Tuesday, August 09, 2011


Back in the late seventies and early eighties I pastored Southcliff Baptist Church in Fort worth Texas for a number of years. Among the blessings of that time was the fact that several couples were in our fellowship while they were students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. They were part of an early move of God in all of our lives at that time in that church that can only be described as profound for us all. 

In the ensuing years they've married, raised children, had careers, been missionaries, built businesses, pastored churches, and generally ministered in the grace of God in times and circumstances that would take a myriad of adjectives to describe. Some of those adjectives would be joyful, exciting, growing, successful, unbelievable, anointed, incredible, and any other positive word you can imagine.

But those same couples, for the sake of reality and honesty, would have to and did, in fact, use other words to describe their journey in the grace of God together. Words like struggle, failure, weakness, depression, control, manipulation, and self-pity were also necessary to describe the journey of life they've experienced.

Where did this kind of sharing happen? Well, a retreat just finished at the Billy Graham Training Center called "The Cove" in Asheville North Carolina involved a number of those couples. Some of them Mary and I had not seen in the intervening thirty years. But with brutal honesty we all shared our  journey of grace. 

It was called a reunion retreat for obvious reasons. It was put together by a few of those couples, with others invited to come. Our purpose was so Mary and I could tell them how we are different now as opposed to those Southcliff days and why we're different. Then, generally, to fill them in on our view of God and His grace as we see and experience Him now compared to then. We did just that.

What transpired was greater than anything I could have conceived. In fact, I was a bit apprehensive honestly, as Mary and I are SO different in our understanding of grace and even the meaning of much of the text of scripture. 

My views about so many things have changed not because the scriptures have changed, but because my understanding about what they said was so lacking back then. 

My views back then, I'm sad to say, were so steeped in tradition and Baptist culture, if not American culture, it was incredible. This is not to say there wasn't grace and a move of God then. There was in His Providence.  It is to say, however, that life is a journey of growth and grace with greater understanding.

I have subsequently under gone an extensive, even exhaustive study, for myself, [as has Mary] about so many texts and truths and have come away REALLY different in my belief system, that I now wondered if they would be able to handle that! 

Would you like for me to tell you whether they were able to handle it? They were different too. They had learned about grace in a deeper fashion too. Their journey had, in fact, brought some of them to a place they wondered if Mary and I would be able to handle where they had come to in their lives.  Some of them had as many misgivings as we did. So here is how we wound up as a group together. 

We laughed, cried, hugged, shared, confessed, revealed, forgave, rejoiced, debated, disagreed, loved, embraced, reveled, and celebrated one another the entire four days. 

Then we talked as people who honestly admitted having failed and succeeded, grown and diminished, changed and all too often remained the same, understood and misunderstood, just like all the other paradoxical Kingdom people who are on a journey and adventure of discovering the grace of God in ways never before seen. 

The difference was we had found a safe place to be honest about it all. That place was with each other with all our differences and stories. The safety was because our unity was not our belief system, but our Lord and an expression of grace that we had found in Him.

I will conclude this post by simply saying it this way...we experienced Kingdom living. We experienced CHURCH. More later.

Paul B.


Bob Cleveland said...

Jesus said if we didn't come to Him like little children, we wouldn't even see the Kingdom. Then He commanded us to be one.

SO: I figure our unity must be based on what a little child can understand. The simple gospel of our sin, His death, and our repentance and trusting Him.

Sounds like your weekend was a good example of just that. And, something we see far to little of in these literate, educated, intellectual days.

Can't wait for the next installment, brother.

God bless.

Aussie John said...


What a gem Bob is!

You are to be envied, my, friend. What a great time that retreat would have been.

What you describe are a group of brothers and sisters, as you say, "Church", who have learned that learning in the matters of faith and practice, is an ongoing process.

Sadly, it seems that far too many, in this country at least, think that maturing in the faith is legalistically holding on to the formulated teaching of our earlier years.

A major degenerative disease of Christianism is the inability to use words such as "Words like struggle, failure, weakness, depression, control, manipulation, and self-pity".

My opinion isn't much, but, in my mind, such honesty speaks far more, about the maturity taught by the Holy Spirit, than the incessant "positive" words regularly heard.

Thanks for writing about your time.

Christiane said...

Paul, I love this post. It speaks about 'the journey on The Way' and how people grow 'into Christ'.

I love hearing when Christians realize people are more important to them than differences . . . and that the unity shared is solidly 'in Christ'.

Paul Burleson said...


I'm going to eventually share a bit about what was said in a way that will maintain the privacy commitment we all made to one another. I thought you might enjoy seeing the guidelines we adopted for our four days together. Those were....

1--No one has to speak at all.
2--No one can speak for another. It has to be you only that you're speaking for when speaking. In other words, no husband can say "My wife and I believe, think, feel..." No wife can say "My husband and I think, feel.."
3--Nothing shared or said in the group meetings will be spoken outside this circle, not even as prayer requests, without permission of the person who said, shared it.
4--There will be no shaming, condemning, or attempts at fixing anything [beliefs/situations] or anyone speaking or sharing, unless they request help.

You can see the safe haven that was created so we COULD share struggles, failures, questions etc, without fear or shame.

Boy...if we Christians could really follow the Holy Spirit's direction in life, I'm thinking our relationships with one another would always be a safe place to be.

Rodney Sprayberry said...

I like what Larry Crabb wrote about spiritual community...

"I think this is what the writer to the Hebrews has in mind. He told us to never stop getting together with other Christians.

And when we do get together to say and do things that stir a flame into a fire, to arouse the life God’s Spirit has placed within us so we can go through dark nights, or pleasant mornings, with out eyes fixed on unseen reality.

He told us to think hard about what all of that means. But that is not what we have done. Instead we have found ways to do church even participate in small groups that do not require real connecting....

We have walked well-travelled roads, broad highways involving activity,organization, and ambition and built church buildings along the way. We have welcomed…the throngs of travelers who walk the roads with us and herded them into audiences that we call communities...

But they are nothing of the sort. In real spiritual community people know each other; they relate in ways only God’s spirit makes possible."

It was Bonhoeffer who said that leaders loves the "idea" of spiritual community. However, it is much more difficult to actually love the imperfect people within that community and help them love one another (and I might add...know that we can be loved "as we are")

Peter Scazzaro wrote...

In seminary, ministers were often taught so that others could be instructed. “Thus ‘teach and instruct’ not ‘listen and learn’ were the dominant behavior expected of trained leaders. Entering into people’s world only occurred enough to change them, not necessarily to love them."

I am grateful you can testify to a group of pastors that have experienced real spiritual community...hopefully they cultivate it their lives and ministries as well!

The journey to reach such a place can be summarized in the words of a country song by Rodney Adkins:

These are my people
This is where I come from
Were givin' this life everything we got and then some
It ain't always pretty
But its real
It's the way we were made
Wouldn't have it any other way
These are my people

Paul Burleson said...


It could NOT be said any better by anyone my friend. That's just my humble opinion.

I LOVE the country song lyrics by the way. Thanks.