Friday, April 4, 2014

Encouraging Words for the Hoodwinked

My dad recently posted the following essay to an online forum for parents involved in the same fundamentalist group we were a part of. With his permission, I'm happy to share it with you.  

With recent revelations that fundamentalist homeschooling guru Bill Gothard has resigned from the Institute in Basic Life Principles over allegations of sexual abuse I ask myself, "How in the world did I ever become one of his biggest fans?" I attended his seminars every year from 1973 to 1996, my wife and I used Gothard curriculum to home educate our kids, and as a pastor I clung to every word this man said regarding running a church.  I feel like those husbands and wives I talk to in counseling who discover their partner has been cheating on them--stupid, deceived, and hoodwinked. While my upset is minuscule compared to the women who've been damaged, here are the messages I give to myself to weather this scandal.
1. I don't feel guilty for not being omniscient. The reason charlatans, magicians, and liars get away with deception is because they're good at what they do. With a variety of tricks--seductive grooming, sleight of hand, misdirection--audience members get snookered. Yes, gullibility and naiveté often play a part, but not 100%. I don't feel guilty for trusting Gothard. He was convincing.

2. I don't regret our decision to home school, read IBLP materials, or attend those seminars. Yes, we embraced some of the wonkier aspects of his ministry--dresses on our daughters, vetoing pop culture for our sons, thinking public schools were like the cantina on Mos Eisely in Star Wars, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." At the same time we found much of Gothard's teachings helpful. What I do regret is not being more curious in 1980 when Gothard resigned from his leadership role amid what then was to me a vague and unimportant news item in Christianity Today. I regret not listening to my friends who warned me about this guy. I regret the sense of superiority I felt following a guy who fasted, meditated, and got answers to prayer. I regret the years of conflict I created in several churches for mentioning my black and white (Gothardish) aversion to divorce, rock, debt, birth control, television, dating, youth groups, and borrowing money. I regret waking my kids up at 5 AM to teach them Greek (although my 32 year old daughter did recently tell me that training helped her answer a clue in a crossword puzzle). 

3. I hope to learn from membership in my new group, "Those who've been hoodwinked."  The next time some guy who doodles on an overhead projector with outlines and flip charts, who does chalk talks, and who with few whistles and bells speaks with authority to packed stadiums on zillions of topics with Bible verse proof texts I will be wary. I hope to ransack my psyche to see what possible weakness would incline me to fall for such a guy. In 1973 I was a newly converted hippie with no moral compass, no clan to call my own, and no life purpose. Forty-one years later I trust I'm no longer easy pickings for charismatic gurus. But I'm not letting my guard down.
4. I hope to include in my life message a new chapter on spiritual discernment. Spiritual abuse is not only fodder for atheists and grievous to Christ. It's damaging to the preyed upon. My heart goes out to the young men and women entangled in what appears to be a movement rife with systemic dysfunction, a DNA of authoritarian control, and psychological abuse. Even if IBLP vanishes it is likely other groups will spring up which puts vulnerable young people at risk. I hope I and others who are recovering grace can stem the tide.

Me and my dad March 2014 - rule breakers

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"My name is Emily and I'm a Fundamentalist"

Last week I learned that the founder of a fundamentalist Christian organization that my family belonged to in the 90's resigned from his position as president, following allegations of sexual misconduct. You may be wondering, "So, what else is new?" A prominent religious leader slinking out of the lime light because of scandal shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. But it surprised me.

Depending on your exposure to the religious right over the last 50 years, you may not recognize the name Bill Gothard. He created a training program for troubled youth in the early 60's which grew into an annual 6-day seminar presented around the world and attended by millions. The "Basic Life Principles" taught at these seminars were eventually incorporated into a home school curriculum that my family used from 1989 to 1994 (we also belonged to a strong sub-culture in my community of families who all adhered to the same highly prescriptive rules. "Sheltered" doesn't really do justice in describing my childhood). Gothard, now 79 years old, (famously) never married and has continued to preach the importance of moral purity for the last 30 years

When I saw online that he was put on administrative leave and resigned a week later, I was surprised that it made the news. I didn't realize his influence is still so far-reaching or that his closest followers are still so devout. I was surprised at how many former "alumni" have formed an online community focused on recovery. While the behavior itself that Gothard is accused of isn't that shocking, what struck me was the realization of his hypocrisy ("strictest" equaled "holiest" in his organization). I concluded a long time ago that the basic principles he set as standards were impossible to live up to. Turns out he believed the same. 


I've been thinking a lot lately about the impact this fundamentalist organization had on me during the five years we were involved and beyond. To be fair, I can't claim to be embroiled in the culture anymore, or even directly affected by the recent revelation of scandal. I've had no contact with any members of the program in well over a decade. I still have many of the training materials I was given while attending the seminars, stored out of sight and out of mind in my garage. I kept the literature for anthropological reasons rather than sentiment - it's documentation of a significant era in my life. But I shudder when I think about those years of involvement, not because I was a victim of abuse, but because I was so self-conscious. I didn't fit in with the tiny and exclusive group of peers I was allowed to interact with, but wanted desperately to be accepted by the older girls that I admired. All of a sudden, it seems safe to admit I felt out of place.

A lot of time has passed since I associated myself with that group. I'd like to think I've completely outgrown the cult-mentality. But remembering the rules I was expected to follow during adolescence makes me realize how deeply ingrained and unsettling the teaching really is.

Here are a few of the things I was taught.

Rock music is inherently evil. Even contemporary Christian music should be shunned because of the beat, which is bound to lead listeners to "rebellion and witchcraft." Rock and roll perpetuates a message of disrespect and influences young people subliminally to be destructive. Steer clear.

In order to avoid temptation, you must be "under authority" at all times. This concept was illustrated with an umbrella that provided "protection." As a girl, this meant I was to remain under my father's authority until I got married (live at home, follow Dad's rules, apply myself to the well-being of my family, and get Dad's approval for all decisions). This would only change if I got married at which point I'd be under my husband's authority. Independence was dangerous at best, and at worst, downright sinful.

Dating is morally risky and basically just "practice for divorce." The approved method for finding a spouse was courtship. It was up to the guy to get a dad's permission to pursue a relationship with his daughter, and only with the intention of marriage. It was expected that both families would be involved in the relationship, and any time that the prospective couple spent together was closely supervised. Sex was out of the question (literally: it wasn't discussed).

As a woman, your highest calling is to submit to a husband’s leadership and have as many babies as possible. Someday, I was told, my future husband would have the final word in all areas (financial, spiritual, sexual, etc.). Birth control was unnecessary before marriage (no need to prevent pregnancy while abstinent - see previous lesson), and it was frowned upon for married women: the more offspring the better. Based on a Psalm that compares children to “arrows in the hand of a warrior” big families were believed to be more blessed because of “a full quiver.”

Personal appearance is crucial. Clothing, poise, attitude, and expression should always demonstrate respect for God. Men must keep their hair short and shave daily - no beards allowed. Women and girls should wear dresses and skirts instead of pants (the longer the skirt, the better. Bonus points for yards of unflattering denim). Avoid "eye traps," defined as anything that draws attention away from the eyes. Hair should be worn long, to frame the face. Low-cut tops, slits in skirts, anything form-fitting, big jewelry, and too much makeup were all forbidden. A smile and "bright countenance" were a girl’s best assets. I was warned that dressing provocatively, or even attractively, could cause a man to lust. The unspoken expectation was that I better stick to frumpy outfits just to be on the safe side.

Whole grain fiber is necessary for optimal healthBecause of Jesus' teaching in the Lord's Prayer ("Give us this day our daily bread"), we regularly ground whole wheat kernels into flour and made our own bread, rolls, and pizza crust with the help of a Bosch kneading machine. Even dense, dry baked goods could increase our spiritual standing.

College is unnecessary for successful adulthood. In fact, higher education was discouraged for both young men and women. No need to go into debt just to expose your impressionable children to alternate views and "worldly teaching." Home businesses and practical experience were encouraged, such as learning a trade as an apprentice. Godly character would make me more employable than any degree ever could (assuming I wasn't raising a family by my early twenties).

To avoid personal disaster and spiritual ruin, keep a clear conscience. This meant regularly confessing ALL sin to God and never offending others without seeking restitution. Numerous examples were readily available, demonstrating that an unrepentant heart was sure to experience financial, emotional, professional and moral failure. My fear of saying or doing the wrong thing or making the wrong decision stemmed from a hypersensitive conscience. There was no such thing as a neutral option; every fork in the road would either lead me toward blessing for aligning myself with God's Will or toward destruction for missing God's best and allowing a "foothold for Satan." The stakes were high no matter how trivial the sin or the available options.

To avoid irritation and anger (dangerous emotions to be sure), "yield your rights." In other words, focus your energy on what you are responsible for instead of what you expect from someone else (God owns everything anyway). Instead of expecting things to work out the way I wanted them to, or believing I deserved any particular set of circumstances, I would resign myself to the worst-case-scenario. If anything good happened, it was seen as a serendipitous and undeserved pleasure. If I got angry, I was asked to consider what "right" I hadn't yielded to God.

When praying, use the words “hedge of thorns” or “hedge of protection.” When I was fearful or anxious, I was taught to ask God to protect my loved ones (and myself) by surrounding them with an impenetrable boundary of sticker bushes, which would surely repel Satan. The exact choice of words was important.

Reviewing this list of beliefs evokes two reactions in me. 1) Amusement. “Oh, how naïve we were. The things we got hung up on are so silly in retrospect. If only life were so formulaic." 2) Fear. “Is this too disrespectful? Is my sarcasm crossing a line?" I feel like my twelve year old self again, worried I'm missing some vague ideal due to misguided application. Good intentions were never good enough to tip the scale from sin to obedience. My hesitancy to publish this blog post illustrates to me how ingrained my self-doubt is. 

Reviewing these "absolute truths" I believed as a very young person gives me clarity about myself. No wonder I still struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and trust. I was carefully trained to be suspicious of everything outside my small bubble of approved influence. I was groomed to be dependent. The idea that I was ill-equipped to make decisions for myself was reinforced over and over again. The fear of consequences for disobeying my parents or God was paralyzing as a kid. My conclusion was that I was imperfect and incapable so I zeroed-in on ways I could out-perform my flaws or divert attention to someone else. 

I’m a people-pleaser, but I come by it honestly. Who wouldn't be, with all those rules?


Questions I intend to answer in future posts:

"Your parents sound like jerks! Didn't they love you?"

"How did your family get suckered into this craziness? Were you all raving lunatics?"

"Do you hate God and all Christians?"

"How did you leave a cult?"

"What other fundie rules have you broken?"

"Did you have any friends as a kid?"

"Do you have any good whole-wheat bread recipes?"

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mom, Mystery, and Metaphor: My Search for a Spiritual Practice

A women's leadership group I am a part of is discussing "spiritual practice," ways we as women, as leaders, and as individuals can connect with spirit in order to realize greater perspective and deeper meaning in life.

I've got to be honest. The phrase gives me the heebie jeebies.

The spiritual practices I am familiar with come from my young adulthood, steeped in evangelical tradition: attend church, participate in corporate worship, memorize scripture, fast, tithe, serve, and do "devotions" (private Bible reading and prayer). Those prescribed activities still reek of homework (at best) and prerequisites for salvation (at worst).

Another reason I struggle to place value on spiritual practice is the life and death of my mom. Her faith was the most compelling I know of. Mom was one of those rare individuals who lived her beliefs in a tangible way. She didn't talk about patience, compassion, unconditional love, or believing the best about people, she personified those traits daily. She treated others the way she wanted to be treated. She credited God for the blessings in her life. She lived humbly and sacrificially.

But despite being BFF's with Jesus, Mom's life ended due to an incurable and debilitating disease. In December 2006, a month before her 54th birthday, Mom was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's disease. For nearly seven years, my dad and siblings and I watched her deteriorate. Her earliest symptoms (sudden inability to balance her checkbook, getting lost while running routine errands, lack of simple recall) quickly morphed into more serious concerns (inability to read or write, requiring help to dress herself, constant fog of confusion). She disappeared one day while taking a walk through our neighborhood and didn't turn up until hours later, 13 miles from home. She was tired, disoriented and dehydrated, but unaware she had caused panic for the whole family that resulted in a missing persons report with the Sheriff's office.

In 2011, we moved Mom into a nursing home. She continued to lose motor skills, language, and resemblance to her former self. In the two years she was there, she aged an equivalent twenty years, her body seemingly on a fast track to total dependence. She died September 1, 2013, bedridden and infirm.

I hate what happened to my mom. I hate the fact that she was stolen from us - not only the morning of her death, but in all the losses along the way. She, of all people, never deserved to have her mind and body slowly turn against her. She was robbed of the chance to attend her firstborn son's wedding, to see him blissfully in love with his bride. She lost the opportunity to cradle and play with her first grandchild. She'll never be able to celebrate retirement, travel, or enjoy an empty nest with my dad, her adoring, devoted husband of 36 years.

I'd like a few words with the God she worshiped. I want an explanation for the humiliating, slow-motion death of a woman who was a powerhouse of kindness and creativity, who made every person she came in contact with feel valuable and worthwhile. Why was that light extinguished? What's the use of being faithful if there's no dispensation from suffering?

The years between her diagnosis and death were like an ongoing storm. As a family, we were constantly covered by dark clouds, continually in a state of emergency. I didn't know whether to board up the windows and hunker down, make an escape to higher ground and run for the hills, or give up and be swept away in the rising flood waters. It was a seven year natural disaster.

And yet.

In the midst of those stormy years, despite the fear, sadness, confusion, anger and profound loss, there were periodic sun breaks. There were rainbows. Every visit with my mom in the nursing home was a gift. Her sweet spirit buoyed us, even when we were trying our best to be strong for her. Her sense of humor lasted longer than her ability to tell funny stories. Her smile still lit up the room. She hummed and harmonized long after she forgot the words to her favorite hymns. My family rallied around her and our love was solidified. The storm of grief raged on, but we were anchored to one another.

We had the opportunity to practice the qualities we'd seen in her: it took unconditional love to carry on one sided-conversations. It required patience when she moved slowly. We drew on compassion in order to sit with her in unfamiliar surroundings, in rooms filled with ancient strangers. We borrowed her joy when all we wanted to do was collapse in tears. Those holy moments of connection to her were beams of light shining down between shifting rain clouds.

My simplistic, cause-and-effect understanding of Christianity has been shattered. My happy-go-lucky faith in a god who "works all things together for good for those who love him" has been called into question. I used to think that any reference to spirituality was an hommage to The Holy Spirit, whether theologically correct or incorrect. To say "I'm not a religious person, but I am very spiritual" was just a cop-out for those unwilling to claim a specific dogma.

But now, I believe Spirituality refers to something much, much bigger. It is somehow contained in those indescribable interruptions of love and light, the sunbeams and stillness during the storm. Maybe it comes from heaven, or eternity, or God, or the universe. Maybe it's generated between people whose love for one another transcends words of explanation. Maybe it simply resides in human souls. I don't know. My 16 year-old Christian self is screaming "heretic! Stop with the New Age mumbo jumbo!" but her pat answers don't satisfy me anymore. I'm no longer threatened by uncertainty. In fact, I'm allured by mystery; by the paradox of loss and love and how fully I experienced both simultaneously.

I'm going to keep an open mind. However I end up defining it in this stage of my life, spiritual practice will be the place where I explore these mysteries. Maybe meditation will become my metaphorical surfboard on life's tidal waves, or mindfulness a hot air balloon ride during a lightening storm. Maybe it will all come back to fasting and kneeling in prayer. I'm going to allow myself some time to ponder.

And I'm pretty sure Mom and the trinity are OK with that.