Waiting for the Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming Anticipation

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.

Post-evangelical: This is my real life

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

“How you do anything is how you do everything.” ~ Richard Rohr

Divorcing church is a messy business. They get to keep the moral high ground and we get mimosas on Sunday morning.

I actually wish it was that easy. Divorcing church means there is a great big hole in my identity now, one I am in no rush to fill. At least weekly someone asks us, Where are you going to church now?

We aren’t.

I can barely stomach the thought. I won’t speak for Craig, but he’s in no rush, either. We spend most Sunday mornings on the front porch with coffee and fresh air, reading, talking, resting. It’s communion enough for now.

I recently examined an idea: love can’t exist in isolation. This concept then became a foundation for the argument that christians must participate with a church congregation, or we aren’t truly learning and experiencing love. Looking at my life now, I am far less isolated than at any point over the last three years. I give love; I receive love-love which isn’t control and coercion wearing an “I love you” t-shirt- on a daily basis. Home, work, friends, family. I have a full, glorious life. I agree we don’t experience love in isolation, but I reject the idea that church is the single vehicle to provide a loving environment.

Because I am naturally introspective, I have to discipline myself every day not to wallow in victimhood or go too far down the rabbit hole of what might have been. I also work very hard not to villainize those who abused me. Mostly they are sadly short-sighted men who believe they are gatekeepers for something sacred, blind to the fact that sacredness isn’t found in form and function but in being. Theirs is a narrow vision.

It’s likely they will never acknowledge the damage they caused or the pain they inflicted. They certainly didn’t see it even in our final meeting, which focused on condemnation, rebuke, and correction, not of my actions, but of my emotions and experiences (an emotionally abusive tactic known as gaslighting). Small men with narrow emotional skillsets make for a cold, small kingdom. They are welcome to it.

I want something bigger, warmer and more welcoming, for myself and for people I love.

At least once I every day, I stop and take a breath and tell myself, this is my real life, and I am my whole self in it.

When I practice this, I feel like I could fill my lungs forever with clean, fresh air. This grounding is necessary after I spent so many years trying to escape reality.

Each day, I remind myself that all men are not ‘those’ men, especially men in authority. I work with a number of very fine gentlemen, who in no way mirror the misogynistic patterns which undergird evangelicalism. Every day I relax a little more. I stop waiting for the hammer to fall. I am respected and appreciated. I am also stretched and challenged which is another great way to keep from spiraling into destructive thought patterns. Working with the public is good for me, broadening my worldview and constantly challenging my capacity for kindness and patience.

I focus a great deal on my physical well-being: sleep, exercise, diet. Being well in these areas supports my mental and emotional well-being. After decades of imbibing the message that our flesh, our physical self is fallen, sinful, broken and of little value How did that become good news in any universe? How did any religion think that message would elevate anyone spiritually?

I’m discovering what it is to love the body I inhabit. The walking, talking, feeling flesh. This body which survived cancer, chemo, radiation, pregnancy, miscarriage, c-sections, injury, repair, mountain climbing, scuba diving, shark tanks, a half marathon, eating, and intimacy, breastfeeding, and letting go, grief and joy and anger and shame – this is my one and only amazing and beautiful body. It is not a polluted mess which holds my soul captive until I finally “go to heaven.” It’s the glorious vessel that translates my experience in the world every moment. The more I love my self, the better I am able to love the world around me.

It’s a damn fine world, let me tell you. I’m not eager to “escape” it for anything.

Every day, I awaken a bit more. Freedom is like that, expanding, unfolding calling us to keep moving further up and further into this reality we call life.

Am I a Christian? I don’t know, and what’s more, I’m not sure I care. So many labels are just baggage, as though they could tell anyone anything of value about our unique and shining selves. I know I trust Jesus – the man, the myth and the legend. I know His narrative will always be my native tongue. I will continue to study other cultures and practices, but it’s likely I don’t have enough years of life left to speak any other narrative as fluently. I am at peace with this. I embrace my love of spiritual and contemplative practices. This is me, wholly me, a silly, nerdy, bookish, questioning, wondering, belly-laughing, contemplative, eclectic gypsy down to my marrow.

I believe we grow up more than once in our lives. Biologically we have no choice. Our bodies and brains will mature with or without our consent and with very little effort on our part. But emotionally and spiritually, these are maturities we work towards. These require our blood, sweat, and tears. We can choose to take the easy path and hang on to the patterns and traditions handed to us as children, and we may be well contented in those. But we will always expend tremendous energy defending and protecting them when they rub up against other patterns and traditions which we see as threatening. We can remain children throughout our lives.

Or we can relax our grip, an act of tremendous courage. Opening ourselves to the value of other patterns and traditions is the only way for our primary experiences to assume their proper place in our lives. These events mold and shape us, but they do not define us. Other traditions and practices have intrinsic value even if they seem strange and unfamiliar. We can learn from them, and those who practice them, without erasing our identity. In fact, it may enhance our identity.

I’m open to the possibility of returning to the church one day, though never one that isn’t inclusive or which has no women in lead roles. But even if I embrace those traditions again, it will be loosely, with the understanding that they do not create or save me. Only the Divine within has that power. I can freely participate in whatever resonates with my soul, understanding that those harmonies exist anywhere I go. I am the incarnation of God (or Source, or Universe, or Buddha or Allah…name your identifier) even if I never darken the door of a church again. Here is where I find peace. I don’t need a label to understand this.

When people asked Jesus if he was the Christ, he always answered with a question: Who do you say I am? We have spent millennia answering that question, in beautiful and horrible ways. Not a single one of those definitions have the power to change the essence of the One who tabernacled with us and in us. He/She is.

I AM…me. And will spend the rest of my life reveling in the experience of being one with the Universe which never ceases growing and unfolding.

Awake

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

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.