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 • Janet grew up in a Christian home. Mom did what she could to make sure that her brothers and sisters were in church Sundays, at youth group and knew the importance of a relationship with Jesus Christ. It wasn’t easy as a single mom, but she did her best. To the joy of her church and family, Janet married a boy from the youth group. Shortly after their marriage, signs of cracks in the relationship surfaced. In a whirlwind of events that caught the church off guard, Janet was divorced, and the father of their little girl was in prison on drug charges. Janet struggled financially, spiritually and emotionally. The church did little to reach out. Soon, Janet met Gary. Gary had recently accepted Christ and had also come from an abusive relationship in which he and his daughter were frequently attacked by his alcoholic wife. In spite of the moral issues, and against the recommendations of the church, Gary and Janet moved in with each other. They continued to go to church and had two children together, but for reasons they would only share with a few, marriage at this point wasn’t an option in their minds. After a visit from the church elders Gary and Janet were told not to return to church since they were ‘living in sin.’ When I saw Gary and Janet a year later they shared that Gary was dying of congestive heart failure. A few months after that Gary died, leaving Janet alone once again, now with four children. Gary’s funeral was held in a funeral home with a few friends and family members. The church refused to reach out to Janet. It’s been several years now. After several broken relationships and financial turmoil, Janet has renewed her faith. In the midst of her healing, she still can’t ‘force herself’ to go to church.

• Brandon and Nancy came to town shortly after their marriage. As youth pastor and wife they added the missing ingredient to the struggling church that called them. The small town soon began to take notice of the youth group at First Church. So much so, that some people brought their kids to youth group while still attending their own church. On occasion, the weekday youth meetings drew more kids than the regular services of the church. Then trouble arose. Rumors started spreading that Brandon was ‘a little to close’ to one of the girls in the youth group. The elders of the church investigated the situation thoroughly and found no evidence of this. Strangely, the rumors seemed to have originated at the home of the senior pastor, who had become increasingly critical of the youth pastors work habits, theology and methodology. Brandon and Nancy resigned under the scrutiny of the senior pastor and due to increasing health problems with Nancy which doctors attributed to stress. Brandon left the ministry and now works doing odd jobs around town. The family attends church 50 miles away in a mega church where, as Brandon put it ‘they can avoid the stories and rumors.”

• The Vietnam War was a terrible dark spot in US history. Still, Jack was proud to go and serve his country. He was stationed near the front lines and relates how one week had been particularly horrendous. Three of his buddies had died in a fire fight in which he was only yards away. As he tells the story you can still see his eyes will up with tears. Then the letter arrived. It was from his church back in North Dakota. Jack had been an active participant in church all his life. He’d been baptized; He studied his Bible every day. He loved Jesus. When Jack talks about the letter, blood still drains from his face. The letter informed him that since he had not kept up with his annual offerings his name had been dropped from the church membership list. If he were to catch up on these ‘pledges’ they would gladly consider reinstating him. Jack came home from Vietnam a new man. Still strong in his faith, he refuses to attend any church. He prefers the purity of his relationship with Christ than the politics of the organized church.

And the stories go on. People who have been beaten up by divorce, drugs, emotional and financial distress, health issues and a variety of other crisis, only to be kicked by the church while they are down. Some of them, to be sure, are suffering the consequences of poor choices of their own. Others brutally abused by spiritual leaders. To them, it doesn’t really matter why. It hurts. It hurts badly. And the fact that ‘Jesus loves them’ becomes small comfort.

Built with Grace is about the EMPTY PEW PEOPLE. It’s about asking the hard questions. How can we reach these people who are bruised and wounded by the very people that are sent to comfort and encourage? Sermons won’t help. They won’t come to church anymore. Even if they did come to church it would be risky. We in the church fear the tarnish of sin among us. While Jesus says “come just as you are”, the church can often appear to add a line that goes something like “as soon as you are cleaned up.”

Join with me in prayer. Prayer for those you know who are hurting. Those who feel beaten up and battered. Pray that they will know the overwhelming love and forgiveness that only comes through Jesus. I firmly believe that most people who have ‘left the church’ have done so because the pain they are in has not been addressed. Jesus, as good shepherd, vowed to make sure every one of his lambs returned safely to the fold after wandering. Let us pray for the lost sheep of our society.

He walked slowly up the stairs. He didn’t really want to go into that room. He didn’t want to face them. But he had nowhere else to go. It was dark, cold and the Jews may be out for more blood. What a difference a few hours had made. It seemed like just minutes ago that he’d left this upper room with his buddies and the Teacher. He could still smell the aroma of the roasted Lamb, he could still see the Teacher’s shadow in the distance as he prayed. How could he have fallen asleep? If only he’d known.

He tried to open the door quietly, but the rusty hinges gave him away. The others in the room looked up when he entered. Not one said a word. The air had been filled with celebration earlier, but now it was heavy, full of grief and sadness.

He found a corner and slid down the wall. He buried his face in his hands. He began to cry again. This time, there were few tears left. He sensed a shape near him and heard John’s voice.

“Did you hear about Judas?” John’s face was full of grief and fear when he looked up.

“They got Judas too?”

“No,” there was a heavy pause, “he hung himself.”

Peter placed his face back in his hands “When will it end?”

He may have slept a bit. If so, it would be the first sleep he’d had in two days. But his rest was shattered by a rattling gate. Instantly everyone was up. They were here. At any moment soldiers could break through.

John looked carefully through the drawn window. “It’s only Mary. Let her in.”

Mary bust through the door. She was breathless from running and could barely speak.

“He’s not there. The tomb. He’s gone. They took his body!”

Peter broke through the crowd. “What are you talking about?” He demanded.

“I went to the tomb to mourn. The stone was rolled away. The tomb was empty Peter!”

Peter hesitated to try to understand. Then he bolted from the room and ran down the steps. He hurried through the streets. ‘It couldn’t be,’ He told himself. When he and John got to the tomb it was just as Mary had told them. The grave clothes lay in a neat pile. The small room smelled of fresh burial spices. But there was no one there.

Peter’s mind was racing. He was angry at the Jews for taking his body. But what if they hadn’t taken it? “What if….NO! I saw him die.” He got back to the room before the others returned. He didn’t know what to make of things. So many questions. What was it he said? The Son of Man must be lifted up? What did he mean? Where was his body?

A thousand other questions went through his mind when suddenly the cool, dark room was warm and full of light. He looked up to see the Teacher. Peter fell to his knees and hung his head. A hand reached down and pulled him to his feet. The Teacher gently lifted Peter’s head so that he could see his eyes.

Peter didn’t understand completely, but looking into Jesus’ eyes he knew everything would be okay.

I am publishing this excerpt from my Built with Grace topic, ‘The Day Peter Learned Love’,  to remind all of us on this Resurrection Weekend that it doesn’t matter what you have done. There is nothing in your past, present or future that can keep you from experiencing the life-changing love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Find a house of worship this weekend and make or renew a decision to follow Him completely.

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