My Story of Spiritual Abuse -Updated

Eric Starkey Web

This post had been deleted from my blog for a few years. I have reposted this story to my blog because to “delete” this experience, is to deny who I am -and who I have become. This experience has profoundly shaped who I am and will affect me for the rest of my life. I do not say this with the mindset of a victim, but rather as a survivor who is a few years down the road of recovery.

Before I repost my story, here are a few bullet point thoughts I wanted to share:

I deleted this post because I was trying to divorce myself from my past.  I wanted to fully heal and I did not want others to judge me based on this experience or my response to it. Honestly, I did not want to be seen as a trouble maker and just wanted to put “distance” between myself and this season of my life.

While I strongly disagree with the theology and practices of this pastor and church, I forgive them. I am not bitter. I would be willing to discuss these issues with anyone from this church, including the pastor. I am at a point where I have recovered personally and am wanting to draw attention to the larger problem.

There are churches like this all over the country.  Some very large and very successful. While “my story” is personal to me, my disagreement with spiritual abuse and the twisted theology that supports it spans across multiple churches, denominations and even religions.

-Some people want to be a part of churches where spiritual abuse is openly practiced. While I do not completely understand this phenomena, I must accept that reality.  This is why spiritually abusive churches survive, and many even thrive.

-My wife and I have been away from this type of church for approximately seven years and our lives have not fallen apart. As a matter of fact while the road has been rocky at times, we have thrived since “leaving the covering” of our spiritually abusive pastor.  We openly disagreed with this abusive pastor and we are still here.  In other words, lightning did not strike us.

The pastor who I am speaking of in this post has never agreed to meet with me face to face to discuss my accusations against him. In fact, at the very end of our communication he actively dodged meeting with me.  The fact of the matter is if he would have responded to me as Jesus commanded, I would have never written the original blog post. We were very close friends for over 10 years, he was the best man at my wedding, I was one of his right hand men in ministry for over six years –and yet he never felt the need for us to engage in reconciliation.  However, I must admit that there is not much for us to say to each other at this point.  Our differences are rooted in our theology.  In short, we have very different opinions of what God looks like.  I believe God looks like and interacts with us like Jesus did in the gospels.  His views are a bit different.  This is a theological conversation / argument that has been raging since Jesus walked this Earth.  It is very highly unlikely that the two of us could settle it.  Years ago, my naivety gave me hope that somehow we could magically reconcile. Reality and a few more years of earned wisdom have dispelled my child-like naivety. Since then, I have focused my efforts on rebuilding my church life with those in which I am in theological agreement with.

I reported the spiritual abuse to the group of pastors who oversees the abusive pastor.  I supplied them with email documentation that clearly demonstrated the abuse and with references of other pastors who I was in relationship with.  They never spoke with me,  they never spoke with the pastors that I gave as references and they issued a letter basically telling me to “Shut up.”  In return, I washed my hands of the situation and voluntarily surrendered my ordination.  Spiritually abusive pastors will tell you, SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY!  However, I respectfully ask “What are we supposed to do when those in authority are a part of the problem? -or cover the problem up?”  Most, if not all, of the good revolutions and good reformations that have taken place would not have happened if we had blindly followed the advice of abusive leaders who stood in the way of positive godly change.

Below is the original version of my story posted four years ago. I updated a few details. However, the content remains the same and I stand by it. –This is my story:

My Experience with Spiritual Abuse  -originally posted 8/2012

Spiritual Abuse


Hello, my name is Eric and I was a victim of spiritual abuse.

Writing this post is one of final steps that I am taking towards the completion of my healing in this long and painful journey. The abuse started when I was approximately twenty years old.  I did not fully understand that I had been spiritually abused until recently -in the past 12 to 24 months.  I am thirty-five years old now and I have decided to openly share my story.

To begin to understand what spiritual abuse is and how it affects a person, we must first define it.  The following definition and description came from Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_abuse

Spiritual abuse is a serious form of abuse which occurs when a person in religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of God or church or in the mystery of any spiritual concept. Spiritual abuse often refers to an abuser using spiritual or religious rank in taking advantage of the victim’s spirituality (mentality and passion on spiritual matters) by putting the victim in a state of unquestioning obedience to an abusive authority.

Spiritual abuse is the maltreatment of a person in the name of God, faith, religion, or church, whether habitual or not, and includes any of the following:

-Psychological and emotional abuse

-Any act by deeds or words that demean, humiliate or shame the natural worth and dignity of a person as a human being

-Submission to spiritual authority without any right to disagree; intimidation

-Unreasonable control of a person’s basic right to make a choice on spiritual matters

-False accusation and repeated criticism by negatively labeling a person as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or God

-Prevention from practicing faith

-Isolation or separation from family and friends due to religious affiliation

-Exclusivity; dismissal of an outsider’s criticism and labeling an outsider as of the devil

-Withholding information and giving of information only to a selected few

-Conformity to a dangerous or unnatural religious view and practice

-Hostility that includes shunning, (relational aggression, parental alienation) and persecution

Despite the comparative frequency of spiritual abuse, those types of behavior and actions which are today classified as spiritual abuse can be seen to be prohibited in the major texts and scriptures of numerous religious traditions. Indeed, in the Christian Bible, spiritually abusive behavior is condemned as being one of the worst forms of sin due to its capacity to diminish or even to destroy an individual’s relationship with God.

As I think back on my relationship with the pastor who abused me, I can remember what should have been one of the first “red flags”.  I was 19 years old and the pastor was around 25.  I had just surrendered to my calling into the ministry in the church that he was pastoring.  We were having a conversation regarding someone who he considered to be “a problem church member” that was not submitting to his authority. It was one of his extended family members, this made the situation even more difficult for him to handle.  I remember him telling me, “Paul should respect me; Paul should honor me!  I am the pastor!  When I tell Paul to jump; he should just ask me, ‘How high?’” Paul was a retired man in his early seventies; the young pastor was in his mid-twenties.

When I began to follow the pastor who abused me, I would have bet my life that something like this would NEVER happen to me.  I have always had a strong and independent personality and I was convinced that this pastor was a sincere man who really loved God.  I still believe that, in his mind, he still loves God and people. -In a way, he too is a victim of his own spiritual abuse.  I was a faithful follower for well over ten years.  During that time he was the primary influence in my life.  Furthermore, I believe that since he took me under his wing at such a young and vulnerable age, I was impacted by the spiritual abuse in a more profound way.  

For much of my time under him, I hung on every word that he said. In a lot of ways he began to control my life.  For most of those years I was on staff at a church we had planted and had the “honor” of being considered one of his closest confidants.  The fact that I got so close to him is what finally allowed me to eventually realize that he was spiritually abusing me, and others.  Over time, I began to have trouble reconciling his behavior with what he was preaching and teaching from the pulpit.  His sermons sounded so good…  and so right, but what I observed from the fruits of his life began to contradict his sermons.  Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.”  Keep in mind, drawing a large crowd and growing a large church was not the good fruit Jesus was talking about.  There have been many, many people throughout human history who were talented enough to draw large crowds, but whose lives were not producing the fruits that Jesus spoke of.  

The contrast between his actions and the entirety of the teachings of Christ is what finally brought me to the point of understanding what was actually happening.  I must admit that it was a very long and confusing process.  I can still listen to his sermons to this day and be tempted to think that everything is “just in my head.”  This is just part of the deception of “spiritual abuse.”   I have wrestled with writing this blog post for some time; the deception that surrounds everyone involved in a situation like this is what finally motivated me to complete this post and make it public.

It is very embarrassing to admit this, but my mind really got messed up while I was under this man’s influence.  I remember really wanting to leave the church multiple times but slipping deeper and deeper into it all at the same time.  By the time I was in my late twenties, I began to question this man to his face in private meetings regarding the decisions he was making. Reasonable questions mainly regarding the diversification of church government and the simple fact that I wanted to leave the church.  Every time I would question him the conversations would get more intense. We could never agree to disagree; he was adamant that I always see it his way and conform to his way of thinking.  And He would make me feel like I was going against God when I questioned him.  I loved God with all my heart and the last thing I wanted to do was rebel against Him, so I would end up cowering to the abusive pastor every time.  

In the last few years that I was under him, there were many times when I was in emotional agony; there are simply no other words to describe how I felt.  I would go for long walks trying to sort things out.  I would lie in bed at night and wrestle with why things were the way they were.  I would work very long hours at the church attempting to prove my loyalty to my pastor and God.  I guess deep down, I was still attempting to seek acceptance from him.  I was looking for a “pat on the back.”  I needed a “pat on the back” from him.  It all sounds so “sick” now as I think back on those days.

I tried to leave the church many times, but he always was able to talk me out of it.  I had been on part-time staff working full time hours.  Between the church and my full time secular job I was working well over 80 hours per week some weeks.  I almost always worked 60+ hours every week. I remember just wanting out. By that time, I had a career outside of the church but somehow he was able to keep me in the flock.  I never understood how he managed that until I learned about what spiritual abuse is and how it affects the abused person.

Finally in 2005 after a major building project, I was completely burnt out.  I had run myself down so much physically that I was literally physically sick.  I remember staying sick for well over a month.  I approached the pastor and explained that I could not keep working the schedule that I had been working.  I still remember the meeting; he was so emotionless and cold as I described my condition.  He agreed to “allow me” to back off.  By this time I was not a stupid kid anymore; I knew that if I took my hands off of all the things in the church that I had been doing that it would begin to unravel.  So, I did. After just a few months things were beginning to unravel and he was forced to put me on staff full-time.  Well, he got my wife and I both full-time at the full-time pay for one person -without any benefits or health insurance.  I left a promising and successful secular career to become full-time at this church.  Why? I think that decision illustrates what spiritual abuse can do to a person’s decision making abilities.  Looking back on it now I think, WHAT WAS I THINKING!?!  –But at the time, it seemed to make perfect sense.  I thought becoming full-time at the church would solve all of the problems.  And the sick fact was that I did desire to be closer to the person who was abusing me.  Plus, there was the glamor of being in full-time ministry, right? Somehow in my warped mind, my wife and I becoming full-time at the church made perfect sense, so I quit my secular job.

Within a few months it was obvious that I made an awful decision.  After we became full-time, he thought he owned us!  The abyss between what he said from behind the pulpit and what I observed by watching him became simply un- reconcilable.  During this time, I began to lose respect for him. BUT, my mind was still warped.  I did not understand what spiritual abuse was and I was not aware of the dynamics that were happening inside the church and inside my own mind.  I was hurt, confused and in emotional turmoil.  But, I still felt a need to submit to him, to honor him, to be loyal to him and most importantly to protect and defend him.  –Even though I was beginning to lose respect for him.  Yes, I was a mess!

The breaking point was in a meeting in late of 2005.  My wife and I (and others) had worked our backsides off preparing for a harvest festival that was to be held at the church.  We had literally worked 70 to 80 hour weeks in the few weeks leading up to the festival.  It was a BIG production that required a lot of work.  In addition, the board members of the church had decided to hold a pastor’s appreciation dinner to honor the pastor on the prior Sunday.  The other associate pastor and I coached the board members through putting the dinner together.  All in all, my wife and I thought the dinner went well. The following Monday the pastor held a meeting with the other associate pastor and I. He verbally wore us out.  I cannot remember all of the specifics of the meeting.  I remember him saying that he wished we would have just given “him” a check for the money that was spent on the pastor’s appreciation dinner rather than having the dinner.  He also said that he felt “dishonored” by the dinner.  In addition, he scolded the other pastor and me for our work habits even though we were both working over forty hours per week.  Even my emotionally warped mind knew something was terribly wrong with this unhealthy church environment.  I had never been treated so poorly by a supervisor, much less my pastor.  I went home that day and told my wife we were leaving.  From that day forward I began to plot our way out.

I knew when the pastor found out that we were leaving that he would do whatever he could to stop us.  I also knew that when he realized that he was not able to stop us that he would do his best to cut us off from our church family and He did.  There were meetings held behind our backs.  He told the staff and the church board that he knew we were going to fail on our next ministry endeavor.  The night that it was announced to the church that we were leaving, we were not even allowed to be in the room.  STILL, my mind was warped; I did not fully understand what was going on. He did everything he needed to do to make our departure look “OK” publicly, but what happened in private was a different story.   I went along with everything and never uttered a single negative word against him to anyone in the church.  I “honored” him throughout the entire process.

This man who had called himself one of my best friends, and “my spiritual father” quickly kicked us to the curb.  When he found out that we wanted to plant another church, he gave me six weeks to get out.  As a matter of fact, I was vacated out of my office within a few weeks and forced to use the sound booth in the youth building for an office the last month I was on staff.  He would have kicked us out sooner, but he needed us to wrap some things up and train others to do what we were doing. We also had a big Easter drama planned and I was the only one who knew how to operate all of the sound and video equipment.  Keep in mind that I had faithfully served him for over six years in the current church working full time hours at very part time pay for over five of those years.  None of that mattered; I was no longer useful to him.  On my last day in the office, he did not even get up from behind his desk when I left. No embrace, no handshake, absolutely nothing but coldness. Even after everything that had happened, I was still absolutely stunned and deeply hurt. –But still making excuses for him.

Our way out of the abusive situation was church planting.  We moved 725 miles away to plant a church in Terre Haute, Indiana.  Moving away was the best decision we could have ever made. We decided to move because I did not want to plant a church locally.  I knew it would be a mess if I did.  I also just wanted to get away from the situation; there was so much hurt and confusion.  Keep in mind even at this point, I still honored this man.  I still defended this man.  In the year after we moved to Indiana, people from my former church would call me and complain to me about the things he was doing and I would STILL defend this pastor.  I would still make excuses for him.  The reason why I would never publicly address the situation or acknowledge the problems were because I still believed that God was using him and directing him.  I did not want to have a rebellious spirit.   I was also still praying and hoping that he would see his errors and repent.  I truly believed that he eventually would.

How did I come to the realization that I had been spiritually abused?  That’s a good question.  When we left the abusive situation, we had no idea we were being spiritually abused.  In fact, we did not even know what spiritual abuse was.  I guess back then, if someone would have asked me what spiritual abuse was, I would have thought it happened only in extreme cult cases like David Koresh or Jim Jones. Obviously our situation was not nearly as extreme.  I would have never connected myself to spiritual abuse.  I was too smart and too strong to be a victim of something like that.  Yeah, right…  My first clue was a conversation that I had with the pastor of the church in Indiana that “mothered” our new church plant.  I remember telling him in a conversation that he was my “new “pastor and therefore I was submitting my ministry and church plant to him.  (Not submitting to the church, but to him personally.) I remember the look on his face after I said that.  He had a puzzled look and did not quite know what to say.  We moved on to other conversation, but I remember that awkward moment; it stuck in my head for some time.

As with all of us who follow Jesus, I was not perfect either and God was leading me through a process to break my pride and arrogance and to bring me to a place of deeper surrender to Him.  He used my church planting experience to break me down and to deliver me from my arrogance and pride.  In the midst of that process, I began to build relationships with other pastors at God’s direction.  I began attending a weekly pastors’ prayer group, having lunch with other pastors and attending and then working in spiritual retreats called “Emmaus Walks.”  The more I got around more experienced and healthy pastors, the more I began to realize that things “weren’t right” in me and in my past.  I began to address these things as God brought them up in my spirit.  

During this season of my life, I wanted nothing more than to completely surrender my life and ministry to God.  As I began to deal with my own spiritual “unhealthiness,” it became apparent to me that I had learned these behaviors from my former pastor.  After all, he had started “mentoring” me when I was 18 and he had declared himself my “spiritual father.”  I addressed him on a few different occasions; once by phone and another time by letter.  My hopes were for repentance (on both sides) and complete restoration; the results of my attempts were completely the opposite.  My attempts at communication were private; his responses were made publicly from behind his bully pulpit.

Through this process I realized that I still had an unhealthy emotional connection with this man.  After everything that had happened, I still yearned for the relationship to be reconciled.  I realized that my emotions and my spirit had been damaged by this unhealthy relationship and church experience.  I did not know what to call it, but I knew something was not right in me.  It only took about thirty minutes of research one evening to learn the name of what had happened to my wife and me, “spiritual abuse.”  

At that point I began to stop making excuses for my former pastor and I began to look at the reality of the situation. That process did not happen overnight. It probably took me a full year to completely come to terms with the fact that we had been spiritually abused.  The reality is that we were taken advantage of.  Our love for God and His people was exploited by a selfish incomplete man who manipulates people to get what he wants.  He does not truly love the sheep; he uses the sheep.  He may say he loves them; he may even think that he loves them, but his actions prove different.  Love is not proven by words; it is demonstrated in actions –as Jesus did on the cross.

Our former pastor took advantage of two young kids who loved God and him very much.  The problem was that our relationship with God grew to the point where we were able to begin to see what he was doing, to us and many others.  When we became a threat, he had to dispose of us as quickly as possible.  –After the first time I seriously questioned him in a specific but very respectful way without backing down, (on the phone from Indiana) he never made a single attempt to communicate with me again. I was focused on restoration and he was worried about disposing of us as quickly as possible.  I was still defending him and he had already started assassinating my character to protect his.

Obviously, I have had to work though un-forgiveness and bitterness with this situation.  I must confess that I experienced a season of deep bitterness.  When I realized the full reality of what had happened, I was very bitter.  I felt like the bitterness was eating me up on the inside.  I have never had cancer before, but bitterness has to be something close to it, an emotional cancer eating away at your heart.   I knew it was wrong to feel that way; I knew it was sin, but the bitterness was there anyway and I had to deal with it.  Thankfully, God, in His sovereign grace, had surrounded me with a wonderful wife & kids and new friends in Indiana who really did love me.  God used those wonderful people in conjunction with a Christian counselor to help me work through the bitterness.  I will not say it was easy, but we got through it.  And I am soooooooo thankful.  It feels so good to be healed and free; words simply cannot express how good it feels.

Our lives have changed so much over the past five years; if you have read prior entries in my blog I think it is obvious. We are almost completely different people.  Here is a quick summary:

  • We have become spiritually healthy; we have never been closer to God.
  • We have become emotionally healthy; we have learned much better boundaries in our relationships.
  • We have become physically healthy; I have lost over 100 pounds and Amy has lost over 50 pounds.
  • Our marriage and family life has never been healthier.
  • We have become financially healthy; long story, but just trust me!
  • We are free to be who God created us to be; we no longer strive to conform to what people want us to be.
  • We are enjoying fruitful ministry, on God’s terms as He leads and we love it!
  • We are doing things that we never dreamed we would do!!! -I recently started an itinerate preaching and teaching ministry that is going very well and Amy is back in school working towards becoming a Physician’s Assistant. (Amy eventually felt prompted to return to teaching school in 2014 -after completing her pre-med classes with a 3.42 GPA.  I also completed my bachelors degree in 2014.)  *Education was not encouraged by our former pastor and church. -I wonder why???

So if everything is going great for us and we are no longer bitter, why write this blog post?

One of the primary characteristics of spiritual abuse is the fact that few people openly talk about it.  It is NOT a sin to talk about it.  It is NOT a sin to expose it.   It is NOT a sin to refuse to be abused.  It is NOT a sin to stand up for yourself.  The spiritual abuser is the perpetrator; not the person who is being abused.

I wrote this post because I wanted those of you who are struggling with this type of abuse to know that you are not alone.  My wife and I struggled with this, for so long.  We did not have anyone to talk to, for so long.  We thought we were the problem, for so long. We cowered in fear, shame and confusion, for so long. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

The complication and confusion associated with this type of abuse is simply amazing.  As I said earlier, I can still listen to some (not all) of this man’s sermons and doubt that the abuse ever took place.  He is such a gifted preacher and he sincerely means what he is saying in regards to loving God and loving people.  However, there most definitely is a disconnect between his sermons and some of his actions. If you look closely, his ministry is littered with the broken relationships to prove it.

As my wife says, “Lies are still lies no matter how loudly they are being shouted from a bully pulpit and no matter how many people in the audience believe them.”  You are not alone and there are godly loving pastors and godly loving churches out there that will love you and minister to you in the way that Jesus instructed. They may not present you with a dog and pony show every Sunday morning, but they will love you and minister to you. If you are one who has been spiritually abused, is being spiritually abused or is at risk of being spiritually abused, my prayer is that you would realize just how much God loves you.  He loved you so much that he sent His Son to die in your place on the cross.  And, the God who loves YOU that much does not want you to be taken advantage of or spiritually abused by anyone.  Spiritual abuse is not God’s will for your life!

What Does a Healthy Church Look Like?

oaktree

Some time ago, I received a question via private Facebook message that made me stop and ponder.  The person said something like, “I think I might be in an unhealthy church environment right now.  But before I leave, how am I supposed to know what a ‘healthy’ church looks like?”  I answered her question the best I could at the time.  However, I still found myself pondering that important question.  I even threw it out at our local pastor’s prayer group.  I dare say that their response was very similar to my own.  As I was, they were caught a bit off guard by such a simple but direct question.

I think the hesitance of a seasoned pastor to quickly answer this question is caused by the need to reflect on past experiences and current situations.  As we reflect and evaluate, we find ourselves asking more questions like: What is the Biblical definition of a healthy church?  What does “healthy” look like? And probably the most important question for each of us, “Is my church healthy?”

I will be the very first to say that I certainly do not have all the answers.  However, I am willing to ask the hard questions and I am willing to wrestle with answering them.  I think there is definite value in the wrestling and reflecting.  So… in my wrestling and reflecting this is what I have come up with so far.  I have tried to keep my thoughts as simple and concise as possible.

Here are my reflections on what a healthy church looks like:

  • A healthy church is centered around authentic relationships that have real depth. These relationships extend beyond Sunday mornings.  Authentic relationships require time, trust, love, communication and grace.
  • A healthy church practices discipleship and realizes that discipleship is much more than a sermon, class, or a program. Authentic discipleship requires authentic relationships.  I like to say, real discipleship happens when “life rubs up against life.”  This is how Jesus did discipleship.
  • A healthy church experiences organic evangelism.  Organic evangelism happens because the Christians who make up the church are maturing and are naturally reaching out to those around them.  This is not because of a top notch evangelism campaign or a flashy church sign, it is simply natural.  Keep in mind, this growth does not need to be explosive -and it is probably better if it is not.  Some of the best church growth is… s-l-o-w.  That large oak tree in your back yard did not get there over night, -but the weeds around it may have.  Think about that.
  • A healthy church has a plurality of New Testament leadership.  Call them elders, deacons, or just “the leadership team.”  The label that is used does not matter.  What matters is: there is more than one or two of them, they are clearly biblically qualified, are gifted to be elders, take the role very seriously, are in authentic relationship with each other and are accountable to each other.  BTW, you cannot be accountable to someone you are not in authentic transparent relationship with.
  • A healthy church is diverse.  Diverse in its people. Diverse in age.  Diverse in opinions.  Diverse in experience. Diverse in it’s creativity.  And diverse in the expressions of the people who form the church.  God made us all different; if he wanted us all to be the same, he would have made us robots.  I believe a healthy church celebrates the diversity of its people rather than forcing everyone to be the same.
  • A healthy church is governed by Grace AND Truth.  If all we focus on is the grace of God, then “anything goes” and our sin nature reigns. If all we focus on is the law and rules, we become legalistic pharisees who are constantly casting stones at each other. I have seen both extremes and neither one is healthy or God honoring.  However, if we allow the Holy Spirit to govern us by grace AND truth a beautiful thing happens.  -We begin to be transformed into who God created us to be. The theological termed used to describe this process is called “sanctification.”  Sanctification naturally happens in healthy churches as well as healthy people.
  • And obviously, a healthy church is a group of people who are in relationship with God.  Meaning than that prayer, the Word and worship are practical parts of their everyday lives and continuously steer them along the journey of following Jesus.

 

What does “Real Freedom” look like?

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“You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  -Jesus

While Jesus has never let me down on this “journey to freedom,” He has led me down some unplanned paths over mountains, through valleys and across rivers that I thought were absolutely impassable. And so, I have discovered this elusive thing called “freedom” to a greater extent -in the most unexpected places.  I am often pleasantly surprised when I catch a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the hill I have been climbing.  You think you are “free,” and then He takes you to that new place that He has never shown you because you were not ready to see it yet.  -Before “that moment,” you could not yet handle the experience and you did not have the capacity to truly appreciate it.  Just a few years before you would have sped over the crest of that hilltop -not fully appreciating the view and perspective He wanted you to see at that beautiful summit.

But now, you stop at the top of the hill and you inhale a deep breath. You take in God’s wonderful scenery and you appreciate the majesty of it all.  You savor all of the new insights that you gain from that view. -And then, from this view you are reminded that there are countless others who are struggling down their own paths to freedom and you feel a great sense of responsibility to help them.  So it is with the Kingdom of God.

So what does true freedom look like? Freedom from child abuse, alcohol & drug abuse, spousal abuse, divorce, obesity, a traumatic health event, a soured romantic relationship, sexual abuse, dysfunctional family relationships, spiritual abuse, abandonment… and I know I have to be leaving dozens of others off this list.  Freedom has many perspectives; it all depends on the chains that are binding us…

All of these wounding agents have at least two commonalities that link every single one of us together. -Regardless of where our place is in society, we all get wounded and we all need healing.  The “sickness of sin” has infected us all.  We all need freedom.

So what does freedom look like???  Well, I can tell you this: it is NOT a magic pill, a magic prayer to Jesus or a single session with a counselor, therapist or even your pastor.  IT’S JUST NOT THAT! And if someone tells you that, even with a well-meaning heart, they are simply wrong. Freedom is not found in those places. -At least not in those places alone.

To my wife and I, freedom has been a process. Though at times I desperately searched for the fast forward button to speed up that process, it simply was not there.  Real freedom is a godly phenomenon that takes place over time. Freedom has been a process of time and relationships for us.  And when I say relationships, I mean with common everyday people that God put in our lives. Some relationships are very short lived, -and some are long.  But regardless, as we follow Jesus on this search for freedom, He will lead us down paths that intersect with just the right people.  And sometimes we have no clue what is actually happening. -While we are busy focusing on the ordinary, the Spirit of God is working on the extraordinary the entire time.  You see, God knows that we need each other.

Then… that moment comes when we realize that we are indeed becoming more -and more free… We find ourselves experiencing a level of freedom that we never even knew existed.  We smile, a few tears roll down our checks and we think to ourselves, “This must be what ‘Real Freedom’ looks like.”

Why Should I Forgive?

Forgiveness is much more about YOU -than whoever hurt you.

The act of forgiveness releases us from the wounding agent. I have witnessed countless people refuse to forgive. In turn, I have watched those same people repeatedly tear their own wounds open, time and again.  Forgiveness releases us from the wounding agent and allows the healing process to begin and continue. It is the well medicated bandage that is placed on a wound that has been properly cleaned and dressed.

Forgiveness is also the antidote for the infection of bitterness. I have witnessed bitterness eat people up like a vicious emotional and spiritual infection, causing even more damage than the initial wound. We have all heard stories where a person would get a small cut on a finger or toe and not treat it properly. Then infection set in. As a result, death and decay set in. The tissue around the “small” wound begins to rot away. If the infection is never properly addressed and treated, limb or life can be lost. Forgiveness is the much needed antiseptic treatment for deeply infected emotional wounds. While unthinkable to some victims, forgiveness is the ONLY way the pain will ever begin to subside.

In addition, forgiveness protects relationships. Some of the most miserable people I have met are bitter people who refuse to forgive. They become hard, calloused and simply difficult to be around. While they remain steadfast in the reasoning that justifies their bitterness, the fruit that it bears makes it very difficult for them to actively participate in healthy relationships. No one wants to be around them. Bitterness hinders and corrupts healthy relationships.

Forgiveness is NOT simply giving the offender a “pass” on their misbehavior and looking the other way. Forgiveness is God’s blueprint for enabling us to heal and begin the path towards emotional, spiritual and even physical health and happiness.  This is exactly why Jesus responded “seventy times seven,” when he was asked how often we should be willing to forgive each other.

Healthy living is impossible without forgiveness.

What Some Christians Have in Common with the Ancient Greeks and Trojans

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Am I writing a blog post that compares modern day christians to the pagan Greeks and Trojans who worshiped false mythological gods?  Why yes, I sure am.

Last night, my wife and I watched the movie “Troy” for the fist time.   For various reasons, we are not typically drawn to movies like this, but due to boredom, sleeplessness and curiosity we decided to watch it.  I found it intriguing when I noticed a few similarities between some of today’s christians and the ancient Greeks and Trojans -as portrayed in the movie.  Here is what I observed:

-Buildings, statues and other objects were held in very high regard and often worshiped as the gods themselves.

-There was no concept of “personal relationship” with the pagan gods; therefore determining the “god’s will” was simply a guess made by the priests, often with catastrophic consequences.

-The rulers used the gods to manipulate the armies and people in order to get what they wanted; more power, treasure and territory.

-When something bad happened because of the leader’s own stupidity, selfishness or poor leadership abilities, it was explained by saying, “It was the will of the gods.”

-Terrible things occurred, -and was justified in the gods’ name.

I am sure I am missing a few other similarities.  I was not actively looking for them while watching the movie. These are just the glaring ones that I remember as I reflect for a few moments.

If this post unsettles you a bit, good.  Maybe it will cause you to think about how people in today’s culture view Christians.  Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  This means that His Kingdom looks nothing like our pagan worldly kingdoms.  If what we sometimes call “God’s Kingdom” can be so easily compared to “pagan kingdoms,” perhaps we need to stop, reflect and ask God to search our hearts in order to make a few adjustments.  -After all, we are called to be DIFFERENT.

As always, I would love to hear your comments.

Why I Decided “Not” to Leave the Church

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OK… I am late, I know. I said I would get this post up the first of this week and now it is Thursday. If I was one of those “professional bloggers” who lived in their parents basement perhaps I could be more timely. But fortunately, I have a family, a job and I am involved in the local Church. (insert smiling face here) So right now, I have three or more blog posts rolling around in my head that I would just love to get hammered out and posted.

I know I made a few friends nervous with my previous post: http://ericstarkey.org/2013/04/04/why-i-almost-left-the-church/ Frankly, I wanted to. I think it is very healthy to stop and take a long hard look in front of the mirror every now and then. James, Jesus’ half brother, said something about that in the scripture that he penned. With that being said, I did not leave the Church. I stayed and I think it is appropriate to take time to write a post in order to share why:

  • The Church is Jesus’ Bride. No matter how upset and aggravated that I might get with what is happening in the church, if I am not a part of the Church, I am not a part of the Bride of Christ. I could never leave the Church, because I could never leave Jesus. Scripture is very clear in how this relationship is designed to work.
  • Loving our neighbors is a “biggie” in Jesus’ book, like a very very close second to loving God. Obviously, “my neighbors” include those in the Church. There are a few things I have learned about loving: You cannot love without “knowing.” You cannot love from “a distance.” -And love is often a little messy and very aggravating. I believe that God uses the Church to teach us how to love each other.
  • There would be a big hole in my life without the Church. God designed us for relationship. And just not for relationship with Him, but relationships with each other as well. We are incomplete without each other. God intended it to be that way. You need me and I need you.
  • God “called” me to serve the Church. I was eighteen years old, just beginning college as a physics major and minding my own business. Amy and I had our whole lives planned out with very little thought given to God or the Church, –and then God interrupted everything. “He” called us to Himself -and then “He” called us to serve the Church. I have been confused and doubted many things in my life and ministry, but I have never doubted my calling. It was just to obvious.
  • Divorce never really was an option. Amy and I married young. We knew the stats; we knew the chances of our marriage lasting. We counted the costs and made a commitment to each other. That was seventeen years ago and we have never looked back. It is not that there are not times where we drive each other crazy. It is not that we are the perfect married couple with three perfect children. It is not that God waved His magic wand fixed everything in our marriage and family. It is just that we both made a decision that “divorce is not an option.” And much grace, love, forgiveness and blessing have flowed from that decision, even in the worst of times. I guess my relationship with the Church is very similar. Sometimes She drive drives me absolutely nuts! I am often literally “fit to be tied” and left speechless. In my frustration, I experience the full range of emotions but in the end, I love Her. And my love for Her and the Bridegroom cause me to never seriously consider a divorce.

So… if you are one of those church people who reads my blog and snickers, you are just stuck with me. I love you and I am not going anywhere, so please just love me back. I am reformer. I am passionate. And yes, sometimes I have a big mouth. Please know that my motives are based in love -or at least I try very hard to make sure of that. Until someone can sit me down and explain to me why I am wrong -based on scripture, I will continue to use my voice to call for reforms in the Church.

Just call me a little “Chihuahua” in the Kingdom. I may not have the physique of a rottweiler and I may not have that much influence. I might be small but I am very passionate. I love God and the Church to much to stop barking. To those who hear me and are willing to listen, I will continue to speak loudly and boldly. If I was going to quit, I would have already done it. I’m staying in the game; I am not going anywhere. -See ya out on the field!

Why I Almost… left the Church

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I almost left the church, the “established” church that is….  And sometimes, I still feel like leaving the church.  There, I said it.  Yes, Eric Starkey: husband, father, devout Christian and maybe most relevant to this post, “pastor” has seriously considered leaving the church, or at least “the church” as we know it.

Why???

I guess the answers to that question are both simple and complicated.  I am hesitant to publicly share many of my thoughts on this subject because I fear that I will offend friends.  Nevertheless, I feel this post might be a valuable exercise for me to write -and for you to read.  Perhaps if we wrestle with a few of these “reasons” you and I both might be better for it.  And perhaps, the Church could be better for it.  With that being said, I want to make it clear that my goal is not to insult or take cheap shots at anyone or any local church. My goal is to transparently share why I sometimes find myself nearing that point where I want to say, “Enough is enough!”

  • I got burned out.  I entered the ministry at age eighteen; I preached for the first time on Sunday morning at nineteen and experienced early “success.”  Sometimes I believe that early “success” was actually a “curse.” From that point forward, it was full speed ahead and no looking back.  I put the Church and ministry before everything –and I mean everything.  After doing that for over fifteen years, the inevitable finally… happened: I burned out.  I am surprised I lasted as long as I did.  I often wonder why someone did not stop me earlier.  Many people in many different churches had opportunities to grab me and put their arm around me and say, “Eric, slow down.  You have your whole life ahead of you.  Slow down and enjoy your college years.  Slow down and enjoy your young family.  Slow down and enjoy life.”  Very few people offered me that wise caution and still fewer leaders ever did.  Honestly, I cannot think of any other pastors who ever advised me to slow my pace.  It was not until “I” put on the brakes (at God’s prompting) that I finally got that message –independent of anyone within the Church.
  • I got incredibly frustrated with many of the people in the Church.  Religious people, legalistic people, “super-spiritual” people, mean people, hypocrites, needy people, manipulative people, leaders who worry more about themselves than the people who they are leading, highly educated people who are illiterate to the simplest Biblical Truths, insecure people, etc.  Everywhere I turned (in the Church) there seemed to always be someone who met one or more of the aforementioned descriptions.  These people sucked the passion, energy and life right out of me.
  • I began to notice the lack of authentic relationships in the church.  There is so much that could be said here but I want to keep this post short.  Let me just say that most churches that I have been a part of have shallow relationships with various undercurrents running through them.  Church leadership is more about politics than shepherding.  If you doubt my observation, just watch what happens when controversy or disagreements arise. Church relationships often (not always, but often) have little depth and are disposable   *This is not a loose accusation that I am making. I make it after eighteen years of being heavily involved in various local churches.
  • I am not comfortable inviting my un-churched friends to church.  Approximately four years ago, my wife and I made a commitment to purposely start living our lives OUTSIDE the walls of church buildings.  Part of this commitment was to begin building relationships with people who did not attend a church.  As we have slowly made this transition, we have realized that we are not comfortable inviting our un-churched friends to church with us.
  • Much of the contemporary Church is “dumbing down” the Gospel. In our efforts to grow and attract people to our churches, we have watered down and “dumbed down” the Gospel to where “following Jesus” is not following Jesus. We have forgotten what it means to “take up our crosses.”  We have made it too easy. We have made it too simple.  Sometimes I think we may even insult the intelligence of un-churched people when they attend our churches. Don’t talk to un-churched people like they are stupid. Share Truth! Challenge people! Preach the Gospel!  Teach the Word! That is what the people are there for; that is what they desperately need. Challenge them; that is what will cause them to see their need for Christ and authentic Christian community.
  • I have not gotten anything out of many of the church services I have attended.  Sorry, I am just being honest.  When we extricate authentic relationships and dumb down the Gospel, what do you think is going to happen? Church should be more meaningful than checking a box off on our weekly Christian “to do list.” And please do not try to attract me with just music, I can always find better on Pandora.
  • Most churches look nothing like the Church in the New Testament.  I am just being honest –again.  Why should I force myself to attend a weekly meeting that calls itself one thing and then has the characteristics of something completely different?  Most churches “Major on the minors” and “minor on the Majors” of the things that are important to New Testament Church culture. We invest our time and treasure in buildings and programs rather than people –and then we wonder why we are losing “people.”  Hello…..?
  • I was never good at “Playing the Game” –nor did I ever want to play.  I have no passion for the “the game.”  I have no energy for “the game.”  I find no life in “the game.”  Honestly, when I sense that “the game” is being played, I run fast and far from it. “The game” disgusts me now.  I am so tired of political games.  I am so tired of people games.  I am so tired of church games.  I just want to be a part of something real.  I am not looking for perfect, (I know it is not out there) but I am looking for “real.”
  • Because of the above characteristics, I find many of our churches to be full of under discipled, under utilized, immature, lethargic Christians.  I think that is the real fruit that our church marketing, flashy programs and flowery sermons have produced for us.  Frankly, this reality absolutely disturbs me.
  • I got tired of excuses.  You can come up with an excuse for anything, -if you try hard enough.  And we have become very astute at making good excuses in the Church.  Our excuses disgust me.

Why should I attend a weekly “celebration service” that has no real depth and screams “fake,” with other people in a community almost completely divorced of authentic relationships, where a watered down weak (and/or twisted) gospel is preached, in an atmosphere where I am not comfortable inviting my un-churched friends, with “church people” who often incredibly frustrate me?

 These are the reasons why I have had serious thoughts about leaving the established church.  *For the record, my family and I have not left the Church nor do we plan to; we still faithfully attend.  But, I have to wonder how many people have already abandoned the Church for these same reasons.  I would bet all of my earthly possessions that the numbers are far more than just a few…

Perhaps we should all take a step back, stop making our ridiculous excuses and wrestle with some of these areas of dysfunction while there is still time.  -Because the era of “going to church just because you are supposed to” is over.

I invite you to comment with “your reasons” below -or feel free to offer a rebuttal to mine.  Let’s please keep our comments as positive and productive as possible.   -Just an FYI, I plan to write a post next week entitled, “Why I did not leave the Church.”