Category Archives: RecoveringFundamentalist

“I’m depressed and living hurts too much…”

The following is a “deleted scene” from my book (available March, 2014). It is the story of my two-week stay at a retreat center specializing in emotional healing and codependency issues. I am sharing this story in the hopes that those who have suffered similarly will know they are not alone and those in positions of religious authority will understand the devastating, long-term impact of spiritual abuse. Comments are open. Be kind.

I.

IMG_6016

I’ve been out of an abusive church for years but I’m still making the same mistake: I still don’t take care of myself. I keep burning out. I survive on caffeine and adrenaline.

By all measures my life is far better than it used to be. I should feel healed.

But my skin is on fire, elbows and feet flaring with psoriasis scales. I want to unzip my skin and crawl out of it. My hands shake, full of fear and trembling.

I’m going to a two week retreat center because I’m depressed as hell and living hurts too much. There. That’s the honest truth.

I grip my boarding pass tightly, so tightly my knuckles might start sweating blood. I stare at the bar-code as if I can somehow decipher the meaning behind the lines, trace the trajectory that led me here—trembling in an airport, blindsided by one glaring, uncomfortable truth: fundamentalism worked; it successfully broke me.

In the very core of who I am, I still believe I’m not good enough. No matter how successfully we’ve rebuilt our lives, no matter how recovered we look—deep down, I’m still a frightened little girl.

Something is missing.

I get in line to board my flight because I need help, because I am serious about my recovery. I now understand that there is no quick-fix that will permanently cure me. Extricating myself from what I experienced is like sorting the wheat from the chaff—the good is sown in with the bad.

I am going into treatment because I am determined to get better.

II.

IMG_6299

“We don’t break our horses, we invite them into a partnership with us,” Alyssa says, her bright eyes sparkling beneath the broad brim of her cowboy hat.

It’s my third day at the retreat center. We’ve been standing on this windswept hill for what seems like an eternity doing nothing but watch horses. Horses standing. Horses grazing. Horses doing absolutely nothing. Alyssa tells us that being still and simply watching horses is an exercise in developing our inner observer.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be observing, here, other than my raging boredom.

Being still is damn uncomfortable.

“You’re on horse-time now,” Alyssa says. “For those of us accustomed to rushing around, being on horse-time is really difficult. When I first started working with horses I couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes.

I shift my weight from foot to foot, ball my hands into fists and push them into the pockets of my windbreaker. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to control a horse without breaking her and I certainly don’t understand how being on horse-time will improve my relationship with myself and with God.

Still, there is something about Alyssa’s way of being that intrigues me. She is loose and easeful. She walks gently, slowly and intentionally. She talks casually and easily to her horses as if they’re native English speakers. I have no idea how this is working but it’s obvious the horses understand her because they gently respond.

I am utterly baffled. This is a language I don’t understand. I am not accustomed to gentleness, partnership and relationships between equals. I am accustomed to harshness, black-and-white hierarchies and mutually destructive relationships. The language Alyssa shares with her horses is utterly foreign but I can clearly see the results: mutual respect and implicit trust. This is love.

Quite unexpectedly, I see the connection to my own life and it takes my breath away.

I learned to relate to God through punishment.

My first experience of God happened beneath a paddle. I was spanked until my will was broken.

I was spanked until the deepest belief I held was that love is punishment.

 III.IMG_5795

In the treatment center, I have homework.

My program director has instructed me to create a timeline of my life, listing all major events and relationships in chronological order. “The point of this exercise,” she tells me, “is to discover your own, unique relational pattern.”

It takes me a several pages to complete the time line. Then, working from a list of signs and characteristics, I color-code each relationship with my most common behaviors.

When I’m done, an obvious pattern has emerged.

It is uncomfortably, devastatingly true: I have unrealistic expectations of others in relationships, I seek to avoid rejection and abandonment at any cost, I mistake intensity for intimacy and most of all, I feel a deep sense of worthlessness and therefore use relationships to relieve emotional pain.

I’ve attached to friendships, correspondences, Facebook “friends,” blogging “friends,” attended conferences in hopes of finding that Perfect Best Friend, bounced around churches hoping to find The Perfect Church, emailed bloggers I adored, texted, weaseled and grasped for relationships to fill, fill, fill—fill what? A bottomless chasm of aching need.

I don’t have a drinking problem. I don’t have a substance abuse problem. I am hooked on relationships.

I stare at my timeline and I see the source of my relational pattern: lack of nurturing and attention while young triggered feelings of shame and inherent worthlessness. If I am ever to fully recover, I will need daily connection with a higher power Who loves me unconditionally. The key to my emotional healing and my spiritual future is letting God love me.

And there it is, the missing piece: I don’t know how to receive God’s love. I don’t know how to receive grace. The core of my spiritual struggle is with self-loathing.

IV.

IMG_5874

This is what I understand: there will never be one, final cure for my religiously wounded heart. I will always bear the scars. And there will even be times when I feel the pain anew. But each day, I can choose to take care of myself. I can choose to let God love me.

This is what I know: I can’t save the world from fundamentalism, but I can save myself. There are things I cannot change, but I ask God for the courage to help me change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

This is my story: God has given me a future and a hope.

This is my song: I am not afraid.

IMG_6283

How to recover from a damaging church experience

Texas Sky When someone has endured a damaging church experience, I’ve noticed one common theme: they leave exhausted. Burned out. Some are on the brink of a physical breakdown.

Here are some simple tools I’ve found helpful in aiding my own physical, spiritual and emotional recovery.

I hope something here is helpful for you, too. (Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comment box!)

 

1. REST Special care must be given to physical health. People emerging from high-demand groups have often neglected their bodies for months or years. It’s not their fault. They’ve been so busy working for the church that there was literally no time to care for their own needs. They are probably chronically sleep-deprived. They probably haven’t been to a dentist in a long time. They may be severely overweight or underweight. When I first left my fundamentalist cult, I was unable to mentally process what had just happened. I needed SPACE and REST. I needed to care for my physical needs FIRST before I could even begin to unpack the emotional and spiritual impact of what I’d just endured.

2. SUPPORT GROUP: Ideally, a person emerging from a damaging church has an outside network of friends or relatives who can help him/her transition to life outside the church. If not, finding a support group/therapist is vital. Depression and anxiety flourish in isolation. Leaving a church can sometimes feel like a divorce. It’s important to find support as soon as possible to sustain a sense of community and avoid the dangers of isolation.

3. DAILY JOURNAL: Keeping a daily journal to record the experience of “church withdrawal” is enormously helpful. Many people emerging from a harmful church probably stuffed their feelings or ignored them. It will be difficult at first to jot these things down. Begin with one sentence. Keep it simple. Example: “Today I ate oatmeal for breakfast.” Or: “I feel anxious about finding a new job.” Or: “I miss the Smiths today.” Journaling is a way to get to know yourself–maybe for the first time. This is extremely important in the process of recovery from a harmful church.

4. LOVE LISTS: Some people call these “gratitude lists” or “counting blessings” but that might sound too ‘church-y’ for people trying to recover from a damaging church. I like to call them “love lists.” I find something I love each day and record it in a separate book (not my daily journal). For me, these are usually “mental snapshots” I took each day. Example: I loved watching my twins play make-believe today. Other ideas: create a Pinterest “love” board and pin favorite fashions or pictures from each day. I’ve discovered that when I consistently keep a record of things I love each day AND things I’m thankful for each day, my happiness grows.

5. Affirmation Box: Depending how deeply involved you were in a church, you probably experienced some kind of thought control. It’s important to “deprogram” your mind by placing new, fresh, positive thoughts inside your brain. I have a little recipe box where I stash quotes, poems and positive affirmations. I keep some on my mirror or my purse each day where I can see them. I read them aloud to myself before bed. I copied verses that name God’s POSITIVE attributes so I could re-think how I understood God. I also created a CD of songs called “New Brain” and it was full of non-triggering music. If I have vivid dreams, I write them down the next day. It’s important to remember that your brain was affected by the church environment. But your brain CAN heal. :

6. Service Projects: As you begin to heal physically and spiritually, you will discover you have more energy! One of the best ways to keep the positive recovery going is by helping others. I try to do at least one thing each day that is purely altruistic. I love making people happy. And helping others actually helps me, too. This can be as simple as: walking around the neighborhood and engaging in friendly chat. Giving someone a ride. Bringing sharpened pencils and paper to a school (schools are always running out of copy paper!). Writing an encouraging note to someone.

 

What simple tools have helped YOU recover from a harmful church (or life) experience?
Do you have a story to share or something to add? 

Packing for the end of the world…er, I mean: for camping.

photoIn my fantasies, going on family vacation is full of “making memories” and good old fashioned fun. We’ll make lanyards and sing songs around the campfire! We’ll go for an invigorating hike and take in the breathtaking views! We’ll roast marshmallows!

For whatever reason, I always seem to leave out the reality of family camping trips: dirt, ticks, kids whining, bad food, camping gear falling out the back of our camper on the freeway, fungal camp bathrooms, irritable park rangers, other loud campers, blowing a tire on our car, keeping the camper clean, dirt, mud, somebody poking an eye out with a hot wire hanger, dirt, exhaustion, work, dirt and more dirt.

We used to own a pop-up trailer and it was fun the first time we went camping. After that, it was just exhausting. You always had to crank this or jack up that, manhandle the fold-out couches/beds, duct-tape this and jury-rig that, only pee and never poop in the bathroom, use the kitchenette faucet but the not the bathroom faucet. Every time we pulled into camp, it took at least three hours to unpack everything and by then, I was ready to go home.

I think I could enjoy family vacations again if I could just do this thing called: adjusting my expectations. Mainly, I need to stop fantasizing about All The Memories We’ll Make and just be pleasantly surprised if we all arrive home in one piece.

If I can go into a family vacation expecting we’ll break down on the freeway like ten minutes into the trip or that I’m not going to sleep well for an entire week or that things are Just Gonna Get Dirty And It’s OK–then maybe I could enjoy family vacations again.

I feel like I need to do this for the kids’ sake. After all, they only seem to have fantastic, amazing, when-can-we-do-it-again? memories from our camping trips and family vacations. They barely even remember The Great Rain Out of 2005 when it rained for days, flooded our campsite, soaked half our food, muddied everything and freaked me out so badly that I fled into town and booked myself into a hotel room. To me, that was the WORST trip ever. But all my kids remember is how much fun they had splashing around in the puddles.

After the twins were born, we quit family vacations for a few years. I mean, there was just so much stuff to schlepp and I we didn’t have a personal sherpa. We only took a few Mommy & Daddy Alone trips because I figured *I* was the one who needed a vacation. But now, the twins are five and I’m suddenly seized with that feeling of: they’re growing up! ack! we need to make memories!

The older kids have told the twins about our trips to Yosemite–remember when Jude almost drowned in the river? yeah, ha ha that was AWESOME! and remember when we went surfing at Refugio State Beach over Thanksgiving weekend and that one guy was FRYING his turkey in peanut oil?–and the twins just stare at the older kids like: wow, our family was such a cool family before WE showed up!

And then they turn to me: “Mommy, why can’t WE go on a trip? When? WHEN? We wanna go camping in the rain!”

O, children. Ye know not ye ask.

But they won’t listen. Excuses, excuses, the say.

They have a point. The twins aren’t babies anymore. My book is almost done. The older kids can help around camp. Oh, dude. I’m gonna have to do this, aren’t I? Worse? We sold the pop-up camper. We’re gonna have to do this family vacation IN A TENT.

Or maybe I could just procrastinate and then, whoops, it’s time to go back to school!

I know what I’ll do: I’ll pretend we’re preparing for the apocalypse. As long as I can get myself into a IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD! mentality, I can whip up enough adrenaline to pack, wrap and stack our camping supplies in record time. Nothing motivates me like impending fire and brimstone.

Being raised fundamentalist has its benefits. The End of the World may not be at hand, but at least I know how to kickass at camping!

Not all wire hangers are misogynists. Apparently.

A few months ago, I had an embarrassing incident with some wire hangers in my closet. I had set out to organize! cleanse! make all things new!

But the wire hangers, they were acting all privileged. Hogging too much room. Patriarchal, really. Wire hangers, as we all know, are EFFING MISOGYNISTS, AM I RIGHT????

Ahem. Forgive me, this will all make sense momentarily.

The Wire Hanger Meltdown was followed by The Pool Chair Incident. Because, obviously, Pool Chair is just another way of saying Cult Leader–especially when it refuses to properly recline and instead crashes down, landing your ass on the cement pool deck.

“Mommy, why are you crying?”

“BECAUSE THE EFFING CULT LEADER THREW ME ON THE GROUND!”

“You mean the pool chair?”

“No. I mean THE CULT LEADER.”

And that is what we call “My Rock Bottom Moment.” Clearly, I needed help. Probably this came as no surprise to anyone but myself.

: :

I’d been getting emails. Messages. Tweets.

I don’t like your tone, Elizabeth. You sound different. You sound angry. Not all churches are cults, Elizabeth. Not all men are cult leaders. You’re being unfair, unkind, preposterous. Sometimes you have good things to say, Elizabeth, but your tone is so harsh. Why are you so bitter? Why can’t you just move on? Stop being such a victim, Elizabeth. Maybe you should write a disclaimer before you share your experiences because your abuse is not the norm. –Signed, A Caring Reader.

I mean, enough people tell you the same thing and you finally gotta check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Which I did. I checked myself right into an Online Timeout. I’ve been quiet lately.

: :

Back to the story. I was angry. Very angry. Mostly, at God. And pastors. And churches. And apparently, pool chairs. Little League. Citibank. Wire hangers. Cult leaders. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the anger.

Anger is exhausting. I think I read that in the book of Revelation. Which is to say, when you’re angry, you view all of life through an angry filter. It was like I put on my angry glasses each morning and went hunting for Bad Pastors, Bad Churches and Bad Theology.

This is an exhausting way to live.

I don’t know whether my rock bottom was burnout, anxiety or generalized hysteria but I’m pretty sure it was a combination of all three. The Interwebz can you make you batshit cray, this we know.

Point is, I put my ass in timeout—oh, wait. I’ve already said this. This, you see, is what happens when you’re angry: you forget you’ve already said things and then you start repeating yourself over and over until people are like: yeah, yeah, we GET IT. YOU WERE ABUUUUSED.

: :

I’ve been working a 12 step program. This is uncomfortable. Mainly, because at some point you have to stop talking about All The Ways You’ve Been Hurt and start taking responsibility for the ways you hurt others.

This is annoying. Also, profoundly difficult. I would really rather skip this part.

But I won’t. I’m gonna work it.

: :

I’ve been wrestling with questions:

At what point does the victim become the abuser?

At what point does my anger no longer serve me?

: :

I read this article about survivors of the Holocaust. The researcher was trying to find out why certain survivors went on to live meaningful, productive lives after all they’d endured? I can’t remember the details, but basically, it was that the survivors who lived long, meaningful lives maintained a deep faith and an optimistic spirit. They didn’t just define themselves by their awful experience, they proactively sought ways to make the world a better place for others–even if it was just their families.

: :

A whole person cannot be solely defined by what she stands against. A whole person must stand for something, too.

: :

I have lashed out, criticized, deconstructed, questioned and chided the religious powers that be. This was an important part of my journey and I honor it. But I made mistakes along the way and despite my good intentions, I have hurt people. I hurt myself.

I set out to organize! set right! cleanse! make all things new!

But I got entangled somehow. The weapons that were used against me I used against others.

The problem was not so-and-so-pastor or so-and-so-church. My mistake was playing whack-a-mole with every suspicious church or pastor that came across my radar. Sure, I can react, react, react all day. But then what?

In other words, what am I doing to build up the Church? What am I doing to edify and create new, healthy culture within the Church?

Criticism is necessary but it’s not enough.
I can’t build a culture of love and peace using weapons of hate and warfare. 

: :

I don’t have all the answers, here. But I want you to know I’m taking time to examine myself, to check my motives and sincerely seek to understand how I can use my words to effect positive change. Thank you for being patient with me…..

When God is your abuser

I was being abused and I asked Jesus to help me. I was a little girl–the age of my own twin daughters–and I was away at Bible Camp. I asked Jesus to help me. I prayed over and over. I asked Him to make it stop. But Jesus didn’t make it stop.

This has been–and continues to be–a huge struggle for me. I do not trust God. And why should I? The God I knew was wrathful and harsh. The God I knew didn’t protect me from my abusers. The God I knew was stone silent in the face of my desperate supplications.

Over time, I transferred my abusers’ traits to my concept of God. I lived in constant fear of punishment and yet, I also believed that punishment was love. They love me and this is why they hit me.

I began to believe that I was unlovable and inherently bad. I certainly didn’t deserve love and I always had to earn it. Love was given or withheld based on my level of obedience. My father told me God’s love was conditional. If I disobey I will be disowned by God and my parents.

As a female being raised in a highly-patriarchal culture, I never developed my own understanding of God because God’s will would be made known to me through my father and husband. My father was God for me and later, my husband was God for me.

This is probably one of the most dangerous lies of patriarchy: a human being (aka, father, husband, pastor) is God for you. It is the most dangerous lie because if someone controls your concept of God, they control everything.

The result for me was that I cast away my childhood and tried to become a little adult, always trying harder to be good and perfect and without spot or blemish. I lived a scrupulously rigid life but I never measured up. They hit me because they love me.

My survival skills included: controlling every little detail of my life, numbing/abandoning my feelings, avoidance and indirect communication.

I rarely spoke directly or asked for what I needed and wanted. I hinted, suggested or spoke in a baby voice. Like this? Maybe? Pwetty pwease? All kinds of hedging and equivocation. As I grew older I used my words to lash out, to criticize and to question. I whiplashed between passive-aggressive language and harsh, attacking words.

When someone treated me abusively, I adopted coping mechanisms like avoidance. I never confronted their abusive treatment and I even avoided my own feelings about it. It was better to look away, pretend it never happened, everything is fine! la-la-la-la.

I controlled every aspect of my life by following a rigid schedule, becoming scrupulous and harshly critical about my personal appearance, my body, my daily schedule and my confession lists.

But all the control and scrupulosity didn’t take away my deep, real need for love. I turned my focus to relationships: seeking friendships and romantic love which would fulfill, heal and make me whole. My emotional intensity enabled me to become deeply intimate with people very quickly. But when someone got too close, I pulled away.

When I left the abusive church environment, I still found the abusive God everywhere I went. It seemed so many Christians believed in a harsh, judgmental concept of God because they were harsh with themselves and others. But I desperately wanted fellowship and I agreed to the terms they set in order to belong. If you want to be part of our fellowship, you must accept our concept of God.

I was willing, once again, to sacrifice my freedom for the feeling of belonging–even if that love and belonging was a substitute for real love.

I never took the time to develop my own understanding of God. I just kept accepting everyone else’s version of God. I kept trying make their interpretation of God my own.

I discounted the few times I’d sensed a kind, benevolent God gently guiding my life because I didn’t trust myself. So-and-so pastor says God doesn’t work that way so I must be wrong.

I hit rock bottom after realizing that even though I was no longer a helpless child, I continued to re-victimize myself by recreating the dysfunctional environment of my childhood.

Numbing myself was a coping mechanism necessary for surviving my dysfunctional childhood but it no longer helps me, it hinders my recovery.

I slowly came to God through the back door, indirectly. I made a connection with Mary. She was safe. She was maternal. She was gentle. I could hide myself in her skirts instead of looking directly at God.

That was a necessary step in my recovery and it was what I needed at the time. But Mary wasn’t God and she couldn’t effect the full recovery I needed. It has become clear to me that a full recovery means facing my root issue: my unhealthy view of God.

I am learning to listen to the wordless language of feelings. Where words have often destroyed and damaged my concept of God, feeling the feelings God gave me is leading me back to myself. God gave me my feelings and I’m allowed to feel them. I don’t need to repress, avoid, manipulate, deny or shame my feelings.

I am learning a new way of living.

I am taking care of myself. I am learning to listen to my gut instinct. As I have begun coming back to myself and taking care of myself, I am being led into a healthy relationship with God that is gentle, trusting and loving.

I don’t have to use all the same words as everyone else in order to still have a relationship with God. I can use words that are helpful and put aside the ones that are triggering.

Whenever I feel a tightening sensation in my chest or stomach, I know I’m reverting back to old, abusive concepts of God. But whenever I feel a warmth, looseness and easiness in my chest and stomach, I feel myself relaxing into God as I understand God.

I am learning the paradoxical truth: loving myself leads to loving God and others.

I have a long way to go, but slowly, my understanding of God is separating from the traits of my abusers.

 

Elizabeth Smart & the life-threatening danger of shame-based purity culture

*trigger warning: rape, victim blaming*

I read an interesting line in the New Yorker yesterday, describing an important characteristic about one of the kidnapped girls who was recently rescued in Cleveland:

…she had to never forget who she was, and that who she was mattered..

She had to never forget that who she was mattered.

This line haunts me, especially when juxtaposed against the despair Elizabeth Smart felt after she was kidnapped: 

 …Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

What is the difference between a kidnapped girl who actively looks for escape and the one who does not? One possible answer: she knows and owns her inherent worth.

I realize there are many contributing factors but we can’t underestimate the importance that a girl believes she is important. She believes she matters. She never forgets who she is and that who she is matters. She has an unshakeable belief that no matter what happens to her in captivity, SHE is always valuable.

When I started writing about the harmful effects of purity culture, I overlooked one of the most terrible, unintended consequences: when you teach young women that her identity and worth is tied to her virginity, you make her more vulnerable to despair if she is raped and thus, reduce her chance of survival.

A despairing rape victim is less likely report her rape. A despairing kidnap victim is less likely to actively seek escape. Because what would be the point? Why would it even be worth screaming about? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.

A girl who is raised in purity culture and then is raped may eventually realize that the parenting methods her parents used essentially conditioned her to be… a victim of non-consensual sex. And why would a purity-culture-girl report her rape when, as Jori’s story shows, she’d just be blamed for it anyway: “This sort of thing doesn’t happen to godly girls,” [her parents] told her. “You put yourself in a situation for this sort of thing to happen.”

Even for girls who are not raped or sexually molested but who grew up hearing the shame-based messages of purity culture, the resulting despair can have long-term negative effects on their married sex lives. I’ve received emails from young women who, because they had so internalized the message that My Worth Can Be Measured By My Virginity, felt horrifically guilty after “losing their virginity” on their wedding night. Some of these women still do not enjoy sex. Others have yet to experience an orgasm.

As one of my own friends said to me: “If you’ve been told your whole life no-no-no about sex, how do you just flip that switch after you’re married to yes-yes-yes?”

Ultimately, purity culture  isn’t about sex, it’s about control. It’s about burrowing inside a woman’s heart and soul and mind to control how she views her body, her worth and whether she is lovable. Of course, this is done with the best intentions: protecting young women from unnecessary heartbreak.

But by using shame-based messages about sex, purity culture proponents actually expose their daughters to other kinds of danger: learned helplessness and a debilitating despair that prevents them from believing they are inherently valuable, no matter what they do and no matter what happens to them.

Believing she is valuable–no matter what–may literally save her life.

The New Misogyny: “bro-culture” pastors, sexist Christian comedians and abuse apologetics disguised as female empowerment

When I was growing up, the Christian misogynist wore a suit and tie, poured on enough cologne to slay an elephant and toted a Bible the size of an encyclopedia. This pastor boomed Biblical pronouncements from the pulpit and quoted lots of Scripture to defend his abusive, anti-woman teachings.

You know, I kinda miss the Old School Misogynist. At least he was obvious. At least he didn’t pretend to be all pro-woman.

These days, the Christian misogynist is far more subtle. He probably wears hip clothing and may even use feminist jargon to disguise his underlying sexism.

These are the pastors who tweet and talk endlessly about their smokin’ hot wives.   These are the “Christian comedians” who write dating manifestos about why Christian “girls” don’t have boyfriends. Apparently, reading your Bible at Starbucks is NOT attractive to these men. Maybe you should try wearing white shorts to a prayer meeting.

What makes me ill is that these are men are my peers. These guys are not my Dad’s age. These guys are not my grandfather. These men should know better.

It’s even more discouraging when you call their views offensive only to be told by their yes-men, “Hey, can’t you take a joke?”

This is the New Misogyny: when huge bloggers like Jon Acuff claim that sexist jokes about women help “clear away the clutter of Christianity so we can see the beauty of Christ.”

This is the New Misogyny: when bestselling Christian authors tell “girls” how to live a better love story by being a supporting character in a story a man is writing. [Note: Don Miller took down that post, but I never heard him recant his harmful view of women.]

This is the New Misogyny: when Prodigal magazine publishes sexist articles under the guise of satire and “truth telling.” Oh, yes.  John B. Crist believes his sexist humor is excusable because he’s JUST TELLING THE TRUTH.

 

[Note: Prodigal removed that post w/o explanation]

This is the New Misogyny: when a popular author of many books on Christian ministry and spirituality asks women why they don’t comment on his blog and then he dismisses their answers.

This is the New Misogyny: when a woman engaging theology blogs under a male pseudonym is treated with greater respect than when she comments as her female persona.

This is the New Misogyny: when “Biblical Marriagists” claim they’re empowering women while defending the very theology that oppresses them.

You guys. What is happening, here?

It’s not that I doubt the sincerity of all these Christians. In fact, it’s their sincerity which troubles me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years in an abusive church, it’s that the most dangerous abuse apologetic comes from a sincere heart and good intentions.

And the most subtle form of spiritual abuse is cloaked in messages of empowerment.

I guess when you’re hip and sincere, nobody suspects you of misogyny. You can tell the same lies about women that have been told for thousands of years and all anybody will see is the sincerity of your heart and your precious nerd glasses.

*due to an anti-feminist website sending an influx of trolling commenters, comments for this post are now closed.*

Precious and Free

I took the children to a park we haven’t been to in a long time. When they were little, we went almost every day.

The park looks different now: old, weathered, worn-out. Two of the slides had been torn out, the holes boarded up with plywood. There was graffiti on two benches. So many weeds–a missing drinking fountain.

I used to go to that park when I was a lost, floundering young mom desperately trying to rebuild a new life after the cult. I was 25 with 3 kids under 3. I felt so alien in mainstream America. Everyone seemed so normal and I felt like such a freak show. I mean, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be friends with a woman who grew up in a cult.

So, I poured everything into my husband and children. I gave all. I clung to the remaining pieces of my disintegrating faith.

T.S. Eliot once wrote: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

That’s what I was doing. I was shoring up fragments, desperately trying to cobble together a life–a way of being–after everything had been destroyed.

One spring, butterflies came to the park. They fluttered over us, dozens of them in the spring sunshine. There were daisies growing in wild abundance that year. And sometimes, while the children played, I just sat quietly under the trees and listened to the sound of wind in the branches above me.

I was so different then, so blindly optimistic, so sure willpower alone could save us and restore us to sanity. We took family pictures in that park. We picnicked there. I was so certain that if I just kept doing the right things, kept praying, kept reading my Bible, kept trying to build a new, religious scaffolding upon which to hang my worldview–things would get better.

I had such dreams then. Such hopes. I kept my focus on outward things, on doing and working and trying. But sometimes, during those quiet moments under the trees I sensed something was amiss inside me—that the cult wasn’t external. The cult was within. 

But I didn’t let myself go there. I didn’t want to see that. I wanted to live in denial. Just before the twins arrived I was reaching this point where I couldn’t ignore the darkness anymore. I was keenly feeling the loss of myself. I was beginning to think God had abandoned me…but then, twins!

Suddenly, I had new purpose! I was busy again! Nothing mattered but the new babies. Once again I could stop feeling that deep discomfort about the problem within me. Once again, I gave all. I gave every last bit.

But this time, my body couldn’t keep up. I had been placing these kinds of demands on myself since childhood. Cults keep people so busy and frantic that you are living blindly–rushing from one thing to the next without ever slowing down long enough to realize: something is terribly wrong, here. You sense something is wrong but you tell yourself it’s OK because you’re burning out for God.

Without knowing it, I had simply recreated the chaotic, frantically busy environment of my childhood. I was no longer burning out for God, I was burning out for Little League and PTA and enriching activities for my children! I was also recreating toxic relationships. I became enmeshed and entangled in other people’s problems. I tried to fix and solve and rescue people from All the Problems. And then, when they didn’t take my advice I became resentful, angry, obsessive and would lash out.

I filled up my life with more things–good things!–but always more things. I didn’t know that frantic urgency was unhealthy. All the other good Americans seemed to be doing it! No matter how much I did, I never felt good enough.

What I learned the hard way was that either I’d stop the crazy or my body would stop it for me.

Two years after the twins were born, I broke down. I was depressed and constantly sick. I was chronically sleep deprived and so totally exhausted that it took my doctor commanding me to TAKE A REST for me to finally realize that it was possible to die of “natural causes/burnout” by age 32.

Slowly, I began prioritizing taking care of myself.

The answer to my recovery was not a new religious system and it was not going back to the old one, either. The answer to a healthy life and healthy relationships was not in attending church, volunteering in the PTA or doing more for others.

The answer was to start taking care of myself. The answer was to love myself.

I began with a small step: getting enough sleep at night. Then I began exercising. Then I started eating a little healthier each day. I went back to therapy. I began a 12-step recovery program.

I now understand there are no shortcuts to living a healthy life and having healthy, equal-partnered relationships. I am learning to detach with love from people and relationships that are toxic and unhealthy. I am learning to develop relationships slowly, taking as much time as I need to discover whether I like this new person and how to create healthy, appropriate boundaries for them. I am learning that I can’t be everyone’s best friend.

I am learning to feel my uncomfortable feelings, the ones that come from building new, healthy habits and patterns of behavior. Like running, building a healthy life feels painful and uncomfortable at first. But there is a difference between healthy, healing pain and unhealthy, damaging pain. Before I started getting healthy, I tolerated unhealthy discomfort: high-levels of drama, spiritual abuse and becoming ensnared in other people’s problems.

I’m no longer trying to escape my past or run away from it. I’m no longer trying to escape my present moment. I’m learning to recognize the things I can change and the things I cannot change. I am learning to live less frantically.

I now understand that God never abandoned me. I abandoned myself.

I found God again by taking care of myself. I am learning to trust God again because God loves me unconditionally.

I accept that things will never be perfect. There will be weeds, broken playgrounds and missing water fountains.

But there will also be patches of daisies growing in wild, unexpected abundance, precious and free.

Belts and spatulas: a story of spanking, fear, failure and redemption

I had the pleasure of “meeting” Josh Barkey online awhile ago and was struck by his gentle spirit, vulnerable honesty and commitment to art. He has written a book called “Immortality Stories” and I wanted to honor the journey he has traveled. Here is part of Josh’s story. I think it will resonate with many of you. EE.

: :

The worst part was always the waiting.

“Your dad will be home soon,” she’d say, “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done,” and I’d trudge the long hallway to crumple onto my bed, fighting the tears.

I did not, of course, ever actually think about what I’d done. What I thought about was the ball of acid-coated lava rolling around in my gut, sending shooting tendrils of dread out into my extremities. I thought about the belt, or spatula, or whatever happened to be in vogue that week.

I thought about the command to “Lean over the bed;” the sharp, stinging pain; and his unheard after-words as he wrapped me in his arms and explained why it was I’d had to be spanked.

My dad is a gentle man. A kind man. He did not enjoy hitting me.

But he was taught that a father who loves his child hits his child, and he loved me more than his own distaste for violence. He wasn’t about to “spare the rod” and spoil his child, so he acted out a ritual we both hated, and told himself it was the Right Thing to Do.

Sometimes I wonder how, with parents as loving as mine, I ended up being so afraid. Afraid of God. Of myself. Of life.

How did fear worm down into my heart? How did fear of an uncertain future push a recent college graduate into a relationship for which he was not yet ready, taking him to the altar and beyond? How did fear become so entrenched that he was unable to communicate in a way that would make his wife feel fully loved and cherished, saving the marriage so that his own son didn’t have to grow up between two homes… so he didn’t have to try to figure out this spanking stuff on his own?

I don’t know.

Life is too vast and complicated, I think, to ever blame a fear or a failure on just one thing. To say, “This, Josh, is why—despite everyone’s assurances that you were a natural-born writer and painter and odd-angled thinker—you were never able to believe it, take the step, and just Be who you Are.”

But I wonder, in this my thirty-third year, if perhaps those long, fear-filled hallway trudges might have something to do with it.

I wonder if now, having written my way free of enough of my own fear that I could take my son aside and say I was sorry, and never again would he be spanked, I wonder if it might just be safe to acknowledge that it is never a good thing to instill fear in a child.

That making is oh-so-much-harder than breaking, and that freedom to live at peace with yourself, God, and the world is only ever found when all the weapons have been beaten into plowshares. When belts just hold up pants, and spatulas only ever mix up cookie dough, as God intended. 

- – -

Josh Barkey is a writer and all-around artist who lives in an ivy-draped shed in North Carolina, and has found the courage to plunge into life as a full-time Maker. If you’d like to read more and support him in this, you can find the website for his new book at immortalitystories.com, or visit his blog at joshbarkey.com