Sunday, May 17, 2015

My Essays on Abuse in Families and Churches

Dear friends,

I have been writing about abuse in families and churches for the past several years. It's not exactly pleasant or easy, but I feel like it is making a difference. I want my words to be a bridge to understanding and safety and healing.

I wish I could share with you some of the letters that arrive in my inbox as a response to what I’ve written so far, but for discretion’s sake I won’t. I will tell you that they are heartbreaking.  Families are hurting. Badly. Multiply that by the stories I read on blogs, especially by those who have been wounded by the patriarchal edge of the home schooling movement. Ouch. Oh, and the news stories. Sweet heavens, when will it end?

Why am I still doing this? 
  • Because it still happens
  • Because it is serious
  • Because it affects people I care about
  • Because not enough people are aware of it
  • Because something can be done if people are willing to speak up and speak out

Do I write out of fear? No, I write because I have lost my fear. I am gaining new God-given confidence every day. 

Do I write out of bitterness? No, I write out of compassion, because I can’t stand to watch people I love or even people I have never met get hurt. 

Here is a list of links to most of my essays on abuse:

Domestic Violence in Families

The Dynamics of Abusive, Controlling Relationships

Spiritual Abuse

Grace and peace,

Monday, May 11, 2015

Banging the Buttons

With a malevolent yet gleeful grin, a young man strode up and rapidly banged the button on the right: VERY POOR. Like ten times. Huh? What's with that?

Our local Walmart has this new electronic stand near their exit doors so that customers can rate their satisfaction with checkout speed. The four buttons, with their corresponding facial expressions, range from VERY SATISFIED to VERY POOR. I guess if a bunch of people hit the POOR or VERY POOR buttons, they'd better send out more cashiers pronto! Great idea! They also sometimes station an employee near the check out lines with a big arrow sign pointing to the shortest line. I love it!

So what's with the dude banging repetitively on the VERY POOR button? Did he really have a ssslllooowww time checking out?

I don't think so. He didn't look angry or disappointed at all. The impression I got from watching him is that he was being a bit malicious, trying to stir up mischief. I'm not sure the machine is set up to detect actions like that, but if not, he just single-handedly cancelled out a bunch of more positive pushes.

I reckon that doesn't matter too much to Walmart. It's not going to blow anyone's day.

But it did make me think.

There are people in this world who do that to other real people. They bang on another soul's "bad button" by constantly complaining, criticizing, accusing, and shaming. 

Sure, there is a time to tap the VERY POOR button - with sincerity and discretion. But we shouldn't do it to tear someone down. We should do it to alert them kindly to something that needs to be fixed. It's called "speaking the truth in love" or "constructive criticism." Unfortunately, some people claim that what they are doing is "love" and "constructive" when it's just the opposite. How can you tell the difference? What is the ultimate effect? OK, so people won't always appreciate us even if we say it right, but I think we can determine whether we are just annoying them or whether we have deeply offended them. It's good to watch our words and actions. If you find yourself constantly nagging or belittling your child or your spouse or your employee or anyone else, STOP NOW! That is VERY POOR behavior. If in doubt, ask them how you are coming across. And don't turn around and use that against them. Make sure you are acknowledging their strengths as well. Use those VERY SATISFIED and GOOD buttons as often as you can! They lift up the spirit and motivate like nothing else!

Let's look at this from the other side, too. What if someone is banging your buttons? If your soul isn't set up to perceive their motivation, you might be absorbing what they say as the gospel truth. You might think you are a horrible person who deserves whatever poop they want to dump on you. You don't have to do that. Just say, "Sorry! That's not gonna fly here!" Yeah, it's more complicated than that, of course, but you get the idea. You don't have to listen to chronic malignant negativity. 

I'm not saying, however, that just because someone is persistent in communicating displeasure and that makes you uncomfortable, that they are being mean and need to shut up. Maybe you aren't comprehending something yet that you really need to fix. Don't just blow them off without thinking hard about it. Use your discernment. Are they making a request? Is it reasonable? Is it specific? Can you do anything about it? You can try to have a rational discussion and sort out the tangle.

What if the person still has something valid to say but is just going about it in the wrong manner? Pretend that you can dial down the emotional volume dial and hear that nugget that's truly meant for you to understand. Then tune out the rest. And if they will listen, maybe you can have a chat about their communication style. "I'd love to hear what you have to say, but when you talk like that..." If it is your child who is whining, think about the practical factors: tired, hungry, bad day at school? Your kindness and patience and help can make a huge difference.

What do you think? How much button banging is going on in your life?

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

P.S. More related links...

Sunday, May 3, 2015

What to Do About Toxic Power in Marriage

Dear friends,

What can a woman do if she realizes that she is in a controlling, manipulative, intimidating, verbally aggressive, and/or physically violent marriage? 

Two months ago I wrote a post called Recognizing Pervasive, Poisonous Power in Marriage which gave an analysis of the problem. I based it on concepts found in The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. At the end, I promised a follow up post with suggestions on what she can do. Now that I've had time to do a little more research, here are my ideas. 

Stay as calm as you can, which may be quite difficult depending on the severity of your situation. You are going to need all your wits about you as you face the past, present, and future. When you panic, you can't think straight. Being fearful also puts you in a more vulnerable position, because you are perceived as powerless to stand up to mistreatment. You can learn to present yourself as assertive and confident. You can retrain your thought processes, tone of voice, body language, and vocabulary so it will be clear that you are in control of yourself. You can strengthen your spirit with faith, wisdom, courage and dignity. 

Educate yourself about the dynamics of interpersonal power, emotional manipulation, and abusive relationships. There is a wealth of information on-line, and I've given some links on my domestic violence resource page. Even if you think you understand a concept, keep reading about it to get more complete knowledge and to remind yourself to not give in. Be familiar with the power and control wheel, as well as psychological terms like the cycle of abuse, gas lighting, blame shifting, projection, and minimization. A man can abuse his wife without ever physically hurting her. (See More Than Just a Black Eye.) You might think you can ignore it if he hasn't been physically violent, but abusive behavior can quickly escalate if it is not firmly resisted. What may start out as simple verbal contempt may over time end up in serious injury.

Understand your own situation in light of what you have learned through your personal research. Try to identify what has happened, what tactics have been used against you, how you tend to react, anything that triggers outbursts, etc. Make a list of every abusive or intimidating incident that you can remember, and add as much detail as you can:

  • What was happening right before the incident occurred? 
  • What did he say or do to hurt you? 
  • How did it make you feel? 
  • How did he react to your reaction? 
  • How did all of this affect your children? 
  • What happened in the hours and days afterward? 
  • Did the same thing happen again? 
  • Were there any witnesses? 

Document it! What may have seemed less significant at the time can shock you when it is compiled together with other incidents. You may be stunned to see the recurring patterns, progression, and accumulation of abuse. It takes courage to acknowledge that you have been treated so poorly, but you don't have to succumb to denial and despair. Identifying your problems is a necessary step to solving them. You may need help with this process. Sometimes when we are in the middle of the situation, we "can't see the forest for the trees" as the saying goes. The perspective of someone else may be what you need to get a clear picture.

Seek out compassionate, capable, confidential counsel. Silence is not golden here. Start by talking to a friend or relative whom you can trust to understand you and who will not gossip or put you at extra risk. Then take the next step and find professional help. This can be tricky. If you are a Christian, this could possibly be a pastor or faith-based counselor. Unfortunately, in so many cases, they do not have adequate training to deal with abusive marriages, and they are likely to reiterate more rigid gender roles which can be particularly unsuited to the already imbalanced relationship. They may also be inclined to doubt your credibility if they only see your husband's upstanding outward persona. If the abuse has been physical or has endangered your safety or sanity, don't hesitate to call your local domestic violence center and go in for a consultation. They can refer you to other professionals who are skilled in recognizing and handling abusive relationships. If you can't afford to pay for counseling or legal help, ask how you can get free or discounted rates. Also keep in mind that couples counseling may not be at all appropriate for you, and may actually be very detrimental. Please read Why Couples Counseling is Not Recommended for Abusive Marriages.

Explore your options. What have you already tried? Did it work? Why or why not? What have you read about in books or heard from a counselor? What combination of alternatives might work for you? How would you implement them? What obstacles could hinder you? What can you do to prepare for a worst case result? This process may require stepping out of your comfort zone, especially if you are most accustomed to the life paradigm I described in The Bad Boy and the Angel. Do not let fear or shame hold you back. There are people in your circle of family and friends, and in the larger community, who are more than willing to help you. If you or your children are in danger, you need to know how to get to safety - preferably before another rage breaks out. Don't wait until someone is seriously hurt! Do you have a plan for where to go, what to take with you, and precautions for ensuring your continued personal security?

Set firm boundaries and specify consequences. You can insist on being treated with respect. You can insist on physical safety for yourself and your children. You can insist on the freedom to think, speak, and act according to your conscience. Decide what you want or don't want to see happen. Be specific. Here are some examples:

  • "When we are talking with each other, we should choose to speak with dignity and kindness. It is not acceptable to call me that name or scream at me. If you do that, the conversation will be over and I will walk away." 
  • "I expect that you will listen to me when I bring up a concern. It is not right to accuse me of being a rebellious wife when I object to your poor behavior. I will no longer allow you to silence me like that."
  • "If you try to coerce me with intimidation, I will not cooperate with you what you want." 
  • "It is not acceptable to destroy things when you are mad. If you damage any of my possessions or any part of our home, they will be repaired or replaced at your cost." 
  • "You must be gentle with our little boy, even when he upsets you. Shaking him like that hurts him and scares him, and could injure his spine or brain. I will report any child abuse to social services."
Follow through on your plans and then reevaluate. Is he respecting the boundaries you have set, and is he respecting you and your children as people? Then keep it up and see if he continues to cooperate. He may be using temporary compliance as a ploy to regain your trust and favor. If he is not making sufficient progress toward a healthy relationship, make sure you are being clear, consistent, and confident with your expectations. Ask your trusted and capable counselor for advice on what to do next. Step up the consequences as necessary. These may include:

  • much less emotional intimacy with you, since you no longer trust him with your deeper feelings, and you refuse to "throw pearls before swine"
  • other key people knowing about the problems he has caused; while appropriate discretion is always advised, telling the truth to those who can help you is not slander
  • on-going professional counseling, with him paying for it
  • marital separation, with all of the many financial and relational costs that this entails
  • a protective injunction from the court if he is threatening or harming you or your children
  • an arrest record if he chooses physical violence or other illegal behavior
  • a divorce in a case of severe or protracted abuse; the article God Hates Divorce? by a pastor and Bible scholar Sam Powell could enhance your understanding of the original meaning of Malachi 2:16 

If you can't seem to muster up the resolve to enforce boundaries and consequences for your own well-being, please remember your children! You are morally and legally obligated to protect them, not just from physical abuse, but from intimidation and emotional harm. This includes witnessing you get hurt, even if he doesn't touch them.

Plan and prepare for a healthy, life-giving future, not just the absence of abuse. Again, this means strengthening your own soul and body, no matter what else happens around you. You can expand your ability to set goals, solve problems, communicate effectively, train your children positively, manage your finances, take care of your health, learn an enriching hobby, and gain whatever other skills will put you on track for success. 

I hope this has given you some ideas and encouragement. Things can get better, but you have to take assertive action. You can do this. 

You will find more resources on my Domestic Violence page.

Grace and peace,

Virginia Knowles

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Give Reviving (Strength in Hymn)

"Give Reviving"
by Albert Midlane
alt. by Chelsea Scott

Father for Thy promised blessing,
Still we plead before Thy throne
For the times of sweet refreshing,
Which can come from Thee alone
Blessed earnests Thou hast given,
But in these we would not rest
Blessings still with Thee are hidden,
Pour them forth and make us blest!

Prayer ascendeth to Thee ever,
Answer! Father, answer prayer
Bless oh bless each weak endeavor,
Blood-bought pardon to declare
Wake Thy slumbering children wake them,
Bid them to Thy harvest go
Blessings O our Father make,
Round their steps let blessings flow.

Let no people be forgotten,
Let Thy showers on all descend
That in one loud blessed anthem,
Millions may in triumph blend
Give reviving, give refreshing,
Give the looked-for Jubilee
To Thyself may crowds be pressing,
Bringing glory unto Thee.

Give reviving, give refreshing,
Give the looked-for Jubilee
To Thyself may crowds be pressing,
Bringing glory unto Thee

This hymn was our offertory this morning at Lake Baldwin Church. Our soloist, Glynn, kindly gave me her copy of the music to bring home. As I guessed while listening, it is a 19th century hymn which has been updated with slightly different lyrics and new music. You can listen to the Indelible Grace version on-line at Give Reviving or watch the YouTube below

I love these words. I definitely need God's revival and refreshing in my life. Jubilee is one of my favorite words.

The photos I chose to adorn the hymn are from Big Tree Park in Longwood, Florida. The top photo is a clover flower, the second one I don't recognize, and the seed pod is from a sweet gum tree. The park's main attraction, a huge cypress tree called The Senator, burned from arson many years ago, but Lady Liberty is still standing.  Here are a few more photos, all taken with a simple Canon Elph and edited with Picasa.

Lady Liberty

Lady Liberty

The Senator - charred remains
Clock made from remnants
redeemed from The Senator
(Matter of Woodwork)

A tree along the board walk 

A damsel fly -
I tried dozens of times to get
a good clear photo, but these
little beauties just won't sit still
so this is a little blurry.
I didn't even know which insect it was,
so I Googled it and found great photos at:
Delicate, Dazzling Damselfly
on the beautiful blog
Walk With Father Nature.
Palm with sunlight


You can find dozens more of my posts with
vintage hymns and nature photos linked here:

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

Sunday, March 29, 2015

An Odd Palm and an Odd Parable for Palm Sunday

This morning, we heard the familiar Palm Sunday passage, and the children paraded around the church sanctuary waving their palm fronds.

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

John 12:12-15

I'll get back to that in a little bit, but first, a little digression:

I couldn't help but think of the odd palm tree I photographed on Friday in park a few miles from here. It is odd because it is growing within the split trunk of another tree. See?

Not only that, I think that the palm's entire root system is suspended within the other tree, not going all the way to the ground.

Can you see the light underneath the root clump?

Here is the normal looking solid trunk base of the host tree.

Another hollowed tree nearby reminds me of both (1) the skull shaped rock (Golgotha) where Jesus is thought to have been crucified and (2) a dark tomb carved into rock, as during Bible times.

Is this Golgotha?
"When they came to
the place called the Skull,
they crucified him there,
along with the criminals—
one on his right,
the other on his left."
Luke 23:33

Image result for biblical tomb cave
A cave tomb from Bible times
On a brighter note, representing the Resurrection for my arboreal parable, is a lovely spring-blooming tabebuia tree growing just across the railroad tracks. (See my post Tabebuia, The Brilliant Yellow Flowering Tree of Spring.)


... and an overlapping loquat tree representing the fruit of the Holy Spirit, who came after Jesus ascended to heaven.

"But the fruit of the Spirit is
love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

gentleness and self-control."
Galatians 5:22-23a

Yes, I am quite aware of how odd this blog post is, how odd the palm tree wedged into the other tree. But everything about Holy Week itself is odd.

Christ of St. John of the Cross

by Salvatore Dali, 1951

The King of the Universe came to Jerusalem, not in conquest, but in compassion. He rode on a humble donkey rather than a war horse. He is the King of Peace, gentle (except to the money changers, whose tables he overturned in the temple courts), servant-hearted (washing the smelly feet of his disciples), willing to sacrifice himself to save sinners, even begging his Father to forgive those who were crucifying him. 

Throne Room of Grace
by Virginia Quarrier,
Then there is the matter of the torn temple veil, the earthquake, and the resurrection of many holy saints at the hour of his death

And his own resurrection on the third day? Incredible, yet true!

What is at all normal about any of that? Yet that is the way he works.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." 1 Corinthians 1:27
This brings great hope to me. I often feel like the odd woman out. I don't fit so many religious paradigms, yet God still uses me.

That's enough from me for now. Excuse me while I go think up some other odd thoughts. I'll be back.

You are welcome to read my Holy Week series on my main blog, or visit my Holy Week and Easter link page.

Virginia Knowles

Saturday, March 21, 2015

When Abuse Leads to Cynicism

Dear friends,

Do you know anyone whose faith has been turned upside down into cynicism because of hypocrisy or abuse within a church or a family? 

I do. I've lost count of those I know personally, and I have read about far more who have walked away from the Christian faith or at least wandered to the outer fringe of fellowship.

I have been researching abuse and authority issues in families, churches, and religious movements for over seven years. In the process, I realized that an organization of churches (of which I was a longtime member) had some really grievous problems that were adversely affecting my family and many others. Toward the end of our time there, I felt like I was shriveling up spiritually. And mine was a mild case!

Since then, I've read books and blogs about various kinds of abuse, I've conversed with countless people who have been afflicted, and I've thought back on some of my own troubling experiences.

What have I seen? 
  • Legalism in its many forms
  • Controlling and even cult-like behavior
  • Arrogance, greed, and a lust for power
  • Leaders who failed to take appropriate precautions to protect vulnerable people in their care, then failed to properly handle abusive situations after they happened
  • Leaders who actively covered up evidence to protect abusers rather than victims
  • Leaders who were the actual perpetrators of child molestation, adult sexual abuse, violence in the home, embezzlement, and every other manner of aberrant behavior. 
Frankly, I am angry at these failures. If you haven't given much thought to this issue, please don't look away. Pause and let it sink in. (If you don't know what "it" is, do your research. You can start with the links at the bottom of this page.)

So I am angry at the hypocrisy and abuse. But I am also angry at the aftermath.

As I have listened (or read) when abuse survivors have shared their stories, I find that so many are hurting beyond belief. And sometimes it really is beyond belief, because so many of them have either walked away from faith or are at least questioning everything they once held dear. Their faith has been turned upside down. 

Then what happens? If they dare to share their doubts, are they met with compassion and genuine understanding? Sometimes. I'm glad when I hear that. Too often, however, they are instead met with sanctimonious condescension and contempt.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, will you?

Let's imagine that you have been, by all accounts, a devout Christian for years. You've read your Bible, shared the gospel, given tens of thousands of dollars, listened to hundreds of sermons and taken notes, sung all the songs, attended the conferences. You wrapped your entire life around expressing your Christian faith. You were on fire for Jesus. Until you got burned.

Then one day you woke up and realized you had been deceived, manipulated, cheated, belittled, threatened, slandered, battered or molested by someone you trusted most - a pastor, Bible study leader, parent, spouse,  or best friend. Maybe they used shame, intimidation or violence to control and silence you. Maybe they appealed to their authority position or twisted the Scriptures to justify their behavior and to coerce you to comply. 

And then it was suddenly all your fault because you had the audacity to object or even just to ask questions. After all, you obviously must have a problem with God if you can't quietly and cheerfully obey those he "placed in authority" over you, right?  You hear accusations that you are: Bitter. Rebellious. Divisive. A slanderer. Ignorant of Scripture. Faithless. Selfish. Too sensitive. Proud. Resisting accountability. Playing the martyr. A backslider, or never a Christian in the first place. A heretic. An infidel.

Here's a gem I've seen so many times, especially in blog comment threads: "Hey, if you don't like what I said here, that's your problem. The Bible clearly says "________", and if you disagree, you're arguing with God, not me."

Can you imagine it? Let it sink in again. Put yourself in their shoes again.

Think how confused you are. Certain religious words and phrases which used to be the hallmarks of your faith now trigger anxiety and depression. You are bruised, angry, cynical, devastated. The foundation of your spiritual life has been shaken. Weren't these people supposed to be the voice and hands of God in your life?

Your trust has been shattered.

Where can you turn? To those who have been your community of faith, perhaps your whole spiritual support system and social world? Maybe. Maybe not. It's a risk. If you are lucky, you will be heard and loved into wholeness again. If not, you might face further mistreatment, including those accusations I mentioned earlier. Not everyone truly understands the dynamics and destruction of abuse. 

To you, your old friends and spiritual comrades are now untrustworthy, hypocritical, gullible fools still following charlatans. Nope, not going there anymore. There are plenty of other places to turn for comfort and camaraderie. And you think, “I wasn't planning to ditch the Christian faith entirely, but if no one can handle my questions and my grievances... Sure, I've got a problem with God. In fact, I'm done. Done." 

What do you think of this imaginative exercise? For some of you, it was more reality than imagination. Can I be honest? It's a little too close for comfort for me. I've been the legalist, the groupie, the harsh parent, the manipulator, the hypocritical critic, the naive church member, the financial enabler, the quoter of pious crap, the victim/survivor, and the cynic. It's getting a little hot in here, but I've got to own that! And wow, this post is getting so much longer than I intended. Bear with me a few more paragraphs? OK, several more?

I am fortunate that I was able to find a healthier church, and that I was also able to make peace and continue warm relationships with friends and pastors from the church we left behind. However, certain aspects of the Christian experience can still be a struggle for me.

For a survivor of spiritual, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, it is sometimes so difficult to continue in faith as we had known it. It can be such a challenge to trust God or Christians, pray, read the Bible, sit in church, listen to Christian radio, or function in healthy relationships with family and friends. 

People who react negatively to abuse in spiritual settings do not need pious platitudes, pointed criticism, or pitiful condescension. 

They need to see Christians:
  • extend grace, mercy, compassion
  • listen long and well without deflection or excuse
  • take them seriously when they tell their stories and share their doubts
  • educate themselves about sexual abuse, domestic violence, and cultish practices
  • protect the vulnerable by putting precautions into place
  • embrace the broken, and help them pick up the pieces
  • pursue justice and healing for the abused
  • provide moderated support groups and on-line forums for abuse survivors
  • stop demonizing mental illness and start encouraging professional therapy
  • stop blaming victims for their own abuse
  • stop perpetuating power structures that keep others in bondage
  • humble themselves in true repentance
  • take responsibility for their failures and make restitution for damage
  • hold abusers accountable and make them step down from any positions of supposed authority.
They need to see Christians be more like Jesus.

How about it? When they look at us, what are they going to see?

I know I've got a long way to go.

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

P.S. #1: Some helpful web sites:

P.S. #2: Some of my own posts on abuse of authority...