Tag: Church


A Personal Kind of Grace

[Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010]

Everywhere, it seems, I’m reading about Lent, and I’m trying to let the words sink in, but they float just above my level of comprehension. Ashes, fasting, sin, mortality, dust to dust… Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended a church that practiced Lent (though I know that’s not a prerequisite to participation). Maybe it’s because I’m on such tenuous terms with organized Christianity. Maybe it’s because words like “sin” and “fasting” shut me down trigger-quick with oppressive memories.

My being with you this year doesn’t just refer to posting more often. The internet offers a shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion, and I believe that connection is the reason we are on this planet together. Thus, with = authenticity.

Are you ready?

As far back as I can remember, the Easter season has symbolized a very personal kind of brutality to me. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is horrific, no matter the religious paradigm. A man who devoted his adult life to teaching kindness, spreading hope, standing up for the marginalized, and living out compassion is tortured to death by religious leaders who feel their legalistic system threatened. The injustice is instantly recognizable, the tragedy deeply felt. And it is all my fault.

That’s what I was taught from the beginning, that the shards of glass ripping his back to shreds, the iron spikes hammered into his wrists, the agonizing hours on the cross as his lungs collapsed were all my fault.  It sent me into hysterics as a young child. Hearing the unthinkable details of Jesus’s suffering and then being told I was responsible was too much for my heart to handle intact. Jagged, uncontrollable laughter spilled through the wound, and my guilt doubled. No punishment was enough.

“Jesus died for your sins.” I swallow hard every time I hear this line at church, wondering what concept it is shaping in my daughters’ minds. I know that many people take it as a message of hope and love, but I have trouble seeing the barbarism behind the statement. Death by torture is somehow the sacrificial equivalent of my imperfection? Is it not enough to acknowledge my need for redemption without also accepting the blame for Jesus’s death? More often than not, these questions have led me down a spiral staircase of doubts from which I couldn’t see hope, not even a glint, through my anger at God for orchestrating such horror.

I can’t turn off my mind or cauterize the raw edges of my heart against pain, but I have learned to look through new eyes. A few years ago, my friend Rachelle Mee-Chapman’s article Your Kindergartner Did Not Kill Jesus, and Neither Did You helped me see the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat. Gerry Beauchemin’s book Hope Beyond Hell showed me a God of love instead of torture. Other resources, music, and open-minded conversations have helped me find a third path beyond blind acceptance of religious dogma and angry rejection of the whole Christian construct. I can now love Jesus honestly, without having to shoulder or celebrate his death.

I admire those of you who make sacrifices during these forty days in order to draw closer to God, and I want you to know that I respect your ashes. They aren’t for me, though, at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve spent so long pinned in the dust by Jesus’s suffering that meditating on it now would be like returning to a prison. Perhaps I will be able to do it one day when my new perspective is strong enough to cocoon old wounds. But for now, I’m focusing on words and life instead of sin and death, meditating on the kindness Jesus taught rather than the evil he suffered. My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.



Our church doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas. I’ve heard of other churches that choose not to as well, most citing pagan or consumerist holiday origins as the reason, but ours shies away from it for the opposite reason: it’s too religious. More specifically, it’s too Catholic.

I sympathize with their need to differentiate themselves from the national religion. Here in Italy, the Pope is held up as truth incarnate, and the small Brethren congregation with which we share Sunday mornings is anxious to dispel the notion of religious royalty. In fact, we don’t even have a paid pastor. All church members are seen as equal participants among each other and with God, and the inclusive environment is incredibly welcome for those like me who run screaming from the word “orthodoxy.”

I’m not sure how welcome a Catholic visitor would feel though. While it isn’t often said aloud, the general consensus seems to be that Catholics do not know the real God; they base their lives on superstition, worship idols, and enslave themselves to greed (the clergy) or fear (the parishioners). They need to be saved just as badly as Buddhists or even Wiccans do.

However, I simply can’t make the stereotype match up with the Catholics I personally know. It’s easy enough to say a certain denomination (or religion, depending on your viewpoint) has it all wrong, but can I honestly make that verdict about my Catholic friend who prays regularly for me and launches heart-to-hearts about our life’s passions? What about my ex-fundamentalist friend who finds solace from her oppressive past at Mass every week? What about the devout family friends who uprooted their lives to keep a mentally disabled relative from losing her inheritance?

How can I say that I, with my ever-evolving doubts and struggles, have exclusive rights to the God we all seek?

I twice attended Mass when I was living in the States, and both times, I stayed conspicuously in my seat while the rest of the church filed to the front for the Eucharist. I reasoned that I was merely an onlooker of a foreign religious ritual and that participating would be on par with apostasy. (Never mind that my own church’s monthly communion service was essentially the same thing, give or take a priest.) If I were to go back now, though, it wouldn’t be as a tourist. Rather, I’d go as a fellow believer, doubter, stumbler, and seeker. And while I probably wouldn’t agree on a lot of doctrinal points, and while the reverent liturgy of the service might chafe my nonconformist sensibilities, and while my current church could have some strong opinions over it (thankfully, we don’t do excommunication), the slot vacated by my superiority complex would be just about the right size for a concept called loving my neighbors… and maybe even learning from them too.

Rally to Restore Unity

[Joining the Rally to Restore Unity going on this week on Rachel Held Evans’ blog. Want to play along?]


Reggae and Redemption

I haven’t been to church in a few Sundays for various reasons, feeling like death among them, but I’ve stayed spiritually attuned (ha) with the help of my earphones. A year and a half after writing my post about non-churchy songs for the soul, I still haven’t eased back into the worship music scene. I approach it like an outsider now, mystified and sometimes uncomfortable listening in on an outpouring of theological convictions I don’t necessarily share.  However, my need to connect to God with my senses hasn’t shut down just because the Christian standard doesn’t work for me anymore. I still sing when no one’s around (you’re quite welcome) and  unwind in the mesmerizing dance of words and music, so without further ado, here are eight more unconventional songs for the soul:

1. O Holy Night by Seven Day Jesus 
In honor of the approaching holiday, here is my favorite rendition of my favorite Christmas song. Yes, it falls awfully close to hymn territory, but it speaks of yearning, of social justice, and of the love that continually draws me to God in spite of my chronic non-churchiness.

“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name, all oppression shall cease…”

2. I Will Be Light by Matisyahu
Matisyahu’s “Light” is my running album, but I always find myself slowing when I get to track six. It’s like a double shot of perspective that both satisfies my daily craving for purpose and energizes my drive for compassion. I hear God’s reggae roots in it, and I’m always running again by the end of the song.

“You’ve got one tiny moment in time
For life to shine, to burn away the darkness…”

3. Let Go by Frou Frou 
This song ends one of my favorite movies with an unexpected rush of joy. The beauty of breaking down, of jumping from a carefully orchestrated tragedy into a deep unknown, is one I know well, and the freedom I’ve found since is well worth playing on repeat.

“So let go, just get in,
Oh, it’s so amazing here,
It’s alright,
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown…”

4. Light and Day by Polyphonic Spree
The band is undeniably nutty and almost a little too happy (here is the alternate music video which is basically a three minute LSD trip), but I love this song’s positivity. It’s easy to get caught up in moody introspection, and a cheery reminder to seek the light is always welcome. (Though really, guys… fairies?)

“Just follow the day,
Follow the day and reach for the sun!”

5. You’ve Got the Love by Florence + The Machine
I’m there far more often than I wish, wading knee-deep in the mess of my own life wondering what’s the use. It’s the human condition this side of eternity, I think. However, the amount of love spilling over onto this side is more than enough for the road.

“Sometimes I feel like saying ‘Lord I just don’t care,’
But you’ve got the love I need to see me through…”

6. Get Me Right by Dashboard Confessional 
Chris Carrabba was my introduction to emo music years ago, and he has a gift for wrenching personal struggles out of the shadows into the stage lights. This song is particularly candid and makes no attempt to dilute his ache for redemption. I especially like his terminology of God as the one who makes things right; it’s a belief I grasp with all my heart.

“I don’t mind the rain if I meet my maker,
I’ll meet my maker clean…”

7. Let the Rain by Sara Bareilles 
This is a recent discovery, a poignant reflection that echoes my own wishes for change—release from oppression, from stifling tradition, from fear and cowardice and incapability and status quo—a cleansing deluge of newness.

“And I always felt it before
That the world was filled with so much more
Than the drowning soul I’ve learned to be,
I just need the rain to remind me…”

8. Roll Away Your Stone by Mumford & Sons
I had a tough time choosing just one song of theirs. The entire album so perfectly captures the experience of waking up to life and identity, wholehearted awareness, grace… and this song, well, I dare you not to get swept away on its rollicking current. It’s one church service I wouldn’t mind attending in the least.

“And so I’ll be found with my stake stuck in this ground,
Marking its territory of this newly impassioned soul…”

Any that you’d like to add?


The Outcome

Part IV
(Preface here, Part I here, Part II here, Part III here)

Since leaving home, I have struggled my way to forgiveness countless times. Each memory starts the struggle over again, so my mind has gotten pretty good at sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting “La la la, I’m not remembering this!” So why, in my effort to forgive and forget, am I bringing up the past I don’t even want to think about?

It’s for women like my mom who may not particularly want kids or have the ability to teach them well but who are being guilt-tripped into thinking that God wants them to birth and educate an unlimited procession of children.

It’s for men like my dad who take as gospel that God is giving them both the responsibility to control their children and a Get Out of Jail Free card to use whatever means necessary.

It’s for parents who think they are supposed to ignore the mental anguish of making their own babies suffer because souls are on the line.

It’s for sincere-hearted people who are told they are unworthy to interpret God’s influence on their lives and agree to let more charismatic people tell them what to believe.

It’s for children who feel in their heart of hearts that they should never have been born because that is the message imprinted every day on their bodies and minds.

I have gotten in touch with some of the other survivors to come out of the cult that influenced my childhood, and the behind-the-scenes truth could not be farther from the idyllic appearance that drew my parents in. It was much as you would expect knowing my story. There was rampant abuse perpetrated by church leaders and parents alike. Families were threatened, coerced, and manipulated into staying on the compound. People with illnesses or injuries were forbidden from seeking medical help. The families that looked so pristine at church meetings hurt each other horribly behind closed doors. The one that particularly inspired my parents recently escaped the group’s confines and fell to pieces on the other side; the parents are now divorced, the children that left with them are bitter, and the children and grandchildren that stayed behind have disowned the rest.

Another family that we had close ties with also crumbled. Their situation was not as extreme as ours, but they took the doctrine of isolation very seriously and crippled their children’s relationships outside the family. Their oldest daughter, now in her mid-twenties, is pregnant with her third child and going through her third divorce. She does not have custody of her other two children, and she wants nothing to do with her old home. One sibling has taken her side; the others look as lost in photos as her parents.

And my family? Before my parents finally abandoned their crusade against imperfection, one sibling attempted suicide multiple times. One became an expert manipulator and a bully. One acted out on friends with the same violence we encountered at home. One became an unapologetic atheist. One suffered from a compulsive stress-related disorder. A few developed learning disabilities. I had unrelenting nightmares. Holidays and special occasions were battlegrounds. To this day, we don’t discuss personal things, and we don’t bring up the past. We’re a far cry from the shiny, happy family my parents envisioned, and I understand all the more why God doesn’t use force to make us into better people: because it simply doesn’t work.

When Christians use the word “grace,” I don’t fully understand what they mean, but I know I experience it every day, both in my ability to wield it and in the gentle way God is centering my life around hope. I have to think that if my parents had encountered that kind of grace (or understood it for what it was), our family would be drastically different today… none of us condemned by impossible ideals, none of us trapped into violence, none of us terrified or broken by each other’s hands, none of us still living under the thumb of that old bully Shame. The scandalous truth is that perfection is a myth and that’s okay. I believe our capacities for kindness and understanding increase dramatically when we accept that, and it adds one more poignant hope to my list: that my family’s story is not yet finished.


Additional reading:
Sparrows Flutter
by Hillary McFarland
Why Good People Do Bad Things Inside a Cultish Church
by Elizabeth Esther
To Those Who May Be Shocked, Disappointed, and Hurt by the News of My Apostasy
by Vyckie Garrison
Barry’s Post
by Barry Bishop
Patriarchy and Our Daughters
by Taunya
In Which I Discuss the Unthinkable
by Laurie M.
Christian Brainwashing?
by Betsy Markman
Word Games
by Lewis Wells
Christian Families on the Edge
by Rachel D. Ramer
Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse
by Eric M. Paździora
Moving On
by Darcy

“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.” (by Jesus)


The Reality

Part II
(Preface here, Part I here)

From babyhood, I was expected to be perfect. (These are the 49 characteristics of perfection, if you’re interested.) Any mistake was evidence of rebellion in my heart, rebellion was “the sin of witchcraft,” and witchcraft could only be driven away through physical pain. If you’ve ever met a typical two-year-old, you can probably imagine how many hours a day were devoted to driving away my rebellion. It didn’t work, of course; I still hadn’t achieved perfection by age five, or eight, or twelve. I tried though. My eternal salvation was on the line every second of every day, and I was terrified of ending up in hell for failing to be polite enough or understand my math problems or keep my younger siblings from making messes.

We read long stretches of the Old Testament every morning with whipping implements nearby in case anyone squirmed, and I learned in a very tactile way about God’s violence. (I still can’t open the first two-thirds of my Bible without risking a panic attack.) I often had to copy down biblical passages that directly condemned me as additional punishment and then show up to church where my dad was a pastor and put on a show of saintliness. I would have hated God with every breath had I not been so scared.

I had plenty to fear: hell for myself, hell for my younger siblings, demons who could read my thoughts, a vengeful God who could read my thoughts, violence at home, ridicule outside our home, church staff who would fire my dad if we misbehaved, trick-or-treaters who would bring Satan to our own front door, policemen who would take us children away if they spotted us, doctors who would take us away if we ever went to the hospital, the government who would take us away if we got social security numbers, my body that could cause men to stumble, my emotions that betrayed my sinful nature, my mind that questioned what I was told, and my heart that was black with wickedness.

My parents were able to use scare tactics and violence to control my siblings and I unchecked for a few reasons. First, the isolation of homeschooling meant that my parents didn’t need to answer to anyone. They didn’t have to take us for medical check-ups or immunizations, they didn’t need our education levels checked, and we rarely had visitors. Our church could have posed some opposition, but with my dad being a pastor and my siblings and I looking for all the world like a row of docile ducklings, I think people tended to brush away misgivings. My parents had uncontested authority over us, especially my dad as the God-ordained head of the family, and absolute power without any checks or balances has the ability to turn even well-meaning people into monsters.

Second, the methods used on my siblings and I instilled in us a deep, unrelenting shame. Horrible things were done to us, and they were all our faults. We were vile creatures; God saw us as worms. Our needs were laughable. Our bodies belonged to our caretakers to treat as they saw fit. We were expected to submit willingly to abuse and then thank our abusers with joy; it was utterly humiliating. And because every bit of it was God’s will, we had no right to protest. We were silenced by religion, fear, and shame… and despite this, my parents never did feel like they had the control over us that God commanded of them.

(To be continued…)


Defined by Wonder

Out of all religious celebrations, my least favorite is Easter. I’d rather not get into reasons why, though lacy short sleeved dresses on the coldest Sundays in Texas history have a minor role. (Seriously, the Texan weather gods must spend three quarters of the year siphoning away stray breezes to be released all together the moment flimsy Easter dresses emerge.) Our church here in Italy does not officially celebrate Easter, but nonetheless, I prefer to distance myself from institutions for the weekend. Campgrounds work nicely. Campgrounds in Sorrento work very nicely.

Shoreline - Sunday morning 1

Our experience this year was different from last year’s in that we didn’t drive the entire coastline, stumble into any creepy processionals, or need the sunscreen, but the defining factor of our trip was still wonder. The wonder of waking up to Mount Vesuvius drifting above the bay on a floe of sky-blue mist…   the wonder of the girls running themselves giddy beneath succulent orange trees… the wonder of following an unknown path down a cliff face to the water’s edge where cats napped on volcanic remnants and boulders presented themselves for the jumping… above all, the wonder of putting our busy life on hold while we shacked up with beauty for the weekend.

Oranges in bloom

Thanks to a fitful forecast, we put our Capri plans on hold and had the kind of see-where-our-feet-take-us day we love so much. The first place our feet took us was… back inside the tent to play Curious George Uno, sneak a few chocolate eggs, and wait out a cloudburst. Admittedly, it wasn’t the worst way to spend Easter morning, but we were still glad to see the sky take its emotional issues elsewhere. After all, there were pigeons to chase! Merry-go-rounds to conquer! Strawberry gelato to dribble deliciously onto our mother’s jeans! We wound our way through the Sorrento shopping district scoping out lemons for Operation Limoncello 2010 and followed an inkling down the coast to pretend stray cats were panthers and ogle the waves, still turquoise beneath their cloud cover. Once little legs tired out, we drove down the block to Positano, so brim-full of color and bustle that we never had a chance to miss our derailed Capri trip.

Positano 2

The next day brought with it an impromptu detour to the excavation site of Pompeii. I’m glad I had the chance to be properly impressed by Herculaneum last year because Pompeii so thoroughly surpassed all previous experiences with ruins. I mean, there are ruins, and there are RUINS. Acres upon acres of stepping-stone streets, villas, tombs, bars, theaters, brothels, temples, shopping malls, gardens, and what my girls claimed as their own personal “beautiful castles.” It felt both heavy and oddly exhilarating to poke around a city where people lived 2,000 years ago. No denying that Vesuvius’s famous eruption was tragic, but getting to peek into an ancient culture without the distraction of progress felt like a gift—a head-warping, perspective-zapping, imagination-thrilling sort of gift to carry home on tired feet.

Little Miss Natalie

I know I’m not scoring points with the Spanish Inquisition here, but God is more real to me outdoors with the girls chasing butterflies or skipping over ancient crosswalks than in a meeting hall where we’re trying to make them behave like doorstops. Fresh air has a big impact on our spiritual lives, I think. Incidentally, the God we pitched our tent with—the one painting gold across the horizon and setting magpies in flight and coaxing wild poppies into the open—is the one that makes me feel religious celebrations have merit after all… though, if I’m going to be honest, I’d still take a camping trip on the Amalfi Coast, breathing in the fragrance of citrus trees and drinking up wonder, over lacy Easter dresses any day.


Colors Blend

“I hold everything that is—
sand, time, the tree of the rain,

everything is alive so that I can be alive:

without moving I can see it all…”
~ Pablo Neruda

I imagine myself creating collages from wisps of words and these late-summer colors that will flutter away too soon.

I imagine myself writing at the desk in my corner nook with the autumn-tinted curtains and the window overlooking the fig tree, maybe wearing glasses, certainly with a mug of something inspiring.

I imagine myself flowing with the energy that produces firm abdominals and freshly baked cinnamon rolls, open eyes before the first alarm and no snoozing.

I imagine myself hanging my personality on the line and letting the breeze smooth away the wrinkles.

I imagine myself dissolving the judgment I feel (or conjure) at church in a jar of full-strength understanding until the colors blend together and I realize nothing is going to explode.

I imagine myself floating away on a Nickel Creek song into the dragonfly blue with a cloud bank pillow and the sun playing grace notes on my eyelids.

I imagine myself drinking in the love around me with thirsty pores and watching the too-tired, upset-stomach, ­­­bad-mother days blossom into life more abundant.

Heather-scented smiles

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