It feels like a divorce, although you’ve been faithfully married to one man for almost 45 years and have never experienced a marital difficulty like that. It springs on you, like a black panther in a dark jungle. One day, you are thanking God for sermons that have meaning and studies that bring the Bible alive to you; the next day, your mind and heart are shattered by a quick delivery of an unfathomable truth: He’s leaving.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he says, almost too casually. “I feel the Holy Spirit is leading me.”
Except there’s just one thing unclear, one thing that makes his statement ring with a hollowness uncharacteristic of a man whom you have regarded as a loving brother for nearly seven years. If – as he claims – the Holy Spirit has “been leading” him, why did God not communicate this same idea to other members of the congregation? Why has it hit you so hard? Why are the elders surprised – or at least appear to be? Why are half of your friends so nonchalant about this, while the other half are grieving like you and your husband are?
Is it somehow a punishment – like those threatened by the prophets of old – to a recalcitrant believer? Have you not pleased the Father or worshipped the Savior in a worthy manner? Have you not given enough to the poor or prayed enough or fasted enough or witnessed enough?
God’s will – he says it’s God’s will. What if you give in – say as he says – think as he thinks? Then will you then find peace in this? Will that make a difference in all this? The answer is that it makes no difference at all. The pastor’s last Sunday comes, and you cannot choke out a “good-bye.”
What will you do now? You are told you must trust the elders. And be quiet. And patient. And not ask awkward questions – especially on Facebook, where “the church could be criticized.” Otherwise, you could be labeled a “daughter of Satan,” as the anonymous letter says that comes on a Thursday. Somehow, you don’t feel satanic, and you haven’t felt scared of Ole’ Beelzebub since shortly after you were saved.
Secrecy: everything is shrouded in secrecy. One elder chides you and says, “It’s not that we want to be secretive; we just want to be discreet.” But does that mean that an older woman like yourself has no right to enquire? No right to understand? You feel “put in your place.” Is that how God wants you to feel?
The first month passes. The chief elder is big on reminding everyone at the business meeting that he has to hear from the Holy Spirit in order to let anyone join the pastor search committee. Apparently, only certain people qualify to receive this honor. But how one qualifies for that seems to be a secret, too.
Two months pass. An elderly preacher has been “unanimously” chosen by the elders to become your interim pastor. Within a week, he has cancelled any church activities he deems “unscriptural” – including the Easter egg hunt and the Fall Fest. You wonder what it means to your spiritual life that you have enjoyed these activities for the past seven years.
Three months pass. You dread participating in Holy Communion, because the interim pastor regularly demands that every sinner come forward to confess his or her sin before the sharing of the bread chips and grape juice. No one ever comes forward, but he insists on drawing out the drama. He eyes everyone unflinchingly, and his actions remind you of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Despite your fondness for this movie, you don’t come forward, either. You stare him down, and you also stare at the chief elder who seems to be enjoying this demand for spiritual cleansing.
Four months pass. You are sick and tired of hearing verse after verse of Scripture, recited from memory – with a certain joyous pride, you are convinced – and all leading to one thing: you are a sinner, and you must be saved. Every Sunday. Forty years ago wasn’t “enough.” Growing in Christ is not really that important a thing. No insight on loving that neighbor with the bloody dog that has to bark at 2 a.m. (except that you sinned). No encouragement to help you recover from your most recent day at work, which was a sheer, unmitigated disaster (except that you sinned). No words about how to handle the sting from that insulting cashier at the grocery store (except that you sinned). You’ve sinned – that part is clear.
Being “saved” is everything – everything to everyone – all the time and in all seasons and at every moment of every day – that you be saved. You hear a sermon on the “Sower and His Seed”; perhaps – you think to yourself – you will get some of the insight that you are hungry for. But the message is all about being “saved” – the verb repeated over and over again, with the occasional noun (“salvation”) thrown in for variety.
Five months pass. Sitting through Sunday morning service is a feat of endurance. You must stay awake and focused, because you know that if you should nod off, you might snore and, then you will have another label: “unspiritual.” You can’t decide whether the anonymous letter-writer – the inventor of the “daughter of Satan” nickname – has cooled his or her ardor for anonymous letter-writing, because – while you have not received any interesting letters lately – there have been rumors going around of recent “activity.”
Six months pass. You are ready to sit home on Sundays and watch a tele-evangelist. Except that the interim pastor suddenly proclaims from the pulpit that every single one of “those so-called preachers on TV” pervert the Gospel and are anti-Christs. Gosh, you think, I’d better not claim that tax-deductible donation that I sent to “Orphan’s Blessing” from the TV. This man has been abroad to personally preach to those very same orphans. So his work must count more than mine. And then you stop thinking sarcastic things and realize how un-joyful Sunday services are. That afternoon, you take a three-hour nap and feel just as exhausted when you wake up as when you lay down. But then a Billy Graham special comes on, and you finally have a reason to stay home and be absorbed in something uplifting. Oh…right…Graham is an evangelist with a duty to convert the unsaved. Boy, do you feel silly!
Seven months pass. This month has seemed like an eternity, but – finally – there is a buzz of excitement at the Wednesday evening “fellowship” supper (to which fewer and fewer people come, because of one woman who continually proclaims that “dissatisfied people should leave our church”). The elders are calling a special meeting, and it has to be good news! The church has almost gotten a new Youth Pastor signed, sealed, and delivered, and if the church were to find that new Senior Pastor – well, that would just be peachy and perfect and SO right!
Ah! The enthusiasm at that meeting! The sense of mystery builds and builds and builds as the membership sits for one-and-one-half hours, patiently listening to every sort of cryptic, giving-nothing-away statement: glowing reports of a new man “sent by God”; admiring recommendations of “Pastor X” (except he has not finished seminary – but he’s been a pastor for over a decade!). You dare not ask why the committee has chosen a man without the agreed-upon credentials (like finishing seminary). It’s all secret and mysterious and all sorts of faces around you are shining with hope. You just hope.
Eight months pass. The man comes to “preach with a view [to a calling].” He sure mentions Jesus a lot! You guess that that must be good enough for Sunday preaching – because that’s all you get out of the sermon. The man is voted in immediately after the service ends.
Nine months pass. The new man assumes the mantle of leadership, and almost right away, there is contention over a business matter. The new pastor cancels Holy Communion and sits on a stool and “talks” to his new congregation. Why do you feel like a scolded puppy? Can’t you see that he really cares that everyone agree with the elders’ point of view?
Ten months pass. The congregation is sent a letter, instructing them to wander out on Halloween and “share the Gospel.” You wonder which of your elderly neighbors need you to knock on their doors in the evening and preach to them. You wonder how many harassed parents need a Gospel tract mixed into their children’s pouches of candy. You turn off the porch light and watch a Gospel flic.
Eleven months pass. You get invited to a house church meeting, and decide to go there with your husband on Sunday morning. Afterwards, you end up eating there with a bunch of friends, and sharing interesting stories until two o’clock in the afternoon. You take a short nap after you leave the house church and wake up refreshed.
Shortly thereafter, you make a few comments on Facebook about the dangers of Islamic doctrinal infiltration into American textbooks. In a very short amount of time, your pastor has called you an “Islamophobe,” complete with remarks on your (inadequate) understanding of Scriptures (even though you have a Master’s Degree in Theology) – and a charge that you are ready to behead innocent men, women and children who follow Mohamed. You say “shame” for suggesting such things, and he erases the evidence. Your husband takes him to task the next day, and he says he wants to speak with you – “just to say he’s sorry.” You still wonder why he has erased the remarks he made, if he was so passionate (and correct) about his point of view.
Twelve months pass. Your new pastor makes some backwards statements about historical figures and you are turned off to the message (it’s about being “saved” – that much you already know). You know that anyone who knows history will be confused or embarrassed (as you are) because the story is just so…wrong. So you write an email suggesting that the preacher work on getting his facts straight before using them in a sermon. You make a few more statements, and you send it off. What you do not know is that the pastor has all his emails tied into his iPhone, and reads that same email during a party he is hosting at his house. He is “concerned” about your “excessive” criticism – which, you "have to confess," was sent on the Lord’s Day and which interrupted his good party mood – and wants to come over after evening service. You decline his gracious offer, but agree to visit his office (along with your husband) the next day.
You and your husband are prompt for this pre-arranged meeting; he is not expecting you, because he read a different time (but you later re-check the email, and you are right). He asks to pray before you speak; you get the distinct impression that he believes God expects you to confess – and be forgiven – right away. You decline the offer of the pseudo-forgiveness and defend what you have said in the email (and about Islamic indoctrination). He launches into a presentation about the Plan of Salvation, and – after an hour of this – you decide it’s time to leave. You do – for good. And your husband (whom the pastor has attempted to “appeal to” to “control” you for speaking openly and candidly) – asks you to walk to the car while he himself delivers a few choice words to the preacher.
It’s been a troublesome year. The divorce proceedings have been hard on you and your husband. Jesus Christ is still there – somewhere – but you’re not sure you’ll see Him any time soon if you continue to go to the church where you have been a member for seven years.