Do you struggle with reconciling being thankful that God let those things happen to change your faith and being hurt for the permanent changes to your family as a result?
If I’m being perfectly truthful, yes. While God has graciously kept us from the crushing guilt that tends to plague us as parents when something bad happens to our children, there are permanent ramifications that forever affect our family and how we function. And while we are deeply grateful that God freed us from the many ways our self-righteousness led to bondage, we live every day with a brain-damaged little boy. Parenting him is by far and away the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do, and there are days when we look at each other in our exhaustion and declare, “I didn’t sign up for this.” That’s probably a whole other conversation.
Did you ever have feelings of blaming/feeling let down by God and if so how were you able to come to terms with that?
I remember returning home after nearly three weeks in the ICU with our daughter Caroline, whose body simply would not heal. I had reached the end of my stamina through late nights on hospital beds and tag-team parenting the seven other kids at home, and as I stumbled into the shower, I sobbed/prayed/shook my fist at God, “What’s the point? Why should I pray? You aren’t listening! She’s not getting better, she’s not getting worse. We’re stuck in an endless vortex to nowhere!”
Recently we suffered through a similar trial, and in both circumstances, I learned that all I could do was stand on the truth I knew about God’s character through Scripture and through my personal experiences. I had to remind myself that Joe can see, despite the lack of brain matter in his occipital lobe, that God has always taken care of our needs, that He is who He says He is, even if He makes choices that feel like abandonment in the moment.
How did family and friends respond to your change from "religion" to "grace and faith in the gospel"? Were there pleasant surprises? Deep hurts? If so, in what ways?
You know, it’s a touchy thing. For so long, our pride had kept us from having mutually beneficial discourse with anyone who thought or believed differently than we did. I sensed, “I told you so!” with some, heard hurtful statements like, “You guys are always reinventing yourselves,” from others, but the gentle, kind, merciful response from still others poured grace out over our lives that allowed us to begin the healing process and made us feel safe to undertake the tearing down of the facade of perfection.
What does your faith/life look like now compared to what it was before the life changing events?
It’s the best thing in the world to see our kids develop their own walks of faith. One daughter dances—shoes off, hands raised—during the worship music at church, one serves and loves the Word, one is finding her identity in Jesus. One son passionately and loudly loves Christ, one quietly lives his faith in a godless work environment. This is miles away from the days shortly after we left our cult-like environment and our then-15-year-old confided, “Mom, I could never tell you this, but when we were at the other church, I used to look around and think, ‘If this is Christianity, I want nothing to do with it.’”
How did you reconcile your grace based view of salvation/the gospel with the previous way your family had lived out the Christian faith? I'm curious how the family dynamics shifted especially in the way your older children processed these changes that had to overflow in the way you and Fletch parented?
Nothing had changed in the truth of grace of the gospel. That story is never altered by God! The lens by which we viewed it, however, had been swapped with one that passed through Christ first, with one that declares, “It is finished!”
We feel very much responsible for the choices we made on behalf of our children when we were so bound up in our outward religious behavior. They were kept from a lot of activities and social settings that could have really been a delight and a benefit to them, but because we feared they would be sullied by the world, there were a lot of “no’s” in our home. Despite my husband’s fun-loving personality and the adventures we created for them, they missed out on a lot of opportunities to develop who God has created them to be because we were so focused on a mold that we thought was how they should behave.
Shortly after leaving our behavior-driven environment, we sat the two oldest sons (17 and 15 at the time) down and apologized. We repented and asked for their forgiveness. Stunningly, they have freely given it and although stories and memories of the past tend to crop up now and again in our conversations, those two young men tend to be merciful and light-hearted. This is undeserved grace, and we are so grateful.
The one thing I hear repeatedly from adults who had been raised in a similar stifling religious community is, “If my parents would only take ownership for the ways they got it wrong and apologize, it would make all the difference in the world.” These young adults are living with fractured family relationships and a lot of real pain. Forgiveness and grace can change everything!
Can you talk to us about how God showed you he was with you during these times? How were you able to keep your faith and feel His presence guiding you towards grace?
Henry Blackaby wrote a terrific book way back in the ’90’s called Experiencing God, and although I don’t remember so much about the whole study, I do remember this: God tends to speak to us in four ways—the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the Church.
In our case, God showed Himself through the Bible as we kept looking there to hear His voice, through prayer as so many would tell us they were praying and our own prayer lives kept us listening even if we weren’t hearing, through the circumstances of each child’s particular trauma (from improved medical stats to spiritual changes we witnessed taking place) and the way in which our friends and family served us through each trial.
It wasn’t easy to leave a church we felt so strongly about creating, but as each blow came in the form of backhanded criticism, lies about our family, and prescriptive behavior rather than pointing us to Christ and His finished work, we eventually knew we had no choice but to leave. The spiritual abuse was real and palpable and once we were able to put a finger on it, it was so alarming to us that we knew we had to get ourselves and our children out.
Tell us about talking through these horrific events with your other children. How do you now work that into the whole "He is not a safe God, but He is good" narrative?
I love that quote. "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” C.S Lewis was a far better writer than I’ll ever be, so I love that we can use his words as a launchpad.
We can’t avoid our own stories, and because we live with a little boy who has six holes in his brain, we are reminded every day of what we lived through. Our other children know, of course, all that transpired, and my husband often says things like, “But Mighty Joe can see!” as a stand-in for, “Look how great our God is!”
Recently I was listening to a radio interview of our story and Mighty Joe was in the car. He normally doesn’t pay any attention to what I listen to, but that day he yelled out, “Wait! What happened to me? I went to the hopspital?” (misspelling intentional). I told him the most simplified version of his illness and his hospital stay, but as of yet, he still doesn’t know that he is different. We’ll be crossing that conversational bridge soon enough, and then we all we will have is the truth that God is very, very good. This is not heaven, this is not our home, but He is King, I tell you, and He has a beautiful eternity ahead for all of us. We can’t wait to see the perfect boy Joe was created to be.
In the resulting spiritual shift, do you look back and see: Was it your view of the character of God that changed, or your view of yourselves that changed?
Here’s the shift: We recognized that we had always known and always loved the gospel. Jesus died for me? Yes! He made an end to all our sin? Yes! We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? YES!
And there’s where it ends, finished by His work on the cross. We believers believe that but then we tend to say, “I get it. That’s the gospel. I signed off on that when I prayed the sinner’s prayer. Now tell me what to do.”
We see passages like Galatians 5:22-23 (the Fruit of the Spirit) as a challenge: be more loving, choose joy, pursue peace, be more patient (now!), etc., when the reality is, those attributes—those behaviors—are the by-product of a relationship with a loving God, the fruit of spending ample time with the Holy Spirit, with pursuing Jesus and learning to rest in His finished work.
What did you do to move past the hurt caused by people who you believed were your friends and support system as you left the previous church?
It took a long, long time. We initially had to create boundaries because the abuse continued, even after we left, in the form of emails and accusations. Practically, I removed anyone from social media who was not safe, anyone who would talk behind our backs and assign motives to our actions without first talking with us or who had a history of correcting our kids relentlessly without the balance of mercy and grace and Jesus. If you had ever done the up-and-down clothing check and then corrected a Fletcher son who showed up on a blazing hot Sunday morning in shorts, you probably weren’t part of the safe faith community we would need going forward.
It wasn’t long before we were contacted by other families or individuals who were seeing the same alarming attitudes and religiosity that we had there, and I would joke that they probably shouldn’t let anyone know they’d contacted us, but that wasn’t far from the truth. Those families have been a source of great comfort over the years because we can talk about our past experiences with an underlying understanding.
Anyone who hasn’t been in a similar environment tends to look at us cross-eyed when we try to explain how and why it played out the way it did. At the same time, it is the friends at our gospel-loving church who have pointed us to Jesus, poured grace out over us, and loved us so well that we have been able to stand up, take steps forward, and ultimately heal from the self-inflicted wounds that our attitudes of religious superiority left. It isn’t the new church or the new friends, it is the grace of Jesus Christ!
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