The first part of this series can be found here. This post is a bit longer than the others in the series, but it was hard to find a good breaking point.
After coming before the congregation and publicly repenting of allowing doubts to rock our faith, my wife and I weren’t happy with our situation, but we hoped it was going to lead to something better. We had avoided being withdrawn from, so we were hoping we could begin repairing our relationships with family, and in deciding to attend a different congregation, we could take a less public role in the services and keep our children out of the Bible classes without raising too much suspicion. We hadn’t wanted to mislead anyone about our beliefs — we were just trying to find a solution that both we and our families could live with. But we had one or two hurdles right at the beginning.
A couple of people from our old congregation didn’t like the way I had handled the public repentance. For one, my wife wasn’t present since two of our children were sick. My wife and I didn’t see a problem with that, since we were the kind of Christians that didn’t think women should speak during the service anyway — so even if she’d been there, it wouldn’t have changed much. Some of those same people were also disappointed that I didn’t get visibly upset when I went before the church. But my wife and I knew those were minor objections, so we weren’t too concerned about their traction with the congregation as a whole, and we were right about that — our confession/repentance was accepted.
The other issue that caused us some turbulence was our decision to leave our old congregation. I’ve already given our reasons for doing this — I knew I couldn’t go back to a public role in the congregation, so that would always shed doubts on the quality of my faith. And my wife and I were not comfortable sending our kids to Bible classes, which also would have raised a red flag with our former brethren. So our decision to leave was something we couldn’t compromise. Our families continued to ask us to come back to our old church, and we couldn’t tell them our real reasons for leaving.
Despite those hurdles, we followed through with our plan. Each service, we visited a different congregation (all church of Christ), and there are several in this area to choose from. We felt that if we could continue with our end of the deal, things would eventually get back to normal with our families. And at least with my dad, things looked good initially. He sent us a very nice letter following my public confession and stated that he felt we were on the right path. He said that he knew we weren’t 180 degrees away from our doubts, but he was sure that we would get there over time.
But in the end, our parents had difficulty giving us that time. They often wanted to know which congregations we were attending, but we refused to get into that with them. Of course, that made them wonder if we were going at all, which was unfortunate. But we knew if we told them where we were going and when, they would reach out through the network in an effort to keep tabs on us. We just weren’t comfortable with that. We didn’t want to be the Hester Prynne of every church we walked into. They also continually asked us to go back to our old congregation — something else we just weren’t going to do. I do sympathize with them a bit. They honestly believed our souls were in danger, and I understand why they would want to do whatever they could to correct that. But we had hoped after the way the previous 6 months had gone, they would take our repentance and continued church attendance as some small wins and let some time go by before pressuring us on other issues. Instead, the pressure in our families never had time to dissipate.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. We don’t do it in the typical fashion, where people dress up and sit around a dining room table. Instead, we get together with about 50 or 60 extended family members at a large, one-room cabin deep in the woods of central Alabama. My grandfather and one of my uncles (as well as a few other family members) built the cabin back in the 70’s, and we’ve used it for family get-togethers since. We ride 4-wheelers, take hikes in the woods, and sit around playing guitars, etc. It’s very informal, and it’s a lot of fun. The weekend after Thanksgiving was always fun too, because I always went camping with my dad, my grandfather, my brothers, and my best friend. I looked forward to it every year.
The day after Thanksgiving 2010, we all loaded up and went for our annual camping trip. I took my two daughters with me, who were 7 and 5 at the time, but my son stayed home with my wife, since he was only 20 months old. My wife’s parents invited her over that Friday to watch football, and everything went fine that morning. She went home during the afternoon to let our son take a nap, but her parents asked her to come back that evening. She had a feeling that they would end up discussing all the religious drama we’d been going through, but she agreed to come over anyway. And though I don’t believe in prophecy, my wife’s prediction did come true.
Her parents began by asking if things were any better for us, which was their way of asking if our faith had grown any over the last several weeks. My wife replied that things were about the same. So they asked if we believed, and my wife said that we had made the decision to believe. This is obviously an important distinction. But when we were still in the stage of expressing our doubts, a few people had told us that if we would just decide to believe, our faith would eventually return. So that was the narrative we had run with in an effort to avoid withdrawal. But my in-laws weren’t happy with that answer, so they began asking specifics: “Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe the Bible is inspired?” And my wife finally just decided to quit using politically correct answers and revert to complete honesty. So she answered, “No.”
The conversation ended in an argument, and my wife called me on her way home. I didn’t get great reception in the woods, but it was good enough to figure out that I was probably on my last camping trip. I didn’t have the heart to tell my dad, so I just tried to make the most of that last trip. That annual camping trip is absolutely one of the things I miss the most.
The next week or two contained many phone calls with family and friends from our old congregation. My wife and I continued to point out that we were still going to church every service, just as we had said we would. But it’s true that we had admitted to no longer believing any of the doctrines in Christianity, so our old congregation felt like they would have to withdraw from us.
Knowing that was coming, I had one more thing I needed to do. My dad’s parents still had no idea any of this was going on. They live about an hour away from me and are stalwart members of their congregation — my grandfather is one of the elders, in fact. So I knew they would hear about everything as soon as our withdrawal became official. So I took a day off work and called them to see if I could come eat lunch with them. They were thrilled to have me over, and we spent some time just visiting with one another. It killed me to have to tell them about it, but I knew it needed to come from me and not someone else. So I finally began telling them about the doubts I had been having, how they began, what I had done about it, and what things were finally coming to. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. In some ways, it went better than I thought it would, but I imagine that was mostly due to their shock at what I was telling them. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that the withdrawal was imminent, but I did tell them it was getting to that point. I haven’t seen my grandmother since then, though my grandfather did come to see me about six months later. We talked for about an hour at a gas station near my house (many Christians in the church of Christ don’t feel like they can come in our house now), and I was able to explain my position a little better to him since the initial shock had long since worn off.
Anyway, our withdrawal was made official shortly after I visited my grandparents. We received a letter from our old congregation dated December 5, 2010, in which they informed us we had been withdrawn from. It had been six weeks since I had gone before the congregation with a public repentance. Here’s one of the paragraphs from the letter:
The statement you read in October to the congregation provided some hope that you both were making progress in the right direction. However, we have not seen fruits of repentance since that time — such as efforts to repair relationships and any tangible evidence that you have rejected the human wisdom and skepticism that you say “crept in” and damaged your faith.
I’m not sure how much progress they expected to see in six weeks, but at the same time, I’m glad they didn’t wait any longer. Once we had been officially withdrawn from, my wife and I were finally able to just let go of all the pretense and get on with our lives. We stopped going to church, which actually surprised some people. We had only been going in an effort to stave off withdrawal, but since that failed, we had no reason to continue. We were shocked that anyone was surprised by that.
My wife and I have also speculated that our families wanted the withdrawal to go into effect before Christmas in the hopes that we would come back before we missed out on all the festivities. But honestly, we’re just not that shallow. When we were Christians, our faith was sincere. We held to our convictions, not because they were convenient, but because we firmly believed them. When we left Christianity, we were no less sincere. And the lure of Christmas gifts and get-togethers was not enough to make us pretend belief in something we found to be false. We had tried to walk the thin line between appeasing our families and keeping our kids from being indoctrinated, and we just weren’t interested in trying anything like that again.
There’s a little more to tell, and I’ll start digging into that in the next post.