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Dear Brad,

My name is Sarah after the biblical wife of Abraham. The very first thing people learned about me for over a decade was, to quote my father: “These are my daughters Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel- the wives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Until I was 9 years old, my family was part of an organization called the Assemblies of Yahweh based in Bethel, Pennsylvania. Look it up, it’s still there: https://www.assembliesofyahweh.com/.

Disclaimer: Doctrinal statements I make about any religious organization or church could be inaccurate or incomplete because it is what I remember of what I understood as a child. I also make statements that are what I was taught and believed at the time.

Like Christianity, the Assembly of Yahweh believes the savior came to earth, died for the sins of humanity and rose again. Unlike Christianity, they believe calling the Almighty “God” or the Messiah “Jesus” or “the Christ” is to call on false gods set up by Rome after Constantine converted to this new religion called Christianity. The concept of the trinity is unscriptural: the Messiah is an eternal being created by the Almighty, not equal to the father. The Holy Spirit emanates from the Almighty, not a distinct personality in and of itself. Because my dad is also a nerd, I remember it described to me as a non-pagan version of “the force” from Star Wars. All Christian holidays are rooted in paganism- especially Christmas and Easter- and are therefore still pagan holidays. The law set forth in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are still valid. Ignoring them is sin. The sacrificial requirements are an exception to this because the sacrifice of the Messiah made those obsolete.

Imagine our extreme relief and gratitude about this.

Therefore, we celebrated a Sabbath that started on Friday at sundown and ended Saturday at sundown. We celebrated holy days calculated by the new moon because (somehow) the modern Hebrew calendar is corrupted. I was homeschooled until 3rd grade because we needed two or more weeks every spring to celebrate the days of unleavened bread and Passover in Bethel, eight days every fall doing the same thing for feast of tabernacles, and various other long weekends in between.

My father helped design and construct a shortwave radio tower for the organization. He sometimes taught at the meetings. My grandmother and I sang at feasts and high holy days. Our family hosted weekly Sabbath meetings in our home where we listened to a recording of that week’s message from Bethel. I memorized large passages of scripture before I was six and the leadership in Pennsylvania was trying to persuade my parents to move to Bethel and join the ministry there full time. We were kosher with a capital K – I still remember searching boxes of the “good” cereals looking for that mark and being disappointed – oh gelatin you sneaky bastard – no Lucky Charms for me J (but that one was doubly bad because of the pagan symbols and everything).

Sin was manageable. Sin was a list of rules you broke or followed. If you broke them, the Messiah was there to make sure you weren’t punished with a swim in the lake of fire (not hell- basically a spiritual furnace that blasts your soul out of existence if you weren’t a fallen angel – only eternal beings who had seen Yahweh face to face and still rejected him were doomed to endless torment). To an 8 year old, that was after you died anyway so just follow the list of rules. There are only 613 of them anyway.

We were told that this tiny group of people following this one man were the only people on the planet who had it right since the original disciples died. The only ones worshiping the correct god in the correct way.

And then we stopped. I know it was a process, and, as the oldest, I can remember bits of that process, but only as hindsight. At the time, leaving “The Assembly” was abrupt and absolute. My father shaved his big bushy beard and mowed the lawn on a Saturday. I remember watching him worrying about retributive thunderbolts and knowing he must be very, very angry with Yahweh.

On the plus side, I got to try Jell-O, pork, and eat shrimp for dinner sometimes. We started celebrating Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter with my mom’s parents. My dad’s mother was supposed to stop talking to us or seeing our family because of this. She remained in the Yahweh cult until she died but never cut ties with my father or our family.

After that, we did not go to any kind of church or religious meeting regularly until I was 12. When we decided to go “church hunting” it was pretty informal. My dad still believed the Assembly had the “Capital T” truth, just poor execution and my mother had been exploring her faith with an organization called The Walk to Emmaus. I remember visiting local Baptist churches, local Methodist churches and our local Church of Christ. I liked the Methodists because they had female ministers, and my parents choose the Church of Christ (probably because of the stronger youth group, but also probably because no female ministers).

A couple years later, a Baptist preacher’s daughter told me I was going to hell because I wasn’t “born again” and baptized. The Assembly of Yahweh taught that hell was a myth created to scare people into church so a “get out of hell free card” wasn’t great bait for her to use. The Assembly of Yahweh also taught there is an age of accountability under which you got into the kingdom automatically. (I don’t remember the number, 18 would be too culturally convenient, but who knows? They didn’t do Bar or Bat Mitzvahs). Whatever the age of accountability was, I know I hadn’t reached it at 14 so who cared? We had a long and emotional fight. Literally a fight. We were both 14. She thought I was doomed to hell, I thought she was being spiritually and emotionally manipulative. There may have been yelling and crying. Lots of yelling and crying.

Finally, to shut her up, I asked her if I prayed — not the “sinner’s prayer” but prayed out loud would she would leave me alone. I didn’t believe a magic spell prayer would change anything, and if it could, it certainly wouldn’t save me from a hell that didn’t exist. Of course she said yes. And, predictably, as I prayed, I felt something. I felt peace. I felt love and I felt connected to the universe in a way I hadn’t before. To this day, I don’t think it was the prayer but the act of praying that unlocked that door for me.

We were at the Church of Christ until I was 16 or 17. I learned that all drugs, any alcohol and all/any kind of sex before marriage are sins. This was different from the Assembly who discouraged premarital sex but didn’t see it as sin. Adultery, homosexuality, incest and bestiality were sexual sins worthy of death but sleeping with your woman before the marriage ceremony didn’t even rate a dove as a sin offering- just a fine to the girl’s father. Basically, there were social consequences for sleeping with your girlfriend/fiancée before the wedding night, not spiritual ones.

Of course, my parents still discouraged sex outside of marriage. They were worried about the emotional consequences of dating and didn’t let us date until we were out of high school.

The Church of Christ taught women in church leadership is unnatural (but I already knew that from the Assembly). The grape juice and crackers are NOT the real body and blood of Christ but you still can’t eat them unless you are baptized. Immersive baptism is the only way to heaven and I should be putting all my energies towards witnessing for Christ. This was also the first time I remember learning I could sin with my attitude or by having a rebellious spirit.

Church of Christ taught Catholics were really wrong and all other Protestant denominations were sort of wrong. We, the Church of Christ, were the only denomination who really had it right, who really knew who God was and what he wanted from us poor sinners. I was beginning to detect a pattern.

I also started working with The Walk to Emmaus. My mom credits her current faith to her involvement with this movement. Emmaus is interdenominational and lay-lead (meaning non-professional ministers). They have local boards and host weekend retreats designed to break down our barriers to God by demonstrating how much he loves us.

That. That right there had more impact on my spiritual growth than any church I ever attended. Emmaus put me in a position to receive God’s love and then show it to others in practical, measurable ways.

Between my sophomore and junior year of high school I went on my first mission trip. It was through an organization called Teen Mania so I was going alone – not with a youth group, friends or family members. The generosity of my fellow Christians who sent money to support me was overwhelming. Having that experience: being provided with something just because they ask is something I believe everyone can benefit from. It is very humbling.

Teen Mania encouraged “spirit filled” worship. The first evening service at the base in Texas is the first time I was surrounded by people yelling and crying in tongues.

It scared the crap out of me.

I called my mom the next day and said I had to come home, I wasn’t good enough, all these people could feel God here and I couldn’t. I was locked out again and I didn’t know why.

My mom was great. She reassured me over the phone there was nothing wrong with my faith because I didn’t speak in tongues, and that she understood why it would be scary when I didn’t know what was going on. I stayed and spent a week in Costa Rica. Of course, I started speaking in tongues.

After that, I was excessively holy for my little Church of Christ youth group. They didn’t really worship, they didn’t really believe God took care of them- all they saw was their tiny little lives and their tiny little worries. I was going to be different. I was going to change the world. I was going to be a missionary.

So then, of course, I started going to a “spirit filled” church. This is where I learned that the Baptist preacher’s daughter had been a true novice at spiritual and emotional manipulation. It goes without saying they believed only non-denominational spirit filled churches were the true believers. The pattern was becoming clearer.

Side note: around this time, completely at odds with everything taught in youth group, small group and from the pulpit – I started believing homosexuality was okay. Like totally okay, I couldn’t figure out why the church thought it was such a big deal. I mean, yeah, the Old Testament, but none of them followed the Old Testament anyway and I already knew enough about history and culture to know that what the Apostle Paul was talking about had nothing to do with Mark and Steve building a loving home together.

I dropped out of high school before my senior year because I made a promise to God to spend a year serving on the mission field before college. My mom was convinced I would never go to college if I did that. But I made a promise and the year had to come from somewhere so…

I spent 1999 in Elm Springs, Arkansas with Youth with a Mission (YWAM). They have missionary schools (bases) all over the world. I chose Arkansas because of ties to the church I was attending at the time. That base lost its YWAM status less than 2 years after I left. Because of this I try not associate my experience with YWAM and YWAM as a broader organization.

At Elm Springs I figured out the Assembly of Yahweh is a cult and this helped me identify others. For example, Bill Gothard and his Basic Life Principles. Elm Springs also gave me practical experience with the concept of “spiritual authority.” One person makes the decisions and the rest have to follow because even if the leaders are wrong God wants the followers to do what leaders say. God will take care of the mistakes; the important thing is our submissive attitudes. Personally, I also learned if I was going to be a missionary I wanted to bring something useful to a community: medicine, education, clean water or working infrastructure.

Then I went to Oral Roberts University (ORU). I didn’t want to. I thought they were crazy. But I thought God told me where to go and obedience was kind of a necessity at that point. It also made some sense. I wanted to be a missionary with something practical to offer and ORU had an excellent nursing department.

At ORU, I met some of my favorite people ever, decided the idea of being a missionary is even more condescending and self-serving than I thought, and ORU is even crazier than I guessed. So I looked up the fastest way out and got an English degree.

This letter doesn’t paint a very positive picture of my religious journey. Between the age of 15 and 21, whatever religious dysfunction was happening around me, I was part of a relationship with a higher power that was daily and vibrant. I felt God in everything, felt him working in me and through me. There was even a point where I trusted him to wake me up on time instead of an alarm clock. It worked. That peace and love I felt the first time I had really prayed were never very far away. Quite simply, I was in love.

At 21, my insights into problems inherent in religion came together with the doubts I was having about all the various rules I’d been taught my whole life. Mentally grappling with this damaged my connection with God. I still believed, prayed, and felt the Holy Spirit occasionally, but the daily intimacy was gone.

After ORU, I met and married a compulsive liar. I loved him very much but also believed that I kind of had to marry him because we were already sleeping together. I believed that marriage was forever, and if he could just become a Christian, we would be okay. After tremendous heartbreak, I figured out this is arrogant, emotionally and spiritually manipulative: incredibly destructive to both of us. Whatever his shortcomings, I am truly sorry for my part in our dysfunction.

Now.

I still believe in a higher power and I might be wrong. I believe no single person, religion, or group of people, can be “right” about what a higher power is, thinks, feels, or wants. I believe that asking is the important part. I believe that searching is the important part. Just because we can’t know for sure or understand when we glimpse doesn’t mean it isn’t real or that seeking to know and understand isn’t valuable. Sharing our glimpses can be beneficial, declaring what we decide they mean can be destructive.

I believe there are things that are capital T true. But, uncovering that truth is a process. A shockingly short time ago it was believed more widely than not that human and/or animal sacrifice is what a higher power wants. The moral revulsion most people now feel toward that idea is evidence of our collective uncovering a truth that good gods do not feed on blood.

But I could be wrong. Liberty requires blood, justice usually calls for blood, and Christianity states God requires the blood of Christ to be satisfied. I believe this reveals more about human nature than any higher power but I could still be wrong.

One of the best people I met at ORU just posted on facebook: “If I were going to start a church, I’d call it the No Idea Church of Maybe God Exists Let’s All Just Love Each Other and See Where That Gets Us in the Meantime.”

Sign me up.