11Apr

Birds of the Air, Hamsters of the Faith

When I wrote the following entry in my journal this morning, I was intending it just for me. I already had a blog post in the works, and I just wanted to get these thoughts off my chest first. However, when I caught myself writing that I need to stop apologizing for the way my mind works, I decided to stick it to shame and let you into my real Thursday morning headspace. Welcome.

~~~

I was listening to This American Life while straightening up the house and making my breakfast this morning when a short story by Shalom Auslander came on. In the story, two pet hamsters are starving to death and trying to make sense of why their owner is neglecting them. One of the hamsters says their owner has forgotten them, and he tries to forage for his own food with only limited success. The other hamster says it’s a test of faith; he sees signs of the owner’s care which, when successfully debunked by the unbelieving hamster, become additional tests of faith. He prays in thanks to the owner for starving him in order to show him his sin of ungratefulness. Finally, as the hamster is praying, the owner comes in the door. He’s with a woman, and as they fumble their way toward the bedroom, he turns off the lights.

I know that Shalom Auslander came from a severe Orthodox Jewish background that makes mine look almost liberal and that he has no shortage of bitterness toward God. I totally get it. And it’s because I totally get it that I felt sacrilegious and scared listening to the hamster allegory. The story didn’t denounce the existence of God or his roles as creator and provider; it simply made the argument that God doesn’t care about us, and that hits too close to my own doubts for comfort.

When times are hard, as these last two years in particular have been for us, we’re confronted with three possible perspectives. One is that the hardship proves that there is no God, that we’re utterly alone in this world. The second is that the hardship proves that God doesn’t care about us or that he will only help us if we prove our worthiness by pulling ourselves out of the hole. The third is that the hardship is part of a bigger plan for our own good and that God’s care for us is a constant we can cling to for comfort.

The first option doesn’t work for me because I do believe in God. I can’t help it. I’ve seen too much evidence of a divine force participating in our lives to doubt God’s existence. Choosing between the second two perspectives is tricky though. On one hand, hardship sucks. I know that if Natalie or Sophie were going through extreme financial and relational stress and I had the power to alleviate their burdens, I would do it in a heartbeat. That seems like the only loving option to me. But on the other hand, I know it’s ridiculously subjective to say that my displeasure with circumstances makes them categorically bad. I don’t know the bigger picture, and the idea is that God does, so we can trust that the ultimate outcome will be good… “good” in a philosophical sense only God can understand, that is. It’s never far from my mind that God’s idea of good could involve our destitution or death, and trying to call any pain that we experience “good” because God knows best makes me feel as pathetic and delusional as the praying hamster from Auslander’s story. Granted, we’re not destitute or dead right now, and I can’t go basing my view of God on other people’s circumstances that I only glimpse from the outside.

Obviously, I vacillate a lot between the two beliefs—God loves us, he loves us not. I prefer the loving option, but when all evidence seems to point to the contrary, I don’t know what to stake my trust on. I don’t have the kind of faith that can declare God good and caring no matter what happens to us. It does matter what happens to us! We matter! Our pain matters! When religious institutions try to placate people like me into blind faith with platitudes and Christianese and churchy aphorisms, it makes me want to abandon ship. We are not such spiritual beings that our physical realities don’t count. We have to have some kind of reason for our beliefs, and at least for me, faith comes from seeing a spiritual God interact with our physical world. Call me a weak Christian, but I can’t just glibly attribute both good and bad circumstances to God’s love. I can’t.

Some days, I take comfort from what Jesus said about God caring for us, meeting our daily needs, and answering our requests as a loving father would. Other days, I can’t stop considering that Jesus said these things shortly before he was tortured to death. Honestly, what am I supposed to take from that?

I feel like I should apologize to God or Jesus or the Pope or someone for putting that last paragraph into words, but I’m tired of apologizing for my mind. I’m tired of trying to silence questions and misgivings that don’t fit within church-approved mindsets. Censoring my doubts doesn’t make them go away; it just makes me live dishonestly, and how can I love God with all of my mind if I keep trying to lock parts of it in the basement? For better or worse, I’m stuck with this brain until death do us part. The tendency to overthink and question everything is hardwired into who I am, and apologizing for who I am is nothing less than deferring to shame.

So this is me, authentic and unapologetic, admitting that I can’t figure out this morning whether I’m one of the hamsters from Auslander’s story or one of the birds of the air from Jesus’s sermon. If I decide that God is indeed taking care of us no matter how life looks through the porthole of today, am I shutting down logic and deluding myself? Or if I decide that God has left us to fend for ourselves, am I discounting the many forms that grace takes in our lives?

This no man’s land between the two perspectives is not an ideal place to set up camp, but it’s not unfamiliar territory for me. In fact, I’ve often encountered God here in the breathing space between the opposing swirls of doctrine and rationale and emotional charge. Grace for now is accepting that my doubt-disposed brain is fearfully and wonderfully made and resting in the certainty that life does not depend on my perception of it. What’s more, God’s character does not depend on my understanding of it. Either we are being taken care of or we are not; my outlook changes nothing except how I feel… and what I feel right now is a blanket of peace wrapped around my questions, a gentle assurance that I don’t have to have God all figured out. This, more than anything else this morning, is helping me to navigate back toward the belief that whatever my reality right now, whatever my physical circumstances or spiritual uncertainties, he does care.

5Apr

Cloud Control

I have a desk and a lamp and a chair that cradles my temperamental back like a luxury, but more often than not, I find myself set up here at the kitchen table. On one side of me, a coffee mug empty but for a smudge of foam, two pen-scribbled notebooks, the Bible I always tote in just in case my soul feels strong enough to open it. On the other side, glass doors closed against a granite-gray day. In front of me, my computer and dusky blue nails typing a haphazard melody. Behind me, pots and pans, possibly every pot and pan in the world, piled in sculptured odes to spaghetti sauce and barbecue chicken and priorities that always seem to fall just short of dishwashing.

I have letters to write and lessons to plan and approximately 30,000 hours of IRS instructions to decipher before Tax Day, and some might argue that our empty fridge and overflowing sink necessitate some motherly attention, but instead I’ve been watching iridescent points of rain pattern our balcony. It takes nothing more than this, nothing more than a leak in the sky to remind me just how weary I am.

A few years ago for my birthday hope-list, I resolved to invite guests over once a week for the following year… and I did. Some weeks, we had company for dinner three nights in a row, and the whole experience fit our family’s values and hopes like a signature style. We couldn’t keep it up though. Our job situations changed after that year, and as the worries of keeping our family afloat have compounded, our ability to reach beyond ourselves has plummeted. As we approach each new weekend, my plans alternate between trying to catch up on the bazillion errands and projects we never have time for during the week and grasping at the chance to rest. I can’t imagine summoning the energy to make our home an open invitation again.

Hospitality is one of the core values that Dan and I have always shared, and I know that he would have friends over tonight if I were willing. But to be really, painfully, embarrassingly honest, I’m not willing. I’m not willing to invite friends to view the laundry draped over every available drying surface in our house or the toothpaste splattered across our bathroom sinks or the congregation of gym bags in the hall or the giveaway pile that’s swallowing our guest room whole. I’m not okay with touching up my makeup and switching my conversational filters to Italian and acting bright and welcoming at the time of day I’m really only up for changing into yoga pants and losing myself in the sofa cushions. I don’t have it in me to pretend I’m on top of our family life enough these days to include other people in it.

So our doors stay closed, and we try to make our life fit without its signature style, and I watch the rain give our balcony the only cleaning it’s had in eight months while this weariness seeps right into my blood stream.

And I know I’m not the only one. I’ve seen the same haggard tightness clutch around the expressions of friends all over town, and I’ve caught glimpses of it in the social media feeds of friends all over the world, and this weariness, it’s a universal cloud cover, a granite-gray weight in the air. We don’t typically admit to it though. While busy is an acceptable, maybe even admirable condition, weary comes across as pitiful, and how can we add one more social failure to the list? How can we open up such a vulnerable reality to criticism?

A large part of me wants to delete this post right now, not even finish. I’d much rather continue saying “I’m just busy” and collecting understanding nods. But if I don’t admit that this busyness has grown into something other, something as unwieldy as the sky and draining as a disease, then I’m perpetuating the idea that it’s not okay to show what’s really going on behind the scenes. I’m holding up a façade between us and perhaps even making you think you have to hold one up too.

You don’t have to though, at least not here. This place is for practicing authenticity and chasing down grace and remembering that we’re all in this human experience together. More than anyone, I need the reminder, but perhaps you need it too—a squeeze to your shoulder assuring you that you’re not the only one plumb out of energy, that you’re not defective or pitiful or alone. I might not be to the place yet of showing you my literal behind-the-scenes (I don’t even want to look at my kitchen sink!), but cracking open the door on my weariness and letting you in feels like a step closer to the community I’ve been missing, and wouldn’t you know it, the clouds are finally cracking open too.

 

3Apr

Wonder by Proxy

I knew I deserved a chorus of eye rolls even as the words were leaving my mouth, but I was helpless against the logic-altering clutches of Mom Instinct. Like generations before me, I was compelled beyond all reason to say it: “I hope you girls appreciate what you’re getting to do right now! When I was a girl, I would have loved the chance…”

I fully realize that no child in the history of the human race has adopted a sudden awe for his or her circumstances based on that premise. Wonder by proxy just doesn’t work. However, I felt sure that I would be required to turn in my mom badge at the end of the day if I didn’t at least try to impart a little perspective. I mean, this is where we were walking:

Easter in Rome 2

And this is what the girls were saying about it: “Myyyy feeeeeeeet huuuuurrrrrt! I’m tiiiiiiiiiiiired of walking! Can we siiiiiiiiiit now?” (Never mind that we had been walking a grand total of half an hour, twenty minutes of which had already been dedicated to sitting breaks… which the girls used to play hopscotch, because no child in the history of the human race has ever voluntarily sat for longer than 2.5 seconds.) Their feet were fine; they were just bored, which is why I launched into my eye-rolling speech about how they were getting to explore Rome, an epic historical treasure trove that people from all over the world would love to see, and empire this and SPQR that, and—“Mooooomm, I’m hungry again!” Reductio ad absurdum.

Easter in Rome 3

This is absolutely a post for those of you who had thought we were some kind of family travel geniuses whose children channel equal parts Rick Steves and Von Trapp (ha! and again I say, ha!), but it’s also a post for me. I need the reminder that it’s okay—good, even—for my kids and I to experience life from different points of view. While I’m all but hyperventilating over how cool it is that the girls get to grow up in Italy and speak two languages and eat cornetti alla marmellata for breakfast and skip down to Rome for Easter weekend, they’re absorbing the same circumstances as matter-of-factly as they do the shoes on their feet. My wow is their normal, and it can bum me out to realize we’re not celebrating on the same page. What I forget, though, is that their normal is happy. They’re happy. My trying to hype up their experience isn’t going to change that happiness, nor should it.

Easter in Rome 4

When I take a step back from myself, it’s easier to remember that my girls’ individuality is a gift here as elsewhere. True, they’re not bowled over by the significance of playing where chariots used to race, but they’ll remember their dad teaching them how to throw the Aerobie and their mom demonstrating her terrible aim (“That was better than usual, Mommy!”), and even if the Palatine backdrop doesn’t make it into those memories, they’ll still be gold. And no, they’re not especially concerned with the historical intricacies of the castle we spent all afternoon exploring, but I doubt they’ll soon forget jumping on the wooden trapdoor or locking each other in the dungeons, and I wouldn’t trade their belly laughs for all the intellectual reverence in the world.

Easter in Rome 5

26Mar

Life Tetris

I’m at the gym spying on the girls’ swim lesson with one eye and watching the clock with the other. Twenty-nine minutes until I’ll need to whisk them into their bathrobes, usher them to the showers, and begin the forever-long process of drying and lotioning and braiding. They’re off to Kidsville then, and it’s to the weight room for me, followed by Zumba, followed by supper and the girls’ bedtime routine and the reluctant winding down of evening. Twenty-seven minutes now, a pittance.

My mind has always bent clockwards this way, warily monitoring that old taskmaster Time. Each minute registers as a loss punctuated by a quick chime of guilt, so I tend to play my days like Tetris, filling every possible space and trying to best the previous day’s score. It’s a crummy way to live, and I know that, but old perspectives die hard, and I long believed “redeeming the time” meant treating each and every second as an emergency.

(Nineteen minutes now.)

I write about prioritizing so often because it is an all-encompassing part of my thought life. When I was a child, prioritizing was a biblical mandate; now, it is simply how I try to make practical sense of my limited and ever-full time. Even if the passing of time does not qualify as an emergency (a point on which I still waver), I still have to choose what will get done and what will be callously neglected not, and folks, it’s hard! All the things I want to do with my time are good things, worthy things; I’m not agonizing over how to fit an extra hour of Angry Birds in between soap opera reruns here. My debates are over how best to love the people around me while taking care of myself and finding satisfaction at the end of the day… and the process might as well be ancient Sumerian calculus for how well I comprehend it.

(Twelve minutes.)

According to my imagination, finding balance would involve morphing into a Pioneer Woman-style superhuman who lovingly raises a houseful of children, cultivates a social life, cleans All The Things, and keeps up with the latest TV shows while rocking at her dream career. In the real world outside my weird and dramatic head, balance probably means something a lot less glamorous—choosing between quantity and quality, for instance, or accepting sleep deprivation as a way of life. Almost certainly, it necessitates making peace with that clock on the wall, so that’s where I’m focusing this afternoon.

Tick. Not an emergency. Tock. Not even a minor peril. Tick. Definitely not the end of the world. Tock. Not evidence of failure either. Tick. You’re okay. Tock. No, I really mean it. Tick. Even if all you’ve done for the last three minutes… Tock …is stare into space looking for the right word. Tick. It’s part of the writing process. Tock. Just as listening is part of the relationship process. Tick. Just as sleeping is part of the daily process. Tock. Just as breathing is part of the living process.

(Zero minutes. Enough.)

~~~

Do you play Tetris with your time as well? What helps you release your grip on the controls and relax into the process of living?

25Mar

Pippi and Yoda

Spring Break starts here today, but a less springish day I could not imagine. The sky is like waterlogged quilt batting, pressing a clammy malaise down into our pores, and if the weather weren’t sufficient to leech all energy from me, the allergens tightly packed into my respiratory system would do the job. (March: In like a lion, out like full-scale biological warfare.)

However, I’m aglow with gratefulness today for your comments and emails following my last two posts. Writing those posts entailed marching very deliberately into territory full of hidden sinkholes and memories that go bump in the night, but each of your thoughtful responses was a beam of friendly light, and I’m so glad to be here with you, to be wrestling the heavy issues together. I will get around to responding to your individual messages soon, I promise.

In the meantime, I thought we could all use a dose of levity today, so I’d like to share the cover page of a fan fiction masterpiece Natalie has been working on:

Pippi and Yoda.png

 

Yoda’s expression alone is responsible for plunging me into a poorly disguised fit of giggles at church yesterday:

 

Wary Yoda

Over the next several pages, Pippi Longstocking one-ups Luke Skywalker to an embarrassing degree during Jedi Camp, eventually prompting an exhausted Master Yoda to demand an end to the story… and prompting me to sleep a little easier at night because clearly we’re doing something right here.

 

22Mar

Parenting: The Big, The Bad, and The Gentle

Writing yesterday’s post felt like channeling thunder. What I wanted to say was so big and so emotionally charged that it was all I could do to keep up with the words. (Just ask Dan how many times I jumped up from lunch to add one more sentence.) Creating like that, as a conduit rather than a miner, is every writer’s dream scenario, yet once the publish button was clicked and the adrenaline dissipated, I began to feel small and dangerously breakable. I lay awake a long time last night fighting the self-protective urge to turn on my computer and start deleting. Putting out something so personal yet so controversial for the whole Internet to critique felt like one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made.

But then this morning dawned, as mornings tend to do, and the world feels like a gentler place. In fact, gentleness is exactly what’s on my mind today. You see, when I first found out I was pregnant with Natalie, my greatest fear was that I would fall into the same parenting patterns I had grown up with. I knew that abused children often grow up to become abusers themselves, their brokenness an indelible part of their identities, and the thought terrified me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I perpetuated the same kind of violence and mind control on my own children, but I didn’t know the first thing about parenting without using those tactics. I literally had no idea what I was doing.

The next part is very hard to admit considering what I shared yesterday, but I did try spanking as a disciplinary measure for a while when Natalie was young. I believed that if I didn’t, my sweet girl would become one of those children enacting demonic death scenes in the candy aisle at Target. I wanted her to have firm boundaries, and I knew of no way to enforce them other than a swat or two when she misbehaved. It was a far cry from the drawn-out beatings of my childhood, and I wanted to be proud of myself for punishing without abuse, but my primary emotion was still guilt.

I felt terrible for causing my daughter pain, however slight, and on the rare occasion when my frustration level made me eager to cause her that pain, I felt like a monster. Using spanking as a way to control my child went against every mothering instinct I had and required me to silence my heart. I wasn’t abusing my daughter, at least not in the way I thought of abuse at the time, but I was using the same line of reasoning as abusers from my past—assert your dominance, control your child, condition her to be unquestioningly obedient. The realization that I had been toeing the fundamentalist line all along churned like a live bat in my stomach.

I abandoned the practice almost overnight. I worried that I was giving up the one effective tool in a parent’s arsenal, but I was done deactivating my mama-heart in order to conform to advice I knew to be harmful. Furthermore, I was done viewing my children as military recruits who I needed to squelch and intimidate and drill into my image. I wanted to start seeing their independence as an unfolding gift rather than a threat and their curious, opinionated little minds as equally important as my own. My parenting style needed a makeover.

I wanted to write about this today because I know some of you come from backgrounds similar to my own and may be wrestling with your own fears and general feelings of lostness about how to parent without abuse. If that describes you, I just want to wrap you up in a virtual bear hug and assure you that there is hope. There is so much hope, friend. You can be a firm and effective parent without ever having to resort to violence or emotional manipulation. None of us is ever going to achieve a perfect parenting record free of regret, but I can promise you this—you will never regret choosing gentleness.

Eight years into mothering now, I have adopted some gentle parenting strategies that continue to work well for our family:

1)    Natural consequences. Dan and I want our girls to grow up with a clear understanding of how their choices matter, so we try to facilitate natural consequences whenever reasonable. This doesn’t always mean something negative; for example, Natalie knows that if she gets ready for school quickly, she’ll have time for her favorite breakfast. On the other hand, if she dawdles or procrastinates, she’ll be scarfing down a banana en route. If Sophie refuses to put on a jacket when we go out, she’ll be chilly, and if she doesn’t eat the food on her plate, she’ll be hungry until the next meal. If the girls can’t resolve a sibling dispute, they will have to take a break from each other. If one of them hurts the other, she will have to find a way to make it right and mend the relationship. I could list a million other examples, but you get the idea; rarely do we come across a behavior problem without some kind of logical consequence that makes traditional punishment unnecessary.

2)    Give and take. Once as a teenager, I arrived early to a babysitting gig and was shocked to hear the little boy ask his mother for a second yogurt and the mother answer “Sure!” The supremacy of “No” was so fundamental to the parenting philosophies of my childhood that it blew me away to hear a mom breezily honoring her child’s request. That moment has stuck with me, and it often comes to mind when the girls ask for something or when they assert their opinions in contrast to mine. It reminds me to pause and consider the validity of their desires, and I’ve grown increasingly less afraid of the word “Sure!” Fundamentalism would call that giving in, but my relationship with my children is only a tug of war if I make it so. Practically speaking, give-and-take means considering the girls’ counterpoints about why they don’t need a nap, saying yes to that nibble of chocolate at breakfast, and working together to solve family issues. Not everything needs to be non-negotiable.

3)    Preemptive measures. When my girls get particularly cantankerous, I know they haven’t been getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, naptime has a tendency to turn into a battle when the girls are already overtired, so the smoothest way I’ve found to remedy cantankerousness is to make sure they get enough sleep in the first place. (When they get at least 10 hours of sleep a night, they are generally cheerful and easygoing all day. Less than that, and they turn into land piranhas by mid-afternoon.) Likewise, I know the girls tend to act out if they aren’t getting enough attention from their dad and I, so a little preventative play time can stave off a lot of interpersonal struggle. Anywhere that I notice a pattern of unwelcome behavior on the girls’ part—defiance when it’s time to leave the playground, whiny malaise after swim class—I look for a way to preempt the problem in the future (give them a 5-minute heads-up before we leave the park, pack snacks in the gym bag). Knowing what is likely to trigger unpleasantness in my girls lets me remedy many situations before they ever start.

4)    Grace. Kids can be volatile creatures, caught up without a moment’s notice into a tempest of rage or an exhausted meltdown. I was taught that these episodes are unacceptably sinful behavior warranting extra punishment, but the reality is that young children go into meltdown mode because their emotional maturity is still developing and they don’t yet know how to handle surges of anger or helplessness or disappointment. For me, parenting with grace often means looking past “unacceptable behavior” and comforting the deeper issues at play. (I’ve shared stories about this here and here, and Erika’s account of unorthodox grace is a must-read.) Parenting with grace also means extending forgiveness to myself when I mess up, as I do frequently, and accepting my girls’ no-strings-attached forgiveness as well. Our relationship works the best when grace is flowing both ways.

Grace flowing both ways

These are just a few big-picture strategies, and I would love to hear your gentle parenting tips in the comments. We can all benefit from each other’s trial-and-error learning, non? If you’re interested in more on this subject, I’d highly recommend my friend Melissa’s series on Gentle Parenting Tools, and there are plenty of online resources for learning positive discipline techniques on sites like The Center for Effective Discipline and Gentle Christian Mothers. And please hear me—if you’re afraid of perpetuating the cycle of child abuse, hold that terrified, love-thirsty part of your heart close because awareness is the first step toward change, and you’re already there. You are not trapped in a style of parenting that goes against your instincts and betrays your own aversion to pain. There are other options, there is grace enough to lessen the sting of regret, and there is always, always hope.

21Mar

From the Other End of the Power Spectrum

Trigger warning: child abuse.

We were at a dinner party some time back when a conservative Christian dad at the table joked about how many hours he had to wait after his babies were born before he could begin spanking them. I immediately focused on my lap, not trusting myself to look at the man. I was afraid that one more glimpse of the self-satisfied grin on his face would sever every attachment I had to civility. I twisted my napkin into cardboard and tried not to listen the precious dinnertime chatter of his little girl with mine. Even after all these years, a child’s laugh can undo me, and no one wants a dinner party to turn into a nuclear meltdown.

I still think about what I would have said to the man had I been unable to keep a lid on my thoughts that day, but it’s a futile conjecture. For one thing, common sense says that no one’s mind is likely to be changed by a dinner party debate. For another, conservative Christianity usually holds that men’s opinions and theological interpretations are superior to those of women; God-given authority is a trump card that would have rendered my hand ineffective from the beginning. However, the most disturbing reason my words would have been discounted that day is that I have lived through child abuse. I would have been viewed as emotionally compromised and irrational because I have intimate knowledge of the topic at hand.

In the thirteen years since beginning to work through the repercussions of my childhood, I have heard two common reactions among fundamentalist Christians when the word “abuse” is attached to fundamentalist Christian practices:

  1. “I’m so sorry that you were abused, but your situation was extreme; what I do isn’t abuse.”
  2. “You have a distorted and psychologically imbalanced perspective of what constitutes abuse; you are making up this victim mentality for your own selfish gain.”

One response sidesteps blame; the other flings it back. Neither acknowledges the victim’s validity as a first-person witness or the relevance of his or her first-person pain.

Perhaps I should take a step back and clarify what I mean by abuse, especially within a Christian context. I work by a very simple definition of “abuse”—using a position of power to harm another person.Therefore, sexual abuse is forcing sexual harm on another person, physical abuse is forcing physical harm on another person, and spiritual abuse is forcing spiritual harm on another person. The first example is universally accepted as horrific, but the latter two are especially prevalent within fundamentalist religious lifestyles.

Take the concept of “divine authority” assumed by many church leaders, husbands, and fathers, especially throughout the Patriarchy Movement in which I grew up. Wielding a position of spiritual power, these men can manipulate their congregants or families into serving them, submitting to them, and accepting their every word as truth. Actually, I see very little difference between spiritual abuse and the more mainstream emotional variety; they both employ shame, withheld approval, verbal aggression, and intimidation. Spiritual abuse is simply emotional abuse on God’s letterhead.

The harmful effects of spiritual abuse might be difficult to quantify, but they’re real enough to those who face the herculean task of working through them. I can personally attest to just how mentally and emotionally draining it can be to push back against the teaching that you are inferior in God’s eyes. Imagine having your sense of who-you-are systematically destroyed while your protests are decried as sin and then having a new, subservient identity installed in its place. No more freedom to think for yourself or make your own decisions, no relief from the fear that you will anger God (or his henchmen), no confidence, no autonomy, no self-worth—these are the effects of spiritual abuse, and no matter how often the term “godly authority” is thrown around, bullies are bullies are bullies THE END.

Physical abuse is a less obvious practice of fundamentalist Christianity, but brave souls like Elizabeth Esther have done much to raise awareness of the parenting techniques often endorsed as God’s will and focused on breaking the child’s. By spanking their children for infractions ranging from direct disobedience to grumpiness, many parents believe that they are training them in accordance with the Bible, and some actually believe that spanking will save their children from hell. While I grant that most parents would never take this philosophy to the extremes that have landed a few families on primetime news, and while I do not think that spanking one’s children indicates a lack of love, I would like to bring up the following points that shape my thinking on the topic:

  • Can we be honest that “spanking” is simply a euphemism for an adult striking a child? If a child repeatedly strikes another child, whether it be with a stick or a pipe or his hand, we call it “hitting.” If an adult does the same to another adult, we call it “beating.” When an adult does it to a child as a disciplinary tactic, we call it “spanking” and often overlook violence that would disturb or anger us in different settings.
  • Inflicting physical pain on children can certainly condition their behavior and subdue their independence as promised by spanking proponents like Michael Pearl, but it neither imparts a change of heart nor teaches anything specific about the behavior being punished. Some parents say they are teaching their children self-control, but spanking is not a natural consequence of any choice a child might make, so I would argue that their children are learning coping strategies rather than genuine self-control. (Protective coping strategies I picked up as a child include lying, redirecting attention toward a sibling, and hiding.)
  • While some Bible verses from the Old Testament book of Proverbs can be (and are) used in defense of spanking, Jesus both speaks at length about and demonstrates in person what loving our fellow human beings should look like. He preaches non-violence and inspires people to changes of heart through kindness. He flips notions of power and authority on their heads, and just in case we might not think his teaching applies to how we treat children, he gathers a group of unruly kids into his arms and tells us that his kingdom belongs to them. When in doubt over the Bible’s seemingly contradictory teachings, I go with Jesus.
  • Spanking depends on parents’ sheer physical dominance (or, in the case of older children/teens, parents’ ability to withhold food, shelter, human interaction, etc.) to purposefully cause pain to those in their care—using a position of power to harm another person. Beyond the fact that this sends a deeply confusing message to children, who themselves are not allowed to use physical dominance to get their way, it fully fits the definition of abuse.

I realize that criticizing a popular parenting technique like this is not too far off from coming unglued at a dinner party. To be honest, I’ve put off writing about this for a long time because I didn’t want to face the effects, both the emotional strain of dialing up my childhood and the potential backlash from parents who feel attacked. It would be fifty shades of hypocritical for me to tell others what they should believe and how they should raise their own children, and “abuse” is not a word that can be applied lightly. I’m wading through serious territory here.

But the seriousness of abuse is precisely why I’m taking the chance to speak up today. Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week is bringing survivors out of the woodwork, and I’m standing up with them—not because I enjoy playing the poor pitiable victim or because I want to spread another layer of guilt on this grace-starved world but because the truth matters. You deserve to hear the whole story, the practical conclusion to bookshelves’ worth of theory, the reality on the other end of the power spectrum. You deserve to know the emotional impact of philosophies that many people accept as God’s will despite their misgivings.

In turn, I trust you to accept my perspective as valid rather than irrational or compromised by my being “too close” to the subject. This isn’t an FBI investigation we’re talking about; it’s life. It’s experience. It’s the intersection of theology and practice, the correlation between what we believe and how it affects others. If we believe in a God of love and grace and peace, then we need to be closely examining philosophies that produce the opposite, and that means listening to the uncomfortable stories, taking them to heart, and working to right wrongs however we can.

Here is my own uncomfortable story: I am a survivor of child abuse. Under the approval of fundamentalism and the Patriarchy Movement, I endured years of severe spiritual and physical abuse, including some that veered over the line into sexual abuse. I helped the perpetrators to cover it up, even when instinct screamed at me to protect myself and my younger siblings. (That dinner party joke about spanking infants is no joke, and I don’t know if I can ever fully forgive myself for the things I enabled through my silence.) I grew up fearful and ashamed, with helpless fury often spiraling downward into depression. I battle those same feelings in adulthood, with the addition of panic attacks and other physical manifestations of PTSD, and there is not a single aspect of my daily life that is not affected in some way by what I endured as a child. Not one.

My saving grace has been a long, slow discovery that God is not the mastermind behind my abuse. I’ve had to shed thousands of assumptions along the way, prying my clenched fingers from fears and shames that I had thought were part of my identity, and there are thousands still to go, but I know that the divine source of light and love is not responsible for the way power was used to hurt me all those years. I do struggle heavily with why God allowed the abuse to happen, but it comforts me to think that he didn’t send down preventative lightning bolts from heaven for the same reason that he didn’t make me spend the rest of my life in a falsely constructed identity: because he does not abuse his power. He doesn’t force or manipulate or use his position to demand subservience. He is about as far from the patriarchal standard as a deity could get.

And in coming to recognize this, I’ve been able see ways in which God was with me all along—providing moments of comfort and flashes of joy, stopping me at the brink of suicide, guiding me toward a life far, far away from my past and its triggers where I can heal in peace. I know it doesn’t make sense to some people that I would have anything to do with the God whose name was plastered all over the abuse I endured. However, uncovering God’s real identity is helping me more than anything else to uncover my own, and if this makes me emotionally compromised, then I’ll wear the stigma proudly.

This is my uncomfortable story, this is my song. (Part 2, about parenting after abuse, here.)

~~~

More uncomfortable story-songs from this week:

The Day I Died by Caleigh at Elora Nicole

Paved With Good Intentions by Hännah Ettinger

God is Love by Sarah Moon

The Cult That Changed Everything by Kiery King

How Spiritual Abuse Has Affected Me by Jessica Bowman

Spiritual Abuse and How It Shaped My Identity at Defeating the Dragons

After Steubenville by Ann Voskamp

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