Friday, December 11, 2015

Escaping the siege

I've been trying to figure out what these past few months has felt like.  In late summer/ early fall, we decided as a couple (after much agonizing) to leave the church.  Not just OUR church, THE church... by which I mean the organized, religious system that calls itself the church.  

I can't begin to describe the growing dissatisfaction that we had felt the last few years while we ran faster and faster on the hamster wheel of performance, always wondering if we were doing enough, feeling guilty and blaming ourselves if our prayers were unanswered, and frankly, feeling embarrassed to invite people in - where we knew they would find what we had - another, deeper level of rejection - where hurting people thrive on pushing hurting people away.  

It's equally as difficult to describe the pulling that we felt toward a deeper and more intimate relationship with Jesus - a call to simplicity, to receiving His love and loving Him back. More and more we saw the futility of our involvement in a system that values nickels and noses, attempts to control its members through shame, fear, and judgment.  Rather than build bridges to those who embrace lifestyles or choices with which they do not agree, this system builds walls to keep them out.

As I pondered this last night, a little story from 2nd Kings 7 came to my mind.  There were these guys living on the outskirts of town - walled in and afraid to leave because "the enemy" was out there. Or so they believed.  The town was under siege.  Food was scarce and deadly expensive; they had even taken to eating bird poop and charging money for it!!  People were getting desperate, even to the point of devouring their children... it was horrible.  Anyway, these guys near the gate were outcasts - they were lepers.  They were not welcome in society, but they could not leave the town because after all, they were members of the community. 

Finally, these guys got fed up (pun not intended).  They figured, "Well, the enemy camp is out there - and it most likely has food.  If we go and surrender to the enemy, they might accept our surrender, and let us live (at least we would get something to eat) and if they kill us, we would have died a lot more slowly inside the wall."  So ... they left ... hearts in their throats.  Desperate.  It was a desperate move made by desperate people.

Meanwhile, the Arameans outside (many hundreds of them) were literally hearing things - and got it into their heads that the king whose town they were besieging had hired people to come and attack them.  So they split!!  Enter the lepers .... who found meals half-eaten, left in haste ... and they could not believe their fortune!  They ate, found money and put that away, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves!  

Photo "Buffet Set On Heated Trays Ready To Eat"
courtesy of jk1995 at
Eventually, they looked at one another and said, "Hey, let's tell someone about this!  This is such good news that we cannot help sharing it - the enemy is gone, and our neighbours can get out of their prison!"  So that is what they did.  By the end of the day, prices were back down to normal, and there was not one hungry person in town. 

I think the reason that I thought about those guys inside the wall, the ones who were so up against it that they left to take their chances outside, was because that was - and is - (in some ways) our story.  There was no sustenance for us in all that protection and so-called safety.  We were starving to death.  We saw a few atrocities, people turning on each other, but most of the time it was just a slow, lingering death of the soul: adherents trying to keep people from straying, unhappy and/or self-righteous people trapped by their own acceptance of things the way they were, with no desire strong enough for something more, no desire that would cause them to question their reason for being there and doing what they were doingSo many people around us were living in fear, in a siege mentality (us versus them) and distrusting anything against which they had been indoctrinated, hell-bent (yes, that was intentional) on obeying the rules and excluding those who didn't

And it was like that everywhere. We had attended dozens of assemblies and it was the same wherever we went.  We had tried to fit in, but in every single place, we were eventually relegated to the role of the leper.  Either because we were not of a certain social or economic stratum, or because we were introverted, or because we were not linked with the founding families of the particular assembly we were in, we were slowly but surely kept at arm's length, treated like ... like lepers.  

But our isolation only gave us more time to think, to ponder how, in a community that stated that it followed the teachings of the One who is Love personified, the behaviour of its members was anything but - and we were as affected by this phenomenon as the next member. There were occasional bright spots, surprising us with kindness and caring (but only when someone died). Or there were brief periods associated with the arrival and ministry of people who seemed to hear from God, and for a time, we thought things might change.  But inevitably, they went on to greener pastures, and we were back to the same old thing. We wondered if things would ever change for good.

We compared the characteristics of this organization to those of the organism that the church was designed to be (as described in the book of Acts) and we could find nothing in common between the two!  "Is this all there is?" we asked ourselves.  "Is this the abundant life?"  If it was - we surely wanted a refund.... and if it wasn't ... then what were we doing? was there any way out?  Time and time again we tried to conform ourselves to what was expected, rededicate ourselves, and influence the system from the inside out.  And over and over again, we depleted our limited emotional resources; every time, we died a little more.  

Frustration grew.  Countless times we returned from church-based events stressed, exhausted, and - well - angry.   Sermons (both from the pulpit and in unofficial settings) from various people were little more than steam blown off by those frustrated with the people who sat back and never tried, so all we heard was, "You're not doing enough, not believing enough, not giving enough, not praying enough, not holy enough, not evangelical (or missional, or social justice-minded) enough ..." and the list went on.  I remember turning to my husband at one point near the end of that part of our journey and saying, "If I want to be yelled at and taken on a guilt trip, I'll go visit my mother. 

And the siege mentality!  That idea that the world is a horrible place and the people in it are against us permeated everything.  We were told that certain people with certain lifestyles or beliefs were not to be trusted, or at best they were deluded and needed to be converted.  Instead of reaching out to people, we were encouraged to lobby local school boards, write to politicians, sign petitions, support groups known for heavy-handed prejudicial treatment of certain minority groups, and decry perfectly legal medical procedures (if horrific to our sensibilities and beliefs) and vehemently condemn those who chose to undergo them.  In doing so, we were unwittingly contributing to their mistrust of the church and ensuring that they would not come to us for help when they needed a listening ear.  

Photo "Ruined House"
courtesy of sattva at
All around us, the walls were crumblingMore and more, we were seeing how our participation in this organization was counter-productive to the values of love, acceptance, and gentleness that Jesus taught and that we espoused.  We got closer and closer to the gate of this impoverished and starving community.  "Just hang on. It will get better," people said.  "Revival is just around the corner." We bought it for years ... until we didn't. 

And when we made the break, it had to be clean.  We left; we did not look back. We left our assembly, and we left the system

And you know, we expected to feel guilty... or afraid, or nervous for what we would do or where God would lead us next (if anywhere)... but all we felt was relief.  There was relief.  As the weeks passed, we remarked how much less stressful Sundays were, how much we enjoyed being able to rest instead of tearing our hair out and banging our heads against a brick wall for five hours or more almost every weekend. Our relationship with our daughter deepened. God set up contacts with people in His timing, and we had such precious times with them, times that we never would have had if we hadn't ventured outside the gate.   

There are times that we wonder if we did the right thing.  There are times when we miss frequent contact with people, wonderful peopleBut we know that we were having our souls sucked out of us by the system.  Outside, we may not have found any bountiful banquet yet, but we can detect the faint odor of food, and we know we'll eventually find it.  And you can bet that as soon as we do, it will be way too good to keep to ourselves.

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