Through a series of emails and Facebook posts, my oldest sister connected with a second cousin from my mother's side of the family.
"I grew up hearing stories of how your mother left the faith," cousin Rebecca emailed. What? My mother left the faith? Not so fast, newly found cousin. My mother loved and followed Jesus from the first day she trusted him at age 40 till the day she entered his presence at age 92.
My cousin had a different take on my mother. Raised an Orthodox Jew, my mother left her faith when she married my father who was a Gentile; becoming an authentic Christian ten years later made little or no difference to my mother's family.
It was strange to hear my mother described as someone who had left the faith and that got me thinking about that phrase—left the faith.
From a global perspective, we rightly use that term to describe Muslims who choose to follow Jesus. The downside to leaving one's faith is alienation, persecution and death as these believers know so well.
From a personal perspective, our faces become somber, our voices hushed as we announce the sentence of death when we say that someone has, "left the faith." We wag our heads, ready to write off the person—all hope is gone; there's nothing we can do to bring them back to the fold. Is this the way my mother's family thought of her? Discouraged and weary, we close the door and walk away from the person who walked away from the faith.
First things first. God has already announced the death sentence on all we like sheep who have gone astray (sounds a lot like leaving the faith to me). Then, in an amazing display of grace, he goes after the lost sheep to bring it back to the fold. He is that straying sheep's only hope of rescue.
That ought to give us hope for straying sons (mine among them), daughters, brothers, sisters, parents, spouses, cousins and friends. Their salvation doesn't depend on us or what we did or didn't do. If we couldn't save ourselves, we surely can't save anyone else. The sheep walks away from the shepherd, but the shepherd follows, ever seeking to rescue the sheep.
As much as we would like to close the door and walk away from our beloved stray sheep, we might not have that option. God's kindness compels us to keep the door open, his grace nudges us to pull the sheep from the thicket (again and again) and his loving providence reminds us that salvation belongs to him alone.
For all those people we know and love who have left the faith, let's constantly and gently remind them that the door remains open and the path home is a straight line to Jesus.