Abusive Churches: Houses of Mirrors

There’s a crazy mirror showing us both in 5-d
I’m laughing at you you’re laughing at me
There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark brother
It’s easy for two people to lose each other… 

Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love

With the demise of old-fashioned amusement parks, we are seeing the disappearance of Houses of Mirrors.  These “houses” were actually large rooms comprised of maze-like passage ways where the customer would walk, increasingly disoriented and set off-balance by the mirrors that surrounded them and functioned as the actual obstacles in the maze—distorted images that made it near impossible to be sure that what was seen was…real, and not a mere image.  The mirrors were of all shapes and sizes, but what they all had in common was that none of them had a completely flat surface, as any household mirror does.  They were convex, concave, bloated out and punched in, so that they did not yield a true reflection, but instead a distorted one.  Walking through a House of Mirrors, one might see himself reflected and distorted in the various mirrors, and the reflections ranged from comical to grotesque.  One mirror might portray its beholder, instead of his true, 6 ft. height, as a stunted 4 footer.  Another one might present the body’s frame as resembling an upside-down bowling-pin.  One (my personal favorite) would take a 210 lb. man and slim him down to what appeared to be a solid, lithe 175 lbs.  To add to the experience, one saw his or her companions’ images in the distortion of the misshapen mirrors.  Nothing, and no one, is actually what they appear to be in the House of Mirrors.

Once a person finally completed the journey through the attraction, upon stepping into the daylight the “real” world seemed a bit disorienting.  Are buildings truly flat, and solid?  Is the ground moving…there?!  It often took a couple of minutes to gain one’s bearings and return to the world of trustworthy, solid images.

I think there are many experiences in life that leave us feeling that we’ve spent time in a house of mirrors.  The military, college, an intense social experience where close relationships are formed in the forge of challenge, and perhaps danger—experiences like these can be disorienting, especially when we leave them behind and move on with our lives.  As a former paramedic, I am intimately familiar with the experience of sharing the challenges and danger of a particularly complex call with my partner and fellow rescuers.  It seems that the world flees from view during such intense, seemingly unreal minutes, leaving only the immediate threats to note and tasks to accomplish.  You share an intense bond with those who share in the call with you.  It was often very difficult to re-adjust to normal life after these calls.

There are other, darker mirrored mazes that people stumble out of into reality’s missed daylight and fresh air.  Abusive marriages and relationships, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual degradation, and all such intense, often dangerous conditions of life, leave us disoriented, dazed, and vulnerable—even though we’ve decided to leave them.

Folks who belong to abusive religious systems, whether in a church, a small group, or a parachurch organization, are living in houses of mirrors.  Reality is distorted, twisted into a confusing, off-balancing existence that, sadly, becomes normal for members.  In this spiritual maze of mirrors, leaders appear to possess more power and authority than the rest of the world would ever accord them.  They become giants, towering over those they control.  In every direction one turns, pastors and leaders are ever-looming, ever providing their own, personal, explanations of truth, and demands of loyalty and behavior.  There they are in every mirror, whichever way one turns—large, intimidating, and ever watchful.  There seems to be no escape.  Also, in every mirror the member sees herself in she is small, distorted, frail, weak and needy.  Every mirror, without exception.  For you see, the leaders are themselves the architects of these spiritual houses of mirrors.  And just as a house of mirrors is designed and constructed to be mildly difficult to “escape” from, these spiritual houses of mirrors were not constructed for the member to find it easy or comfortable to leave.  No, you must stumble out of them; sometimes knocking over a few emotional-spiritual mirrors on the way out, simply resolving that you will…keep…following…that brightness that has shone into your soul.  You pin all of your hopes on the hope itself that there is a true Light calling, but you must leave the artificial light of the House of Mirrors to live in that Light.  You are not as bold as your leaders’ think you are, in leaving the house they’ve built.  You may feel as spiritually dead as a stone, and may wonder if there is truly another world that even exists out there, and if that world will allow, welcome, embrace you back into its light.  But you are, finally, a person with nothing left to lose, and so you are able to take risks you might not have ventured just a short time ago.

I have found that when people leave the abusive church, they often remain in a state of disorientation and confusion regarding their faith, the church, the Bible, Jesus, God, prayer, marriage, children, careers, food, traditions…the list is very long, and growing, as I have the opportunity to interact with more people who escape abusive religious groups.  And like the guests of a house of mirrors who have stumbled out its back door—squinting at the sunlight, stretching out arms to steady themselves against buildings and poles, cautiously stepping out in a distinct uncertainty of the solidity of the ground beneath their feet—so those who leave the dark churches and groups that held them often remain in a state of spiritual funk and dizziness and uncertainty for a season of time.

They wonder if they’ve just wasted months, if not years of their lives.

By the grace of God, they haven’t.

They wonder if they can ever trust any church, or leader, again.

By the grace of God, they can.

They wonder if their marriages and families can ever, possibly, recover from the assault and trauma endured.

By the grace of God, they can heal.

They wonder if their lives will ever seem put together again, functional and healthy.

By the grace of God, life will come back together.

They wonder if up will every truly seem like up, and down truly seem like down, and if they can ever trust their ability to judge truth again.

Parents wonder if they will ever be able to effectively lead and protect their families again.

Children wonder if they can trust their parents, and if they will forever bear the stigma of belonging to a troubled church, not of their own choosing, but of their parents’ choice!

Again, by the grace of God, by the grace of God, by the grace of God…

All recovery flows from the grace of God, really.  Is it any wonder that it is the grace of God that is lacking in abusive churches and groups?  If you are in an abusive church or religious system today, ask Him to rescue you, and look for a small crack of Light from the back of the room, where an unseen Friend has left the door ajar for those who will to leave.  Keep your eyes on that Light, and step towards it, away from the mirrors and shadows.  It was sent just for you.

Reposted in celebration of 18 years of breathing free, fresh air, and walking as a son, not a slave.  Damn the mirrors.  KG