2018: a year with no name

I can’t remember the first year I felt a word – a theme, a concept, a guiding principle? – drop into my soul, naming the season to come. It’s been more than a decade since it began. I follow the theme, sometimes closely, sometimes loosely, as a way of living intentionally and of understanding the shape of my days. I’ve had all sorts of words from the fun and exciting, to the difficult and unwanted. Year after year, I receive a word from the Universe and start another trip around the sun.

Every year until this year, that is.

Usually, in autumn, I begin to feel a sort of low key anticipation, an opening in my soul. I begin to meditate on the ways the current year has shaped me, and how I have shaped it. I lean into the possibility of what may be coming next. Last year, I did the same things I always do as my journey drew to a close. But each time I consciously grasped for a theme, a flame would ignite, fizzle and then fssst…immediately burn out. My creativity and openness felt buried. I was so walled up and guarded I couldn’t listen. Honestly, I didn’t even try very hard or very often. The idea of living another year like the one I was already in was numbing.

There is so much about awakening that is difficult. Sue Monk Kidd likens it to crossing a deep, unexplored gorge, a descent into the unknown. I have likened it to razing a building down to the bare concrete foundation and then sleeping on it naked in a storm. Awakening is these things and more. I understand why we, as a species, would rather remain where the environment is comfortable and the terrain is known.

But for me, sleeping is not an option anymore.

I finally gave up the idea of giving the year a name. I wandered into January with no idea where we were headed, which is probably the only reason I walked forward at all. I still don’t have a name for this year. It’s easily the wildest, weirdest, hardest, most amazing, miraculous, hysterical, unbelieveable year I have ever lived. Nothing – not one thing – about where we are at the end of this year is anything that I would have envisioned at the outset.

And yet, I feel happier and healthier than I have for nearly a decade.

In retrospect, if I were to name this year it might be the year of Initiation. At first, I thought Awakening would be a good name, but it isn’t an accurate one. My awakening has been going on for far longer than this year. But it took the events of this year to cut all the lines, and send us on a new adventure. Had I received a word for this year, it might have changed my thoughts or my trajectory. No, this was a year I had to navigate without external leading. Even though I believe my year names come as much from within and from any Divine force without, I needed this year to be guided only by my inner voice. I haven’t been listening to her nearly enough. This has been her time to shine.

When we left our old life in March, everything happened very quickly. No sooner did we make one drastic change then another door flung itself wide open waiting for us to step through. At one point Craig wasn’t sure about making so many quick decisions so quickly, but for once I was. I was absolutely certain. I knew each door opened right on time and all we had to do was step through, and step through and step through again. Each step taking us farther away from the toxic morass we’d been swimming in.

I’ve second guessed every thought and idea for two years, but my certainty in these moments never wavered, not even one second. I don’t know what’s going to happen next from moment to moment. But after years of only closed doors as we waited in a dark hallway, my soul is suddenly well able to see Divine Providence when She beckons. There is light everywhere, dazzling me with its brilliance.

This is the year which sets us off on new paths. Craig has his and I have mine. We are walking together but loosely which sounds as though we’re drifting apart, but somehow the effect is exactly the opposite. Growing into myself has only deepened my love and admiration for the amazing human who chooses each day to remain in my life. His presence is a gift I never take for granted, even when I’m engaged in my own adventures.

What I believe now is that this year couldn’t name itself. It simply had to unfold moment by moment, and I had to decide within each moment what I would make of them. My stagnation gave way to tremendous creative force bursting forth from my body and soul. Like Eve at the cusp of creation, I’m naming and naming and naming, like God Herself, I’m breathing my own life into being with every choice and every step. This year was mine to name and rename. I am the Creator of my existence by Divine right.

I have an inkling, already, of the shape of my next year, I may even know a name. But she’s not quite ready to be born yet, so I’m holding space for her inside my body until she’s ready to breathe on her own. I’m excited again, at last. I’m pleased and relieved that my inner/outer voice is singing over me again. And I’m filled with hope for a new year in this new life, even while I name the remaining days of my present.

Diving into heresy

“Some say I fell from grace; they’re being kind. I didn’t fall –I dove” – Sue Monk Kidd

Last weekend I reconfigured a room in my house, one which I have barely used since we moved here. I didn’t purchase anything new for the room, except some white Christmas lights which use year-round, but somehow simply shifting the furniture made the room warmer, more welcoming.

I’ve been sitting here all morning watching the shadows play across the walls and listening to Mo snore next to me on the sofa. It’s Sunday morning, and I’m not at church. I am grateful for this grace anew every weekend. I suppose eventually the novelty of it will wear off and it will feel like this is how life always has been. But currently, this peace is a gift from the Universe full of emotional rest and safety, and usually a steak and eggs breakfast. Falling in love with Sunday is a treat I will not hurry through. Perhaps this is how Sabbath is meant to be experienced. I only know my soul feels still on these long lazy mornings.

Strangely enough, I’m also thinking about heresy as I sit here. Perhaps it’s the recognition that a few simple shifts can change everything. As I reread my November prayer, I contemplated how moving on so often also means letting go. But I think sometimes we confuse letting go with acting as though a thing never happened. When our lives are drastically altered, whether the transition is “good” or “bad,” (this binary sorting of experience is a blog for another time.), we often work very hard at putting the event behind us so that we can get back to being “our usual selves.” It’s true, our usual selves are known and comfortable, but they are also often a false construct since we are always evolving and changing. There is no putting an event behind us. The circumstances of our lives mold and shape us, physically and spiritually. For better or worse, we are changed. A wise person incorporates these changes into their understanding of themselves and the world.

Which brings me to the heresy.

Over the weekend, I added two important pieces of writing to this space. They are concepts I have been exploring for several years and eventually are what led me to split from evangelicalism entirely. This split happened spiritually long before we actually left the church, and in retrospect, it was foolish of me to think professional ministry would ever be a fit for me again. I am constantly grateful for Divine intervention closing the doors to all the church jobs Craig applied to. Even last fall, I was still trying to get back to an old, familiar self, and not incorporating all the ways my faith and my worldview have changed. I was a heretic in sheep’s clothing.

While the manner of our leaving church was abusive and soul-crushing, the actual leaving was a Grace I do not take lightly. I forfeited church but gained back my soul. Even the hard work of returning to wholeness is a gift. I know and love my soul so much better now that I am able to see it clearly as a beautiful, deserving, creative part of my whole Self.

I didn’t share openly all the things I was feeling at the time because admitting them aloud makes me a heretic.

In my fifteen years experience with professional church, doctrine is the holy throne upon which the Lord is seated. This doctrine may or may not be strictly Biblical (many of our modern church traditions have their roots centuries after the nascent period of the Christian church), but once you wrap the Bible itself in an unquestionable layer of authority, there is no room left for interpretation or discussion. Doctrine is as holy and inerrant as scripture itself.

“This is the way God/the church is. There is nothing to be said or done about it.”

Years ago I stopped putting so much faith in traditions, layering heresy upon heresy.

Inerrancy of scripture? Nope.
Existence of eternal fire and punishment hell? Don’t believe it.
The primacy of Christianity to any other spiritual expression? Not having it.
Penal Substitutionary atonement? Forget it.
Patriarchy? Hell no.
A god who commands genocide and rape? Monstrous.
Original sin? That’s a hard pass.
Scientific accuracy of the biblical creation account? I just don’t think so.
End times rapture and apocalyptic theory? Are you kidding me? That’s not even ancient tradition. It’s 1990’s Jenkins and Le Haye pop-culture claptrap the church has used to whip up fear and furor.

I never dared admit any of this lest the church ladies clutch their pearls and call the priests and Pharisees…err…pastors and elders. Which they did anyway, even without saying these things. And now I suppose all the worry and flutter was justified. Look at the near miss they’ve been given. There was a heretic in their midst! Oh, the destruction I might have wrought.

You can see how I was fooling myself that any sort of congregation we were considering would be a good fit for me for long. I simply grew another direction from that sort of faith and thinking. I ask too many questions and draw too many aberrant conclusions. Also, I research and read a lot, both of which are threatening to the men in power. I don’t subscribe to the ideal Christian feminine template. I wear leggings far too often.

However, while I definitely have my issues about the church, I don’t think it’s a terrible place filled with terrible people, quite the opposite. My personal experience is with small men of great insecurity, but I also know some wonderful, generous, courageous women and men who lead and love and serve in beautiful ways. I admire them, even though I may not be like them in the ways I understand and express spirituality. But we don’t have to view the Divine the same way to love well together. Just ask the Jewish and Muslim communities in Pittsburgh.

I’m thinking about all these things this Sunday morning because it’s time to finally let go of my religious identity. It wasn’t all bad, but in the end, I was far more damaged than helped by professional religion. We were fervently and well loved by individuals, but the church as a business is crueler and more calculating than most “worldly” companies I’ve been part of with fewer people to answer to for their cruelty. Religion has changed me; this is undeniable.

Now I need to incorporate those changes into the new self I am becoming, one who is more whole and more honest than she’s had the freedom to be in a while. Apparently, this is the space for working that out. So here’s where I admit, we’re about to leave the map. If heresy isn’t your cup of tea, maybe it’s where you get off. And that’s okay. It’s about to get sort of feminist and Goddess-y and messy in here because that’s where I’m going next. Finally, all the doors are open; I have stopped holding my breath.

Welcome to the dark woods. Here there be wolves and witches and wild women and dancing under the moon. At last.

The Box of Disorder: Meeting the Divine on the slippery slope.

During the Summer of 2017, I did a lot of writing. Shortly after I began writing about my faith journey, I was presented with the contract of silence. I stopped writing and even closed down the site where my writing was found, but I saved most of what was written there. When I talk about my experience over the last several years, it is impossible not to talk about the experience of deconstruction. The box of order and this post were two of the most honest things I’d written, so I wanted to share them again before I start talking about reconstruction – or as I like to call it: Diving into heresy.
Almost everyone has opened the box of disorder. Some of us flirt with it many times in our lives but never dare to climb inside. Some of us climb in and never leave, unfortunately. Disorder isn’t an easy place to live.  Most people who do climb inside this box react one of two ways: by returning to the order box due to fear, guilt or shame (it happened to me), or by embracing disorder, eventually emerging to enter the box of reorder (this is currently happening to me).
 Usually we face the box of disorder because something catastrophic happens in our lives. Illness, loss, tragedy, or a drastic shift in life circumstances can all send our idols of order crashing to the ground. We stop being certain of anything; we aren’t sure where to turn.  The box of disorder feels like a carnival fun-house with unlevel floors, distorted mirrors, and hard-to-find exits.
 I’ve spent the last few years deep in this box, attuned to terms used to describe the experience: dark night of the soul, backsliding, crisis of faith, falling upward, and my personal favorite, the slippery slope. None of them are particularly appealing, with good reason.  In the box of disorder, we are likely to lose our identity, our certainty, some of our friends and possibly the support of our faith community. It’s a messy, bloody process.
 Sometimes, the box of disorder starts with a simple question: is that really true? You may have heard this question before. The serpent used it on Eve in the Garden of Eden myth. Did God really say that? Is it really true?  The story ends with disastrous consequences, and humanity has avoided the question ever since. It’s easier to simply accept what we are told without question and cling to order in an attempt to avoid pain.
 I don’t say this in condemnation, having done it myself.  Sometimes the answer to the question is it really true is too big, too terrible, too full of unknown consequences to face.  When this happens, we retreat to the box of order.  Possibly many, many times, we open the lid of disorder to discover we can’t face what’s inside. So we retreat, again and again, and again, until one day, we simply can’t accept the easy answers anymore.
 I believe my descent down the slippery slope began just this way, with one question that created a crack in my order box. I ignored the crack for a long time. But like a scab we can’t stop picking, I never left it entirely alone. Eventually, more cracks appeared.  They became harder to hide. My box was splintering, drawing attention.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, the consequences for my defection were swift and terrible. When the dust settled, I mended the box of order as best I could,  and climbed back inside as deeply as I could. I stayed there for many years, uncomfortable and unable to forget my questions, but terrified of what the box of disorder held.
Eventually, a series of difficult events created too much tension and discomfort to remain. Glue and duct tape, even my prayers and fears couldn’t hold the box together anymore.
I shattered.
 I couldn’t stop asking the question, is it really true, of every belief, rule, relationship, person and experience I knew.  This is disorder.
 But let’s go back to Adam and Eve a moment.  Yes, when faced with the question, ‘is this really true’, they encountered disastrous consequences. However, the more I reflect on this story, the more I realize something very important. Ejection from the Garden of Eden is the best thing for Adam and Eve How often,  in wisdom literature, even in nature itself, do we see created beings become stronger, better versions of themselves as a result of distress?  We see it in diamonds, gold, marble, trees, flowers even our very own bones.
 The more I experience life and the Divine, the more convinced I am the Garden of the creation myth, like the box of order, is a beautiful beginning, but not a place we are meant to stay. If we want to become more in tune with the Divine, we need Her Spirit within us, which isn’t possible in the Garden. We know and love God best when we also experience that which is not God. Inside the Garden, just as in the box of order, there is no choice for us to make.
 Disorder does not reduce. It refines. We become more wholly ourselves when we experience doubt, disorder and yes, brokenness.
 If we believe, which I do, that Jesus isn’t Plan B, hastily initiated because of our screw-up, then it is true that leaving the Garden and braving the wilderness was always the best possible way for us to become enfleshed Gods and Goddesses ourselves. We didn’t accidentally fall, we were created to fall.  In falling we are finally swept up into the exhilarating, awesome, unfathomable grace of the Divine.
 Unless we leave the Garden, the box of order, there are ways and faces of God She cannot reveal to us. Her love is so enormous, so all-encompassing that She desires to unfold and unfold and unfold again each and every time we ask, is this really true?  But we must find the courage to ask. When at last we do, She will begin to pull down all the false and comforting constructs we only thought were true, one by one.
 So we slide down the slippery slope tail-over-tea-kettle, meeting Divinity with every tumble. Looking right and left, we see Her tumbling beside us all the while, and when we finally reach the bottom, if we ever actually do, we also find Her waiting there to catch us in Her wide open arms, wondering why we waited so long to fall.
 The box of disorder is the scariest, loneliest, hardest, most beautiful, most miraculous, most invigorating place I’ve ever existed. Like Adam and Eve, I can’t go back to the Garden where order reigns. The way is closed, not as punishment, but as a blessing. The wide world lies open before me, and the Divine inhabits every inch of it, even me.
 Is it really true?  Yes, but not the rigid ways we have been taught. Life, faith, love, God, meaning, death, loss, grief, pain, all are so much bigger and more beautiful than we ever dared dream when we lived in the Garden.

Why order is necessary: breaking down the three boxes

During the Summer of 2017, I did a lot of writing. Shortly after I began writing about my faith journey, I was presented with the contract of silence. I stopped writing and even closed down the site where my writing was found, but I saved most of what was written there. When I talk about my experience over the last several years, it is impossible not to talk about the experience of deconstruction. This post and the box of disorder were two of the most honest things I’d written, so I wanted to share them again before I start talking about reconstruction – or as I like to call it: Diving into heresy.

I sat down at my keyboard today and wondered, Is it ok to write about writing? Do people want to read that? Which is a silly question because I have five readers, and obviously you are the five I can’t chase away no matter what I write about. We’re stuck together for life, and I’m very ok with it. But then I considered the layers beneath that seemingly innocent duo of questions and peeked at a familiar theme. What is expected of me? Am I upholding those expectations? That’s the voice of codependency and trauma. What are the rules and how do I follow them perfectly? Those questions tell me instead of writing about writing, it’s time to break down some boxes, starting with order.

I learned about the concept of three boxes from Richard Rohr, a formative voice for me over the last several years. He breaks the universal faith journey into three boxes: order > disorder > reorder.

In the interest of brevity–and because you can read more at the linked article–let’s call the first box the box of immaturity. It holds the foundational tenets which we are taught from the moment we draw breath. Whether or not we are talking about religion, we begin life by following certain rules, ways of explaining how the world works. This is a good thing. In fact, it’s a necessary process enabling us to grow in an emotionally stable environment. One of our most basic needs is security. Foundational rules keep us safe and provide order: the stove is hot; the street is not safe; God loves us; the sun will rise every morning.

These rules create order and provide the framework for reality. Without them, the world is a Salvadore Dali painting, skewed, unstable and unpredictable.

All of us rely on rules daily. But most of us don’t follow them blindly once we gain maturity. For instance, the rule about going into the street. It is true streets can be dangerous. But when I take my morning run, I frequently run on the street if the sidewalk is bad All streets are not dangerous all the time for all people. As I grow in wisdom I realize black and white is fine for starting, but it doesn’t remain true as I mature. The principle is true though the practice isn’t always true.

When I run in the street, I leave the box of order and venture into disorder: I ran on the street and was nearly wiped out by a car. Eventually, we reach reorder: I can avoid a collision by carefully assessing traffic patterns before assuming street safety.

Religion can be a very first-box-oriented endeavor. We make rules because we want to know and understand the Divine, which is fine. A god who is too big or too mysterious to understand is a power with which we can never connect. Knowing and understanding are key to a healthy relationship, therefore the Divine makes Herself knowable and comprehensible because she desires a relationship. However, there are parts of her being which are not immediately knowable and even those which are essentially unknowable due to the limits of human understanding.

We use these revealed truths as cornerstones on which we build our theology. God is good. The universe is Divinely ordered. Jesus is God enfleshed. Jesus’s life is worthy of emulation. We can love like God, and She desires this way of love for us. Through Love we are formed into the Divine image. These beliefs matter. They create order in our chaotic reality. When they are distorted, our minds and bodies, as well as our religions fall into dysfunction.

Unfortunately, we often remain at this immature stage. It’s easy. Other people tell us what to think and how to behave. We don’t have to think for ourselves very often. We come to see the rules as immovable constructs for all time rather than starting point for a long conversation. Yes, the stove is hot and may burn us. However, the stove also allows us to create an endless variety of food, which may lead to conversation, laughter, togetherness, and community. What is true about the stove is not ALL that is true about the stove. It’s a starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

The same is true of our religious beliefs:

The Universe is Divinely ordered, but there is more to the conversation.
Jesus life is worth emulating, but there is more to the conversation.
We can love like God, but there is so much more to the conversation.

Sometimes having more conversation is scary. Sometimes, the stove burns your house down; the street proves deadly.

Sometimes theology goes horribly, maniacally wrong.

At this point we face a sort of crisis, is it easier to continue the conversation, or do we revert to the basic tenets and never deviate? Do we conform to the rules and reject anyone who does not or cannot conform to them, calling them a heretic and casting them away from us for our own safety? Do we dare question if the original rule might not even be a true rule at all?

Where did the rules begin and who decided they were necessary anyway?

Now we’re in uncharted territory. It’s not safe, not secure, not popular, and definitely not easy. Which is why so many of us never leave the safety of the rules. If a thing is always true, we always know what to expect. We always know the outcome. We never have to worry about the consequences. So we live this way for years. Some of us live this way forever. It isn’t inherently wrong to live our entire lives in the box of order, but it’s an extremely exclusive way to live. If a set of rules is true, then every other set of rules must be false. There can be only one set of true rules.

But somehow the Divine isn’t as binary as all that.

The box of order is safe, but it breeds superiority, contempt, and disassociation. At its extreme, it is completely anti-community. There can only be us and them, and we are always completely right.

Order is a necessary starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

How to start a conversation

So the question becomes what now? What’s next after this round of Awakening?

Sharing the story, albeit the short version, of my journey with church and fundamental evangelicalism is an important part of my healing. But I don’t want to stay a victim, only talking about what happened and how it broke me, only focusing on the hurt and shame. I want more and better than what I’ve experienced. The only way out may be through, but sitting at the end of the tunnel looking over my shoulder isn’t moving forward.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve written about the spiritual for so long, I realize it’s where I am most comfortable. For two years I wrote very little at all never knowing what word or phrase would trigger my abuser(s). I wonder now if this fear has been part of my overall spiritual apathy. For the last year, I’ve basically pushed anything of a religious or spiritual nature away from my attention. I’m so disgusted by the fundamentalist response to an abhorrent political climate that I don’t even want to be associated with those practices or even sit in the buildings.

But I do feel that something calling me back to Center, and apparently that voice demands words, lots of words as part of the birthing process. Cutting off my Spirit is the same as ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’. I’m facing the same questions that many nones and dones everywhere are asking: where is a safe space for me and others like me to have meaningful conversation?  Meaningful conversation doesn’t have to center on spirituality, but I believe it often wanders into the spiritual realm anyway, whether or not we intend it.

For instance, a good friend joined me for dinner recently; her friendship is another unexpected gift from my job. We talked and laughed about many things.  Of course, books were an enormous part of the evening. Our conversation wove through books and musicals to more intimate details of our lives, how we feel, whom we love, how we experience life previously and presently. These things have great meaning and, in my understanding at least, they are deeply spiritual because they directly affect the well-being of our soul/ spirit. When I use the term spiritual, I mean this inner part of our selves at least as much as I mean a supernatural force outside of us.

Did we speak of God? Very little.  But I still consider our conversation Spiritual.

In my experience, many religious spaces aren’t safe for these types of spiritual conversations. My friend, who is a delightful, fun, incredible, world traveling, peace corp teaching, theater-loving, intelligent individual, who makes the world a richer place by being in it, doesn’t subscribe to the conventional, religious narrative. Would the church offer a safe space for her to be fully herself, freely expressing all the facets of her self without condemnation or coercion? Would we be free to have the conversations we had in my home within a religious construct without having to correct her choices to align to a cultural norm? Would she feel safe and welcome?

Would my non-binary friends? My gay friends? My secular humanist friends?
A practicing Muslim?
A black, single mom receiving state benefits?
A refugee?
A Hasidic Jew?
A Sikh?
A Christian with questions?

The curious thing about ‘safe spaces’ is if they aren’t universally safe, then they aren’t truly safe. Inevitably, a power structure will assert itself in order to dictate and control the narrative and experience of a non-inclusive ‘safe space’  In order for there to be a power structure, someone has to be in…and someone has to be out. That’s how power works. It is always binary; it must be more real, more right, more important, more venerated, more absolute than any other narrative. When power controls the narrative, it’s always possible you could embody the next quality which falls from favor, and when this happens you will be coerced to conform or be expelled.

The question I grapple with is whether a space seeks to expand and embrace, or reduce and indoctrinate. Fundamentalist spaces are overwhelmingly the latter. Christianity has evolved into an exclusive salvation club. A relationship with fundamentalism is fraught with an agenda: can we get this person outside spiritual construct to see the universe exclusively our way as well as renounce their former experience as wrong, broken and worthless and assume our agenda? Oh, and pray the sinner’s prayer which is, after all, the real key to holiness.

I know I’m stepping on toes here. Some of my longest and dearest friends identify as Christian, and I do find them safe and open and wonderful, even when we disagree. I am speaking now of systems, not individuals. Every religious structure, or any system of power, has its extremists, its moderates and its outliers. I’m not asking anyone to justify how they experience the Spiritual (in this case I do mean supernatural power), or even if they have any form of spiritual experience at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about conversation. For so long, I was excluded from taking part in it. When my abusers met repeatedly to talk about me, about how to handle and control me, I wasn’t allowed to be part of the conversation. I was reassured, however, that this type of a abuse is supported by scriptures, which were helpfully listed in the Silence Contract, in case I had any questions. Even had I been in the room, I wouldn’t have been part of the conversation because my experience didn’t matter, as long as the power narrative was firmly established.

But the truth is, I am hungry for spiritual conversation, the kind which meanders and wonders, the kind which is deeply intimate one moment and hilariously sacrilegious the next.

Do you know that I stopped laughing for a while when the abuse I experienced was at its peak?  I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but these days, when I laugh deeply from my center, I find myself thinking, I forgot how good this feels. Laughter is an experience my soul missed even though my conscious-self wasn’t aware of the lack. While I often say I am the funniest person I know, this type of laughter really only happens in conversation with another soul. I am profoundly grateful now when I consider how many people in my daily life elicit this response from me. They are my safe spaces, my spiritual spaces even if we never speak of God in any of Her identities.

So this is where I am. Seeking safe, spiritual conversation. If we happen to stumble on God, however we experience the Holy, while we’re at it, well, that’s alright too.