Round Lake, IL, USA
I do appreciate this non-believer site. It’s very affirming to see in print the comments of so many others who have made this spiritual journey too, and to see the critical thinking and academic study that have been applied. (Since I have been accused that my exodus was guided by my "emotions," (God forbid), I’m quite tempted to direct some of my "critical thinking fundamentalists" (a phrase I now consider an oxymoron) to this site as well).
I "came into the church" in 1971 through a co-worker while living in Roswell, New Mexico. I was 22 at the time. In retrospect, I realize that I had some dysfunctional family "credentials" that would make me vulnerable to "a cult," which is what we were after all, one big happy dysfunctional family! We made the 220-mile trip to Albuquerque each Sabbath, then were there the morning the Lubbock, Texas, church was "raised up," (only 180 miles each way). When a friend’s husband returned from some business training in Chicago with a "good report" about all the bachelors in Chicago, I decided that returning to my native Chicago area seemed like a good idea. While "checking out" Ambassador College at the feast in Big Sandy that first year I’d actually been told that I should be "looking for a husband" instead of applying to A.C.. My first Sabbath in Chicago I met the man I would be married to for 24 years (by the time the divorce was final), marrying him less than 5 months after meeting that first Sabbath. (Though I’d wanted to wait a few months, he said he wanted to have the same anniversary as his parents. Since "insisting on my own way," while ‘betrothed,’ would have been a total departure from the sweet submissive lady I wanted to be, of course I went along with the earlier date. Besides, who was I to question this obvious "third tithe year blessing." I was told the deeper feelings of love would follow if I just "did my part" and "submitted." Eventually, of course, he would tell me that the earlier date was "so we could have sex.").
Mr. Herbert Armstrong had often said that the only place "God’s government" was being practiced was "in the church" and in our families where "God’s government" was in place. So our marriage was "governed" the same way as the church, government "from the top down," a benevolent dictatorship. (Some may recall how it was cleverly pointed out that when Christ returned and set up his government it wouldn’t be a DEMONocracy, but rather a benevolent dictatorship). Though I had totally "bought into" the idea of submitting to my husband, I never dreamed that after years of making decisions that totally ignored what "I" might have wanted, that he would explain to me that though he WAS "obligated to listen to my input, he was under no obligation to take any of my input into consideration when he was making his decisions." Of course, I had just assumed that his "love" for me would cause him to want to do that. (When I eventually asked if the concept of "compromise" could occasionally be considered, he explained that "compromise" took a beautiful, perfect "ideal," (i.e., what he wanted to do) and then "polluted it" with impurities. This, he explained, was what was so bad about politics and why we have phrases such as a "compromising woman"). He believed that "God’s government" totally eliminated the need for any "conflict" in the marriage. All we needed to remember was who was in charge, cheerfully go along with the decisions, and, voila, no conflict!
When I "got mad" about this, which was eventually pretty much most of the time, I was told that my problem was "with God, not him," and that if I got angry about it I was "insubmissive," even if I DID eventually go along with the decision ("Does Christ have to drag the church??"). I was called "spoiled" for getting mad about not "getting my way." I was told that whether there would be "peace in the family" was all up to the one who had been offended "choosing" to "let it go." He never seemed to notice any connection between his awesome ability to "let it go" and getting to have his way all the time, though he admitted the only "complaint" he really had about me was "my anger." If I stayed quiet for too long, I’d be told he was "calling the minister." "We’ll just see if you have the right to be mad at me when I tell you to do something." The marriage turned into a literally endless debate over "my right to be angry," or "to have been angry," as he had actually "mellowed" somewhat toward the end, but still insisted he "would not have gotten angry," like I had because, "When you love somebody, you don’t get angry." In my continual attempt to "justify" the anger I had experienced (so he would have a better opinion of me than he had), I shared with him a passage from a book I’d found that described a couple who looked just like us! (She was having a hard time loving her husband too!) Since this book labeled what we had experienced, "spiritual abuse," I’d hoped the understanding and maybe even the "apology" I’d yearned for for so long might finally be forthcoming. Instead he said HE was the one who’d been abused (by my anger) and that if I thought I’d been "abused" for 20 years, he no longer wanted to be married to me. So that was that.
By that time, we’d left WCG and were attending the largest church in the United States (Willow Creek). Thanks to starting a study of dysfunctional family issues sometime before all "the changes" started, I was very receptive to "the changes," sometimes even seeing them coming before they were announced. (More than once, during such announcements in Sabbath services, my husband would say to me, "Well, you don’t have to write that letter to Mr. Tkach after all."). Though we loved the changes, "church" at WCG had turned into endless debate about them. One video sermon from Mr. Tkach spoke of people who were "fasting and praying for his death." Logically, since we realized we were no longer the "one true church," we decided to go to a place that was already doing what Mr. Tkach was trying to talk our church into doing. (Indeed, much of the new truth was coming from Willow Creek, and here the place was practically in our backyard).
Actually, I loved Willow Creek. I’d found the book mentioned above in the bookstore where I worked as a volunteer. Once the separation and divorce started though, it became "awkward" for both of us to go there, to say the least, since my soon-to-be-ex-husband now began dating old friends of mine from WCG who were going to Willow Creek too. Seeing him holding hands with these old "friends" while the divorce was going on was more "pain" than I cared for, so I decided that if what was going on at Willow Creek was "for real," it had to be transferable to other churches too, so I looked for a new church home.
Under the heading of, "It’s All Good," (as the bumper sticker on my car says), I can now be grateful for this "nudge" out of Willow Creek, or I suspect I might still have been stuck in evangelical fundamentalism. Instead though, the church I found was indeed "Willow-styled." The church had been "planted" (Willow jargon) by two young ministers who’d "interned" at Willow. Things were going fine until a series they started on "What Jesus Said About . . ." then fill in the blank. One week was it was "lust." Then came, "What Jesus Said About Divorce and Remarriage." They said that Christ’s teaching was "clear" that if two "believers" divorced, though God would "forgive you" of the divorce, remarriage for either was not an option. (I thought, yes, so "clear" that there’s a great deal of disagreement even from one church to another, including the church down the road where these men had interned, the largest church in the United States! I caught myself noticing that "all I’d need to do" to get back to where I preferred the teaching was to skamper back to the very church I’d come from, where my ex-husband was obviously not bound by such teaching!). The previous week "lust" had been covered and I was considering letting my "small group" hold me "accountable" for lust (or worse) as long as I remained single. Now, at the ripe old age of 49 we were talking about celibacy for the duration. Fortuitously, at this very same time I was taking a humanities class at the local college. I was learning about "myth" and "archetypes" for the first time, and seeing vividly how ALL peoples at ALL times in ALL cultures have "created God in their own image." Learning about the Renaissance and Copernicus had direct application to the changes WCG had been through. ("This changes everything."). I realized that, for me, far from visualizing a God who expected me to "repent" of my divorce, I saw a God who was smiling, happy that I’d FINALLY gotten out of this marriage, saying, in effect, "Geez Sue, I was wondering what more I’d have to do to get you out of it." There was no way I could "repent" with integrity, and no way I could go back to Willow, knowing in my heart it would just be so I would hear teachings I prefer. As I pondered all this, the next week at church, in something of an "alter call," the minister challenged anybody who was considering "accepting Jesus" to ask any one of us who had, if he (Jesus) had ever let us down. I thought of my own marriage ("God" only knows how hard I tried) and of all the people from WCG now sitting home absolutely shell-shocked as everything they’d put their belief in was rearranged for them, re-packaged, and now they were told to accept it. I realized vividly, "It’s not Jesus’ fault at all. Why, he’s no more "alive" today than my great-grandma Mumsey. I just have a HISTORY of letting MEN tell me what to do, and I’M NOT GOING TO DO IT ANYMORE. And that was my last week there. Once I stopped "trying to be a believer," I found that there is no end to information out there that is available to discredit the validity of the Bible "as God’s word for all mankind for all time." (I would particularly recommend the writings of John Shelby Spong, as well as Joseph Campbell). I now firmly believe the Bible to have been written "by men," (not God through men) and reflects the "image of God" that these writers had. Any image of God that "I" now may have not only never required animal sacrifices to satisfy him, but "he" certainly didn’t later require the sacrifice of a "perfect lamb" in my place in order to want to have a "relationship" with me. When the church (WCG) started realizing that what we believed had been built on a wrong foundation, I only wish they had KEPT GOING and considered the whole foundation of "original sin."
Since I had been "cultured" to be a church-goer, I did try to find another church where I could flourish and grow, find community, and believe it or not I actually found one where such beliefs are the rule, not the exception. And that is the Unitarian Church. (I hope this does not disqualify me as a "non-believer." Believe me, most of my "believing" friends do definitely consider me a "non-believer!"). I would certainly encourage any who are reading this to visit the www.uua.org web site for more information about "UUs" (Unitarian-Universalists). Unitarians tend to be known for appreciating the good that can be found in most of the religious traditions (as interpreted broadly – admittedly we do get a little impatient with narrow-mindedness). We tend to be much more interested in the big questions and in the Mystery of life than in presuming to know all the answers. Since most members are at best "unsure" about whether there is an after-life, they tend to make the most of the time we have here. I have met many atheists in the Unitarian church. Though I would not describe myself as an atheist, my "image" of God has certainly changed greatly over the years, and will continue to change I’m sure. I do like this definition: "’God’ is not God’s name, but our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each." I find that I can substitute the word "love" for "Jesus" in a lot of the Christian music I had come to enjoy and do just fine. Unitarians are terrific at seeing the METAPHOR in things rather than actually missing the point by narrowing it down to a literal interpretation. I’ve never been happier.
Editor’s Note: I don’t consider UU attendance or membership to disqualify one as a non-believer in the least. I have attended UU services a couple of times, and decided that if I ever wanted a church environment around me again, the UUs have the most inclusive and welcoming environment I’ve found, even for atheists. I wish all organized religions were as tolerant as the UUs.
After 24 years "in the church," years 22 through 46 in age, I remember feeling a bit like "an alien" who had just landed on this planet when I joined "the world." But I’m feeling more and more "normal" all the time. Like so many who contribute to this site, I also feel no bitterness for the time I spent in WCG. I believe I had things to learn that were apparently best learned in WCG and in my marriage. Once the lessons were learned, I got to move on, though I still find it important from time to time to question where some current thinking might be coming from. Sometimes I do worry about folks who think they can just make the switch from "cult" to "mainstream" without a little more examination along the lines of: "What was it about ME that made such beliefs seem as right as rain?" There really IS some level of conscious deprogramming that needs to take place when one leaves a cult I think.
I’m grateful for the friendships that were made, the good times and not so good, and especially for the children born to my husband and I. My daughter is married to the son of the last minister we had at WCG. Though there was a time when I could have had BOTH bumper stickers: (1) I’m proud of my honor roll student, and (2) My kid beats up your honor roll student, one for each kid, they’re both doing well and they seem to have "landed on their feet" too.
Thank you for reading this lengthy story. I’d love to hear from anyone who would care to e-mail me.