Jen's Jesus Journey

Divided Christianity – Divided Family

I don’t believe that Christ is divided, I believe God is the originator of family, but sadly, many people, many Christians struggle with difficult family relationships. I returned from a week long trip to Ohio two weeks ago. I hadn’t been back to Ohio in almost two years and I felt a lot of anxiety as I anticipated the trip. I was excited to see my current church family in Ohio, but I had a lot of trepidation around seeing my biological family, and still a fair amount of anger around seeing my dad again.

I thought I was more settled about the state of relationships with my family til I had to prepare to see them again. There’s a great lack of communication, difference of beliefs, and in general a lack of connection among my family and I. It isn’t what I want, but that is how it is at this time.

My father and I had only exchanged a handful of texts and a few brief phone conversations in the intervening two years since my Christmas 2015 visit. The youngest of my brothers, still two years my senior, but the youngest of the boys, was getting married. That brother, Joel, doesn’t, um, “do” telephone or social media. I hadn’t had any communication with him since I left Ohio 2 1/2 years before. When I would text Joel for his birthday I would discover his phone number had changed.

The first year that happened, my dad provided Joel’s new number, but after texting a birthday greeting without response, the next year when I texted him happy birthday, I received responses from a stranger asking who I was and saying it was not his birthday – well I don’t actually know if it was a “him.” Joel’s number had changed again. When I recounted this to Joel in person the night before his wedding, he was genuinely sorry and about to offer his new number. I told him not to bother. I had already determined that from now on I will get his wife’s information and pass greetings to Joel this way. I’ve accepted this is who Joel is. I’m thankful for his wife who at least does some social media and phone interaction. I also recognize that Joel is much more introverted. In his presence, he is kind, calm and easy to be with, but getting to be in his presence can be difficult to facilitate as it’s hard to connect with him to make those arrangements.

Communication with the rest of my family isn’t much better. I had seen my middle brother Carter and his family at the Christmas holidays two years before, and sometimes there were brief group text chats with my father, and two oldest brothers. I would text Carter happy birthday and at least now he usually responded with a “Thanks,” but that wasn’t guaranteed, and I didn’t receive any similar text on my birthday.

My eldest brother Matthias and I have the most communication. We text sometimes and occasionally speak on the phone. He’s on Instagram and likes all my She Rises Up quotes. I wonder a lot if he reads the text beneath and what he thinks of what I’m doing. I wonder if he ever actually goes to the link in bio and comes to this site. I don’t think that he does, and mostly, thinking he doesn’t helps give me more freedom to do what I’m doing.

I grew up with my family involved with a home church ministry. I grew up knowing we were called a cult by a lot of people, and my maternal grandmother thought we were off our rockers and probably going to hell for our strange beliefs, and lack of traditional church culture. My family laughs about an exchange between her and Carter where grandma was quizzing him on the ten commandments or some other aspect of Christianity. I don’t remember the entire exchange now, but at the end of it, grandma, frustrated and agitated at her failure to get an upper hand with my brother Carter, exasperated – “Well you ‘Way people’ may know a lot about the bible, but you sure don’t know anything about religion!!”

It was an insult from her, but it was a compliment to us. We prided ourselves, and I do mean prided ourselves on our “lack of religion,” and our knowledge of the bible. The deeply shocking thing to me in the years since I left that group is how very religious it actually was, but I didn’t see it while I was in it. At different points over the years I watched various groups of people break off from the main ministry and form other groups.

Additionally, different individual people would leave over the years. It was a thing and there was a way we would talk about it, without ever really going into depth on it.

“So and so left.”

“Oh.”

Hurt and shock, then resignation. They had gone on, but we remained, we would not be similarly deceived and misled. I had a lot of friends who left and I had to begin to set aside the judgement because I really loved these people. The biggest shift in how I viewed people who left began when my brother Joel left.

He was in Colorado living with a bunch of believers after doing a year of missionary outreach in Nebraska. They had lived in Nebraska several years, then the whole group mainly that had done the program in Nebraska moved to Denver together. It was the late nineties, before everyone had cell phones, and my parents and I received some calls from the leadership in the Denver area to tell us Joel had moved out without telling anyone. He left and didn’t say where he was going. He hadn’t told us anything either and it was two weeks before we heard from him. It was a very upsetting time and devastating in many ways.

At that time the leader of the ministry was a very outspoken, critical man who shunned everyone who didn’t “stand” with us. For years he advocated that we cut off all communication with anyone who was no longer part of our church. He talked about how people who left our church were misled and deceived, and that outside of the spiritual protection offered by the ministry, people would in essence be consumed by devil spirits and likely die. Yes, it was pretty crazy. But this type of thinking and behavior was practiced before this leader and after this leader. But this leader was especially vocal in his anger against any opposition. So, at the time that Joel left, that was the voice of our church – disown and discredit anyone who didn’t stand 100% with us.

But when it came to my brother, something in me broke.  I couldn’t, I wouldn’t disown and disavow him. This was the kid I walked to school with at that terrible neighborhood elementary where the kids were super evil and unkind. Only he had shared the experience of being bullied and the ugliness of facing those kids day in and day out. This was the brother who went to the church teen summer camps with me. The two oldest boys had their own shared experiences together, and Joel and I had a lot of shared experiences since we were two years apart.

Now I’m so thankful for that experience with Joel leaving our church, because up until that point I had essentially excommunicated from my heart and interactions anyone who left our group. The ministry I grew up in did encourage many times completely separating yourself from your friends and family to follow Christ. They would say we have no friends when it comes to the Word. Another friend who was in that group with me and has also since left shared with me that what that taught her was that we have no friends. And sadly, that was how it was on a much deeper level than I realized til I left the group.

I do understand that in life, as a Christian, as a human, it may absolutely be necessary to separate ourselves from people we love, but who are not healthy for us and for where our lives are going. However, I feel those decisions and determinations are something that each individual has to work out with God and be led to do. God is pro-family! I realize that stepping back from family at different points is seen in many places in the bible. I definitely do know we have to separate ourselves from people who will keep us from God and from being emotionally healthy. Even Jesus Christ had points where he had to step back from his family.

But to have a church dictating who we can and cannot, or who we should or should not associate with based on the individual’s affiliation to the church, I do not think is wise.  But I feel there was a lot of that type of control in that group. Again, I didn’t see it til I left. And anyone who said otherwise while I was involved, I thought that person was deceived and misled.

Ironically, obeying God when he told me to go to another church has led to me becoming very separated from my family. The Christian family I grew up with doesn’t want to know what I am doing or why I am doing it. I have left the family church and gone to mainstream Christianity. Mainstream Christianity is the very place so many in the church I grew up in felt they had escaped from. So I left my “family” church to go to, in many ways, the enemy.

Only one nephew has actually asked me why I left. But I remember when I was in the group, looking at people who left. I remember talking with a long time friend who had also grown up in that ministry and we were talking about people who had left. I remember she said to me that I was a “lifer.” I remember how proud and satisfied I felt that she saw me that way. I also remember that we were both in terribly broken romantic relationships, and we were both doing cocaine and drinking. I look at us from the viewpoint of today, we were sitting there, feeling safe and satisfied that we weren’t being lured out of our “true” church, but completely blind to the problems in our life that had escalated into dysfunctional husbands and boyfriend and substance abuse.

I was only around my family for two days on this recent visit, and mostly the conversation didn’t get too in-depth. I seriously feel like Carter’s wife, Desiree, is afraid of me at times, afraid of who I’ve become. Afraid that I’ll infect her with whatever got to me. I’m just six months older than her, just a year ahead of her in school, and I was one of the teen leaders who was on stage a lot at the youth events. I was very on fire and excited about God and our church, so I can imagine that I no longer feel very “safe” to her.

She taught from the main stage of the church last month. I asked her about the experience. And I was happy for her, but reminded of how very much I’ve changed and how different I’ve become. I love them all dearly. Too much I think sometimes. Life is much more of a process than I usually want it to be and I believe this blog is part of the process of me making sense of so many of these things.

I’ve tried at different points the last few years to share with my family about my excitement, about my journey, but it hasn’t really been received. Even when I tried to share the awe of a time where I received instantaneous, miraculous healing, I was completely dismissed. In so many ways I feel like a brand-new Christian, and I want so much to share my joy and excitement with my family. But it hasn’t worked out. And then my heart hurts. So, I pray for all of us. I do believe we are all saved and I believe in eternity we will have accord and unity. But I pray that we can also experience more of it here in this life on this earth.

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