Tag: Hope

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:

17Sep

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)

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.

19Jul

Era

A few days ago, had you been paying careful attention, you may have heard the universe take a deep breath and gently release an era to extinction. The following puff of breeze was the door to our shoebox apartment closing, and the electric crackle in the air was the current of joy waiting just inside our new fairy tale house. We are surrounded by boxes and have bruises in strange places, but are hopelessly happy to be here. (Pictures will be coming once we shed the cardboard décor.)

And it’s my birthday. I couldn’t ask for more in this abundant world of ours than waking up (gloriously late) this morning to birdsong and sunlight pooling on my bed, to PDA from my husband and sticky-sweet kisses from my girls, and to home. A trip downtown for outdoor jazz and Venetian ice cream didn’t hurt though. I’ve also loved looking through my birthday list from last year, seeing how very many things are checked off (all except 3 ½, if you want to get technical) and how much delight they added to the last twelve months. It seems a birthday tradition has begun.

Birthday gelato

Wishing on each unborn day of next year to:

~ Get lost in a field of sunflowers

~ Host a fabulous dinner party

~ Make millefoglie from scratch

~ Go to a concert with my husband

~ Put our new guest room to use

~ Try a new food

~ Respond to every e-mail in my backlogged inbox

~ Find an agent already

~ Visit another country for the first time

~ Organize a night out with girlfriends

~ Find the perfect pair of jeans

~ Surprise someone with kindness

~ Read a dozen good books

~ Grow some kind of fruit on our balcony

~ Re-learn obscure Italian verb tenses… and try not to forget them again

~ Work out regularly

~ Create a unique dessert

~ Eliminate holiday stress in favor of holiday cheer

~ Find my daily groove

~ Write something from true heart-compulsion

~ Restore a lost relationship

~ Read through a chapter book with Natalie

~ Find my soul mate in stationary and write newsy letters on it

[And the carry-overs from last year:]

~ Learn one beautiful piano piece well enough to play by memory

~ Start college funds for the girls

~ Submit at least ten short items for publication

~ Finish my book

Here’s to a new house, a new year, and new era. Cheers!

21May

Slumbering Magic

At least once a year, I read Ray Bradbuary’s Dandelion Wine cover to cover. It has been a soul tradition since I first picked up the paperback at age 15 and lost a bit of my heart among the pages. And who wouldn’t? The book is a celebration of childhood and summertime equally, of life and death and the daily discoveries that make them so much more, written in the most delicious prose I’ve ever tasted.

“His breath raked over his teeth, going in ice, coming out fire. Ten thousand individual hairs grew a millionth of an inch on his head. He heard the twin hearts beating in each ear, the third heart beating in his throat, the two hearts throbbing his wrists, the real heart pounding his chest. The million pores on his body opened.
I’m really alive! he thought. I never knew it before…” *

Magic.

Every time I venture into its pages, I am twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding. I suddenly feel the need for tennis shoes and old-fashioned lime-vanilla ice, plus a sip of the mysterious dandelion wine just to try.  I experience all the curiosity and fear and wondering joy woven into the stories. But despite how much I love the book, my heart floods with a soft pale-pink sadness at the end of each chapter because I wish it were mine. The writing. The nostalgia. The memories in print.

I have a hard time explaining the way Dandelion Wine tugs at me because it’s not jealousy… yet it is. I dearly want to write a book that captures people’s imaginations in the same way, and I think I could. I feel the magic slumbering just beneath the surface of my ability. But I’m missing the nostalgia, and that’s one thing a writer can’t make up. My childhood memories will never make the cut for an exploration of whimsy, and this dear adult life of mine needs a few more years to brew still.

So I take the book for what it was to me at 15—a miraculous first date with metaphors—and what it is to me now—a diamond trembling with a thousand emotional hues. My sadness is not an enemy, nor is it the face of defeat. Rather, it’s the whispered promise of nostalgia in my future. You will write of your own magic one day, you will…

* I had a ridiculously hard time choosing an exemplary passage from the book because every sentence in the thing is perfect. Some lazy day this summer, pour yourself a tall glass of lemonade, pick up a copy of Dandelion Wine, and read until your toes begin to tingle. That’s an order.

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.

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