Many people in the church are hiding. They put on religious masks to obscure their sins and live in fear that they will be exposed. In his 30-plus years of pastoral ministry Mike Khandjian has seen a lot of masks. For many years he wore one, too. 

In his new book, “A Sometimes Stumbling Life,” Khandjian hopes stories of his own stumbling and the glorious grace of Jesus will encourage believers to drop the masks, own their brokenness, and cling to the Savior.

Grooming a Pharisee

Khandjian grew up in a Christian home with parents who demonstrated a vibrant faith. His family attended Old Cutler Presbyterian Church in Miami. His grandparents were Armenian refugees whose families escaped the holocaust waged by the Turkish government in the first part of the 20th century. Khandjian’s mother came to Christ through a missionary in an Iranian refugee camp. His father became a believer at a Billy Graham crusade at Madison Square Garden.

A book this focused on grace and the radical love of Jesus comes only from someone who has experienced his own depravity and need for grace.

Throughout his childhood and early teens, Khandjian believed he was a great Christian. He certainly looked the part as an active member of the youth ministry and eager children’s ministry volunteer. But his heart brimmed with pride and legalism.

To keep up appearances, Khandjian developed ways of managing what he considered small sins, such as envy and lust, while avoiding what he called “The Biggies” — obvious offenses such as sex outside of marriage and murder. He left for Belhaven College convinced he was going to do great things for Jesus and would return to Miami with a hero’s welcome.

College brought out a different side of Khandjian. He lost control of his behavior and fell deep into sin. By the time he graduated from college and began seminary, his shame and despair were unbearable. Even confessing his sins to his parents offered no relief. He determined to give up seminary and return home a failure. 

Still, he was hiding from God. 

“In some ways, more than my sin, it was my denial of my sin that corroded me from the inside out, until it poured out into evil behavior and inconsolable misery and shame,” he writes. 

Slowly God opened Khandjian’s eyes to see that his good works never earned him a spot on God’s team. Jesus did for him what he could never do for himself, and at last — in seminary, of all places — Khandjian accepted the gift of saving grace.

Out of Hiding

Khandjian graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson in 1983. He spent 10 years as pastor of Wildwood Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida, 10 years pastoring his home church, Old Cutler, and for the past 12 years he has pastored Chapelgate Presbyterian Church near Baltimore.

Now he has written a book for fellow stumblers. He wants churches to be safe places for believers to talk about their struggles. He thinks people will admit their failures anywhere — at the bar, in the classroom, or to co-workers — except the one place where they should be welcome, the church.

But the honesty must start in the pulpit. Many pastors preach the gospel of grace as understood in Ephesians 2:8-9, Khandjian said, but when it comes to dealing with sin, the congregations never see anyone confess or experience restoration. 

When congregations never hear honest talk of sin and never see restoration, the message that percolates down to the pews is one of managing appearance. “The message ‘You have to be good enough or faithful enough’ drives believers more deeply into hiding,” he said.  

“A Sometimes Stumbling Life” describes a view of faith — chapters handle subjects such as salvation, Christian community, sanctification, Christ’s kingdom, God’s sovereignty, and the life to come — in which the goal is not better behavior but more love for God, a love that flows from obedient hearts. After all, “The Father didn’t send Jesus to make us perfect, but to make us His,” Khandjian said. 

Liberated to Tell Our Stories

The book is filled with anecdotes about Khandjian’s own foibles — from pouting over a poor performance at a church softball game to careless comments toward a gang member on a Miami beach — as well as stories of witnessing God’s work of restoration in the lives of his friends and family.

By sharing his own mistakes and God’s grace on his faith journey, Khandjian hopes to encourage other believers to step out of the shadows and not be afraid of the brokenness in their stories.

A book this focused on grace and the radical love of Jesus comes only from someone who has experienced his own depravity and need for grace. Khandjian has, but it took years of painful failing for him to marvel at the love of Jesus. Khandjian admits he could not have written this book even 15 years ago. 

“There were too many pockets of self-righteousness that would have prevented me from acknowledging certain things in my life,” he said.

Years of reflecting on his own mistakes allowed him to see that the places of failure still fit into God’s gospel of grace. He also credits his wife, Katherine – and the gracious members of Chapelgate, who have been slow to judge and quick to forgive one another and him – with helping him learn the hard lessons.

By sharing his own mistakes and God’s grace on his faith journey, Khandjian hopes to encourage other believers to step out of the shadows and not be afraid of the brokenness in their stories. 

For pastors, he hopes the book liberates them to talk about God’s work in their own lives, even through their mistakes. Pastors are no different from congregants, he said. They all need to be liberated to tell their stories of God’s work in their lives. 

“People are out there every Sunday — rich and poor, in big churches and new plants — and they want to know they can be prisoners set free,” he said. “It took years of discovering the value of where the broken things in my life fit into the narrative of the gospel. Telling the story isn’t just telling my story, but telling everyone’s.” 

Illustration by Gracia Lam

 


We like to hear what you think about this. Please submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@byfaithonline.com.