With our ‘soft departure’ from the cult, knowing that the cult leader was still chasing us with phone calls, emails, and surprise encounters around the city we were wary of returning to a larger church community. First, because I had been told for the last few years just how wrong and sinful a place the larger church is and second, because now with the cult leader chasing after me telling people how horrible a person I was, I was afraid he might be right. In the end I had no idea how to act or what to say, which, in some respects ended up being a good thing.
It meant that whenever I was in an intimate group setting I tended to keep my mouth shut, opting just to listen to the discussion occurring around me. Sure, I was not without opinion, but somewhere in this journey out of the cult, I had opted to wait until asked my opinion, as opposed to just blurting it out as it seemed fit to do so. It wasn’t that I was more prone to share my opinion freely before but unlike now – before – ever word I uttered was under the microscope and intense scrutiny of the cult leader. And I adjusted accordingly.
This personal behavioral twist fascinates me to this day. Generally speaking, I consider myself a fairly opinionated person, willing to share a rant or reflection as the mood strikes, to whomever may be present – and all without bias, much to the chagrin of my wife. It is not my best quality to say the least but it is on this point that I am fascinated, for the contrasting behavior within the walls and conformity of the church strike me as a bit odd.
My religious journey in my youth was an isolating one and a lonely one. The crux of social interaction as it related to where I was religiously, occurring in my last year at that mountain top village high school, where I would spend many a lunch hour sitting around a table discussing dark religious themes. A reflection of the occultic practices that I found myself involved in at the time. Such social interaction as it related to my religious experiences was a rarity and like a new-comer to a social gathering, it was awkward and clumsy. Each of us preferred the pursuit of all things occultic from the safety of our own social isolation.
But this was not the case when I became a Christian. This transformation saw the fusing of my general personality – talkative, inquisitive, opinionated – with my religious experience, and somehow and somewhere there was an invitation to do so – to ask questions and to challenge experiences. Apparently God was big enough to handle all that I could throw at Him. And so I did. He answered back, of course, and in such the stage was set for me to become differentiated. My relationship with God has grown out of this place of honesty and it has been refreshing – my mountain top experiences, my humbling at the altar, my growing understanding of who God is and by contrast who I am not.
Consequently, this verbal freedom as I entered the church – allowing for my natural inclination to mix with my religious identity both served me well and served me bother. I would be praised for such wisdom and insight and chastised for sticking my foot in my mouth. Apparently my social freedom and religious freedom rattled a few cages along the way. As way of an example, there was a morning prayer group that I attended with my wife who was my girlfriend at the time. Another regular participant of that group was a man who, apparently by divine inspiration would suddenly pray the exact same prayer at the exact same time within that hour or so that we all met.
In this case, it wasn’t the sameness of the situation that bothered me but the religious – strike that – spiritual themes he passed himself off as when he did. This situation is like someone who rattles off some incomprehensible phrasing while speaking in “tongues” and after a moment’s pause of not hearing an interpretation proceeds to ‘interpret’ their own heavenly telegraph. Without causing a theological chasm with my words – the whole thing stunk and I was so naturally inclined to say so. Always have been and I suspect, always will be. And it has gotten me in many a trouble over the years.
As an example back in those early days of my own journey through Christianity when the church via the senior pastor made me an intern youth pastor – and then through my own crisis of belief I felt strongly that my youth and inexperience disqualified me from holding such a position so I attempted to resign – you know that story – but in that meeting I had made clear that not only should I hold such a position but that their insistence to keep me in such a position was perhaps related more to the attempt to establish the Christian school as a post-secondary offering as well, since I was taking courses through the church and headed by the pastor. The result of that interaction was me having to leave that church.
Even as we jump ahead in years and now my wife and I are attending the Baptist church where the cult leader was still just a pastor, but not for long as it turned out, I was still operating in this sense of openness and differentiation. I was comfortable with who I was and my daily exploration and journey to find out more about God and who He was. My opinions were shared openly and often in this environment, sometimes well received and other times a condescending hand was placed on my shoulder after a tongue-in-cheek rebuke from the senior elder who had gotten up to address the congregation right after I spoke to them.
None of that stopped me because there was nothing to stop. I asked good questions and stimulated the conversation. Yes, I was, and still am, opinionated, and that sometimes creates awkward social situations that I am working on as a sense of becoming a better person – translation, more tolerable for others to be around me – but the point was in all of these situations I was who I was. Up until I started with the cult. My ever word challenged, my every thought challenged. My motives challenged. My prayers challenged. I was systematically deconstructed by the cult leader and told what to think, how to think it, and then what to say when called upon.
That pisses me off, writing it down so succinctly. But that is how it was.
And so I began to change. I conformed for I longed for acceptance. I wanted to have connection but so often I was branded as being rebellious. I longed to develop my spirituality – to draw closer to God, to process my loss and grief and to find healing from past trauma but I was rebellious. I was rebellious in my thinking and in my being. I needed to be retaught so much. And so I complied and learned to shut up. I learned to respond appropriately, to use the right language in the right way at the right time.
No longer was I opinionated. No longer did I question things. I just complied. That is, until the cult leader continued his aggressive assault on our every decision. And in the midst of that journey, because my wife and I had kept our grief away from him – instead processing it together and through our many drives – that his oppression finally began to feel like oppression. That this cult finally began to feel like a cult – although we wouldn’t use that word for years yet. And in the midst of our grieving, and the journey to healing we began to find our language once again and say no to his antics and no to his methodologies. And so, we walked away.
But, something has lingered all these years later. A behavioural modification has been made – perhaps permanently – for right or for wrong – stamped upon my id. And now, in the context of this story, my journey back into the larger church community also meant a different way of being in that church community.