If you have been following my blog, you will know why I resonate with so much of what she has written. ***********************************
I, like so many others of my generation, stopped going to church. For months and months, I could not bring myself to walk through the doors of a church on a Sunday morning. Believe me, I tried. But at the risk of having a full-out panic attack, I quit and did not look back for a long, long time.
In his book, Blessings and Curses: The Key to Lasting Change, John Visser talks about the "corporate culture" of a church. He writes, "A person who lives to please will be drawn to 'nice' churches. These are churches where they don't mind taking you in as a worldly person in need of conversion. They will gladly lead you to Christ. Once you have come to Christ, however, you'd better get your life in order. In these churches, there is little or no talk about the nitty-gritty, on-going sin or pain that so often mars the life of even God's people. Everybody puts on a happy face and pretends everything is alright. Services in these churches are upbeat; fellowship is friendly, albeit superficial; and so many people lead double lives because there is no acceptable place to go when you have a problem as a believer."
In hindsight, then, it's no wonder I ended up in the church that I did. I was a people-pleaser. I wanted to belong somewhere. I wanted acceptance. I wanted relationship.But I also wanted authenticity. I wanted someone to acknowledge my pain and help walk me through it, not act like it didn't exist. But when church culture is defined more by people's dysfunction than by the gospel, there is a big problem.
Fortunately (though it felt unfortunate at the time), my soon-to-be husband was more of a truth-seeker than a people pleaser--which did not go over well with the church leadership. After a time, we felt it necessary to leave. But the damage was done: just the mention of church conjured up enormous feelings of hurt, betrayal, and anger. Church as I knew it, ended up becoming a place of condemnation, cliques, and gossip, all covered over by smiling, happy faces. My heart had been ignored.Sadly, during this time, I often received more grace from "non-church" friends.
And so I quit church.
Addie Zierman writes: "I left the church for a lot of reasons – some legitimate, some imagined. Eventually I found the courage to come back... During my self-imposed exile from church, I journeyed with others. The wounded, the cynic, the angry, the doubting. "First, we joined gyms. We started training for 5ks and 10ks, marathons and triathlons. In the mornings, we ran next to strangers, breathing in tandem, keeping stride, and though they didn't know us, they called out the strength in our tired bodies...At the finish line, people we didn't know cheered for us madly. They held up their hands to meet our sweaty palms, and for the first time that we can remember, we feel like the victors that the pastors always promised we were.
"We attended book clubs that we found from craigslist postings on the Internet. We sat in some stranger's house with a glass of wine, and we felt strangely free to express our opinions. We said what we thought about the book. We asked questions. We wondered aloud what the author was trying to say about hope. We batted around ideas, feather-light and beautiful. We thought briefly of all of the Bible studies we attended. Those times when we kept our complex, doubt-filled questions bottled up in our hearts because we couldn't figure out a way to ask them.
"Back then, we were in search of a place where we fit. We were leaving the churches where we grew up. The youth groups where we took our first wobbly steps toward whoever it was that we were going to become. We knew it wouldn't be pizza parties and camping retreats and yellow buses heading toward Florida – this new, grown-up church experience. But we expected belonging. We expected grace and support and love.
"For a while we tried, moving from one church to another. We were never looking for perfection. We weren't that naïve.... Some of us searched longer than others, but in the end we faded out. We were looking for Jesus. Instead we found programs, guilt, and awkward small talk. We found fog machines and Five-Simple-Steps-to-Spiritual-Growth and fill-in-the-blank Bible studies.
"So we started sleeping in on Sunday mornings. We went to the farmers market and bought good things straight from the earth. We drank our morning coffee at small café tables outside, and people walked by with their dogs at a slow, Sunday-morning pace. It felt more like rest to us than those chaotic church mornings, when we moved through the loud small talk of the church foyer and felt invisible.
"Some of us went to neighborhood bars...and we were surprised to find that all...we had to do was sit down, and we were part of that place, that crowd, that beautiful mosaic of people, all of them broken in their own ways – few of them pretending otherwise. Under a fluorescent Miller Lite sign, nobody told us to "get plugged in" or suggested that nursery duty might be just what the Lord wanted us to do for the next 8,000 Sundays. Instead, we drank a few too many, and we began to ramble, and people we didn't know listened earnestly, layering their memories over ours until we were united by our stories.
"We went on Facebook and played at community. We went out to dinner and to concerts and to the movies. We went dancing and felt the thrum of the music in our bodies, and once, some Church Person told us that dancing was a gateway to sin – but there we were, in a haphazardly formed circle of strangers, singing the same song at the top of our lungs. We went on road trips and on airplanes, and we were searching, still, even then. We slung our backpack over our shoulders and went farther out into the world.
Some of us went to therapy and began the hard work of untangling our knotted-up hearts. If we were really brave, we tackled our angst about the years when we were on fire. We tried to find the heart of Christ beating, still, under the sticky, webbed Christian culture that had grown up over it. "Some of us went under the dark waves of our own depression and pain, never to resurface. Some of us came back. Tentatively. Slowly. We came back because we were beginning to believe that it might be here too. In these churches with all of their brokenness, all of their clunky programs and squeaky-clean sermons. We'd figured out that it still existed, and that it can be found in the most imperfect of people. We saw it, after all, at the end of our first 5k. We found it slumped over at the bar, sobbing out our story to a stranger. We encountered it on the unfamiliar roads that we were driving, felt it course through our body like dancing music.
"And it turned out to be that unnamable Thing we'd been looking for all long. And in our better moments, we've learned to recognize it for what it is: Grace."
Because my pain eventually got bigger than I could handle alone, I went to therapy. At a church. (Go figure.) The hurt that I experienced from another church's leadership drove me into the arms (literally) of a different pastor. And because of the grace that I found in that office every other Wednesday, I was able to tentatively walk back through the doors of that same church one Sunday morning.
Acceptance. Belonging. Love. Grace. All the things we are supposed to find at church from fellow believers. But no church is perfect. No church is going to meet each and every single need of each and every single member. The church body is made up of imperfect sinners, each with their own hurts and brokenness. But because of the grace that we first received through Jesus, we must in turn offer each other that same grace. John Visser writes, "Most of our churches, like most of our lives, are a curious mix of good and bad... What God is looking for are churches that increasingly reflect His character and nature, churches that are truly and authentically alive, where each person increasingly grows into the image and likeness of the Lord Jesus and where together they exhibit His love and passion for a lost world. In order for that to happen, God's people must become increasingly whole, and that means dealing...with...the brokenness that lies underneath." I believe I now have found a church whose leadership promotes a corporate culture of exactly that. And that is one of the reasons why I found my way back.
Somewhere along the line, I was taught that once we choose to forgive, it will automatically make everything better. The hurt, the anger, and the bitterness will just stop. But in my experience, this has not proved true.
I have felt a tremendous amount of guilt and shame over it, because when "good Christians" choose to forgive and pray a little prayer, everything's fine.
At least that's the message I was taught. I wish it were that easy. But it's not. Because as I am learning, forgiveness is a complicated process. One of the chapters in our pastor's latest book, When Dreams Come True: The Story of Joseph, talks about forgiveness. And as seen in the chart illustrated below, it depends on many factors:
In his book, Pastor John explains how two people who experience almost identical situations will respond very differently. If you are betrayed or wronged by a long-term friend, it hurts much more than if a stranger treats you unkindly. Similarly, the more sensitive you are, the more other people's actions may hurt you. Some people are hardly ever offended. Others become deeply insulted by a seemingly small thing. It all depends on these factors. For someone who has been wronged, forgiveness will likely be much more difficult if the act was severe, intentional, frequent, and not acknowledged by the offender.
When forgiveness is rushed, forced out of obligation, or simply done in the name of Christian duty, (rather than genuine sincerity), the whole process backfires.
As you start information gathering (asking questions, processing events), it triggers the original feelings of hurt and anger. What most people don't understand, is that this is a crucial and necessary part of the healing process. Sometimes it seems to go on forever, but (and I can't stress this enough!) you have to let this process run its course. How long it takes depends on the degree and nature of the offense. I have been chastised for not being able to "let things go." But contrary to what those well-meaning people (including a pastor) once told me, some peopledon't just "get over" something. Depending on all those factors, forgiveness doesn't usually happen overnight. Forgiveness is a process that takes time. In her book, Surviving a Shark Attack (on Land), the famous therapist/talk-show host, Dr. Laura Schlessinger writes:
"Time is the smart part of life. Time reveals character. Time permits healing and growth. Time gives perspective. Time is one of life's greatest embraces."
Dr. Laura likens forgiveness to the idea taking a trip. People need to come to that place of forgiveness by travelling though a lot of small towns. "It takes some people a bit of travelling time...[and they] have to run by the the road signs of hurt, grief, and anger [first]...
Unfortunately, betrayers often tire quickly of efforts at rehabilitation [and]...rebuilding trust.... They usually get impatient and require that the injured party just 'forgive (excuse) and forget.' News flash: that means they haven't changed..."
That realization in itself, can be even more painful than the original betrayal.
I can truly say that there are some cases in which I've walked out the process to completion. It doesn't minimize the hurt or excuse the harm that was done. But when you are able to finally release it for good, you feel so liberated! Especially when there is true reconciliation that happens afterwards. But there are some hurts that have cut me so deep and are still so raw. I am highly sensitive. I have been hurt by many people I trusted. I have beenabandoned by many close friends when I needed them most. Many of these wrongs were never acknowledged by the one who committed them. And some were indeed very intentional. To simply "let it go" or "forgive and forget" would be for me to live in denial. But that's how so many people in Christian circles are living. In denial. Refusing to acknowledge the hurt and the anger. Pretending to have moved on. But let's face it: pretending to be someone or something that you're not, is exhausting. So, I am still working through this whole forgiveness process. Really working on it. I have chosen to forgive those who hurt me. My human nature doesn't want to, but I know it's what God wants requires of me. I know that emotionally and psychologically it's the best thing for me. But there are a few cases where I am not yet able to release all desires to retaliate (though I haven't acted on these desires!) In all honesty, I am not yet in a place where I am prepared to wish some of my offenders well. So, no, I have not completed my forgiveness process with everyone. Because it takes time. It is a moment by moment, day by day, and sometimes, a year by year process. But I know eventually I'll get there. And in the meantime, I will not live in denial. I will not rush the process to appease the legalistic. I will not feel like I'm a "bad" Christian because I'm not "there" yet. I refuse to feel guilty for not being able to "just let it go." Because forgiveness is a process.