Spiritual Refugees – Those Who Are Fleeing Unsafe Church. 

I’ve tried to write this twice. The first time I deleted it. The second time, WordPress did. 

“Spiritual Refugees – Take 3.”

I was sat in a coffee shop a little while ago and ended up in conversation with a stranger – as I am prone to doing. I listened to her story of how she had grown up in faith, her family were members of a fairly mainstream but still conservative church. Her story of childhood and adolescent faith was very similar to mine. The story ended with her being publically asked to leave by  the church because of the boyfriend she had chosen to be with at the age of 20. The relationship had lasted 4 weeks. She hasn’t ever returned to a church, and the thought of it, ‘brings up fear and pain from almost 20 years ago.’ 

I spoke to another person recently who also grew up in an evangelical church. From a young age he was asked into leadership roles, worship team, sharing at youth services, volunteer roles with youth camps etc. From the age of 13 he knew he was gay. His experience with his friends was that they ogled and commented on the girls and how they looked, whilst he feigned interest. He copied those around him whilst realising that he had no interest at all. Sadly, what happened to him is what has happened to so many young Christians , he went through the trauma of ‘conversion therapy’ and had well meaning but entirely misguided pastors ‘pray the demons out of him.’ He was eventually asked to leave. He still carries the scars of those ‘inteventions.’ The God he loves and the Jesus he follows, are often hidden behind the angry and terrifying experiences he has had. He doesn’t go near churches, he has tried but can’t get out of the car when he parks in the church car park. Instead he has a panic attack and returns home.

I’ve been asked to leave a church before because of a situation over which I had little to no control. It was one of the hardest days of my life. I’m still recovering years later, but have been fortunate enough to have had people who were there the next day, and the days after, who held me in community as I lost the community I had given my life to. If I am honest, I don’t know if I will ever recover fully, it felt like a bereavement, but I’m a lot better than I was then.

It’s very easy to react to stories like these and react with something like, ‘well we just need to get over it and find new communities,’ or ‘that was a long time ago, move on.’ Its easy to say that if you’ve never been through it. Being asked to leave a church is not like being asked to leave a club, the roots go deeper into your heart than a shared interest in golf or chess and tearing those roots up against your will is incredibly destructive.

Believing people often say that their faith is the centre of who they are. When you’re faith in God is central to your identity, impacting on every decision you make the community with whom you live that faith-life becomes family. I’ve been more honest and vulnerable with people from churches I’ve been part of, than I’ve ever been with my biological brothers and sisters. Churches are often places in which people flourish, they are loved and supported, in times of crisis they are held by the community. To those who’ve never experienced church like that, it is hard to describe the deep sense of commonality you feel on every level.

This sense of identity with church and our sense of identity in God become so incredibly intertwined that when the church rejects you it is impossible not to allow that to leak into your sense of who God is and how He views you. It is heartbreaking. The foundations crack and the house starts shaking. What do you hold on to in those moments when everything you relied on has become insecure? 

My experience is that a lot people become emotionally numb around their sense faith. Untangling the twisted mass of pain may require a faith community, even a small one, and that seems impossible to find, a second rejection would be too much to bear. 

My life is becoming more and more full of these spiritual refugees, those who made a home in a place and a community, but for whom that community and place became too unsafe to be in, or who were forced to wander into the desert because of their life choices, their tragedies, mental illness, understanding of science or who they love. 

In a lot of cases those who sent them out to wander were trying to love them. They thought it was that twisting of God’s love – they call it tough love it it translates as cruelty in the heart on the receiving end. The misguided pastors or churches would be hoping that ultimately their rejection, would force the ‘sinner’ to change something that they couldn’t, to alter who they were or miraculously recover from something they were battling. I can forgive a lot of these behaviours because prejudice is more often due to a lack of understanding or education than it is due to bigotry. In one sense, I have to forgive, as I’m sure unknowingly I was the cause of this pain in some when I was a pastor. They thought it was love but it wasn’t. Love casts out fear, it doesn’t amplify it. Love holds people close, it doesn’t toss them aside.

What do we do for these people, whom I often feel like one of? How do we help our brothers and sisters, those words that have lost their meaning through the years, these children of God like us, to find homes again? How do we create spaces that are safe enough for the wounded to express their faith in community again? How do we form homes in which you can be who you are and change or stay the same but still be loved just as much? 

If you’re a spiritual refugee, who longs for what you’ve lost, who still loves Jesus but is afraid of His church, I want to know what we can do. In our home we are thinking about this a lot. It’s a daily conversational What can we create that is safe for everyone, that doesn’t place impossible requirements on you, but that wants to celebrate our commonality and our difference – a place for those who are and aren’t like us? 

I want ideas, stories and hopes. Tell me your story and what we could do to make the ending of these stories better for all of us. Can we build home together for those who are wandering lost or in shelter that won’t sustain them? Our Father’s house has many rooms, even room for us. 

Advertisements

A disabled man, finding lost hope and trying to pray. 

I’ve always been drawn to the story in Acts 3 about the disabled man who is healed after an encounter with James and John. When I read the stories in the Bible, I like to  try and put myself in the mind of the characters in the story. I like to try and imagine the days, months and years leading up to that point in order to build some sort of idea of what they would have expected, and how they would react as events unfolded. 
I love this story because it is on one hand mundane, three people crossing paths as they go about their day, but on the other it is miraculous. At the point where their paths cross there is a divine intervention that goes beyond what any of the three could have expected. 

I am fortunate to have lived my life without a long term or permanent disability. I have little concept of what that is like. I have even less idea of what that would be like in first century Judea where the pervading theology equated disability with sin. I imagine I would have lived in a very dark emotional state, hopeless and without any sense of self worth as the religious  judgement piled up on me. I, like the man in the story would have only been able to hope for the bare minimum; loose change. Healing would not even be on my radar. 

It is easy to fall into hopelessness. When we face ill health, loneliness, addiction, stress etc. often the best we can imagine is making it until bedtime. I’ve been there, where being awake is barely manageable and sleep feels like release. Yet, in this story,  in spite of the man’s low hope, God intervenes. 

Christians often make the mistake, of feeling that they must convince God to bless them by praying enough or sinning less or having just a little more faith but in this story, the man who has his life transformed had none of those, he just reached out his hand for money. Adding guilt to an already painful situation only amplifies the pain and drives us down even further. If we don’t see the result we want, this belief will crush us. This belief only multiplies our turmoil. 

I’m by no means a wise, old man, but in the things I’ve been through in my life, both  painful and wonderful, I’ve learned that God always intervenes. When I’ve prayed for something to change, either he has changed my situation of changed how I think and feel about it. God has always transformed the details of my life or transformed my heart to strengthen me enough to live it. 

People have told me many times that prayer doesn’t work. At times, if I am honest, I’ve agreed with them. I’m becoming convinced, however, that prayer does work when we understand what it is for.  It is much less about detecting God’s hand and more about transforming my mind and heart. Prayer changes me 100% of the time. It changes me in small ways, for example, by calming my mood, or in large ways by changing my desire for what I was reaching for. 

If you don’t pray, try it for 6 weeks, my faith isn’t dependent on the results, this isn’t a social experiment, but you might benefit from it. If you do pray, when you pray, expect Him to intervene. Expect Him to change your situation or change your heart. You may not realise until later but I believe He will do it. Look for the crossing of His path with yours. 

A prayer for the days after a tragedy. 

Almighty God, who made us and gave us life, we are hurting and confused. We find ourselves, once again, bewildered by how those whom you have made in the same God-image as us can be so callous and do such great evil. The list of tragedy gets longer. Senseless killing across the world you made and first called good. 

We are hurting again, as we have before. We are mourning life lost, both young and old; stolen by another senseless act of cowardice. How many more of these tragedies must we face? This world that you created and called good, is pocked with violence that seems only to increase. 

When the darkness comes close and invades these places so familiar, our eyes struggle to see you, our ears strain to hear you. Questions grow loud and faith is stretched.

Yet we know you are faithful, that in our suffering you draw close. Our heads hope you are good today, help our hearts feel that you are. 

In this darkest moment, we come to you again, with all the small faith we can gather, and ask you to help us. We ask that you intervene, that you save us from this mess. With the hope that we have left we ask for solution. We ask that not one more life is lost to this battle, but that peace will rise.

May the whispered promise that love will one day win, become a shout, ringing like a bell around the world. Comfort those who mourn. Draw your arms around the bereaved. Pull the grieving close and hold them to your chest. 

May love heal these hearts broken and changed these hearts set on evil. 

May your strong hands break the back of every ideology that calls for death. May you dry up resources that buy weapons, and may you silence networks that recruit lost souls for war. May their plans turn to dust and their hands fumble and fail. May every plan stutter and every foot soldier stumble. Have those who make plans to kill lose heart in their cause; kill their fanaticism and turn it to peace. 

May your wisdom be in our leaders, our forces, police and our medics. Show them how to respond and how to prepare, and where to intervene. Give them words of assurance to lead us ,and strategy to defend. May the miracle of medicine save lives and heal bodies. 

Pour your peace into our beings and let it flow out from our core. Let us reach across divides to draw close to those whom our enemies would keep us from loving. Give us boldness to unite without fear and to stand with solidarity. For your perfect love casts out all fear and by that love we will win.

May your mercy be with us. Your kindness our guide and your hope drive us forward. 

Almighty God, be our Father and hold us, your children near,

Amen. 

Don’t believe the lie that you aren’t worth helping. You are. #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek

tunnel.jpg

I’ve never been amazing at having self-confidence. I have always admired people who exude that sort of confidence that comes across as fearless and calm. I’ve learned to fake it, and have faked it many many times, but inside the wheels are turning too quickly and I am just waiting to be exposed as afraid and overly concerned with the opinions others hold of me. Everyday, for a long time, has involved some level of overcoming this lack of self-assurance in order to achieve the things that I have wanted to achieve and to be more like the person I want to be. It can feel, sometimes, like I walk with an emotional limp, a dent in my character.  Continue reading

As an ex church worker, working for a church can be painful but you can help.

hadow.jpg

The first ‘church position’ I held was as a youth ministry intern in 2000. Since then the vast majority of the past 17 years have involved me spending my working hours, in some capacity either paid or as a full-time volunteer, on churches. Through many of those years I was in leadership roles. I’m now on an indefinite break (until I work out what comes next/God presents some direction) and from this side one thing stands out from the past 17 years – working for a church can be hard and painful and leading one can be even harder.  Continue reading

If it is true…

If it is true, that somewhere and somewhen is a God who by some cosmic moment of creativity invented all of us, to love and to be loved by…

And if it is true, that this same creative genius placed us on a planet to be explored and unwrapped; revealing beauty and endless gifts…

And if it is true, that at some point in our family tree, our great great greats chose not to love and chose to rebel against this loving God…

And if it is true, that as with our great great greats, there is a crack in the character of everyone of us; a crack that gives all of us people, brimming with wonder and goodness, the ability to do evil both small and grand…

And if it is true that this most patient God chose to heal us of that crack, sending love as a person, His son, to live, teach and die…

And if it is true, that by some “one part gracious, one part scandalous” exchange, played out in the hidden places, that the death of this Son of God, love as a person, washes guilt and shame from the consciences and souls of people…

And if it is true, that even people like us, the normals and mundane, the good and the bad, can benefit from that exchange, not just in our minds but in our identity; that in that moment we can become adopted children of God, no longer just creations…

And if it is true, that even the grave of that Son was not the end, that death, our oldest enemy, with all of its horror and power over us, lost its first battle with our kind, losing Jesus back to life…

And if it is true, that the same power that lifted Him from death to life, will call us, his adopted brothers and sisters, from the hands of that oldest enemy of the living…

And if it is true, that we will rise from that place to life, both eternally great and everlastingly long, in the presence of that Creator who sparked us first into existence…

If all of this is true then Easter matters. It matters when we celebrate the good and when we are broken and weary. 

It matters because even this, our today, in all of its wonder and beauty and goodness, is the grayscale of the colour of what is to come. 

It matters because even this, our today, with its pain and sorrow and anger and fear, is not the end and will not have the final word over us.

(And if it isn’t true, then enjoy your holidays and your chocolate eggs and your families and your friends. You’ve a lot to celebrate.)

Gratitude, joy and social media. 

I find social media an increasingly negative place to be. The all-you-can-eat buffet of real news, fake news, trolls and over-aggressive interactions, is indigestiion inducing and thoroughly depressing. I realise I have control of what I read and who I follow, so I’ve unfollowed and unliked some stuff today, but I want to be better at being positive. 

I believe that there is a mystical (or hormonal) connection between gratitude and joy. I think that, whatever your belief, giving thanks to God, people, the universe or nature for the good things releases a sense of joy into our souls, minds and bloodstreams. I want to be better at being grateful; better at bringing joy. 

I wonder if more of us shared our gratitude on our platforms would that release joy into the collective consciousness of social media? Do our online communities have cultures and ‘souls’ that can be affected in the same way as our ‘in real life’ communities can? 

Here’s my little idea (it feels a little like one of those chain letters but that isn’t the hope): 

Write a status that thanks God (or the universe/nature depending on your belief or lack of belief) for 3 good things. They don’t have to be huge things.

Write on 3 people’s timelines thanking them for something. (This is harder to do)  

Do this regularly. Not everyday, that would be harder than eating five fruits and vegetables, but often enough to remind yourself and the rest of us that there is very real wonder and goodness in the world as well as the very real sadness and pain.