Fundamentalism isn’t an ideology, it’s a habit of thought patterns. Fundamentalism is based in fear. Fear of not being heard, fear of being invalidated, fear of attack, of erasure, of silencing.

Fundamentalism can be present in any community regardless of ethics or system of belief.

The reason that I started questioning the Christian fundamentalism I grew up with was because I saw people valuing the system of belief as more important than having compassion for hurting people in our community. I was upset that our value system put being right over sitting with someone in pain and empathizing with them in their vulnerable place.

I think that’s why most of us left the system of legalism, fundamentalist Christianity, Christian patriarchy—whatever you want to call it. We saw the system steamrolling people in pain—either us or those we loved—and realized that the system didn’t work for outliers, for those who didn’t fit the boxes or couldn’t follow the rules. We suddenly saw the marginalized, and realized that we were in a broken system and needed a new paradigm to stop marginalizing people if we wanted to have integrity in our claim to love as an ethic of life.

And so we stepped out of the too-small shoes of whatever ideology we’d been living in, and tried to listen and learn and practice consistent compassion and fight shame. We learned about self-care and about boundaries, we learned to question authority structures and say no. We learned the value of listening to those less privileged than us, and we adopted the language of feminism and intersectionality—clumsily at first, for most of us, but with sincere desire to be different from what we’d been before.

But fundamentalism isn’t something you can leave by deciding you’re LGBTQ* affirming, or by reading bell hooks, or by finally expressing the anger you felt when you were marginalized in your former world.

All of these things are good, but being “feminist” or “progressive” or even coming out as atheist can’t really do a thing for unlearning fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is fundamentally a defensive position. It is not easily open to nuance, it uses synecdoche on first impressions to assume that one or two interactions is the sum of a person’s essence. It is too interested in self-defensive labeling of everyone and everything to have the patience to sit with someone and try to learn how much their good intentions are reflected in their actions over time—it doesn’t have time for those who are learning or need to ask a million questions before they can grasp concepts that may have come quickly to us.

In the book Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Nathaniel is talking to a woman about teaching the sailors complex math tricks to navigate more accurately, but they’re not picking it up very quickly and he’s impatient. She chides him, saying [I’m paraphrasing] “Don’t kick the chair because you ran into it in the dark. It’s not the chair’s fault it’s like that.” She goes on to encourage him to try to get to know the sailors individually to understand how their different personalities might inform how he can best approach teaching them to navigate the stars well.

I think about this scene often, because sometimes I’m the quick one who picks things up intuitively, and I don’t always remember that not everyone else is like that. And sometimes I’m the one with clumsy emotional intelligence, and I step on toes without realizing it, and need to have things explained to me in nice, small words so I can understand.

I am not advocating re-traumatizing yourself for the sake of helping someone who you find triggering. That is not your job. Boundaries are good. Take care of yourself.

But: I think it’s inconsistent and a bit mean to have believe you’ve left Christian fundamentalism and to rail against its treatment of the underprivileged and to claim that you’re an ally—and to choose to publicly label someone as “unsafe” for some intent-to-action clumsiness despite evidence that they’re trying to change and learn, just like you. They may very well be unsafe for you or for others and I’m all for eliminating negative influences from one’s personal life. But I can’t help but think how grateful I have been for the kind people in my life who have chosen to sit with me in my ignorance and inconsistencies and help me unlearn my bigotry without labeling me or shaming me.

Compassion is an act of the imagination, right? Shame is the tool of fundamentalists to silence and control the borders of a community. I don’t want to be right and educated well about intersectionality and feminism and my privilege, and fail to have compassion for those who are not as far along in the learning curve as I might be. I remember what it was like to be there. Do you?

Leaving fundamentalism is more about a laying down an irrational craving to be right (oh, I love you my darling Gryffindors, but…) and a taking up of compassion and imagination and epistemological humility than it is about learning and using the right labels and theories. The ethics of unlearning fundamentalism must go much deeper than just jumping to the other side of your line in the sand.

Safe people aren’t relationally fundamentalist. Safe people are compassionate people.


I’m not really thinking about Christmas much right now. There are too many pieces of life still unresolved this December. I can’t see very far ahead–this is driving in fog with my low beams on, not knowing when I’ll arrive where I’m going. But I’m still walking forward, or trying to.

This past weekend I spent most of my free time revisiting my undergrad thesis on Derrida and T.S. Eliot, immersing myself in that headspace after years of absence. I’d forgotten about pieces of it, absorbed them so thoroughly into my thinking that the origin of the parts had become obscured. One of these pieces that became so much a part of me is Derrida’s concept of à venir.

I spent last year’s Advent season meditating on the idea of it being a penitential season. It was for me, a time of preparing the self, stripping the distractions, waiting for the arrival of the Christ child. It was a time of soul-stripping, and I had no idea how few things I’d be holding in my hands by the time it was over. The year before was much the same — feeling pressed in, pressed down, holding my breath as I let things go and slapping God’s name on it to make sense of it all.

There is so much brokenness. My brain is on overdrive, filled with stories. The pain of the people dear to me is a loud white noise in my head, keeping me awake at night. The idea of Advent being a time for introspection and penitence is still true, but it doesn’t fit this year. This year I can’t “God’s sovereignty!” myself out of the questions I carry, all balled up in my pocket.

Revisiting that thesis for my applications made me laugh. I’d tied up the loose ends in pretty bows at the end — I had succumbed to the internal pressure of working with Derrida at a Presbyterian college, leaned a little too hard on the Christianity-fixes-this-tension conclusion. Derrida didn’t go for answers, for tidy bows. That’s the whole point — he saw how uncontainable language and ideas and belief were, and talked about it. And the moderns couldn’t cope with the tension he embraced.

So now to explain: à venir. It’s Derrida’s term used to describe the space of tension between the idea of a thing and it’s actualization. It’s that time when you’ve had an idea for a recipe, pulled together your ingredients, and you’re waiting for the timer to take it out of the oven and see if it turned out how you hoped. It’s the moment between when you, a poet, have an idea for a poem and sit down to write, and when you give it to someone to read for the first time, and wait breathlessly to see their face and know whether or not you succeeded at yanking them into that first moment when inspiration struck.

À venir means “to come” or “forthcoming.” It’s the same root from which we name this time of year Advent. And Advent is about this, the tension of anticipation. That which is to come — we have no idea what it will turn out to be like, but we know it’s coming, and we wait, fully present.

I chuckle, because it seems that I’m not alone in feeling the anticipatory discomfort this year. Cara blogged yesterday, saying

I’m sitting here, in the present tense, realizing that I’m breathing somewhere between has come and will come, between Advent and Adventure.

Sarah wrote on it, too.

Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent. Now that I have fallen in step with the man from Nazareth, I want to walk where he walked into the brokenness of this life, and see the Kingdom of God at hand. Now that I have learned how much I need him, I have learned to watch for him.

Advent is perhaps for the ones who know longing.

Two parts of the same à venir tension: adventure and longing; hope and grief. Advent, the penitential season. Advent, the season of tidings of great joy. Advent, the birth of the one who is to die. Advent, the birth of the King who will reign forever.

Advent, the messy season of the soul at its most human and most holy — when we don’t know what’s coming, we don’t know what we need, and we’re waiting and getting so antsy for something to change that we half don’t care what it is.

Maybe that’s why all my favorite Advent hymns are in minor keys? It’s a season of being unresolved. We may have a great hope, a great faith, a Messiah we watch for, but the beauty of à venir is in the surprise.

I like to hope I’m a lot more open to the surprises that may come this season, after a year full of them. But I know I’m not, not really. I love creature comforts, tidy endings, white hat/black hat thinking. Yet, that’s just not real. Real is nuance. Real is discomfort AND extravagant beauty mashed together in the same day. Real is unresolved melodies that are left unfinished.

And real is our very human, very beautiful innate ability to hope in the midst of crap. Even if it’s just the anticipation of sleep at the end of the day, or a warm cup of coffee in the morning, or a hot shower when it’s all over. We hope. That’s what we do. We look forward to things. And that’s the heart of being human, the heart of à venir. It’s the unquenchable spirit of Advent, and ideally of Christianity. Hope without ceasing, right? A God who cares, intimately. A God who took on flesh, who took on our tension and our humanity, our existence of nobility of soul and thought plus farting and tears.

Some days I don’t know if I believe, or if I do, what I know. But it’s human to hope, and it’s Christian to hope, and the messianic impulse of expectancy is strong. Things can get better. Things should get better. Love is real, and it is healing. The Incarnation is mystifying and surprising and good and I expect no less of final redemption. I don’t want a bow. I want a minor chord, I want the slice of surprise of the unresolved, the unknown. It’s more true.

À venir. God is with us. And it’s uncomfortable and surprising.


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source: pinterest

“I just don’t feel heard,” she texted me.

“I know, but I hear you,” I thought.

***

Awkward silence was the norm in the kitchen at one place I worked. You’d slip in for coffee or water or your lunch, and shuffle around each other with cringing politeness and fumble for what you came for in silence.

The old fellow with dancer’s feet and bright eyes walked in with me, silent. Then: “Did you see that new zombie movie?”

I hadn’t, but he saw me. We talked. I wasn’t invisible that time.

***

She was eloquent, but no one responded. She voiced her frustration, but she still felt marginalized. Two words on the screen made all the difference. “I’m listening,” she read.

***

We all struggle with this, I think. It’s human to want to be heard. “Hey anybody!” says a kid, and we all know what he means. Hear me. See me. Feel this with me.

Being unheard and feeling alone is the most miserable place. I think maybe Lewis was right in The Great Divorce that hell is a state of mind that creates the most ultimate isolation.

It’s what motivates us to blog, to tweet, to commune, to write, to gather. Tell me I’m not alone. Tell me you hear me. 

When I had been at my old SGM church for about nine years — after serving in Sunday school since I was 14, after raising $4,000 in bake sales ever Sunday for a year for the church building fund, after my dad played on the worship team, after attending every Sunday service and every weekly care group, while the church grew from about 200 people to 800 or so — I was in a van going to a church conference and the pastor was driving. He turned to me, and called me “Hannah” with a short a. (It’s pronounced with a long a, like in “father”). “So, Hannah,” he said, “how are you?”

And I cringed, and for the first time I realized: when I left town for my freshman year later that summer, I was going to be glad to leave that church. I’d poured my life into it, and they had no idea who I was. I was invisible. He didn’t even know my name.

That isn’t what the church is supposed to be like. The image of the church as the Body of Christ makes me think that the church is supposed to be a place where we are intimately known, heard, seen, and cared for. When one part of the Body suffers, we all suffer. We rejoice and grieve and grow and hurt and heal together.

***

After that, I was set adrift for a while, but everywhere I went that wasn’t KingsWay, I was met with more pastoral care and kindness than I’d ever experienced. Even those places where the theology was twisted and bordered on spiritual abuse, and I maybe wasn’t really heard, they tried to care for me better than I’d ever experienced before.

I left school and moved to a new area and got married, and promptly found myself in the tailspin of a faith and identity crisis. The church we were at had abstracted faith in such a way that there was no life there, and I spent our Sundays there evading detection by volunteering in the nursery or reading Harry Potter in the church office or outside in the sun.

And then. This year. This bizarre year. Where so much change has left me feeling exhausted and excited and cracked open and nomadic.

I find myself receiving the kindness of near-strangers at church, because they know. My pastor sits across from me in his office and I’ve only scratched the surface in my storytelling and he stops me and asks me about his preaching, how he can make sure he’s being intersectional and show how much he cares by not marginalizing people. And asks for book recommendations. And then prays for me and prays for unspoken things that he heard in between the lines of what I told him, and I sit there and choke back tears because I have been heard.

***

I wake up to an email from a girl who used to be afraid in her church, who’s now landed in a new church and has found love and isn’t afraid to show her face to God there anymore, and in all this crazy  mess of change I’m forced to be still for a minute there and give thanks.

Because this, this, this beautiful listening-talking-praying-holding-each-other-up mess? This is what the church is supposed to be. It’s not a unicorn fairytale wishful thing. It’s magic, sure, but a real kind.


Two weeks ago, I was walking along the water in Hallandale Beach, FL, talking with my childhood best friend, Jori. We were comparing notes on our childhoods — an uncanny thing if you’re like me and negative memories get locked up in the subconscious. Both of our families were large, creative, unruly homeschoolers, loving to read and play games and create imaginary worlds and art. We spent a lot of time in each other’s homes, as our parents would swap sets of kids for weekend getaways (you watch ours for our anniversary and we’ll do the same for yours!) and were close in that way where you stop pretending to have it all together when these people are around. My mom made them do chores at our house, and her mom had us babysit for her grocery shopping outings when we were at hers, and so forth.

We were both the oldest, and both introverts in loud groups of people living in tight quarters. Jori and I were both really good at hiding out to read in peace, and really good at “having it all together” to keep the family drama to a minimum and set good examples for the younger kids.

There was a blog, then a book, that influenced me a lot during these years. The premise was that young people could be responsible and mature if they were expected to be responsible and mature. That teenage-dom was a cultural farce to promote immaturity. That 15 year olds could be adults if they tried.

These ideas went hand-in-glove with the way my parents raised me and what our church expected of Jori and me. Godly teenagers don’t give in to hormones and emotions and set an example for their peers and take their faith and life seriously. Good children respect their parents and are responsible and mature and don’t set bad examples for their siblings.

I was always complimented by the moms of my friends and my parents’ friends for how mature and responsible and articulate I was. I did all the right things. I helped out with my family, I was the good kid. If I was upset about something, I talked about it with my parents. If I was really bad, I broke curfew by 20 minutes coming home from a babysitting job or a church function.

When I went to college, I made myself really obnoxious to my peers by being a snob about pop culture and refusing to do spontaneous, sophomoric stunts (like pull all-nighters or drink energy drinks or go to Niagara Falls for the weekend instead of writing a paper). I was painfully responsible. And painfully awkward and naive.

My friend Ashleigh posted yesterday on this, and her comments about getting married young were so similar to my own experience:

When John and I were engaged and I was approaching both my high school graduation and my wedding day, people who asked about my post-graduation plans would furrow their brows and cluck their tongues, warning against getting married “before I knew who I was.” My eyes would roll into my skull while I sweetly recited a sentence or two about growing up together, being confident in my own being, not seeing the need to wait until I reached an arbitrary milestone and suddenly knew who I was before I married this guy.

Naivety is both endearing and infuriating.

At 17 and still even at 23, I believed I was above the process, I could avoid the messy years by simply not living them, jumping ahead, becoming the older version of myself sooner rather than later.

But 25 crept up on a muddy, bruised version of me. Hair flying, face streaked with tears and sweat, grieving the security I had taken for granted, I remembered the line from that Anne Hathaway movie.

Apparently everyone is a little bit lost at 25.

I’m discovering something: there were a LOT of us who grew up this way in the conservative homeschool culture. We were the high school poster kids for successful parenting in the Christian world. We did all the right things we were supposed to do, and then we set out to be successful adults for real, only this time we were entering normal society to do it.

Life doesn’t really go the way you expect it to go. And humans are not machines you can program to walk the straight and narrow all their days by restrictions and moral instruction.

People are messy creatures, who love and feel and breathe and weep and rage. I don’t think the system accounted for us loving and grieving and asking hard questions. Growing up is hard and messy and a messy season or three will happen to you, no matter how hard you try to have it all together and do all the right things.

Jori and I were talking about the people we knew from our childhoods, about how it seems now like it’s just a waiting game to see when people from that legalistic subculture will hit their breaking point and let go and be messy. Even adult women, moms of many years with grandchildren and grey hair are bound to go through this — if they never let go and learned to be comfortable with themselves and with not knowing all the answers to deep questions.

The saddest stories, though, are those who fight it, who hide their struggles and isolate themselves to keep up the facade of idyllic Christian homeschoolerdom. It’s not worth the depression and loneliness and anxiety.

I feel like I aged backwards — like I went from age 12 to being 30-something and mature, to finally letting myself free from all these expectations and let myself be messy and explore and enjoy life, and now I’m back at an age that’s closer to my real one, loving life and learning lots and meeting people and experiencing things. Embracing the questions and the process of stretching and growing. It’s been so good for me, and all of those on the “other side” who talk to me about this backwards growing up and the freedom they’ve found have similar stories. The healing and wholeness and delight in being yourself, loving yourself where you’re at, and not performing for your church or homeschool community.

If you’re on the brink of this, if you feel yourself losing control of things, needing rest and grace and acceptance, let go? God’s love for you is not based on doing hard things or being the right person or having it all together. In fact, it’s going to be harder for you to accept God’s unconditional, boundless, intimate love for you if you can’t accept yourself where you’re at, not where you think you should be.

Breathe into the stretch. It’s okay. You’re held.


This is for all of those who are writing for tomorrow or wrote for yesterday’s Spiritual Abuse Awareness synchroblog, who are fighting through the old hurts and lies to tell their stories.

Take some time tonight to read Caleigh’s wonderful post here on how she practices self-care, and make sure you’re being gentle with yourself tonight. Thanks, Caleigh!

***

My hands have been quiet since writing my post for Elora’s Rebel Diaries yesterday. I didn’t expect to be so emotionally and mentally wiped out since writing it, but I should have expected it due to the very nature of what I revealed. I have recognized a pattern with my writing, and I know I am not alone in this pattern. It’s this pattern of being mentally numb after writing something big, something that you have never shared before, something that shows everyone the tears you have cried.I haven’t been able to write anything since writing that post, and it’s been like a piece of me has been broken and I have yet to put it back together.

When it comes to writing difficult stories, there is almost always a crash of emotional and mental stability upon finishing the story. It’s like you were holding your breath, tiptoeing around a fragile pyramid of champagne glasses, and as soon as you write that last paragraph, sentence, word, you let your breath out and the whole pile comes crashing down. It’s this sometimes overwhelming feeling of “I did good” and with a quickly following sense of “my emotions and heart are bleeding.” It’s this release of an unstoppable flood, and the only thing to do is to let the waters run their course. Writing about your story is difficult for anyone, but it is especially difficult for those of us who have faced hell. This written retelling is not the same as speaking a story. It is a permanent, almost etched in stone, kind of deal, and that’s scary to a lot of us. We can’t take back what we write, and in the age of internet, once something is out there, it is very difficult for it to be taken back.

There is this fear of being laughed at, not being taken seriously, scorned, and being told you are just being bitter and aren’t forgiving your oppressor. It is a fear of being vulnerable, letting the world see the cracks and brokenness in your heart of hearts. It’s giving the world the keys to hurt you deeply by sharing what has already hurt you. There is an openness and willingness to be hurt in the sharing of your life’s story and the tears it often accompanies.

I am still learning to feel the pain of my past. I subconsciously tell myself that I don’t feel anything over this, it’s just the facts, it’s just my story. But it isn’t. It has never been JUST the facts, my story, or anything. It is horrific, it is painful, it is heart wrenching. It makes others cry, and it makes me cry, when I am honest with myself and am willing to feel the heart wrenching, breath taking pain all over again. I have beaten myself up in the past for needing to break away from people because I felt overwhelmed, or needing to sleep in because I had had a bad night, or for losing myself in a favorite book because reality was too much for me. I felt like I was being weak, I wasn’t strong enough and that no one would be proud of me. I felt like I was despicable and disgusting for needing space from my family, my siblings, my friends, and I felt like I wasn’t being a good daughter. I have felt severely guilty for calling in sick to work when I know that I can’t physically function that day, or when I had to call off a social get together because I didn’t have the mental energy to interact with anyone.

Self care is still something I am not always good at, and I still push myself too far. I remember feeling confused the first time a friend told me it was okay to need space, that that was healthy, and recommended. How was it okay to let people see how broken and weary I was and still am? I had taught myself how to be rigid emotionally, and to guard very closely the beatings my heart took. Learning to let that control go and admitting that spending the day catching up on an almost entire season of Psych, or Bones, is okay is still very hard for me. Letting myself sleep in till 10 because of still feeling the emotional withdrawal of a hard post is okay, but I still kick myself over it. Letting go and being the broken vessel I am is important because through that letting go, I am healing. Through eating pretzels dipped in Nutella, through the watching of episodes of favorite TV shows, through the reading of favorite books, self care gives a gentle place where healing can start.

Self care for each person can, and should, look very different. Each person has a very unique way of healing, and that is the beauty of all of our stories. We are all so individual, that it makes so much sense that self care is individual as well. I often look for the thing that makes me feel most safe, the thing that I can rely on and I know it is not going to surprise me. That is the thing that I will look to for when I need self care. For me, as I have listed a little bit already, self care looks like drawing back from people except for my husband and one or two of my closest friends. It looks like watching my favorite TV shows on Netflix, and in case no one has figured it out yet, I love crime shows. Crime shows make me think in the way that is very natural for me; logically and factually. I don’t have to deal with emotions, and that helps alot. Self care also looks like giving my brain a break. Whether that looks like a romance novel that is cheesy, happy, and short, reading through Ender’s Game in a day, or taking a week to fly through Harry Potter, losing myself in those books, it’s something that I know I can count on and that it will always be the same no matter how many times I read it. I don’t have to wait to find out the outcome, I can go straight to the last page, and it will never be something I have to rethink, or be surprised over.

What self care looks like for you will probably be different than what it looks like for me. Guess what though, that is very much okay.  I have been wanting to write for this week’s synchroblogs, but through these guest posts, this is my way of contributing when I can’t find words for anything else. Take care of yourself, run that bubble bath, light those candles, crack the cover of your favorite book, pull out those paint brushes. Self care is very important for everyone, especially for those who have been hurt.

Breathe, relax, cry, and heal.

 ***

 

Caleigh blogs over at The Profligate Truth.


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When someone is angry about bad things that happened to them in their church, their anger is not easily accepted by those who have only had positive experiences with Christianity. Before a survivor of spiritual abuse can tell his story, it has to be worked over, combed through, and made palatable for the intended audience. And even then, we don’t always get heard or believed. These stories of pain don’t seem like they’re what the Church should be like, so it’s simpler to ignore the stories when you can’t relate to them.

Even here on my blog, I find myself prefacing my story here for you, because I see the disconnect and I see hurt and misunderstanding on both sides. And all I want to do is to speak on the behalf of those like me who have been hurt, to those in the Church who haven’t been hurt. I want to offer you an invitation to my story, my experience in a church with good intentions where abuse flourished. Walk with me? It’s not going to be easy and yes, you may realize things about your church that you don’t want to know.

But when we’re dealing with stories of children who were molested in churches, stories where their abusers were allowed to remain free because good Christian people didn’t want to believe that something like that could ever happen at our church? I think it’s now a moral obligation for us as a Church to take a long look at what we’re dealing with and where it came from, even if it is uncomfortable and heart-rending, in order to protect those coming after us.

We are the grandchildren of the suburban moderns and their scientific, reasonable placelessness. We are the children of the Jesus Movement, descended from those who craved life and connection and healing from the confines of the just-so church and the hypocrisy therein. We are the Quiverfull daughters, the homeschool graduates, the creation science crusaders, the apologetics champions, the Jesus Freaks, the summer missionaries, the WWJD generation.

And a lot of us have crippling pain that makes us skittish around traditional church, nervous about trusting religious authorities or even just a mom leading a Bible study. We love Jesus so much, or we want to if only we knew how. We see lots of irrational arguments and a lot of fear-based ideas that stunted us, but we’ve grown around the boulders our parents and pastors laid in our way and we’re seeing the sky and the sun and the vast expanse of love offered by the Jesus of the gospels, and we have so, so many questions. And we want straight answers, because love is worth living out with intellectual integrity.

So please, listen to our stories. Lay aside your concerns about our bitterness or the status of our faith, and just hear us out. There’s more to our stories than you know, and we want to invite you into our safe spaces to talk about what we’ve been through and seen.

This coming week, survivors of spiritual abuse are going to link up and talk about what spiritual abuse looks like and why it happens despite good intentions.

Day 1 (March 18th) will be hosted by me, here at Wine & Marble.

Day 1: Your story & language/culture of spiritual abuse

What is your story? Share your experience — showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive? Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?

Day 2 (March 20) will be hosted by Joy Bennet of Joy In This Journey

Day 2: Your journey and consequences of spiritual abuse

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

Day 3 (March 22) will be hosted by Shaney Irene

Day 3: What others should know & moving forward

Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

Optional, for those who didn’t do the first two days: What did you learn? What changes will you encourage in your churches, etc. in order to prevent spiritual abuse and provide healing?

and.

Every day next week, Elora Nicole will be hosting anonymous survivor stories on her blog as part of her Rebel Diaries project (submit these by March 16 to participate) for those who aren’t free to speak up publicly yet.

In addition, Rachel Held Evans is going to be highlighting spiritual abuse on her blog and there’s bound to be some fantastic discussion going down in her comments sections.

So, come, sit at the table. Lay down your assumptions and lay down your fears. This is the house of the King and we’re calling a truce. Tell your stories.

Hashtag for Twitter discussion is  #ChurchSurvivors


I was sitting with her, pouring out some woeful stories close to my heart. And when I finished, she chuckled and said this:

“Weak men are intimidated by strong women. They don’t know what to do with them. They’re afraid of them.”

And I’ve been mulling that over for two weeks.

I call myself a feminist for these reasons. I have been hurt by the church and her male leaders. But I’ve always had a core of unshakable certainty in my own worth, that I have things to say and they are good things worth saying. And I don’t hate men or think that they’re a bunch of scumbags or idiots. I have some wonderful, caring, smart, thoughtful men in my life. They’re showing me good things about what the full potential of the body of Christ can be at its best.

But I think there’s a lot of truth in that quote.

You could find a whole host of famous historical examples of this, but my thoughts went to the strong women in my life.

Photo from Alfred T. Palmer,US Office of War Information during World War II

My great-grandmother, who gave us our blue eyes, lived in Chicago during WWII, deaf and smart and beautiful. One day she trapped her supervisor in the hold of the ship she was building (she said she welded him into a corner) when he tried to molest her. She got his boss and the whole crew to see her innocence and see justice done. When she finished telling me that story, she chuckled to herself, and added “he was afraid of me and showed respect, after that.”

rita

My grandmother, her daughter, who was smart and beautiful like her, was tricked into marrying her first husband when he told her that the doctor’s office had mailed her pregnancy test results to him as planned, and that the result was positive (it wasn’t). But before that, she had turned down three other fellows to pursue her dreams of college and a career. She even chucked an engagement ring in a pond when her beau suggested she stay home and have babies instead of going to college to get her English degree. But then she got stuck, thinking she was pregnant.

When she actually was pregnant and a mother, later, she worked in an office to put her husband through his Ph.D. program and made herself more professional in a Northern workplace by losing her Texan accent. And then she put herself through a masters program to get her teaching degree, with her little ones quietly next to her in the back of the classroom each evening.

Later, she taught me a passion for good writing and edited my childish short stories and middle school attempts at writing a novel. When I went to college, I became an English major, just like her. When she died, I got her National Honor Society pin. I keep it pinned to the inside of my wallet. I am her kin.

My mother isn’t her daughter, but she is yet another smart and beautiful woman. She graduated from the University of San Francisco with her RN and a 4.0, and then worked night shift for a year in the intensive care unit in a SF hospital, caring for patients suffering after receiving liver transplants. When she quit her job, it was to give life to and homeschool nine energetic, stubborn, fiercely creative children. She threw herself into this role with passion, but never lost herself. Her love of learning and her independent drive to nurture creative talents has been a stable and beautiful part of my family culture from day one. I am proud to be her daughter.

And my New England grandmother, her mother. A more reserved woman, but her self-sustained contentment and independence in her long years of widowhood have fascinated me. She sings in the church choir, she takes athletic classes, she reads voraciously and has fine taste in music, literature, musicals, and food. She has quiet but firm opinions on how things should be, but bites her tongue and lets people make their own mistakes. I’m realizing that under her reserve is a depth of soul and intellect that I under-appreciated previously.

This is my heritage: strong women who know what they want and why. And they know how to get it, how to live well, and how to preserve their dignity and integrity.

And I want to be like that. And maybe I intimidate people sometimes, but I don’t need to worry about it, I suppose, if I’m making sure to walk in the little way as much as I can. I am also a strong woman.


When I posted about Dannah Gresh’s concerning (and poorly composed) chapel sermon at Grove City College on Tuesday, I figured I wouldn’t get much response.

I guess I assumed that most Christian leaders are like those I grew up with — ensconced in their own success and emotionally unmovable when criticized rightly. Pastors and teachers I encountered along my path were usually those who would listen gravely to what you had to say, and then effectively smile and pat you on the head with some platitude or smooth response, and never really hear your hurt or perspective. There was no empathy or genuine concern about how they affected people. Usually, what got their attention was the threat of bad PR, not a hurting individual.

Since then, I’ve learned that there are good pastors. The pastor who cared for me during my last two years of college, the pastor who’s been praying for me as I work through hard personal things right now, the professors at Grove City who have a ministerial relationship with the students under their watch. These individuals (with their relatively small spheres of influence) have given me a lot of hope, personally.

But when it came to those with big public ministries, I retained my cynicism. From where I sit, I have observed that fame does things to people. It looks like it’s easy to be wrapped up in the numbers and the tour and the new topic or book and forget that there are real people receiving and engaging with your message. That people are sometimes basing their whole spiritual life on your ideas and what you say deeply impacts the decisions they make and the way they live. I think it’s for this reason that James reminded his audience that teachers will be judged more strictly.

So. When I posted yesterday, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certaintly didn’t expect Dannah Gresh to personally respond. And I never expected her to respond with gentleness and apology, with an attitude of “please let me make this right.” But I thought I’d at least make sure she was aware we were talking about her message, and I posed this on her Facebook fan page:

FB dannah gresh

I didn’t think she’d respond. I sort of half-assumed she’d even delete the post. But she didn’t delete it and she did respond to me.

And, oh my. This gives me hope for the Church in new ways. Here’s her comment (she posted the same comment on Shaney’s piece, though not on Dianna’s):

dannah gresh comment

Not long after the comment went up, I received an email from her with an invitation to talk over the phone and continue the conversation. We’ve corresponded briefly, and she’s for real. This isn’t a stop-the-bad-blogs-from-talking-about-me move. This is a real, heartfelt desire to avoid the rape culture elements of the Christian purity movement and a sincere attempt at engaging us here.

I’m excited to see where this goes. She still hasn’t addressed Dianna’s concerns about her use of the word Hebrew word “ahava” (which, to be fair, I’m not educated enough to seriously address the nuances of the translation) and the rape of Dinah, but I’m hopeful that she will.

The purity movement is so well-intended, but it’s strayed into legalism and modesty checklists and straw man caricatures of feminism and blaming the victim. This is not okay. But perhaps there’s some hope for addressing these issues, after all?

***

A further clarification for those who felt like her story was certainly hyperbole (which it did turn out to be) and that those criticizing her sermon were “nitpicking” — words mean things. You can’t excuse someone’s careless words on assuming the best about their intent when they have such a big public presence. If she said it in a public forum, it’s up for public discussion, and it’s her job to communicate clearly to avoid sending the wrong message about abuse.

I know we’re all Christians and it’s a good impulse to try to be nice about things, but that’s not appropriate in situations like these, where she was speaking to (guessimating based on my years attending GCC chapels) an audience of 500-700 students and is regularly publishing mainstream Christian books and leads a multi-level ministry to young people of various ages and helps run a blog about  these topics. Statistically speaking, there are those who were in her audience on Tuesday morning who are currently in abusive relationships or have experienced abuse, and without her clarification, the message they heard was “don’t be needy,” “don’t fall in love,” and “being thrown against a wall is okay if your partner really loves you.”

This is why her clarification and engagement with our concerns is so, so important and encouraging.

Thank you, Dannah. Let’s keep talking.


I overslept this morning. I’d set an alarm for 5:15 am so I could make the 7am Ash Wednesday service at my church in the city. But I woke up at my usual time instead.

Sometimes waking up is the hardest thing for me, especially when my day-to-day life is in upheaval and so much is uncertain.

Someone died today, jumping in front of a train on the metro. Our conductor announced it and delays on the other lines. Death is close to us.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

Ash Wednesday is a new thing to me. I’ve appreciated it from a distance more years than I’ve observed it. The ashes, the reminders of mortality, the abstinence for promise of greater celebration at Easter — all these things speak deeply to me.

I am fragile. I am scattered. I feel overwhelmed by everyday stuff right now. Things like dinner plans are just too much to figure out sometimes. I feel tense and weary. I’ve never been so aware of the fragility of life, promises, health, love.

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

There are some things I’m just trying to remember. Slippery new things that I keep bumping into in the dark ways of habits not yet unlearned. The prayers on Sunday mean so much to me, their lines and boundaries hold me together.

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

On Sundays I go to church for the children I teach before the service. The commitment and the simplicity of that world is a gap of light through which I can turn and return to the sanctuary. To kneeling and prayers, to stillness, to vulnerability and blessings, to receive and be told again of wholeness, of love that doesn’t change.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Ashes and oil, reality and promises. Bread and wine. “Put your hand in my side.” 

I keep hearing Eliot’s other poem in my head. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We fuss and fluster and make plans and deadlines and listen to our music and talk and Tweet and stalk each other on Facebook.

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

I’ve been living a personal sort of Lent since Advent. Sara’s stuck in my head again. “Everything in me is tightening.”

So I think I’m going to be trying some more positive disciplines this time around, instead of abstaining. I’m learning about boundaries and trying to live in a way that’s healthy. I’m working on being aware of my limits and creating a balance that is not burdensome. Things like rising promptly when my alarm goes off, practicing mandolin, writing every day, doing yoga every day, drinking enough water, giving myself mental space to breathe.

These are my small attempts at creating wholeness and accepting limits.

I am just dust. I have breath in me. I need to care about that.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover

I read Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” twice a year. It’s slowly sinking into my bones.

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

This, today, me. This is my reality. It’s what I can do. Here is my limit. That’s okay.

I’m learning to breathe more slowly and remembering to walk with less frenzy. This is okay.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.


My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.