Monday, February 10, 2014

Why I Still Go to Church, Even After It Hurt Me

Not long after my ex-wife first intimated her struggle to want to leave, I did exactly what my church had always told its members to do, and I got them involved.  They walked with her and I through the process of trying to keep her from leaving.  It was a gut wrenching process where I laid my soul bare before men who, for the most part, were little more than strangers to me, men I’d said hi to, shaken hands with, and had seen preaching, praying, or giving announcements.  They knew my face and name and little else.  I gave these men my trust, confessing my every sin.  They learned my deepest darkest secrets.  It was humiliating beyond words, but I did it because I wanted to do whatever I could to keep her from leaving, to love her as she wanted.  Even though the church is a mega church in Dallas, they have a plethora of pastors, and were great about infusing themselves into the situation.  They did not overlook me simply because they are huge.  It moved me.

Time passed.

She left.

From the moment I called them and told them she left, everything changed.  Their sweetness shifted to frustration with me.  I was devastated, a wreck.  A decade plus of depression followed swiftly by divorce had ravaged my heart and soul.  Nowhere to live, and my heart shattered, I moved to Brownwood to be with my family.  I found a deep comfort and peace in the love of my parents.  There, their daily affection and encouragement healed me in a way that was miraculous.  God brought me to a group of people through Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood that were heart healing and loving to me.  Pastor Tim will go down as one of the most influential people in my life for the time he took to meet and encourage me.  

During this time of healing my greatest fear wasn’t her, what she might do next, it was my church in Dallas.  They had put me in contact with a young man, one of their pastors, whom I had only met once or twice with, to be my contact with the church.  In the following months after I moved to Brownwood this young man called me once a week and told me how I had to move back to Dallas to be involved in the plethora of programs they had.  When I reminded him I had no where to stay, he, to my shock,  simply replied I needed to get it done.  I could barely wake up in the morning at first, and he not only did not lighten my load, not help, but threw the weight of finding a new job and place to live, and just so they could be a part, could be the ones in charge of my healing.  I told them that wasn’t necessary, that I was healing in Brownwood.  I shared how I had gotten connected, was meeting with the Pastor himself in counseling.  The young man did not believe me.  He went so far as to call the pastor, without asking me, just to make sure I was being forth coming.   

Again and again and again this young man would call me, every time I would dread his call.  It was a broken record.  He not once asked me what the Holy Spirit was telling me, never regarding me as having any wisdom, never accounting for the fact that I have the Holy Spirit, that he talks to me directly.  He simply repeated again and again that “the elders” none of whom I knew nor knew me, had come to the mind-blowing conclusion that I had to leave the comfort of my family and the church I had gotten involved in to come back to Dallas so they could make sure I was reconciling with God and her.  “As a covenant member, Nicholas, you are to submit to the authority of the elders.  You signed a covenant.  Are you willing to engage in this reconciliation process or not?”

I would remind him that that covenant he was abusing says I have the right to move churches, it is in print on the very covenant he was wielding, that I am not bound at that church forever, that I was growing with God in Brownwood, that she threatened to never speak to me again should move back to Dallas to try to win her over, that should she want to meet or reconcile I was a whopping three hours away.  If she called me at breakfast I could be there by lunch. My last ditch chance was to heal, become better, and not do anything to sever the last bit of communication I had with her, that maybe with time she would change.  All this time, she was attending the church unabated.  

The young man didn’t even pause to act like I he was considering what I said.  Immediately he would repeat his power play.  “Nicholas, you need to submit.  Are you going to submit or not?”  This went on for months.  Every time I dreaded his call.  The weight put on me was so hurtful.  Finally, the young man seemed to understand.  “So, it seems you are going to be staying in Brownwood and working on things through Coggin.”  

“Yes, that is what I have been saying for months.  I am growing a lot here.  I have my family, good friends, and am involved at church, still meeting with the pastor.  She barely talks to me, but I keep trying.  Should she ever want to meet or talk, I can and will be in Dallas in a couple hours.”


That was that… or so I thought. 

She did not come back, nor did she ever open herself to reconciling.  She made up her mind, and that was that.  The next time I saw her was when I was served papers.  I made friends and began healing in Brownwood, and although difficult, it was a truly wonderful time to see the affection of my family, friends both old and new, and many more comfort me with amazing love. 

Six months went by without them calling.  Peace, finally.  My sister, who lives in Dallas and attended the church I used to, was getting baptized.  My family and I drove up to Dallas for her.  It was my first visit back to my old church.  I had no idea what to expect.  It was difficult, but ultimately many of the pastors came up and said sweet things to my face and hugged me.  Whew.  The weight I’d felt put on me by them felt like it was slowly lifting.  A week later I received a very long email from the young man explaining to me that these elders had decided that she had not been found to have had Biblical cause to divorce me.  YET, because I had failed to obey the church leadership’s command to move back to Dallas, I was considered to be unrepentant, and that while I was always welcome to attend, should I do so I was not welcome to take communion until I repented. 

I have experienced a lot of pain and suffering in my life, so many hurts.  This one is unique.  I say is because, even though I have reached out and much time has passed, there has been no change, no apology for such an incredible abuse of power.  

A year on, and I am not healed of it.  Much of that is my own fault.  No one makes me sin but myself.  I am to blame for my own hardness.  Yet, what they did surely has been a stumbling block like no other.  Where I used to treasure church I now dread it.  Pastors were once trusted.  Now I struggle when I see a pastor to not think of them as bullies.  Were it not for the humility, patience, and friendship of Pastor Tim Skaggs I don’t know where I would be.  Anything “churchy” makes my skin crawl.  This place where I once felt accepted and loved is now I place I struggle not feel tainted, pariah-like in.  Again, this is my own fault.  No church makes me do not good things, and most of it is lies.  I share this not to point fingers, but because I want you to see just how much it has hurt me.  I have come to empathize so very deeply with all my brothers and sisters in this world who struggle with church, who feel like pariahs, judged, condemned.  I feel it too.  I want for you to know that when I say the church has hurt me you can believe it and understand, and see and feel just how hard of a time I have with church so you will follow me when I say that I still go to church, even though it hurt me deeply.  I still go, and here is why…

Because I am a Christian

The definition of a Christian is one who follows Christ, not one who follows other Christians.  Is there some authority in the church?  Sure, but only some, and it is supposed to be there to help you… follow Christ.  Jesus is the one who bore my sins, not Pastor Ray Still, Tim Skaggs, Matt Chandler, or Tommy Nelson.  Jesus is whom I praise.  He is whom I go to hear about.  Church is where we as a group of sinners go to tell God thank you, tell Him we love Him for saving us.  God deserves this small token of being around these other sinners.  God deserves my time, my money, my heart, my everything, and Christians aren’t going to get in the way of that.


Because not going would make me a hypocrite

In my life, usually, whenever I hear people talk about church and complain about the people, they usually say they don’t go because church is filled with judgmental hypocrites.  This is my reason too.  Thing is, saying those words is self-referential as in that moment of saying it we are being judgmental ourselves.  How is that more tolerant and open-minded, accepting, loving?  It is not.  It is petty and spiteful.  Everything in me wishes it weren’t, as I weekly find myself saying in my head with flares of bitterness and anger, “If I go to church and hear anymore churchy words I swear I’ll…”  Even though I’ve said a million churchy words.  The problem is mine to deal with.  Am I not a sinner too?  Do I not struggle?  Would I do better?  I’d hope so, but honestly I doubt it.  I am surely not the answer to the world’s problems.  I just hope people feel loved by me as much as possible, that I care for them.  I’ve certainly got my own log in my eye.

Most of all… Because the one man who actually could have not gone for that reason went

Luke 4:16  And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.  And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood to read.

Every time I think about church in general, when I think about how my old church wronged me, and my heart gets hard, this is what I think of.  When I see a pastor and my teeth start to grit with idiotic prejudice, this verse calms and softens my heart.  It gives me room to forgive and move on, to keep coming to worship.  Jesus, the only perfect man ever, the only man who could actually say he didn’t want to go to church because of the people in it…went to church.  He worshipped and prayed with the same people that betrayed and killed him.  My hurts, though real and important, are nothing in comparison, and thus I am motivated to daily lift the weights off the scales of justice, to no longer need them to be even.    Would I love for my old church to apologze?  Very, very much so.  It would bring me to tears and lift a weight off my heart.  Yet, that wrong will not stop me from praising my Jesus.  When I think that his actions weren’t based on my goodness, how can I not do what he wants me to because others don’t live up to mine?  

Praise be the name of the Lord.  Churchy, I know, but I mean it.  Church may not always be good, but He is.