In THE GIRL WHO CRIED FORGIVENESS, people are finding comfort in the reality that someone understands their grief and process to some degree. As I share my stories with vulnerability and complete transparency, many of those who've read THE GIRL WHO CRIED FORGIVENESS, have shared their like-experiences in return.
These readers felt encouraged and relieved to learn they weren't alone. In response, I am now providing a space for these people to be transparent while supportive of others, by sharing their stories here on my blog!
I've had a huge supporter of The Girl Who Cried Forgiveness in this man, Jason Refsland. Jason has read my book, relating most with finding a disconnect and a lack of authentic and unconditional love within the church. Upon asking Jason to share more about how he related to this specific chapter of my book, I found such an appreciate for his honesty. Upon reading Jason's responses, may his friends and family receive what he has to say as to understand him more. I have found great empathy and peace in talking with Jason; an honest, kind, transparent man who truly believes in and hopes that all people would experience the love of God for themselves.
"Vivia and I share a mutual experience because we were a part of the same organization that she refers to in her book as "Inflame." Not only has Jason experienced something like me, but he actually attended the same church and from my story, he gained more insight and encouragement. He wasn't the only one hurt from people in a safe place, No one is perfect, not even people who proclaim innocence, purity and good morals, but God can still be good all the while.
"As a male and worship band member I received less direct spiritual abuse but witnessed plenty. Inflame was much harder on the women in the group than the men. There was an unspoken rule that you had to be “pretty” to be on the worship team."
I know how good it feels to know someone understands me and can speak to the same pain, disconnect and heartbreak. I felt just that as Jason went on to share his experiences with unhealthy church communities.
"Early on there was a set of twin girls that were incredible singers, but they dressed punk and had different body types than what Inflame wanted. Without warning they were asked to leave when a prettier girl, who could sing, began dating the lead singer.
There was also a holiness and purity standard that was placed on the women, but didn’t apply to the men. The men in the worship band at Inflame regularly “struggled” with pornography and masturbation which they preached as sin but though they confessed and sought accountability and other tools to control themselves they were never removed from community or spoken ill of. Some men in the group even had premarital sex but the only ones who received punishment were the girls they had sex with. Girls were constantly shamed if they didn’t dress modest enough yet the men could go swimming in their underwear without repercussions.
Inflame had a mission to bring people to Jesus through worship, but in practice they were more interested in absorbing talented people who were already Christians. They offered a loving and caring community and for the record it was. If you got into the inner circle it was the most loving and caring community I had ever experienced. But getting in required that they deemed you valuable to their mission. If they didn’t see you as someone who could fit a role they needed then you weren’t accepted or if you asked to try something new, they would say yes, but then never give you that opportunity.
People came to our meetings for the meaningful worship experiences and the community they saw happening in the inner circle. But many came and went because nobody really cared to expand the community with people that didn’t fit their mold. Over time people saw through the facade."
While Jason experienced standards and rules made within Inflame differently than I had, he still felt and witnessed a sense of manipulation and control. Whether male or female, younger or older, the impression that this church was unhealthy was made upon many people. The decision to leave upon the initial impression wasn't easy for anyone. "Eight or nine years after my time with Inflame my wife and I moved to Seattle to plant a church with the Vineyard denomination. We joined a progressive church to be mentored and much like Inflame the leaders were charismatic and welcomed us initially with open arms. However over the five years we were a part of that church the leadership kept us at arms length. I left my position as a worship arts pastor of a large congregation excited to expand my knowledge of church leadership and get to understand the business side of church in order to prepare me further for planting. Without explanation and regardless of my requests I was never given those opportunities despite their promises to us initially. They always had one more hoop to jump through before they would let us do x-y-z. Itt as always one hoop after another.
At that time I was dealing with severe depression and anxiety and coping poorly. I sought professional counseling and because I felt that I was accountable to the pastors of this church I regularly informed them of my progress/regress. I could never put my finger on it at the time but I always felt like an outsider. Meanwhile my wife was also being spiritually abused by the lead pastor. It finally got to a breaking point and we decided to leave. After we left a member of the elite inner circle met me for coffee and divulged all the crap that was happening behind the scenes. I found out that everything I was sharing with our pastors regarding my therapy was being shared to the entire inner circle. Things I only shared between my wife and my therapist and my pastors became public knowledge within our church unbeknownst to me. Everything made sense now. This is why I wasn’t given opportunities by other leaders, this is why I felt like I was constantly on the outside, the disgusted looks I would get that I didn’t understand.
Then to make matters worse the lead pastor was also gossiping about me and my wife to all the other pastors in our region and back in the midwest. So when we went to other pastors in authority in that movement we were met with disbelief and rejection. The Vineyard leadership rallied around this abusive lead pastor and refused to look into the numerous stories coming out of that church of blatant abuse. In five years I went from feeling a part of an incredible community of leaders in the Vineyard to losing nearly that entire community. I had given up my entire support structure and community in Minnesota in hopes to gain a new one in Seattle.
I had no idea that in five years I would feel more alone and abandoned than I had ever felt in my life. I learned from that experience that church leaders use relationships, friendship, and community as collateral for right behavior and/or right belief. If you don’t act or believe as they want you to then you don’t get to have the relationships, friendships, or community you want to have. At a time in my life when I was starving for connection they used me to get what they needed from me while dangling the promise of a community they would actually never give out and in fact sucked away any I had remaining at all." I wanted to know what Jason had believed about the church when younger, before manipulation and control, what was he excited about? There's an innocence we carry into the church, then the innocence becomes a high standard and in some churches. From young and innocent, curious and vulnerable to grown and discerning, we are formed by the church positively or negatively. How did Jason innocently decide to follow Jesus with the church? Why did things alter so much that he needed to find a relationship with God, without the church? "I grew up in the church and my father started pastoring when I was in 6th grade. So church was just a normal part of life. I really enjoyed the youth group and playing music in the church. When I was around 15 I really felt I had a very authentic connection with God. I would sense a presence when I would pray and sing. Song ideas began coming to mind and so I taught myself how to play guitar so I could put music and lyrics together. My junior year of high school I joined Inflame as their bass player and I had some of the most powerful moments I can remember with what I perceived as God’s presence. My favorite memory was when the band would lock ourselves into a dark room before one of Inflame’s Friday night meetings and we would just pray and sing without any light in the room. It felt so freeing and meaningful. I really desired to be as connected to God as I possibly could. I also believed wholeheartedly that God wanted me to share the connection I felt with others, but even at a young age I saw through the hollowness of the “sinner’s prayer” and the manipulation and inauthenticity of many so called Evangelists. I grew up in Pentecostalism where “manifestations of the spirit” were common, but I had a self-vow that I would never fake an experience like I saw many do around me. I remember one time when traveling with Inflame that an Evangelist lined up people in a line across the front of the stage who wanted a “blessing” from God and then one by one would punch people in the stomach so they received the “blessing.” I saw how ludicrous that was so when he got to me I just stepped aside and he missed. The lead singer of the band was right next to me and he got punched and then fell backwards. I later asked him if he fell because he felt the power of God and he said no. He fell because he didn’t want to embarrass the Evangelist who was doing the punching. I wondered how many others did that too. 3. How old were you when you had your first poor experience with the church? I don’t know if this was the first experience but it’s one that sticks out in my mind all the time. One big event for our youth group was the Youth Convention. It was a weekend of fun and worship somewhere in Minneapolis. All the churches of our denomination would participate. My younger sister invited one of her best friends to come. She wasn’t a Christian. At least not in the brand of Christianity we were converting people to. She was also dealing with anorexia and bulimia. On the first night of the convention the speaker was asking the crowd to give money to help missionaries. He began his pitch by saying he knew we all brought money so we could go eat somewhere that weekend, but challenged everyone to give up the money we would spend on a meal and fast instead. He said and I quote, “I know none of you are anorexic!” I don’t know what my sister’s friend thought, but at that moment I knew that in fact among the thousands in attendance there were probably hundreds of girls and boys dealing with an eating disorder and when they heard that they felt shamed and embarrassed. The God I knew would never make someone feel that way. The God I knew would never put money before personal pain. The God I knew wouldn’t advance his Kingdom through manipulation of the young and vulnerable." I asked Jason: Since your bad experience, did you grow in your relationship with God? Or fall away?
"I’ve had many more amazing experiences and many more terribly abusive experiences in church since leaving Inflame. Each experience positive and negative have helped me grow as a human being. I have more empathy, I can recognize abuse before I’m abused, and I can help others work through the abuse they’ve also received. “Did you grow in your relationship with God? Or fall away?” is a triggering question for me because I don’t believe that human metrics can measure our spiritual development. I don’t believe God measures our spiritual development. Just like our bodies, minds, and emotions all develop in different ways at different rates so does our spirit or consciousness. We confine spiritual growth into parameters like more “right” behavior and less “wrong” behavior, more/less prayer or bible reading, more/less church attendance, more/less involvement in church, more/less financial giving, more/less evangelism, etc. The more you look like a Christian the more spiritually mature you are perceived to be. The less you look like a Christian the less spiritually mature you are perceived to be. These metrics produce performance based faith, secrecy and shame. They rarely produce the greatest spiritual power, empathy." Knowing that many have decided what Jason believes about the church, I wanted to offer him a moment to set the story straight. What he says is simple, beautiful and good. I hope you find encouragement and comfort in this response.
"I believe that when the Bible says God is love, a better interpretation is God is empathy. The very act of empathy is God. When we limit our understanding of God as a noun we subconsciously understand God as something to own, something to be in possession of, something confined to a physical space, something one person could have and another couldn’t have. What happens when we try to understand God as a verb? Running as a concept is invisible until it is enacted. We know the word running because someone physically runs. We know verbs by their visible actions when they’re enacted. Enacted empathy is how we see God.
Timothy Keller writes “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.”
When we are known and fully loved we have experienced empathy. When we learn someone else completely and fully love them we enact empathy. It doesn’t take correct belief to do this. It doesn’t take theological prowess. It doesn’t take a preacher to preach it to you. It doesn’t take money. It doesn’t take more or less prayer. It doesn’t take worship music. It doesn’t take being a Christian. It is a universal language. It is the most powerful spiritual force available to mankind. Empathy can stop wars, empathy can feed the hungry, empathy can release the prisoner, empathy can set the captive free, empathy can give someone eternal life.
The Christian organization called church too often loves you but doesn’t invest in knowing you and so remains comforting but superficial or gets to know you but then chooses not to love you anymore, triggering our greatest fears we have about ourselves. This is equivalent to punching our spirit until it is bruised and blaming us for making them do it. It is spiritual abuse and the exact opposite of what we are wired for, to be fully known and truly loved. My question for you, is: can you relate to Jason? To me? What have you learned about your relationship with God without it being co-dependant on the church?