Chapter 9 - Charybdis
On his journey home from the Trojan War, Ulysses needed to navigate a very dangerous stretch of water named Charybdis. The hazard of Charybdis was that there were floating rocks and reefs, that by some malicious enchantment, would rapidly move out of the fog, colliding with and destroying any hapless vessel that happened to be there. Without retelling the whole story, Ulysses survived this very difficult trip by courage and divine assistance.
We found ourselves in a similar situation. For years we had supposed that we were strong believers, with well-developed spiritual insight. When we finally came to the sudden conclusion that we were no such thing, and were in desperate need of grace, we also began to have doubt. I knew that we needed to deal with this; otherwise we too would suffer shipwreck concerning the faith. This was a real concern to me, because some of the people who had left our church in the past also left God, or had real difficulty in their relationship with Him.
Our thinking went like this, "We were following God all those years, how could He have let us get so deceived? Is all this Christianity as real as we thought?" Thankfully, we didn’t have too much of this, and in any case, God provided enough divine circumstance to make sure that we knew He was real and He had His hand on our lives. For example, after we knew we had to leave The Assembly, my wife was praying in the morning that God would lead us to a place where we could grow and heal. I was at the same moment walking our dog in the park across from our house. I found a large mailing envelope on a bench and determined that someone had left it there inadvertently, so I picked it up only to discover that it contained invitations to a women’s tea at a local church. It also contained a record of how many people were coming and who had purchased tickets, etc. The name on the envelope was that of the wife of one of my patients, who happened to be a Christian. I immediately recognized this as a sign from God. What was He trying to tell us with this?
When I returned home a few minutes later and informed Suzie of what I had found, I could tell by the look in her eye that she also knew it was of God.
"What should I do?" she said.
"Call and tell them we found their invitations, of course."
She phoned and one of the pastors thanked her and said he would be right over to pick them up. Suzie prayed that God would put it on this pastor’s heart to invite her to the tea. She thought that perhaps, if she liked what she heard at the tea, we might visit their church someday as we searched.
The pastor thanked Suzie and started to walk away, and my wife was devastated. However, when he was almost down the driveway, he suddenly turned around and asked Suzie if she would like to attend the tea, free of charge. She replied, "YEAH!" and took three of her friends that week.
There were over one hundred women there, and the speaker was excellent. This was key for us in two areas. For one, our old gathering had very few women, never more than 10. For some reason we always had a hard time getting women to commit to fellowship. Having a large hall full of Christian women, all from the same church was a unique and wonderful experience for Suzie. Also, the speaker was "deep." She didn’t deliver a sugar coated, shallow message like we had been told always happened in other churches. It was a great experience for my wife’s first, "normal" Christian event. The fact that God so clearly orchestrated it and other such events, as simple as church barbeques, did much to alleviate any doubt we may have had. What was so great was that for the first time in years, God directed us through the simple, sincere love of His people, not through some Deeper Life author or seminar. Instead of making us think how wretched we were, it put a smile on our faces.
The next obstacle we needed to face was fear. We had been taught (some would say brainwashed) that bad things happened to people who fell away from God, and left "The Covering." Many times the Assembly was said to be like Noah’s ark. If Noah had left the ark in the middle of the rains, he would have perished. In the same way, we needed to stay in the boat in order to not perish with the world. Another frequently used analogy was that many times a shepherd, God in this case, would have to break the legs of a sheep that continually strayed. We had heard about businesses failing, marriages splitting up and many other horrible things that befell people who "left fellowship." Since we knew that some of these stories were true, we had to deal with a sense of fear from time to time.
This affected my wife more than me. One morning we awoke to find out that someone had smashed the window of our car in the night and stolen our cell phone. Furthermore, another family who had left The Assembly shortly after we did had their car stolen! Suzie worried that this was because we had "left the covering of God’s protection," as we had been taught.
God relieved our fear when we learned from the police that four of our neighbors had also been vandalized that night, we were house number two in the middle of a five-house vandalism spree. They had caught the kids who committed the crime and recovered our cell phone, which did not have one call made on it. I comforted my wife by asking her, "Honey, did our neighbors also leave the covering? Is God punishing them just so He can get to us?" Instead of seeing something deep and sinister, a spiritual wake-up call of sorts, we concluded that God was being good to us because we recovered our property.
Furthermore, we were to find out that many, not all, of the horror stories we had heard about people who had left in the past were simply not true at all. This did much to allay any sense of fear we may have had.
We knew, in our minds, that God is not vindictive, but it was another matter to have this settled in our hearts. We had been taught that God was easily angered, and that as the Good Shepherd, He would frequently have to break the legs of His sheep. We kept waiting for something bad to happen, but things just kept getting better for us.
In His rich mercy, He also calmed our fears by blessing my practice above and beyond anything in the past. I was worried that I would lose a lot of business, because many of The Assembly’s members were patients. My key employee, an Assembly member who was with me for almost eight years, quit at an inopportune moment, days after I announced that I was leaving The Assembly. We loved this person and had known her for years. Before she worked for me, when she was a patient, I discovered a heart murmur that turned out to be a life threatening aneurysm. I drove her to the hospital the moment I discovered it and she had surgery 2 or 3 days later. Now, I am dead to her, and wasn’t even invited to her wedding, all because I left the church, and had the audacity to speak loudly and clearly about my very valid reasons for doing so.
Since my whole world had revolved around them for so many years, I felt that if I lost all 9 of them as patients, somehow I would go broke! This is a good example of extreme subjective thinking, because simple mathematics should have been enough to quell this fear, I have thousands of patients. Nevertheless, God chose to literally open the floodgates and my schedule was maxed-out with new patients, many of them Christians.
As if all this wasn’t enough, our house, which we bought against the advice of some Assembly leaders, went way up in value, to the point where we could sell it, use the equity and move in to a brand-new, bigger and better house, with a smaller house payment! Then, our new house shot up in value even more and faster! God is truly incredible, and we no longer feared, but instead had such a thankfulness and praise in our hearts, for what He alone had done.
Deception was another danger that could have sunk our ship. We had been deceived for years, and knew how it felt. A deceived man feels nothing at all. In the past we never once felt like we were deceived, but were confident that we knew exactly what we were talking about, and had clear Bible teaching to back up our position. Because of this, we were apprehensive to follow any other "man" when we left our assembly.
What really helped in this area was reading and writing. I voraciously read every book I could find on cults, mass-movements, and even the Enroth books on abusive churches. These were of tremendous help to me if for no other reason than to see that many others had eerily similar experiences. As I thought through things, I would often express my thoughts in writing, which other people would read. When other, "healthy" Christians would read my essays, and comment positively, it really helped confirm that I really was hearing God’s voice, in spite of the fact that I was also using my brain and commenting on the obvious. This was a big change, because for years we had concentrated on the "things which are not seen," and avoided spoiling our theology with our brainpower, or by stating factual observations.
Also, I found that reading a commentary on the book of Galatians was a fantastic help. In The Assembly, we had been taught that Galatians was, "The Book of The Inheritance." Supposedly it was all about inheriting God’s kingdom, and the pitfalls of keeping the law and not going the way of the cross, all of which is partly true. Because of this emphasis, when I used to read Galatians, I always got stuck on Gal 2:20, triggering all of my ideas on "the cross." In The Assembly, we never considered the culture or customs of the people the book was originally intended for, supposing that it was not important for understanding what The Holy Spirit was saying.
Upon hearing what other Christian authors had to say about Galatians, and especially the incorrect idea that the Judaizers taught of beginning in the Spirit, but trying to be perfected in the flesh, I immediately recognized what was wrong with my theology all those years. It was Galatianism, pure and simple. Someone had come to us when we were very young in The Lord and had bewitched us with another Gospel. This was rather humbling, because I had to admit that I didn’t even understand the basics about the book, when I would have thought in the past that I had a firm grasp on the basics and was mining deep into the hidden treasure. This little bit of humility on my part, and the guidance from several sound commentaries really helped me gain some confidence in understanding the simple, blessed, hopeful truths of the Gospel.
As I write this, it comes across as if this was all very simple and easy. In fact, we avoided the first three hazards, doubt, fear and deception, with relative ease. It is the fourth hazard that was the hardest for us, and I believe is the most difficult obstacle for many.
Pride took down the most intelligent, beautiful creature in the universe. Pride blinded the Pharisees. Pride caused David, king of Israel, to seek to cover his sin by murdering one of his faithful and loyal friends. Pride deceives us and distorts everything we see or hear. When we should be afraid, pride gives us false courage. When we should prayerfully re-consider our beliefs and challenge our positions, pride causes us to catechize them and attack anything different. When we know in our hearts that we have sinned, pride begs us not to reveal the sin to anyone, but to quickly tell God we are sorry, and to pretend nothing ever happened. In order to compensate for our failure we may take police action to keep the overall level of whatever sin we committed to a minimum in the church and then pridefully speak out against others who may have done the same things we did. In so doing, we can fool others into thinking that we are not the sorts of people who sin "like that." Pride is all the other hazards combined and more. This is where we had our worst struggle.
I was completely mortified and embarrassed that I had publicly promoted The Assembly for all those years. Shortly after leaving, I was to find out that virtually everyone in town, who knew about the group, thought it was a cult-like church. I dreaded what people would think of me if they found out that we used to go there. Even worse, when I would come into contact with people who knew we used to attend there, they would ask us how our church was going, and we would have to tell them that we had left. More often than not, these people would say, "I was wondering when you were going to get out of that place. How could you ever have been involved there?" These people meant us no harm; it was just embarrassing to realize that when, in the past, I would strut downtown with a Bible, recruiting people to come to our Bible study, I was not viewed as doing God’s work, but as being a wacko member of a fringe group or cult. Frequently, people did not see Jesus in me; they saw a person standing for an offbeat group.
The most offensive thing to my pride was when Christian friends from old, like David, who I mentioned at the beginning, would say, "We have been praying for you for years. I am so glad you are finally free of that group." Then, parents of our children’s classmates would come up to us saying, "I hear you left that church. At our church, we have been praying that God would break through to that group someday. At last, our prayers are answered!" Nothing hurt so much as to have my entire self-image exposed for what it was, a proud, deceived zealot. In order to avoid the pain, we were often tempted to defend The Assembly, or insist that things were not that bad, that they were just another church in town. We knew very well that this was not the case, and as time went on it became even clearer that there were very serious problems there. However, this just injured our pride all the more, because we had blindly promoted it for so many years. We wanted to keep it all quiet, to keep ourselves from looking like fools.
I actually considered myself to be a real bible scholar at one time. God knows that I have more verses memorized than most pastors. I have preached on passages from every book in the New Testament, and much of The Old. I took bold stands on issues because of my great faith, bible knowledge and commitment to God. To finally realize that I looked like a buffoon to everyone outside of the group, when I thought that I was shining the light of the Glory of God was too much for my pride. The second hardest thing I ever did was telling some of my old friends that I had been wrong, and should have listened to them. The hardest, was telling my parents. I still haven’t told them everything, because it is still too hard. What we did do was apologize for the way we had treated them in the name of God. The key to surviving the hazard of pride was simply to apologize to people we had wronged in the past.
On our first Sunday morning at Calvary Chapel, after we had dropped our youngest daughter off in children’s church, I walked in the front door and the first person I saw was a man who had been involved at The Assembly years before. He had a girlfriend back then, and I had thoroughly browbeaten him, from the scriptures of course, that he must break up with this young lady if he wanted to fully experience the will of God. He wavered on this point for a few weeks, and then disappeared. At the time, I assumed that he was just one more person who wasn’t willing to count the cost and follow Jesus. Never mind the blatant hypocrisy on my part, I was completely wrong about this, as I was soon to find out.
After the service I called him aside and asked him if he remembered me. He indicated with a smile that he certainly did. I then apologized to him for the way I had treated him years before. I explained that we were out of that group and were seeing things differently. He graciously accepted my apology and we briefly caught up with each other. I asked him, "Whatever did happen to that girl you were dating? Was her name Sandy?"
"Oh, yes. You have a good memory. She told me that if I continued to be involved with that group she would have nothing to do with me, because I used to be happy, and after a few weeks going to that place I was depressed all the time. So we came here and God led us to get married."
I was speechless, "Where is Sandy this morning?" I asked.
"Oh she was with the toddlers, you probably saw her when you dropped your daughter off."
I almost fell over. Our daughter had a small crying fit when we left her in the toddler church. This in itself was difficult for us, because our kids used to sit for hours without making a noise, and could stop crying with one word. We had been conditioned to dread children making noise in church, and in spite of the fact that we had rejected most of our Deeper Life child training, we still didn’t like our children having fits in public, but that morning Chloe just kept crying. A lovely young woman held her hand and attended to her until she stopped crying and told us that everything would be fine. This was Sandy, the same one who I thought was so in need of advanced Bible insight a few years before.
In the past, I had attempted to lay a heavy burden on her. Now, here she was doing my family a tremendous service. I saw her again when we went to pick up our daughter and asked if she remembered me. "Oh yes, you bet I do. I was really surprised to see you this morning but I am so glad you came. Are you still going to The Assembly?" This was almost too much for us, but her warm smile and support made it much easier.
In the ensuing weeks, we phoned or wrote everyone we could think of that we had wronged and apologized to him or her. Every single person was gracious to us, which made our first real dose of humility something sweet. We have continued with this practice every time we are prompted by the Spirit to do so.
Along with apologies to individuals, we thought it best to write about our experiences to inform and encourage others. As the words went down on paper, it became more and more apparent to me just how "off" we had been. This was also very humbling and worked something very precious in my life.
The emphasis in The Assembly had always been on serving, and naturally, I wanted to serve. I didn’t mind doing things behind the scenes, as I did with money and other things, but I really enjoyed serving in public, especially by teaching. Now, I realize that I have very little to teach, because I need to be taught. I am in no position to serve; on the contrary, I need Grace.
By this I do not mean that I will never open my mouth, or speak up at a Bible study. I mean that I no longer feel indebted, or guilty for receiving as in the past. In our old system of theology, I felt obligated to perform service for God, because He had done so much for me. This carried over into our personal lives as well. We would always try to make sure that we watched other’s children more than they watched ours. We would borrow less than others borrowed from us. We would avoid at all costs the position of "owing" somebody two dinners, or two babysitting episodes. When we could not pay it back we felt guilty.
We needed to learn how to receive. Our first lesson in receiving was with God’s Grace. We were being blessed every week in our new church, and when I felt like I should be doing something, or giving back, I was gently reminded by The Holy Spirit that I would never be fit to minister grace to others, if I myself were unable to receive it. Week after week we would just sit there, receiving blessing and service. No one thought it strange, and never, at any time, did anyone pressure, or "encourage" us to start doing something. Now, more than a year later, we are finding that we want to do certain things, not because we feel guilty, or indebted, but because we love God, and think it would be fun to serve in some way. In fact, it doesn’t feel like service at all.
Deeper Life teachers would have us believe that we are most humble and spiritual when we are serving others, hazarding our own lives, for the sake of the Gospel. I now believe that many times, we are most proud when serving others, and that we are most humble when we truly know who we are before God, simply relying on His mercy and grace. This may be when we are serving, or maybe when we are just sitting at His feet, hearing His word. Receiving God’s grace implies humility, because we truly can do nothing to earn it. On the contrary, there are many things that only we can do to avoid or stifle His grace in our lives. If we are filled with His grace, we will serve others indeed, but it will be the sort of service that we are not always aware of, much like the service that the dear people I have mentioned in this book rendered to me.
At last, our little ship was where it should be, experiencing the gentle breezes from heaven, and the warmth of His Spirit. Storms still came from time to time, but we no longer ignored them. We have learned how to deal with them properly, to be patient and to wait on God, taking action when necessary. We know that He always did, and always will come through for us.