In another post, bestselling author Anne Rice told you her story – how, through historical research, she became convinced the facts support a real Jesus who rose from the dead. She explains how and why she left atheism to embrace hope.
Then, in 2010, she left the church. She said:
“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian … It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.
“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”
Many have asked my thoughts about Anne Rice’s departure from the Catholic Church. Let me tell you my own story of struggling with quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious church people.
When I was 12, my mom went “bipolar.” Manic depressive with mild schizophrenia.
Except that for a year and a half, nobody knew that’s what was wrong with her. We just knew she was impossible to live with.
The fights, the arguments and contention would start as soon as I got home from school every day and stretch past bedtime.
Our entire family was bedlam for a year and a half.
Mom would swing from being your best friend to your worst enemy at the slightest provocation. I’d come home from school and find she’d tossed boxes of my stuff in the garbage. She’d say embarrassing things to my friends.
She insisted dad wasn’t really her husband. She said he was a man who looked just like Bob and she was sentenced to live with him until the ‘real’ Bob came back. When he came home from work she would hurl accusations at him. My brother and sister and I would complain bitterly to him about how she was treating us.
It was almost impossible to not get sucked into some kind of conflict every day. Home was the most dangerous place a kid could be.
My dad was taking her to doctors and counselors but nobody seemed to be able to arrive at any conclusion. Meanwhile, people watched us with a judgmental eye.
My dad was an associate pastor at a very large church in Nebraska, 2000+ members. Dad started getting heat from his boss, the senior pastor, Mr. G, who didn’t like the fact that one of the pastors’ wives was “out of line.”
Mr. G quoted the scripture that says a pastor should be in control of his family and told dad if he didn’t straighten out mom’s problem, he might have to leave.
Dad pursued answers and eventually got mom to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnosed her with a chemical imbalance and bipolar disorder.
That trip to the psychiatrist was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Psychiatrists and psychologists, in Mr. G’s opinion, were the new high priests of a secular order that would dismiss all human ills as curable illnesses. Psychiatrists didn’t have the courage to call evil by its real names – SIN and DISOBEDIENCE. They existed to give people like my mom an alibi. Mr. G declared Mom insubordinate and rebellious.
Literally on the same day the diagnosis came back, Mr. G and Mr. J, the pastors of our church, visited our house to deliver the news. We all sat in the living room as they announced, “We’ve asked your father to resign from his responsibilities. He’s no longer qualified to be a pastor.”
I listened without much comment. I was 13. My older sister, however, was livid. At 18 she’d formed definite opinions about what had transpired. She started sobbing and retorted angrily to Mr. J: “If people knew what YOUR daughter does when she’s out at night, they’d be forcing you to resign too.”
Mr. J said, “We’re not here to talk about me or my family today, Robin. We’re here to talk about you.”
Earlier that day, dad had been brought before the Board of Elders to hear their final verdict. One by one, they agreed with Mr. G: “Bob, you’re not in control of your family. We’re sorry, you have to step down.” Mr. G demoted dad and announced to 2,000 people the following Sunday that dad had “resigned” so he could “attend to problems with Betty and the family.”
The next months were painful indeed. Few knew the real story. Some gathered around us. Most only knew something disgraceful had happened though and kept their distance. We felt like pariahs.
Dad couldn’t hang with his same friends anymore. He wasn’t invited to lunch at work. They shut him out of staff meetings. They hadn’t cut his pay, but he did lose a tax deduction. Less money to go around.
A couple months later I got into a fist fight at school. Came home with two black eyes. Bad report cards and complaints from teachers. All this added to the mounting case against dad.
He would come home from work every night and sit on the couch and sob. Mom told him it was all his fault for being such a cruel tyrant.
Dad followed through with the psychiatrist’s advice to get her on a prescription drug. Literally within a few days, mom transformed from defiant and combative to quiet and cooperative. The bizarre behavior stopped completely. Not only that, she went from being angry and defensive to feeling deep remorse about her erratic behavior.
Soon it became clear that Mr. G torpedoed dad simply because mom had a medical problem – a chemical imbalance – and that mom’s behavior wasn’t “sin” or “rebellion.” It was a well-understood mental illness. She couldn’t help herself.
Dad was hurt and humiliated and felt abandoned. He desperately wanted to bail. A lot of people told him he should quit his job, especially our relatives who understood the scope of the situation.
Dad thought about pulling up stakes, moving elsewhere. He decided to stick it out. To argue his case and vindicate himself.
Few men had the balls to stand up to Mr. G, but dad did. As mom’s condition improved, he said, “Mr. G, you made a wrong judgment and you need to apologize to my wife.”
Furthermore dad made Mr. G write her a letter of reconciliation, because by this time mom had become terrified of Mr. G. He had, after all, the ability to singlehandedly destroy dad’s career.
Nine months after dad had been demoted, he was reinstated.
Two weeks later dad was diagnosed with cancer.
Had dad cut and run, he would’ve been in a newcomer in some new environment, maybe even starting over in a brand new city, surrounded by strangers.
But since he’d stuck it out and vindicated himself, we were surrounded by a faith community that lent us help with dinners and financial support and prayers and encouragement.
Dad had major surgery. He was cancer free for a year and a half, then it came back. Treatments were unsuccessful, and as it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it, Mr. G secretly mailed a letter to everyone else at church. He explained how this summer might be Bob’s last and it would be really nice to raise some money, so Bob can take a trip to the West Coast.
$10,000 came in. In 1986 that was enough to not only take dad to California, a place he’d always longed to visit, but it was enough to get all of us to Alaska and Hawaii too. Dad experienced a 5 week “last hurrah” with his wife and kids that July.
That October, he died. I was 17.
I can’t tell you how many things I’ve wanted to quit, and didn’t, because dad wouldn’t throw in the towel and walk away from a bunch of quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous people.
And say what you want about ’em, when you’re in the oncology ward with terminal cancer, those are the same people that will probably be with you as you pass from here to the other side.
They will still have their faults and you will have yours, but… blood is thicker than water.
A faith community can become just as close and even closer than your biological family. It’s why they can hurt you so easily.
But there’s no such thing as a real community, or even a real relationship, that isn’t vulnerable. Painfully so sometimes. During our special vacation to California, dad told me that getting rejected and blamed for a mess he had no control of had been worse than dying of cancer was now.
Peter asked Jesus, how many times should I forgive my brother? Seven times?
Jesus said, “Seventy times seven. That’s how many times you should forgive.”
What do you forgive people for, anyway??
For being quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous. For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14-15.
After the potluck dinners have ended and people start throwing chairs at each other, it’s so easy to pull the plug and run. So many marriages don’t work out, it’s so easy to just live with someone and see how things turn out.
It IS easier.
It’s easier at first.
But when a series of relationships fail, they rip your heart to shreds just as much whether you were married or not. It just seemed like not ‘committing’ yourself lessened the risk. If your “common law wife” leaves you after 10 years, how is that any less painful than if your legally married wife leaves you? Just because it’s ‘unofficial’ doesn’t make it less perilous.
I’ve had to make multiple passes of forgiveness about Mr. G. A few years later when more fiascoes erupted, I had to let go again.
A few years after that, it occurred to me that my dad might not have even gotten cancer in the first place had he not endured two years in such a toxic, unsupportive, humiliating environment. That’s speculation, but still I had even more forgiveness I had to do.
A year ago I realized I needed to confront yet another layer of unforgiveness within myself. I had made a conscious choice to let go of the past, when I suddenly felt God saying to me, “The Father’s Heart is going to be poured out over Mr. G and his church.”
The day you forgive anther person is the day new blessings get released into their life. The day you forgive another person is the day you stop being a victim of whatever they did to you.
Dear Anne Rice, I greatly esteem your writing and your scholarship. I commend you for your adroit case for the historical Jesus. I appeal to you as a brother and member of the imperfect body of Christ, that to exit and publicly denounce them is to embrace quarreling… hostility… and public disputes.
From an individual view it’s all justified. But isolation makes islands of all of us. When we who were mistreated gather together in opposition to those who did us wrong, we inevitably become like those whom we judge.
A few years ago I visited an old college buddy in Washington DC. He was an exquisitely smart, seminary educated man who’d been a pastor in a Protestant evangelical church. He’d recently converted from Protestant to Eastern Orthodox.
Eastern Orthodox??? Most Americans don’t even know what that is.
I was dying to hear his explanation. “I don’t know what Peter’s going to tell me, but it’s sure gonna be interesting.”
I wasn’t disappointed. We sat up late three nights in a row exploring his decision. I don’t have time for the whole story now, but one of the points he made was this: “Protestants have ‘splitting off’ in their very DNA. As soon as they disagree, they leave First Baptist Church to go start Second Baptist Church. Then some of those people split off and form Third Baptist Church and on and on it goes.
“Catholics and Orthodox people don’t automatically do that. They prize unity. I have a bishop over me and he’s like a father to me and my wife. We live in community and in covenant together. He’s responsible to look out for us and we choose to be in a trusting mutual relationship.”
Whether you’re Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox… or if you’re on the outside looking in… I want to encourage you: living the nomad life is less demanding in the short term but lonelier in the long term.
As you make forgiveness a way of life, when you choose to live in community, you earn a kind of compound interest of grace. Months or years do not always reveal the fruit of that. It grows evident over decades. Community is the only place where you truly learn to forgive and learn to love.
The only way we exorcise our demons – both figuratively and literally – is in committed relationships with other people. Those around us are mirrors. They show us our faults, and we theirs. As we bathe those faults in mercy and forgiveness we become the people we aspire to be.