How I changed the story


I was listening to Brene Brown yesterday because I love her and want to grow up to be her. She was talking about the stories we tell ourselves, or as she likes to call them, ‘shitty first drafts’. If you haven’t read her book Rising Strong which focuses on how we overcome hard things, I highly recommend it. I think I have listened to it twice this year; it’s that important. But back to shitty first drafts. Brene’s – I call her Brene because we’re that close in my mind – premise is that whenever something emotionally difficult happens, our brain goes into storytelling mode. It wants a hero – always the self, and a bad guy- always the other person; a reason and a response. The brain works quickly to assemble these pieces in a moment of emotional crisis because our amygdala is screaming, FIGHT OR FLIGHT, WOMAN! FIGHT OR FLIGHT! It needs an answer and it needs it RIGHT NOW because our lives depend on it.

And this was true, a few million years ago. Life is a bit more nuanced now, if no less dangerous.

But the amygdala doesn’t evolve. We’ve grown a lot more brain around it, intuitive brain, creative brain, emotional brain, amazingly beautiful unfathomable human brain. But when it’s crisis time, it’s the amygdala who controls the shots and she has one job – protect the self. Fight or Flight.

People who live with on-going emotional abuse, develop a twitchy, confused amygdala. She’s almost, always on because the world never feels quite safe enough to let down her guard. She sees everyone and everything as a potential threat. She doesn’t trust. She doesn’t want to be there at all. Her chant is almost always FLIGHT! FLIGHT! FLIGHT! FLIGHT!

Fortunately (or unfortunately in the case of abuse), the rest of the brain also has a say, and these parts have conflicting messages for amygdala. They say things like, it’s not that bad. They don’t really mean it. We can do better. We can be better. We just need to try harder. We can do and say the right things to earn their approval and then we will be safe. We can find a way to belong, to be loved. WE HAVE TO STAY UNTIL WE MAKE IT WORK.  No fight. No flight. Stop talking, amygdala.

These parts of the brain cover up and try to placate the amygdala, who never stops kicking and screaming, by the way. She’s like a two-year-old in the throws of the worst emotional overload ever, and she really just needs a time out. But all she hears is danger, danger, danger so she just keeps screaming. And all the while she’s writing a narrative, a shitty first draft of who’s to blame and why this keeps happening.

For awhile, she recognizes the harm being done to her, but the rest of the brain refuses to comply with her fight or flight message. So eventually, she changes the narrative:

I am the problem. I deserve this pain. I am useless. I am worthless. I don’t belong here or anywhere.

She believes what the rest of the brain is telling her about working harder and trying harder and earning the right to finally, finally relax and stop constantly firing the fight or flight message. But the rules keep changing and the pain keeps happening and nothing we do is ever, ever good enough.

And around and around we go, faster and more frantically until we either become numb or explode.

I’ve done both.

There have been a lot of shitty first drafts in my experience with emotional and spiritual abuse, and the longer the abuse went on, the more I believed I was always the villian.

I am not worthy of love because…
I am not good enough to…
I deserve this…
I don’t look right, act right, say the right things, obey the right rules, submit enough, be quiet enough, disappear enough…
I just need to work harder to be perfect. Then I will earn love and approval.

Poor little amygdala. How do you resolve the fight or flight issue, when you are the problem?

However, there’s more to the story than this shitty first draft. True, we can accept that script as the finished story, as the way things are. But we don’t have to. My friend Brene also says this: when we don’t write the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.

There’s no pride in admitting I was a shitty pastor’s wife. I mean, I got us kicked out of church twice! It’s a role I never embraced. I questioned the system, bucked the rules and allowed my mind to be open and accepting. There aren’t many roles in the world I am less suited for.

I should have stopped trying to be something I was never meant for long ago. I should have advocated for myself, believed I deserved better and not cowered and kowtowed before my abusers. I spent far too long trying to be someone that men in authority believed I should be. And honestly, because I didn’t realize this sooner, I am a party to the emotional damage I experienced. This part of the story sucks, but it’s true.

But being a shitty pastor’s wife, doesn’t mean I was a shitty person. And that is where my amygdala would have been better served with some nuance and complexity. Fight or flight is a binary response system which categorizes everything in two ways: good or bad. But life comes with about a million more categories.

Emotional abuse sometimes comes with an isolating component, which my own introversion and response didn’t help. The more I pulled into myself the fewer voices I heard until finally the only ones were the ones reminding me what a shitty soul I was. Those voices often included my own.

It’s been just over a year since I stopped letting the shitty first draft control the narrative. I wish I could give a series of 1-2-3 steps to follow, but we all have our own story to write. I began by becoming vulnerable to other voices, voices which certainly could have echoed the message I had already taken to heart, but they didn’t. And when they didn’t, I started to believe them.

I was all at once surrounded by beautiful, strong, proud, powerful women who didn’t apologize for their being or their voices. They reminded me of another story I was writing about my life, and about the story I wanted to write for my children. Not pastor’s wife, meek and mild, but Woman, bold and wonderful. Their voices reminded me of the woman who survived cancer, and grief and loss and who raised children and stood up for injustice and who gave a damn about people in the margins, and who adored her LGBTQ neighbors, wasn’t afraid to learn new ways of thinking and being, and who thought tradition for tradition’s sake was a pretty lame hill to die on.

She is me. She is my story too.

I wanted that story back. So I started writing it IN ALL CAPS when the voices telling the shitty draft got louder. I started writing because writing is what I do. It’s my super power that I signed away with the contract of silence. If I were a man, the contract would have been so castrating, they wouldn’t have considered it, but because I am a woman, it was simply ‘the right thing to do.’ How shitty an ending would that have been?

I’m rewriting the narrative of my life now. I’m even learning to write some of what I have called the shitty years as good. For a time, church was good to my family and to me. It did take care of us and give us a place to belong. Until it didn’t. Maybe we should have realized sooner that we didn’t belong there. Maybe we should have been braver and walked away. Who knows what the story could have been, But we didn’t. There is plenty we did wrong.

But none of who we are deserves the years of emotional ambushes, power plays and spiritual abuse we endured. Not even simply because we stayed.

I was a shitty pastor’s wife, but that’s not the whole story, it’s not even a whole chapter. I know this, because I’m writing my own story now, and it’s beautiful.

Waiting for the Advent

Last week I found references to women being silenced everywhere I went. I kept sending picture after picture to my husband – who never makes me feel unheard – and sending all caps texts about synchronicity and the Goddess and whatever other rant came out in the process. Both of us are moving away from trauma, but leaving church has left empty swaths across our identities which I, for one, am letting lay fallow before I rush to fill them. Every day, the Universe reminds me that finding the self-I-have-always-been is a process which cannot be rushed.

Recently, I began searching for an alternative way to observe Advent, the season of waiting. For years, I have quietly held space for the year’s winding down, the pause in time when we wait for something new to spring forth. This observation and anticipation appeal to me. I am a marker of seasons and change and a lover of ceremony and ritual. But this year, I need to divorce the observation from some of its more painful associations. I’m not interested in the churchy, patriarchal aspect of Spirituality, and the Bible, by and large, is men telling the story of God. Although to be fair, women get a larger voice than usual in the celebration of Advent, the Goddess has always been subversive in that way – allowing women a prime position in singing the song of the Kingdom breaking through.

Basically, I’m standing in a large empty space, looking at the wide open sky and waiting.

When we first left the church, God blew doors open right, left and right again, challenging us to make bold decisions and making it easy for us to ‘get the hell out of dodge’, as it were. We welcomed this unmistakeable Presence, even as we wondered if we could keep up with her. It was exciting and exhilarating and a distraction from the immediate pain of the emotional blows we had just suffered. It gave us just enough room to begin processing, but not enough room to wallow. For a time, it was exactly what we needed.

However, the real work of healing from emotional and spiritual trauma is slow and deep. Learning to relate healthfully to people and situations around us take time. I still flinch often, waiting for the blow to fall. I don’t always know what triggers this feeling, but six months later I sometimes find myself walking around with an impending sense of doom. I trust I am healing, but I don’t always feel like I am.

I’m learning to listen to those feelings; they are trying to tell me something. I can only determine if feelings are a true message or a shadow voice left over from abuse by allowing them to have their voice. Those shadow voices have become to me like small, wounded animals, recklessly hurting whoever and whatever they touch simply because they are in pain. If I can get past the initial bite, sometimes we can overcome the pain together and be transformed into Truth.

These are all advent feelings, the waiting, the longing, the hard work of healing the damage to our souls while we wait for the light to break through.

I haven’t read Scripture at all this year. Not in any intentional way. Sometimes Craig talks about what he is reading, and more often pieces of scripture enter my mind unbidden, rising from the depths of myself. Sometimes I welcome it, and sometimes I shove it back down where I relegate things that make me uncomfortable until I am ready to deal with them. I am not ready to deal with my feelings about Scripture. That’s what I tell myself. I’m tired of men telling me what to think, how to feel and all the things I can’t say or do. Scripture is all tangled up with men who took control of the Divine story and made it about them, their plans, their wars, their power. It’s why God is Father but not Mother. It’s why the Goddess disappeared. She may subversively reassume a position in the Catholic Church as Mary, but evangelicals quash even that, making Mary an anathema and putting her soundly in her place of pious silence.

I simply cannot incorporate these cruel patterns into my new/old way of being until I learn to elevate them to higher ways of thinking and understanding. I believe Scripture can transcend the narrow confines Church has placed upon it, but I haven’t learned how to do so within myself, yet. I’m leaning on other voices to lead me back around to sacred understanding. Voices which don’t glorify violence towards women and the suppression of female voices as the heart of God. In other words, I want to learn to elevate bullshit to understanding my true sacred position in the Kingdom of the Divine, but I don’t feel I have all the necessary tools yet.

There is holiness here in the waiting place, in the anticipation of a long-expected breakthrough. The Divine has not abandoned me here to my own devices, She keeps reminding me of this time and again by dropping perfect gifts quietly into my life day by day. She is here. I am here. We are here together, and when the time is right we will take the next step into this new life. The next step closer to the Herself I was always meant to be.

2018: a year with no name

I can’t remember the first year I felt a word – a theme, a concept, a guiding principle? – drop into my soul, naming the season to come. It’s been more than a decade since it began. I follow the theme, sometimes closely, sometimes loosely, as a way of living intentionally and of understanding the shape of my days. I’ve had all sorts of words from the fun and exciting, to the difficult and unwanted. Year after year, I receive a word from the Universe and start another trip around the sun.

Every year until this year, that is.

Usually, in autumn, I begin to feel a sort of low key anticipation, an opening in my soul. I begin to meditate on the ways the current year has shaped me, and how I have shaped it. I lean into the possibility of what may be coming next. Last year, I did the same things I always do as my journey drew to a close. But each time I consciously grasped for a theme, a flame would ignite, fizzle and then fssst…immediately burn out. My creativity and openness felt buried. I was so walled up and guarded I couldn’t listen. Honestly, I didn’t even try very hard or very often. The idea of living another year like the one I was already in was numbing.

There is so much about awakening that is difficult. Sue Monk Kidd likens it to crossing a deep, unexplored gorge, a descent into the unknown. I have likened it to razing a building down to the bare concrete foundation and then sleeping on it naked in a storm. Awakening is these things and more. I understand why we, as a species, would rather remain where the environment is comfortable and the terrain is known.

But for me, sleeping is not an option anymore.

I finally gave up the idea of giving the year a name. I wandered into January with no idea where we were headed, which is probably the only reason I walked forward at all. I still don’t have a name for this year. It’s easily the wildest, weirdest, hardest, most amazing, miraculous, hysterical, unbelieveable year I have ever lived. Nothing – not one thing – about where we are at the end of this year is anything that I would have envisioned at the outset.

And yet, I feel happier and healthier than I have for nearly a decade.

In retrospect, if I were to name this year it might be the year of Initiation. At first, I thought Awakening would be a good name, but it isn’t an accurate one. My awakening has been going on for far longer than this year. But it took the events of this year to cut all the lines, and send us on a new adventure. Had I received a word for this year, it might have changed my thoughts or my trajectory. No, this was a year I had to navigate without external leading. Even though I believe my year names come as much from within and from any Divine force without, I needed this year to be guided only by my inner voice. I haven’t been listening to her nearly enough. This has been her time to shine.

When we left our old life in March, everything happened very quickly. No sooner did we make one drastic change then another door flung itself wide open waiting for us to step through. At one point Craig wasn’t sure about making so many quick decisions so quickly, but for once I was. I was absolutely certain. I knew each door opened right on time and all we had to do was step through, and step through and step through again. Each step taking us farther away from the toxic morass we’d been swimming in.

I’ve second guessed every thought and idea for two years, but my certainty in these moments never wavered, not even one second. I don’t know what’s going to happen next from moment to moment. But after years of only closed doors as we waited in a dark hallway, my soul is suddenly well able to see Divine Providence when She beckons. There is light everywhere, dazzling me with its brilliance.

This is the year which sets us off on new paths. Craig has his and I have mine. We are walking together but loosely which sounds as though we’re drifting apart, but somehow the effect is exactly the opposite. Growing into myself has only deepened my love and admiration for the amazing human who chooses each day to remain in my life. His presence is a gift I never take for granted, even when I’m engaged in my own adventures.

What I believe now is that this year couldn’t name itself. It simply had to unfold moment by moment, and I had to decide within each moment what I would make of them. My stagnation gave way to tremendous creative force bursting forth from my body and soul. Like Eve at the cusp of creation, I’m naming and naming and naming, like God Herself, I’m breathing my own life into being with every choice and every step. This year was mine to name and rename. I am the Creator of my existence by Divine right.

I have an inkling, already, of the shape of my next year, I may even know a name. But she’s not quite ready to be born yet, so I’m holding space for her inside my body until she’s ready to breathe on her own. I’m excited again, at last. I’m pleased and relieved that my inner/outer voice is singing over me again. And I’m filled with hope for a new year in this new life, even while I name the remaining days of my present.

This I believe

I didn’t spend much time with the news this weekend. In my life, I have never experienced such widespread hate. From the dehumanization of our transgender community to the murders of two black people in Kentucky – after the gunman was thwarted by locked doors in a local black church, – to calculated hate and terror disguised as mail parcels, to the inexplicable mass shooting during shabbos worship.

I am speechless.
I feel helpless.

I remember when I was diagnosed with cancer, and all around me, people were carrying on with their every day breathing and eating, walking around, healthy lives. I wanted to stand in the street and scream, Can everyone just stop a moment and recognize that I am living a nightmare today? I didn’t do this, of course, but my soul cried for some form of recognition that darkness had come and I wasn’t sure I could survive to see the light.

I feel this way today. I had a post ready to share, but it feels wrong to just go on with life as usual without taking a moment to recognize that the darkness is here, to grieve and to consider how to help others live to see the light again.

As a white, cis-gender woman who isn’t in school, the day to day possibility that I will be the victim of a hate crime or random killing spree isn’t great. It would be easy to send “thoughts and prayers” and go about my day as usual. But I don’t want to do this.

It is also easy to vilify and dehumanize political groups and figures. Easier to shift blame, and point figures and name call, to let rage fill me with labels and epithets. I believe that anger is a powerful weapon and so I will hold on to my anger at this unbelievable tidal wave of hate, but I will not succumb to the same sort of rage and unthinking, uncaring demonizing that enable a person to put a pipe bomb in the mail or enter a synagogue with a human-killing machine. I don’t want to do this either.

I need to remain human, and I need to see the human not only in the victims but in the perpetrators of violence. It is the only way to keep my heart whole and intact.

Richard Rohr talks about a third way, a third space, a way of holding two conflicting ideas at one time and existing in the tension:

‘Some prefer to take on the world: to fight it, to change it, fix it, and rearrange it. Others deny there is a problem at all; it suits their needs as it is. “Everything is beautiful,” they say and look the other way. Both instincts avoid holding the tension, the pain, and the essentially tragic nature of human existence…We stand in the middle, neither taking the world on from another power position nor denying it for fear of the pain it will bring. We hold the dark side of reality and the pain of the world until it transforms us, knowing that we are both complicit in the evil and can participate in wholeness and holiness.

I cannot change the world, not alone, not as myself. I will not fight power with power. The ‘if we had more guns we could prevent violence by guns’ argument is bullshit. Nor will I deny that we are in a dangerous, chaotic state currently. One where extremism and hate are normalized and denied. I won’t create enemies of people, nor will I deny that there are enemies of humanity. I am sitting in the third space, and it’s strangely filled with tension and also peace.

If I cannot change the world, then I will set about changing myself. I will love deeper, and I will show this love by being kindness and patience in a world desperate for a different way of being. I will see humanity as it is, and risk loving it anyway, even knowing I will be disappointed, wounded and rejected. I will not see human beings as the enemy even if I will not find common ground in their hate and oppression. I will believe there is a best in people that love can unlock, if only they will let love in.

Perhaps it’s all a bit Pollyanna. It’s certainly easier said than done. The binary part of me says: I am right. They are wrong. I am good. They are bad. I am different. They are all the same. But the third space says, We are human. We all matter. The world needs us.

So I breathe in deeply and breathe out the rage and the hate and the demons that infest my own soul. And I do think and pray, but I also consider what I most want to see in the world, and how I can embody this image most fully. When I am transformed, then perhaps others will be as well, but I can only open myself to be transformed. I cannot force it on unwilling others.

I will not add rage and despair to the world today. There is plenty already with some to spare.

When we know better, we do better. We know better by seeing it, hearing it and becoming it. This is believe.

The day I said what I wanted

” We don’t need to call everything we are doing ministry. Just call it Tuesday. That’s what people who are becoming love do.” – Bob Goff

It continues to be a surprise to me whenever I realize a new sense of freedom. One of the insidious traits of emotional abuse is its subtlety. Power and pressure exert themselves gradually until, like the parable of the frog in the pot of boiling water, you are stuck in a very dangerous situation. There are so many things I stopped doing or saying for fear of the potential repercussions, even when no one overtly coerced me to stop (though that happened as well). It was easier to alter my behavior bit by bit, cutting off pieces of myself, until, over time, I was carrying entire dead limbs around as though they were still part of me. I realize, now, how much of a shadow self I became, walking, breathing and talking, but not as myself. I was a three-dimensional projection of an identity someone else invented.

Fortunately for me, it seems a dying soul can be reanimated.

Even though we’ve been out of church for six months, it wasn’t until the final severance check cleared that I stopped feeling the weight of fear. For the first three months, we depended on those checks as the pieces of Craig’s new career fell – so excruciatingly slowly – into place. After that, I won’t lie, we just wanted to make sure we received every bit of guilt money. We gave a lot to that place, I didn’t plan to leave any part of myself behind, including my money, when we left. Selfish? Probably. I’m out of F—s where that’s concerned.

My rebirth is an ongoing process where I discover pieces of myself in forgotten corners and entire rooms of my soul that I’d closed off and shuttered. I’m rediscovering my love of a daily deep belly laugh. I look forward to Craig coming home from work, not that I was ever sad to see him before, but he always brought the weight of ministry home with him along with an emotional darkness from a toxic work environment. We still have bad days, of course, but these are regular bad days. We know tomorrow probably won’t be more of the same. Six months later, I am still profoundly grateful for this truth.

All of these pieces make up the picture for what happened at Aldi last week. But before I share the story, you should know, I have actively avoided seeing people associated with ministry. I haven’t felt free to talk about my experience, and sometimes, I still have anxiety attacks. It’s better to avoid triggers. But I’m finding my voice again, and the fear is smaller now, much more manageable. My mantra is no longer, “in and out and no one sees me” every time I go into a store. Everywhere Craig goes it’s a festival of reunions, I just want to walk away clean.

But on this particular day, I did see someone. Someone who publicly shamed me in the past for my political views. Not a church leader, another male who felt the right to put me in my place because patriarchy is the theology on which he was raised.

We exchanged the normal small talk; he inquired about Craig’s job. When I responded with a brief description of his career he responded, Mmmmm-hmmmm. Still in ministry.

I couldn’t think of a way to vocalize what it meant for a man to tell me AGAIN what my life centered around, not even someone outside the sphere of abuse. No one gets to do that. We are not “in ministry.” We are most certainly and completely out of “ministry”. If I have my say, we will never “do ministry” again.

These days we love without agenda, coercion or fear. We do not feel the need to convert the world to our way of thinking. If anything, we’ve converted to the “dark side” ourselves, seeing the Divine in more ways and more people than we’d dared before. The kingdom just keeps getting bigger now that we’re outside the walls of religion. No, we are not in ministry, the exclusivism and religious overtones of that word make me want to vomit directly on my shoes.

But I was too frozen to say that, instead I paused a moment and said,

Well, he does still ask people for a lot of money.

He walked away and then? Well, then I laughed. I went out to the parking lot and held on to my knees and laughed until I couldn’t breathe anymore. I texted Craig. I came home and told my children because I dared to look patriarchy right in the face and laugh at its rigid and restrictive definitions. I said exactly how I felt about ministry and I didn’t give a damn who heard about it, or what they think of it.

The problem with religious words is how exclusive they can be. We use them to define who is out and who is in. This person who identifies as an evangelical Christian, when he works with students, it’s ministry. But when this person on the LGBTQ spectrum dares to take a role with students, it’s part of the subversive gay agenda. And if a Muslim should enter those spaces, well then the entire system’s going to hell. Good works are good works only if the “right” person engages in them.

On the other hand, what if Craig’s job didn’t involve college students and education, but instead he opened a bar and bartended for a living. He’s a pretty amazing guy, and his heart has room for all the world, plus one. If he worked at a bar, all the traits which made him a beloved pastor and which make him a fantastic college administrator would be right there with him. But he wouldn’t be in ministry, right? Be honest, what would you call it? What about your religious friends?

It wasn’t long after Jesus departed Earth that humanity began establishing dividing lines: people who eat this way; not people who eat that way, people with this piece of flesh cut off; not people with this piece of flesh still on. We aren’t sure of our position so we put others beneath us as a buffer. You’re in. You’re out. Sheep. Goats. We stopped letting people explore and define their own spirituality not for fear they would get it wrong, but for fear that somehow it might prove to us that we’d been wrong all along.

In. Out. Goats. Sheep.

I know how humbling that oh shit moment is. Oh shit, I got it wrong and I was a terrible person to many people with my rules and my doctrine and my certainty and my exclusion. This is my lived experience so often these past few years.

It hurts to know the hurt I’ve caused, the ways I have misrepresented Love in the name of correctness. Oh shit, indeed. But it’s also so divinely beautiful to know I could be so incredibly wrong, and still so incredibly loved. In response to this, the only thing I can do is try to love better, deeper, less exclusively. I’m not in ministry, with its eye toward heaven, I’m in love with this world and the people in it. I don’t give a damn who’s in or who’s out. I no longer believe in Out. There’s only love, and I’m all in. We’re all in.

Which brings me back to Aldi. Over the past few weeks, the room in my soul where I have the freedom to say what I want, a room which I tightly closed several years ago, has been leaking. I’ve said things behind the anonymity of keyboard that I was terrified to say face to face. I’ve unnamed and named, but safely, within the confines of my own home. Until last week, when I opened my mouth and said NO. Maybe the words weren’t no, but the soul cry was.

No, you don’t get to define my life anymore.
No, you don’t get to elevate anything I am related to with religious underpinnings.
No, I’m not who you say I am, nor is my husband, nor my children, nor my choices.

No. No. No.

This whole freedom thing? It just keeps getting better and better. I’m in for the long journey.

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.

Post-evangelical: This is my real life

This post is part 3 in a series. Read part 1 and part 2.

“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?

We aren’t.

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.