“I never have been very good at puzzles….” Part 2

Part 1

Oh god, how can I even begin to describe what we felt pulling up? To us, it was HUGE, about, oh I don’t know, 500 members? (Side, it always makes me laugh when someone describes a church as small and says it has about 100 members: you don’t know small until you attend a 20-person church where your family is half the membership.) After the funeral-style dirges we were used to, the music was upbeat and fast-paced. There was a large choir, all hymns or southern-gospel style songs, the preaching was from the KJV. Everything reeked of tradition, but there were cushioned pews, carpeted floors, a nursery, Sunday school, and ohmygosh PEOPLE!! We made quite the entrance in our 15-passenger royal blue van and 9+ kids in odd fashions, and the members were drawn to us instantly. They were, and still are, an incredibly friendly bunch (to their own kind anyway). They made us feel welcome, wanted to find out about us, the young people actually tried to talk to us. It was, dare I say it, magical. We were…..appreciated!! Sought out!! Treated as if we were important and someone of worth!!! When you spend your entire life feeling marginalized and shut up, that feeling was like crack. I don’t think we visited anywhere else after that, but jumped right in. Except for my dad, who realized we would all have to be baptized in order to join. The pastor was fairly adamant about that.  

So picture this, if you will. 9 children, ages ~6 to 23, all getting baptized, one after the other. Standing in a looooooong line at the front of the church, while all the members came by and congratulated you. Feeling very out-of-place in your bulky sweater that was two-sizes-too-big, a calf-length elasticized skirt with a floral print, chunky sandals, no jewelry or makeup or nice hair while all the girls your age are wearing modern clothes and heels and perfectly styled hair. JUST PICTURE IT. Then cry a little for 18-year old me who grew up in a bubble and was becoming painfully aware of just all the ways she did not measure up.

That was….May, I think. For a few months, I got to hear all about the church’s connected college. I then went to their youth camp in Tennessee, which….I kinda want to cry myself now.

I technically was too old, having graduated already, but money is money and the church didn’t mind if I went. But unlike my two younger sisters 2 and 3 who are more naturally outgoing and had no trouble making friends and had been going to youth group for a few months by then, I knew no one at the camp except the two daughters of new college president. I vividly remember sitting in the school gym, waiting for the time to leave. The other girls, all younger than me anyway, were off in their own cliques, along with Sisters 2 and 3. I spent a little time with the older daughter, but other than that, it was just me, sitting on the side by myself, watching everyone. Got on the bus, sat in a seat by myself, watching everyone. I don’t blame them, really. My resting face gives off a “don’t mess with me” vibe, I wasn’t one to make first advances and if someone did come to me first, I had NO BLOODY IDEA of how to talk or what to talk about. It was less awkward to just sit by myself and observe. Something I did very well for the next….four years.

It was probably a good 10 hour trip to the camp. It was a beautiful lodge, I had a room with the older girls, not with my sisters. I kinda made friends with another recent church member who would be attending the college in the fall, a quietly beautiful girl named J. I still didn’t know how to talk, but I sat with her during meals and just enjoyed being around her. One thing that struck me as being wrong. The Berean kids got to stay in the nice new lodge, a group from a few other churches had to stay in the old, smaller lodge. I’m guessing the Berean group was just bigger, but it didn’t quite sit right, especially after the sewer went out in the older lodge. And there was little intermingling, except for chapel services and dinner. It was decidedly non-fun for a summer camp. It was super hot, the games were meh, there wasn’t much to DO, and I wasn’t comfortable inserting myself if anything did happen (like volleyball, which I still suck at). Just a long week of not-belonging.

That feeling rocketed sky-high after an incident mid-week. It was a free afternoon, I was in my room, looking at pictures on my camera, while three of the berean girls were all laying on the large queen-size bed by the door. These girls were definitely a mean girls style clique: outgoing, all pretty, bossy, well in-favour with church staff. I thought they were adorable, three friends sprawled out in a huge bed together, laughing and enjoying each other, something I never ever had. I took a picture. Granted, I can see how that could be seen as a little creepy as they didn’t know me that well. I can’t remember if they told me not to or not, but feeling a little playful I snapped another. They FREAKING JUMPED ME. I was on the top bunk, they pulled me off, and sat on me till girl A deleted the photo and I stopped struggling. They freaking SAT ON ME. The youth director’s wife came in during the middle, and instead of reprimanding them for ganging up on the new girl, just kinda went huh, grabbed whatever she came in for and left. I never did like her, wonder why. Once the girls got off, I climbed back up in my bed and tried so hard not to cry, not succeeding very well. I don’t like arguing or conflict anyway, and these idiot girls I didn’t know freaking yanked me off a bunk bed and sat on me. I still can’t bring myself to tolerate them to this day, even the one that ended up leaving the church (spoiler alert). Last I saw them, they were all still entitled, bitchy little brats. The only person to have any sympathy and ask if I was ok? The non-berean girl J. I think I shut down the rest of the week and was SO glad to get home.

This is the first I have ever told anyone about this, by the way. My sisters didn’t even know. It’s not something I particularly enjoy replaying in my head. But it did start a trend with me. I never got along with any of the goody-two-shoe Berean girls, but warmed up just fine to the non-bereans (nons from here-on out).

Now it was decision time: college or not college? Recently my boyfriend, after gasping over the college rule book with me, asked why on earth I ever attended? Well when you grew up in a bubble being constantly monitored, a different kind of monitoring wasn’t so bad. And I wanted to go to school but wasn’t comfortable striking out and going to a community college, so this was a happy medium. Fall rolls around, and I’m moving my stuff into a dorm room with three other girls. One was the aforementioned college president’s daughter, with friend J in the adjoining room.

Those first few weeks, how to describe them?? Having no idea about money and bills and statements, and feeling guilty that my dad had to pay for it. Struggling to remember all the rules, studiously abiding by everything even if I got demerits for only talking to FOUR people during weekly “soulwinning” instead of the required FIVE. For someone who was never on her own and never away from family, applying for jobs and being away from home was torture. And new students weren’t allowed to go home at all for the first six weeks. I was MISERABLE and turned inwards even more. Took me forever to find my groove. Less than a month in, my journal entries recorded my frustrations at the endless rules, the feeling of being trapped. But I started watching one of the academy kids for a few hours every afternoon, and gradually got comfortable with a handful of girls, all nons if I remember right. Since girls could only leave campus in groups of three, I was often asked to be a third person and got to know a few people relatively well that way. But Thanksgiving and Christmas break were HEAVEN.

Now let’s talk a little more in depth about this “bible” “college.” It had tons and tons of rules, that was a given. Couldn’t be out after 10. No boys and girls together, can’t ever touch, no high fives even. Girls must wear pantyhose, on and on and on. Everything was monitored, the music you listened to, books you read, places you went. To keep you “safe” and “accountable.” Whatever. Like I said, I was frustrated by it a month in, and it never let up.

Every Saturday afternoon there was a college-wide activity. This might be an evening in St. Augustine, bowling, hayride, monster jam, etc etc. It was still strictly monitored and everyone had to stay in groups of at least four people, but it was somewhat normal. We actually got to wear *GASP* KHAKI instead of church clothes and hose!! Whoo us. The guys would often ask girls out on a “date.” I got asked a few times that first semester, but the combo of resting bitch face + extreme lack of conversation skills meant I rarely got asked and almost never more than once. I was…mostly ok with that. I didn’t particularly like most of the guys, the good ones were taken or never asked, and having to keep up a conversation without feeling like a complete social idiot was exhausting. But, that meant I would have to pay for myself if I wanted to go and hang out with my girlfriends (assuming they didn’t have dates), and having no money resulted in my spending many a lonely Saturday evening by myself. My introverted self liked the peace and quiet, but hated feeling left out and marginalized…..again. I suck, I can’t talk to people, my friends like their other friends more than me. Couldn’t talk to anyone, so it was a few months of quiet self-hatred.

Now the classes. One of the professors was very tough, but actually cared about what she taught. She was also notoriously nit-picky, and could spot a too-short skirt or earrings bigger than a quarter in about two seconds. I hated the sight of her my first (and second) semester. The others were decidedly lackluster. The “Bible” classes were a joke. “Old Testament Survey” could have been intended for elementary Sunday school: it was made up of a guy giving a cursory overview of the Old Testament, stories we all had heard a billion times, but no discussion or context or anything. We dutifully filled in the blanks on the outline and tuned out. “Math” was the professor spending half the time talking about theme parks and coffee, and used a math book I completed in 9th grade. I passed the final at midterm, actually. Intro to “Teaching” had you giving a lesson with no instruction on what makes a good lesson, and spent lots of time making bulletin board idea cards, because PRIORITIES. Personal Finance was decent the first few weeks, but we spent most of the time manually balancing a checkbook. And Personal Soulwinning was stab-me-in-the-eye-with-a-spoon. All about how to manipulate someone into repeating a prayer after you, basically.

Oh gosh, Jack freaking Hyles was their god. Full-size picture in the church foyer, half the curriculum was his stuff. On child-rearing for one class, ironic because his son turned out to be a first class pervert. Anyway, I never got the indication that any of these professors were hired for or were good at, you know, actually teaching. They were all church staff first, teachers second, and oh boy did it ever show. (Except for the tough professor, who was somewhat decent.) They sucked, royally bad. Just a constant hammering of the party line, precious little educating. And now a little about “soulwinning.” Every Saturday morning we would have to go out and talk to random people on the street or knock on their doors and try to get them saved. We had a whole script to follow and everything. Easy peasy, follow the script, get them to repeat a prayer, and voila, add another name to your list of saved! That first semester I actually cared. I would lead people through the script, but usually chicken out at the end and have my partner pray with them. Even back then it didn’t seem real. I was so excited one day when I actually went all the way through.

And then couldn’t stop thinking about it. We stopped these pre-teen girls on the street, led them through verses they most likely did not understand, didn’t even try to find out anything about them, gave them no background or opportunity to discuss it, then led them through a prayer and went our way. I remember peeking at one of the girls during the prayer and she just had this blank look on her face, like, what the heck is going on? It bothered me for weeks, and still does when I think about it. I still had to go out every Saturday, but I never again pushed anyone to pray a prayer.

I didn’t really want to go back over Christmas break, at all. There is a 5 page despairing rant in my journal about it. But I did, and oddly enough I’m glad I did. I was freaked out to discover I was in a new room, but my new roommate B was the best I ever had. She actually liked me, oddly enough, and we two and mutual friend JC almost always hung out together, going shopping, discussing things, acting like actual friends. And that was good, because friend J was working late every night so I couldn’t really hang out with her, and I didn’t particularly bond with too many other people. All the Berean girls were usually snotty and/or boring, and I always had the impression I couldn’t really be myself with them. Their staff-adoration was kind of a turn-off, to be honest; I was already starting to detest the overwhelming loyalty. Classes were ok, and I actually got a job at an office I loved. Seven years later I am still working there! It really was a fun semester. I had a date for the end-of-the-year banquet, and felt all dressed up and pretty. The rush of a good semester and fun evening made me a little high, and I got up at the end during speech time, saying how much I loved it and I would definitely be back for the fall semester.

Funnily enough, once the high wore off the next week/day, I thought about what I said and regretted it. I realized it was just emotion that made me say it. It bugged me. To make matters worse, the last week of classes the head pastor, TN, went on a long rant in chapel. One of the senior guys apparently had been “discussing things” in the dorm, daring to contradict precious church teachings, and was prevented from graduating that year. The whole thing left an extremely sour taste in my mouth, and ended the semester on a bad note.

Another sour note was one of the church staff abruptly leaving. He had been my sunday school teacher when we first joined, and I had really liked him. He was also the music director and taught a college class or two, and seemed relatively well-rounded and fun. He was one of my favorites. And then….he was just gone. TN glossed it over and that was that. I remember one of my least-liked college mates being surprised too then commenting that “eh, that’s ok” and I snapped back “No it’s NOT ok,” because it wasn’t. It kinda shook me up: all was not paradise. Wouldn’t find out why till quite a bit later.

That summer though, oh my. No school. Working full time and actually having money. Couldn’t hang out with J and B because they were taking summer classes, but hung out with my brothers and some of their friends in the singles sunday school class, and it was SO much more fun. I had independence, could do fun things, go see a movie or two, wear what I liked! Me and Brother 2 house-sat for my aunt for three weeks, and the freedom was exhilarating. We planned a trip to see my oldest sister the end of August. My mom was grumpy about that, because it would be after school started. I shrugged; I didn’t really want to go back anyway. I remember telling a non-berean friend that I didn’t want to go back but “had to,” and she’s just like…..why? I didn’t have an answer for that, but it made me think. Maybe I didn’t HAVE to go back after all!

I had decided as much, actually. And then made one fatal mistake. One I want to puke just thinking about. I decided to go talk to “preacher.” What on EARTH was I thinking? No way on earth he was just going to let me drop out, no idea why I thought it was a good idea in the first place. I stated I didn’t want to go back, he firmly asserted I DID need to go back, and I just…..lost it. Bawled my eyes out. Instead of actually caring and trying to help me, he passed me off to DW, the youth director, and went his merry way.

I’m both sad and glad I do remember what all went down in that meeting. I did NOT want to go back, but in typical me fashion couldn’t articulate why. Apparently “I feel smothered” isn’t a good enough reason. Or, “I don’t fit in.” Me just wanting to have a normal life for ONCE meant I was just rebellious and wanting to do what I wanted to do, and not “right with God.” I couldn’t explain myself, got more and more frustrated, and eventually just caved in. Agreed that yeah, I just wanted my own way and I would be back and finish the freaking degree. He even made me sign something, stating as such. Would have sold away my soul at that point. Kissed and made up. I regretted it the instant I walked out of that office. Walked out to my car, cried uncontrollably and violently for almost an hour. Drove around aimlessly, couldn’t stop crying. Texted my sister we wouldn’t be going out to visit just yet, cried some more. So many tears that afternoon, feeling powerless and mute.

I think I should have waited to finalize my thoughts about the matter before going to the meeting. I knew I didn’t want to go back, but didn’t have specific, adult reasons for why. I really didn’t. DW and TN were both asses for ignoring my intuition in the matter, but granted, I shutdown my own and went along with it because I really wasn’t strong enough to stand up against them. Yet.

So I went back. There are several pages worth of rants detailing just how much I did NOT want to, but I said I would and I did. Got put in a room with berean robot and an out-of-towner who was more awkward than me, if you can believe it. They both always went to bed REALLY early, something night owl me did not like 😛

How do I describe this semester? I was still working my office job, and got a night job at a fast food place. Couldn’t stand the idea of wearing a skirt, so wore pants the entire time. I’d change into my uniform at my office, then change out of my pants and into a skirt on the way back to school. I got quite good at it. I’d wash the pants with all my other laundry, watching it like a hawk so no one would find them, then dry them on the back seat of my car. I would change into jeans on my way to work Friday, and relish in that small act of rebellion/independence. I hid my tiny mp3 player in my pillowcase, listening to Coldplay’s “Talk” and Newsboys “Stay Strong” and Bebo Norman, oh gosh, SO much Bebo Norman.  His “Pull Me Out” was my theme song for SO so long. It was a way to have a little control in a situation where I had virtually none.

But I remember vividly one of the first weekends back. We had started intramural volleyball games, and Brother 2 was dating one of the college girls so he was around that afternoon (<3 ❤ <3). He took me out for lunch before the game, and we sat in his car after getting back to the school while I ranted about how I didn’t want to be there. By beginning of October I was counting down the weeks. Brother 3 would take me to lunch during the week, and I would rant again. I hated feeling like I was stuck in a box, smothered.

It wasn’t too bad of a semester though, all things considered. The Sunday services were still somewhat decent at that point, though very shallow and straightforward. The New Testament Survey teacher got moved to another class though, and Bro. N took over. From the very start I commented how much he reminded me of OP. Just stuck in the 50’s (at least it was 1950s this time). Grumped about guys wearing colored and patterned dress shirts, thought white was the way to go at all times (though colored ties were ok: wouldn’t want to look Mormon). Bewailed the lack of good IFB churches….in Starke. Which has about a dozen churches just on the road into it. Told a story about a former witch he witnessed to, who said someone had witnessed to her before she just “didn’t feel saved.” Bro N. finds out the previous person used a NKJV to witness to her, and that was the problem. He led her through with a KJV and that did the trick somehow. I was….unimpressed. I don’t think I was brave enough at that point to actually record some of his idiocies, sadly, but those are some I remember. I do remember one professor ranting about music one time, how “wrong” music was responsible for ruining lives. Mentally rolled my eyes over that one.

Went out “soulwinning” a lot with berean robot roommate that semester. She was one of the “good” “soulwinners,” always had a lot of “decisions.” Well then I found out why. Unlike some of the girls who would at least ask the person if they wanted to accept Christ after reading five disconnected verses (and risk the person saying no and them losing a “decision” that week), berean-robot wouldn’t even ask. She’d do her spiel, say something like “Now that you’ve heard all that, I’m going to bow my head and say a prayer. You can repeat after me or say it in your heart” then rattle off the prayer. I don’t ever remember the person actually saying it with her or even interacting at all. But then she’d be like, “If you just prayed that prayer in your heart you’re saved now! Here’s our church info” and go on her merry way. Every week. Ah. So THAT’S how you’re getting so many decision cards! Again, not impressed in the slightest. I absolutely dreaded Saturday mornings. HA.TED.IT. I’m sure that just showed my rebellious spirit. I was always relieved to see it was raining, or was secretly glad the time I poked myself in the eye on Thursday and was still so dizzy and miserable on Saturday I didn’t have to get out of the bus and talk to anyone. Pure misery.

I don’t think I was really friends with anyone that semester, except JC who I’d play piano with, the girl my brother was dating, her brother–that was about it. There were a few I hung out with, but with working so much and mentally done anyway I didn’t feel like socializing much. I went on a few dates, but spent most of my time sitting down and shutting up, not letting anyone know the war raging in my head. A few of the other girls had made that mistake: being frustrated by something and voicing it, and had to get up and apologize in chapel for it. Heck to the NO. But while I shut up, I thought. A LOT. Read my Bible and prayed a LOT. Figured out exactly why I didn’t want to go back, felt a lot more confident in myself.

A good thing too. I was on facebook a little at the time, and had made a joking comment on a former college student’s derogatory post. My academic advisor, DW again, saw it. When I asked the secretary to dial his extension to make sure he was in his office for an academic meeting, he commented that he had something to talk with me about. Fed up already, I fired back I had something to tell him too.

He started by getting on to me about the comment and how my profile stated I liked the band Coldplay, and I freaking LET.HIM.HAVE.IT. Ranting, quite loudly, about how he could rag on me for listening to “worldly” Coldplay while the entire staff was absolutely gaga about football. I asked how Coldplay was wrong but his giant Tennessee football poster on the wall was OK. He then used a verse dealing with speaking in tongues to say rock music was bad. Mmk. I asked why they had to make a big deal about minor things like clothing and music that were nowhere in the Bible. Asking why I HAD to keep going there when I felt quite strongly it was right to leave. His reply? But all your friends are here! Don’t you want to be here when your younger sisters are old enough to attend? I stared at the man like he had two heads. You mean stay here for another three years to get a worthless degree….just so I can attend with my younger sister?

The man tried SO HARD to get the better of me. But I had that summer meeting in my head. I remembered leaving feeling powerless and insignificant and worthless and crying in my car the rest of the afternoon. I remembered the feeling of misery afterwards, knowing I had given in when everything else told me not to. All the frustration of the past semester just came rolling out, and eventually he had nothing to say. I told him that when I enrolled in the first place, it wasn’t because I just felt that God wanted me to or that I really wanted a Christian education degree, or even teach in their freaking academy. I went because I wanted to get a start on school and meet people, but now it was time to move on. I threw God in there, but while I had spent the entire semester asking for guidance I can’t say it was God leading me away, necessarily, unless the unmovable conviction that I needed to be gone, NOW, was God. Can’t really say. But no way I was giving in again.

And I won. DW had nothing more. Guilt trips, appeals to authority, manipulating my feelings—didn’t work this time. Walking out of that meeting was exhilarating. Especially when I realized TN had been hovering outside the door, and my robot roommate had been playing secretary in the room next door and had to have heard every last thing. We never quite made eye contact after that, and I definitely never discussed it with anyone, not even my brother’s girlfriend, who I was becoming good friends with. But a week or so later, last day of the semester, and I quietly started moving all my stuff out. Still not telling anyone why I was emptying my closet completely, taking all my bedding and all my pictures down. Walked to the main building to drop off my keys, all the other students were in the activity center, watching an old Jack Hyles sermon. I puked to myself and walked out, nary a backward glance. Drove to work, drove home….and that was that.

Mom.Was.Furious. She was determined on believing that I didn’t want to go back just because I was rebellious and just wanted to wear jeans and listen to “wrong” music. She never even tried to get my thoughts on the matter, just assumed the worse. Over Christmas break my aunt asked if I was going back and I said no. My mom butts in that “that’s not final yet!” Oh yes it is mom, oh YES IT IS and I told her as such. My journal periodically notes “mom’s still mad at me I guess,” like SIX MONTHS LATER. I never did discuss it with her, she never cared enough to find out.

So now I entered a weird in-between stage that lasted from, eh 2010 to mid-2011. I was now in the singles sunday school class with my brothers and all the college rejects and unmarried graduates, basically. Half of them were berean poster children, and we never did get along with them much. There were a few on the rebel side of things, meaning they had lives outside the church. Shocking, that. It was a fun class for a while, even though I definitely felt we were the unmentionables in the church. Even the college students were a rank above us 😛 I don’t have many sermon notes from this era, but they were pretty similar as before. Shallow but not too terrible. I did start doodling instead of listening, and copying lyrics, but it was more out of simple boredom than an escape mechanism. I never did feel like I fit in in that place. Not in college, definitely not now, and the difference became even more pronounced as time went on.

And then. Easter 2011. I still don’t have the complete story of this. Apparently, ten years prior, the pastor’s son’s office (GN) was being videotaped while he was gone. By whom and for whom, I really don’t know. One day the camera caught the girls in the college singing group as they tried on dresses for tour. The basketball coach at the time (also my first sunday school teacher/music director mentioned above) found it a few years later, went to TN and was told it would be taken care of. A few years later and GN was under consideration for being co-pastor. The coach brought up the tape, and was fired. Back to modern day, one of the deacons found out about it, tried to get information, got blocked, so wrote a letter to the other deacons demanding transparency and accountability for that and the atrocious financial mishandlings.

Pardon the language, but SHIT.HIT.THE.FAN. The deacon’s letter stated GN was seen in the video, adjusting the camera. The tape was later released by the news, but either that part simply wasn’t included or the deacon exaggerated, I don’t know. In my opinion it isn’t clear if he deliberately taped the girls, and to be honest it doesn’t matter to me either way. My issue is how it was handled.

A few Sunday nights later, TN went on a rampage. He never addressed the allegations or tape directly, mind you. He didn’t say, “oh that was a mistake: we were recording for security purposes, got the girls changing by mistake and it never got deleted.” Oh no. Never stated anything of the sort. Instead, all the people who brought it up and the one of the girls in the tape who objected (now one of the special singers and quite prominent in the church), really anyone who was demanding accountability, were vilified. He compared them to the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, terrorists on 9/11, called the ladies Jezebels and heifers, they were like Ananias and Sapphira, Sanballet opposing Nehemiah. They just hated the kids, hated the church, hated that the church was winning souls and getting results. They were evil evil people. He spent the whole sermon like that, just one big rant. And I sat there, horrified, scribbling down his rantings as fast as I could.

Towards the end, he did manage to slip in a comment about how the deacon should have just “forgiven, not written a letter.” Um…forgive what? Did he just….admit guilt?! “The past is the past!” RIGHT. He never addressed the financial issues the deacon brought up; I have the letter, there were a LOT. But by raging against those evil ex-members, he could take the focus off the fact that the church was facing bankruptcy and he had yet to inform the congregation of that fact. He never even denied the allegations or let GN defend himself. That alone is sufficient cause for me to doubt their innocence. If GN was innocent, it would be SO easy to state as such, back when the deacon brought it up initially and on Easter. But nope, not a bit about that. Nary a peep.

And 90% of the congregation ate that crap up. During the “altar” time, TN’s wife came to stand beside him. Some staff member I’m sure followed her lead. Someone in the congregation noticed, and I look up to see a massive wave of people rushing to the front to show their support of “preacher.” I was torn. I didn’t know what to think about the tape and what it meant, but I was disgusted at his behavior the last hour. Eventually my non-confrontational side won out and I kinda sorta went down. I was only three pews or so from the front, so went and stood off to the side, apart from everyone, arms crossed, feeling (and most likely looking) miserable. It was terrible. One of the deacons apparently refused to come down and walked out, while another screamed at him to “just leave! You’re not a part of us!” I have a vivid mental image of one family not going down either, just standing there. (They did leave eventually, one of the sweetest ladies ever; I meet up with her at races sometimes.) That evening remains ingrained in my brain as the poorest example of Christian behavior I had seen up to that point.

That was the beginning of the end for me. Not even the fact that the co-pastor potentially committed voyeurism. But for a grown man to maliciously call people names for bringing up a legitimate issue? Not ok. Definitely NOT OK. My mom apparently never had a doubt at all. She was 100% behind him, and got mad at me and my brothers (but mainly me) for differing. I have a letter she wrote, blasting me and Brother 2 for “giving up our standards” and “getting less and less involved” and “I pray you will get your hearts right and get back involved and trust the leaders God has put over you and listen to them.” Basically, sit down and shut up and don’t listen to the other side of things, just trust TN and God will bless you because he’s the man-of-god(MOG)! Apparently she forgot that at one time OP was also the mog, and she blasted him for a year over his crap. But THIS new mog is a good one, and can’t be contradicted.

I also have a series of texts from Sister 2 that I saved, and 5 years later the level of blind loyalty sickens me. Not sure I want to detail those, but basically, again, I should sit down and shut up because TN and DW would never do anything like that and she trusts them. You go right ahead dear. I remember her making some comment about how I’m just ignoring all the good the church was doing and how God was blessing them; I replied “Yeah he’s blessing them so much they have to file for bankruptcy.” Her comeback? “Wow, you’re really negative.” There’s just…not a lot you can do with that.

The crazy thing was outsiders looked at the whole situation with disgust. My friend L was all O_O O_O My pastor uncle was disturbed. Several of my aunts  and grandmother were flabbergasted. My grandma, bless her, tried to talk to my mom about it, asking how TN could still drive his fancy car(s) when the church was in $6Mil+ debt. My mom’s response was to hang up on her. See no evil, hear no evil, say no evil. Thus says the mog, who has MUCH to lose if his congregation points out the evil.

Speaking of 100%. I was in a side stairwell on the way to Sunday school one morning, and saw a poster leaning against the wall. Said “100% Neal.” And signed by all of the academy students. (Some of those students were later pulled out when their parents left, btw.) Bugged me for weeks. So I printed off a page at work with just GOD, filling up the whole page, and taped it over the “neal” one sunday morning. It was gone the next week or so, but I felt like I had done my part 😛

This went on for months, and the quality of preaching went down. WAAAAAAY down. Which is impressive, because it wasn’t that high to start with. GN’s stayed pretty much the same: he didn’t go on rants, necessarily, and would usually have a least a few verses to base his passage from. But, they were almost always from the old testament, and always ended up being about the same things: soulwinning, sacrifice, and serving. Oh, and we’re the best church around. Always. Here’s a summary of him I wrote around that time:

The sermons weren’t all horrid, but nothing that overwhelmed you with how great God was or made you excited to be saved. I remember a few by GN, but it was never whole sermons: more like a point he elaborated on in the middle of a blah sermon, like he suddenly realized how awesome it was and so lingered on it….It’s like GN realizes sometimes that holy crap this is real and this is cool. But then he forgets again.

TN though. Dear. He had several more rants about evil ex-members. “They didn’t care about souls, all they were concerned about was fixing ceiling tiles in the auditorium! Well we didn’t have the money to fix them, not with THEIR giving!!” Hilarious, because the people he was ranting about were some of the biggest givers in the whole church. How dare they want accountability for where their money was going?? Because it definitely wasn’t going to the project they were intended for. I remember their “Summer Surge” program: GN mentioned it every service, make sure you’re giving!! All these things it’s going to be used for, to spruce up the place! Except….it wasn’t ever spruced up. Was going to get a new digital sign….that never happened. All that money that poured in over the summer, never to be seen again.

I found out later the church was severely behind on their monthly mortgage payment. TN passed it off as the bank’s fault, then blamed the ex-members for pulling the givers away. It’s all their fault!! Forget the fact the property was in danger of bankruptcy….a year before this all blew up. Staff never said a word about it. By the time I left in 2012, they still had never publicly admitted it. But oh they kept advertising in Sword of the Lord, the staff didn’t give up their nice cars or fancy homes. Instead they encouraged members to take out second mortgages. Didn’t pay the academy teachers. Endless sermons on giving and sacrifices, ragging on people to give extra. All put into their tithing envelopes of course, so TN could monitor it. “Make sure you give, or the blood of the bus kid is going to be on your hands when we can’t run the buses!”

It sickened me, sitting there Sunday nights listening to him rant like a child, seeing all the staff members up there (and robot former-roommate in front of me) nodding away to his verbal diarrhea. I started a blog at that time, trying to make sense of his crap. You know it’s going to be great when an entry starts off as “Man, TN is really on a roll!” Or titled, “Manipulation.”

Yes, we should care about the state of our Christian lives and what we’re doing for God. We should care about people going to hell and telling others about Christ.

But don’t you dare imply that I don’t care about any of those things if I don’t come down to the altar and kneel for approximately 20.3 seconds. The state of my spirituality should not depend on that.

Invitation comes, everyone troops down obediently. The first person is done and walks back, followed by everyone else, like they’re playing follow the leader.

That is also called conformity, and I’m not doing it.

Here’s another, quite appropriate.

“Groupthink is the tendency for members of a group to become so concerned with reaching a consensus that they lose the ability to critically evaluate the problems (Hogg & Haines 1998; Janis, 1982, 1989; Schafer & Crichlow 1996).” That’s what my psychology book says (General Psychology by Jerry and Faye Wisner, fyi).

Sound familiar?

Irving Janis came up with eight symptoms of this.

1) Illusion of invulnerability–members feel they cannot fail

As TN says, “we’re not going anywhere.” We’ll keep going on, we’re still having a great year, etc etc

2) Belief in inherent morality of the group, rightness of the cause

They honestly believe that they are the only Bible-believing church around. Their pet verses and Bible translation and “convictions” are the only way to do things. Even if it’s just because that’s how the pastor remembers church.

3) Collective rationalization–members explain away warning signs

A $6 million+ debt, anyone? TN’s nasty rants about other churches and former members? But he does so much good!!

4) Out-group stereotypes–the enemy is stereotyped as weak, stupid, or unreasonable

When everything blew up, TN had most everyone believing the Evil Ones were terrorists and pure evil, bent on destroying the church and the “godly” kids (the same bratty kids that sat on me way back in summer camp, fyi)

5) Self-censorship–members do not express opinions that are different from the group

TN and some of the deacons/ushers got all huffy because 3% of a church with 500+ members did not want to vote GN in as co-pastor. He said just last night (3/25/12) that parents should not tell their kids if they disagree with the pastor or choose to do something differently than his preferred way.

6) Illusion of unanimity–members believe that the group is unanimous

When no one is speaking up about issues, everyone goes along believing everyone loves TN. My mom, for example, is quite unwilling to believe there are church people who listen to “wrong” music or wear jeans, or watch verboten movies like the Harry Potter series.

7) Direct pressure of dissenters to not question prevailing opinion

Those who disagree with TN or dislike how some things are done are told in no uncertain terms to leave. Can’t have different opinions, now can we?

8) Self-appointed “mindguards” who protect a leader from assault by troublesome ideas

He has his bodyguards. And he is “unavailable” to those with questions that he doesn’t want to deal with.  

Every Sunday, for waaaaaay too long. I was done, SO done, by mid 2011, but didn’t feel confident enough to leave on my own. Brother 3 was already pulling away, Brother 2 was only there till he and his (now fiance) got married, Brother 1 wasn’t at all impressed either.

TN just didn’t let up. He went on a spiel one night about how he Loves!His!Church! HE’S going to do church the way it was when he was a kid! No pastors sitting on a stool to preach, or using a powerpoint, or non-hymns, WE use hymnBOOKS!! No casual dressing, WE dress up! None of this stupid non-denominational crap, WE are BAPTISTS, and can trace our heritage back to the church at Antioch! (Where they were called….Christians, not Baptists, but I digress.) I noticed my dad over there tuning out by reading through Ephesians, I tuned out by copying a modern worship song into my notebook. “It was either that or dig my fingernails into my palms until they bled” I wrote on the blog later. It was “I Love My Church” week and everyone was supposed to wear red in solidarity. I wore purple out of protest.

Or another where he stated something like there was never a real man who ever left berean. Or when he spent an hour ranting to a fundy congregation about Joel Osteen. On how TN has NEVER compromised or backed away from the truth (though he can’t seem to come clean about bankruptcy). Anyone who left just didn’t like their sin being exposed, not because TN was a bully who couldn’t teach a good sermon to save his life. Endless rants on modern churches, and how the group Casting Crowns would be in hell. Guess who I listened to on my way home that night?

Went on another spiel about how all these high-profile lawyers around the country were just DYING to take his side in the lawsuit crap, but conveniently neglected to say who. Pranced around on the stage, telling all these things he could do to those evil ex-members. Brother 2 commented he must have forgotten the sunday school passage for the day, about returning evil for good and not judge or you’ll be judged. Nah, it was all, “if you leave here you can kiss your kids goodbye!!” How bout a side of manipulation with our sunday evening. By then I couldn’t even look at him when he preached. I’d wear my glasses there, take them off and stare through the blurriness at anything but him. Scratch my palms obsessively. And lyrics. Endless lyrics. Half my notebook was lyrics at one point.

I could go on. I think I’ll stop. The property got foreclosed on. I saw the official report. The sermons that next sunday? How you should go to church and more importantly make sure you STAY IN YOUR CHURCH!! You can’t leave!!! I was done, so done. Discussed it in depth with Brother 3 a lot, was hating it more and more, and after Brother 2’s wedding in 2012 I was gone. Again, nary a backwards glance.

Now, for any family members/current fundies/Berean lovers: I know exactly what you’re thinking. “You’re just SO negative! All you can see is the bad. They are doing SO much for God! Soulwinning, trying to live right, follow the Bible, not be worldly! Did you ever try to talk to staff about your concerns? How dare you criticize a church that is doing so much! What are YOU doing for God? I don’t see you doing XYZ, so how can you sit there and judge? The berean members are such great people, just want to serve God! Shame on you for letting your “feelings” get in the way! Get right with God!”

Yes, they are great people. Yes, the church tries. Yes, they “do good.” I sat there for YEARS telling myself that. Who am I to point out error when they’re doing so much? And you know? It makes me sick, all the wasted potential. GREAT people, who spend a lot of time trying to serve God. While adding rules to the Bible. While viciously attacking anyone who does not line up in their camp. While patting themselves on the back and puffing themselves up for all their “souls saved.” While pretending they are the only ones doing anything. While “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel,” while pointing out specks and ignoring their own beams. While trumpeting loyalty in a man. While all but worshipping an extremely flawed man named Jack Hyles who manipulated anything and everyone for his own inflated ego. While ridiculing anyone who dares bring up another perspective. While boasting about their great Bible teaching as they pull verses out of context to control other people. So much they could be doing, but much of it is wasted as they pride themselves on their own goodness. So concerned about getting salvation “decisions,” while ignoring the parable Jesus told, how offering someone just a cup of cold water or clothes was as if you offered it to Jesus, and he would commend you for it. Or the verse about how evil it was to tell someone “be warm and filled” while not helping them, well, be warm. I wouldn’t detest them so much if they didn’t puff themselves up SO extremely much, and damn everyone else to hell for differing on pointless matters.

But why bring this up now, you may ask? Why can’t I just, “forgive instead of writing a letter” as TN suggested back then? Because this place still affects me. My parents and younger siblings are still there, and I cannot be around them more than five minutes before berean is brought up: it’s pretty much all they can talk about. Their arrogance is still there. Their mistreatment of people. Their absolute disdain of other Bible-believing, Jesus-loving people. The majority of my memories of that place are negative, and fill me with a sense of loathing. I don’t think about it much anymore, it doesn’t affect my everyday life, but occasionally it still rears its ugly head and I realize that while I can tamper it down, it’s still there and will probably always be there. And I want to bring out what it is, at its core, because it is still spreading its arrogant, legalistic crap and making Christianity look so, SO bad. What about being blameless? What about gentleness? What about pastors not to be brawlers? What about living peaceably with all men? What about, “where two or more are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them?” What about, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice?” Non-christians don’t look at them and admire their spirit and “buzz” and good intentions. They look and see something appalling. I know: I’ve talked with some of them.

So there’s that.

Back to the present. I church hopped for a bit. Realized Baptist churches made me extremely uncomfortable, “so I neeeeeever went back”! Eventually I ended up at a little storefront church on the westside with a friend, the same friend who, 3 years prior, questioned why I HAD to go back to school when I obviously hated the idea. Non-denominational. Non-KJV. Used *GASP* PowerPoint. Sang non-hymns. And taught. Oh man, can the pastor teach. Along with the Sunday School teacher. All but officially joined the end of 2012. Spent at least a year sitting down and shutting up, not feeling comfortable talking to people but thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to just…..breathe. To not dread Sundays. To not feel the uncontrollable urge to scratch my palms. To realize it was ok to not know what a passage meant, ok to have a different opinion.

But to be honest, I think the most influential person there has been Mr. AB, the Sunday school teacher. AB has been teaching through the Bible, in order, for the last ten years. A lawyer, AB has a very logical mind, very concerned about context, both within the Bible itself and within history. For me personally, his most important contribution is, “How would the original readers have taken this passage?” Completely turned my thinking around.

See, like I’ve said waaaaaaaaaaay up there, I grew up with the Bible, but specifically the KJV, being absolutely true and literal in all things. It wasn’t just a translation, it was the very words of God down to each individual letter and verse numbers. If it says it, that’s it. Berean took the Bible as a rulebook. No need to look at context to determine if you’re interpreting it correctly. They pulled verses out to back up whatever point they wished to make (a blip saying “Jacob’s well was there” could spawn a whole half an hour on the importance of “keeping your well clean” by rejecting all modern music and ways.) Random bits from the law in Leviticus was used to say women wearing pants was wrong. You get the idea.

So AB’s perspective was…mindblowing, to say the least. Just using another translation was eye-opening. For example, Berean used the verse “abstain from all appearance of evil” to mean stay away from anything that looked like it possibly COULD be evil (like…movie theaters, wearing jeans, you know, the important issues). Every other translation reads more like, “abstain from evil wherever it appears.” As in….doesn’t matter who does it or what it’s in, if it’s evil it’s evil, stay away. Don’t cover up a rape because you don’t want to expose your deacon. Quite a different meaning there.

I also started following a blog written by an ex-fundy, with comments from ex-fundies of all religious colors. The stories they had to tell! Made me realize the crazy wasn’t limited to Berean. Seeing other people point out the crap and have bible and logic to say why it was NOT ok, was very reassuring. And then there were people who went beyond fundies, and pointing out things in Christianity in general. Some, eh. Others? Had very good points.

It’s interesting, thinking of how far I’ve come. Opposing OP was the first step: I realized the mog was not always right. He could be wrong, and it was quite ok to confront that. With that in mind, I never quite trusted Berean staff (thank goodness). They further enforced the idea that blind loyalty is a bad idea. But while I never realized the crazy stuff OP taught, I REALLY noticed Berean’s faults in that area because they were SO bad about making a verse mean whatever they wanted, and used it to beat people over the head. I hated their worship of the KJV and was quite ok in rejecting the KJV-only view.

When I started attending the church on the westside, I started looking at things through a contextual lens, and had a horror of misapplied verses. Still do, with a passion. It is SO dangerous. But relooking at passages made me wonder what else I had been taking for granted. Started realizing the pat answers I was taught weren’t really cutting it anymore. Starting looking beyond whether this band was ok or if pants are really wrong. Waaaaay beyond.

Started going back and thinking about God himself. How do I know he exists? Well the Bible says so. Well is the Bible true and literal? Should it be trusted? How was it developed, literally? How can the genocide in Joshua/Judges be ok? Is this really what this passage means? If we are no longer under the law, what about the ten commandments? What are we to base our morals off of if there is no list of rules to follow? Is hell in the traditional sense real? Does everyone have to accept Jesus in order to be saved? If so, what about the people in remote Africa or the Pacific islands who had no opportunity to hear, are they just screwed? I felt like I needed to get these issues hammered out, for myself, not believing something because Mr. X or Mr. Y said so.

But again, in typical me fashion, did not express these. To anyone. Not even to Brothers 1 or 2. Not to my best friend (still) L. Just all these thoughts, rattling around in my head.

And then I met someone. A rather special someone. Someone I care a WHOLE HECK OF A LOT about. And he was most definitely not christian. Not even religious. A very logical person who needed proof to believe someone, wasn’t ok the with pat answers he grew up.

This person asked me what I believed. Then asked me why. Why did I know this was so? How can I be ok with this? What do I think about that? Answering him made me realize how much I didn’t actually hold to, personally. I could rattle off an answer, but I was merely a parrot. He would counter, “I know that’s what christianity says about this or that, do YOU actually believe that?” I was always told this and that, always by people with a very similar viewpoint on things. This person shook up all of that, and I didn’t have an answer. While very similar questions had been rattling around for months, years even, there had been no one there to make me answer them.

Now I’m having to. And not liking the process very much. It’s frustrating that there is no irrefutable proof that God is real. Or if the Bible is factual and should be followed. And that there are terrible things in there I don’t have an answer for. When you grow up with things being firm and secure, uncertainty is a terrible thing. And here I am, questioning everything.

And yet, his questions have been good for me. His methods haven’t always been the best, I must say, and it’s annoying when he’s quite sure he is right before we even discuss something. But it forces me to stop and think before I answer, because I don’t just have to convince myself, I need to explain it in a way he, a non-Christian, understands. “The Bible says so” just isn’t going to fly. And he will bring up perspectives I would never think of, additional things I have to deal with and try to figure out. With my fear of confrontation it hasn’t always been easy. Getting an email from him about it freaks me out, still.

I am discovering the rigid way of looking at things isn’t quite best. It’s refreshing to pull a well-known passage apart and really look at what it’s saying, ignoring what I was always told it meant.

I am also discovering I am not alone. Brother 3 is going through much the same thing, looking at things from a different perspective, trying to make sense of snarly passages and not just ignore them. Friend L understands too. It’s not just me. I’m not a terrible person for thinking OP is awful and narcissist. I’m not terrible for thinking it’s a little unjust to decide to not save someone and then damn them to eternal hell for not believing (thanks Calvinism!). I’m not terrible for seeing Berean’s crap, despite all their “soulwinning” and “service.” Whited sepulchres are ye all. I’m not even a terrible person for questioning God or his very existence, because I want to understand. I want to find the truth, and if God is real surely he understands. There were many people in the Bible who doubted God or his commands, and God did not beat them over the head for it. But it’s hard to know who to talk to. My dad is right out: he still follows Peter Ruckman for pete’s sake. AB is good for small isolated questions, as would my actual pastor, but…..

I don’t just want the Christian perspective from someone who has made up their mind already, oddly enough. Someone who is already convinced it’s true. I need someone I can rant to about how a passage just seems so wrong, and not have them come back with a pat answer of “just trust God about it.” Questioning everything freaks.me.out, but I can’t sit down and ignore it anymore.

So my puzzle is a huge mess right now. It’s overwhelming. One little piece at a time. Is this piece right? Do I even want this puzzle at all?

 

I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.

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3 thoughts on ““I never have been very good at puzzles….” Part 2

  1. Wow. What a story. And you have a long way to go to rebuild (or build fresh) your faith. When I hear that someone is starting a faith journey, I always remember that it says in Isaiah or Jeremiah that someone who is truly seeking God will find him. I find that hopeful. Now that you’re out of the fundamentalist mess, you can really sort out who God is and how you can worship him. Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

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