BEFORE READING: Please know that my intention in writing the blog below was not to shame anyone.  Quite honestly I wrote this blog immediately after watching the 20/20 program and it practically wrote itself — without any checks in my spirit.  After receiving one email from a friend concerned that I was doing the same thing that fundamentalist churches have done by shaming individuals, I have taken the specific names out in my story.  I understand that these individuals may have grown since that time long ago and might not say the same things.  I have no animosity toward them and was simply telling my story, but I never want to shame another person.  I do know that theology matters, in part because it impacts how we relate to others.  I am grateful that over the years God has changed my theology from being about rules and regulations to being about him.

“Sharon, you need to watch 20/20,” my mom’s voice was shaking in the message she left on my voicemail.  I called her back immediately and asked, “What’s going on?”

“They did a program on Independent Fundamental Baptists and they talked about some people I think you know.  Oh, Sharon, I’m so sorry we ever sent you kids to that place.”

I knew immediately my mom was talking about my alma mater, “that place” – Bob Jones University, and I quickly reassured her, “Mom, there were a lot of good things in my education and I’m over all of the bad.”  Even as I said it, I knew I was lying.

The program my mom called about wasn’t really about Bob Jones University, but it was about people I knew — people who had been my best comrades, confidants, and companions for many years.  The program was about a young woman by the name of Tina Anderson (see tinaandersonfoundation.org for more of her story) who was sexually assaulted by a man in her fundamental baptist church when she was 14-16 years old.  After Tina got pregnant as a result of the abuse, there was a frantic scramble to cover up the mess in the middle of this neat and tidy church.  She was required to go before the church for discipline and/or congregational support, depending on whose vocabulary you are most comfortable with.  The church was told by her pastor, Chuck Phelps, that she had engaged in an immoral relationship [Dr. Phelps still maintains Tina was in a "covert dating relationship" (see drchuckphelps.com).  The ignorance of this statement astounds me and the danger of such thinking is overwhelming!].  Tina stayed with Chuck and Linda Phelps while they decided what to do with her.  Tina reports that one of the most unsettling questions she was asked during this time was from Linda who asked her if she “enjoyed” having sex with the middle-aged member of their church.  The powers that be eventually decided that Tina would be sent to a “sister” church in Denver, Colorado to stay with a family (Clovis & Diane Landry) until she had her baby and then gave it up for adoption to a family in an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church.  The pastor who oversaw Tina’s Colorado stay and insured that this matter was “kept in the family” was Matt Olson.

Now all of these names probably don’t mean much to anyone reading this blog, but even as I write them today my heart is pounding.  After watching the program I was as shaky as my mother’s voice in her message to me, and I spent the rest of the night reading blogs on the Internet about the situation and remembering a time in my life when these same individuals were very much a part of my own shaking, breaking world.

During the 80′s and into the mid 90′s we were all membersof Tri-City Baptist Church.  All three of these couples were my best friends.  I walked with Linda almost every day while our children were in strollers or toddling beside us.  I participated in innumerable church activities with Diane Landry — both women’s and children’s ministries.  Matt and Diane Olson were my best friends.  We had babies at the same time, carpooled our children to the same Christian school (Faith Baptist School — the same school Tina Anderson attended after she’d had her baby with the condition that she never talk about being raped, getting pregnant, having a baby, and giving it up for adoption).

After watching the program about Tina’s trials, I couldn’t stop thinking about my own.  About three years before Tina was forced into a hiding place at Tri-City Baptist Church, I was forced out of hiding by a few members of this church who pretty harshly exposed my alcoholism.  For years I hid a growing dependence on alcohol in between faithful participation in a multitude of church functions.  I hid this terrible problem because I knew that it made me a terrible person, and I had learned well that any sin would completely disqualify me from everything — church membership, friendships, understanding, forgiveness, even heaven.  When my problem became public I was asked to confess before the church for discipline and/or support.  Before standing before the church I tried to sit down with our friends and explain how this had happened, to let them know that I was still the same person, to explain that I had been in counseling and recovery for over a year before I was exposed, and to tell them that I was starting to learn something different about God and his amazing grace for ragamuffins like me.  Some of the things I heard in response to my story came from the same players in Tina’s story:

*  My youth pastor’s wife said, “Oh, this is totally because of your Indian blood.  It’s too bad you have that.”
*  One woman told me, “You will never be in God’s will if you leave Tri-City Baptist Church.”
*  The president of a Christian college told me, “Maybe you should find another independent fundamental baptist church where you can continue to learn the truths of the Scriptures, but you sit in the back row and never say anything.”
*  One friend who had moved away did call me during that turbulent time and said, “I guess I never really knew you.”
*   During one intense conversation about my alcoholism one of my close friends held up a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning — a book that had told me the good, good news of The Gospel.  He threw the book across the room and said with disdain, “Now I know why this grace stuff is so important to you!”
*  One of the final things one friend said to me was that he knew he hadn’t handled the situation perfectly but that I was the only close friend he had who had struggled with sin, so he wasn’t sure what to do.

I decided not to stand before this group of people and ask for support. I left the church and never heard from a single comrade, confidant, or companion there until years later when a few individuals contacted me after reading my first book, Bravehearts.Although the common links between my story and Tina’s left me shaking, there are many differences.  I was fully responsible for my sin.  Tina was a child who did not have the capacity to sort out any of the terrifying realities she was in the midst of.  I had the capacity to leave and find my own resources of help and support.  Tina was at the mercy of many naive and arrogant adults who were all too willing to sacrifice Tina on their altar of hiding anything messy.

I haven’t thought about those chapters in my story for a long time.  I have forgiven those friends who didn’t know how to love me, but watching the program poignantly reminded me of my holier-than-thou heritage that taught me that Christians don’t struggle and if they do, they will be punished.  Even today when I know there is sin, woundedness, or confusion in my life my first survival instinct is to hide.  Even though I have experienced so much mercy and grace, my own tendency is to still join the voices of my past and shame myself to pieces.  I am most comfortable keeping the part of me that sins and struggles locked in the basement of my life.  I berate her.  I condemn her.  I hate her.  Legalism haunts me.

I hope that Tina Anderson finds the relief she is looking for now that her story is public.  Her story is different than mine, because crimes were committed that need to be addressed by the law.  But I have learned that we legalists have a strange relationship with the law.  We hate it when it exposes, shames, and condemns us.  We love it when it can put someone else in their place.  The law is never the answer to the deepest cries of our hearts.  I am learning that God allows the law in our lives only to bring us to the place that we cry out for mercy — for Jesus.  The law abandons us, so that we might discover a Father who protects.  The law berates and betrays us, so that we might find the Friend who sticks closer than a brother.
The law abandons us to condemnation, so that the Lover of our souls finds us to never forsake us.

I’m afraid I will always be tempted to hide when I sin and struggle, and I know that there will always be fearful friends who will use the law to judge and manage me.  But I am more confident today than ever that God uses the law and our lawlessness to make Himself known as Grace and to restore with his love what our stories take from us.

Last night after watching this story of legalism and literally shaking from my own memories of law and order, I found myself humming an old song that still ministers to my trembling heart:

Well, sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all
When the mountains look so big
And my faith just seems so small
So hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t you be my Prince of Peace
And I wake up in the night and feel the dark
It’s so hot inside my soul
I swear there must be blisters on my heart
So hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace
Surrender don’t come natural to me
I’d rather fight You for something I dont’ really want
Than to take what you give that I need
And I’ve beat my head against so many walls
Now I’m falling down, I’m falling on my knees
And this Salvation Army band is playing this hymn
And your grace rings out so deep
It makes my resistance seem so thin
I’m singing hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t you bee my Prince of Peace
(Rich Mullins, “Hold Me Jesus”)

For all of the legalists and recovering legalist out there, my prayer is that HE will be our glory and our peace.

“The impossiblity of carrying out such a moral program should make it plain that no one can sustain a relationship with God that way.  The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him.  Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you.” From Galatians 3, The Message.