The Good. The Bad. The Ugly. We are all going to encounter abandonment and betrayal in our stories. I know of too many stories when well-intentioned church leaders have appealed to submission and Matthew 18 as power plays over individuals and their voices. Been there done that. Got the t-shirt as they say. Women though, face extraordinary challenges in such communities. Before Hope's present shalom, which we shall see in the last 2 parts of her story, she encounters her friend, leaders within her community and Matthew 18.
Part 6. Relational surgery
As I look back at my relationship with Rick now, having not spoken to him for 12 years, it is easy to forget the good things in the relationship, because in the end the negatives ate them all up. And it is easy to blame myself for the co-dependent neediness that gave him so much power over me. But real life is always more complicated than that, and relationships with real people are always multi-faceted (sometimes with more facets than we can get our heads around). There were good things in my relationship with Rick: lots of hugs (no complaints there – the problems came later when he started to dole them out or withhold them with a controlling agenda), laughter, teaching me how to change lanes while driving (Leo taught me to drive – my father wouldn’t – and was never good at explaining things I didn’t have much natural aptitude for), how to choose the best apples in the supermarket.
And then there was the writing. I have dreamed (in a vague sort of way) of being a writer ever since I was a little girl, but my perfectionism kept me paralysed. Mostly I wrote short poems because that was easy, and also an emotional outlet. Rick encouraged me to try my hand at prose – to write a novel. And one day an idea came into my head, or rather a character did, and I found myself writing a whole novel (it took me a year). I was so tired of cheesy Christian novels that set up a good, complex, problematic situation and then ducking out of the resolution by a character’s conversion, which then miraculously made all their problems disappear. Was the moral of these stories supposed to be that Christians don’t have problems? At some point you have to resolve this cognitive dissonance by deciding that either you’re stupid (or not really a Christian), or it’s the book that is stupid. I take it as a sign of my growing emotional health that decided that it was the books’ problem, and proceeded to write a story which was the antithesis – about a man who rejects every opportunity to say yes to God, and how that affects him. Rick wrote a novel at the same time. When we had finished we swapped. He said he got his core idea from an obscure Russian novel no one would know about. OK, I’ve never ploughed through Dostoevsky, but I recognised a rip-off of Crime and Punishment when I saw it! Unfortunately, I was too polite to say so. He had no such qualms, and totally rubbished my attempt. I was so devastated that it was a long time till I attempted to write anything again.
Then came the killer issue that drove me from the church, and out of Rick’s clutches (so to speak) – the leadership got it into their heads that Leo and I had been churching separately for long enough, and he should be one of them (he was still going to the same church he had been in since he was 4, the one which his parents attended, and where I had also gone for 20 years) At one stage he had talked about joining me, and said as much to them, but then we had discussed it with our marriage counsellor, who very strongly advised that I needed some space and boundaries in the relationship in order to heal from his abuse and feel safe enough to start becoming myself. Separate churches for a while was part of that strategy, and Leo accepted that. But the House Church leadership had other ideas, and began a campaign of attack. This went on for several months, and, quite frankly, it was horrible. I was accused of using the church for my own selfish ends, and of disobedience to God. They decided that I was in violation of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18, since I was privately deciding to excommunicate him without allowing the church to be the ones to control such decisions. I maintained that Matthew 18 was totally irrelevant since a) this was a private marital matter (which we hadn’t invited them to get involved in anyway) and b) he had never gone to the church in the first place.
The battle lines were drawn. I will not say much about the number of nasty conversations that ensued (most of which I’ve forgotten now anyway) or the night that the four leaders asked me to stay back after church to discuss it and harangued me till 2 am, four against one. Aftewr a while I just tuned out and gave mechanical answers, sitting there crying while they went on and on and on. Frankly, childbirth was less painful, and, of course, infinitely more productive!!
Then Rick wrote me a 5 page letter about why I was wrong (he was always writing letters to people he saw regularly), including what he thought was the clinching argument, namely that the mere fact that the subject distressed me proved that I was an unfit person to make the decision. Part of my reply to that was this;
The second issue in some ways opens a much bigger can of worms, because if I understand your fairly plain words you are saying that the measure of my distress is the measure of my incompetence to handle the situation myself. Might it not also be a measure of the degree of what I have endured and am still enduring? Could it possibly be a measure of my strength, the degree to which God has upheld me in a situation I could not have otherwise endured? Or have you all decided that I am just a neurotic fool who is being unfair to her husband? I wish there were a nicer way to put this, but I cannot hand the issue of my emotional and spiritual safety over to the church, because the church has never demonstrated any adequate capacity to protect me. I do not see a church that shows Jesus’ heart for releasing captives and delivering the oppressed, I see a legalism which condemns the victim for suffering. I am condemned for submitting to mistreatment, (when I have known nothing else my entire life) I am condemned for resisting it. I finally find the courage to admit I am being badly treated and I am taken to task for any way in which I might have contributed to the situation. I came looking for succour in my brokenness and found neither justice for my wrongs nor mercy for my pain, only concern that I should not be unfair to my husband, and an anxiety that we should be “fixed” as quickly as possible get over it all and behave like a conventional middle-class Christian couple. I will entrust myself to God and God alone, for He is kinder than men have ever been.
They were mortally offended, but I couldn’t retract what I had said, it was the truth of what I had lived. All was silence for a couple of months, and I started breathing again, but I knew that I had no future there. I was just waiting for the right moment to leave. It came. It came in the form of a 41 page letter from Rick (yes, forty-one, not a misprint) – detailing all my faults. I showed it to my therapist, asking whether there was anything I had actually done wrong, and she assured me there wasn’t. I have since shown it to a couple of other people once I was in a safe church situation, and their response was the same: in all 41 pages there was not one substantial accusation of wrongdoing. In fact some of it was so extreme that even at the time I could laugh at it – one of my favourites was where, on the second last page, after all of that, he asked me if there were any other sins I had committed that he didn’t know about that I needed to tell him. Well, no, actually, I didn’t feel the need to tell him anything.
There was a wonderful freedom in walking away, but it was a long time before I could go out to the mailbox without a residual feeling of dread.
Next time: How God started the rebuilding process