Once upon a long time ago, a man, his wife and their two bebés entered a big, beautiful baptist church after relocating ninety minutes north of their San Diego love nest. The attendees in that sixties vintage sanctuary were warm and welcoming; the teaching was sound; the location too perfect; the parking was easy; an invite to the MOMs group was immediate; the nursery, mostly clean. While unremarkable, the music was sweet sounding, and now and then, a soloist seemed to call down the angels.
Best of all, the pastor was not one of those yelling pulpit pounders whose misguided pomposity makes it impossible to invite neighbors and friends.
That man and his wife are us. We loved this church, and imagined our kids' weddings there, and even our funerals, too, so sure were we that we'd found the perfect spiritual ground zero.
So, we stayed, and our family grew by one. We made a few friends, invited a few neighbors, and some in-laws even joined us once; and we half-read our Bibles and tryTryTried to pray everyday so we might growGrowGrO.
But I learned quickly not to question leadership. A first conflict surfaced over birth control. I oppose it, as it works with a back-up abortifacient in the formula. Other conflicts arose over pro-life literature, voter registration drives and Bible studies on various political platforms. I asked a leader at a dinner party what she thought. Controversy is a No-No, she said; such topics are way too dangerous for the pastor to take a stand on. She didn't think he should "go there."
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TO borrow a phrase from the Hatten family, "our years there were marked by where we sat in church each Sunday." Twenty two years of dotting that big theatre-style sanctuary with our bottoms firmly planted in the worn, squeaky (and somewhat painful) seats until, by the end of the last decade we had migrated around to that far front section on the far left side.
And there in front of us, nearly always seated two or three rows ahead, would be Chris and Lindsay. Her smile was warm, her loving ways so amazing, her generous spirit always evident, and Chris had a heart to match. They made you sure that God did indeed intersect with this fallen world in real and immediate ways... unlike my world, where the intersections had clogged a bit, and I just couldn't quite figure out why. But that's for another day.
Meanwhile, Chris composed, sang and lead worship.
Now and then, we would slide a few dollars under their door, or send something by mail, always anonymously, and always troubled by just a little "sweat" over not knowing if the mailman might lose it, or if their dog would accidentally eat it.
In the interim, a few pastors came and went amidst some rumblings about why; and then all seemed well enough again, so that one never inquired as to details, as that would be stooping to gossip.
Somewhere in the mix came a 100 Year Anniversary of the big beautiful baptist church, and all seemed airtight and locked in for another good 100 year run.
But that was before the terrible 2000's started to disintegrate everyone and everything in a strange and unforeseen way that took our prized little faith nest and mitigated it one trial at a time.
Looking back, I now see how every few years a tinge of subtle dysfunction seemed to work a little leaven --both mine and theirs-- into the once fresh loaf until eventually, everyone was blindly preferring flat, tasteless melba toast because the fresh loaf had soured. I want to say it started with the move in the late nineties to remove "Baptist" from the church name and signage, and no one batted an eye. Doctrinal compromises crept in, sure, but in refusing to face them, it was mistreatment of the laity that finally brought this church down.
Meanwhile, from my vantage point, I had long before detached from the leadership.
...There was a pastor I like to call Mr. Pottery Barn, who advised my Missions bound middle child to put off her foreign missions plans in order to pursue a post-graduate degree, and now her huge student debt prevents any thought of her leaving; and surely the same man was joking when he said he wouldn't take my son to "share" Christ at our local café because he didn't like the coffee there... only he wasn't joking. Actually, no pastor I knew practiced evangelism; and the last time I saw him, PBMan was in a bar sucking down a frosty beer with their latest Late-Great Pastor. . . Then, there's the beset, sort-of Men's Minister who seemed so aggrieved and passive, and who answered one phone call once; and the frownie support staff couple who started a (not very baptist) brewery; and that high school retreat after which my son announced that his "youth pastor said" to strut around the house in his underwear, sporting a G-Unit baseball cap, because now it meant 'GodUnit', and I would just have to get over it. And I recall a Jr.High overnighter where the kids gorged on candy, ran around 'till exhausted, maybe slept, and then went home in the morning with nary a devotional reading, teaching, or prayer, nor anything redeeming that might distinguish the event from a Boys&GirlsClub slumber party, and never mind that our chronically ill child gave away her sleeping bag and slept on the unheated floor with no covers, and was now feeling sick. Don't forget that Children's Ministry Director who accused me of stealing classroom scissors, possibly because I walked in on her sneaking the donated Harvest Festival candy she desperately begged everyone to donate...
Worst of all were the scary looks I'd get from one pastor's wife --and her best friend-- whose offhand comments about how good looking her husband is just came out of nowhere one day. It's fair to say I had become emotionally disoriented. Psychologically bullied. Spiritually shamed.
I began overtly avoiding them in order to preserve what little sanity remained by 2010...
This sounds petty, sure, because I'm trying to keep it light; but so much more could be penned. I can recall with pin point precision three ornery run-ins that, upon reflection, only belong in the pages of a Stephen King novel. [My job, as one poor in spirit yet desperately in want of recovery, is to render Mr. King's diabolicals into harmless Jan Karon caricatures. A work this blog may well facilitate.]
At one time, unaware of all of this, dear hubster thought about leaving, but didn't, though I was way passed my expiration date. Then, suddenly, a crisis at home and a counselor telling me we should just move; and now, three years later, we are scratching our heads and wondering what just happened?
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Through it all, there were Chris and Lindsey, loving the lost and the lonely, serving in whatever capacity they were asked, and rising above the fray. Even after the elders fired them. The practice of tucking away all the many offenses seemed to be working alright for them!
I have it on good authority that the church is in tatters now, five years on, though Chris and Lindsay are now back, and the place is being held together by Chris and Lindsay glue, the only kind that can work in dire times like these, because it is the authentic love of The Saviour that animates them.
And we wonder how it will proceed without addressing the clear need for a declaration of repentance posted prominently on their website:
"We the remnant staff of this OnceUponATime love nest of Ground Zeroness,
do hereby profess that we are aggrieved by the trespasses of our forebears
and hereby repent, on their behalf, for all the shenanigans, rudenesses,
unkindnesses and unforgiveness delivered to a laity who deserved only the
love of The Risen Christ..."
and then hold a mass foot washing to help salve and bind the wounds.
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And maybe a few more firings, like the pastor who wouldn't release my husband from a duty until after a Focus On The Family counselor intervened; and an elder board of Pottery Barn co-dependents who seem to think hipsterism and designer office decor are godly virtues qualifying them for promotion.
But what do I know?
I am an insane ex-Christian who only ever just wanted to read my Bible and pray every day so I'd growGrowGrO. But Old Deluder Satan found that I have a secret fondness for alcohol, and that, with a little help, I'd come around to agreeing with my n0-longer-baptist elders that it's good to drink away your sorrows when the mean looks start to frighten (and now you've at long last something in common with the Frownie Staff Couple).
Well, at least my son threw away his gangster hat. But wait. Was that before or after he wrapped his truck around a tree after a night out drinking with his band of Eagle Scouts? All that to say, Once Upon A Time, we thought a big beautiful baptist church was the answer to our prayers. And that the BSA was a hedge against delinquency.
Oh, Jesus. Why did it take so long to find out how superficial "big" and "beautiful" are; and how void a denominational tradition is when it lacks the Chris and Lindsay glue that is You. Just Pure You.
I am again a seeker. Where will He be found? Somewhere there's a Beth Moore counseling department standing ready to hear my weak hearted confessions.
And where no child receives Gangster hats and Jockey briefs in the name of discipleship training. Please.
Galatians 6:8 (YLT) ...