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No Worries

Date: June 9, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Dove flying out of flames

Scripture: Romans 8:14-39

Scripture reader: Judy D.

2011 was a very tough year for Mike and me and our families.

It started with a phone call in February or thereabouts. My dad was calling to tell me that my grandpa was sick. He died early in May, and then my grandma died six weeks later. Grandpa’s death was expected, but Grandma just got a cold that turned into pneumonia that in any other situation should have been easily treated; but I don’t think she had the will to fight it.

Shortly after Grandpa died, I drove up to Minneapolis for a conference. I was there, in a town I’d never been to before, for a full week; and then I drove home, all without incident—until I was two blocks from home and a girl who was texting while driving rear-ended our brand-new Camaro. We got it fixed and things got back on a mostly even keel after Grandma’s funeral; but then at the very end of August Mike called, getting me out of the Tuesday morning prayer group to tell me his mother had had a massive heart attack.

She was already living with dementia, and had had a living will in place for many years, so she was just being kept comfortable while nature took its course. So, again, we dropped everything and headed for Oregon. I ended up doing her burial service—because she was a veteran she was buried at the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, and the rules there were that you only had 20 minutes for the whole deal, including the military portion. Then we came home, and immediately after coming home we lost a cat.

And to top it off, because nobody really wanted to look at the empty chairs at either end of the table where Grandma and Grandpa should have been, we didn’t have our usual big family Christmas celebration.

It was a really awful year; any one of the events of the year might have been manageable, but all of it at once was almost more than anyone could be expected to endure. And something that happened right before Grandpa’s funeral was the rotten icing on top of the whole nasty cake.

Everybody was having terrible stress, of course, and my sister was in the midst of a divorce, which meant her stress level was even higher than the rest of us were dealing with. And the afternoon before Grandpa’s funeral, she and I got into a fight. I had been trying really hard to stay calm and not create or participate in any drama, but in a weak moment I said something that wasn’t very nice; and then before I even knew what was happening we were all up in each other’s faces, screaming a lot more stuff that wasn’t very nice at each other. It ended with the two of us at opposite ends of the house in tears.

Because I felt like the fight was my fault—and it was—I seriously contemplated packing all my things and going to stay at a hotel for the night, attending the funeral (I had to be there because I was a pallbearer and had been asked to speak on behalf of all of us grandkids), and then leaving as quickly as possible afterward, to keep my presence from making matters that much worse.

I thought that, given that I don’t have any kids and Carrie does, I needed to bow out—not just at that moment, but forever. I didn’t want to put my parents in the position of choosing between me and their grandkids, and I truly hated what I had done and what it did to all of us during a time that was hard enough already.

It turned out that I couldn’t go to a hotel, because there weren’t any rooms to be had in Coffeyville or anywhere nearby, because of a community event that weekend. So I did my best to stay in the background the next day, until we left for the funeral, and then do the same thing until it was time to come back home.

During the days and weeks that followed, I wasn’t about to talk to anybody in my family about what had happened (there was enough trouble without me adding any more to it). I just figured that after that, I was just going to have to adjust to life as a solitary unit, without the family I’d always been able to count on to have my back. It seemed especially devastating because it was my fault—I was going to be shunned, and rightfully so, because I said and did something that was unforgivable in a weak moment of stress.

Even though I’m generally a pretty functional, independent adult, the idea of my parents and my whole extended family turning their backs on me left me feeling desolate, empty, even sort of hopeless. I’m ashamed to admit it, but during that time, in a misguided attempt to deal with my own grief and shame and anger, I turned to self-harm.

Six weeks later when my grandma died and we had to do the whole thing all over again, I worried the whole way there about the reception I was going to get. Would anybody even want to see me? Was I just going to be tolerated because, even though nobody wanted me there, my family is not cruel and would still allow me the chance to say goodbye to my Grandma?

You know you hear, now and then, about somebody being “disowned” by their family for one thing or another. We hear about teens living on the streets because their families have essentially thrown them away. [1]

For a few weeks there, I understood how that kind of rejection must feel—even though in my case it turned out that the rejection was pretty much all in my head. These are the people who give us life, who are supposed to teach us about what it means to be loved no matter what, so that we learn how to trust other people and form healthy relationships. And then to have them say, “You are no longer our child; we never want to see you again”…it’s just too much to bear. It happens in families, sometimes, and it’s tragic and horrible.

It happens in churches, too—happens often enough that we have a name for it, and people have written books about it. “Dechurched.”

Many Christians talk about reaching the “unchurched”—folks who’ve never been part of a church—but what we discover when we start talking to people who aren’t part of a congregation is that some of them aren’t in church because they’ve been made to feel unwelcome at church, if not straight-up asked to leave, because of something they’ve done, or in some cases just who they are. Sometimes people end up dechurched over something as simple as having doubts, especially in churches where all members are expected to agree to a strict set of beliefs.

Sometimes it’s bigger. You may remember Phyllis Tickle’s story I shared awhile back about the woman and her daughter who were ushered out of church before Communion because she had filed for divorce against her abusive husband after he had broken their daughter’s arm. There are just way too many situations like that—I heard another one just this past week from a colleague on Twitter.

No matter the reason, if someone is a believer and is deeply involved in a church, then they find themselves dechurched, it can feel an awful lot like they’ve been disowned by their family. And because the church is supposed to be the body of Christ, the earthly representation of Jesus Christ alive and working in the world and the earthly family of God our Father, when someone finds themselves rejected by their church, they may wonder if God himself has turned his back on them. When that happens, the church stops being the earthly manifestation of God’s love in Christ, and begins to be a stumbling block, an obstacle between people and that incredible, self-giving love.

What then are we to say about these things? Sometimes parents may rise up and cast out a child. Sometimes people are cast out of their church families.

But the whole witness of Scripture, not just this one little passage from Romans, is that God does not do that. Even when God’s people turned away and rebelled against the covenant God had made with them, God did not disown them. God kept reaching out, kept calling those children back, kept renewing and re-establishing the covenant. And finally, even though we were yet sinners, Christ Jesus took on flesh and came to live among us, revealing to us in the most dramatic way possible the unbelievable height and breadth and depth of God’s love.

So what can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord—the love that led Jesus to go to the Cross in order to free us from enslavement to sin and death? Who will separate us from that love?

Nobody.

What will stand between us and that love?

Nothing.

God does not disown God’s children.

Period.

Full stop.

[1] A pretty substantial percentage of those kids, by the way, have been cast out by their families for being gay or transgender.