The pictures were torn from our large family Bible—Every last one of them. I was a disappointed little boy. In my mind, the best part of the book was missing.
I studied the rip lines which held the faintest scraps of color, trying to imagine what the images looked like before. My curiosity was strong.
“Mom, why are the pictures ripped out of our Bible?”
Mom, like any good parent perceived the time was right to share. A day before, perhaps I wasn’t old enough to be told.
“We ripped them out after your older brother, Jeffrey, died.”
It wasn’t making sense.
“After we lost your brother, the church leaders visited us. They said the death of Jeffrey was because of something we did wrong. We had a lot of rules to follow. One of the rules we broke was that our Bibles couldn’t have pictures in them. We were afraid of something worse happening to our family, so we got rid of them.”
As a young boy, this story seemed strange. My mom now knew the truth for herself, but for years, it was difficult to see.
Women in the cult couldn’t cut their hair. My mom was a bit of a rebel, I guess. One day, she trimmed my sister’s hair.
For weeks afterward, my older sister cried and pleaded to stay home from church each Sunday. This seemed odd to my parents until they found out something. Her Sunday school teacher had told her she and my mom would go to Hell because of her haircut. My sister wasn’t quite four years old when this happened.
Mom didn’t go to the hospital to have Jeffrey. Medical attention was forbidden. She gave birth at home and lost him. For decades afterward, terrible guilt and depression stalked Mom as she blamed herself for his death.
After that experience, she secretly gave birth to my older sister in the hospital. People found out, though. The disapproval this caused in our religious group was overpowering. A year and a half later, I was born at home to avoid unwanted attention.
Dad arrived home as Mom gave birth to me and found the umbilical cord wrapped twice around my neck. I was blue. That day, I survived, but Dad vowed never to have another child at home regardless of religious pressure.
My Accident and Growing Family Hurts
As a four-year-old, my family was still steeped in the Pennsylvania cult. People all around us died prematurely. Grandpa passed away ten years before I was born from untreated diabetes. The only way I ever knew Grandma was with a sore that went down to the bone of her ankle.
My Dad worked hard and along with his full-time job would cut grass. One crisp November day, he took me with him to blow leaves for an elderly woman. He warned me not to go near his John Deere riding mower. I remember running behind him as he worked, thinking it was funny that I chased behind without him noticing. I ignored my dad’s warning and felt no danger.
Eventually, I got tired and sat down. I vividly recall picturing a little town I’d build in the grass. There’d be roads of dirt, houses of grass and telephone poles made of sticks. Then, my plans came to an instant halt.
The rear wheel of Dad’s mower now rested on my chest. My left hand went in under the mower deck as the blades turned. He stopped backing up and spared my life in doing so. Dad wept as he pulled the tractor off me. There’s only one other time I ever saw my dad cry like that.
“Something happened to Neal,” was all my dad could say to Mom over the phone. Mom took that to mean I was dead. She fainted during the call.
The next thing I remember, I was sitting on the front step of the elderly woman’s house (after going into shock). For the first time, I looked down. There were my shredded fall jacket and blood. My left hand was gone. I was terrified and started crying.
My dad wasn’t supposed to call for medical help. It was considered a lack of faith in God. Thankfully, he did anyway. The police car arrived first, then the ambulance and I was off to the hospital.
After a blood transfusion and surgery, I slowly began to heal the best I could. I wasn’t the only one hurting in our family. Now that I’m a parent, I know that full well.
Our religious group was troubled. Many questioned my dad’s decision to take me to the hospital. They believed he’d failed to trust God to heal me. They also believed if that meant death for me, it was God’s will.
Who is God Anyway?
My parents constantly dealt with gnawing questions after my accident. “Who is God?” They didn’t know anymore. Fear controlled their lives. One wrong move and God could bring down the hammer, splintering them. How could people in the cult be OK with watching their child die when it could be prevented? What kind of God was OK with that?
They began to question what hope they had of ever making Him happy if He was like that. Day by day, the debilitating fog cleared a little more. My parents were not sure who God was, but they were tired of living in fear.
The accident was the final major wake-up call my parents needed to leave the cult. Soon after, we were gone. God used a terrible circumstance for good. Often, it’s difficult to tell this side of Heaven why something tragic happens. My parents still credit that accident for getting us out of the cult although the way it happened broke their hearts.
Time Goes On
After the accident, high anxiety plagued me. Even as a four-year old, I remember chewing the sleeves off my flannel shirts. My great uncle joked that my parents should get me a muzzle.
A year later, I started school and regularly came home crying. I was different and there was no way to hide that fact. Some kids hurt without knowing it. Others do it with eyes wide open.
Mom cried with me after school and told me she’d give me one of her hands if she could. I never doubted she meant it.
Dad was eager to have a son, especially after losing his first one. I had all the athletic gear a boy could want and none of it seemed to matter at the moment. Like the baseball glove he’d bought for me that was meant for my other hand.
Sounds Great, But How Do I Get There?
We left that cult badly damaged. You don’t suffer such terrible spiritual and emotional scars, leave the situation and nonchalantly turn on the light switch of hope.
Boy, do I wish it had been that easy. Our family still isolated from people. We put on our best face in public and at church but at home, there was an intense and ongoing struggle.
We made a decision to follow Jesus after leaving the cult and heard consistent preaching of his love. But it took years of painfully slow progress in practice to overcome what we experienced.
It was easier to believe God’s love applied to others rather than me. I was terrified of Him. I’d wake up in cold sweats as a junior higher, picturing God coming to earth to take out his vengeance on me. I prayed repeatedly for mercy but felt none.
For one thing, I found the teaching of love to be far more common than the practice of it. Many talked about it, few experienced it, in my opinion.
In my teens, I probably seemed like a normal kid at school but inside I wasn’t. I still felt isolated, lonely and misunderstood. The insecurity and pain of missing my arm were often overwhelming. I heard success stories of kids who lost limbs and went forward with few problems. I wasn’t one of those success stories no matter how badly I wanted to be. Maybe stories like that weren’t even real.
I think of C.S Lewis’ famous quote:
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
God doesn’t cause evil. Evil’s caused by an evil world system led by a wicked hierarchy of spiritual beings. Within that framework, God sets limits to the evil that can be done. God also works all evil in the world for good either now, in eternity or both. Soon, He’ll put an end to it forever.
None of my family ever questioned that light came out of our dark situation. God led us to a church that taught us the truth about Him. No, God wasn’t a tyrant waiting for the perfect opportunity to give his creation a backhand like we feared.
He’s a loving God who understands fear is a terrible master. He knows those held by unhealthy fear will turn down wrong paths every time because there’s no hope. Hopeless people do hopeless things.
Those closest to Him are not necessarily the most spiritual of people. But they’ve tasted of his love on a deeper level than most others. And that makes all the difference. Hope-filled people do hope-filled deeds. Those who know they’re deeply loved, love deeply.
My goal in sharing my story isn’t for you to feel sorry for me. I’m not naive enough to think that anyone reading this doesn’t have their own wounds and scars. I did want to let you know a bit more of my story though. And as always, I want to remind you that at the proper time, God will heal all his children of all sadness and pain.
Afterward: A Little More About Cults If You’re Interested
It’s easy for people outside of a cult to think those inside of it are wacky, weak or unintelligent. It’s just human nature to have such thoughts.
Getting sucked into a cult actually has nothing to do with inferiority. It has everything to do with cutting yourself off from people who can speak the truth to you. I always say that isolation breeds dysfunction.
In our cult situation, we couldn’t have televisions or radios. We also weren’t supposed to interact with people who left our religious group. My mom lost contact with her family when she left, causing her intense emotional pain. Those still in the cult were told the goal of this was to separate from ‘worldly’ behavior. What it caused, instead, was the perfect environment for isolation.
Cults can’t survive without isolating their followers from those on the outside. And when this happens, there’s no longer anyone to help. No one on the outside can tell people on the inside that how they’re being treated and treating others isn’t normal or healthy.
When air-tight isolation is achieved, the new ‘reality’, no matter how twisted, becomes believable. This is the point at which fear has tremendous power over those in cults. Reality begins to blur and unhealthy fear dominates.
Depending on the cult, participants may willingly suffer and inflict gross societal deviance, mistaking it for devoutness. People in cults can experience and initiate such evils as physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Some willingly commit suicide for their cause because the power over them is so strong. No one is so intelligent that they couldn’t get sucked into a cult under the right (or should I say wrong) circumstances.
Cults don’t only take place in small religious sects. They can also exist on a national level. North Korea is a perfect example. Their tyrannical leader isolates his people from the rest of the world, brainwashes them and holds them in the grip of fear. Businesses and even churches that wouldn’t generally be considered cultic sometimes exhibit these symptoms as well.
It’s all the worse for those who grow up in cults. Unhealthy control looms much larger and makes it harder to escape. My mom grew up in a cult and my dad married into it. In time, outside networks that could have helped eroded.
It shouldn’t be about fearfully hiding your flaws from each other so you don’t get ostracized or hurt. That has nothing to do with true faith in God. A genuine relationship with God and people is built on transparency and love.