Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Sneer: It's Not Getting Better

Two things have me thinking.  One is a pair of recent email-back-and-forths, one with someone still "in" my old group and one with a "happy Christian" preacher guy.  The other is me digitizing old music recordings I made when I was in my early 20s, and still "in" that same group.
   One of the things I'm thinking about is how the parody Sunday School paper I wrote wasn't the actual reason I was kicked out and shunned for life, really.  The guys who kicked me out were threatened by something else it was just a symptom of.  Something about me.  And what was it?  This has got me coming to some conclusions about myself, and who I was back then, and what the real problems were/are.
   The Sunday School paper parody was indeed a pretext for those guys.  It was something concrete that could be used to kind of "prove" where my heart and mind were at, the state of soul which repulsed them and made them want to banish and punish it.  That's all it was.
    I think they wanted to "explain" what I was any way they could.  They felt I was "wrong" somehow, and needed to go.  I'm certain they didn't feel they understood what was up with me at all, and just needed me gone.  They said as much.  They tried to prove that I was a drunk, or that I partied, or that I didn't believe important stuff in the bible, or that I experimented with Satanism or the occult.  They fished after that and fished and fished.  And when they came up empty, out came the pamphlet.  Because they saw something in me, and they were getting rid of it the only way they know how.   They even had a second thing I'd written (about how Jesus dealt with Pharisees) and said that, as it was "almost entirely [me] quoting scripture, [they] couldn't really find fault with it," so long as I assured them I wasn't talking about them.
    They were determined to "fix" the problem they saw as me.  By amputation.  But what did they see?  What caused all this?

Not Taking Things Seriously
They were kicking people out left and right, so it wasn't just me they had a problem with.  They were looking to get, and eventually succeeded in getting, some of my friends kicked out of other assemblies.  Phone calls were flying. The gossip mills were spinning.  But they were gunning for me.  What was it they saw, exactly?
   Several interactions by email this weekend really got me thinking about this too.  I use interactions like these as a mirror.  What's in my teeth today?  This "in" person I've been talking to is a good person.  Doing his best to understand and communicate, from what still looks to me fairly like an old-school Brethren vantage-point, all his protestations of growth and freedom and change aside.  He said he always thinks it's funny when people like me assume that nothing has changed in our culture.  I said "Ok, I am showing up on Sunday morning then, because I want to see if I get treated any differently, now that things have all changed."  Oops. Touché.  I was jokingly told them's were fightin' words.  But the discussion continued in a friendly way.  The one with the preacher guy, too.  We coudn't agree, any of us, but we couldn't help but want to get along anyway.  It was all educational, too. 
  Needless to say, I view interactions like these as very valuable.  They're rare.  Pretty much no one "in" my culture will talk to me at all, nowadays.  So I pay attention when someone will.  See if things have changed.  See what perspective I can get.  Look at it like the mirror it can be on me and my inability to do anything but get shut out when I try to connect.  And anyone who will talk to me?  I realize suddenly that I love that person.  For breaking rank.  For not being scared.  For being human and real at me.
  So I paid close attention to exactly how these people view me.  Who they think I am, in Christian circles.  What they think the truth is.
  The Brethren one said it was 'mental,' conversing with me.  I'm sure it is.  That I am someone who rocks the boat.  Yup.  Pushes "the wrong people." Guilty.  I was contrasted with "decent, God-honouring Christians who are understandably horrified at [my] language and Internet mockings and verbal tirades."  This guy also told me that it took years of reading my mountains of mockery and spite before he saw evidence of love for Jesus. But that now he could see it.
   I was told all of this kindly, and with concern.  It was honesty.  The proviso was added that these observations were mere observations, and not meant as put-downs.  And I know that's the spirit in which they were given.  Observations.  And it all let me see what he was seeing.
   I'm not saying talking to "in" people is good for me and makes me feel better.  But it is invariably educational.  Might make me a better person, one way or other.  It sure made me think. And feel.
    And later that day, listening to my often silly, satirical recordings from my early 20s, I felt a bit of the response a middle-aged person has to any disrespectful, clueless, brash young mocker.  I saw the mocking as gauche and immature.  Why was I so driven to mock church stuff?
   But what was really going on with me back then?  What fuelled all of this?  What was happening?  Not everyone does all this mocking, in their early 20s.  Some don't dare.  Most don't feel the need. So why?
   I think it was this: we were required to take a whole lot of traditions, people and things terribly seriously in my church.  And I really used to.   Took them deathly seriously.  Gave up almost anything that normally gives a childhood any joy, all in service of them.  The Lord's Things.
   And you have to help that stuff be serious.  You really do.  You have to know exactly what the sacred cows are, deny that there are any sacred cows at all, but punish people who don't worship them.  You have to pay no attention to the brothers behind the curtain of the Great and Powerful Oz.  The Lord's Things.  You have to not look into what other Christians are doing in your community, lest you lose sight of how superior what we're doing is.  You might be tempted, after all, to make the mistake of taking them seriously, too.  You have to deny that anything your church does is ineffectual, hypocritical, nonsensical, empty or outmodedly traditional for no good reason.  You have to believe that certain things people have written are so bad that you shouldn't even look at them.  Not even to see if you will really be as appalled as you have been instructed to be.  That's how it was for me, anyway.  Perhaps now everything and everything's changed.
  Growing up, I never read a single pamphlet or listened to a single taped talk by anyone our church men decided was doctrinally "wrong" and then kicked out.  I did not read a single letter from the "wrong side" of the division.  Had to keep my mind one-sided.  Especially about people I was tacitly supporting the expulsion of.
  When people get kicked out, you have to edit them out of your life.  Past, present and future. That's the point of kicking them out.  To entirely remove them as an influence. That won't work if you remember them, or let them be in your life ever again. It won't work if you care.
   You have to help so much. Otherwise it's all meaningless.  All a joke.  You have to make it serious. That's where I ran into trouble.

Retro 90s
In the 80s as a teen, I'd drank the Brethren Koolaid weekly, with its mysterious bitter aftertaste.  But now, by the 90s, I'd grown up a wee bit.  And the division that had just happened had utterly robbed me of any ability to unthinkingly believe, to take seriously much of what went on in my church group, and many of the people in it.  What they had done in front of me in those years had dealt a permanent, fatal blow to my ability to respect their honesty, their openness, their courage, their decency, their love, their honour, their integrity and their willingness to do anything the bible said.  I couldn't believe how important they thought their group was, though it didn't ever really do anything much I could see besides kick out people it deemed unworthy.  Most of all, I couldn't take their claims seriously anymore.  Their pretty speeches rang ridiculous and empty in my ears now.
  And when asked to listen to endless talks about how blessed we were to be in our special position of gathered calledness, at how special Christians are (us being especially special), and how we love one another and look after one another in ways This Wicked World would never understand (at least in our church we looked after one another, anyway), eventually I was nothing but one big sneer inside.
  My face doesn't really do many facial expressions, nor does my voice do emotions much, so I write things.  Sometimes I do songs.  That's how I sneer.  As I said, I just re-listened to some of those, this weekend.  And what a brash young ignoramus I was.  Afflicted by that ubiquitous failing of older adolescents:

-an almost adult perspective on everything everyone's doing wrong,
-all the time in the world to ponder it,
-and not a hot clue about how hard it would actually be to do anything any differently.

I was going out to bible conferences and special meetings and the regular weeknight meetings.  I was hearing the puritan warnings about This evil, tempting, magically delicious World, intoned by people who knew not a thing about it except that their kids were into it up to their eyeballs, and that they really wished the little rascals would quit all that.  People who'd never set foot inside a movie theatre, and who had no televisions, telling us what indulging in those toxic activities would inevitably make us.  They would tell us what God felt about going Places He Would Not Have Us Be.  About His removed protection upon us in those Places.  (God can't cross the threshold of a movie theatre, you know.) I listened sneeringly to this, knowing that they themselves were a bunch of back room ecclesiastical backstabbers.  I knew exactly what they'd said and written and done.   I knew about all the lies.  I knew what they did to cover them.  I knew about their childish fits of rage.  I'd been there when what they were now pretending had never happened, had happened.
  But I had to listen.  At the conferences.  When they came through to speak in our area and be tape recorded.  When they came to visit and were asked to preach the gospel.  When quashed rumours of child molestation, financial irregularities, wife abuse, incest, child abuse, infidelity and secret homosexuality trailed after various of these men like sour, squeaky old farts, the whole time.
   It all began to look like bad theatre to me.  Fake.  I couldn't take them or their talks seriously.  Old men who'd just screwed over their own brothers were standing up and reading self-affirming King James verses about brotherly love in quavery, melodramatic voices it was impossible not to snicker at.  They'd kicked out more than half of their people, leaving the rest of us with an assembly almost entirely stripped of people in their teens, twenties, thirties and forties, yet they left a giant verse up on the wall. It's still shamelessly up there this week.  You can go to the irony-free zone on Falaise Road and see it.  It reads "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! Psalm 133:1"
   And I had a sneering internal smirk about all this stuff.  It was that or cry.  My very dreams painted the whole situation in garish, horror-movie/funhouse snark nightly.  It was clear that much of what I'd believed in (the part that involved other human beings, anyway) was utter nonsense.  We Christians didn't love each other.  Not even if you only took into account the small percentage of the Church who were affiliated with our little church group.  Not enough to change our actual behaviour, anyway.  All "decisions" involved us not acting, rather than acting.  We didn't dwell together in unity.  Our assembly wasn't an inn, where the Good Samaritan could bring wounded souls left in the ditch.  It was a place that had left more than half of its own people, many of them blood relatives, bleeding in the ditch and it then required everyone to walk by on the other side and not look at or mention what had happened.  It wasn't supportive and nurturing.   It was a competitive piety battle royale.  
   And many of us knew all this right well.  You just weren't supposed to say it out loud.  So it showed up in my songs and little cartoons.  I did those in fear, knowing if they fell into the hands of The Lord's Things, that I'd be kicked out for good.  Of course this eventually happened.  And suddenly I was free to tell the truth without fear of reprisal, for the first time in my Christian life.  They had nothing left to take from me that they hadn't already taken away.  But back then we sat in our seats and kept our mouths closed, lest we lose said seats.
We Knew We Were Next
But the signs were clear.  Having kicked out 60% of us, they were now gunning for people like me and my friends. We all knew.  People stood back from us and waited for The Axe to fall.  When I moved out from my folks' house and got my own place, and started attending the city church, instead of the small town church, they had me "signed over" into their 'care' and shunned me for a few years, and then kicked me out.  Like an oversight.  Like an error that needed to be deleted.  It took them about four years.
   During all this, I went out to bible conferences, and "assembly meetings," though my attendance at the latter was dropping off, especially when I began working a lot of evening shifts and weekends.
  I felt discouraged and torn up by what had gone on.  I desperately needed to talk to someone about it, and there was no one at all.  They told me I had grown cold toward the Lord and His Things.  That my uncaring unwillingness to show up Where The Lord Is every week proved this.  The fact is, I couldn't stand to look at most of them.  I sneered inside and inwardly called the guys who said stuff like that to me "The Lord's Things."
  I couldn't go see one concert or movie or hockey game without fearing that The Lord's Things were going to get me and disappear me, and then no one would ever see me again. 
  Because I wasn't only going out to all of these church meetings.  I was also going out to live music.  I was going and seeing movies.  Shrek.  Star Trek.  All this was enriching my life with emotion, emptying my heart of seemingly inescapable, obviously not worth it, dark, tarry church crap.  It was uplifting for my soul in a way that listening to hypocrites reading endless verses about loving one another had simply never, ever been.  People in bars and music clubs were nice to me and helped me with my music, which music I never dared let any church person know I was creating.
   I was "making friends of The World."  "The World" had Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews, Baptists and Catholics, Methodists (free and otherwise) and Mormons in it, it turned out.  And The World was beating my church.  At almost every supposedly Christian virtue one could name.
   I'd been raised with the idea that we Brethren Christians had a higher order of virtues than worldly folk would ever understand.  Love, joy, peace, compassion, honour, forgiveness, acceptance, duty, sacrifice, purity and all the others.  We had supernaturally, divinely high-quality virtues.  Things the Children of Darkness knew nothing about, we were told. It was all foolishness to them, with their blind flight into depravity and eventual damnation.  My friends' dad called them "rank unbelievers."  He would mutter "Oh, he was positively the rankest of unbelievers before he found Jesus..."  
   'Rank' as in 'stinky.'
   I'd been raised to believe that The World hated Jesus and would hate us too, if we were brave and owned up to the fact that were were his people (peeps).  Something Peter famously failed to do for his Lord, we loved to repeatedly go over, time and time again.  The World hated us.  There would be persecution.
  But I'd gone into small clubs and sang my songs about all of my personal, often church-related, Christian wrestlings.  And worldly people had related somehow, complimented me, played drums for me, sang with me, and asked me about my stuff.  Even my church stuff.  Many had some kind of religious stuff of their own they were sorting through.  (If it was actually Brethren religious stuff they hadn't been dealing with, they normally walked very carefully away from me, though.)  I sat in clubs and talked with any number of people about God as an open question. It wasn't preaching.  We were just talking.  It was warm and real.
  At church, no one would talk to me about Him at all.  They didn't like the taste of my thoughts.  Or even that I walked around with brain turned on all the time.  A few times at church I saw a couple of guys, head bent over an open bible, afterward.  If I took a step in their direction, the bible snapped shut and the two separated.
   The Lord's Things were snooping around, trying to catch us going into a music club, or playing music onstage somewhere.  Ears to the ground.  Gossip milling.  They were angling for a reason to kick me out.  Not for the fun, only, though that wasn't allowed, of course.  Lots of kids were doing that stuff and worse, and they weren't all getting the same attention I was, though few are "in fellowship" today.  I guess their lying showed they were properly, dutifully aware of the wrongitude of their actions? Mitigated the guilt of what they were doing?
  I didn't lie. But I realize now that it was the sneer that really spurred The Things of the Lord on.  The sneer at the idea that watching Shrek was going to eventually destroy my life and bring total shipwreck. The sneer that didn't take their supposed virtues or "loving concerns" at face value anymore.  There was not only hurt, but growing contempt in that sneer.  It said "I don't believe you. I don't believe anything about you."  Also, frequently, "I know what you did to your kids." Because people were confiding things.
  And these experiences with This World gave me a real conundrum: the flawed, natural, not Spirit-indwelt, not scripturally-taught impulses of regular Canadian people in bars and music clubs and cafes, as I said above, were effortlessly outdistancing the supposedly superior, God-grade church virtues.  When it came to being useful, helpful, insightful, supportive, wise and warm, my own church's virtues couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag, especially when compared to these regular artsy folk.  
   And of course I wasn't a bit better than any other church specimen.  I had stuff to learn in dealing with Worldly people.  From Worldly people.  I still do.  We are all virtue-challenged.  We generally can only be good from a lofty position of "helping" or "serving."  Preferably outside our own postal code.  Limited engagement only.
   When we're not in that lofty position, when we're supposed to connect, person-to-person, showing we like them, we get them, respect them and don't think they're yucky, we generally suck.
   My church was very right to feel threatened by the kindness of artsy folk entering my young life.  The church people could not compete with that kindness on any level.  Weren't trying, either.  And I was about to learn more about my own personal church heritage of social and psychological shortcomings than I ever would have otherwise.  By hanging out with Worldlies and coming up short by comparison. In terms of human decency, generosity, openness  and kindness.
   So, the conundrum. I decided that either all this meant that:

a) there were no "higher" virtues available, really, and that people didn't actually need Christ or the bible to attain what were merely the normal, human forms of them, which was as good as it got,
 or else this meant that 
b) the people in my church didn't really have these virtues, Christian or Worldly, at all.  Despite all of their claims, and their ruthless punishing of people who questioned them for clearly not having them.  Despite claiming to be put in this world to share these virtues.

I didn't spend long over this conundrum.  I went with my upbringing.  I went with the latter conclusion.  b) Rather like Plato, I decided that there just must be a higher, divinely intended, Spirit-inspired order of virtues (love, joy, peace, longsufferingness and so on) alright.  That it was real.  Maybe even attainable.  Through Jesus.  No matter what I saw at my church.  And that I'd better get cracking on finding out about all that.  Or at least have a long hard look at how very traditional certain of the fruits of the flesh clearly were among my church peeps (idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions and envy). Because we were "losing" to regular artsy folk in bars, both at manifesting the virtues, and at not manifesting the vices. And to me, that needed explaining.  My head works like that, and only like that.  I don't anymore have in my head the "two rooms" you can use to separate pairs of facts that don't get along
  The children of the Creator were manifestly, tyrannically against creativity and spiritual expression, while those the Creator had created, who made no claims to special spiritual insight, were beautifully, thoughtlessly creative and expressive in ways I will never be.  They read poems or sang songs in cafes that had their art on the walls.  I was more like the thought police at my church than I was like these gentle folk, with their songs and poems and paintings, and their concern about the world not being nice enough for people to live in.  I was pharisee of the pharisees.
  Oh sure, I met scary, cold people in bars too, sometimes.  Not often.  But just like in my classroom, what quickly came to light was that I was scarier and colder still, when pushed to it. 
  I'd learned to wear that dead-eyed, soulless expression Sunday mornings since birth. To this day I can't go into a church or funeral home without my face seizing piously up.  Not a facial muscle continues to work in those settings, usually. One November 11th school assembly or attendance at a church, and when there's laughing (because there often is, nowadays, at events like that) and my fact shuts down when I walk in and the laughing irritates me.  Training.
  Back in the 90s, in the middle of all of this self-discovery and God-talk over coffee or beer in bars and cafés, as we took turns taking the stage, I could still never forget that these demonstrably cold, calculating, dishonest, manipulative church folk with ecclesiastical precedents set for bureaucratic ruthlessness were after me and my friends. A small cafe with live music was a safe haven, so long as it didn't have big glass windows at the front, so people driving by in cars could see me in there.

Wounded Idealism Bleeds Mockery
In these cozy, arty climes I was increasingly at home, excited, challenged and welcome.  At church, I was wounded and hunted, frazzled, worn out and frozen, about to be cornered.  Soon to be summoned for judgment.  And so mocking was happening.  It was a way of whistling in the dark.  Sneering, distrustful, disgusted, disappointed, disillusioned, hurting, fearful mocking.  I knew what was coming.  I could feel it.  It built steadily for four years.  I'd wake up Sunday mornings and try to fight the growing urge to not go expose myself to their gazes.  And the more Sundays I missed, the more naked I felt when I went.
  And one time I was sitting there, and I said to God "Well, I showed up once this month.  I only let three weeks go without going.  Are we good?"  And I didn't hear a voice, but the thought that was suddenly there in my head was "Don't even pretend to care about what I think.  You are here to appease them, and not Me. You serve them."
   And that was very, very true.
  I'd sit in a meeting or bible conference or something, and there'd be nothing but earnest men sincerely, favourably contrasting we fortunate, blessed, gathered folk, with mere regular human beings, and even with all the other poor ungathered Christians who didn't even know where to go on Sunday morning.  We needed to remember not to forget how blessed we were.  We loved each other.
    I knew I wasn't loved.  No one was ever going to ask me to preach the gospel.  No one was going to let their daughter date me.  People were drawing away in shock and dismay.  People were standing clear, waiting for The Axe to fall.  If they spoke to me, they'd put out extremely Brethren thoughts or feelings to see if I responded correctly to the Shibboleth/password.  Wasn't it lovely to be where the Lord was, and not at some other church? HmWasn't that lovely?
  They looked at me like I had an angry snake for a brain. I didn't feel scary.  It all became pretty hard to take seriously.  If I was such a threat, exactly how weak was a thing threatened by a silly, moody twenty-something with a bit of existential angst?
   So increasingly I didn't take what was going on seriously anymore.  I had a shockingly dark attitude.  And it all made me laugh bitterly in my heart of hearts.  Like Sarah.  Only I never got a son.  (Not that I was ever promised one.  And I wasn't laughing at God Himself, of course, but only the self-professed Lord's Things.)
   So this sneering spilled out, and not only in the songs and poems and paintings.  My responses when people enthused over how Brother "Screwed over all of his own brothers in the division" had spoken so movingly on forgiveness?  My responses when people wondered how excited I was about the upcoming Easter conference?  My responses when people spoke excitedly and disparagingly of other Christian groups?  My responses when people spoke with thinly disguised joy over rumours that someone they'd kicked out of our church had been overtaken in some kind of fault?  My responses weren't the required ones.  They marked me as different.  And different was not okay.
   Because I couldn't return the enthusing over dear old Brother Backstabber's homey homilies. I was not excited about the decimated "mostly seniors and grandkids" Easter Conference, with its smug talks, and its "Isn't it nice to be where the Lord would have us be, with others of like precious faith, and not out in System!?"  (so hard to find others of like precious faith.  The guys in those churches just have that common, crappy old K-Mart Blue Light Special faith... How sad.)
   My experience is that almost every Christian, met on neutral ground, away from the pack, may well be able to be a person.  A real, decent person.  But give that person some status and a church audience, and you'd best back away slowly.
   I liked many of those Christians who'd left.  Missed some of them.  Would have dated a number of them.  Wished many of them all the best and didn't want to hear bad stuff about them.  Didn't know who was left for me to marry, among this frightened, colourless, toxic, imprisoned mass. (no one)
   I didn't fit.  And worse than that, I was nakedly exuding disbelief, mistrust and contempt. Contempt which was a response to the violent, sudden death of that idealistic belief in my birth culture.  How could I have retained that belief?
  I believed in God, alright.  Worse yet, I believed the "how things could be" scenarios.  And this just made me all the more disgusted with how the old guys had screwed everything up for everyone, all to keep their gnarled, veiny hands clutching what little status and power is available in such a small group, until they died and left a new generation to quote them at their kids, and have them turn cassette tapes into CDs and mp3s.
  The World had to be kept out of our lives so that our church would appear to be better, and all-important.  Our church was threatened by The World.  By everything that wasn't Itself, in fact. Us Against The World.  Because It could destroy us.  Its art and entertainment, particularly.

Make a Hawk A Dove, Heal a Sneer With Love?
No one still left in my church approached me in the 90s with a kindness that could only be taken as loving concern.  Many people who had been kind to me once, had since been kicked out and were now dead to us and us to them.  Some from both sides wouldn't speak if they saw me uptown.
  Others stopped being kind to me once I stopped fitting in and believing in the church.  (The crutch.)  In fact, I was sometimes warned to stop being kind to various "straying" souls among us, and I eventually lost what remained of my tattered reputation by being willing to eat with these Def Leppard fans and sinners.
  Maybe if a few people had been kind to me instead of shunning me for doing what I felt was right while being outraged over what I felt was wrong, I might have had some actual qualms about mocking my culture?  Probably.  As it was, it was absolutely me against them.
  Forget about "living in a world that hates Jesus." I knew I was attending a church that hated people who tried to act like him in any number of ways.  Forget name-calling and kicking over tables.  We moved quietly and carefully in a place where one of the worst things you could be accused of was "rocking the boat."  
   You have to have mad power and status to rock the boat. If you have enough though, you can author your own division to clear the playing field of challengers to your position. And you can't get your hands on that kind of power, and keep them clean, too.
   Division is Brethren war.  We'd had one.  The harder you'd believed in the Fatherland, the more trauma it caused within you to have the whole place levelled with the bombing.  The cold war was going on in its aftermath, all spies and lies, and another division was coming within the next ten years. World War II.  Our fathers' war.  It happened four years after they kicked me out.  My parents got kicked out/left/stayed in that one.
   No one still left in my church in the 90s stood up and taught us things that made me think or feel anything other than "I've heard all this before.  You're just trying to prop up your own failing, obsolete human traditions.  You're just trying to claim to be better, to be God's Favourites in about twenty different ways."  A lot of intelligence had bled out of our group with the division.  That much was obvious.
   Maybe if someone had had anything concrete to offer a young man besides "Isn't it awesome to be us!" and "The Lord is coming in 1995!  The bible says once the ships of Shittim are truly in the Gulf, that the end is nigh! What exciting days to live in!" and "Here's a book about how Adam rode dinosaurs in the Grand Canyon! What a saviour!" I might have had some qualms about mocking my culture?  Probably.  But I was trying to put a young adult life together.  One that made sense and worked.  One with some safety, some reality, some joy and warmth somewhere.  I couldn't just enjoy retirement and play with my grandkids.  I was pretty sure I was never going to get to have any.  Not now.  Not once they'd torn our culture apart like this and relegated me to the far off country with the pigs, a reverse prodigal.
   No one left in my church in the 90s was terribly willing to admit being troubled by anything that was deeply, incessantly troubling me.  (Stuff I expressed in the songs.  Often a sneering one first, followed by a sincere one second, that sneering-amour out of the way.  Kind of like when you talk to me and find what's behind the sneering you may see on the Internet.  Heart of warm, mushy goo in here.)  No one was troubled.  Nope.  Mostly they avoided me entirely, and if they didn't, they dismissed both the concern, and the wisdom of spending any time in discussing what I saw as Stuff We'd Best Learn, in these 1990s, Given How We've Been Carrying On.  I thought having a division in the early 2000s looked like a really bad idea.  I was told things like "I think Satan laughs when we waste time discussing such unedifying things. Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are honest...think on these things..."
   Maybe if someone had sat with me and said "Yes.  It's terrible where we've gone, as a group.  The division was a mess.  We didn't act well, and it's brought us to where we are now, and it's not time to humble-brag about being God's Favourites. In fact, let's not have another division, okay?" I might have had some qualms about mocking my culture? Almost certainly.  I was desperate to find other people who'd been hurt by it and didn't want to claim it had been simple, clear, unavoidable and right. (Or that it was over.)
   As it was, I found Brethren friends who sneered with me, and mostly laughed themselves just as silly at my satire as they failed utterly to feel my sincere pain and confusion underpinning it all.  They, after all, had alcohol.  I didn't indulge in more than one drink of an evening.  Satire was my outlet, rather than scotch.  Too Brethren to "let myself go" enough to get drunk.  We are creatures of repression, pent up feelings we hide from ourselves, and control above all things.

What Really Happened
But all that "meeting a sneer with understanding and acceptance" or "pointing a young guy in a better direction without demanding he betray his own conscience" never happened for me.  Still hasn't.  I was shunned pretty hardcore for the entire seven years between the first division and my final ousting for mocking The Lord's Things.  The way in which The Lord's Things dealt with me was just another display of How They Roll in Nepean.  It was underhanded, manipulative, ruthless, cold, dishonest and above all, secret. And it was all done by two guys.  The authors of both divisions.  The ones people are currently "bowing" to the "assembly decisions" of.  Mostly they're just bowing to those guys.  Not out of love, either.  Out of fear of rocking the boat.  Out of concern that not bowing will be the thing that triggers the inevitable next division.  The guys are getting old.  Some people question the appropriateness of my calling their actions out into the light.  I think I will, though. After all, everyone's still bowing to their "assembly decisions."  They haven't let go of that power.  And they have trained replacements.  Like Fred Phelps. Successors.  Who've seen it all and will still repeat the same crap.  And will claim they have no choice, and that these are days of weakness and failure, so they can't help it and we are fools to hope for better.  Repentance-free folk.
   To this day, many people have been told that this pamphlet (written in the aftermath of the 1991 division, right when everyone seemed bent on self-congratulation for it) was so bad that people just shouldn't even look at it.  Too disgusting to put yourself through needlessly.  Trust us.  What reason would we possibly have to lie?
  As recently as this weekend, someone used the alleged vile offensiveness of this pamphlet to make a case for my own repugnance and difficulty to conversing with, all the while admitting to having never seen it.  Knowing it only by reputation.  As beyond the pale.
  It's not a secret.  It's been here for fourteen years now.  At first, when confronted with it those four years after I'd written it, I was already embarrassed at its sneering, juvenile tone and wouldn't have wanted anyone to see it.  But once they proved willing to kick me to the curb forever, and people were being told that I'd taken naked pictures, or written blasphemy and porn, I felt like I needed it on the newly-minted Internet so people couldn't just feel free to imagine and make up whatever stuff about me they pleased.  There was never any safety in secrecy, for me.  Sometimes there are daggers in "discretion" that can't be hidden when everyone's being more Frank.
  In the 90s I had problems and I was a problem for my church.  I wasn't lending harmony to the whole "we've had a division, now shut up and be united, dress up nice and sing the songs" thing.  My assembly certainly didn't let me help with anything.  I was a problem, not a solution.  An ass, not an asset, though I was far too Brethren to ever say the word "ass" back then. 
  They even started banning me from young people's activities as early as seven years before kicking me out entirely.   And they have always had only one strategy for dealing with problems of any kind, in my lifetime anyway: The Axe.  When people question the necessity for this strategy, they get The Axe too.  It's the only spiritual tool in their spiritual toolbox.  Apart from The Axe, there's nothing in there at all.  Some of us needed perhaps even more delicate handling than The Axe, though we're often told our spiritual needs are pretty special and unreasonable and we can't expect anything in these days of weakness and failure besides The Axe.  So keep your head down.  Lay it gently on the block and keep quiet and still.
   I really wish someone had been able to deal with juvenile, post-division me.  Had firmly shown me a better way to deal with the frustration, confusion and hurt than the silly mocking.  But I guess they had kicked out all the smart guys.  The guys they had left now needed me to tell them what the word "parody" even meant.  They seemed to think I'd invented it myself, just to annoy them.  And people from the happy, chipper churches around?  Oh, they'd agree to talk to me about stuff, especially if they were social workers or pastors or something, but as soon as I started talking, they were almost instantly in over their heads, both in terms of Brethren jargon and information, and in the ability to alike believe me, or deal emotionally with the simple fact that stuff like that happens in churches.  (and was happening in their own church, more often than not.  Just giving me an Amy Grant CD proved insufficient to my needs)
   So I squawked with satire over how dark it was getting inside me.  And they sent me packing, met with me once a year later to tell me there was no hope of my getting back in, and then refused to answer phone calls, letters or face-to-face interactions ever afterward.  They'd pulled the plug.

It was the 90s, and I thought Kevin Smith movies, South Park, The Simpsons, The Tick, MadTV, Saturday Night Live, Weird Al Yankovik and anything that mocked anything, was the funniest stuff ever.  And the 90s were mostly about that.  Mocking.  Satire.  Parody.  I was right into all of that, and so was everyone I hung out with. It wasn't "decent" (that was the point).  But it spoke to me.  I braced myself and braved the swearing and pointedness, because I saw it as a hard-to-ignore may of telling difficult truths no one wants to admit to.  Be quotable.  Be colourful.  Be hard to forget.  Decency, niceness and gentleness is the first casualty. Ask an Old Testament prophet. Or the apostle Paul.  Or John or any of them.  When they need to address something that's not working, that's not being repented of, they do not pull punches.  When they quote God, they get downright scary.
   Nowadays, when people talk to me as a vile, exBrethren Abomination, the Anti-Brethren Beast (mostly they just avoid me entirely, and ask me to help them do so, as they can't "process" impossible, insupportable, abortive me) they try, ironically, to appeal to my Christian decency.  Discretion.  Fairness.  Privacy.  Kindness.  Christian virtues they claim are almost universally seen among Christians who aren't me. For example, in my church group.  You know.  Decency.  Proper behaviour.  Being nice.  Why am I harsh and grating?  Why can't I speak unto them smooth things?
   They also accuse me of being manipulative and dishonest, which, despite the validity of all the other charges, I feel is very unfair.  (Despite all my other failings, I'm not known to be a liar. Ask anyone.  Just like I was telling Frank Sinatra in Egypt yesterday aboard the Hindenburg. Ask Anna Nicole Smith and Hilary Clinton.  They were there too.)  It's interesting.  If you ask "our" side of the 1991 division what caused it, they will likely tell you it was because "Frank Allan was lying."  Ironically, that isn't true.
   They're not being Frank at all. About anything.
  The division they had ten years after that previous one didn't pretend to be about anything besides the right of the same two guys to kick out whoever they want, even if only for complaining about all the kicking out that's always going on.
   Thing is, I find that I never experienced any of those now-appealed-to Christian virtues in my assembly experience.  They weren't how we did things.  My family either.  And I never learned, to my shame.  They are utterly foreign. We shun.  We backstab.  We muck-rake.  We gossip. 
   Nowadays I have no faith in secrecy calling itself "discretion," in trusting a few Brethren guys with the door shut, to act well.  I don't believe it is possible for Christians to really keep much of anything really secret.  You can't even keep a gay lover in the Bahamas without people all over North America finding out, anymore.  You can't fondle a twelve-year old without people knowing you did that, either.  But you guys can still "serve the Lord." People will let you do that.  So long as you don't actually, you know, speak out against their right to use The Axe any way they see fit, of course.  So long as you bow your own head to "assembly decisions" to Axe people.  You're golden.  You can go on tour each year.  People will actually record what you say, take stuff you write, and sell it.
   I believe, with the Alcoholics Anonymous guys, that "we are as sick as our secrets."  The more secrets, the more sickness. I try my very best not to have any.  They aren't safe.  (Privacy is something different.  The very opposite of a secret, really.)

What I Lost In the 90s
I didn't lose my faith and trust in God in the 1990s.  But [expletive untyped] did I lose my faith and trust in Christians acting in groups!  That's gone.  All of it. I can't imagine it ever coming back.
   To this day I do not trust Christians, in general, to tell the truth, to not play games of "let's pretend," to be real, to face up to their own crap, to act with trustworthiness and integrity, to not live in the clouds drinking from sippy cups with the Care Bears, to admit much of anything, or to be open, tolerant and helpful.
  In fact, I don't even trust Christians to remember what has been done and said in their own circles, by them, as recently as last week.  Memory problems seem chronic.  In "sincere" people who don't remember what they said and did, so sincerely don't want to discuss it, given how much of an unknowable mystery it all now sincerely is, a week later.  No matter what harm it's done.
   I do not trust Christian men with positions of power to keep their penises and hands to themselves anymore.  Not any more than I trust any other politicians.  And I do not trust Christian women with husbands and sons in positions of power to not cynically use their husbands and sons as their own power puppets, acting behind the scenes, moving the scenes which they are behind. Moving them in most mysterious ways.
  "We all make mistakes. None of us are perfect."
  Fine.  My problem is I can't take you guys seriously. Just can't.  And I don't believe anything much you guys say anymore.  I don't believe you will actually do much of anything you claim to believe is right. I think you're all claims.  Just talk.  I don't think reality matters to you.
   I believe you will talk and talk, and "take positions."  I believe you will do whatever you like, whatever's easiest and usual, and blame any shortfall on "things not being perfect."  I don't hold it against you.  I'm not terribly bitter about it.  But when you claim the stuff you do, I hope it's okay when I sneer a bit, inside.  Because I don't believe in Christians anymore.  Not in groups, supposedly making the world a better place, and exercising "oversight."  I just don't. I literally can't.

It's Not Working
Every time I meet a Christian I like, I ask to meet other cool Christians who'd talk to someone like me.  They invariably say they don't know any, and say if I meet any, to send them their way.  So I have this attitude.  It would be nice to think that I can teach myself to simply "be otherwise."  That I can simply will myself to respect and trust Christian communities.  Would be great to imagine that when they accuse me of being "so blinded by the pain" of my own (apparently, they somehow feel, entirely unique) past experience, I can resolve to be more positive, and have that just happen.  Wake up and find I trust and depend willingly on Christians in their groups.  Reacquire a taste for Koolaid, like I had when I was twelve.
   Well, I've tried that for decades. It's not working.  I'm going out to various churches.  I'm talking to various people who clearly consider themselves upstanding Christians.  And mostly I can't stop sneering.  Just can't. There seems to be no shortage of things to sneer at, either.  People who gather in glass chuches?  You can see right through them.  You can see their next sentences coming minutes in advance.  The talking and not doing.  The thinking that giving other middle-class people a bit of your money, is going to solve problems.  The hothouse flowers will wilt if you open the door and let any air in, and the bugs will crawl under the rock if any sunlight is about to let people see them clearly.
   I think the actual belief in an actual God who might want actual stuff that's more authentic than what we're all doing is an abiding problem in my dealing with Christians.  Not that I can do any better.  But I can't take any of it seriously, and I feel like I'm positively required to.  Very seriously. No sneering.  That expression of enthusiastic, supportive belief is lightyears beyond me now.
  And I realize that I am also blind to good in Christian circles now. I just don't see it.  When I do, I don't trust it.  I don't reach for it.  I don't let myself enjoy it.  And when I wait, usually, given a bit of time, it soon isn't good anymore.  Often it's soon gone.  Or it's been hiding a scandal the whole time, which seems to taint it, for me.  I can love Christians, but only one at a time.  And I do.
  I have no faith in my ability to pull up my socks, muster up my fleshly resolve, and vow to be positive and trusting.  To trust and hope and appreciate.  I have no faith in my ability to "catch" this laudable attitude from enthusiastic Christians, cheerfully singing Disney songs about cheerfully singing songs about singing cheerful songs to God.  (the endlessly sitting in silent rooms with solemn people endlessly singing solemn songs about singing solemn songs to God was also unsuccessfully tried throughout my childhood.  The face is pretty solemn.  But there's a sneer on the inside.) I have no faith in bible school graduates teaching me that my attitude is unorthodox (in Hebrew, Babylonian, Koine Greek and Pig Latin) and my then being able to find that this judgment (and knowing what "ism" it is) somehow fixes my attitude.
   I am to the point where I know that there is a God, and I know His Son Christ Jesus.  I know that "Jesus/Joshua" literally means 'saviour.'  I am to the point where I don't trust anyone, not even me, to know what's wrong with me, what needs to be fixed, and what I need to be saved from, let alone to save me from it.  So I need Jesus.
  I am helpless before God.  If He wants me to miss less good stuff, to be more trusting, forgiving, sympathetic, open and giving, He will have to make me a better person than I can currently be.  If He wants me to stop sneering, He will have to save me from that well inside me from which it springs.  When bleeding hearts bleed, they bleed cynicism and satire.  (I just read Haggai.  God does nothing but sneer at Israel in there.  All snark and sneering comments.) 
   If God wants me to take myself or other Christians seriously, He will have to save me from myself.   I take Him seriously, sure enough.  If He's getting use out of the sneering, if it's "prophetic" sneering, like that done by Elijah and Haggai and so on, then wonderful for Him.  But I really wish I had more, and other stuff.  Because sneering doesn't provide a happy, social life filled with people. (Unless you're Weird Al Yankovik, or the creators of South  Park or The Simpsons.)  In Christian circles, many are irony-blind and satire-challenged.  Many don't know the meaning of the word "parody," let alone understand the uncontrollable urge to make some.
    I wish I could believe a single thing that one Christian said to me this week.  Because it's not happening by itself.  It's not getting better.  A sneer doesn't keep you warm at night.  And it's not much fun Sunday morning.
  So I am left with God. I wonder what He can do about it all?


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

That Voice

One of my fellow teachers told me about this class he taught one year, with very slow kids in it, including one girl who was mentally handicapped.  She was the kind of person who meets every circumstance with either a bright smile or a worried look of confusion.  She wasn't taking the course for credit, but rather was intended to benefit from inclusion in the experience.
   One week, the kids had been being bad.  You know, kicking, tripping, swearing at each other.    So my fellow teacher started to lecture them about their behaviour.  In the voice he uses when he's tired of them, had enough, been keeping his temper in for too long, and although he's not shouting or ranting, he's just tired of it.  And this little teenager in her wheelchair, who never did anything wrong, started to shake.  Her lower lip stuck out and tears started to form.
   My colleague melted instantly and went to her and said "I don't mean youYou're not in trouble.  I'm talking to people who've been doing these things.  I need to talk to them.  I'm not talking to you..."  But it made no difference. She just sat and sobbed and was scared to look at him for a while.

Hearing the Bible in That Voice
I realize this week that I've been reading the various prophetic books of the Old Testament for some months now, and I'm really mainly picking up when God is using That Voice through His prophets.  And I'm taking it personally.  On my own behalf, and also on that of modern Christians certainly, of whom I am one.  It sounds like the bible was written entirely to say "Hey! Dumbass!  You're acting like a dumbass!  Again!  I hate to hit you, but you leave me no choice.  Again..." God sounding like an abusive husband, again.  An abusive husband with a cheating wife. That's how He sounds, page after page after page.  I suspect a lot of Christians probably avoid spending much time on the middle third of the bible.
   And I think maybe I'm like that girl in my friends' class.  Not understanding that He might have more than the one emotion (though the one getting all the air time/pages is pretty noticeable) , and not remembering properly that He might feel anything else for us and me.  Not seeing that, yes, He can get very, very angry.  And stay that way for decades or even centuries.  That the bible depicts Him this way.  Over and over again.  For the majority of its pages.  But that there's more than one facet to Him.
   Because the God of the bible reminds me too much of my own father.  Helpful, protective, but impossibly high standards and totally silent until something needs to be criticized.    Then unflinching and relentless in immediately, bluntly pointing out exactly what He thinks of whatever it is that had gotten His attention.  You know?  Like me in the classroom (when I'm not hanging out and chatting idly with the kids when we should be working).  Like the serious (rather than the friendly) me.

Approaching God Anyway
We're always being told to take the bible at its word and pursue the promises therein.  I don't see a whole lot of promises that sound like they're to me, to be frank, and I do see a whole lot of God expecting people to live truly horrific, depressing lives, and also a lot of God losing His temper.  In the NT He seems just as exacting as ever, too. 
   But I've decided to approach Him, in a "friendly me" rather than "serious me" way.  With whatever I've got on my mind that day.  That's partly inspired by this article.  Approach Him as me, no better than myself, not keeping my opinions and thoughts in, in case they aren't approved.  No "and I am no more worthy to be called thy son" stuff.  No "Well, it won't do any good.  You never listen to me" stuff.  And a whole lot less "Why hast Thou made me thus??!" stuff and "I suck in almost every way, and yet I honestly think I can somehow identify which personality traits are the ones You want changed, and which ones I should keep" stuff.  A whole lot less "I do hereby resolve to use my own willpower to try to stop being so unacceptable unto You" stuff.  And I already do a lot less of that than I was raised to.  But it's the flesh, ultimately.  Leads nowhere.
   Maybe I can give a bit of a break to the continual self-rejection, the internalization of the "you're never quite good enough, never quite right" focus, and the unceasing resolutions to change.  If I don't know Who God is properly, and have Him fairly wrong, then that needs to change more than anything else.  If I don't trust Him enough to take my uncomprehending despair and frustration right to Him, then that certainly needs to change, before I start resolving all kinds of more virtuous attitudes and personality traits I think need improvement.  I need to stop all that. 
(I do hereby resolve to stop resolving things.  You see?  It's hard.)
   It's one thing to mature and deepen and broaden, and gain the ability over time to be a better person.  God and life can give you this.  It's a whole other, lesser, thing, to just grit one's teeth and resolve to be one's self a lot less, because one isn't a good person.  The former is about growth.  The other is about self-erasure. 
   I've decided to approach God in a friendly way and see if He responds in kind(ness).   And if He doesn't, still approach Him in this way.  But it's hard.  Because I'm spiritually handicapped.  The last time in recent memory that I approached God in a friendly way and said I wanted to learn more about blessing and trust and how all of that works, someone caved in the side of my car and I was smitten by a horrendous flu that very day.  I tried again, and just got the flu this time.  When I tried it in my 20s, someone hit me in the face with a beer bottle, mid-prayer.

No Time As Challenging As the Present
I can believe in a loving, gracious God as to Jesus coming (past) and not sending us to Hell (future), but the present?  Has always been a problem for me.  And looking around at other Christians, I see it's a weak point in their spirituality for them too.  Far happier talking about the past or the future.  Creation, or End Times.  Far happier talking about not being themselves and trusting God to accept them and not whack them so long as they don't act remotely like the real them, than they are about putting it out there and giving Him the chance to show otherwise.
   We want acceptance so badly.  And we won't give ourselves any of it, though we are self-indulgent in most of our actions.  We do the latter, and then reject ourselves for so doing, while continuing to do that anyway. We go on dates, and keep our fingers crossed, desperate for the other person to accept us, all the while doing our desperate best to not be ourselves, not act like ourselves for even a moment.  "Please accept what is left when I suppress who I am."  That's ridiculous of us.  Hard to stop, though. Hard to embrace: "Love this. I dare You."
   It's like I have to do the spiritual equivalent of one of those "no makeup selfies."  Only with my personality.  And with God.  But it's hard.  I am spiritually handicapped.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Ask A Wikkid Person: Church "Discipline"

Dear Wikkid Person,

Shunning, Church discipline, whatever you want to call it. A very broad
topic, I realize, but one I find confusing at best, life destroying at
worst. Since you have been on the receiving end of said shunning, how do
you think it should have been carried out? Or should it even have been
carried out? I have always felt that generally one of two things happen in
a shunning situation, and neither help the shunned. One, they are kicked
out, and no one knows how to reach out, so no one does. Two, sympathy
and "you poor thing" are extended, thus making those who felt the shunning
was necessary out to be bad guys. In almost all cases, the shunned person
is never back to happy church fellowship.

My questions are: (despite the fact every single situation is different)

1. How do you think someone in an ongoing sin, presumably mentioned in
1 Corinthians 5:11 should be treated? Should they be shunned at all?

2. Who determines if they really repented or are just sorry for being
caught....I mean, if i don't know them well personally, should I contact
them myself? What if I meet them on the street and they are supposedly
still in an adulterous situation...maybe years later(Allegedly). Do I
say, "Yo bro, are you still sleeping with?..." "Yeah, well get lost!"

3. How, if ever, should it be determined if something is worthy of
shunning if it is not mentioned in 1 Cor 5. I mean, presumably you wouldn't
want to eat the Lord's supper with someone who just offed their granny.
But murder is not mentioned in this chapter.

This is such a broad topic, that maybe there are no broad answers. But
still, any thoughts?

Looking for answers

Willow Sage Shovel

Dear Willow,

[this bit inserted for people who lack the patience to read what follows: Let's say you're part of a Plymouth Brethren assembly.  Your congregation represents, let us say, 10% of the Christians in your community.  However, it does not, practically speaking, in any way acknowledge the other 90%.  It has divorced itself from that 90%.
  Then one month, there is a fight in your assembly.  Your assembly kicks out a guy, effectively divorcing itself from him.  You did this because he questioned an "assembly decision" he was not permitted to voice disagreement with.
  Then some other guys side with him, so you kick out 50% of your assembly, saying the decision to divorce itself from all of them is an "assembly decision" and demanding that all other assemblies give support to your right to divorce yourself from anyone who doesn't agree.  (Of course, you say you might take that 50% back, if only they would return and apologize for questioning your right to wield the power you feel you have.)
   Then one of the remaining guys in your assembly marries a woman who divorced her husband fifteen years previous.  So you say you have no choice but to "discipline" him by kicking him out/divorcing him.  Because marrying a divorced woman is wrong.  So you have to withdraw yourself from him, and kick him out.  Any assemblies or people who question your decision will be divorced from you also, for not submitting to your assembly decision.  Because you had to do this, right?  Or your assembly will be tacitly giving support to evil, seen in splitting up that marriage.  After all, what God hath joined together...What's wrong with this picture?]

This is all to say that I find no scriptural precedent for being "allowed" to enact a division.  Ever.  If you have made one happen (for example, by kicking dissenting people out and then demanding everyone support the power you think you have to make "assembly decisions"), you are in direct disobedience to scripture.  You are false shepherds, further scattering the sheep.  Your activities need to be addressed, rather than given tacit, silent support to.  As you know, I don't believe that we can actually:

-take epistles written to the entire Christian community of say, Ephesus, a given city (which city isn't in our culture, time period or hemisphere, so exhortations as to the specifics of their situation certainly need "application" to us),
-and then divide our community up into countless "churches," in direct violation of all the "love" and unity directives seeded all through the epistles,
-maintain no real unity or communication or dealings with the other (majority of the) Christians in our city, choosing instead to pretend the few in our little splinter are all we're responsible before God to interact in love and light with,
-pretend that if we sort of do what the epistles sort of say, only on a micro level, and only with the Christians who are in our shard, instead of obeying it toward the local Christian community, as the apostle would have positively blanched to but envision,
-pretending that nothing the apostle wrote about "one another" or "a brother" or "you" applies to anyone outside our church membership roster, so we don't have to do it,
-and then not really have any strong, open or deep (love) connections to even the majority of the people who show up at the same street address Sunday morning
-make everyone toe/work the assembly line, under threat of being ostracized/shunned

...and then having so done, somehow claim to be "following scripture" at all.  I think we need to stop thinking that. Pretending that.  Claiming that.  Thinking we are excused from "love" scriptures if we later find we have to "follow" the "light" ones.
"I didn't treat him with warmth, compassion, openess or honesty.  I made less connection to him at church than I do with the tellers at the grocery store.  Good thing, too. Later it turned out that he was going to divorce his wife!"
   Our rebellion against the "love" scriptures helps cause people to slip through the cracks, and also disqualifies us from having any bench from which to judge them when they do.  And leads us to seek to judge smaller and smaller and smaller things, all the while being less and less and less connected (love) to less and less and less of the Church as a whole.  We want "light" (to zap others with) and to not have to actually do the love stuff.  But we sure do complain if anyone is "negative" about us and our group.  We lash out. We punish.
   I think the shattered bits that we Christians work and gather in, make it impossible to actually collectively do any of the New Testament group stuff (love or light) scripturally.  We are floating on those shattered pieces of the ship, having a heated argument about if it's okay to paint the poopdeck purple or if it must remain traditional brown.
   If we are willing to split (and oh, are we willing to split, and remain split, and pretend the other Christians are not Christians/are dead, for the rest of our lives, which we will then piously live, all the while praying for and expecting blessing from God) then we have a bigger problem than an adulterer here, or an extortioner there.  Bigger, deeper, more crucial problems.  Problems which the epistles were intended to prevent, if only we'd obeyed them.  If only we took them seriously enough to change our behaviour. To repent of it. 

I see any kicking of an individual Christian out into that "La la la, we can't hear you" land, the one where we keep all the other Christians in the world, as part of a more painful, more widespread, damaging problem/sin than the one that we're supposedly judging that person for.  Why is there a "la la la, we can't hear you" land where we keep all the other Christians anyway? How is that okay?  What we're doing is inarguably worse than what Mr. Adultery is doing.  We are, collectively, big fat hypocrites when we punish Ms. Divorce for doing on an individual level what we're doing to much large numbers of people, collectively.
  Yes.  I think the collective community splitting and staying split is a more damaging sin than one man divorcing his wife.  Or committing adultery.  Hurts more people. More deeply.  For longer.  And disqualifies us from properly "dealing with" adulterers.
  Should make us scale back our wording and understanding of exactly what we're doing when we, a divorced splinter from the other Christians in our town, deign to "deal with" someone in our group.  For, say, adultery or divorce.

(And I'm no fan of adultery, though I think were I so inclined, that I could compete for Team Canada at the Summer Olympics in free-style adultery/triathalon.  If I were so inclined. I think I'd suck at divorce, though.  I'm not known for my ability to quit/let go.)

To elaborate this point: how exactly does this sinful ecclesiastical splitting make Christian groups ineligible to be judging people for things like splitting up their marriages?  What's the connection?  (and, I mean, we HAVE to punish people right? In the most harsh way we have?  To start treating them almost as badly as we treat Baptists, Presbyterians and Pentocostals?)
  Well, exactly how hypocritical do we think it isn't, to formally divorce ourselves from half the people in our assembly, then shun a man forever and never allow him to break bread again, because he went and married a woman who divorced (split from) her husband?  We are doing that right now, as most know.  You've got people who turn their noses up at the very idea of worshipping with someone who married someone who split up her marriage, meanwhile we are actively taking part in repeatedly splitting up entire enclaves of believers.  Just like doing the latter does not come to bear on our fitness to do the former.
   So, not terribly cooperatively, I say that the dubious way we enact this shunning of individuals isn't a key problem, but merely a symptom of a greater sin: a failure to care, let alone love.  A willingness to force divorce on assemblies.  A unity fail that's been unrepentantly going on for centuries and is now just cost of doing business on the assembly line.

As to my own conscience, I was unable to split from my church.  I'd been raised that it was bad to do that.  Couldn't see it any other way, either.  Still can't.  Couldn't turn my back and walk away from a group of Christians.  Tried to deal.  Tried to know and be known.  This was upsetting to some.
  We weren't to know most things.  We weren't to be known, either.  They had to kick me out.  I wasn't leaving any other way.  And they needed me gone, because I was a different flavour of vanilla from their flavour of vanilla, and they administratively, traditionally do not abide that.
   So they shun, split, divide, and excommunicate. Me, my parents, my friends.  And to me, it's all the same thing.  People who don't care about you kicking you out (for good) when they don't want to deal with you.  Like with the other Christians in their churches.  Because they don't care about them or you. Not enough to actually phone or anything.
   It never was, really, about what you did or didn't do.  Never.  It's about if you're the same.  If you fit.  If you're difficult to deal with for any reason.  If you are difficult or embarrassing or awkward or different, they will claim to speak for God, so as to claim the right to 'delete' you all from their church's Contacts List.  Make you all unpersons.  Like so very many of us.  Like the vast majority of the Church who are alive today, actually.

The Meaning of the Word "Discipline"
Another quibble: we wrongly use the word "discipline" about children and church stuff.  Why do we do that?  Now, obviously we didn't get the word "discipline" from the King James.  What we do isn't called that in there.  What we do isn't even in there to begin with.
   As teachers, we are taught that we can certainly come up with what we call "classroom management strategies," which is educatorese for "control/keeping order." But we can't "discipline" children who have no self-control. Because the dictionary tells us that discipline is a personal attribute that is possessed by, rather than done to, people.  So, if you are a disciplined person, this means you have self-control. If people decide you need to be punished (which is what our churches are really doing), this is evidence that:

a) they feel you have insufficient discipline to keep yourself on the rails,
b) they believe that depriving you of their company is the nastiest thing they can do to punish you, and which requires them to do, essentially, nothing whatsoever, ever again.  Just ignore the problem and pretend it never existed.  And while you're at it, the person too.

So, if I say "parental discipline" or "teacher discipline" or "church discipline" ("assembly discipline") the word is supposed to be talking about if the parents, teachers or churches have any self-control.  But we don't use it that way.  What we're doing with that word is sneakily avoiding the word "punishment."
   When I say "discipline" in the way we tend to, I'm definitely, when talking about churches, avoiding the word "revenge." I'm avoiding the word "bigotry."  And "intolerance." I'm avoiding the words "conquering" and "dominating."  I'm avoiding words like "culling the herd," and "weeding out diversity."  I'm avoiding words like "putting everyone again under bondage, and enforcing the following of traditions of men." Also "making yourself Grand Wizard."  I'm saying "discipline" and "oversight" and "assembly action" instead of those terms.
   That's why I might use the word "discipline" in another way than it is meant to be used. To avoid really admitting what is being done.  Punishing.  Anyone and anything we don't like.  Especially diversity.  Even more so, any wanting to know, any looking into what's really going on.  Any trying to know things.  Any trying to be known, when one might be different.

So, say you don't really love someone.  Not enough for that love to change your behaviour toward the person in such a way that he or she could feel it, anyway.  Not enough that he or she could feel something different than if they were dealing with the police.  (I was pulled over for speeding last week.  In that one interaction, the officer showed more warmth and kindness in his redirection of my tardiness-induced misbehaviour than I ever experienced at my church. Ever.)
   But let's say that, even though you don't know this person, you still want the right to, as a group, punish them.  Well, punishment without relationship isn't punishment.  It's an attack. It's abuse.  When that police officer spoke to me in my window, I could feel his relationship to our community.  I could feel how he goes around doing nothing but making my life safer.
  If I am a parent or teacher, and a child is my child/student and I punish them in any way (corporal, allowance withholding, grounding, timeout, detentions), the relationship tends to justify the act.  If a stranger decides to hit me, take my money, and/or confine me to a room, this is an altogether more sinister act.  Imagine if I went up to a random fifteen year old girl on the street, who doesn't even attend my school, and told her that she has to come into a room with me and stay there for an hour, because she has a detention?  That would be the creepiest things ever.  Because there's no relationship to work as the foundation to, and justification for it.
   My argument is that, if a church doesn't know you, hasn't connected with you, taught you, helped you, shown it has your best interests at heart and is qualified to help you, hasn't built a relationship, then they can't punish you without being that creepy guy.  Can't do it without it being abuse.  And, ultimately, can't make you feel the loss of connection to them like you do if that person HAS a connection to you to begin with.  There is no foundation, no pretext for suddenly seeking to punish you.
   When I was punished by being kicked out of my church, I did not suffer the loss of relationship.  No relationship had been built.  Relating had been avoided.  So instead I lost the ability to mentally and emotionally identify myself with my birth culture.  The vast majority of individual people I might have had some tiny connection to in there had largely either been kicked out, or in a few cases had grown up to become psychojudgybeasts themselves, and were people who wanted me gone.  I was tempting them to doubt/think/feel things.  Just by being myself.  And that had to stop.
   Ultimately, what happened was I gained the ability to see clearly and lost the ability to ignore what had always been true, and which I had always felt and known, deep down.  It was simple: they didn't care. They wanted me gone.  They would use any excuse.  So they could "have lovely meetings" and claim to be right and "unified" in some purely theoretical way.  No matter how many Christians they had to send away into "la la la I can't hear you land" to maintain any ability to claim all that.

How Do You Do Collectively "Discipline" When You Aren't A Unified Collective and You Have No Discipline?
Years ago I was speaking with a recently ex-Brethren person who pointed out things I'd never considered before at that point.  Made me think.  Unlike the people who hadn't left.  Stuff like "Who says Matthew 18:20 is talking about Sunday morning worship?" and "Who says that 1 Corinthians 5 is talking about a formal announcement made by an assembly claiming to be the one that speaks for God in that area?"
   He explained that, if for example someone was a child molester (this is not the example he used), people would naturally start not inviting him to their kids' birthday parties, or giving references to work at playgrounds and so on.  The child molester would find himself on the outside.  Withdrawn from.
   Ironically, seven years before I was kicked out for supposedly corrupting the morals of someone, this ex-Brethren guy was explaining why he personally had nothing to do with that exact same person, as he claimed that person possessed corrupted morals.  Among other things, because of his unemployed, daily hash-smoking, and his mistreatment of his young wife.  Because we knew this guy.  That is the example he used. That guy.
   This ex-Brethren guy then described the whole injunction to "put out from among yourselves that wicked person" as something that the various members of the Christian community would all start doing individually., rather than something a few higher-ups would enforce on everyone else.
   I don't know what I think of that guy's interpretation.  Very contrary to how I was raised, and yet I don't find a bulletproof case for only reading 1 Cor how I was taught to.  (I liked this guy when we spoke like that.  Not when he told people he thought I "struggled with gay tendencies.")
  I know something is messed up: if I were to annoy one group of Christians in the city of Philadelphia (Philly, Pennsylvania, not the one in Turkey/the bible), I could then just go to other groups instead.  Because they're not unified.  That's the level of "Christian unity" that is practically possible to us, nowadays.  That makes this "official, announcement of collective Christian shunning" thing rather dubious.  Because it never happens.  It's not the local church.  It's always just these little groups deciding to shun or not, while the majority of the Christians in the area don't know the person and know nothing about it, and are off in their own churches.
   Either the verse doesn't mean that Christians should obey it as a collective and is instead intended to be done by individual people, or else we simply have to admit that if it is talking about a "Christians in the whole city of Philadelphia" thing, then we really just can't do that anymore, nowadays.  Because we Christians in a given city don't speak with one another, let alone act as a unit, ever.
   In concrete terms: If a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia decided that George had stolen money from the collection plate one too many times, and sent an announcement to the "Saints who are in Philadelphia" collectively (and if some mechanism for contacting all the Christians in Philadelphia even existed in this shattered time, DESPITE our nearly omnipotent powers of telecommunication) telling them to put George out from among themselves, this wouldn't work.  At all. 
    Either the group desirous of punishing George would be ignored by the other groups, who'd not want to get involved (as George isn't a Baptist/Pentecostal/Methodist, and therefore not of the body, and we "have no need of" him to begin with) or worse yet, the different churches might want to meet up, discuss the matter, and decide what the standard and policy is now going to be when deciding for everyone to officially, collectively shun someone or not.
  Now clearly, this latter course of action would defeat the whole purpose of us having (sinfully, in my opinion) divided and remaining divided, to begin with.  All of the Christians in Philly working together?  Very, very much against the grain.  Not traditional or orthodox at all.
   If the majority of the Christians in Philadelphia had to agree as to George's fate, no agreement would likely ever be reached, given how we roll nowadays.  So we end up with a situation in which one group decides (and where is this in scripture?) that they are responsible for/own/rule George and his fate, and they decide.  Then they don't even inform the other groups, opting to "tell it not in Gath," just as if the Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Baptists were enemies/Philistines.

More Concrete Terms
In the 2002 local division, I have relatives who stayed/left because of it.  They kicked out/were kicked out by, the majority of the folks in the area.  For saying they did not support the kicking out/leaving/staying of a guy.
   Now, what they did was they switched Sunday morning addresses.  And my relatives' little group met as usual, claiming to have "stayed" and that they had in fact kicked out the ones who had in turn announced that my relatives had, conversely, been the ones who were really kicked out.  And everyone said it was all Very Simple. ("Clear," too.)
  And then at my relatives' place, there was a person who was being a jerk.  This person was sowing discord, in that mini-assembly.  Jamming up the forward momentum of that assembly line.  Jockeying for power and status and importance (such as can be had in such a tiny group.) Fighting. Gossipping.  Petulance.  High school drama enacted among senior citizens.  I heard about it, and I said "If you kick this person out, within only a couple years of your being kicked out yourself, that's going to be extremely telling.  It will show that you've learned nothing, and it pretty much scuppers any hope you might have had of God blessing your staying/leaving."
   Of course they kicked this person out anyway.  Said that they "had no other choice."  I've heard that assembly line before.  (I said they had no other coping mechanism).  And my relatives said that they themselves certainly had never been kicked out of anywhere. No, they had chosen to leave/stay, while the others at the original street address had left/stayed. So they kicked out this person, and his/her spouse also.
   So this person began doing Sunday morning at a third street address.  And decided in turn that s/he and his/her spouse had "stayed," and had kicked out everyone else.  Everyone else in the whole  world.  Brethren style.  "You don't agree with us? Fine. We will punish you as hard as we know how.  We will treat you like we treat Presbyterians. Take that!"
   Now, the argument was not a simple one about "not submitting to assembly decisions/authority."  In fact, the very people punishing this couple had stayed/been kicked out for precisely the same charge, only a couple of years previous.

   The charge that got them treated like Baptists/Free Methodists:
"Not submitting to the 'assembly decision' to kick out people for not supporting the 'assembly decision' to kick out a guy for not supporting the 'assembly decision' to kick out another guy who wanted some other guy kicked out."
   To me, this is a huge Satanic feedback loop of sin, a spiral of "Just following orders/tradition" and needlessly, shamefully dividing everyone up.  How simple-minded are we?  How unable to learn from some extremely recent history?  How determined to endlessly repeat our past mistakes? How many messy ecclesiastical divorces, while still claiming to be an expression of the Unity of the Church?

With me personally, as to my Presbyterian's-place punishment, my charge was, like most charges, completely different depending upon who you asked.  "The assembly" put me out for supposedly "attempting to corrupt the morals of" an unemployed daily hash user who terrorized his wife.  By letting him see a parody of the church's outreach pamphlet.
  I was notified of this "assembly decision" by registered letter.  I had to sign for it so they could prove I got it in case I planned to pretend I'd never seen it.  Because they feared I would show a characteristic refusal to discuss the negative, to meet conflict head on, or be honest.
   So the "assembly decision" had been made.  But the actual people of the actual assembly, when spoken to, were completely unaware of what had happened.  I checked.  They didn't know what I'd done, nor did they know what the charge was.  They had no idea what they'd "decided" until I told them, and then they didn't believe me.  Some were under the impression that I'd been making porn.  So the "assembly decision" had been made, whatever it was regarding.  They just knew that they had to support it, whatever it was, or they'd be kicked out too.  That's how they roll.

But let's be a bit more simple: that person causing drama in my relatives' assembly.  That couple, eventually.  What if each person in the congregation "withdrew" from that person?  Individually.  One by one, as they noticed the problem.  What if eventually, the people in whose house the church met simply said "We're not going to pretend to wield the divine power to actually somehow 'put you away from The Lord's Table' or anything, but please don't come here anymore? We're tired of this.  Please go away. You're messing everything up.  We can't deal with you."
   I think they'd be in for a lot less divine judgment for a statement like that.  I think there'd be a lot less repentance required on the part of the tiny, divided subset of the local Christian community.  And if said trouble-makers went to a different church group, they couldn't claim clearcut administrative abuse anymore.  They could just say no one wanted them.  That Christians had a problem with them.  All this could be done without pretending to Spank for God.  All without pretending to somehow "defend" the Lord's Table, Supper, Name, Day or any of his other attributes, which do not, to my knowledge, need defending, polishing, protection or purifying.

In Summation
Your questions:
1. Should sin be dealt with collectively? Individuals who know the offending person should deal.  Not power figures.  People who know the person, first.  "Who knows George?  Okay, well could you talk to him, then, if you haven't already?"  In any Christian assembly, the offending person SHOULD be known, if there is any love stuff going on, any attempt to follow scripture.
  If "the group" speaks at all, it should never pretend to speak for God the Father.  It should never pretend to speak for The Lord's Table (tables don't speak). It should never pretend to speak as "The Only Correct Representation Of Christian Unity and Purity and White Pride In This Community."  If it does, it is guilty of worse things than the person it presumes to judge.
   I think shunning (individual, or in our tiny subgroups) should be what J.N. Darby said. It should be presented not as a strategy or mechanism for dealing, but rather as a failure to deal, an inability to deal.  How dare we fail at love stuff and then say it is our sad duty to judge people for what we see as "light" stuff?  Correctness?  How correct can our judging action be seen to be, exactly, when it flows out of a lack of love action?  Yet in the Christian groups I am familiar with, shunning is often pretty much the first and only step.  And no one who claims to know or understand, let alone care about, the person in line for shunning, is ever allowed to be involved at all.

2.  Who determines if/when there has been repentance? Someone who knows the person and cares.  If there's no one like that, no one can.  If you have no relationship with the person in question, how could you presume to know enough to judge them?  Repentance or otherwise?  If you hang out with them, you will likely get to know them.  If you find they're doing something you have a problem with, you tell them you have a problem with it/them.  And withdraw from them at least a bit.  Keeping them in mind, if you care at all.  These things naturally, organically take care of themselves.  If there's any natural, human connection.  (I'm not demanding some Christian standard of love.  Just saying that if even a natural, human connection has not been formed, then you can't deal)  All without you pretending to speak for God the Father.

3.  Who and what is worthy of shunning? You decide who you will talk to, deal with, treat as a Christian, discuss the bible with, and gather with on Sunday morning.  You do.  There is no membership list rulebook.  And if you get it wrong (either by not recognizing a Christian, or by giving tacit approval to some very dubious behaviour by someone who claims to be a Christian) then you've screwed up and there are consequences.  For just you, though.  Unless you claim to be speaking for a group or something as high-school as that.
    This pretense that our group is The Head of the Church has got to stop.  Just withdraw from troubling people.  As individuals.  As a group of individuals.  Not as anything more grandiose than that.  Don't make it about power and control and dominance. 
   I think this would work for unrepentant granny murderers too.
"We don't want to break bread/socialize with you.  Go elsewhere in the Church at large."
   That would be more honest.  I think it's what's really happening.  But all this jibber jabber.  All this pious talk to make it sound like we're wielding the very sword of Blind Justice herself.  Blindly. Unlovingly.  Unfeelingly.
  Seriously.  It's about relationship.  If you don't have any, and haven't tried to get any, if you absolutely suck at understanding and connecting to other human beings, how like Jesus are you, and how qualified to act and speak for his interests are you, exactly? How qualified to feed, let alone judge, his sheep?
   I think the thing to do is work with people you can work with, and if you can't work with them (because you don't know them), don't. And when you fail to connect to someone, I think you should see it as a failure. 

I think this is, as you say, Willow Sage, a huge topic.  And these are just some thoughts dashed off during my prep period at work when I should be crushing the hopes and dreams of adolescents brutally underfoot.  (or marking their crappy, crappy writing).

Sincerely yours,

...that Wikkid Person
Certified Wikked since 1998