He was a pastor and quite a raconteur who entertained audiences with good stories and humor. He was also known for his hand-written letters in the days before texting and email overtook pen and paper. I received a chatty letter or two after hosting him at an event in our church. But I remember one letter he sent that bothered me.
Another pastor was accused of a crime, but not charged by local authorities. He remained at his church for a while but eventually stepped aside. The letter-writing pastor sent me a photocopied letter addressed to “My Friend,” so obviously I was one of at least two or more who received it. He described details of the alleged crime and what he was hearing from people in that church. Though I understood the men were friends, the letter was more gossip than grace.
I thought about this lately when a pastor I know fell into some difficulty. My first reaction was curiosity. What happened? Then I heard the better angels of my nature declaring it wasn’t my concern, and that I should call to express love and offer help, which I did.
I know we often tread a fine line between concern and gossip in our congregations. I’ve been in many prayer meetings that delved into diagnoses—what the doctors said, and relationships—who was related to who. I remember one prayer meeting where I quickly lost leadership and stood there bewildered as the church member requesting prayer for another explained who the man’s cousins were naturally and through two marriages!
I suppose it would be helpful to have some kind of HIPAA law in the church so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. We really don’t need to know all the details about sickness and sin to pray for someone. We believe God knows all the details already. He only wants us to bring our concerns to him and to be merciful to others.
I’ll always remember a better example while a student at Southern Seminary in Louisville. Dr. Henlee Barnett was teaching our Christian Ethics class one day about relating to God and country. He cited a radio preacher known for his strong pro-America stance who had criticized Dr. Barnette. Our professor read some news clippings to us about this from a file. A student raised his hand to announce he’d just picked up his copy of a national news magazine in the post office, and there was a story about this broadcaster being investigated for inappropriate relationships.
Without asking for more details, Dr. Barnette said, “Well, I forgive him. He has troubles enough now.”
Dr. Barnett showed us in this unique way what Christian grace really is.