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...

Sunday, March 8, 2015

International Women's Day 2015: Women's Voices Rising

Dear friends,

Today is International Women's Day! I am home schooling the youngest of my seven daughters, and we've been studying the Civil War era for a few weeks. There are so many wonderful books about great women.

Harriet Tubman, a hero of American history, led hundreds of fellow slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad at great risk to her own life, and then served as a Union scout and spy during the Civil War.

Sojourner Truth, an escaped slave, toured the country speaking up for the rights of slaves and women. "Ain't I a woman?"

Harriet Beecher Stowe was, according to Lincoln, the "little woman who started the great war" with her grave depiction of slavery in her best-selling novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Clara Barton was not only a Civil War battlefield nurse - when most nurses were men - but also a women's rights activist and the founder of the American Red Cross. (See here.)

Mary McLeod Bethune, the first child in her family born free, started a school for former slaves. 

I admire these women for their courage, not only in fighting injustice and cruelty, but also for stepping above the cultural stereotypes of what women can or should do.

The day for this kind of courage and initiative is not over. Injustice still poisons the globe and the oppression of women is particularly foul, especially when it comes to sex trafficking, domestic violence, genital mutilation, denial of educational opportunities / legal protection /  adequate health care, and other serious issues. Not only that, even Western Christians are struggling with the prevailing attitudes of the church toward women. 

We need the strong voice of women. Women must not be silent in the face of injustice.

So I am thankful that women's voices are rising. I hear them, and I add my own.

I'm not expert on any of this, and can't give you an exhaustive list of resources. For now, I'm only going to mention several books that have been helpful to me.

You can read more about these books and their authors in a blog post that I wrote exactly four years ago: Weekend Gratitude for Synergy and Little Bits Working Together.

(Note: This was an update of a post I wrote in 2013.)

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Recognizing Pervasive, Poisonous Power in Marriage

There are two kinds of power. One kills the spirit. The other nourishes the spirit. The first is Power Over. The other is Personal Power. Power Over shows up as control and dominance. Personal Power shows up as mutuality and co-creation. Mutuality is a way of being with a person which promotes the growth and well-being of one's self and the other person by means of clear communication and empathetic understanding. Co-creation is a consciously shared participation in life which helps one reach one's goals.”

Patricia Evans, in her book The Verbally Abusive Relationship, outlines two very different paradigms to life. Reality I is what she calls Power Over. Reality II is Personal Power. Each of us lives according to one primary Reality, although I'm sure there is some overlap.   

Those who live in Personal Power desire the common good and are willing to communicate and cooperate with others to achieve worthy goals, including those which meet their own reasonable needs. On the other hand, those who live in the Power Over mindset must control others to get what they personally want. In fact, what they really want is CONTROL. If they aren't in charge, nothing is right with their world until they gain the upper hand. Even if it destroys others. Even if it ultimately destroys themselves.

This is what I call pervasive, poisonous power. Pervasive because it is nearly always there and affects so many areas of life. Poisonous because it is malignant and damaging. (Pernicious is another word that comes to mind, but isn't as familiar to many.)

What happens when a Mr. Power Over marries a Ms. Personal Power? She is coming from a position of good will. She invests emotionally in the relationship and works toward their mutual well-being as a couple. She expects to listen and she expects to be heard. Prior to the wedding, he tends to be on his best behavior because he doesn't want to alienate. When the ring is on and she's made that firm commitment, he's got her. He may be able to suppress outward Power Over behavior for a while – months or even years – because being nice suits his purposes: it gets him what he wants. It just won't last. But here's the rub. If he can't get what he wants by being nice, he'll turn to nastiness. The soft paws disappear as the sharp claws are bared. Out come the accusations, the manipulation, the shaming, the demands, the intimidation, and even the violence.

When Mr. Power Over begins to exert his control, his wife is at first bewildered and uncomfortable. Why is he acting like that? Did she do something wrong? Hmm. What can she change? She'll try harder to please him. That doesn't work. He's angry at her, making accusations. She's more confused than ever. She thinks he just must not understand. She tries to explain how she feels, what her intentions are, to let him know she's on his side. She wants a healthy relationship, and she's willing to sacrifice dearly for it. On the inside, he's gloating that he's got her under his thumb. He may let up the pressure a little and throw her a bone of a conditional approval. But that high soon wears off. He must find something else to criticize – not because there is anything wrong, but just because he needs to throw her off balance emotionally to maintain power. 

Again, remember that his primary thirst is for complete control. Yes, he might truly want her to keep the house cleaner or spend less money or keep the kids quieter, or whatever else he's complaining about. But that will not satisfy him. He can't be pleased. If she has managed to maintain a sense of self dignity and the satisfaction of what she thinks is a job well done, he will feel the need to destroy it. She must be continually dependent on him or he won't be happy.

Meanwhile, if she isn't aware of the power play at work, she is in utter turmoil. If she has grown up in a family atmosphere of Reality II (Personal Power) and doesn't realize that there is such a thing as Reality I (Power Over) and that she is married to it, this just doesn't compute! She is still operating from the assumption that if she tries hard to please and appease him, and if she learns all of the best communication techniques, that he will love her in return and they will have a healthy relationship. 

Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. Until he realizes and relinquishes his primal need to control her, she's fighting for a lost cause. 

What if she grew up in home with at least one Power Over parent, especially if it is the father? If that's the case, she's already been conditioned to accept abuse instead of expecting respect. She thinks it's normal and that she deserves it. 

No matter which way she grew up, she's likely to blame herself. Hopefully, she'll realize what's really going on and become empowered to stand up to it.


I'm already anticipating some objections to what I'm writing. I've read quite enough troll comments on blogs addressing the same issues. Here are three possible objections:

"Don't we all have power struggles? Why so dramatic here?" 

Yes, everyone wrestles with power issues to a certain extent. We can all be selfish and inconsiderate. No one is a total villain or saint. However, I'm not talking about normal marital difficulties, an evenly matched tug-of-war, but a significant and toxic imbalance of power. This isn't because the woman is dumb or weak, but because her trust and kindness are being used against her by someone with an unusually overbearing personality. Again, the words PERVASIVE and POISONOUS describe this kind of power. If you haven't experienced this, count your blessings.

"Isn't a man supposed to lead his family?”

A man can certainly serve his family well by providing leadership in many areas, just as his wife can. Each one's personal strengths can be amazing assets if they can work together with mutual respect. LEADERS LISTEN. LEADERS LOVE. 

True leadership is not tyrannical or domineering. Leaders consider what other people need. They nurture those in their care. I believe in egalitarian marriage, but I think that even those who believe in traditional gender roles can at least agree on that. 

But what about a Power Over woman and a Personal Power man? Why are you always painting the women as victims?” 

Yes, of course women can be the ones trying to exert pervasive, poisonous power. But as tragic and common as that scenario is, that's not what I am writing about here. This is why. There is a different dynamic in play there that is beyond the scope of this article. 

A woman is perhaps more vulnerable in this situation precisely because of gender role expectations from both church and culture. She's stuck because she doesn't feel she has any recourse. She is conditioned to think that if the marriage is in trouble, it's her fault and she needs to fix it. If she wakes up to the Real Reality and takes a stand for herself and her children, all she hears from her husband, and perhaps her church, is, “Woman, submit!” or “You're being rebellious!” I wrote about this in my post The Bad Boy and the Angel


So this seems like a pretty hopeless scenario! What is a woman in this situation supposed to do?

That's a great question - and I have tried to answer it here in my follow up article: What to Do About Toxic Power in Marriage

If you or your children are in any kind of danger, get to safety immediately! Call the police, your National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233), or your local women's crisis shelter. They are trained to help!

I also have a lot of articles and recommended web sites about abusive relationships. Here are some of the specific links:

On my blogs:

Other sites:

This post was inspired by seeing one by Natalie Klejwa: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire! Go read her blog! She's got some amazing stuff there! I first connected with Natalie, another home school mom with a big bunch of children, after reading her earlier post on the red flags of abuse: Deal Breakers: Advice to Unmarried Women and Daughters 

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles