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.

Earning Enough Grace

Danielle'sPhotoFellowship.jpg
Photo: Danielle Ayers Jones (DanielleAyersJones.com)

That title is supposed to give you whiplash. You can’t earn grace, much less “enough” of it. If you’re not actually sure what else you do with grace, or if you’re trying to find somebody who understands why this is a big deal to you… may I suggest a novel I wrote?

My ebook will be released soon, but meanwhile, you’re welcome to check out The Fellowship. This interview with my friend Danielle discusses what the book is, why I wrote it, and how I made a heavy subject approachable.

Danielle and I met when I was still in deep in my own Fellowship culture. We lived with three other young women for six months. They challenged my ideas, teased me, dragged me into conversations about topics I didn’t think we were supposed to talk about… and mostly, they plain liked me despite myself. That wasn’t the first time I ever experienced grace like that, but it was the first time I really recognized it.

So it was particularly fun, all these years later, for blogger Danielle to interview author Sara.

Read Part One: Earning Enough Grace

Read Part Two: Earning Enough Grace

And linger to browse Danielle’s blog, where she reads, cooks, thinks, homeschools, and takes beautiful pictures.

Marriage Mind Games

ball-1418250-1279x850A godly wife is submissive. A godly husband is a leader. This is the ideal model of marriage, as laid down by a God who likes making his children play mind games.

It’s not news that I’m no fan of the patriarchal/complementarian view of marriage. I sat through hours of the instruction as a teen. I even tried it when I first got married, with pretty terrible results. It causes more harm than good most of the time. But don’t take my word for it—here’s an article from one of the bastions of submissive womanhood, Above Rubies, with a rundown of how the game goes.

I found the article when someone shared it on my newsfeed, after Above Rubies posted it on their Facebook page. Considering that the working title of my novel was Somewhere Below Rubies, I’m obviously not the target audience. But it’s exactly the kind of stuff I was taught, and obviously still going strong.

You can read the whole thing here. Here on the blog, I’ll provide excerpts. With commentary, naturally.*

The author leaps into motion with the starting gun:

… God spoke to me and said, “Val, you cannot teach this message… Because you don’t understand submission!” Now I don’t mind admitting that I was shocked.

“Lord, do you realize that I’m Val Stares from Above Rubies? I’ve always encouraged submission.” “Yes,” was the reply, “but you still don’t know how to submit.” By now I was on the defensive. “But. Lord, you know that every time I want something, or desire to go somewhere, I always ask my husband first.”

“And what is his reply?”

“He says for me to please myself. Oh yes, he always adds, ‘You usually do.’ I don’t know why he says that because he’s already given me permission to do what I think best.”

Her husband’s reply is an interesting detail. Does he mean it casually, as a lighthearted way to say, “Yes!” or as an unstated resentful way to remind her that she doesn’t really care about his opinion? I’d think that God, who surely has as much basic education as a first-year marriage counselor, would suggest that she ask her husband what he’s really thinking.

But no. The patriarchal God rarely goes in for direct, heart-to-heart talks. That spoils the game.

“If you are serious about learning submission, Val, I want you to go to your husband and tell him that from now on he needs to answer you, “Yes” or “No.” If he says that you can please yourself, then you will take that as his disapproval and will stay home or go without. There is to be no pouting, no banging doors, no attitude of annoyance or hurt when this happens.”

So “God” has laid down the ground rules. Val runs out to the shed where her husband spends a lot of his time, and tells him her new revelation. He laughed—“You’ll never be able to do it!”

About three weeks later, a visiting speaker came to town.
Note the passage of time. Three weeks later.

Finally it was time to ask my husband if I could go. Out to the shed I went, told him what was happening and asked if I could go. As usual, I left everything until the last minute!
That little drop of self-blame is essential to the truly submissive woman’s worldview.

“Please yourself, you usually do.”
That’s how he answered. He didn’t say the magic words. Remember what he was supposed to say? “Yes” or “No.” Anything else meant he didn’t actually approve and she had to stay home. Because God said so.

I raced into the bedroom and pleaded with God, “He’s forgotten he has to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Can’t I just remind him?” “No” came the answer to my heart…
Because if you did that, it would totally ruin God’s fun.

Around the time I should have left for the meeting, my husband walked in to find me cleaning. “I thought you were going out to a meeting,” he said.
This is a major play right here. She explained how he had really forbidden her from going because he didn’t use the right words. And her husband got mad. He yelled at her that if she wanted to be so stupid and stay home, then fine, stay home!

It was then that the full revelation of what God was teaching me became clear.
I don’t know about you, but I’m revelating all over the place here.

I’m getting the impression that Val is an energetic, take-charge kind of person. Women who run ministries usually are. And she married a low-key, easygoing man. This is a perfectly normal and acceptable personality pairing—except in patriarchal/complementarian circles. In those circles, a take-charge woman has to force herself to be indecisive and subservient, but in order to do so, she’s got to compel her easygoing husband to order her around. However, according to God’s fun little game, she can’t say that.

So Val decided for some reason that her husband’s dismissive “Please yourself, you usually do” wasn’t up to par. She made up a code that he had to follow to show he was really leading her. Meanwhile, her husband thought he’d given her permission to do something she wanted to do, only to discover that she’d denied herself and blamed him. No wonder he was mad.

Oh, hang on. That’s not at all what Val concludes. Instead, she chalks up a major score in the mind game.

I had overridden my husband’s decision so many times that he was now robbed of any desire to lead. He must have felt so cheated. Now, by God’s hand, he was responsible for me staying home, but what hurt me most was the realization that it was me, the Christian wife, who had robbed him!
It’s a homerun, folks!

 My husband is a cautious man and rather slow at making decisions. My impatience at waiting for an answer caused me to make more and more decisions myself and he would go along with me for the sake of peace.
Or maybe he figured out a long time ago that you manipulate the situation to get what you really want, so his actual opinion didn’t really matter.

 I stayed home for several weeks after that, while we both learned our respective roles.
While he learned your official change in the rules, you mean.

So that’s the story part. Now she’s got to get into the doctrine part to justify why they dodge and block instead of talking things out like responsible adults. She quotes some usual verses on submission (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18) and adds all the usual explanations:

God is not telling husbands to make us obey or make us come under their authority. We do it because we love God and our husbands, and because He has asked us to. It is our choice.
Even though in her own story, she had no choice once “God” told her to do it.

In my mind I saw my broom raised to a horizontal position above my head. The handle was labeled, “My husband’s Authority.” I could see that if he were in his rightful position, I would be able to walk beneath it in an upright position. This upright position was one of honor, security, love–and a surprise I didn’t expect or notice until much later–power!

This is one of their favorite plays. They insist that a woman who doesn’t make any decisions on her own, but lets her husband dictate everything, is in fact very powerful. They point to Esther, who had enormous influence over the king. That’s the kind of influence a truly submissive wife has! All she has to do is go into every situation thinking, as Esther did, “I’ll ask him about this. If I die, I die.” What’s so hard about that?

Just because the things I wanted to do were good things, didn’t necessarily mean they were what my husband wanted to do. He could have other plans.
Not that she asked if he had other plans. Not that he told her he had other plans. They are very careful not to mess up God’s favorite sport.

But God wanted me to measure myself by the attitude of Jesus.

We read about Jesus’ example in 1 Peter 2:18-23, “For what glory is it, if when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps…Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously….Likewise, (with the same spirit of Jesus) ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the Word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation (the manner of life) of the wives.”

This is actually what 1 Peter 2:18-23 says. It’s written to servants (slaves, as translated in the New International Version).

“18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.

19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.

21 For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:

22 Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:

23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:”

It looks a whole lot like she tacked on 1 Peter 3:1, the verse about wives, without saying so. Not only is she quoting Scripture out of context, she just created her very own Frankensteinian context! Slam dunk!

What happened to that feared and dreaded “door mat,” the so-called intimidated mousy wife who gets no say? It was a lie. It had no substance or power. I can now stand up straight, and walk upright, secure and loved under his protection. On this side of submission, I have more say because my opinion is of greater value than before.
In a spectacular leap of logic, she concludes that by not expressing her opinion on anything, it has greater value. Touchdown, baby! GOOOAAALLL!

One word of warning– submission is a daily practice, not a one-time act. I have to daily check my attitude and the humility of my heart.
But it’s even harder to work every day at communicating with each other, balancing each other’s desires with your own needs, taking care of misunderstandings as they happen. No guarantees, no formula to fall back on—just love, effort, and God’s grace.

But in the long run, your marriage grows stronger when you don’t depend on formulas, but take the risk to meet as equals and face issues together.

We serve a God of grace.

Not a God of mind games.

Game, set, match.

 

*Should I apologize for the unholy mixing of sports references? That would suggest that I’m sorry for it.

Hymns Revisited

Part of me loves the hymns I grew up with. Part of me tries to escape them, scrambling backwards and knocking stuff over.

I’ve got reasons for my reaction, which possibly isn’t as measured and reasonable as it could be.

For one thing, some of the words of these “hymns” are incredibly insipid. For instance, the bouncy little song  “At the Cross,” which took a weighty Isaac Watts poem:

Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

And stuck a catchy gospel chorus to it:
At the cross!
At the cross!
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart was rolled away!
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day!

Yeah, so, you know — the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless God to save wretched sinners… it sure does make me happy all the day!

For another thing, I can’t stand some of the tunes. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God has fantastic words. But good heavens, who wrote that tune and thought, “Yeah! This is IT! Congregational singing, HERE WE COME!”? You start off at a full run and don’t even get to pause for breath between the first and second phrases:

“AmightyfortressisourGodabulkwarneverfailing!”

It’s like an entire hymn in hashtag form.

Other tunes are so locked in their nineteenth- and twentieth-century sound that they’re almost painful to twenty-first century ears. Sweet Hour of Prayer, Blessed Be the Tie, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Softly and Tenderly. They drag. They whine. I cannot stand those tunes.

But so what? Big deal. Everybody who ever attended church likes some songs and not others. Why does that qualify me to run in the other direction?

Well, because for years I was taught by a now-discredited teacher that these hymns were the only acceptable music to listen to. He did allow some classical music (except for Stravinksy, and Debussy was suspect too, and if he’d ever heard of Gershwin then that would have been off-limits as well). Some Celtic and bluegrass slipped under the line, too. (I practically overdosed on Ungar&Mason’s album, The Lover’s Waltz.) But mostly my available music consisted of hymns arranged in an approved style.

So my life was filled with these hymns. The beautiful (Praise to the Lord the Almighty; Holy, Holy, Holy); the fluffy (Victory in Jesus; Lily of the Valley); and the insipid or annoying (see above).

I couldn’t pick and choose to like them because my options were so limited.Besides, there’s no room in a Godly life to say that you don’t like Godly music.

Once I realized that I could step beyond those artificial boundaries, I walked away from hymns. I liked listening to DJ play and sing at the piano, but I was angry that they had been forced on me as “the only good” music when some of it was patently not good.

Yet part of me still loves many of those songs.

A few months ago, I discovered Chris Rice’s song “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)”. It’s written in the style of an old mountain hymn, very simple words* and tune; but all the verses together trace a thread through the life of a Christian, from “sing to Jesus” to “fall on Jesus” to “dance for Jesus,” and finally death — “fly to Jesus.” It’s surprisingly touching, especially since Rice doesn’t try to make it fancy. He just sings.

When I found a 2007 album by Rice called “The Hymns Project,” I thought maybe he could salvage some of those old songs I really want to love. He didn’t disappoint me.

He liberates a couple of hymns from their swingy-slidey rhythm (“Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross”). He takes one song that drags like a toddler going to bed, and gives it energy (“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”). And he included one hymn that I love almost no matter how it’s arranged, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.

I used to dislike this verse — that whole thing about the “fetter.” But now I deeply appreciate the idea that I can’t wander away from God. He lets me walk away, but never so far that I can’t find him again.

The best thing about this album is that Rice just sings. He doesn’t try to make the hymns more than they are. That’s when I realized there’s actually a lot to them.

I didn’t like every song (even Rice couldn’t mellow out A Mighty Fortress). That made me happy, too, since it reminded me that I’m free to pick and choose.

So if you’re like me and wary of hymns, give this one a try.

Source: Amazon.com: Peace Like A River: The Hymns Project: Chris Rice: MP3 Downloads

*The lyrics “Like a newborn baby/Don’t be afraid to crawl” is a slight jar, I admit. Newborn babies don’t crawl, and the only thing they’re afraid of is starving to death immediately right now even while a nipple is being inserted into their screaming mouths. But it’s minor. Just go with it.

 

 

 

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.

A Reading List

So if you happen to be somebody who writes about spiritual abuse and recovery from legalism (just as a random category), you probably have a huge personal library of books on the subject, right?

Well, I guess so. If you’re not me.

I haven’t actually read piles of books on the topic. I seek out actual personal accounts. I also tend to find themes of self-empowerment, grace, and freedom in books that don’t have anything to do with cults.

But there are a few particular books that stayed with me and influenced how I wrote The Fellowship. You might enjoy the same elements I did.

**

The Gift of Sarah Barker, Jane Yolen.
I discovered this book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember many specific details, just that it hit me deeply.

Set in the 1800s, it’s the story of a teenage girl, Sarah, whose mother brought them into a Shaker cult (not to be confused with the Quakers, a completely different sect). This sect taught that sexual love in any form was sinful—they didn’t even allow marriage. (Not surprisingly, the Shakers died out, although Aaron Copeland immortalized their catchy tune “Simple Gifts” in his Appalachian Spring.)

Sarah tries very hard to fit into the sect; but her imagination, her longing for a life beyond, and her attraction to one of the young men keep sabotaging her own efforts.

This book could have been a story of oppression and sexual darkness. But Yolen instead showed many warm moments in the community. It wasn’t all bad; I understood why Sarah doesn’t really want to leave until she has no real choice.

The book seems to be out of print now, which is a shame. It’s worth tracking down.

When Sparrows Fall, Meg Moseley
I don’t like Christian fiction in general. The genre tends to feature flat characters, trite storylines, and pre-packaged answers. Several years ago, I opened Sparrows expecting more of the same.

I was very happily disappointed.

This is the story of Miranda, a young widow with several children whose pastor has decreed that their church is relocating to another state. He pressures her to sell her property, give the money to the church, and move with the rest of the congregation. Miranda has spent her whole married life being a submissive woman, but she digs her heels in and won’t sell.

Then she suffers a bad fall. In the city a few hours away, her brother-in-law, Jack, gets a call saying that he’s been named guardian of the children while she recovers.

Jack shows up to do his duty by his half-brother’s family. He quickly gets drawn into the weird world of Miranda’s church. He challenges the church’s beliefs, goes out of his way to help her and her family (and oversteps the line a couple of memorable times), and eventually finds out the secret that keeps Miranda tied to her house and her life.

I fell in love with Jack, grieved and then cheered with Miranda as she rediscovers herself, and identified with much of the spiritual abuse. I finished the book with new inspiration. If this was Christian fiction, then I could write it. Specifically, I could write that story inside me that just kept eating at me.

The Devil Wears Prada,* by Lauren Weisberger
I happened upon this book, having heard nothing of it, and pretty much inhaled it. At the time, I wasn’t really sure why it drew me in and then stayed with me. I don’t care about the world of high fashion and I didn’t have grand ambitions to work for New York magazines. The main character — although about my age when I read it — lived such a different life from mine it was laughable. (She sleeps with her boyfriend before they’re married? She has her own apartment in the city? She wears pants and sexy clothes without worrying about modesty?)

Years later, I understood its appeal to me. The book shows how a well-meaning person can get trapped in a subculture where everyone obeys an all-powerful leader. And not just trapped, but voluntarily submitting to it–even while hating parts of it. It also showed the fallout among those she loved. Her choices came with a real price.

All that said, I remember this book as a pretty light read with some pretty funny spots.

Ella Enchanted*, Gail Carson Levine
This retelling of Cinderella is one of my all-time favorite books. Ella was “blessed” by a fairy with the gift of “obedience.” She must obey any order given to her. Obviously this presents small problems — anybody can boss her around — and very large problems — anybody can order her to kill, steal, and destroy. She keeps the curse a deep secret. But things get complicated when she befriends and then falls in love with Prince Charmont… and then her malicious stepsister finds out the secret. She has to cut off all contact with Char for his own protection, and then must find a way to break the curse.

This book plays into the cult theme with the idea that Ella must obey, but finds little ways to get around it just to retain her own self. It’s also got some of my favorite lines in it, like, “I’m afraid of heights. And it’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten taller.”

Girl at the End of the World , Elizabeth Esther
Several years ago, I followed Elizabeth Esther’s blog. I knew she grew up in her grandfather’s cult. Compared to what she went through, my experience was Lite Spiritual Abuse with Low Sodium and No Added MSG.

I also knew she wrote a memoir of her experiences. But I was immersed in writing my own book, and besides, I knew hers would hurt to read.

I should have trusted the blogger I knew back then. Elizabeth writes honestly with a twist of snark that makes it all easier to take in. Her experiences were painful—I am still cringing before Grandma Betty’s ice-blue eyes that demanded complete broken submission about once a week. But Elizabeth also gives moments of beauty, like when she and her husband first connected under a sky of stars. She highlights a few bright, caring people who passed through her life and left a mark of grace on her.

Girl is quick read, except for the frequent necessary pauses to put down the book, dash outside, and breathe in a big gulp of fresh air. As I read it, I was struck by the parallels between her “Assembly” and my “Fellowship”—the fear, the control, the in-jokes, the tight community, and the secrecy.

**

These books helped me understand and process the world I came out of. After all, it doesn’t matter what the outward trappings are; if a system has one person in authority with no accountability, they all operate from a rotten core.

And here’s to recovery that involves good dialogue, a tight story, and no out-of-context Bible verses.

 

*Movie? What movie? I ignore movie versions of books I like.**

**Except The Help, which was well done. Hunger Games was all right, although I saw only the first one. I liked the first two Narnia movies, hated the third one. Divergent was a disaster. I saw all of the Harry Potter movies, but I won’t sit through them again. I watched all nine hours of The Lord of the Rings twice, and God says I don’t have to watch them again.

Good Things, God Things

My novel opens with:

A virtuous heart keeps an orderly home. 

I made up that quote. But the idea that a good Christian woman will keep a good Christian house is pretty common even out of Fellowship-like circles. Witness this quote from a couple of Elizabeths:

“I love what author Elisabeth Elliot said, ‘A sloppy life speaks of a sloppy faith.’ We’re careful in our faith…careful to tend to our spiritual growth, careful to obey God’s Word, and careful to maintain the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, and giving. So why shouldn’t we also be careful of how we manage our homes? That’s not a put-down. Far from it! Creating a safe and comfortable place for your family and yourself is a privilege and significant accomplishment.” –Elizabeth George

Do I enjoy a clean house? Yes. Do I want my home to be safe and comfortable for my family? Yes. Do I consider it a reflection of my spiritual state if I let clutter build up on the table, don’t vacuum the floor, and don’t clean the pencil marks off the wall?

NO.

I’m sorry, Elisabeth Elliot and Elizabeth George, but you’re wrong. You’re taking a societal standard and making it a spiritual requirement.

The standards of society change, but every generation has its own set of “virtue indicators.” These days, it’s more along the lines of eating “clean,” avoiding classist/racist sentiments, and accepting everyone’s choices as a universal good. Nobody actually does this perfectly, but the better show you put on, the more virtue you seem to have.

But just like having a clean house doesn’t get you anywhere closer to God, neither does avoiding processed foods or using the term “First Peoples.”

Good things are good. Do them. God things are God’s. Do those. Sometimes there will be an overlap. But I’m all done letting anyone — revered Christian writer or not — tell me that I have to live up to the standards of modern America in order to please the God of all Eternity.

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.

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.