July, 18, 2016, Ashland OH—My eyes traced the gold and maroon geometric pattern on the carpet of Ashland University’s John C. Myers Convocation Center. I’d attended the annual National Conference of the Brethren Church for over 35 years and I was focused on slipping off my new sandals without dinging my blisters. I was not thinking about God doing something magical.
My husband, Jim—a Brethren pastor and the reason we attended the conferences—thumbed through the program book beside me. Glenn and Sarah Black stood against the accordion wall with their foster sons, still closer than relatives from our years planting Oasis Community Church in Phoenix. Mostly familiar faces dotted the room.
Executive Director of the Brethren Church Steven Cole opened his address, “We need to quit believing the lie that because we are small—as a denomination, as individual churches—that we are ‘less than’ other churches.”
He was right about the church. And about me. God knew I’d carted around a wheelbarrow of lies leftover from being raised by a hyper-critical father. I’m a lousy Christian. God can’t possibly be pleased with me, and a flock of other falsehoods that felt true deep in my gut. Intellectually, I believed that when the Holy Spirit convicts, He’s specific about what sin I committed. Yet most of the time I felt a vague sense of guilt and unworthiness that I could never shake.
A few mornings later, Ron Waters—a pastor who had challenged me when I was in my early 20’s to teach a Sunday School class of 11 and 12 year-olds at Ashland’s Park Street Church—told emcee Nate Bebout that he was concerned about conference attendees who felt defeated. Nate had been thinking about the same thing. Near the end of the service, Nate rubbed his rusty beard and asked folks who struggled with feeling “not good enough” to stand.
God elbowed me in the ribs.
I could stand up and everyone would stare at me like a gauze-wrapped thumb. But I didn’t want to go home with the same old worthlessness. I lurched to my feet with now-or-never determination. Icy air conditioning floated in the quiet. Maybe I could have dealt with this in private…. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a teen, maybe two, pop up. Someone far to my left rose. I shifted from one barefoot to the other, feeling a hundred eyes on my back, wishing I could disappear.
Nate asked the congregation to gather around me, and the few others who had stood, to pray for us.
I knew I needed more prayers than my own, but I felt like a patient wheeled in for surgery by committee. Too many people would be looking at my insides.
Fourteen-year-olds, Taylor McLaughlin and Madisyn Schmidt from North Manchester, Indiana, bolted toward me with huge grins on their faces. We had met and prayed together the day before, forging a bond that crossed generations. Nappanee, Indiana, First Brethren Church Youth Pastor John Howenstine—who had driven me crazy on the Camp Bethany (Ohio) newspaper staff when he was 14, now in his forties—walked on chairs to get to me. Jim’s arm slipped around me. Jill, my Ashland University dorm neighbor in 1980 and lifelong friend, and her husband, David Stone, from Sarasota, Florida, gathered around. Jim and Susie Black from Milledgeville, Illinois, crowded closer.
Michelle DeLaughter, one of my über spiritual Camp Shipshewana (Indiana) kids, back in the 80’s when she couldn’t be bothered by wild-boy Tim DeLaughter, left her seat, intent on praying for me, but God urged her past me and onto the stage to pray for everyone who had responded. An hour earlier she had been delivered from her own lie. Michelle’s words ran over me, sweeter than Raspberry Truffle ice cream I bought at Ashland’s Brookside Park every summer.
When Michelle ended the prayer, happy tears wet my face. I hugged my precious new teen friends, and every person surrounding me. My teeth clunked into Tom Schiefer’s scalp, another college classmate. Fatherly Joe Burgos—whom I’d never met, but who had gone on a mission trip to Peru with my daughter, Annie, seven years earlier—took my face in his hands. “God loves you,” he said.
That afternoon, Brad Selan, pastor of St. James Brethren Church in Hagerstown, Maryland, stood at the podium as I slipped in late from a meeting. He’d had three sermons prepared. Previous speakers had “stolen” the first two. He was left with the story of his own wheelbarrow of untruths he’d rather not parade before the denomination. But he saw me near the front, thought of my willingness to be transparent in front of this family, and took heart. I didn’t know he’d read the roots of my lies on my blog. Brad told how the falsehoods he’d learned in childhood had recently imploded. His marriage and ministry turned to rubble. He told about the hard-fought truth he and his wife, Cara, had since built their lives and ministry on. At the end, he asked the listeners to write down lies we believed about ourselves, rip them up, and throw them away in baskets on the stage.
I wrote three pages—just the fibs lying around in my head like dirty laundry. There were more, but the music wound down. I felt certain God would vanquish those, too. I dashed to the baskets, ripping the pages as I went, a grin stretched across my face.
At communion, Bill Ludwig, MissioChurch National Coordinator, who has long been an iron-sharpens-iron friend to Jim, looked me in the eye and smiled. “The blood of the new covenant, spilled for you.” He handed me the communion bread, heavy with purple and significance. I would live the remaining quarter of my life in the new covenant of truth. Bill said later that the words he spoke to me were slightly different from what he said to the rest of the people in line. He’d felt God in that moment like I had.
Bryan Karchner, pastor of Three Seasons Brethren Church in Berlin, Pennsylvania, stopped Jim and I after the service. Bryan and his wife, Linda, had connected with us during the past year over shared heartaches. Bryan said God had been prompting him all week to pray for me. At the end of his prayer, he looked at me and said, “God wants you to know he loves you. You are precious to Him.”
God used a tiny denomination who often feels “less than” to tell me the truth. He enunciated with careful precision to make sure I understood, so I would never again believe a lie. I thank these people whose history is tangled up in mine. I thank God.
I get it. I am delirious. Giddy. Loved.