A young father attempts suicide. A high school girl comes to you in tears because she’s pregnant out of wedlock. A group of women set up a meeting to find answers regarding their alcoholic husbands. A member of the evangelistic team has an affair with an outreach prospect. A beautiful young mother tells her husband she’s divorcing him. A teenage boy who never adjusted to Israel after emigrating from Russia, and has been picked up by the police many times, is sent to a juvenile detention home.
All of these situations have occurred with members of Tents of Mercy Congregation. How is a congregation of Yeshua’s disciples supposed to respond to the panorama of life’s piercing problems that face non-believers and believers alike? Yes, I know there’s a Spirit-filled life of victory available to each one who truly seeks God. I basically experience that and preach it. But my pastoral experience with people challenges me to respond even when folks are not enjoying that victory. I’ve become very concerned for the day to day reality of the people I love … Yeshua’s flock. Are we focusing on meetings and events … or life, relationships and reality?
Refuge for the Broken
How can we be a refuge for the broken and for those who have failed, without indulging people in their sin? What does an “emotionally healthy” congregation look like? And how does such a community deal with the disappointments, failures and tragedies of its members? Tough questions. Some minds, including mine, jump to strategize—inventing programs and sweeping answers to the kind of painful crises described in the opening paragraph. Others roll up their sleeves and find the few situations where they can make a difference. For instance, over the years, in our congregation:
- one couple have weekly times in their home for boys without fathers;
- one chap has been tutoring a young woman with cerebral palsy;
- purchased guitars for aspiring teen musicians without financial resources;
- a mentally challenged man of 40, was adopted by a member of the congregation when his mother died.
We are far from a perfect congregation, yet I’m proud of the way our people have opened their hearts in practical ways to those who are hurting. In fact, isn’t that the point? Messiah’s Kingdom includes being honest about our struggles and failures, and reaching out to each other unpretentiously in our
need. Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from this world. (James 1:27).
Coming to Grips with Burnout
Years ago, a promising young couple came to faith and began to progress spiritually with enthusiasm. It only seemed logical to bring them into leadership. They were “gung ho” and gifted. Our reasoning was flawed. We moved too quickly. At a point, which none of us really saw, they began to simply get used up. In our zeal to expand the work and to see our friends used of God, we gave them too much to do too soon. For those of us dedicated to serving Yeshua, the gap between our true emotional state and the intense reality of pouring ourselves out “for God” and into people may be extreme. Beloved, this ought not to be.
The first victim of burnout is the family. In 1989 I became caught up in an historic outreach opportunity. There were multiplied tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews settling in Brooklyn, NY. I began driving from Washington, DC every other weekend with a small team. It was thrilling to see Russian Jews find Yeshua. On the weekends that I didn’t go to Brooklyn, I was doing a unique one hour live talk radio show reaching a major metropolitan Jewish audience. But with services on Shabbat and radio or Brooklyn on Sundays, every day was taken.
It was all so fulfilling that I failed to notice that my family was getting short shrift. One night my teenage daughter pulled the rug out from under me. “Dad, I know what you’re doing is truly meaningful” she said with sincerity and respect, “but I’m finding that my emotional needs for a father are barely getting met in our relationship. I’m beginning to look elsewhere to get those needs met.” I stopped breathing. This girl was one of the loves of my life. At seventeen she had nailed me. I was “going and blowing,” winning the world for Messiah, while neglecting my tender teenage daughter at a vital, unrepeatable time of life.
I swallowed hard. “Well, honey, if that’s the choice—between outreach in Brooklyn and a genuine relationship as your father—I choose being your dad.” She smiled. “Then how about coaching my girls’ softball team this spring?” she added. I did, and it was one of the richest experiences of my life. But it took a heavy wake up call from a surprisingly mature teenager to arouse me from the slumber of ministry idolatry and workaholism.
Honesty Leads to Wholeness
Sadly, there are situations in which people deny the depth of their emotional needs. Once, a member of our ministry team, while serving with great zeal, was struggling in his marriage. We asked if we could begin meeting with the couple to help them. They denied that there was a serious problem and he continued to serve. Finally the situation became too extreme, and we had to ask the brother to step down, all the while offering professional care for their marital restoration. After many refusals of our help, the situation has further deteriorated. He preferred hiding the truth about his life, to finding emotional health.
Years ago a respected member of our congregation came, surprising me with the confession of a serious drug habit. He asked for help, humbling himself to expose his sin in contrast to the fellow above, who would not allow us access to his life. He stopped using drugs. He asked for serious discipling to learn how to live as a follower of Messiah. Today he is a pillar in our community. He often reminds me that when I chose not to reject him, but walk with him through the process of liberation, his life was turned around.
This is the gospel, beloved. Not a perfect, outwardly beautiful life. But the redemption of Yeshua, working in us daily, by the power of His sacrifice. How can your congregation and mine be emotionally healthy ones? Here are a few characteristics that will help bring it about: honesty, genuine support of one another, resisting the temptation to give “easy answers” when people are in pain and crisis, majoring on an authentic life as disciples, rather than “good theater,” knowing each other’s lives outside the excitement of weekly worship meetings, not being ashamed to ask for help when we need it.
Here is true spiritual community. “… that the body may be built up by what every joint supplies” (Ephesians 3:19). “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Messiah” (Galatians 6:2). “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).