Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How I Found the Church (Christian Society) Again

Sometimes I have this guilt feeling about the fact I always seem to be venting about the Church . . . or my church at least.

I have written a manuscript (new title; Butterflies in the Belfry . . . Serpents in the Cellar), which I posted here about six months ago. Thanks to the help several who comment here I've re-worked it and will post the new improved manuscript soon (and link it to a new post). Pennyyak helped a great deal. Headless Unicorn Guy put me in touch with a professional copy editor who has helped a lot as did a few others. When I post the manuscript, it will still be something of an "Open Source" so you can still make suggestions for improvement.

I was finishing up the markups on the last two chapters and I've decided to re-post chapter Twenty here. The reason is, I think it tells (among some bad) a really good story of how I found the Church again after a couple of years wondering in the wilderness. This all happened twenty years ago.




Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar

Chapter Twenty

So? The Christian Society

I am not a Church service person. I’m not saying that for any theological or philosophicalreason but as a personal preference. Many Christians truly enjoy the Sunday morning tradition. I’m probably the aberration. My attitude possibly dates back to my early upbringing when church service was a farce and only stood as an act of penitence.

I also don’t care for most church service music. I don’t like country and western twang, I don’t care too much for operatic falsetto. I also don’t care too much for music which has the purpose of working people up into a total emotionally frenzy, without much content, as some of the more contemporary Christian rock music does—with its eardrum-piercing, electric guitar squeals, hands raised in the air and eyes rolled back in the head. But this is simply my own personal taste. But give me a John Mayer, Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Cheryl Crow, hey . . . even a folksy John Denver-sounding concert with good lyrics of honest seen-world experiences and true unseen world theology and I would be spell-bound for hours.

I don’t care much for Sunday morning preaching. After fifty years of church attendance, it is very difficult for even the greatest preacher on earth to preach something that is new and thought-provoking. The same would be true if I weren’t a Christian and I had sat for one hour for every Sunday for the past fifty years, listening to a motivational speaker. It doesn’t matter how good that motivational speaker was, it would simply get old after a while. However, I do love thought-provoking lectures from Biblical scholars and thinkers and I could sit in on a good lecture for at least two hours without the constant effort to keep my attention focused or checking my e-mails on my smart phone. I must have listened to hundreds of hours of such lectures on cassette tapes in my Walkman during my first couple of years after my rabbit-hole experience. I did pick our present church because the pastor teaches closer to this type of teaching than any other church on our island.

I do like interacting with people, even though on Sunday mornings that interaction is very superficial. But I deeply crave honest, Christian friendship and fellowship in the same way as a man crossing the Sahara on his knees, craves water . . . where there is virtually none. Such true fellowship is indeed very rare and hard to find. Certainly it is not possible during a typical Sunday morning church service where a smile and a handshake is as far as the interaction can go. Maybe in a well-led Sunday school class there can be a little true fellowship.

But I am sure that many people honestly enjoy Sunday morning church service. However, I wonder how many go, and imagine that they enjoy it because they believe that this is what God wants them to do . . . going out of guilt or penitence. I’ve talked to many teenagers and this is a common feeling that they are willing to share when they are being very candid.

I can remember a children’s Christian music cassette tape that my wife use to play in our old VW Vanagan when we were traveling the country raising support for our mission. Denise bought the tape from the performers at a mission conference that we attended. One song on the tape really bugged me. The title and lyrics were “Everybody ought to go to Sunday school.” Over and over the chorus rang out, with the same words as the title. The only reason given for going to Sunday school was “ought.” Maybe the lyricist meant something different than guilt manipulation but I’m sure many kids took it that way. Are we not surprised when eighty percent leave the church when they are old enough to do so?

At this juncture I must bring up the issue of semantics when I talk about the Church. What I hope to discuss in this chapter is the vision I have of what the non-Dualistic Church would look like. But I want to avoid the word “church” because, again, it is a word loaded with a lot of connotations and many of then have nothing to do with the original Biblical intent.

The Geek word in the new testament, which is translated “church,” is spelled (in English) ecclesia or ekklesia. It is a description of a people group and not any kind of institution. It simply means “those called out for a purpose.” A modern example would be something like Congress or even the Army. It is where people from all walks of life come together for a common goal. It is really very simple. Over time the word “church” has come to mean a place, a service or an institution, anything but a people group. You can not “go to church” in the Biblical sense, any more than you can “go to family” because ecclesia was never a location or an event. So the real church is about the collection of Christian people not a service, institution and certainly not a building. So I will be referring to this group, most of the time, from a more neutral wording of “Christian society.” I will just use CS for short. But I don’t mean to downplay the immense importance of the CS in God’s plan. It is the CS that is the bride of Christ.

One influence of the Gnostics, which has had a continuing influence on American Christianity, is the personalization of the Christian faith. The Gnostics considered Christianity as a personal matter between you and your God. True Biblical Christianity is anything but that. In my attempts to point out the Dualistic influence of churches (with a small “c”) I am not attempting to devalue the CS.

If you go back and read the New Testament without wearing Dualistic glasses, you would see that the mandates for the CS form are very few if at all. There are historical examples of how they functioned in different areas. If you go back and study the CS in the Ante Pacem period (before the peace of Constantine in 312) like I spent a year doing, you will see that it took many shapes during that period. Some Christians met daily, some hardly met at all. Some had elders, some deacons or both. But with Dualistic glasses those descriptions have no earthly-historical meaning anymore, but must be spiritualized as absolute laws or mandates, and if they are not followed precisely, like Levitical law, then God will be very displeased. In the same way the snake handlers in Newport, Tennessee took the example of handling snakes and not getting bitten as a Biblical mandate.

One of the few mandates that I do find is in Hebrews chapter ten, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” So the opposite of “not meeting” isn’t simply meeting for the sake of meeting, but encouraging one another as the CS was meant to do. It is hard to encourage one another if we don’t know one another. It is hard to know one another when we live in a Christian society were we all pretend that we are much better than we really are and we don’t dare show a sign of weakness.

Good friends from every sort of Church denomination would argue with me until they turn blue in their faces about my oversimplification of the CS and about the great freedom of church form. Each friend promotes their own church form as the true Biblical structure.

We attempted to start a house church once. It was when I first had the sense that a truly non-Dualistic expression of the CS could happen. However I had a naive idealism that didn’t, yet, recognize the depth of the Fall of Adam. This was about half way through my personal journey and my thinking was not well developed yet. I thought I should find, or create the perfect church. While good Christian societies are possible, maybe even great ones, fallen people can’t produce perfect churches . . . but at the time I thought I could.

Although the fellowship was great in our group, and the teaching was better than I had seen in years, a few, well-meaning Christian friends were deeply troubled because we had taken our children “out of church.” The parents of one of my son’s friends said that he could not come to our house to play anymore because of this. They just couldn’t bring themselves to think outside the traditional church box. We weren’t doing it to avoid CS, but to have more of it.

We did eventually disband because we couldn’t sustain the group. The cockroaches of old and new sin within each family made it a group that could not reach critical mass. One family believed that we must following orthodox Jewish customs and laws in order to really please God. Another family thought that we should be hoarding food, guns and survival gear for the coming war with Bill Clinton, Janet Reno and the UN. So we obviously had to dissolve for irreconcilable differences. But these families were the only Christians in Marquette, Michigan at the time, who even dared to try a house church concept . . . but apparently, each for different reasons.

I do believe, if it had succeeded, that our children, in some ways, would be far better off today. Through their youth group experiences over the years, they have been exposed to unhealthy Christian-Dualistic thinking including a disrespect of their intellectual questions and a lot of emotional dishonestly. Young people are very good about recognizing emotional and intellectual dishonesty. It is intuitive to them. This is why the eighty percent of children, who grow up in Evangelical churches, do not stay in them. The American Evangelical response to this hemorrhaging of young people is to make youth groups more entertaining. More trips to the water parks. More trips to the ski hill and Christian concert venues. While at the same time, in my experience, they create a thicker and thicker wall between their pretend Christian utopia and reality. Kids are naturally drawn to reality like moths to a porch light. If they can stand up in youth group and say, “I’m not sure I believe in God anymore,” and feel not only accepted, but having a very honest (not a chain of superficial evangelical clichés) discussion, they might consider staying in that particular CS.

When I was sitting in the Mexican restaurant with my good friend Ken, he was sharing that in his opinion, how paramount it was that Christians went to the right church, which taught the perfect doctrine. After all, his church had just excommunicated another church over an issue that was too abstract to even discuss outside their own heads in spoken words. Strangely, when I returned home from that trip to Tennessee, I had an E-mail waiting from a good friend, Rob, in Michigan. He was sending me the name of a church of his particular Lutheran synod that was fifty miles from our house. He strongly suggested, “For the sake of your children” that we move our membership to that church. He was very worried about the proper use of the sacraments and, in his opinion; his church was the only one that did.

I now think, what starts out as good intentions of finding the right CS becomes entangled with the economics of self-worth. The thinking goes, “My church is the better than yours just like my basketball team is better.” Therefore, we feel better when we go to the “better church.” We get that warm, fuzzy feeling deep inside that we are going to the church God wants everyone to, but we happen to be good enough or smart of enough, unlike the millions of other Christians, to have found the only correct one.

I certainly don’t want to diminish the eminent importance of sound doctrine, the historical precedent of church form and structure. Doctrine is very important and form has its place. One of the best functioning church meetings I ever visited, when looking at the mandate to encourage one another, was a house church in Denver. I flew out and spent a week with them when I was contemplating organizing our own house-based church meeting. In many ways this Denver CS met my concept of the ideal. However, I started to notice some problems. At the end of the week, when I sat in on their elder’s meeting, it became obvious that they really didn’t care a lot about doctrine or form. After I kept asking doctrinal questions, one elder finally turned to me and said, “You just don’t get it do you. We couldn’t care less about what you believe, just as long as you love Jesus.” While functional wonderfully at the time, this CS was sitting on very dangerous ground. The tendency, unless you have a good doctrinal foundation, is that in time you will wander from Biblical truth.

I eventually gave up on my hope of finding the ideal CS and returned to the more traditional church. I’ve been somewhat of a misfit since. When the pieces started coming back together for me, post-rabbit hole experience, I vowed in my heart that I would never live in the veneer Christian world again. But it has been very tough going . . . and quite lonely.

For one thing, I vowed to refrain from constantly speaking in terms of the supernatural. For example saying, “My car wouldn’t start, I prayed and pumped the gas and twice and it was a miracle . . . it started! God did it!” Of course if it was clear that God decided to do things differently from working though His wonderful natural system, if He did step into the playground and give a piggy-back ride, I wouldn’t hesitate to boast about that. I mean if my car didn’t have an engine, but I prayed and it started and ran continuously (without gas) for years, I would call that a supernatural work of God.

I also decided that I would try my best to keep my cellar door, at least, ajar. I knew, because of the roaches in my own soul and the tempting lure of the economics of self-worth, that I would not have the courage to keep my cellar aired-out all the time. Unfortunately, you just can not live consistently that way.

But, within the walls of the traditional church, I didn’t give up on the hope of finding honest fellowship and good teaching. The closes thing I have been able to find to Biblical fellowship within the traditional church is the small group. But even small groups have been so influenced by Dualism; it is hard for people to be honest and open.

Speaking honestly within the traditional church is sometimes extremely difficult. When we first got back from Egypt, I wasn’t even sure I was still a Christian. I was suffering from clinical depression to the point that I was seriously considering suicide. I had a plan of hanging myself in our barn. In desperation I took my long walks at night, which had always been a special time of prayer for me. But on those lonely nights, the sky, the billions of brilliant stars seemed cold and empty. I remember begging the cold, dead universe . . . “God, if you are out there somewhere, please find me!” Was He hiding somewhere within the Large Magellanic Cloud, or playing hide and seek behind the Cat’s Eye Nebula or was He never there in the first place? I really didn’t know at that point.

I was also still very confused as I had barely started my journey to understand what ailed my faith. It was tempting to push those unattractive attributes deep into the cellar and slam the door closed and play the church game again . . . just so I could have friends. It is very hard to have good Christian friends when you are honest about where you are in life, angry, confused, depressed and doubtful.

After resigning our post in Egypt, I secured a job in Duluth, Minnesota. This position was in a large clinic with seven other medical providers. One of them, Norm, was on an extended leave at the time with the National Guard. Angela, a nurse practitioner told me, “Mike, you’ll really like Norm. He is a strong Christian man and father like yourself (making inferences based our missionary service and the fact we were expecting our fourth child). In fact, he won Father of the Year. He and his wife have two natural children and they adopted six special needs children. They are like the perfect family!”

I was looking forward to meeting Norm. He did return after a few weeks. He was a very confident, type A Christian who knew all the answers . . . at least the Evangelical cliché version of them. But he did not like questions, not any of them. He seemed repulsed by me every time I approached him honestly. When I said, “I’ve having some serious doubts right now,” he literally became angry but with a sarcastic dimpled smile, “Yeah, good for you . . . so you think you have the right to doubt God, but God never doubts you!” All his answers were bumper sticker material.

During this most difficult time of re-entry, as I was attempting to take my family back to church, I finally reached a point that I couldn’t stomach it any longer. We tried many churches, but it was the same facades and the same clichés in each one . . . something like a KFC franchise serving the same three-piece-original recipe box in Biloxi as Singapore. If anyone spoke to us, and it was usually with very good intentions, the conversation would go like this:

“Hi, are you folks new to town or just visiting?”

“We are new.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Uh . . . Egypt.”

Egypt! Were you in the military?”

“Uh . . . no. . . we were, uh, missionaries.”

“Missionaries! Praise God that must have been a blessing.”

“No, it was hell.”

At this point, the person would either, quickly make distance between me and them or give a cliché response, “You must not have trusted God, because God never fails.”

I was always amazed with such comments because I hadn’t said anything about “God failing.” I wasn’t trying to make any theological statement about God’s sovereignty. I was just being honest about how I felt in my emotions. However, the person, consistent with the Dualistic view, felt obligated to hastily make a connection of my state of mental health to some significance in the unseen realm. “You didn’t trust God,” was like a spear into my chest. It was frustrating and painful to spend years working so hard for something, giving up so much, and then being diagnoses on a whim by a complete stranger. I had not trusted God? Is this what this was all about? Hmm. When I had given up my high-paying job, lived for a year in a van with my two kids and pregnant wife, then we went alone to the huge city of Cairo . . . all because I thought that was what God had wanted me to do. But I hadn’t trusted Him correctly?

I think the lowest point came when we were visiting a very large evangelical church, whose ranks had been growing by leaps and bounds under the guidance of a charismatic pastor, named Paul. One Sunday morning I was sitting on a pew in the vestibule and Paul came in the door and had a seat next to me. He looked at me, in the eye, and smiled, “Hey Michael. How’s life treating you?”

Not recognizing that it was only a shallow greeting, I answered sincerely, “I’m very depressed right now.”

I felt like this was a fair statement because it was during the period that I was seriously being besieged by the choice to commit suicide or not—feeling so hopeless that suicide might be the only road out of the perpetual swamp, which I found myself in. I was, indeed, begging for help. So, I think I was being honest when I said I was depressed. The thin, tall pastor with the dark Hungarian hair just smiled . . . and did not speak another word to me.

In a few moments we were seated in the huge auditorium along with five hundred fellow churchmen and women. After a lively choir performance, Paul took the podium, looked out over his congregation and almost the first loud words that, literally, came from his mouth were, “I’m sick and tired of Christians telling me that they are (then using a very prissy voice) depressed. It makes me sick to my stomach! Do we serve a depressing God?”

“No!” came the cry from a few deacons in the front row.

I have never felt so alone and desperate as I did at that very moment. I knew that Paul, or maybe no one, cared a damn about me. Maybe they only cared about their ability to score religious points with other Christians. The inaudible answer screaming in my ear was, “Do it . . . hang yourself. It really is hopeless!” I think the most distressing thing at that time was realizing that this was the world I had been living in for fifteen years.

Before my fall down the rabbit hole, I would have reacted toward someone like me, the same way that Norm did or Paul. For a Christian to suffer or fail had to be their own, new sin. History in the seen world must have a spiritual meaning . . . or no meaning at all.

About that time I lost contact with Norm as he abruptly ran off, leaving his wife and eight children, with a nurse who was twenty years his younger. He had apparently been having an affair with her for some time. Maybe that was why he was so offended if I tried to open my own cellar door. He had some real monsters lurking down in his own. But he had thrown a nice braid rug over his trap door that led downward. But in the midst of my despair, eventually there came a glimmer of hope that went by the simple name of “Dave.”

Denise was doing every thing that she could to help me and she insisted that I not give up on the Church. We went to a new one, a Christian Missionary and Alliance church on Arrowhead Road in Duluth, but it could have been any church. It was the same thing all over again. Strangers were standing in the vestibule greeting us and asking who we were. When a newspaper man, Dave Peterson, asked me how it was being a missionary in Egypt . . . and I responded, “It was hell,” he didn’t bat an eye, but smiled softly. Putting his hand on my back, like a semi-man hug, he added, “Hey, I want to hear all the details. Can I bring the pastor and we meet at Burger King this afternoon?”

That afternoon, I sat with Dave and the pastor for three hours over a Whooper and fries as huge soft snowflakes tumbled out of the grey sky and onto windshields of the cars in the parking lot. Through the birch trees, which lined the highway, you could see the whitecaps of a tremulous Lake Superior, a few hundred yards away.

I had been back in the states for six months and Dave was the first person to ask about our experience . . . I mean sincerely asked. I didn’t hesitate to begin telling our story. I thought the saga had been pushed down, inside a can, so long and so hard, that if I took the lid off, it may not come out very easily, as if it had solidified. But it did come out, slowly at first, but then it began to flow out like hot honey, then hot oil. Hot oil gave away to a bust of boiling water, like an Old Faithful eruption.

Dave was a stocky man . . . about forty years old and the pastor, ironically also named David, was about twenty-eight, thin and five-foot seven at best. I will never forget stocky Dave’s face. He sat like a statue, in a good-listening way, with his chin set firmly on his two fists, resting on his elbows. After about forty-five minutes into the story, I saw the most amazing thing I had ever witnessed. It was like I just had ten years of therapy rolled into a nanosecond. What was it? It was simply a huge tear . . . a sincere tear . . . tumbling down Dave’s silent face and dripping off his cheek onto his fist.

Until that point, I assumed that Dave, like everyone else, wasn’t even listening to me. I guessed he was daydreaming . . . off fishing somewhere out beyond the whitecaps. With the sight of the tear, I froze in confusion, followed by a strange kind of delight or at least a relief. I became so choked up that couldn’t speak anymore, but I could cry. The dams burst in my own eyes and for the first time I began to sob uncontrollably until my French fries became a blur and soggy. It may have been the first time I had cried in fifteen years. Real men, especially Christian men don’t cry. I hadn’t cried at my friend Daniel’s funeral and how could I? After all, even his parents were so godly that they didn’t cry.

But that day, I finally had an ear and that’s all I had wanted. I didn’t want the “answer,” or a cliché or a Bible verse. I knew all the Bible verses. I didn’t want someone just listening to the first sentence out of my mouth then interrupting, trying to make meaning out it by connecting it to something in the unseen world . . . God teaching me a lesson, or being my fault because I had not been obedient. I didn’t want someone glancing at their watches within five seconds of the story.

I honestly can’t remember what happened after Dave’s tear and the tears that followed. It really didn’t matter. I don’t know what he or David said that day and maybe they said nothing at all. But I do know that the moment prior to that dinner at Burger King on Skyline drive in Duluth, Minnesota I was hopeless, so hopeless that I was certain that I would commit suicide before a few more weeks would past. Afterwards, sitting in the fast-food parking lot under a windshield covered in new, soft, fluffy snow, I knew that some day I would find God again, and I would be well. On that day, I also found the real Church once more.

Years later, when I was over the depression, my faith was restored and I had moved past the finding the perfect CS phase, we were back with the traditional church. However, I was still determined to make the traditional church a better CS. I became the director of small groups. My own small group, six or seven families meeting together in our home for five years, became one of the best expressions of CS I had seen since my early days of college.

But even within that context it was still very hard to remain transparent and honest. As our group had jelled, I came up with the idea of moving to the next level. The women had taken two weekend retreats together and it was a great success so I thought that I could reproduce the experience with the men. Women are naturally more open to sharing their hearts because, frankly, men are far more insecure when it comes to the economics of self-worth.

I rented a remote national forest cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was so far out in the woods that you had to drive on snow-covered gravel roads for an hour then ski in carrying all your supplies in back packs or on sleds behind you. When the seven of us men assembled, we had a blast. We went snow shoeing, ice fishing and skiing. That night, we settled down by the wood stove.

The cabin was very rustic, simple logs on a concrete slab. It had one large bunk room and a kitchen with a wood stove area. There was no running water but a pit toilet out back whose seat hovered around zero degrees all winter. There was a real danger of your buttocks sticking to it if they were damp so you had to tuck pieces of Styrofoam under you before sitting down. With the outside temperatures dipping below zero, it was a struggle, even with a roaring fire, to keep the interior of the cabin above forty degrees.

But it seemed like the perfect ending to the perfect day. With just a candle or two burning, most of our light came from the flicker of the open wood stove. We pulled up chairs in a semi-circle around the warm fire with our mugs of coffee or hot chocolate.

Looking around the semi-circle, the glow of the fire reflected off the faces of each of my buddies, with their torsos blending into the shadowy background. We started off telling a few funny stories, and then I decided to take a chance and to move the fellowship to a deeper level.

I looked around and asked, “So . . . what’s really happening in your lives?”

I knew from Denise’s report that during the women’s retreat, some opened up about personal struggles such as significant issues within their marriages. This is what I wanted to accomplish, a gentle opening of the cellar doors . . . not to be nosey, but to give us a chance to live more honestly and help one other slay our dragons.

Time passed and no one shared. Then I noticed that the bold, fire-reflecting, faces seemed to be pulling backwards . . . like the heads of tortoises into their shells. I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to be the one to share . . . so was everyone else. The longer I gave it, the deeper the heads retreated. Soon there were only slits in their shells through which you could only make out the reflection of yellow, beady eyes.

I took a deep breath, opened my own cellar door and went spelunking. I took my flash light to the darkest corner that I could find . . . and there stood a Basilisk. I put a collar round his neck and led him to the door and into the light of the flickering fire for heart-wrenching show-n-tell.

“Here’s something that I’m struggling with.” I took another deep breath. “Once a year I have to go to continuing medical education meetings for a week. Now days, it seems like every hotel has” . . . another sigh . . . “adult movies on their TV. As soon as you turn on the set, the beginning menu starts enticing you to buy a movie. Being alone in the room for a week, the struggle is immense. I figured out that I could go down to the lobby and tell them to turn off the adult channels . . . but . . . like an alluring ghost, the next morning they would reappear. I hated those weeks of struggle to avoid them . . . and having watched one.”

I looked around and the shells were close so tight, that no eyes were still visible.

“Guys, I need your help. I need someone to hold me accountable.”

Still no response, so I had to ask, “Doesn’t anyone else struggle with this?”

Some of the tortoises had their shells clamped tight, but I could make out the eyes of my friend Brad, directly across from me. His shell slowly opened so I gave him more time.

“Well,” Brad finally said, “I have the same problem.” Then he sipped his coffee and looked down at his feet as many other shells started to pop open. Brad opened his mouth to continue . . . but then came a loud sigh from beside me. I hadn’t notice but Charles, had his head out all along and now his neck was really sticking out.

“This is disgusting!” He exclaimed. “How could a godly man even be tempted with this filth? This conversation is becoming unedifying.”

I then noticed that as soon as I had started sharing, Charles had started thumbing through his Bible. Now he held several places with his fingers and he started to read. “Job said in Job 31:1 that he had made a covenant with his heart to not look lustfully at a girl. Those movies are all about lust . . .”

Charles continued on for fifteen minutes with a mini sermon with multiple verses about the evils of sexual sin, as I watched the tortoises pull in their heads and close their shells. Brad not only retracted his head but his legs . . . and his tail.

Maybe the concept of lusting never crossed Charles’ mind anymore now that he was a “godly man” . . . but again, Norm would have reacted the same way. Norm could have given the same mini sermon . . . while the night before he had slept with his little nurse girlfriend. But how would the CS be better served? Having the cellar doors open or nailed closed with stacks of Bibles on top holding it down? The closed-cellar churches certainly look a lot better, nice and clean and organized. The open-cellar churches can get pretty messy.

I’m not talking about a situation where we speak boldly and constantly about our most intimate sins. I have seen that happen before, though rarely. Sometimes we, in order to get attention, can be a constant public confessor. In that case, trying to look like the humble sincere Christian, we seek to improve our Christian self-esteem. That is not what I’m talking about.

But, the true CS must be a very safe place. We are not called out from the world because we are better or live better or have more value, but because our miserable sin, in God’s eyes, has been erased once and for all. If we really believed that, then walking into any church setting would give us the incredible safe feeling of re-entering our mother’s womb. We would sense God’s total acceptance as exhibited by other Christians.

Instead, the church setting can be one of the scariest places on earth. I deal with a lot of patients with pseudo-seizures, anxiety disorders and panic attacks. One of the most common places for panic attacks to occur is in the middle of church services. Most people feel the least accepted in the middle of church service. I know that growing up it was a tremendous act each Sunday morning putting on our best church clothes and faces.

But the church should be a real sanctuary from critical judgment. It should be the first place that people think of to run to when they are in a crisis, even if that crisis is a mental health problem or a direct result of their new, personal sin. After coming to this place, I went back and read the Gospels again. I noticed how Jesus made sinners, with open cellar doors, feel compared to the sinners who had their cellar doors nailed shut (white-washed walls in other words).

A great CS is a place that when, even a mature Christian walks up to you and says “I’m depressed,” or “I’m in the midst of an affair,” or “I’m molesting my children” or “I hate my spouse,” that we don’t look at them with horror on our faces and run away, throwing verses over our shoulders at them as we are on our way out the door . . . but we reach out with a smile and a hug and say, “I want to hear all about it. Let’s meet at Burger King today.” This would be a genuine smile, not happy about the sin or the pain of course, but happy that they have opened their cellars and have given you the honor of entering their Cellars with them, two friends side by side, swords in each hand, to fight the terrible dragons, like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

When we, as Christians, don’t recognize how many cockroaches still inhabit our own souls, we are very vulnerable to allowing our psychological economics of self-worth be expressed as godliness. In 1976, while I was an undergraduate student and while I was still new to the faith, I became a self-proclaimed ambassador of the Holy Spirit. I actually thought that I would spend that year stamping out sin wherever I found it. This included in my own life.

To address my own sin, I had a large chart on my dorm room wall where I tracked my days without sin. The behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner had a daughter, Susan, who became an expert in tracking human behavior. I used one of her charts to track my sin. Yeah, it was pathetic. But worse than that, I was on the constant lookout for sin in others. If I heard someone say an angry word, I would immediately call them on it. If someone said “darn” I would point out that it was a substitute for “damn” and therefore equally sinful. If someone told a story, I would go over the facts to make sure they were not lying. Of course, stories about supernatural works of God were the exception and were even points in the positive column. I would never question such miracles because doing so was equated with questioning God. I didn’t make a lot of new friends that year.

After my rabbit hole experience, I sometimes noticed the same attitude in other Christians and I find it most unappealing. I’m perplexed why no one killed me back in my undergraduate days.

When we use leverage, critically evaluating others in order to boost our own feelings of self-worth, we must add measurements. God only gave us a few guidelines for living well. It is hard to keep score with only a handful of basic rules, so we create more and more, in order to create a graded system for establishing our own self-worth and for comparing ourselves favorably to others. This is the psychological basis for legalism.

During our wonderful five year small group in Michigan I pressed hard against legalism, because I don’t think it’s healthy. One night we had a visitor to our small group. Aaron was an Air Force pilot, somewhat from the same cocky mold as the Tom Cruse character in Top Gun. During a time of preparation for prayer, Aaron shared how upset he was that a Christian neighbor on the Air Force base had “ruined his testimony.” He explained that this neighbor decided to clean up his cul-de-sac. He spent a Saturday afternoon picking up trash and then bundled it and put it on the curb in front of his house. Apparently he had several beer boxes on his trash. Aaron was driving by and saw the beer cases and went in to confront his fellow Christian. That’s when he explained why they were there . . . but it still left Aaron very upset.

Being polite toward our new visitor, I didn’t say anything. In a moment, Barb began to share. She had been a long time member of our small group . . . and like me, tended to fall off the shame side of the narrow path. She was always very hard on herself, especially when it came to her weight. She may have been forty-five pounds above her ideal weight, according to Hollywood, so she certainly wasn’t morbidly obese. She shared that night, almost in tears, “I failed God this week. I had a sign on my refrigerator door not to eat a piece of Jason’s (her son’s) birthday cake, but in a moment of weakness I did.”

I honestly couldn’t take it anymore . . . first with Aaron’s rules about beer boxes and now Barb’s self-imposed condemnation for eating a piece of birthday cake. I spoke up with some emotion, “For Heaven’s sake . . . where does God tell us not to eat birthday cake?”

Aaron, with his two percent body fat frame chimed in, “God hates gluttony!”

“Gluttony . . . is eating one piece of birthday cake, your own son’s birthday cake, gluttony? Is having a beer box, even if they were your own, on your curb the same as being drunk? You know Christ hated legalism as much as any sin.”

Aaron seemed puzzled by my comment then added, “You talk like you think legalism is something bad. We need to code to prove our obedience and love for Jesus and to prove that we are different from the world!”

But are non-Christians more attracted to the CS if the CS has more and more mores for separating themselves from non CS members? I think not. Lastly I want to look at this last area of how thinking non-Dualistically would have an effect on the way in which we relate to the non-Christian world, and our efforts to bringing them into the Kingdom of God.

After my rabbit hole experience and recovery, I re-entered the Church as a changed man, often feeling like I had been transported from a distant planet, or at least a different culture on our own planet. I call it a deformed to reformed experience. My old system of thinking was shattered or deformed and a new or reformed thinking took its place. It has been a constant struggle for me to fit in with American Evangelicals while holding tightly to my ideals, my self-imposed moratorium on spiritual dishonesty. I occasionally do run into others, who—like me—have had some type of rabbit hole experience that has changed their whole world. I’ve met women whose “godly” husbands ran off with the church secretary. I’ve met people whose children were violently killed and the Evangelical clichés didn’t resolve anything for them. Sometimes they take the wide path of becoming silent zombies, not expressing what they think or the confusion that still reigns in their inward kingdom. It is only in brief moments of very private conversation do I sense this harmony between us.

But more unique than my story, or the stories of the other deformed—then—reformed people, are these unique Church creatures whom have never lived in the fantasy land above the rabbit hole. I’m not sure how they did it, but they never bought into the American Evangelical subculture. They, like the lone trailer still standing after a tornado, never seemed to be influenced by the Dualism that has saturated the Church for two thousand years. I call these people the “Spared Ones.” You find Spared Ones in almost every church. Even in my little Bible belt church, there were some women and a couple of men who were like this.

The Spared Ones have no hesitation about speaking truth, even when it goes totally contrary to the mainstream Christian thinking, or makes them look very unspiritual. Throughout Church history, there must have been these refreshing saints. By their nature, being against the flow of Church history, they were usually ignored at best.

One of them, in my humble opinion, is the nineteenth century Scottish novelist George MacDonald. I wish I could say that I’ve read all his works. I’ve only read a few but Denise has read them all. C.S. Lewis has said that he never wrote a book without quoting MacDonald. He seems to have this rawness about him. Knowing that he did endure personal suffering, he could have been the deformed-reformed person rather than the natural Raw Christian. Maybe there was a time in his early life when he too conformed to Evangelical Dualism and its cultural mores. I honestly don’t know.

However, the true Raw Christian will tell you if they are having a bad day. They will not pretend that all events were orchestrated by God to teach someone, somewhere patience. They do not despise the cosmos or their own flesh, but deeply appreciate God’s creativity and glory in every thing He’s made . . . including the “nasty people” who are not Christians. These Raw Christians, something like Christ himself, are not offensive to non-Christians, but are attractive to them. Both of these groups give me great hope.

25 comments:

adventuresinmercy said...

Truly wonderful to read. Thank you.

Anna A said...

Thank you very much.

I tend to read here, but not comment much, out of respect for your wounds, partly because I have a few myself. Even from similar situations.

I just wish that Cleveland and Puget Sound were closer.

Abby said...

I think your words are going to have a major impact on me. It's not something that I haven't known in my heart, but what you've shared has brought some understanding to what I've been feeling lately.

I'm sorry that you had a bad experience in Egypt. Egypt is on my own heart, my husband is from there and his family lives there still. (We're actually going there tomorrow on vacation!)

Our experience is what it is. No one can take that from us, or tell us that our experience was "wrong" like they can tell us our theology is "wrong." I hope to read more!

MJ said...

Thank you. I just re-read and still am finding typos. Yeah, I think it is a common experience.

Abby, I must add a caveat in case you have not read here before. My bad experience in Egypt was due to a manipulative Christian leader (living in Cyprus and sending us orders) . . . and my own messed up thinking. The Egyptian people were wonderful . . . and kept us alive physically and emotionally (even our Muslim Christian neighbors) while our Christian organization treated us like dung.

Often (I know that you are not saying this) when I tell people we had a bad experience, they assume that it was culture shock, or being in such an evil (Muslim) country. No that wasn't it at all.

We lived near Medan Hegaz in MRS GIDEEDA (sorry I can write in Arabic script but I'm not very good in writing Arabic in English letters).

Ana drst illuga ilarabee and ilgameeat amereekia bilkoreea . . .doesn't look right, but I could write in in Arabic script.

I was back there two years ago . . . Cairo is still very crowded (more so)but certainly has more modern things like grocery stores.

Abby said...

MJ--
Thanks for that. I wasn't worried. :-) My father in law was a pastor for many years, and still runs a ministry.
I know how things can be, at least from his stories, even though I have not been there to experience it yet.

I think the Egyptian people are wonderful, I've met many here, well, I married one! I still don't speak much Arabic, though. My husband is my translator...

I don't want to take away from any discussion on this post, though. I just wanted to say that I kind of perused some more of your blog after reading this, clicked over from Molly's. The whole idea of monism is not new to me, but the words are, and I think that it's something I've been trying to understand for a little while now. I appreciate when the Holy Spirit urges us to read things we wouldn't always click on so that we can read some good truth.

When I read your sidebar, I thought "That's IT!" (As in: Eureka!) As much as I can the next few weeks, I am going to read on this.

Brian said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm looking forward to reading through your manuscript. Last time you posted it I just didn't have time to read the whole thing. This time I hope to be able to go through it.

I think in addition to the "rabbit-hole" people and the "spared ones" you also have those who are on a slower, less dramatic path through the looking glass. These are people who try to to be honest with themselves, with God, with Scripture, etc and so have these little "a-ha" moments along the way. So 5 years down the road they look back and suddenly realize where they have come from and where they are now. Then they have to decide what to do because they are at odds with the majority of Christians around them.

Side note - I had to type in "devillya" for the word verification. Perhaps God is trying to tell me something about this site... ;)

Angela said...

Michael! Thank you for this masterpiece. I am in the "rabbit hole" as we speak, and have found myself questioning absolutely everything I believe. I don't know whether I am a Christian or an agnostic. Your story has given me hope. I thought I was a "goner," but your story has encouraged me that maybe, I, too, will reemerge from this place a "new creation."

Many blessings to you. Your voice is needed.

E said...

Came here via Molly in Alaska. Thanks for writing this!

FYI - You wrote:

What was it? It was simply a huge crocodile tear . . . a sincere tear . . . rolling down Dave’s silent face.

"Crocodile tears" are by definition false/insincere tears, so I don't think you should say that his "sincere tear" was a "crocodile tear." It does not mean a large tear. From Wikipedia: The term Crocodile tears refers to a false or insincere display of emotion. The expression comes from an ancient anecdote that crocodiles weep in order to lure their prey, or that they cry for the victims they are eating. They are fake tears.

MJ said...

Hi Brain, Yeah I think you're right about the ones that go through this step by step rather than one near-fatal blow. Even for me, it was more of the "last straw" than one event that changed everything.

MJ said...

Angela, this is always hope. I say in other places in the manuscript that the rabbit hole (or in wonderland) you are more in touch with reality than in the Victorian world above it. Down below (or behind the looking glass) it looks crazy (thinking of the Mad Hatter's tea party) but that is reality. It is assuming that things are always perfect is the lie.

MJ said...

E, You are right about the crocodile tears and I want to change that. In my childhood, the term took on a different meaning . . . just huge tears. When little kids cry and huge tears roll down their face (in my neck of the woods . . . East Tennessee) they were always called crocodile tears meaning the amount and size.

So thanks for pointing that out. Dave's tears were anything but crocodile tears (by the classic meaning).

Angela said...

I just read this fantastic article about dualism and it reminded me a lot of what you talk about here. Thought you all might enjoy it as well.

http://www.mckenziestudycenter.org/philosophy/articles/dualism.html

Tsh said...

I was truly blessed by reading your words (came here from Molly's blog). As a worker overseas right now, you had me nodding along in agreement at so many parts.

Thank you for taking the time to write this, and so well.

Anonymous said...

*jaw drops*

Someone is speaking my language. Someone else understands my frustrations with CS. Someone else knows that helplessness.

I've said to myself many times that if the church actually knew how to handle doubt and pain properly, so many of us would not have our faith fall apart. Of course, if I said that to anyone else in CS, they'd hand my head back to me.

Thank you.

MJ said...

Angela, I hope you have someone like my encounter with Dave . . . someone who really, really listens.

Thanks for reading it.

MJ said...

Tsh, I had to laugh because I followed you link to your blog (trying to see where you are working overseas . . .never figured it out) but I had just come in from hanging out clothes on the line. My wife is in Kenya for the month of July so I'm trying to do my chores and hers.

Although we've hung clothes on the line for years, I still haven't figured out the best way to hang up my work dress slacks so I can keep the wrinkles down.

Thank you for taking the very long time to read it.

MJ said...

Anonymous, I think there is a lot of us in the same boat. I would bet all around me are people who have been though something like this, but most choose to bury it, or just go away. I hope that you can find others around you who you can talk to and relate you on a very honest level.

Lori said...

Wonderful post. Thank you so much for writing.

I work with teens, and I am greatly convinced that nothing is more dangerous for our young people than teaching them by our actions that the Truth is too cowardly to handle the big questions of life.

I tell my students that they are free to question everything. If what they believe IS the Truth, it will hold up to their scrutiny. Why believe something you are afraid to challenge?

I have tried to live my life as a teacher with openness and resist the temptation to wear the mask. Of course, there are some limits -- I don't dump adult problems/emotions on the shoulders of adolescents. But I encourage them to dump theirs on MY shoulders ... and I try very hard to listen far more than I talk (because so often, we don't really "talk." We just give advice).

Grace is an incredible thing. God is "parenting" you just as He parents all of us -- young and old. We rest in His hands, whether our faith is in shattered pieces or something that feels "strong" to us. I just wish more Christians were willing to acknowledge they don't have all the answers -- or any of them.

Blessings on you as you walk the path!

Peace
Lori

MJ said...

Lori, it sounds like your youth group kids are really lucky to have this openness. Do you have any parents or elders that oppose you?

Anders said...

You write:
The Greek word in the new testament, which is translated “church,” is spelled (in English) ecclesia or ekklesia."

I recommend you and the reader of this post to do an extensive research of NT and Pauls doctrines (and learn what the followers of Ribi Yehoshua – the Netzarim - said about Paul; see the below website) to find about its origin and the origin of the Church.

Read more here:
www.netzarim.co.il


Anders Branderud
Geir Tzedeq, Netzarim

Anonymous said...

"But I deeply crave honest, Christian friendship and fellowship in the same way as a man crossing the Sahara on his knees, craves water . . . where there is virtually none."

The words above really speak to what I have experienced as an adult. I thought it was me. Maybe I turn people off. Mother told me that everyone would not like me. I have accepted what my mother taught me. I find that the churches my wife and I have attended, we are all very friendly to one another. We would have fellowship lunch after church, but it's hard to get to know someone or "make the rounds" in an hour. Most people don't have time to have a meal after service on Sunday. They have other things to do.

I look forward to reading more from your blog.

Peace

MJ said...

I know. As much as I crave fellowship, I'm one of those people who are often too busy to have a spontaneous lunch. This is one of the reasons that I so admire Dave Peterson . . . who dropped everything to take me to Burger King.

Tracy said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I have doubts so often and I'm never very sure where to go with them!

HotRod44 said...

My daughter sent this link to me almost 2 years ago and I just got around to devouring it. I am entering my 3rd year in my own rabbit hole. This was very encouraging to me. I love Jesus, just not real fond of his "Church" (the institution) after a lifetime of always being there "when the doors were open" (my father's words). At 58 years old, I miss the church building not at all. I do miss the fellowship as does my wife. Anywho, thanks for sharing this even if it did take me two years to read it. ;-)

jmj said...

Well, I just hope you know you are not alone.