November 22, 2017

Another Look: From a “Separatists Anonymous” meeting

Pilgrim’s Rest, Maine 2014

Hi, my name is Mike, and I am a recovering separatist. [Hi, Mike!]

My separatist life started when I had a spiritual awakening at the end of my senior year in high school. That “conversion” was to me like rounding a bend in the highway and driving straight into a blinding sun so bright that it washed out everything else in sight.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.

Before that experience my life consisted of three major interests: (1) Girls, (2) Baseball, and (3) Music (and the accompanying lifestyle).

When I met Jesus, I found I didn’t have to give up girls, because there were lots of pretty, nice Christian girls. I also discovered I could keep enjoying music. Back in those days before the commercialization of CCM, “Jesus Music” was emerging, and it was as important to the vitality of our Christian lives as the Bible. Of course, my old “worldly” LPs had to go, so I threw them in the dumpster (how often have I regretted that!). My heart was filled with fresh new sounds and for awhile, that was enough. I did, however, give up playing baseball (how often have I regretted that!). I had no conception of how sports fit with following Jesus, so out it went.

The world behind me, the cross before me,
No turning back, no turning back.

I had all Christian friends all the time. The oft-quoted statistic, that most new believers have no non-Christian friends within two years of their conversion, proved true of me in a much shorter period of time (how often have I regretted that!). Within a year I had decided to attend Bible College and pursue ministry. My dad wisely tried to convince me to get a broader education and work toward a career in something I could fall back on if church work didn’t pan out, but I was too infatuated and immature to listen to him (how often have I regretted that!).

Three years of total immersion in Bible college — the cut your hair, wear a tie, no holding hands, no dancing, no movies, no rock music, room inspection every morning, mandatory daily chapel kind of Bible school — separated me from every facet of life in the world at large. I might as well have been stranded on a desert island. At the time, I didn’t mind. Looking back, though I’m grateful for the structure it gave my life, I can also see all kinds of ways it may have stunted my growth.

On to my first pastorate. Back into the world? Well…sorta. It was still pretty much all Christians all the time that formed my world. We lived in the mountains. No TV. Listened to a ballgame every now and then. Tentatively dipped my toes in the water and started to attend an occasional movie. A little bit of folk music found its way into the house through the radio. I occasionally had a conversation with neighbors, but still felt like a newborn foal every time I did, stumbling around trying to find something we had in common to talk about.

Then we moved back to Chicago for seminary. After a year of school, we experienced a great disappointment. My funding source dried up. I had to go to work and drop out of school for awhile.

An electronics factory became my daily world. Nary a Christian in sight (at least that I knew about). I made a few friends and was surprised at how much I enjoyed their company. Soon I found my way back to school and, providentially, into pastoral work once more. This wasn’t the mountains where a person could hide out. Serving in the city began to drag me, kicking and screaming, out of my naive isolation from the world. I took my first course in Clinical Pastoral Education and was introduced to life and death in the hospital wards. My professors, to a person, said repeatedly that being in a seminary atmosphere was fine, but if you really want to serve on the front lines of ministry, get out into the church and serve in a community. It resonated. I was starting to see a difference between church work and the work of the church.

Pilgrim’s Path, Maine 2014

So we moved to Indianapolis and I served on the staff of a non-denominational church. All in all, it was a pretty good experience, but I struggled with many aspects of it. For one thing, our family was growing, and our children were starting to get involved in school and sports in the community. I had a conviction about sending our kids to public school, and I started coaching Little League. Through my sons, I got baseball back!

However, we were swimming upstream in the local conservative Christian culture. Where we live is a highly “churched” area, and I watched as Christians changed churches like yesterday’s clothes because of conflicting “convictions.” Many home-schooled their children (despite living in one of the most conservative states in the U.S.) because of the “ungodliness” of public education. Parents forbade their kids from participating in youth group because of an emphasis on reaching the lost and (horrors!) actually including them in activities.

I saw people whose time and energy was totally taken up by church programs and activities. Churches around here began building mega-centers to provide full service, family-friendly activities for people of all ages, creating a world folks need never leave, allowing them to avoid worldly contamination. I started to feel out of place.

Following our kids’ activities, coaching baseball and working with young people and their families in the community was a constant joy. We had a “neighborhood.” We spent a lot of time together. For the first time in my adult life, I started to feel like I had a life outside of “churchianity.”

We moved down the road, and I took a senior pastor position in a sister church. It was a hard experience for a lot of reasons, but my own inward struggles made it even more difficult. As I look back, I must be honest and admit that, in a lot of ways, I was just not getting the church thing anymore and how it was supposed to work simultaneously with a life in the world.

Just before that pastoral ministry came to an end, I got involved with a family we knew from baseball whose son was terminally ill. Along with other members of the community, we spent hours at the hospital and walked with them through the difficult journey. The bonds formed then remain to this day. In the process, I received a taste of life, relationships, and ministry outside the church walls that transformed my life. It was only a couple of months later that I was hired to work with hospice, and now my parish is as wide as central Indiana.

I never have been what one might call a wild-eyed, hard-edged fundamentalist separatist. I was just a kid who was found by Jesus and thought that meant the rest of my life should be different, somehow lived in a separate category from the ordinary course of human life. Now I know that becoming a Christian doesn’t put a person one step above the rest of the human race, or mean that one should separate from sharing common life experiences with one’s neighbors.

I’m still blown away by the grace and mercy of Jesus to one who was so clueless for so long. And who, in so many ways, still is. But I think I’m recovering.

I still think the church is special, the amazing family of God in all times and places.

I just don’t want this whole “Christian thing” to keep me from being human.

By the way, I married a beautiful girl. I’m all about the music. And I got baseball back. Hey, the Cubs even won the World Series!

No longer does “the world grow strangely dim” when I look at Jesus. For some reason, when I’m most focused on him, the world also comes more into focus, taking on a strange, inviting beauty. And I’m ready every day to move more deeply into it with his kindness and love.

This is…about the second turning.

In the first turning, a Christian experiences the transformation from a natural person to a spiritual person. Instead of the “self” being the center of life — exploring, cultivating, adoring it — God becomes the center. This miracle is brought forth by the Holy Spirit giving us new life in Christ. It is a necessary, indispensable, basic step.

But it is only a first step. The work of the Holy Spirit should not stop here but lead to a second turning in which the spiritual person again becomes natural.

• Walter Trobisch
Foreword to Out of the Saltshaker & into the World
by Rebecca Manley Pippert

Comments

  1. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    “””Looking back, though I’m grateful for the structure it gave my life, I can also see all kinds of ways it may have stunted my growth.”””

    Ditto.

    I feel as though I have lived C.S. Lewis’ [under appreciated] “Talking about Bicycles”; passing through Unenchantment, Enchantment, Disenchantment, and Re-enchantment. I am grateful to have arrived where I am – and reget how much bull-headedness it took to bring me here; and how many things I also threw in the dumpster [sometimes literally] along the way.

    • I’m still stuck in Disenchantment, had a few glimmers in London, but no prospects here yet.

    • Is re-enchantment an echo of the original enchantment, or is it different? I know I’ve been re-enchanted by many things, but it’s also been something new, something “worldly”, something that has not come before.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        I don’t know if it is an echo; it is more the ability to go back and see again the beauty of something without all the baggage and aggregate you attached to it in the first place. Much like any long-term on-going friendship between two people – there must be re-enchantment; situations, circumstances, balances-of-power all shift and change. But yet you can again find the beauty in the thing/person; and with each re-finding [I believe] you draw nearer to the thing itself. I love my friends and my wife, today, in a way that is in more honest recognition of who they are than 10, 20, … years ago.

        I have been re-enchanted by Christianity, with which I was once disgusted. In part because I return to it and can see it now without the fever of youth.

        Humorously, I have return to the bicycle, which is how I go about much of the time in my youth – as Lewis describes in the essay. What was joy as a child – riding often for no other purpose than to do so – became with time a utility, and was essentially abandoned, and then was returned to for utilitarian purposes [older people get fat!], to find that joy was there patiently waiting for my return.

        Many things in my life demonstrate this pattern.

  2. Similar to my experience, CMike. It’s just taken me longer to get out of the salt-shaker.

  3. “I must be honest and admit that, in a lot of ways, I was just not getting the church thing anymore and how it was supposed to work simultaneously with a life in the world.” Yea, that is where I’m at right now. “I saw people whose time and energy was totally taken up by church programs and activities. Churches around here began building mega-centers to provide full service, family-friendly activities for people of all ages, creating a world folks need never leave, allowing them to avoid worldly contamination. I started to feel out of place.” Exactly where I am at. I’ve done the church elder thing, the supporter of every program, early to every service to do set up and preparation. Well, we’ve moved and I just can’t get the heart up to plunge back into the evangelical circus. “Now I know that becoming a Christian doesn’t put a person one step above the rest of the human race, or mean that one should separate from sharing common life experiences with one’s neighbors.” Just so. A lesson long in coming. “I just don’t want this whole “Christian thing” to keep me from being human.” Thanks, Mike, in your example of this. Yea, I’m Mike-2, and I am a recovering separatist.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “I saw people whose time and energy was totally taken up by church programs and activities. Churches around here began building mega-centers to provide full service, family-friendly activities for people of all ages, creating a world folks need never leave, allowing them to avoid worldly contamination.”

      Just like how in parts of Los Angeles you can spend your entire life from birth to death without having to speak a single word of English, so Christians can spend their entire life — from Sinner’s Prayer to Homegoing or Rapture — without ever having to interact with a single Heathen(TM). Except maybe for drive-by “Witnessing” sorties.

      “Just like Fill-in-the-Blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

  4. Echoes my experience as well. Unfortunately that kind of thinking and church culture stole 30+ years of my life. At this point I’m much happier, and much less involved in church – it’s optional for once! However, I’m still wrestling with bitterness over all those lost years (not to mention some very bad, and very expensive, financial decisions while seeking to ‘follow Jesus’). I have come to the point where I don’t blame God. But I do blame that church culture that paints a picture of the Christian life that is neither biblical nor healthy, and certainly doesn’t lead to any kind of abundant life.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      “””I do blame that church culture that paints a picture of the Christian life that is neither biblical nor healthy, and certainly doesn’t lead to any kind of abundant life.”””

      +1, same here. I am not bitter any longer, but I am also – when it chooses to get in my face [this is Western Michigan after all] – not going to let it pass unchallenged.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Unfortunately that kind of thinking and church culture stole 30+ years of my life. Unfortunately that kind of thinking and church culture stole 30+ years of my life.

      You and thousands to MILLIONS of others.

      Like the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay (any minute now…) stole 10 years of my life. And 10 years from my writing partner’s life. WHO WILL RESTORE THOSE YEARS THE CHURCH LOCUSTS HAVE EATEN?

  5. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    I grew up a Separatist’s Separatis, in a church (no, call it what it was, bloody cult) that always pushed the boundaries of separation. Or pulled them in rather. We seperated from all those unholy Baptists and Calvinists and Presbyterians and all. Wwe separated the sexes. We separated from the world. From TV. At one stage, even Disney was too risque. The only real friends where church ones. The only events where church ones, the only holidays where going to The Mission Station (the HQ of the cult).

    They robbed me of my childhood, and my young adulthood. I don’t want to write down what I really think….

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I’d be waiting for you to separate from each other of your church/cult until you reached the A.W.Pink level — a myriad of Churches of One, each denouncing all the others as Heathens/Heretics/Apostates. Just like the Big Rip, Except CHRISTIAN(TM).

  6. Jesus, save us from your followers!

    Notcher father’s testimony. I laugh, imagining some unsuspecting pastor saying, “Brother Mercer, can you tell us how you came to the Lord?” Aneurysms pop, young people are set free, the good news is proclaimed. What I most appreciate about this tale today is that it is not a diatribe. Too many diatribes, not enough recognition of the good.

    >> I had all Christian friends all the time.

    I read this as I would read an account of life on Mars. I have had two people who followed Jesus I could call friends in forty-some years, people with whom I could speak my mind like it says here in the comment box. One I left behind in Oregon and lost contact when I moved back here, the other just moved up with the Yoopers. Mostly I am not comfortable being around Christians because I cannot speak my mind. And how’s that speaking your mind going here, you ask? Mostly not so good, tho I haven’t been banned and rarely castigated, usually tolerated. I can say things here I wouldn’t say with most Christians but still I mostly bite my tongue.

    Today’s post is what I would point to if someone asked me what the Monastery was all about. It shows a balance that maybe wasn’t so steady five or ten years ago. Given the choice, I’d rather have a shepherd walking out in front than behind with a stick and a dog.

  7. I woke up at the moment
    When the miracle occurred
    Heard a song that made some sense
    Out of the world
    Everything I ever lost
    Now has been returned
    In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF0rKW1DEMo

  8. –> “I still think the church is special, the amazing family of God in all times and places. I just don’t want this whole ‘Christian thing’ to keep me from being human….No longer does ‘the world grow strangely dim’ when I look at Jesus. For some reason, when I’m most focused on him, the world also comes more into focus, taking on a strange, inviting beauty. And I’m ready every day to move more deeply into it with his kindness and love.”

    I’m with ya there, CM. Clearly community with fellow believers is (or “should be”) special and amazing, but a lot of the “Christian thing” is nothing but churchianity.

    I, too, think that as my walk with Jesus “matures” I see the world more clearly, not less. I see a strange, inviting beauty, I see the “magic”, and I also see the brokenness that I think he sees, the hurt and suffering that he came to “fix” once and for all via the cross and resurrection.

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    “I had no conception of how sports fit with following Jesus, so out it went.”

    James White had the same dilemma in the spring of 1873, when he converted. His first inclination was to stop playing baseball, but he had already signed a contract to play for the Boston Red Stockings, and it would be wrong to break his word. He eventually decided to see if he could play baseball while leading a Christian life. He soon acquired the nickname “Deacon.” His reputation for probity was such that umpires would take his word for it on close plays. He retired after the 1890 season, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.

    It occurs to me to wonder if his induction into the Hall was celebrated within the Evangelical community. On the one hand, here we have an example of a prominently Christian man being honored. On the other hand, he was a long time ago and most baseball fans had never heard of him.

    • I once read about the president of one of the Christian Ivy League schools back in the 1800’s decry the use of the curve ball in baseball. He argued that deception was not a Christian virtue. Madison Bumgarner anybody?

  10. Burro [Mule] says:

    from Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims of the Spiritual Life.

    18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.

    Although, I have to admit that when I read #17, a smudge on my eyeglasses caused me to interpret it as

    17.Cultivate communion with the plants.

    Actually, that sounds like not such a bad idea.

    Pentecostals, for all their bad press, are actually not as separatistic as many other communions, so I didn’t miss out on too much. They had an “Azusa Street” convulsion once and started to burn some ‘wordly’ LPs, but some proto-hipster pointed out that anyone who burned Thelonious Monk (!!) had worse problems than worldliness. The bonfire went ahead but with noticeably fewer vinyl sacrifices.

  11. I am torn in two directions on this.
    I came out of a messed up background and needed to be separate from it, otherwise I may have fallen back into it. I needed to be surrounded by believers until I was strong enough to stand.

    The problem was that there really wasn’t a way to integrate back in and be salt and light. I am still trying to figure that one out. I think it starts at recognizing that Sunday services are about worshipping God full stop. No need to say that it involves every aspect of living. Maybe a church just needs to emphasize that we be friends with those around us, love them as friends and simply tell our own story without a big agenda.

    • Good perspective, Ken. Yes, some people MUST (for a time, anyway) extract themselves from previous friendships for the sake of their own health and spiritual growth. I was fortunate enough that most of my pre-Christian friends were good people and good friends, with no need for me to separate from. (Curiously, two of those friends have since become Christians, too!)

      –> “Sunday services are about worshipping God full stop. No need to say that it involves every aspect of living.”

      AMEN!

      –> “Maybe a church just needs to emphasize that we be friends with those around us, love them as friends and simply tell our own story without a big agenda.”

      AMEN! Just form relationships with those in your circle and let the Spirit work!

  12. Very well said. Funny timing. I was just describing my very similar separatist experience as a young man to my wife this past Saturday. She grew up Catholic and even though she was very much a part of the Charismatic Movement at the same time, seventies and eighties, that separatism was completely befuddling to her as I described it. She thought it was unhealthy and dysfunctional. I agreed. I had lunch with a couple from England a couple of weeks ago who are still in that bubble. I mentioned the Sting song ‘If I Ever Lose My Faith’. They, from England mind you, had never heard the song and had never heard of Sting. I guess that song is worldly.

    • Funny story about the English couple that had never heard of Sting!

      I sometimes want to ask people who decide to live in a bubble, “Did Jesus in any way model that?! NO! He wasn’t afraid of becoming unclean!!! He touched lepers and ate with sinners. C’mon, people! Do you have Jesus in you or not!?”

  13. The timing of this couldn’t be better. A Facebook friend of mine, a pastor’s wife, posted on Facebook late on Saturday morning that she was confused because she kept seeing things about some women’s march and had no clue what it was or why the media was covering it so much. I was stunned.
    There are a number of people in my church complaining that the church doesn’t have enough programs to keep people involved in the church and that the church isn’t relevant enough. My thought? Quit worrying about relevance and go out in the real world and engage.
    We Christians do ourselves no favors by hunkering down in velvet lined foxholes to keep the taint of the world off of us.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “Nothing gets old-fashioned faster than Over_Relevance.”
      — my old Dungeonmaster

      Type example: Find some footage of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and see how well their Relevant Topical Sixties humor has aged. Now imagine they presented themselves not as a topical comedy revue but the Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. Groovy, Man.

  14. “By placing faith in Jesus Christ, a person becomes a new believer and is sanctified—that is, set apart for God’s purposes.”

    “The Spirit works to transform our minds and hearts so that we are markedly different from our unsaved peers.’

    It took me about 30 seconds to find these two quotes from a well-known and respected Evangelical pastor. And this teaching is rampant in Evangelicalism. It may not be intended, but the effect is to not only set people apart for “God’s purposes” but to make people think they’re just a little better than others who haven’t been “set apart”. It’s more boundary setting and I just don’t see that as the reason for the Incarnation. I can’t help but think that stems from trying to get the Bible right instead of trying to get Jesus right.

    • “The Spirit works to transform our minds and hearts so that we are markedly different from our unsaved peers.”

      Wow. That’s deadly.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Was that from “a well-known and respected Evangelical pastor” or Dana Carvey’s Church Lady?

        Because Church Lady IS markedly different from All Those Heathen.

  15. My wife attended a Bible study once where they were encouraged to “use caution” when choosing television programs to watch. They were even given stickers to put on the set with Psalm 101:3–“I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.”

    At the time, I hate to say, I was pretty much onboard with it. Since my “faith shift”, I know ask why they don’t apply the same thinking to verse 5: “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy.”

  16. I am not a big organized church guy. Have left several times. I still see my dream church is a group of people that meet in a bar and have deeply thinking, very honest conversations around scripture and other sources. Somewhat like we do here.

    However, I am now finding, in my old age, my best organized church experience of my life. I even just became and elder, something I said I would never, ever do again. But something clicked. I really think what is different with this church is it view that we are deeply in the world . . . and that’s a good thing. We have many groups that are part of our church that are not Christian, while at the same time, the core is still quite Jesus-centered. We have things like dinners for the homeless, AA, NA, different meals for the poor programs.

    I, ironically, just had a FB “discussion” with some friends from previous churches (the ones I left). I had to comment when they kept saying horrible things (day after day) about non-Christians (or whom they see as non-Christians). It was a real hate-fest for them and I finally had to speak up (although I’m really trying not to enter any more FB discussions). The difference in their gospel (the one I’ve been part of before) and this new gospel is about this issue of separation. The old gospel used the measure between us, them (the bad guys) and us (the good guys) to help us feel better about ourselves. “I will pray for those nasty aborters, Democrats, evolutionists, drinkers and etc. because they do evil things.” The attitude of this new church seems to be, “Hey, yeah we will pray for everyone because we don’t know whose the wheat and whose the tares. We are all made of the same blood and dirt. There is not much moral difference between us, only the grace of God.” This action of separation is not here as I have seen it before. So the point is, there is always hope for a better church home. The difficulty is finding that church with a gospel that really sees the needs of humanity, but maintains the orthodoxy of true Christianity (vs pantheism with Christian language).

    • –> “The attitude of this new church seems to be, ‘Hey, yeah we will pray for everyone because we don’t know whose the wheat and whose the tares. We are all made of the same blood and dirt. There is not much moral difference between us, only the grace of God.'”

      Love that. Absolutely LOVE that.

      (I’d go on to maybe say, or caveat, that maybe not even grace of God separates us. Maybe God’s grace shines upon everyone, whether they realize it or not…?)

      • (For example, for me the last line might be, “There is not much moral difference between us, only the RECOGNITION (or REALIZATION?) of the grace of God.’”

    • Well said!

  17. Never been a Christian separatist. Not recovering from it. This Twelve Step isn’t for me. I can empathize, but not identify.

  18. Richard Rohr today quotes from Walter Brueggemann and says that the Israelites came to experience God as “merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving, and steadfast in love. . . . Outside of inner experience, these descriptors of God are just words. Outside of your own inner experience of this kind of God, most religion remains ritualistic, moralistic, doctrinaire, and largely unhappy; that is true on both the Right and the Left. It is the contentious religion that we see all around.”

    I have run across the idea of separation as being what took place in Eden in so many places as to give the concept consensus in my view. Self-consciousness, separation from God and the Universe, and the subsequent dualistic perception of the world, the knowledge of good and evil. It isn’t unique to Christians by any means, it’s the human condition. By the same token Christians are not exempt, as you can verify daily in these pages, on both Right and Left, as Richard says. Extricating oneself from the more extreme examples of separatist thinking may give a person room enough to catch their breath, but there is still a lifetime of work to be done for us all in being healed, or as church people like to call it, being saved.

  19. When living in any culture, and even thinking about some influence, you have to give it to Rohr that it is the contentious religion that you see all around. And in honesty how much civility is noticed in the non-religious when seeking some influence. Trying to look at the overall position about seeking common ground with outsiders or with insiders who disagree( and not just religious but any “group”) ….I’ve moved from getting involved to getting involved in the right spirit( and total honesty…Spirit). Not as easy as it sounds if you look at people around you who are getting involved. Just saying personally that I’ve moved from strong convictions to a gentler time. But as I notice my own children and younger people- they don’t seem to have to work as hard at being civil as I did….they flow easily in culture…….but when you get close and peel a little under to convictions….not much strength….kind of easily shifted depending on the crowd or mood. I often wonder about any of the many people around, who has any time that they separate, to get in touch with a spirit other than that of the time.

  20. Christiane says:

    ..you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.
    Flannery O’Connor