Cleopas and his friend walk to Emmaus. They had hoped that Jesus was going to redeem Israel; instead he was ignominiously crucified.
So they walk, their faces downcast, while all along, the risen Christ walks beside them.
* * *
God comes in many guises, in a bush which burns and is not consumed. Jacob marvels, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
And when are we most unaware of the one walking beside us?
When he comes in the guise of suffering! We cannot see why he need weave this plot element into the story of our lives; we cannot see how he could bear to do such a thing.
* * *
I was listening to Luke 24, the disciples not recognizing Jesus on the road to Emmaus, on my iPhone as I walked today in the rain and mud. I was almost in tears as I confessed and apologized to God for not having seen his hand at a difficult juncture of my life, and instead having been filled with bitterness, unforgiveness, self-pity, anger, and the longing to see justice down visited on those who had harmed me.
* * *
I have led small groups, mainly women’s small groups over the last 11 years. During one of these, I and my co-leader (who was a good friend then) found co-leading difficult. She wanted more Spirit-led Charismatic stuff, which I then thought flaky, though I would be more open to it now. I wanted more of the Word, which she thought was boring!
And so, possibly to tip the balance her way, my co-leader asked another woman, an African immigrant, to join the leadership. Three leaders is a crowd. I’d read of the phenomenon of immigrants being competitive and jealous of each other; now I experienced it.
And here’s something else I’ve observed in churches. The smaller and less significant the prize—in this case, leading a small group of women for two hours a week—the more bitterly people can contend for it.
Lesson One: I resolved because of that experience: Never contend for church status. If I feel anonymous, I will seek to be known in the way Jesus suggested–that the greatest will be those who serve. I will seek out those I can be a blessing to, and be a blessing, quietly, privately, one on one.
* * *
This was four years ago, we were all in our mid-forties, and yet, there was childishness and pettiness, telling tales, forwarding private emails to the Vicar’s wife, who annoyingly shared a name with me. The new co-leader fabricated an account of a conversation with me. I was shocked then, as I would be today, though less so.
Yeah, Lesson 2. Be shock-proof in church. Tragically, Christians are capable of behaving as badly as non-Christians. Capable of contending for power, prominence and status. And in a toxic church, they will drop those who are out of favour and so can’t help them upwards; they will toady up to those on the way “up”.
When, after leading large Bible studies, like one for young mums, I fell out with the vicar’s wife, I suddenly became anonymous to the ecclesiastical social climbers. People who had enthusiastically smiled and cooed at me now passed by me in church and mysteriously didn’t see me. They unfriended me on Facebook!
(And, of course, in the long run, how fortunate to be shot of such people!)
* * *
The vicar’s wife had recently been asked to step down from the leadership of an international prayer ministry, the Lydia Fellowship. The tendency of those who have suffered from perceived abuse and injustice to inflict this on others has been well-documented.
Soon after that (an ego-boosting muscle-flexing??), several of the staff were dismissed. The parish vicar’s wife, who had an international speaking ministry, was asked not to speak in church because she made the vicar’s wife feel threatened (and she was honest enough to confess this). The parish vicar got his contract terminated. Threatened legal action; got a large payout from people’s tithes.
Then this woman, untrained, unqualified, and not the brightest spark either, started on small group leaders. Being the vicar’s wife made her pretty much unaccountable. What could we do? Complain to the henpecked vicar about his wife who publicly described herself as “a rhino?”
She asked a good friend of mine to step down from another group that she had led, and I had done the teaching for. This caused serious health consequences for my friend, then pregnant, who, in an additional twist of cruelty, was told not to attend the group she had been leading. “What have I done wrong?” my friend asked. “Oh, the Holy Spirit told me to do this,” the vicar’s wife answered airily.
Moral: Churches, beware of giving too much power to your leader’s spouse. Unless you want ultimate unaccountability, that is.
Finally, when the tension, difference of opinion and tale bearing in the group I was leading got too much, I resigned. After writing a caustic hurtful email detailing the reasons why.
And then, in a conversation full of cruel personal criticism of me, I too was asked not to go to the group I had led, on the grounds that it might unsettle them. And then, her trademark, “Don’t tell anyone.”
I was appalled. This was an injustice I found it hard to cope with—that someone could one moment be the leader of a group, and then not be permitted to attend it.
She wouldn’t allow me to go to another group too. She had bitterly said, “Everyone, almost without exception, said you were brilliant” of the last Bible study I’d led. It’s possible she just didn’t want other women around who were gifted in the areas she imagined herself gifted in. Who knows the contortions of the heart.
And so for the last three years in that church I did not attend a women’s group. But I was newish in town. I hadn’t yet built up extensive social networks. So those years were a difficult desert experience for me.
Resolution Three—The abused become abusers unless they make a conscious decision not to. I decided then that I myself would never exclude or reject people from any group I lead. I later lead a Bible-study (in another church) with people who’ve been Christians for a couple of decades or more, and one non-Christian with loads of questions. I normally would have suggested that she find another group, but did not do so.
* * *
At a point of difficulty, I asked the associate vicar for advice and he helped me with overflowing kindness and wisdom.
And when he was fired—he was among the 15-20 staff, many of them ordained, this couple had let go over six years, if there was any dissension and they were not putty– I wrote a blog in support of him, which had 1500 page views within days, led the PCC (equivalent to elders, for non-Anglicans) to circulate a letter of protest which was widely signed by staff, lay leaders and parishioners.
And I wrote a series of satire on a paranoid, controlling, power-hungry, almost wicked style of church leadership, based on what I observed called “The Screwtape Lectures.” They had hundreds of views within hours.
Ooh, I have never lived in a police state, but this was my closest experience of persecution.
A woman kept calling and emailing me almost daily to find out what was on my heart. She succeeded. Reported it to the Rector.
The Rector arrived at my house with a witness to get me to take down the blogs. (He succeeded).
I was in a women’s prayer group. He got two of them, one of whom he had a financial hold on because he paid her husband to be a Missioner (though what he did was unclear) to say they couldn’t pray with me because it may get on my blog. One cried as she said this. She later said that the rector had instructed them to say this, and was waiting at her house to hear how the meeting went.
He wouldn’t let me or my children go on a church short-term missions trip to Mozambique to work with Heidi Baker.
The wife wouldn’t let me go to a women’s group.
When I wanted to go to on the church retreat, the Rector reminded me of how my children had been blessed at the last one, and wanted permission to stand up and tell the church I had repented of these blogs which had been so widely read.
He asked me to sign a letter and asked me to submit to him AND to his wife, unordained, untrained, and inexperienced if I wanted to stay in the church. Submit to a couple I lacked respect for? My allegiance was to Christ, not to that paranoid and power-hungry duo.
They were obviously trying to isolate me so that I would have no influence, and would eventually leave.
I did. They won.
And then I laughed.
Was that what they entered ministry for—to harass people so that they did to come to their church to listen to their sermons or give to the church?
The events to do with the associate vicar’s firing led over a hundred people to leave the church, led to a serious drop in income, and then a “staff redundancy program” a pretext for firing those who did not support him over the last crisis. Once he got rid of them, the hiring started again.
Should I keep this story of spiritual abuse secret? But what could be gained by that? Stories exist to be told. We learn from other people’s stories, as they learn from ours.
Why blog? As my friend Lesley says, It’s cheaper than therapy!! The act of story-telling is therapeutic—but there should be an expiry date. I have not told this story before in writing. I will now—largely for therapy, to see it clearly in the telling and sharing.
Because I need to tell it. But then, it’s “an expired story.” Told out. Torn up. And I will move on.
And what if telling it makes my spiritual abuser look bad? Well, shielding abusers perpetuates abuse. One secret you should never keep is abuse you’ve experienced. As Ann Lamott pithily put it, You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better!
* * *
So I then had a desert experience.
Chuck Swindoll says that our life is ten percent what happens to us, and 90 % our attitude to it. The way we react to it.
And I, alas, felt bitter. I was full of self-pity. I so wanted to see justice done to those who had lied about me, who had excluded me, to the woman who had asked me and other spiritually gifted women in the church to step down and not exercise our teaching ministries because giftedness threatened her mediocrity. And I wasted three years in anger.
* * *
And so, the desert, what was the reason for it? What good came out of it?
Well, at a John Arnott conference in 2010, I had an encounter with the love of God, and discovered soaking prayer, a resting in the love of God beyond asking, beyond thinking, beyond words, just being.
This became a daily discipline, and I gradually became a different woman–stronger, bolder and quieter. The negative and critical things that woman had said to me, attempting consciously or unconsciously to destroy my self-confidence, well, I didn’t care any more. I had a confidence from beyond myself, a God-confidence. As Samuel tells Saul, The spirit of the Lord will fall upon you, and you will become a different person.
* * *
Ah, in the desert one hears God’s voice more clearly, one grows most swiftly. But few go there of their own accord—too hot, too lonely, little food or water, too boring!! We have to be pushed there.
In the quietness and extra time that not leading or even attending groups added to my life, I threw myself into establishing our family business. My creativity flowed into it. While some creativity and energy was flowing into teaching Bible studies, the business struggled. Now, within a year of full-time and over-time work, it flourished, and two years later in 2010, it made enough for Roy to retire early, and run it full time.
And then I again had free and quiet time. I do love God, and I love Scripture, and I love experimenting with prayer. Ideas, insights, enthusiasm flowed out of me, like a river of living waters, and I had no group to share them with.
And so, I started blogging. And blogging has been one of the best things which have ever happened to me. It has vastly expanded my world, socially, through meeting new people; intellectually, through the exposure to new ideas; creatively, through daily finding the right form for my ideas, and spiritually, though exploring new spiritual ideas and insights.
So, God’s hand was with me and over me all along. I just couldn’t see it!
And then, I left that formerly excellent church which Macbethian leaders had turned toxic. And it was like walking out from darkness into radiant sunlight.
I found a new church, a healthy one. Within six months, I was asked to lead a Bible study. So obviously God wanted me to share my love and enthusiasm for him and for Scripture.
God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. The spring of God’s gifts within you cannot be dammed by the envy of men. Think of how Joseph exercised his gift of interpreting dreams in prison, as far as possible from Pharaoh, the court and influence.
* * *
William Law writes “If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all perfection and happiness, he must tell you to make it a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you.”
And oh, if I had said–“Thank you for the desert, thank you for grounding me, thank you for giving me the quietness to seek you, thank you for the additional time gained by NOT leading Bible studies, thank you because I trust you anyway. Thank you for this quiet interlude,”–how different would it have been. How much less bitterness, anger, and self-pity!
Lord, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, give me eyes to see Him who walks always beside me, that there’s always another one walking beside me, even in the valley of darkness.
Anita Mathias says
Thanks so much, LA. The strange thing about experiencing spiritual abuse (which I should have defined as people using their spiritual position over you, and spiritual language to manipulate you, or tear you down) is that, as with any form of abuse, you feel shame and humilation. And so you are likely be to silent. These things happened in Spring 2008, and here I am telling the story 4 years later.
You are exactly right. You tell it in public, and its “history” in many senses. Over, done with, and perhaps with the grace of God, dealt with, even “dead.”
Yes, indeed, these things happen when we are not dwelling in the waterfall of God's power, but are burnt out. I have led groups again in another church, always co-leading, and have learnt in cases of conflict and difference of opinion to defer to my co-leader. Most of these things are not that big a deal, and I, personally, can grow as a Christian more by deferring than by getting my own way!!
Louise, you are so right. Jesus said, “What is highly valued in men's eyes is detestable to God,” and that goes for the shameful and devious behaviour that church status-seeking can lead us into!
Also Anita, thank you for sharing this story!! Silence is what gives these events power over you, telling them takes their power away. It shines a light on these behaviors and evil doesn't like the light on it, it prefers the dark corners of the “secret” so it can work its bad juju on you. I'm very glad you shared this, and there will be people who read this entry who need to hear you say it openly for their own healing to occur (because they've faced a similar situation). Amen to you for giving that gift of healing to others! The real testament to your faith and love of God is you recognized the unhealthy behavior and properly ascribed the issue to the behavior of a few rather than getting disgusted and turning your back on God, which sadly, this behavior in churches often leads to.
For me, the Road to Emmaus reminds me not to get too wrapped up in the journey and get burnt out. My friend is, as she describes it, at a truck stop in her spiritual journey. She's not currently attending anywhere, but is refueling and getting some grub before rejoining God's highway. I find that this kind of behavior that you describe tends to show up in my life when I'm starting to get burnt out and I haven't refueled in a long time…my friend got off the “highway” for much of the same reasons. But, she said that there are many equally good spiritual paths leading away from her self-imposed hiatus, she's discerning which one is best for her. And in the meantime, she tells me that she's been supping with Jesus just like the folks on their way to Emmaus.
Hello Anita, I always enjoy reading your posts :o)… I htink I've come to the conclusion that the only status that matters is the status you hold with God…
Anita Mathias says
Thanks so much, and welcome to my blog Believers' Brain, and Anons.
I was torn about whether to write this. For one, it was a humiliating experience!! and a dark one, for me.
But I found I was referring to this episode obliquely through several blog posts, and I decided it may be best to tell it once and for all, do my best to forgive, and then move on.
Non-pharmacological therapy is interestingly called “talk-therapy.” I guess this is my version of “write-therapy.”
Thanks much for reading and commenting!
I'm sorry you had a bad experience. I understand about 'deserts – walked through a couple myself.
By the way, I am a vicar's wife and I make no apology for the individual you encountered, she will be the one to explain before the Throne.
I'm glad you found healing through your blog I look forward to reading them.
Miss Mollie says
I, too, have quit jockeying for position in church. I am happy to lift up the name of Jesus, not promote myself in our church. My Bible study is family and friend, I'm content with that. I never had the abuse you are talking about, but I know there are always those who cozy up to the main pastor and his wife, the inner circle. I have seen it all my life. I follow Jesus. I stay in church because it is His body and we are not to forsake the assembling together. I pray for the church and for my attitude often.
Hi, I found your blog through a Facebook link from the church I was confirmed in and I wanted to say I think your writing is excellent! I have been really enjoying reading here.
This particular post had a lot of meaning for me, because I have experienced quite a few “desert times” although I have been fortunate enough never to encounter a toxic church. It is true that every desert changes you, for better or for worse, either producing bitterness or peace. I suffer from bipolar disorder and have found the depths of my depressions, in hindsight, have changed me for the better, and brought me closer to God.
Thank you for your post. I really liked it.
Thank you for sharing this story from a season in your life.