Not This

How many of you stayed in something too long, and looking back you can see the actual time it became too long? There was the time when it was time to go but you held on because it was known, it was safe, there was a pay cheque, you were afraid, and it’s when you stayed after that time the thing went bad on you.

There are seasons in life, and when aseason ends, it’s OK.

Something can be good, and it’s OK to end it while it is still good.

There are rhythms and cycles in life, in nature. Day moves into night, winter moves into spring, childhood moves into adulthood. In our modern lives we have become more and more disconnected from the natural rhythms of nature and at the same time seem to have lost the ability to know when one season in life has come to a natural end. Perhaps it’s time to rediscover the power of cycles and seasons. This thing was great, and now it’s done! It’s not done because someone lied or cheated, it’s done because it’s done.

Sometimes we get the sense something is ending without knowing why. We get the sense something is dying and the only reason its dying is because there’s some new thing that wants to be birthed. The temptation is to panic, put the brakes on, become numb to it, rather than let it die, grieve it, and move on.

Sometimes we know something is ending but we say I’ll let it end when I know what the next thing is. We want to leap straight from one stepping stone to next without getting our feet wet. We have a sense it is time to move on, and we even know the direction we need to move in, but we stay because we want to know the details. It’s like we are afraid to trust, afraid that we are misguided, afraid that without the affirmation of others we will make some terrible mistake. But take away the risk and we take away the energy that sustains us and all the things that shape us.

Some of you will be in a situation where all the energy around it is instructing you that it has ended, but you can’t leave because you don’t know what the next thing is. There is an incredible power in the two words not this. Those two words are enough to know that it’s time to leave.

  • What are you going to do now? I don’t know, but not this.
  • Where are you going to go now? I don’t know but not this.
  • Where are you going to live? Not this place.
  • What church are you going to? Not this church.
  • What job are you going to do? Not this job.
  • Who is your partner going to be? Not this partner.

Don’t ignore those two words. Not this is enough. If you ignore not this your soul will become appalled.

If you wake up every day and everything around you says not this, but you say I must because, then your soul will become appalled and you are going to start breaking. Your soul will find ways of telling you. Maybe though sickness, maybe through exhaustion, maybe through anxiety, but your soul will find a way to tell you that you cannot do another day.

So, don’t wait until you know what the next thing is. If everything is crying out not this, just go. Just throw a rope over the wall and rescue yourself out of there. Don’t let it get to the point where your soul is appalled. There are some places where it’s better to walk away with nothing than to stay there.

Credit where credit is due

This post is heavily inspired by a Rob Bell podcast featuring Elizabeth Gilbert. You can hear the whole thing at: https://robbell.podbean.com/e/live-at-largo-with-elizabeth-gilbert-part-2/

Is the church founded on fear?

I was recently asked why people in churches would feel fearful in a community that is supposed to be about love.

I can only speak from my own experiences of church, and for the most part these have been positive. I have experienced much love and acceptance in the church and have tried to return this. John the Evangelist wrote, ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment’. I think it is true that where love is complete there is no fear; of rejection, of not coming up to the standard, of being different etc. When someone loves you to this extent it really is liberating. Ultimately this is what I believe about God and also about what faith communities should embody: love and acceptance of all, valuing and nurturing the divine in everyone, no matter where they are in their understanding of faith, and irrespective of gender, race, sexuality etc.

So why is there often an underlying fear to faith?

I think within any community there is a natural fear of ‘difference’ and an inclination over time for communities to become more conservative i.e. preserving the community becomes more and more important. We naturally feel safer with those who agree with us and I think it would be very difficult to eliminate this from the church completely. However there does seem to be an issue with fear especially in more fundamentalist and evangelical contexts. I suspect this is down to a belief in a literal hell, and the understanding of ‘salvation’ as an acceptance of (or submission to) a set of beliefs. This leads to ultimate authority given to those who can correctly interpret the Bible and mediate the ‘correct’ truth, and a suspicion of those who question or doubt these interpretations. In this understanding, those who challenge the ‘correct’ truth are to be feared because they are literally jeopardising the eternal future of others in the community.

However I feel this is more of a justification rather than the actual reason. Belief in hell is a little too abstract for most people for it to govern their everyday behaviour. A less abstract proxy is that questioning of ‘correct’ beliefs is threatening to the power structures within the organisation. Leaders have been assigned the responsibility and accountability for correct belief and practice; for the rest their responsibility is to submit to this authority. If belonging is based on believing the right things, and the right things are determined by the leaders; then questioning these beliefs questions those in authority and therefore threatens their legitimacy, and the stability of the organisation.

At the very least this can lead to a wariness to explore questions and doubts, and sometimes to outright hostility and shaming. Ironically this can lead to a situation I have witnessed, where visitors and enquirers are welcomed and accepted with open arms, but those who have been part of the community for a long time are discouraged from questioning practices or expressing doubts, and those with the courage to do so are treated as dangerous. Many are unaffected by this and are happy to conform, secure that their leaders are doing the hard work in working out what to believe. For others who cannot help but question, their doubts can be accompanied by a deep-seated anxiety or fear. What will others think? What will the leaders think? Will I lose my friends? What if I am wrong? What if I am risking hell and damnation? For those who have experienced and been burned by a fundamentalist community it can be hard to go back and try again for fear of being hurt all over again.

I believe that an authentic faith must leave room for doubt, that authentic community is based on acceptance not conformity, and that a church that truly incarnates the presence of Jesus will be inclusive to all. I haven’t got space here to expand on this but I believe there are strong theological and biblical justifications for this conviction.

Ultimately I am hopeful. I do believe that faith communities can thrive without conformity. There are countless congregations in churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples, and a myriad other faith communities which are actively trying to build inclusive communities based on love not conformity. However if a community itself is founded on conformity then its existence and growth will be at the cost of excluding those who threaten or undermine that conformity. This does seem to be quite a successful strategy numerically (evangelical churches are the ones which are growing) but is hardly ‘thriving’ when it is ultimately harmful for the well-being of many of the members, and for the reputation (or ‘witness’) of the organisation.

If you are part of a community based on conformity but find yourself with doubts and questions, I pray that you find others with whom you can explore your beliefs without fear of shame or rejection. If you are in this situation but feel you have no-one to talk to, have a look at another of my posts where I listed a few suggestions of where you might find such a community online.

As always, I’d appreciate your feedback on these ramblings.

When someone tells you they have changed their beliefs

cartoon of speech bubbles showing what people say when you question your beliefs
When you start questioning your beliefs

I recently reposted the cartoon above by the nakedpastor with the caption ‘What people say when you change your beliefs’. It prompted some interesting comments and one in particular got me thinking. How would we want people to respond? How should you respond if someone tells you this? Here are some of my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.

  • Remember your friend has made themselves vulnerable to you. It has probably taken them considerable courage to speak up on the topic. Please be sensitive to that.
  • Responding with shock, disbelief, or disapproval will almost certainly shut down the conversation and possibly jeopardise your relationship. Again, remember your friend has made themselves vulnerable to you.
  • Asking about the way they arrived at their new belief is probably a good thing. In most cases I am sure they would appreciate being listened to and taken seriously. But asking them ‘WHY!!!??’ is maybe not so good.
  • Bear in mind you don’t have to agree with them but neither do they have to agree with you. Don’t try to convince them they are wrong. I am sure it won’t work and by pushing them away you will probably lose a friend at a time when they need you.
  • Don’t use fear to try to manipulate your friend. You may believe that their new views are dangerous and will lead them to ‘ship wreak their faith’. But this says more about your own fears and your own faith than your friend’s. You may be sure they have already tortured themselves with these fears before they spoke to you. Right now they need to feel listened to and valued. Full stop.
  • Don’t pull away from the relationship. You may find the conversation awkward, and it might even unsettle you in your own beliefs. But your relationship is more important. Your friend needs you and you need them, and you can find a way to be their friend even if you believe different things.
  • Finally it goes without saying you should not go and repeat what you discussed with a third party. This is simply gossip and a certain way to lose your friend and hurt them into the bargain.

What do you think? How have people responded when you have told them you have changed your beliefs? How do you wish they had responded?

If you are going through a process of questioning your beliefs and feel you have no-one to talk to, there are a number of online spaces where you can discuss issues of faith and doubt without getting censured:

Living at the edge of faith

Many of us find ourselves living at the edge of faith. We have moved consciously or unconsciously away from the centre towards the margins, from certainty to uncertainty, from black-and-white to shadows of grey. We have left behind the safety of the crowd, the security of looking to others for the answers, the identity of the exclusive tribe. Instinctively we know that we can only truly exist in a place where doubt, questioning, wrestling, and change are not only permitted but valued.

For some this has been almost effortless, a liberating journey, a burden dropping from our shoulders with every step. For many more this journey has been a gargantuan endeavour. Living with uncertainty can be exhausting especially when we have been conditioned to believe that it is harmful and ultimately sinful. Many of us would return to certainty if we could, but once you have seen you cannot unsee, once you have tasted you cannot untaste.

Some of us have found like-minded people to journey with either in physical communities, or online via blogs, podcasts, and social media. Many more have found that the margins can be a lonely place. We may not have been shunned or ostracised – although many are – but nevertheless find ourselves without a community. We may still attend a church or faith community but even so have no-one to journey with. Without another with whom to talk through our questions, doubts, hopes, and fears, we can become bogged down, unable to go back to our former life but unable to move forwards to a more healthy place.

That’s why I am creating a new Facebook group ‘Undogmatics: living at the edge of faith’. It will be a safe place to share, question, discuss, and connect with others who are living at the margins. It will be a closed group so contributions will only be visible to other group members. Honesty will be valued but respect for one another will be paramount. If you have learned to thrive on the margins you may be able to encourage others. If you are just trying to survive you may find sustenance along the way. If this sounds like it may be for you, please get in touch in the comments or at undogmatics@gmail.com and I will send you an invitation.

You Are Not Alone

I have had some mixed responses to my last post.

Thankfully most have been positive. Those of you that write will know how incredibly vulnerable it can feel to write honestly about something that has been painful to you, and then to hit the ‘Publish’ button. So it is gratifying when people can say positive things about a post even when they don’t agree with everything in it.

A few responses have been less positive. Some have spoken of alarm bells (presumably about some ‘dangerous’ opinion), others have questioned whether it is helpful or necessary to write about such things. It is this second point want to address today.

My response it that it is not only necessary, it is essential. That is, essential for me to say it, and essential for others to hear it.

When one has been through a significant experience it can be difficult to make sense of what has happened. Speaking things out, writing them down, listening to others, discussing with others; these are all ways of processing life experiences and are all the more important when these have involved a measure of pain. These have been an essential in dealing with my life journey over the last decade. Very few people would begrudge me doing these things. But the question is (and it is a good question): ‘why do you need to publish this stuff online?’ Behind the question is the implication that it is uncharitable to some people and unhelpful to others.

I readily concede that it is difficult to write about experiences of church without being seen criticise others, especially church leaders. I have struggled with this and one reason I have not written about these things sooner is that I have needed to be sure in myself that I am not writing out of hurt or resentment. For the record, I did not leave my former church because of some disagreement or falling out with anyone. The church is a good church and the people are good people, many of whom I still count as friends. My posts are not directed at individuals but at a belief system and culture, which was my home for many decades and helped me in many ways, but ultimately become something I could not stay in any longer.

So why say these things publicly? Why publish them in a blog and then promote them on Facebook and Twitter. Why not quietly and privately grieve the passing of one season of life, and then move onto a new chapter without hurting anyone’s feelings or challenging their comfortable beliefs? The answer is: I know I am not alone. There are many people who are right now going through the same unsettling, bewildering, questioning of faith, of what they have been taught, of God. This might even be you. And because of the culture of your church, you find it impossible to express these thoughts without disapproval, condemnation, or worse, pity. You do not need to have verses quoted at you, exhortations to have more faith, to pray more. You do not need treating like a sick person, whose contagious disease could fatally infect others. You need to know that it is okay to think, to question, to grow. You need to know it is okay to not have all the answers, to challenge certainties, to embrace mystery. You need to know it is okay to be disturbed, to be angry, or just plain tired of struggling with it all. You need to hear this stuff, and hear it from me.

And that is why a write this stuff. It is not for the certain, the faithful, the sure. It is not for the confident, the zealous, the radical. It is for the nervous, the shaken, the bewildered. It is for the hurting, the wounded, the reeling. It is for the doubters, the unstable, the exhausted. You are not alone.

Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 1 Leaving

It has been 18 months since I left the evangelical church. I should probably define what I mean by ‘evangelical’ but that would take a whole article at least. So I’ll simply say that I’m talking about the kind of church where being ‘evangelical’ is important.

If you are reading this you probably either wish you could leave the evangelical church, or think I am crazy or heretical.  This article is aimed mainly at those of you in the first group. I want to reassure you that although you may feel a bit crazy at times, you are in fact completely normal, and almost certainly not heretical (whatever that means…).

Can I leave?

Yes of course you can. It will be hard. You will feel guilty. You will lose friends – but not all your friends. And you will probably be maligned and slandered – but not very often. But you are not alone. Many have left before you, and many will leave after you. You have permission to leave. It is not a mortal sin.

Why do I want to leave?

Of course only you can answer this. But perhaps I can articulate some reasons. Perhaps there are negative factors pushing you away:

  • You are upset about the exclusive ‘them and us’ theology you hear every week.
  • You are angry about a sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic culture.
  • You cringe when you hear about creationism and hostility towards science.
  • You understand that insisting the Bible is inerrant and infallible is untenable, and can be a cause of many toxic thought patterns and behaviours.
  • You are becoming scared of a culture in which agreement and submission are a condition of belonging.
  • You are distressed by the god who needs to be placated by a bloody sacrifice.
  • You are disturbed that this religion condemns 99.99% of humanity to eternal conscious torment.

You may simply have a growing feeling of uneasiness or alienation, but can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

Perhaps your reasons are more positive:

  • You have a seen a more inclusive, expansive gospel that unites rather than divides.
  • You are beginning to see the image of God in every person which is changing the way you view people following different faiths and lifestyles to your own.
  • You are believe that a life of faith does not mean being anti-scientific or anti-academic study.
  • You are becoming convinced that if the gospel is good news for anyone then it must be good news for everyone.

Or perhaps you’re just not sure any more. Not sure that everything you have been told is true. Not sure whether God exists. Not sure what any of this means.

Are these people wrong?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. In my 50+ years in the evangelical church I have rarely met people who were wilfully manipulative or self-seeking. Almost all were people of integrity, well-meaning and sincere. Maybe Spirit is just leading you along a different path.

What should I do?

One thing is sure – once you have seen a glimpse of something different, you cannot un-see it. You may supress it or try to ignore it but ultimately it will not go away. I am not an authority but these suggestions might be helpful.

  • Know that you are not alone. There are many other good, faithful, sane Christians who have gone through and are going through the same as you.
  • Confront the reasons you are uneasy with the evangelical church. It is more comfortable to ignore the niggling doubts, but in the long run this will almost certainly be unhelpful.
  • If you are seeing something new, acknowledge it, and acknowledge it is good. There is a more beautiful gospel. Once you have seen you cannot un-see.
  • Talk about it. If you have friends who are open to talk about your concerns, then great. But if not, find someone to who is. If you don’t know anyone contact me. I would consider it a privilege and an honour to give you a safe and confidential space to talk things through.
  • Realise you may go through a period of months or even years where faith is very hard or impossible for you. This is a normal and positive part of the journey.
  • Be open to different expressions of faith. This evangelical now venerates icons and is the better for it.
  • Follow your instincts. He who is in you will lead you into all truth.

What do you think?

In my faith journey I have had to work through a number of issues. I plan to write about some of these in future. But please let me know if there is anything specific you would like me to address in future articles. I would welcome your feedback in the comments below. Or you can use Twitter to message me directly.

 

Faith Shift


faith-shift-663x1024When once faithful followers begin disturbing the status quo, instead of honouring their spiritual evolution they are often labelled as rebellious, divisive, and even heretical. We attend church less often or leave church altogether. Sometimes we’re asked to leave. The anger and guilt can lead us to disconnect from God. Lost and without a map, many of us end up on the fringes of all we once knew – alone, disorientated, and disillusioned.

Faith Shift – Kathy Escobar

Many Christians encounter what is often described as a crisis of faith. Some supress it and just carry on. Others leave the church and faith entirely. Escobar describes this as a faith shift. In this book (also entitled Faith Shift) she offers a description of the journey many find themselves in and offers hope that this might be a good thing.

She describes the early stages of the Christian life as Fusing. We begin with belief, add to this learning, we work hard for God, and find security in belonging to our tribe. There is security in affiliation, conformity and certainty. Many stay at this stage for all their lives.

But for many this stage is followed by Shifting.  When the foundation of faith begins to crack there are often common ingredients. Disengagement with the worship, the sermon, the church and others. Uncertainty with what seemed so sure. Longing for a more authentic faith, a faith that is bigger than the rules, regulations and certainty of our infancy. A faith that is more about redemption than judgement, more about restoration than condemnation. A faith that is more about this world than the next. At this point do we turn back to safety or push on into uncertainty?

There are many reasons for turning back: we may be concerned about the effect on our family our children, we may miss the inspiration we used to receive, we want to avoid the pain and turmoil of moving forward, we miss the certainty of our old faith. Escobar is clear: it’s OK to go back, and it’s OK to go forward.

For many going back is not an option. The forward path leads to Unravelling. Each unravelling is different. But negative feelings are commonplace, including sadness, anger, confusion, fear, and shame. Escobar offers soul care for the unravelling: expect the unexpected; come to terms with negative emotions; consider the possibility that your soul is not at risk; accept that some relationships will fall away; make time for safe, life-giving friends; try experiencing God in new ways; be selective in what you read and what events you attend; resist the temptation to compare yourself to others; avoid big triggers if possible.

Fortunately there is hope. Unravelling is just a stage in the journey. You can move on to Rebuilding. What seems like an ending can become a beginning.   Drawing on her own personal story and that of dozens of others, Escobar offers compassion, hope and tangible practices for rebuilding a new and authentic faith.

kescobarKathy Escobar co-pastors the Refuge, a Christian community in North Denver. You can learn more about her work and writing at www.kathyescobar.com. Faith Shift is published by Convergent Books.