In the previous “official” post in this series, I talked about the question of coming to grips with broken relationships left behind once we decide to leave a certain situation (like a church). I shared a bit of my own story, and how I felt the need to differentiate between forgiveness and reconciliation.
I wish I could say that this was the only time in my journey out of institutional Christianity that I had to deal with injustice (and subsequently forgive). But it wasn’t. And it probably won’t be that way for you, either. There were many times along my path that salt was thrown onto my wounds by church folks, and particularly by church leadership–people that had nothing to do with my Church Left Behind. Lemme ‘splain.
Despite being an “outsider” by a lot of people’s definitions with regard to the church, I don’t consider myself to be exiled from the church. As a Christ-follower, I’m part of the body of Christ, and that has never changed, and never will. I ultimately left institutional Christianity behind, not because I was leaving the church, but because I realized that the institution wasn’t actually the church–the true church is the organic community of believers, many of whom happen to frequent those institutions. I left to find a more authentic expression of my faith, not to abandon my faith.
But that doesn’t change the fact that when you walk a different path than the mainstream, you are scrutinized for it, and sometimes challenged, and sometimes shunned, by those who remain on the beaten path. Especially when what you are doing flies in the face of what they believe. Specifically, when you choose to do things a different way, it is automatically perceived as an affront to the legitimacy of the way most people presume that thing should be done. I have generally found that people don’t like having their presumptions challenged. And generally the way most people avoid the questions raised by your refusal to participate is to label you, discount you, or find some other way to invalidate you. If they can do that, they don’t have to face the prospect that maybe they need to change.
The point is–when you choose to walk away from the institution for conscience sake, you need to be prepared to take flak for it. And you still have to forgive. Every time it happens. And no matter how it hurts.
Now, in my case, I probably endured more salt on my wounds that most people will, simply because my departure from the institutions was more gradual. Like I said before, the initial wounding of my CLB was because I left a ministry position, but at the time I had every intention of establishing my own form of institution, just doing things a bit differently than I’d seen them done before. At the time, to me, the church and the institution were one, even though I felt like some things weren’t working. So I took the position of launching a new ministry outside the mainstream, and jogging alongside the mainstream trying to be friends. Specifically, I tried repeatedly to build friendships and alliances with other church leaders in my city, even while doing things in a way that many of them perceived as a threat. It took about 9 years of salt-on-the-wound before I finally came to grips with the fact that this was not going to work, and that I needed to stop trying to form these relationships with church leaders who wanted none of it. When I released that expectation, that’s when I began see exactly how much was really happening outside the walls. But that’s another story for later…
The thing is, during those 9 years there were many warning signs I simply ignored, just because I thought I could overcome the resistance by being persistent. I overlooked the fact that local pastors kept me at a distance. I “understood” when a pastor cancelled an event I’d scheduled at his church because he was afraid people would leave his church and come over to mine. I even took it in stride when a pastor (whom I mistakenly believed to be a kindred spirit) began dodging my invitations to have lunch by referring me to his gatekeeper-secretary who found creative ways to deflect me without actually saying no.
But when that same pastor (whose church had nearly 2000 people) approached a member of my house church and openly tried to get that person to leave our community to join his–that was an act that wasn’t so easy to dismiss. Neither was it so easy to overlook the pastor who deliberately undercut everything I would say at a local prayer gathering. Nor the pastor who publicly accosted and rebuked me in front of my own conference guests, apparently because he had taken personally something I’d said in my message. Those events weren’t just misunderstandings–they were open acts of hostility. Not because I was trying to be a threat to anyone, but simply because I was operating outside the “norm” of church-as-usual, and like I suggested earlier, when you do that, it is frequently perceived as a challenge to the powers that be. One reason I don’t like institutional Christianity is that it gives insecure pastors a “turf” that they feel compelled to protect–even when it isn’t being attacked. Anyhow…
All of this to say that I understand probably better than most how hurtful people inside an institution can be to those who choose to leave it. Once I got the message, and allowed my alternative pathway to make a clean break from the institution, it definitely got easier. But I still had a lot of hurt to process, and a lot to forgive. I understand the seventy-times-seven thing Jesus talked about. 🙂
Unlike the situation I described earlier with the pastor from my CLB, I have not felt the need to differentiate between forgiveness and reconciliation with those who threw salt on my wounds. In most cases, I’d be glad to get together with those people; I just know they don’t really want to do that on their end, and that’s okay. But again, I don’t think I could be where I am today had I not been willing to forgive the debt.
So the path toward healing (for me, at least) has involved forgiving not once, but many times. I’ve mentioned in other posts that these kinds of things are par for the course when you are an agent of change. And when you walk a different path for conscience sake–you definitely are. The key to allowing that path to take you into a healthy place is to practice forgiveness when people oppose you. It is admittedly not easy, but it is necessary to wholeness.
Things get better. Stay tuned…