On April 28, 1944, an armada of US warships were approaching Slapton Sands (Slapton Sands is a beautiful beach area off the southwest coast of England). These ships were part of a dress rehearsal for the upcoming D-Day invasion of Normandy. And it was a serious rehearsal. 300 ships were involved and over 30,000 men. Previous mock invasions on these very shores had been utter failures, and so it was crucial for this training exercise to go off without a hitch. But that was not going to happen. Shortly after 2 am, while the ships were awaiting the signal to “invade,” a German torpedo-boat squadron stumbled upon the flotilla and opened fire. Three of our ships were hit and sunk almost immediately. Oil and gas spilled out into the water and erupted in flames. Survivors jumped into the icy water and were forced to swim around or under the oil fires. Hundreds died instantly. As the survivors swam for safety, they looked for any sign of help: a rescue boat, a life-raft, a search party, anything. Surely, a rescue operation was underway. But no. The whole operation was considered essential; and as a result, they could not stop the exercise to rescue any survivors. Plus, they could not give the Germans any hint that this was a practice run for the invasion. And so, the survivors drifted in freezing cold water until daybreak. It was only then that a rescue ship was sent out; but by that time, many had died of hypothermia. In fact, more American soldiers died that night than would later die on all but one of the five beaches on D-Day. To add insult to injury, the whole disaster was so top secret that the entire thing was kept quiet. Any leak, it was feared, would help the Germans to piece together where the invasion would take place or would assist them in knowing how to thwart it when it came. But it was also true that if the story got out, it would be terribly demoralizing for the whole invasion force. If we couldn’t launch a successful invasion of the Salton Sands, how could we ever survive an invasion of Normandy? And so, the whole event was kept confidential. Wounded soldiers were even kept from speaking to their doctors about their injuries or how they got them. Worse, anyone caught talking about it would be arrested. Within days, the whole episode was expunged from the war record. It was as if it never happened. And it stayed a secret until it was made public forty years later in 1984. See, secrecy comes with a cost.
Last week, I raised a concern about how the lack of authenticity is damaging our worship, our prayer, our community and our spiritual lives. There is a cost for keeping secrets from one another and always trying to put forth the perfect image. And that cost is killing our fellowship.
The funny part is that we all know we are sinners through and through. I know that about me, and I know that about you. And we also know that Jesus has forgiven our sin and that we stand in the presence of God as perfectly clean. And we know that we are all going to slip up and maybe even fall (or jump willingly) into some great sin now and then. And we know that the path to restoration is through confession to God and to others. And we know that this side of heaven, we will never be perfect. Since this true, then why can’t we just accept one another and put off all the pretense and the hiding and the lies and just say it, “Hi, I’m Dane; and I am a big sinner.”
I know why we can’t. And it makes perfectly good sense. Every church has a problem with gossip, with backbiting, with judgmental attitudes and with shooting its wounded. I’ve seen enough judicial cases at Presbytery where “sins” were publicly proclaimed and judged. I’ve seen tons of cases where church members felt it was better to leave their church before their sin was exposed and they were “forced” to leave. I’ve seen numerous lives ruined by gossip. No wonder we hide. Our community is tenuous already. It doesn’t need much to derail it completely. The sad truth is, we would rather have a superficial cluster of inauthenticity than to risk being exposed and judged and embarrassed. I get that. But we can’t live in these plastic, white-washed churches for long without it doing long-term damage to our souls.
And that is why we need to practice authenticity in small, trustworthy groups where encouragement is always present. Imagine being in a community where the one-another passages are actually practiced. A place where:
- If we are caught in a sin, others will restore us gently (Gal. 6:1).
- Everyone will try to help carry the burdens of their brothers and sisters (Gal. 6:2).
- Everyone will be patient and will bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2).
- Kindness and compassion will be truly evidenced in people’s lives; and people will forgive each other, just as in Christ God has forgiven them (Eph. 4:32).
- We will encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess. 5:11).
- Everyone will be accepted, just as Christ has accepted all of us (Rom. 15:7).
- People will be devoted to each other in love (Rom. 12:10).
- Members will refuse to slander one another or speak against a brother or sister or judge them (James 4:11).
- We will confess our sins to each other and pray for each other so that we may be healed (James 5:16).
Imagine a place where we can speak honestly and freely with each other and openly share our hurt, our pain, our doubt and our anger. Imagine a place where Christ followers actually listen to one another. Imagine a place where we see each other’s pain and suffering and remember Bonhoeffer’s famous axiom: “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” Imagine a place where sin abounds, but grace abounds so much more. It sounds like an impossible place, an imaginary place, but this place has a name. It is supposed to be called, “The Church of Jesus Christ.” But let’s be more practical and call it a small trustworthy group where encouragement is always present, vulnerability is bravely practiced and authenticity is freely shared.
Goethe once said, “Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.” I believe that with all my heart. And how I wish it was the language we spoke daily in our churches. Yes, there is a cost for secrecy and inauthenticity, but the reward for being a church that encourages one another, that loves one another and that accepts one another is beyond compare. A church that truly cares for its people that much can only be called the richest of all churches.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” He was right. And our chief longing is for a church to accept us completely for who we are (warts and all) and then for that church to encourage and inspire us to be who we can truly be. To that end, let us hope and pray and work.