October 20, 2017

The Homily

Good_ShepherdIn the same way one shepherd seeks after, cares for, and watches over his scattered flock, so will I be the guardian of My sheep. I will be their Rescuer! No matter where they have scattered, I will go to find them. I will bring them back from the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day (Ezekiel 34:12, The Voice).

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10, NASB).

I remember the service clearly, though it happened nearly 35 years ago. I was home in Ohio from college and, as was my custom, was in church on that Wednesday night. I knew there was a lot of turmoil in the church; the dreaded words “church split” were being whispered loudly by those in the know. The pastor, a spiritual dictator if there ever was one, had made edicts that were to be followed if you wanted to avoid being called a heretic. It was really getting ugly, but never more than on that Wednesday night.

The pastor stood in the pulpit and said, “I want everyone who is with me, who recognizes that God has given me spiritual authority over this church, to come forward now.” I hesitated but a minute; in that church, even to hesitate was to question authority and be a candidate for shunning. Seriously. So I walked forward with others from the youth group I had grown up in. We stood, youth and adults, at the front of the church.

“Now, turn around and look at those still in their pews,” said the preacher. We did. There sat but a handful of men and women, but they were men and women I had always looked up to. Two were elders. One was the manager of the Christian bookstore where I worked. “These are now to be avoided. Don’t talk to them. Don’t associate with them. They are Ichabod, meaning ‘the glory has departed.’ If you associate with them, you, too, will be Ichabod.”

God-Save-The-KingYes, this was an extreme picture of spiritual abuse, but it scarred me for a long time. Not just as it applied to church leadership, but to how I pictured God. This cemented for me the idea that God sat on a throne, and those who were on God’s side stood around the throne. Then God would point at those who did not stand with him and proclaim, “Ichabod! Do not associate with those who are not on my side!”  We hear Jesus tell his disciples, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” And thus, I assigned all who did not believe as I believed, who didn’t adhere to all I had learned, to being against Jesus. Of course, the key here was all who did not believe as I believed. There could only be one correct set of beliefs, and those who stepped outside of those were against God. That included secular humanists, liberal theologians, those stuck in dead denominations, and, of course, all Catholics. If they wanted to get with the system, God might make room for them on the outer edges of his throne room, but if not, they were to be avoided in all things.

This led me to be extremely shallow in my theology, how I thought of God. If he was a mean and grumpy despot, I wasn’t going to ask questions that might make him angrier. I stayed away from thinking things through. I accepted what I was taught by those I was pretty sure were on God’s side. Democrats were trying to turn our country away from God? I’ll vote Republican. Those who spoke of feeding the poor were only interested in a social gospel? Let the poor fend for themselves. Someone wants to be saved? They had better get with the system quickly. Any backsliding would be attributed to the fact that the backslider had “never actually been saved.”

For many years my picture of God was one of a stern man who was not to be questioned. Don’t get on his bad side if you want to get by. If you didn’t believe the right way, you would be out on your ear. My Christian life was one of sin-avoidance and sin-management. I was taught to focus my attention on what I was probably doing wrong, and give all my effort to make it right. God was patient, but only up to a point. His patience would soon run out, and then where would I be?

So I weaved a really good Christian mask that I wore day and night. I couldn’t let anyone know I had questions, or that I felt inadequate, or that I still had desires to do the “wrong” things. I wouldn’t even let myself see the real me. The masked man in the mirror had them all fooled. Except in the dark, where I could hear weeping. And it was coming from me.

Is it possible to be both a Christian and at the same time to be lost? I only thought of the lost as those who had yet to believe what it took to stand on God’s side. You were either lost or you were a Christian. But now I have been a Christian for almost 40 years, yet because of the mask I wore for most of those years, I feel lost. I am in need of a shepherd, The Shepherd, to seek and to save me. The picture of a demanding God just sitting there, waiting for me to get my soul on his good side, will no longer do for me. I need the Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep who don’t need finding to seek and to save me, the one who does.

(Have you ever thought about this statement of Jesus? Are there really any sheep who don’t need finding? Of course not. Those 99 sheep are non-existent. We all need to be sought and rescued.)

For so long I saw God as finding ways to keep people out of heaven with demands and rules and his wrath. Now I see him as one who will do anything—anything—to rescue us. He is extremely creative in how he finds us in the midst of our mess. Our masks don’t impress him, or frighten him. I think they may make him laugh before he goes to work in his own timing to strip the mask away. Once the mask is gone, he holds us up to a mirror. Instead of seeing our own scarred face, however, we see the face of the Shepherd. The one who also said, “He who is not against me is with me.”

It has been a very long wilderness journey for me—40 very real years—but I am now hearing the voice of God as that of a loving Father rather than an vengeful king. I no longer (for the most part) picture God as the preacher who tells us to come forward if we are for him and against his critics. I am beginning to know him as the loving Shepherd who finds me when I am lost and guides me to green pastures.

Let us pray.

Comments

  1. Seneca Griggs says:

    That was certainly an interesting story, I could share a similar one.
    But is there a reason that homilies don’t actually take a closer look at the verses/context of the passage?

    Was the point of the homily; God is a good God?

    I am curious about this.

  2. Seneca Griggs says:

    It just struck me, maybe this was not a message delivered in a church service but is a Sunday morning blog post. That would change how I viewed the homily.

    Good blog post.

  3. Excellent post, Jeff. Jesus was often telling his disciples, “Be not afraid.” I have to keep reminding myself of that, because I am often fearful of many things.

  4. Hi Jeff

    I can think of similar cases of spiritual abuse in my own life. (How common *is* this abomination.)

    One of my takeaways from these situations is to seek the wisdom to recognize such departures from the Way, to display the courage to stand up to such tyrants and to lovingly explain the errors to those who may stand with the tyrant rather than recognize him/her for what he/she is.

  5. David Cornwell says:

    This is a sad story and one that takes courage to tell. Thank you. I’m glad others who have suffered this kind of abuse can hear that there is life on the other side that is one of grace.

    • Good words, david, well said. Must have been something in the water back then: went thru something very similar in 1983, same kind of leader, same kind of ultimatum. I was asked to shun the man I was doing rough in construction for just the day previous (and his family, of course). And a few other very close friends. The really wise ones got up and left. I stayed and suffered for 5 more yrs, slow learner I guess.

  6. The thought that came to me again and again as I read this was “How great is the gospel and the lovingkindness of God.” I thought that because he kept coming after you, gently, firmly, inexorably penetrating that thick ugly shell built around you by that man’s (I won’t call him a pastor) misrepresentation of God and his Good News.

    Jesus found you. Jesus is finding you. Jesus will be forever finding you.

    Thank God for you my brother.

  7. I am well acquainted with Ichabodism. The official version for the church split was a scriptural dispute. Some of the folks believed Jonah had been swallowed by a whale; they were pronounced anathema because the Bible says it was a great fish. It was a thinly-veiled excuse concocted to cover the dislike one group had for another. Those remaining did the touchdown dance, but basking in their victory became short-lived. A new dispute arose. Which side did you choose: soul slumber or being today with Me in Paradise. All pressing theological questions, to which there is only one correct answer. In reality, any convenient nail to hang your pride on. It was all too much, time to move on before the next purge came along. (Which didn’t take long – standing with a powerful Sunday School teacher to insist the Soviet Union was Gog and Magog). It was so freeing to once again to breath fresh air, and look to Jesus for healing instead of expecting him to take sides. It is all so sad to see these sorts of folks; there are walking schism-machines in every church. They don’t realize they themselves are the ones in need of a Physician. Those forced to move on are usually the healthy and happy ones.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      It was all too much, time to move on before the next purge came along. (Which didn’t take long – standing with a powerful Sunday School teacher to insist the Soviet Union was Gog and Magog).

      Which is a real kicker when the church’s Purges In The Name of Ideological Purity were straight out of the Soviet Union’s playbook. Power struggle between factions in the Kremlin, with the Party Line changing (and more Purges each and every time) depending on which faction gets the upper hand. “Just like the USSR, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

      It was so freeing to once again to breath fresh air, and look to Jesus for healing instead of expecting him to take sides.

      The same feeling as those who jumped the Berlin Wall out of the Warsaw Pact’s Ideological Workers’ Paradise.

  8. Perhaps it is possible to go somewhere quiet and peaceful where you can take a mulligan, claim a do-over, do a reboot or another take. A place where you can walk up to the front of the church and turn around, as directed, to look at those who took their stand by sitting, and say, “You know, I think I just made a mistake.” Followed by a walk back down the aisle with a wave to the sitters, “See you around,” and on out the door. Maybe in the mind’s eye or the chapel of the heart it is possible to do this and it actually changes something important in Reality, makes a difference now, updates your program. Couldn’t hurt.

  9. Mark Kennedy says:

    Powerful homily. Thanks for sharing your experience. I was taught a similar view of God, with the resulting sin-management view of life. That also cost me 40 years, and the Good Shepherd is just now drawing me out of that. It helps to read that others have lost decades to poor doctrine–or is it any doctrine that subjugates the words of Jesus?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I lost 10-15 years to the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay.

      And more than that to the Gospel According to Jack Chick. The latter (with a similar image of God as in this homily) pretty much destroyed any ability in me to trust God or think of God as benevolent. I have to go through formal liturgy these days. Or get my imagery from fictional god-figure analogs.

      • Christiane says:

        the modern ‘idols’ out there are really scary folk . . . Jack Chick was comical (excuse pun) by comparison.

      • HUG, you should write your autobiography. I think it would be wild

  10. Thanks for sharing that Jeff. I’ve been there done that way too many times.

    For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

    When I truly had a handle on what Paul was talking about in Rom. 14 and 15 I began to realize that if our starting point assumption is that God is separated and aloof from us then we will treat other people in that fashion and division will typify our “faith”. When we understand something of God’s wastefully, extravagant love and acceptance of us, then we will begin to be accepting and “welcoming” of others and the result will be healing and mending of relationships–which is Good News.

    Doctrinal correctness is too often a cloak for selfish ambition.

    T

  11. In context, Jesus is referring to demons when he said “whoever is not with me is against me” in Matt. 12:30.
    (The “kingdom divided” discourse.)
    When Jesus talks about humans, he says the exact opposite: “whoever is not against us is FOR us”, Mark 9:40.
    Jesus’ default stance with humans is as inclusive as possible.

    • Yes, good point, Steve. I did not take time to develop that one. Thanks.

    • I’m not so sure about that Steve, I believe he may have been talking about the Pharisees, since it was their accusations that started the discourse.

      • Jon, I did summarize it in haste, and did not write with much precision Yes, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, who did not view what Jesus was doing as part of God’s kingdom reign. Jesus’ working of healing and exorcism was intended as a sign that the authority of Satan had been broken, but rather than interpreting that as a welcoming of God’s Spirit at work, they concluded instead that they needed to be even more vigilant and discerning and filtering who is of God vs. of Satan. That default stance itself was putting them at odds with God’s work. Jesus was speaking against them being on the side of the demons.
        The conclusion is still the same as Mark 9:40: those who welcome the work of the Holy Spirit will find He is inclusive, not exclusive of those who labor in Jesus name, even if they’re not of my same group at church.

  12. Powerful post, and one I can relate to and have more than occasionally experienced. For too many groups, theology and doctrine are made subservient to the real goal of defining us vs. them. The results — pride, exclusion, spiritual elitism, and on and on — are usually predictable and horrifying to those of us who have come to finally understand the beautiful scandal of God’s grace in Jesus, and our own role in that story.

  13. When you play a game of thrones you win or you die.

  14. Christiane says:

    Hi JEFF DUNN,

    thank you for this post and for sharing something of your past with us . . . it is hard to imagine a scene like the one you described actual taking place in a sanctuary, but we have seen recent videos of pastors ‘out of control’, in situations where they feel that they need to ‘re-establish their authority’ over the flock’

    I loved the theme of Christ as the Good Shepherd in your post. Christ is portrayed as a shepherd in many scenes on the walls of the early Christian catacombs, carrying a lamb on His Shoulders . . . even today, in memory of that beautiful image of Our Lord, omophorion(s) and pallium(s) are worn on occasion, made of lamb’s wool and symbolical of the duties of bishops as shepherds of their flocks. (not sure about the plurals there, sorry)

    If there is one lesson pastors must keep close, it is embodied in the role of ‘the shepherd-guardian’ . . . who lays down his life for the sheep’ and that servant model IS the prime model for a Christian ‘leader’ to follow. It was given to them by Our Lord Himself. There is no other model.

    Pope Francis has many titles. I suspect, in his humility, that here is one that he embraces fully: he is called ‘the servant of the servants of God’ . . . I think it fits very well on his shoulders.

  15. Guess I am blessed as I have never seen anything like that happen in church in my entire life. It certainly would not have worked in any church I was in. The pastor would have been canned.

    But here is where I think you make a huge mistake:

    “This led me to be extremely shallow in my theology, how I thought of God. If he was a mean and grumpy despot, I wasn’t going to ask questions that might make him angrier. I stayed away from thinking things through. I accepted what I was taught by those I was pretty sure were on God’s side. Democrats were trying to turn our country away from God? I’ll vote Republican. Those who spoke of feeding the poor were only interested in a social gospel? Let the poor fend for themselves. Someone wants to be saved? They had better get with the system quickly. Any backsliding would be attributed to the fact that the backslider had “never actually been saved”

    You don’t have to check your brains at the door on policy just because you were in a corrupt system that totally used issues are rallying cries. I know many conservatives who care for the poor, btw, in real ways. I am a libertarian who also cares for the poor in tangible ways.. Be careful you did not “overcorrect” your thinking and now have a new enemy. Many “democrats” think throwing more money at Caesar actually helps the poor. It might, if Caesar would hire them.

    Make sure your theology does not remain shallow on the other end.

    • James the Mad says:

      “You don’t have to check your brains at the door on policy just because you were in a corrupt system that totally used issues are rallying cries.”

      Nice sentiments, and from the perspective of one wandering in the post-evangelical wilderness it makes perfect sense. But as we’ve heard so often, hindsight is 20-20. Jeff is speaking from the perspective of someone still in college, and embedded in the culture of nearly 35 years ago. There had been no Michael Spencer to show us the way, and the church, even today, tends to be strongly conformist.

      Why is it that women stay in abusive relationships, or move from one to another? Why do people stay in cults, or cultic/controlling situation, for years?

      Sorry, but your comment comes across as dismissive, and ignores the context within which the events took place. Jeff, like many of the rest of us, was a product of his time and culture, and his reactions were entirely typical.

      Heck, even Michael Spencer was a product of that environment: Just go back and look at the story of the Dairy Queen incident in his book!

  16. Jeff – I have been on a very similar journey (lost of abusive church stuff, feeling like God was a grim taskmaster and that I would never, ever be accepted by him) and it’s taken a LONG time for me to be able to start viewing God as someone who really does love me.

    It takes a tremendous amount of courage to talk about this stuff publicly – my hat’s off to you.

  17. “I want everyone who is with me, who recognizes that God has given me spiritual authority over this church, to come forward now.”

    Anyone who has experienced spiritual abuse, even those who haven’t, should read Jeri Massi’s Blog on the Way.
    http://jeriwho.net/lillypad2/

    I’ll say it again, I think Jeri writes a lot like Michael Spencer.

  18. Jeff,
    Thank you for sharing your heart and your hurt. I pray God’s continued healing for you.

  19. Jeff,

    Thanks for this post. I have several times have been on the other side of this story. The Lord must have a sense of humor as he has made it an occasional part of my ministry to be one of the people standing up to abuse who get shunned, driven out, etc. All I can figure is he knows he can count on me to do the heavy lifting sometimes. [shrug].

    Speaking from this perspective, what has caused the most sorrow over the years is that very few people ever call or write afterwards to say they were wrong, or too scared to stand up to the abuser, or didn’t want to stick their necks out, or whatever. The handful of folks who *have* spoken or written to me afterwards have meant the world to me and contributed a great deal to my healing and renewing my faith. [A shaken faith in the people of the church is one of the lasting wounds those of us who speak up carry.]

    All this to say that if any of the folks you feel you let down are still living, and you sense the Spirit leading you, please do not hesitate to write or call with a simple message that lets them know you repent, that they were right, that you now see things differently…. whatever is appropriate. Even years and decades later, such a message has the power to comfort and heal. At least, it does for me.