You build me up, you break me down until I’m falling to pieces. The price I pay to live this way, and the fantasy stays alive. (Dream Theater)
There were so many teachings during this general time period. Some of them were documented in my journal, though some of them just sort of popped up out of the recesses of my memory. One of the teachings was more of an object lesson that lasted for about a day, to see if it stuck. This was on the concept of edification.
Edification, or the practice of building each other up, was based on a few different scriptural references, such as:
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
“So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Though we didn’t necessarily hold the Bible in high regard, we still tried practicing Biblical concepts among the group. During the meeting where edification was discussed, we were told we should not speak at all unless it was to edify one another. This ruled out small talk, idle chat, asking about the weather, and other such attempts at casual conversation. Have you ever sat in a room full of people, without anyone talking? It was incredibly disquieting, as your mind raced with desperate attempts to fill the void – but you could only speak if it directly edified someone else, or you had to remain quiet. I recall the entire room sitting deathly still for much longer than was comfortable. Occasionally, someone would speak up and compliment someone else in the room about something or other, in an attempt to edify them. I remember feeling some sense of panic that I had to think of something – anything – to fill that awkward void of silence. I don’t recall an exact length of time for that meeting, though it felt like hours and hours. Thankfully, that night’s lesson didn’t repeat itself, though the lesson was learned and we all tried much harder at building each other up with encouragement.
Hello from the other side. I must have called a thousand times to tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done. (Adele)
Another memorable teaching during this time was about repentance. Liam’s repentance-related slogan for the group was “repent, receive, restored.” If we found that we weren’t hearing from God, we were in a temporary state of sin and needed to think back to the last time we successfully heard from God. We then had to identify what we did wrong at that moment in time, repent by acknowledging how we sinned in not following God in that moment, and then receive God’s mercy. We were then fully restored to God, and free to move on in our walk with Him. I recall this framework being applied to everything, including interpersonal sins, though that concept was a mutated thing. If we were faithfully doing what God told us to do, and it offended someone else, that wasn’t necessarily our sin – it could just as likely be they were sinning for not accepting what God had called me to do. If we did somehow sin against someone else, we needed to tell God we sinned (repent), then receive God’s forgiveness, and move on – we were then fully restored to God. The most important thing in all of our lives was to listen to and obey God’s voice.
I could follow the application of this framework in light of a personal sin that I committed, but didn’t see how this could apply with interpersonal sins. This paradigm made everything into an internal sin issue, but offered no solution towards reconciliation between others who may have either been sinned against, or affected by my own sin. There also was nothing in this framework dealing with how our actions affected other people – no way to make those broken roads straight again. It was, in my opinion, turning the complex path of repentance into a simple mind game that ignored the impact our actions have on others.
When concerns were brought up, they went nowhere. Repent, Receive, Restored was here to stay.
At this time in the group, there were most certainly concerns and disagreements over some of these teachings – most certainly on our part, though I do know of a few others. But I don’t think any of us really grasped how these teachings gave leadership incredible authority, while making them accountable to no one but “God”.
And as I said before, some of this theology was wrapped in enough Christian phrases to make it seem legitimate. Looking back over the past 25 years of my life, I’ve seen a similar theology of repentance used in modern evangelical circles quite a bit. Psalm 51 is commonly referred to as A Prayer of Repentance, believed to have been written by King David after he got busted for his sins. David was considered a man after God’s own heart, a model for walking in union with God. In this Psalm, he declares that “against You, and You alone, have I sinned.” This Psalm was a model of repentance, somewhat similar to the concept Liam presented – David repented of his sin to God, received God’s forgiveness, and was restored to continue on as King of Israel. I’ve seen this story used so many times to justify shallow repentance, and to coerce victims to just shut up and get over it (my words, obviously, not usually theirs).
But with the story of David, his sin was not against God alone – he most certainly sinned against Bathsheba by using his position of authority to rape her. And he most certainly sinned against Uriah by having him murdered, so he could have Bathsheba all to himself. What about Bathsheba and Uriah – were they non-entities in this story? How could David say that he had only sinned against God? How could the Bible be considered inerrant, with such an obvious untruth? In this regard, the author Peter Enns may have a better handle on how the Bible actually works. Perhaps the Bible is not in every case a literal inerrant prescription for all people at all times, and instead this story was a historical record of David’s own personal (and potentially flawed) world view. Perhaps David wrote that Psalm from his own personal viewpoint as a psychological coping mechanism to avoid the mental anguish of the impact his sin had on others. The story said nothing about David’s repentance to those who he had harmed – all his anguish appeared focused around the one main consequence of that sin (the death of his son). Even some of his statements about God in this Psalm are conditional – IF You restore to me… THEN David will teach… and later, DELIVER me from the guilt… AND my tongue shall sing. But shouldn’t David do all these things without them being conditional upon God’s actions? This Psalm is admittedly beautiful, and is sung in more than one Sunday morning worship song. But I don’t necessarily believe this story is a comprehensive picture of repentance and restoration – it’s more like David wrestling with taking responsibility for the effects his sin had on others. That obviously being a complex concept that I’m working through – I may believe something else tomorrow. I am neither a historian nor a theologian: At best, I’m a hack amateur in these areas.
It’s also important to note that this Repent/Receive/Restore paradigm eliminates interpersonal responsibility, and as such, presents a huge risk for potential abuse. It seems to wipe everyone else out of the picture, and reduce sin and repentance to an internal transaction between an individual and God that no one else can see. We are to accept this transaction, regardless of any tangible fruits of repentance. Again, I reference the Netflix documentary series The Family, wherein an adulterous politician referenced the story of David to justify his being declared clean and clear before God – and just like David, still eligible for leadership as God’s chosen man. This scripture was used in a similar way by the spiritually abusive leadership at our Baptist Church to justify a child sex offender pastor’s actions with the congregation. When the dumpster fire flared up, all the abusers slunk off for regions unknown, instead of accepting responsibility for the damage their actions caused our faith community. Accepting responsibility leads to cleaning up the mess your actions caused (some would call this repentance), not just running away and leaving a mess behind for the victims to clean up. Did God forgive David or Oakwood leadership or even the dude in the Netflix show? I have no idea. Did restoration occur as the abusers walked out their repentance? Absolutely not even a little bit. To this day, the dumpster fire still burns, while the victims weep.
Enough said on that, let’s move on.
Don’t you know by now why the chosen are few? It’s harder to believe, than not to. (Steve Taylor)
Mia was viewed by some as a role model for the group: She had given up all her possessions for the good of the group, and had moved in with Emma & Liam. Liam decided that it would be beneficial for others to also give up all their rights to any personal belongings for the good of the group. Some made more money than others, and some had more possessions, but if we all gave freely, everyone’s needs would be met – the Siren Song of communal living. This came at a moment in time where our personal life was growing increasingly chaotic and strained.
Many evenings, I got home from work and the apartment was empty. Pooky and I kept missing each other, since she was almost always with the group, going here and there and everywhere. One evening, Noah hosted a party at Gullifty’s restaurant in New Cumberland as a celebration, where he would pay for everyone’s meal. Though they appeared to be suffering from financial challenges like the rest of us, God allegedly assured Noah that he would have enough money to pay the bill. After work, I went house to house trying to find my wife, but I could not track her down (remember, this was before cell phones were a thing). Finally I arrived at Gullifty’s late, the last one there, and Pooky was already there. I could see in her eyes that she was just as heartsick at missing me as I was for her. Everyone decided to order whatever they felt God was telling them. I ordered a huge rack of ribs, as did Elijah. The bill was monstrous, and went on Noah’s credit card. I have no idea if money miraculously appeared to pay the bill, later on. I never even thought to ask – I just assumed that if someone said God had it covered, it was covered. Pooky and I got to go home together and we were desperate for each other’s company – this chaotic lifestyle was taking its toll on our relationship.
Around this time, Sophia’s parents kept trying to get in touch with her. They were desperate to know where she was, as she had pretty much dropped off her family’s radar after joining the Narrowgate group. Sophia decided the best course of action would be to meet with her parents and explain the situation to them. From what I was told, Sophia brought Liam along to the meeting for emotional support, and they met her parents at a local diner. I later learned they explained to her parents that Narrowgate was now her family – she didn’t need them any more. I imagine the intent was for them to rest easy knowing God had provided Sophia with a new family who would now take care of all her needs. I was told Liam and Sophia thought the meeting went over well, and that was by and large the end of Sophia’s contact with her family to this day, though I do know that her family has tried to contact her*. As a parent myself, I can’t imagine the heartache and shock her parents must have felt as a result of this meeting.
*Side note: One of the many miraculous parts of this story is how I got in touch with one of her family members last year, and was able to fill them in on where Sophia currently lives, and fill in some of the gaps around that moment in the diner back in the 90’s. It’s absolutely miraculous how things like this have happened time and again throughout this process. I suppose these types of moments are another story for another time.
Sophia moved in with another couple in the group, since her roommate Mia had moved in with Emma & Liam (as I wrote about in the last blog). She reportedly gave Liam her credit cards, check book, cash, car, and all her possessions to be distributed throughout the group. Some of the men in the group went to Mia and Sophia’s apartment in the woods, to clean it out for them. Years later, Mia recounted to me how some of her most precious family heirlooms were either thrown out, or pawned for cash by Liam. She also mentioned that Liam and Oliver loaded a lot of stuff from the girls’ apartment into Oliver’s pickup truck, then deposited it into dumpsters at Messiah College. The local police later called Mia, as some of the discarded papers had her name on it – you can’t just toss your trash into someone else’s dumpster in the state of Pennsylvania. Mia passed the police on to Liam and Oliver, who allegedly got in trouble.
The relocation of Mia and Sophia into the homes of other group members seemed like a perfect opportunity for Liam, who started moving people in with other people. Liam decided that Mason was ordained by God to move in with us, and so he and Noah started moving Mason’s stuff into our apartment. Megan and I were absolutely livid – as you recall from the last blog, we were already feeling the strain during this honeymoon phase of our marriage. We absolutely did not want a room-mate.
And it was Mason – a guy I knew and loved like a brother, but there was still this lingering awkwardness between us. As I wrote in an earlier blog, Mason had gotten drunk at a Men’s ministry event, and made several inappropriate comments about my wife. That put us on shaky ground – that kind of information isn’t for anyone but my wife and I. Like a small whitehead covering an abscess, Mason’s behavior usually indicates a deeper issue under the surface, seeping out under the influence of strong drink. Years later while doing research for this blog, I was asked by a former Narrowgate member if we were aware that Mason had a crush bordering on obsession with my wife. No, we absolutely did not know this, though that would have been helpful to know back then. And it opens up a bunch of questions: Did Liam know about this when he chose to move Mason into our home? Were we some sort of social experiment? Was he trying to sabotage my marriage? Ah the questions – the one thing that remains after all is said and done is the questions. I have found some measure of peace that we will never know the answers… but still, the questions swarm around my head like summertime gnats.
It’s like I can’t think without you interrupting me. In my thoughts, in my dreams, you’ve taken over me… It’s like I’m not me (Kelly Clarkson)
And so it was that my wife and I were lying upstairs on our bed, while downstairs they were moving Mason’s bed and boxes of stuff into our living room. To this day, I still remember the noise of them banging around below us, and I remember the feel of our bed comforter’s stitched pattern on my hands, and I remember a feeling of overwhelming panic that I was about to drown, and was powerless to stop it. What on earth were we going to do? We were absolutely desperate, and yet we still clung desperately onto a small piece of driftwood in this churning sea – surely I could talk through this with them. Surely we could work this out.
To quote Gandalf, all I had left was “Just a fool’s hope.”
I went downstairs and told Liam he had to stop, we didn’t agree with what he was doing. He couldn’t just move Mason and all his crap into our apartment. Liam and Noah sat down with me at my dining room table (or was it now theirs? it probably was, though I didn’t know it yet.) I shared my concerns that God didn’t tell me about this, and this violated my landlord agreement, and I absolutely did not have peace in my heart about this decision. Liam said that God told him, and that I needed to submit to that. As I again objected, Liam shouted at me, telling me that I was unwilling to obey God, and that either I submit to this or I must leave the group.
And there it was, the ultimatum: Was I with them, or not?
For just a moment, I want you to pause and look at the photo above of the table. Notice the candles on the table, the wisteria pattern of the tablecloth. Feel the wicker seat beneath you, the carpet beneath your feet. Imagine how it smelled, with the back door hanging open into the cool dark night. Now close your eyes, and think about how you would have felt in this situation, seated there at that table while your whole entire world hangs by a thread.
I sat there for what seemed like forever, staring down into my hands as my heart pounded and my stomach twisted into tight knots. And likewise they sat there and stared at me, waiting for the decision they knew I had no choice but to accept.
Then I looked up into Liam’s face, and told him that I trusted him to do the right thing. I got up and walked back up the stairs, my head hung low with despair.
I no longer had control over my own home.
(to be continued)