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Abandoning Ship…   

For many leaving the church is very much like abandoning ship. For some it is more of a felt choice, a decision to leave and make their way alone and for others it is more like finding themselves jumping for a life raft as the ship lists and sinks. For those in the first category there is more time to consider the options for the way ahead, but others find themselves thrust straight into a life raft and it is more like just trying to survive - for a while anyway.

Either way this is the beginning of a new journey into unknown territory that brings with it the need for new ways of thinking and operating, maybe even a new language and certainly new metaphors. It can feel an incredibly isolated and lonely place to be in, people can feel scared and misunderstood, but it also can have a tinge of excitement and anticipation once the storm has settled.

I am reminded of the pointers for those jumping ship and making their own way found in  ‘A Churchless Faith'[1]  and draw on these below.

·      The need to get one's bearings, to relive and work through what has led to leaving, what is going on internally. This will take time and it is important not to try and hurry the process or ‘do' things in order just to regain a sense of equilibrium. It will be rocky for a while. It may well include expressing anger at what life on board the ship was doing to us, articulating even if only to themselves the pain, disappointment and maybe even abuse they felt on board. It is also important to work through the grief around leaving the community and people that have been very important. There was a time when there was a mutual journeying with these people, now it is very separate to them.  A spiritual director or a group of others who have also abandoned ship can be an invaluable anchor through this process.

·      In the process of coming to accept the loss of the community and individual friendships, there is also a process of dis-illusioning. What were once thought of as values almost exclusively of the church, such as ‘community' for example, or caring and compassion, are  now seen in other places outside of the church and often accompanied by a greater acceptance of people. Horizons are being broadened. What were thought of as close friendships at church may not have continued and this can be inceredibly dis-illusioning and painful. What were these friendships based on?

·      Finding the way ahead - assuming the goal is to continue and deepen one's faith in God. It is a journey through the pain, doubt, confusion and questions to a new appreciation of God at work. It needs to be said that this is a process and can take some considerable time. The book of Job offers us a rough guide to what lies ahead.

In Job, we meet a man who has a firm faith and works hard to keep it that way. Yet,     despite this, circumstances throw him and his faith into disarray. He hits the wall - his old trust and beliefs are now replaced with unanswered questions and deep doubts. Although his friends raise all the orthodox teachings of his community of faith, he cannot accept them, they simply do not connect with his new experience of life and he is not prepared to compromise that discrepancy between what he previously accepted and built his faith on and what he has now experienced. Job increasingly gains the courage to voice this to his friends and to God. It is a time of critically unpacking his faith and an angry search for the God who seems to have disappeared.

·      Pushing through the wall - finding a bigger meeting with God. The wall, the term used by Hagberg and Guelich in their book called The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, is a significant encounter. It is the place where a new layer of transformation occurs. It is a place where mystery lies, “a mystery that ultimately defies explanation but includes discomfort, surrender, healing, awareness, forgiveness, acceptance, love, closeness to God, discernment, melting, moulding, and solitude and reflection.”[2]

The journey through the wall includes four phases - awareness, forgiveness, acceptance and love. It begins with becoming aware of the lies we have accepted about ourselves and our families and the myths of life that were never true. It means finding out who we are as opposed to who we would like to be or others want us to be and realising we have lived like that for some time. This is often accompanied by feeling of loss, sadness, and anger.

The second phase involves us being able to forgive ourselves and others. It means a new encounter with the grace and forgiveness of God that brings us to an acceptance, a place of being able to embrace and have compassion on our own humanness, failures and sexuality. And the last phase of the wall involves a new emergence of love. Love for God, ourselves and others, different from what we've known before, founded on a deeper transformation in our lives.

We see this outworked in the life of Job. Job's perspective and relationship with God changes and by the end of the book he has made a major shift, He is humbled and  softened and has become more aware of and inclusive of himself and others and has come to a new understanding and experience of God. There is pain and struggle, yes, but there is a place beyond the wall that brings new life and growth in ways unimagined before.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Jenny McIntosh

[1] Alan Jamieson,  2000. A Churchless Faith.  Wellington, Philip Garside Publishing Ltd. Used with permission.

[2] Hagberg, J O & Guelich, R A 1989 The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith. Dallas, Word Publishing. p120

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