Listen to “Never Despair” by Fred Smith
None of us thought it would end the way it did. It began with small, almost unnoticed decisions by Mrs. Britton, our Sunday School Superintendent in the Baptist church where I grew up. Every year there was a Sword Drill competition to reward how well we had learned to locate Scripture. Standing with our closed Bibles, Mrs. Britton would call out a verse. We would throw open our Bibles and when we found the verse, step forward, recite the verse and then step back. It was the rule that the verse had to be read from the page to show we had found it and not simply memorized it. Now and then Mrs. Britton’s son, John Ed, would step forward and repeat the verse but not prove he had located it in his Bible. During memory verse competitions he would stumble and start over but still receive credit for the verse. Later, we discovered that John Ed had been coached on which verses Mrs. Britton would call out for Sword Drill and that he was given credit for verses he had not memorized. While we all thought it was unfair none of us at twelve years old thought to say anything about it. We just took pleasure in making life difficult for John Ed afterwards.
Soon, Mrs. Britton began to make noises about her dissatisfaction with the new pastor. He had an accent she could not understand. His sermons were in conflict with her fixed beliefs. He drove a car she could not afford. His wife dressed better than was appropriate for the wife of a minister. While she was an imposing woman both physically and temperamentally, few of the adults seemed to take Mrs. Britton seriously. After all, pastors are always subject to people “having the pastor for lunch” on Sunday.
But then Mrs. Britton began to circulate rumors among the congregation about the pastor and his family that called his sanctification into question. She doubted his credentials and encouraged others to join her inquiry into his background and qualifications for ministry. There were no real accusations because there was no evidence – just questions. But then, she steadily and quietly recruited others with her suspicions. There are always people with grievances – small and large – in congregations and once encouraged by a person like Mrs. Britton, they begin to murmur. Scripture has a word for it. It is like the guttural growl of a dog getting ready to attack. That is exactly what it was.
Proverbs 6 describes the subtle but insidious pattern of people like Mrs. Britton:
A troublemaker and a villain,
who goes about with a corrupt mouth,
who winks maliciously with his eye,
signals with his feet
and motions with his fingers,
who plots evil with deceit in his heart—
he always stirs up conflict.
With little but innuendo and baseless facts she took advantage of people wanting to believe the worst about a good man. She had turned her envy and calculated ambition into a near insurrection. It was soon her supporters against the pastor and the rest of the congregation. There was a brewing revolt and that led to a called church meeting – the only one I can remember.
People loudly defended Mrs. Britton and insisted there was truth to her lies but the truth was being hidden by the leaders. Some accused the deacons of a conspiracy against Mrs. Britton and her defense of the purity of the congregation. Even when it was clear that she was going to be officially shunned and removed for her attempts to divide the congregation and ruin the reputation and ministry of the pastor and the church itself, there were many who called for forgiveness and loving the enemy for the sake of the unity of the church. Shunning Mrs. Britton would only divide us further they said.
After the wrenching decision to have Mrs. Britton and her family leave the church there were some who went with her and attempted to form a new congregation. Others, embarrassed by their being drawn into the fight, slipped away over the next few months. Only one or two stayed on to fight the good fight for Mrs. Britton but they eventually left as well when there was nothing to fight for.
To his credit, the pastor and his family stayed. Some wounds were healed. Some forgiveness was extended. Some amends were made and the church survived and grew.
I am tempted to despair when I see this playing out in other ways today. It would be easy to come to the quick judgement that doing nothing would be the best solution for keeping the peace and moving on or, worse, exacting the last ounce of flesh for the wrongs done. Neither is the right solution. We all need to face the facts and the consequences of our actions. Anything else is sowing the seeds of our own destruction.
Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair.
Christ in Gethsemane by Michael D. O’Brien