We joined a cult

I’ve had two kind of lunches in the last four or five months. My favorite is the first kind. It’s where you sit down with someone and you share what’s been happening in your life. You retell stories about your kids, and work – joke about how big each other’s mid sections are getting lately. The conversation has a natural pace and rhythm all its own. More often than not, you find each other checking watches (lately, smart phones) because your time runs out and life calls you back to the cubicle. Those are good lunches.

The other kinds of lunches are the ones where that seems to be happening, and then about one third of the way into the conversation the other person says something. Something that feels like a rope was pulled on a train, bringing the entire conversation to a halt. There is a conscious understanding that the other person has been biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to tell you something. You’re no so much talking at this point, as being spoken to. A verbal land mine of sorts. Those are not good lunches. I’ve had 4 of those, lasting anywhere from two to three and a half hours. I can tell the difference now by the amounts of food left on my plate at the end of the meal, whether the former or the latter has occurred. Bad ‘land mine’ lunches barely get eaten, and just coagulate. Bad lunches are usually the last time you see that person. The last time you see their number on the “INCOMING CALL” flashy thingy of your phone.

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2012 has been a pivotal year for my family, especially our faith. I’d like to say it was because we’d read books written by popular Christian authors like David Platt, Francis Chan, or Jennifer Hatmaker. I’d like to blame it on my first or second trip to Northern India. Part of me would love to blame it on my parents deaths – providing me with an all too heightened awareness of my mortality. Today however, I don’t think I can attribute what’s happened this year to any one thing or “nexus”. There were a myriad of instruments in 2012’s orchestra. Standing here looking back I can see the statistical improbabilities of it all – the way certain things had to come, or not come together.

In 2012, I walked away from a lucrative second job with a substantially high salary. I remember at the time sitting in a room full of men with equally high salaries and equally long or longer hours. Every week their prayer requests were the same – always about work. No time. Degraded relationships and fighting at home. Children acting out at bedtime to get any measure of attention before daddy went back to work. One guy decided the solution to being overextended vocationally was to have an affair. And then blame his wife, who apparently drove him into the arms of this other woman. Another man was in a longstanding pattern of counselors. Another man’s answer to his glacially hectic lifestyle was to watch less TV. One or two men just sat there and said, “Nothing’s wrong.”

So I cut my hours….by half. And then in August, half again for a net balance of 1 job. A job working from home that allows me to see my wife every day of my life. A life where we go on day-dates to Whole Foods and cheap sushi restaurants and talk for hours at a time. Or sit on the deck out back. In the mornings, I can ride with my family to the schools they attend, almost always laughing as I watch my youngest run up the sidewalk into the building. Encouraging my oldest as he walks into the middle school to be brave, and do his best. Picking them up in the afternoons and seeing their faces as they share how they did on a test or at a field trip.

This past summer, cutting the hours and then retiring from my position let us spend hundreds of hours at High Rock Lake. I’d bring my laptop there and work when I had to, as the kids swam and fished and played on the lake shore in front of our camper. At night we’d watch really old Disney movies (on VHS) and play dollar store Bingo with really cheap chips and thin boards. Waking up to find catfish on the lines of my son’s fishing poles early in the morning – to his unforgetably amazed and wide eyed expression as we pulled them on shore. My favorite memories are from the day the kids jumped off the dock into the water as I filmed them in slow motion with my waterproof camera. When I play those back, I hear Lenny Kravitz singing, “I want to flyyyyyyyyyy awayyyyyyyy”.

Each week brought new meaning to “work”, though. When you work for yourself there’s no guarantee of a paycheck coming in every week. I spoke to one good friend about that today over lunch (the good kind of lunch). We shared how hard the weeks where nothing comes in are. How you learn to squirrel away the good weeks, and ride out the averages of it all. By the end of the lunch we were laughing so hard my belly hurt and my eyes were full of water. We’d even made our waitress laugh. (When you’re aware of your mortality you laugh every chance you get, I think)

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In 2012, we’d also come up against some big dichotomies in our faith and local church. In the New Testament scriptures, the gospels and in Acts in particular, we’d read about a life in the book that we had a hard time matching up with the lives outside of the book.

I’d come back from India with a clear vision and purpose for a second trip. A purpose that had been vetted by the people on the ground in India. One that encouraged them. I’d felt for the first time since joining the church where my “puzzle piece” fit. I could take what I’d learned my first trip and make a briefing manual for future travelers. I could act as a liaison between the people there, and the congregants at home using my presentation and public speaking skills. What I found waiting for me was completely different. That some guy “who eats a bowl of curry and comes home all excited”, someone they “didn’t know and frankly didn’t trust” should come to the meetings, and be humble.

I didn’t understand a lot of things there. Like why we had a huge mahogany sign in the foyer, with pictures of all of these lost people who didn’t know Jesus walking around, and there were no plans to go back a 3rd time. Why the people who told everyone in Northern India they were coming back the next year, weren’t returning. Why they were already talking about “adopting” a second people group somewhere else in the world, when a handful of people in the room could barely name 3 villages or cities where the missionaries were serving.

For a month or two I came and sat humbly and listened. I gave the curry time in my belly to digest and process. But in the end, I stopped going. And started preparing. And the fire started spreading to others…to my best friend who designed and built a solar powered FM transmitter with an 8 mile broadcasting range. Together in September we installed the station at 10,000 feet within earshot of 3 remote villages…people that had never heard the word “Jesus” before. This next year, we’re going back with 3-4 other men who’ve all caught the vision. They’ve been training with loaded backpacks in the Linville Gorge – ascents and descents that match the places they’ll be returning to with the 2nd generation of transmission equipment.  The kind of stuff you read about in Acts. It was one of the first disconnects in my mind….why didn’t what I read about in scripture match what I was seeing in the real world?…..

We stopped meeting at our house for “small group”.

I’d spoken to other small group leaders and shared some of the concerns I’d had, asking if they’d seen any of those things play out in their worlds. Were people coming unprepared – not having read any of the study materials? Were their attendees moving in and out of other groups without any emotional attachment? Was anyone sharing anything personal or confessing any kind of struggles during prayer time? Were there any “sticky” relationships? I started to notice a pattern.

The leaders were tired, each week. It was less of a family gathering, and more of a chore. No one was volunteering to share the burden and their home – offering to have group at their house one week. If anywhere, “it” was happening in the groups that had “started” the big church. The groups that new attendees were having a boat load of time breaking into, confessing a “clique” like high-school-esque back and forth.

But even in those cliques, people I spoke to noted that something had changed as they’d moved into the new building. Person after person said somewhere between 400 and 600 attendees total, there was a feeling of “having arrived”. They said the entire culture had changed. It was less like a family reunion, and more like a collection of cultural programs. The culture was colder. One man used the phrase “Fist-Bump-Fellowship” to describe the depth of his friendships there.

We’d seen these things happening in the group that met in our home. Couples started leaving. The one that hurt the most was the couple that wouldn’t tell us why. It was a “combination of internal and external factors”, I was told. We’d learned weeks later that they told their new group leaders it was because of time. This new group was about 25 minutes drive away, as compared to the 5 minute drive to our home. It clearly wasn’t about time. I followed up, and kept asking, “why?”. I kept getting the same answer. To this day, the same answer. . .

When the group ended in May, I’d continued to reach out to my male counterparts via email, phone and text. With my new found free home job time, I was happy to be able to meet them near their jobs at lunchtime. I missed them. It was great the first few times – I enjoyed that interaction and sharing what God had been doing in my life. But after a while I noted a pattern that I think Karen had noted even earlier than me. If I didn’t initiate the call…the email….the text…..there were no lunches. No real anything for that matter. People I’d met every night for months and months and months with…confessed dark sins and life victory with.  If I didn’t see them for the 12 minutes we’d see each other in the “coffee bar” each week, we didn’t see each other in the real world. Heck, we weren’t even thinking about each other during the week in the real world.  This wasn’t family.  At least for us.

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I remember a very dark day. Something very bad and tragic had happened. The worst possible thing you can imagine. Hours later some pastors showed up to pray. I leaned up against my wife’s Titan and stood there watching, just out of ear range. About 10 minutes later, the younger executive pastor said something jokingly – so inappropriate and detached from what had happened that day, I remember feeling like punching him in his smiling face full force. Someone who was family wouldn’t joke about anything. Not on this day. A day I’d never forget, for many reasons.

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For months, I sat and waited for calls. For emails. Texts. We began to realize that when you took away the 2 hours a week that people were “told” to interact, they didn’t interact. When we put all the pieces together, and added this last observation together we decided it was best to just “wait”, and do nothing. To listen. Sometimes doing something because you think God will be impressed is the worst kind of something. The Bible says, “a broken heart and a contrite spirit, you have yet to deny”. We had both. And so we sat, and asked God to show us where he wanted us to go…if anywhere.

We started worshiping at home. Reading the bible together with the kids – maybe with a worksheet to color in and follow along with. Maybe with some questions we’d go over at the end of the reading.  The kids were asking questions in return – heavy duty insightful questions. It was awesome.

Some Sunday’s, we’d look for opportunities to serve as a family. I remember one time we called a good friend and asked if they knew any one that needed help. She’d told us about one family that had 5 adults and 1 baby living on one income that could use some help. We got in the car and had “Walmart Church”, with the kids helping to pick out groceries and things for the baby. Riding to the house with them was amazing, as they talked about the ‘why’ of it all, and I couldn’t help but laugh to hear their comparing this Sunday to other Sundays. When it came time to bring the groceries in, they wanted to do it- and carried each of the bags and gift cards to the porch and met the people we were helping. I’ll never forget that day.

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The phone call that day led to where we are right now.

We meet on Sunday’s in one of 4 different homes – including our own home now. Anywhere from 10 to 20 people will come, each family represented bringing a meal or a dessert with them. This is especially cool, as many of the congregants are expert chefs in their own right .  We sit and talk in living rooms and kitchens and swimming pools and outdoor tables, sharing about our lives. Before too long, the food starts being served, or someone says the blessing and we start eating. Sitting down together, the conversation always turns to God and spiritual things – never forced and always naturally to either a question, a blessing, or a need for prayer. Some days, we may never go very deeply. Others, we’ll just pray together .

Most days though, my favorite thing happens. Everyone starts talking and sharing and questioning and answering. Not “Why can’t God be a woman”, stuff – or “Jesus didn’t really die” stuff. Our beliefs, our doctrines are the same as they always were. What’s fascinating though is what’s happened since we started attending. Someone may say or ask or insinuate something that flips a switch in my brain. An itch forms, that requires me to go home and think about it. Research it. Read commentaries on scriptures – search and dig for answers. Most weeks I’ll spend 4-5 hours digging through the Bible and connecting dots I didn’t know were ever there. Dots that reaffirm everything I know and believe. When we meet again to share again, other people are doing the same things – sometimes with differing answers to the “gray” questions. But here’s the thing. When you know you’re going to see that person next week – you can’t sit on the other side of the 2,000 person sanctuary. When you share a meal with 15 people, something happens. Love is there. Respect. Tenderness that wouldn’t normally be there.

Some Sunday’s we don’t meet and study. We have “chainsaw” church, showing up at a neighbor’s house with a downed tree from a storm and cutting it up and bringing it to the curb for them because they can’t. Or serving meals for homeless ministries in Winston Salem. Or helping other families renovate their homes before they apply for a re-fi. From a distance it looks like this, or is closer than I’ve ever been in others:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

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Today, my wife came home in tears from a bad lunch. Coagulated food lunch.

Word on the street is, we’ve joined a “cult”.

The first thing my best friend said when I shared that with him was,

[3:12:01 PM] Funny, no one cares enough for you to ty and get you out of the cult
[3:12:25 PM] ****: If I thought YOu had joined a cult, Id kill the leader, and have you in a solitarty place in 24 hopurs

We had the same first thought – if people are saying that we joined a cult – we’ve had the all time worst intervention ever staged. Sort of like a surprise birthday party with a saggy cupcake and no candle.

We also had the same second thought – what we do each week as a family doesn’t resemble a cult in any of the checklists I could find. If anything, some of the items on the checklist sound like the place we just came from:

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.” was my favorite.

I’m tired of not having calls returned, and begging for friendship and affection. Tired of hacking away at cliques. I’m 42 years old. High school was no fun when it was High School.

So I’ve decided to invest my life into the people that call me…that miss me when I’m not around. The people who listen when I share my life’s mistakes and corrections and spiritual insights and put them into practice, or have the nerve to challenge and discuss them with me. Today is the 3rd time in as many months I’ve heard about people “talking about me”. Never “to”. Always “about”. It’s fascinating. Especially in a “c”hurch context.

Some friendships that I thought were friendships were really hard to watch drift. Others cost me upwards of $25,000 to see weren’t so much a friendship as an friend”ly” ATM. I don’t think they’re so far gone that the Lord can’t restore them. I’m just tired of being the only person in the ring fighting for them. If that’s your definition of a cult -than yes, my wife and I joined a cult. Let the gossip begin anew…..

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There’s one last thing I want to blame for a glorious 2012. It was a moment in a tent with a man who was really wrestling with some things in his life. Someone I didn’t know very well and had held at arm’s length for a very long time because of what others had told me about him. He came in from the rain that afternoon and sat down and talked to me. I could tell he was carrying some really heavy baggage, but was reluctant to share specifically what. I started telling him about my life…what I was wrestling with. Problems with my wife. Problems with my relationships with my children. Questions even about my faith.  With each passing confession, I could see his shoulders lighten and his face change. A realization that he wasn’t the only guy in the world that dealt with these types of things. That we were all a mess – one big glorious mess. He left the tent that day looking different than when he’d come in. ‘Lighter’. He promised then, and in a text afterwards to get together again. He was greatly encouraged by the talk and still mystified that someone would confess the kinds of things we spoke about that day. I suspect he had something he wanted to get off his chest and share.

I’ll never have a chance to know what, though. As I said above, I have an ever increasing awareness of my mortality.

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This is the last blog I’m going to post on Facebook. If you want to follow along and read them, then subscribe to the post. I know a lot of people read these – I can see the IP addresses in my WordPress reports. Funny thing is no one ever comments for the dozens that read. It’s fine though – it won’t be an issue anymore. I’ve written these not so much to share, but to put my thoughts on the screen and work the stuff as I re-read them. When you write something, you see what you really believe. (Important note: Not what your spouse believes – it’s okay for them to be a person with their own brains. I don’t know one couple where the spouses aren’t usually “opposite” personalities…do you?).

I also thought today that the people I love the most – the ones who are following Jesus the closest, don’t blog every other minute, or spend a tremendous amount of time on Facebook. They don’t have 1,110 virtual friends. They are outside their house “living” their lives. Actually interacting with people. I think it’s time for me to give that a try. Especially when what I write comes back around like a spousal–boomerang. For that alone, I’m done.

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Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.

We’ve tasted. It’s good. We’re blessed.

Amen.

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5 Responses to We joined a cult

  1. Stephanie Jones says:

    Well written … Sad commentary on “the body” … But one I have experienced in many ways as well. I love you both and am happy you have found a “family” that inspires you to “taste and see”.

  2. Ashley Brady says:

    ❤ you guys and your open, amazing lives of faith. I am so blessed to have true friendship and family with you.

  3. Kristina M says:

    This one leaves me in deep thought and a bit melancholy. In the same token, I’m so happy you put this out there. Nothing has the chance of being addressed unless it is outside of our thoughts and into the open. MIchael, you express yourself very well in words and it’s a pleasure to read your blogs.

  4. Brad Wasson says:

    Life is complicated, even in the body of Christ. I identified with your experience after the mission trip; little continuity from the church; time for a different mission experience. I’m glad you stepped it up and completed an important project. I have seen a mix of small group success and failure as well. Leadership could help define, model, encourage; provide more guidance, coaching, fixing, how to; and preach about the commitment and sacrifice for genuine Acts 2 relationships. Everyone needs to dialogue about reasonable expectations for each community. In a God controlled community the Holy Spirit guides regarding love, care, forgiveness, and the expectations change as the group changes, hopefully for the better. Unfortunately, many believers don’t genuinely love and pursue God so that His love overflows. Not enough time in Fellowship with God = Coldness, indifference, and an uptick in self oriented thinking – Thankfully there are guidepost in the process of sanctification, for the beginner, doubter, uncommitted, undisciplined, sacrificer (that probably sacrifices to much), selfish, etc… Even the most mature believer is simultaneously a sinner and saint… The guidepost of the Word, Indwelling Spirit, and interactive Christian community; community that is messy this side of heaven, is changing us all. The bad lunches, good lunches, trying a loving community in a different paradigm – are all part of the process God has worked in your life. Praying that we can help to create a Christian tradition and pattern that will glorify God, make the gospel and biblical truths accessible, organize us as a loving Christian community to validate, encourage, empower, and support each other in our worship of God, communion/fellowship with God and others, and mission with God and others…

  5. Kristen Faulkner says:

    “If I didn’t initiate the call…the email….the text…..there were no lunches.” …sounds eerily familiar.

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