The Hardest Church Member I Ever Loved

There’s no contest for this “honor,” although quite a few made it into the “honorable mention” category. These are members of the seven churches I pastored over 42 years who dedicated themselves to making life miserable for the pastor. Looking back now, with much clearer vision and perspective than I had at the time, I find myself thanking God for everyone of these people. Those that didn’t teach me something by their opposition drove me closer to the Father in desperation. Anything that does that is not all bad.

Mr. Wyatt stormed into my office one morning during Sunday School, a few minutes before the worship service. “Preacher, you have offended me and upset my wife!”

I said, “Tell me who you are, then tell me how I did that.” I had never met the man.

He told me his name, then he explained what had happened. “Yesterday, you came into the fellowship hall where they were taking pictures for the pictorial church directory. You spent time with everyone in the room, and I saw you drawing sketches for the children. Then, before you left, you stood in the doorway and looked around. You looked my wife and me squarely in the eyes, then you walked out without speaking to us.”

I apologized all over myself and assured Mr. Wyatt that if I did what he described, it was completely inexcusable, but I had no memory of ever seeing him and his wife there. This didn’t do the job for him. He was angry when he entered and angrier when he left.

That week, I ran by his house to apologize to his wife. He was not at home, so she and I visited at the front door. “Oh, preacher, don’t worry about that,” she said. “That’s just Wyatt.”

Even if it was not an issue with her, it continued to be with him. From that moment on, Mr. Wyatt went on a tear against me. In church business meetings, he rose to speak against motions on the floor, usually with an anger all out of proportion to what we were discussing. In worship services, he sat in the rear of the sanctuary, wearing a scowl that would have lasered a hole through me if it could.

Had Mr. Wyatt been the only church member despising me, I probably would have dealt with it more directly. But the truth is, for the first several years at that church, he had lots of company. One inactive deacon stood in the foyer of the church and told everyone who entered that I was a liberal and destroying the church. Another small group of older members met in a corner before and after the services to compare notes and feed off each other’s misery. Wyatt was the least of my problems.

Then one Sunday I preached a sermon entitled, “Our Church is in Crisis–Just Like All Those Other Churches.” Early the next Monday morning, I heard Mr. Wyatt at the church receptionist’s desk. “Give this note to Dr. McKeever,” he instructed her. She came in, bringing a handwritten letter.

“That sermon was the most juvenile thing I’ve ever heard,” the letter began. “I was embarrassed for visitors to hear it. In fact, I heard some near where I was sitting say they would never be back to this church.”

He continued, “I want you to know that I do not love you.” The letter went on in that vein for a bit, then ended with his signature. I must give him credit for not writing an anonymous note, the way many a lesser person would have done.

I took out paper and hand-wrote him my response. “Dear Mr. Wyatt, You would be amazed at how many people thanked me for that sermon and said they couldn’t believe it took me all these years to get around to preaching it. I’m sorry you don’t love me, but I love you and I’m praying for you.” The letter went out in that morning’s mail.

That evening, I told my wife about this exchange. She had never met the Wyatts, but she went into the kitchen and made him a cake. She put a note with it, enclosed it all in a cake box, and asked me to have the custodian deliver it to the Wyatts’ home the next day. I glanced at the note. She wrote two lines: “We love you. We forgive you.”

However, she got his name wrong. She wrote, “Dear Mr. White, we love you. We forgive you.” I failed to catch that and sent the cake to him the next day. That was Tuesday.

Wednesday morning I heard him at the front desk. In a tone of voice that can only be described as gruff, he said, “Give this to Dr. McKeever, and tell him my name is Wyatt, not White.”

The receptionist came in and sat my wife’s cake down on my desk. As she closed the door behind her, I looked toward the ceiling and said, “Lord, I’m trying real hard to love this guy, and it keeps getting harder.” Then I heard a noise over my head.

We were in vacation Bible school that week. The fourth grade class was meeting in the room just above my office. We cut that cake and served it to the fourth graders that morning. Two days later, Mr. Wyatt received 30 thank-yous from the fourth grade VBS class “for that wonderful cake you brought us this week.”

Pouring coals of fire on his head.

After that, I didn’t hear any more out of him for a long time. Then I found out one day that my friend Wyatt was teaching a men’s Bible study class, something I felt was completely out of character for him. I honestly thought the guy was an atheist. So I asked another church member about him.

“You’re a member of Wyatt’s Sunday School class, aren’t you?” I said, “Tell me about him.”

“Preacher, he’s a wonderful man. He’s a fine teacher. I don’t know what it is between you and him.”

I said, “I don’t know what it is either. You could have fooled me. I thought he was demon-possessed.”

I have forgotten the nature of the event in the fellowship hall that evening. A couple hundred church members were milling around, eating refreshments and enjoying one another’s company. But I do remember where I was standing, in the church kitchen, when Mr. Wyatt approached me.

“Preacher,” he said, “I am so ashamed of my behavior. Would you please forgive me?”

I said, “I will forgive you if you will forgive me.” I honestly did not know what I had done to need forgiveness for, but was willing to meet him halfway. We hugged that day, and thereafter we hugged every time we met.

He’s old and sickly now, and since I’m no longer the pastor of that church I don’t see him very often. But I thank God for him and pray for him.

It would have been so easy to treat him the same way he treated me, and the “mind of the flesh” within me wanted to do just that. However, the Spirit of Christ within me would have none of that.

“Anyone can love the lovely,” Jesus said. “Anyone can give to someone who is going to repay him. It’s easy to be friendly to your friends. But I’m telling you to love the unlovely, to do good to the mean-spirited among you, and to pray for those who despise you.” (That’s my free paraphrase of Luke 6:27 and following, one of the most important passages in Scripture.)

I sat in the church sanctuary surrounded by fifty children. The congregation was looking on, and as any pastor will tell you, my children’s message that day was meant for the adults as much as for the little ones. I said, “Today, I want to tell you how to destroy your enemy and get rid of a bully. There are some unkind people in this world, and Jesus has told us what we need to do in order to deal with them.”

I paused and said, “Does anyone know what we ought to do with a bad guy?” Hands went up. “Put him in jail.” “Beat him up.” “Tell his parents.”

I said to them, “I’ve had to learn this the hard way, but I know how to destroy your enemy. Love him. Do good things for him. Say nice things to him. Pray for him. You destroy your enemy by turning him into your friend.”

Last year, my ten-year-old twin granddaughters were running track. I made it to the field on several Saturday mornings to cheer for them. That’s when I learned about the other twins on their team. “Grandpa, they’re mean,” one of our girls said. Someone else said, “Yes they are. They’re bullies and conceited and completely unlikeable.” And wouldn’t you know it, they attended the same school as our girls.

Two weeks ago, I sat in the bleachers with some of our family cheering on the girls as the new track season opened. I said to my daughter-in-law, “Isn’t Erin chatting with one of the twins who gave her so much trouble last year?” “Yep. They’re big buddies now.”

Later, I asked Erin about it. “She’s actually nice, Grandpa.” I said, “Well, she didn’t seem to be last year.” This sweet-natured child of ours who never finds fault with anyone (God help her not to be hurt in life!) said, “She just had to get past that.”

No wonder our Lord kept reminding us to become as little children.   

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Joe McKeever
Joe McKeever has been a believer over 60 years, has been preaching the Gospel over 50 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian Publications over 40 years. He lives in New Orleans.