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When Churches Split

WEB Desert 004 Stephane L

Stephane L

Jeremy Lott - published on 07/09/14

Those years with Dad in the desert taught me to see things differently.

This Sunday, my Dad preached a sermon in his country church at the bend in the road. Dad is a bona fide Baptist minister, but he rarely gets pulpit time. So I came and sat my Catholic backside down on a padded pew in Custer, Washington, to hear what Bob Lott had to say.

His subject was the life of Moses. The first deliverer of Israel had a life marked by great fortune and by struggle. Dad reflected at some length on that struggle.

Moses fell from royalty to near ruin. In fact, he had to run for his life. He spent the next 40 years tending sheep in the wilderness before returning to rain down plagues; take his people out of Egypt; and give unto them, and to us, the two stone tablets of the Law.

During his wilderness exile, Moses encountered the bush that burned but did not burn up. From that befuddling sight, the Bible tells us, God spoke.

Millennia later, Jesus would call Moses’s struggle to mind by fasting for 40 days in the desert. Many saintly men since have compared their years of spiritual struggle to the desert years. In our more secular and less arid Western climes, desert experiences often get watered down to mere “wilderness years.”

Not for Dad, though. “I was in the desert for eight years,” he told the congregation, “but I can’t talk to you about that.”

For good reason. Those years were spent in Tacoma, Washington. Dad was then a youth pastor at a church in a suburb. The experience was hellish.

Egos clashed violently. Bibles were literally thrown to the ground. Disputes over worship and finances and a stupid play rent the church in two like the temple curtain. Half the congregation walked out to start their own church.

Dad did what he could to stay out of the conflict and shield his kids, both his own children and his youth group, from the conflict. It didn’t work. We saw charges and counter charges hurled, friendships ended, faith utterly snuffed out.

It was a scarring experience and, it seemed to the 13-year-old me, utterly contrary to everything we had learned from Scripture about what Jesus would want for the church. Christians were supposed to behave in a certain way. This was not it.

The split also caused one migraine of a logic problem. Church history is not a major part of Baptist education, but I knew we were Protestants. We came from one giant church split, though we called it the Reformation.

In my simplified, early-teen way of thinking about such things, a church split could be bad now and bad back then, or good now and good then. But I could not, for the life of me, work out a way in which it was OK then but not-OK now.

Over 20 years later, things look a little more complicated than that. But not by much.

It’s hard to say how things could have gone another way. Yet my suspicion is that if I’d grown up at that Baptist church in the bend in the road, becoming Catholic never would have occurred to me. It was those years with Dad in the desert that taught me to see things differently.

Jeremy Lott is an editor of Rare.

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