Monday, January 29, 2007

hash and rehash...still chewing on dialogue

I grew up in the Laestadian Lutheran church, a conservative Protestant church-- I left when I was 33. There have been numerous divisions and schisms in this church since the late 1800's. There was one that happened when I was at least old enough to remember. When I was young I always wondered, if both sides of the split went their own ways, since our church believed they were the only ones who were going to heaven, what did the "heretics" think about themselves, and about us? Well, of course! They thought the same thing about us--they thought we were the heretics, that we were lost and they were saved. If they thought we were right, they would have been with us. But when you're so immersed in it, you don't really look at it from an outside perspective. You can't see the big picture of the forest when you're deep in the middle of the trees.

As I've been reading online in various places, it's been fascinating to find out how many groups there actually are--way more than two of them, and how similar the experiences have been across the spectrum of these churches. The rules and restrictions in each different groups differed, the allowed activities varied, but the emotional experiences of others who have left these churches are often very similar to mine.

I remember when I finally left the church, I was so afraid to be out (what if they were right?), but I couldn't go back because I couldn't live that way anymore. It was like I was standing in the shadow of the church, anchored there by fear, afraid to step out into the light. I was so confused, though, because even though I had lots of personal issues going on, people from church only seemed to care about the fact that I wasn't going to church anymore. I know they cared or they wouldn't have tried to talk to me about faith, but why was it that the rest of my problems seemed so insignificant to them compared to the fact that I was leaving the church?

I didn't start analyzing or examining their behavior until much later because I already knew how they were going to act. I expected it. I had lived it from the other side. I knew exactly how they were feeling; I could have said the words for them. What I didn't expect were my feelings of grief and abandonment. It is the strangest thing I have ever gone through.

It's been thirteen years and I'm still processing it at different levels. In hindsight, though, I wouldn't change my decision. I've gotten to know a loving God, finally, and I've learned that He is as much in love with me as I have come to be in love with Him. When I finally got the courage to visit other churches, I was amazed at the things I learned. It was like I had been living in the dark all my life, and someone had finally switched the light on.

Prayer doesn't mean reciting "Our Father..." at bedtime as quickly as I can and moving onto brushing my teeth. Prayer means quality time with my Papa. Wow. Faith is my source of joy. God is so good. Faith is a personal thing, not something that gets judged by the church or its members as being either good enough or insufficient .

As soon as someone decides to leave the church, it seems that people who remain in the church think that these "out-steppers" have suddenly become completely different people. Now I know that everyone there is not like this, and I don't mean to paint them all with the same brush. I'm simply basing this on my own personal experiences, for I have seen it so many times. People will be pleasant to your face, but say or write things that are critical and scornful about you to other people who are still in the church. I have read things that were written about me to other people that were difficult to interpret in any kind of a positive way. I know that we are all human, and we all say things out of emotion that are easily taken as criticism.

It seems like no one ever talks about the people who leave, and then after you leave, no one talks to you at all. Every once in a while I run into someone I knew before, and they seem glad to see me, but it still seems so awkward. We both put on our happy masks and talk about everything but church. We connect on the surface, but it feels like each of us has things that are remaining unsaid. I don't mean that in a critical way, I have simply observed that there doesn't seem to be space to be real with each other. Maybe I am the one who needs to be more straightforward and see what happens. :)

I've tried to be thick-skinned, and give people the benefit of the doubt. I've not always been successful, and a lingering resentment rears its ugly head occasionally. I'm sure that as I withdrew to avoid conflict and hurtful comments, those family members felt as if I didn't want to have contact with them as well. It still felt like abandonment and shunning to me. I felt like I was being treated as if whatever I had was contagious, like the plague, perhaps. Again, perspective is everything.

I know the people still attending there are sad about it when anyone leaves, but some of them are so quick to judge those who leave, though, and to speak critically of them. There also seems to be some fear of people outside the church. Fear of outside influence, maybe? Why else would people say not to associate with "uns," or unbelievers, people from outside the church? There are some people there who don't like to associate with anyone outside the church. I'm not so sure that isolation is not the answer because it is not realistic to think that a person will be able to live their whole life that way.

One of my brothers left the church many years before I left, and one of people's concerns at the time I was leaving was that my brother had talked me into it or had influenced me in some way. He hadn't, but I just didn't get why that mattered. That was more important than the stuff I was going through? Why?

Most of the time I really don't think about it. When something comes up that triggers thoughts about it, though, as I have experienced recently, it's like I have to mentally process it again. I mainly get stuck in the frustration of feeling like I am not heard. It doesn't matter what I say about my own faith, it is disregarded. I feel that they believe I do not have the Holy Spirit, therefore I can't possibly have anything to say that is correct. On the other hand, they believe they do have the Holy Spirit, so by default, their interpretation is the only way to see it.

They think I'm misled, that I'm lost, that I only think I'm born again when I'm really not. I don't know if they use that term for themselves, born again. (John 3) I know when I was going to that church, I thought that people outside the church who called themselves born again were viewed no differently than people who didn't go to church as all. They were still lost; most people even considered these born again Christians to be self-righteous. Unbelievers. Is this not still true? Is this not just one more way that our focus is taken off of Jesus? I'm imagining all of us at the foot of the cross, whispering and pointing, then shouting at each other, starting to push and shove, and there above us is the broken body of Christ, dying to bring us reconciliation...I am right there in that crowd with everyone else.

I know I can get sidetracked by this, too. I need to keep my focus on Christ. He did it all already. If I keep my eyes on Him, and try to live as one of His ambassadors, He can handle all the rest. I have no doubt that there are many people going there who are saved, but I believe it's only because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

I have tried to clarify my thoughts and remove generalizations and observations that have crossed the line into sarcasm and stereotyping, because my intention is to inquire, examine, discuss, and investigate, not to be divisive nor to ridicule others who are sincere in their beliefs.


Ameliorate said...

This topic is so difficult to write about, difficult to even think about. I appreciate your courage in looking into your past.

Sometime after my family joined a splinter group (they left the OALC in Minneapolis for the FALC), I remember my mother talking about "the old heresy." I asked her, "Are we the new heresy, Mom?" She was livid and spat, "The 'Big Church' is the new heresy."

I believe the splits are symptomatic of what has to happen in the psyche of those who remain in such a closed society.

May all the descendants of our ancestors find true happiness (whatever that is for each of us). May we all be free.

Thanks for posting this.

daisyaday said...

Thanks for commenting, ameliorate. It is a difficult topic to discuss in an objective way when you have been told all your life that there is only one way to look at it, only one RIGHT way, that is. So when you attempt to look at the other side to see where the truth lies, it's a little scary at first.

soapbox said...

First, I have to say Ameliorate that your remark to your mother was side-splittingly funny!

Daisy: thanks for posting this. I left the OALC in 1998. And I have had more than my share of experiences with the false faces. Trying to tell them about my faith is impossible because they are so closed--trying to simply live as a Christian is all I can do. I think in one of the Laestadius sermons we used to read it said something like "the devil reverses their eyes." How does one prove just who is seeing backwards? I think the point that all of the Lastadian churches miss is the idea of connecting to God. They are so busy squabbling over who is connected, or how one becomes connected that they forget to connect! So the light never comes on...

Anonymous said...

What you said about us being at the foot of the cross, arguing and pushing really struck me. Great image. Although technically still a member of a Laestadius church, I have gone irregularly for some time and am trying to sort things out in my mind and heart.


daisy said...

I think it's interesting that you sign yourself Saddened, because that is the one feeling I most remember as I was trying to come to terms with how I was feeling. I was sad. I felt such a sense of loss as I went through a long process of saying goodbye to some beliefs I grew up with, and knowing that if I left them behind, I would be leaving behind many loved ones and friends because I knew they would not come with me outside the walls of the church. It was scary. You'll be in my thoughts, Sad. I pray that God will help make things clear for you. He will help if you just ask Him. Thanks for your comments.