On Being (and being on the beach)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come now my love. My lovely one come.

Become.

Be whole.

Be.

 

What happened when I finally stopped moving

My husband was out of town last weekend. I don’t mind when he leaves town as long as its not too long or too many weeks in a row.  I often joke that he is the cog that keeps the family running with any sort of consistency. When Craig goes out of town, I don’t cook. We barely shower. One year Lindsay and I watched three seasons of Doctor Who in three days while Craig was away at camp with the younger two. We strategically planned take-out meals so we could eat them twice and not have to leave the house or spend too long in the kitchen.  I don’t know if you can combine the words sloth and debauchery, but if there was such a word, that describes our household when Craig is away.

Last weekend wasn’t any different. Craig left on Friday. I didn’t cook again until Sunday night. 50% of my meals were cheese and crackers. I don’t even know what the kids ate. I wore pajamas to take people to work. I watched a season of Bones and crocheted. I’m not even ashamed.   Sometimes these types of weekends are necessary in order to reset my mind to the reality of the present.

We’ve done a lot of transitioning over the last year(ish). I feel like we’ve done a decent job rolling through the changes as they’ve come. Yes, there has been some trauma, and we are still dealing with emotional fall-out. But over all, we are recovering in a healthy way. Honestly, changes have been happening so fast, I have taken almost no time to reflect on anything lately. I needed some space to compare the trajectory of my life as it is now to where it was a year ago.

I was in the car in my pajamas at 10:30 Friday night, as I left to go get Bailey from her job, when I realized I haven’t left the house after dark since we moved in. Granted, it’s summer, and I am an introvert, which means rain or shine when it’s 8pm, I want to be holed up in my room recovering from a day of people-ing ( I am who I am, and I like me. You do you.), but this thought led me to the revelation that I have been traveling only between what I consider the ‘safe places’ in my life, basically on survival auto-pilot. Without thinking, I’ve been avoiding anywhere that I might encounter someone emotionally unsafe or to whom I might feel deserves explanations  which I am unwilling to pretty-up for public consumption.  Work to home to places out-of-town. These are the roads I have traveled every day, week after week until months have passed.

No wonder I feel a low level of exhaustion at the end of most weeks, my fight or flight hasn’t lowered at any point this year.  Just like a secret app constantly behind the scenes makes your phone sluggish, my sympathetic nervous system has been ticking along in the background, preparing me to take on attackers at a moment’s notice, and just as quietly draining my energy and emotional reserves.

While I was still digesting this little tid-bit of knowledge, I experienced another sweeping breath of fresh air (I think its because Christmas music was playing in the background): I have more freedom now than I ever have to orchestrate my life the way I want it to be.

Perhaps this concept isn’t revalatory to you, but as I transition out of some abusive relationships and toxic systems, I am only beginning to realize how much of my freedoms I had willingly given away. For a long time, I was a slave to a “higher calling” and while I still believe in the goodness and support which can come from being part of something bigger than ourselves, I no longer believe that I must sacrifice who I am to be part of it. Or, I am learning to believe it. It’s a process.

The fact of the matter is, when changes are flying at you fast and furious, when you are making literal life-altering decisions on the fly and then racing along to stay even a little bit ahead of them, there isn’t a whole lot of time for self-reflection and examination. We’ve been in survival mode for a long time, culminating over the last months with the  few final pieces of the picture (for now) falling into place. It took so much of ourselves to get here, that I haven’t had time to stop and consider what it meant for the future other than the fact that we still have a future, and it’s a good one.

But this weekend I finally stopped. I didn’t read or rush or push ahead or even think very much (or shower regularly, true tale). Coming to a full stop allowed all the whirling, swirling thoughts, ideas, healing truths and stray bits of lies and delusions I’ve been holding tightly to coalesce and settle. Some pieces finally drifted softly away and some quietly sank to the floor of my soul and landed with a soft thump. The idea that I have, at last, the freedom to create the life I want landed with the most impact.  I’ve been contemplating it with awe-struck wonder ever since.

I believe there are seasons in life where we intentionally trade freedom for something bigger than ourselves. The years of raising wee ones, times of living with restriction for a larger purpose whether that restriction is financial, or dietary or living situations are examples of this type of self-limiting. There are also times where mere survival forces us to set severe limits, or we may face a series of less desireable outcomes as a consequence of choices we’ve made. I have lived through many of these seasons. They come and they go, in their turn.

But what I am finally gaining is the perspective to see is how much of myself and my freedom I gave away willingly, but not necessarily. I became less, not because it was required but because I was willing to trade myself for lifestyle which was never meant for me.  What that choice has cost me, and also how much work will be required for me to regain strength in those muscles again, is something I wasn’t ready to face before.  In a way, I am grateful for the pace of life lately. It’s forced me to develop some healthy patterns and boundaries without over-thinking or letting co-dependency rule my emotions. Having moved some distance away from the foundation of those boundaries, now I am able to go back and see where I was and also just how far I have come. Seeing my life from this different perspective makes how far I still have to go, how far I still want to go, a little less daunting.

 

How it feels to leave church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Better

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.

 

 

Creative tension: a call and response to living in the unexpected

You know what would be fun to write about? How to have it all together. I’d like to write about that because it would mean I am on a journey in that general direction. It would feel as though I am beginning to figure some things out.

But, no.

Last week was a nutso butter and crazy sandwich.  I worked weird and wild hours, tried to maintain a low-level walk/run routine, wrote hardly at all, didn’t read as much as I wanted to, didn’t log my hours regularly and generally don’t feel as though I accomplished very much. Oh, and my husband started a brand new career, at 46. As you do.

But I did survive, and that’s saying something.

Amongst other things this new career means the nice self-centered existence I have been living since starting my own brand new career at age 45 – yes, I do feel one-upped – is about to be flipped on its ear. Friends, I haven’t made dinner since March. MARCH. I’ve barely done laundry, cleaned house, or handled any of the transportation issues faced by a 3 car,  5 adult family. While I re-learned what it’s like to be a professional person in a professional world, my husband took care of the domestic details of life. All of them. This is a definite advantage of him leaving his career the day mine launched (it’s also a super-cool story which I will share another time).

But isn’t this always how life is?

Life. Love it or hate it, her favorite pitch is the curve.  Sure it’s nice to go along knowing what’s next, knowing how it will all work out, knowing exactly what’s for dinner and that all the ingredients will be there and someone else is cooking them and all you have to do is show up. I like that, too. In fact, I love the predictability of routine. I love always having clean laundry.

But to expect that life will always flow towards the smoothest path is to set ourselves up for constant and profound disappointment. I have often commiserated with moms of the little guys that just as soon you develop a nice schedule, there’s a growth spurt, or a developmental leap and BAM, you’re figuring things out all over again. What we often fail to realize is that this pattern isn’t exclusively for the new mom. This is the pattern of life. Just when we get things all figured out, a new piece is thrown into the pattern and we’re juggling all over again, trying to make art instead of chaos.

I actually think it’s kind of brilliantly beautiful.

See, I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty-five. I’m not even the same person I was in January.  I often don’t welcome the shifts the which generate this slow and steady evolution, but I know for a fact that it’s the unpredictable moments, and our response to them, which create the friction that changes the shape of our souls. Our souls are shapeshifters and this is a good thing. Just as a garden goes through cycles of life and death, our souls cannot maintain the abundance of a constant summer, no matter how much we may want them too. Routine and preparation have their place, but they are neither the source of growth nor the better path.

For several years now, I have struggled with anxiety. I used to think it was because I was afraid of the unknown. but my anxiety wasn’t caused by unknown patterns, it was the known which had me freezing up and freaking out. Known patterns which I felt I could not escape left me unable to take another step. Yes, the unknown is frightening, but sometimes it’s the learned patterns of existence which damage us far more.  Yet we stay because the routine is familiar. We know the steps, the roles, and the rules, even if they are slowly killing us.

By the way, I also haven’t had an anxiety attack since March, and I don’t think it’s just about the dinners.

I still love routines and I do often wish I had a peek into life a bit further ahead than, say, Wednesday.  But if that were the case, I would lose all the creative effort I put into every day, deciding who I will be, where I will find beauty and joy. These ways of responding shape my soul into something unique and lovely, something routine and answers never will. Routine is safe and comforting, a necessary element of life, but it’s when we’re off the map that we learn who we really are, and where we learn the skills to become someone different if we don’t like who we find.

So I hope to run and read and write and work in ways that are a bit less crazy this week. But I’m also really looking forward to enjoying those unexpected encounters, the surprise belly laughs, and the sheer pleasure of not knowing exactly what’s next but knowing whatever it is, all will be well.

 

Hello Georgia: thoughts on change and happiness

In 2017, my family set its sights on leaving Georgia. We had an idea of how we wanted life to look, but we weren’t terribly particular about where the difference took place. I was of the mindset ‘anywhere-but-here’ and Hunky was of  the mindset ‘wherever-will-take-me.’  We tried California, Nebraska, Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin and even Canada, to name just a few. Our attempts were met with varying degrees of interest, but we never made a love connection.

The funny thing is, even though we cast a wide net, we had a very narrow window. We believed that there was one path for us to take, and only that path, that calling was our vehicle to the life we wanted. We had a plan, a map, and we were set to follow it to the end of the journey.

Then in September, I began working at our local public library. It was just a part-time gig, to begin with, a few hours a week since my kids are grown and in college, a way to re-enter the wider world since we didn’t know what would come next…when we left Georgia.

However, my job didn’t go the way I planned. It wasn’t just something I enjoyed or was good at – though it is those things – it awakened something in me that I didn’t even know was there: a deep and abiding love, not only for the work I was doing but for the place I was doing it. For the first time in ten years, I felt anchored to a place almost as deeply as I felt anchored to a lifestyle or a belief system.

This caused a bit of tension with our leaving plan.

But we pushed forward anyway because our window, our vision, was still too small to see any possibility of finding happiness in this place while maintaining our lifestyle. Even though things got harder, and heavier, nearly unbearable, in some ways, I was thriving in my new job. Its voice was louder than the other voices taking inventory of my shortcomings, my wrong beliefs, feelings and ideas, and demanding conformity.  In a storm of uncertainty about the future, my job was a life raft, keeping me afloat which in turn helped to keep us all afloat.

We weren’t willing to quit, but we were also unable to let go of our plan. So we floundered and flailed, unable to find happiness in a life that no longer fit.

Have you ever known anyone who lost a lot of weight, maybe yourself, even? For a while, everything fits as it should and then things get a little loose, so you tighten your belt one notch, and then another. Your clothes flap around you but you wait, because even though things don’t fit, you know you aren’t done changing. Anything you buy now will probably be discarded too soon to make them worth the money and effort. But one day, you wake up, and there is just no wearing anything, not one thing, you had before, no matter how much you loved it at one time. You can’t keep wearing the same clothes. You must find something new.

By February, that’s where we were, absolute crisis, jumping through hoops like circus performers in order to hang on to what we had until the door magically opened for us to step through – to step out of Georgia.

Which is why we never paid much attention to the escape hatch we were already standing on. When it finally opened beneath us, we were momentarily startled, but not really surprised. In fact, after the initial shock, we were overwhelmed with relief. It’s as though someone handed us a treasure and said, “Here, I found this. It was already with your things. So it’s yours.” Georgia was still for us, still on our map. It was ministry we had to release.

I won’t lie, my prayers to leave Georgia balanced equally with my prayer to just not be part of church leadership anymore. This was my dirty little secret. I didn’t just want to leave a place. I wanted to leave a mindset, a doctrine, a behavior pattern, an environment that was toxic to me. The things which fit, no longer fit. The ways of thinking were no longer my ways. But the space to be different in any way did not exist. I felt trapped. The clothes weren’t too big, but far, far too small and all my imperfections were spilling out for everyone to see.

I wonder now, in hindsight, what might have been different if we’d had the courage or the bravado to widen our vision, to believe there is more than one right path to take, that calling evolves and changes, and that who we are isn’t defined by our station. In my head, I know these things, but I didn’t live them. They weren’t my practice.

It’s June now, and as for Georgia, we’re all in. The shock of leaving church didn’t upend and send us tumbling across the wilderness. Rather, it forced us to push roots down deeper, to strengthen and grow quickly. I think we may even begin blooming soon.  Our narrow window closed completely. Instead, God ripped the ceiling off and said, “Here, take a look at this sky. Better yet, step outside those walls and start really living out here in the world. It’s a place I’m especially fond of.”

Funny, it’s a place I’m especially fond of now, too.  Finally.