Words of Art

“She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom.”

Several years ago, I finally got too tired of being good enough. I gave up. I told God, “If you’re so big, you can handle all this yourself. I’m done.” I did the spiritual equivalent of shrugging off my backpack, peeling off my restrictive clothes, crawling into bed, and pulling the covers up over my head.

And God said, “Good. You just rest. I’ll pick all this up. Do you need anything right now? I’ll check in on you.”

As I lay with that blanket over my head, I gradually realized that I could breathe again. It didn’t hurt as much to move. For the first time since I was a teenager, the fear of punishment and God’s wrath receded. The feeling was both exhilarating and painful, like when you flex your fingers after you put down a strap that’s been biting into your hand.

Sometime during that spiritual sabbath, I discovered  JA Photography & Design. Jenn creates and sells letter art, and I was especially caught by this piece:

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I teared up when my print arrived. My faith is a lot wobblier than it was years ago when I knew all the answers. Life is a lot messier. But this word represents the hope that keeps me going.

Deep spiritual moments aside, I just plain love Jenn’s eye for seeing shapes in everyday life and making sense out of them. Since my decorating style is basically, “Hang stuff up on my wall,” art-into-words is pretty much everything I need.

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Is my S upside down? It routinely gets knocked off the wall.

In a shameless plug for this art, let me also add that it’s inexpensive (about $4 per letter) and easy to customize.

Tired of pre-printed signs urging you to “Live, Laugh, Love”? (I am.) Get in touch with Jenn and create one that spells out your name, a personally-inspiring word, or “Live More, Die Less.” *

Or, you know, “grace” — a word I’ve got up on my wall to remind me of the incredible freedom that comes when you finally let God carry the weight.

*”The more you live, the less you die.” That’s a line in the song “Raise the Roof” by Carbon Leaf, the band whose music got me through the final shattering illusions when the “truths” of my teenage years were revealed for certain as a sham.

Breaking Fences, Take 2

“The more commitments you make, the more mature you will be.”

After reading my last post (click here) a friend sent me actual photographic evidence that people really do think that “building fences” will protect you from sinning.

This page is from a “counseling” conference for students (about age 16 to young 20s) held in 2000. The bullet point listed here is just one of probably six or seven; these conferences deluged the attendees with information. It was hard to take it all in, much less judge each point’s validity — even if you had some frame of reference that let you see the problems in the first place.

This was written by the same teacher who wrote this helpful self-motivation checklist right here.*

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Let’s take a look at this bit by bit, how about?

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Oddly, when I went to my (highly effective) counseling sessions, what I most appreciated was how my counselor listened to me. She occasionally asked questions or suggested a different way to understand God or my past. No explaining or urging took place.

Counseling sessions are very individualized, so I imagine that sometimes a counselor might take a different tack that would look more like explaining and urging. But this teaching seems to assume that if people have problems, those people need to be “fixed.” They need to keep behind the fences and follow the rules. That way God will bless them again.

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Two Bible verses! The first one is pretty solid. The second one is from a Psalm, which is poetry, not exactly cause-and-effect promises. And then, in a giant leap for logickind, he explains and urges that in order to get God’s blessings, you have to make commitments to do good things.

Just in case we might think he made up this theology, he gives us proof: an unverifiable story about anonymous people.

(If you’re thinking, “How could people believe this?”, then you don’t understand the force of a leader’s personality, the high-pressure atmosphere, and the reinforcement from the group where everyone else seems to agree without reservation. You should read my novel, The Fellowship.)

CounselingPt2

I don’t even have to point out what’s wrong with this “example.” But I will anyway.

The story assumes that if the young woman had committed to telling young men to approach her father first, she would be spared Bad Things. We also “know” that she’d be more mature if she made this commitment.

This is one point where he and I agree: this woman was not mature enough to handle a relationship. But turning it over to her dad wouldn’t have helped her in the long run.

After all, she thinks that since she accepted a date in surprise, it’s a binding promise. No, honey. If you’re uncertain about it, email him to say that the day you agreed on wouldn’t work out after all, and you’d really like to think about his offer a little longer. Then, after you’ve thought about it, call him and explain that you have a conflict of faith and you really don’t think it’s a good idea. It will be awkward and he might end up feeling hurt. That’s grown-up life.

But, no, since Daddy isn’t there to rescue her, she goes out with the guy after all and… violates her moral purity? There’s no knowing what that really means in this context. This phrase could refer sex — and if she had sex on the first date despite her conscience, she’s got really serious issues. It could also mean they kissed. Or maybe she wore a low-cut blouse and he complimented her figure. No telling which fence got breached, since breaking any of them counts as sin.

(It’s even possible that it means he forced sexual contact without her consent; since she dated a guy who didn’t have her father’s approval, she’s partly guilty for whatever he did to her. I don’t have the evidence of this logic right here, but it’s definitely part of the thinking.)

The story serves only one purpose: to create fear among his followers so they’ll accept his word as their means of security.

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Well, yes, Daniel did. But that showed his strength of character. He knew his own mind. He didn’t need to prop up his sagging judgment with “commitments.”

This whole bullet point (and the rest of the material) is flavored with the pungent stench of Bible verses ripped out of context. Teachers like this demonstrate over and over that their concern isn’t what the Bible says or what God is really like. It’s to reinforce their own authority as teachers of truth, as they trap their followers behind miles of fences that God never created.

Amid all that talk of God and Biblical principles and Bible verses, though, this teacher — like most teachers like him — forgot to add a key verse. I’ll do it for him.

“Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” Nehemiah 6:8

*The teacher is Bill Gothard of the Institute in Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute. I have no qualms about calling him out by name. But although his material is what I use for my examples, I don’t want to focus solely on him and his teachings. He’s just one of many teachers who peddle legalism, and they all use the same methods.

Are You a Failure? Y/N

The thing about cults and cult-like systems is that, for the most part, they’re really boring.

Most of the indoctrination takes place day by day, through sermons that carefully redefine Scripture, through lectures that reinforce the group’s beliefs, and through long, dull sessions of filling in blanks and regurgitating the right answers.

The question-and-answer exercises are very simplistic, and all designed to condition you to doubt yourself and feel like a failure. You learn to look to your leader for answers, and you’re afraid to leave the group because you know you’ll crash and burn on your own.

A friend from my own Fellowship* recently shared a snapshot of a worksheet we had to fill out as students in the early 90s. As 14 – 18 year olds, we were separated from our parents at weeks-long conferences, awakened early and kept up late, and bombarded all day with lectures and conditioned group responses. Somewhere in the middle of this exhausting, bewildering, and exhilarating experience, they dropped things like this in our laps:

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1. Do you get up early in the morning?

2. Do you get out of bed when you wake up?

3. Are you an “energy-giver” when you get up?

4. Do you decide the night before what to wear the next day?

5. Do you consistently honor a day of rest?

6. Do you make your bed as soon as you get up?

7. Do you have everything in its rightful place?

8. Do you keep your room neat?

9. Are you consistent in your daily Bible reading?

10. Do you have a regular prayer time?

11. Do you regularly memorize Scripture?

12. Do you always wash your hands before meals?

13. Do you practice proper etiquette?

14. Do you sit near the front during a meeting?

15. Do you stand up for your elders?

16. Do you take notes during messages?

17. Do you know how to detect the five types of fools?

18. Do your parents approve of all your friends?

19. Do you fulfill all the promises you make?

20. Do you put yourself to sleep with meditation on Scripture?

*

An outsider could glance over it and say, “Well, there are a lot of great ideas here. Except what does washing your hands have  to do with self-motivation? Just take what’s good and leave the rest.”

An insider knew much better than that.  “No” is not an acceptable answer to any of these questions. Notice that”Sometimes” isn’t even an option. We couldn’t take-and-leave. This wasn’t a mere list of ideas. This was a test, and we were set up to fail it.

Unless you’re educated in the culture that it comes from, you probably still miss how loaded some of these questions are. I could spend a dozen blog posts unpacking these questions.

For instance, “Do you get up early in the morning?” Early rising was a mark of Godliness; sleeping late was, therefore, sinful. The next question, “Do you get out of bed when you wake up?” reinforces the idea that staying in bed is a sign of slothfulness. And there was an entire booklet about the dangers of being slothful. So if you answered “no” to questions 1 & 2, you’re already spiritually defective.

Or how about #14? Sitting in the back of a meeting demonstrated apathy (a sin) or rebelliousness (a major sin).

In order to answer #17, you had to remember the extensivelesson on the Five Types of Fools; so that question actually covered an entirely separate session in itself.

Question #18 weighed about a ton. Your parents had the power of God’s disapproval in your life. If they didn’t like a friend of yours, no matter the reason, the only obedient course of action was to get rid of that friend. Also, “friend” here could stand for “friend of the opposite sex” — someone you liked despite the fact that God expected you to keep your emotions pure until He brought you the one you were to marry. It was a reminder that even your emotions were subject to God/your parents.

The entire list, by the way, is pretty easy to master if you happen to be someone exactly like the Venerated Leader who wrote it — a man who didn’t need much sleep, was an extrovert, found memorization easy, didn’t have any real friends, wore basically the same thing every day, and spent thirty years sexually harassing young women that he invited to work for him. Oh, wait, he forgot to add that item, didn’t he?

Twenty years later, when many of us saw the picture of this list, we felt that same oppression we’d lived under as teenagers. “No wonder,” we said. “No wonder I always felt like a failure. No wonder I worked myself into chronic fatigue. No wonder I broke down at age 20.” This list was just one of many others like it. This was how we knew to please God.

This was our spiritual life, one in which choosing your clothes the night before is just as important as keeping the Sabbath (one of the Ten Commandments). No room for mistakes or personality. Just keep your head down, obey, and pretend you aren’t the complete failure you know you are.

And for the record, I have no idea how washing your hands before every meal made it on this list. That’s stupid.

If you need me, I’ll be lying in bed in my comfortably cluttered room, with no memory of the five types of fools, and resting in the grace of God.

*Bill Gothard, IBLP/ATI

My Story

Anybody can tell that I had a rough church experience, considering that I wrote a novel about it.

But actually — it wasn’t.

I grew up in a pretty normal Southern Baptist church in south Mississippi. It was conservative, but not particularly strict, legalistic, or reactive.

(But, being good Baptists with an “invitation” at the end of every service, we could sing “Just As I Am” seventeen times in a row without breaking a sweat.)

When I was 14, my parents decided to homeschool my sister and me. As far as the homeschooling went, I liked it. It suited my self-paced, nonconformist personality much better than the public school system.

So: church was okay. Homeschooling was fine. Then where did I get this novel?

Well, in order to homeschool, we got into Bill Gothard’s ATI program (made recently famous by the Duggar family, but we were before their era.) ATI seemed like a good idea at the time. Most cults do.

Over the course of two or three years, my family adopted dramatically different rules about dress, music, food, and romance. Many of the changes were painful for me. With every new publication or seminar or meeting, I knew something else I enjoyed would turn out to be wrong somehow. The “standards” were set high and left nothing up to personal choice.

But I conformed. After all, my other option was God’s punishment.

And my experience with the Institute wasn’t all bad. (Why, no, there’s nothing unsettling about the fact that we considered ourselves as part of “The Institute.”) I made a lot of friends, got to travel some, and was generally treated well — if mostly overlooked — by the leadership. The good was tangled up with the bad to the point that I couldn’t always tell one from the other.

Then I got married, and all those “standards” about dress and romance and music didn’t really seem important anymore. I was glad to leave it all behind.

Well, mostly behind. During the early years of my marriage, I was drawn to stories of cult survivors. Not people who escaped the weird, terrifying cults run by Jim Jones or David Koresh. No, I used my slow dial-up internet connection to find stories of people who left the big, visible, “churchy” cults that looked almost normal on the outside. These people had no real abuse to report, but were emotionally and spiritually devastated. Over five or six years, I read hundreds of heartbroken stories. Some ended in redemption, but all too many didn’t.

Then Facebook dawned and I connected with other ex-Institute students. I recognized those same cult-survivor stories in my very own circle.

And some of them in my very own life.

Gradually I faced my tangled memories. I finally understood how much pain I was in, but had been taught to ignore.

And I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my fellow “Xers” suffered tangible abuse at home, at church, or from Institute leaders. Some survivors were cut off from their families and hadn’t seen their siblings for years. All of us had to deal with a warped view of God, self-hate, and utter confusion over what the truth really is.

For me, redemption came through my marriage to a gentle, faith-filled man; through family and friends who loved me through the tangle; and finally, through a God who broke past the fear and pain and showed me what grace really is.

So my personal story isn’t too horrifying. I’m just someone who got chewed up and spit out by the system, without anything to show for it afterward. Nothing except a tenacious grip on God and a burning desire to give a voice to those who are still too broken to speak.

First Things First

You emerge from the closed-in world of Christian patriarchy with a broken worldview and a long list of issues you need to figure out. Where on earth do you start?

Well, speaking as one who has spent the past fifteen years walking the recovery journey with many others, I’ve got a suggestion. Before you revisit anything else…

…Courtship vs Dating

…Friendships

…Modesty

…The Bible

…Godly Womanhood/Manhood

…Sex

or even Authority…

Before all that, immerse yourself in Grace.

If you’re like I was, you have no concept of what “grace” really means. As I was taught it, grace was merely another way to obey more, work harder, do more.

Good news: I was wrong.

You can find some good definitions of grace. The most common one is God’s unmerited favor toward humans. That always sounded too much like churchspeak to resonate with me.

Near the end of my novel, I explain grace as God’s approval that we don’t deserve. We don’t have to be good enough.

I like that okay, although I gave a definition mostly for the story’s sake.

My favorite explanation of grace came from my exploration into the Eastern Orthodox Church several years ago. Eastern Orthodoxy tends to be much more mystical than we Westerners are used to. It also doesn’t get hung up on precise definitions.

So what is grace? It’s God giving us part of Himself. Not “power” or “favor” or whatever. He gives us Him. We don’t have to do enough or be enough. He’s already there, filling up where we fall short, keeping us afloat when we’re too tired to try any more.

So while you’re struggling and crying and begging for answers… Start with grace. Let God — the real God, not the angry god of legalism — sink into your soul. After a while, you can move on from there. Go slow. God’s got all the time in the world.

Warding Off Superstition

A couple of friends have pointed out that my launch date (ahem, November 13, ahem) is, in fact, a Friday the 13th.

And that’s kind of like poetic justice because nobody in the Fellowship is superstitious. God controls everything, so there’s no such thing as “unlucky days.”

Instead, Fellowshippers (and a lot of Christians outside of fiction) adhere to straight Biblical truth about cause-and-effect:

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But saying bad luck is because we don’t complete certain rituals to ward off evil? Utter malarky.