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.
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.
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 Hasidic Jew?
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.
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.”
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.
“How you do anything is how you do everything.” ~ Richard Rohr
Divorcing church is a messy business. They get to keep the moral high ground and we get mimosas on Sunday morning.
I actually wish it was that easy. Divorcing church means there is a great big hole in my identity now, one I am in no rush to fill. At least weekly someone asks us, Where are you going to church now?
I can barely stomach the thought. I won’t speak for Craig, but he’s in no rush, either. We spend most Sunday mornings on the front porch with coffee and fresh air, reading, talking, resting. It’s communion enough for now.
I recently examined an idea: love can’t exist in isolation. This concept then became a foundation for the argument that christians must participate with a church congregation, or we aren’t truly learning and experiencing love. Looking at my life now, I am far less isolated than at any point over the last three years. I give love; I receive love-love which isn’t control and coercion wearing an “I love you” t-shirt- on a daily basis. Home, work, friends, family. I have a full, glorious life. I agree we don’t experience love in isolation, but I reject the idea that church is the single vehicle to provide a loving environment.
Because I am naturally introspective, I have to discipline myself every day not to wallow in victimhood or go too far down the rabbit hole of what might have been. I also work very hard not to villainize those who abused me. Mostly they are sadly short-sighted men who believe they are gatekeepers for something sacred, blind to the fact that sacredness isn’t found in form and function but in being. Theirs is a narrow vision.
It’s likely they will never acknowledge the damage they caused or the pain they inflicted. They certainly didn’t see it even in our final meeting, which focused on condemnation, rebuke, and correction, not of my actions, but of my emotions and experiences (an emotionally abusive tactic known as gaslighting). Small men with narrow emotional skillsets make for a cold, small kingdom. They are welcome to it.
I want something bigger, warmer and more welcoming, for myself and for people I love.
At least once I every day, I stop and take a breath and tell myself, this is my real life, and I am my whole self in it.
When I practice this, I feel like I could fill my lungs forever with clean, fresh air. This grounding is necessary after I spent so many years trying to escape reality.
Each day, I remind myself that all men are not ‘those’ men, especially men in authority. I work with a number of very fine gentlemen, who in no way mirror the misogynistic patterns which undergird evangelicalism. Every day I relax a little more. I stop waiting for the hammer to fall. I am respected and appreciated. I am also stretched and challenged which is another great way to keep from spiraling into destructive thought patterns. Working with the public is good for me, broadening my worldview and constantly challenging my capacity for kindness and patience.
I focus a great deal on my physical well-being: sleep, exercise, diet. Being well in these areas supports my mental and emotional well-being. After decades of imbibing the message that our flesh, our physical self is fallen, sinful, broken and of little value How did that become good news in any universe? How did any religion think that message would elevate anyone spiritually?
I’m discovering what it is to love the body I inhabit. The walking, talking, feeling flesh. This body which survived cancer, chemo, radiation, pregnancy, miscarriage, c-sections, injury, repair, mountain climbing, scuba diving, shark tanks, a half marathon, eating, and intimacy, breastfeeding, and letting go, grief and joy and anger and shame – this is my one and only amazing and beautiful body. It is not a polluted mess which holds my soul captive until I finally “go to heaven.” It’s the glorious vessel that translates my experience in the world every moment. The more I love my self, the better I am able to love the world around me.
It’s a damn fine world, let me tell you. I’m not eager to “escape” it for anything.
Every day, I awaken a bit more. Freedom is like that, expanding, unfolding calling us to keep moving further up and further into this reality we call life.
Am I a Christian? I don’t know, and what’s more, I’m not sure I care. So many labels are just baggage, as though they could tell anyone anything of value about our unique and shining selves. I know I trust Jesus – the man, the myth and the legend. I know His narrative will always be my native tongue. I will continue to study other cultures and practices, but it’s likely I don’t have enough years of life left to speak any other narrative as fluently. I am at peace with this. I embrace my love of spiritual and contemplative practices. This is me, wholly me, a silly, nerdy, bookish, questioning, wondering, belly-laughing, contemplative, eclectic gypsy down to my marrow.
I believe we grow up more than once in our lives. Biologically we have no choice. Our bodies and brains will mature with or without our consent and with very little effort on our part. But emotionally and spiritually, these are maturities we work towards. These require our blood, sweat, and tears. We can choose to take the easy path and hang on to the patterns and traditions handed to us as children, and we may be well contented in those. But we will always expend tremendous energy defending and protecting them when they rub up against other patterns and traditions which we see as threatening. We can remain children throughout our lives.
Or we can relax our grip, an act of tremendous courage. Opening ourselves to the value of other patterns and traditions is the only way for our primary experiences to assume their proper place in our lives. These events mold and shape us, but they do not define us. Other traditions and practices have intrinsic value even if they seem strange and unfamiliar. We can learn from them, and those who practice them, without erasing our identity. In fact, it may enhance our identity.
I’m open to the possibility of returning to the church one day, though never one that isn’t inclusive or which has no women in lead roles. But even if I embrace those traditions again, it will be loosely, with the understanding that they do not create or save me. Only the Divine within has that power. I can freely participate in whatever resonates with my soul, understanding that those harmonies exist anywhere I go. I am the incarnation of God (or Source, or Universe, or Buddha or Allah…name your identifier) even if I never darken the door of a church again. Here is where I find peace. I don’t need a label to understand this.
When people asked Jesus if he was the Christ, he always answered with a question: Who do you say I am? We have spent millennia answering that question, in beautiful and horrible ways. Not a single one of those definitions have the power to change the essence of the One who tabernacled with us and in us. He/She is.
I AM…me. And will spend the rest of my life reveling in the experience of being one with the Universe which never ceases growing and unfolding.
Before reading this post, you may want to see this post and also this one to understand more of the story.
Looking back over the last few years, I feel as though I’ve undergone a series of awakenings. When we were at Rob Bell’s show last weekend, he said, Once you’ve seen, you can’t unsee. He’s not wrong, but what I know is you can try really hard to pretend like you don’t see it for a long time.
I don’t actually believe there is only one path a person is destined to take in life, just as I don’t believe in soul mates. Our life is an ever-evolving series of choices and actions and possibilities. Where we end up is completely up to us. I don’t even believe that the wiser the choice, the greater the likelihood that we will live happily ever after because I know shitstorms happen for no reason whatsoever. Ask the people in the Florida panhandle which choices could have changed the path of Michael. No one is immune.
I say all this to say, I’ve been awakening to a wider view of…well…everything for over ten years, a span of time which both humbles and astounds me. There was a time when I absolutely was “that Christian.” I knew the answers. I knew the scriptures. I understood the way the universe worked and if you didn’t agree, it wasn’t because there were more possibilities than I imagined, it was because you were wrong (and probably going to hell for it.) It doesn’t make me proud to say these things, but it does help me understand that most of us are doing the best we can with the information we have. If the universe is still expanding, I can hardly expect less of myself given enough time.
I can list the events which triggered my more recent reawakening, but I can’t specifically remember any one thing that started the whole ball rolling years ago- maybe it always is rolling and we only notice it after a great distance is traveled. I do remember being troubled by a narrow and seemingly fragile view of God. I have to believe any god worthy of worship is quite able and willing to defend Themselves if necessary, and we don’t have to be so afraid to examine them, critique them and question them. If a god can’t stand up to these things, then They are no God. Obviously, I had questions- I always do – eventually, those questions brought me around to our concept of church. Friends, let me warn you, if you thought God was sacred, you ain’t seen anything. When you dare to examine, question and critique church, now you’re truly tipping sacred cows.
There are a million and twelve details to the story of leaving Florida, but let’s shorten it to: Contract of silence, “resignation”, kicked out of the church. All neatly wrapped with the gospel of church discipline with the corresponding scriptures.
The second verse is the same as the first, add nine years and a lot more fear.
I speak lightly of it now but that was a terrifying time for us. Leaving Florida was a move we never saw coming with three young children and a great deal of debt. I wasn’t working, so no help there. Our severance was based on our isolation from anyone associated with the church, so we were also essentially friendless. We needed a lifeboat and fast.
Here is the point where we could have chosen a different pathway. We didn’t have to go back into ministry. We had multiple opportunities presented to us at this time, including a church which differed drastically in style and holds more loosely to the concept of doctrine and theology than the one we recently exited. I don’t know how my life would have differed had we chosen another path. I also don’t regret the one we have chosen, because where we are now is exciting.
Given an array of choices, we went for geographic distance, but the church where we landed was a carbon copy of the one we departed from both then and now. Perhaps there is comfort in familiarity? Perhaps the price was right? Whatever our reasons, we came. And I tucked my wondering, my questions, and my evolving thoughts away neatly and deeply in an effort to keep my family safe and my life tidy.
I was fine for a time. It’s easy to play a role, even an ill-suited one, when you are also busy raising a family, settling into a new place, dealing with the financial fall-out, figuring out an entirely new culture. It’s easy to spout the standard rhetoric when it’s already deeply ingrained. No need to think about anything, just put on the soundtrack and dance, dance, dance. Which I did, for years.
And then I woke up, again. For keeps.
Hurricane Michael blew through earlier this week, although by the time it arrived, it had blown most of its fury out. Still, when we saw the nightmare roaring ashore in Florida, we began to do things a community does to prepare for disaster: close down schools and businesses, pull in the lawn furniture, and buy all the gas and milk available–side note, I do not buy milk in the face of impending doom, and I don’t understand why it’s a thing.
Michael arrived overnight, and quite honestly, we slept through the brunt of it. Having endured the hurricane season of 2004 in Florida – Charley! Francis! Ivan! Jeanne! – we don’t feel compelled to listen to weird noises in the dark and worry about what it might be. If the roof blows off, my being awake to hear it happen won’t stop it from happening.
We were fortunate, us especially, but the community as a whole. Our power barely flickered overnight. Dawn found us on the front porch with coffee, watching the last of Michael as he blew out of town. We didn’t even need to pick up sticks in the yard.
As we sat together on the porch, the black sky turned to the deep blue-grey twilight of a stormy morning. Before long we began to see brilliant cracks in the clouds letting golden light spill through. The wind turned to battering the clouds rather than the earth and soon the last tatters streamed overhead and we were left with this:
Tears filled my eyes; I was mesmerized
Later I would look at this picture, which barely captures the sparkling brilliance of that sunrise and think, this is a picture of my life right now. This is where we are after a dark and terrible storm. We have landed. All will be well. I may have cried all over again.
I don’t think I’ve let myself believe, until now, that we are really free of the people and places which hurt us and still haunt us. Craig’s severance lasted until the first of October, meaning, in our minds at least, there was still a possibility of further harm. But even those weak ties are severed now and it is a new day, sparkling and clear.
We’re starting to talk about things now, to process what we felt and still feel, how we are changed. Usually, we talk until the feelings are too ugly to go on and then we step away a bit. Each time we dig a little deeper and it hurts a little less. Healing is a process, one we choose day by day, hour by hour, successfully and unsuccessfully. We’re each other’s therapist – dissecting and correcting when necessary, but mostly just listening to the other person’s heart, and feeling grateful that our marriage wasn’t also a casualty of our experience.
I remember the darkest moment of the storm for me. Lying in a ball on a hotel bed, in a town I didn’t want to be in, seeing a therapist I didn’t trust or even want to see, wondering if I would ever feel whole again. I remembering being brutally honest with her that morning saying if things fell all the way apart (because let’s be honest, I was already shattered) at my husband’s job, I was done with the church for good, and her saying, that makes me feel sorry for you.
At that moment I realized the enormous harm of church idolatry, a monster I could never survive intact. All I could do was buy time for us to find our escape, with no idea how or how long it would take, or if I could hang on through more months of plodding endurance. Survival is fine and even necessary sometimes, but when your whole existence is focused on the next explosion, shielding from the next hurt, there is no room for growth or thriving.
I remember a day a few weeks later when the first cracks appeared in the clouds and the light shown through golden and fleeting. Craig showed up unexpectedly at my work to tell me he had applied for a job. A job in town. A job which meant I could keep my own job, which I adore, but which also cannot support us. A job which might turn out to be the escape hatch we were looking for. I remember going back to my desk with tingling fingers and toes and a fluttering stomach. This is what hope feels like, I thought, I’d forgotten.
It wouldn’t be long before the clouds were pushed away entirely. First, there was the meeting where I was made to answer for a literal list of grievances recorded in writing over nine years (there were eleven individual grievances worthy of record, in case you are wondering), whether for control or posterity, I’ll never know, nor do I care to. There was the assurance that I would conform, assimilate and allow emotional and spiritual intimacy with a group of male leaders with whom I had no relationship, and no desire for relationship, whose priority was maintaining control of church property, namely me. And then there was a phone call late in the afternoon the next day, from my husband saying, I’m pretty sure they’re going to ask me to resign tomorrow.
Which is exactly what happened, and all I could think was, thank you.
Life is funny sometimes. The very day Craig signed his resignation, I started work full time, and we drove to the beach for a long-anticipated wedding. We woke up the first day of our new lives with the sun poring over us and the waves filling the air around us. Everything felt clean, crisp and new. It was a morning much like the morning after a hurricane, but it would take me six months to gain enough perspective to recognize the enormity of the gift.
Six months later, I’m starting to feel like myself again. Not like my old self, because some storms leave you fundamentally changed, but a more generous, more adventurous, more open, bolder me. What I’m finding in the storm’s aftermath is the same as so many have found before me: I decide how I will rebuild. There are so many new things and new possibilities I want to explore and experiment with, but there are also some parts of me that were buried, that I choose not to abandon. Like sea glass on the shoreline, I’m finding some of the beautiful parts of me are even more beautiful now with the hard edges are worn away. I’m still strong, but less sharp and brittle, bold, but more thoughtful and well-rounded. Given enough time, I might just glow from within.
I’m entertaining the thought that maybe I was wrong when I said I would never have anything to do with church again, but maybe I will be wiser in choosing my community. Or maybe I don’t need to label my communities with ‘church,’ ‘work,’ or ‘online’ but I can be my whole self in every gathering and love each of them as they are, with no agenda attached.
I’m learning to trust that given enough time, the sun will break through, and a new day will begin again, just as it always has.
“Living, growing up, working or worshipping on eggshells creates huge cracks in our sense of safety and self-worth. Over time it can be experienced as trauma.” – Brene Brown
I had a bit of a battle with an old companion yesterday. Anxiety came knocking, and it took a while to convince that bitch to leave. I’ve hit life hard since returning from vacation, working over forty hours each week. I’m juggling five work and school schedules with only three cars (and occasionally two). I’ve altered my eating habits and cut out alcohol. I’m running again, and I’m trying to get no less than seven hours of sleep every night.
I am also someone functions better with a nice margin, space, both physical and mental, where I don’t feel the burden of expectations pressing down on me. I have a long ugly history with perceived expectations; it’s one of my toughest battles, still. Because of this personality trait, all these transitions mean I must also make an equal amount of marginal space for processing the demands of life or things get ugly.
Last week was no respecter of my margins. And here’s the thing, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, there were some things about last week that were quite good. But when it comes to needing that pressure-free space, I find both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ events are equally stressful if I don’t have the margin to process the experiences. Some people, like my Hunky, can leap from event to event to event with ease. But I can’t. I will manage for a short period, but that only means I need an equally long recovery time on the other end.
This weekend, I had planned a do nothing, go nowhere kind of weekend, my favorite kind. But those plans…didn’t happen. They didn’t happen last weekend either. Yesterday when we all started talking about our schedules for this week, I felt the flush of anxiety start to creep over me: the familiar ringing echo in my ears, the hot prickly flush over my chest, the buzzing in my fingers and toes, the constant need to look over my shoulder. “Here is a list of expectations, and I must meet it.”
Oh, Anxiety. It’s been a while. And no, I haven’t missed you.
I first began experiencing anxiety AFTER I started going to therapy. I know right? Therapy is supposed to reduce anxiety. However, what therapy revealed to me was some toxic areas in my life which we weren’t able to disengage from. I would need to do a serious compartmentalization dance, keeping my emerging-self separate from my pastor-wife self, which isn’t really a wholehearted way to live.
Ask most pastor’s wives in the evangelical church and they’ll tell you, we aren’t paid, but we have a job description with an expectation list about three miles long, anyway. It’s not healthy, but it’s true, and as I was informed towards the end, “That’s the way things are and there’s nothing to be done about it.”
You can see why other people’s expectations and I aren’t on speaking terms.
I am my own person. Yes, I am married to another human whom I love deeply, but I am not defined by his work or his position any more than he is defined by mine. We each have our own work. Sometimes our work intersects, but most times it doesn’t, and there is nothing wrong with this way of sharing our lives. We also have theological and ideological differences. What’s more, our individual belief systems have changed and evolved as we have changed and evolved and matured, sometimes those changes intersect, for us they often intersect, but even when they don’t, we love each other and move forward together.
Ours is a pretty healthy relationship.
But other areas of our lives weren’t so healthy. If you have ever seen a plant grow in or near a constricted space, you have seen that the unconstricted side grows healthy and strong, but the other side will grow stunted, twisting in on itself until it withers and dies off.
Going to therapy opened a thousand doors for me. My therapist saw things in me that no one else had ever spoken aloud. She built me up in ways I hadn’t experienced from anyone besides my husband in a long time. She empowered me and challenged me, and I began to finally grow into the wildly free and open space that was my self…my soul.
The more I grew, the less inclined I was to meet the ever-changing, ever-tightening list of expectations compiled for me by people who barely knew me beyond my job description. Make no mistake, in fundamentalist environments, an empowered woman who goes off-script is a dangerous woman, a force which must be managed, rebuked, fixed and controlled. Eggshells, anyone?
This tension mounted for years, while we tried to leave town and move on, door after door after closing on us while anxiety gripped me tighter and tighter. My growth stunted, and I withered. When I am stuck in unhealthy behavior patterns, I avoid conflict at all costs. I tried checking off all the expectation boxes, tried disappearing, tried “putting on a happy face.” I even tried all three at once. But inevitably, anytime I began to feel more like my whole-hearted self, a rebuke of some sort followed. Usually, my husband bore the brunt, as if he were responsible for all the ways I never measured up. The more I tried to protect him from harm, the more harm I seemed to cause, around and around in an increasingly toxic spiral.
This was not a healthy time for our relationship.
I honestly am not sure any other set of circumstances than what has ultimately unfolded would have allowed us room to walk away so completely and begin to experience healing so fully. I have received margin in glorious abundance. We have new lives and new identities now, but trauma leaves echoes and shadows which reach out sometimes and caress the familiar broken places. I may not have reason to be anxious now, but I still wait for the other shoe to drop, even though the footsteps of the persons wearing them are so faint now they are barely a whisper in my soul.
Yesterday, I wrestled with expectation and anxiety. Expectation and I go back decades, church wounds are part of the scars from these battles, but those seeds were planted long before religion was part of my identity. We may battle for the rest of my life, but now that I am learning to live wholeheartedly, her voice is less insistent. Some days I don’t hear it at all. Anxiety and I only go back a few years, so I am hopeful her voice will soon be entirely gone.
What I know is this: an experience can be traumatic whether or not the parties involved intend to do harm. My story is my own. There are other voices who won’t see or tell this story the same way, and who will deny the validity of how I feel, what I experienced and the wounds I carry. I hope anxiety will one day be a thing of the past, a response to an environment that was toxic to me. Telling my story is part of what makes the anxiety dissipate. It cannot stay in a space where I will not permit it to flourish and grow. My experience is real and valid. Though the ground under my feet is no longer fragile eggshells, I still sometimes wonder if it will hold my weight. Thank goodness I am learning to fly.
Take that, anxiety.
My husband was out of town last weekend. I don’t mind when he leaves town as long as its not too long or too many weeks in a row. I often joke that he is the cog that keeps the family running with any sort of consistency. When Craig goes out of town, I don’t cook. We barely shower. One year Lindsay and I watched three seasons of Doctor Who in three days while Craig was away at camp with the younger two. We strategically planned take-out meals so we could eat them twice and not have to leave the house or spend too long in the kitchen. I don’t know if you can combine the words sloth and debauchery, but if there was such a word, that describes our household when Craig is away.
Last weekend wasn’t any different. Craig left on Friday. I didn’t cook again until Sunday night. 50% of my meals were cheese and crackers. I don’t even know what the kids ate. I wore pajamas to take people to work. I watched a season of Bones and crocheted. I’m not even ashamed. Sometimes these types of weekends are necessary in order to reset my mind to the reality of the present.
We’ve done a lot of transitioning over the last year(ish). I feel like we’ve done a decent job rolling through the changes as they’ve come. Yes, there has been some trauma, and we are still dealing with emotional fall-out. But over all, we are recovering in a healthy way. Honestly, changes have been happening so fast, I have taken almost no time to reflect on anything lately. I needed some space to compare the trajectory of my life as it is now to where it was a year ago.
I was in the car in my pajamas at 10:30 Friday night, as I left to go get Bailey from her job, when I realized I haven’t left the house after dark since we moved in. Granted, it’s summer, and I am an introvert, which means rain or shine when it’s 8pm, I want to be holed up in my room recovering from a day of people-ing ( I am who I am, and I like me. You do you.), but this thought led me to the revelation that I have been traveling only between what I consider the ‘safe places’ in my life, basically on survival auto-pilot. Without thinking, I’ve been avoiding anywhere that I might encounter someone emotionally unsafe or to whom I might feel deserves explanations which I am unwilling to pretty-up for public consumption. Work to home to places out-of-town. These are the roads I have traveled every day, week after week until months have passed.
No wonder I feel a low level of exhaustion at the end of most weeks, my fight or flight hasn’t lowered at any point this year. Just like a secret app constantly behind the scenes makes your phone sluggish, my sympathetic nervous system has been ticking along in the background, preparing me to take on attackers at a moment’s notice, and just as quietly draining my energy and emotional reserves.
While I was still digesting this little tid-bit of knowledge, I experienced another sweeping breath of fresh air (I think its because Christmas music was playing in the background): I have more freedom now than I ever have to orchestrate my life the way I want it to be.
Perhaps this concept isn’t revalatory to you, but as I transition out of some abusive relationships and toxic systems, I am only beginning to realize how much of my freedoms I had willingly given away. For a long time, I was a slave to a “higher calling” and while I still believe in the goodness and support which can come from being part of something bigger than ourselves, I no longer believe that I must sacrifice who I am to be part of it. Or, I am learning to believe it. It’s a process.
The fact of the matter is, when changes are flying at you fast and furious, when you are making literal life-altering decisions on the fly and then racing along to stay even a little bit ahead of them, there isn’t a whole lot of time for self-reflection and examination. We’ve been in survival mode for a long time, culminating over the last months with the few final pieces of the picture (for now) falling into place. It took so much of ourselves to get here, that I haven’t had time to stop and consider what it meant for the future other than the fact that we still have a future, and it’s a good one.
But this weekend I finally stopped. I didn’t read or rush or push ahead or even think very much (or shower regularly, true tale). Coming to a full stop allowed all the whirling, swirling thoughts, ideas, healing truths and stray bits of lies and delusions I’ve been holding tightly to coalesce and settle. Some pieces finally drifted softly away and some quietly sank to the floor of my soul and landed with a soft thump. The idea that I have, at last, the freedom to create the life I want landed with the most impact. I’ve been contemplating it with awe-struck wonder ever since.
I believe there are seasons in life where we intentionally trade freedom for something bigger than ourselves. The years of raising wee ones, times of living with restriction for a larger purpose whether that restriction is financial, or dietary or living situations are examples of this type of self-limiting. There are also times where mere survival forces us to set severe limits, or we may face a series of less desireable outcomes as a consequence of choices we’ve made. I have lived through many of these seasons. They come and they go, in their turn.
But what I am finally gaining is the perspective to see is how much of myself and my freedom I gave away willingly, but not necessarily. I became less, not because it was required but because I was willing to trade myself for lifestyle which was never meant for me. What that choice has cost me, and also how much work will be required for me to regain strength in those muscles again, is something I wasn’t ready to face before. In a way, I am grateful for the pace of life lately. It’s forced me to develop some healthy patterns and boundaries without over-thinking or letting co-dependency rule my emotions. Having moved some distance away from the foundation of those boundaries, now I am able to go back and see where I was and also just how far I have come. Seeing my life from this different perspective makes how far I still have to go, how far I still want to go, a little less daunting.