It took so long to recover from all the confusion and the emotional turmoil it created within me to arrive at a normal, healthy person’s perspective on my rather intense church experience some years ago. And the sum of it all, I feel, is this:
Paul exhorted those in the congregation of a particular church he founded to follow him as he followed Christ. So good little parishioners read that in the Bible and take that to heart and attempt it with their whole heart. But what if the man who proclaims he is following Christ is requiring a congregation to follow him in something that may or may not be actually following Christ but, rather, his own personal convictions and/or ambitions? And what if the man himself is convinced he is following Christ and doesn’t see it’s, rather, his own personal convictions and/or ambitions? And what if it’s all happening too fast to question? What then? Does one toss aside the questions being raised with the red flags and follow him off a cliff? And what if this man says it’s okay to question him on things but when that is tested and one does question him the question gets evaded or shot down and he charges on, full speed ahead?
Average, “normal” people are likely to say, “Well, you just walk away,” but what if it’s not that simple? What if one has made a commitment to not only follow this man but also be comrades in arms with these people you are congregating with, and that commitment meant a great deal at the time it was made? I realize that sounds a lot like marriage. And, in some ways, it can be like that. In marriage, when one stands up before, literally, God and everybody and promises to be by that person’s side, one doesn’t just toss that commitment aside without time and careful thought – unless such a one succumbed to idiocy and made said promises against his or her better judgment at the onset (ahem, like I did in the turbulent impulsiveness of my youth so very many moons ago with my first marriage).
In my case, though I knew I was being crushed under the weight of a man’s will, the question became, “where would I go?” I wound up asking myself that for quite a few years, and lack of an answer left me staying merely by default. And that is where a lot of people find themselves, wondering where they would go. They’ve set up their whole lives around this one thing, bought houses to be closer to the church and the congregation, chosen jobs that more readily make allowances for all that’s required to take part; they’ve married within the congregation, chosen their friends solely from within the congregation, all their kids are friends with all the others’ kids, and on and on the list goes. So, clearly, it becomes about far more than just leaving a church. It becomes a question of abandoning a whole way of life…never an easy thing to do – and never a thing to be easily convinced one truly wants to do.
Sometimes, circumstances make the choice for a person – and often those circumstances are catastrophic, unfortunately. If you read the Bible missed the part in every account of every human being recorded therein pointing out each person’s frailty and fallibility, then you’ve read the Bible with blinders on. And, who knows…maybe some people do just that. I didn’t, when I first started reading it. I got that. But, perhaps, after a while I began to brush aside what had been so clear – another thing very easy to do over time and the development of other habits.
I write these things for the benefit of those who look at it from an outside perspective. And I write these things for the benefit of those still caught in the struggle. It’s devastating to leave a church where everything is designed to be about the church. For many of us, we follow the church because, in the words of a great man who helped liberate a lot of people, “I have a dream.” We look into the pages of the Bible at the early followers of Jesus after the crucifixion, and being a part of something like that becomes our dream, something we’d be willing to give up everything we know to be a part of. So, in a sense, not only does leaving mean leaving a way of life that’s been established, but it also means broken dreams…all of that very painful stuff. And it’s human nature to avoid pain; it just is. So the pain of staying becomes preferable to the pain of pulling up all those roots. I now have the benefit of personal experience, but it didn’t feel beneficial at the time I was going through it. Breaking free was very painful – and the pain lasted for a long time. And that doesn’t seem like something a “sane” person would subject himself or herself to. And I did question my sanity through the aftermath – pretty much every day.
But, in time, I began to sense the Lord’s acceptance, and, eventually, His acceptance became more pervasive than the voices of rejection dancing round in my head and making minced meat of my heart. And maybe that’s the lesson in it all (to be honest, I haven’t come to any hard fast conclusion as to what the lesson is yet). Maybe the lesson in it for me is: if freedom is why Christ gave His life, then what’s freedom worth to me? I had the benefit of turning my eye then ultimately my heart and my life in Christ’s direction outside the walls of a church and became convinced that Jesus had a better way than the way I’d been going without much in the way of input from within a church setting. Of course, I began seeking a place to congregate pretty quickly after Christ became real to me. And I knew I wanted something substantially more than a superficial, once a week homage to this thing that had happened that had changed absolutely every part of my life. And more than a token homage is what so, so many people who ultimately abuse their power appear to offer upon first encounter with their whole gig.
The thing is, I got a chance to see God work in my life outside the lines of the coloring book of any man’s creating. If I hadn’t, I might have ignored the part of my heart where Christ came to dwell that softly kept whispering not to give up on Him – even so…even though someone led me to believe – and indeed even intimidated me into believing – that I couldn’t follow Christ without him and without those who were following him. No man can take part in the blood that bought me and claim that blood as the ransom Jesus paid for my life! No man has paid what Christ paid for me to belong to him! Christ’s sacrifice is the only sacrifice that could please God, and, therefore, it is not my obligation or responsibility to become any man’s sacrificial lamb, period – any man other than Christ, that is. And Jesus never had to manipulate me or use coercion tactics of any kind for me to want to follow Him. That’s not the way my walk with Him was in the beginning with no man around to muddy the waters. I sensed nothing but liberty and equal footing with Jesus. He is the only One who ever lifted me up not to drop me on my arse and leave me coughing in the dust, and I instinctively knew He wasn’t there to use me up and bleed me dry. I instinctively knew I could count on Him; when I called He was there, and there was never any condemnation. It was an ebb and flow, a give and receive kind of relationship, and there were no threats looming over me of ruin if I left. I had no reason to even think about leaving because I found freedom and total acceptance (without having to earn it) with Him.
How quickly and how readily people can ensnare other people, but they didn’t learn this from Jesus. This I know as surely as I know the sun came shining through my window this morning.