tales from the outside: the road (part II)

This is part VI of my story about living in and leaving a CE church. The other five are here:
part I, II, III, IV, V

So to continue this road which has seen landmarks in the acknowledgment of hate, lament and healing, we now move on to restoration.

I suppose that firstly I wish to be clear that the other landmarks are, in some ways, ongoing. This is not an easy road, I can give no pithy ‘seven steps’ on which to set you and promise you an end result. It just doesn’t work that way. I wish to be honest with you. When I am faced with someone else who has been wounded in the same way, quite often by the same people, in the same place, it is a very conscious effort to remember this road that I have travelled. To remember this road that I have travelled so that I can draw on the things learned and experienced in order to walk alongside others. The temptation is, of course, to zoom back to the beginning of the journey, indulge the beast that lurks at the door – ‘it’s desire is for you, but you must master it.’ genesis 4:7

And I’m not sure that it is truthful to say that I entirely master that beast every time. Like Cain we are all set in the context of ‘bad choices and more bad choices.’

The landmarks on the journey seem to be at once past and present. I say this not to admit defeat, but because I see this as a good thing. This is part of what makes up the whole of me and at the same time this is the stuff that is helping me to become more whole. This is probably most true of the landmark of healing which began before we left our community, but is perhaps the overarching mark of the whole story. And it is still ongoing. So forgive me if I speak in past tense and present tense with seeming inconsistency, it is simply the nature of the beast (excuse the pun)

(As an aside, I have very little illusion now about the depth of the problem in my own soul and in the very soul of Creation. And this all makes Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection more amazing…. more amazing.)

So as I said before, I guess I would call the next landmark ‘restoration’. This began, I think, when God released us to leave our community. It was, in many ways, an agonising decision. It had been our home for the past 10 years; we had been married there, dedicated our children there, it was my only church. For us it was a part of who we were, the people were truly our family. I remember dear friends (from outside the community) gently saying to me that perhaps we should move on, that I was suffering emotionally, mentally and spiritually. But it’s difficult to realise that you are drowning when all around seem to be able to breathe under water just fine. And then one Sunday I visited another church. It was like that first spluttering breath of one who suddenly breaks the surface – you realise that you were slowly drowning and sinking deeper into darkness, but it took the air and light of the surface for you to realise how deep the darkness was getting. I felt bathed in warmth, the gentle words of the preacher and the atmosphere were just warm, I don’t know any other way to say it; it was like being wrapped in one of the those blankets that you see wrapped around someone whose just been dragged out of the sea, and being handed a warm mug to put my hands on. Still shivering, still processing the life-threatening experiencing, in shock, but safe.

And at that point I knew, there was no turning back, I was freed.

It was important for me to feel that God said it was okay for us to go. There is a certain amount of guilt involved with leaving a community. We are effectively saying ‘you are no good for us anymore’. No matter how you couch your language. We left, we didn’t want them anymore. Individually we could speak to people, reassure them that the positives outweighed the negatives – we were ‘called’ to our new church (much easier to place the blame on God) – but people aren’t fooled. Of course we felt, and still do feel, called to our new community, but I never would have visited that church if I hadn’t been seeking rescue in some form. And whilst you can love people individually, we are called to be community – we were rejecting them corporately and they knew it. Of course there is a reciprocal nature to this leaving process. Forgive the visceral nature of this analogy, but it is a little like being vomited out. The food is not good for the stomach; the stomach is weak for the food. The stomach remains in the body and the food must find another place to go!

I felt guilt at feeling so free, so happy to find a new community to be part of, a community that God had given to us. If I’m honest I still feel a little guilty about that, or perhaps sad is a better word.

Really the start of being restored is, I believe, embedded in the rebuilding of community life, for us it was within a new church. Restoration to wholeness (or the process of becoming whole, perhaps) must necessarily have community at its heart, because community and relationship is at the heart of God. For me this restoration was relatively easy, initially at least, because we knew some people in our new church, some of them very well. I felt welcome. I felt at home. I felt accepted. This was my instant reaction, although, if anything, this becomes slightly harder over time. I know that sounds counterintuitive but the process seems to follow certain stages. Initially I was so relieved to be in this new community caution is thrown to the wind and I believed everybody to be always loving, accepting and welcoming. It’s like a polarisation, everything that the old wasn’t, is expected of the new (and in recognising this polarisation we also recognise that the old community was not completely lacking in all those things). Now in many ways I am lucky, the ‘new place’ is actually most of these things, most of the time, or that is my experience. But no church is ‘what it will be’….yet.

And when I started to feel restored to a community, this is when the next stage of healing began to kick in and it is something that I find particularly hard – trust. Once the polarisation wears off and you remember that these people are just like you, on the same journey of discipleship as you, not whole yet, then there is a fear - what if I do open myself up, say what I really think about stuff, particularly, gulp, theological stuff. Is it better just to keep my mouth shut? Not be vulnerable? Ever again? It’s a choice to be made. And I still make this choice every time I open my mouth and risk rejection. I have to wrestle with my fear that a community whose role is to show God’s welcome to the world, might not be so welcoming if I don’t exactly toe the party line. Never been much good at toeing the party line you see – especially when I think that Jesus is standing two foot away from it, or, to extrapolate a Brian McLaren-ism, when Jesus is standing on a mountain way above the damn line.

Still, I think that I win that wrestling match more often than not now. Not to be vulnerable? Ever again? That would be a terrible thing.

We have a vulnerable God, don’t we?

And in amongst all this something else begins to happen. God works a miracle. Which is what I think forgiveness is. I began to realise how much of a miracle it is when I discovered that forgiving is less something I ‘do’ and more something I have become. Weird I know. But let me explain it more clearly. We quite often think of forgiveness as an entity outside ourselves, an action we do to someone else. Someone, presumably who has done something wrong which needs forgiving. But I have experienced forgiveness more as something which is better described as a state of being. Perhaps it is better put this way – forgiving is something that was being done in me rather than something which, if only I was somehow more ‘holy’, I would be able to do to someone else. It wasn’t entirely an unwanted, or uninvited miracle – I remember being fearful that I would not survive the road of forgiveness, that it would mean denying the damage that was done, that it would be overwhelming, I wanted it, but it was a terrifying prospect. And it was then that God reminded me of his words:

‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.’ isaiah 42:3

So I said ‘yes’ to God – ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ luke 1:38

There is no circumventing forgiveness, it might be hard, but it won’t be overwhelming. And God is gentle with the broken-hearted, I think. I let God in to do the work He needed to do. I have no story of how I managed to forgive. The work was done from within. All I can say is that one day I realised that I wasn’t angry anymore. That to say I wasn’t angry didn’t diminish the reality of the pain, and that forgiveness and healing can co-exist, in fact must co-exist.

And then I started to pray. I pray for the good, the blessing, of those who hurt me. I pray for full reconciliation one day and I pray for the opening of hearts and minds to each other. In essence this is why I know that I can tell my story here. My heart is for the good of my brothers and sisters, the Lord will not say to me:

‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’ genesis 4:10

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