How to avoid a dumpster fire

This is an actual conversation that happened at my house last week (details blurred to protect my integrity)

Craig: I saw (unnamed) at (event he attended).
Me: REALLY?!?! Did you tell him he’s a jackass and kick him where he wishes he had balls?
Craig: Yes. I decided utter annihilation was the best way to handle the situation rather than communication and conversation.
Me: Whatever, you totally talked to him like a person and didn’t kick him anywhere. Hmph.

Friends, this is literally my marriage in a nutshell. I want to punch people in the throat and call them names, and my husband has actual productive conversations and doesn’t take my interpersonal relationship advice. It’s ok though, I recognize my need for improvement. Believe it or not, I am trying. Whether I choose to exercise my better social skills and values usually depends on how vulnerable I feel. The more vulnerable, the harder it is for me not to throw the first punch.

One of the ways I am learning to be myself again is to let down my defenses. It isn’t easy to leave an abusive relationship without feeling like everyone else is the enemy. In my situation, I was often told “people” (always nameless) were watching, calling, complaining and it was up to them (men in leadership) to uphold these complaints, rebuke and punish me. This pattern went on for years. I was never allowed to know the identity of those who monitored my every move. I actually began to believe that every person in the vicinity was a potential enemy and that no place was safe.

I’ve been unlearning this false reality for a while now, but when I feel threatened or emotionally overwhelmed, all my defenses slam back into place. My sharp edges emerge. I plot how to hurt them before they hurt me. These patterns aren’t healthy, but they were the lens of my reality for a long time. I’m learning to create space before responding in order to step back and remember not to come out with my flame flower already blazing. My healing process is awkward and imperfect. I’m growing into new patterns slowly, but I am softening.

Learning to be soft and open is a long process after trauma. When we are wounded we tend to guard the area where the injury occurred so it doesn’t receive further damage. But eventually, if we don’t move in natural ways, the ways we are designed to move, we become stiff and stunted where once we were supple and smooth. I feel stiff and stunted most days. It’s easier to resort to defensive techniques and name calling then it is to open to pain again. I tell myself it’s better to drive people away and be safe than to allow them close where they can wound me again.

I know these feelings aren’t based in reality, but they are easy and known. Easy and known can feel safe and true, even if it isn’t.

I don’t want to be a cynical, snarky, and mean person, not even when it gives that little zing of naughty pleasure. I’ve achieved expert level skills in the game of caustic comeback, but it’s not really the reputation I desire. In fact, this narrow, fearful, binary thinking of us vs. them is what led to the abuse which damaged me. In seeking to shut down and silence the ones I see as my “opponents,” I become like the very ones who damaged me so deeply.

I sure as hell don’t want that.

I don’t want to perpetuate the type of treatment I experienced. I want to be soft and open and loving. I want to hear what someone else has to say, which is hard to do when you’ve already punched them in the throat. I want to be warm and welcoming and speak with intelligence and compassion. I may eventually even overcome muttering “jackass” under my breath when I see them coming, even if I don’t go for the throat punch.

I have these heroes (my husband is one) who are strong and emotionally self-aware and able to hold conversations (without crying) about things they feel passionately without being prickly and defensive. I’m starting to love myself enough again to see the value in “the other” more than the value of being right and putting them in their place. I keep practicing vulnerability so these healthy responses are my go-to behaviors rather than all the self-protective bullshit I currently employ.

I’m working on it, working on me. Every day I’m unlearning the lessons of religion and replacing them with the truth of being human, and frail and fraught with error and filled with the Divine even so. Me, you, them, everyone. All of us needing a little less annihilation and a little more space to be heard.

Diving into heresy

“Some say I fell from grace; they’re being kind. I didn’t fall –I dove” – Sue Monk Kidd

Last weekend I reconfigured a room in my house, one which I have barely used since we moved here. I didn’t purchase anything new for the room, except some white Christmas lights which use year-round, but somehow simply shifting the furniture made the room warmer, more welcoming.

I’ve been sitting here all morning watching the shadows play across the walls and listening to Mo snore next to me on the sofa. It’s Sunday morning, and I’m not at church. I am grateful for this grace anew every weekend. I suppose eventually the novelty of it will wear off and it will feel like this is how life always has been. But currently, this peace is a gift from the Universe full of emotional rest and safety, and usually a steak and eggs breakfast. Falling in love with Sunday is a treat I will not hurry through. Perhaps this is how Sabbath is meant to be experienced. I only know my soul feels still on these long lazy mornings.

Strangely enough, I’m also thinking about heresy as I sit here. Perhaps it’s the recognition that a few simple shifts can change everything. As I reread my November prayer, I contemplated how moving on so often also means letting go. But I think sometimes we confuse letting go with acting as though a thing never happened. When our lives are drastically altered, whether the transition is “good” or “bad,” (this binary sorting of experience is a blog for another time.), we often work very hard at putting the event behind us so that we can get back to being “our usual selves.” It’s true, our usual selves are known and comfortable, but they are also often a false construct since we are always evolving and changing. There is no putting an event behind us. The circumstances of our lives mold and shape us, physically and spiritually. For better or worse, we are changed. A wise person incorporates these changes into their understanding of themselves and the world.

Which brings me to the heresy.

Over the weekend, I added two important pieces of writing to this space. They are concepts I have been exploring for several years and eventually are what led me to split from evangelicalism entirely. This split happened spiritually long before we actually left the church, and in retrospect, it was foolish of me to think professional ministry would ever be a fit for me again. I am constantly grateful for Divine intervention closing the doors to all the church jobs Craig applied to. Even last fall, I was still trying to get back to an old, familiar self, and not incorporating all the ways my faith and my worldview have changed. I was a heretic in sheep’s clothing.

While the manner of our leaving church was abusive and soul-crushing, the actual leaving was a Grace I do not take lightly. I forfeited church but gained back my soul. Even the hard work of returning to wholeness is a gift. I know and love my soul so much better now that I am able to see it clearly as a beautiful, deserving, creative part of my whole Self.

I didn’t share openly all the things I was feeling at the time because admitting them aloud makes me a heretic.

In my fifteen years experience with professional church, doctrine is the holy throne upon which the Lord is seated. This doctrine may or may not be strictly Biblical (many of our modern church traditions have their roots centuries after the nascent period of the Christian church), but once you wrap the Bible itself in an unquestionable layer of authority, there is no room left for interpretation or discussion. Doctrine is as holy and inerrant as scripture itself.

“This is the way God/the church is. There is nothing to be said or done about it.”

Years ago I stopped putting so much faith in traditions, layering heresy upon heresy.

Inerrancy of scripture? Nope.
Existence of eternal fire and punishment hell? Don’t believe it.
The primacy of Christianity to any other spiritual expression? Not having it.
Penal Substitutionary atonement? Forget it.
Patriarchy? Hell no.
A god who commands genocide and rape? Monstrous.
Original sin? That’s a hard pass.
Scientific accuracy of the biblical creation account? I just don’t think so.
End times rapture and apocalyptic theory? Are you kidding me? That’s not even ancient tradition. It’s 1990’s Jenkins and Le Haye pop-culture claptrap the church has used to whip up fear and furor.

I never dared admit any of this lest the church ladies clutch their pearls and call the priests and Pharisees…err…pastors and elders. Which they did anyway, even without saying these things. And now I suppose all the worry and flutter was justified. Look at the near miss they’ve been given. There was a heretic in their midst! Oh, the destruction I might have wrought.

You can see how I was fooling myself that any sort of congregation we were considering would be a good fit for me for long. I simply grew another direction from that sort of faith and thinking. I ask too many questions and draw too many aberrant conclusions. Also, I research and read a lot, both of which are threatening to the men in power. I don’t subscribe to the ideal Christian feminine template. I wear leggings far too often.

However, while I definitely have my issues about the church, I don’t think it’s a terrible place filled with terrible people, quite the opposite. My personal experience is with small men of great insecurity, but I also know some wonderful, generous, courageous women and men who lead and love and serve in beautiful ways. I admire them, even though I may not be like them in the ways I understand and express spirituality. But we don’t have to view the Divine the same way to love well together. Just ask the Jewish and Muslim communities in Pittsburgh.

I’m thinking about all these things this Sunday morning because it’s time to finally let go of my religious identity. It wasn’t all bad, but in the end, I was far more damaged than helped by professional religion. We were fervently and well loved by individuals, but the church as a business is crueler and more calculating than most “worldly” companies I’ve been part of with fewer people to answer to for their cruelty. Religion has changed me; this is undeniable.

Now I need to incorporate those changes into the new self I am becoming, one who is more whole and more honest than she’s had the freedom to be in a while. Apparently, this is the space for working that out. So here’s where I admit, we’re about to leave the map. If heresy isn’t your cup of tea, maybe it’s where you get off. And that’s okay. It’s about to get sort of feminist and Goddess-y and messy in here because that’s where I’m going next. Finally, all the doors are open; I have stopped holding my breath.

Welcome to the dark woods. Here there be wolves and witches and wild women and dancing under the moon. At last.

The Box of Disorder: Meeting the Divine on the slippery slope.

During the Summer of 2017, I did a lot of writing. Shortly after I began writing about my faith journey, I was presented with the contract of silence. I stopped writing and even closed down the site where my writing was found, but I saved most of what was written there. When I talk about my experience over the last several years, it is impossible not to talk about the experience of deconstruction. The box of order and this post were two of the most honest things I’d written, so I wanted to share them again before I start talking about reconstruction – or as I like to call it: Diving into heresy.
Almost everyone has opened the box of disorder. Some of us flirt with it many times in our lives but never dare to climb inside. Some of us climb in and never leave, unfortunately. Disorder isn’t an easy place to live.  Most people who do climb inside this box react one of two ways: by returning to the order box due to fear, guilt or shame (it happened to me), or by embracing disorder, eventually emerging to enter the box of reorder (this is currently happening to me).
 Usually we face the box of disorder because something catastrophic happens in our lives. Illness, loss, tragedy, or a drastic shift in life circumstances can all send our idols of order crashing to the ground. We stop being certain of anything; we aren’t sure where to turn.  The box of disorder feels like a carnival fun-house with unlevel floors, distorted mirrors, and hard-to-find exits.
 I’ve spent the last few years deep in this box, attuned to terms used to describe the experience: dark night of the soul, backsliding, crisis of faith, falling upward, and my personal favorite, the slippery slope. None of them are particularly appealing, with good reason.  In the box of disorder, we are likely to lose our identity, our certainty, some of our friends and possibly the support of our faith community. It’s a messy, bloody process.
 Sometimes, the box of disorder starts with a simple question: is that really true? You may have heard this question before. The serpent used it on Eve in the Garden of Eden myth. Did God really say that? Is it really true?  The story ends with disastrous consequences, and humanity has avoided the question ever since. It’s easier to simply accept what we are told without question and cling to order in an attempt to avoid pain.
 I don’t say this in condemnation, having done it myself.  Sometimes the answer to the question is it really true is too big, too terrible, too full of unknown consequences to face.  When this happens, we retreat to the box of order.  Possibly many, many times, we open the lid of disorder to discover we can’t face what’s inside. So we retreat, again and again, and again, until one day, we simply can’t accept the easy answers anymore.
 I believe my descent down the slippery slope began just this way, with one question that created a crack in my order box. I ignored the crack for a long time. But like a scab we can’t stop picking, I never left it entirely alone. Eventually, more cracks appeared.  They became harder to hide. My box was splintering, drawing attention.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, the consequences for my defection were swift and terrible. When the dust settled, I mended the box of order as best I could,  and climbed back inside as deeply as I could. I stayed there for many years, uncomfortable and unable to forget my questions, but terrified of what the box of disorder held.
Eventually, a series of difficult events created too much tension and discomfort to remain. Glue and duct tape, even my prayers and fears couldn’t hold the box together anymore.
I shattered.
 I couldn’t stop asking the question, is it really true, of every belief, rule, relationship, person and experience I knew.  This is disorder.
 But let’s go back to Adam and Eve a moment.  Yes, when faced with the question, ‘is this really true’, they encountered disastrous consequences. However, the more I reflect on this story, the more I realize something very important. Ejection from the Garden of Eden is the best thing for Adam and Eve How often,  in wisdom literature, even in nature itself, do we see created beings become stronger, better versions of themselves as a result of distress?  We see it in diamonds, gold, marble, trees, flowers even our very own bones.
 The more I experience life and the Divine, the more convinced I am the Garden of the creation myth, like the box of order, is a beautiful beginning, but not a place we are meant to stay. If we want to become more in tune with the Divine, we need Her Spirit within us, which isn’t possible in the Garden. We know and love God best when we also experience that which is not God. Inside the Garden, just as in the box of order, there is no choice for us to make.
 Disorder does not reduce. It refines. We become more wholly ourselves when we experience doubt, disorder and yes, brokenness.
 If we believe, which I do, that Jesus isn’t Plan B, hastily initiated because of our screw-up, then it is true that leaving the Garden and braving the wilderness was always the best possible way for us to become enfleshed Gods and Goddesses ourselves. We didn’t accidentally fall, we were created to fall.  In falling we are finally swept up into the exhilarating, awesome, unfathomable grace of the Divine.
 Unless we leave the Garden, the box of order, there are ways and faces of God She cannot reveal to us. Her love is so enormous, so all-encompassing that She desires to unfold and unfold and unfold again each and every time we ask, is this really true?  But we must find the courage to ask. When at last we do, She will begin to pull down all the false and comforting constructs we only thought were true, one by one.
 So we slide down the slippery slope tail-over-tea-kettle, meeting Divinity with every tumble. Looking right and left, we see Her tumbling beside us all the while, and when we finally reach the bottom, if we ever actually do, we also find Her waiting there to catch us in Her wide open arms, wondering why we waited so long to fall.
 The box of disorder is the scariest, loneliest, hardest, most beautiful, most miraculous, most invigorating place I’ve ever existed. Like Adam and Eve, I can’t go back to the Garden where order reigns. The way is closed, not as punishment, but as a blessing. The wide world lies open before me, and the Divine inhabits every inch of it, even me.
 Is it really true?  Yes, but not the rigid ways we have been taught. Life, faith, love, God, meaning, death, loss, grief, pain, all are so much bigger and more beautiful than we ever dared dream when we lived in the Garden.

Why order is necessary: breaking down the three boxes

During the Summer of 2017, I did a lot of writing. Shortly after I began writing about my faith journey, I was presented with the contract of silence. I stopped writing and even closed down the site where my writing was found, but I saved most of what was written there. When I talk about my experience over the last several years, it is impossible not to talk about the experience of deconstruction. This post and the box of disorder were two of the most honest things I’d written, so I wanted to share them again before I start talking about reconstruction – or as I like to call it: Diving into heresy.

I sat down at my keyboard today and wondered, Is it ok to write about writing? Do people want to read that? Which is a silly question because I have five readers, and obviously you are the five I can’t chase away no matter what I write about. We’re stuck together for life, and I’m very ok with it. But then I considered the layers beneath that seemingly innocent duo of questions and peeked at a familiar theme. What is expected of me? Am I upholding those expectations? That’s the voice of codependency and trauma. What are the rules and how do I follow them perfectly? Those questions tell me instead of writing about writing, it’s time to break down some boxes, starting with order.

I learned about the concept of three boxes from Richard Rohr, a formative voice for me over the last several years. He breaks the universal faith journey into three boxes: order > disorder > reorder.

In the interest of brevity–and because you can read more at the linked article–let’s call the first box the box of immaturity. It holds the foundational tenets which we are taught from the moment we draw breath. Whether or not we are talking about religion, we begin life by following certain rules, ways of explaining how the world works. This is a good thing. In fact, it’s a necessary process enabling us to grow in an emotionally stable environment. One of our most basic needs is security. Foundational rules keep us safe and provide order: the stove is hot; the street is not safe; God loves us; the sun will rise every morning.

These rules create order and provide the framework for reality. Without them, the world is a Salvadore Dali painting, skewed, unstable and unpredictable.

All of us rely on rules daily. But most of us don’t follow them blindly once we gain maturity. For instance, the rule about going into the street. It is true streets can be dangerous. But when I take my morning run, I frequently run on the street if the sidewalk is bad All streets are not dangerous all the time for all people. As I grow in wisdom I realize black and white is fine for starting, but it doesn’t remain true as I mature. The principle is true though the practice isn’t always true.

When I run in the street, I leave the box of order and venture into disorder: I ran on the street and was nearly wiped out by a car. Eventually, we reach reorder: I can avoid a collision by carefully assessing traffic patterns before assuming street safety.

Religion can be a very first-box-oriented endeavor. We make rules because we want to know and understand the Divine, which is fine. A god who is too big or too mysterious to understand is a power with which we can never connect. Knowing and understanding are key to a healthy relationship, therefore the Divine makes Herself knowable and comprehensible because she desires a relationship. However, there are parts of her being which are not immediately knowable and even those which are essentially unknowable due to the limits of human understanding.

We use these revealed truths as cornerstones on which we build our theology. God is good. The universe is Divinely ordered. Jesus is God enfleshed. Jesus’s life is worthy of emulation. We can love like God, and She desires this way of love for us. Through Love we are formed into the Divine image. These beliefs matter. They create order in our chaotic reality. When they are distorted, our minds and bodies, as well as our religions fall into dysfunction.

Unfortunately, we often remain at this immature stage. It’s easy. Other people tell us what to think and how to behave. We don’t have to think for ourselves very often. We come to see the rules as immovable constructs for all time rather than starting point for a long conversation. Yes, the stove is hot and may burn us. However, the stove also allows us to create an endless variety of food, which may lead to conversation, laughter, togetherness, and community. What is true about the stove is not ALL that is true about the stove. It’s a starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

The same is true of our religious beliefs:

The Universe is Divinely ordered, but there is more to the conversation.
Jesus life is worth emulating, but there is more to the conversation.
We can love like God, but there is so much more to the conversation.

Sometimes having more conversation is scary. Sometimes, the stove burns your house down; the street proves deadly.

Sometimes theology goes horribly, maniacally wrong.

At this point we face a sort of crisis, is it easier to continue the conversation, or do we revert to the basic tenets and never deviate? Do we conform to the rules and reject anyone who does not or cannot conform to them, calling them a heretic and casting them away from us for our own safety? Do we dare question if the original rule might not even be a true rule at all?

Where did the rules begin and who decided they were necessary anyway?

Now we’re in uncharted territory. It’s not safe, not secure, not popular, and definitely not easy. Which is why so many of us never leave the safety of the rules. If a thing is always true, we always know what to expect. We always know the outcome. We never have to worry about the consequences. So we live this way for years. Some of us live this way forever. It isn’t inherently wrong to live our entire lives in the box of order, but it’s an extremely exclusive way to live. If a set of rules is true, then every other set of rules must be false. There can be only one set of true rules.

But somehow the Divine isn’t as binary as all that.

The box of order is safe, but it breeds superiority, contempt, and disassociation. At its extreme, it is completely anti-community. There can only be us and them, and we are always completely right.

Order is a necessary starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

Reclaiming Anticipation

When I was a child, we traveled every summer to my grandmother’s house on a lake in Michigan. I didn’t have a perfect life – no one does – but I can tell you those Michigan summers were absolutely idyllic, cousins everywhere, in and out of the water all day long, the soft Michigan grass which even on the hottest days still feels cool under the trees. My grandmother was a big believer in the thirty-minute rule: no one gets back in the water for thirty minutes after eating. This meant we’d swim and play until our stomachs were caving in, and then after eating we’d hover at the end of the dock, daring each other to put our toes in, our legs in, to jump in and get right back out without being caught. Meanwhile, Grandma yelled random threats through the screen doors.

I used to plan for these trips for hours. I loved to make packing lists and activity lists for the long car ride. To this day, I still love a car trip. To me, interstates and rest areas mean something soul healing and wonderful at the end, even if, in reality, they don’t. I don’t know if these summertime trips are where my joy of anticipation began, but it is something I have carried with me all my life. Many people love surprises, and I do too, but I love surprises so much more when they are sprung in advance so I can anticipate through the time leading up to the experience. When Craig scheduled a session in a shark cage at Sea World for my birthday, he told me months ahead of time, longest lasting gift ever!

Gretchen Rubin, one of my favorite happiness researchers, posits that anticipation, experience, and revisiting are all equally important when it comes to gauging a happy/memorable experience. Even things which are difficult in the moment, like running a half marathon, can be encapsulated as a joyful memory when paired with the anticipation of the event, and revisiting the highlights often. My own half marathon, which was excruciating, remains fixed in my mind as a fabulous weekend. Although, I’m not sure it’s a weekend I want to repeat except as a spectator.

Lately, I haven’t been able to enjoy anticipation like I used to. Trauma and abuse usurped the lovely expectant glow and turned it into a sort of dread. I learned to fear what might be coming next and to believe that most events I enjoy would be met with repercussions. Even worse, We would experience a surprise emotional ambush directly preceding an anticipated event which would taint the rest of the experience. This happened the day before we went on vacation more than once, establishing our abuser’s power, as if it were ever threatened, and effectively overshadowing the joy and relaxation we’d been anticipating.

Because I never knew what might trigger the next attack, anticipation turned into anxiety. I couldn’t escape the undercurrent of dread that something painful was coming. I looked forward to trips as an escape from a poisonous environment and dreaded returning. There were certainly moments and events which I enjoyed, but none of them were free of the shadow of abuse. Like a greasy oil slick, it covered over and tainted everything with a slimy, noxious sheen.

This pattern of emotional abuse and response didn’t happen overnight. It escalated gradually for years. Even though the direct abusive influence ended months ago, I now have to do the hard work of relearning how to be myself. It’s a long journey.

Last week, Craig and I went to Atlanta to see Rob Bell who has been a voice of sanity, for me especially, over the last few years. Because he knows me, my husband told me we were going well in advance so I could enjoy the anticipation. This is when I began to really notice that looking forward to this event, which would definitely not be approved of by church leaders who once governed our lives, (if you are outside the arena of over-blown religious drama, Rob Bell is definitely a heretic in fundamentalist circles), triggered fear and anxiety, even though those men no longer have the means to exert any control over our lives. My ability to anticipate has been so warped by trauma, that I am in danger of losing it entirely.

But knowledge is power, right?

One of the gifts writing and sharing my spiritual abuse experience is that it helps me be a better analyst of where the deepest wounds to my psyche are and to recognize the best ways to reverse the effects of trauma. I believe distance and time will bring healing, but I want to accelerate the process, to leave the taint of oppressive religious systems behind and enjoy the gift of being me again. I want to anticipate good things without fear of the inevitable painful response. I am learning how to be a vulnerable human again, and sometimes it hurts. But like childbirth, it hurts in a way that brings forth life. I can survive this labor, knowing what comes next.

Recently, Craig and I attended a show, which was officially my professional coming out as his wife. Until now, everyone has known about me, but not met me. I don’t really figure in to his work experience – so different from ministry where I couldn’t escape scrutiny and expectation if I tried, which I did, desperately. Even though I had no prior experience with most of the people I knew I would meet, I carried a little ball of fear and dread around with me the entire week before. I tried to anticipate with pleasure but the switch kept flipping to a low-level anxiety, creating a familiar nauseous thrum in my body.

But I went. I actually had fun. I met people, delightful people, people who were warm and welcoming and happy to meet me. People who have no expectation beyond meeting again at the next social event, which I am now able to anticipate, if not fully, at least without the anxiety triggers I experienced with the first meeting. When I see that bitch Anxiety rise up in my mind now, I have a good memory to draw on to put her in her place.

I want to anticipate good things fully, the way I used to. I’m taking back my power to look forward to what happens next.
My abusers can’t have it.
I am the keeper of my own soul, and I’m taking back all the power I foolishly traded away for a lie.

I’m really looking forward to the whole experience.

How to start a conversation

So the question becomes what now? What’s next after this round of Awakening?

Sharing the story, albeit the short version, of my journey with church and fundamental evangelicalism is an important part of my healing. But I don’t want to stay a victim, only talking about what happened and how it broke me, only focusing on the hurt and shame. I want more and better than what I’ve experienced. The only way out may be through, but sitting at the end of the tunnel looking over my shoulder isn’t moving forward.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve written about the spiritual for so long, I realize it’s where I am most comfortable. For two years I wrote very little at all never knowing what word or phrase would trigger my abuser(s). I wonder now if this fear has been part of my overall spiritual apathy. For the last year, I’ve basically pushed anything of a religious or spiritual nature away from my attention. I’m so disgusted by the fundamentalist response to an abhorrent political climate that I don’t even want to be associated with those practices or even sit in the buildings.

But I do feel that something calling me back to Center, and apparently that voice demands words, lots of words as part of the birthing process. Cutting off my Spirit is the same as ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’. I’m facing the same questions that many nones and dones everywhere are asking: where is a safe space for me and others like me to have meaningful conversation?  Meaningful conversation doesn’t have to center on spirituality, but I believe it often wanders into the spiritual realm anyway, whether or not we intend it.

For instance, a good friend joined me for dinner recently; her friendship is another unexpected gift from my job. We talked and laughed about many things.  Of course, books were an enormous part of the evening. Our conversation wove through books and musicals to more intimate details of our lives, how we feel, whom we love, how we experience life previously and presently. These things have great meaning and, in my understanding at least, they are deeply spiritual because they directly affect the well-being of our soul/ spirit. When I use the term spiritual, I mean this inner part of our selves at least as much as I mean a supernatural force outside of us.

Did we speak of God? Very little.  But I still consider our conversation Spiritual.

In my experience, many religious spaces aren’t safe for these types of spiritual conversations. My friend, who is a delightful, fun, incredible, world traveling, peace corp teaching, theater-loving, intelligent individual, who makes the world a richer place by being in it, doesn’t subscribe to the conventional, religious narrative. Would the church offer a safe space for her to be fully herself, freely expressing all the facets of her self without condemnation or coercion? Would we be free to have the conversations we had in my home within a religious construct without having to correct her choices to align to a cultural norm? Would she feel safe and welcome?

Would my non-binary friends? My gay friends? My secular humanist friends?
A practicing Muslim?
A black, single mom receiving state benefits?
A refugee?
A Hasidic Jew?
A Sikh?
A Christian with questions?

The curious thing about ‘safe spaces’ is if they aren’t universally safe, then they aren’t truly safe. Inevitably, a power structure will assert itself in order to dictate and control the narrative and experience of a non-inclusive ‘safe space’  In order for there to be a power structure, someone has to be in…and someone has to be out. That’s how power works. It is always binary; it must be more real, more right, more important, more venerated, more absolute than any other narrative. When power controls the narrative, it’s always possible you could embody the next quality which falls from favor, and when this happens you will be coerced to conform or be expelled.

The question I grapple with is whether a space seeks to expand and embrace, or reduce and indoctrinate. Fundamentalist spaces are overwhelmingly the latter. Christianity has evolved into an exclusive salvation club. A relationship with fundamentalism is fraught with an agenda: can we get this person outside spiritual construct to see the universe exclusively our way as well as renounce their former experience as wrong, broken and worthless and assume our agenda? Oh, and pray the sinner’s prayer which is, after all, the real key to holiness.

I know I’m stepping on toes here. Some of my longest and dearest friends identify as Christian, and I do find them safe and open and wonderful, even when we disagree. I am speaking now of systems, not individuals. Every religious structure, or any system of power, has its extremists, its moderates and its outliers. I’m not asking anyone to justify how they experience the Spiritual (in this case I do mean supernatural power), or even if they have any form of spiritual experience at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about conversation. For so long, I was excluded from taking part in it. When my abusers met repeatedly to talk about me, about how to handle and control me, I wasn’t allowed to be part of the conversation. I was reassured, however, that this type of a abuse is supported by scriptures, which were helpfully listed in the Silence Contract, in case I had any questions. Even had I been in the room, I wouldn’t have been part of the conversation because my experience didn’t matter, as long as the power narrative was firmly established.

But the truth is, I am hungry for spiritual conversation, the kind which meanders and wonders, the kind which is deeply intimate one moment and hilariously sacrilegious the next.

Do you know that I stopped laughing for a while when the abuse I experienced was at its peak?  I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but these days, when I laugh deeply from my center, I find myself thinking, I forgot how good this feels. Laughter is an experience my soul missed even though my conscious-self wasn’t aware of the lack. While I often say I am the funniest person I know, this type of laughter really only happens in conversation with another soul. I am profoundly grateful now when I consider how many people in my daily life elicit this response from me. They are my safe spaces, my spiritual spaces even if we never speak of God in any of Her identities.

So this is where I am. Seeking safe, spiritual conversation. If we happen to stumble on God, however we experience the Holy, while we’re at it, well, that’s alright too.

The Sacred Myth of the Hysterical Woman

A few weeks ago, I planned to drive to Nashville to visit my family. I’ve been in a new-to-me car since the summer, and this was our first road trip together. Unfortunately, the traffic was horrific, including a closure of the major interstate I needed to get home. Fortunately, GPS directed me, and everyone else, down a side highway to avoid the area, but the traffic only worsened, bumper to bumper, stop and go, as far as I could see. I was actually considering turning around to go back home when my entire car shut down. It didn’t make a funny noise; it didn’t flash an engine light.

It all just stopped, engine, electrical system, power steering, power breaks – all of it. One hundred and fifty miles from home.

I womanhandled the car over to the shoulder, activated my AAA (hallelujah hands for AAA ya’ll. We’ve used them enough this year to pay for ten years of membership), and awaited the tow truck. At 4:45 on a Friday evening, I had no hope of anyone diagnosing the problem before Monday, so I also awaited my husband to retrieve me and take me home knowing full well we’d have to return for the car the following week.

Monday morning, the car ran perfectly. When I called the mechanic to get a report, he stated he could find nothing wrong. No codes were showing; no problem cranking her up.  He even took her on a twenty-mile test drive. My response was this: I did not imagine that my car shut down while driving with me inside it. I’m not making this up. He, of course, was gracious, taking the car on another long test run, checking any possible issue, and still finding nothing wrong. We picked up the car, which Craig drove home because I wasn’t speaking to her. We still don’t know what happened on the road that day.

But the words I said to my mechanic are ones I can’t seem to stop repeating in various situations:

I did not imagine my experience. I am not making this up. I don’t want to be seen as one of those raving, hysterical women.

The raving, hysterical woman is a sacred myth culture uses whenever we women make power structures, usually established by men, uncomfortable. It’s used to deflect from the fact that there is a real problem, and those systems are responsible for that problem. When women question the status quo, we are dangerous.

I think of Dr. Christine Ford, who was violated so many years ago and stayed silent, knowing she would not be believed, knowing that naming her shame would only make it possible for others to dehumanize her further by invalidating her experience. She would be held responsible for her own victimization by being too drunk, in the wrong place, dressed inappropriately, too much of a party girl. What I saw on the stand during her testimony wasn’t a raving, hysterical person – Kavanaugh filled that role nicely and was found sympathetic – but a blazingly courageous figure, staring a male-dominated and traditionally androcentric system in the face stating, I did not imagine this violation. I am not making this up.

I also consider Vonda Dyer, Julia Williams and other brave women of Willow Creek Community Church who overcame years of religious cultural conditioning requiring they acquiesce to male authority and protect men as spiritual leaders, in order to speak up about how they were violated – their bodies, their souls, their humanity. In religious circles, speaking out against an “anointed” figure in the church, almost always male, is tantamount to urinating on the Bible. These “divisive, angry, hysterical women” ( the word ‘women’ couched in these terms will sound as though the speaker is spitting as the word leaves the mouth ) with our drama and our fragility and our inability to see the bigger picture for the greater good. How dare they?

How dare we?
They did not imagine this violation. They are not making this up.

It would be easier and more comfortable for me not to identify with these bold women.

After all, I wasn’t sexually violated, not touched, not held down against my will, in fact, many of the violations I suffered happened without even my presence in the building. So how is it possible that I consider myself violated as well?

Ultimately what happened to these women, to women every day when they are violated, isn’t an expression of sexual desire. Sex may be the vehicle of abuse, but it isn’t the motive. It’s also not the only vehicle. Emotional and spiritual trauma are even more common and less recognized because ‘they aren’t a big deal.’ The damage they inflict is invisible. The act of violating a soul or a human body usually stems from a deep need to express power – to show a person he can do what he wants when he wants and there is nothing she can do to stop him (or them).  When women have the audacity to express ourselves, our independent feminine thoughts, ideas, visions, emotions, experiences, sexual desires, identity, or existence, we must be reminded of our place.

This “reminder” can take many forms.

Afterward, women experience a form of gaslighting meant to push us into the stereotype of the hysterical woman. It usually starts with denial: that never happened; you are making that up. We may be demeaned by labeling us in derogatory terms: “emotional, divisive, etc.” We may be diminished by calling our character into question: she dresses like a whore; she’s angry (somehow this is a derogatory stance for women); she deviates from the male definition of a “good woman”. We may be dismissed: our experience isn’t how it really is, we are wrong, it didn’t happen that way. We are often silenced, whether through shame, coercion or direct physical intimidation. I have experienced all of the above.

Even if our bodies are not physically violated, demeaning, diminishing, dismissing and silencing are violations, a type of soul rape.

As women, we have normalized these events, which happen to us almost daily, and we often swallow our anger, pretending it’s not a big deal. We don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. If we are in a religious construct, we don’t want to go against a Divine Being who seems to be made in the image and likeness of the very men who violate us.

We don’t want to be seen as raving, hysterical women. Who will believe us? How will we be taken seriously in the face of power systems which have existed for hundreds, even thousands of years? Why speak up at all?

Every day, when I sit down to write, as I dare to share my story, I think about these things. I am angry. I have been violated. What happened to me should not be normalized.

But I know what people will say, they’ve said it for years. I’m divisive. I should be able to overlook the harm to one person by a toxically masculine institution in the face of “all the good things they do.” I’m a troublemaker. I’m a raving, hysterical, liberal, snowflake feminist. Or my personal favorite, “Jesus would want us to forgive them.”

Bullshit.

That’s what I tell myself every single day. That’s all bullshit. The abuse and violation I experienced are real. They are systemically rampant in America and perhaps nowhere more so than in our churches where women are oppressed, silenced, denied and diminished as part of the doctrine the institution promotes. Women are angry because we should be angry. Our sacred forms, our souls, are being violated. We are something less-than-human in the eyes of the powerful.

We are cute, amusing, tolerated, patronized, prized and dismissed as too simple or too fragile to understand the complexity of the dominant male narrative. This theology is a violation of our purpose and our personhood. My body, with its curves and its breasts and its propensity to leak alarming fluids – blood, tears, milk – isn’t an invitation for men to exert any form of control, sexual, spiritual or otherwise.

If it seems I am angry, it’s because I am. Not only for me but for the Bathshebas and the Marys and the Dr. Fords and every woman whose story and body and soul have been appropriated by the masculine power systems to defer to a male-generated norm. We aren’t male property.

We angry women belong to our selves. We are vibrant, bold, powerful, beautiful. We make the male narrative uncomfortable. We threaten the foundation of male-dominated power structures. We don’t stay in the places men put us. We speak truth to bullshit.

I did not imagine my experience. I am not making this up.