When faith fails…

This blogpost from Luke Larner, the ragamuffin priest is well worth a read, as is much else on his blog, “The Roadside Musings – Confessions of a Ragamuffin Priest”.  You can find it here: https://roadsidemusing.wordpress.com/

Like many others, I’ve been emotionally impacted by the Mike Pilavachi / Soul Survivor situation.

My heart particularly goes out to those who have come forward, and those still afraid to do so. Abuse, including spiritual abuse, absolutely decimates peoples’ lives. I’m painfully aware that churches need to do better.

There are a wide variety of responses from both victims and the many people trying to make sense of their own experiences in light of these allegations. I’ve noticed a number of people wanting to reassure others with words to the affect that ‘Whatever happens with the investigation, it doesn’t mean what we experienced at Soul Survivor wasn’t real and wasn’t God.’

I want to offer a different story. I want to offer my story, and I know this might feel painful to some, and maybe even heretical to others, but this is my story. And it starts with a simple question – What if?

What if the intense experiences, what if the incredible emotional highs of being in a big top with thousands of other young people, what if the overwhelming desire to be something bigger than ourselves, what if hearing a ‘mission from God’ – what if it wasn’t real? What if it wasn’t God? What would that mean?

I became a Christian at the age of 16 in a charismatic Baptist Church. Or at least that’s what I used to say when I ‘gave my testimony’ (i.e. told over-the-top versions of my backstory including the ‘many’ sins I committed) to try to inspire faith in others. The reality is, that for most (but not all) of my life, I have been shaped by participation in both church and the Christian story. There have been times when I outright rejected it. Times, that I often shared in my testimony, like regularly proclaiming to my friends at school with a loud voice: “If there is a God he’s shitting on me from a great height!” (in my characteristically subtle manner).

But as slightly-above-averagely wayward teen, it was the intense experience of conversion and ensuing prayer ministry and black-and-white theology that really took my life in a different direction. This was heightened when me and my best mate (that dragged me to church) joined the youth group of an Anglican Church plant nearby who regularly visited both Soul Survivor Watford and the summer festivals. Thus ensued the regular pattern of visits to Watford and treks down to Shepton Mallet (and latterly Peterborough). Before long I was on the ‘prayer and prophecy team’ at the summer festival, and taking groups there as a leader myself over the course of many years.

What I experienced, particularly at the summer festivals, came to shape the rest of my life. The incredible persuasiveness of hearing a call to follow the almighty God in a tent with thousands of my peers, the effortless cool of the beautiful leaders, the ‘Christian skate park’ and ‘Christian rock music’ and ‘Christian t-shirts’ created a social in-group I desperately wanted to be part of. And, as is my way, I took it to the extreme logical conclusion. Within two years I was signed up to be a missionary in parts of the world where it carried the death penalty if you got caught. I abandoned any thoughts of higher education or decent job prospects (cos God would provide, of course!). I became an intern youth worker, sofa surfing with families from the Church, until I got a very poorly paid job in a ‘Christian cafe’ to cover rent on a room in a ‘Christian shared house’. People were ‘prophesying’ to me all the incredible things I was going to do. In the midst of all this, my family thought I had joined a cult. They weren’t far wrong.

Frank Zappa (a major musical influence until I binned all my ‘non-Christian’ CDs), famously said that the only difference between a religion and a cult is how much real estate they own. Selah.

Through all of this I had big dreams of being God’s man of power for the hour. I wanted to be like the big boys on stage. I wanted to be part of changing the world. I wanted to be empowered. The problem was — it didn’t work. The healings and miracles never came, including in me (despite trying so hard to convince myself). Then the questions started to come. You see – I really believed, I consumed all the books and talks and conferences – I wanted to learn and to grow. And when I started to learn, and devoured the Holy Scriptures, I started to see some issues with what I was observing. I started to ask hard questions of pastors and leaders, which I soon discovered was not the done thing. The cracks started to appear, and great was my fall from grace. I became a pariah in the community. After all, we were all so scared that the devil was going to get us through the influence of ‘backsliders’.

There were many more experiences that I don’t have space to share here – most of which were nothing to do with Soul Survivor. But I chased the dream they sold me for all it was worth, and it failed.

I got to the point where I realised that so much of what I had given my life to was a fever dream. Or maybe worse, a lie. I had given money, time, and the best years of my life to a fantasy and to a movement that was never going to empower or liberate someone like me. Try as I might, I was never going to be one of the ‘chosen ones’ – my charming working-class habit of asking blunt questions of powerful people had put paid to that. There were other parts of myself I’d hidden to assimilate that took years of healing to bring back into the light. I remember one winter’s night in particular, travelling back from a biker party in a friends car, and I was trying process all this in the wee hours. As the dark country lanes whizzed by, I remember scribbling into my little brown notebook, “This is it. I am undone,” I was never the same after that day.

Eventually, with the support of my spiritual director (a wise former-Catholic missionary priest), I had to face a big question: What if? What if it wasn’t all real? What if all the promises and prophecies were bullshit? What would that mean? What would I do? Would I stay a christian if it had really all been hype? Would I continue pursuing the discernment to a vocational ministry? Or would I just walk away. I was already spending an increasing amount of time in my local Zen Buddhist monastery at this point, and flirted with converting. I also had to ask, what did this mean for all the people I had bashed over the head with a Bible, who I had influenced with my fundamentalist theology, who I had recruited to the thing I now saw was hurting me and others? We were just vulnerable kids. We didn’t know.

So what did I do? In the end – I stayed. Because I realised that, in spite of it all, there was still something so compelling to me about Jesus of Nazareth. I realised that with all the hype and power and success driven away, I was compelled by the life and teaching of the Nazarene, whose God casts down the mighty from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly. I was compelled to follow in the footsteps of a fellow house-builder who calls people to a life of non-violent resistance against the powers of empire and death. I realised that, in the words of Sufjan Stevens, I’m drawn to the blood, the flight of a one-winged dove. I realised that in the sacraments and community of the Church I found something that gives my life a greater depth of meaning. I realised that, borrowing words from brother Cornel West, there was something about that sweet Jesus that still teaches me to love my crooked neighbour with my own crooked heart. I realised that what I had been sold wasn’t the only Christianity.

I could have happily walked away. My life would probably have been much easier if I had. I know others who did walk away, including close family members, and you know what? I think that was the right decision for them. Of course the reality is that if I had walked away, I wouldn’t be doing a job which I really love (on the good days at least), including the study of academic theology which has helped me process all this. So, it’s complicated. This is my story, and it’s where I ended up. Others will be called down a different path.

So for those wrestling with what they have experienced in light of this scandal – if it feels safe to do so, and maybe with the help of an experienced guide – I dare you to ask: ‘What if?’ What if it wasn’t real? What if a lot of what we experienced was hype? What if we were carried on the wave of hope for a better world and a better life, but were left wanting? What if we hurt people in the process? What if we gave our everything to something that failed us? What if we were just impressionable kids who deserved better?

Will we still follow Jesus? Or will we find a different way?

What if there is something more than the hype and the numbers and the influence and the career and the nice feelings?

What if G-d is really out there, and She is gently calling to us somewhere in the quiet: “Come away with me my love….”

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