I have had the honor of being a part of a prison ministry and it is not at all like I imagined it. About once monthly, we trundle off to a prison just about thirty minutes from where I live and are received like no other place I have ever been in my life. In a sea of white uniforms, what I sense most is desperation. I have realized that every one is looking for a way out of the life they are living and these men behind the razor fence are no different. I am not talking about literal escape…or am I. I might not know what it is like being incarcerated but I do know what imprisonment feels like. It is there when you wake and when you sleep: each breath longing to breathe free; each gentle breath a prayer for deliverance. What I have realized is in my life experience is now something I can compare to living behind the razor wire. With thoughts flying to escape, friends, it may not be your imagination but the still small voice of God whispering freedom to you and pointing you towards a hole in the razor wire. We must be realistic here, we cannot ever think it is without cost because freedom is very precious and we pay for it in the loss we might suffer. So, what keeps one in the prison of a dysfunctional religious group? There are a few comparisons I believe can be made between a prison setting and a dysfunctional religious group regarding what keeps one in:
1> My goodness, believe it or not it is the rhythm and pace of life itself. What they both give is order and boundaries and what they take is everything else. Prisons are run on schedule and with harsh rules that punish the unruly. This is a fact of prison life. It is no different within a DRG (aka dysfunctional religious group).
2> What keeps a prisoner in order and in a state of compliance is the hope of freedom. In a DRG, what keeps order is very much the same: it is a goal somewhere in the future that promises all one hopes for and costs every minute of the present. In prison people live for tomorrow because today is too painful a place to dwell. There is always a coming day and coming event and in the pitch and yaw of our life’s crossing, life is spent. In a DRG it is no different; one lives for tomorrow: a ministry or office or place of service is held out as a carrot when it is nothing but a dry bone. Some hold on for decades waiting in hope for some stray word or impression by leadership to come to pass and be ‘fulfilled’. All the while the hope and effort expended to reach that goal is often scattered on the pile of smoldering judgment. Perhaps personal judgment or the leaderships’ but the result is the same; a life that lies in a heap of ashes fueled from a hope and vision injected into them that never was their own but one they adopted.
3> In prison, initiative cannot be taken because it may be perceived as a threat upon those who are in charge. In a dysfunctional religious group it is much the same; you cannot have initiative to discover and walk on your own and out of the shadow of the leaders. You will be taken down by the brute squad. These are the misled zealots who paint over their snarling face the face of Christ; it is in those lunatic moments that one can see the beast underneath.
4> In prison everyone looks the same, talks about the same thing and has a common goal. In a dysfunctional religious group they call this unity when it is nothing more than bare and naked oppression.
5> In a prison, life is passive and those who are bent in this direction, to let others lead and make decisions for them, are the ones who become institutionalized and fear the outside so much they endure being inside. This is a picture of a long term member of a dysfunctional religious group. It is fear or perhaps long and forced separation from a world that they once knew but no longer. They know nothing else but the walls they now depend upon for safety. It was said that even in the death camps of world war II, some of the inmates feared to leave because the inside was all they knew. When the gates opened, it was too much to consider to move out beyond the barbed wire even though the stench of their comrades, friends and family still rose from the furnaces.
When one journeys through the hole in the razor wire, while it takes a long time to fight many things, even one's own self, the exit is perhaps beyond their conception, it is not long and drawn out it is quick, surprisingly quick and the taste and fear of being free is felt at the same time. What helps one through the razor wire?
Personal Accountability is the real truth and freedom
Jesus once shared with a mixed group of people what He considered perhaps the most important event we as believers will ever face. It is when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ where our works will be tested by fire. It is said that what remains is what we as believers will be able to keep. Yet in the process of this the real nature of our service to God is clearly exposed. It will indicate to us and to all that either we understood the mission Jesus has charged us with for our lives and carried it out or balked and really have done pretty much what we wanted to do -- perhaps what some other one wanted us to do. In any case, it is us who will ‘hold the bag’ in the end not those we listened to nor those from whom we looked to for validation of what we have done and worked toward. In that clear and even sharp moment, the life we have lived will be revealed as a diamond or a shard. For who have come from or remain in a dysfunctional religious group, they will be exposed as having been prisoners or freedmen. It is with this perspective one can gain the most clarity concerning Jesus. Friends, one must take possession of one's personal responsibility now for that coming moment. In many dysfunctional religious groups, this whole area of responsibility is couched in the obedience to a person who leads. It is the ‘warden’ to whom the members of the group look to for all validation and ultimate approval by God and Christ of their lives. They rise and fall, ascend to heaven and plunge into hell by their countenance before that earthly, flesh and bone individual…if this is what you are doing, please for God’s sake and for yours take stock in the fact that you (and them) had better be right…completely right. The stakes can go no higher in the ‘game’ you are playing. We are not talking about ‘brownie points’ here. The person who perhaps is your focal point will not be there to shield or to blame for what stock you put in them…the reality is: it was your choice.
This reality was made clear to me a few years ago prior to my exit from a group where I had spent many years. I recall over lunch one day, a person asked me what I wanted the Lord to do for me? My response was as nebulous as the question. The person then pressed me and got more specific with me regarding my ‘ministry’. While the particulars are not important, the argument that they made was. Basically I was counseled to let go of what I believed the Lord had called me to do in light of the leadership’s desire for me not to pursue it. They had their reasons why and I had mine…so the impasse grew to the point of severing a relationship. I was told during that conversation in not so many words that the leadership would bear the responsibility for my deferring my ‘calling’ to their decision. My response, thank the Lord, was I did not believe that they could do so and that I would personally answer for my life and the pursuit of the call that I believed was from God. Well, the conversation ended. In the process of about twelve months, I was no longer affiliated with the group. Please don't get me wrong, I believe all was well intentioned but my personal conviction was this premise was ill founded and inconsistent with the scriptures. The eventual process of the separation was not pleasant and I will spare you the details what can be said about it is that it was ultimately my decision to leave the ‘fold’ and I made that decision and at a very high cost. Now as I look back on it, I see it as God’s mercy and Hand in my life.
The brokenness that flowed from that severing continues today. I have purposed to know one thing and one thing only…that Jesus loves me and that I have spent my life forming to that reality. I do not want to just ‘follow’ or ‘believe’, I want to know…there is no ‘knowing’ without the brokenness. There is no growth without our time in Gethsemane where we sweat drops of blood and grapple for what we believe is real and what indeed is real. It is in those terrifying moments, the voice of the Savior is most clear and the storms and swells of our passing through to Him are stilled and the ‘furious’ love of God splits the air with a crackle and the path is made clear…it is not another’s acceptance I desire above His, He is sufficient. If the whole world and church hate me, I can bear it as long as I know He is the polemic of that hate. This is the truth you must know to move beyond the trap and pass through the razor sharp and visceral fence of the dysfunctional religious group. Let me be clear, if you desire any other’s acceptance and approval, you will remain a prisoner of that desire…this is what the dysfunctional group builds its foundation upon. The closer one approaches that border-line, the more vicious the attack and the more costly the step. The false premise of the group is that the group truly believes it holds all the keys to life and truth and if one leaves the group they forfeit both.
Yet in reality they hold nothing.
Seeing the Hole in the Razor Wire and what comes after
There is much confusion in this sorting process ‘Do I stay or do I go.’ Forget the circumstances that would govern your life, take hold of your life once again and hold it and protect it: it is God’s greatest gift to you and the point is if you give it to someone else, even in His name, it is a misdirected and may I say it, clearly misspent. When considering the hole in the razor wire, one thing that must be seen is, those in such groups are in a prison and its purpose is to keep them there, restrict them, conform them and eventually institutionalize them. In these environments, industry and effort are tantamount and are balanced by conformity. The focus is placed squarely not on the group or the doctrine in some sense but one's implementation of the teachings. The goal one is told is to make one fruitful. Friend, stop and ask yourself: if you are in a group you suspect is toxic spiritually, ask ‘what kind of fruit is my life really bearing?’ If fruit bearing is the issue what is the ‘fruit’ of the situation you might be currently experiencing? Is it life and peace? Is it acceptance? Is it joy? Is it love?
Most likely if you are in a dysfunctional group, you don’t think too highly of yourself and
your ‘tree’ is bare and it isn’t because you aren’t trying. Many times one’s focus is totally on one’s self while assuming the group’s environment is not the problem (this is a major indicator of a toxic environment and extreme dysfunctional behavior). Yet is it not true that fruitfulness comes from the environment where it is planted…friends, have you entertained the possibility that it is the ground, the garden, the vineyard…the prison yard and not you?
How can you tell?
Look at those around you…are they really faring any better than you or are they just as heartsick? How do you know? I find one key indicator of a dysfunctional and toxic environment: over time many leave (or die) and fewer enter – face the reality that you are living in a time-elapsed implosion. In His kingdom, prisons are emptied and shut down, this is the fate that awaits the dysfunctional religious group: spiritual entropy – it just wears out and the fuel that it runs on, becomes less and the body count mounts.
The moral of the story is it might not be the fruit or lack thereof or even the ‘root’ that is Christ, but the ground you are planted in. This truth is your hole in the razor wire. Take it. Christ and we -- His Body -- are waiting on the other side.