Tag: Freedom

25May

Untethered

I don’t know where to start writing about this, even just for myself. It’s too big for me, too heavy, and my soul just wants to stretch out on a beach chair in some blissfully deserted part of the world and fall asleep to the sound of waves. How do I write through where I am now without coming across as fickle or, as more than one person has suggested, deluded?

It’s true—my perspective was warped by years of religious brainwashing and abuse in God’s name—but if nothing else, growing up with people who swallowed someone else’s ideology taught me not to do the same. I refuse to adopt a belief system just because others tell me to, and that applies to Christianity as well. Have I ever believed in God because my own story and experiences led me there? Have I ever even had that option?

I once thought that every good thing that happened to me was an act of divine benevolence. Scholarships, job offers, relationships, fast recoveries, relationships—each a personalized stamp of God’s approval and generosity.  What does that mean for my friends who had to work their way through college though? What of my friends living off of unemployment? What of those who didn’t meet Mr. Right or never recovered or had their homes destroyed by a natural disaster or went bankrupt or lost a child? Where I used to see God’s puppet strings, I now see coincidence because I can’t deal with the implications of an all-powerful benefactor playing favorites.

It doesn’t mean God isn’t good. Rachel Held Evans wrote about the same internal debate, and I’m relieved to know that the struggle isn’t confined to my own head and that others have found other ways of measuring God’s goodness. In nature, for instance, I can’t help seeing the beauty of its blueprint… but I don’t see perfection, and I don’t see personal intention. Whether the sky cooperates for someone’s outdoor wedding or a hurricane devastates thousands of families, I simply see a flawed universe set to random.

And I understand now more than ever why some Christians I know cling to their beliefs at the expense of everything else in their lives, even peace of mind. Coming untethered from a doctrinal picket line is a frightening experience, and there is only a hairline difference between feeling liberated and feeling lost (I tend to vacillate between the two). I can’t turn off my questions any more than I can turn off my instinct to breathe, but I wish I could. Some days, I am absolutely certain I would choose unthinking acceptance over this mind that tracks down holes more easily than it does happiness.

I have problems with a lot of people who claim to take their marching orders directly from God, and this casts doubt on the whole notion of a converted life (at least a life converted from assholery). I have even bigger problems with the Bible, questions that I fear have no answers aside from churchy platitudes, and as much as I might want to, I cannot sincerely subscribe to the whole traditional Christianity package. I cannot accept that a loving God created people for heaven and then set their defaults to hell. I cannot believe that a Jesus who taught turning the other cheek represents the same deity who went around wiping out heathen nations in the Old Testament. I cannot see my way past the violence or the inconsistencies or the staggering injustice of what some call the “Good News.” I just can’t.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this leaves me. I’m not rejecting faith, but I can’t flash a denominational membership card either, and even the space just beyond the old tether’s radius is unfamiliar territory. My biggest hope is that God isn’t tied to the picket line either and that my uncertain journey forward will bring us face to face, maybe in an open-air café without closing hours where he can answer every question I’ve ever penned in my journal or posed to uncomprehending pastors or sensed without being able to articulate. More than anything, I want God to be real and different than I was always told, and I think this longing counts as faith for me right now. And if I am simply deluded, I  pray I’ll eventually stumble across that beach chair.

 

10Mar

Sigh No More

One of the first pieces of literature I ever memorized was a Bible verse familiar even to those who have never set foot in a fundamentalist Christian home: “God is love.” It’s a nice sentiment, and it probably sounded adorable in my toddler lisp, but I was already on my way to a very unhappy understanding of the verse’s meaning.

“God is love” meant that he was willing to defile himself by sifting through the filth of humanity and saving a worm like me.

“God is love” meant that he would inflict (or sanction) whatever pain necessary to insure my soul against hell.

“God is love” meant that he would play the gentleman and let people make “unbiased” decisions between Christianity and eternal suffering.

(Alternately, it meant that he had predestined me over less lucky humans for salvation. I experienced my fair share of Calvinism.)

“God is love” meant that he had paid my debt, so I was forever in his.

In practical terms, “God is love” translated into fear. God’s love was conditional, you see, and it wasn’t particularly affectionate to start with. When I was Baptist, any little mistake would put my salvation into question. (You couldn’t lose your salvation per se, but if you messed up… well, Jesus clearly wasn’t alive and well in your heart.) When I was Presbyterian, my soul was secure, but God didn’t love all of my friends and family enough to choose them. From my earliest memories, the unthinkable torment of hell—burning alive forever and ever and ever—dangled over my head  and that of everyone I knew. And this was God’s love.

Which brings me here:

Maybe you’ve heard about this. Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you care so much that you’re brandishing every weapon in your arsenal against heresy. Or maybe you’re like me, wanting to weep for the hope of it all.

Even though “Love Wins” is not yet released, prominent theologians have already consigned the author to hell… simply for suggesting that perhaps God is not torturing the majority of his creation for eternity. A dear friend writes about the divide between real, aching hearts and those “who are more concerned with winning than with loving,” and I want to ask those people, those self-assured theologians and heretic-slayers, Why? Why would you rather follow a God who allows babies to be born knowing that nine out of ten will burn forever… who handpicks some for his utopian afterlife but not all, or who makes our fates dependent on accurate guesswork… who expects us to rejoice while billions die… whose love only concerns itself with right vs. wrong… Why would you rather follow that God than explore the hope that true love doesn’t require us to shut down our hearts?

I was terrified the first time I posted about hell; I expected anger, hatred, and Molotov cocktails (approximately the treatment Rob Bell’s been getting), but it was worth the risk. I couldn’t not share the spacious peace I had found outside of religious tradition. The idea that God actually could be love—kind, unconditional, crazy-about-us love—is worth spreading no matter the cost or the dissenters. In fact, it might be the first piece of truly good news some Christians have ever heard.

Play us out, Marcus:

16Sep

The Hope

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

As I reached my teenage years and my privacy began to be invaded in increasingly traumatic ways, I reached out to friends I had met through our on-again-off-again homeschool group. My parents found out and cut off my contact with them, my lifeline. I plunged into a depression so severe that only my dysfunctional view of God kept me from suicide. I knew that God was on my parents’ side, which meant that he was against me, which meant that I had a one-way ticket to hell waiting for me just on the other side of death. No matter how unbearable my life seemed, it was still preferable to being burned alive for eternity.

Around this time, I started being sent to seminars and camps where I was taught how to debate with anyone who might try to sway me from my parents’ beliefs. My desperate knowitallitude was in danger of growing insufferable, but it was during one of those courses that everything began to change for me. I was fifteen and going through a class that fit the entirety of history into our fundamentalist worldview. I had heard it all before, but something clicked in my head that year and I realized with startling clarity how limited our little group of God’s elect really was. We were so adamant about being the only right ones that we were proudly dooming all other ethnic groups, political opinions, religious affiliations, and even hairstyles throughout all of time to a hell that was already overpopulated with abortionists. It just didn’t make sense anymore, and the most startling thought of my life took hold of my mind: What if God isn’t exactly how we believe?

Within a year, I left home to go away to school. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t do anything to help my siblings at that time, but thinking for myself was still so new that I was feeling my way in complete darkness. There was hope in the darkness, though, and that hope was worth pressing through every doubt and fear to grasp.

Hope that I wasn’t some sort of cosmic mistake.
Hope that God loved me.
Hope that God loved other people too, even people with mohawks.
Hope that the pain I had gone through wasn’t my fault.
Hope that doubts wouldn’t destroy or doom me.
Hope that I would be beautiful one day.
Hope that peace and authentic happiness were waiting in my future.

I’m still finding my way, and I probably will be for the rest of my life; formative years are not easily replaced. However, every one of those hopes has proven itself true—and not just true because an opinionated author said so but because I’m living it.

(To be continued…)

18Nov

Cherry Tree Creed

I’ve hinted on here before about my rather extreme religious upbringing, but I’m hesitant to say much more about it. One part of me goes a little giddy at Anne Lamott’s quote, “If my family didn’t want me to write about them, they should’ve behaved better.” Yes, yes, yes! I cheer, until it comes to actually putting the ragged parts of my story into words and I inevitably whisper No. I can’t tell whom exactly my people-pleasing brain is trying to protect, but it balks when my honesty tries to reach back more than a decade. Some details are too ugly for the light of day.

Nevertheless, the way I was raised is relevant to who I am today. Painfully relevant. After all, the frequent religious apologetics classes and brainwashing camps were my introduction to doubting God’s existence. The behavior I saw in the churches and cults our family was involved with taught me about the tight-lipped smiling delusion so many people define as Christianity.  The forced hours of Old Testament reading every week took me beyond disbelief in God into the dark territory of hatred. You get the idea, at least in part.

I  spent most of my life under such a heavy religious terror that my sense of logic had to be locked up along with my emotions and honesty. The most redeeming thing that could have happened was when I gave up caring and let my doubts and anger tumble out of hiding. Depression helped, oddly enough. I already felt so low that keeping up my pretense of believing God no longer mattered. Deal with it, I told him. I may have tried punching him a time or two as well.

I see now that it had to be completely destroyed, that old belief system with its blackened stone walls and bloody gouge marks.  I had to lose enough hope to operate the wrecking ball myself. And slowly—slowly enough to be revolutionary in the we-could-die-and-face-judgment-any-minute mindset I had been taught—a new belief system is being reconstructed in my heart. It has floor-to-ceiling windows and an indoor cherry tree, and I suspect it will be some kind of spa once it is finished. There are no longer any shadowy nooks for shame, eternal damnation, party politics, or generational curses to hang out in.

A friend lent me The Shack to read a couple of months ago (the amount of time I’ve spent “forgetting” to return it makes me think I should probably just buy my own copy already). Reading it felt very much like having my rib cage pried open and all of my struggles with God exposed to the operating room lights… and then gently re-formed into such an expansive hope that my body has trouble accommodating it. Between the fresh perspective offered in that book (I can’t tell you how much I love that God reveals herself as an African-American woman) and the radical kindness of Jesus’s words, many of my questions are finally finding their perfect fit in answers — ones that don’t traumatize me or require me to suspend logic or darken my soul atmosphere. I don’t have everything figured out yet—for instance, I’m still searching for an explanation for the contradictory, violent God depicted in the Old Testament—but I am so relieved to finally have a creed that lets my heart breathe deep:

(I refer to God with female pronouns because in that way I  can comprehend her differentness from the patriarchal judge of my childhood.)

I believe that:

The Bible…
is a picture of who God is and what a relationship with her is like,
not a comprehensive encyclopedia for all the facets of existence,
and not a textbook,
and not a list of rules
(as if we could follow the rules anyway).

Free will…
means God values humans enough to give us the freedom of choice
and limits herself by not overriding those choices,
even the bad ones
(which hurt her too),
but always providing opportunities even through the bad choices
for us to clearly see her love.

God…
does not instigate tragedy, only works through and beyond it
as the life-force of the universe,
the energy, the concept of light, the goodness,
merciful enough to do away with justice
because she is love
(and not gender specific ☺).

Jesus…
is God in human form,
not a human with divine superpowers but human-human,
with emotions and needs and frustrations,
whose life flowed from his relationship with God
(who neither orchestrated his death nor abandoned him,
only worked incredible good through it).

The Holy Spirit…
is their divine presence—undiluted love—
landscaping the beautiful mess of our hearts,
the piercing loveliness we feel during a certain song
or a beautiful day or moments of profound peace,
always here and never finished.

Prayer…
is simply the ongoing dialogue
as the four of us live together,
acknowledging that the unseen is real
and that relationship is all that truly matters,
and that God cares…
which could probably be called faith.

Life on earth…
is a process that won’t culminate until all is made new,
blessedly temporary
(which I know when I agonize over the too-few hours each day),
but  a good time for the element of choice to get worked out—
a messy and necessary step for a God who respects us
and who continues to participate in our stories
outside the bounds of time and breath.

Then heaven…
will be all this as it was meant to be
without the violation of a single free will,
every heart finally connected to God’s,
finally capable of channeling her extravagant love
and enjoying complete creativity and fulfillment along with her,
seeing the beautiful face of our planet unscarred—
life on earth, redeemed.

And I…
am not a convert or a heretic
or a warrior or a one-size-fits-all
or a guest of honor on the doorman’s list
or a project to be finished
but one member of a completely unique relationship with the Divine
who values me enough not to impose rules or limitations
and promises  a never-ending process
toward fullest life,
beautiful change accomplished hand-in-hand,
and a love I am just beginning to absorb.

31May

Holy Writ Hives

“I like gypsy moths and radio talk
‘Cause it doesn’t remind me of anything…”
(Audioslave)

I was one of the coolest twelve-year-olds to enter our church’s youth group, oh yes. All the other denim-clad girls envied my broomstick skirts and the knitted granny shawl I wore as protection from the A/C.  I was widely admired for my mad worship-band-understudy flute skillz, and the guys were always ogling the sexy training bra outline on my cookie sheet chest. Everyone cheered when I alone took on the youth pastor’s challenge and memorized the entire biblical book of James to get a free trip to youth camp. Oh, and a mere two days into that camp when I was sent home with a case of the mumps? Well, that cemented my position as the most popular teen in church history.

Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha. Oooooh, boy. ::wipes eyes::

I know I’ll be dashing some hopes here, but this entry is not about junior high fashion. (Sorry!) Nor is it about the many reasons to vaccinate your children, youth camp being one of the more compelling. No, this is about the holy tradition of Scripture memorization and why I think it sucks.

See, my brain is a neurotic sponge. I never had much trouble memorizing, whether it be Shakespeare or sacred texts or shampoo ingredients. I routinely dazzled my Awana leaders by breezing through the required ream of Bible verses to then learn hefty chunks of the New Testament. I blasted through the competition to win first place in regional Bible drills. I could even recite the lineage of Old Testament kings by heart. (See above re: popularity.) I memorized and memorized and memorized and memorized and didn’t learn a thing.

It turns out that the proper ordering of words does little to reach a heart. In fact, the tuneless march of verses through my mind made reading the Bible impossible once I reached adulthood. I found myself paralyzed by each familiar page, with memories of the words leading to memories of the past leading to fog-banked panic. The holy writ gave me hives. It wasn’t until a friend bought me The Message (and, uh, it sat on the shelf under my suspicious glower for a few years) that I was able to understand what Jesus and Paul wrote. The Bible finally made unrecognizable; what relief!

As I’ve discovered the power of newborn words to seep far below my skin into soul territory, I’ve shunned attempts by family members to help Natalie memorize Bible verses. I don’t want forced familiarity with God-commissioned words to breed contempt before my daughter even has the chance to work out her own beliefs. This has kept me consistently uneasy about her Sunday School class, as week after week, Natalie’s classmates recite Bible verses for a gold star sticker leading to a yearly prize. Should we make her memorize the verses too so she’ll fit in? Should we remove her from the class, risking a million kinds of confrontation? Should we keep ignoring the issue?

This morning in Sunday School, things came to a head. In preparation for a church presentation next week, the children had been memorizing Psalm 23. Never before has a peaceful poem of cross-stitching fame wound a person as tightly as it did Natalie’s teacher. “Why can’t you say it all together?” she yelled at the group of preschoolers shifting in their hard-plastic chairs. “THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD—Fabio! Straighten up this instant! Ester, sit down! No, no, no, Gabriele, be quiet, we’re starting from the beginning, QUIET! THE LORD IS—Laura! Why aren’t you saying all the words? What is wrong with you? Well if you’re tired, you should have gotten more sleep last night, huh? No, Beniamino, you can’t go to the bathroom until we get the whole thing right. STEVEN, QUIET! Do you all want your parents to be disappointed in you?”

Still fuming at how badly the children had been treated, I got in the car with Dan after church and told him, “Those kids are never going to voluntarily memorize another Bible verse for the rest of their lives.”

And then…

I grinned.

12May

Uncaged

When I’m 85, the smell of Bath & Body Works’s peach nectar lotion will remind me of that unsettling coaster ride of an autumn with my first boyfriend. The smell of carpet shampoo will remind me of walking into my college dorm room with an armful of books and giddy expectations. The smell of hand sanitizer will take me back to the NICU where infant Natalie recovered from surgery, and the smell of lemons will remind me of this spring.

The lemon trees and perfume and homemade limoncello and lemonade (more on that soon) have swirled deep into my perception of life this spring, and I have to tell you: I am infatuated. With lemons… AND life. Remember how crap-coated existence looked in January? And in February? And in March? Man, March was a doozy. I didn’t share most of the horror that was my brain this last winter out of embarrassment and pride and a respect for your collective wills to live, but my personal journal entries are like something out of Mordor.

But then… One afternoon toward the end of March, I was researching psychiatry in Italy in preparation for the next day when I was going to beg my skeptical doctor on my hands and knees for antidepressants. If I was going to grovel, I at least wanted to be prepared. I learned that “antidepressant” is “antidepressivo” and that “panic attack” is “attacco di panico” and that around 75% of women taking Yasmin end up on depression medication. Huh, I thought. Could this be as easy as going off the Pill?

It was. Only seven weeks later, I am a completely different person. Actually, I was a different person within seven days. I can hardly believe how easy it is to get out of bed each morning now that homicidal hormones are no longer running around chewing holes through all my happy thoughts. That endocrinologist who assured me I certainly did not have a hormonal imbalance owes me one year of lost happiness and a delivery truck of Lindt chocolates, at least as I see it.

I figured I owed you all an update now that I’m on the outside of the cage. So many of you have encouraged and supported me through a truly crap-filled (and -coated and -battered and -fried and -garnished) time. You’ve sent me e-mails and earrings and reminded me that I have some worth as a human being after all, and I am a thousand kinds of thankful. The future holds promise again. The world is habitable again. My creativity is waking out of its coma, and when I look inside my brain, I finally see myself. And when I’m 85, the smell of fresh lemons will remind me all over again how lovely it is to be.

10May

Gentle Tsunami

I was walking home from the park three days ago hand-in-hand with my daughters, smears of frozen yogurt on our cheeks and playground gravel under our fingernails, when it hit me. Grace. Like a gentle tsunami, it washed over that moment. Then, at half-past-naptime in the afternoon. There, under the silver-glinted olive trees. My hands clasped with the two little girls who make me crazy with love (and sometimes just crazy)… and I whispered “Thank you” into the springtime sky.

Mommy with her girls 1

I remember another Sunday years ago when I sat in our church’s youth group after a particularly terrifying lesson. I was already a veteran victim of religious terror, and our church had raised the bar impossibly high with the unit study on demons when I was in 5th grade. Still, this particular Sunday’s message was the most frightening of my life: You are doomed to commit the same sins your parents did. It was an interpretation of Exodus 20:5 that many Christians accept, and it scared me into a hopeless panic.

“Please, God, no!” I prayed over and over like a character in a scratchy black and white film. “Please, God, no! Please, God, no! I don’t want to hurt my own children one day, I don’t want them to end up like me. Please, God…” I muddled through vague resolutions not to ever fall in love or get married, not to ever, ever make a baby. I was heartbroken. Damned.

In college, I met, kissed, and married my husband within ten short months, irreversibly losing my anti-marriage resolve. However, my fear was still alive. I felt it in the secret passageways of my anatomy every day of married life. I tasted its metallic bitterness. It compounded in my chest when I leafed through Anne Geddes books, wondering what kind of monster a baby would unleash in me. I did not want to find out. I adored children, so I was particularly cautious not to have one myself.

Another Bible study turned the tides. I worked through Beth Moore’s “Breaking Free” with a group of college friends and learned that faulty translation had created all this mess. Exodus 20:5 in the original language says that the “sins of the fathers” (oh, what a sinister phrase) are taken into account by God. As in, God understands how the misdeeds of older generations affect younger generations. Other Bible passages such as Ezekiel 18 go into greater detail on how people’s choices and consequences are solely their own… but this isn’t meant to be a Bible study. It’s the story of how my fear let out a surprised “Oh!” and vanished in a wisp of smoke.

That very next summer, I got pregnant with Natalie. And while I still had some freakouts and hyperventilations to work out of my system, I welcomed her to the world with a fuzzy, warm, king-sized happiness. I met my baby and turned into a mother.

Meeting Mom

Four years and two months later, I played with my daughters all afternoon at the park. We picked Sophie’s favorite miniature daisies and flew on pink horses that Natalie conjured up. We ran all the way home for a potty break and then back out for frozen yogurt topped with white chocolate, strawberries, and heaps of colorful sprinkles. We walked home giggling, and I realized with the full profundity of a once-afraid soul that God answered. For all my faults—getting frustrated with the incessant toddler messes, blocking out every third hour of the incessant preschool chatter, saying “We’ll do that later” far too often—I have been spared the pain of becoming an abusive parent. My own hurts are even healing under the skilled touch of grace. The fear is simply a forgotten nightmare; grace is my here-and-now. Grace is why today, I can hug those little girls with a heart full of our delicious memories and say, “Happy Mother’s Day to you too.”

Mother's Day toes
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