Posts Tagged ‘prodigal’

I can’t believe what happened.

This past Sunday, at my wife’s behest, we “officially” made the decision to join the local church we had been attending off and on.

Largely because I was getting tired of running from the “Hound of Heaven”.  At work, over the past year or so, I’ve had random encounters with a few colleagues who turned out to be Christians!  Needless to say, they’re now praying for me and keeping me accountable. And that is probably the other main reason why I did not oppose my wife’s desire for our family to join – so I can be more accountable.

Still, on one level, nothing has changed for me. I still have the same hang ups, hesitations and hopes (however dim) regarding “institutional church”. I still have my worldly appetites, attitudes and actions. In short, I’m still very much in recovery mode.

In light of past disappointments, disillusionments and departures, I ask myself: What will be different this time? Will I be able to carry through with my commitment? Will the church members accept me for who and all that I am? Will my voice be heard and my vision at least be considered? Will I be able to find my place within the church community where I can serve with my gifts?  (Not that church is the only locus where one can exercise their gifts.) Will I be able to endure all the politics?  Will they be able to put up with me?

It’s not even been a week since becoming a member and I’m already an anxious wreck!

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Return of the Prodigal: Part 3

When I re-read Ian’s email from October 2015, the sentence that jumped out at me was of course this one:

As some of you already know, I have become convinced that what we know as “church” today, is actually little more than a shallow, cultural imposter of the church as God has designed us to be.

The email was an invitation to find out more about “lifegroups” (aka “small groups”, “fellowship groups”). Since I make no distinction between church as “Sunday morning service” and other gatherings, I concurred heartily of course with Ian’s comment.

Indeed, the interactive and more intimate setting would afford us greater opportunities to live out the Christian life, especially its relational and communal aspects. I was  disheartened that only one other couple showed up. Clearly, most people still view Sunday morning as the main (and most important) event.

  * * * * *

Because brother Ben was so patient and persistent in inviting me every time he saw me, and because I appreciated his quiet and humble zeal for the Lord, I finally gave in and attended the men’s bible study.  As luck would have it, it was the last Saturday of the month, which meant breakfast was served! For me of course, it is not about the food, but rather, the implications of a shared, common meal.

I have to confess that it was with some trepidation that I ventured to attend a bible study group again, based on past experiences, as it often seems an exercise in futility: largely a cacophony of questions left unanswered, random comments thrown out haphazardly (often out of context), disagreements over trivia, and over-spiritualized “applications” of the text (without taking care to first bridge the hermeneutical gap).

However, I was largely pleased that Ben, who facilitated the discussion, kept things on track by staying close to the text (the group was studying the Book of Esther). Still, judging from some of the participants’ comments, I think there should be a regular offering of a workshop on basic biblical interpretation, perhaps utilizing Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth as a guide (with D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies close at hand). I think this would go a long way towards reducing the frequency of some of the egregious and eyebrow raising remarks often heard in bible study groups!

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Return of the Prodigal: Part 2

You already know this. What you long for cannot be found in the “church worship service.” That is not where authentic body life happens. But as you also know, when one has been deeply wounded it is difficult to trust—and to love—again.
(Ian, email to me on May 18)

I have to confess how good it feels to have someone, especially someone from the “clerical caste” (who, as a group, are not often known for harbouring dissent but rather, casting judgment) actually understand me and my struggles with church. He’s in the system and yet not fully of the system, which is why I think we connect.

I reached another milestone recently: a few weeks ago, my wife and I attended one of the church’s Lifegroup gatherings. I have to admit I didn’t know what to expect, but it was great to hear everyone’s stories. I was relieved it wasn’t one of those canned small group meetings with so much artificial sweeteners added; so glad that Ian and Sherri kept things raw and real.

However, in a follow-up email conversation with Ian, I told him “I still have some hesitation and trepidation”, to which he once again was able to put his finger on the “root cause” of my fears (damn, this guy’s scary!):

… the real reason you are so cautious about re-entering church again, is that it again exposes your heart to the potential of (what I call) “love wounds,” of being damaged and disappointed by those you have loved so deeply. So that puts you in a real bind, my brother. You are forever going to be discontent with “shallow, show-up, go-home, change-nothing church.” But to go deep again is going to expose your heart again to the risk of pain…

I should mention that this exchange was initiated by my inquiring why a prominent couple (family) left the church recently, since it really bothered me (even though I hardly knew them at all). And of course, because we both love music, Ian nailed it by closing his analysis with some lines from Nazareth:

Love hurts, love scars,
Love wounds and mars
Any heart
Not tough
or strong enough
To take a lot of pain,
take a lot of pain

Love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain

Maybe I’m just the Tin Man …

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In an earlier post, I explained how I started “attending church” again after a lapse of over 10 years. In 2014, I attended maybe 3 times. My excuses included: too busy with my new job, too busy caring for my sister who’s battling brain cancer, and of course, I’m not ready to return to being hurt and disappointed again.

But my wife was (lovingly, for the most part) pestering me to join her and our daughters who were attending more frequently. So I made a promise that in the new year I would go more often.  In the meantime, I dropped by occasionally on Tuesday evenings for some table tennis.  Occasionally the talk turned to theological matters which, oddly, piqued some fond memories …

I’ve surprised myself. Starting out at once a month, I now find myself attending every other week almost regularly. More importantly, there are times – lying at bed at night, on the bus early morning on the way to work – when I can almost hear the Voice of Him who I’ve turned my back on for so long. Yet the dark clouds of doubt, disappointment and disillusionment continue to follow me as well, threatening to drown me with a torrential flood of despair.

Seems that I’ve got to carry my load
Keep on down that long winding road
But I’d like to sit down for a while
Got a dark cloud following me
Seems that fate just won’t let me be
Got to keep on pushing down the road

Seems to me this road has got no end
But maybe it gets better round the bend

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Prodigal’s Predicament

It’s been almost a decade since I stopped attending church. Yes, church had its share of disappointments, but truth be told, I was also using my disillusionment as an excuse to let my dark side roam free. And yet I never really felt fully free. Partly because I have a good wife, who for all her faults and flaws, never gave up: on me, on God. Partly because of my annoying conscience. Cursed man that I am! Unable to fully enjoy the depraved delights that the world has to offer! Of course, ultimately, because of the grace of God.

I went out there in search of experience
To taste and to touch and to feel as much
As a man can before he repents

For almost a decade, I’ve explored and enjoyed Vanity Fair, but have also gotten lost and lonely on Desolation Row, all the while stumbling down the Highway to Hell – and yet … and yet, a still small voice whispers to me from the Stairway to Heaven.

“I am a quiet man. I tend to think things through and try not to say too much. But here I am, saying perhaps too much. But there are these feelings inside me which need badly to escape, I guess. And this makes me feel relieved because one of my big concerns these past few years is that I’ve been losing my ability to feel things with the same intensity ― the way I felt when I was younger. It’s scary ― to feel your emotions floating away and just not caring. I guess what’s really scary is not caring about the loss.”

― Douglas Coupland, Life After God

Last summer, at my wife’s insistence, I reluctantly agreed to start “attending church” (ugh, hate this phrase). At first, I recoiled at the very thought. But thankfully, the pastor isn’t too “clerical” (actually he’s a pretty cool dude) and the church overall seems friendly and welcoming. Great. This intrusion of grace into my life is leading to confusion. What now? Is the prodigal ready to return to the Father’s house?

I do find myself wondering how redemption and restoration would look like if I were to embark on that long journey home. Does “attending church” constitute the first few steps? What about the doubts and darkness in my soul? What was I so angry and bitter about anyways that led to me turning my back on God and abandoning church life? Must I rehearse the painful memories again?

I feel I wasted the best years of my life with religious activities: attending church (at one point, 3 times a week!), teaching Sunday School, leading Bible studies, preaching sermons, leading a youth group, serving as deacon, church web master, church librarian, etc, etc. And of course, the studying: I got caught up in the deep intellectual pursuit of biblical studies and theology. I spent a small fortune (too embarrassed to name the amount) amassing a huge library of books, journals, CDs, etc. that put to shame what 99% of seminary students and pastors possessed. Surely, much learning doth make thee mad. Instead of devoting my spare time on professional development to advance my career, I frittered away years in acquiring the equivalent of a seminary education on my own. WTF?!

Of course, I need not elaborate on the attendant stresses and strains on marital and familial life that results from being an absent husband and father. Not to mention neglecting my body: imagine me hunkering down in the library at a local theological college instead of going for a run or hike with family and/or friends on a beautiful summer Saturday morning. What a frickin’ freak! No surprise when I was diagnosed with Aplastic Anemia 10+ years ago. Due to the nature of my disease, I was effectively house bound for almost a year. It was the second major, adverse event in my adult life. And it was the second major letdown I experienced with church. Less than a handful called, emailed or visited. One or two thoughtfully dropped off a few meals. But to put it bluntly: miserable comforters, a total failure of compassion and care. Yeah, I was pissed off.

Speaking of church, there is the “small” matter of how I totally disagree with the modern day incarnation of what church life and practice should look like. A decade’s worth of observations and reflection have only deepened my views on this subject. Sure, I can tolerate – heck, even enjoy sometimes – the religious performances served to me in the comfort of my pew. But long term, I know I won’t survive merely as an observer with a view from the pew. Why? Because church is not a “spectator sport”. Because of everything I’ve written about elsewhere.

But even my experiment with and experience in church gatherings more aligned with my vision and views was ultimately disappointing.

Then there’s the banality and superficiality of most Christians. No wonder we’re called sheep.

So now what? Am I that anal? Is there any room for compromise? Interestingly, the church I’ve been visiting is undergoing a period of transition and transformation. Is there any creative way I can be involved? Can the church stomach the contributions of a runaway rebel renegade, with dirt on his hands and darkness in his heart? Last week, after the “church service” (ugh, it pains me to use this phrase), there was an invitation for new and prospective members to a “lunch and learn” session. I have to admit, a part of me was curious enough to want to check it out. But in the end, I went home and had leftovers. Damn, I bet they had better food.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death1

Despite all that’s happened in the past decade or so (career disappointments, a serious health issue, loss of my dad and big sister, chaotic and dysfunctional marital/family life, disappointments with Christians – even betrayal in one case), I’m actually more content than I’ve been in a LONG time. Even my wife may agree with me on this, but she also reminds me of promises and commitments made and broken. I recall dreams shattered and desires unquenched. And as I reflect on what lies ahead “the knowledge comes to me that I have space within me for a second, timeless, larger life.” (Rilke)

Despite this contentment, there is an incessant restlessness in my soul … and in the small still snatches of time during my busy days, I can sometimes hear the whisper in the wind. And yet, I am afraid to respond to that call, to return to that life with its disappointments and disillusionments.

“I thought of how every day each of us experiences a few little moments that have just a bit more resonance than other moments—we hear a word that sticks in our mind—or maybe we have a small experience that pulls us out of ourselves, if only briefly …

And if we were to collect these small moments in a notebook and save them over a period of months we would see certain trends emerge from our collection—certain voices would emerge that have been trying to speak through us. We would realize that we have been having another life altogether; one we didn’t even know was going on inside us. And maybe this other life is more important than the one we think of as being real … So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story-making events of our lives.”

― Douglas Coupland, Life After God

The voice beckons me back to a hillside on that dark day and part of me strains to get a fresh glimpse of the Man on the middle tree, but amidst the doubts and darkness, it’s hard to see.

I’m at the darkened hillside
And there’s a haze right between the trees
And I can barely see you
You’re like an ocean in between the waves2

Then I remember why it’s so hard for me to find my way back home: because the journey and life of faith has to be embedded within authentic community and shared lives. So we’re back to the issue of “church”. In articulating what I’m longing for, I can only quote once more these words that capture the essence of what I envision:

“The believers came together around Christ and his story. They also came with their own. They came to (re)connect their own stories to his, and to each others’. That was the gathering. They taught, prophesied, shared, ate, sang, and prayed their stories – their lives – together around Christ. The Spirit made the conversation possible. All the people shared the Spirit through whom they met God and one another face-to-face. They urged one another in conversation to grow into the full measure of their freedom and dignity.

The sermon and the service have hijacked conversation. There are conventions for talking and listening, but next to none for true dialogue. Preaching does not allow it. Worship services do not allow it. Theological debate does not allow it. Each has its semblance of conversation. But the rules of each game militate against an open-ended meeting of hearts and minds free from the controlling agendas of keeping the systems in place.

What kinds of new conversation do I envisage? First of all, not the neutral posturing of traditional exegesis and theology, nor the pseudo-interaction of preaching and church service, but people engaging with one another around concern and desire grounded in their everyday experiences. At heart is a rhythm between ancient narrative and modern story; between insight and healing. The agenda is as broad as life. The mood may be analytical and incisive, light and irreverent, deep and therapeutic. Maybe all, some or none of the above. At its heart are people wrestling with the Spirit and one another to know the truth, grace and freedom of Christ in all the particulars of who they are and what fills their lives. I think of them as ‘grace-full conversations’. Conversations marked by grace. Conversations full of grace. Conversations that bring grace.”

― Mark Strom, Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community; pp. 18,19.

Anyone want to have a conversation about this?

  1. Time, Pink Floyd
  2. An Ocean In Between The Waves, The War On Drugs

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