Post-evangelical: This is my real life

Healing, Learning, Living

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.

Awake

Healing, Living

Read part 1 of the Awakening series here.

…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.

Say, Hallelujah.

Continue to part 3

Awakenings

Healing, Learning
Before reading this post, you may want to see this post and also this one to understand more of the story.

Looking back over the last few years, I feel as though I’ve undergone a series of awakenings. When we were at Rob Bell’s show last weekend, he said, Once you’ve seen, you can’t unsee. He’s not wrong, but what I know is you can try really hard to pretend like you don’t see it for a long time.

I don’t actually believe there is only one path a person is destined to take in life, just as I don’t believe in soul mates. Our life is an ever-evolving series of choices and actions and possibilities. Where we end up is completely up to us. I don’t even believe that the wiser the choice, the greater the likelihood that we will live happily ever after because I know shitstorms happen for no reason whatsoever. Ask the people in the Florida panhandle which choices could have changed the path of Michael. No one is immune.

I say all this to say, I’ve been awakening to a wider view of…well…everything for over ten years, a span of time which both humbles and astounds me. There was a time when I absolutely was “that Christian.” I knew the answers. I knew the scriptures. I understood the way the universe worked and if you didn’t agree, it wasn’t because there were more possibilities than I imagined, it was because you were wrong (and probably going to hell for it.) It doesn’t make me proud to say these things, but it does help me understand that most of us are doing the best we can with the information we have. If the universe is still expanding, I can hardly expect less of myself given enough time.

I can list the events which triggered my more recent reawakening, but I can’t specifically remember any one thing that started the whole ball rolling years ago- maybe it always is rolling and we only notice it after a great distance is traveled. I do remember being troubled by a narrow and seemingly fragile view of God. I have to believe any god worthy of worship is quite able and willing to defend Themselves if necessary, and we don’t have to be so afraid to examine them, critique them and question them. If a god can’t stand up to these things, then They are no God. Obviously, I had questions- I always do – eventually, those questions brought me around to our concept of church. Friends, let me warn you, if you thought God was sacred, you ain’t seen anything. When you dare to examine, question and critique church, now you’re truly tipping sacred cows.

There are a million and twelve details to the story of leaving Florida, but let’s shorten it to: Contract of silence, “resignation”, kicked out of the church. All neatly wrapped with the gospel of church discipline with the corresponding scriptures.

The second verse is the same as the first, add nine years and a lot more fear.

I speak lightly of it now but that was a terrifying time for us. Leaving Florida was a move we never saw coming with three young children and a great deal of debt. I wasn’t working, so no help there. Our severance was based on our isolation from anyone associated with the church, so we were also essentially friendless. We needed a lifeboat and fast.

Here is the point where we could have chosen a different pathway. We didn’t have to go back into ministry. We had multiple opportunities presented to us at this time, including a church which differed drastically in style and holds more loosely to the concept of doctrine and theology than the one we recently exited. I don’t know how my life would have differed had we chosen another path. I also don’t regret the one we have chosen, because where we are now is exciting.

Given an array of choices, we went for geographic distance, but the church where we landed was a carbon copy of the one we departed from both then and now. Perhaps there is comfort in familiarity? Perhaps the price was right? Whatever our reasons, we came. And I tucked my wondering, my questions, and my evolving thoughts away neatly and deeply in an effort to keep my family safe and my life tidy.

I was fine for a time. It’s easy to play a role, even an ill-suited one, when you are also busy raising a family, settling into a new place, dealing with the financial fall-out, figuring out an entirely new culture. It’s easy to spout the standard rhetoric when it’s already deeply ingrained. No need to think about anything, just put on the soundtrack and dance, dance, dance. Which I did, for years.

And then I woke up, again. For keeps.

This is the first installment in a series of posts about Awakenings. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

The things we trade away

Healing, Loving

Yesterday my daughter shared some of her feelings about how abused women are treated by our patriarchal culture. I’m so proud of my daughters when they share, and also terrified. I’m terrified because I know how the response in times I have shared has affected me. Deliberate transparency has been a tool used against me by men who sought to control and fix me. More and more I find that when women are transparent about our anger, men are quick to tell us why we are wrong. Put a Bible in that man’s hand, and he’ll use scripture to punch you too. I’d rather spare my own young women these experiences, but this form of sheltering does them no favors, not in the world we live in today. So, I do my best to let them express themselves and not interfere– with varying degrees of success.

Enter my rage.

When my daughter bared her heart, one of the perpetrators of my abuse chimed in. The emotions sweeping through me were so fast and so fierce they literally took my breath. My hands shook; my face flushed. I immediately felt powerless – powerless to stop his words, powerless to change what was happening, powerless to protect myself or anyone else from the punishment that was sure to follow.  This is what surviving trauma feels like, terror often coming out of nowhere.

I wish I could pinpoint the moment I began surrendering my power. Why did I do it? What made it seem like a good idea? Sometimes I blame the money. We made a lot of money in ministry.  People may say money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure as hell buys health insurance and groceries and a place to live and college tuitions and so many other things that make happiness easier to come by. For a long time, it bought me the freedom to be home with my ladies as they grew up, which I desperately wanted after staring down my own mortality.

I don’t know when I began trading my power away for these things, I only know that I did. Piece by piece – my control, my desires, my abilities, my identity and eventually even my voice. I gave it away. I signed it away. I did it. I did those things. I was an instrument in my own unmaking.

I feel shame when I talk about this, shame so deep it almost buries me. You know why women who are victims don’t speak up? I do. I know it every day, all the way down to the deepest cracks in my soul. Those cracks will never go away; the only thing I can do is to accept that they are part of my terrain.

What I am slowly learning is the things I may have done wrong, don’t excuse what happened. Just because I willingly surrendered, doesn’t make it right that they were asked of me, or demanded of me as the relationship evolved. Fear and gaslighting aren’t tools of love, they are weapons of power and control and they are wielded by those who feel they are entitled to use them. And, in my case at least, not only entitled but morally mandated to put me in my place by whatever means necessary, a terrible, holy duty.

I’ve internalized a great deal of rage over the last few years. This rage has manifested itself in anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and depression – the list is quite extensive. Sometimes I struggle with anchoring myself in reality. Sometimes my brain feels shrouded in fog. All of these are symptoms of internalized anger because I believed expression would lead to punishment. I believed because it was my lived experience, over and over again.

All of these concepts and constructs played a role in my emotional response to a person with a history of abuse trying to influence my daughter last night. I wanted to shut down, suck in my anger and disappear just like I always have. But then I didn’t.

Six months isn’t enough time to undo all the toxic messages and ideologies I’ve absorbed. I may spend the rest of my lifetime dismantling those things. But it’s apparently enough time for me to decide unaddressed bullshit isn’t something I’m willing to leave lying around any longer.

Instead of taking that anger and stuffing it down, I pushed it out. I pushed back. I called bullshit. It was freaking terrifying and totally civil and all of twenty people saw it. But I don’t care. It felt like fireworks and marching bands and unicorns with wizards on their backs shouting “RIDIKKULUS!!” riding across my soul. I took back my voice. I grabbed on to my power and held tight. I made anger my tool instead of my enemy.

I called bullshit. And I keep calling bullshit to the message that what happened to me was done in love, was a loving act. I reject that toxic “love” and the claim that it even resembles love. For every woman who has ever heard that weepy, “I love you” while she cowers, hoping the next blow won’t fall I say THAT IS NOT LOVE!  It’s power and it’s control and it’s ego and it’s fear and it’s small and it’s toxic and seeks to kill, steal and destroy but it sure as hell is not love.

For years and years, I traded away bits of myself, for money, for an image, for religion, for a fragile, hypermasculine god, for comfort, for fear of the unknown, for fear. I rode all the way to the end of the tracks and dropped off the edge.

But I’m still here.
I’m an angry woman. I’m not swallowing it anymore.

 

 

September Song

Healing, Living
“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

Healing, Learning

“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.

 

On Being (and being on the beach)

Living, Loving

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

Learning, Living

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

Learning, Loving

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.

 

 

Better

Learning, Living

Last week I wrote about time, how I track it in small increments and try to capture it’s shape and meaning.  I am a marker of time watching the moon, following the seasons, counting the hours and minutes of daylight. This week is the summer solstice, the turning of the earth. This week we mark the longest days this year will see. We begin the turning of Earth towards dark and cool and rest.

This week also marks three months since…well, since things got better.

It feels strange to say it that way. The last time we were involuntarily ousted from a place of worship, it seemed a more catastrophic event had never happened to us. This time, we only feel peace. Peace and release and the most amazing sense of freedom.

I’ve observed time for many reasons: birthdays and cancerversaries, weddings and funerals, travels and trials, events good and bad and those simply unimaginable. I try to take note of the events which change and shape me, even years later, watching for growth and change, noting scars and swimming in grace.

The day I left professional church, whether only for now or for good, is the day my life began turning for the better. The same way the earth tilts to the sun, the way a sunflower tracks the path of light across the sky, my soul is turning to the warmth and light of growing into my nature.

We, my family and I, are getting better. Healing. We are remembering who we were before we crammed our souls into shapes they weren’t created to hold. I tried to uphold a way of thinking and living which directly contradicted the contours of my heart, growing stunted and brittle. I didn’t begin in this distorted form, but as I grew and changed my environment didn’t. I withered and stunted like a flower left too long under a blazing and relentless summer sky.

Life has turned, and our parched, weary souls are remembering what it means to rest and find water in unexpected places.  We find ourselves with new relationships and shifting communities whose gentle presence asks no more of us than to be exactly who we are. Mother God can handle the rest, and all will be well.

While I’ve been at odds with the Bible lately, I find myself leaning into the Message translation in moments when I do reflect on a book I hope to connect with again some day.  Today, I am meditating on these words:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

‘Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.’ This is a promise I can rest in for awhile.

It is the time of turning seasons, and we are better for it and in it.