Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Like My Tulips

I have been sick with a horrible cold for the last week. Taking lots of time to rest and do "nothing" has been very calming to my nervous system. I feel quieter than I have in a long time.

Every day I am cheered by the trees leafing out and new blooms in my flowerbeds. I am so glad now that I went to the trouble to plant more bulbs last November!

My tulips especially make me smile. I admire them. In fact, I want to be just like them. Poor things have been snowed on, blasted with winds, iced in, nibbled by rabbits, pummeled with hail, frosted night after chilly night. Every time I see their heads drooping pitifully and their stems bending wearily, I think, This will surely do them in. But there they stand the next morning, just as tall and straight and strong as ever.

I want to be like my tulips: resilient, bright, vibrant.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Reflections On My Childhood, Part II

For Reflections, Part 1, click here.

As far as I can tell, my parents have always put the demands of their God over the needs of their children. The result was an environment that has often been physically, emotionally and educationally abusive. In addition, their faith of choice, when I lived there, was sadly misogynistic. My father was the “head” of the home; wife and daughters were not permitted to behave independently in any significant capacity. As underlings, we females were supposed to wait for our spiritual leader to “hear from God” on issues that concerned us—questions like what church to attend, whether to take a job, or whether to date a guy we liked. The “family” took precedence over individual enterprise, particularly in the girls’ experience. (Sons were allowed more leeway in plotting their own course, since they would need to lead a family themselves one day.)

Control:  I lived in my parents’ home until I was about 23. During that time, I was discouraged from attending college or working fulltime; I never owned a car, never went on a date, never had a high school graduation, and never earned credits from an accredited school. (How I wish someone had explained accreditation to me in those years! But I was so brainwashed, I probably would have argued with them.) I did change thousands of diapers, cooked hundreds of meals, helped with laundry, tutored younger siblings, was a “nanny” for even younger siblings, sewed dresses and nightgowns, shopped for groceries, scrubbed sinks and mopped floors.

I was told when to get up, when to go to bed, and sometimes required to memorize passages from the Bible. I had to ask permission to go anywhere, and was not permitted to walk more than ¼ mile down the street alone. All music with a rock beat was forbidden. My mother once coerced me into signing my name to a paper that said I would not turn on a radio.

The girls’ clothing was strictly regulated: turtlenecks and t-shirts (anything stretchy) could only be worn under a jumper or vest. Pants were only tolerated under a dress or nightgown. We went swimming fully clothed—even the boys kept their shirts on.  Some colors were forbidden at times.

Morning family Bible study was mandatory. We attended church together every Sunday, but not Sunday School or youth group, which were another unfortunate means of breaking up the family. If we didn’t attend church for some reason, we were all expected to gather in the living room and sing hymns and watch an inspirational video lecture.

Abuse of Authority:
Citing assorted Bible verses, the basic principle ran thus: God ordains authorities and they speak for him; rebellion against wishes of authorities is rebellion against God (Romans 13:1-2). Rebellion = witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:23). Witchcraft = deserving of death (Exodus 22:18). This formula put many trivial issues, like ear piercings, in the category of potential capital sins.

The hierarchical authority structure was reinforced regularly, almost always with a man at the top, answering directly to God. Various supporting concepts included the “umbrella of authority”, wifely submission, homeschooling, keeping a clear conscience by confessing sins to parents, virginity until marriage, father-directed courtship, stay-at-home moms, and divorce permitted only in the case of sexual improprieties.

Even though I abided by the rules of our belief system, it was normal for either of my parents to pull me aside into an office or bedroom to express private concerns and criticism about my character or my attitude, usually tied to “privileges” that would be withheld if I didn’t quickly improve. We all learned to walk on eggshells. If we consulted our parents about personal questions or problems, we would be prayed for. If we stepped too close to the line, we would hear about it. For ten years after I left home, I heard my mother’s disapproving voice in my head every time I stood in front of my closet or went clothes shopping.

Obedience was insisted upon. The youngest children were spanked on an almost daily basis for infractions as minor as not praying before meals on command. As the oldest child, I cannot count the number of times I was required to apologize to the rest of the family for my bad attitude, or for "being a bad example". I was a developing young woman of thirteen when I received my last spanking—stretched out over Dad’s lap in the wool skirt Mom had passed down to me from her closet. As usual, the punishment (beating with a wooden spoon) was for my "attitude" over an assigned project. I suppose Dad must have felt as awkward as I felt ill-used, for I never was spanked again.

From having unattended home births (most without any prenatal care) to condemning antidepressants, my parents have been reluctant to get their children “normal” medical care. Since they felt that most vaccinations were unnecessary or harmful, several of my siblings had whooping cough one year. It scared me to death to watch them struggling to breathe. While nutrition was always given a high value, sleep was considered more of a luxury, especially for the younger girls. “Secular” psychology was dangerous. Sexual education consisted of “abstinence till marriage” and “birth control kills babies”. AIDS was God’s punishment for gay sex.  Our family doctor promoted “alternative” methods, against some of which the FDA has now published specific warnings.

Gothard taught that all suffering had a divine purpose. Pain therefore had value. You couldn’t find aspirin or tylenol in our home. Ibuprofen was reserved for acute pain and doctor's orders: like after childbirth, and the time I had pleurisy. Once when I was visiting my parents, I shared Advil with my sister for her headache and later got a severe scolding from my mother for giving medication to her daughter.


When I combine my reflections on my childhood, I am torn apart. There was beauty, and there was trauma. There was life in its simplicity, but there was also suffocating fear.

It was what it was.

Today I look at my own children and my heart yearns to support and nurture them, to enable them to stand with strength and  confidence in their world, to teach them to live at peace with themselves and with one another.

To demonstrate for them the beauty of relationships based on kindness, respect, and trust.

These are the things I want to pass on.

So first, I must teach myself. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fighting Complex PTSD

(Note: For a list of practical resources, please see the Dealing with Anxiety, Panic, and PTSD post.)

I withdrew from my Spanish II class in February. After spending hundreds of dollars in doctor and therapist appointments in just three weeks and spending a week on the couch shaking from unrelenting panic attacks, the tuition money seemed less significant.

I should have dropped the course after the first night. I did send the instructor an email* before the second class, expressing how I felt his attempts at “humor” demeaned women in general, and his wife in particular. Though he never responded, I felt better for speaking up. The professor’s misogynistic attitude, compounded by cultural insensitivity, frustrated me more each week. Several of us female classmates would roll our eyes at each other when he would start telling his stories, and every night we would curse our bad luck. 

Memories of the kind and gifted linguist who had introduced us to the course the previous semester only made us feel worse. Gaspar was native to Mexico, but could do impressions of any Hispanic accent. Gentle, generous, open-minded, and a natural storyteller, Gaspar quickly gained our confidence. Learning to communicate with him was easy, and fun. 

This man, a retired Air Force navigator, had once substituted for Gaspar during that previous semester. We were not impressed. We would never have registered for any class we knew he would be teaching. (The college website had only listed “Staff” every time I checked.)  Many of us would not have endured five minutes in his presence in any other context, but we had paid for the course and the materials and adapted our schedules and we wanted to learn the language, after all! Had he been a preacher or Sunday School teacher, I would have walked out on him the first night. He liked to tell us about practical jokes he found funny, “jokes” that had caused other women a lot of anger and hurt. 

Language learning is an intimate process, involving deep emotional involvement as well as new brain connections. Each night I found myself more agitated as I tried to overcome self-protective emotional barriers in order to practice the vocabulary with this man. As we moved from career choices and educational goals to emotional states and personal grooming habits, this quickly became an exercise in cognitive dissonance. I thought I was managing to cope with the additional stress, but my body called my bluff.

I began having panic attacks on my drive to campus, then anxiety in class. The instructor’s attempt at Valentine’s inspiration (reading English translations of French poets) was the last straw, and when he stood blocking the doorway and the lightswitch for the final 15 minutes of class while he showed us a Spanish show in the dark, years of suffocating trauma from my past resurfaced and I felt trapped. The next day I fell apart and called my doctor.

The month that followed was a very rough road, but I got back into therapy and started fighting back. With time, my nervous system is recovering and I’m a functional mom again. Looks like I'll complete my biology class (at a different campus) this semester, though future educational goals are indefinitely on hold. 

The bright side is that by triggering PTSD from my childhood and my years in the cult, this horrid professor inadvertently caused an earthquake that loosened up all kinds of shit that had been buried deep inside me. Now I get to deal with each piece as it surfaces: all the times I felt helplessly trapped--in rooms, cars, buildings, institutions, belief systems, relationships. The many, many episodes when adrenaline coursed through my system, preparing me for action I was unable to take, leaving me shaken and vulnerable.

Now I can act. I can build a new life, take responsibility for myself, and leave behind unhealthy relationships, experiences, and beliefs. I can flourish and be happy. One little step at a time. 

*The note I sent to my professor at the beginning of the semester:

Señor W-----,

I am looking forward to another semester of studying Spanish. But I would be contenta más  if you would omit the jests regarding marriage, divorce, women, and your wife. Maybe that kind of humor worked among the guys in the Air Force twenty years ago, but in a classroom filled with women who are paying to listen, it comes across as unintentionally offensive. 

Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but too many of my friends have had to leave homes, husbands, and financial security to protect what mattered more: their sanity, their self-respect, and their children. By talking about divorce/marriage as a matter of economic benefit, you trivialize the tough choices women are making every day.

I hope you and your wife are actually very happy together, and that the attempted humor is not a playful band-aid covering a serious wound. I would be humiliated if my husband spoke about our relationship in the same way. 

Thank you for your time and I’ll see you en la clase!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Growing Up: Other Mentors

Continued from the previous installment:

I was a wary and skittish reader in those days, fearful of teachers who would lead me further astray. But I felt safe with Phillips. Who could be more heavily invested in the truth of the scriptures than a Bible translator who had wrestled personally with its meaning and essence?

In Your God Is Too Small, J.B. Phillips gave me "permission" to grow up spiritually, as it were. To make sure my faith and my perception of God kept up with my adult mind and my adult responsibilities. I was startled by the first page:
"It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child... unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life."
Obviously? The concept of adulthood, or maturing as a process, had not been emphasized in our home. Adolescence as a stage was patently denied within IBLP. We were praised for our "maturity" and wise choices, which were more often based on ignorance and behavioral conditioning. Children were early expected to shoulder adult responsibility, but without adult motivation or evaluation of risk. I never felt that I "became", or was treated as, an adult.

Faith was based on truth, which was either-or, good-bad, true-false, black-white. A child could learn these distinctions, and ought to. For the most part, anything unfit for children was inappropriate for adults as well. Learning to drive was a rare exception; a milestone that meant one was authorized by the state to operate a vehicle. Similarly, through marriage God authorized two individuals to have sex with each other. Before a wedding, sex was bad. After, it was good.

Now Phillips was telling me it was healthy to be dissatisfied with my childish understanding of God. That I needed a God who could command my respect and cooperation. Who was bigger than my expanding knowledge of science and humanity. As Phillips expressed it in 1961, my need was "not for the God of the ancient Hebrews, nor the God of the early Church, nor the God of Victorian England, but the God of the Atomic Age--the God of Energy and Wisdom and Love". This quest was getting more exciting.


I love libraries. Always have, from the time I could barely pronounce, "Lai-bur-dee-dee". Whenever I visit someone's home, or a new church, I like to pause to check out the bookshelves. Book collections give me a feel for the family or group's history, interests, and "slant", sometimes going back generations. I've found some unlikely treasures this way. And after I chanced upon Soul Survivor: How 13 Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church in my church's library, Philip Yancey was my new favorite author.

Like Elisabeth Elliot, Yancey introduced me to dozens of other authors, expanding my theological and literary horizons. But most of all, Philip Yancey gave me permission to ask tough questions, and to not put up with ineffectual answers. I devoured What's So Amazing About Grace? and Disappointment with God. I got The Jesus I Never Knew on audio cassettes for my husbandI pondered Rumors of Another World (now retitled The Skeptic's Guide to Faith) for a long time. I bought Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? for a women's church study group in 2009, but by then my questions were stronger and my doubt was growing. I got frustrated with his defense of prayer halfway through the book and never finished it.

I respect Yancey's courage and honesty and open-mindedness in the face of criticism from other Christians. He can even impress me with dreadful stories about the close-minded church of his childhood. I love his perception of irony; while he does not exploit it, you can't miss it where it exists. (And he introduced me to Flannery O'Connor, who must be the queen of irony.) Yancey writes like a journalist: always observing, making connections, telling the stories of how ideas affect real people. I learned so much from Philip Yancey. Which made it all the more strange when I felt I'd outpaced my mentor. Strange, and a little frightening.


In 2006, I flew to Philadelphia to visit my grandmother and introduce her to my newest baby girl. On the way home, my return flight left without me and I was stranded at the Minneapolis airport for six hours. When I stopped crying, I found a bookstore and promptly lost myself in a riveting book entitled Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, by a journalist named Michelle Goldberg. It occupied my thoughts while Baby napped, and piqued my curiosity. How did this female outsider know so much about America's religious right?

Goldberg offered a perspective I'd never been exposed to before. It was as if we'd attended the same conferences, but her experience of the identical event was the utter reverse of mine. Inside was out, back was front, up was down, cold was hot, clothed was nude, red was blue, white was black. Her book reminded me of reading The Screwtape Letters; the angle made me mentally dizzy. The cultural and political movements I had grown up supporting genuinely disturbed her. The men I admired freaked her out. Goldberg was probably the first to describe Patriarchy to me as a negative thing.

When I finally made it home, I hesitatingly told my husband about the reading material I had chanced upon. I remember feeling sheepish and a little guilty, but I just had to read the rest. I looked up the book at the public library and the world didn't fit into the same box afterward. I couldn't say that Goldberg was right, but I knew that, like Elisabeth Elliot, she was being  truthful about what she saw.


My grandmother, an avid reader, had a book sitting by her bed when I visited: What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills. This interested me since I didn't think of her as particularly religious. I found that book at the library, too, and immediately admired the author's expansive knowledge of the Bible (rarely did I encounter a Bible scholar whose grasp of the scriptures exceeded my own) as he used his research to describe the historical context of each of the Gospels. A committed Catholic with criticisms of the Church, Wills had stuck on many of the same points of the Jesus biographies that I had (What is this "kingdom of heaven"? What about Judas?) and I loved reading the conclusions he'd reached. Like Yancey, he asked tough questions boldly.

Like Phillips, Wills did his own translations from the Greek texts. When I read What Paul Meant, a similar treatment of the Epistles, I was struck by how the vocabulary has evolved since we began reading these letters. The word we translate "church", what exactly did Paul mean by it? There were no church buildings, no denominations, no history. How can we fairly examine the Bible without the clutter of centuries of religious practices? Is it even possible to cut through thousands of layers of religious grime?

But for Garry Wills, I probably would never have watched The Last Temptation of Christ. Remembering the scandal of the 1980's, I felt sneaky and apostate bringing it home on VHS. The film, low-budget but incredibly artistic, is based on a novel written by a Greek Christian. The author focuses on the doctrine that Jesus was fully human, as well as divine, and has Jesus experience the same conflicts all humans do. We found it extremely moving, Willem Dafoe's Great Lakes accent notwithstanding. In fact, we watched it again that same week. Perhaps we weren't so far off, after all. Perhaps we just didn't fit the American evangelical mold anymore. Perhaps our God didn't.

Elisabeth Elliot: My Writing Muse

Elisabeth Elliot was my invisible mentor for many, many years. I found Shadow of the Almighty, The Journals of Jim Elliot, and Passion and Purity in a Baptist church library as a teenager and hung onto them like a life raft through rocky adolescence. Elliot's biography of Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die, introduced me to Carmichael's own books and at the same time enthralled me with Elliot's style. I trusted Elisabeth to always write and speak honestly, even if the way she saw things would upset people. I collected her books for years, got her monthly newsletters, listened to her on the radio when I could.

Elisabeth offered me a pattern for courtship in Quest for Love, which I in turn recommended to many friends. A Path Through Suffering was reminiscent of Amy Carmichael's own writings. Mom read Let Me Be a Woman with my sister and me, though she put a sticker on the cover photo because she found Elisabeth's sweater to be indecently tight. (A later edition cropped the offending garment altogether.)

The Liberty of Obedience (published in 1968) helped me see light out of the tunnel of legalism. This little volume, no longer available on her website, details a few of her questions about applying the New Testament to the Auca culture.
"A sincere attempt to discover ways in which I might guide the Aucas in making moral choices led me to the realization that I had sometimes called things sinful which the Bible did not call sinful; and if I had imposed these on the Indians, I would have been guilty of the Pharisees' sin of laying burdens too heavy to be borne. It may take a new kind of courage for us to believe that God must interpret His Word to His people."
"Does the Scripture teach that sin is sin, in the sense that what is sin for one man is always sin for all? It does not. In fact, it shows that what may be sin in one man may glorify God in another."
Gold By Moonlight was my favorite of Amy Carmichael's books. I kept it close to my bed and read it over and over again. In many ways, her approach to faith and her relationship with her God resembled Hannah Hurnard's devotional stories in Hind's Feet on High Places and Mountains of Spices. Both authors were influenced strongly by the Keswick movement, which in many ways was part of my "spiritual lineage", as well. However, these books also reinforced a mindset that tolerated abusive relationships. In the words of St. Theresa of Avila: "If this is the way you treat your friends, God, no wonder you have so few."

Or, as Mother Theresa wrote:
"Sorrow, suffering, is but a kiss of Jesus - a sign that you have come so close to Jesus that He can kiss you. I think this is the most beautiful definition of suffering. So let us be happy when Jesus stoops down to kiss us." 
"I love Him - not for what He gives - but for what He takes."
"I am ready to accept whatever He gives and to give whatever He takes with a big smile."
This was the submissive bride I aimed to be. Whenever I began to doubt that this God of mine was loving, I would return to Elliot, or Amy Carmichael, or Hind's Feet, and reaffirm my willingness to be "tied to the altar" and have my undying longing for love torn out of my heart by my perfect Priest. Before you have to ask, of course it was sexual--I was in my 20's and had never been kissed! I had felt my heart wrung out with suffering, though, and any attention showed that Someone was thinking about me, right?

Besides walking me through the late stages of puberty; guiding me through love, hope, disappointment; shaping my views of relationships and womanhood; infusing me with courage and determination: reassuring me that my ordinary life had meaning and teaching me to write, Elisabeth Elliot introduced me to J.B. Phillips New Testament paraphrase. The New Testament in Modern English remains my favorite English version. I remember an evangelist friend sneering at my "paraphrase" when I brought it to our IFB church, but to me it seemed more throbbingly alive than any other translation I'd found.


Years and years later, after I'd traversed the courtship swamp, left legalism in the dust, figured out birth control, and found everything about marriage to be entirely different than I was taught, I was shopping at a homeschool book fair. I was feeling confused and, oh, so out of my element: surrounded by IBLP followers, Quiver-full couples, and Christian fundamentalists of every stripe. Dressed for maximum confidence in belted jeans and a sweater, wearing a knobby necklace that had once hung round the neck of a missionary linguist named Hazel, I wandered past booths promoting courtship guidebooks, "melodious" music CDs, sanitized "science" books, character curricula, and midwives. I picked up a used Usborne "encyclopedia" for kids and found the pages about human reproduction had been pasted together. A t-shirt on display had an orange diamond: "Warning: Unsocialized Homeschooled Kid". Another had an illustration with little humans cooking on an oversize BBQ. I've forgotten the caption. Maybe God's hellfire grill is open all night?

This was "my tribe", the familiar culture I'd grown up in, but it didn't seem so comfortable now. In fact, it felt slightly sinister. I sought refuge in a corner cozy with towering bookshelves. The tightly-packed volumes smelled of must and ink, their jackets were torn and brittle, their spines worn and labeled with old library codes. I found titles and authors familiar from my childhood. They made me smile. Books were always my escape, my lifeline, "the key that opens an enchanted door to worlds you never knew before". Ah, J.B. Phillips, a comforting name. A name that brought back enthusiastic feelings of fresh life overwhelming death, light driving back darkness, hope overcoming doubt.
Happy are those who are hungry and thirsty for goodness, for they will be fully satisfied!
Happy are the merciful, for they will have mercy shown to them!
Happy are the utterly sincere, for they will see God!
Happy are those who make peace, for they will be sons of God!
Happy are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of goodness, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!            (Matthew 5:6-10, Phillips)
The slim paperback was titled Your God Is Too Small. I paid for it, and went outside. Sitting in the sun beside my kids' education for the year, I pulled out Phillips' book and began reading while I waited for Chris to pick me up.  

Continued here...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Film Favorites: Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole is a beautiful movie* about grief and recovery. Simple but deep, poignant yet sometimes funny, it is the story of a couple (played by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman) grieving the loss of their young son. His death was an accident--there is no one to blame--but that does little to assuage anyone's pain.

This is serious subject matter and the deliberation of the filmmakers shows up in the detail: colors, lighting, clothing, score. The filming and acting are gentle, yet so honest that we feel the rawness of the emotional wounds each individual is struggling to survive: Becca, Howie, Becca's mother, and Jason (the teenage car driver). Becca and Howie have a strong marriage and seek recovery together, but inevitably their paths diverge as they heal at different rates, in different ways, with different needs. This inevitably stresses their relationship, and us the viewers who are rooting for their survival.

Rabbit Hole voices questions, rather than offering answers. It observes and portrays the human experience, reserving judgment. While Becca's mom finds some comfort in the church, her daughter is exasperated by well-meaning friends telling her that "God wanted another angel." In many ways, this awkward scene with their grief recovery support group reminded me of sitting in church.

But the film is ultimately hopeful. Becca and Howie endure the crisis. By the end of the movie, our own wounds even feel more "bound up" as we watch them, together, step tentatively toward the light again. The sorrow is still there, but as Becca's mom confides, "At some point, it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and... carry around like a brick in your pocket."

*A year after we saw  the movie, we had the chance to see the original stage version. We wondered how it would compare, since we already knew the story. The play was extremely moving. The narrowed setting and smaller cast really put the dialogue into focus. Definitely go if you get the chance.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had been raised with religion in a milder form.

I have friends who are gently religious. Their faith brings them comfort; it gives them strength. Their warm and welcoming God loves and supports them. They are loving parents, loyal spouses, kind neighbors. They would never metaphorically clobber someone over the head with a Bible. Their religion makes them feel better and in spite of my atheism, I have no desire to take that away from them.

But when I explain why I am leery of religion, they understand.

After leaving the cult behind, I took years to reexamine my beliefs, slowly picking out all the legalistic bits that had been ingrained in my belief and trying to rediscover the essence of my childhood faith in Jesus and his love. I explored more generic evangelical churches and read books and listened to songs about God's "amazing" grace. I sang to my babies about God's care. I taught my children passages straight out of the Bible, as unadulterated as the pure fruit juice I put in their sippy cups.

As my husband and I got more comfortable in our new life, we began to refer more freely to our not-so-distant past.

At first we talked about "legalism", and then we said "cult-like". It was hard to admit we had been members of a cult. After all, our teenage memories are all steeped in "the kool-aid". Our early friendship, even our marriage put down its first roots in that choking soil. Many of our friends were still involved in IBLP; whenever we drove through the Chicago area we liked to revisit memories at the IBLP campus. Remember when we rode our bikes together here? Remember sitting on the rug, reading Winnie-the-Pooh? Remember taking Miss L--- shopping? To completely reject the organization, would we have to disown part of ourselves? After a lot of research, we gave in to the truth. Personally, it was a huge step forward. Relationally, it was a huge step away from many people that were still important to us, especially family.

After a few more years of painstakingly combing out our beliefs and rejecting what didn't line up with our new understanding of Jesus' teaching, we woke up one day to the realization that our brand of evangelical American Christianity didn't line up with it that well, either. By now our life experience had softened our hearts toward other struggling human beings. Our shifting values showed up in our politics, in our parenting, in our purchases.

We sold our snug paid-off home and moved across town to a larger home with an enormous playroom, a big backyard with a swing set, and plenty of trees. We voted against a Republican. We stopped spanking.

Wanting our children to see a more generous Christianity, we started attending a "mainline" church. Many people there were warm and accepting, and they viewed themselves as Jesus' hands and feet in their neighborhood. They focused on meeting people's flesh-and-blood needs in Jesus' name: meals, warm clothing, a place to sleep, clean water, functioning toilets, respite care for families of the disabled.

There was a lot of good stuff there, and the church was a haven for me to heal and grow when I was in an emotionally fragile place. But ultimately, what remnants of our faith we brought with us faded even as we prayed, sang, studied the scriptures, listened to the pipe organ, took communion. When it was time to leave, we just knew. And we knew we wouldn't be back.

Today, I don't have a problem with religion, per se. Like other mythologies (Pegasus, Robin Hood, Santa Claus, the Pilgrims...), it has been around a long time and plays a role in the culture. Religion can bond a community. It conveys heritage and values and ideology from one generation to the next. I get that. But I have a problem with ignorance, especially religion that is based on ignorance, that encourages ignorance, that is dependent on maintaining ignorance. If you want to use ancient literature to justify a public policy position, I expect you to be at least curious about where that literature came from and how it has been interpreted in the past.

I also have a problem with religion that teaches people to be cruel. Christianity taught me to be hard on myself and on other people. The God of the Bible is harsh: he created labor pains to punish a woman for listening to a talking snake. He drowned the first batch of people he made. He sent serpents and boils and marauding armies. He is also a bully. He killed Egyptian children, sabbath-breakers, whole families who happened to be living where he wanted his people to live, and a guy who tried to steady a holy box. In the New Testament he has his own son murdered so I can have the privilege of being one of his kids, too. Otherwise (according to some versions of Christianity), I stink too bad to even be in the same house with him.

It's no wonder fundamentalist Christianity treats "different" people so unfairly. Depending on the criteria of a particular religious group, "different" might include:

  • gays & lesbians
  • the poor
  • women
  • Catholics
  • children
  • transsexuals
  • the divorced
  • teenage boys
  • public school teachers
  • single parents
  • immigrants
  • Planned Parenthood volunteers
  • other races
  • the sick or disabled
  • Muslims
  • scientists
  • the mentally ill
  • working mothers...

And on it goes. When human beings are abused, neglected, berated, belittled, harassed, manipulated, vilified, condemned and disgraced in the name of any god, it makes me angry. And while we're on bullying, this is bullying at its finest: telling another person what an invisible being wants from him/her, under threat of unlimited punishment to be served after he/she dies!

So, I sometimes wonder--

     If I had been raised with a religion that did not condone cruelty,

          If I had grown with a faith that cultivated curiosity and honest inquiry,

               Would I have stayed?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Library Shelf: The Birth of Satan

Without Satan, why believe in God?

". . . it is hardly surprising that many monotheists have constructed the embodiment, in stories and art and imaginings, of the energy and forces in life that seem inhospitable, disorderly, fractious. This is the character we know as Satan, whose origins are the subject of this book. We cannot know, or at least we do not, whether there is a Satan beyond this Satan. But. . . [Satan] is worthy of our respectful consideration."
The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots, by T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, was earth-shattering for me. This library book kept me busy on a plane trip to Philadelphia, and I was so excited about it that I kept reading pages aloud to my sister on our drive to my uncle's Delaware beach house. 

For years I had been troubled by an incident in the life of King David. Like many David stories, this one is recorded twice: once in II Samuel 24 and once in I Chronicles 21. In both versions, the king gets in big trouble with God for ordering a national census and the whole population is punished. Only in the Samuel version, God is already angry with Israel, so he purposely incites David to order the census, and then everyone gets in trouble and 70,000 people die. In the Chronicles version (the later one), Satan opposes Israel by inciting David to number the people, God gets mad, the whole nation is punished and 70,000 people die. 

Now it seemed to me as a well-versed teenager that there ought to be a pretty big difference between Satan doing something, or God doing it. When I was young my parents liked to talk about putting God on the throne of my heart and not letting Satan sit there. We wanted to make God glad and that would inevitably disappoint Satan. They were polar opposites, right? Except for a strange heavenly scene in the book of Job, one wouldn't expect to find Satan and God hanging out together. So how did the Bible writers get these two characters mixed up?

A 19th-century commentary by the theologian Albert Barnes waves away the difficulty: "All temptation is permitted by God.... If Satan therefore provoked David to number the people, God allowed him. And what God allows, He may be said to do." Wow. That little sentence puts an awful lot of responsibility at God's feet. He committed the Holocaust. He burned witches in Salem and Protestants in Europe. He rapes women in Africa and altar boys in America. He infects people with AIDS, flies planes into buildings, and murders children in their schools.

As it turns out, monotheism is a very difficult balancing act. To make it work requires a devil so the one god left can be wholly good. Otherwise he's a monster, or bi-polar. The evolution of the Satan concept in Judaism pretty much blew my mind. The "satan" (common noun) shows up as a generic villain late in the history of the Old Testament, relieving Yahweh of some of the responsibility for his more "repellent" behavior. When the post-exilic Chronicles accounts were compiled, the scribes chose to make the satan responsible for tempting David.

Satan (proper noun) takes form as a character during the inter-testamental period, roughly around 200 B.C.E., and begins to be described as God's nemesis. The legend grew with interpretations of Genesis that accounted for the supernatural origin of demons. Followers of Jesus continued to develop this theme, supplying details and linking Satan to Old Testament characters and symbols that predated him as a personality. Dante and Milton added a great deal of color and shading to the picture, visualizing ever more horrific images in their descriptions of Satan and his infernal abode: Hell. 

Authors Wray and Mobley outline some of their findings in this fascinating WBUR interview, but the book's bibliographic notes are much more complete.

Somehow learning that Satan was only a solution to an ancient theological puzzle was a seismic shift for me. Ultimately, my faith in God required a cosmic enemy--an evil being trying to snatch my soul and longing to drag me into hell. A loving God didn't frighten me, it was God and Satan both ganging up on me--like they did with Job--that made me doubt my strength.
"In the end, the patronizing answer--'Satan is the source of evil'--never answers the question of the origins of evil. Because if God is initially, fully, and finally God, the Alpha and the Omega, then Satan is merely the Beta and the Psi. Satan may have emerged before time, but not before God..."
If Satan wasn't even discovered/invented till the Babylonian Captivity, who was that sneaky talking snake? My teachers always referred to him as an incarnation of the devil, a rebellious angel bitter because God threw him out of heaven, but the Jewish scriptures never refer to the serpent that way. And who introduced evil into that perfect garden? If God used his will to create Eve in his image, but chastised her for using hers... and we're back to the age-old puzzle of monotheism. Who is responsible for evil, pain, and suffering? Is God culpable for what he allows? Is he a monster? Is he bi-polar?

I was surprised to find that losing Satan meant losing God, too. But it was strangely liberating to take responsibility for all my own thoughts. To realize that my choices were simply my own, not tied to the outcome of some cosmic tug-of-war. My desires are merely the state of being a conscious human, not fed to me by angelic or demonic forces. And King David? Well, an epidemic happened to follow his national census. Bad things still happen, whether you're a monotheist, a polytheist, or an atheist. I just find that I can move on more quickly these days, relieved of the pressure to make sense of it all or figure out if God, or his satan, is trying to get my attention.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Rest of the Story

1987. A warm day in early September. The Tom's Food Market parking lot in Acme, MI. Five kids and their parents in a red Suburban, all ready for a special family project. The four of us who'd attained school age were prepared with shiny new laminated vocabulary cards for this month's Wisdom Booklet, which we'd  marked with colored sticker dots to keep the sets together. I was 11 that year, my brothers 9 and 8, my sister was 5. Baby Brother came along but didn't get a set of cards.

We'd just joined the new Advanced Training Institute, a homeschooling program based on the Sermon on the Mount and headed by Bill Gothard (an unmarried speaker and former youth pastor then in his fifties). Momma had high hopes for this new curriculum that would emphasize developing wisdom, godly character, and strong family relationships--all so much more valuable than mere academics. There were character quality themes, scriptures to memorize, Christian heroes to admire, even "medical" advice from the Institute. We were even going to learn the Greek alphabet so we could interpret the New Testament more precisely.

Wisdom Booklet 1 focused on the opening lines of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount":
"And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain..." (Matthew 5:1a)
According to the recommended project in the Parent Guide, we were going to practice seeing the multitudes the way Jesus saw them--going beyond outward appearances because God sees the heart. We were supposed to learn to recognize people's deep inner needs just by watching them. For the next hour or so, we saw, observed, noticed, perceived, ascertained, and discerned (and then conjectured, assumed, divined, speculated, and supposed) those poor people ad nauseam.

Mom and Dad tried to take the project very seriously at first. We probably said a prayer before we began. But with three bright and lively children in a hot car, things eventually descended into silliness. The man escorting a little girl across the parking lot must have failed at his marriage. The woman returning a shopping cart's worth of beverage cans must be married to to an alcoholic who was bitter at his father. The teenager dressed like..., the elderly lady that..., the tattooed man who...

I studied the Wisdom Booklets for the next ten years. The project that day became a memory we older kids laughed about. But the technique was reinforced repeatedly in ATI materials. Training in "counseling" recommended quickly identifying the "cracks" in someone's life, like cracked pottery that might be coated with wax to make it appear watertight. Over and over, we were taught to judge inner quality by physical "signs" of rebellion, of bitterness, of pride, of impurity. Layers of meaning was assigned to the most inconsequential characteristics. Who knew so much could be revealed by a hairstyle? By a neckline? By a pair of jeans? By musical preference?

It took more than another decade to wash the cult out of my brain. My observation skills had been honed to a fine point. I still catch myself taking mental stock of a person's appearance and making snap judgments.

Last month IBLP started its own Facebook page. I ended up chatting with their IT director, Robert Staddon, about some of the harm ATI caused in my own family. When he asked for specific examples of bad IBLP teaching, I referred him to that initiating project. He wasn't familiar with it, though many other former students remember it distinctly. Apparently he discussed it with Bill, because I got this message back a few days later:
March 12, 2013:
"We have submitted a ticket to our ATI team to revise the Wisdom Booklet project mentioned with further clarification on the purpose of the project (Learning to look on "the multitudes" with compassion as Jesus did). Thank you for sharing your concerns!"

Nice. 25 years of "spiritual abuse" memories engraved on the Tom's Food Market asphalt and now they file a f---ing ticket, like the ones I used to file and process when I was a secretary in their Publications Department. As if the horrors perpetrated by the IBLP worldview on thousands of children, teens, and parents were as simple as a spelling error. Future editions of fundamentalist legalism and alternative dysfunctional mis-education of children will be corrected and safer for human consumption.

Thanks to the Basic & Advanced Seminars, the Men's Manuals, the ATI program, Striving for Excellence, Faith & Virtue Journals, courtship commitments, the Financial Freedom Seminar, ALERT, CharacterFirst, and Oak Brook College of Law, my siblings and I along with hundreds (thousands?) of former cult members are in need professional therapy. But they've submitted a ticket so all's right again in Bill's world. Let the multitudes be. His conscience is clear.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spiritual Abuse Survivors: Paradise Recovered

I love this piece, penned by Andie Redwine. It did me good to reread it today and realize how much progress I've made since last year!

We Are Spiritual Abuse Survivors
...Sometimes when people are vulnerable and need answers, someone pretends to give support by exploiting the needs of hurting people, using their ‘answers’ as a recruitment tool to get people to do their bidding in the name of God.
This is what happened to us.
We aren’t crazy, naïve, foolish, stupid, or lazy. We are human, like you. We have needs, like you. And, unfortunately for us, someone took advantage of our human needs for their personal gain.
We thought we were specially called by God. We learned later that we were just a means to an end, with the end being the elevation of our leader. 
Or we were rigidly raised to believe that everything on the outside of our group was bad. That only our group alone understood God, salvation, and the keys to living rightly.
We were taught or reconditioned to fear everything that contradicted our leaders’ edicts. We believed dissent to be wicked, evil, and Satanic.
And then we learned something about our leaders that made us question all that we built our lives upon.
. . .
We learned that some of our phobias have been granted to us by leaders who manipulated us into believing that the world is really a terrible, horrible place.
Of course, our leader’s group is wonderful and the only good to be found in the world.
Or is it?
And then we learned that asking these questions makes us expendable to the leader and the rest of the group.
. . . 
But one day, we noticed that many around us were genuinely happy. Even the ones that were supposed to be ‘really bad.’ They laughed, smiled, and were kind.
Some had faith, some didn’t. All were free to believe as they wished.
We were supposed to fear them. And yet they didn’t seem all that scary.
We didn’t know this worldly culture very well. Their music, their movies, their celebrations, their workplaces, their books, their relationships. And they scared us a little. Or a lot.
They also intrigued us a little. Or a lot.
And we confused the heck out of these people. They had no idea where we were coming from, and we were too ashamed and embarrassed to tell them that we had been in what they called ‘a cult’.  That we ‘drank the Kool-Aid’.  That we were ‘mind-numbed robots’ that had been ‘brainwashed.’
There was a lot of shame. So we didn’t say a word about our experience. We did the best we could to assimilate.
You may have known us for years and never known our stories. We can bury them pretty deep.
Because of the Internet and our Googling late into the night when we can’t sleep, we’re learning that we aren’t the only ones. Because of the anonymity that the Internet affords, we’re getting braver. We’re telling our stories.
We’re speaking out.
. . .

There's a lot more, including suggestions for how to relate to a spiritual abuse survivor. I am so grateful for those friends, old and new, who have been patient and accepting as I find my way, sometimes flying, sometimes just muddling along. 

If Andie's writing strikes a chord with you, check out this film she wrote and produced: Paradise Recovered. It is touching and funny; how you feel about the ending will depend on where your own journey has taken you. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mt. Moriah: Isaac's Journal?

Danish Cathedral Fresco (photo by Calvin)

And [God] said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took… Isaac his son… and went unto the place of which God had told him.

… And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.  

…And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham… now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

Genesis 22:2-12

I never doubted that my parents would have passed God’s test of loyalty. And like Isaac, my siblings and I bore the weight of the wood for our own sacrifice. The Genesis account never hints at what Isaac thought of this day. Was he permanently scarred? Did he ever discuss the trip with his mom? How did the memory of Mt. Moriah affect his relationship with his father? Did they ever go hiking together again? How did it influence Isaac’s understanding of parenthood?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Of Isolation and Community

I took the bus to Willow Hill Elementary for kindergarten and first grade. At recess my friends and I would play hopscotch, jump rope, explore, or make-believe together. Occasionally, they would invite me to their homes to play or for a birthday party. I was active in Sunday School, too. Though I was too shy to say much to them, I knew many adults at church and in my neighborhood. My parents were part of a small fellowship group and the families did lots of things together: picnics, fireworks, a hayride, swimming at the lake.

When my parents became homeschoolers, our social circle tightened. Mom was afraid the state might “take us away” if anyone reported us. One sunny morning she hauled all of us to the grocery store at what seemed like the crack of dawn to get her shopping done before “school hours”. I still played with the kids next door, but only on designated “play days”. We had the same church friends for a while, and I looked up to my Sunday School teachers, but we left our church because some people there were displeasing God. Yes, it was confusing. I rarely attended Sunday School (or youth group) after that, even when we were in churches with other kids my age. Most of my socialization now was with other homeschoolers: sledding parties, picnics, occasional field trips and converging on fields and orchards to glean free produce.

As homeschooling gained popularity, we became less concerned about being put in foster care. But then my parents joined a new group: ATIA. The Advanced Training Institute (of America) was an elite level of membership for followers of Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles (formerly Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts). My parents had attended his seminars for years. Now his homeschooling program offered a way to get the loyal, loving, godly family you always wanted. Financial freedom, stronger character, better health, and fulfilling family relationships included! Plus, all the educational materials, from math to language arts, were based directly on the Bible!

We moved across town that summer, to a farmhouse in the country. My dad started his own business: it was different to have him working from home all day. And we embarked on the new ATI adventure. Our social circled narrowed even more from that point, consisting of church acquaintances (we changed churches every few years) and conservative homeschooling friends. We saw my grandparents twice a year at most; while skeptical of many of our religious quirks, they tried not to rock the boat or criticize my parents to us kids. There were no trusted adults in my life that didn’t defend my parents’ beliefs and lifestyle choices.

We joined a larger evangelical church and my parents were admired for their dedication. With six children now, we could really fill up a pew.  Now in my mid-teens, I longed to make friends but had little in common with my peers there. Many of their activities (movies, concerts, parties, sports, even jobs) were forbidden in my family. There were hardly any other homeschoolers.  I looked forward to ATI conferences where I could meet others my age that dressed, behaved, and thought like I did. A few became penpals and are still friends today.

Later, we moved to even more conservative churches where homeschooling was the norm.  At home, there were babies to change, toddlers to feed, and children to educate; my help was sorely needed, and often appreciated. I had a friend at church, and meeting for lunch together was a rare and special treat.  There were no boyfriends, no dates. St. Paul said we should be content with food and clothing. I had a bed and three meals a day and could earn a little spending money from my dad besides. Now in my 20’s, I tried to use my loneliness to push me closer to God. I tried to mentally prepare for a life of singleness if necessary, while yearning for a soulmate of my own.

I was 22 when I moved out of state to work (unpaid) for one of Gothard’s “ministries”. My social network was limited to other cult members (we attended only churches that had been “approved” by the leadership and shopping outings were on an as-needed basis). Chores at the center were mandatory, as was scripture memory and attendance of daily morning Bible studies. Still, I made new friends from all over the country and savored the chance to live and work with peers.

After six months of volunteering for room and board, the law dictated that the Institute put me on the payroll. With only $13 left in my checking account, I was relieved to hear this! I was a minimum-wage employee for one year, moving from the Oklahoma center to the Indianapolis compound to the “Headquarters” campus in Illinois, working in three different departments before I was summarily fired because Gothard felt my 20-year-old brother threatened his authority. My parents called me late one night to tell me that Bill Gothard wanted them to pick me up the next morning and take me home to Michigan. He didn’t tell me himself, nor did my boss. Being ignorant of life “on the outside”, I had no idea how abnormal this was, but it hurt like hell. I started packing my belongings. My dad arrived at noon, I shook hands with the man I would marry two years later, and we headed “home”.

After a year and a half of full-blown work for the cult, this trip was surreal—like going back in time. I sipped my Arby’s Jamocha shake and tried to sort out what was happening.  I felt discarded, displaced, separated from friends without a chance to say goodbye. For weeks, I cried myself to sleep. I was in a place I did not want to be, and I’d had no say in the decision. In my grief, I found comfort in stroking one of the new barn kittens; it died. My mom miscarried what would have been a 12th baby. We heard that another young man who had also been exiled from the cult had drowned on the Fourth of July. The ATI director left his wife for his secretary. The whole world was going crazy and it was taking me with it.

Over the next year, I started taking more responsibility for my own life. I had my first job interview, worked part-time, visited other church groups, began to consider college courses, and applied for short-term placement with an overseas missions organization (Wycliffe Bible Translators). I spent a summer studying linguistics at the University of North Dakota and meeting all kinds of cool people from around the world. I loved college, even the exams! Away from my parents and the cult for the first time in my life, I bought my first pair of jeans, my first pair of shorts. I went to the movie theater with friends! I had my first sip of wine, my first taste of beer. I explored different churches, and enjoyed music that had once been forbidden. I spent time with guys who intrigued me, and turned down a guy who didn’t. I played my heart out on the piano. When my parents tried to exert control over my [male] friendships from hundreds of miles away, I was conflicted. I cried, but I complied.

In the fall, I flew to the Philippines where I spent ten difficult yet glorious months learning from the best mentors I could have asked for. The Wycliffe base at Nasuli was a humming multi-cultural haven set in a natural paradise. Though I assisted the missionary-linguists in their work, mostly I was being healed. From the security of friends and coworkers who loved and accepted me, I began dissecting my past and daring to think for myself. Tentatively, then with greater confidence, I let myself question the cult. I let go of deeply-embedded fears. I allowed myself to grieve over my experience with the Institute. I saw what a respectful, caring community looked like.

Nasuli was so unlike the churches and training centers I’d been part of. Here, individuality was valued; the group drew strength from diversity of opinion and expression. Instead of pasting a smile on the surface, these men and women spoke honestly of their emotional experience, both positive and negative. Rather than demanding perfection and informing on those who failed to measure up, these people tolerated each other, quirks and all, often making excuses for a neighbor’s idiosyncrasies. And nobody ever minded having fun.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ryan McIlvain

Though I am working on several new posts, none are ready yet. But I heard a thoughtful interview on NPR tonight and wanted to share Ryan's story here.

Ryan McIlvain grew up Mormon, doing his mission in South America. He resigned from the church in his mid-twenties. I loved his admission of making decisions by asking, "What is the secular thing to do?" You can read excerpts and listen to the entire interview on the NPR website.

Now he's drawn on his own experience and his own doubts to create a novel depicting a pair of Mormon missionaries. Jasmine Elist's article for the L.A. Times is part book review and part interview.
"And I thought: Jesus Christ, if you knew the small, daily inner turmoils that these young men — or young women, as the case may be — were confronting, you wouldn’t kick them off campus. You would offer to buy them an ice cream cone, or something."  --Ryan McIlvain, on Mormon missionaries
I love that Ryan's speech is still unapologetically peppered with Bible phrases and lines from hymns. It's nice to think that all the years spent absorbing ancient prose and 19th-century poetry were not a waste, but an investment that might one day produce uniquely rare and delicate fruit.