Tag Archives: fundamentalism

third parent

You were Spirit-filled women wearing soft perfume and pantyhose, shoes kicked off and crying freely, arms raised, mascara smeared, interceding for husbands and children. You listened and gave advice, and encouraged me to get up and sing into the microphone. You praised. You nurtured. Full of spirit, indeed.

You taught me the sacred stories, Sunday after Sunday. You told us the story of Noah and the Ark and we sat, our full attention on your facial expressions. You taught us to sing, to harmonize, to act, to tell stories through music and motion. You gave us a space to fall down and get up again.

We gathered for potluck meals after hours-long Sunday services. It was like eating around a fire after a hunt, I imagine– everyone so hungry for food and so full of human companionship, tapping into an ancient need.

You were men in three piece suits with shiny cufflinks, giving sermons about the End Times and insights about Old Testament prophecy, selling books afterward. Once, as I sat in Sunday evening service on the second row, you called me out for not paying attention. With a red face I raised my notebook to show you I was taking careful notes of your words. You apologized and moved on. I wanted your approval.

You gave up your Saturday mornings to do car washes with us, raising money for camps and conventions, buying us pizza and soda, and you may not have known but known we looked forward to it all week: your attention.

We snuck out of Wednesday night service and went down the hill behind the church, for no real reason other than we could. You found us and brought us back inside. You let us throw pies in your face and tolerated our immature sense of humor without ever letting us know it. You cried with those of us who missed parents, who came to church looking to fill holes in our lives. You made us believe we would change the world with our prayer, our witness, our zeal.

You took us to the river, to Mexico, to Africa. We held ourselves down on the Land Rover seats, driving along bumpy red dirt roads, and I heard you say if one of those fags ever tried to touch me…; my face went hot and I don’t remember the other part of that conditional. I learned that you could be small and scared and pitiable.

One of you sang in the choir and took out your rage on your wife at home. More of you practiced compassion in your families. You drove miles to pick me up, let me stop by your house after school, gave me cold water and cookies, told me stories and gave me important clues about this life.

You gave me a car. You looked me in the eye. You teased me for the impossible crush that lasted all through my teenage years. You drove us out for a concert and almost hit a horse on the way home, and we rolled toward the front of the van, waking rudely from our sleep on the floor. 

In college, when I tried to sort out the complications of falling in love, you told me that if I married that boy, God would take away my calling. I followed my heart (thankfully) but spent the first year of my marriage trying to figure out what that even meant–to lose one’s calling. I had once thought you wise on a spiritual level–discerning–and it took so much time to see what it was for what it was.

You told me stories of the day I was born, how I wore a onesie that said The Apple of His Eye and you sang skidamarink a-dink, a-dink, skidamarink a-doo, I love you whenever you saw me, even at my Dad’s funeral all those years later.

I remember thinking you were God when you stood behind the pulpit. All through my childhood, I saw your face when I prayed. 

I’ve been thinking lately about this village; about what it meant. We, the children, were given heavy things to carry. We were given great amounts of love and affirmation. We were given falsehoods with the very best of intentions, and I’m still unpacking them. 

You were my third parent: teaching me how the world works. How much love we’re capable of, how little we really know.

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thin

In the morning, I lift her out of the crib. She rests her head on my shoulder, tucking her little body into the side of me. We whisper our morning greetings to each other. It’s Easter Sunday, and I stayed up last night to press her little denim dress with the ruffled skirt–one, two, three layers. I slip it over her head, and button the little white lace sweater over it. I carry her to the bathroom and comb her hair, telling her all the while how beautiful she is. (And she is! My goodness.) We’re almost done, and she slips a little toward the round sink. I catch her, but she’s felt the scare and starts to cry. It takes time for her little self to calm after things like this–five minutes of shhhhhh and pat and sway. My sensitive-souled girl.

Before, something like this would have stolen the morning from us.

Later, we eat breakfast at the church and wait while the big kids hide eggs outside. When they’re done, we march our three out the door. The boys are off in a flash with their buckets, having done this before. Aimee walks with her basket like she’s been practicing, stoops down to collect the eggs she spots. After four, she dumps them all out triumphantly and collects them again. We laugh, and take pictures, and shiver a little in the cold Spring wind. What is it about Easter, always chilling us in the thin outfits we insist on wearing?

I’m not trying to make anything more spiritual than it already is, and that feels good. This egg hunt, this celebration of Spring, is also a celebration of resurrection and all the rest of it. Whatever I may feel or not feel, it doesn’t matter right now. I am rediscovering simple, good things. Among them: I have a daughter who laughs and runs (runs!) with her Easter basket, I have two brown-eyed boys–one who still belly-laughs and one who goes deep into his thoughts and says, when the pastor asks, that Easter is about celebrating hope. I have a man by my side with warm hands and an imagination about life. We’ve dreamed together, and we’ve learned to let ourselves be tired.

I could never make these things more beautiful than they already are.

I’ve been holding two things side by side: great beauty and great sadness. I make inquiries about therapy, for myself this time, because I want to be happy. That is all, and it is enough: I want to be happy. I am worthy of happiness, I tried recently to say to myself in the mirror, and couldn’t quite look my reflected self in the eye.

I’m not sure why I’ve waited so long to ask for this kind of help.

I talk through the hour-and-a-half session like it’s ten minutes, and learn to breathe into the spot in my chest where the pain throbs. It helps. Let me be your container for awhile, she says, and I agree. I feel like there is an ocean to organize into glass vials–to label and sort and store. I can’t fathom it, really, but it’s comforting to think that someone else can. You don’t just walk away from a fear-saturated belief system and have no cost to pay. But it’s time.

Time for new things to be born.

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A Force Stronger than Fear: A Book Review

I downloaded my copy of blogger Elizabeth Esther’s memoir Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future on Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning, I had finished the whole thing. This is not common (or even possible, usually) but her words were so riveting that I snuck moments in whenever I could. Throw in a load of laundry, read some, put the baby down for her nap, read some more, build train tracks with my toddler, read again.

The Girl at the End of the World

In her first book (and I hope there will be more) Elizabeth Esther tells the story of her childhood in a spiritually abusive fundamentalist cult called The Assembly, founded by her grandfather, and her slow escape from the cult as a young mother and wife. It’s not easy material to take in–I cried more than once and even stopped to beg-pray at one point. God, help me not to take advantage of the power I have over my children’s view of You. Please.

Power and fear are major themes in the book. At a young age, we see Elizabeth enduring “discipline” from her elders, and nothing but contrite submission and total surrender is accepted in return. She suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks related to her fear of being left behind if the rapture should happen and she hasn’t properly confessed all sin. Her family doesn’t accept mental illness as a reality though, so she never receives treatment. She believes, because she has been taught, that The Assembly is the way to God–and essentially this means that her grandfather and his followers are the way to God. The only empowerment is unquestioning obedience, because it will get her to heaven–even if it means her earthly life is miserable.

The motif of mothers and daughters is woven skillfully throughout the book. Tender and impulsive, Elizabeth learns to keep a safe emotional distance from her grandmother and her mother, as they are responsible for what seems like the majority of correcting her “character flaws”. She endures daily spankings–reminders that she’ll never be good enough.

Adulthood offers no freedom. Elizabeth marries a kind young man named Matt. The relationship offers some solace because the two are friends, and because Matt isn’t domineering, but Elizabeth soon realizes even their relationship isn’t safe from the scrutiny of The Assembly. Ultimately, they don’t have the power to make decisions about what their life together will look like.

I pray until Grandma is satisfied. She thinks I am weeping for my sins, but I am weeping because I finally realize that I will never be free.I see life stretched in front of me, and I weep for all the dreams I’ll never fulfill and for the children I will bring into this oppression. I weep for naively hoping my marriage could be different from all the other marriages in The Assembly. (Kindle ed, p. 127)

It takes motherhood to give Elizabeth the courage to leave, even though it doesn’t happen right away. In a pivotal scene, she’s expected to spank her daughter on her first birthday, a punishment for reaching for a bowl of chocolate. Children are trained to obey to the point that they won’t reach for sweets or toys without their parents’ pre-approval. Her mother dutifully fetches a wooden spoon, her grandmother looks on approvingly. Elizabeth shuts herself and her baby girl in the bathroom, torn between her own maternal intuition and the powerful pull of the cult’s teachings on child discipline–a misnomer because the purpose is to coldly break a child of any notion of preference or individuality.

She stares up at me, smiling and innocently unaware of what is happening. It is her first birthday. She is my baby, and I am doing this to her. I am training her the way I have been trained. Indeed, to break her will, I’d begun spanking Jewel at six months old.

Oh God. Help me. Help me now. I wait, the tears still coursing down my cheeks.

And there it is. A small shift. The tiniest point of light breaking through my darkness. It is revelation. You don’t have to break your daughter the way you were broken. (p. 137-138)

In this moment, the trajectory begins to shift. It’s the slow gathering of courage through Elizabeth’s relationship with her oldest daughter that builds into a new kind of strength over the years. She and her husband confront her grandparents for multiple abuses of power and finally leave the cult. They spend years acclimating to the outside American culture and trying to find a new way to worship and connect with God. She’s drawn to the safety and beauty of Catholicism, even though she strongly disapproves of it at first.  She finds strength through Mama Mary, explaining that when she couldn’t find Jesus, she went looking for his mother. She gains the strength to parent according to her own conscience, to be gentle with herself and seek the treatment she needs, and eventually even the strength for reconciliation with her parents.

As I read Elizabeth’s story, the goodness of God became more and more evident. I was reminded that we’re drawn to the Divine in many different ways, and what matters is that we bravely seek as we are led to. As she puts it so well:

God is big enough

This book shook me up, I’ll be honest. I’ve felt emotionally raw ever since I finished it. I think this is a testament to Elizabeth Esther’s ability as a writer to transfer her real life experiences to the page. Her voice is warm, candid, devastating, and at times hilarious (love me some King James-flavored humor) and left me feeling grateful and hopeful for the power of love.

It’s stronger than fear. Praise be to God.

You can pick up a copy of this book herehere, OR leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy, on me! You can just say hello, or share a thought on this post, or maybe tell me about a time you were brave in your spiritual journey. I’ll pick a winner on Monday.

*UPDATED: The winner of the book is Erica B, who left a comment on my Facebook page. Congrats Erica! Look for more reviews and giveaways soon.*

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