The Journal of S. Roberts J.

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The problem with my old journals is… well, me.

As I explain over at Legacy Leather Books today, my younger self was on a mission to make my mundane life as interesting as possible. I also read a lot of Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse. The result is this weird mix of rural Southern life and strained British wit. But hey. It’s not boring!

More seriously, not all of the memories I wrote down are pleasant for me to revisit. Those were my “Fellowship” days, when even my private thoughts had to conform to what I thought were God’s standards. I can see it at work in how I wrote spiritual phrases that I didn’t really say naturally; or how I was careful not to mention any “young man” in a way that suggested I thought he was attractive; or how I emphasized the many positives of my life, but didn’t explore the struggles and conflicts that I was going through.

Many of you who read my blog will understand this kind of internally-imposed control, which is why I mention it here. I didn’t get into all that over at Legacy. Over there, you can just laugh at my overly bright and sparkling prose.

Then linger to look at the handmade, family-heirloom-quality leather notebooks

I love these books. My first thought is that nothing I write is actually worthy of a book like this. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that anytime I write down my thoughts and memories, I’m preserving something priceless. Memories that don’t fade — those belong in a book that will last almost forever.

And besides, just look at this book. Or this one. Or this one. 

Oh. Are you still here? Sorry, I was browsing and dreaming.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy a few laughs at my 20-year-old pretentious self, and find a cut-above gift for a loved one… or, you know, for yourself.

Dear ____, Love Sara.

Dear Blog,

I’m so sorry. Between homeschooling, writing a new novel, and — you know — living, I haven’t had much time for blogging.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

I don’t understand how you can say, “I’m working on a new novel, and here’s my first chapter!” Everything I write is in a state of flux until its final edit. I mean, I just changed the main character’s name and her bike’s name. Just not ready to share anything yet.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear AOL Instant Messenger,

I read recently that you have officially passed away. My friends and I don’t use you anymore, but we mourned your passing. You were the social savior for all of us cult kids in the 90s. I’m not even sure I would have gotten married without AIM access to keep in touch with DJ.

I will wave a sad farewell as that little door-closing sound makes it final slam.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

It’s going to be an excellent story when I’m done. A friendly white girl learns how racial injustice in the not-too-distant past still affects our lives today. So far I have two love interests, a narcissistic grandmother, and at least three Jane Austen references. Ha, I see you baring your teeth in jealousy. That’s right. It’s going to be good.

The bike’s new name is Imogene, by the way.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Enya,

I found out that you released an album as recently as 2015. You were my guilty indulgence in the 90s, along with AIM. I was supposed to be listening to “godly” music, defined by our Revered Leader as any music that emphasized beats 2 and 4 in the rhythm line. (I didn’t make that up.) But you usually didn’t have a driving rhythm line, so I could justify listening to you — despite fears that you were spewing New Age spiritism all over my fragile Christian soul. Thank you for giving me some relief from choral hymns and harp music.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Misguided Readers,

What do you mean, does my  main character run a cute little shop and interact with colorful characters? Do you really expect me to write cute little bumbling romantic scenes? Do you even need a final piece of folksy feminine wisdom to wrap everything up? Oh horrors, I’m not the women’s fiction you’re looking for.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Grammar Nerd,

Okay, yes, I know. The second sentence of this post should begin with “among,” not “between,” because I listed more than two reasons. Thank you for your contribution. Nerd.

Love, Sara.

Untwisting Scripture: A book for you

Yield your rights.

Don’t become bitter.

Don’t take up an offense on behalf of someone else.

If these phrases kicked you in the gut… do I have a book for you!

If, however, you nodded along, knowing they are true Biblical principles… well, then, I definitely have a book for you.

Untwisting Scriptures by Rebecca Davis takes a few “Christian” teachings that have been used to confuse and silence abuse victims for many years, and shows how they’re not even valid Biblical concepts. The book grew out of blog posts that Davis wrote as she learned more about people — mostly women — held captive by abusive theology.

Her tone is quiet and straightforward; she doesn’t indulge in snark or personal attacks. She doesn’t have to. All she has to do contrast actual Biblical context with actual teachings, such as this quote from the once-vaunted Bill Gothard from his 1984 Basic Seminar:

“Just because you are alive, you probably believe you have the right to be accepted as an individual, to express opinions, to earn and spend a living, to control your personal belongings, and to make decisions. You expect others to respect your rights.”

Spoiler: Gothard and the others quoted in this book don’t think you have a valid argument. Also spoiler: many of the people who teach these things either protect abusers, or are abusers themselves. Not a coincidence.

In this small book, Davis untwists a lot of strands. From the difference between human rights and human desires (looking at you, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth) to the fact that the Western church doesn’t know how to deal with grief and therefore labels it “sinful,” to the fact that we are supposed to take up the causes of the weak and abused and oppressed—there’s a lot to take in.

(And it’s not her fault that the chart on Page 59 made me want to fling the book away from myself in self-defense. I saw so many charts and graphs in my Bill Gothard days that they just look menacing to me, like the king snake that’s colored like a coral snake.)

Davis made one layout decision, based on early feedback, that vastly improves the reading experience. She set off the false teachings in gray boxes. It’s easy to identify the quotes she’s disproving… or, as she suggests, easy to skip over them entirely if you just don’t want to read the words. Even I, years away from that bondage, still felt the weight as I skimmed those twisty teachings.

I will say that this book targets a specific subculture. Those of us who sat under the teachings of Gothard, Bob Jones University, Nancy (Leigh) DeMoss Wolgemuth, and their ilk will recognize the phrases and terminology. Those outside of this small circle won’t find them as immediately recognizable. But these ideas permeate American evangelicalism. It’s a good bet you’ve encountered the teachings even if you don’t know the names and the terms.

Untwisting Scriptures came out in 2016, not even a year after I released The Fellowship. I mention the timeline because that’s why I didn’t pursue the book when I first encountered it. I was weary after years of struggling through twisted Scriptures. I thought, “So glad somebody is addressing these problems. I’ve already dealt with them. Time to move on.”

When Davis and I connected this summer over our books, I had “moved on” enough to come back to these concepts with renewed passion. So many others are still hurt and grieving. They need to hear a voice that untwists the bonds and gives freedom.

Rebecca Davis’ book is a voice like that. Check it out.

Red Flag Corp

red-flag-2-1444642-1280x960Sometimes a cult-like group is subtle and hard to pinpoint. But other times a group is obliging enough wave blazing red flags in choreographed formation. I found one such group recently.

Now, I have absolutely no connection with Weigh Down, Gwen Shamblin, or Remnant Fellowship. I never participated in any of it; I hardly even had heard of it. (Gwen is not pleased with me, I can tell.) A friend pointed me to the site, and I’m just reporting on what I see here. Which appears to be a group that’s practically screaming “Cult!” Or maybe it’s just “Raging narcissist who would like to be a cult leader.” Either way, it’s very instructive.

Let’s take a tour of these red flags, how about?

One person in the spotlight. If you read the site, it sure does have a lot to say about Gwen Shamblin. She seems to really like posting quotes that other men have said about her. Some of the prose is so glowing that you can just imagine Gwen brushing away a tear and saying, “That is so touching. It’s so good of me to say that about me.” Seriously, I bet she’s very nice in person. No, I mean it. People don’t become cult leaders without having very strong personal magnetism.

The Bible like you’ve never heard it before! “It is noteworthy that although the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Weigh Down participants had been church-goers for years, not one reported having ever heard these Biblically-based teachings from their home church.” Yeah, it’s noteworthy, all right. The Bible is centuries old and has been studied threadbare. If somebody finds something in it that nobody else has, then you can safely assume you’re hearing more imagination than Godly inspiration.

Promises of Paradise. The site is packed with sweeping claims of how Remnant Fellowship has dramatically broken addictions, saved marriages, and brought families together, all by the “power of God.” In real life, all these areas are an ongoing struggle and don’t always turn out the way we want them to. But a cult promises one-time-and-done miracles to broken and hurting people.

Obedience. The wording can vary, but within the culture of a cult-like group, two pillars support the entire community: authority and obedience. Members must recognize who is in authority, and then obey without question.

“Obedience—obedience—it’s beautiful. Do you want to remain in this love? It’s just like a child who stays by your side and communes with you by obedience and by following what you’re saying.  You have a beautiful relationship, but the one who turns and disobeys does not.  To have a relationship and to have answered prayers is to remain in the vine.  God gives His will to those who are going to obey it.  Why give it to those who are not going to obey it?  It tires you out to tell people or employees or children to do something and you know that they’re just going to stare at you while you speak, but they never do what you say.  Likewise, God gives His will, His beautiful and perfect will and desires, to those who will put it into practice.”

Note that this is cast in terms of obeying God’s will. But where do you learn God’s actual, real will? That would be the person who teaches what “the majority of hundreds of thousands” never heard before.

Blame shifting. Cults never can live up to their promises, but don’t worry, they’ve got that taken care of. When you’ve given them your money and your soul, and “God” doesn’t come through with that miraculous change, they tell you it’s your fault:

“Can you not figure out how to lose weight yet? Then it’s because you’ve not purposed in your heart to do it.  So purpose in your heart to obey what He tells you to do, and then He will show you the way out of your desires that have ensnared you.  Do you really want out of the trap of your own desires? Then obey what He tells you to do. Put it into practice…”

As an entirely subjective red flag, these pictures of doll-like beautiful children with perfectly curled hair put me on edge — particularly as they’re the grandchildren of the great exalted founder. Don’t you want children this sweet and well-behaved? Then get yourself to Remnant Fellowship and prepare to obey.

I consider Remnant Fellowship to be a pretty blatant example of what to avoid. However, anytime you run across a church, a study, or even a pyramid-shaped “business” that promises great results “if you just…”, look for the red flags and consider them seriously. Life is hard, and despite their grand promises to the contrary, cults make it even harder.

The Bible Bait-and-Switch

lures-537661_1280There’s a certain class of Bible teaching that is mostly about verbs.

Pray this prayer so God will bless you.

Follow these steps so God will protect you.

Hear and obey so God will listen to you.

The teachers in this camp claim to know the hidden ways of God, and they want to teach you to access these exclusive treasures. They usually have some kind of gimmick—a certain prayer, certain steps, a certain way to read your Bible. Then they bait-and-switch ideas to make you think that they’re teaching what God says when it’s really just what they’re selling.

I recently came across someone who sounds a whole lot like a “verbing” teacher. Now, I don’t know anything about Bob Sorge except his titles on Amazon and the Kindle sample of his book Secrets of the Secret Place. So I have no axe to grind or hatchet to bury in his head. I’m bringing him up because all it took was two chapters for me to recognize:

  1. The verb
  2. The gimmick
  3. The bait-and-switch

His verb is to Pray. (He also adds “hear” and “obey” later.) By “pray” he means to sit in quietness and solitude, reading Scripture, and listening for God to speak. Is that bad? No! I think it’s a very good practice to learn to sit in silence—one I’m not good at myself. The Verb is usually a good thing to do, and pray definitely qualifies.

However, he’s got to have a gimmick to sell his special knowledge of God’s hidden ways. Like any good Verbing teacher, he frames it with a Bible verse. I’ve parsed it out below:

Sorge (from his book Secrets of the Secret Place):
“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6).

…When Jesus taught on prayer, He gave primary emphasis to the secret place. In fact, the first thing He taught concerning prayer was the primacy of the secret place. In the verses following, He would teach us how to pray, but first He teaches where to pray.

My comment:
This verse, in context, is actually emphasizing the right attitude of prayer. Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t make a big public display of our prayers to show how holy we are, but to pray privately to God alone, without seeking the admiration of others.

Sorge:
Jesus affirmed this truth twice in the same chapter. He says it the second time in Matthew 6:18, “‘So that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.’” Jesus says it twice for emphasis, so we know this word is absolutely certain.

My comment:
The key word here is fasting. Same point as the verse about praying. Don’t make a big holy display of yourself. Carry out your devotion to God quietly, seeking to please only him.

These verses have nothing to do with where your body is, but where your heart is.

Sorge:
Our Father is in the secret place! Furthermore, Jesus gives us the key to finding this secret place. If you’re wondering what you must do to place yourself in the secret place, Jesus made it clear. To get there, all you have to do is shut your door! When you enter your room, and shut your door, you are in the presence of your Father. Instantaneously!

My comment:
Hard to argue with that, but I’m also in his presence in the kitchen, at the mall, or stuck on I-81 in road construction. Finding God by going into a room and shutting a door… that, folks, is Sorge’s Gimmick.

Sorge:
It matters not how you feel. Regardless of your soul’s climate at that moment, you know with absolute confidence you have stepped into the chamber of your Father in heaven. The secret place is your portal to the throne, the place where you taste of heaven itself. Receive this word and you have gained one of the greatest secrets to intimacy with God.

My commentary:
And there you go! If you Verb, by way of his Gimmick, you gain a secret way to God.

They always have Scripture to back up their points, of course. Here’s the Bait-and-Switch where he leads you in with Scripture, and leads you right on out on his own hobbyhorse:

Sorge:
Cornelius was a devout Gentile who committed himself to the secret place of prayer.

My commentary:
The “secret place of prayer” wording is the author’s assertion, not actually taken from the Bible.

Sorge:
[Cornelius’] piety is described in the Book of Acts as fourfold: he gave regularly to the poor; he lived a holy lifestyle; he practiced fasting; and he adhered to the secret place of prayer.

My commentary:
I looked up this verse, Acts 10:2, and this is what it says: “He was a godly man, deeply reverent, as was his entire household. He gave generously to charity and was a man of prayer.”

It doesn’t say a “secret place of prayer.” Although I’m all for paraphrasing to keep things moving, this particular paraphrase is a seemingly innocuous, but very important, addition.

Sorge:
It was because of those four pursuits that God filled Cornelius and his household with the Holy Spirit and made them the firstfruits of all Gentile believers.

My commentary:
That’s the bait…

Sorge:
It’s as though God said, “Cornelius, because of your passionate conviction for the secret place, your life is the kind of example that I can reproduce in the nations.”

My commentary:
… and switch. He’s shifted from Cornelius and his four pursuits to a “passionate conviction for the secret life.”

Sorge:
…By making Cornelius the catalyst for the redemption of the nations, God was giving a powerful endorsement to Cornelius’s priority of cultivating a hidden life with God. The eruption of fruitfulness from his life must have caught even him off guard!

My commentary:
I feel like applauding. “Yay! That was so clever!” He so easily slipped in the idea that Cornelius was blessed by something that the author made up. Not only that, but God endorses it.

And he goes on to base the rest of his book (presumably, from the title) not on anything in the Bible, but on this idea of his about a “secret life with God.” Ideally, his audience doesn’t catch the shift, so they follow along thinking it’s all right there in the Bible. Even if they take the time to look it up, Sorge has taught them to equate “a man of prayer” with “a passionate conviction for the secret place.”

If this is how he justifies the very core of his teaching, then I’m extremely skeptical of what else he has to say. Anything he says about “hearing God’s word” now makes me suspicious, because what he claims is God’s word is actually his own. Anything he says about “obedience to God’s word” is a blazing red flag now, because if he can mold Scripture to fit his own ideas like that, then what does he think we ought to be “obeying”?

Following a teacher like this leads at best to disappointment, and at worst to bondage.

Pay attention to people who promise you a new way to access God. Watch for the Verb, the Gimmick, and the Bait-and-Switch. If you see it, then get up and leave the room. And shut the door behind you.

A Review: “Gave Me a Deeper Understanding”

Gretchen Louise at Kindred Grace has posted a review of The Fellowship. 

Different people notice different aspects of the story. Some have remarked on how easy it was to get to know the characters. Some recognize specific teachings or experiences. Some love the often-irreverent humor, and a lot of people held out hope that it wasn’t really lost. (What wasn’t? Hm, looks like you should read the story.)

What Gretchen highlights is the fact that “the familiar” is a very strong force. It’s often easier to stay in a bad but familiar situation than risk a new, possibly better, one.

But I think what stood out to me most in The Fellowship is how comfortable the familiar could become. As much as Bekah loved the taste of freedom, the rules that had bound her for so long were so very compelling… At the same time, I was given a much deeper understanding into the mindset of those who are unwilling to leave unhealthy and even dangerous situations.

Read the entire review here, and linger to browse her beautiful site.

Bleeding Praise

They opened a Bible and
Drew out a gleaming
Metal sheath, polished silver
Studded with rubies.
They said it was good.

They said the beautiful sheath
Enclosed treasure to
Carry deep inside my heart –
God’s gift for God’s child.
I stretched out my hand.

They unclasped a silver lock.
The sheath broke apart
Revealing a slender smooth
Steel blade, thin and sharp.
I accepted it.

I took the chilled metal blade
Which did not warm to
My touch, and they showed me just
How I must hold it.
Poised over my heart.

Together, we drove it in.
Easily, it pierced
My chest. The handle snapped off,
The blade disappeared
Deep within my heart.

They looked at the bright red blood
Welling from my heart,
Smearing and staining my skin.
Blood is life, they said—
God’s abundant life.

They reproached me for my tears,
Said I must be strong,
Said my heart was rebellious
Said it was Your gift.
I must love the pain.

I loved the pain, rejoicing
In abundant life.
My bleeding and wounded heart
Sang praises to You
In grief and despair.

I cherished the deep-set blade
Having forgotten
That it was not part of me.
Not remembering
That they put it there.

You came near to me and saw
That I was dying,
Slowly, while gasping praises
As each new heartbeat
Tore wider the wound.

You whispered in my anguish,
Said the sharp steel blade
Was not a treasure of Yours.
Pain stopped up my ears
I couldn’t hear You.

You slid Your fingers into
My agonized heart.
Then I knew You were with me.
Fear and pain burned me.
I begged You to leave.

Peace, be still, is all You said.
You drew out the blade.
It was pitted, slimy, dark.
My torn heart closed up.
I cried soft, warm tears.

Quietly You embraced me,
Stanched the bright red blood
With Your own bloodstained fingers
Said You don’t love pain.
But You love to heal.

You washed my skin and my clothes
And bound up my heart.
You shattered the ugly blade,
Asked for no praises.
Told me to just breathe.