Matthew 16:18 (NET) “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
One year ago I was hushing my email inbox, as I am prone to do. Somehow, I had missed reading the article entitled “To the World Through New England: Why John Piper will not forget 1992.” I clicked and as my eyes scanned the first two paragraphs, I gasped.
The very word awakens sights and sounds and smells; it lifts me to another time, a different place. People, pain, and pleasure tangled together. The collision of this triad has been a burdensome weight for me to carry, especially as a pastor’s wife. I know Matthew 16:18 by heart and pluck courage from the words on the days when hell appears victorious.
Our New England family attended one church, the one I was eventually married in. The worship service was held in a white-washed barn attached to the parsonage. It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays, as our pastor was preaching, the scent of roast cooking would waft into the tiny sanctuary. The only thing separating the sanctuary from the pastor’s kitchen was a narrow hall holding two bathrooms that were virtually impossible to turn around in; no bigger than a linen closet. The church’s “office” was a tiny room at the rear of the sanctuary.
Our church nursery, teeming with fussy infants and runny-nosed toddlers, was located in a room directly behind the pulpit. On more than a few occasions the nursery door would open slowly, revealing half of a worker’s face and her beckoning crook of an index finger. To which a tired mother would, pink of cheek, tiptoe in front of the entire church body, in the middle of a sermon, to quiet her squalling infant.
After a few years, the church’s white-washed barn was swelling with congregants, babies, and guests. An unusual heat wave descended, and sans air conditioning, produced irritable babies, a sweating pastor, and women fanning themselves at lightning speed. A building plan was soon proposed, and within a few years a brand-new sanctuary was constructed: a gorgeous replica of an 18th century New England church; all wood and windows with an imposing pulpit lifted so high that I held my breath believing someone was going to fall. And they did; just not in the way I imagined.
Our pastor was British and proud, a short man with dark eyebrows and startling cobalt eyes. While a gifted biblical expositor, (adults labeled him ‘brilliant’) he had perfected a friendly yet detached state with his congregation. He and his wife had five children born in a tight span of seven years.
Wife’s hair hung dark and thin, stretching to the back of her knees, but nearly always clipped in a wispy bun. She lived in threadbare dresses, with an overlaid apron and slippers. Always slippers. Her smile was gentle and tired. She chopped and peeled, scrubbed a mountain of dishes, folded laundry and chauffeured her brood around town in an old station wagon which was short on seatbelts and shocks.
Our pastor believed it honorable to invite whomever to Sunday dinner, and those invitations were always extended after Sunday worship. Betty prepared enough food for their seven, and then had to roll with any number of additions that appeared. And to be clear, she was not serving soup. These Sunday dinners, without fail, included meat, bread, potatoes, vegetables, and dessert. Another requirement, or British expectation really, was that each and every dinner plate be warmed to perfection.
One Sunday my brother and I were invited to their meal, along with two other adult guests. Never did I feel at ease; it was rather like waiting for an unwelcome pop quiz. On this Sunday, Pastor asked Wife to fetch four adult glasses from the high shelf. His piercing gaze landed on me. “Your parents partake, young lady, do they not?”
“What?” I said, quietly.
“Do you mean, ‘pardon’?” British accent.
I had broken their family rule. It was considered rude in their household to say ‘what?’ ‘Pardon’ was the appropriate word.
Pop quiz failed. I blushed crimson.
My brother answered for me. “Yes. They have wine sometimes.”
“Good,” Pastor said. “We are enjoying a drink today. I don’t want to offend.”
The meal continued. Several minutes later, there was a knock on the kitchen door.
Before I could blink, all conversation ceased, and the pastor’s kids lunged for the adult’s wine goblets, concealing them under the table with one hand, while continuing to slowly and casually eat with the other. The visitor came in, had a short conversation, and left. After a few seconds, the goblets were returned to the table. This drill had clearly been rehearsed. I was stunned. It felt confusing, watching our pastor and his family practice masterful deception. This confusion settled inside and ached. Later on, when I told my parents, they laughed at my seriousness and shock. “You are too sensitive, Kristin.”
Each September, our church held the annual Sunday School picnic. Summer meant a break from school and Sunday School, and our two morning services were combined. The beauty of this was the togetherness of one sermon, and the accepted restfulness of summertime. This fostered a spirit of readiness to begin all things school in the fall, and the Sunday School picnic kicked it off.
Charcoal grills were readied, and the smell of sizzling hamburgers and hot dogs permeated the church parking lot. Blankets scattered across the lawn served as place settings for families and friends. As children, we played hide-and-seek, stopping for a quick gulp of lemonade. One year, a friend hid behind the above-ground well in front of the white-washed barn. She yanked me down next to her.
“I don’t think you know about this well because I saw you sitting on it last week.” There were two gigantic concrete slabs covering the top. The gap between the two slabs was several inches wide.
“One time a girl and her brother fell in that crack and died.”
What she said, although fabricated, haunted me. I became obsessed with keeping my brother away from that well. Several years later, a girl from youth group disappeared one day while bicycling to work. Simply vanished. It was twenty-four months before her bicycle was found in nearby woods, but her body was never recovered. She had been fond of sitting on that well after youth group, legs dangling, flirting with boys. My young mind partnered the two frightening images together: four-inch crack and missing girl.
Our pastor ministered most heartily to the social outcasts. George, for example.* George conversed openly with fruit flies and repeated their alleged conversations verbatim. I found out later he suffered from schizophrenia and refused medication. Jim the Kite Man, as we knew him, also sat at Sunday dinner on occasion. He dreamed of opening a kite store one day; yet could not hold a civil conversation without lashing out. Also, he was continually between jobs and apartments, which occasionally landed him on the minister’s lumpy red sofa, much to the chagrin of their flea-infested cat.
Our pastor condemned the spaying or neutering of pets. Skippy, their beagle, fathered more than his share of oddly proportioned mutts, and Pastor’s female dogs were perpetually in heat, hugely pregnant, or nursing an endless array of litters.
Christmas Eve. For several years in a row, my parents volunteered me to read a Scripture passage in front of the entire church, in a failing attempt to enhance my poor public speaking abilities. I dreaded it, blushing terribly and speed reading my way through.
We had cookies and punch afterward, which made up for my temporary misery. Although I did not recognize it then, it was sweet to have grown up with all of the same families, faces illuminated in the candlelight of a holy evening. Looking back, it anchored in me a sense of belonging, time, and place.
My favorite Sundays were communion Sundays. Freshly baked loaves of bread were purchased from a convent nearby. The bread was crusty on the outside, soft and delicious once broken. Our pastor would hold each end of the napkin-wrapped loaf, and tear. The broken loaves were passed up and down the pews. As he said: This is my body, broken for you, we would tear a piece of the loaf, waiting to partake in unison. That tearing of the bread awakened me. Jesus’s body was broken for me, the one whose mind wandered during the sermon, the one who often thought poorly of others and judged mercilessly. Yes, broken for me.
A few years later, one family became incensed about unsanitary hands touching the loaves. They eventually left the church, taking others along. I was saddened when we eventually stopped the literal breaking of bread. The word picture This is my body, broken for you evaporated, just like that. During the same time period, a squabble erupted regarding music preferences. It drifted into further division, and more people took leave, white hot anger over small things.
The years unfolded, as they do, and suddenly it was time for college. I chose a small Christian liberal arts university in the flat and beautiful farmland of Indiana. Once there, it did not take more than one hot minute to realize two things: I missed my imperfect church, and I was in the shallow end of knowing God’s Word. I joined a few Bible studies at college but felt feeble. A gnawing discomfort flared: I had been heavily involved in church service and keeping up holy appearances but did not love God most. I had given my heart to Christ at a tender age yet had remained flimsy in the ways of the Lord. I had not chosen to pursue Jesus.
Precisely ten years later, with a family of my own, I pushed a stroller through our library one ordinary day. We had recently moved across the country, I knew exactly no one, and my husband was enrolled in seminary and was simultaneously working full-time. I was homeschooling two little boys plus tending to our toddler and newborn. My faith was stretched thin as I wandered the library’s spiritual section. My eyes landed on a book: The Pleasures of God, by John Piper.
That afternoon, during my children’s rest time, I read. At night I devoured more. I kept my Bible next to me and studied, reading and highlighting as my soul inhaled the deliciously rich food of truth. God’s Word became real. It was the loneliest yet sweetest time of my life. God awakened my heart and strengthened my faith in him. God had graciously used John Piper to help me flourish. God became my true and beloved Father.
Back to college days: there was a growing concern in my church back home. One afternoon, I was told that our pastor had banged his head intentionally on the pulpit while preaching, and his wife had cut her hair short and applied a touch of lipstick. Haircut and lipstick? This was alarming.
And then, unceremoniously on the heels of such news, our unmarried church secretary resigned, confessing that she was pregnant. The church financially supported her for a time and held a huge baby shower. For the first time in twenty years, our pastor’s wife neglected to attend a baby shower. Shortly afterwards, our pastor resigned without explanation. He simply refused to speak to the deacons.
Unbelievably, no one seemed to figure the obvious: our pastor had fathered this baby. This remained unconfirmed for many years until his daughter was grown and went public on social media. He never again pastored a church.
I am now on the other side of the Sunday table. As a pastor’s wife I know how messy church is. Being on the inside is often crushing. It is impossible to be everyone’s friend and confidant. It is often lonely in the midst of many. Truly, it is a battle to be transparent when so many are tugging with their needs and agendas. I find it difficult to trust and wish I didn’t. But it is possible to be kind. To smile and care about the person talking with me. Kindness warms others. Kindness trumps brilliance any day. It is a choice to intentionally reach out in friendship, expecting nothing in return.
I wonder what would have happened if our pastor had been humble and repentant? In any church, a humble pastor will create spiritual growth no matter what the size of the congregation. Honesty and humility are much finer than excellent biblical exposition.
Could our congregation have served our pastor differently, more fully? Yes. Would this have prevented the devastation? I do not really know. But that event did create sharp edges within me. It broke apart a solid trust of church. I fight against that focus often and choose to focus on the church as the bride of Christ. As individuals, we must each answer for our own behavior and heart posture. At the end of the day, I am responsible for me. God studies individual hearts, and alone knows the depths. That is his job; not mine.
So yes. John Piper had preached at our little church while I was away in college. It was there that his online ministry took root, and ultimately flourished. A ministry that changed my life was born, just like me, in a messy place where the Bible was preached, people argued, bread was broken, outcasts were gathered, pastors sinned, and imperfection abounded.
*names of church members have been changed