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.
” 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.
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.
…And then I woke up
The cracks were already forming, of course. I simply hadn’t acknowledged them. The event which finally woke me wasn’t terribly difficult or dramatic. It was small, and a little petty, and strangely enough had nothing to do with the on-going emotional abuse, but it blew open every door I kept quite securely shut. I was gutted, wondering what the hell I was doing in a place where there was no space for me as myself – only me as an ideal someone else dreamed up.
Sick and sad, I turned to therapy. Fortunately for me, I chose my own therapist this time.
Look if you really want to wake up to yourself, I highly encourage seeing a good therapist. Ask around. Get recommendations. You don’t have to be sick or a danger to yourself and others to benefit from conversations about reality, even shitty reality. Maybe you just need someone whose only objective in the relationship is for you to be whole and to thrive as your best self. That’s what I found in therapy.
My therapist shook me up, woke me up and ended each session by encouraging the hell out of me, every other week for a year. She gave me permission to walk a path away from strict fundamentalist doctrine and ideology. She helped me see the reality of a relationship that would never be anything but toxic without radical change. She identified emotional and spiritual abuse. She even warned me there would be a cost to choose a different path. I wasn’t unaware when I walked away, but I finally understood my soul was more important than the dance.
During this time, I explored other narratives and other experiences. I am fascinated by sacred spaces. I explored religion and philosophy, reveling in the similar narrative flow from every one of them: growth making us kinder, gentler, wiser, more open and loving, always moving closer to a Divine Source. I moved further away from evangelicalism as I saw my native faith narrative narrow, becoming anti-people groups, excluding wide swaths of humanity as different, sexually, ethnically, ideologically, and therefore wrong.
Of course, being wrong in the evangelical construct means going to hell. We were, still are, condemning entire groups of beautiful, hurting people to the depths of hell-a construct I no longer believe in- and we felt right and morally superior about doing so.
You can see why I often feel to sick to talk about my experience.
The most discouraging aspect of American Evangelicalism is how little room there is for diversity. Sure, they welcome people of color, but they will demand the same fidelity of diverse humanity as they do of those born to the fold: mold to accepted patterns, fit the standard template, disassociate from unsanctioned ideas and activities. The church follows a white man’s cis-gender narrative. Diverse voices don’t get seats at the important tables. Not in my experience.
My experience with church was one of a constant echo chamber where the same platitudes and polished answers were repeated over and over again with little thought to why or who said them so long as the message is consistent. Add some lights and high volume music filling every empty space, men running on and off stage in varying degrees of excitement or generated reverence and there is very little room for individual thought or contemplation. Race to the altar call, herd the chosen out and bring in the next group. Repeat. Service after service, week after week after week after year.
Now we’re all good Christians.
I don’t think I’m better than people who follow this tradition and find God, I only know I don’t find Her there. I won’t pretend that manufactured emotion equals a spiritual experience. I’m awake to the fact that by evangelical standards, I may not even be a Christian anymore. It’s a jarring realization, an identity shift of astounding proportions.
Modern evangelical theology with its certainty and literalism is not something which sustains me any longer. I’m exhausted of hearing growth and freedom promoted, but dependence and control being practiced. This has been my experience with the church for nearly twenty years. I know it isn’t everyone’s experience and for this, I am grateful for you. We all need communities where our essential selves are welcomed and encouraged. I have not found that in the evangelical church.
I’m awake to the fact that I’m never going find it there. While I may be questioning whether or not I’m still even a Christian, evangelical is a label I know can never wear again. The radical polarization of fundamentalism is something which makes me viscerally ill. This illness manifested itself in panic attacks and anxiety, physical illness and borderline PTSD. My body was trying to wake me up to the damage my psyche, my soul, experienced on a weekly, often daily basis.
If you’re wondering why we stayed, why we kept pushing, why we didn’t cut and run-I wonder that too sometimes. For a while, I stayed because my husband and I were traveling the same path at different speeds, and he wasn’t ready to go as soon as I was. I tried to protect him ( from what? From me? From heresy? from being forced to make a choice? ) by not being honest about how deeply I was affected.
Let me interrupt for a moment and be very clear, my husband only ever held sacred space for me to grow into myself. He always has. He also takes very seriously his financial responsibility to his family and his deep love for the church, a love I have never experienced the way he does. I firmly believe his willingness to allow me that space is what ultimately led to the final breaking point. When push came to shove, he was only ever and always in my corner.
I stayed because this is where my children’s lives are rooted now, and I wasn’t willing to turn their lives over again, even at great cost to myself. We stayed because we had and have real relationships with real people who do love us for our real selves, and those relationships sustained us.
We stayed for the money. We stayed because somehow the unknown was still more frightening than our reality. We stayed because we make choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes not. It took to the end of the chapter to fully know if our choices were wise. We make choices, and we live with them, or we make changes and live with them instead. Over and over again.
Near the end, as we signed more silence contracts and kept submitting resumes in every direction I said, “They will have to fire you. I’m not walking away from here for nothing.” This was my choice. I knew the cost, calculated the risks and walked forward. We needed more time and a clear path out of the hell we were in. We got it at last, but not before I knew without a shred of doubt that professional church was a role I never want to be associated with in any way ever again. Period. Also, exclamation mark. The Universe closed the door, locked it, shoved me out of the building, burned it, crushed it and brought in a tornado to carry away the debris.