Ten years ago, in April of 2012, John and I took a 70-day sabbatical from synagogue. We'd been active in church for several years, volunteering, serving, attending all services, doing Bible studies, working with the worship team, etc., and not balancing work, home, family very well at all with our church activities. When we went to synagogue, we were busier than ever. It was a small synagogue, and with worship, classes, duties to attend to at the places we rented for worship, to celebrate the feasts and festivals with only a handful of people to attend to all the details, we were consumed.
The synagogue was an intimate one. We often had dinner with our Rabbi here and at his home. He'd stop by for coffee and a visit with John when John was not working, or he'd ask John to come help with a project. He became a friend and was often in our home, as was his wife, and we were often in theirs. We had not sought out a close relationship with them, but it happened very naturally. We were all of the same age, had children of similar ages, and we liked the same things. We never presumed upon our friendship with them. He was our Rabbi first, our friend second and we respected that fact. Having worked in small town hospitals where one became intimate acquaintances with doctors of the community, we understood the need to be friendly but not intimates, so that the proper respect was shown. That was the balance we worked hard to maintain with Rabbi.
There were some issues at synagogue as with any group of people, probably far more visible because it was such a small group of people, but nothing we addressed except between just John and me. We never spoke of what was going on with anyone else.
Eventually I became the target of a divide and conquer campaign that was routinely waged against various members. It began with a misunderstanding between Rabbi and another pastor, a conversation that I'd been a witness too, at the request of both of them. I was asked to declare what I'd heard when the disagreement arose, and I repeated it truthfully to the two men. Unfortunately, I couldn't prove that the Rabbi was in the right. I'll say that and nothing more. I used to tell my children when they had to make difficult choices between right and wrong that sometimes, the only satisfaction in doing right is knowing that you did the right thing. It was so following the initial disagreement between the two leaders and things were made very uncomfortable for me. My resilience in withstanding the criticism made the criticism more frantic and more determined to move me OUT of the church.
We were so out of balance in all our life areas due to the obligations we took on, and with the misunderstanding at synagogue, we began to feel highly stressed and pressured. John's work schedule was grueling with increased overtime, etc. I was handling more and more at home on my own and seeing less and less of my husband. When he had time off, he was often busy doing something at synagogue or was out with Rabbi.
John and I had begun to argue more than usual which was encouraged by others though we didn't share our troubles with anyone. It's truth that Satan is sly, and he will use people who really and truly do know better to achieve his means. One evening, John called me on his way home after a visit with Rabbi and he was extremely upset. He said some pretty harsh things and I could tell he'd been wound up badly by things said that day. When he came in, I was white with shock and could barely speak. I offered to apologize again to Rabbi and to leave synagogue and let him attend on his own since I was the cause of all the angst. John was calmer and told me know. He thought we needed a break entirely and to let things cool down. We were tired. Weary to the bone, deep down tired. So, in April, after we'd had more heart-to-heart discussions, John talked to Rabbi and asked for four weeks off from synagogue, a total of 8 weeks due to his work schedule only allowing him to attend services every other week. The request was approved, and the alternate worship leader agreed to take John's place.
We discussed this before the board as well, arranged to mail in our tithe while we were out and insured that everyone understood when our time off would begin and when it would end. The board also were in agreement with us about the time off. John sent a written letter to the secretary so there was a record of our sabbatical dates.
It was a relief to know that the next weekend John had off, we could truly have time off. John took off time from work, we planned our vacation for the sabbatical time, and we planned visits with our children. But we also planned to go into a time of deep study and prayer, asking God to direct our footsteps, to correct us and our thinking.
No day of that period of time started until we'd spent a couple of hours in study and prayer each morning. No day ended without prayer. All through the day we'd stop whatever work we were doing to make time for still more study and prayer. We listened to sermons and worship music. We shared what we each learned that day or what we'd felt had been revealed. It was intense and frankly, it wasn't restful, it was often uncomfortable. When you press in, things often get pressed OUT of you, but we felt we needed to do just what we were doing in order to better understand what God wanted of us.
Finally, we began to address our personal issues with synagogue, the things that stressed us and we sought answers to what we needed to change within ourselves in order to be at peace there. We began to talk about being careful to find a better balance in our lives so that we didn't feel consumed and used up.
Two days before our sabbatical officially ended, John spoke with Rabbi on the phone and said he'd be at synagogue the next night to hold worship practice. When we arrived, we found the alternate leader was there already set up to practice. We apologized for any misunderstanding there might have been. James quietly packed away his guitar but told John that when he'd asked Rabbi when we were returning, Rabbi had replied he didn't know. John apologized again for the misunderstanding but assured James that Rabbi and the board all had written confirmation of when we'd planned to return to synagogue and that he'd spoken to Rabbi the night before.
That night after we returned home, John got a phone call from Rabbi at a late hour. He said we needed to talk, and he'd be out at such and such a time the next day. John and I looked at each other and asked, "What do you think that's about?"
The next day, the 70th day of our sabbatical, Rabbi arrived. He refused all offers of coffee or snacks which he'd accepted in the past. He told John that he was upset that John had just 'shown up' for practice the night before and that it had upset the alternate worship leader. We were puzzled. John apologized but reminded Jeff that he'd called him the night before practice to let him know he would be there, giving him ample opportunity to say that James expected to lead service that weekend, that the board secretary had written notice of what date we'd return, etc.
Rabbi then went on to say that John had no right to take any time off from worship at all. John sat quietly a moment and said, "I wish you'd said so when I asked to take time off."
It was then suggested that John approach one of the other parents in synagogue about his daughter. Rabbi felt that the father was holding her back from her future... John looked at Rabbi in astonishment and pointed out that they both had daughters and he didn't believe her father would be too receptive to such an idea, no more than they themselves might have been with their own daughters and then told Rabbi, "No. I won't do that."
At this point, Rabbi looked calmly at John and said he felt it might be best if John stepped down from leading worship. He went on to say that the synagogue as a whole wanted to go in a 'different' musical direction, one he felt John couldn't lead. He said they'd taken a vote on it. His last words as he left that day were, "Perhaps it would be best if you didn't return after tomorrow. Don't tell anyone at synagogue I was here nor what was said this day."
It was an emotional and difficult service for us the next day. We were welcomed back joyously by all the members, but I confess that every hug and every smile seemed full of hidden knives. How could they demand John's resignation and smile so? How could they proclaim how much they'd missed us and yet, want us gone?
When John finished his set of worship music, he thanked the congregation for allowing him to be their worship leader and then told them we'd miss them. He was cheerful and matter of fact. I saw shock registering on faces all around us. I wondered again about that statement to 'not tell anyone'...
When we left, we sat in the parking lot watching others leave. I could see many were puzzled.
Later that day we received a call from the father of the girl with whom John had been instructed to have a talk. He wanted to know why we were leaving and what had happened. John and I refused to say anything against Rabbi, then or now. John said he was told that the congregation as a whole had voted to go in a new direction with James as leader. K was very puzzled. "There was no vote! No one said anything until you said you were leaving this morning!" When K went to Rabbi about it, Rabbi said John had lied, had misunderstood, had quit in a fit of pique. We were stunned. We'd lost a church that figured far too prominently in our lives, and we'd also lost what we'd thought were friends.
I'm simply telling now what happened 10 years ago when we 'suddenly' stopped going to synagogue and decided to 'continue the sabbatical' as I shared on the blog in June of 2012.
The next year or so was pretty damned hard. John had never been asked to leave a church before. I had but didn't feel it was to my credit that this wasn't my first time. To say that I blamed myself and often questioned God about the turn of affairs would be truth. To also say that John never once felt I was to blame would also be true.
We stayed at home for over a year. One day John suggested we go visit another synagogue, and we did. We found the synagogue beautiful and very prosperous but not friendly. We lacked the financial and community prominence to ever be a part of that congregation.
We visited another one a few weeks later where we were welcomed but it was made clear that they were very friendly with our former Rabbi. We simply smiled and said "Yes, we know." We never uttered one word of criticism against our former Rabbi, but throughout the year we attended there someone seemed to feel it was necessary to remind us that they were particularly friendly with our former Rabbi. We'd smile and nod and say, "We're so glad!" That was all. But the feeling we got, throughout that time was that while we were welcome, we were suspect in some way. We were never allowed to take part in any of the activities, so far as volunteering or providing food, etc. We felt in the end that we'd forever be outside looking in. One evening we were attending a special festival/feast and we found ourselves sitting entirely alone the whole evening. Chairs that had been near ours prior to the musical entertainment were moved away. We felt like lepers. No group would allow us to sit with them. I cried on the way home that night. We didn't return.
Eventually we attended a HUGE Baptist church with three services every Sunday plus a Friday night service for those who wanted to forgo the Sunday crush. In the four years we attended there no one knew our name. We were never invited to attend a class, nor offered the opportunity to serve. We've often said we hid out. It was as anonymous as being at home watching services on tv which we did every other week. You can't be hurt if no one even knows you are there.
All through those years, we reconciled ourselves to one fact: whatever occurred, we felt that God had answered our prayers about where we should be. Obviously, we were meant to go 'out' and wander until we learned how to balance our lives in a better way.
Eventually we came to the church we are now attending and where we've been for about four years now. We joined there last year. John is involved but not eternally busy with church as he was once upon a time. I've chosen to attend a few additional activities, but I reserve my energies for grandchildren and family gatherings. It's a large church, but when we've been forced to miss services too many weeks in a row, someone has sought us out to ask if all is well. We take time out for family and vacations. We are a part of, but not consumed by, our church.
We've seen Rabbi several times since that day he asked us to leave. There's no animosity between us. John happily chats with him but there is no intimacy there either. When I was in the hospital with pulmonary embolisms, his wife came to sit with me in the evenings, to pray with me and spent time with me here at home for a time, until their first grandchild was born with an array of health issues. The friendship between us was genuine and I appreciated her presence. But in the end, I think she pretty much said it all when she simply said very quietly one day "There's a reason why I have so few friends, and my husband is the reason..." It is the only thing she has ever said about Rabbi, and I did not pursue it. Eventually, we dropped the friendship between us only because we were constantly finding schedules conflicted.
Funnily enough, I had opportunity to speak to the pastor of that huge mega Baptist church one day at a restaurant and I shared that we'd gone to his church to 'hide' and how grateful we'd been that we could. I said we'd been hurt by a previous church, and he asked, "Why did you leave?" and I shook my head. He asked, 'For no reason?' I shook my head again. I explained to him as best I could. "We were on sabbatical, and we'd been in deep prayer. God answered our prayer. It wasn't the answer we'd expected." He nodded and I do believe he truly understood.
As for myself, I came to realize that no matter what a pastor or Rabbi decides, I'm still God's own child whether I'm in church or out, in favor with the leaders or not. He's called me His and he's never let me go.