A sister asks, “Where is the love?”
I grew up in a forested, rural town. When I was 5, my mom met a small group of sisters and they invited her to their weekly sisters’ meeting. For months, she attended that meeting never once opening her mouth to participate. Once she discovered calling on the Lord’s name to be so empowering and enlivening, she was hooked. She left the denomination she was in, and started meeting with the church. We attended children’s meeting faithfully week after week. My dad was not convinced to meet with the saints until I was 13. He was touched by the Lord by hearing junior high kids singing “God the Creator became a God-man,” and he realized a bunch of 7th and 8th graders had a deeper understanding of God than he did. So then both my parents started meeting with the church. My mom rose early every morning (and still does) to read the Bible and several portions of ministry reading. I remember being paid to memorize words to songs over the holiday breaks from school; being paid to memorize footnotes from the Recovery Version. I remember performing our memorized material for the saints on more than one occasion. This brought about a personal sense of accomplishment, and gave me purpose.
At age 14, I remember a time I told my mom how I was genuinely feeling about something personal. I was met with the response “Your feelings are not real.” This lack of empathy caused a deep wound within, from which I am still recovering. I blame the local church’s teaching about “denying the self” and that “the spirit is our real person.” Though I have believed these things myself in the past, looking back I realized that I wasn’t ever allowed to actually develop a self. I just shut down, embracing that I would never understand who I was.
When I was 15, my grandmother died. She was my confidant. She was not meeting with the local churches, and seemed to be Christian mostly in name. Her death rattled me, and took away the one person I felt closest to, the only person I felt I could confide in without her betraying my trust. The same year, I was interested in a friend from school. He was in a couple of my classes, and he liked me. He was the person who held my hand between classes and with whom I felt I could connect-- he cared for me in a unique way, and made me feel special. My mom found out about this boy (seemingly from a church-centered “grapevine” of sorts). When I asked my mom how she knew, she just said “I have my ways.” During the confrontational conversation she had with me, which happened in a car, with no escape, my mom told me, “I’m not going to have a child who has one foot in the world and one foot in the church. So you need to decide, right here and right now, if you’re going to be hot or cold. You’re not going to be lukewarm. You either need to be 100% in the world, or 100% in the church.” I have referenced that conversation many times in my life-- usually as a positive thing. Thinking of it now makes me feel sick. Instead of meeting me with love and kindness, I was controlled by fear to not leave the only group and family I’ve ever known, and emotionally paralyzed. Since most of my social life and spiritual meaning was involved in the church, I claimed 100% involvement in the church.
From that point until college, I attended meetings (but never enough), read my bible (but never enough), had morning revival phone calls with another high school sister (but never enough), bought a guitar, began writing “spiritual songs,” and pushed down the feelings that I would never be enough or meet the standard.
Incidentally, when I was 15, I almost always wanted to be asleep. I thought this was normal. My mom told me I must just be growing, and that it’s okay for teenagers to nap a lot. But I had a suicide plan. I remember standing in the bathroom one night, looking at myself in the mirror, thinking I was worthless and pointing out all my flaws. I would consider, “Are there any medications my parents take that I could mix together to cause an overdose?” or “Is this razor blade sharp enough to slit my wrists?” Though I never acted upon these thoughts, I had them daily. I thought everyone had them. I thought everyone just went through life wishing they were dead, and putting on a happy face. I never felt comfortable enough with my own family or closest friends to share this thought with them. What stopped me from committing suicide was the thought “What if my younger sibling finds me?” So I never carried through on my thoughts. Thankfully.
When I was 16, I don’t remember what I even did to “deserve it” now, but my punishment was being spanked, bare bottom, by my dad, with a half-inch thick wooden paddle with holes drilled in it. It left bruised welts on me for a month, and I couldn’t walk without wincing. When I told my parents I was bruised, in pain, and that I had grounds to call CPS, they just laughed. My dad said, “Okay, go ahead and call them.” through laughter.
When I was 17, I became involved with a brother who was in college in my town. He liked to spend time at our house, with our family, and because he was a college student, my parents never assumed that we’d do anything unsavory. He was 22, in his last year at university. I thought he was “the one,” and that we would get married. Because I thought we would be married, there wasn’t need to give much consent on my side. We never actually went very far physically with each other in real life-- as he really was a decent person-- though we had very many detailed sexual conversations over AOL IM that went explicitly farther. One time my family and he were sitting around playing a card game, and eating candy that was in a bowl on the table. I’d had 2-3 pieces already, and when I went in for my next piece, he stopped my hand from getting it, and then shook his finger “uh uh” and gave me a look that said, “You don’t need any more.” I should’ve known then. When he graduated from university, he asked me to wait on him while he went to the FTTA (Full Time Training in Anaheim). There he met and fell in love with his now wife. When he came home after graduating, he took me out a couple of times-- ended up asking me to lose weight, and said that the trainers in the FTTA said that eventually marrying anybody is the same after 20 years. After 3-ish weeks of this type of “conversation,” he ended up telling me he didn’t think we were a good match. (This was absolutely true-- but devastating to me at the time, as I’d invested my heart in our relationship of [on my end] 3 years just waiting.) I realize now that our entire relationship was based on misogynistic ideas, and that actually my own parents, the church, his parents, and he had perpetuated that idea, so that’s what I thought was normal.
Incidentally, also when I was 17, I had to do an essay, and (I guess) one of the topic choices was types of abuse. I don’t know why I chose that topic, but I did. I learned about verbal abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse. I thought I had suffered all but one, and when I asked my mom about it, told her about my essay, what I had researched, she rolled her eyes and said I was being dramatic, and that what I experienced wasn’t abuse-- if I wanted to know about abuse, she’d tell me about her upbringing. Nothing I experienced was even close to what she’d experienced.
The biggest thing that has remained with me from my childhood and adolescence is that I have no recollection of my parents ever showing me or my siblings affection of any kind-- especially physical. I do not recall my parents ever giving me a hug until I was leaving to go to the FTTA. I was 22 years old, and had never received any physical affection from my parents. At the time, this didn’t strike me as strange, as I never had any comparison. My family just wasn’t affectionate. In fact, my youngest sibling, whose love language is physical touch, was shamed for ever giving hugs to anyone. I remember that I myself thought hugs were worldly. What? Hugs. I only realized at the age of 30, after having my own child, how bizarre and ridiculous this notion is. Having a child willingly hold your hand, or fall asleep on your chest is a healing experience. There is something absolutely disarming and stress-releasing held in a willing, loving touch. I know many in the church life are affectionate, and this isn’t a problem for everyone, but in my experience, my parents went way overboard with the “not having natural affection” thing. In this way, it seems that the church can be a safe haven for narcissism, emotional abuse, lack of physical affection between family members, extreme loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
I always had a roof over my head, clean clothes to wear, enough food. But I never got any kind of emotional direction or coping tools, or praise for anything I did except for that which was considered spiritual. If I wrote a spiritual song, it moved my mom to tears. When I became president of Christians on Campus, I saw her beam with pride. If I spoke in a meeting, I got a smile. If I chose to attend a meeting, I was viewed as good. When I took a night class that happened to be on the same night of the prayer meeting, I felt I had to explain that that was the only time the class was offered, so I would be missing the prayer meeting that whole semester. When I chose to attend FTTA, the saints were overjoyed. Attending meetings was the main focus of my Christian life. Throughout my life, I have had genuine experiences of being with God, knowing He is real, having Him confirm things, having a sense of peace. My story is not to discount those experiences, or to dismiss the spiritual growth I have had throughout my life. I just want to highlight the ways that growing up in this kind of high control group, especially with extremely strict, emotionally neglectful parents, was damaging to me.
This is not to say my parents didn’t love me, but they didn’t/don’t know how to show me love in a proper way-- and the point is not to put them down, or disregard any positive experiences I had as a child, but simply to shine some light on the group they are in that didn’t shepherd them properly. My parents grew up in situations of extreme abuse, and they didn’t have a pattern to follow. It isn’t their fault that they didn’t have anyone to look up to-- my problem is that they were never encouraged to get the help they needed to break the cycle. This high control group not only allowed, but condoned, uplifted, and prioritized the denying of the self before a “self” ever had a chance to develop. Where is the love? This group has no shortage of truth-- but there is a deep well of love that is going un-accessed, getting covered over, and growing weeds.
When I was in the FTTA I had a crisis of faith. I stopped believing in God altogether. I saw hypocrisy everywhere, and felt it in myself continually. I could fly just below the radar, so I wouldn’t have to go read and summarize life study messages (punishment in the FTTA) on Monday morning (our day “off”), mostly so that I could spend the day sleeping. My faith in God was restored when a small group of isolated experiences showed me His heart was full of love, through the humanity of Jesus. The things that stick out to me most are:
1) someone letting me borrow their car when I was broken-hearted
2) someone seeing I was uncomfortable and joining me where I was instead of making me feel more isolated
3) someone being on my side, actually caring for me, when I thought they wouldn’t be
I made some connections that have lasted, because that handful of people actually cared how I was feeling. They had a genuine heart for me, humanly. There were 3 in particular who met specific needs I had for companionship. They knew me well, had listened to me, and loved me anyway.
My biggest takeaway from FTTA was that “If I’m offended, the problem is with me, always.” That is a damaging thought, that innately our immediate reaction should always be to blame ourselves. This helped me to stay quiet about any problems I had from that point onward-- if I was mistreated, abused, lied to, lied about, used, or wounded, I took responsibility for it as a problem on my part, a problem with me, with my heart; keeping silent about any issues I had with the different people in the various localities I have lived in since graduating from the FTTA.
It’s not okay to shame people for not going to every meeting. Instead, listen to them.
It’s not okay to believe you have the right to an opinion on someone else’s sex life. Instead, bring them dinner or a gift card with no strings attached.
It’s not okay to compare your children to others. Instead, point out what’s good in your children; lift them up; tell them it’s okay to make mistakes; love them for who God made them to be.
It’s not okay to belittle abuse. Instead, have a plan of action in place so the abuse survivors can be cared for in a proper way.
It’s not okay for church leaders to speak one thing in the meeting and treat their wives like servants. Instead, love your wives and be genuine.
It’s not okay for anyone accused of rape to be upheld and revered-- whether it’s true or not. Instead, take the time to care for all the members of the Body.
It’s not okay for leading brothers to tell family members not to contact other family members because they haven’t been meeting. Instead, why not ask why they haven’t been meeting, and have a dialogue with a view to caring for each one’s heart?
It’s not okay for the ones who are serving full time to not be able to bring up concerns because their livelihood depends upon “keeping the peace.” Instead, have a way for people to ask questions, and bring up valid concerns without their jobs being at stake.
It’s not okay for brothers to say sisters are “emotional” and brothers are “in their mind.” This is shaming everyone for having a soul, and saying emotions are only expressed through “the weaker vessel,” which makes brothers afraid to show emotions and belittles any expression of emotion. Instead, shepherd people’s souls by recognizing where they are, and reaching out to them to actually connect with them genuinely.
It’s not okay to lie to others so you seem good. Instead, tell the truth.
It’s not okay to believe a lie just so you can save face. Instead, lay aside your pride and be humble, apologize, be willing to be adjusted if you’re wrong.
It’s not okay to produce videos teaching college students how to recruit others step-by-step. Instead, let God actually touch people in a personal way.
It’s not okay to be shamed for taking anti-depressants. Instead, help others get the help they need from proper mental health professionals.
It’s not okay to be ridiculed for laughing or hugging. Instead, enjoy happiness.
It’s not okay to shame people for wearing any particular style of clothing. Instead, realize that human beings are much more than how they look on the outside.
It’s not okay to treat people as if they’re rebellious or poisonous for having a question about something. Instead, listen and empathize, and make changes if necessary.
It’s not okay to uphold those in leadership positions as infallible, untouchable, and unapproachable. Instead, stop and think for yourself about who you are following-- God or man?
It’s not okay to tell a young person their feelings are not real, or don’t matter. Instead, help them find their voice.
It’s not okay to dismiss people from the church because they “make others uncomfortable.” Instead, help facilitate proper conversations between the parties involved without choosing sides.
It’s not okay to only promote and uplift solely the ministry of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee. If we’re standing on the shoulders of all the Christians who have gone before us, we should feel free to read whatever Christian authors are out there and decide for ourselves what is helpful and what is not.
Upon graduating from FTTA, I have lived with 2 different families in the church, gotten married, declared bankruptcy, struggled with infertility, received a daughter, moved, lost a baby, and had countless conversations with the Lord about all these matters, and many others. I am well-acquainted with grief, and I am touched by Isaiah 38:5 “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears.” The God I love, and the God I know, is the One who does not condemn, but who hears and sees my truest condition. I am learning, only now, that He actually loves ME. I’m learning to LET Him love me.
When I was 32 years old, I saw a post on Facebook that a friend of mine who had also grown up in the church had posted, about the characteristics of high control groups. I watched part of the video, and commented on her post “Come back.” I was sick to my stomach for 3 weeks about having watched part of this video. I physically had a reaction to the stress and guilt of the possibility of having been “poisoned.” She ended up messaging me, and we interacted several times over the next 2 years. The way she interacted with me was with the intent to educate, but also with a heart of love. She is not poisonous, or broken-- she is simply recovering and healing from so many wounds inflicted during her years in the church. From the moment I watched that video, and realized I had seen many of the characteristics mentioned in the video in the local churches, I felt like I looked at the meetings in a bit of a different way-- not saying amen to everything willy nilly, just because so-and-so said it. I became a bit more objective, but still was completely entwined in the teachings and ways of the church culture.
When I was 33 years old, a sister (we’ll call her X) I kind of knew left her husband (we’ll call him Y). This doesn’t seem like it should’ve caused as much upheaval as it did, but it surely did. When she left with her children, I knew something terrible must have happened, because wives who are happy, who have everything money can buy, don’t just leave their husbands and whisk their children away from all they know without a good reason. For 6 months, I heard nothing specific about this family. I knew everyone in the family was affected, and that Y was still speaking in the meetings, going to every meeting, speaking at conferences, and yet looked emaciated and forlorn. After 6 months, my sister (who had lived with this family for over a year) told me a bare bones version of why sister X had left Y. Now, no matter who is right and who is wrong, who had done what, what unfolded before me was the uplifting of Y, and the denigration and accusation of X. The elders in my locality completely condoned Y’s behavior, believed his story, promoted him to an elder, continued to put him in the spotlight, and refused to hear X’s side of the story at all. It doesn’t matter who is telling the truth, no one member of a church should be promoted and revered when they have been accused of and are in legal proceedings concerning these things. That was a big red flag to me that this is not something of the Lord. We stopped meeting last year because we couldn’t bear to go to the meetings and see the hypocrisy week after week, and because we didn’t want our daughter to be under the undue influence of those related to brother Y (who served in her class in children’s meeting). We simply couldn’t attend and feign oneness with these ones who knowingly cut off particular members of the Body. Elders are supposed to be shepherds of the flock of God, joints of supply, caring for those in their locality in love.
Now, this alone isn’t a good enough reason to completely disavow oneself from the only way to meet, the only true faith, the one hope of overcoming. However, then Joanna Casteel posted her letter on Facebook. (The link is here, if you’d like to read it: http://bit.ly/GregJoannaCasteelLetter)
In this letter, Jo outlined many points that had bothered me about coverups of abuses in the churches around the globe. This wasn’t just my locality. This wasn’t just one family. But this was happening again and again, over and over, and there was no way for it to be addressed without being labeled as a divisive, rebellious dissenter.
In the Summer 2019 semi-annual training, messages 5 and 8 seemed to have much emphasis directed toward battling this letter from a little sister out in a small locality, calling her Satanic, death itself, Miriam, leprous, poisonous, rebellious, etc. This spewing of hatred for a member of the Body was appalling to say the least. In that same semi-annual training, the brothers called a special fellowship for all FTTA graduates, and told them not to read Jo’s letter. Without getting into the details of that (which are equally revolting), how can these leading brothers say there is no hierarchy, and then not speak directly to all the saints, but only to FTTA graduates about this supposed warfare? If all members have a function in the Body, why are FTTA graduates a “special class” within this group? If the brothers are not trying to control people, why do they tell this group not to read the letter? If the brothers have nothing to hide, and are actually transparent, why is there a need to silence this one particular member? Why not instead engage in a conversation with her, address her concerns, help shepherd her heart?
It’s impossible to leave the Lord’s recovery-- because He will not stop recovering us back to Himself-- but I have left this exclusive, condescending group. I have found peace. I am following God. I’m not living by a set of regulations set up by a group of flawed humans, but by the grace of a living Person who loves me. For the first time ever, I went to a different nondenominational church, and the message was loud and clear: “We need YOUR voice. Somewhere along the way we forgot to fight for the rights of the impoverished, we became an old boys’ club, we forgot the broken. We need to listen to one another. We need to recognize that the Body of Christ has been gifted to change the world. We can’t do that if you’re silent, and we can’t do that if you’re arrogant.” It was like the Lord was speaking directly to me, telling me I matter, and I can’t keep silent any longer.
I recently had an experience of being around several other church kids who have left this same group. In this time with them, something broke within me- in a positive way. If the standard is “Does this make me love God more?” then my answer is wholeheartedly “YES! Leaving the expectations and narrowness behind has made me love God all the more.” I feel like I have finally experienced what being loved and filled feels like. I love God more. Not because someone preached anything at all, but genuine people shared genuine struggles and all were received. It was holy. It was love. There was a deep, sweet well of life and love bursting forth from my heart. I felt like I had found a shelter from the storm.
We have done our best. God’s heart is good toward us.