Monday, 24 August 2015

The Fantasy of Church Culture

In my last post, I mentioned watching the efforts of my ex-fellow elder to pretend he was unaware of my presence. I also mentioned how funny I found them. (I also admitted that I used to find this sort of behaviour deeply painful and hurtful.) So when a friend commented on my Facebook page that it gave her hope that she might also get to that same point of freedom from the pain, it made me stop and think about my response to his performance, and how I have got to this place myself.

One of the biggest factors at play has got to be the 'awakening' process I've journeyed through. I call it that because when I think about it, I am reminded of the lyrics of the Keith Green song:
Like waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed
Until your love broke through
I've been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me
Until your love broke through
That's how it feels sometimes - that I've lived so much of my life in a dream-like state known as 'church culture', and finally the real love of God has opened my eyes to how much rubbish has been substituted for the simplicity of following Jesus. Christian culture too often blinds us to the unadorned call to love God and love others.

Waking up was a process. It didn't happen overnight. At first, I grieved the loss of all that is seen as important in church culture - things like a 'position' in the church and an officially recognised 'ministry'. I had fallen for the lie that I needed these things to be effective for God and it felt like I'd had these things stolen from me. I wanted to love and care for others, but I wasn't allowed to.

Sometimes, waking up is a process...

To make matters worse, those who had ripped me apart emotionally in this way were being held up to me as shining examples of how I should be. They were right (& righteous!). They had forgiven. They had 'moved on'. I should be like them.

But I kept hoping for an apology from those who'd abused me. Wanting justice for the wrong that had been done to me. Seeking validation of my claims against others.

I wanted something from these people, but they wouldn't even look at me!

So when they judged me and shunned me - when they treated me like I wasn't there and looked straight through me - it just re-opened all the wounds they'd inflicted on me and rubbed salt into them.

And then I started to wake up. To open my eyes. To see that these people were victims of their own fantasy. They'd built up a world that didn't exist. Where everyone was happy and loving and forgiving and perfect. Where all you had to do was say the magic words and everything was all ok. They couldn't afford to have the fantasy exposed, so anyone who saw things differently was a threat to the illusion, and they had to be dealt with! (What a pity burning at the stake was no longer an option!)

It seemed to me that they had locked themselves in a cage and thrown away the key... and were now desperately trying to convince everyone (including themselves) that they were the ones who were free. And it occurred to me that if these people couldn't even face me to acknowledge my presence, let alone actually meet with me and deal with our issues, it wasn't me who had the problem.

As I watched the contortions and the pretence, it became obvious which of us had really "forgiven and moved on".

And it was when I realised I no longer wanted - or needed - anything from these people.

It was then that I realised that I'd woken up from the dream-world of church culture. I didn't need official platforms or the approval of 'church leaders' to love and minster to others. I was free to love God and love others... wherever and whenever. It stopped being a performance and became simply the way I lived. I realised that I was happy... and I was free.

And I pray that my friend finds that place of freedom, too!

Friday, 21 August 2015

Why Can't Churches Deal With Disagreement?

Yesterday I sat in the school car park being entertained by the behaviour of the man who had desperately wanted to be 'king' at my ex-church. He had to walk right past my car to get to his own, and I'm afraid I couldn't help laughing quietly at his determined attempts to appear unconscious of my existence. (On the upside, at least I find it amusing these days rather than deeply painful like I used to.)

For a moment, I contemplated winding down the window and asking him if he's ready to deal with things between us, but then I realised he'd probably just give his 'deer in the headlights' impression and walk away. I've pretty much given up hoping he'll ever meet with me to discuss (and deal with) the issues between us as I've come to believe he's not actually capable of entering that space.

Needless to say, I found it extremely interesting to read an article this morning which talks about the need to make difficult conversations a part of everyday 'church' life.

Churches, Covenants & Hard Conversations.

The author, John Pattison, talks about the wedding of friends which he recently attended. He shares:
"When they got married, my two friends made a covenant with each other, before God and their community. That covenant doesn’t exempt them from difficult conversations — it sanctifies those conversations. The covenant relationship binds them together, even during the inevitable hard times. Their covenant keeps them mutually accountable to the health of the relationship. And it makes it safe to disagree, even profoundly disagree…because they know the other person isn’t going anywhere."
He then suggests that this same approach is what we should be aiming for when it comes to relationship in the church family - that "having hard conversations needs to be part of the day-in-day-out life of a Christian community."

This is obviously a man who understands the importance of engaging together, even when it's uncomfortable. And he comprehends the necessity of the church being a safe place for that to happen. I felt like standing up and applauding!

Because sadly, my experience in various churches has generally been typified by the "my way or the highway" approach. It's certainly what happened in my ex-church where I was 'advised' to submit or resign. What they were saying in effect was, "You either shut up, or you leave. There's no place in this church for anything other than compliance with our will." And as this seems to be a fairly common reality, I can only lament that John Pattison's view of things seems neither widely shared nor highly regarded in the institutional church.

But it also leaves us with the question of why churches can't seem to deal with disagreement? Why do they too often mistake uniformity for unity? And why do so many seem to worship this supposed "unity" at the cost of relationship?

I am not suggesting I have the answer to that dilemma, but I do wonder how much it has to do with the fact that the IC system perpetuates the mindset that "some animals christians are more equal than others"... and that it's the 'more equal' ones get to set the agenda. Thoughts?

(Just for the record, when the author uses the word, "covenant", I am reading a heart attitude, not a legal document.)

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Life After 'Church' Abuse

He leads me beside still waters...

It occurred to me this morning that Monday this week was the third anniversary of my resignation from 'church leadership'. The night before, I'd attended what turned out to be my last-ever elders' meeting. At that meeting I was told that my choice was, in effect, to submit to abuse or resign. Although I went to bed that night, I just couldn't sleep. And so, in the early hours of the morning, I got out of bed and emailed these words:
"When I originally stood for eldership it was out of obedience to the Father. I believed He had called me to bring who I was and what I do to the table to bless and serve Cornerstone. I also believed that we were elected as a team, accountable to each other and to the body; that we all had unique gifts and callings which were valued by each elder and that together we became so much more than just the sum of our parts. Over recent months I have increasingly felt that what I bring is no longer received or valued, and that trust and accountability has been lost. 
In the midst of this, I have never been more confident of the Father's call on my life. As I shared at the board meeting, God has been confirming again and again who I am and what He has created me to be and do. I know what He has laid on my heart and have seen good fruit come from my engagement in that. My validation comes from the Father and not from holding a position or title so, as I now believe I have the Father's release to do so, I am tendering my resignation from the eldership of Cornerstone. I remain committed to Kingdom relationship."
At the time, I genuinely believed that if I did what they wanted, then things could be worked out. Maybe by stepping aside people would feel less threatened by what I was saying. But the questions I'd raised could not be un-asked, so it seems that in their eyes I was the threat.

I learned the hard way that there is no room for the Kingdom where the mentality of empire-building (and king-making) has taken hold.

And as they say... the rest is history...

So why am I sharing this? Because (as I've said before) my experience is not unique. While the details may vary, the basics of my story get repeated every day - played out in churches of all types all around the world. And real people suffer real heartbreak - damaged by the very ones who'd promised them love and healing.

And to all those who are still living the nightmare, still doubting that they'll ever feel whole (or smile) again, I want to speak hope.

When I wrote that letter three years ago, I was too traumatised by all that had come before to be able to see clearly, and I had no idea what would happen or where I'd end up. I certainly had no inkling that it was actually a step towards a new life of freedom and wholeness.

And yet, reading it again after all this time, I see clearly that I was already on the journey. That I was already being guided towards the freedom and abundant life that Jesus promised - but which had always seemed to allude me.

It all felt too much like defeat and loss and betrayal, so I had no idea then how free and alive and whole I would come to feel! Yes, it took time. Yes, it got worse before it got better. Yes, I'm still journeying. But, these days I know a peace and rest within myself that I wouldn't exchange for the world.

At the time I thought I'd lost the things that represented the pinnacle of my faith life, but in reality all I had lost was a load of man-made 'religious' rubbish. I finally 'get' what Paul was talking about when he said, "everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him." Philippians 3

I lost a 'title', but Jesus had told us not to take them for ourselves. I lost a 'ministry', but ministry can, and does, happen wherever and whenever I find myself engaging with others. I lost 'relationships', but it seems they had been based on my performance and compliance to other people's agendas. I lost 'love', but it had only been conditional, so it wasn't real in the first place.

None of the things I 'lost' were of any value after all. In fact, they'd been as unwholesome as garbage, as noxious as sewage.

What I have discovered and embraced since then has been priceless. Because I've found Life* - free, abundant, joyful.

So if you've just been 'thrown under the bus', or if you've been on the journey of healing for a while and some days despair of ever being truly free, please hang in there. It won't always be like this. There is hope. You can make it.

Because however long and hard the journey might be, there really is Life after 'church' abuse.