Tag: Authenticity


Sweaty Horns, Cracking Voices

I woke up grumpy this morning… not your average, garden-variety grumpy but the truly pernicious grumpy reserved for Sunday mornings with too little sleep. I know myself well enough by now to treat church as a soul-gobbling monster on these mornings—respect it by backing sloooowwwly away. Or run away screaming like the flighty blonde in a B-movie. Unfortunately, neither was an option this morning as my in-laws’ church group met at their house.

The caustic dialogue in my head jump-started with the first song. Why are we singing that? What does this even mean? Am I supposed to get something out of this? That line isn’t even true! And on it went, while I tried to move my unwilling lips along with the lyrics for appearance’s sake.

This disconnect with worship music is a fairly recent development. Church and I have had sundry problems over the years, but music was always my saving grace. When I was a child, a teen, a college student, and a budding world traveler, worship music was the alchemy that transformed divinity into something dear. Through it, I could feel God’s warmth. But now… Honesty, or maybe an earnest kind of cynicism, keeps me unable to sing along with church choruses. The words catch in my throat and slap against my ears. My connection with worship music is gone.

Or at least what most people consider worship music. In collaboration with the lovely Rachelle, a pioneer in soul sincerity, I’d like to share eight songs that connect me to the divine… now.

8 Things *8 Things: [Non-Churchy] Songs for the Soul

1. Cold Water by Damien Rice
 This song has to be first. It is raw and tender and fierce and so perfectly honest. Damien Rice has a gift for reaching deep down into unknown vulnerabilities and coaxing dry emotions into a flood; try making it through the Buddhist chanting at 5:34 or the cello at 7:04 without breaking open just a little bit.

“Cold, cold water surrounds me now,
And all I’ve got is your hand.
Lord, can you hear me now?”

2. Dance ‘Round the Memory Tree by Oren Lavie:
I put this song on repeat nearly every day of this past winter, and on some of the bleakest mornings, it alone kept me turned toward life, future, and the magic of hope.

“Winters have come and gone, you know…”

3. I Gotta Find Peace of Mind by Lauryn Hill 
My friend Q introduced me to Ms. Hill’s “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0” in college, and this song has yet to release its grip on me. At its most simple, it makes me want to love God. And when Lauryn cries while singing “What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, merciful God” 8 minutes in… the beauty is almost too real to bear.

“Please come free my mind,
Please come feed my mind.
Can you see my mind, ohhh…
Won’t you come free my mind?
Oh, I know it’s possible…”

4. Doubting Thomas by Nickel Creek
When I haven’t found the courage to pray over the past few years, this song has prayed on my behalf. It has all the gritty candor and fearful longing of those uncharted territories of religion, and I find myself meaning every single word.

“Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie?
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die?”

5. What Child is This Anyway? by Sufjan Stevens
Three Christmases ago, I was frantically busy with a job I hated, and the holiday loomed like a garlanded menace. I put Sufjan’s Christmas CD on, fully expecting to dislike this song as I always had before, and instead found peace.

“This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing…”

6. Christmas Song by Dave Matthews Band
Yes, another Christmas song… but really an Easter song and a Thanksgiving song and 4th of July song and a Sunday morning song and a 2:00 in the afternoon song and one of the best Bible summaries I’ve ever heard.

“Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers,
Searching for love, love, love…”

7. Live High by Jason Mraz
Sometimes I need a reminder that spirituality does not need to equal stress; it can be as chill as walking down the streets of France with a guitar and a comfy hat.

“Live high, live mighty,
Live righteously, that’s right—
Just  takin’ it easy…”

8. World Without End by Five Iron Frenzy
This song might be the polar opposite of Damien Rice, but it reaches the part of me that loves concerts and Goodwill t-shirts and too many friends crowded into the booth at Denny’s. Somehow, sweaty horns and cracking voices convey more of the sacred to me than pipe organs ever could.

“In the soundless awe and wonder,
Words fall short to hope again.
How beautiful, how vast your love is,
New forever,
World without an end…”

Play along, won’t you? I’d love to hear what songs feed your soul as well.


Trail Marker

Enough time has passed since I’ve written about religion to revisit it, right? I usually imagine blog readers running for the hills at the first whiff of a controversial subject… but controversy is not what I’m carrying around these days. Instead, I’m wandering through new spiritual territories with a backpack of honesty and little else, and you’re more than welcome to come along.

Church was one of the first topics I wrote about on this blog, and though we’ve changed continents and denominations in the meantime, little has changed. Our current church fits me like a glove… on my ear. A few of the points make actual contact with me—for instance, the friendly people and the bustling social functions—but the rest flops senselessly off the side of my head. Nothing about the services connects with me, not a single song or prayer or message. The only bit of liturgy I find meaningful is the entire congregation sharing a glass of wine and a loaf of bread. I love the unity it symbolizes (and relax, no one that I know has contracted a sanctified strain of mono as a result), though I think the original intent of the Lord’s Supper would translate better to sitting down to a meal together and reminiscing about Christ. (Side note: Dan and I once suggested doing that at our home in the States, which, heresy alert!!! Apparently, bread and Jesus are only compatible within church walls, officiated by an ordained minister. Our bad.)

The thing is, one can’t exactly be picky about churches in a country with extremely limited options. Unless we want to attend a Catholic church, which studies show would turn me into a prune within the month, we’re left with a missionary-run Baptist church (no offense to missionaries or Baptists, but ::shudder::) and ours—part of the Italian Brethren network. It is sincere and brim-full of warm-hearted people I’m thrilled to know… yet my Sunday mornings still trickle down the drain.

Here’s what I don’t need one drop more of: scare tactics, sin management, crucifixion details, calls to repentance, shadows of doubt, words found in the King James Bible, theoretical sermons, fire-and-brimstone, self degradation, righteous anger, controversy, squabbles over which side of the stage the piano is placed, “preacher voice,” hard-backed pews, clichéd sentiments (“God is in control,” anyone?), or legalism.

And here’s what I’m parched for: conversation, open minds, collaborative creativity, practical messages in a practical format, spontaneity, field work, fresh ideas, meaningful-now traditions, questions, answers (or at least journeys toward answers), committed honesty, acceptance without conditions, extravagant generosity, and a tribe of soulsiblings (as Rachelle would say).

Is sitting through three hours of Same Old Religion every week worth the friendships I gain as a result? I think yes, it is… but I sure wish I didn’t have to feign participation to be part of our church group. The role of charlatan doesn’t suit me. I think often about a friend of ours, a former pastor, who caught this strain of religious disconnect and couldn’t keep up the pretense. He publicly announced his doubts about God and left the church under a shower of criticism I can only imagine. I find his choice incredibly courageous, incredibly sad, and incredibly not for me; I’m not ready to cut loose from the church, no matter how it fails to inspire me. But what other options exist for those of us with hearts and minds split down the middle, wide open and raw in the fresh air, unsure where to go from there? If and when I ever figure it out, I’ll be sure to put up a trail marker.


Flames vs. Fairy Dust

In retrospect, I’m not sure whether to laugh or to cry.

I was young, maybe ten, when I saw the drama “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames” in a huge Southern Baptist auditorium. Gold tinsel was draped over one side of the stage, while the other side featured a black papier-mâché prison with tissue paper flames engulfing the roof. Heaven, hell.

The drama was very simple to follow. People would die during different circumstances and immediately be sent to the tinsel or to the prison. Two women were gossiping when a bus ran them over; a group of demon-thugs in ski masks dragged them straight to hell. A man passed out from drinking too much whiskey; off to hell. A broken-hearted woman cried at the loss of hope in her life and shot herself in the head; hell. A freshly-scrubbed family dressed in lace and bow-ties walked out of church where the youngest daughter had just invited Jesus into her heart—a fortunate coincidence, since their car crashed on the way home. Gold tinsel for the whole family!

When we got home that night, I asked my parents what happened to aborted babies or even little kids who die before they get a chance to say the all-important Sinner’s Prayer™. No answer. Apparently hell-according-to-the-Southern-Baptists did not discriminate based on age. I lay awake half the night imagining tiny mangled infants being dragged off to burn with Satan. That, my friends, is horror.

I’ve done some thinking over the last few years, and some reading… but mostly thinking. Among other things, I’ve been trying to figure out why the self-proclaimed “good news” can lend itself to a theatrical horror show. Eternal torment for gossipers, alcoholics, depressed women, and babies = the worst possible news. Plus, it makes God unthinkably cruel and vindictive, sending demon-thugs after anyone who forgot to say his or her prayers.

Within the last two years, I decided to focus on the problem instead of repressing it. I tried reading the Bible, but that splintered my heart even more; I couldn’t see anything beyond damnation. I put away the Bible, etched my too-heavy questions onto paper, and asked myself over and over how a deity could claim to be love, then doom his own creations—us, who he made imperfect. No answer. Just my honesty, tinted first by anger, then by dejection, then finally by tired acceptance of an era’s end. Very simply, the doctrine of hell burned up every particle of trust I used to have in the goodness of God.

I am sharing this for two reasons: 1) I don’t believe I am the only person to wrestle with the apparent inconsistencies in my religion, especially when the accepted theology is so unfathomably gruesome, and 2) What I took as abandonment these last few years was time. As a result of marinating in my questions for so long, I’ve learned what I’m willing to believe and what I cannot. I’ve let years’ worth of pretenses slide, even writing about my journey some here (which, un-religious honesty about religion? strictly forbidden by the Association of Preachers Who Wear Ties). This has been a very new perspective for me—standing outside Christianity, looking in, wondering why some of those people look so happy—and only now are the answers coming.

A wonderful friend who’s also sludged through this path introduced me to a book called Hope Beyond Hell that said (and I paraphrase):

Ready for a few perspective gymnastics? Good. What you’ve been taught about hell is based on centuries of tradition. In fact, the Bible has buckets and wheelbarrows and industrial-sized cargo boats full of promises that not a single person will be left to burn with Satan forever. Hard to believe, right? Well, take a look…

It wasn’t hard to believe, actually. It was fairy dust, and my translucent wings were instantly unstuck from the swamp; for the first time in years, I’m flying, glad at long last to still be a fairy.

I am not going to list all the reasons or technicalities here—if you’re interested, check out the book—but I am coming to genuinely believe these things:

That this:

God speaks

(besides “reducing holy mysteries to slogans,”* using fear tactics to force people into religion, and just plain being annoying) is misguided.
* Matthew 7:6, The Message. Jesus says not to do it, by the way.

That some parts of the Bible were never meant to be taken literally, and that some parts have been translated poorly due to the translators’ perspective. That many people have formed dogmatic theologies without studying the original words within their original contexts.

That centuries of pulpit-pounders have done untold damage in spreading the idea that God is ready to throw us in a lake of fire when we die.

That God is a better parent than we are and that his kindness endures forever.

That the multitude of different beliefs, different approaches, and different spiritualities in this world will ultimately lead to the same beautiful new beginning.

That we will see all our loved ones again someday.

That there is hope.


Beware of Mantras

Growing up quasi-Amish taught me how to bake bread from scratch, sew my own dowdy jumpers, grow organic wheat grass in a pan on the windowsill, and hide. Good lord, was I skilled at hiding. I had a lusciously guilty stash of sugar cubes that grew over the years to include Thin Mints, Warheads, Pixie Sticks, and some fundraiser candy that called itself World’s Best Chocolate (and really was! at least to a chronically deprived sweet-tooth…) and none of my five hundred siblings ever found it. Talent, non?

I also learned how to hide my feelings, my opinions, my idiocies, and my problems. It’s a little-known fact about families who isolate themselves from the world: rather than creating a safe haven, isolation breeds like an insidious form of bacteria until you can no longer reach outside your own skin. No one allowed in, period.

I can’t begin to tell you how powerless I was raised to be. I have a lifetime of poisonous mantras stashed in my mind: Do not ask for help. Your feelings mean nothing. We do not talk about that. Doctors want to harm you. Policemen want to harm you. Your instincts are wrong. NO ONE CAN HELP. Honestly, the two best things I’ve ever done to fight off those mantras were meeting Dan, who tirelessly chiseled away at my mind with rock-solid compassion, and starting this blog. It’s not easy, of course. I constantly want to censor myself (and I often do, if you want to know the truth), and I revert several times a day back to Your feelings mean nothing. We do not talk about that. No one can help, no one can help, no one can help, no one can help.

Writing about depression, in particular, feels like stripping in front of the entire world. It comes with a host of other confessions like failure and weakness that I would much rather keep hidden, and it looks so raw and grotesque out in the air. Hi, I’m Bethany, and I can’t manage to take care of two teeny-tiny little girls and one teeny-tiny little apartment by myself and oh my god, am I actually admitting this aloud?

But your comments and e-mails have given me exactly the boost I needed to shrug off my Amish mantras and do something unimaginably frightening: Ask for help. I went to the doctor today, all of my own volition, and I told him the truth. And now there will be tests and further appointments and possibly referrals, and though we know nothing yet, I feel hopeful. I don’t know how to explain what hope feels like after this long, but thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.


Debthany Downer

My head is a mishmash stew these days, marinating fuzzy inklings into unfocused ideas. My daily life looks like yawning and claustrophobic mint and dust and poop in unfortunate places and half-shuttered windows and pajamas. All spinning, connectionless.

“Hey, how are you?”

“Fine, thanks. I mean, I had a full-blown panic attack yesterday over the fact that I had to remain alive for the rest of the day, and the day before that, the girls fussed so much that my sanity took off for Fiji, and the day before that, I felt too much like old concrete to officially get out of bed, and the day before that was some kind of mid-July vortex of antisocial unproductivity. Of course, the day before that was great—do birthdays count toward the statistics?—but today, I’m floating in a time warp, watching my body stumble around in search of my head. I mean, I’m fine. Fine. Thanks.”

About a year ago, I started reading the blog of a beautiful, free-spirited woman who wrote about her daily life in terms of intuition and enlightenment. On bad days, she wrote about being gentle with herself and allowing healing to manifest itself. On good days, she wrote about the change in her perception, some profound new way she was going to go about her life. I enjoyed reading her blog because she found so much significance in the mundane, and who wouldn’t love enlightenment at the end of PMS?

But recently, I’ve started finding her posts tedious and aggravating because nothing ever changes. She is always searching inside herself and coming up with bright, sparkly answers to life that make absolutely no difference the next time she has a bad day. Of course, she has every right to share her emotions. In fact, I think what bothers me the most about her journal is that it’s what mine would be if I were an optimist. Like, at all.

See, I don’t really go up-up on the upswings; I just level out into something like normal. I stop saying things like “Stomachs are retarded” and “I’m going to murder whoever invented 7 a.m.” and “Life, the universe, and everything are horrible,” but I don’t really come up with happy hopefulisms because what’s the point?

(Just think, I was trying to keep this post from sounding too depressed… Hello, Debbie Downer! I apologize to any of you who now wants to go climb into a hole for eternity.)

I never know what to write when I’m having Downer Days (or weeks… or months…) because I shouldn’t still be having them. The world is spinning, creation is evolving, and I should be changing for the better. No more sudden depression, no more losing myself in a swampy labyrinth of hours. I should be coming up with bright, sparkly answers that stick to my psyche like flypaper and accumulate over time to a bright, sparkly me. Surely everyone else is just as sick as I am of the constant ups and downs (and downs and downs and downs), but what’s a girl to do? Pretend she’s not a sloppy mess too much of the time? Lie her way into false perkiness? Ignore herself until the top of her head blows off?

Honesty is particularly heavy at times like this. Every word I come up with is a burden that I’m reluctant to hoist on others even as I’m buckling under the weight. I just have to think that one day, I will figure all of this out—I will—and then these words I scribbled from the darkness will be a path, stepping stones offered to other shadow-people as a gift.


Shouting in a Meadow

Writing publicly about religion makes me cringe. And hit delete buttons. And back s-l-o-w-l-y away from the computer as if the Inquisition itself were making a digital comeback with online dudgeons and high resolution torture devices and glinty-eyed execution-bloggers.

So I can be a tad dramatic. However, I’m starting to realize how much I still censor my thoughts to stay away from explosive topics like U.S. economy and home schooling and Ashlee Simpson and, of course, religion. I know that whatever my thoughts on the subject, I am sure to offend someone, and the prospect makes my insides wilt.

The thing is, though–I still don’t really know my thoughts on religion. I wrote a while back about the immense loneliness and confusion of finding I don’t like God. Now that I’ve had some time to marinate in that concept, I realize that what I actually dislike is my view of him. The portrait of God in my head is painted primarily in crap, and I was exhausted of sifting through it for the occasional fleck of real color.

Back in January, I indulged my inner heathen and scribbled the following during church (because that’s how I roll, yo), but didn’t show it the light of day for fear of Inquisition, etc. Now, though, I find it incredibly important:

 I can’t hide nearly as well in a tiny church. In this child-sized room, loosely populated by friends and hardly anyone else, I find I’ve lost my invisibility. I can’t fade comfortably into the woodwork. I can’t ignore the voice of reality in my head: “You’re a fraud, you’re a fraud, you’re a fraud”–sing-song, like those infuriatingly perfect Disney princesses.

I feel so out of place sitting in church with my overflowing suitcases of questions. Baggage doesn’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I know where I want to be though: an enormous open meadow, fiercely guarded on all sides by mountains, muffled by waterfalls and wind and the complete absence of other humans. I would SHOUT! my questions, all of them, as loudly as my lungs would let me. And God would be right there. He would answer and put my heart back in place and be real to me again.

Where am I supposed to find God in my claustrophobic world where life is whatever fits between walls and ceilings and floors? My questions are too big for home, for church. They are certainly too big for other people, and I’m floundering under the belief that they’re too big for me.

And then I filled pages with those questions–deep, aching ones that I had to rip out and lay bleeding on the paper.

Since then, not a single question has been answered. However, I’ve been able to step back and see the dung-smeared portrait and survey the multitudes* of people with their widely differing ideas that they call “doctrine” and “truth” even though they’re really just interpretations.

When I first read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian several years ago, I remember feeling like a huge weight was lifted–that weight being the dogmatic rightness of traditional American churches. McLaren proposed that the church’s tactics were outdated and irrelevant to today’s people. Duh, I know. But it was a revolutionary idea to me at the time, and I lost approximately 300 pounds the moment I accepted that church was not the same thing as religion.

Then I read Donald Miller and John & Stasi Eldredge and Eugene Peterson and went down 15 emotional dress sizes and started smiling when I thought about Christianity… the real thing, not the big-haired pastor kind. But I still have a LOT of pre-conceptions to sort through. I mean, I was practically brainwashed into a certain brand of religion as a kid, and it’s not easy figuring out which of those teachings–if any–have merit.

(Note: Here comes the part with the cringing and the wilting and the slowly dislocating of very important limbs on an html rack.)

Maybe this is common knowledge to most people, but I was in college before I learned that the Bible–militantly defended as a sacred text–is just a compendium of stories and letters and historical records compiled by various groups of men, copied, lost, translated, retranslated, reretranslated, and printed off for people to make of it what they will. The Bible covers thousands of years and many different cultures, yet religious leaders pull out certain lines and call them “precepts.” Mennonites with head coverings? Christians who won’t eat pork? Churches that don’t allow female teachers? All bits and pieces pulled from ancient cultural laws and applied to now.

I’m not saying the Bible isn’t important, though its history does raise a lot of difficult questions for me. I just wonder when church-goers stopped reading the book of Matthew: “You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do.”(23:8-10, The Message) Self-proclaimed religious experts threaten dire consequences for veering from their explanations of “truth.” They warn against any spiritual search outside of the Bible (just mention yoga to a group of Southern Baptists, and watch the paranoia about “New Age” practices; seriously, you’d think yoga involved slaughtering kittens at midnight over a bubbling cauldron of fermented demon juice). They loudly condemn people with different beliefs to a future more horrifying than death. They set up a hierarchy of sins (homosexuality! abortion!) and prescribe rituals for holding onto salvation (morning devotionals! prayer before meals!).

I feel the wind knocked out of me just typing this paltry list. The aggressive application of “doctrine” does nothing to alleviate my soul-thirst. What does refresh me is art. Creativity. Beautiful movies, beautiful music, beautiful books. The great outdoors. Talking to people with giant hearts. Random acts of kindness. Intimate discussions with small groups of friends. Quiet. Sometimes the deliberate peace of Buddhism, sometimes the grandeur of Catholicism, sometimes the passionate worship of Pentacostals, but usually no organized religion at all.

Sometime, I hope to be able to add the Bible to the list of things that fulfill me spiritually. I just need to get further away from the cultural classification of God so I can read each “book” as it was meant to be read at the time and take my own truth from the words.

I just deleted that last line and retyped it a thousand times, by the way, because I’m a scaredy-pants. I know the pastors of my childhood would accuse me of “relativity” and “denying the truth,” and my pants are most definitely scared. But I’m trying to stay real and honest because those rusty hinges in my head are creaking open, and I want others to see the wide, untamed meadows beyond the gates of traditional Christianity–meadows with room for dancing wind and wildflowers and the hard
est questions coiled inside.

* Bonus point for using a Biblical term!!


Q & A

A: To remember.
To validate.
To appreciate.
To inspire.

I suck at talking, really. Just ask my husband, who usually has to pry my head open with a crowbar to find out what’s on my mind. I could quote someone eloquent and witty, like C.S. Lewis or House, M.D., and the words would still sound ridiculous coming out of my mouth. (Imagine a kindergartener who’s just swallowed a bottle of vodka and six helium balloons. Classy.)

When I write my thoughts down, though, I feel like they matter. I can actually convey my meaning without all the squeaking and the slurring and the drunken-five-year-old stammering. Often, I’m not even sure what I think until it slips out the ends of my fingers onto a page, and only once it’s written can I see its etchings on my personality… and then I feel a million kinds of validated. Maybe even a kazillion.

Writing does all sorts of lovely, warm, hot-chocolatey things to my emotional center as well. It makes me slow down enough to see the beauty in everyday life and scrapes calluses off my heart until I’m madly in love with everyone I should be madly in love with. I suppose it’s a way to both preserve and cultivate the precious pieces of my life. This might make me certifiably insane (that is, if I weren’t already, ::cough::), but I would take a day on a comfy couch with my laptop over a day at the spa. Or a day wearing plaid atrocities and hitting little white balls with sticks. Or whatever else real people do to relax.

I don’t really try to inspire–you should know by now that I consider myself as inspiring as Cream of Wilted Lettuce–but every once in a while, a bit of my heart on a page connects with a bit of someone else’s heart. Those tiny moments of relational electricity keep me buzzing for days. I’m learning to loosen up, to take personal honesty a little more public, and I love that it matters to others. Even at my most lettucesoupy, I want my words to matter to others.

Q: Why do you write?

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