On Surviving

This week was crazy long and hard. Watching even parts of the Kavanaugh hearing made me feel panicky and sick, and I couldn’t help but see it. The images were everywhere. Men shouting. Men demanding. Men slamming fists into tables. Men whose righteous indignation bled out into the world like acid, corrosive and dangerous and, for me, terrifying. Let me be clear, my trauma is not sexual in nature. Certainly, misogyny and patronizing behavior is writ deep into the story of the last few years, but sexual harm has not been my experience.

Then I read this by Marianne Willaimson:

“It is not just that they have triggered the memories of every woman who has ever been sexually harassed or abused; now they have triggered the memories of every woman who has ever had her opinions ignored or her feelings scorned. Ted Cruz said in his statement that Dr. Ford had been treated with respect. I suppose he means that’s because they didn’t throw eggs at her. What those men don’t understand is that being silent after hearing her speak, as though actually she had not spoken, does not show respect. Basically ignoring what she said does not show respect. Making it all about “Brett, poor baby, he is one of us and he is hurting” does not show respect. In fact, their entire strategy now rests on ignoring what she said… not even grappling with her credibility, much less allowing a further investigation or more witnesses to testify. And every woman who has ever felt that her words meant nothing, that they somehow disappeared into the air after she spoke them and simply bounced off the ears of a man or men in the room, whether she was ever touched inappropriately or not, she is triggered now…”

And my soul opened up and cried. I have sat in that seat. I have faced men who demanded my silence and my obedience, who expressed outrage at the money they spent on enforced counseling at an organization and counselor of their choosing when I did not return submissive, grateful and above all FIXED.

“…every woman who has ever felt that her words meant nothing, that they somehow disappeared into the air after she spoke them and simply bounced off the ears of a man or men in the room…”

I have been manhandled, mansplained, and managed and the experience scored deep wounds in my psyche and soul. This week brought every bit of that to the surface.
I believe now my church experience is like my cancer experience. I survived it, but not without real and lasting damage, much of which cannot be seen. Not only that but for decades I have tried to walk away from the emotional weight of what it was like to live with and walk through the experience. But there’s too many like me, women who need help, women who need hope, women who need to know they aren’t alone.

When I sat in a room of angry men, I had to humbly beg for a woman friend to sit with me, a request which was nearly denied. I will never forget her gentle presence, her quiet support, the power of knowing someone who sat in that room heard me and believed, whose intent was understanding rather than correction. I experienced this too, and it in many ways it saved me.

I don’t always want to be the person who stands with, who has gone before. But I also can’t walk away from her. Each time, whether cancer of the body or cancer of the soul, it rips those old wounds open again and I bleed, and I hurt, and I live those terrible moments over again. And they are terrible, the stuff of nightmares.  But just as I pulled my children into the curve of my body in deep nights when they came to me afraid, so I can reach out and pull another into the warmth and safety of my nearness. I can whisper, “It’s ok. You aren’t alone in the dark anymore.” We all need this, no matter how old we’ve grown.

Yes, this week was hard. My trauma is still fresh, sitting just below the surface and aching like a deep bruise when pressed upon.  But the courage I saw this week was inspiring and beautiful, even though I don’t actually believe much will change. But maybe, maybe if we can be brave enough to draw our lines in the sand and say, “This far, but no farther.” If we can stand together and say, “Me too.” If we, together, can shine a light into the darkness, maybe we won’t feel so scared and alone.

Hope is hard work. Exhausting sometimes, but here at the end of a hard week, I’m still holding on to it with both hands, and bleeding a little as well.

September Song

“Oh it’s a long, long while from May to December, but the days grow short when we reach September” — Maxwell Anderson

 

September has been a hot mess of a month, perhaps the meanest one this summer. I can’t even talk about the temperatures except to say that the last two days I have at least not wanted to die the moment I stepped outdoors. Party’s over summer; SEE YA! But mostly the weather has served to underscore the discomfort of some necessary soul work. It’s been six months since Craig was fired from his position in ministry. The first three months we spent adjusting to me working full time and him not working at all (Oy Vey!). The second three months we spent adjusting to his new job and both of us working full time at which point I completely gave up ever caring about what’s for dinner or whether anyone eats at all.

 

And here we are. Forty-eight hours from the final severance check, the final tie to anything church-related, and me with enough normalcy and time on my hands to start uncovering the wounds and scars in order to see what’s left of me. The good news: I seem mostly intact.

 

I don’t know what I expected to happen at this point, but in some ways, I think I hoped to be further along than this? Which is silly, really. A decade of damage doesn’t magically go away in only six months. Perhaps it’s the settling that has me unsettled. For six months everything was new and exciting and amazing. RAH! RAH! RAH! And now? Well, now we’re settled. This is life. Probably life until we retire to the beach and what the hell are we going to do with it? That’s a question, isn’t it? Probably not one I’ll answer in one morning of writing.

 

You see, I’ve started making myself write every morning again. Most of it is not for public consumption but some of it may evolve into thoughts worth sharing. The thing about all this freedom is that I don’t want to squander it. I literally have everything I wanted, everything I asked the Universe for this time last year and I don’t want to waste time wallowing about in the mire of victimhood. And yet, I’ve rumbled with the chains of professional religion for so long, I haven’t quite figured out how to live without them. I’m so buoyant I don’t know what to do with my limbs, and I worry about floating away instead of using my freedom to fly. Or maybe I’m just creating my own drama now that I’m free of drama thrust upon me. I wouldn’t put it past me.

 

We’re racing into my favorite time of year. The span from October to January is traditionally a time I thrive. I’m using these creative morning moments to look at the months ahead as a canvas to paint on rather than a soapbox to stand on.  Now that I’m finally free to share whatever opinions I want, I feel less inclined to. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have to worry about setting myself apart from a culture which lately has me feeling more and more ashamed of its image. I’m looking forward to creating my own image and identity and exploring Divine images and identities previously unknown to me. For the past two years, we hoped to be done with Milledgeville by the close of the waning year, but this year we’ve chosen a new outlook. We’re ready to thrive in a place which grew on us when we weren’t looking and provided a chance at something entirely new in ways we never expected.

 

These are gifts I can’t ignore.

 

Last night as I was climbing into bed, I thought to myself, “This is my real life. What am I going to do with it now?” I know, nice put you sleep thoughts, aren’t they? But the truth of them is still ringing in my head this morning. This is my real life. I’m not waiting to move, or for the other shoe to drop – An aside, I don’t know how many shoes those people wore, but they dropped them at least monthly for years – or for things to get better. This is my real life to shape and create and do with whatever I please. The only person I answer to is just as invested in creating a great life with me as I am, which is another gift I don’t take lightly. Along the way, I’m certain to talk about my life experiences, both recently and long past. They have me shaped into the person I am, a damn fine, imperfect and evolving human being, more gifts upon gifts.

 

What will I do with my real life, my wild and precious life? I guess that’s partly what this space is for now, to unwrap all the gifts that freedom reveals and all the ways I am learning to grow and fly in it. This doesn’t have to be the settling place, instead, it can be a launching pad, a dynamic space which includes my wounds and experiences but isn’t limited by them. Where both what has happened to me and what I do with it propel me forward instead of constantly dragging me back.

 

What does life look like when the kids are grown and the mid-life crises are navigated, when the careers have changed and the retirement plans are decided and all that freedom you thought you had when you graduated college as a “real grown-up” (don’t take offense, I use quotation marks when I call myself a “real grown-up” too) finally makes an appearance?  Well, I don’t know. But I plan to find out – starting now, at the end of a hot, messy September.

Walking on Eggshells: thoughts on trauma, anxiety and healing

“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.

 

100 dreams

In February of this year, I was in the middle of a conversation with my husband when he said this: Maybe, I’m not supposed to be happy. Maybe, I’m just supposed to work hard and be content with that.

Let me give a bit of context, this conversation happened on a roadtrip on the way to a place I didn’t want to go, orchestrated by people I did not trust with my emotional and spiritual well-being (a feeling which hasn’t changed), and these two sentences only served to highlight the reason for my feelings.

I wanted to throw up. I wanted to open the car door,  throw myself into traffic and run all the way home. Then I wanted to pack all my things and move to Canada and leave no forwarding address. I wanted to open up my brain and push that shit-message right out of my soul.

I love my husband with every cell in my body to the last shred of my soul, but in moments like this, I wondered if his calling would actually destroy us both. I simply cannot believe in a god whose highest calling for us is unrelenting duty, and to whom our best response is settling for it.

Fast forward to any number of evenings this summer. We regularly celebrate our new living space by thoroughly enjoying our front and back porches. We sit outside long after the sun goes down, sipping wine, listening to rain or crickets, weather depending, and talk about the ways we want to shape our lives. We plan; we hope. We dare to dream. Granted, we limp a little as we go, and we don’t look very hard into the shadows lest we see the demons which still linger. We’re working on those. Healing takes time.

I remember specifically after one of these nighttime conversational ramblings thinking, Oh my God. I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten what’s it like to talk this way, to be these people together.

A few months ago, I started writing a list of 100 dreams. I work on it from time to time when I feel inspired, or when I need to be  inspired. To date, I only have forty-six items on the list. Some of them are big: trip to Iceland anyone? Some of them are geeky: read 1,000 books by the time I am 50, starting now. Some of them are simple: live in a tiny house. All of them have very little to do with duty or responsibility. They are things which simply make me happy. It makes me happy to think about them, to pursue them; it even makes me happy writing and thinking about them.

It would be easy, now, to look back and harshly judge myself for how much power I relinquished over the direction of my own life, but that’s time and energy wasted. Instead, I choose to create my list, to dream and build, to feel awe that I have a chance to relearn what it means to dream.

If we were actually in reality show, this week’s episode would feature a very different roadtrip. Imagine van packed with five adults and their baggage – literal and emotional – driving down the highway singing ‘A Million Dreams’ from the Greatest Showman as loud as we can, even Craig joining in. Maybe it’s a hallmark movie ending, but it’s also my real life. Mine, to shape in the ways that are best for me and the ones I love.

Look, I’m all about personal and communal responsibility. I firmly believe that all of creation is deeply interdependant and as such we care for each other. I am not advocating for personal gain at the expense of other people. What I don’t believe is that we are to take on responsibility at the expense of our selves or our souls. Obligation and obedience aren’t markers of character, they are demands made by the powerful of those they consider powerless. I’ll take free-will, please and thank you.

In all of humanity, there is only one me. There will only ever be one me. Only a sadist would create each unique individual only to demand our subservience at the expense of our individuality. There is little divine about conformity. If you believe in Purpose, and I do, then this way of thinking is an abomination not only of the created but of the Creator. We are made for more than duty and responsibility. I only have to look at the platypus to believe that.

There is a debilitating level of sickness and despair which accompanies the belief that we aren’t actually meant to be happy, to have dreams. I’ve swum in those waters, an act I will fight hell itself to never repeat. So I dream, an act I believe is fighting hell itself. I believe we are meant for more, for deeper, for restoration, for relationship and yes, for responsibility, but embracing these things should only make us more ourselves, never less and never someone else’s vision of who we should be.

Dreams
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

— Langston Hughes

 

On Being (and being on the beach)

I just returned from the beach. If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know what that means for my body soul. I am rested, relaxed, restored. We lived by the beach as a family for sixteen years ( Hunky grew up there) and the lifestyle somehow crawled under our skin and into our bones and took up residence. We are beach people. We have sand in the marrow.

The last time I was at the beach, Hunky had just been released from his position in ministry. I sort of love the story: he called at 7am to tell me he was packing his office because he knew what was coming; I went into work and was hired that day as a full-time supervisor (of books and reading!!! Dreams do come true!!!!); by 2pm we were in the car on the way to the beach- headed to the place we love to wed people we love and imagine a life we could love.  I am forever awestruck by Divine Providence and this part of our story is drenched in it.

Last time we were at the beach we focused on getting our feet under us, planning our next steps (by the time we got home Sunday we had a place to live, and would begin moving 72 hours later). We cried a little, laughed a lot, created a retirement plan and remembered who we were before…before what I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint when I lost myself, I only know I did.

This time the beach spoke to me, or God spoke to me, or a holy communion of SpiritsunwindwaterSoulskinsand, probably the last one. I received one Word that sounded like a clear and unmistakable constant call to prayer: whole. Whole. I can be whole. I am becoming Whole. We are becoming Whole.

It may take longer than we think, but the becoming…well, aren’t we always becoming something? One of the choices before me now is wholeness, and the universe wasn’t subtle in telling me which path to choose.  God doesn’t always light the way with trumpets and a band of angels, but when They do…

It’s true though, every book I read – even the junk books- every song I listened to, every voice, everything, everywhere was about becoming whole again. Whole in my skin, whole on my path, whole with my vision, my goals and my future.

There is a form of Japanese artistry called Kintsugi, where the artist takes broken pottery pieces and fills the broken spaces with resin which has been mixed with silver, platinum or gold. The result is a whole piece whose brokeness isn’t hidden, but highlighted,  making the piece far more beautiful than it was when it was unmarked. Wholeness doesn’t erase brokenness but we become more than we were when our broken places are mended with an eye towards beauty instead of perfection.  I am walking Kintsugi. Golden light is shining through my broken places, and yet, I am whole.

I thought a great deal about writing as I stared at the sea. I thought about this space, why it’s here, why I bother, what is my purpose in sitting down and crafting these thoughts? For awhile, I pushed back against writing about God. I didn’t want to be that person: that ‘church’ person, that ‘religious’ person. I didn’t want people painting me with that brush.

But people are going to paint me however they please to paint me. I can’t alter or change it and so, I am letting it go.  This is me, the paint another person chooses reflects their own soul, not mine.

I am deeply Spiritual and writing is part of how I create my being, especially, my spiritual being.  Taking all the dancing and even the dark and deceptive thoughts in my head and focusing them into words, ideas, paragraphs and eventually essays is my way of saying, Let there be.  It is an act of creation. Writing, for me, is a spiritual act. It is about becoming.

This doesn’t mean I write only, exclusively about God, quite the opposite. One of the major issues I have with the evangelical paradigm of God is localized Spirituality. God is in this, but not in that. This is sacred, that is secular. God is here (especially if here is church), but cannot be found there. My whole self rejects this paradigm, and in so doing I affirm that I can write about whatever I want, but nothing I do write can be separated from the Spirit in me. If my paradigm says God is in all and works through all, then whatever I write about will be inherently Spiritual whether or not I choose to name it.

While I was away this week I realized I’ve been pushing back on God: Don’t come too close; be here but not all up in here. My experience with church skewed my boundaries and I forgot that the problem was not God but toxic spiritual relationships, a distortion of God’s image, not the true Divine image. In pushing back, vomiting up, cleaning out all that was poisoning me, I’d tied some of that mess to the Divine Spirit in me, and I was holding her at arms length, afraid of losing myself again.

I’d love to be able to say, this is the moment the switch flipped and I saw everything clearly again, but I can’t. What I do know is that some point I decided let down my guard with God, to invite Them all the way back inside, gulping her down like rum punch after hours in the hot sun, leaving me quenched and heady and little bit drunk.  What appeared as deconstruction was actually God laying down the red carpet and saying, this is the Path; don’t be afraid to dance while you’re on it.

And so I am.

So what does that mean for this space? It probably means I will speak a great deal about God. I may call them Jesus or the Divine, or Spirit or the Universe or Soul or any number of other things. I’ll probaly also use confusing pronouns. Currently She and They/Them seem more appropriate when speaking of the Divine. God’s not a man, that I know, and my record with male religious leaders ain’t great.  I’m definitely avoiding male pronouns for a bit.

I plan to be both playful and honest. As Anne Lamott says,

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

It may make people unhappy or uncomfortable, hell, my life makes me uncomfortable all the time, but it will be real. I’ve had a thousand quiet, private conversations as I tripped and stumbled down the path of deconstruction. I know what the world needs is more voices saying, it’s ok. God’s at the bottom of the slippery slope. Higher up and further in. We can do this; take my hand.

I know professional church wounds as much as it heals and someone has to stand on margins of faith with band-aids and gatorade and sometimes with life support.

I know we need a place to talk about where to go and what to do and who we are when we can no longer be defined by the rules we learned growing up. It’s hard. We all limp out here. But if we remember we move and live under a singing, dancing God who loves with the wild, tender, untamable, unstoppable fury of ten thousand jealous mothers, we can become….whatever we desire to be.

Come now my love. My lovely one come.

Become.

Be whole.

Be.

 

What happened when I finally stopped moving

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.

 

How it feels to leave church

I met a friend while doing some birthday shopping this week. We were out in public and as we chatted a bit, she said some things which made me realize she didn’t know about our recent life changes. When I told her my husband left his church position, her next question is the one which seems the inevitable follow-up: where are you going to church now?

For years I’ve witnessed the tongue clucking, pearl clutching, shake-your-head-in-shame response to people who forgo the experience of the Sunday church service. I know what to expect when I give my reply. Still, I take a deep breath and mentally gird my loins every time I speak it aloud. At this point, I’m not telling people what they want to hear.

We aren’t attending a church service, right now.

(I use the words ‘right now’ to soften the blow. Eventually my husband will miss church, but me, I have no plans to return to evangelical church, not now, not ever. Not church as we’ve experienced it.)

I realize this question, and the ensuing behavior correcting protests which follow are seen as a loving way to ‘guide me back into the fold.’ Clearly, I’ve backslidden in some invisible way. I need only be reminded of the importance of having a place to worship and the tribe which accompanies my brand of loyalty. I can be fixed. After all, God commanded us to go to church is part of the doctrine I’ve been fed for decades.  But I’m no longer swallowing religious platitudes wholeheartedly, and unfortunately, I can’t seem to find those verses.

Please, don’t go quoting Paul at me, now. Paul isn’t God and our female church population aren’t wearing head covers, either.

Leaving church for me is a strange untethering, like walking around in unlaced shoes. Sure there’s more room for comfort, but my stride is a bit awkward while I adjust to the change.  As much as I enjoy the freedom of being myself after years of failed attempts at conformity, it doesn’t make facing people’s reactions any easier.

What I’m not saying is being part of a church is wrong or bad, nor am I demeaning people who find great depth and meaning in their religious community. I just don’t buy into the whole ‘worship service experience’ as the end-all-be-all test of my relationship wth God or my ability to develop and thrive as a spiritual being.  I have repeatedly been loved more deeply and treated more humanely by those outside the church community than those associated with it.

I don’t think church is a bad thing, but I absolutely think the way I experience it currently is a toxic environment for me.

Leaving church has made me feel a bit like Paul who had an experience with the Divine (in the middle of a common street, no less. No alter call required) which caused scales to fall from his eyes. After this experience he never saw the same way again. He never rested very easy with established religious leaders afterwards, either.  Paul found himself in all sorts of communities: professional, neighborhood, long distance, home gatherings. We call these communities church, now, but then they simply called it ‘ecclesia,’ literally, a gathering of people. In fact, the word ecclesia was informal and organic long before we grabbed it and mashed it into a religious construct and declared it superior to any other gathering.

I do believe we are called to community. Even this hardcore introvert recognizes the need for connection. I’m part of many groups of all sorts and constructs. Most are open and welcoming, a few are new and a little intimidating. None of them force me to believe a certain set of doctrinal norms to be accepted. In fact, most of them don’t give a hot damn about my theology. It’s my humanity they love and care for, my emotions, my health, my needs and my person.

These groups are all ecclesia to me, a group of people working together for a common goal and taking care of each other along the way. To say the divine is not in our midst as we go along, is to limit the Divine in ways I no longer recognize.

I’m still sorting out what it means to be spiritual but not evangelical.  I’m still a Christian in that I still see Jesus as the true revelation of God, even though I no longer see Jesus as exclusive or final revelation of God. I’m releasing inerrancy, exclusivity, superiority, mysogyny, nationalism, violence and retribution and leaning into the inherent goodness of humanity, the beauty, fragility and diversity of this earth, blessing over curse, love over morality, peace over punishment, but it is often difficult to rewrite the tracks written into my heart and mind for so long.

Mostly I’m setting the healthy boundary that no person or group of people automatically has the authority to tell me what to think and how to feel based on religious positioning. Authority doesn’t indicate relationship, compassion or compatibility. Spirituality and development aren’t one size fits all endeavors; acronyms are cheap ways to dictate behavior modification and call it community.

Maybe your experience is different. I hope your experience is different. No one should experience the layers of rejection I have from an organization professing unconditional love. But I know there are many of us on the outside, and we deserve a space to talk about our experience too. This is my space, and you’re welcome here even if you are reading this on your phone in the middle of Sunday service thinking I’ve got it all wrong. In some ways, I am sure I do; I’m just no longer concerned with getting it all perfectly right.

No, I’m not ‘going to church’ right now. But I am part of community, ones which make me better, which change my thinking and transform my life, but most importantly, communities which make me more of who I was created to be instead of less like me and more like someone else’s vision of who I should be.  My ecclesia is exactly as its meant to be even if it isn’t at 10am on Sunday morning with three songs to get me in the mood for God.  I know, that may make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable sometimes, too. But mostly, it makes me grateful and joyful and full of love and life. I think Jesus called it, worshipping in Spirit and Truth.  He didn’t limit that to service times or congregation.