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Features

Leaving my first love

Richard Medrington

Ex-fundamentalists sometimes regret the loss of passionate certainty and kinship - but can we ever really go back? Richard Medrington found out at a reunion of the community where he was converted in the 70s.

 

I'm lingering over lunch outside a church in southern Spain, taking it easy instead of attending yet another prayer meeting. Sitting next to me in the dusty garden is Peter, who has a severe form of multiple sclerosis and uses a mobility scooter. We're here for the 40-year reunion of our community, but neither of us feels much like going inside.

Peter tells me he has only been visited once in all the time he has been worshipping here, a place that changed his life and mine many years ago. He's ready to go home now, but there's a problem: his scooter is charging up in the church, where sixty people are now holding hands and praying fervently for 'The Work' to continue.

Trying not to disturb them, I tiptoe in, duck under the ring of hands, unplug the cable, fumble with the controls and finally reverse towards the exit. I get several glares but no offers of help, and I feel like an unholy thing who has desecrated the sanctuary. As I pass some familiar faces I say jokingly 'Backslider coming through!'

There are one or two wry smiles. Someone finally opens the door.

 

NOTHING ELSE WILL DO

How did I end up here in the first place? Actually I never really meant to come to Spain. It was 1976 and I was an undergraduate at Southampton University studying English and Philosophy. I was heading for Morocco in the summer before my final year and the cheapest route was to fly to Malaga and get a boat from nearby Algeciras. I spent my first night in a sleeping bag on a traffic island in Malaga, awaking to the sound of approaching hedge clippers. Later, sitting at a pavement cafe, I was accosted by two guys with backpacks and a lot to say about Jesus.

Four days later I found myself at an evangelical community in Torremolinos, going forward at the end of a gospel meeting to give my life to the Lord. It was a song that clinched it that night:

All He wants is you
Nothing else will do
Not just a part of you
He wants all of your heart
All He wants is you...

Two weeks later, when it was time to head home to complete my studies, I decided to give away my plane ticket and stay on in the community. My three-week trip turned into a seven-year sojourn.

 

FELLOW TRAVELLERS

We were a raggle-taggle band of former hippies and backpackers from all over the world who had somehow found our way to this tourist Mecca and had a life-changing experience. At its height in the early 80s the community had over a hundred members, living in various vacant houses and hotels along the Costa del Sol. I was among many who got married in the community and our first child was born there.

In the early days we believed in total commitment: we had almost no money, barely enough food and lived in very basic accommodation. We worked hard: up early to pray and study, working on the farm, building churches, cooking, cleaning, going out in pairs to witness on the street, organising and attending endless bible studies, prayer meetings and gospel music nights. We lived by faith, and somehow it worked. The basic rule was, do as you're told, submit to God-given authority within the church or hit the highway. This 'heavy shepherding' was a tough regime, but it got things done. We lived under a kind of semi-benevolent dictatorship- cum-theocracy.

We prayed and we fasted. One guy fasted for 28 days, water only. Another, it was rumoured but never confirmed, did the full 40 days. I never managed more than four, and once nearly passed out after foolishly fasting for three days without food or water. We knew our bibles, we had an answer of everything, we were involved in one of the great evangelistic works of the century. The pastor's teaching was the finest we were ever likely to find. We knew this because he told us it was.

And truly we felt ourselves to be blessed. We had all things in common, we lived for one another and for the lost souls who were headed for a Christless eternity. We had a purpose, our lives had a meaning. We saw the power of God, people came to Christ and lives were transformed. Oh how we loved Jesus!

 

THE REUNION

It all felt like a very long time ago - until the idea of a community reunion was suggested earlier this year. Facebook had brought together a number of former members, now scattered across the globe. In Spain the community wound down through the 80s, but a vestige remained - a few churches and a farm that functioned as a drug-rehabilitation centre, together with a number of Spanish-speaking congregations. The farm and the original church building in Torremolinos would provide the venues for a weekend get-together.

Could I really go back after all these years? At home in Edinburgh my new wife Elspeth and I attend a fairly laid back, inclusive Scottish Episcopal church, but the reunion offered the full Pentecostal experience: threehour meetings, testimonies, singing in tongues, prophecies and hard-line conservative evangelical teaching. While touring over recent years with our theatre company in Australia and North America we had met several former members, so Elspeth knew more or less what she would be letting herself in for. We took a deep breath and booked the flights.

 

A HEAVY SHEPHERD

So here we are. And at the heart of it, still going strong in his eighties, is the Italian-American pastor whostarted the whole thing back in 1973. It's the first time I've seen him in 30 years. I say hello but it's difficult to talk to him because when he's not preaching he wears noise-cancelling headphones which help his tinnitus, but make communication a one-way affair.

But then he never was a very good listener. He looks a lot older, but his voice and his sermons haven't changed a bit - all the same old catch-phrases and prejudices. At the first meeting he warns us of the main threats to our faith in these End Times: intimidation and deception. I ask for clarification, and he names the principle evils as 'ecumenism and the homosexual movement'.

Over dinner Elspeth gets into a ding-dong argument with someone who states categorically that all Muslims are terrorists. I try sharing some of my liberal/ progressive interpretations of the Gospel, and am treated with suspicion. People tell me I'm confused, say 'but the bible says', or resort to that old fundamentalist stand-by: 'There are so many things we can't understand with our finite minds'.

 

TRUE BONDS

By the start of the evening praise meeting we are considering giving up on the whole thing, but as song leads to song I reach a point where I allow myself to connect with at least some of this - it all feels so familiar. When I kick off a chorus of 'I Love you Lord, and I lift my voice', everyone joins in. Soon I'm praying in tongues and singing away with the best of them. It feels good to be back.

Everywhere I turn I see familiar faces - some greatly changed, some instantly recognisable. With many we don't get beyond pleasantries, but as the weekend progresses I find myself sharing deeper things with certain people. Wounds are revealed along with experiences of sadness and loss. I talk to one old friend about the death of his wife from cancer and we hug and weep together. Many happy memories are shared too, and I find a few special clandestine allies.

The bonds formed in true community cannot easily be broken. In those days we had time for fellowship, we prayed and suffered together, we stopped caring about money and careers and praise and fame and worked towards a common purpose. We gave our lives away.

 

MAKING GOD SICK

But many of us gave away far too much: too much of our individuality, our true personality, our God-given common sense, a little of our dignity, and a lot of our freedom. We yielded to the brain-washing. We took advice on who we were to marry (or not). The mantra was: 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding'. Within an ethos of unquestioning obedience, it is one of many scriptures that can be exploited horribly.

In 1983, after a testing spell pastoring a church in a mountain village, I knew it was time for me, my German wife and our young son to leave Spain. We returned to my home town and tried to function at the same level of spiritual intensity, but it was hard - I was unqualified, the marriage was unhappy and we struggled to find God's will for our lives. In the community we could cope with being penniless, out in the world it was much more difficult. We moved from church to church and soon our marriage began to fall apart, mercifully ending in an amicable divorce.

So now it's the Sunday evening meeting in Torremolinos - another three-hour affair - and there are many prophecies. In one, a conflation of some scriptures from Revelation, delivered by the most enthusiastic of all the former members, God exhorts us to return to our first love for Him. We have become slack, and our slackness is making Him sick. Powerful words: We are making God sick. God is sick of us.

 

CRUMBLING DOCTRINE

I am still a follower of Christ, but I realise I have indeed 'left my first love'. And there are many reasons for that.

When my first wife's mother killed herself, shortly after we moved back to England, we wrote to the brethren in Spain to tell them. In Evangelical terms she was 'unsaved' (being a Catholic and a loving human being clearly wasn't enough). The Pastor sent a letter explaining that people make their choices and we shouldn't blame ourselves for the fact that she was lost.

I remember looking at the letter and feeling something begin to crumble. I knew a little of what that woman had been through - the horrors of Allied bombing raids in Germany in which her own mother had been killed, a miserable life with a violent alcoholic husband, sufferings which would have turned the strongest of minds towards ending it all. To think that a loving God could then condemn such a person to eternal torment, on top of everything else that they had suffered, suddenly seemed ridiculous.

And with that simple thought, the whole carefully constructed edifice of hardline evangelical doctrine came crashing down.

 

THE OLD, OLD STORY

Back in 2014, many people go forward for prayer after the meeting. We are being called to come back, to re-commit our lives. The preacher catches my eye, inviting me to come to the front where there is much laying on of hands, prophesying and groaning in the spirit. I shake my head. In the midst of the mayhem, a still small voice is telling me not to get drawn in. If I could prophesy now I would say: Thus saith the Lord, not a single soul shall be lost; nothing shall be wasted in the great economy of God!

And yet a part of me yearns for the old days! We talked about important things, and I miss that. I want to talk about eternity, even if the premise is wrong. We were so convinced of our specialness. We were not only called, we were chosen. We were so blessed, so lucky to have been saved from the wrath of God!

I wonder if this is part of the reason why it is so hard for fundamentalists to accept a more progressive Christianity. When someone suggests throwing our exclusive club open to the spiritual riff-raff, suddenly we don't feel so special any more. It's like the labourers in the vineyard who complain about the Johnny-comelatelys getting the same reward. So we reject the idea of easy salvation, we who have spent so many years working ours out with fear and trembling.

 

LOVE & FEAR

And fear was central. Though the 'born again' experience was a release into wonderful love, I realise now that this love was soon overtaken by a whole crowd of new fears:

Fear of witnessing, fear of not witnessing enough. Fear of giving a prophecy, or not giving a prophecy. Fear of grieving the Spirit. Fear of institutional education, Darwinism, the media, the New Age, The System. Fear of reason, science, psychology, intellectualism. Fear of assertive women. Fear of non-Christians, swearing, blasphemy, homosexuality, promiscuity, sex outside of marriage. Fear of other religions, other denominations, persecution.

Fear of being asked by God to do something you really don't want to do. Fear of being called to the ministry, or of not being called to the ministry. Fear of rebellion which is as the sin of witchcraft. Fear of witchcraft.

Fear of deception, false doctrine, backsliding, devils and demons, being cast into the Lake of Fire. Fear of the End Times, the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, The Tribulation. Fear of being left behind after The Rapture. Fear for unsaved loved ones.

Fear of not submitting to 'God-given authority' in the church. Fear of criticising, questioning, doubt (which is of the devil), uncertainty, Grey Areas, unbelief.

Fear of reality.

Fear of God.

But most of all I think we were afraid of being ourselves.

 

DYING TO SELF

We were to 'die to self', we were to be 'crucified with Christ' over and over again. It sounds very holy, but the results are not universally appealing. In some ways we were better people, but we buried much of our God-given personalities. There was a lot of Christian-speak, mindless scripture quoting, group conformity, lack of honesty and an arrogant and judgmental attitude towards 'the world', which included anyone who didn't fit in with our world view. Thus armed we sallied forth with a bag of awful tracts to save souls, and quite likely turned many away from a God who, weirdly, seemed a lot less loving than we were.

So what I really wanted to do while I was trying to extricate that mobility scooter was to stand in the middle of the church and shout, 'Will you all stop moaning at the ceiling and give me a fucking hand with this?!'

When did The Work, the saving of souls from hellfire became more important than people? Over the weekend we were treated to testimonies of the successful and the blessed, the men (it is almost exclusively the men) 'in full-time ministry', the missionaries, the ones who have preached to thousands and raised huge sums of money for Christian causes. But what room is there for the long-term sick, the disabled, the profoundly troubled, the wounded, the disappointed?

 

ON FAILURE

Increasingly I found myself hanging around outside of the meetings, talking to people like Peter. There were those who tried in vain to start some kind of Work for the Lord, those who went to the mission field and came back after a few years, broken and penniless. There were the women who never had a career because they were meant to stay home, bring up the children and support their husband's ministry.

I talk with people who have been hurt by the church, but can scarcely acknowledge just how hurt they have been, because that would seem disloyal, to be taking sides with the Accuser of the Brethren. Issues are not addressed, important questions remain not just unanswered but unasked.

The programming is profound. We resisted any thoughts or arguments that challenged the accepted dogmas. In the end our very qualities of faithfulness and loyalty contributed to our inability to change and grow.

 

WHAT I MISS

The Reunion happened just a few weeks ago and I'm still processing my feelings about the weekend, and the years I spent in the Community. Those were formative years, and I wouldn't have missed them for anything. That experience was in many ways just what I needed at the time. I was in a downward spiral and heading to bad places. I learned valuable lessons in self-discipline, and I was challenged to work out what is really important in life. My talents were fostered. I began doing street theatre in Spain and this led to the career I have pursued with a measure of success for the past 30 years.

I miss the fellowship, I miss the sense of urgency and the seriousness; the excitement, the praise sessions, the answered prayers, the sense of moving in a spiritual realm. To be honest, after the community, church services have always seemed dull and anaemic. The hellfire preaching and the heavy shepherding may have been wrong, but they were far from boring.

And the simplicity, the poverty, the clarity of purpose, the having an answer for everything, there was something empowering and liberating about it. I ask myself how all this could have happened if what we believed was wrong in so many ways, and the only answer I can come up with is that if God waited till we had all the right answers before blessing our work, there wouldn't be much blessing on the earth.

So do I want to go back? In some ways perhaps I do, but in reality to go back for me would be like trying to fit into clothes I wore when I was a child. We are supposed to grow in our faith, to be led into all truth, to sing a new song to the Lord, not to be constantly reprising an old one.

This is what I tell myself, but there are things that I know I have lost, like the fact that I used to care much more about total strangers. We would go up to people in trouble and offer them a meal and a bed for the night and ask for nothing in return except the chance to tell them about the love of Jesus. There is power in taking some bits of the bible literally: 'Freely you have received, freely give'. We believed we had something important to share and we shared it. The fact that I don't do this any more makes me feel like a smaller person.

And yes, I do feel sick about that.

 

Richard Medrington is the founder and artistic director of Puppet State Theatre Company. He is also a writer, a prize-winning performance poet and a former Scripture Union schools worker. See www.puppetstate.com and www.richardmedrington.com.