Back into the City - Acts 14:19-20

19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
Acts 14 (NRSV)

When I was ten years old or so I was beaten like never before and never since.  It was a work day at our tiny church and the pastor’s son had brought a friend that I knew from little league.  His name was Joe.  I didn’t know that Joe was there when the pastor’s son asked me, “Do you think you could beat Joe up?”  I had no idea how to respond to that, but it’s hard to get a 10-year-old boy to admit incompetence.  I think I said, “Maybe.”  The next thing I knew we were in the nursery of the church and Joe was standing there with a yardstick.  He came at me and hit me over and over again.  I really wanted to fight back, but I had the feeling that the pastor’s son would gang up on me.  I also knew that eventually adults would come and find us and that if I didn’t fight back I wouldn’t get in trouble.  So I hid under a table.  I couldn’t get my legs out of his reach, however, so he kept hitting my ankles.  I have absolutely no memory of how this event came to an end.  I remember Joe’s face, etched as it was with a sinister smirk.  I remember the feeling of helplessness.  I remember the “thwack” the stick made against my skin. I remember the sting.  But I just can’t seem to remember my rescue. 

I graduated high school with Joe . . . that’s another 8 years of school together.  He was not a happy kid and not a nice kid.  From the day he hit me until the day we parted ways after high school I never spoke to him.  I had a terrible time looking him in the eye.  He represented a great pain in my memory and it felt easier to avoid him.  Avoidance is an altogether common coping strategy.  When someone takes our heart into the streets and beats it until it looks dead we have the surprising ability to act like it never happened.  We are incredibly capable of burying pain under the weight of a false optimistic demeanor.  But like an untended garden, with time the life becomes swallowed up by emotional overgrowth.  We find ourselves five, maybe ten years from the initial beating, having let the weeds grow to the point where we cannot even identify the source(s) of our problem.  And when we get to that point, the point when we realize the life is almost gone, the Church too often proves an unhelpful friend; what with its rote answers, “Jesus. Prayer. Bible.” [1]   Or the worst, “perhaps this pain is the result of unrepentant sin.”[2]  When what you really need are a few sensitive people willing to dig into the mess with you; to get dirty. 

Of course, the weeding and digging will require lots of time in lament, reflection, crying out to God, deep discussion with and about Jesus, weighty questions about sin and grace, and not a few thoughts from the Bible.  The difference is that these are done in community and safety, whereas the Sunday School answers tend to make it all your responsibility: “You need to pray.  You need to consider Jesus.  You need to repent.  You need to read your bible.” Notice the power of the passage above comes when the apostles gather ‘round Paul.  Can you imagine their heads hanging over the nearly dead Paul saying, “Repent Paul!”  No, the gathering ‘round strongly implies, “We’re in this together.” 

Then, by Grace, they walk back into the city! The rarity of this moment cannot be overstated.  Back into the city of vitriol. Back into the city of betrayal.  Back to the hearth of antagonism.  Back to the sinister smirks.  Back to the bloodied hands.  Back to memories of terror.  Back, with love, to your would-be murderers. Ah, the power of a community shaped and enlivened by the Savior!  
It is so common to feel as though you must face your "city of pain" alone.
But no.  I bore my pain alone and let Joe (and many other pains) wander out of my reach.  In college, however, I was lucky enough to have sensitive, listening, compassionate, Jesus-focused folks gather ‘round me, dig in, and help me face my pain. And gracious people who helped me see God as a Father who was deeply saddened by my pain and wanted to get involved—as opposed to my fear that God was punishing me and rather pleased with the pain.  Not everyone is so lucky. 

In light of the recent suicides, I beg you, River Street, be this for each other.  Be a people who gather ‘round; who sensitively journey into and through the mess; a people who rejoice when weary souls seek help rather than shaming them; a people shaped by God’s undying love; a broken people who are determined to follow Jesus back into the city.  

P.S. I contributed to another conversation on Missio Alliance's blog.  This time on Unity within Diversity.  The article is here.

[1] If this is where you are, trust is the scariest thing on the planet.  The emotional overgrowth I mentioned earlier almost always manifests itself in an overriding fear of authentic relationship.  You might think, perhaps the ones who gather ‘round will only stone me further. Who am I to guarantee they won’t do just that?  I can only offer this community as a place to trust again.   
[2] There are, of course, cases where this is true, but you better be a trusted friend and darn sure before you throw this out there.


  1. This is one of the truest statements I've ever read! Thanks! True as an example of clear and honest transparent presentation of pain and true in the sense of the nearly always well-intentioned and hurtful responses of compassion from friends--which, unfortunately, is one definition of the church. At least it is for us; once we had to nearly literally run away from well-intentioned but hurtful caring. Thanks. I hope we learn that sensitives that include you and should are more often than not judgmental and full of pain. By the way, Jesus, too, kept walking back into such harmful criticism--maybe that's where Paul got the idea.


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