in being blunt and almost brutal. Speaking as "tough love," it forgets that courtesy and tact and politeness are lovely things, too.
7. Love does not insist on its own way. There are folks who insist they are right all the time. Their viewpoint is true. They proclaim their rights and not their duties. They point out the failings of others while turning a blind eye to their own failings. That is not love.
8. Love is not touchy and does not fly into a temper. This is not mean that we cannot get angry or express our anger. It means that we don't become so exasperated with people that we rage. Exasperation is a sign of defeat. When we lose our tempers, we lose everything. In Kipling's words, "If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs and blaming it on you," you will be fully mature in your love.
9. Love does not store up the memory of any wrong it has received. The word Logizeshthai or store up is an accountant's word. It is used for keeping a ledger so it is not forgotten. Love does not do this. When we hold grudges and nurse our anger, we learn the how not to forgive and forget. Such a ledger of wrongdoings against us is like a cancer for the soul. Love lets go.
10. Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness. Love finds no pleasure in anything that is wrong. Love bears no malice. Love carries no sense of superiority. Love wishes no one ill.
11. Love rejoices in the flowering of truth. "This is not as easy as it sounds. There are times when we do not want the truth to prevail and still more times when it is the last thing we want to hear. Christian love has no desire to veil the truth. It has nothing to conceal and so is glad when the truth prevails. (Drawn from William Barclay's commentary on Corinthians).
12. Love can endure anything. Love can bear any insult, any injury, any disappointment. The heart of Jesus was like this. He withstood all the hate, despising, and reviling that was cast his way. Love endures anything.
13. Love believes all things - Love is completely trusting. Love trusts God to guide us through whatever we may face. But, love also trusts our fellow humans. My deepest sadness in the 22 years of ministry is how often I see and experience a lack of trust in the body of Christ. I certainly have experienced that here in my seven years as your Senior Minister. Questions arise. It is true. But, questions that chip away at the integrity and honesty and candor of fellow Christians and their pastor reflect nothing of this love of which Paul speaks. Love trusts God and always looks for the best in fellow Christians.
14. Love, Hopes all things. Love carries the audacity of hope into all circumstances of life. And hope does not disappoint us - as the Apostle Paul writes elsewhere. 15. Finally, love endures all things. When George Matheson lost his sight, he wrote in one of his prayers that he might accept God's will, "Not with dumb resignation but with holy joy; not with the absence of murmur but with a song of praise." Love bears all things, not with passive resignation, but with triumphant fortitude.
If you are like me, you will find these 15 characteristics rather daunting. All of fall short of living into love on more than one count. But, Paul's intent is not to scare us away from love in Christ. His purpose is to call the church and all who are baptized into Christ to love one another. In all fifteen characteristics and qualities of love, Paul reflects the nature and essence of Jesus Christ to us. English poet, William Blake was right when he wrote, "We are put on earth for a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love." Just as Jesus bore the beam of love on the cross, Paul desires deeply that we should bear the beam of love for others.
In his little book, True Love, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh ofers insights into the nature of love. His insights provide a guide for all of us on how to live in love for one another. True Love features a transformative practice of generating love that consists of four intentions in our relationships.
-"Dear one, I am really here for you."
-"Dear one, I know that you are here and it makes me very happy."
-"Dear one, I know that you are suffering & that is why I am here for you."
- "Dear one, I am suffering, please help me."
Thich Nhat Hanh sees four aspects of love. First, is loving kindness. Here we need to be mindful of the other. We must look deeply and directly into the other's eyes. When we lack understanding, we lack love. Without understanding, love is impossible. Second, true love is compassion. This is not only the desire to ease the pain of the other, but the ability to do so. Third, true love is joy. If there is no joy or happiness in love then it is not true love. If you are suffering all the time, if you cry all the time, if you make the person you love, cry - then it is not true love. Finally, true love is freedom. When you love you bring freedom to the person you love. Love is being there and being open to the other.
Love really matters. It is not just a fanciful thought for well-meaning people. It is the essence of life. When I think back to the opening story of Second Baptist Missionary Church in Lorain, Ohio, I feel like these good people became lost on the pathway of love. Rev. Bivins obviously needed help. He needed the love of his church and the assistance of his people - whether they retained his services as pastor or not. Instead, he was indicted by half and unambiguously defended by the other half. Neither faction truly loved him.
In a few minutes, we will enter our 155th Annual Congregational Meeting. We will remain here in the sanctuary for this year's meeting. This meeting is an opportunity to focus our mission, to listen to one another, to choose our leaders for the year ahead and to decide on a budget and continuing vision for the future. No matter what else happens here, let us bear the beams of love for one another. Carrying this recent memory of Paul's 15 characteristics of Christian love and the aspects of true love presented by Thich Nhat Hanh, let us live our lives together showing that love really matters. Amen.
This prayer was written for the Congregational Meeting. I did not deliver it. Instead, our Moderator, Tom Stewart offered a beautiful prayer on behalf of the congregation. I leave it here for readers who may find it helpful. It is offered to the glory of God!
A Prayer for the Congregational Meeting:
Loving God, how much we need the balm of friendship and the warmth of understanding. How greatly we need to be needed and cherished. Let us know therefore, the joy of love given and received.
When we feel lonely and forsaken, let our faith in you give us strength and the solace of friendship bring us courage. Keep us from imagined hurts, from seeing only foes where friends are to be found. Give us insights into our own hearts that we may uproot our weaknesses. Help us to be patient when we are misunderstood and quick to forgive hurts. As friends to one another, may we neither judge others too harshly nor slavishly follow them in paths which are not our own. And as we walk through life together, let us and our dear ones go with that integrity that leads to peace, that love which brings harmony and joy, that regard whose fruit is enduring friendship.
May our deliberations begin and end in the spirit of love. In the name of the great lover of us all, we pray, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Copyright 2007, The First Congregational Church