30 January, 2008

There and Back Again: The Honeymoon

At midnight on Dec 31, 1989 there must have been almost twenty of us gathered in one of our living rooms. We were together to take the Lord's Supper for the first time as a new-born church, intimately surrounded by another fifty or more folk. That's right. There were 70 or more people crammed into and around a normal little ranch style home. Very few of us could sit; very few of us could wiggle a finger without poking someone! It was all part of the way Gene had chosen to celebrate our birth as a new church. We committed ourselves to the Lord and to each other that night with intimate prayers, and vowed our hope that we would, one distant day, bury each other. We were committed with everything we had, and we were in for the long haul.

Later that night, out on the front lawn, Gene taught us all get into a big circle and hold hands. Then he broke the circle in one place and made one person the "front" of the line. He had that person start walking a circle within the circle, drawing the whole line behind her. As the line circled within itself over and over, the center of the circle grew smaller and smaller until there was nowhere to go. It was wall-to-wall circles of people holding hands, as tightly packed as human beings can be. Then he had us all throw our hands over each others' shoulders and sing the loudest songs we could out on the front lawn at 1:00 in the morning.

It was simple, brash, innocent, exciting, intimate, and declarative. It was one of the purest moments of joy in my life, and I'll never forswear those memories. It was one of those rare "real" moments, like when you raise your right hand and swear to defend your country and realize you can never look back again. These people whose hair was in my face and arms were on my shoulders, and whose voices were maxed out inches away from my ears, were one solid mass of love to Jesus. I was a part of a single organism with 70+ voices that weighed 14,000 pounds and was committed to loving Jesus with everything it had - forever. Our bond was more than lifelong, it was eternal and it was spiritual and it was real.

Les Miserables has a song:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.

This was as different from going to church as joining the Marines is from watching war propaganda. All but 4 of us had left everything behind to be in this place with these people. (There were orginally two dear local families, but they were forced to leave within the first year or two.) We expected a hard beginning followed by a life-long struggle, but we were safely under the caring eye of a man who had been hand-chosen and broken by the Lord. And we had broken bread together.

I have a hard time imagining a life I would have coveted more than mine at that moment.

The next 4 years were a whirlwind.

We had all moved together into a pretty nice neighborhood, but most of us could not afford to purchase there. That meant any who might want to join us would have the same problem. So, our first order of business was to find the perfect neighborhood to start a new church. By April, we were moving into Ormewood Park in Atlanta. By '91, we all lived within a stone's throw of someone's house. Our unofficial standard was that any member of the church should live close enough to everyone to push a baby stroller between homes in the rain. I think all told we ended up with 10 houses in a three block area.

Next, we needed to get the word out.

That was easy. Gene was one of the most charismatic speakers any of us had ever heard, and he was as excited as we were. Every 6 months we ran a conference of some sort, and brought Gene down from Maine to speak. We would send out hundreds of fliers, rent a place for everyone to gather, schedule Gene's speaking, find everyone somewhere to sleep, schedule meals, time airport pickups, answer myriad questions - first from each other and then from attendees, and generally run around like lunatics trying to pull everything together at the last minute.

We learned about "PCC - Pre-Conference Crud." In the last 2 weeks before a conference everything, and I mean everything, would fall apart. Plans, communication lines, relationships, tempers, and feelings of spiritual "greenness" all shattered. We would come closer to hating each other the closer D-Day approached, and we fully loathed the attendees before they ever arrived. Then the first saint would show up from the airport, and we would fall in love all over again - with all the attendees and with each other and with Gene, too. And when Gene started preaching, the revelation of Christ Himself would fill us all with wonder and thankfulness. Our great blessing in being where we were, doing what we were doing, would fill our hearts and the PCC would fade into a distant memory.

Between choosing a neighborhood, moving, setting up housekeeping, running a conference every 6 months for 4 years, and trying to earn a living we lived church. We met often, but it's hard to describe how often. Some of us met every morning at 5:00 or 6:00 am. Some of us usually ate dinner with some other family (especially the single brothers) and a few saints made beer and pizza a regular event. A couple nights a week we did something together - sometimes it was a song-learning meeting (or how could you really belt a new song out during a meeting?), sometimes a planning meeting, sometimes a brothers' or sisters' meeting. The brothers' meetings were where we made all our decisions and set all our plans.

And in between all that, we planned for "the big meeting." Every 3 months or so, we had a meeting where every member of the church was encouraged to share the best thing they'd seen of Christ. The concept was that we were working in the garden of the Lord, and we were to bring our harvest of Christ to be shared with all. That meant that for 3 months, we were responsible to be farming! We only had one key rule about sharing - don't bore anyone. So our "big meetings" tended to major in skits, songs, and stories. Sermons were deemed boring by default, and in 9 years I think we heard maybe 4 sermons by all the members in the church combined.

So, anyway, preparing for the big meeting usually meant meeting once or twice a week with a team of people to get something cool and rich together.

And did I mention several of us had infants?

There was babysitting, and cooking, and one brother was gutting and remodelling his whole house, and another worked loads of overtime (and so did I) and a couple others were self-employed and had unpredictable schedules.

I don't really expect that description to profit you much, except to communicate how we envied one armed paper hangers their easy, structured lives.

We ate, slept, and breathed somehow. I'm not really sure how. There was hardly a waking moment in any of our lives that was not filled with something of great importance. Whether it was a spiritual thing or a family thing or a work thing, none of us was bored for more than a moment. And it was all good. The most common sound to come out of any house where any two or more of us were gathered was laughter.

Not surprisingly, people started to wear down, and that was cool too. No one accepted any disdain toward our tired people. We all knew we'd all need rest some day, and pretty much everyone took time off in some fashion. In fact, Gene made that a constant subject of admonition. He would remind us over and over that we would all need to take a year off someday, and that we should make sure we rested from the blistering pace the church seems to set. So we did. We jealousy guarded anyone who was experiencing any kind of downtime, even when it was Gene being impatient with them. That's not to say we didn't feel some guilt, but we managed our energies as best we could.

With all this excitement going on, you might imagine there were some decisions that needed to be made along the way. And you might imagine there were some strong opinions about those decisions.

You would be right.

The government of the church was simple. The decisions were complicated. Gene was up in Maine, and we did not rely on him for much in the way of decisions, but structure could not have been simpler. The brothers made all the decisions as a group in prayer before the Lord. The brothers then presented the decisions to the sisters who had unquestioned veto power over every decision we made. If the sisters approved our ideas, it was done. Period. Simple. (No, the sisters didn't exercise their power often, but the time or two they did it stuck.)

There were always somewhere around 8 of us brothers in the brothers meetings, and some of us were secretly of the persuasion that we had a vision of what the Lord wanted. In fact, all 8 of us were pretty confident of that very thing. For a long time, we thought one of us was a follower, but we turned out to be wrong. We were all chiefs.

None of us was surprised that we were all Type A's, though Gene seemed to be dismayed at how much friction it caused. It was the most natural thing on Earth. If you call for people to gamble everything for the chance to start something bold, you're not going to get many shrinking violets.

It was in the brothers' meetings that the church seemed to evolve. It was not so much that the decisions we made steered the church, as that we grew together into being the church. And we went through a lot of changes. There were countless formational conflicts. We wrestled with things, and we wrestled with each other. We wrestled with praying and with pontificating. We wrestled with our own natures and we wrestled with the brothers around us. Along the way we learned a lot of respect for each other.

One of our early, and quite famous, conflicts was over tithing. We were Gene's only church (though other churches might have disagreed, Gene always called us the first) so it was important to get things like this right. Should we require a tithe on our own gross incomes? It's not like buying houses had made any of us any richer. But another church with which Gene had a very close relationship, and of which we were in awe, mandated an absolute and accounted tithe of anyone who would participate. Their example was flawless. They were absolutely legalistic on the subject, and they were the freest, most beautiful group of people any of us had ever met.

Our pattern of addressing problems showed through with this first one, and never much changed over the years. Harry (I'll tweak the names since I've not asked anyone's permission to use them) contributed his opinion to the discussion, and then worked hard to gather everyone else's. He formed a solid consensus around a modified position to which everyone could agree, and pitched the case in the brothers' meetings. Everyone was ready to commit to an accounted tithe.

I voted, "Nay."

This is a good time to remember how aggravating Boromir was before he went mad.

For all our years in Atlanta, Harry and I were pretty nearly irreconcilable. Don't get me wrong, I eventually came into conflict with every brother, but Harry and I seemed to be custom-made to rub each other raw. I could not brook his moral flexibility nor his political style, and he could not stand my priggishness nor my stubbornness. I was immovable, even when the whole church stood behind Harry. For my part, I was willing to bow to the brothers' decision, as long as they didn't ask me to agree with it, but that just seemed priggish to everyone. We smoldered together on this one issue for months and months. We dedicated week after week to trying to talk this issue to death, but it wouldn't die. I would not flex.

Amusingly, the decision we finally reached was vetoed by the sisters, and Gene gave all us brothers "a rest" for almost a year while the sisters took over the running of the church.

Liberally mix the excitement of being together with the tension of the brothers' meetings, and you begin to get a feel for those first four years. Everything was at a constant fever pitch, the highs and the lows together, fatiguing us and thrilling us around the clock.

During our honeymoon, it was easy to have the big fights and the living bonds of love flowing deep and strong together. In fact, it was almost natural. More than that, it was what Gene had taught us to expect. A big part of Gene's core message is that every Christian must be broken, destroyed really, before the Lord can use him freely. We knew our fights were a sign that we were still fleshly, still in need of breaking, so we overlooked the conflicts and focused on the feelings of love for each other and for Christ that lifted us above it all.

Until July of 1994.

That summer's conference surpassed everything we'd ever experienced. Gene was in full flight, and his messages the first weekend set us all on fire. Beyond that, though, it was a 9-day conference, and 40 people must have stayed for all 9 days. The first 3 days were at a retreat center, and they were delicious. The next 6 days beat them hands-down. The second part of that conference was other-worldly. We moved 40 people into our few homes, and for a week we had a church of 60 with nothing but free time to worship the Lord, encourage each other, and practice the things we'd learned in that first weekend's messages.

We cooked, we delegated, we laughed, and we hardly slept. We had guest speakers and surprise plans and last-minute saves beyond counting.

It was unbounded joy.

The day after everyone went home, Gene asked us to set the dates for our winter conference.

We said, "No."

We were too tired, and we were going to take that winter off. Pulling off a conference in December would mean getting to work in August, and there was no way we could imagine jumping back on the conference hamster wheel again in a scant month or two. We were thrilled with everything we'd just experienced, but we could not envision ourselves doing it again so soon.

We'd never said no to Gene before.

History has a funny way of morphing, but I will tell you what we told each other after Gene left. We told each other Gene was pissed. His face, his body language, his words; everything said we were in big trouble. There's no word to describe what we felt. The blood literally drained from our faces, and we went into damage control mode. We talked for hours about what to do, and how to balance our exhaustion against Gene's desire to minister. Mostly, though, we talked about how to get out of trouble.

We did not find an answer. We were already too fractured, too exhausted, too hurt to overcome our fear. All those little stress cracks between the brothers turned into fractures. We'd been so high coming off that conference, but within days we were in our first full-blown crisis.

The wheels came off the church in Atlanta in July of 1994.

For the next two years, we had nothing. The meetings were flat. The morning prayer gathings were dry and empty. Gene did not ask us to put on another conference in all those two years, and we didn't know what to do in the silence. Gene refused to come and lift our spirits.

We were alone.

We had spent four years on a high, and we crashed hard.

I cannot communicate the depths of despair we reached. A traditional church keeps meeting every Sunday, and the sermon keeps being preached and the songs keep being sung. We were not wired that way. We needed to be planning and preparing, but planning and preparation require hope and we were too shell-shocked to hope.

For two years, we went through the motions with all the heart we could muster. We had our usual big meetings, but they fizzled. It was not hard to know why they fizzled. We did hardly any preparation for them. We would come up with an idea, and we'd work up some enthusiasm, but one or two people would be too tired. Then a couple people would start hanging around with the tired people, and get tired. Pretty soon, we were nagging each other to work on preparations, and nagging is never encouraging. Then the big meeting would roll around and too many people would try to throw something together at the last minute. The meeting would flop. We'd all pretend that it was great, of course, but it was flat. There was life in Atlanta, but no vitality.

2 years is a long, long time when you live a stone's throw away from the people you're avoiding.

2 years is more than 700 days, and every single sunrise took its toll.

We'd start talking about trying too hard or being more natural or not trying hard enough or being more diligent or who was leading too much and who was following too little. We'd get down to the root of the problem, and how Christ was lacking, and how the real problem was being too tired, and how much we'd rested. If was dark enough and quiet enough, we'd talk about Gene having abandoned us. In the end, we'd usually come around to this being a time of testing.

We needed to stay faithful. We needed to wait on the Lord to return to His church. If we had been abandoned, we'd be remembered again. Gene taught so often on suffering and it's place in the Christian's life that we could not be surprised to be suffering now. It was for this we had moved to Atlanta in the first place.

We were almost 30 strong. A couple of families had joined us from Texas and Carolina on the energy of that July 1994 conference, so we were larger than we'd ever been. Those poor families didn't have the experience of joy in the church, though. They only knew the desert. We all worked to make sure they knew they were loved, and promised them that the rain would come back some day, but the drought went on.

Then one of the core, founding families moved to another of Gene's new churches in another town.

In scant months the church in Atlanta crashed from almost 30 members to fewer than 10. Remember that leaving the church in Atlanta meant selling your home, leaving your job, and giving up on the dream. Once the first family moved, though, 3/4 of the church vanished overnight. Before a year had passed, 20 of our brothers and sisters were gone.

Les Miserables has another song. It really doesn't deserve to be read, but to be sung by a man in or near tears. When I sing this one, I almost always give it its due:
There's a grief that can't be spoken.
There's a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone.

Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about `tomorrow'
And tomorrow never came.

Oh my friends, my friends, don't ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more.

None of my brothers was dead, but the hole they left in our lives still bleeds. It always will. They are good brothers, and our love was true. Nobody left that church with a heart unscarred. Gene had promised us that 364 of the pills might kill us. Now we knew what he meant.

In 1996 Gene returned to the handful of us who remained. We wept together and poured out our hearts. There wasn't much to say that we didn't all already know, but Gene listened and comforted us all. When we were done, he asked whether we wanted to shut down or continue.

We decided to continue.

That night Gene explained to us that Dec 31, 1989 was the official start date of his mature ministry. And he explained that 40 years would tell whether his ministry was a success or a failure. 40 years was the time of testing, and no church's testimony could affirm his work before Dec 31, 2029. He was willing to fail, and to let the church fade away if that was what the Lord and we wanted, but he was willing to throw his back into it if we wanted to stay.

That was enough.

After Sherman visited Atlanta in 1864, the phoenix became the city's symbol. It seemed we would need to take that symbol to heart ourselves. Gene committed to rebuilding the Atlanta church from the ashes, and we committed to being there to make it happen.

The second church in Atlanta was a very different girl than the first.


Missy said...

I really love the way you write. I'm listening.

Lynne said...

I'm almost sitting on the edge of my seat reading this -- and it's tearing at my heart to know what you went through. If this was a novel I'd say there were definite warning signs of the problems that were coming -- an escalation of suspense. But this ain't no novel, it's a real life where real hurt happened. I pray that as you write out this story you will be blessed with further healing. If there's one thing I've learned (the hard way, of course) it's that God doesn't waste the pain we give back to Him with a true willingness to learn from our mistakes and forgive other peoples'

PS Les Mis is my all-time favourite musical

Milly said...

I'm with Lynne their were warning signs. I do know that when you're there and living it you are blinded to them.

Cowboy someone is gonna read this and know it's time for them to run. You're doing a good thing.

codepoke said...

Thank you, all, for the encouragement and just for enjoying this series. I do hope, Milly, that some day this will help someone know they can think about what they're doing with their lives.

As for "signs," it's hard not to see them now. Then again, it was hard not to see them then. In fact, I saw all the signs before I ever joined. And that's really the reason I'm writing.

I knew all along that some things were wrong and some things were right. I just didn't know which things were important and which things were safe. I doubt there's a group of Christians who don't have "signs" to be read, and the more passionate/ interesting/ daring the group is, the more "signs" they'll show.

At some point, we all have to decide to overlook things in the Christians we love. And if we have a high risk-tolerance, and see the hope of great reward in a group, we might be willing to overlook more than usual. Hopefully, my story will help someone decide what things are really deal-breakers, and what things can be safely overlooked.

Missy said...

CP, do you think that this setting was or could have been the right church for the right person? Or does its dangers make it wrong?

codepoke said...

Hahaha, Missy!

That's the $64,000 question! That's the question that's kept me from writing any of this for 9 long years. Honestly, I never wrote this or talked about it outside of a small circle of people I thought might understand, and I didn't because I lacked the answer to that question.

I'm kind of curious to see whether I'll answer it before I'm done, but I'd be pretty surprised if I don't.

The danger can come from any of three areas:
The worker
The church structure
The the church member

Gene could be wrong, his vision for the church could be unworkable, or I could have brought all these problems into the church when I joined. If I tell my story right, you'll know my conclusions when I'm done. But also if I tell my story right, you should be able to reach your own conclusion. Heaven knows whether I can write that clearly and honestly.

Let's see what happens. :-)