A Christian apology

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I was meandering around the foyer of my church one Sunday evening and the front page of Eternity Christian newspaper caught my eye.  I had been pondering the former Prime Minister’s apology to the indigenous stolen generation (a day known as “Sorry Day“), and I saw a the word “SORRY” in triplicate on the cover.

Sorry day had been on my mind as I pondered on how my nan might come to be open to Christ.  Not in the way of  “how will she become open to believing in God”, but rather, “how will she forgive the church and come to know who God truly is”?

That is, how do you share who you are with someone as a Christian when Christians who had collaborated with legitimate evils that affected that person, such as carrying out a government’s plan to wipe out an entire race of people for example?

https://i1.wp.com/images.theage.com.au/ftage/ffximage/2008/05/26/27N_SORRY_wideweb__470x253,0.jpgSorry Day was a meaningful day for me.  Not because I felt some deep empathetic connection with it’s full implications.  (Rather, I regard myself far removed from the aboriginal identity).  It was meaningful to me because I knew it would mean something profound to my nan.

I remember the day of the apology.  I was at work, and many of us had gathered in the cafeteria to watch the apology on national TV.

The Prime Minister used the word “sorry” explicitly several times throughout his speech.  He acknowledged the profound impact that the government’s actions had had on generations of indigenous Australians.

It didn’t matter that he was not personally responsible, nor did it matter that the current politicians in power did not personally carry out the callous removal of aboriginal children from their families.  It also did not matter that the government may be opened up to financial liability by acknowledging a historical truth that reflected unfavourably upon them.

What mattered was that it was that it would be a step of reconciliation towards those whom, until a few decades ago, were classed as fauna in the Australian constitution.  And it was an effort that the government could make, that was in their power to do, that would assist in the healing in the hearts of aboriginal people who had been forcibly removed from their communities, stripped of their cultural identities and placed in facilities manned by government officials and church leaders which were home to every kind of abuse.

The article by Michael Jensen touched on a few current affairs and gave some guidelines on what makes a good apology.  It really connected with what was already swirling weighing heavily on my mind.

Jensen writes:

In a good apology, we are looking for the right words, the right attitudes and the right actions.  The best apologies contain no self-justifications and no explanations.  There is an acknowledgement of responsibility for the actions involved.  There is no demand placed on the victim or victims, and no expectation of forgiveness.  There is no avoidance of consequences: an apology is not an attempt to avoid the justice that may come as a result of your actions.” 

(Emphasis my own).

Regarding the case of recent comments made by shock jock Alan Jones about the death of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father, (that he “died of shame”), Jensen writes:

“My friend Tim Patrick put it this way: “For an apology to succeed in being an apology, it must be a real apology, that is, a humble admission of guilt, request for forgiveness and commitment to living differently“.”

Whilst many were moved by Mr Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation, there were mixed views among the indigenous population as to whether the words of this apology was reflected in the government’s actions.  My nan seemed satisfied with it, marked with posters plastered around her living room (bordering on a shrine) relating to “Sorry Day” – one detailing the apology word-for-word and others with pictures of a former Prime Minister who had instigated unprecedented reform concerning indigenous policies.

After a couple of century’s worth of woeful government policies and the numerous complex social issues that continue to plague aboriginal communities, it has not been so easy for the government to “fix” the long term, deep seated, complex issues that continue to plague the aboriginal people.  However, a meaningful and heart-felt apology in “the right words” with “the right attitudes”, was certainly the start of something really positive . A new season perhaps.

All of this got me thinking about my own experiences.  My experience of knowing my own sin and knowing God’s forgiveness and of coming to a place of genuine repentance.  And my experience and observations within Christian circles and organisations where people have been legitimately hurt, yet some Christians (often leaders within an organisation) would often sidestep the issue or attempt to defend or justify the sinful actions, as if God or the faith were “under attack”.

It also reminded me of how I once was.  There was a time when I just would not hear criticism of my church or its leaders, and when I believed that anyone who had criticism needed to just go away and sort themselves out.

It also got me thinking about the emphasis that some churches or leaders place on forgiveness, yet they seem to entirely miss the aspect of making amends to those who have been wronged.

It adds insult to injury when a Christian leader or organisation demonises those who have been hurt as being “bitter”, “resentful” or “unforgiving”.  Even if that were true, that does not nullify their experience, nor does it in any way mean that the leader/ministry do not have equally important matters to address themselves.  It is equally as dismissive when a person trivialises the ongoing impact of a trauma on a person and carries the attitude of “get over it and get on with it”.

Another attitude that I find common in unhealthy faith environments is a demand for forgiveness (which is no doubt an important aspect of the Christian faith), however it appears to be in response to some wrong that has been done by the leader or the church in general, and there is nothing to be said about the other side of the coin: genuine, heart felt repentance of sin on the part of the perpetrator.  If forgiveness of another’s sin is important, then surely repentance of ones own sin is equally as important.

When I was coming to terms with abuses I had encountered at the hands of a Christian ministry, I began very slowly and carefully opening up to a couple of women I had grown to trust over several months.  They volunteered for a healing ministry that I had sought help from, and I was at a point where it just needed to come out.

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What really struck me was that one of the women expressed her utter shock, grief and anger about what I had shared.  But not towards me (which is what I had truly learned to expect), but towards this organisation.  She explained to me that what had happened to me was spiritual abuse.  She proceeded to apologise to me, saying that this should not have happened, it was not from God, and that it was not something that should ever, ever happen in a Christian ministry.

Now, SHE had not personally carried out those actions, or turned a blind eye, or condoned abuse.  SHE was not even involved with this ministry.  Yet she was a Christian woman who simply listened to my story and acknowledged the deep wounds that were inflicted in the name of Jesus.  And in the midst of media statements where churches and individuals were blaming victims and distancing themselves from any form of responsibility in what had happened, here was one Christian woman who apologised to me.  Instead of trying to stuff scriptures into my head about how I needed to forgive, this women simply grieved with me – in her words, her attitudes and her actions.

I just remember how instrumental this woman was to my recovery and the healing of my spirituality.  If this is the fruit of this woman’s impact on me on that occasion, a woman who was hardly at fault herself yet acknowledged the sin carried out in the name of God, the same God that she represented, then how much more powerful would the impact have been from the abusers themselves?

As Mr Jensen states, an apology must include the “right words, right attitudes and right actions“, involving “humble admission of guilt“, “request for forgiveness” and “commitment to living differently“.

GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) work with organisations to address and prevent instances of child sexual abuse in church and ministry environments.  They have shared the following thoughts on social media throughout the past year, which very poignantly highlight serious issues of ministries and leaders who shy away from authentic apology, and thus repentance:

“What prompts institutional transformation as it relates to abuse? Authentic sorrow and repentance OR public relations and the “need” to survive?”

“An institution who responds to abuse disclosures by immediately emphasizing forgiveness and reconciliation has little understanding or care for the abused.”

“An institution that promises to pursue truth requires an institution that embraces authentic transparency and a willingness to be vulnerable”

“Institutional self protection will always result in protecting a rotting core. Institutional change requires transparency and vulnerability.”

I think this has implications for all of us.  Whether you consider yourself an individual hurt at the hands of a ministry, or a perpetrator who has hurt others, we have all hurt someone at some point in our lives.  We are to be like God, imitating His character, and imitating Paul as he imitated Christ.

I know that for me, even though I was a victim of serious abuses in God’s name, that my attitude towards others has changed – and changed for the better.

As mentioned earlier, I had been defensive of the church I was at, and quick to invalidate anyone who voiced criticism or claimed to have had a negative experience.

After I was abused in a big way, it forced me to confront my prejudices and examine why I had previously been defensive to others who had been hurt.

I don’t have all the answers on why God lets us suffer in life, but one very valuable thing I did gain through that time of suffering is a humility and compassion for those who have been hurt by church individuals and organisations.  Had I not been through this experience, my voice would have been heard among the chorus of those who defended this corrupt ministry when the truth came into the light in a very public way.

Having had so many friends who have been hurt by Christians and shied away from the Christian community for that reason, perhaps God was preparing me for this.  Perhaps God wanted to mold me into a person who could be a friend to those who had experienced pain at the hands of the church.  Even though I may not have been personally responsible for their woes, perhaps I can be one representative of God who will simply listen, who will acknowledge and sympathise with their experience, and express my grief and sorrow to them, and offer my apology as a representative of Christ, without defending the perpetrator out of some idea that protecting them is by default the will of God.  Perhaps this is my ministry.

Perhaps God will work through me, with the wisdom and insight he has given me into institutional abuse and the power of repentance, to reach my nan.  Perhaps my words, attitudes and actions as a de-institutionalised Christian will open her eyes and heart to a loving Saviour.

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Forgiveness

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This piece by special guest Lisa Kerr first appeared on My Cult Life and explores concepts of forgiveness and her journey along that road.  Lisa is a survivor of a bible based cult, and writes at My Cult Life, The Cult Foundation and RH Reality Check.  Whilst she no longer identifies as Christian, there is still much value in her journey that we all can learn from.  If you have come from a Christian background that discourages seeing validity in the viewpoints of non-Christians, I encourage you to consider her words with an open mind and see what resonates for you.

A few months ago, someone shared with me that my blog was missing a section.  He shared that some people might find it helpful to see how I’d recovered from this group.  “What spiritual journey had I taken?”, he asked.  “How had I dealt with depression?  How had I forgiven?”  He said you guys would want to know.

I didn’t want to push any of my personal beliefs onto anyone or “preach,” so I haven’t written about this until now.  I realize that sharing my own journey doesn’t mean I’m pushing my beliefs onto you, nor does it mean I want you to agree with me.  In fact, sharing my journey is perhaps the most vulnerable thing I could do.  I don’t trust all my readers.  Some, inevitably, are out to get me.  Others of you are deeply wounded, like I am and have been for years.  We need to stand together and know that we can get through this together.  I need this to be a safe place, and so do you.

I’d like to share with you some valuable lessons I’ve learned, from my heart, and some resources that have helped me.  Perhaps they’ll offer you some guidance, like they have to me.  Perhaps it will just be nice to see that we’re all getting “there,” wherever that may be.

I share a bit of my journey that began in a Religious Studies class here.  What I learned over the next few years from my professor, Dr Campagna-Pinto, was to become invaluable to me.

In Dr CP’s classes, there were such meaningful convicting lessons, such as: “To create change you can’t have hatred in your heart.  You have to re-humanize the people who torture you.”

We read A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela.  I studied the chapter, I Have No Hatred in My Heart, and learned such truths as “When the perpetrator begins to show remorse, to seek some way to ask forgiveness, the victim becomes the gatekeeper to what the outcast desires—readmission into the human community.” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 117)

What I’d become was an outcast to Master’s Commission and to Our Savior’s Church.  They no longer accepted me, as most cults no longer accept outsiders, because I chose to leave their “authority” and “promised land.”

My perpetrator never showed remorse.  I had to live with that.

It was a difficult thing for me to face.  My perpetrator never showed remorse.  Nor did he ever plan to.  In fact, his own son said that he looked at people like me as less than nothing.

Although he had never shown remorse, my perpetrator had committed crimes against humanity.  Crimes of abuse.  Crimes of manipulation for power and reputation.  Several years of anger and grieving took me to the place where I’m beginning to feel sorry for my perpetrator.  And I’m very thankful I’m not him.

At the same time I studied the South African Apartheid, I learned that there are different ways to think about forgiveness.  I read The Sunflower: On the Possiblities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal.  Simon tells the story of a dying Nazi soldier asking him forgiveness for his crimes against Jews.  The dying soldier even told the horrific story of shoving Jews into a building and setting it on fire.  His orders were to shoot anyone who tried to jump from the building.  He shot.

After studying the Holocaust, and the amount of death and atrocity that Jewish people went through, I learned that forgiveness is a complex thing.  Like Simon discusses in his book, there’s much more to forgiveness than a simplistic, “You’re forgiven.”

Through my studies, and through the years, I have come to believe that there’s a striking flaw in Christianity when it comes to forgiveness.  Forgiveness in Christianity is simple: Jesus died on the cross to forgive you and I of our sins.  Therefore, when you and I sin, we can “wash away our sins by the blood of Jesus.”

Right?

No.  People need to be held accountable.  They need to be responsible for their actions.

Thus the flaw in the Christian belief of forgiveness.  When something devastating happens to a person, or a group of people, can you expect them to just “wash it away?”  No.  There are stages of grief that are normal and natural.  I learned that Judaism takes seriously the act of forgiveness.  During Yom Kippur they pray and fast, asking for forgiveness.

I began to respect Judaism for what I interpreted as a more realistic answer to the “forgiveness problem.”  I knew that I had been wronged deeply.  Not as deeply or as terribly as the Jews in Germany during the Holocaust, but I’d been wronged nonetheless.

I began to realize that I also felt forgiveness was a complex, serious matter and it was okay if I didn’t instantly grant forgiveness to someone.

In fact, it was more than okay.

It was perhaps responsible.

The value of thoughts and emotions

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These days, if someone asks me what denomination I identify with, I tell them “vaguelly protestant”.  If feeling a little more bold, I disclose that I am also “vaguelly charismatic”.  Even though I am still figuring some of that out, charismatic Christianity has been my denominational background for as long as I have been a “churched Christian”.

In the charismatic world, I identify two mindsets on the subject of thoughts and emotions that seem poles apart.

At one end of the spectrum, we have what I would call the quintessential charismatic experience.  It is about experiencing God with your senses and emotions.  Receiving the gifts.  Being filled with the Holy Spirit.  Baptised in fire, healing through prayer, prophesied over, encountering God in all kinds of tangible ways.  For some, this is a positive and enjoyable experience, and for others, quite spooky.  (For the record, I fall somewhere in the middle).

On the other hand, we have certain preachers who tend to trivialise and dismiss emotions and thoughts that do not fall within their framework of godliness.  There are a number of examples, one being Joyce Meyer who is known for her extensive commentary on the subject.  Whilst she seems to have a number of teachings which many find valuable (as well as self-depreciating of humour which i’m inclined to trust), I am mildly disturbed by her complete disregard for the role that “ungodly” thoughts and emotions play in the life of the believer.

Joyce Meyer teaches that we must not let our thoughts and emotions rule us.  (This is not bad advice in and of itself).  Thoughts that are contrary to the Word of God are to be “held captive” and overriden with audible faith platitudes in line with word of faith theology.  Joyce preaches that we must CHOOSE what we feel and think.  Depression is rooted in self pity, and anxiety selfishness.  She discusses “bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness” at length and emphasises the importance of eradicating  all but a narrow range of thoughts and emotions by drowning them out with spiritual activity such as reciting scriptures aloud, praise and worship, praying in tongues and rebuking the devil. 

I am not at odds with some of her teachings.  For example, when we have thoughts or feel emotions towards other people, it is important that we take responsibility for our own hearts and bring those issues to God.

Yet I can’t help but feel that something is missing here.

In the bible, people felt and expressed the whole gammut of human thoughts and emotions.  Desires, doubts, pain, rage, from joy and elation to the depths of despair.

One may dismiss the mental and emotional reality of these people because, although many were righteous before God, all were sinners.

But what about the One who wasn’t a sinner, who was upright and blameless before the Lord?  The only spotless Lamb who came to die so that we may have life to the full?

Jesus who was fully God and fully man was described as a man of many sorrows, and felt fierce anger, grief, sadness, frustration and terror.  God the Father feels emotions such as anger, jealousy, hatred and grief. 

In the charismatic world, there are some who preach that fear is the opposite of faith.  But how can this be true when the Lord Himself felt so terrified and full of angst that his sweat turned to blood?

In the charismatic world, there are some who discourage even verbally acknowledging a feeling that does not reflect their idea of faith, superstitiously believing that such words cast some kind of spell and work against the power of God.  Yet Jesus said to His disciples before He prayed at Gethsemane:

My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death” ~Mark 14:34, KJV

In the charismatic world, some are a little more giving in that their understanding of faith allows them to acknowledge any honest thought or feeling, yet they find it so uncomfortable that they immediately add a faith statement at the end to somehow neutralise and dismiss such a display of “weakness”.

Yet when we consider the Psalms of David and the Sons of Korah, some express the human heart in such a raw state from beginning to end, with no happy faith resolution to sugarcoat.

So where does that leave us?

If David and others who were righteous before the Lord experienced this range of thoughts and emotions, and if Jesus, our High Priest, experienced life fully as a human, then what is the common thread throughout the lives of these people of faith?

Here is what I think…

Whatever they went through, in their minds and in their hearts, they stayed in dialogue with God, abiding in Him.  They chanelled all they were going through, whether it was wonderful or horrendous, into emotionally honest fellowship with God.  They did not dismiss away their experience with a cherry picked scripture cheapened to serve as a “feel good” mantra.  They did not seek to maintain a false image that some charismatics may consider to be “strong in faith” which actually masks denial.  They simply surrendered to God, in their weakness, with all that they had and all that they were, and in that place, worshipping God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength, in spirit and in truth.

 

 

Walking on what! Does God really call us to get out of the boat?

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This is a copy of an article I wrote recently on my personal blog and think is worthy to share here.

I often hear it bandied around in church circles that God wants his people to get out of the boat. The idea behind it,  is that God wants us to get out of our comfort zones and take risks for him.

While I agree in some part that we are called to take a risk and step out of our comfort zones for him – the question to ask is if we are doing the Scriptures a disservice, and in doing so, making a mockery of God’s general call on his people as to what it is he is calling them to do.

The gospels record Jesus walking on water in two places. The first is in Matthew 14:29 and the other in John 6:19. Matthew gives us a fuller account of this experience, where Peter is called to step out of the boat and actually walk on the water and he does.

Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.  After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pay.  Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.  When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified.    “It’s a ghost”, they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage!  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.  But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, began to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.  “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.  Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

When we analyse this passage we see a number of things. The first one is that the disciples were doing what Christ had called them to do. He had told them to get into the boat. He had told them to cross over to the other side without him, as he was going to stay behind to pray.  And in verses 22 –24 we see the disciples being obedient to Christ, though the winds and the waves were buffeting the boat.

Shortly before dawn, they see Jesus walking towards them on the water, they see him and are fearful, thinking that they are seeing a ghost. Jesus reassures them that it is he, and not to be afraid. We need to take note of a number of things here. The first is that the disciples are doing exactly what Jesus had asked them to do. They are in the boat. The second thing to take notice is that the only command Jesus gives them is to not be afraid. He is not a ghost. They are not seeing a demon. He is giving them comfort that he is with them.

However, Peter, the guy with the big mouth, decides to test what Jesus is saying even further. It’s like he is not satisfied in seeing Jesus on the water, and he isn’t satisfied with the words he spoke to them…he decides to test Jesus further…saying, “If that is really you, then call me out, and I will do what you are doing!”

Peter gets out of the boat, he starts to walk on the water, sees the wind and the waves, and in doing so, took his eyes of Jesus, got frightened, started to sink and cried out, Jesus save me. Jesus takes him by the hand, rescues him, tells him you of little faith, why did you doubt, and together they go and climb back into the boat, and the waves and wind die down and  all in the boat worship Jesus, sayingtruly you are the son of God.

Within this story, we see that the actions of Peter are not that of faith – instead they have a foundation of doubt. His actions are not commendable: rather, his actions were cause for rebuke. It was only Peter who questioned whether it was Jesus or not on the water. It was Peter who questioned Jesus, telling him that he didn’t believe it was him. It was Peter who said, you know what, “I’m not going to believe it is you, unless you tell me I can come to you and walk on water also.”

Peter gets out of the boat and starts to walk towards Jesus, but the circumstances of his experience overwhelm him, instead of looking at Jesus and believing him: he instead looks at his circumstances, he looks at the waves and the wind and starts to sink into the water. But it was unbelief that got him there in the first place. It was unbelief and his testing of Jesus that caused Jesus to tell him to come to him in the first place. And therefore when Jesus catches Peter by the hand, and rebukes him with “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” We find that Jesus actually rebukes Peter for all of his unbelief in that entire episode from when they first saw Jesus on the water.

Finally they climb back into the boat. The boat was the destination where Jesus was heading for all along. It was in the boat where Jesus intended to meet up with his disciples. It was Christs intent for them to travel to the other side of the lake in the boat. It was never his intention for them to get out of the boat. It was never his intention for them to walk on water. And the only place he intended for them to get out of the boat, was once they reached the shore of where he had told them to go in the first place.

The Apostle Paul gives us good advice about staying in our boat. He says to the Corinthian Church in 1 Cor 7:17:

Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situations the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.

God never calls us to escape our boat. What ever situation we find ourselves in, this is where God has called us, and its where God has assigned us to live. And it is he, who will direct the course of our lives in him.

The Elijah Tree

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1 Kings 19:4-7

Elijah and the angel

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers”.

And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, “Arise and eat”.

And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again.

And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee”.