Sunday, April 30, 2006

Fear and Hope

We're in the process of selling our house so we can move to another state. We're moving because we've been so unhappy here since the Exodus from the Cult. The worst thing is that we can't seem to make friends or build relationships in this town that are more than just casual, or last more than a short time. Even our kids have experienced this. I don't think it's because we're social weirdos, I think it's because what we've been through has set us apart in many ways. We have no history that we can tell people about. We're like Witness Protection Program people.

I've been walking our property this evening admiring the honeysuckle and the oleander in bloom, and appreciating anew that right in the middle of a booming town our home feels like the countryside. All of the fences are lined with thick, tall, mostly lovely trees and bushes. There is deep shade and puddles of sunlight, and two dogs that run beside me as I walk. There is a porch swing, and a treehouse.

I told God that I'm afraid because he blessed us with such an unusual, pretty, peaceful property and yet I was never able to be happy here. This huge backyard was meant for big barbecues and frisbee games and kids' campouts... but we've been so alone since we've lived here. We bought it right before we left the Cult, and although we've had some people over now and then we've really been isolated.

I'm really fearful, I told God, that he will weigh me and find me ungrateful for our home here. That maybe I should have tried harder to make friends; to be content and happy; to fit in with the churches we visited; to not drink so much. I'm afraid that he will... not punish me exactly, because I don't think God works that way... but that whatever place we find to live in, in the new state will be ugly, small, bare, heart-cramping - because I couldn't be happy here.

I know a new location is not the answer to all my ills. After all, my heart is the source of many of my problems, and my heart goes with me wherever I go. But to have a new start, and to have extended family there - just to know someone will visit if we're in the hospital, for instance - it gives me hope. It makes me want to read the story of the Hebrews, and their Exodus, and the Promised Land they found.

There is no profound conclusion to all this rambling; just fear and hope, and the confession of both thrown out to God this evening while I walked outside.

Praise him.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Where Are They Now?

I've been thinking about the perpetrators of all this spiritual abuse and wondering where they might be in their own lives now. Specifically, I think about The Pastor and his Wife.

Shortly after Husband and I left the Fellowship, Pastor and Pastor's Wife left, too. He had gone a bit off the deep end... seemed to have a hugely inflated idea of his own importance. He'd had a remote-controlled fireplace installed in his church office, along with a wet bar (though no one drank alcohol.... go figure). Where once he had been accessible to the huddled masses outside his door, his Office now became a Holy of Holies where none were admitted except Pastor and his Weasel, The Assistant. (He's another story... oh brother, is he ever!)

The Cult regularly practiced shunning of members who left, so most people who left just disappeared and changed their phone numbers. Husband and I didn't want to slink away like we were doing something wrong, so we went before the congregation and told them we were leaving. It was a step akin to launching a Mt Everest expedition with no jacket or gloves.

When the Pastor and Wife left, they packed up their family in the middle of the night and sneaked out of town, running with their tails tucked to California. I think this is cowardly and despicable. They left a lot of desperate people behind, people who were only there because the Fellowship dictated that leaving was tantamount to leaving God.

I was indulging in a little resentment toward them the other day when something - maybe it was God, maybe it was gas - brought me up short. I started to think about the possible places these people could be in their own spiritual lives right now. Here are the possibilities I came up with:

1) They could be complacent, successful, and living happily ever after with no thought at all for the wreckage they left behind them. In this case, my response to them should be pity... they will have some awful abuses to answer for when they stand before God one day.

2) They could be where I am now: repentant of the havoc they wreaked in peoples' lives and struggling hard to extract meaning, and a genuine relationship with God from all of this - taking one and 1/2 steps forward and one step back so that progress is heartbreakingly slow. In that case, my response to them should be empathy: We're all on the same mountain, and I hope to God we all survive the climb.

3) They could have completely given up on the idea of God, or any eternal purpose in life. In this case, they'd have cast off all spiritual discipline. I hate to use rhetoric and churchy jargon like "backslidden," but... well, you know what I mean. After all, they were born and bred in the briar patch of the Cult - they don't know anything else. If this is the case, I should also pity them and fear for their souls. After all, I DO believe in an ultimate judgement before God.

I guess my resentment from them stems from the idea that they've gotten away with something. They basically lived the good life on the backs of the people while they were here and then left, presumably carefree, to live an even better life far away.

The Missionary once told me after she'd read the Psalms completely through that the biggest overall truth that she came away with was the truth that God is just. So I have to leave them to him. I'd like to hear them say someday that they were wrong, and that they're sorry. Realistically though, that may never happen.

The choice for me then becomes: do I trust in God's Justice, or do I nurture my resentment, as if that had power to accomplish anything at all in the world? It's sort of like asking a ditch digger if he wants to keep digging without pay, or if he wants to come on up out of the hole and rest.

No contest.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Ramblings on Spiritual Abuse Part II

A cult is a mind-boggling mixture of the heavenly and the hellish. People are close-knit in a warm, wonderful, better-than-family way. If you have family relationships like I had back then, this is an amazing, affirming experience. You're never lonely, ever. Many people have one or two best friends. I had about thirty. Everyone around you believes, and continually reinforces the idea, that you are God's favorite children, and that He has chosen your group to accomplish His purposes on the earth. To people who have wasted years, and made terrible, irreversible life choices back in the fields of sin, this kind of teaching is a life raft, and we all clung to it with a frenetic, slightly crazed desperation.

There is a darker side to life in a cult, of course. We lived by standards that even then were embarrassingly legalistic: No TVs, movies, or Internet. These were tools of Satan. Attendance at all church functions was compulsory, and occupied at least five - and often all seven - days of the week. If you missed church, someone came knocking on your door. If you didn't have a good reason for staying home, you could be removed from ministry. Divorced men were encouraged not to pay child support, but to give that money to the church instead, and many of them did. Friendships with people outside the church were discouraged, as was close contact with extended family members. Vacations out of town were subject to the approval of the pastor. The pastor decided who married whom, and when. The list goes on; it's not pretty.

People who have never been in a cult can't understand how others are drawn in. If you haven't been there, you're possibly one of the majority who rolls their eyes at stories like this, and says "Oh, puh-leeze! How could anyone fall for that?" Which I should tell you sounds very sanctimonious and unhelpful, and is one of the main reasons that people who come out of cults suffer and die alone, spiritually speaking. God's people are sometimes more interested in asserting their own doctrinal superiority than in helping to heal the wounded. That's just some food for thought.

The lure of a cult is subtle. For one thing, there's a percentage of truth in much of what's taught, and the rest may be an ever-so-slightly-twisted variation on Scripture, so it's easy to get lost and confused. The Pastor and the Holy Spirit begin to sound a lot alike, and the whole messy deal is sealed by a great whack of fear that if you miss God by questioning the teaching or going elsewhere you will be turning your back on God's plan for you, and then He will curse the snot out of you in a lot of very bad ways.

Coming out of the cult was a long, horrifying process. It is, without exception, the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. In one great leap of faith, we lost all of our friends, all of our children's friends, and everything I had ever believed was in our future. Worse, I had to admit to myself that I had spent eleven years deceived by my own need for self-righteousness, and my desire to atone for my own sinful past by becoming a super-achieving "Christian," because I secretly could not believe that Jesus was enough.

My husband was some help during this time, but he hadn't been as involved as I was, and he was able to move on with life. My children also got over it, much more quickly than I would have thought possible. Eventually, we saw other families that we had loved come out of the cult, and they all seemed to find good churches and to pick up a normal, healthy existence after only a few weeks of recovery.

I, on the other hand, fell apart. I got drunk and stayed that way for four years. I was a misfit in any church we tried to go to. I couldn't speak the language, couldn't seem to find a niche, or make real friends. At potlucks I would stand around with a plate in my hand and a big, frozen smile on my face, hoping someone would rescue me. They didn't, or couldn't, so I would slip away early, and go home and drink more than I had the day before. I tried to go to women's Bible studies, but the women there always seemed to be scared of where I'd been, and I didn't dare tell them where I was now. I was a Pod Person in a world of well-adjusted believers. I learned to keep my mouth shut and act happy, which I think is what the Church likes its more screwed-up members to do.

I desperately needed God, but I was afraid of Him. Who knew what He was going to do to me next? I was raw, and burned, and alone. And my huge, gnawing fear was that if I surrendered myself back over to Him, God would turn out not to be enough. It was a thought too terrifying to consider, and so I ran around on the backside of the desert doing the spiritual equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and humming loudly. From time to time I would take my fingers out, look up to heaven and shout to God that I was ready for Him to rescue me now. Then I would stick my fingers back in my ears and run around some more, because I was really, really scared that even He wouldn't be able to help, and if He couldn't be enough for me, then I knew I might as well pack it all in.

I had been around religiosity enough to know that I was not following the approved Spiritual Crisis Timeline. Four years was ridiculous. It was high time I got it back together, found a good church, and got back into the swing of things, or so I kept telling myself. It was sort of like a quadriplegic stating that now that the accident was over, it was time to jump up and start back on that jogging program again. What we want to do, and what we're able to do are not always remotely similar. I want to tell the story of what the journey looks like and God's grace to me during this time. I don't tell it for the pure, cathartic joy of placing myself under the microscope of other Christians, believe me. I want to tell this story because I am one of the ones who fell through the cracks in the Church, and there are far, far too many people who do. I want God's people to realize that there are Christians out there who are bleeding and dying, and afraid to say anything, because the Bride of Christ can't, or won't, handle the unpleasantness. I want those who are the wounded to stand up and force someone to listen to them. I want the Church to recognize God's troubled foster children, and to finally make a place for those who don't fit, and who shake up the cosmetics of what is churchy and acceptable. And I want the Church to put aside her superficiality, and do what she is here to do, which is to rescue the perishing, many of whom are right inside her own doors.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Churches, Part I

New Blog Worksheet

3/31… We tried a lot of churches when we left The Cult. First, Husband “felt led” to go to a Church of God in the area. I “felt led” that he was trying to relive the early days of his salvation, back when he was young and single and attended a COG college. He was generally the golden-haired boy back then; a young soldier “on fire for Jesus.” (Who are all of these flammable saints, I sometimes wonder? And isn’t God a teeny bit concerned about all this self-immolation in his name?) Anyway, Husband was made much of in his church in those days, and had all these fond memories of crazy road trips to Boston, and wacky pranks on weekend camping trips, and such. I wondered if his “leading” was really just a longing for those innocent days. Bless his heart; turns out it was.

The COG people were Nice. They met us at the door with wide, toothy smiles and you just knew they were sincere because they gave two-handed handshakes, every time. The pastor preached on the importance of the congregation extending itself to visitors: Don’t just stop at the door, he urged! Invite them home for dinner! Play volleyball with them on the weekends! Go out for coffee! Barbecue together! Amen, said the congregation! Only, the problem was, nobody ever did any of these things, at least not with us.

Our training in the Cult had taught us how to invite people home so we could feed them and become intimately involved in their lives. When no one invited us to their homes after several weeks, we got proactive. We began inviting them over. I dusted off my crock pot and weeded the flowerbeds. I vacuumed in all the corners. And the house stayed empty.

It seems all of these nice people had schedules that were just way too full for us. They weren’t insincere or unkind about it; they were simply too busy. They had families and activities and commitments and, well, these things do take up time. How can you argue with that?

We tried harder. I got involved with the women’s group, and my husband joined the men’s. We did Sunday school and prayer breakfasts. It was the same story there: big, warm smiles, and kind regrets that they were too busy for new friends right now.

I realize this is where I start to sound whiny. When I discussed this with The Missionary she told me impatiently that she and her family have always found new churches to be perfectly friendly. “Of course, we’re going into new churches as missionaries, and we’ve been specifically invited to speak,” she added thoughtfully. Um; yes.

I’m trying to make a point, actually. When we finally abandoned hopes of finding a home at the COG we wrote the pastor and his wife a letter telling them all of this. We weren’t just whinging, we explained. We really believed that this church had a heart for people. But it’s not enough to talk the talk, we said. We were at your doorstep, and you stepped over our bleeding hearts to reach the microphone. We just wanted you to know, so the next time you’d do it right.

We went to more churches after that; I’ll probably talk more about them later. Some of the stories are funny, but most of them are sad, even now.

The number one thing that anyone can do for someone who has come out of an abusive situation – be it domestic, spiritual, sexual, or anything else – is to be a friend in TRUTH, not just in words. I really believe this. I would have given – I still would give – my right arm for a family that would invite us in for dinner; invite us back for a barbecue on the weekend; exchange babysitting; call just to chat; go out for coffee - and do it all more than one time, or as a token gesture. I would have given anything for friends.

I have hope, though: we are moving to another state this summer. We’ll have family there. Not my family, who gets uneasy when I’m around (it’s mutual), but Husband’s family, who remind me of every character at once in My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, and who are as irreligious as Carol Burnet. We tried hard to convert them when we first came into The Cult… big mistake. Now that we’re on speaking terms again we’ve found out they’re a lot of fun.

So we’re moving, because the ghosts here have grown too loud and too vicious. And I have a plan:

When we move, I’m going to pour myself heart and soul into making friends. I’m going to be the friend to the friendless. We’ll find a church if it kills us, and with gritted teeth, we’ll learn to fit in. If I absolutely have to, I’ll become one of those soccer moms I detest, involving my kids in every activity, serving on committees, shouting loudly from the stands.

I hope it won’t be this hard, this painful. I sometimes wonder where God is in any of this. In The Cult they told us of we moved away from “where God planted us” he would curse us. We’d divorce, our finances would be in chaos; our kids would run off and join the circus. None of that has happened, although I often feel that we’re under a curse of a different sort, one whose terms I’m trying to make out like a blind man in the dark.

Moving is my slap in the face to The Cult: I don’t know exactly where God is in this whole mess; but I know he’s not where they said he’d be. And that’s a start.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Thoughts on Fallout and Recovery

Fallout is the residual radiation hazard from a nuclear explosion. Some people die from it. Some people get ill, in varying degrees, from it. Sometimes it causes mutation in future generations. In talking about Spiritual Abuse… well, see where I’m going?

I have a close relative I’ll call The Missionary. The Missionary is generally pretty patient with all my angst over where I’ve been and oh Lord, is there any hope at all for me in the future? She’s always been pretty spiritually together though. Her own spiritual hand-wringing has tended more toward the Which-Bible-College-Should-I-Attend type of problem. When I say I still sometimes drink too much, I mean I sometimes drink like an alcoholic priest in the last throes of dehydration. When The Missionary says she drank too much, she means that she had three glasses of wine in one day. She really is a good person. It’s a sign of her goodness that she thinks she’s bad.

All that goodness is hard to live up to.

The Missionary is the person I can talk to the most about my own issues, except when I try to talk to her about Spiritual Abuse I have a sneaking suspicion that she’s thinking “Geez Gracie, will you GET OVER IT ALREADY?”. At best, I think that she thinks I’m stupid for having fallen for such a passel of lies.

I was reading an article online yesterday about Spiritual Abuse, and it stated that it’s normal for people to take 2-4 years or more to recover. That’s a relief, since I recently passed the 4 year mark for leaving the Cult. I was wondering… when will I consider myself “recovered?” And I came up with a few things; no doubt these will change over time.

1) I’ve gained 70 lbs since I left the Cult. This is (pardon the choice of words) a huge deal to me. Part of recovery, to me, looks like being thin again. Stuffing the void inside with food and alcohol has brought me to this fat place. So it stands to reason that when I’m done healing all of that excess food and wine won’t be an issue any more and I’ll fit into my small jeans again. This is non-negotiable, I tell God. I hate being fat. It’s a symptom, to me, of all the poison in the wound.

2) I am lonelier than I ever thought anyone could be. I have no community, no sense of belonging anywhere. Part of recovery will be belonging to a community again – preferably a church community, although I haven’t found any that I can bear yet. My extended family all lives on the other side of the country, and anyway, none of us are crazy about each other. I have no friends any more. Not the kind who you can hang out and play Trivial Pursuit with on a Saturday night. Not the kind who will keep my kids while I have surgery next week. I vow if I ever get out of this place that I will be a friend to the lonely. Loneliness sounds a lot like self-pity, but in case you were wondering, it tastes different.

3) I need to be productive again. I need to contribute to society in some way. I have no idea what that will be. I have nothing to pour myself into. The Cult was my reason for being for so long… Now I need something of my own.

Writing all this down helps me to see that recovery may not be as far off as I’d thought. I thought the list would be longer. I’m grateful that it’s not.

There are my kids to consider… I hope I haven’t wrecked them in this whole, hellish time. In the end, though, they belong to God and I’ll have to trust him in that area. And that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Miscellaneous Ramblings on Spiritual Abuse part I

I thought I’d ramble a little about Spiritual Abuse.

Either you’ve never heard of Spiritual Abuse, in which case you’ll quickly find another blog to browse, or you’ve heard of it, but don’t care much about it, in which case… ditto. Or you’ve been a victim of it yourself and you well know that spiritually amorphous wilderness that has to be slogged through by most of us who flee relationships with spiritually abusive groups.
Spiritual abuse (in case you didn’t know) is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the interests of the leaders. Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means. The pastor may legitimately need to raise the money to pay the church rent, for instance, but it is abusive for him to tell his congregation that God will curse their money if everyone doesn’t give X number of dollars today in the offering.

Spiritually abusive religious systems are sometimes described as legalistic, mind controlling, religiously addictive, and authoritarian. Cults fall under the umbrella of this definition, but so do many more bona fide religious groups out there.

My own story is pretty textbook (at least I think it is... there aren’t many textbooks out there on the subject). I was raised in that heavy-handed religious fundamentalism that was long on “thou shalt nots” and short on any real, dymanic experience with God. The God of my earliest memories seemed to be perpetually annoyed at His people for their shortcomings. Nobody ever really prayed enough, or read the Bible enough, or was consistent enough in having daily "Quiet Time" - whatever that was. God knew that we were a bunch of lazy schleps, and He didn't seem to like us very much, but we could inch back into his graces by making sure we followed a lot of rules, and didn't drink or dance, or listen to secular music on the radio. The men's hair also shouldn't touch their collars. That was important. The religious world of my youth was tense, and Calvinistic, and we churchy people were mystified as to why the world, as a whole, did not seem terribly interested in joining us.

In my teens I became a wild child, running away from home (permanently) and trying a little bit of everything on the buffet. Eventually, I decided I wanted to get serious about God.

So I joined a cult, and stayed there for eleven years.

Of course, I didn't know it was a cult at the time. I just believed that we were a very special group of super-achieving Christians whom God happened to like more than all the rest of the twits out there claiming His name.

I've decided to split this into two parts, and will post the second half under... um... part II.