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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.

 

#IAmWithAllTheHers

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I didn’t #PantsSuitUp yesterday on Tuesday to go and vote, but I did yesterday.

I did because #Iamwithallthehers.

I am with the hers who are shocked and disappointed because their candidate lost.

I am with the hers in the LGTBQ community.

I am with the hers of all races, nationalities, and ethnicities.

I am with the hers who are worried about their children, especially their daughters.

I am with the hers for whom the results of this election trigger painful memories of abusive relationships, sexual assault encounters, rape, and spiritual abuse.

I am with the hers who have been silenced, oppressed, and threatened to not share their stories of abuse, sexual assault, rape, and spiritual abuse.

I am with the hers who are in conservative communities of faith.

I am with the hers who are not in communities of faith.

I am with the hers who have endured sexual harrassments, unwanted sexual advances, and sexual assault in the wake of this election.

I am with the hers who are single.

I am with the hers who are stepparents.

I am with the hers who are thanking God because He heard their prayers and allowed their candidate to win.

#Iamwithallthehers

“Thank you, sweetheart…I mean, pastor”

“This is the body of Christ broken for you. And Christ blood shed for you.”

“Thank you, sweetheart…I mean pastor. Thank you, pastor.”

As the older gentleman put the bread soaked in juice in his mouth, I smiled.

This is what we need: self-correction, self-awareness. We need the simple acknowledgement that language that demeans and oppresses women creeps into our conversation and our interactions because language patterns are learned. Learned patterns that quickly and often unconsciously become habits. Habits that create a toxic culture of sexual assault, spiritual abuse, and violence against women.

Habits that can change without defenses or arguments, but simple acts like this one of self-awareness and self-correction. Self-awareness and self-correction that leads to hope and healing in those of us who have lived and swallowed these language patterns as we have pushed and strived to become who we are created to be.

This is the body of Christ broken for you. And Christ blood shed for you.

Thanks be to God.

Why We Don’t Share Our Stories

The release of the video on Friday that reveals the rape culture in America and the reason there are so many women who have stories of sexual assault, sexual violence, and rape was appalling to many. And in light of this video, there were many, many brave women who shared their stories. Stories of being raped, of being groped, and of being intimidated, threatened, and bullied by men. But there are many more women who haven’t shared their stories. Women who can’t share their stories because the abuse they experienced were in churches, were by deacons, were by ministers. These women who experienced not only sexual abuse, but spiritual abuse were forced to sign clauses and agreements that prevent them from sharing their stories in order to preserve a facade of holiness and righteousness that doesn’t exist. These women were shamed into this silence in order to preserve the institution of church and the hierarchy of power that excludes and oppresses them. These women were told that if their stories got out the church would split, contributions would drop, and it would be their fault.

What the evangelical response to this video has revealed is that they have contributed to this rape culture, this spiritual abuse and in standing by someone who has participated in this culture and has risen to the power and influence of being a presidential candidate, they hope that their secrets and positions are protected and preserved.

If these stories can’t be shared because of threats and bullying, then it up to us as the people of God to create space for healing and hope for those who have not only experienced sexual abuse, but had spiritual abuse heaped on top of those experiences. We have to be willing to ask tough questions of our leaders and practices. We have to be willing to say no to religious leaders who have histories and pasts of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment. We have to be willing to be brave for those who can’t share their stories.

Thanks be to God for those who are already standing up for the oppressed, the silenced, and the abused.

Spiritual Abuse and Name Calling in the Purity Culture

I didn’t know I grew up in the Purity Culture. I didn’t realize that my age corresponded to a growing movement called True Love Waits that reached national attention right as I entered a conservative, evangelical youth group. I didn’t realize that for years and years the church governed mostly by men had been determining and deciding what was best for women’s bodies. I didn’t understand that the message of the Purity Culture often led to women who were guilty and ashamed and prime targets for rape.

All I knew is I didn’t want to be called any names.

I didn’t want to be called “whore,” “slut,” or “easy:” all names that heaped shame on the head of girls in my youth group who were considered to be “on the wrong path” and “unequally yoked” to bad influences. More than anything I didn’t want to be one of the girls who fell into this category. I’m not sure I knew what any of those names meant, but I knew what they implied: a girl who was living for herself and not living for God.

This is spiritual abuse.

This fear of being labeled of being shamed has been difficult to overcome. It’s why hearing a presidential nominee use name calling and guilt and shame as motivators to action sounds a little too familiar. But the labeling in the Purity Culture and in evangelical circles is so important to eliciting the type of behavior desired from congregants that is hard for many spiritual leaders to rid themselves of this practice, even spiritual leaders who wish to engage in healthy and whole practices of ministry.

The implementation of the Purity Culture is inundated with spiritual abuse practices like name calling that distract and defer from the message and intent of the gospel. These practices and the Purity Culture have left many, many millennials who were raised in the midst of the rise of the Purity Culture lost, shamed, and broken after years and years of faithful attendance to church.

The future of the church is in the midst of this brokenness. This brokenness caused by the institution of church. This brokenness caused by good intentions and failed implementation. This brokenness that has left scars and bruises in the next generation of church goers.

To minister now is to minister in the midst of this hurt and brokenness. It will take minister who are vulnerable. Ministers who openly and honestly address their privilege. Ministers who have advisory teams to determine whether they are engaging in spiritual abuse. Ministers who meet people where they are.

And ministers who are mobile because these who have been hurt and broken are going to have trouble returning to the place where they were abused, shamed, and broken.

Spiritual Abuse and Purity Culture

I grew up in a faith community that strongly emphasized a purity culture. That emphasis resulted in a lot of shaming that still lingers in my heart and mind. Shame for wanting to express my innate sexuality that isn’t about just a physical act, but rather about stepping wholly and fully into who I was created to be.

This journey to wholeness isn’t easy because of the way purity culture weaved sexuality and God intricately together. Sexuality and faith are so closely tied in my mind that’s it has been difficult to separate out what God believes about me as a sexual being and what the church believes about sexuality. If I wanted to please God as a young woman, it meant silencing and repressing a very part of who I was with the idea that all of those repressed feelings where magically supposed to manifest into a healthy, intimate, sexual relationship once you found “the one.”

This is spiritual abuse.

This is spiritual abuse that has caused so many women and men to feel broken, beat up, disappointed, and rejected by God. This is spiritual abuse that has triggered depression, anxiety, guilt and shame, and entitlement. This is spiritual abuse that has excluded so many from a community of faith because of “sexual misconduct,” leaving them lonely, afraid, and hopeless.

In order for that brokenness to heal, we have to talk to others who have been on the same journey we have. We have to be open about the negative impact this spiritual abuse has caused us personally and in our relationships. We have to talk about this, so that this spiritual abuse cannot continue. We have to talk about sex and sexuality with our children differently.

We have to talk about this because the gospel message is not one of shame and guilt. The gospel is hope, healing, and wholeness.

Words Floating Overhead

For as long as I can remember, I had words floating overhead and in my head and around my head. But for a long time I didn’t have many words to share. I was an incredibly shy child.

For a long time the words floating overhead were overwhelming, intimidating, and unreachable. I knew they were there. I knew they were there for me. But I didn’t know how and when I was supposed to grab them and let them enter into the world of conversations and discussions among people.

I remember in high school the words weighing heavily on my shoulder when I was being encouraged to prepare to be a godly wife and to learn what it meant to be a lady in waiting. I remember thinking to myself, but what about these words. These words that need to be said. Words that need to be heard.

I tried to articulate this and was asked why it had to be me who spoke. Why was I the one who had to share these words? Couldn’t I give these words to a father or brother or my future husband to speak?

I knew I couldn’t because these words are my words; words only I can share. But I also knew these words weren’t words that people would want to hear. They were pot-stirring, trying-to-get-something-started words.

And so for years, I left them there floating overhead not wanting to stir anything up, wanting people to like me, not wanting to disappoint.

But these words are too important now.

Something has to change.

We can’t keep identifying as people of faith and not seeing each other. We can’t keep pretending to be people of faith and engage in an economic system that offers us privilege while our neighbors starve. We can’t keep calling ourselves Christ followers and not associate with the very people Christ ate and fellowshipped with.

And we can’t keep justifying our places of privilege because it makes us comfortable or because we are scared for the future of our families. There are too many of our neighbors who have been afraid of their futures and afraid of whether they will have a future for too long. If we loved our neighbor as ourself, we would be fighting against systems and institutions that discriminate, exclude, and belittle.

But we don’t.

We love ourselves. We love our houses. We love our stuff. We love our privilege.

Spiritual Abuse and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

Two men were killed by police authorities this week. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. If you are like me, you want to know how and why this happened because you can’t sit in the truth that this is the way the world is and this is the way the world will be because #blacklivesmatter.

In the case of Philando Castile, the name of the officer involved has not been released.In the case of Alton Sterling, the names of the police officers involved in the fatal shooting have been released. Information has been released about Howie Lake II. He was put on leave in 2014 for his involvement in another shooting while on duty. He also won the “life saving” award in 2015.

And if you continue to dig, then you can find out that he went to a private, Christian high school called Parkview Baptist High School in Baton Rouge. A school that upholds the “Old and New Testament verbally-inspired by God and inerrant in the original writings.”  A school whose students are “committed to a biblical worldview and Christian values.”

The intermingling of church and state has serious ramifications in how our society and public institutions operate. When we have police officers outside our churches controlling traffic, protecting people of certain churches, a powerful message is communicated. When we have security guards in some communities of faith and in others, a stranger is welcomed in regardless of skin color, we know something is not right.

If we think religion doesn’t impact politics and government authority in America, we aren’t being merely naive, we are being complacent with communities of faith who teach some are better than others, whether that be in regards to race, gender, or sexuality. This is spiritual abuse.

Churches must have the difficult conversations that challenge privilege and instead loving our neighbors as ourselves. Churches must have the difficult conversation about welcoming all people in radical hospitality regardless of race, gender, or sexuality.

Churches must not be the place we were go to feel safe, but where we go to find Jesus. And we will only find Jesus in our churches if our churches include the people Jesus fellowshipped with, not the religious authorities, not the government authorities, but the ones oppressed, excluded, and yes even killed by those authorities.