Whatever you do to the least of these: Shunning Part 1

A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity.
Proverbs 17:17

Every time they fight, I remind them, "Don't forget. Your sister is your best friend, and she will be for the rest of your life." This has always been true. But never more true than the past two years.

I left the church silently and by increments between age 14 and age 18 due to the child abuse I suffered in the church. I didn't walk through church doors again until my brother, part of a college church plant, begged me to bring my piano fingers to his band in 2001, when I was 22. I didn't start attending on a regular basis until my first child was a toddler, when I was 26. And I didn't open my heart to others at a church until I was 28 and diagnosed with cancer. Still, I held people at arms length. I felt like their prayers and their support were conditional, as though I was often in the position of supporting them emotionally rather than vice versa. Something finally changed around 2009, when God sent two particular women I never would have pictured being friends with into my church and I dropped my guard. And so, 16 years after I started holding everyone at arms length, I finally held someone close again. I opened up my home. I went into homes. I even napped at a friend's home. I spent long lazy afternoons with friends. It was one golden year of Christian community.

And then the other shoe dropped. Accused of a sin neither my husband nor I felt convicted of committing, we were slowly but surely expelled from our community in a cloud of foggy accusations coupled with affirmations of conditional love - if only we would repent, we would be welcomed back with open arms.

When all was said and done, the entire church was instructed to completely avoid us - in person, online, on Facebook - even to stop reading my blog. We found ourselves completely alone. We used to entertain frequently. We were left with no one to entertain. One by one, our friends dropped out of our lives, some with painful goodbyes, some with a simple "unfriending" on Facebook and silence. Many nights, when we went into the children's room for evening prayers, we had to deliver the news that another family that included some of their closest friends had chosen to stop contact with our family. There are no words for how devastating those conversations were - for us as parents, or for them as children. How do you explain to children - ages 6, 5, 4 and 2 - that their friends can't be their friends anymore, simply because we no longer attend the same church? Because their parents think that Mama and Papa did something sinful?

We brainstormed together, with the kids. We joined a 4-H club. We signed them up for summer ball clubs. We go to homeschool events and weekly homeschool physical education and swimming classes. We called neighbors to try to establish more regular visits. But there is only one set of homeschooling neighbors - and their girls are 5 and 8 years older than my eldest. There is only one other family in the neighborhood - all boys, and their parents prefer to be left to themselves, like a lot of people who choose to live in the country. Two years have gone by, and none of my children have a single friend within their age group outside our family. Not one.

I've watched my children hide themselves in public, draw themselves inward. Try to blend in. Hide their individuality under a facade of "sameness". Listen for a long time and then try to strike up conversations around what they've heard the other kids talking about. They're afraid to be outsiders. Individuals. Free thinkers. I hate that. I hate what this has done to them. They have always been free spirits. I don't ever want them to feel like they need to conform to make friends. I also see them turning into loners, kind of like me. My oldest daughter especially has a "devil may care" attitude about friendships these days. Who needs 'em? If they don't need me, I'm fine without them, I can see it in her face. At her coach pitch games, she's a star athlete, and she should be one of the crowd. But the rest of her team is joking around on the bench, and she stands hugging the fence, intent on the action, ignoring their antics. Building up her walls. I want to go in there with a sledgehammer and break down her walls and show all of them her beautiful, tender, intelligent, funny heart. I want her to whip out one of her hilarious accents for them, or tell her to do one of her practical jokes. Because she'd make a great friend! The truth is, she has to work through the wounds inflicted on her just like I have to work through mine. And I have to remember that God can heal her just like He can heal me.

We're part of a church now. Real members. We plan to be there for a long time. The youth ministry is thriving, and the kids are happy with the size of their classes. They talk a lot about the loud, rowdy boys. I have one friend from "before church" who attends there, and there's hope for an emerging friendship with her family. Will it materialize? Can I overcome my fear of developing another friendship within the context of church, where I've been burned so badly twice now? Last time it took me 16 years to overcome my doubts and fears. I simply can't afford so long a healing this time around. I owe it to my kids to trust God again sooner. But the heart is slow to do what the mind may quickly realize.

I still have this question: are church friends really friends? Friends who love at all times? Wouldn't a true friend love me when I'm sinning, wouldn't a true friend love me no matter where I go to church? Wouldn't a true friend understand how deeply and irrevocably shunning damages me and, even more importantly, my tender and innocent children?

And deep in my heart, the most painful question is: if you can't love these kids of mine, these sweet, funny, endearing, beautiful, gregarious kids of mine, how could you possibly love me?

The friends that by God's grace are left - the "brothers born for adversity" - sisters and cousins.
This week, we're going to take a deeper look at the practice of shunning in the Christian church. You'll hear a little more about my experience, along with the experiences of several guest writers who have their own stories to tell. What have your experiences been with shunning in the church? Have you been shunned? Have you ever participated in shunning someone? What is your take on Matthew 18? Have you ever thought about how shunning affects children?

If you'd like to join, link up with a post old or new about your own experience with shunning in the church below. Please include the community graphic in your post so we can find each other.