The atmosphere was alive with expectation as we gathered in the big hall. Actually, it was a basketball court converted into a banquet hall. We were renting it for our homecoming. Our church had been planning this for quite a while.
It was a hot summer day, and I was sweating in my three-piece suit and tie. Everyone was in high spirits, and there was much moving about, laughing, and joking, as we all joined in to make the final preparations.
In the kitchen, several women were preparing all kinds of tantalizing dishes, and lots of them. I continually made excuses to look for this, that, or the other in the kitchen, so that I could feast my eyes on all the delicacies. For festivity and eating, there is nothing like a homecoming celebration at a black church.
We had invited the pastor and choir from another church to join us for the celebration. They arrived in all their finery. The pastor and deacon of our church greeted them and showed the choir where they could don their robes.
The entire hall was filled with the overpowering scent of so many women splashed with their favorite perfume, and men with their favorite aftershave. It didn't mix particularly well with the smell of fried chicken, greens, potato salad, and a hundred other things that tempt the palate.
I went outside several times to see whether my friends were coming. I had invited them a week before, and they had assured me that they would be there. It was almost time to start, and they hadn't arrived yet. Just as I turned to go back into the building, a truck pulled to the curb and stopped. It was larger than a pickup truck, and had wooden siding along the bed.
When I saw the truck, I was delighted. The back was packed full of wonderful, enthusiastic people. My friends had arrived! Waving to me, as they scrambled off the truck, they seemed to be the happiest people in the world. They hugged me and patted me on the back as we greeted one another.
Opening the door to the hall, I urged them to go right in, because things were about to start. When they filed in, one after the other, they made quite an impression on all present. Most of the talk in the hall stopped, and people stared.
You see, my friends were mostly wearing cut-off jeans, overalls, and denim skirts. Their hair was longer than is usual in Christian circles — and they were white. As soon as they came through the door, they fanned out into the hall to greet everybody there. We didn't know what hit us. Their smiles, enthusiasm, and warmth were overwhelming.
I was ecstatic, because the members of my church could finally meet these people I had been telling them about. I was totally oblivious to the reactions of many of these members. These new guests were something completely unexpected.
The program finally got underway, with the pastors and others saying the things that people usually say at homecomings. Then the visiting choir wound things up with a few lively selections. I had the impression that things were somewhat dampened, but I couldn't imagine why that would be.
The food was served, and there was much animated conversation. Most of it came from my friends as they talked with me and others of our congregation. After the meal they did something extraordinary. They all stood at their tables and began singing a song of appreciation to us. It was beautiful.
As the day wound down, my friends had to leave. There were warm good-byes and hugs for everybody. When the last person was on the truck, I stood and waved until they were out of sight.
When I re-entered the building, the pastor and deacons were waiting for me. They asked whether they could have a “word” with me in one of the more private rooms of the building. I followed them to the room, not suspecting that anything was wrong. When I closed the door behind me, I found myself facing three rather perturbed men.
“Why did you invite all those white hippies to our homecoming?!” snapped one deacon. The other deacon followed with, “And they didn't even have enough respect for the pastors to wear a suit and tie!”
I looked from one to the other in total amazement. “What on earth are they thinking about?!!” I thought. When I had recovered enough poise to speak without exploding, I asked, “What does being white and not wearing a suit and tie have to do with being a child of God? Those people believe the same things we believe. God loves them just as much as He loves us. So, what is the problem?”
The pastor had been standing quietly by up to this point. He finally spoke, “The women said that we almost didn't have enough food.” From that moment on, I couldn't hear what they were saying to me. It didn't matter anymore. I had lost my respect for those men. It became so clear to me that I was seeing something in them that I hadn't seen before. Something inside of me died in my relationship with them. I never apologized, for I knew I had done nothing wrong. In my mind Jesus would have done the same thing. Eventually, I left that church.
That episode makes it clear that there is an irreconcilable, fatal flaw in the hearts of human beings. There are many ways that this flaw manifests itself, but in this case it appeared in the form of religious, cultural, and racial bias.
You would think that the fact that our congregation loved the Lord and those friends of mine loved the Lord, would be a strong basis for unity.1 But the reality is that there was an impenetrable wall between the two groups. That wall is evidence of the fatal flaw of disunity in Christianity, and in mankind in general.
Why couldn't my congregation have seen the hearts of my friends? Isn't one of the purposes of the gospel to tear down walls that divide? Why were they not able to see through the external appearances, and look right into the heart? It's because an essential element is missing. In order to see someone's heart, you have to be able to see through the eyes of love. Love is the missing element.
How does one come by that kind of love? God only gives that kind of love by His Spirit,2 and He only gives His Spirit to those who obey Him.3
I knew my friends fairly well back then. I had visited them quite often. They were unique, quite different from any other believers I had ever met. They all, every one of them, lived together in community. They shared everything, as I had read so many times in the Book of Acts. On several occasions, they had even invited me to come and live with them in their homes. Of course, I declined at the time. Like the other members in my congregation, I had my own house, car, job, and bills to pay. Incidentally, not one of the members of my congregation had ever invited me to come live with them, nor did I ever invite them. It was entirely out of the question — completely unimaginable.
The contrast between us and that community was quite stark. There were no poor or rich among them. They lived decently, but no one had more than he needed while someone else struggled to make ends meet. They met each other's needs, right down to the last man.4 If one was poor, they all were poor. If one prospered, they all prospered.
Unfortunately, I could not say the same about our congregation. Some of us made very good money, while others lived in the projects, struggling to keep food on the table. One precious family in our congregation had many children. The mother worked, scrimping and scraping, trying to keep all those children clothed and fed, while her husband drank away every penny he could get his hands on.
We in the congregation knew these things, but the fatal flaw of our own selfish pursuits caused us to ignore what we knew. We saw this family week after week, and never proposed to take them into our own homes. Whenever I spoke with the mother, she always demonstrated a total determination to “trust in the Lord,” as she put it.
On one occasion, we had a meeting of all the men to plan a trip for the church. One brother proposed a deep-sea fishing trip out of Florida. He had looked into it, and the cost would be only around three hundred dollars per person, for hotel, food, and boat rental. Some thought it was a good idea. I asked how the poor ones in the congregation were going to afford that. The brother who made the proposal replied that some people would always be left out of things. “You can't let that fact ruin it for the rest of the congregation,” he said, without any hint of apology or shame. Several agreed. Right then, something died inside of me.5
Don't get the impression that I was any better than they. I might have been appalled at the selfish proposal of that meeting, but I got a good opportunity to see an even worse kind of selfishness at work within my very own heart.
A friend of mine had a ministry in the inner city with poor blacks, but he was a member of one of the richest congregations in the whole city. A poor couple from New Jersey needed a place to stay. Instead of asking the members of his rich congregation to take this couple in, he asked whether I could do it. I agreed, thinking it would be only for a couple of days.
They arrived at my house in their old car. They were white, and I hoped they wouldn't have any qualms about staying in the house of a black man. I was surprised to see that they had a baby. I welcomed them into the house and showed them where they would stay. They were poor, having no money even for gas for their car. My heart went out to them — at least for the first two or three days. After that, things started to get hard.
The couple didn't do anything differently, but I started to see all their needs, and tried to meet them. The baby needed diapers, baby food, and milk. The man needed gas money to “take care of business.” The woman needed various things. My budget was being stretched to the limit. I started wondering when they were going to leave. The thought of them staying much longer was terrifying. Somebody was always in the bathroom when I wanted to go. This was intolerable. Besides that, the woman always curled her feet under her when she sat on my sofa. That was bad enough, but she made things worse by not taking her shoes off. The man didn't have a job, so he didn't contribute anything to lighten the load.
I would sit at the table and watch them as we ate our meals. The thought continually ran through my mind that they were eating me out of house and home, especially when they wanted seconds. They didn't even help with the dishes. That was just too much. After about a week and a half, things cleared up for them in New Jersey, and I distinctly remember how happy I was when they were gone. I was so happy and relieved.
It is only in retrospect that I understand the depths of my inability to give to the point of sacrificial love. I gave grudgingly and with much complaint in my heart. In time, it would have surfaced and come out in words. I was completely divided from that couple in their time of need. I was hoping I would never see them again. I was offended by my friend and his congregation who had “saddled” me with those people, and didn't offer to help financially. The fatal flaw of selfishness was glaringly obvious.
I failed to mention that the couple who stayed with me were fellow Christians. That fact caused many questions to stir in my mind. Why, then, was I not able to love them and care for them as for my own family? Why is it that in our congregation we were completely willing to ignore the plight of the poor among us, and enjoy spending money on our own pleasure that would have been better used to alleviate their suffering? Why didn't we have the power to simply love? Is it possible that we were not following the true Savior?
Every evening, I worked in a Christian radio station. With soothing, emotionally charged music, I would softly compel the listeners to consider their relationship with the Lord, and to ask Him to come into their hearts to save them from their sins. When the final broadcasts were done after midnight, I would sign off the air. When all was in order, I fell apart, and lay often on the floor weeping, and begging God to take my life, because I knew how rotten, perverted, and selfish I was inside. My only drive in life was to satisfy whatever urge was active at the moment. I told others how Jesus could save them, but He couldn't save me.
I associated with many Christian groups, hoping to find something that would give me real hope. I found no hope. There was no environment for healing, no solution for the fatal flaw that I saw in myself and in the members of my congregation. Christianity offered no hope to change. There were doctrines and all kinds of counselors, but no observable reality that I could grasp and hold on to.
Romans 1:16 talks about a gospel that can save, that has power, but the gospel I had received could not save me. And that gospel never resulted in any kind of lasting unity. Being members of the same church, or of the same denomination, and agreeing on the same creed is not what true unity is all about. Where was there any real power to change people?
In utter despair and hopelessness, I found myself walking onto one of the main bridges in our city, the Market Street Bridge. I didn't remember driving there, or thinking about going there, but I went as if compelled by something other than myself. Having parked my car in a nearby parking lot, I got out, and just started walking, with no destination in particular.
Somewhere near the center of the bridge, I stopped, and leaned on the concrete safety rails. Looking down into the waters far below, the kernel of a terrifyingly horrible idea began to grow in my mind. Nausea swept over my whole body as I tried to deny the thought, but deep down inside I knew why I had come. As I stood on that bridge, trying to muster up the courage to do the unthinkable, scenes of my life passed through my mind with stark clarity. The more I thought on all those years of my life, the more I could see my own selfish behavior. Even what I had called love was only based on what pleasure I could derive from the object of that emotion. I was a Christian, but I didn't know how to love.
Weariness, like a heavy, unbearable shroud, settled over my entire being. I knew I could not go on another moment.
“Aw g'wone and jump won'tcha,” came a voice from behind me. It had the startling effect of a gunshot. Jerking around, I stared at the speaker.
“We done been here twenty minutes a'ready, an' ye hadn't done nothing yit!”
I stared… speechless. Just a few feet away from me was a dirty pickup truck with two grimy men in it. One had tobacco juice running down his chin. Both, wearing overalls, grinned as I stared at them sheepishly, my face glowing hot with embarrassment. They drove away laughing as I stood there seeing my own ridiculousness. I hurried off the bridge to my car. The tears were coming like a flood. I couldn't hold it back, but I didn't want to be seen crying like that in public. I followed a side street where not many people walked. Finding my car, I quickly got in, locked the doors, and closed the windows, while I wept loudly, convulsively, uncontrollably.
“God!” I screamed. “God! God! Help me! Please, please, help me, God!” I pounded the steering wheel, as the hopelessness crushed me mercilessly under its heavy weight.
The days went by in a certain colorless haze, without meaning. It was during those days that I met my friends who came to the homecoming. They were so different from anyone I had ever met. Even though I was very cynical when I met them, a tiny spark of the possibility of hope was kindled in my failing heart. I had to cling to it, or return to that unthinkable road I had almost embarked upon… next time with surely no way back. I had to see what these people were about.
As I continued to visit my friends, I saw them lovingly caring for one another's needs, working together, and giving themselves unselfishly. It slowly dawned on me that the life I was so fascinated with in the Book of Acts was actually leaping off the pages of the Bible, right in front of my eyes! I could read chapters 2 and 4, and then look around me, and there it was!
They had found the way to deal with that fatal flaw that causes one to despise or ignore those less capable than oneself. They were learning how to really deal with the selfish ways that divide and destroy people all over the world. What they demonstrated on a daily basis was the life that the true gospel produces. I could see real evidence that the love of God had been poured out in their lives. I wanted desperately what they had. I needed it!
I finally came to live with these people. The salvation I found in their Savior, the Jesus of the Bible, brought me into the same life I can read about in the Bible. That was twenty-eight years ago. I'm still here, and my love for those I live with has grown deeper, and is still growing, as we seek together to do the will of our Father.
I marvel sometimes at the change. It's now clear to me that such a change can take place only in the place where His life is.6 That is the only place where He pours out His blessing of life everlasting.7
In Acts 2:44 it says, “all who believed were together.” That is the truth, and it is the pattern for the church for all times. All who believe will be together, being of one heart and one soul.8 In that place we are being healed from the fatal flaw of selfishness, which causes disunity. You are always welcome to come and see.