Feeble Knees

Friday, December 31, 2004

No Forwarding Address

It's been about two and a half years now since I left the church that I still struggle with in my mind. There are still moments when I yearn to pick up the phone and call certain people. A few times I've even Googled names of people to see if they're still where I left them, and I wonder if anything has changed.

When I started going to my former church, I didn't really want to go. I was still just getting back on my feet after a period of somewhat riotous living, and I felt like I needed time to sort things out on my own. But a friend really wanted to go, she herself was coming out of some bad situations too, and I felt guilty. Ironically, it was my mother's church - but she only went on Sunday mornings and sometimes Wednesday nights. She wasn't there when the real indoctrination & membership classes took place, so she didn't know. The first two or three years were actually very good for me in many ways. I needed self-discipline, and they certainly taught that. I needed a new network of friends that would make it easier to walk away from my old lifestyle. I got that. But I never quite felt like I was ever going to measure up in the holiness department. That's when most of my trouble and strife began.

Unfortunately, I could not erase my past. Unlike a lot of the young men and women my age who had grown up in the church, I had "a past". Because I had zealously and naively confessed most of it by publicly "giving testimony" they all had the goods on me. It was like segregation - we were equal in the sight of God they said, but the subtle separation told a different story. There was always this nagging sense that I needed further purification to be truly accepted in the beloved, that my sins, though forgiven, relegated me to a lesser existence within the church. Once my testimony was out of the bag, it became as an indelible mark on my forehead. I was marked for life.

In an attempt to compensate for this, I went on a holiness binge, joined as many ministries as humanly possible, attended every service, every bible study, every prayer meeting, every ladies' retreat, every church clean up day; you name it, I did it. I poured over my bible, reading it endlessly and delving into deep study on my own time. I out-prayed, out read, out studied and out-ministered, yet it still didn't seem like enough. I knew God's hand was upon me, and that I truly did want to glorify him, but over time, my motives became a mixture of desire to bless God and desire to gain acceptance within my church family.

My very best friends within the church ended up being people who themselves had seen a bit more of life. We were a bit of a black sheep fraternity, unable to identify completely with a pastor whose worst boyhood indiscretions appeared to consist of swearing once or twice, and once refusing to go to church with his family. "Good Lord!" I thought. "Is that all you've got?". Granted he was very penitent about these sins, and I don't mean to belittle anybody's struggles. But given all I'd done and seen, I needed some industrial-sized assurance that Jesus' blood could cover me too. Seeing my pastor confess in shameful tears and agony that he once used the church phone to make a long distance call home, and forgot to reimburse us for it, made me fear that my grip on grace was tenuous at best. If he, a pastor, was in danger of hellfire for that, the odds that someone like me could make it were not looking good at all.

But my close friends understood, they shared many of my same struggles, or had even crazier things to overcome than I did. They were the ones who taught me God's grace truly was big enough to handle the likes of us. We had private jokes about past experiences, often giving eachother knowing glances when the preaching touched on a topic we knew more about first-hand than our fellows. In heart-to-heart conversations we admitted our struggles with some of the church's' perspectives and teachings. Was the wine at Cana fermented wine (yayin) or new, unfermented wine (tirosh)? When the Lord said touch not my anointed, did He mean all priests or prophets? Or where false prophets fair game? These and other frank discussions kept me sane during the churches increasingly erratic pursuit of holiness, spiritual warfare, and revival.

It was these friends that I thought would remain even if I left the church. I honestly believed that even if I moved on to a new fellowship, I would always have these sisters in Christ. Some of us even "cheated" on our church by scoping out other new churches in town on occasion. We'd slip out after teaching Sunday school and head over to the other church in time for worship and the sermon. I thought these friends would understand when it was time to move on, perhaps they would too in time. But the last day I attended my former church was the last time I've seen or heard from any of them. The fellowship was broken, I was officially backslid and that was that. Poof!

Ironically enough, the friend who guilted me into going to the church in the first place left before I did. However, because her phone number and email remain the same, she still gets harassing phone calls. Members call her and tell her all the reasons why she's a bad person and everything's her fault. They try to appeal to her loneliness by offering to get together, then pour on the guilt. Seeing what she's gone through has given me pause about getting back in touch with anyone. Better to let sleeping dogs lie, I reason.

I remember years ago, before things got bad, there was this couple that used to attend my church. They were truly beautiful people, always with a gentle spirit and smile. Call them Harry and Bess. After many years of marriage and faithful attendance, Harry passed away. His funeral was among the most joyful I'd ever seen, because we all knew Harry had gone home at last. Bess was shaken, and devastated, but the unmistakable hope that she would see him again gleamed in her teary eyes. After a few months had passed, I stopped seeing Bess on Sundays. Until one day she came back for a special service. Happy to see her, I made a beeline for her after the service.
Before I could get my greeting out, she blurted: "No, I'm not dead, and I'm not backslidden either! I was taken aback by her greeting. Why on earth would she think anyone thought that of her? I knew she loved Jesus! The thought never even crossed my mind. I gave her a big hug and we talked, she told me about the new church she'd begun attending, since she was having struggles with the memories of Harry in our church. I understood perfectly.

Apparently others didn't. Overnight, she'd been classified a fugitive and a backslider. She got the concerned phone calls and letters, the admonitions and warnings. It was all in vain; she never did come back to us.

I think of her and all the others every day. Some I don't miss so much, though I pray they are well and growing in the truth and grace of God. Others I miss like you'd miss a severed limb, and there are still days when it seems impossible to cope without one of our heart-to-heart chats. I wonder about their children and their parents. I still pray about certain ongoing situations that they've been struggling with. I pray for them. I pray that though we're apart, God would watch between us, and keep us from bitterness.

Who knows what the new year will bring. Thoughts of reconciliation float here and there, but who knows? Am I strong enough to withstand the temptation to go back? Was ours a necessary division, whereby I would come to learn how to lean wholeheartedly on Jesus alone? Would I be received?

Soon we'll come to the end of life's journey
And perhaps we'll never meet anymore
'Til we gather in heaven's bright city
Far away on that beautiful shore

If we never meet again this side of heaven
As we struggle through this world and its strife
There's another meeting place somewhere in heaven
By the river of life

Where the charming roses bloom forever
And where separation come no more
If we never meet again this side of heaven
I will meet you on that beautiful shore

Oh so often we are parted with sorrow
And action often quietens our pain
But we never shall sorrow in heaven
God be with you till we meet again

~author unknown

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