Love That Will Not Let Me Go

11254053_10153406434689261_7435853901037485899_nThe view from my balcony at Chalet Bellevue

When you come to L’Abri there are 4 questions you’ll have to answer over and over:

  • Where are you from?
  • How did you hear about L’Abri?
  • How long will you be here?
  • Why are you here?

The first few are fairly innocuous, but you find out very quickly that there is an expectation of honesty if not outright vulnerability in your response to the latter. It’s rarely one-sided, and it feels safer to speak the truth when you’re not the only one doing it.

After 11 weeks here my response to the last question is well rehearsed. I spent nearly 10 years in a christian cult which I left 3 years ago. I may have prettied up my reasons for coming here in previous writing, but the truth is that I came to L’Abri to immerse myself in community after being alienated from it for several years; to intentionally learn to live with people again and prove to myself that they are safe. I wanted to find a sure foundation to stand on. Those goals are being met, but it doesn’t look the way I thought it would.

Sharing my reason for being here dozens of times has made me reflect a lot on my time with Oikos Ministries. I didn’t see it as a cult until my friends started to leave, 6 months after I did. One of them googled the word and the similarities to our church were eerie. No one wants to believe themselves or their friends and family are deluded enough to be in a cult.

It was the habit of the “apostles” to cyber-stalk people who left the church, looking for clues of their demise. The struggles they confessed in pastoral counseling were made public and any misfortune they experienced subsequently was credited to the fact that they walked away from Jesus; walked away from us, because we represented Jesus in the earth. Tongues were clicked when families experienced trial or tragedy, people divorced or jobs were lost. We shook our heads and said, “That’s what happens…” the implication being that your life would implode when you left our church, when you left the truth.

This practice made me supremely uncomfortable and increasingly mistrusting. I knew that my own online presence was under scrutiny. I analyzed everything I posted from 10 different angles before putting it online, so fearful of a confrontation. When the final confrontation came I expressed to the “apostles” my discomfort with how the stories of those who left were handled. I was told, “If they leave the church, they’re fair game*.” When I confessed that I didn’t feel I could trust them I was summarily dismissed and they moved on to address my sister.

I didn’t leave for another 2 months after that. I was so afraid of losing my family, all of my friends, my apartment with my sister. I was afraid of being struck down by the disciplinary hand of God. I’d seen families torn apart because the loyalty in them was split between church leaders and one another. I didn’t want to take anyone down with me and see my own family destroyed. So I walked out as quietly as I could, holding my breath and waiting for things to blow up in my face.

But they didn’t. At least not for several more months and by that time the explosions were controlled and deliberate. I got my own apartment for the first time. I got a promotion and a raise in my job. I was flourishing in every external way. Inside, I was falling apart and having a massive identity crisis. Nevertheless, I did not fulfill all of the prophecies of destruction spoken over dissenters. I still haven’t.

I’m sure my old church members would read this and think I’ve gone soft, cruising my way along the wide path of love and grace. They might have a point, but I don’t take it as an insult. I am softer.

Finding freedom for me was like walking on ice. With each careful step I let go of legalistic rules about daily bible reading, drinking alcohol, cussing, going to church every Sunday, “regular fellowship”. Is it any wonder that as I unburdened myself of these heavy things I found my weight on the ice still supported?

I thought by coming to L’Abri I would somehow find greater ease in restoring the so-called “Christian disciplines” to my life and thereby experience the love of God to a greater degree, one that is acceptable to all my Christian friends. But love does not come through rules. Love comes from people. The christian cult I was in taught that Gods love is conditional. My experience of His love proved otherwise quite some time ago but it is difficult to make my heart believe.

Here at L’Abri I have encountered love that is not contingent on conditions of success or failure. No one cares what my job was. I can’t earn my way into affections through favors or exchange. This love is not trying to correct my behavior or my theology. It isn’t concerned by the things I believe or scared of the stories I tell. This love sits next to me when I ask pain-filled questions that have no easy answers. It cries the tears I can’t and tells me I am loved until I start to believe it. This love shows me my worth and makes no demands.

Love that does not want to change me, has changed me forever.

In learning to be loved, I am set free to love others in the same way, without condition. My heart is opening up. There’s nothing I can do to stop it, and I don’t want to try.

I plan to spend another term at L’Abri next year. I want to study theodicy and keep asking questions about the nature of God. But when I return home for a few weeks this December, and even when I eventually leave L’Abri on a more permanent basis, it will be with the assurance of a love that has been made real through people – tangibly. Love that isn’t composed of fancy lighting, moving music, an emotional altar call and warm fuzzies. It’s real in shared wine and long conversations, freshly baked bread, kitchen crew choruses, cups of tea and mountain views, touch without fear, tears shed and belly laughs.

This is love that will not let me go. Not ever.

Oh love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe that in thine ocean depths it’s flow, may richer, fuller be.

Oh joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be.

* I have a witness to this statement.

Dichotomy: Part II

“…And I wanna draw a map, and sing:
‘He restoreth my soul, and leadeth me in righteous paths,
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’
As if I believe it.
And I used to believe it, and someday I will again.
But right now I’m barely holding on to the love that saved me from sin
And I don’t know who I am, the whore or the virgin,
Or just a girl with a heart as dark as death itself and a whitewashed tomb for skin.

And I need a resurrection…” ~ Dichotomized, Emily Joy

…This poem became my prayer. I wasn’t sure if the “me” that “should be” was who I was , or if who I felt I was – a confused, broken, and lost girl – was actually me. I didn’t know what was happening. In a moment of clarity I said that I felt like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. I’d done everything right, followed the rules, served faithfully, put in the long hours — because if I didn’t, who would?  And how was I rewarded? My heart was torn out and trampled on. And I felt cheated. It was like bitterly watching as a prodigal came home to the loving embrace of the Father and I couldn’t be a part of it.

It wasn’t fair.

It had been a long time since I’d felt the embrace of the Father. I no longer knew what it felt like to respond to His love. I only served because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. I was afraid of going to hell. I was afraid of disappointing everyone. I was afraid that without all my Christian duties, without my “title,” I would lose myself.  I knew that service motivated by fear wasn’t sustainable. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make myself love Him.

I was done.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” ~ John 8:36

I knew I was a “son.” But I’d never felt free. I had made myself into a slave, trying to pay off a debt I no longer owed. I wanted to know what it was like to be the prodigal, to run away for a while. I made up my mind that if I ever came back it would be because I wanted to, because I loved the Father, not because I was afraid.

Fearfully, I confessed this to a friend who wisely told me,

“God has given you your freedom, Bekah. If you want to get the hell outta dodge, then do it. He’s not making you stay. Really. It might take a little time ‘outta dodge’ to realize that He’s not putting dogs on you to bring you back.*” 

So before I could think too much about it, I walked away. Quietly, tentatively, not even sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do.

I didn’t get very far.

Grace is an Ocean

Grace is an Ocean

Within a week of walking away I found myself swimming in the deep sea of forgetfulness, long suppressed memories floating to the surface. And suddenly, I needed Him. I didn’t have time to examine my motives or wonder if He loved me. All I could do was cling to the hem of His garment. And He picked me up. And washed me, over and over with the water of His word, His grace, His love. He held my hand and walked with me, shining His light in the darkest corners of my memories.

I’ve spent the last 5 months sinking into His oceans of grace, becoming saturated by His love. Under the reign of spiritual abuse, grace and love were meted out only in the smallest measures lest they be “abused” in excess. I never knew they were available to me in endless quantities. The law of the Spirit of Life has set me free.

I am free, indeed.

I know I’m not the only one who has ever been unable to receive the grace and love of God. As the “older son” I felt like I was spinning wheels trying to feel worthy, trying to make the Father notice me. But I was with Him all along, and everything He had was available to me.

Whether you’re the older son or the prodigal, He’s waiting.

Come home brother, sister. Lets go swimming. 

Part I..

*He knew I’d be back – he just didn’t tell me. 

Dichotomy: Part I

Trigger warning for mentions of spiritual abuse.

If you’ve been here very long, you know that I spent nearly 10 years in a spiritually abusive church.

During my internment in this group I learned to believe that the love of God was expressed most effectively through the confrontation of sin among our brethren. We were told that the essence of love was to be warned of our sin and given the opportunity to “bear fruit unto repentance,” thereby proving the sincerity of our redemption.  In fact, the most unloving thing one could do to another believer was failing to warn them of sin, carelessly allowing them to blaze their path to hell.  I was drawn to these people for their transparency, nakedness, and vulnerability. Their teachings were presented with strength and conviction and were the farthest thing imaginable from the “cheap grace, prosperity gospel” I had grown up with.  I dove in without looking back.

the hot seat

What I thought ‘vulnerability’ looked like.

When I say we were transparent, vulnerable and naked, it was in the sense of being found in the hot seat with the “light of fellowship” aimed at our flaws. “Search me and know my heart” took on a new meaning.  There was an expectation of confession. Deeper, hidden sins were expected at the root of the “obvious symptoms.” Those who responded well to correction were embraced. Those who did not were ostracized or eventually excommunicated via manipulation.  It didn’t take long to adopt the pattern of response that would garner the most positive results.

I vividly remember my first confrontation. I was 17. My heart pounded a foreboding rhythm as I sat across from my young friend in her living room. Haltingly, painfully, she “brought her offense” to me.  I had speculated that she had a crush on a boy in the youth group and conspiratorially giggled to my sister a prediction that they would marry. My friend learned of this and felt hurt. Rather than bringing her feelings directly to me, she followed the pattern set before us, consulting with our youth leaders. She was counseled to formally confront me according to the rules of biblical discipline. My examination took place with church elders in the next room, sanctioning the practice and “supporting us in prayer.”

What had started as a case of hurt feelings ballooned into accusations of foretelling, divination, witchcraft and rebellion.

I was angry, indignant, as I listened to the charges against me.  I felt betrayed. How could the whisper and giggle of a teenage girl lead to this? My anger was quickly squelched by the ultimatum laid before me by my friend. The requirement was that I repent, turn from my ways, and by means of a trial period prove my sincerity lest she and other church members be forced to distance themselves. If I continued in my pattern while claiming to be a Christian, they would fulfill the biblical mandate, “with such a one, do not even eat.”

My blood ran cold and my head spun. This was no idle threat. Just weeks before we’d excommunicated a friend of ours, carefully navigating the legalistic steps of “biblical church discipline.” I knew I was in danger of losing the first real friends I’d ever had. This was not a time to exert my will. I wondered if I was so deluded that I’d become demon possessed. I wondered if I was a witch. At the very least, I assumed my friends and leaders must be able to see a great blind spot in my life. So I tearfully pledged repentance and promised to work harder to overcome rebellion. I became utterly humbled, and for many years lauded that encounter as the nearest I’d ever been to Jesus in the flesh. Because only Jesus would get himself dirty enough to save one as close to perdition as I.

That was only one of many such confrontations, both conducted for me, and sadly, by me. I regret to say that I participated in these inquisitions as eagerly as I sought them for myself. Over the years I grew anxious if my friends did not point out my faults. I believed that any failure to confront me indicated they no longer cared and were content to let me slide right out of grace.

The truth was that many of them had grown weary of this fruitless charade.

Over time, I began to recognize what was happening and knew I had to get out.  I was the first among my friends to leave the church. I didn’t know who I was or what I believed. A crisis of faith became a very real crisis of identity.  I draw my sense of being from the people around me and suddenly I had nothing familiar in proximity. Who was I? Did I really know Jesus? If not, who was I serving? It was months before I felt I could hear from the Lord in the wilderness, alone. But I was determined to stay by His side, wrestling, until I came to some kind of reconciliation with Him.

This poem epitomized where I was. It became my desperate prayer. But would it ever be answered?

This story isn’t over yet. Part II coming soon.

from Dichotomized, released 01 February 2013, Emily Joy Poetry.

Jesus, Jesus.

Last fall I left the church I’d been a part of for almost 10 years and in the months since, I am coming unraveled. This isn’t elegant. It’s ugly. The work is unfinished with no end in sight. But I’m learning not to fight it. I’m not rushing anything. I don’t care how long it takes to heal. Meanwhile, I will not pretend that it is all okay. I’ve worn a mask for too long.

Through breaking my silence I am discovering the freedom of being free. 

In the process of leaving the flock I’ve been wounded, yes. But watching my friends and family extricate themselves with matching wounds and worse has made me want to come unglued.

There is no easy answer for this. So please keep the platitudes and cliches to yourself. I know you mean well, but when you tell me not to let it get to me, I call bullshit. When you tell me that I can’t take on their pain, I call bullshit. When you warn me against bitterness, I call bullshit. And please don’t take it personally. I’m not saying that those things aren’t true or necessary. But in this moment the mama-lion in me is roaring. I will mourn with those who mourn, now in the time for mourning. I will not put aside my righteous indignation because it may make someone uncomfortable. I will not be silenced for the sake of social grace.

I will cry out, “Jesus, Jesus” with Blind Bartimaeus, drowning out the scoffers.

I may not look the tidy portrait of a Christian you want to associate with. I am so far from “figuring it out” and I stopped trying to have it together some time ago. So if you need to keep your distance I will understand – truly. Me-a-year-ago would have kept Me-right-now at arms length. Because Me-right-now doesn’t have all the right doctrine. And me-right-now lets four letter words fly a little too freely. Me-a-year-ago would have secretly envied Me-right-now for the freedom I abuse. Please believe me, I understand. And it really is okay. Because I know there is grace for me right now. And so much more abundant grace for Me-a-year-ago than I could have imagined.

His grace is not as easily frustrated as I once believed. 

jesus jesus there are those who say they love you 
but they have treated me so goddamn mean 
and i know you said forgive them 
for they know not what they do 
but sometimes i think they do 
and i think about you…

jesus jesus i’m still looking for answers 
though i know that i won’t find them here tonight 
but jesus jesus could you call me if you have the time 
maybe we could meet for coffee and work it out 
maybe then i’d understand what it’s all about

 

This song has been bouncing around in my head for two days now. It has no pretty resolution. You are forced to sit in the tension. That’s where I am right now – in the tension. Which is difficult and unfamiliar, because I dearly love happy endings.

For now I cry out Jesus, Jesus. It is enough.