Sabbath Restlessness

I occasionally see a meme that thinks it’s solved my church problem for me. It informs me that if I stopped going to church because someone hurt me, then it’s obvious I was focused on people instead of Jesus. In short, if I find church a hard place to be, it’s my own fault.

Do I need to say that I hate that meme? No? Good.

It’s difficult for me to attend church. Even when I don’t fall prey to a panic attack, I find the whole process exhausting. When my choice is to go to a coffee shop and be refreshed, or go to church and be tired… well, the choice kind of makes itself, doesn’t it?

But I try. After all, we’re part of a healthy and safe church now. Nobody reminds me that I have to stay under authority. Nobody is twisting up Scriptures. Nobody watches my kids and judges my parenting. I know it’s a good place.

But it’s hard to feel that.

Recently I attended a service. I even took along colored pens and a journal with faux-reclaimed paper that my daughter got me for my birthday. I listen best when I can doodle, something I no longer apologize for.

Halfway through the sermon, I’d filled up two pages like this:

Untitled design

When I start journalling like that, it means I’m desperately trying to outrun panic. And I didn’t make it this time. I left long before church was done.

When I looked at the pages later, I was struck at how it captures the frenzy of my thoughts in church. Not only am I reliving and grieving past hurts, but I’m also evaluating every word of the sermon to make sure it’s “okay.” My radar, so long suppressed, is on high alert at all times.

No wonder I get tired.

My husband is very understanding, but a lot of people aren’t. A lot of people look at spiritual abuse survivors and criticize them for not getting involved in a church. Well, here you go — handy-dandy photographic evidence of what a service looks like to someone who has been hurt by people in the church. 

I don’t skip church on Sundays because I’m spiritually apathetic. I avoid it because I’m on spiritual hyperdrive. And I long for the day that a church sanctuary is as safe and restful a place for me as a shabby-chic hipster coffee shop.

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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.

Abigail and the Fool

Minolta DSCI think I’ve complained about some “Christian” marriage advice on this blog before (that’s four links). So the question is, do I ever come across a perspective of marriage that I like?

Funny you should ask that! Because I found a post recently that was an antidote both to the “stay silent and happy” brand of marital life, and redeems the twisted version of Abigail that I was subjected to as a teen and young adult.

Help, I’m Married to a Fool! really isn’t “advice” so much as a reflection on the author’s own married life. She is writing on her twenty-first wedding anniversary, so she and her husband have weathered a lot of years together. She writes that she became a Christian a few years after getting married, and found herself praying often for her marriage.

My husband and I seemed to be at odds on a regular basis, and although I would like to say it was his fault, in truth, we were young, selfish, and trying to adjust to life with many children in a short time frame.

But there was more than just kids and immaturity causing the divide. Something was wrong and she wasn’t sure what; she needed God to fix it! Pray, pray, pray.

Then she noticed the story of Abigail, and a light dawned.

I’ll pause here to remind you about the “complementarian” view of marriage, which is what most evangelicals claim. It’s different from patriarchy in that it considers men and women spiritually equal before God. The term comes from the idea that men and women are “equal but different” — their roles in life “complete” each other. But in marriage, the husband still has the final say in all decisions. The wife is expected to say her piece, then submit to whatever her husband decides. If it’s a bad decision — just like in patriarchy — the wife leaves the result up to God.

In both patriarchy and complementarianism, the story of Abigail is a problem. Her husband, Nabal, scorns and insults the warrior king-to-be, David, thereby inviting very real destruction on his entire household. A servant alerts Abigail, who goes behind Nabal’s back and approaches David with apologies, explaining that her husband is “a fool.” Her offers of peace saved the lives of everyone in the household — except Nabal, who died of a rage-induced stroke when he heard what she did.

The version of Abigail that I learned in patriarchy circles (see my link above) was that Abigail should have gone to her husband first, should have left everything up to God, and was responsible for Nabal’s death. Complementarianism doesn’t go that far, but it’s still uncomfortable with the way Abigail undermined her own husband’s wishes.

But the author of this blog post came to a different conclusion after really paying attention to the story.

In Scripture, fool is often used for a wicked or depraved person; one who acts contrary to sound wisdom in his moral deportment; one who follows his own inclinations, who prefers trifling and temporary pleasures to the service of God and eternal happiness.

That morning I realized that the deepening divide in our marriage was not something I could fix, but that it had to be wisely navigated. My relationship with my husband would not be better until he made the decision to acknowledge God above his own inclinations.

She goes on to explain how Abigail “navigated around” her foolish, dangerous husband. She didn’t passively pray and react and pretend everything was all right; she actively responded, was known as a safe and trustworthy person, and told the truth about her situation.

The post leaves some questions, like — What is a wife supposed to do if her husband is making a fool of himself? Not in a foot-in-mouth sort of way, but in an agonizing “Hey, let me launch into an insulting tirade without regard to my listeners, banking on the fact that they’re polite so I can say whatever I want to.” My first loyalty is to my husband, so I’d be loath to call him out right there in front of everybody. But if it’s a pattern, if he’s ignored my private conversations about it… well, then what? The post doesn’t really offer much guidance.

On the other hand, it gives a freedom that most marriage reflections don’t: it allows the wife to actually think about this situation and decide what her response will be. She can act, and be justified in doing so, without having to worry that she will “dishonor” her husband incur God’s wrath. If she’s reluctant to speak up because of how her husband will treat her at home, in private — well, I would think that’s definitely a signal that it’s time to take serious action, possibly behind his back, to save herself and her household.

But what if she uses this “freedom” to humiliate her husband? What if she cuts him down in public and undermines everything he tries to do for their family? Then guess what? She’s the fool, not him. He can look to the brave, trustworthy, truthful Abigail for guidance in navigating around her destructive habits until God changes her, or until he needs to act without her knowledge to “save the household.”

Marriage relationships are complicated. Sometimes it’s very hard for outsiders to know exactly who is the fool, and who is the Abigail. But trying to solve the problem by telling a wife that she must stay in her “God-given role” and honor her husband at all costs is ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst.

Instead, be smart, decisive, and ready to act on your own and others’ behalf. Don’t be a fool — be like Abigail.

Inviting In the Blacks

love-1-1314956-1280x1920Up until two or three years ago, I thought racism had pretty much died out.

It was an easy assumption for me. I, a lower-middle-class white girl, grew up in a small Mississippi town only a generation or two removed from segregation. I attended junior high in the “old black school,” and teachers rode us hard to eradicate any use of racial epithets (black or white). The KKK was a thing of the past, and generally deplored among the people I knew. I vaguely knew there had been bad times “back then,” but in my growing up, I heard of only a few incidents that seemed to stem from racial tensions.

I was friendly with several of the black kids, but not close enough that we went to each other’s houses. White girls still didn’t date black boys (I do remember a mild furor when a white friend accepted a black friend’s invitation to a school dance). The churches were divided down pretty straight racial lines; I just always thought it was because blacks worshiped much different than whites did (which actually is true) so we just all preferred our own style.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how separated our world was. The more I see the disdain that my social class held for “them.” But among my parents and other adults, no one taught me malice or hate.

So I took the example of my teachers and parents and went farther. I taught myself to ignore skin color. My kids grew up without hearing anything about how “black people are like that.” Further, I assumed that all the whites of my generation were doing the same thing. We wanted to move beyond the horrors of the past, right?

My first clue that racism was a still big issue should have been when I was writing my novel. When I was sketching out its early drafts, I looked at my cast of characters and realized that they were all white. That’s standard in Christian fiction, and it annoys me. I really wanted to include non-white characters, but immediately ran into a problem.

The Fellowship is a highly insular Southern church founded and run by a white family. This type of church hardly ever includes black families. If I introduced a non-white character, I had to have a good backstory to justify it. But I wanted to avoid the issue of racism because that’s not what my book focuses on.

So I cheated.

I wrote into the story that by the late 80s, black families were admitted into the church and even allowed to marry into the white families. My heroine, Bekah, grew up under these conditions so is basically colorblind. It made me sigh that the only way I could deal with all characters on an equal footing, with only a hint of racism, was to create a utopia that doesn’t actually exist.

I knew it was a stretch. But I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch; we were already well on our way to that point, right? Especially among Christians whose very theology taught us that God looked on the heart, not the outward appearance?

The internet has broadened my circle to take in the black community and what they have to say. The ugly truth filtered in, one heartbreaking bit at a time. It’s easy to “get past” racism when you don’t really live under it.

I’ve changed a lot of my thinking and I’m paying attention to the discussion raging around us. I’m not taking sides except to acknowledge that for generations, whites have enjoyed power and privileges far above their non-white fellow citizens. In a nation founded on principles of equality and freedom, we were wrong. I’m sad for my friends whose skin color eclipses their personhood, and regret how oblivious I was (and am).

But do I regret my decision to make the Fellowship a slightly implausible haven of racial equality? Not at all. Because just like my story gives hope of recovery from spiritual abuse, I like its picture of a world where a person’s skin color is merely another physical trait, not an indication of character.

Here’s to the future.

The Fellowship is available in paperback and Kindle.

Listen to Your Heart

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I hate this graphic.

But it’s a Bible verse! What’s the problem?

One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that a spiritually abusive Christian system is always based on Bible verses. I remember when a friend read an early draft of my novel, and came back saying, “I’m surprised that the church in your story uses these verses about grace. I thought they’d just ignore those.”

No, they don’t ignore the verses. They isolate them and redefine them to fit their own ideas (just like they do to the people involved). Then they pile their own teachings on top. That way, when someone notices something wrong, the teachers can always dig up that tattered, smashed, and almost unrecognizable verse and say, “See? It’s based on God’s Word. Your problem isn’t with me, it’s with God.”

The verse in this graphic is the source of a lot of grief to those of us who came through an abusive system. It was used to make us suppress our instincts, give up our passions, and conform to whatever our “authorities” wanted us to be.

It’s actually part of a longer passage in Jeremiah where God is alternately rebuking and lamenting Judah’s idolatry, interspersed with hope that He will heal and redeem them. I can’t give an informed interpretation of the passage in its larger context. Most of us can’t.

All we ever knew was this one snippet: “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.”

We all know that’s true to an extent. History amply demonstrates how wicked human beings can be. Our own friends and family show us greed, manipulation, and anger. In fact, we ourselves know our own selfishness, covetousness, and fear. The problem isn’t that the verse is false, it’s that it’s used as an all-encompassing truth.

Abusive teachers point to this verse and tell us, “See, you can’t trust your heart. God says so. So if you want to do something that I don’t like—you have to give it up. If you feel that something is wrong—you need to ignore your instincts and obey what I say.”

Obviously it’s never presented that baldly. But it permeates the system.

A story:

One of my children exhibited symptoms of Sensory Integration Disorder. From the time she was a baby, loud noises (applause or sirens, for instance) would send her into a meltdown. She didn’t interact easily with other people; they insisted on touching her, looking her in the eyes, and invading her space. Sudden changes in schedule, such as a substitute teacher instead of the one she was used to, sent her into a tailspin. Although it was exhausting, my husband and I did our best to give her an environment where she could be comfortable.

I instinctively knew that she wasn’t being defiant when she couldn’t manage to follow orders. But others in our church at the time didn’t understand that. One woman in particular, who set herself up as a mentor to me, frequently engaged in power struggles with my daughter and was determined to win. The fact that my daughter was so reactive was a judgment on my own parenting—which I felt every single time.

Obviously I should have pushed back. I should have said that as her mother, I understood her needs, and I wasn’t going to stand back and watch this woman cause her grief. Instead, I let it go on for years, hardly ever protesting. Why?

Because my heart, the one that understood my daughter, was deceitful. I couldn’t trust it. It was clearly communicated to me that I was afraid to discipline her properly, so I instead had to bow to the ideas of my “authority” who saw a child’s rebellion where my (deceitful) heart saw confusion.

Eventually, my half-suppressed instincts clawed their way to the surface, and I drew some boundary lines. That was the end of my friendship with my “mentor.” For years I was bewildered and guilty, wondering I’d done so wrong.

Years later, I have a much better view of everything. My instincts were right. My daughter now has learned to cope with the overstimulation and is sociable and happy. She’s very much her own person, but not defiant. And all I did “wrong” in my relationship with the other woman was to listen to my heart, which she didn’t agree with.

*
As wicked as our hearts can be, the other half of the truth is that the heart isn’t always wrong. It’s not wrong to explore what you love and pursue the desires of your heart. Obviously that has to be balanced by reason, understanding, and a heavy reliance on God’s grace. But then, doesn’t reason need to be balanced by compassion and creativity? (The answer is yes.)

Another story:

A few years ago, my friend Amy (not actually her name) came to me in tears. Her childhood best friend was getting married, but didn’t ask Amy to be a bridesmaid. However, the bride had asked two other newer “best friends” to be in the wedding. Either the bride didn’t value her friendship with Amy, or simply forgot about her. Both options cut her deeply.

Her head told her that she had a right to be hurt, and she ought to talk to her friend about it. But her heart, bathed in the grace of the Holy Spirit, said something different. It told her not to spoil her friend’s wedding day with any suggestion that she was upset. So Amy listened to her heart. She talked to me and others about how hurt she was, but when the wedding day came, Amy was there with a smile. Afterward, she made a point to see her friend pretty often, and never mentioned anything except good about the wedding. As far as I know, the bride never knew what her forgetfulness cost Amy; and Amy herself forgave and (mostly) forgot.

*
For the meme above, I would react less to it if “Jesus” was saying, “You let it serve itself instead of remembering others?” The problem isn’t that we listen to our hearts or even follow them. It’s when we set our own desires above the good of others that things go wrong.

Also—just to mention it—the fangs on the heart really are kind of an overkill.

Phantom Enemies

ghost-1-1312149-1280x960One day on the battlefield, I looked up and realized I was fighting phantoms.

Before I go any further, I’m going to say this:

  1. I’m not going to apologize for being cautious around a person or situation that feels not-normal. I’m a woman and a mother, and God didn’t give me deeply-imbedded survival instincts just for kicks. I’m also a rational human being, so I can evaluate whether those instincts ring true or not; but meanwhile, if I feel uneasy, I will take precautions to keep myself and my children safe.
  2. Predators and terrorists are real dangers. That’s why they’re so frightening. The possibility of a zombie attack at the grocery store doesn’t make your throat close up with fear.

That said…

Two remarks recently revealed how hard I was fighting illusions.

The first was while I was having coffee with some other women. We were talking about what our kids enjoyed doing, and I lamented that I couldn’t let my children walk anywhere. “We live right off a highway and people drive fast. It’s just not safe.”

The others nodded, and one added, “And you never know what the Muslims will do.”

We were in a hipster coffee shop in a predominately white Christian town. In my middle-class suburban bubble, I hadn’t seen a non-white person all morning.

The second remark was in some discussion about transgender bathroom policies. Someone declared, “I work hard enough to keep my kids safe as it is, without this added risk!”

I’ve probably used a public bathroom with a transgendered person without knowing it. Still, I do think that we’d do well to acknowledge the risks of allowing predatory men easier access to women’s bathrooms. But I heard that comment and thought, “How many times have you had to defend your children against attackers this week?”

She would say, “Every minute of my day!” What she means is, “I’m on alert every minute of my day.” But as for actual attacks? In a typical week in my circle of friends, that would be zero.

What these two comments clarified for me was that I spend a lot of energy defending myself and my family against enemies who might be, but aren’t actually, attacking me. When I took a step back to see who my actual attackers are, I was stunned.

I’ve had a very good life, but not a perfect one. Throughout the years, people have hurt me. And that group of people—the one that I by all rights should be wary of now—has been

White

Middle-class

Heterosexual

American

Christians

It makes sense. That’s who I am, and that’s who I associate with. If I were to guard against the actual “enemies” who have hurt me, I’d be cautious around smiling men in dark suits who teach toxic theology. I’d protect my children from manipulative women who just “want the best” for my family. Stories of terrorists and predators would concern me, but an ordinary guy who assumes I’m not as good as he is because I don’t think like he does—that should terrify me.

They don’t, though, because they’re known enemies. It’s the unknown that scares me.

It’s good to be aware of trends, movements, and dangers. As I said to begin with, I don’t apologize for being careful in situations that make me uneasy. But the thing about phantom enemies is that you never, ever beat them. They always come back. So I end up enslaved to fear, which makes me want to follow anyone who promises safety… which is often someone who preys on fear for his or her own selfish ends. And in my life, that’s almost invariably been a white middle-class heterosexual American Christianish kind of person.

Phantom enemies deliver us into the hands of real ones. And that’s really what should scare us most.

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.