Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Church I Never Knew: Prologue

(I decided to write down this very long post, 'cos have been thinking about quite a few recent events... just felt that there's quite a number of people who have experienced hurts... and as one who went through hurts from the church as well, but... in the end experienced healing from others in the same church... I felt I want to speak up for my own church, 'cos imperfect tho it is, I really do love my church, and want to encourage others to stick by their churches (unless God says move on)...

I'm toying with the idea of writing a book on this next time. Hee... wonder how it'll go. :))

I was showering today, and as is my favourite custom, started ruminating on some recent conversations and posts that I've read recently. I met up two friends yesterday, and they shared about their struggles to feel connected in their previous church (a very small church)... and I've read posts from another friend how he/she experienced struggles as a small-group leader in a mega-church.

I also stumbled upon another blog about someone from my own church who feels left behind "spiritually" because while her peers are taking care of small groups, she isn't among one of those selected.
Today, a soon-to-be third year student, I see my peers rising up to be leaders and/or making steps to fulfill God’s will in their lives. I am almost numbed to the fact that I have fell behind, that I have lost the fire to push onward. Truth to be told, I drift and sometimes I enjoy it. I drift in and out of period of spiritual dryness and abundance. I am kind of jaded by that and I find it hard to pick myself up to face the mundane everyday.

And I observed that all these struggles are common to pretty much every church - whether big or small. I've seen people get discontented because they felt that their church was overloading them. And... it's not just a Singapore or American thing - it's not a phenomenon for rich countries... even Christians from poor churches experiencing signs and wonders in poor countries also go through the same kind of struggles. In Brother Yun's "The Heavenly Man", after he narrates how God did wonderful miracles through him and his flock, he also shared about the mundaneness and busyness that continual ministry took upon his own spiritual life, and how he experienced dryness as a result.

Looks like you're not alone, friend. :)

So something that I conclude from making all these observations over the years is that, frankly, the disconnectedness from God and men, the tiredness and busyness from ministry and relationship conflicts that mar the unity of the believers... is really independent of any church. In fact, if there's a church, you're pretty much bound to see all these things happen sooner or later. Just check out the epistles to see the issues that the apostles had to address.

Seeing all this, some get disillusioned with the church. They do genuinely love God, but feel distant and disconnected from the church. Ironically, church may even be, for some, the last place to experience God's grace.

A good friend sent me an email some time back. In his/her letter, s/he shared that s/he left his/her church, because s/he felt rejected. S/he had wanted to share his/her creative God-given talent with his/her church, but for some reason, was shut off from doing that. Not to mention the fact that s/he smoked as well. Somehow, s/he felt rejected by the others because of that, even though s/he knows that smoking is not explicitly forbidden in the Bible.

S/he's been churchless for some years already, and s/he misses being part of a community. And near the end of his/her letter, s/he said sadly that s/he felt rejected and emotionally evicted by God's people, so s/he wondered if God was rejecting him/her since s/he knows that God works through His people. And what added to my friend's pain was that s/he had experienced similar rejections from a certain number of churches before as well.

Tears came to my eyes when I finished reading my friend's anguished words.

How many of us genuinely love God and want to know and experience Him personally, but because we do not experience a sense of warmth and gracious acceptance from our churches, we feel far away from God?

And how many times have we cringed when well-intentioned people tell us, in the midst of our sharing, "Go to God alone. Only He can heal you."? We cringe, because we do know it's true, yet... it somehow worsens the pain, that really, there must something wrong with us...

I remember a unit leader telling me years ago these word:
"I know you've been struggling for a very long time to feel connected with the group. I'm sorry we can't meet your needs."
Man, that was one hell of a velvet-lined lead glove. My leader's "apologetic" words left me speechless and helpless. Basically: "I give up on you already. Sorry hor."

I wanted to leave church there and then, but something held me back. Maybe it was the feeling that there had to be a meaning to all this madness, and also, that I'd invested too much time and money and effort into this church to just give up and throw it all away. There had to be an answer to this madness, and I wanted to find out how to get out of this "trench" and break through the "no-man's land" once and for all to find freedom.

Talking about the sense of freedom, we find that such a feeling of liberation from escaping the oppressive confines of a religious institution is not restricted to Christianity alone. We find Jews and Muslims also experiencing a profound sense of freedom, having left their communities - even though it clearly cost them a lot.

From a BBC News article: High cost of leaving ultra-orthodox Judaism
It's hard to imagine the software engineering student, now wearing jeans and a checked shirt, in the black hat and suit of the ultra-orthodox Jew he used to be.

It is seven years since he walked out of his home, cut off his curly side locks in a public toilet and slept in a shopping mall for a week.

Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews, also known as Haredim, make up roughly 10% of the population. Most live their lives in voluntary isolation from the secular world. ... Posters on the walls of ultra-orthodox areas pass on community news, as many residents shield themselves from what they see as the secular influence of television and radio.

Images of women are banned, and in some areas, anyone driving on the Jewish Sabbath may have stones thrown at their car.

Every detail of life is determined by religious observance, says Mr Lev, "even how you put on your shoes".

Angry rejection

Those who choose to leave know little about the world they are entering.

It was the hardest year of my life, and I didn't have my parents and family who I love with me, so it was even worse.

"They are like aliens," says Irit Paneth of the organisation Hillel, which offers practical help to former Haredim.

They often do not know how to open a bank account, use the internet, find work and rent an apartment, she explains, or how to operate socially in the secular world.

And they can face angry rejection from the community they leave behind. Mr Lev says his wife's family have stopped him seeing his children, fearing he will persuade them to leave the community.

But he says he has no regrets, although he is still battling for access.

His marriage had been arranged by his family; now he has a girlfriend. "I found out what love is. That makes it very complicated, but very joyful," he says.

In the first few months after he left, he says he "felt like a drunk from all the freedom".

A brother (he was a leader in church last time as well) wrote this post, and his words touched me, because, frankly, who hasn't felt this before? I may not agree with his interpretation of Romans 8:28, but his short but sharp sentences express powerfully the feelings that a lot of us may have had:
Rom 8:28 - "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

The recent development of things have skewed my thoughts towards desiring something that is further and further away from what I've always believed in the past. God knows how much I have felt for some issues and how I have struggled intensely, hoping to see light and hope in the situation.

If Romans 8:28 is true, all the events are pointing towards breaking free from an institution which no longer engages me, in which its followers are into producing "unthinking" replicates and clones of themselves, and in which its leadership is not based on openness, soundmindedness, wisdom, accountability and establishing trust but rather in blind faith and trust, hierachy, and advocation of unbalanced truth.

Tis the season to be free and have fun, not to be too overly concerned with things that I couldn't change which others are blind to.

Tis is the season to experience again life to the fullest, without the hindrances by people whose vision are narrowed and short-sighted.

Tis is the season to re-establish deep and meaningful relationships, free from commitment to a "family"of mere acquaintance, who pledged their allegiances which they aren't able to keep.

Thank God for the revelation of reality VS distorted perception.

Blue pill or the red pill?

I will rather take the full truth of things anytime than water-downed and distorted fairy-tale.

One dear friend also shared with me that she felt so restricted and confined in her own church, whereas when she was with her non-Christian friends, she felt so carefree to be herself. (She often comes across as being very serious and solemn... but I've seen the lighter side of her, and she can be really, really, really silly and ridiculously hilarious in her actions and jokes. So I understand her feelings when she said that she felt very stifled to be herself in the church.)

I've heard this kind of statement so many times: "I feel more comfortable outside church than in the church..." that I'm not surprised already.

In fact, as I write this, I've just heard from another friend a couple of weeks ago, who has left my church to find another church to settle in. She has been such a faithful leader, a role model and so on... yet a few years back, I sensed that she was already struggling relationally in the church, and not having her emotional and relational needs met very well. Burnt-out, in other words.

So many times I've heard this... and it makes me wonder. How is it that the Body of Christ seems to make people who come in become worse and worse? As in, becoming pettily religious with joyless countenances, or if you are more fortunate, disillusioned and leave to find another church to settle down in?

As such, we find surveys and news reports in recent years commenting on the increasing disillusionment of the younger generation with the Church. They don't trust religious institutions and prefer to go for small groups... but there are those who don't feel comfortable even with small groups, and as one guy put it nicely, "Oh, I don't go to church. Church is in my heart."

The crying need of today's increasingly disaffected Christians is not that they don't want to be part of a community. They already are, and faithfully so - some for years, even. But if you ask them, how they are, and genuinely so, you'll often hear them cry from their hearts for genuine, authentic community where no one has to wear a facade, and you can be real... and to also experience God deeply too.

How is it that we churches, in the age of Facebook and Twitter and small groups, have seemed to have even more disconnected people? We have tried to herd our flocks into small groups to increase the sense of community, only to find to our dismay that the old truism rings even more true: "Two lonely people, when they get married, become two very lonely people."

Now, serving as a team leader in my own church after more than a decade, I often muse on the sheer irony of it all.

On one hand, I empathize with those who, in my friend's own words, don't trust leaders. On the other hand, I listen to other leaders share about how certain people don't seem very interested in spiritual things or even able to connect relationally, and therefore get ignored by their own caregroups.

But I also talk with these "unspiritual" people, and I often find deeper questions in them that have gone unanswered, like Job's crushing questions to his three friends.

So I feel like a hapless "double-agent" of sorts, in an amusing kind of way. Yes, I'm indeed grateful, and thankful for such a Spock-ian privilege - an "ambassador" between two different groups. Yet I still struggle, as an onlooker, clearly aware of my own inadequacies and lack of maturity and understanding.

Thus I feel like Elihu, the young onlooker, witnessing the heated verbal exchange between the agonized Job and his platitude-spouting friends.
Job 32:1-5
So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. But Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God. He was also angry with the three friends, because they had found no way to refute Job, and yet had condemned him. Now Elihu had waited before speaking to Job because they were older than he. But when he saw that the three men had nothing more to say, his anger was aroused.
I see the wise men give up on answering Job's questions, yet I see Job lost and wallowing in his own self-pity. In the same way, I often feel angry to see the leaders unfairly condemning the laggers, saying, "Well, it's his/her own responsibility - it's between God and him, and obviously he hasn't bothered to seek God! So nothing more we can do for him." Yet I also perceive the laggers to have their own mindsets and issues.

Elihu's heated words reflect my own temper to this whole mess:
10 “Therefore I say: Listen to me;
I too will tell you what I know.
11 I waited while you spoke,
I listened to your reasoning;
while you were searching for words,

12 I gave you my full attention.
But not one of you has proved Job wrong;
none of you has answered his arguments.
13 Do not say, ‘We have found wisdom;
let God, not a man, refute him.’

14 But Job has not marshaled his words against me,
and I will not answer him with your arguments.

So, what can be done? As one song put it so well:
"Not here, not there
Voices, voices everywhere
Are all I hear in the air."
And the same haunting refrain returns: can you really find sincerity in the church? And is there even room for sincerity? Why, if the church is supposed to be a haven of grace, do you still have to "perform" in order to be accepted by people, even though you know God has already accepted you? How the hell is an institution that sets such high standards supposed to help me experience God's grace, when I feel so much despair?

Philip Yancey, in his excellent book "The Jesus I Never Knew" (to which I owe a huge debt of gratitude), puts it more prosaically: "Where is the church when it hurts?" He also shared this startling anecedote about a tearful prostitute, who when asked whether she had considered going to a church for help, reply in wide-open shock: "Church?! Why should I go to church? They'd only make me feel worse there!"

How is it that the very institution that is supposed to be His Body on earth has earned a notorious reputation for being so unlike Him? As Gandhi remarked, "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

No wonder people grow tired and weary. Does such a church even exist, especially in a stressful place like Singapore?

Let me make it clear at this point that I affirm wholeheartedly the church as the Body of Christ, and that I believe that God's intention is to use the church as His Body to do His work on earth. I believe in commitment to a local church, and in loving one another even when we are unlovely.

Still, amidst all the speculations and hypotheses and dogmas and doctrines, the "voices, voices everywhere", I feel at times like a perplexed rookie investigator trying to help my friend find his beautiful - and missing - bride. I finger the various shreds of a heavily torn and faded photo given to me by the husband. And those shreds are all I have to begin my search for the missing lady. Fortunately, I do have the husband to interview, various eye-witnesses (some reliable, some not so, some sharp-eyed, and some blind) and of course, the shreds given to me to reconstruct.

And so, I start my investigations to find my Friend's missing bride: the Church I never knew.

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