No, the title of this letter is not clickbait, because I do want to reflect on community and orgasms.
I’ve experienced real, authentic community… the kind that is beautiful and unforgettable… the kind we want to experience all the time and enjoy consistently.
This kind of community has happened for me in my churches and on TLS.
I’ve been working hard at understanding community, researching it, experimenting with it, and facilitating it. I used to think that somehow, if we just apply the right principles, honored consistent values, and worked hard to facilitate authentic community, that we would enjoy it 24/7. In fact, this was one of our boasts in the last church I pastored, as well as, I confess, TLS. The implication was that if you joined us, you would experience amazingly consistent authentic community all the time… you would become a part of, and contribute to, rich, constant, and dependable community life. Guaranteed!
But then the worst happened. In my church, we went through a devastating church split. It was crushing. But we braved on to try to rebuild what we had. We nearly did, except every once in a while there would be a crisis and we’d have to start all over again. The same with TLS… we had an amazing sense of community, but then in 2014 we experienced a traumatic kind of split which spoiled the feeling of an authentic and safe community. We’ve been working hard to rebuild it. But again, every once in a while a crisis happens that sets us back and forces us to rebuild all over again.
What was wrong? This question has consumed my thoughts. I still believe in community. I still want to facilitate authentic community. But something was amiss in my thinking. There was something about authentic community that I was not understanding clearly.
One of the key moments in this realization was when I watched a CNN special on a cult, called “Holy Hell”, earlier this year. A member of the cult had been video documenting the cult leader, Michel, when finally he left the cult and turned the videos into a documentary. In this documentary he interviews others who had left the cult. Consistently, every member was in tears as they described the manipulation, control, and abuse, including sexual, that they experienced. But they also shed tears over the grief they were experiencing because of the traumatic loss of community. The community life they enjoyed was amazing and unforgettable. In spite of the incredible suffering and trauma they endured, they were incurably sad because they had known what they thought was authentic community and feared they would never experience that level of intimacy and safety again. It was like the family they never had, and now they feared they never would have again.
I watched with a kindred dismay, because this was exactly how I felt! In the churches I worked in led by charismatic men, traveling in circles with these powerful magnetic leaders, I experienced such a deep level of intimacy, safety, and love. But this was also where I experienced a deep level of manipulation, control, and abuse. Was it possible to have one without the other?
The same thing in TLS! Before the blowup in 2014, TLS was this kind of unbelievable community. But there was at the same time subtle powers at work that finally culminated in equally unbelievable kinds of abuse. Kind, innocent, and vulnerable people were bullied and victimized, and when they were defended, the bullies escalated their attack until eventually some had to be removed and their supporters left with them.
It was one of the ugliest things I’ve ever experienced. The repercussions are still felt to this day.
If that cult documenter were to interview me and many other TLSers, I’m sure he would find similar notions at work… that something beautiful was created, in spite of the abuses, and that if we could just extract the abusers and their abuses, this pristine community could be experienced once again… with guarantees.
I’ve come to this conclusion: No! This kind of unbelievable community is not possible. Plus, it is neither natural or healthy.
Lisa and I were talking about this yesterday, and we compared it to a marriage. It is not normal or healthy to be in a state of constant orgasm. We have a healthy relationship, a romantic one, and our sex life is good. But, as Lisa said, sometimes it is filet mignon and other times it is hamburger. It is ridiculous to desire and achieve filet mignon 24/7. We love our steak. But we like fast food sometimes. In fact, as we’ve instructed our children, we fight. But we try to make our fights good ones. If our kids saw us fighting, we let them see us negotiate and work it out. To be honest, we think our fighting has helped us become better partners in a long-lasting relationship. We believe that as a family our ability to negotiate through the thick and thin is exactly what makes our marriage and our family healthy. Good health requires germs. Good relationship requires struggle. Sure, we might think it would be nice to be in a constant state of orgasm, but this is just not realistic and obviously not healthy, and probably not even desired if you think about it. Work has to be done.
And let’s be real! One of the worst things anybody could have said to me after conflict in our community is, “You’re no different than the church!” and they would split, vowing to never again commit to any form of community ever again. This always hurt me deeply. But now I know to say, “What you mean is, we’re no different than any gathering of human beings!” I’ve said it before: there is no perfect community, only perfect moments. That would be the most honest.
What I’m learning is that, as a community facilitator, expecting people to experience and remain in a constant state of euphoria is to set them up for exploitation. To offer utopia is to entice people to submission. Like orgasm, is it possible that a utopian community is also a state of unrelieved surrender, weakness, powerlessness, and abandon?
This is obviously what happens in cults, what happened to me under charismatic leaders, and what may have happened in TLS. When we are in such a state of euphoria, don’t we submit ourselves to a perpetual state of vulnerability? Because bullies prey on that like nothing else.
I don’t mean that we should never become vulnerable. But to be vulnerable 100% of the time… is that wise? Is that healthy? Is that even possible? Isn’t it better, like in a good marriage or friendship, to still respect personal boundaries, to provide space, to negotiate affection fairly and equally, and to enjoy deep levels of intimacy only when all parties participate willingly and passionately?
What I think this means for TLS is that perhaps some of us longing for this safe and guaranteed utopia is indicating a deeper desire or even a malaise. Perhaps for some of us it might be a sign that we do not want to be independent and empowered. Perhaps for some of us surrender is where we think we are most cared for… safeguarded and supported… rather than learning the hard work of caring for ourselves, safeguarding ourselves, and supporting ourselves. Maybe some of us wish to be forever subdued… hopefully with pleasure… rather than free… with all the responsibility that brings.
On the other hand, I do believe TLS should expect, and work for, moments of vulnerability, intimacy, safety, and surrender. I still believe my job, and our task, is to make TLS the kind of community where independence is encouraged and supported, where individuals are empowered to be self-governing and self-determining, but also where people can get vulnerable, honest, raw, and real, and find understanding, respect, affirmation, and encouragement. Both are good.
Healthy independence leads to healthy interdependence. Being empowered makes our vulnerability volitional, and this kind of vulnerability is healthier and safer.
So, it is more realistic and healthy to say that TLS strives to be a place where we can become more empowered and independent, but also where we can voluntarily surrender to one another when the moment presents itself… if we want to.
TLS offers hamburgers, but also filet mignon! We can’t guarantee which will be on the menu at any given moment. Surprises are fun. But you get to choose what to cook, what to serve, and what to eat. Isn’t this best?
I know this has been a long reflection, and I hope it helps you in your journey and TLS in its quality of community life.
Love to you all my friends!