Gerald wanted to be a part of The Club.

Except he didn’t know it was a club. They told him it was a family (The Family).

They told him to treat the other members like family, said he’d be treated likewise.

And they didn’t call each other members. Brother and Sister, Father and Mother—these were names they used.

Gerald was a part of other clubs. He enjoyed being a member. He chose to participate in clubs where the terms of membership were clear and the transactions—monetary, relational, or otherwise—were fair and suitable to his preferences.

Most of these clubs came with conditions. But, that was to be expected. These clubs took the form of work, school, a membership card at the local grocery store. You wouldn’t expect love from places like these.

That’s why Gerald enjoyed The Family so much.

Come freely they said. Come as you are.

Was it possible to experience a sliver of life without conditions, without the required papers and payments?

The Family said yes.

At first.

At first, living with the family, if for only a few hours a week, was bliss.

Who knew you could have dozens of new brothers and sisters simply by showing up?

Fathers and mothers to give you wisdom and guidance with barely a request?

The Family said this was what normal life looked like.

At first, when Gerald started attending, he searched and searched for the fine print. He looked for the contract, the introductory course, the scheduled orientation.

After a few months, he gave up his search. The Family must have meant what they said about love. Of course, they wouldn’t keep a hidden clause, a secret standard to be kept.

This was love without limits, eternal in nature. Wasn’t he soaking in the bliss of it every day?

Wasn’t that what forgiveness meant?

No debts, no shame, no restitution.

So, Gerald accepted it. Who would say no to unconditional love? He felt like he was accepting himself for the first time in his life. He let himself fall in love. His love overflowed to his neighbors, his coworkers, his new family.

There were bumps along the way, but the encouragement from The Family always corrected his course. They told him not to beat himself up. Nobody loves perfectly. They were happy to see his heart was in the right place.

For the next couple of years, Gerald continued his full embrace of The Family. The other clubs faded in comparison. He still went to the other clubs, of course. But now, he attended as a witness, a witness to the greatness of the love that The Family exhibited.

His interest in these other clubs subsided. Why did you need any other club, when you had The Family? Why settle?

Sometimes, Gerald felt like there was a darkness that sept into his soul when he attended the other clubs. Slowly, he began to revoke his membership from them. Why open a door to the darkness while he was receiving so much light?

After the last membership was removed, Gerald was sure that no form of darkness would remain.

The Family congratulated him for his steadfastness. Few were as dedicated, as present and available as Gerald.

Gerald enjoyed the praise. But wasn’t that pride, a form of darkness? Thankfully, there was forgiveness with The Family.

But, Gerald wondered about the pride. Why did he need it if he had love? He wasn’t prideful when he first joined The Family. The bliss, the pure relief had overwhelmed any need for a thing like pride.

He did notice that the bliss was beginning to wear off. There were the times when it returned, of course. A particular service, a flash of guilt met with a wave of grace. But those times occurred less and less.

During those moments of guilt, Gerald wondered if his search for a condition had been exhaustive enough. The Family continued to rave on about grace and love, but he had noticed that some forms of darkness could only be spoken of in the past tense. Maybe there was a rule written somewhere that forbade these from being a current struggle. Maybe some sins could only be forgiven if they were long gone, buried memories from a dark life now renounced.

Gerald kept his doubts to himself. Even insinuating that The Family’s love was insufficient in some capacity would garner disapproving stares. Did he want to go back to life without a family? Without the nourishment and covering they provided?

As his doubts grew, so did the temptation for darkness from the past. Or, supposed darkness, as Gerald started to see it. Hadn’t his old life given him some pleasures, pleasures he now denied himself?

One can only wander the road of disillusionment so long before giving in to the appetites they’ve long suppressed.

So Gerald gave in.

The Family didn’t have to know. He had a secret. He suspected they had secrets too. Besides, if his suspicions were wrong, it only meant that they truly would love and accept him, secret and all.

Gerald stayed with The Family. And he stayed with his own form of darkness, the one that didn’t seem so bad anymore.

For a while, he rested easy in his (supposed) hypocrisy. The Family didn’t have a clue and Gerald didn’t want to wonder what they would do if they did. He started believing the best about The Family again. Maybe this pure love thing was real after all. He should never had doubted.

In his renewed confidence in The Family, Gerald started to feel the bliss again. When you didn’t doubt, your brothers and sisters found it easy to help you out, your mothers and fathers jumped at the chance to provide a compliment.

During one particular encounter with a father and a brother whom Gerald had known from the very start, he felt the safety to disclose the darkness that didn’t seem so dark anymore. He figured that, in the presence of such love, no potential darkness could prove any sort of threat.

He was wrong.

First came the blank stares, then the recited answers. Then the pleas for repentance.

Gerald asked for a conversation. He asked if the matter could be discussed further. If he could sit on their counsel and get back to them.

No.

The meeting ended awkwardly. Gerald shuffled out and headed home.

When he came back to The Family the next day, the eldest father was waiting at the door.

Over coffee, Gerald was informed that the way of love could not be pursued alongside the particular form of darkness he now enjoyed.

Gerald inquired about the other invisible forms of darkness. What about his pride? Surely, there were brother and sisters, mothers and fathers who unrepentantly enjoyed their pride, their envy, their hate, their unacted upon lusts?

The eldest father batted away Gerald’s arguments with a request to leave other people’s darkness alone.

Gerald reminded him that his darkness wasn’t being left alone.

With a cold, lonely expression, the eldest father told Gerald it would be best if he left.

And Gerald knew he didn’t just mean the coffee shop.

He was being told to leave The Family.

He had found the hidden standard, the reason he couldn’t be fully embraced.

Heartbroken, Gerald left the coffee shop.

More than being rejected, he had been duped.

Gerald found a family, only to find that he had simply signed up for another club.

A club with an invisible standard that looked like love, but was just an excuse to kick you out when they wanted to.