A couple of weeks ago, we asked my blog readers to submit questions for me to answer. Here’s my answer to another one of them.
The specific question asked was, “What is the darkest or most difficult experience you have had to date that you are willing to share?”
I would have to say that the most difficult experience I’ve ever had came out of the time in 1989 and 1990 when I was involved in civil disobedience at abortion clinics. I was arrested seven times at nine different prolife interventions—we called them rescues—intervening for unborn children. They were peaceful and non-violent, and we were not raising our voices or yelling at women, and certainly not using inappropriate language. (For an explanation of how these rescues were biblically justifiable, see the article "Civil Disobedience to Save Unborn Children.")
We created a physical barrier by standing in front of the doors of abortion clinics, and this was an extremely unpopular thing to do. It was being done in the late 80s and early 90s in different parts of the country, but in Oregon where I lived, it was particularly unpopular—even though it’s a state where we have environmental protestors, homosexual protestors, and all other kinds of protestors.
This idea of speaking out for unborn children was very unpopular in the courts, so I was named in several different lawsuits. One particular lawsuit went on for 30 days. We were in a courtroom day after day, five days a week, hearing employees of the abortion clinic lie under oath. That was very difficult.
It made perfect sense, though. If you killed children for a living, why would you have any reservations about lying in order to get the greatest possible punishment for a group of pro-lifers? After all, in John 8 Jesus says Satan is a liar and murderer from the beginning. He murders through abortion, and he lies to cover his murders. I will never forget the palpable presence of evil in that courtroom.
However, I will tell you about the most difficult part of this, and I don’t think I’ve ever shared this publicly, only in private conversation. I think I can do it now because over 20 years have passed. It was when fellow leaders at my church—men that I had been a pastor and elder with for numbers of years—decided they didn’t want me to continue as a pastor.
It was my decision to resign officially in order to protect the church from having to choose between defying a court order and writing out a check to an abortion clinic. But my thought was that the church could pay me minimum wage, and I could continue to serve as a pastor, because by Oregon law they can’t garnish minimum wage.
But the response from fellow pastors and elders was, “No, it would really be better if you would no longer be a pastor at the church.” They had all agreed previously when I had asked their permission to be involved in the peaceful, nonviolent demonstrations, but they didn’t realize—nor did I —the full extent of how public this would be. It was on the front page of the Oregonian, I went to jail, and they had a pastor who was in jail. There was embarrassment and discomfort. They wondered, Now are they going to sue the church and come after us? Has this become a distraction in our church?
So when Nanci and I and our daughters needed the most support, suddenly we were receiving the least support from many of the people we loved and had invested our lives in and with.
The other side is that God taught us a lot through this. We didn’t leave our church then, and we are still a part of that same church. I love these men, and to this day I have close relationships with a number of them I served with as a pastor and elder. While we disagreed, God brought out of it many good things. He taught me a lot about submitting even when it’s not comfortable and even when it is difficult and you don’t agree on something. So I can sympathize with people who disagree with their leaders, but also can say “hang in there, respect them and continue serving in your church when you can.”
I went from being a leader to no longer being a leader. I had to learn what other people had needed to when they related to me as a pastor—such as follow your leaders and submit to them as Hebrews 13:17 and other passages tell us. But now I was doing that, and I have done that since. It has not always been easy. I love my church, and I love my church leaders, but I still don’t always agree with them, just as people don’t always agree with me. So I’ve experienced both sides of submission.
Nanci and I have grown tremendously through the years as a result of this difficult time. One of the things that helped us was praying for different pastors and church leaders who we felt were not supportive of us in the most difficult times. We‘re not bitter—God preserved us from bitterness.
In fact, the ministry we founded, Eternal Perspective Ministries, began with the financial support of a number of people, including a few of those pastors and several of those elders I worked with.
God was very kind to us, but as I’ve thought about it, this would have to be at the top of the list of most difficult things we’ve ever faced. It seems strange that it would be higher than the deaths of certain people who were very close to me. But I think it’s because you experience God’s grace more in certain areas and times with huge personal losses such as death than you may when there is alienation and distance from people you know and love and have had close relationships with.
God has been gracious in dealing with that distance and healing those relationships over the years. And it feels great to say that we now have very good relationships with those we felt had turned from us in a dark period of our lives. Some of them would probably do things different now than then, and I’m positive we would also. But forgiveness means accepting that just as you don’t always do things right, you shouldn’t expect others to either. And as God forgave you, you must forgive others, and it is liberating to do so.