MY CHAINS FELL OFF

I HAVE STRUGGLED with church for decades.  So much of what was preached from the churchespulpit and lived out in the congregation did not gel with my understanding of the life and teachings of Christ.  However, to question the contradictions I was experiencing was met with disdain and left me feeling like a heretic, a backslider and sinner who lacked faith and was disrespectful of authority.  So I tried to get along, toe the line and believe that my involvement in the church was commendable; after all, I was working for the Lord and extending his kingdom here on earth.  The “kingdom” that was labelled “Baptist”, “Assembly of God”, “Pentecostal”, “Charismatic”, “Anglican”—whichever church I happened to belong to at the time.

After a particularly unpleasant incident in a small church in Outback Queensland, I gave up completely on my quest for a spiritual home.  I was over it.  I had tried so hard to find a place to belong and had failed.  Nonetheless, deep within I held on to a thin thread of hope that maybe one day I would find that elusive faith community that would accept me as I am, just as I would accept and love others as they were.

Eventually a horrid situation erupted from the depths of my mind, shattering my spiritually stifling fundamental evangelical faith and tearing it apart.  Gone were the constricting constraints that held my black and white, cut and dried beliefs together.  Gone was the narrowness of my understanding of God’s love and acceptance of people that set me apart from the “sinners” who did not know him and those of us who belonged to his chosen few.  Gone were the thick iron chains that had bound me to the belief that I was never good enough to be part of the “really chosen ones”, those in church leadership; the understanding that I had no right to think through life issues on my own, let alone make decisions for myself on matters that affected my life and future.  All of that was gone.  Flung off in a flash with chaos reigning and any sense of normality flying out the window.  It really was a time when “my chains fell off”, as that old hymn says, but in those early days my heart was definitely not free.

dust stormOne of the many challenges I experienced was that I felt so alone with what I was going through.  I thought I was the only one to have walked this path.  I was frightened that I was letting God down, and I was so afraid to even think of reading non-evangelical writings lest I be led further astray.  I was dreadfully confused, particularly because all I had tried to believe in, all that I had given my life to, had turned to dust and been blown away by a mighty gale, never to be gathered together again.

God in his graciousness led me to several organisations that addressed the issues I was going through.  Each one has contributed to my journey, and I am so grateful for them.

Richard Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation[i] and his extensive teachings helped ground me when the storms of confusion battered my soul.  J.B. Phillip’s book, Your God is Too Small[ii], simplified my comprehension of why I had never felt comfortable with what churches had tried to instil in me.  The website Mindful Christianity Today[iii] has been a source of encouragement with many of its messages resonating deep within, strengthening my understanding of God and teaching me how to be still in his presence and in the process learn more about his character, his love, grace and mercy.

In the early weeks of my intense rage at the church for what I had been caught up in, I came across Greg Albrecht’s book Rejecting Religion: Embracing Grace[iv], an incredible eye-opener if ever there was one.  Using the words of Jesus in Matthew 23, Greg Albrecht broke open the lies of the church and her leaders and the resultant bondage they placed upon their congregations.  When I first read that I was dumbfounded.  How dare this man write as he did!  Gosh, if I had have said what he was saying I would have been kicked out of the church for heresy.  But here he was, writing about the very concerns that had all but destroyed my soul and had left me so spiritually bereft.  Greg Albrecht did not leave the book there; he went on to demonstrate that each one of us has a responsibility to forgive those who have hurt us and live a life of grace and mercy, just like Jesus did.

While reading through Rejecting Religion: Embracing Grace a second time, I decided to contact the publisher and was pleased to have Greg respond to my email.  Through that connection I am appreciating the work of Christianity Without the Religion/ Plain Truth Ministries[v], and I look forward to more involvement with both.

Over the past few days I have come across a Facebook site that has been such an encouragement: Progressive Christians[vi].  Like other members, I was  hesitant about becoming involved with this group.  After all, doesn’t “progressive” mean liberal, anti-Christ, ungodly, accepting of all people—including gays and lesbians?  Oh dear.  What was I getting myself into?  What I have been experiencing on this site has been acceptance—that elusive sense of belonging that had evaded me for decades—love, grace, compassion, kindness, care.

Belonging to this group is so far removed from the narrow, bigoted, restricted view of God that I had found so difficult to embrace—and had felt so guilty for being rebellious and lacking in faith for not embracing—and the abiding peace and unfathomable freedom that God has promised for those who love him.

Putting all these contacts together I feel that at long last I have found what I have been looking for.  I feel so content in this fresh awareness of my God who has been with me throughout what has been at times an unbearable journey.  Standing at the threshold of this New Year, I can sing afresh the words of that old hymn that have now taken on such an invigorating new meaning:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.[vii]

chains broken

 

[i] Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.or

[ii] J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small.  New York: Macmillan, 1953

[iii] Mindful Christianity Today http://www.mindfulchristianitytoday.com

[iv] Greg Albrecht, Rejecting Religion – Embracing Grace.  Pasadena: Plain Truth Ministries, 2010

[v] Christianity Without the Religion/Plain Truth Ministries https://www.ptm.org

[vi] Progressive Christians, Facebook

[vii] Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

 

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

I HAVE COME to accept that I may never attend church again.  Given what I have been through, it is understandable.  However, this decision did not fit comfortably.  Some time ago I came across Greg Albrecht’s book Rejecting Religion – Embracing Grace[1], a book that was so timely for me.  Based on Jesus’s message about religious leaders (Matthew 23), it helped me comprehend what I was going through, particularly the way many church leaders mislead and abuse their faith communities and prevent them from knowing the reality of God’s love, joy, peace, acceptance, kindness and care.  However, Albrecht does not leave the message there.  He is keen to have readers embrace God’s grace, and in so doing have a “dynamic relationship with God”.

Rejecting Religion Embracing GraceAs I began to re-read this book, I felt guilty for not wanting to go to church and wondered how I could be a Christian, a follower of Christ, on my own in my small community.  I decided to contact  the publishers of Rejecting Religion – Embracing Grace for their comment.  I was grateful to have a response from the author, Greg Albrecht, and thought I would share this interaction with my followers.

In my first email, I wrote:

JUST OVER THREE YEARS ago I finally realised that the reason I could not find a spiritual home was not my supposed rebellion, but that I was seeing through the sham of religion. I am in a similar position as Greg, loving God – hating religion (and with very serious reasons). My query is – can I do this faith journey on my own? I am 73 years old and live alone. I have a precious, very close relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – but I feel guilty for not being “in fellowship”, but the thought of church makes me physically ill (please don’t judge me for saying that, there is a very serious reason for that reaction). Greg’s book Rejecting Religion – Embracing Grace has been so helpful for me to work through the many issues that came with the realisation I had been well and truly duped by fundamental evangelicalism.

It’s been a huge journey these past three years. I would appreciate your response.

I was grateful for Greg Albrecht’s response was:

While religious traditions, buildings, rituals and ceremonies are not fundamental and We are the churchnecessary in the life of a Christ follower, loving God and loving neighbor are central products of the life of our risen Lord – products of the love he lives in us.  We are not alone because he is in us, and his life in us will spread his light into the lives of others. Others we positively effect are those most naturally in our lives – as basic and common as people we meet shopping, at doctor’s offices, commuting to and from destinations, etc. Our Christ-centered dispositions then lead us to exude his love, to be kind, gentle and patient.  While such a Spirit-led life does not guarantee deep and lasting friendships, it will produce friendship and relationship at one level or another – as simple as having a cup of coffee or tea with another.

 Your faith journey then may be shared with others informally, with or without the benefit of an organization.  One may discuss and share their faith in a variety of ways – we speak of this mutuality as fellowship.   If you never attend or join a church again, you still might find, share and give such fellowship through joining and serving in and with a charitable group, volunteer work to help others …  does this provide a few thoughts for your consideration?

 And to this I replied:

Thank you so much for your response to my email.  Your words certainly make sense and resonate with this journey I am on.

While living alone, I must add that I live in what is called here an “over-50s active lifestyle resort”, a community of about 200 people within a small semi-rural community south of Brisbane.  Since moving here about 20 months ago I have sought out residents who claim to be “Christian”.  What an interesting exercise!  None of them want to move from their particular brand so each one remains separate.  Given your comments on how I can live for God and be an expression of God’s love for and acceptance of all people, I understand now why I can relate so well to each of them, regardless of their brand, as well as those who have no desire for God.  I relate as a follower of Jesus.  Here in my community I also have the privilege of being the editor of our monthly newsletter; through that I have been sharing something of God’s love and joy as much as appropriately possible for our diverse people.  The response has been quite positive and it has been encouraging to have meaningful conversations with many people about the tough times they are going through and their understanding of God.

As part of my “coming out” from fundamental evangelicalism, I have become much more relaxed talking with those who give little thought to God – the wretched sinners we had to avoid like the plague unless we planned to convert them to Jesus –  something my church would frown upon.  But those people are far more accepting of me, and respectful, than those I tried so hard to connect with in churches.  And they are open in their conversations with me.  It’s as though God has been working with Jesus friend of allme in ways I had not known, but in keeping with his promises that he knows what he is doing with me.  After chatting the other night with a few people from the bowls club, I was a little concerned about mixing with those so far removed from church.  And then God reminded me that that was exactly what Jesus did, and he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard, friend of sinners (Matthew 11:18, 19), and he went on doing just what he was doing.  My question has always been, “How on earth can those who need to know Jesus – all of us, in and out of the church – come to know Jesus if we’re afraid to talk about him?

I have been going through massive changes these past three years, particularly this past year as I’ve come to embrace what God is doing in, with and through me, and not fighting it.  It is an exciting phase of my journey; I have made mistakes, but God and I are doing okay.

Once again, thank you for your response.  I appreciate your understanding of what I have been experiencing.

Sometimes all it takes is for one person who understands the journey we are on to make an enormous difference to how we live it out.  Greg’s words resonated so much with me and have shown me that I am on the right track—very different from what had held me captive for decades—but so very right, at long, long last.  Our God is great, so very great!  And awesome, and incredibly wonderful!

[1] Greg Albrecht, Rejecting Religion – Embracing Grace.  Pasadena: Plain Truth Ministries, 2010