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Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Alternative Facts

I ran across an article yesterday that there is archaeological evidence that in the early Christian Church there were female priests. Female priest administering communion. Female priests depicted with raised hands offering benediction, blessings, or perhaps even the word of God. I was shocked because I hadn’t heard this story. I was convinced that this was breaking news only to discover that the article was almost four years old.

Four years that there have been discussions about the role women played in the early church. Four years in which I have been ordained and called to pastor and I had no idea the conversation was going on. How could I, a woman in ministry, have missed something so relevant to my own life experience and calling?

Because we hear what we want to hear. Researches have discovered that the power of stating something that is false, is just as powerful as stating something that is true because:

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Impression is just as powerful as Truth? Surely not! Doesn’t Truth win out?

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

Evidently not. We believe what we want to believe. We don’t research to determine if what we are saying or what we are passing along is Truth and once we leak these impressions, they’re hard to shake in our own minds and in the minds of the people we’re sharing with.

If there is a place where this happens again and again, it’s in communities of faith where reason is often placed on hold and making a leap of faith is encouraged, but when faith begins to be tainted with manipulation and coercion, when false impressions are giving with the purpose of oppression and silencing people, it is not faith. It is spiritual abuse.

It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are ministers and communities of faith who are interested not in the work of God, but in increasing their own wealth and their own power and their own prestige. But there are. It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are victims of spiritual abuse who have been told they aren’t good enough and shouldn’t trust themselves on purpose to ensure adherence to dogmatic teachings. But there are.

These are not alternative facts, but real people’s stories.

Perhaps churches wouldn’t be in decline if we were able to accept this Truth rather than clinging to impressions of what we want to be true, but I know some of you won’t believe this because you don’t believe study after study that reveals the churches are in fact in decline. This is what happens when the need to cling to impressions is stronger than the desire to search for Truth.

Spiritual Abuse and Grief

I didn’t realize the disconnect until I heard a reflection from one of my friend’s about the experience of attending a funeral and having an altar call. An altar call is a common part of evangelical communities of faith that invites people attending to “get right with the Lord” to “rededicate their lives” or to “make a profession of faith” or more simply to join of a community of faith with a congregational polity.

All of these terms are insider terms, I’ve heard my whole life. It didn’t ever seem odd to me to have an altar call at a funeral because altar calls were as common a part of the worship experience as singing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology are to other communities of faith. These liturgical elements of worship don’t stand out when you are one of the insiders who is accustomed to them.

But when we change funerals to celebrations of life, which there is good reason both theologically and emotionally for doing, we also run the risk of confining grieving loved ones to an expected reaction to death. When we say, “well, at least he or she is in a better place” or the like, then we are saying that you, loved one of the departed shouldn’t be upset or sad because you wouldn’t really choose this existence over heaven, would you? Guilt and shame and anxiety heaped on top of grief.

This is spiritual abuse.

Instead of dictating how people should respond to the shocking reality that someone they loved isn’t here, what if instead, we opted to not shroud death and grief in canned theological responses and simply allowed people to grieve, whichever and whatever way they needed to grieve in that moment, in that day.

A key part of spiritual abuse is coercion to a set of expected behaviors. Grief is not expected or controlled nor should it be. One of the reason communities of faith are so full of spiritual abuse is our need for control, predictability, and order.

But what if God is found not in the predictability and order, but in the unpredictability chaos that is life and death. Perhaps this week more than any other week as we follow Jesus and his disciples to the cross, we would do well to feel the loss and chaos and grief the disciples and loved ones in Jesus’ life felt as he was crucified on the cross. What if instead of skipping over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to get to Easter morning, we sat in the grief and confusion and chaos of death as so many in our communities of faith are.

Perhaps then we could sit with those who have felt grief and loss so deeply and actually minister to them rather than adding spiritual abuse to their lives in a time of vulnerability.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: You are inherently full of possibility

This week’s passage from Romans is particularly difficult for me. Hear now the word of the Lord from Paul’s letter to the Romans in chapter 8 beginning in verse 6.

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

This idea of being in the world and not of the world is exactly what Paul is talking about here. When we concern ourselves with things of the flesh than we are concentrating on death because this physical flesh that we reside in will eventually die. We are dust and to dust we shall return

When we concentrate instead on things of the spirit than new life, resurrection, and transformation are possible. Now this does not mean that we shouldn’t tend to and care for our physical bodies for how can we do the work of the spirit if our flesh is not strong enough?

It took me a long time to realize that just like that dust and pollen in the Spring cling to our clothes and cars, so too did the dust of bad theology that taught me to believe that I was inherently bad, insufficient, and inadequate cling to my heart and soul.

Even after three years of theological training, three years of consistent preaching and ministry, only now can I read these words of Paul without guilt and shame overcoming me.

See because I had been taught to read this as an admonishment to overcome my flesh, my sinful nature, the guilt and shame of being sinful always came with this passage. What if instead of believing that we were inherently bad, we realized that at every moment we have the possibility of choosing for our flesh, our dust, or choosing the breath and spirit of God. Perhaps we are not inherently bad or sinful, but rather inherently full of possibility. If we realized this, then we would know that our bodies, our flesh is neither inherently good or inherently bad, but instead it is all about how is it is used. Your flesh in particular. The one God created with your unique passions and gifts.

This is what Paul was trying to remind the Romans of and what perhaps we need to be reminded of today: you are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you. You are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you.

When you remember this and you let this settle into your soul, then you realize what you can do. You can help those in need. You can become a woman pastor. You can lead a chapel service at the homeless shelter. You can bring the kingdom of God here on earth because you are in the Spirit and the Spirit dwells in you.

As I encounter people at Transitions each week in our chapel service and in communities of faith who have been reminded again and again of their dustiness rather than their spirit-filled possibility, I know that this message of hope is revolutionary. Just as it would have been in Paul’s time.

If we did the important work of not giving into the fleshly temptation to participate in a culture that degrades, devalues, and divides, but instead respected, valued, and welcomed people regardless of whether they agreed with us or not, then wow the things that could happen.

Indeed the kingdom of God could come here to earth.
I know it’s possible because you are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you. Just let the spirit of God reach out a fleshy hand to dust off the dustiness of bad theology, past hurt, and the belief that you’re not enough and let’s breathe new life and new hope into a world in desperate need of something different.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: The Power of Story

Today has been filled with community and fellowship and celebration as part of CBF SC 25th Anniversary General Assembly. I couldn’t help but be a bit overcome and overwhelmed by the stories of those who gathered together to help form BWIM SC and CBF SC.

Because it’s this power of story that helped me to uncover the spiritual abuse I experienced. It was meeting and hearing that there were baptists who gathered together and worshipped with women who preached and led worship and chaired committees that slowly opened my eyes to another whole world of possibility.

If there were communities of faith and baptist state and regional groups who gathered together and welcomed and affirmed women in ministry, then maybe this calling that had been wrestling within me trying to find its voice wasn’t something I had to keep telling to be quiet. Maybe I just needed to find a fellowship who worked in cooperation with us each other, who built each other up, challenged each other, and communed together.

And maybe the more we tell our stories, the more people we can help recover from spiritual abuse. Maybe the power of story is just like the power of the spoken word that brings light into the darkness and life from the depths.

Spiritual Abuse and Isolation from the Outside World

It isn’t a coincidence that your dentist, your doctor, and your even your hair stylist all went to your church. Part of communities of faith in which spiritual abuse occurs is the isolation from the outside world. This might be hard to uncover, especially if you weren’t living in a bunker like the women in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but minimizing exposure to the outside world is a facet of spiritual abuse.

It might occur in doctrine and teaching about the dangers and temptations of the outside world, other communities of faith, or even in other spiritual practices. By damning the outside world, other communities of faith, and other spiritual practices, there is a dependence on the true fellowship of believers that emerges. This fellowship and community is only available for those who adhere to the rules. If you find yourself as a back slider or having broke a cardinal rule, then you find yourself on the outside of the community. Ostracism is a practice that has been used political, socially, and religious in order to elicit unquestioned adherence to a certain set of beliefs and values. Sound familiar? This is spiritual abuse.

For those who go venture into the outside world, there is often discussions about what it would take to bring the individual back “into the fold,” or back into the unquestioned adherence. Guilt, shame, and anxiety are often used in trying to get the individual to return. This can take the form of a trusted friend saying, “You just aren’t yourself lately,” or “God has just told me that I really need to be praying for you,” or “I’m concerned about you. I just want God’s best for you.” These sentiments cause self-doubt, self-doubt that leads to the need for guidance, guidance that can only come from spiritual authorities, therefore maintaining and sustaining power in the hands of the powerful.

If this is your experience, please know that there are others on “the outside,” those of us who have wrestled and are journeying towards wholeness. You are not alone. You are not lost.

Perhaps in fact you are well on your way to finding your true self and your true calling. Thanks be to God for your courage and your perseverance.

The Role of Doubt in Spiritual Abuse

If you are wondering if you have experienced spiritual abuse and you find yourself in a cycle of uncertainty, this doubt may be an strong indication that you have indeed suffered spiritual abuse. Doubt plays an important role in spiritual abuse in that it makes the victims of spiritual abuse doubt themselves and doubt their strength. If you doubt yourself, then you need religious leaders who have authority over you to tell you who you are. If you doubt your ability to interpret scripture, then you need religious leaders to interpret scripture and tell you how it applies to your life. Doubt produces a co-dependence that sets the foundation for the coercion and manipulation of spiritual abuse. Doubt keeps power and authority in the hands of religious leaders.

It’s this doubt that I find the hardest to overcome because it has crept into my ability even to decide what I want for dinner. I get so overwhelmed and overly concerned about speaking my mind and making a decision that would impact others. This toiling in uncertainty and anxiety is a sign of spiritual abuse.

When we doubt our true self and our instincts, then our potential impact is diminished. It isn’s hard to understand what role this doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty plays in women. If communities of faith can focus spiritual abuse silencing and oppressing women, then the collective power and potential of women can be diminished and controlled. This is not a coincidence. This is spiritual abuse.

In order to overcome spiritual abuse, victims must wrestle with the doubt and anxiety of making a wrong decision or not being sure of themselves. It is essential that instead of weighing decisions based on what others will think about me or whether others will get upset with me, decisions are weighed against Truth and Light. Does this bring more Light and Truth? Does this bring more hope and healing?

It may seem misguided to think of making a decision about dinner in light of Truth and Light and hope and healing, but when we do, then we begin to understand that some decisions just aren’t worth the doubt and anxiety we choose to continue to wallow in because they just don’t matter on a greater and higher plain. Asking these questions, will release us from the spiraling of the inconsequential and invite us into higher and greater work. When we can release the doubt and anxiety that spiritual abuse has brought into our lives, we are free to be our true selves: children of God and children of Light transforming darkness into miraculous Creation.

Spiritual Abuse and Homelessness

Yesterday as we gathered for our weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter, I was nervous.

We usually follow the lectionary and the passage this week was from John 9:

9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

9:2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

I knew from the conversations and prayer requests I had heard each week that there were many people who were gathered who had heard these common refrains from religious leaders and people about their situations. “You need to get up and get going. Find some work, whatever it is and just do it.” “You’ve made some bad decisions and this is where those decisions landed you.” “You have to work. You can’t be lazy. You have to work hard for the blessings God has for you.”

As I read the gospel passage, I just asked one question, “How many of you have been told you are where you are because you have sinned, which is what the disciples are assuming about the blind man that Jesus encounters.” Hands went up around the room and heads nodded.

Before even hearing their stories, people assume they know why these gathered at the homeless shelter had ended up homeless. Many of the people they encountered were Christians, disciples, just like the disciples in this story, who were repeating beliefs about how someone ends up homeless and the connection to sin.

Jesus said to the disciples and to those gathered yesterday for chapel, “Neither this man (or you!) nor his parents have sinned.”

When we assume people have sinned and as a result have ended up homeless, we relieve ourselves of the responsibility of analyzing the vast privilege and racial inequality that exists in our society. A society that benefits certain kinds of people and delivers devastating blows to others. This is spiritual abuse. It is using religion to alleviate the role we play in continuing privilege. This is not the gospel.

When we assume that the only thing people who are homeless need is to be saved, we miss the opportunity to see the rich and real faith that exists in the hearts and souls of people who are homeless. This is spiritual abuse. When we assume people aren’t saved because they are homeless, we are defining and restricting Christianity to a certain race and socioeconomic status. This is not the gospel.

Maybe Jesus asks his disciples to welcome the stranger in, to clothe those who are naked, and to give food to those who are hungry because when we do, we get to know people instead of labels, and we begin to understand that we are the very ones who have caused the stranger to be excluded, people to be naked, and people to be hungry. Maybe Jesus asks us to do unto the least of these as we would do unto him because then we would uncover the spiritual abuse that blinds us to our responsibility to bring the kingdom of God here on earth.

And maybe the disciples in the gospel lesson are asking the very questions we should be asking out loud, so that Jesus can teach us how our beliefs need to be challenged and examined.

 

On Writing and Speaking about Spiritual Abuse: Why Me?

I can remember the summer when a group of youth led a worship service at a small church and were told only the guys could be the ones who preached during the Sunday morning service. The reasoning was that the churches where we were going wouldn’t or didn’t support women preachers. I thought this might very well be true as a woman who preached was much different theological from a woman who led Bible study for kids, but still there was this question lodged within me, Did the church where we were going not support women as preachers or did the church who was sending us not support women as preachers? 

And as I wrestled with this question, I wondered as I often did, Why me? Why did it seem that these questions always came to my mind sinking deeply into my heart and soul causing me to wonder about whether all churches believe women couldn’t be preachers? Why was there just an inkling of doubt about the teaching and preaching I heard about the role of women? Why was there something within me that bucked the idea that my purpose in life was to make sure I didn’t get pregnant until I was married and then get pregnant without complications? Why me?

More than once I voiced my concerns to adults and was told, “Why do you feel like you need more? Why do you feel like you need to speak?” I answered honestly then as I do today, “I don’t know, except I feel called to preach and teach and ask questions.”

The doubt and fear that was instilled into me when I voiced these questions about the inequality that existed was spiritual abuse. It was a way to silence opposition and coerce obedience to a certain set of expectations. Obedience to this set of expectations maintained and kept power in the hands of the powerful decision makers. 

And I just wonder if perhaps I’m not the only one who found herself in the midst of communities of faith where something felt off, not quite right. I wonder if there were others, are others like me who are beginning to feel the unsettled realization that there is more to know and who indeed want to seek and find Truth.

Questions lead to a journey of discovery not only of who God truly is, but who you really are. As you find yourself in the midst of this journey, I hope what you will find is what I have found, my true self, the way my individual light and life can make a difference to those who are hurting. What I hope you find is the strength of a community of other people who have asked tough questions and have found Truth. When you do find your true self, the Divine, and Truth, peace and wholeness will envelope you in the light of love for yourself and others.

 

Why Spiritual Abuse is Difficult to Consider

I can remember where it started. I was sitting in the back of a classroom at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. I was in my first year of seminary, and I was hanging tightly to the friendships I had made during orientation. We were far enough into the semester that we had gotten past our surface-level introductions. We had already seen each other break down in tears over midterms and in sharing our stories. We were now in the deep waters of walking this journey of answering a call together.

I remember hearing the term spiritual abuse as one of my classmates told her story. She told a story that sounded so similar to mine even though we grew up in different faith traditions, in different communities of faith, that I was speechless. This is what I had been told it meant to be a woman. This is what I was taught I could and couldn’t do, but surely I hadn’t experience spiritual abuse, had I?

If I started to consider that perhaps the theological teachings I had always believed were in fact being used to manipulate, coerce, and silence, then what? I couldn’t possible come out of this realization with a faith that was intact. I was in seminary for goodness sake, I couldn’t question to the point of having to reconstruct and analyze every teaching in just three years, could I?

But then I heard another story and another story. Woman after woman, man after man who were told they could or couldn’t do certain things because “people would leave the church,”  because “women weren’t called to do that,” because “it would cause a split the church,” because “that’s not the way things were done” over and over again church leaders using their power to control and maintain the status quo. Again and again passionate, gifted ministers being put into holding patterns being coerced into “waiting their turn.”

This is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power. There is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. We need these voices in our communities of faith. We need these people to speak up and speak out about their experiences with spiritual abuse. We need these stories to come to light so that our communities of faith may become places of hope, healing, and wholeness rather than places of hurt, abuse, and brokenness.

This is not an easy journey.

It is not easy to consider whether we have experienced spiritual abuse. It is not easy to ask ourselves the tough question of whether our communities of faith are places wrought with spiritual abuse, but this is the confessional work the season of Lent calls us to do.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

When we leave our spiritual practices, protocol, and patterns unexamined, we leave room for spiritual abuse to occur over and over again. May this season of Lent be a time of reflection and analysis. May Almighty God give us strength on the journey.

Why it’s hard for me to talk about my spiritual abuse…

“Some people have called me a rebel-rouser..” I explained to a colleague recently.

She couldn’t contain her laughter at this statement.

I may come across with comfortable with this identification, but you have to understand, I came from a background of striving furtively and desperately to obtain the label of “good Christian girl.” My conservative background asked me to be someone who I was not and taught me to deny parts of who I was. And I chose to follow.

There is no doubt within me that I, like many millennials raised at the height of the evangelical movement and the purity culture, experienced spiritual abuse. While I am sure this is true, I shy away from identifying myself as one who experienced spiritual abuse and instead take up my sword and shield in attempts to protect others from practices that lead to spiritual abuse…or in other terms rebel rousing.

And in the moments when I shy away again from myself and my story wanting and wishing away my experiences, I understand that this is just another way of masking my true self striving furtively and desperately to obtain the label of “thoughtful progressive Christian.” It’s hard to admit that I would shed one false pursuit just to take on another one repackaged and renamed.

Instead of creating yet another presented identity, this Lenten season, I am giving up all those masks and instead am striving furtively and desperately for wholeness and healing. 

I know there are others of you out there, trying to process through what you’ve experienced. Trying to reflect and analyze the triggers you experience that send you into the spiral of uncertainty and doubt, those spirals so familiar and so frustrating because you thought you had overcome. I know it feels like a riptide that pulls you out to the deep water of fear and shame and humiliation. I know at times you are too tired, too overwhelmed, and too lonely to fight anymore. Me too.

I know that when you do share your story, more often than not you experience another helping of shame and guilt on top of what you have always experienced. I know people come to you and tell you to stop telling your story because you are making churches or pastors or families look bad. I know there are times when you feel so lonely and out of place, the same sort of lonely and out of place you felt in your community of faith knowing instinctively all the way to your core, that there was something just not right about what you were being told about God, about scripture, and about faith. Me too.

I know you get accused of making a big deal out of nothing or trying to make a name for yourself of causing a fuss, of asking too many questions, of hoping for too much. But I also know that even now in communities of faith across America in places of worships, in homes where small groups gather, and in coffee shops were people are being mentored, spiritual abuse is still happening.

Spiritual abuse is happening in conservative communities of faith. Spiritual abuse is happening in moderate communities of faith. Spiritual abuse is happening in progressive communities of faith. Spiritual abuse is happening.

For those of us who have wrestled through the understanding and realization that we experienced spiritual abuse, now more than ever we need to tell our stories. We need to question. We need to challenge. We need to struggle with our own stories and experiences. We need to rebel rouse, not so that we can try to obtain another false identity, but so that we can heal and become whole.

And so that others like us can do the same.