Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Growing Up In A Faith Healing Cult

From the Patheos Friendly Atheist Blog:  Growing Up In A Faith Healing Cult

 by Rachel Holierhoek. Rachel is a Secular Humanist living in Canada with her partner, Roy, and their four children.

We were different. We were the only ones in our small town who belonged to the Worldwide Church of God, a church founded by Herbert W. Armstrong; a self-proclaimed apostle and prophet. Armstrong was a fundamentalist, end-times-are-coming Sabbatarian who also taught strict dietary restrictions and commanded the keeping of Old Testament holy days, forbidding Pagan holidays like Christmas and Easter. Ours was the only family in our school district who had to annually provide a letter from our minister about the Feast of Tabernacles to explain our week-long absences from school every fall. Sure, we’d get our school work to take with us but when you had three-hour church services daily (six hours on high days at the beginning and end of that Festival) along with nightly special sessions (like those on the demonic influence in modern rock music) you really didn’t have much time for homework.

We were also different because we didn’t see doctors. We didn’t get immunized. To do so was a clear display of a lack of faith in God. God would heal us if we really believed he would. If we were righteous, we wouldn’t even get sick!
In 1952, Herbert W. Armstrong published the booklet “Does God Heal Today?” (PDF) In this booklet he laid out his doctrine for faith-healing. His doctrine taught that sickness, disease, even injury were the result of sin. They were a person’s punishment for sin and faith healing was nothing but God’s forgiveness for those sins. According to Armstrong, people wouldn’t get sick if they weren’t sinning and they wouldn’t get healed, either, if they weren’t really faithful. Many members of the Worldwide Church of God canceled their health insurance and wouldn’t see a doctor for anything other than childbirth (which wasn’t considered an illness) and even then the necessity of a Cesarian Section indicated unrighteousness in the woman needing it.

In 1968, Armstrong’s own wife, Loma, died of a bowel obstruction because Armstrong refused medical interventions and instead annointed and prayed over his wife. Despite this, the doctrine against medical care stood unchanged from its 1952 position. Armstrong equated dependence on the medical professionals with Pagan idolatry and a breech of the commandment to “have no other gods before me.” Armstrong equated modern, science-based medicine with ancient ritualistic healing practices that had no scientific basis.

When I was ten years old, my younger sister became increasingly ill. She had always been frail; pale, thin, and lethargic — even her hair was thin and dull. This time my sister Missy (not her real name) was much worse. My older sister (who was then a teenager) tells me that my younger sister was too weak to walk to the bathroom and my father would carry her there frequently. My older sister would barrage my father with demands that Missy be taken to the doctor. My little sister was too weak to even attend Saturday church services where she might have been anointed by a minister in a ritual called the “laying on of hands.” The minister would take the sick person, and the parents if the person was a child, and go into a coat closet and close the door. There, everyone would kneel and the minister would take a small bottle of olive oil out of a pocket and place a dot of oil on the sick person’s forehead. He would hold his hand on the spot where the oil was placed and begin to pray.

Everyone would bow their heads as the minister beseeched God to forgive this sick person of the sins for which she was being punished. When a person was too ill to attend services (which for us were an hour drive away from our hometown) the minister would send home an anointed cloth. It was a piece of gauze with a drop of oil on it that the minister had prayed over. The small square of guaze was ceremoniously placed in a small manilla envelope for safe keeping. At home, our parents would take us into their bedroom where we would all get down on our knees and one would hold the oiled cloth to our forehead and all heads bowed, praying that God would heal us. Some people take a spoonful of medicine. Not us. We got down on our knees and put oil on our foreheads and prayed. Sometimes we got better. Sometimes we did not.

My mother has often told the story of how she nursed me to health, along with anointing and prayer when I was all of five months old. I had measles and was severely dehydrated with fever and chills. She would tell how she would rock me for hours on end in a rocking chair dribbling broth from a spoon into my mouth because I was too weak even to nurse. Obviously, I had not received my infant innoculation against measles.

Prayer and anointing were not working for my little sister. In her six years of life we couldn’t imagine what horrible sins she had committed to be so drastically ill. Armstrong explained, however, that “you might not have been guilty of any wrong, yet nature’s laws were violated or you wouldn’t be sick!” How’s that for double speak? Sickness and injury are the result of sin. Unless they’re not. But, hey, something caused it!

So my mom searched herself for what sin she must have committed to cause her daughter to be so deathly ill. I heard her murmered prayers from her room (Armstrongists go behind closed doors to pray in private) asking God to forgive whatever she has done to make my little sister sick. She always emerged from those sessions wiping tears from her face having sobbed the entire time.

My older sister could take it no longer. She said our little sister would die if she couldn’t get to a doctor. My mother took Missy to a local emergency room on the weekend where she was treated for the flu. By Monday, Missy was much worse so my mother called the local doctor’s office and scheduled an appointment. While there, the doctor took some of Missy’s blood and examined it at the office. He returned to the exam room looking quite grim and saying only, “I don’t think it’s leukemia.” He was puzzled but Missy’s condition was dire. Her heart was too weak for her to even walk. The doctor carried her to my mother’s car and they met again at the hospital. Overnight at the local small hospital her doctor realized they were not able to address my sisters’ illness and moved her to the nearest children’s hospital. He also instructed my mother to allow no blood transfusions — in my sister’s severe state where her heart was weakened, a transfusion could overwhelm the system and bring about heart failure.

My sister was gone for weeks. She was so sick I wasn’t even allowed to visit her. No children could visit her. I spent many afternoons alone. I spent many afternoons taking my sister’s most recent school photo down from the wall and crying over her image. I looked at my sister’s school portraits on the walls. She had been a pain in my ass as long as she had been alive but only now did I see how frail and weak she had always been. I was wracked with guilt. Maybe my sin had made my sister sick. She was always such an annoying pest, telling mom every little thing I did and some things that I never did! I’d wished such horrible things on her. Had I caused this illness? Was it me? I’d take that picture and head into my bedroom, get down on my knees and beg god to let me be the sick one. Let me take this punishment, she didn’t deserve it! I was sure she would die.

I overheard my parents and older siblings talking about how weak she was and how the doctor had already saved her life by refusing a blood transfusion before he knew what was wrong with her. There was something wrong with her blood, but he didn’t know what yet. She was experiencing a severe aplastic anemia crisis but at the time, the doctor did not know why. He was poring over enormous books on diseases of the blood attempting to diagnose her. Her heart was very weak. A team of ten doctors, along with the one we originally saw in our hometown, worked diligently to figure out what was causing Missy’s aplastic crisis.

In the midst of all this activity, my mother had church elders come into the hospital and anoint Missy.
As it turned out, Missy had congenital spherocytosis. It is a disease that affects the outer membrane of the red blood cells and causes the cells to be sphere-shaped. The spleen, which helps the immune system by filtering impurities out of the blood will filter and hoard the spherical blood cells. People with spherocytosis have enlarged spleens because of this constant filtering and hoarding. They also have thicker bones than others as their marrow is continually trying to replenish the blood supply because spherocytes have a shorter lifespan than normally shaped blood cells. People with this blood disorder are at heightened risk of complications from childhood illnesses that are often trivial to others. The Fifth Disease (parvovirus) most often appears as bright red marks on the faces of children affected by it. Children with spherocytosis (and other blood disorders such as sickle-cell) often end up in aplastic crisis. The doctor suspected my sister had contracted the Fifth Disease as it was making its rounds through school that year and her weakened immune system made a sick little girl that much sicker.

The threat of aplastic crisis in a person with spherocytosis is eliminated by removal of the spleen. Missy was not well enough for the surgery for several weeks. When finally she could have the surgery she was left with an enormous scar; a testament to how enlarged her spleen actually was. Though Missy weighed barely 60 pounds, her spleen was the size of a quart jar!
When Missy finally emerged from the crisis and her body began to recover, the doctor told my mother, “I can’t explain it. She should have died. That girl is a miracle.” The doctor gave my mother confirmation that God — not this doctor or any of the ten others or the surgeon — saved Missy’s life. I asked my mother, “Could God have healed Missy if she were not in the hospital receiving the treatment that would bring her out of aplastic crises and end the threat of aplastic crisis for the rest of her life?” Although she said that God could not have healed Missy unless she received the medical treatment, she still insists that the healing was God’s will. She also clarified that “sometimes God doesn’t heal at all. Sometimes he doesn’t heal right away.”

Although Armstrong’s church has reversed all of its doctrines and become a mainstream evangelical Christian church and my mother’s beliefs have followed suit, her 30-year indoctrination by Armstrong holds firm. She quotes the same scriptures Armstrong did to support faith healing. When I asked if she believed that sickness was the result of sin, she said “Well, sin is a lot of things. It can be eating things that are not good for us, or pollution, or contaminants in our water — those are sins, too.” And genetic disorders? “Who has a hand on that code?” She asks.

Still, the doctors took the time to educate my parents. They had nearly lost their daughter to a blood disorder and they too could face a fatal illness through her if she was not immunized against childhood diseases. Her body, without the spleen and after years of ill health, would never be able to fight infections the way healthy children might. Every illness would be cause for alarm and immediate action. She should probably take antibiotics for the rest of her life along with folic acid. My mother wouldn’t have her on prophylactic antibiotics, but would supplement her with folic acid. Every one of us got innoculated against all the common childhood illnesses. However, when it came time for booster shots, mom had to be threatened by the schools with removal of us kids from classes before she would actually go and get us our shots.

To this day, if Missy gets the flu she is usually hospitalized with pneumonia as well. Every illness is a severe illness. There is no such thing as ‘a little cold’ for Missy. Her own children have inherited the genetic defect that causes this disorder, but are much healthier than she had a chance to be. They were monitored and innoculated and kept out of school anytime the Fifth Disease made its appearance. Those with the severe form of spherocytosis had their spleens removed at age six, before they ever went into an aplastic crisis.

Despite my mother’s belief that prayer saved my sister’s life, I am positive that it nearly took it. God didn’t save my sister’s life. Science did. Do I worship science? No. I certainly have a healthy respect for it, though. Science at least admits when it is wrong.


Anonymous said...

The ultimate problem with this topic is the New Testament and James 5:14.

Excuses for God aside, it says what it says and people trying to understand and believe it get into trouble. It deserves a spot along with snake bite protection and poison drinking for Jesus, also in the NT

Blame the book before telling all the horror stories of how it turned out. Dennis

Anonymous said...

"Science at least admits when it is wrong"

Too bad establishment "science" and the news media have hijacked the name of science to promulgate their lies. Witness Al Gore.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, my doctor couldn't care if I live or die, he just wants to make money off of me. How like a COG minister. People need to stop looking for new heroes and saviors.

Anonymous said...

You could just as easily entitle the article, "Growing Up in a Bible Believing Cult."

Anonymous said...

I have read that the term "anoint" in James refers not to a ceremonial anointing, but a medicinal one. In other words, the passage means, "get medical help and pray for healing." Have any of you read the same?

Anonymous said...

I remember hearing COG speculate about how probably every illness was caused by the presence of a demon. WTF. Not saying saying that was official doctrine or anything, but it's not that big a jump from official doctrine to that conclusion. Amazing to think it's just another small step from there to a full-blown case of Scientology.

Anonymous said...

anon....that is the worst rendition of anoint I have ever heard. NO, it never meant that. When kings were anointed with oil they weren't sent to the chiropractor or neurologist...lord have mercy...

Sounds like a good apologetic for not having to do what it says only

Retired Prof said...

Anon, take a look at this definition of "anoint":

The practice of anointing with perfumed oil was common among the Hebrews. (1.) The act of anointing was significant of consecration to a holy or sacred use; hence the anointing of the high priest (Ex. 29:29; Lev. 4:3) and of the sacred vessels (Ex. 30:26). The high priest and the king are thus called "the anointed" (Lev. 4:3, 5, 16; 6:20; Ps. 132:10). Anointing a king was equivalent to crowning him (1 Sam. 16:13; 2 Sam. 2:4, etc.). Prophets were also anointed (1 Kings 19:16; 1 Chr. 16:22; Ps. 105:15). The expression, "anoint the shield" (Isa. 21:5), refers to the custom of rubbing oil on the leather of the shield so as to make it supple and fit for use in war. (2.) Anointing was also an act of hospitality (Luke 7:38, 46). It was the custom of the Jews in like manner to anoint themselves with oil, as a means of refreshing or invigorating their bodies (Deut. 28:40; Ruth 3:3; 2 Sam. 14:2; Ps. 104:15, etc.). This custom is continued among the Arabians to the present day. (3.) Oil was used also for medicinal purposes. It was applied to the sick, and also to wounds (Ps. 109:18; Isa. 1:6; Mark 6:13; James 5:14). (4.) The bodies of the dead were sometimes anointed (Mark 14:8; Luke 23:56). (5.) The promised Deliverer is twice called the "Anointed" or Messiah (Ps. 2:2; Dan. 9:25, 26), because he was anointed with the Holy Ghost (Isa. 61:1), figuratively styled the "oil of gladness" (Ps. 45:7; Heb. 1:9). Jesus of Nazareth is this anointed One (John 1:41; Acts 9:22; 17:2, 3; 18:5, 28), the Messiah of the Old Testament.

"anoint." Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary. 07 May. 2013. .

So it actually can refer to smearing or pouring on oil as a medical treatment, as well as purely ceremonial uses. We could find out for sure what it actually means in this verse only by going back to the original author and asking for clarification.

This ambiguity offers only one example showing why claiming the Bible is inerrant can't get us anywhere. Like all texts using human language, scripture is fraught with ambiguity. One meaning or the other must be in error. Trouble is, how can we tell which one?

Joe Moeller said...

Im curious to know if the more cultic COGS, like Flurry, Pack , etc are still anti-medical , anti interracial marriage, anti married women working and what their exact policies are.

I know that Pack/Flurry are anti makeup.

Cults that are anitmedical will have increasing problems with the Child Protective agencies, who will intervene in cases of medical neglect of children. Thankfully!

Im going out right now to give some immunizations and antibiotics to some cattle. Good enough for cattle, good enough for people is my saying!

Joe Moeller
Cody, WY

Anonymous said...

Yes, Flurryites are anti-interracial marriage, and rightly so.

Anonymous said...

Inter-racial marriage is bad for human bio-diversity.

Anonymous said...

"At least science admits when its wrong"

I'm sorry, are you kidding me? Scientists are among the worst at defrauding people, often for mega-bucks that dwarf anything WCG ever came up with. Read Nicholas Wade's (New York Times science writer) "Betrayers of the Truth" for starters. (http://books.google.com/books/about/Betrayers_of_the_truth.html?id=ZYwQAQAAIAAJ)

Anonymous said...

"'At least science admits when its wrong'...I'm sorry, are you kidding me? Scientists are among the worst at defrauding people..."

Umm. Science does admit when it's wrong. Not necessarily the individual scientist, but the general community of scientists does. Ever heard of "peer review"? That's what that's all about.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Flurryites are anti-interracial marriage, and rightly so."

Said yet another person with more than one race in his or her gene pool, as is essentially the case with everyone.

Sam said...

In Pasadena we had three prominent chiropractors in the Church. One ran the Health Center on campus.

These three men were peddlers of one quack vitamin or herb after another. People spent thousands of dollars on medicinal herbs, barley pillows and cayenne pepper.

One of these quacks used to set a kitchen timer in his patient room and set it to 15 minutes. When the bell rang at the end of the 15 minutes he would immediately stop and tell you that you needed to come back another day so he could continue "working" on you. This is the same fool that bought a brand new luxury car and had a personal license plate that said "3TGift" on it. He got the car by gouging ripping off members not by some lame-ass tithe blessing.

Another one who had offices in upper Pasadena/Altadena and was a major peddler of his own created pills and naturopathic items - much like Boob Thiel. (Boob is intentional)

These three quacks ruined the health of countless students, employees and members. Instead of getting proper treatment with a REAL doctor the church sent them to these morons.

Most of the suffering by Church members over the decades could have been eliminated if we did not have the obscene doctrine on faith healing.

HWA and Meredith were the two biggest flouters of the doctrine. When they needed medical care they got ti, but then told members they had little faith if they went to doctors.

Anonymous said...

"Inter-racial marriage is bad for human bio-diversity."

Exactly right. That's why god made Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry, Cher, Nat King Cole, and Beyonce such ugly people--to warn us what horrible results genetic mixing can lead to.

Bennie Fischel

Anonymous said...

"Inter-racial marriage is bad for human bio-diversity."

Oh, lawdy!

Skinheads marrying women with hair is ALSO bad for human bio-diversity.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps before we give "science" a clean bill of health because of so-called "peer review," perhaps one might consider the extensive body of criticism about its often biased and what the Royal College of Medicine (UK) calls "flawed process": http://jrs.sagepub.com/content/99/4/178.full