Category Archives: Cults

So…you left an abusive church? 5 Tips to Start Healing NOW. @MarsHill #MarsHillChurch

Your pastor is hunkered down behind locked gates, his only communication with the congregation via pre-recorded video messages. Fifteen of your sister churches are closing. The church you believed in, the pastor you loved, the people you came to call brothers and sisters–it’s all falling apart. With a heavy heart and after much prayer, you decide it’s time to leave. You make a few phone calls. Or maybe you just disappear. Either way, a few days later you find yourself in full-blown withdrawal. You haven’t felt this way since you quit cigarettes ten years ago. You feel desperate. Freaked out. Confused. Depressed. Maybe you’re having nightmares. Maybe you’re doubting yourself. Did you make the right decision? Is God angry with you? Friend, I’m here to tell you–you’re not alone. Others have walked this path. I’m one of them. I even wrote a book about it. I’m here to help you. Let’s start with your immediate future. Here are some things you can do right now to insure a full and healthy recovery…You’re gonna be OK. We’re all gonna be OK. xo. EE.

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1. Refrain from diving into another church. Just like leaving a bad relationship, you suddenly find yourself with a huge, empty hole in your life. The urge to fill that hole is overwhelming. Just wait.

 You need time to heal and recover from what you just experienced. Your soul needs rest. Go to church if you feel that will help you–but avoid becoming involved. Let yourself heal.

2. Write Down Your Experience. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember what happened. Especially when it comes to trauma, our brains might try to “block” us from remembering what we experienced. If we don’t write down what happened, it’s easy to fall into nostalgia, reminiscing about all the “good times we had.” Distance makes the heart grow fonder. By writing it down you remind yourself why you don’t want to go back and you identify harmful patterns of behavior so you will avoid similar churches in the future.

3. Seek Support. Sometimes if our spiritual abuse was so bad, we may isolate ourselves. As someone who has done this repeatedly, I can assure you that isolation only makes things worse. It locks us in with our obsessive ruminations. This leads to resentment. We need the support of others to help us process and release our trauma. Seek support through safe ex-members.

If you can afford a therapist, seek a certified professional not just a  “biblical counselor.” Avoid public online interaction (at least initially). Ye shall not be healed via Facebook, Twitter or blogs. Healing takes place offline. However, secret FB groups can be very helpful.

4. Change your phone number, unfriend unsafe people, move out of town. Depending on the severity of the abuse and how close you were to the inside circle, you may need to make radical changes in the interest of healing. Sometimes a total cut-off is necessary. If you are like I was, you needed to cut everyone off (save for a couple safe, trusted friend) in order to re-learn how to live. Being around people who are still involved with the abusive church or who still defend it will trigger old thought patterns and behaviors.

5. Radical Self Care: You are probably burned out, disillusioned and exhausted. Take a FULL YEAR to take care of yourself before you commit to anything new. Many people don’t realize that leaving an abusive church is a major life event similar to birth, death or divorce. After a major life change, we are tempted to act out in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we eat too much, drink too much, watch too much TV or become sexually promiscuous. I can guarantee you that these behaviors will only lead to more pain. Self-care is not self-indulgence. Self-care means prioritizing sleep, healthy eating and rest. Choose one thing to focus on. Perhaps start a gentle exercise routine or choose to eat healthy. Maybe give your mind a break by limiting social media use or turning off your phone. Little steps of self-care lead to big, overall changes. Whatever you choose, don’t overdo it. Remember that you are vulnerable right now and the tendency is to overdo everything–even healthy things. You are learning–maybe for the first time–how to be gentle with yourself. Take your time. Go slow. It’s all gonna be OK.

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Does Jesus ask us to accept empty apologies? Some thoughts on what it means to forgive our abusers.

There’s been some talk about what it means for Christians to forgive our abusers–particularly those who abuse us in the name of God. Yesterday, Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service wrote an article called “I accept Mark Driscoll’s apology..and you should, too.” In it he encouraged everyone to accept Mark’s most recent public apology because:

When Christians have grown so bitter toward someone that we can’t even accept their apologies, something has gone seriously wrong. If Driscoll had ignored these comments, his critics would have excoriated him for his silence. But when he says he is sorry, they criticize him still. We must refuse to create lose-lose situations for each other where one is damned if they apologize and damned if they don’t.

Let me be clear: Accepting Driscoll’s apology does not mean we excuse his reprehensible actions in the past, fail to call him to better behavior in the present, or ignore future abuses if (or when) they occur.

I absolutely agree that Jesus calls us to forgive. Indeed, as Merritt states, Jesus was “obliterating the ceiling on Christian forgiveness.” Merritt’s message urges us toward a posture of openheartedness and to refrain from becoming abusive toward abusers. I fully support this. I know how easy it is for my sense of “righteous indignation” to morph into full-blown rage. There really is no justification for me to indulge in vicious, snide or vitriolic attacks–especially against other Christians.

That said, as someone who experienced decades of spiritual abuse, I really think it’s important for the broader Christian community to actively stand up for those being harmed by religious authorities. To this end, there are a couple of things that trouble me about Jonathan Merritt’s piece:

  1. It isn’t our place, as outsiders, to accept apologies on behalf of those who are being directly harmed by Driscoll. That’s like an outsider coming to me and saying, “Hey, I forgive your grandfather for abusing you in his cult! You should, too!” Wait. What?! Outsiders have no place accepting apologies or forgiving an abuser on my behalf. That’s MY job. Outsiders do have jobs to perform; ie. provide support and safe places, help spread awareness–but telling everyone to “accept apologies” is not one of those jobs.
  2. By urging people to “accept” Driscoll’s apology, Merritt places the onus on the victim instead of on the abuser. The underlying idea, here, is that victims of abuse are supposed to Keeping Doing Things; ie. accept apologies, be supportive, not get angry, remain positive…and furthermore, do all this before the abuser stops the abuse. Is this what Jesus meant when He told us to forgive? I don’t think so. Forgiveness means I hold no resentment toward the person who hurt me. Forgiveness means I have no more desire for revenge. It DOESN’T mean I tolerate more abuse. It DOESN’T mean I must “accept” empty apologies. Accepting an apology is predicated upon the recognition that something has CHANGED. In Driscoll’s case, the apologies seem empty because he says he’s sorry and then proceeds to behave in the exact same way.

Forgiveness means I have no more resentment or the desire for revenge. It DOESN’T mean I tolerate more abuse. It DOESN’T mean I must “accept” empty apologies.

If this were the first time Driscoll had apologized, I’d be all on board with “accepting” apologies and giving him time to demonstrate changed behavior.

However, Driscoll has apologized multiple times and then proceeded to engage in the exact same abusive behavior.

So, just as it is not our place to tell insiders of Mars Hill Church what to do about their pastor, it is not our place to tell them to “accept” this latest apology.

Indeed, to insist they “should” accept this latest apology is to ask they participate in a false repentance.

True repentance is an expression of verbal regret coupled with matching actions. Saying “I’m sorry” when there is no fruit of repentance is an empty apology. It is a lie. A true apology must have matching behavior to back it up, to make it real.

Yes, members of Mars Hill Church can forgive Mark–within their own hearts. They can let go of resentment and the desire for revenge. They can pray for his repentance. They can advocate change and call for accountability. And from what I can tell, that is happening.

But outsiders like Merritt and I ought not accept apologies on their behalf. And we ought not insist they accept apologies that are empty. 

Let me provide an example of what forgiving my abusers looked like for me.

I forgave my cult-founding grandparents for the many ways in which they abused me. I let go of resentment and the desire for revenge. I committed them to God and prayed for their repentance.

I did NOT, however, continue a relationship with them. I did not DO anything else–accept apologies, continue conversations or otherwise tolerate their continued abuses. Why? Because there was no repentance. There was no changed behavior.

And in order for me to “accept” an apology–it needs to be real. A real apology is backed up by amending action. Yes, I can forgive–for the sake of my own soul. But a restored relationship can only happen when amending action has been taken by those who hurt me.

Yes, an apology is a good start. But it is only a start. More action is needed if the apology is to be true repentance.

Why calling for Mark Driscoll’s resignation isn’t helpful to those inside @MarsHill church

Through out my 25 years in an abusive church (you can read about it in my book, “Girl At The End of the World”), many people told me what I should and should not do. My whole life was dictated by “shoulds” and “should nots.” And when outsiders started telling me what I should do–even a “good” thing like “leave The Assembly!”–it just felt like another person trying to control me.

I’ve maintained for years that Mars Hill Church is a dangerous and abusive church. Recently, I went so far as to suggest it was a cult.

But I’ve stopped short of telling Mars Hill Church what to do. Why? Because Mark Driscoll isn’t going to resign just because an outsider tells him to. 

I mean, I understand the good intention behind the recent calls for his resignation. Those of us outside Mars Hill Church have become increasingly alarmed by the stories emerging from exiting members. We are trying to find a way to be helpful and supportive!

But I just want to issue a mild word of caution to those of us seeking to “help”: I remember what it was like to be inside an abusive church and outsiders telling us what to do only made that worse.

If outsiders had called for my grandfather’s resignation, I would have felt happy that the abuses were being brought to light. However, I also would have known that outsiders calling for his resignation wouldn’t make a difference in what my grandfather did or didn’t do. My grandfather wasn’t gonna resign just because outsiders said he should. Ultimately–when my grandfather refused to repent–I was the one who had to make the choice to leave.

I get lots of emails from parents, siblings, friends and lovers all asking me the same question: “My child/brother/sister/girlfriend/boyfriend is stuck inside a dangerous church. What can I do to help them?”

The answer is always the same: you can live your own life and be happy in it. You can be a welcoming, loving presence. But you cannot control, change or force a person to leave an abusive church or relationship. That’s not how life works. That’s not how freedom works.

Ultimately, I had to to make my own choice to leave The Assembly. I often feel that I stayed far too long. But that was my choice. The key to my freedom was that I chose it. And furthermore, I chose it when I was ready to choose it.

Freedom isn’t freedom when others force it upon you.

This is why I’m leery about bloggers and outside media telling Mars Hill Church what it’s supposed to do. Do I think Mark Driscoll is a dangerous leader? Yes. Do I think Mars Hill Church needs to drastically re-examine it’s systems and structures? Yes. Do I believe Mars Hill Church has engaged in spiritual abuse? Yes.

HOWEVER. It is one thing to provide information and quite another thing to start issuing orders telling Mark Driscoll to resign.

When people who are not a part of Mars Hill Church start issuing orders, we are doing exactly what Mark Driscoll does to his congregation: telling them what to do.

True freedom means giving those within Mars Hill Church the freedom to do whatever they believe is best for themselves and their church–even if we disagree.

I, for one, fully believe Mars Hill church members are capable of taking whatever action is necessary. Indeed, I believe their freedom to take action is profoundly necessary in order for true repentance to happen.

Despite the rampant abuses, members of Mars Hill Church can still exercise their free will and hold their pastor accountable. They can protest (which they are!). They can spark massive change from within. They can call for Mark’s resignation. And if that doesn’t work (which, in my opinion, it won’t work because the systems were set up by Mark to serve Mark), well, then they can leave. 

I believe the sincere Christians inside Mars Hill Church have just as much access to God as I did when I was inside my abusive church. God is big enough to find us anywhere. Mars Hill Church members have the same free will I had. I know they can make the right decisions. I trust them with freedom. I don’t need to tell them what to do.

And when/if they leave, they will discover there are many spiritual abuse survivors out here. They are not alone.

UPDATE/CAVEAT: One scenario I do think could be helpful is if an outside pastor or leadership team from a trusted, healthy church stepped in to help Mars Hill. If the broader evangelical community sees what’s going on–then yes, an experienced pastor with good credibility could offer some invaluable help. In my humbly bloggy opinion, Mars Hill could use some of THAT outside help right about now.

The privilege of a white, Christian fundamentalist childhood

I often view my childhood through the lens of abuse. But recently, I’ve been challenged to examine it through the lens of privilege.

This is uncomfortable. It’s hard to to see the privilege when you’re being spanked everyday. Stockpiling for the Apocalypse. Pretty much living in terror.

But last week I also got to listen to a friend give a lecture on social theories, especially as they pertain to education. My friend is a professor at a local college. Twice she’s invited me to come speak to her classes about my book; specifically what it looks like when religious fundamentalism frames the whole of a person’s existence.

Before I gave my talk last week, I listened to her lecture.

And this was my epiphany: in many ways, my fundamentalist upbringing WAS privileged.

In order to staple down my ADD brain, I made a list explaining why:

  1. We Read Books (lots of them): on the radio in SoCal right now, there are PSA’s about the importance of reading to your child for 30 minutes a day. When I heard that, I laughed. THIRTY minutes? That’s IT? As a fundamentalist, it was more like 2-3 hours per day. I read SO MUCH as a child–and still do, as an adult. I never realized it–but the fact that I read so much (and had parents who reinforced the importance of that) afforded me a huge leap ahead of other children my age. My extensive childhood reading directly contributed to my ability to write well. THAT is privilege.
  2. Family Dinners: We ate meals together almost every night. Homecooked meals. With proper table settings, candles and cloth napkins. At the time, I resented having to “wash and dress” for dinner. But now I realize how those meals afforded me the privilege of learning proper table manners, the art of conversation, the ability to ask questions and disagree while remaining civil.
  3. Limited exposure to TV and commercial advertising: To this day I still don’t know the popular TV shows of the 80′s. But I can remember my favorite heroes and heroines from books. I remember long, quiet hours of sustained concentration while completing an art project. Instead of TV, my parents took me to classical music concerts and ballets. I developed an appreciation for art, music and dance. THAT is privilege.
  4. Slow Things Mattered: I absolutely hated the hours spent practicing the piano or learning proper penmanship. But looking back I realize that I can still read music (which counts as a second language). I have beautiful handwriting. I know how to sew. Even though I don’t like cooking, I can put together a well-balanced meal without really thinking about it. I can just DO these things, rather easily. THAT is privilege.
  5. Critical Thinking: As a child, I chafed under Scripture memorization, copying long passages into my journal, breaking down Scripture passages into “chapter summaries” and then writing reflections on what we’d read. But now I realize that these exercises helped develop my critical thinking skills: examining, investigating, processing and synthesizing what I’d read. Ironically, these skills helped me think my way out of fundamentalism and into Catholicism. The ability to think? THAT is privilege.
  6. Socialization & Conversing with Adults:  the average American kid is socialized with kids her own age. Not me. Our “one room schoolhouse” afforded us interaction with children of all ages. Additionally, there were lots of BIG families (4-10 kids per family) and this meant I was in constant contact with babies, toddlers and little ones. I knew how to expertly diaper, feed and care for little ones by the time I was 8. And because we had so many people living with us, I spent a lot of time talking with adults, hearing their life stories and engaging in discussion with them. All this interaction meant my world was actually BIGGER than most American kids my age. I also knew how to do my own laundry, cook, clean, care for babies and speak with adults. THAT is privilege.
  7. Travel: even though our travel was “for the sake of the Gospel,” I still got to visit almost every state in the nation. And also traveled to Canada, the UK and Mexico. I saw and talked with all different kinds of people. Hiked the Grand Canyon. Snorkeled in San Diego kelp beds. Kayaked among sea lions in Northern California. Spent a sweaty summer in Lincoln, Nebraska. Toured the old mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. Visited all the national monuments in Washington, DC. Even though most of my travel was limited to the United States, I still got to see and experience much more than the average kid my age. THAT is privilege.

I have childhood friends who say their view of my life was one of privilege. More than once I’ve been called an “Assembly Princess” because my family was the founding family, the “royalty” of our church. I used to be surprised (and rather offended!) when I heard this.

I mean, my life never felt privileged to me as a kid. It felt terrifying and abusive. I suffered every day.

But perhaps it was BOTH.

I never “felt” rich because we didn’t have the typical markers of wealth: owning homes, luxury vehicles or boats. We didn’t have stocks, retirement or savings accounts. But we did rent homes in nice neighborhoods and drive new cars (paid in full cash through “gifts” from Assm. members). I also had access to life experiences (travel, exposure to the arts, extensive reading, piano lessons) that are typically inaccessible to the poor.

Is it possible for a “princess” to live isolated and abused inside her ivory tower? Is it possible for someone to be both privileged AND deprived? Yes.

My privilege came at a high personal price: physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse. I still struggle with the effects of a cult upbringing.

But I also have tools available to me that I wouldn’t have were I not privileged: the ability to read, write, express myself. I am white. I speak fluent, “privileged” English. I have good health. I have a college education. THAT is privilege.

What are some other areas of privilege within fundamentalism? Or American evangelicalism?

Do you think it’s possible to live a “privileged life” while also experiencing abuse?

Do we have a responsibility to examine our privilege and seek ways to broaden our viewpoint and develop empathy for those not as fortunate as ourselves? WHY?

Top 5 Reasons People Join Cults {hint: it’s not because they’re stupid}

People don’t join cults because they want to join cults. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I’d love to join a cult today!” Another misconception is that people join cults because they’re stupid or uneducated. THIS IS NOT TRUE. (In The Assembly, we had plenty of highly educated folks). So, please. Check your condescension. If people KNEW what they were getting into, NOBODY would join a cult.

The reason cults exist is because NOBODY believes they’re in one!

Sure, having a good education (and especially exposure to lifestyles other than your own) might render you a little less susceptible to the glittery, sparkling promises of a cult. But pretty much, if you’re a human being–you can be seduced.

And that’s what cults are all about—seduction. Becoming enthralled.

People join cults because they fall in love with a beautiful dream.
They see something they desperately want or need.
They feel like they’ve found The Answer to life’s problems.

If you’re capable of falling in love, you’re capable of joining a cult.

Only later–much later (preferably after they’re married or otherwise “tied down”) do they begin to see it was false advertising.

Growing up in a cult, I learned one big rule: outsiders only see what we want them to see. New visitors saw well-behaved children, wholesome teenagers, intact families. What they DIDN’T see was that from a very young age, I was coached on how to “reach out” to visitors.

In the aftermath of my book being published, I’ve received dozens of emails from people who remember meeting me as a child. Invariably they comment on how “cheerful” and “outgoing” I was. They remember me hugging everyone enthusiastically. They remember me singing at the top of my lungs during church meetings. These sincere people are shocked that behind closed doors I was suffering near-constant abuse. B-b-but! You were such a HAPPY LITTLE GIRL!

I can only shake my head. Oh, yes. They were seeing EXACTLY what The Assembly wanted them to see.

I was TRAINED to be that way. I was SPANKED if I didn’t behave exactly the way my parents coached me. I had to behave like that because it was survival.

So, why do people join cults? Well, like a successful marketing campaign, cults know how to sell:

1. We Have What You’ve Been Looking For: Do you crave meaningful relationships? Are you tired of superficial pursuits? Do you long for abundance, happiness and wealth?

2. Sense of Urgency: TODAY is the day of salvation! What if you die tomorrow? Will you have ANY regrets???? [SIDEBAR: when I was "witnessing" to people, I would get super frustrated when they replied, "Well, if I die tomorrow then I'll be glad I lived a good life." I was like: Nooooooo! BE ANXIOUS! BE VERY AFRAID! Otherwise this whole formula doesn't WORRRK!"]

3. Sense of Purpose: Did you know God has a Great Plan for your life? Do you really want to miss out on that? Join our cause. God is REALLY MOVING in our generation. Together, we can change the world. [SIDEBAR: this whole phrase about “God IS MOVING in our generation!!” really annoys me. Newsflash, guys. God has moved in EVERY generation. God didn’t suddenly start MOVING once evangelicals figured out how to build mega-churches. Or win political elections. When I was growing up we were all: yeah, Christianity existed and everything. But it didn’t really START until like the 1500′s when Martin Luther nailed a letter to a church door. I mean, THAT’S when God REALLY started moving!”]

4. Sense of Superiority: we are the TRUE believers. We are the PURE ones. We are reclaiming what’s been lost. We have uncovered hidden truths. You won’t find this anywhere else. You might be a nobody in this world, but in OUR group you’ll be special. [SIDEBAR: I often call this "The Special-Ness Syndrome." The more SPECIAL a church thinks it is, the faster I run away.]

5. INCENTIVES!!! Look at all these beautiful women following Jesus! Look at all these godly, spiritual men! You could have TRUE intimacy. No more broken hearts. You will find a wife who respects and serves you. You will find a husband who loves and provides for you. You will find a community of like-minded people who will help you and you will never be alone again!! [SIDEBAR: in cults--as in everywhere else--sex sells.]

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Further reading:
IS MY CHURCH A CULT? 
WHAT NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS SUFFERED SPIRITUAL ABUSE
IS MARS HILL A CULT?
HOW TO HELP SOMEONE INSIDE A CULT

Top Ten Signs of a Potentially Abusive Church

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: what are some signs of a spiritually abusive church? My book, “Girl at The End of the World,” tells my story of growing up in an abusive church. But I thought it might be helpful if I shared a list of “red-flag” warning signs here on my site as well. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing. EE.

  1. Personality Centric: a pastor whose charming, charismatic, intense, persuasive and intelligent personality holds unquestioned sway over his/her congregation. He/she is treated like a celebrity. Not held accountable. Not held to same standard of morality as the rest of the congregation.
  2. Operates Independentlyno oversight, doesn’t answer to an established denomination, there is no way for grievances to be filed or addressed, even in cases of outright abuse the police or civil authorities are not called.
  3. Engulfment: “true members” of the church devote their WHOLE lives to the church, center all their activities around church activities, discouraged to have friends outside the church, family members who express concern about the church are cut off, leaving the church is the same as leaving God.
  4. Busyness: a plethora of required/mandatory-without-saying-it’s-mandatory activities that fill up the weekly schedule, giving time and energy for free to various hard labor projects (cleaning and cooking for pastor’s family, for example).
  5. Stalking: Big Brother-type monitoring is called “just keeping each other accountable.” Calling to “just check in” if a member misses church meeting. Approving clothing, daily decisions, watching online activity for “problematic” opinions and posts–all under the guise of “spiritual care” for the person’s soul.
  6. Coded Language: an ingrown church has developed a special, insider language/lingo that only those who have been there for a long time understand. Sometimes common, everyday words are given different definitions particular to that church; ie. “keep sweet” is a phrase used in some polygamist circles that means women should behave in a church-approved way.
  7. Unrealistic Promises: members of an unhealthy church are often seduced by big talk about all the wealth, blessings and riches God will give them if they just devote their lives to this church. Delivery on these promises is rare. Those who do not experience God’s blessings are told they have “weak faith.”
  8. Courting Rituals: a man must seek leadership approval (above parental approval) before seeking “to court” (or date) a woman, courting couples must follow a prescribed set of rules according to arbitrary traditions established by the church; ie. no kissing until the wedding day.
  9. Shunning: if someone leaves the church, church leadership requires all other members to ignore this person until they “repent.” New church members are told to shun family members who don’t support the church. Parents are told to shun “rebellious” teenagers. Husbands are to shun “unsubmissive” wives. The church comes first in all relationships.
  10. “The Ends Justify the Means:”  a spiritually abusive church justifies all kinds of oppressive behavior by saying they only desire to truly serve and love God. “We’re doing this for Jesus, so it’s OK!” ; ie. spanking children to “break the will” because the end result is a child who will love and serve God for his/her whole life. Be wary of a church that emphasizes “purity of doctrine” over the WAY it treats people. Methods and processes matter. The ends do NOT justify the means.

A tale of Mrs. Judge-y Pants and how she learned that being honest was better than trying to be good

stairsI read a phrase in some 12-step literature recently and it precisely captured the way I’ve been trying to live my life in the last few years: “We are working hard at being honest, not good.” Honest, not good. Oh, yes THIS.

Growing up in a cult, we were ALL about being holy but NOT so much about being honest. (You know you have a problem with dishonesty when you’re more concerned with looking holy vs. being holy). *Raises hand* *Fidgets uncomfortably*

Outward appearances, man. We had THAT whole deal down to a mother-bustin’ science. And I mean that literally: mothers busted their butts (and their mental health) making their families look all holy. I should know. I pretty much lost my own sanity trying to live up to all the Standards of Godliness.

It was a destructive way to live. But it also felt so….addictive. Control: that’s some powerful stuff, right? Having EVERYTHING all figured out. Being 110% certain about God and Christianity and how everyone ought to be living their lives. CONTROL. Control is as addictive as any drug. It’s like believing you’re in charge of when and how the wind blows.

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Ironically, those who worked the hardest at being good ended up as the biggest hypocrites. I’m pointing the finger at myself, here.

Since leaving the cult eleven years ago, I’ve abandoned a lot of Be Ye Holy baggage. Meaning: I stopped trying to be good a long time ago. I took up drinking and swearing. I quit God–for about a week. I bounced around from church-to-church. I went to therapy and went to rehab. You know, THE USUAL.

It’s been a long process of figuring out how to be a whole person.

It started by getting really honest with myself. Can I just say right now that being honest is WAY harder than trying to be good?

I mean, at some point I had to stop blaming the cult for every problem in my life. Note to self: taking responsibility for myself sucks. I would really prefer to sit on the couch eating cakes all day while God–that magical genie I’ve always imagined Him to be–fixes my problems.

But this is not how God works.

As I wrote in my book, Girl at The End of The WorldI heard this story somewhere that when you ask God to move a mountain He says “OK!” And then He hands you a shovel. In other words, you gotta do the work.

The hopeful part in all of this is that I’m learning to do the work differently. Instead of TRYING to be good, I’m working hard at being honest.

When I practice daily, radical honesty–goodness naturally follows.

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sand

In the last two years I’ve been reading 12-step literature and attending 12-step meetings in the (desperate!) hope of rewiring my brain. It’s become really clear to me that even though I left the cult, the cult didn’t leave me.

I have issues.

Inside me there lives a hardline fundamentalist. I call her “Judge-y Pants.” When Judge-y Pants comes out to play, she’s..well, she’s judge-y. She’s harsh. She’s critical. She’s demanding.

Basically, she’s a biatch with a huge KJV under her arm.

For one thing, Judge-y Pants is always in a state of panic. She runs around yelling about the world ending, cashing in 401ks, fleeing to the hills and don’t forget the canned goods.

This is no way to live.

Point is, I got 99 problems and that biatch is one.

So, I go to therapy, pray every day and attend 12-step meetings to pin down my insane, chaotic, flighty brain. I’ve tried drinking and cussing and over-eating and Arguing On The Internet and well, NONE of that never gave me the long-term serenity I so desperately crave.

It DID make me 30 pounds overweight, though. So. Yay, cleavage?

But I want long-term serenity. I’m tired of intensity and freak-outs and meltdowns.

I’m doing things differently these days.

I’m making daily to-do lists, and following a simplified schedule and cutting out anything that triggers my need for action! adrenaline! CHAOS!

crochetBasically, I’m living like an 80 year old woman whose idea of fun is crocheting and watering her potted plants.

 

FYI: living like this? Being all calm and stuff? It’s hard work.
It feels completely ABNORMAL.

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Growing up in a cult, you have this wonky sense of normalcy. Normal was frantic urgency. Normal was END OF THE WORLD-omg-we’re-all-going-to-Hell intensity. I was always living on the edge.

I’ve heard this is similar to kids growing up with alcoholic parents or in deep poverty. You always have to hustle and be hyper-alert because you never know when The End will come. You’re just running and panicking all the damn time.

Even after I left that environment, I didn’t know how NOT to live like that. I didn’t know HOW to live peacefully. Calm felt boring.

It’s taken a lot of therapy, but eventually I’ve realized that I’m addicted to intensity. Even though I hated The Crazy, at least The Crazy was comfortable. I understood it. I knew what to expect. And even though I could see how living on this razor-sharp edge would eventually kill me, I preferred The Crazy.

This is how you know you have a problem: you keep returning to The Crazy even though you know it will kill you. 

Hi, I’m Elizabeth and I’m addicted to chaos.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be sitting by the pool crocheting.

pool

 

Apparently, sobbing into a pan of brownies waiting for God to fix my feelings DOESN’T WORK (p.s. this is SO unfair!)

Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 10.57.26 AMOn Friday I received news that my grandfather–the one who founded my childhood cult (read the full story in my book)–had a stroke and fell. He is not recovering well. The doctors say he has 2-6 months to live. According to my mom who saw him in the hospital, he is not capable of coherent discussion due to increasing dementia. He is dying.

This is not how I hoped the story would end. I wanted a happy ending–or, at least, a happier one.

All these years later and he has not repented nor sought to make things right.

Even though I said my goodbyes eleven years ago when I left the cult and forgave them several years after that–today, I’m surprised by how sad I feel about all this.

To protect myself and my own children, I have kept the relationship with my grandparents closed. The sad truth is that my grandparents left a wide swath of destruction in their wake and cleaning up the wreckage is still a daily struggle for me. Quite honestly, the only way I would have wanted to hear from them was if they were ready to make amends.

They had ways of contacting me–should they ever have desired it. But they never did.

I knew the end would come inevitably, I just didn’t expect to feel so…deeply sad about it.

I also didn’t expect to feel so triggered, so anxious. On the verge of PTSD relapse. Whenever something yucky happens in my family, this sort of brain-scrambling thing happens to me. It’s like my brain fills up with static and I can’t think clearly.

I just cry. And have panic attacks. Or, you know, eat lots of food.

Upon hearing the news about my grandfather, my first inclination was to park my butt on the couch and eat cakes all afternoon. Because that’s totally how problems get solved, right? Here, God: how about I eat cakes while You Fix It, k??

And then I remembered: I’ve gained thirty pounds. Well, I remembered this AFTER I’d eaten half a pan of brownies but THAT IS BESIDE THE POINT, am I right? Point is: I remembered before I ate the whole thing. PROGRESS!

So, I decided to do something different.

There it is, my friends. The simple, little shift. If I could sum up my recovery in one phrase, that would be it: Doing Something Different.

And doing something different didn’t mean making some big, huge radical change. It was a small thing.

I went out and bought flowers.

photo 6

Then I swept my front porch and dusted cobwebs from the porch lights. Then I arranged the flower pots to create a welcoming entry. Then I went and bought pretty yellow seat cushions (on sale at Marshalls–woot!).

Once I got started, I was inspired. [NOTE TO SELF FOR FUTURE REFERENCE: it’s the getting started that’s the hardest! But once you’re going, you wonder why you waited so long. Just get started already. Start somewhere, anywhere. Start with pots of flowers!]

Before long, a virtuous cycle had taken over. Instead of gorging myself on the rest of the brownies, I was now engaged in life-affirming contrary action: nesting, decorating and cleaning up my little corner of the world.

The twins swirled around me, helping me hose down the stone walkway and hang a St. Francis of Assisi garden flag.

Penelope The Rescue Pit Bull happily watched me while I worked and even agreed to pose for me when I was done. I seriously think she’s smiling in this picture. (p.s. pit bulls are precious and lovable and it’s such a shame they have a bad reputation because she is the sweetest thing ever).

Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 1.39.11 PM

Speaking of pit bulls, redemption is a thing. I believe in it. 

I believe in it because it’s happening to me. I’m still thirty pounds overweight, my family is still effed up in thirty-thousand different ways BUT! I’ve built a new life for myself–a life that I’m very happy to live!–a life that I intend on continuing to live with love and service to others.

Just for today, I’m not sitting on the couch sobbing into a pan of brownies.

And that gives me hope.

Is @MarsHill church a cult? What IS a cult, anyway???

Unknown-1This past week, a 16-year, devoted member of Mars Hills Church (the group of churches founded by Mark Driscoll) wrote a blog post repenting of his complicity to and participation in spiritual abuse . He writes:

We were grieved by our own sins of complicity to systems and structures we could not in good conscience support anymore. The overall philosophical idea we could not support anymore was an “ends justifies the means” mentality.…I admit I would get passionate about these things thinking it was the Gospel. I then would manipulate more. I was so blind to this form of Spiritual abuse I would even get upset with people who disagreed…Everything became pragmatic tyranny. I truly believed that if this “Gospel” was moving forward I was justified in my actions. (emphasis mine)

I know a little something about cults. I grew up in one. What this former member so bravely exposes are the “systems and structures” that perpetuate spiritual abuse and create cultic groups.

What this former member is telling us is that Mars Hills Church OPERATES in a harmful manner; uses abusive METHODS and justifies it by saying the Gospel is moving forward.

This is terribly wrong and should raise huge red-flags to anyone involved with Mars Hills Churches.

Is Mars Hill Church a cult? Well, let’s talk about that.

In Chapter One of my book, “Girl at The End of the World,” I explain why I call MY childhood church a cult:

…when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts and choices that identifies a cult. The Assembly wins on all counts. (p.9)

When talking about cults, Christians have often focused on theology. I don’t find this very helpful.

Identifying a cult based on What Beliefs Are Believed is far too subjective a standard of measurement. Beliefs vary widely–even among Christians who hold generally similar beliefs about foundational doctrines like the Bible, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, etc.

What is far more useful and easily identifiable is looking at the WAY a church operates. I mean, any two groups may disagree about whether Jesus IS God but if one group beats its children into submission while the other group doesn’t, I’m gonna say the violent group is a cult–even if its beliefs are considered orthodox.

Now, just a caveat, here: often, harmful beliefs DO lead to cult-like behavior. For example, my childhood church beat children so harshly because it BELIEVED children were inherently wicked sinners who NEEDED to be spanked in order to be saved from Hell. Obviously, I don’t believe that belief anymore. So, yes, sometimes beliefs feed the cultish behavior.

People have told me that I need to “be careful” about labeling churches as cults. I absolutely disagree. If a group ACTS like a cult and OPERATES like a cult and HURTS people like a cult–then let’s call it what is is: a cult.

There’s a huge reason for this: calling a cult a cult is empowering for the victims inside it. Yes, it was initially VERY difficult for me to call my childhood church a cult, if only because the cult was also my family. There was a lot of personal shame involved. But, in the end, I found it absolutely liberating to call my church what it was: a cult.

Naming the cult for what it was helped me UNDERSTAND my experience and place it into context. I was so grateful to know that cults exist outside The Assembly and that my story wasn’t so super-extreme-unique that nobody could understand what had happened to me.

In fact, it wasn’t UNTIL I started calling my childhood church a cult that outsiders understood what I was trying to tell them. When I said: “I grew up in a cult” they were like: “Oh, OK, I get it.” But if I said: “I grew up in a strict church” they were like: “Didn’t we all? Isn’t ‘strict’ the very definition of church?”

Um. Nope. After this happened a bunch of times I knew I needed a better descriptor. Yes, the word “cult” is heavy. But so is spiritual abuse. Maybe it’s time we started taking spiritual abuse seriously.

I understand why fellow Christians might feel confused or reticent about calling Mars Hill Church a cult, or even a “cultic” group. They’ll probably say something like: “But Mark Driscoll loves Jesus and is passionate about making disciples!” All I have to say to that is: the ends don’t justify the means. The noblest and holiest goals NEVER excuse abusive means.

Another excuse we might hear: “I attend a branch of Mars Hill Church and that stuff doesn’t happen here.” Well, if this were the first time we were hearing troubling news out of MHC, then this might be true. But the truth is that the stories have been slowly eking out over several years.

I think it’s time Christians took a serious look at what is happening inside Mars Hill Church; paying special attention to the SYSTEMS and STRUCTURES and METHODS of operation.

At the very least, the Gospel deserves THAT.

————————————————————————–

A helpful resource for identifying cultic groups and relationships can be found in “Take Back Your Life: recovering from cults and abusive relationships.” In this book, the authors describe the Top 15 Characteristics of Cultic Groups. This list is BY FAR the best compilation of cultic characteristics I’ve ever seen. I’ll mention a few, here, as they pertain to faith-based cults, specifically:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices such as speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions or debilitating work routines are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader (s).
  • The leadership dictates–sometimes in great detail–how members should think, act and feel (ie. members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry…leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children…)
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities
  • ..requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are required to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

–from Appendix A, Take Back Your Life, pages 327 & 328

And to read about my real-life experience inside a Christian cult, here’s my book:

The Girl at the End of the World 

When God was my drug

Source: ADiamondFellFromTheSky; Flickr

Source: ADiamondFellFromTheSky; Flickr

i.

It’s 11:23pm and I’ve been driving the same freeway over and over–past the exit closest to my parents’ house, U-turn, back again. Earlier this evening, I was brave enough to take the exit. But I whipped into a parking lot and hunched down in my truck, chewing my nails. I watched shoppers go in and out of the TJMaxx. They all seemed so normal, happy even. Nobody–not one person!–was glancing over their shoulder convinced the Rapture was about to happen and maybe they’d get left behind. I stare across the street: a mattress store, Adams Music, a bank. All normal things. All absurd to me.

ii.

Text Messages:

Friend: You need to go home. Take your medication. It will be better in the morning, promise. 

Me: I don’t want to be this person, a person who needs medication to function. I feel ashamed!

Friend: I understand. But if you had diabetes, would you feel ashamed about needing insulin?

iii.

I jam the keys back in the ignition and roar off. Hours pass. I drive. I cry. Near midnight, I take my parents’ exit and cruise down their street. I slow to a stop in front of their home. Lights off. Silence. I try to imagine how I’d break the news. Hi, Pastor. Hi, Pastor’s Wife. I’m your daughter–the one with such weak faith she used PRESCRIPTION DRUGS instead of prayer to help her with anxiety. Yes, she was a bad example, your daughter. A very poor Christian witness. But wait, Mom and Dad. I have some good news! I wanted to be a strong Christian. I wanted to be pleasing to you and God. So, I quit the meds. I don’t need them anymore, see? God saved me, God delivered me from all my fears and now, look! I’m all better!

And then I laugh.

Because that was the kind of crazy I used to call normal. It’s the kind of madness I called ecstasy–a strange, religious high from my former life–back when God was my drug. Back then, I thought I could just “pray away” my anxiety. But I’m not living that life anymore. I’ve made a new life for myself. I just need to go home to it.

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea, Rolf Winquist 1957

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea, Rolf Winquist 1957

iv.

Text Message:

Elizabeth, are you home yet? Please go home. You are loved.
You are precious. You are whole. Text me when you get home. Then call me tomorrow morning.

v.

This is what surrender looks like: a glass of water and two white pills in the palm of my hand. I stare at them, these little pills that keep me sane. I’ve gone three days without them. My mind is a howling, jagged whirlwind. I slug down the pills and bang the cup down on the counter. I’m still upset about this–that I need these pills, that I can’t just CONTROL my anxiety myself. I wish–I wish to GOD–that I’d had a different past, hadn’t been raised in a cult, wasn’t such an anxiety freak all the time and—I hear the click of little nails on tile and my dog scampers into the kitchen, tail wagging. She loves me. Anxious, sensitive, often triggered soul that I am–to this dog, I am lovable and perfect. I scoop her up in my arms and carry her to bed with me.

vi.

Morning: the howling in my mind has quieted but my brain feels bruised and fragile, wobbly like half-set Jell-O. I pick up the phone and make the call–because I need help.

“Of course I can get the twins from school,” my Dad says, kindly. “You OK?”

“I–I was at your house last night,” I say, suddenly. “I–I drove away because I was ashamed. I just don’t want to disappoint you. I didn’t want to be…The Daughter With Emotional Problems, ya know?”

I cover my mouth, shocked. I’d spilled it all out.

Dad is quiet and then he chuckles. “Oh, Liz, I love ya. And thanks for bein’ honest with me! I want you to know I’ve learned a few things in the past few years. I’m not disappointed in you, I’m glad you’re getting the help you need.”

“Oh—. Thank you, Dad.”

“And you can come to our house anytime. Anytime, ya hear? All you gotta do is knock on the door. Sittin’ out in in the dark isn’t gonna do ya any good!”

He’s right. I’m tired of sitting in the dark. I have nothing to be ashamed of–I’m a survivor. Yes, I have scars. Deep ones. But I’m getting the help I need. And I love the person I’m becoming….

Source: a la gracie; tumblr

Source: a la gracie; tumblr