Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The End Game

(The painting is titled "End-Game")

Days of confusion melted into months of apathy. Tom met with Luke only once. The awkwardness was insurmountable from both directions and they just never attempted to connect again. At first Tom was under an illusion that maybe he could jump through a few hoops and life could be restored to normalcy . . . but it never happened. Sandy kept referring to his state as depression or even oppression but Tom felt it was neither. It was a penetrating and suffocating numbness.

Tom slowly drifted back from his pew near the front of the sanctuary to the middle, to the back row and finally started missing church altogether. Sandy was deeply concerned about his turning away from the Lord. But she thought the disagreement with Pete was just a symptom of his falling away, not the cause there of. But as a consolation to her, Tom learned to smile well. Like a hard shell around a soft, melted chocolate, his smiles protected his toxic numbness. Sandy loved tranquility and smiles. The conflict with Pete, in her eyes was over and that’s all that really mattered.

Tom would still visit Son Bucks with his sons before the service on Sunday mornings. Rarely anyone spoke to him. The word was quickly leaked that Tom was under church discipline, however, he couldn't talk about it to set the record straight. He had received a letter from Pete, the final communiqué.

Dear Tom,

The board of elders has met and we exhort you with one voice to abstain from talking about your situation with anyone. For the sake of the precious blood of Jesus and His Church, whom he loves and for which he died, please remain silent. To speak about the private matters of the discipline of this board will be sin against this elder board and this church.

Sincerely, and in the powerful love of Christ,

Pastor Pete

So Tom didn't speak. However, various rumors floated through the congregation. One rumor was that Tom had embezzled offering money. The elders did take turns counting the money and during Tom’s month someone noticed that it was a very low month for offerings. But if the congregation had known the real truth, the vast majority would have sided with Tom. They weren't bad people but uninformed and confused by the silence. Silence is a wonderful tool in the hands of a perpetrator . . . silence, smiling and tranquility.

It wasn't as if Tom hadn’t contemplated going public with his complaint. There was one congregational meeting in October. Tom came and watched. He came so close to standing and speaking but he knew that Pete would out-gun him. Pete was a very spiritual man and would be listened to with a passionate ear. To fight it harder would tear the church apart and after all of that, Pete would still prevail and Tom knew he would have gained nothing.

As Tom drifted in slow motion from the front to the middle and to the rear, the church also drifted from Pete vision to Pete vision. The America’s Heartland Revival mantra became a call to increase the size of the church. A well-paid Christian Church-growth consulting group came in and looked over their situation. They determined that since 75% of the pews are taken and 65% of the parking lot used up, then the church would stop growing. So they had one choice . . . to build. An architectural drawing of a 5,000 seat auditorium was hung in the vestibule. It was expandable to 10 K. The Christian consulting company also built new churches.

Pete also got a vision of this church taking the gospel to the world and started an aggressive missions agenda. A tithing program kicked in where each family met with the church’s financial/spiritual adviser. After all, not tithing was a sin issue not a budget issue. Sandy signed the tithe pledge card.

Then Tom fell off the back pew into outer space. It was a place where there was no grid or gravitational orientation. No north or south. He had gone to church his entire life so he was in a whole new, unexplored world without steps or handles or tug of the campus needle.

The habit soon became for Tom to drop Sandy and the boys off at church and he would drive down to the coffee shop to wait for them. The boys always begged to go with him but Sandy said absolutely not.

At the coffee shop, Tom became immersed in a childhood obsession . . . Science Fiction. He started reading the old classics at first, mostly penned by Jules Verne. It was his escape from the strange and unexplainable to the strange but explained.

One Sunday morning he was seated in a soft over-stuffed leather chair deeply entrenched in a trip to the moon when a familiar voice asked, “May I join you?”

Tom looked up. To his surprise it was Jeremy standing with familiar face which was donning a new beard and holding a cup of frothy cappuccino. “Sure! What are you doing here?”

“I usually come here before church and today in the stead. I noticed that you hadn’t been at church lately and I think about you all the time.”

“You do?”

“Sure I do. I saw how that son of a bitch railroaded you out of the church because you were gravel in the path of his steamroller.”

Tom felt very uneasy talking about the situation. “Uh . . . I don’t know if I would say that.”

“Hey, I walked the plank just like you did . . . with a sword in my back. As they say, scripture is the sword of the Lord.”

“Really? You walked?”

“You haven’t see me preach in a while have you?”

“I hadn't really noticed to tell you the truth. I was coming and going . . . but not noticing anything. I know I hadn't seen you around church as much as before.”

Jeremy takes a seat and opens up his laptop. He takes a drink of his coffee and milk foam clings to his beard. “Can I tell you my story?”

“Sure Jeremy.” Tom folds down the corner of his book’s page and lays it on the table. He puts his hands behind his head and sinks down in the chair with full eye contact like he is ready to listen.”

“Well, the pastor spoiled a trip that Ann and I had to the Caribbean . . . did you know about that?”

“Not really,” Tom said shaking his head to the negative.

“Well he did. That really made Ann very angry. She was never into the church game. At point she wanted me to leave. So, I started looking. It becomes a real catch 22 for a youth pastor. I couldn’t look for a new job with Pete’s blessing. I know if I told him I was leaving, it would have to be on his terms. But you can’t get a job in an evangelical church without your present pastor’s blessing. It is part of the scheme of authority. The potential employer church would want your senior pastor’s blessing even if he were an asshole. They don’t believe in the asshole paradigm. “ Jeremy chuckles.

Tom smiles with a genuine smile.

“So, I started looking for a position with a more, what Pete would say, liberal church. I really needed a job because, we just found out that Ann is pregnant and we need insurance. I think Pete saw the writing on the wall and like I said, if I left he wanted me to be fired rather than walking away.” Jeremy takes another sip of his coffee and the foam drips from his chin and he wipes it off with his sleeve.

“So what happened?”

“Pete started to look into my computer at night. He figured out my password to get on, I’m not sure how. He was looking to see if I was looking for a new job.”

“Did he find out you were?”

“Yeah, he did . . . and more. You see, he studied my browsing history every night for weeks and one night he found out that I had visited a bad site.”

Tom looks confused, “You mean another church’s site?”

Jeremy laughs. “I wish. No . . . to be honest, a naked women site. It isn’t something I’m proud of. I think I had only visited one of those sites once or twice in my life. It was stupid, but I was checking BBC for news of back home . . . you know, Kenya. Then an ad for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition popped up. I guess you can say I was intrigued . . . or it caught my fancy if you know what I mean. Well, one thing led to another and I was on a nude site. The whole episode lasted about 15 minutes. I felt terrible about it. I confessed it to God and asked for forgiveness. However, this was pure gold to Pete. The next thing I know is that he hauls my ass in front of the whole elder’s board. It was terrible. They came up with a complicated plan to punish me. Pete declared that I have a porn addiction, which I do not, and that this has to be taken very seriously. He made it out that it was destroying my marriage and it was Satan’s foothold in the church because I had opened the door to the power of filth coming right into the church itself. He blamed all the church’s failings on the power of Satan being released by my PC, due to my bad behavior. I had a feeling I was listening to one of the Ghost Buster dudes.”

Tom smiled. “Did he tell Ann?”

“Oh, I told Ann. I told her as soon as Pete knew because I knew he would. Ann laughed about it. At worst she thought it was a little juvenile. But Ann is from a different, you might say, more normal world.”

Tom asked, “So what happened next?”

“Of course I was removed from ministry. My computer was taken away. I was required to only minister to the young men of the church. Now that was awkward. Can you imagine how hard it was for me to invite boys only to functions and then have Ann do things with the girls. Pete tried his best to paint me as a pervert or pedophile and destroy me. It became unbearable. I had a 90 day paid leave until I had finished intense counseling. My pay check just ended. I’ve about given up on finding a church to minister in. I’m sure Pete will tell them I’m a pervert.”

“So Jeremy, what on earth are you going to do?”

“Ann never liked the idea of me being a youth pastor. She wants me to go back to school and get my teaching certificate. I’m seriously thinking about it.”

“I’m so sorry Jeremy.”

“Oh, don’t be. I think you are who we need to worry about. You see Tom, I learned a long time ago that church is a game. Growing up as a missionary kid you really are thrown in the middle of the game. But I also learned early on not to mix God up with the game. He is there. He is good and He doesn't have a game piece. So for me, playing the church game and relating to God never got mixed up together.”

“Really. I've never looked at it that way. I feel sleazy like God is very disappointed in me. I know that Sandy is.”

“Sandy is a muthalleen.”

“A what?”

Jeremy smiles and shakes his head. “Well it is a long story. But a muthalleen is a word used in the Kenyan bush for people who believe in shadows. I think its root is in Arabic. It must have been passed down from Sudan and Ethiopia.”

“Shadows? I’m not sure I follow.”

“In the Riff Valley bush, up until present times, there was no TV or other entertainment so story telling was key. They would build a big campfire and sit and tell stories. Then sometimes, like a crude movie, they would stoke the fire up, the people would gather to one side and face away from the fire. The actors would be behind the people, you know, between them and the fire. So the actors would cast shadows of giants out in the distance. That was the movie, the giant, 15 foot tall, shadows fighting and dancing. But a few of the people would believe that the shadows of the giants were real. So they called these superstitious people, the muthalleen.”

“I’m still not sure I follow.”

“People like Pete and Sandy are muthalleen. They believe in the myth of the giants. From what I've heard you say, Sandy believes her folks were spiritual giants and she wishes you were. I bet they were normal messed up people like all of us, but who projected these giant shadows. Pete tries his best to cast giant shadows and he even believes that they are real . . . but he is broken like all of us. He has poor Angie under his thumb. Ann wants to kidnap her and take her away to a safe place where she can bloom.” Jeremy refocuses on his cappuccino and finishes it off while Tom is reflective.

Finally Tom mumbles, “muthalleen?”

Jeremy looks up from his laptop and says, "Did you ever hear of Imonk?"


footnote: Once again I apologize for any typos. I typed fast and didn't have time to proof-read yet. Feel free to point them out to me. I'm also sorry this story became so long and I hope it wasn't a negative thing.


kg said...

the story was not at all too long. It was gripping, and there is truth in it. Sadly.

shallowfrozenwater said...

this story was not too long at all, i truly enjoyed the journey. i do believe i'll start using the word muthaleen more often now, it truly fits much of the Western Church culture.
thanks for the journey.

trevor said...

Good work, Michael. It reads more like a screenplay than a short story, I think. Now you just need to find a filmmaker and a production budget...

Anonymous said...

"Did you ever hear of IMonk?"


But haven't I read this story before? Did you adapt it from a real life situation of last year? I couldn't quite find it on your blog.

jmj said...

The story was from a collection of a few personal experiences and mostly from those of friends and others I've heard about. Virtually each piece is true, but not all in the same context.

My personal experience last year was simply me wanting to leave an Evangelical church because I was on a different page. There was no exit without it getting ugly and it did.

Eagle said...

Sad...sad...sad....I've seen a lot and can see some of that happening or I've heard of similar stories.

Good series MJ

keo said...

The scary thing about the story was how many bells it rang, how easily one can imagine every detail.

The sad thing was that Tom apparently had no genuine friends at his own church -- including his wife. Years of church service without any real relationship. Very sad.

Johan said...

A very haunting and sad story, from the beginning to the end. Definitely gives some insight in spiritual abuse. Makes me sad - is there a way to escape this in the institutions?
To me Jeremy and Tom meeting in Starbucks and opening up to each other in a honest way is what church is about - the honest community of broken people, believing good news.


hippimama said...

mj, I think you did a great job in illustrating how subtle and protean spiritual abuse often is. I have to say I found this very hard to read -- even though my own experience of spiritual abuse was thankfully short lived (just a few years in duration before I got the hell out and joined the Episcopal church -- best move I ever made).

Anna A said...

Very, very good. I can identify a whole lot with Tom, because of my shock and silence when evil comes from church leaders. I was raised that good girls and women don't make waves, etc.

I am saddened because I see something similar playing out in real life in another area of the country and another blog. True items: anonymous blogger outed by a cop on the discipline committee who used his authority to get the info. Blogger's wife being charged with trespassing on church property because she wanted to see her children's musical.

I can appreciate the loneliness inside a church. I learned a long time ago,to have zero expectations because I can't be disappointed that way.

But, I've found friends, both tangible and electronic and I count myself blessed.

Brendan said...

You should enable the "mobile template" found on the blogger settings tab under "email and mobile". It will make your blog and your stories easier to read on mobile devices.

Anonymous said...

"But if the congregation had known the real truth, the vast majority would have sided with Tom."

Too true. My heart goes out to all the Toms and Jeremys out there. And, really, to all the Petes and Sandys (I was one of them once, on a smaller scale. Maye in some ways I still am.).

Wonderful novella, TCM.