Monday, 15 October 2018

Letter To An Old Friend

Dear Friend,

The first time we met was just after I'd been abandoned by my abusive first husband. On the opposite side of the world from our home. With a suitcase of clothes. And an infant son.

I desperately needed a friend. I needed an ally. I needed compassion. I needed to be held. I needed a safe and loving place to share all my raw emotions - all the hurt and anger and grief and fear - which kept swirling around and around in my heart. I needed time to heal.

You were a friend. You and your home-group were the hands and feet and heart of Jesus for me. It was life-giving, and life-changing. And I will never forget that, or cease being grateful for it.

Many years have gone by since then. We haven't seen each other or talked much in recent times. But the memories and echoes of your friendship have been tucked away in my heart all this time.

The other day we met up again to share a meal. Almost the first thing you talked about was your current church experience. Then you told me a story about a "miracle" of reconciliation between you and a christian brother. I tried not to react. I fought down the feeling of being judged. Of being manipulated.

I know you would have heard things about us. About me. You were probably told that I am just "bitter and unforgiving". By people who also deny that anything bad happened to me. But I tried to convince myself that it was just a co-incidece that you mentioned it.

Then you told us about two important christian leaders who had put aside their differences to appear together in public, for the sake of the gospel. I asked if you knew what that relationship looked like when they were out of the spotlight. You were offended and defensive. I apologised.

The conversation moved on. To more talk of religious activity. About taking the gospel message to the streets. I tried to agree how great that was, but couldn't help asking what happens to those people after they say "the sinner's prayer". I asked about what might happen to them in a church which refuses to acknowledge, let alone clean up, the mess in its own front yard.

I'd hesitated, not wanting more anger from you, but not willing to pretend the elephant hadn't entered the room. I explained - I was hoping you would be a safe person to talk to about these things.

So you told me that you had been unjustly treated by a "pastor" in a meeting one time. I asked you to imagine how it would feel if the reality of that meeting just kept repeating, with no end in sight. You offered the "no church is perfect" argument. I explained this was about fruit, not perfection. You said we need to admit our own faults. I told you I had and that it had been used as weapon against me. You talked about forgiveness again. I reminded you, again, that I had long since forgiven.

You made it clear you were uncomfortable about the subject, so I explained that the reason I talk about it is to give people a glimpse into the toxic brokenness of the system - and because my story represents the story of countless others. Real people who have also been deeply damaged by the church. People whose lives have been derailed, because of the abuse, and the judgement, and the rejection they've endured at the hands of christians.

Yet, despite everything I shared, you told me I needed to go back to church...

I believe you meant well. You said it was because I needed to be loved. I do appreciate that. But you couldn't seem to hear me when I told you that the only way I'd be loved in that setting was if I submitted and smiled and stayed silent. Your own angry reaction to my earlier question perfectly demonstrates what I can expect in that environment. It is not a safe space, and I do not need it!

And I don't need any more people in my life willing to diagnose me from a distance, based on what they've been told about me. I don't need any more easy, religiously-correct answers. I don't need to be told what I 'should' do - or be blamed and shamed if I choose to do things otherwise.

What I DO need is respect of the agency that God himself has granted me. I need you to trust me with my own faith journey. I know it doesn't fit with your expectations or experience, but my faith is both genuine and valid. You haven't really seen me during these past few life-changing years. You haven't walked with me through this faith-shifting time. Being different doesn't make me 'wrong'- it just means I've explored territory that you haven't. The truth is I no longer fit into the religious box you're used to. But that's ok, because God no longer fits into it, either.