It was way back in the last century (in the late 1900s), but I will never forget traveling to a communist country to share the gospel.
I don’t know the exact number of people I traveled with---somewhere around fifteen. We went to teach conversational English. The government had changed their mind about allowing us to conduct a school in the church that had invited us to join them in ministering to their city. We would improvise with the Spirit’s leading.
We scattered to live across the city in different homes. I was just up the street from the church, a straight shot. Everyday I walked past the police station and the German shepherd on the roof of a house on my trek to the church and back.
I have never had a good sense of direction so when I stepped out of the gates of the church’s courtyard, I looked for the single royal palm shooting into the sky. It signaled to me, “Walk this way.”
I had studied the door of Sylvia's house. Butting up against one another, from sidewalk perspective, the houses all looked the same, except for the doors.
I loved the door to Sylvia's house.
And I came to love the ladies who lived behind it. They welcomed me into their home and allowed me to have daily “conversation time” in the living room with young people who lived in the area. It was an attempt to accomplish what we came to do---build relationships and share the gospel.
Our team was under the authority of a mighty man of God. He spoke little English but understood our words very well. (At least, that is what I came to believe.) Loved and respected, the shepherd of a church, and literally hundreds of house churches, he served under the authority of Christ and he placed high value on the unity of the body under his care.
One afternoon, I received a call to go to the church for a team meeting. I wasn’t that surprised. We knew that things could change day by day as the church battled in prayer, and with the government, hoping to get the school going.
Chairs had been pulled into a circle in the meeting room. We chatted among ourselves until everyone arrived. I noticed our team leader placing his hand to his forehead, rubbing out tension gathered there between his temples.
The meeting began with prayer. Then our leader began to tell us about the heart of the man who sat beside him, the pastor who we had come to serve.
“This man has served time in a prison cell for the cause of Christ. Under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, he is leading this church to reach this city and beyond, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs hope. He places great value on one thing that this team is jeopardizing. We are here to make things right.”
I felt like I had swallowed a lead weight. What had I done?
“Search me, oh God.”
He continued, “We are beginning to my left, and then I want every person in this room to tell the exact amount of money that they have given to the person or persons who are providing a home for you while you are here.”
The silence really was deafening, until finally, the person to the left spoke. My fellow team members began to cough up dollar amounts: twenty dollars, then five dollars, the next forty dollars, fifteen. My turn was coming and the amounts being spoken drifted away from me as I prepared my response.
“I didn’t give any money but it wasn’t because I didn’t want to. It’s taken every bit of willpower I have to keep from it.”
Our leadership had told us before we arrived that our host families would be provided with everything they needed to be able to meet their needs, and ours, while we were in their homes. The cost of our trip included enough to provide our hosts with a measure of flexibility, so that they could show their hospitality, which is an inherent desire of those who have a guest in their home.
It had been quite clear: Don’t give them money.
But we did it.
(I know I didn’t give, but I did give in my heart. Is it not the same as doing it, when in your heart you are guilty?)
Everything would be made even among the households that hosted us. The lack of equity was a threat to the unity of the body. The pastor had already heard they were comparing gifts.
More than conducting an English school, more than reaching out to the city with a group of Americans, the pastor’s priority was the unity of the church under his care.
In the name of compassion, or maybe out of guilt for having so much in our pockets, we risked the unity of a healthy, vibrant church with a five-dollar bill. But because of a godly pastor's diligence in protecting the unity of that great church, we left it intact.
It occurs to me that unity in the body of Christ is both powerful and fragile. How much value do we place on it?
Could we in our abundance take away what cannot be bought--- and is cherished--- and vital--- and is not ours to take?
We could. And in ignorance, we could leave a five on the table, and walk away thinking we had been a blessing.
"Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." 1 Peter 5:8 (NASB)