Sometimes it is just easier to hear the truth from a totally unbiased source. It can be very hard to listen to people's stories and not wonder if their memory is truly good, if they are exaggerating the truth in any way or if they might be outright lying. I understand this.
One of the most helpful things for me in this whole process was to read from those who were not talking about my particular group or even denomination. It was in looking at what they were saying and seeing the stark reality of how closely our group paralleled an abusive environment that I was able to understand that what we were doing was harmful.
I found another resource this week that again will cause you to re-evaluate all that we did and participated in while at this Church.
Stephen Martin, a counselor from Wellspring in Ohio (a group that helps people coming out of controlling groups and/or cults) has written a clear, concise book about how mind control works in a group.
He says in the introduction, "Suppose you move to a different area, and are keeping your eyes open for a good group to belong to (a social club, a church, a synagogue, or service organization). You visit one such group where the people are very friendly, loving, and give you individual attention. The group has a variety of programs: a rehabilitation program for drug addicts, services and nursing homes for the elderly, help for the poor, and free clinics. The leader inspires the disillusioned, the disenchanted, and those who have been rejected elsewhere. He is well-known and respected in the area, and the mayor gave him a position as Director of the City Housing Authority. Would you join this group?" - You just joined Jim Jone's group! He goes on to explain his book this way, "Are there any warning signs that a group and its leader are dangerous? That’s largely what this book is about. "
Now I'm NOT saying that this Church will start passing out the Kool-aid next Sunday. I am saying that if you will read this it will become clear to you why the abuse keeps happening and why story after story continues to churn out of this group of people's lives being destroyed and their faith shaken.
It is NOT WRONG to read and consider an opposing viewpoint. If you went to a dealership and wanted to buy a particular model of car and the salesman, after explaining all the wonderful features of the car urged you to NOT go and read Consumer Report's review on this car nor hear anyone's concerns on the web about this car, you would be the FIRST to go and look that up. Information, even from those who are in disagreement, is not "Poison" to read. If you cannot look at the opposing viewpoint and refute it within your own heart and mind then you truly are not "free" as you claim.
My story begins as we begin to see a small flock off in the distance. It is a small flock of sheep. As we get closer we can see that this flock is like most other flocks we have seen. Sheep, green pasture, a small fence for protection at night and a shepherd sitting by the small gate who carries a staff for protection and a harp to sing to his sheep. The scene is simple and pristine in its beauty.
As we move even closer we find that this flock is newly formed. The Great Shepherd had called out to various sheep and they had come together for protection, fellowship and feeding and to just be together with the Shepherd. As we start to move among them we notice that the Great Shepherd had been very specific in his calling because from a distance all the sheep looked the same but up close you began to see how each sheep differed in its personality and calling.
There were sheep that loved to study the Shepherd and explain to the other sheep all that was being learned. There were sheep that understood the shepherd’s harp – its purpose and design. They could play various instruments and sing and when they did the whole flock stood awed at the sound and would even join in to sing songs of the Shepherd with them. There were sheep that wanted to do nothing but mingle amongst the other sheep to look for those who had hurt themselves. These sheep understood the art of binding the wounds and healing the hurts. They could find pastures during the day to make sure the sheep were getting the needed nourishment and clear healing water. Other sheep did nothing but gaze out at the range and look for sheep who had never heard of a Shepherd. Once spotted, they would rush out to tell of the wonders of their Shepherd. And yes, there were a few sheep that could seemingly see the gifts given to each sheep and help to set the flock up to where all the sheep could function in their gifts and be used to the best of the flock. Even though these sheep had this gift they always remembered that they were also just sheep and that it was the Shepherd that truly was in charge of the flock.
The Shepherd saw that this was good. He would regularly mingle amongst the sheep and it was not long before you realized that this Shepherd had a relationship with each of the sheep. He would speak softly to each one. His words, when overheard, were words of encouragement, direction, explanation, and sometimes even correction but were always given with so much grace and peace that the whole flock trusted this Shepherd.
No, this flock was not perfect. Sometimes the sheep would fight. There were even bites given and received and the ones who carried the bandages and salve would be called upon to help to heal the hurts. Some of the sheep did not understand the gifts given to other sheep and felt that the work that they deemed most important was being overlooked. Sometimes the sheep that had the gift of organization would become a bit overbearing and sometimes forgot that ultimately it was up to the Shepherd to lead the sheep. But for all the messiness in the flock it was still a place of joy and peace.
I, as the author of this piece, am going to transport you to 15 years into the future and describe what happened to this flock.
As we draw close to the flock we see again that there are just sheep in the space where we left them but it does not take long to start to see significant differences. What you will now see will break your heart.
The first thing that catches your eye is the fence. What used to be a simple fence around a lush field of grass and a spring with a simple gate for coming and going is now a fence of a fortress around a dried patch of dirt and a tiny polluted spring in the corner. The fence is massive and it is evident that great time has been spent constructing it. There are watchtowers at each corner as if someone is expecting an imminent attack upon the flock. At the gate no longer sits the Shepherd but there are sheep placed there as guards in full battle gear.
As you draw closer you began to notice a difference in how the sheep are standing. There are rows and rows of sheep. They are not grazing contentedly as we last saw. There is no sign of the Shepherd walking among them like before. They eat in rows, they do their duties in rows and even though there seems to be smiles on each face there is no feeling of joy left in the flock.
It is then that one of the most alarming things becomes apparent. A few of the sheep no longer walk on all fours. There are about 10 of them that have somehow decided to walk upright on two feet. It is soon evident that these sheep are the ones in charge. Out of the 10 or so sheep that walk uprightly you see that a few of these sheep are wearing beautiful woolen clothing, carry a staff and wear a crown on their heads. All sheep stop when the crowned ones speak. The crowned ones give an order and the other upright sheep make sure that the common sheep understand the order and heed it. Then you understand the rows of sheep all facing the same direction. It is at the command of the crowned ones and the work of the other upright ones that the sheep are kept in this rigid order.
As you mingle among the common sheep you are startled at how shorn they are. Their wool has been shorn far too often to give them any protection from the weather and the elements. They seem to shiver at the slightest wind. Your heart breaks for them as you see the sheep line up for yet another shearing over in the corner of the pen. When you ask them why they are giving their wool away so often at their own expense they will tell you that in giving their wool away they will be blessed and not fall under a curse of the Great Shepherd. Their shivering they are glad to bear.
At this revelation you are simply shocked. Why would the Great Shepherd want your wool in such an extreme measure, you ask. Don’t they see that the wool they are giving are only going towards the reinforcement and building of the walls around their flock and to outfit the crowned and upright ones in wonderful, rich, woolen clothing? And who ever told them that the Great Shepherd would curse them? Don’t they remember how he walked among them in such a loving way? How he made sure that they were fed and warm and loved? Where was the Great Shepherd anyway? Had anyone seen him recently? Yes, they assure you. The crowned one meets with him every morning. He gets his orders from the Great Shepherd and then they all follow those orders. They grow tired of my questions and start accusing me of being a questioner and bringing division. Most start to ignore me.
I decide to go and speak to the upright ones and ask why the shearing is taking place and why the sheep are left cold and shivering in the elements. They are also shorn but carry with them blankets of thin wool that help to ward off the cold. When you inquire of them you are met with instant glares of anger and derision. They point to the head crowned one and tell you that he is the one that sets the pace for the shearing. This crowned one is not to be questioned as his tall stature allows him to hear the Great Shepherd far more easily than the common sheep. The days of the Great Shepherd speaking to each of the sheep individually is now been replaced with this crowned one hearing instead for the sheep. After all, they say, the Great Shepherd has set the flock in order in this day and age and this is how it is to be done.
Your attention is now turned to the crowned one. His clothes are the finest and his feet are shod in the finest sheepskin. His wool has been shorn too but not as short. Even if it were short the fine woolen clothing would keep him warm. There is an air of authority that surrounds him but also fear. As he walks among the sheep you see them cower before him. Some come and bow at his feet and give him gifts of their wool. Others offer to carry his staff hoping that they too will be called upon to be one of the upright ones. Some garner his smile while others seem to garner his anger. As you listen in to what is being said by the crowned one to the common sheep that day you are left in disbelief. This day he is walking among the sheep and telling them what will happen if they leave the walls he has built up around them. He warns them of certain disasters that will befall them should they leave his protection. “The Great Shepherd is only here in this pen,” he tells them. “If you leave you will leave the protection of the Great Shepherd. Your children will wander off cliffs, your wives will leave you for other sheep, your wool will never grow back and you will never hear the voice of the Great Shepherd again.”
As you sit there in anger, wondering what exactly you should do or say you see a small sheep come up from the ranks of those who are called upon to sing songs of the Shepherd. She speaks up and tells the crowned one that the things he is telling the sheep are simply not true. She knows the Great Shepherd and He has never said such things. Her voice trembles as she gently rebukes the crowned one. As she gathers even more courage she further confronts him on the schedule of shearing and points out that the sheep are cold and being left to shiver in the elements.
You would have thought that this little sheep had grabbed a club and had commenced beating the crowned head of the upright sheep with what happened next. Suddenly from out of nowhere the upright ones come and stand in between the crowned one and the newly exposed questioner. They begin to yell and scream at her for daring to question the crowned one. She begins to quake in fear of their attack on her. She is accused of pride, arrogance, disloyalty, and every other sin they can think of. No one – not one - ever answers the question she brought to the crowned one. But now all attention is turned on her and how very ugly and deficient she is in the flock.
When she does not back down but demands that her questions get answered she is dragged to the gates and thrown out. Along the way her skin is accidently pierced by the sword that one of the guards is carrying as he stands in front of the gate. Her head is banged against the planking as she is discarded outside. And her front leg is sprained as she lands on the unforgiving ground outside the gate.
Now left broken and bleeding she is sure that the other sheep inside will come out and help her. They do love her she tells herself. They will come. She begins to call to them. No one moves. Then at last with great excitement she senses some movement but her hopes are dashed she begins to see the sheep go back into the rows facing the crowned one. She overhears him explaining why she had to be cast out. She listens as he details her “sins.” Her heart breaks as he tells the other sheep that she really never loved her friends. She understands that no one will come to bind up her wounds and so she starts off alone down an unknown path.
She misses the walls that were told to offer her protection. She misses the warmth of belonging to a flock. She longs to sing her songs with others instead of alone. There is too much freedom in being out here by herself. What if she goes the wrong way and falls off a cliff, what if she encounters a snake in the lush grass, what if they say is true and the Good Shepherd never shows up? What is she supposed to do now?
Suddenly around the next corner she finds a cleft in the mountain with a miraculous bit of grass and a small spring and decides to stay at least till her wounds start to heal and she can again walk on her leg or the grass is gone and the spring dries up. Sure enough with just enough to get by she stays hidden here for a few months and begins to grow strong. The grass and spring miraculously never run out and her woolen coat grows thick and she is no longer cold. The nourishment of the grass and spring causes her to become healthy. She begins to venture out, facing her fears that she cannot travel the fields alone. She realizes that there is an inner voice that she had not heard in a long time that warns her of the cliffs or the snakes that lurk therein. She begins to venture further only to find streams of clear water and fields of luscious grass. Joy begins to return to her step and she finds herself singing new songs about the Great Shepherd to herself.
And then one day she sees a man in the distance. He carries a staff and walks on two feet. Instantly she is afraid and wants to run the other direction to safety but falters. She does not hear the inner voice warning her and there is a smell that reaches her nostrils that she remembers with delight. This is not an upright one or a crowned one. This is the GREAT SHEPHERD!
She takes a tentative step towards him and the love in his eyes almost makes her drop to her knees with relief. She knows this man. This man is good. As they meet, the Great Shepherd gently reaches for her and cradles her in his arms. For long moments she just lays there unaware of time and space.
As she finally rouses herself in his embrace she asks him why it took so long to come to her. He assures her that he had been with her all along. It was him that gave her the wisdom to see that things were not right in the pen. It was Him that gave her the courage to ask the hard questions. It was Him that was hurled out the gate with her. She remembered and began to understand that she was never alone.
Suddenly she looked up at Him and laughed, “It was YOU!” “You led me to the cleft in the rock! You gave me the bit of miraculous grass and the delicious clear spring! You prepared that place for me to heal and grow strong and have my wool grow back! You led me there didn’t you?”
Gently with a whisp of a smile that lit up not only his edges of his mouth but his eyes he said, “Well my valiant one, you almost have it right but I did not prepare the cleft in the rock, I wasthe cleft. I did not lead you to the grass and the spring; I was the grass and the spring. I did not prepare a place for you; I am that place for you.
The Great Shepherd then turned to her, set her on her own four legs and said, “Now I have a job I want you to help me with. Will you go back to the pen with me and stand outside the gate and continue to speak to your friends about the truth you now are sure of? Will you be there when they leave or are thrown out to bind up their wounds and tell them of my love for them? Will you explain that the crowned ones have misrepresented me and I am not a Shepherd like they pretend to be? Will you help lead those who are hurt to me so that their fleece can grow warm again and they can hear my voice clearly for themselves again?”
The sheep lifted her head and looked deep into the eyes of love and said a simple “Yes, I would love nothing better."
The story ends, at least for the time being, as you see them walk together down the road towards the old sheep pen. In the distance you hear the bleating of sheep who are wounded and bleeding without a Shepherd.