When one of my friends starts dating someone exclusively, I like to ask questions, to capture in my head not just the story of how he asked her out or how she warmed up to him, but to understand the essence, the thingness of what makes their new relationship attractive to them. What do you like about him? Why’d you say yes to a date? What about her makes you want to spend time with her?

I’m a collector of stories, of people, of ideas. I soak it up. There is so much to the world and I want to understand things.

I get some really interesting answers to these questions. And I’ve given some really interesting answers to friends asking me similar questions, too.

One thing that gets me a lot, that makes me feel a little hollow inside and worry, is when I hear a man or a woman bragging about their significant other unduly much, and when I hear him or her saying things like “s/he’s just so good to me!” whenever he or she talks about the person they’re seeing. 

I promise I’m not just being curmudgeonly. I promise I’m not thinking of anyone in particular. And I promise, that what I’m about to say is not a universal thing. But I have noticed some trends, and I think it’s worth talking about it.

You see, when you’ve grown up in the conservative Christian world and hope to save your first everythings for your forever other, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. To not get your heart broken. To push through hard things as a couple and make it work, dammit. I have good taste in men, really. He just needs to grow up. She’s not always like that–she’s really good to me! Just trust me. I’ve got this. We’re happy. 

Once you have this pressure on yourself from yourself (maybe you got to third base with this guy and you are ashamed and just want to marry him so it can be okay and romantic, instead of Potential Mistake And Regret For Lost Purity, or maybe you’re just afraid of heartbreak and being alone), it sets you up for codependence. Or it can, if both parties are subscribers to this way of thinking.

Codependence thrives on fear of loss. This is my realization of the week. Codependence has to have the potential absence or loss of the enabler, the person you’re dependent upon for emotional stability. You don’t notice your codependency until the security blanket is threatened. Once it’s threatened, you feel manic, naked, offended, and you may become possessive and jealous, or you may become cold and aloof and self-sustained, passive-aggressively determined to make the other miss you and make them come back to you.

I’ve played both sides of this game. I’ve seen it modeled for me over and over when I was growing up, and I’ve been slowly loosening the claw-grips of these emotional habits from my head and heart. Facing my deepest fears this year, against my will, was my personal Eustace-the-dragon moment. I couldn’t pick off scabs of codependency thoroughly, because I was afraid of how much it would hurt, and when my ex ripped himself out of my life in a matter of days, I was suddenly on the other side and codependency (what little was left after trying hard to unlearn it for two years) wasn’t something I could wean myself away from anymore. I had to quit, cold turkey.

And then I realized something. Yes, I loved him. Had been in love, still am working out the fact that you never really stop loving someone even after it’s over, and it was real, for me at least. But it was also childish in a lot of ways, and there were things that I had grown accustomed to about our relationship that were cramping me in unhealthy ways. Not in the sense of “he cramps my style,” because he didn’t. But there were things about who I am that literally had no place in our relationship. Things that defined me for ages before I met him, things that were always going to be part of me, but things I neglected to “fit” him better. I don’t mean this in a cheesy-finding-myself-better-off-without-him way at all.

What I mean is: I wasn’t done growing up when I met him, and started dating him, and did the Hard Thing and Made Things Work and sacrificed a ton to be there for him and be the right sort of girl for him. Initially this was smothering, and we talked it out and I learned how to not trip-fall-run all over myself to bring all these subservient and codependent emotional habits I thought were good things that would make him feel loved and make us closer. Our relationship had some really good times, and the best of these were when I was taking care of myself, not trying too hard to be there and be everything he needed, and when we treated each other like equals, with respect. When our relationship was at it’s healthiest, there was no sense of possession/possessing/being possessed by the other. There was give and take, but we were most whole and united because we were individuals being open with each other, as individuals. Without being afraid of loss of companionship or love, or autonomy and personal voice. But the thing is, it never lasted. It wasn’t safe like that most of the time, for either of us, for lots and lots of complex reasons.

And so, I see in my own story, that sweet teenage, godly girl bragging on her first boyfriend, “he’s so good to me! he got me this thing I needed when I had a rough day!” and I hear that young Christian guy talking about how wonderful his sweetheart is in all the right ways and how he never wants to lose her, and I feel sad. What if their story is like mine? What if they’re afraid of getting it wrong, so they force the first one to be the right one? What if they settle for someone who’s good, because they don’t know what they’re missing because they’re afraid to lose what they have?

This agonizing existential question is what my ex chased after, leaving me behind. It’s a real question, and it’s worth asking. But being afraid to ask it when you’re dating, when you’re engaged, when you’re so infatuated with the newness of everything sexual–this is the coward’s path. You feel the stakes are so high because they are emotionally so high.

But the mean little secret is: breakups suck, but you’ll live and it gets better. Being afraid of these questions isn’t worth stuffing them deep down in the back of your internal emotional landscape until they become so pressingly real and you can’t ignore them anymore, but you’re married and it’s too late.

Ask the hard questions. Do the harder thing. Don’t force it to work; face your fears instead. Don’t keep dating her because she’s a godly Christian girl and fits the list. Don’t say yes to him because he’s good enough and you don’t have any other options.

Being single isn’t that awful of a fate. Being married isn’t a heaven that will erase all your tensions and private lonelinesses.

[and please, if you’re single and lonely and reading this, don’t take this too much to heart. you’re held in Love’s arms. don’t tell me i wouldn’t say this if i knew how lonely it is to be single and face those hard things on your own. i know. we’ll be okay.]

 

 

 


Yesterday the Feminisms Fest was all about why we’re feminists. Today’s question is: why does it matter?

I read Emily Joy Allison’s post this morning about how feminism matters to her because of her younger sisters, and chuckled, because she basically wrote my post for me. But there’s a difference in our stories, and I’m still going to write my own post.

The reason feminism matters (okay, ONE reason it matters — I have a lot of other reasons) to me is because when I was introduced to the ideas of feminism, I was given the language to talk about the cognitive dissonance I was seeing in the circles I grew up in (homeschool, conservative, Christian), what I now loosely call “Christian patriarchy.”

Having the language to talk about a problem or a pain or a fear makes that issue become manageable in new ways. Naming your pain gives you power to confront the source. [I want to talk about this more! But that’s another post.]

So when I learned terms like “slut shaming” and “objectification” and “invalidation” and “privilege,” I suddenly found myself able to describe why strict modesty teachings and checklists and surveys made me uncomfortable, why I didn’t want to make a big deal about whether or not I had my first kiss at the altar, why I would be furious if an authority figure didn’t want to listen to me because I was emotional, why it bothered me so much that white Republicans were so vested in the “pro-life movement” (e.g. why did they care so much about women’s reproductive rights?). The language of feminism gave me a voice.

And it gave me a voice after these issues became intensely personal. When I got married, it was in the midst of great tension with my father. He resented that we didn’t ask his permission to kiss for the first time, wanted to be able to tell me it was unwise to marry someone with student loans and have me respond with deference to his preferences, and told my ex that when we got married he would be transferring his authority over me to my ex.  He was upset that we didn’t submit to his advice but instead consulted our consciences and the Bible and decided that we were okay with agreeing to disagree on certain “grey area” issues — to him, these were not grey areas. They were black and white areas of Christian conviction and to disagree with him was to “reject” his authority and  set a bad example for my younger siblings, leaving him open to the risk of family insurrection if my siblings decided to follow my path and make the same choices I did.

[Why he believes these things is his own story and I disagree with the results but with respect to the origins, as he has valid cause to act the way he did. But it’s an example of this sort of thinking, which is why I tell you about it.]

After all that happened, after I got married in spite of his objections [which, for the voyeurs wondering, had nothing to do with where we’re at now], I followed the path of my feminist explorations, moving from literary theory into contemporary feminist dialog. And oh, man. It set me on fire.

Now, I knew how to talk about my story. Now I understood why things hurt me or bothered me. Now I saw why I had felt so helpless to respond well when I didn’t have the vocabulary to form my ideas and responses. And having the language to talk about these things gave me the ability to start blogging here, start talking to people about what had happened, and start identifying systemic issues in conservative Christian culture which perpetuate unintentional invalidation and marginalization of women.

I see a lot of women and girls living in this world still, and while it makes me sad that they’re still “stuck” in Christian patriarchy and often defend it with eloquence and sincerity, I realize that (with the risk of sounding arrogant, so forgive me) most of them don’t see the system (they haven’t transgressed it, so they don’t know it’s limiting them) and most of them don’t have the words to describe it, even if they sense a disconnect between ideas (like: be a critical thinker! but submit to the authority of your father/pastor/husband’s teachings; we respect and cherish women! but they have to adhere to complementarian gender roles to be godly women). They can’t talk about it if they don’t have the words for it. 

Which is why, when I see stories like the one about the girl who finally left the Westboro Baptist Church, I cheer. The language of feminism indirectly made this possible. She got out because she had the language to start asking questions. And that is the key to freedom.

But without the language to discuss things, to ask questions, these women in Christian patriarchy are left with expressing how lonely they are waiting at home for Prince Charming, how exhausting it is to be 25 with 5 kids under 6, how scary sex is as a newlywed (without any sex ed), how they wished their dads would be more involved or loving, somehow (but they can’t explain it), how depressed they are at the thought of just being another stay-at-home mom and how they feel compelled to start a home business or something so they don’t get bored when it inevitably happens.

Without the language, these women amaze me in their ability to endure difficulty, to be creative and celebrate individuality within their limited spheres, with their capacity to love despite being disrespected and not listened to. It’s incredible and it’s a beautiful testimony to the power of the soul to withstand much trouble.

But, should they have to? Is it necessary? Is it worth it? I’d argue that it isn’t, and I get so, so excited when we start talking and I see them trying out new words and new ideas and learning to talk about their experiences and gain confidence to ask questions. Seeing the beauty of a soul being restored to health after years in a barren land is the most wonderful thing, and feminism’s language has shown itself to be the key to this healing over and over again.

So, feminism matters to me because of my sisters and my mom. Because of Caleigh. Because of Ruth. Because of Elizabeth Esther. Because of all the “Quivering Daughters” and the “No Longer Quivering.” Because of the stay-at-home daughters who are trying so hard to be the right sort of future wife. Because of all the stay-at-home homeschooling mamas who are killing themselves to get it right and burning themselves out in the lonely trenches of complementarian gender roles without any compromise or compassion. Because of the women suffering post-partum depression who get told that they just need to work on their sin issues and it’ll go away. Because of all the women suffering under graceless Christianity without realizing how much Jesus loves them as they are.

Feminism can help you talk about why it hurts. How to fix it, how to bring nuance and humanity and grace back into the discussion of women’s roles in the home, society, and the church. It can free you from the childishness of a world that is only black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, and let you walk out of the farmhouse and into the technicolor of Oz. It’s a beautiful world that we have here and it’s okay to enjoy it. I think that Jesus would walk out there with you.

Link up with FemFest here!


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.


This new year, I’m trying to be deliberate about self-care. Things that I would have shoved off as unimportant before because they  only meant something to me — I’m taking these up and owning them. I’m fighting the lies in my head: “It’s not a big deal. I’m too busy.” “It’s not important.” “I wouldn’t be good enough/I’m too old to start that now.” “I need the money for other things.”

No more. I don’t mean that in an I’m-obsessed-with-making-myself-happy-with-things way. No more self-denial for its own sake, or because of fear or because of self-consciousness.

So. I am doing new things. I’m taking part in a story coaching group with Elora (a few slots left and only two days more to register, if you want to join us!). I’m going to write the stories in my head and have accountability and community to help me keep going. I really need this.

I’m taking mandolin. It’d been a old dream of mine to pick it up, but I couldn’t afford it/find one/find a teacher, and over Christmas everything fell into place. I have a mandolin. I have a teacher. I have the emotional space to learn it without pressure from anyone who is more musically advanced criticizing or judging me. It’s so healing. I’m making music. It’s mine. No one else’s.

The community of bloggers I’ve found has been incredible. If you ever feel like you’re insane and the only one seeing that maybe your church is legalistic, or your conservative community is prejudiced and hurtful to minorities, or that maybe women shouldn’t be treated they way they are in your church or at your school, or that the relationship standards in conservative Christianity are oppressive, or that your depression might be real and not “lack of faith,” please hear me:

you are not alone.

The latest evolution of this community? Elizabeth Esther and I talk about how expectations for emotional purity are terribly damaging and dehumanizing. An excerpt:

So, how do girls in strict, courtship environments cope? We shut down our emotions.

The bad news is that you can’t shut down one feeling without shutting down them all. I thought that by ignoring, denying, shaming and shunning my romantic feelings for Matt I was preserving my “emotional purity” and “guarding my heart.” Instead, I ended up completely numb.

It got so bad that eventually I believed if something felt good it was probably sinful. If I was happy, I wasn’t suffering enough. Sometimes I wished I were a robot so I could turn off my feelings with a push of a button.

When we finally received courtship approval and it was OK for me to have romantic feelings for Matt, I was a mess. I was depressed, exhausted, confused and literally sick all the time. 

Go join the discussion! 


I’ve avoided saying these words to myself for a long time, but it’s really the most accurate description:

When I was 12, my family moved from California to the east coast to join a cult.

I haven’t felt at home anywhere since.

***

There were other factors, of course. Economy, family ideals for finding a supportive community for a family with young kids, etc.

We left the little yellow house where four of my younger siblings (there would later be four more) had been brought home, we left the friends I had grown up with and my first true best friend, we left the mountains and the sea and the sand, we left my mom’s widowed mother and my dad’s parents, and we left the only state and culture we had ever known.

We packed up a trailer, we squeezed ourselves into a little blue minivan with peeling paint, and we drove into the desert for two weeks of cross-country insanity.

When we arrived, we were love-bombed and surrounded by people who made us feel welcomed and at home in this new community. I was plopped down in the thick of 12-year-old-girl cliques, with all the political trappings of Sovereign Grace Ministries and their organic social pecking order based on appearances of humility and godliness.

And then there was the culture shock, as opinionated, confident me and my honest and blunt mother both felt squelched by passive aggressive social cues and vague disapproval from the women in our church.

I was so homesick.

***

In our new home, I shared a 10’x10′ bedroom with my younger sister for 6 years, my mom locking us into the arrangement with the words, “Well, you guys really need to learn to get along. I think you should be roommates for a while.” We fought for space, for privacy, for emotional safety. We never got it, not there. I withdrew into books, she into self-loathing. I stayed up late at night reading, because it was the only time I could be quiet and alone in a household with nine kids and heavy expectations. She hid in the bathroom and disappeared into self-isolation because everyone else was louder and more obviously needy than she was.

We’re only just beginning to discuss with each other how miserable that season was.

There were lots of reasons I looked forward to moving out and going to college, but getting space, quiet, and privacy was one of the things I hoped for the most. My parents laughed and told me not to expect that.

***

In college, I ended up in a dorm room that was almost twice of my bedroom back home. I had a wonderful roommate and it became a haven.

But nine months later and I was home for the summer, and I found I wasn’t welcome in my old space anymore. Space was tight and my sisters had rearranged the rooms while I was gone. Every break after that, I found myself feeling more and more transient, displaced, an intrusion.

I did internships in the summers. I lived in the basements of friends of friends. I lived in spare bedrooms and on old army cots. I lived in dark places and I set aside things that defined me so I wouldn’t offend. I put up with things that were personally revolting or emotionally oppressive to make it through.

I told myself, “I can do anything for a month.”

And I did. I loved people and explored new places and was hurled into discomfort and grew in the awkwardness.

But I couldn’t put down roots. Everywhere I slept, I knew that these places belonged to someone else, that I couldn’t cultivate anything, create anything, or impose myself on the place and space in any lasting ways.

I pared down my belongings. I invested in writing rather than drawing or painting. I cooked instead of gardening. Creativity oozed out in other places while I wandered.

I craved dirt I could love. A patch of earth and life that I could live with and care for and belong to.

***

Living in the little basement apartment has been hard for me.  I have a deep, psychological craving for light. I leave for work before it’s fully light out, and I walk out of my office building and the sun has already set. Winter’s dark season eats my soul every year.

But I’m a survivor, I say, to steel myself against it all. I can take it for a long while before I crumble into my own need for light, privacy, and space. After that, it becomes a slow slide into mental static. Other things start to bother me more. Dust and funky smells become more than a mild irritation, and then clutter becomes nails on a chalkboard and I shut down.

And then I snap, one way or another. I create, I organize, I clean, I cry, I sleep it off. I try to combat the transience and feeling of being lost, but it never quite goes away.

I had a basil plant outside our window. It was a little thing to love and care for, but it died. We don’t get enough light inside to keep anything green alive. The little cat is a comfort, but she doesn’t belong there, either. We are wanderers, pausing here until April. Then we’ll be gone, no matter what lies I tell myself now with paint and organizing and new bookshelves.

And I don’t know where we’ll go next or when I’ll find a home. I don’t belong here. I’ve been away from California for too long.

I dream of places where I belong, but they don’t exist when I wake up. Every place I live is borrowed, and no space I inhabit knows my name or touch.

***

This is the plight of the modern, the evangelical church kid who always worshiped in high school gymnasiums, the child of that American generation who will move anywhere for a job, the ahistorical American culture sinking its teeth into my humanity, the product of concrete suburban purgatory.

We need place. We need belonging. We need dirt and sunshine.

This is where the conservation of the conservatives and the humanism of the liberals meets with a kiss. This is where the incarnation reveals to me my own nature and reminds me of the Father’s promise of things made right. This is where I pray and know that I am dust, and am thankful for that connection to this beautiful earthy home.

And maybe someday, I’ll find myself at home, belonging to a membership of land and people in the way God intended.

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding III


Advent and Christmas have slipped past. The liturgical calendar is now in the season of Epiphany — the bright time of God with us, heralded as king by the magi. My slow internal panic, brought on by shortening days, is dissipating as days begin to grow a little longer, and as I see more sunrises and sunsets now than I did in the last two months combined.

Light is healing. Few things (even down to sleep and food) make more of a difference in my emotional and spiritual state than having enough light around me in my day.

I’ve been writing a lot. But just for me, mostly. I journal on the metro, I jot things down in email drafts to myself at work, I write, write, write. Taking seriously Anne Lamott’s threats about God giving her ideas instead of me because she has a pen to write them down has been both wholesome and fun. Kicking writer’s block and writing daily, uncensored, for myself, is cleansing. It also makes writing for a specific purpose easier and strengthens my ability to use the right words well.

It’s been a really difficult couple of months. Recovery from spiritual abuse is slow and the old adage “hurt people hurt people” is so true. Grace may be real, but pain is more shrill and quick. Grace is slow and whole and works with the passage of time. Relationships and trust require this same slowness. Wholeness in relationships takes time and love and work.

A week or so ago I was agonizing over the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, one that required me to stand by everything I’ve tried and found to be true in my years of leaving a cultish church and breaking the mental shackles of Christian patriarchy chained to my identity, worth, and life purpose.

When you’ve left spiritual abuse and are fighting off a mindset where your personal worth is defined almost solely by your investment in family and the appearance of having it all together, making a solid, reasonable decision on your own is grueling, anxiety-ridden, and altogether impossible to do with a clear head.

But what if they were right about God’s will for me as woman?

What if eternity is on the line because of this?

What will they say? Do I care? Should I care?

Is it okay for me to make this decision quickly, on my own? I haven’t prayed enough or fasted and I can’t talk to my pastor about it!

Am I just imagining things? Are my reasons any good?

I think I need to go with my gut instincts on this. But what if my gut instincts really are corrupt and deceiving and evil flesh?

I ended up on the phone with a friend inherited from long ago, a wise and articulate woman who has been as an adopted aunt to me in various seasons. I talked for a long, long time, telling her stories. And then I asked her what she thought. She said things that were true [which I needed to remember, because it’s easy to lose your bearings], and spoke over me a lot of permissions that I had long wanted to give myself, but was too afraid to accept as true.

But here’s the thing she said which stuck out the most to me, and has the most power for someone like me who has gone through an internal gutting and restoration process after spiritual abuse:

[and I paraphrase.]

“Those gut instincts you have? They’re not some element of the evil, sinful flesh trying to trip you up and separate you from the Father. You don’t need to fight them or suppress them. You don’t need to be afraid to follow them.

I like to observe, as an INFJ, that when we talk about how Jesus makes us a new creation, it’s not just our mind that’s redeemed or renewed. It’s everything. Your instincts, too. The Holy Spirit dwells in you. He can speak through them and we can follow those.”

And it was like the door opened and I saw hope slipping in like a sunbeam. My instincts were so strongly telling me to do this one thing, and I had been wrestling with them, against them, because of these old fears and lies from before. Those lies don’t bind me anymore.

I don’t have to live in fear. I can listen to my own sense of right and wrong.

Renewed.

Redeemed.

Made whole.


Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized story blended from a couple different real events in my life. All the guys who inspired this are good and well-intended men who grew up a lot afterwards. The point of this is not the guys themselves, but the ideas they assumed to be true because of the Christian culture in which we were raised.

We sat on the scrubby carpet of my dorm room floor, the door halfway open behind him. I held my mug of tea tightly, using the pressure to channel all my anxiety into the warmth and firmness of the mug.

“Mike” had IM’d me just 20 minutes earlier, when I’d just walked in from dinner. “Can I come over? We need to talk.”

I knew he was right. But I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to avoid this conversation. “I only have a few minutes,” I replied. “Come over and I’ll make a cup of tea. But I have to be somewhere with friends in 45 minutes.”

So he came over and there we were, sitting cross-legged on my floor, avoiding eye contact.

***

Dating at a conservative Christian school where everyone has read and seriously prayed about Josh Harris’s dating books is a complicated, dramatic process. Everyone takes everything too seriously, too soon.

After being isolated from male friendships by either coincidence or strategic parents (still not sure which) and my own insecurities around boys (after losing a really delightful friendship with one guy at 14 to a cross-country move and comments like “oh this makes me so happy! I’d hug you if you weren’t a girl!” me: Whaaat?), I got plopped down in the middle of one of those conservative Christian colleges where the primary campus traditions involve engagement hazing and a mad race to get hitched in May after graduation. And I was the naive INFJ who liked listening to people and felt horribly guilty saying no to anyone. By sophomore year I was in over my head.

So that evening, when I met to talk with Mike, a lot had happened already. He had scoped me out for a couple of months (I think we’d talked, one on one, maybe three times?), emailed my dad to ask permission to date/court me, gotten an non-committal “we should correspond and explore this, tell me about yourself” response, assumed he was going to be dad-approved, somehow found a stupid “husband qualities” list I had made early on in high school from an old blog, saw he matched a lot of them, and asked me out. I told him I’d think about it, but observed that I didn’t know him very well. (Reality: he was a good person, but I wasn’t “feeling it,” but I thought that I should give him a shot because…I didn’t know how to say no or feel like I had a right to turn him down).

In the month that followed I spent a little more time with him, but didn’t do anything outside of group events. He never asked me out to dinner, I never invited him over for a movie. Because, you know, conservative ex-homeschooler problems.

And then, he IM’d me and asked to talk alone. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him no — I didn’t want to hurt him. He was a friend. I didn’t know how to tell him “I’m not attracted to you” in a [conservative Christian] socially acceptable way. And the last time I had tried to tell a guy that things weren’t going anywhere, he ended up telling close friends that we were “unofficially a thing, but just working some details out” afterward. I was sure I had told him no! So I really, really didn’t want to make that same mistake again.

The conversation was brief and awkward. I remember we were both trying so hard to be kind and polite. I remember feeling flushed and restless the whole time. I remember that he was skittish about making eye contact.  But I was so proud of myself. I told him I didn’t see anything beyond friendship with him and I was as clear as I felt I could be while still being sensitive.

He was quiet for a long time. He finished his tea. He fidgeted with the mug. He put it aside.

“But God very clearly told me that you’re the one. How can he tell two people two different things?” It was sincere. He was hurting.

The perpetually impish side of my mind detached from the situation for a moment and snarked: “What the heck? Did he just say that? For REAL?”

But he was looking at me for an answer, and he was my friend. “Um,” I stalled. “Um, well, maybe God just hasn’t told me yet? Maybe he will? I’ll pray about it and I’ll get back to you if he tells me something different from what he’s been telling me so far. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying to me.”

***

I recently read a post by Allison Vesterfelt called “God told me to break up with you” and I laughed.

This idea — making God out to be the agent for starting and ending a relationship (“God told me you were the one”) – -starts in a theologically okay place (God has a plan for your life and it’s really good to pray and feel at peace with a decision before making it), but it really twists his role in relationships and puts too much pressure on sincere Christians to over-spiritualize everything about dating.

I remembered Mike and his sad, serious question, and the drama it caused that year. And I got to thinking about this. It was more than just a symptom of a problematic over-emphasis on the  charismatic type of hearing-from-God/knowing-God’s-will (which is a common concern in both charismatic and reformed circles — a sincere, but misguided anxiety to do everything correctly causes a skewed understanding of how God reveals his will to believers). This was a huge part of it, and it remains a huge problem. But there was something else that bothered me.

In a later conversation (where I had to tell him no again), I felt pressured (not just by him, but by my own understanding of how to “do right by him” and by my dad’s probing questions about why I didn’t like this guy) to have lots of rational reasons for saying no. I had to come up with a list in my head beforehand. I remember I wrote the list down on an index card and pulled it out to go over on my way to “end things.” (“Things,” which never existed.) I felt like I had to prove why we would never work well as a couple, and my game plan was to find something about myself that I knew he would accept as a deal-breaker and let him down with that revelation so he would be sure to never bother me about this again.

Why did I feel like I was obligated to do this? To have two or three conversations with guys to tell them “no” as kindly as possible? To have a list of “rational” reasons why we wouldn’t work? Why was the burden of proof on me? Why wasn’t it okay for me to just say “no, I’m not interested,” and leave it at that?

From my current feminist perspective, now I see a lot of cultural assumptions about women that I was going along with which made me feel this unnecessary pressure to “prove” that my reasons for not dating this guy were valid.

1) Men grow up being told by media and culture that they’re entitled to a pretty girl and if they go through the motions of being a nice guy and woo her, they’ll win the game and get the girl. [see this expounded more here]

2) Courtship movement teachings promote the idea that emotions are deceiving and that being attracted to someone isn’t important in the long run in a godly marriage.

This is pretty messed up — emotions do matter, and attraction is important. Love isn’t all about choice. Love also isn’t sexual desire or infatuation. It’s much richer and more beautifully nuanced than that! But I believed that my lack of attraction to this guy and lack of emotional “click” were not valid reasons. [This is usually only a girls’ problem in these circles, because guys are supposed to initiate, and can therefore choose to initiate a relationship with whoever they are attracted to. Girls are only supposed to respond. Again: messed up. But because of his privilege and his feeling of attraction to me, I had to defend to him my reasons for saying no.]

3) Saying “God told me” is a way of playing the complementarian spiritual hierarchy card. If a man is supposed to be the head of the house, spiritually, and women are not to teach and to submit to male spiritual leadership in the church, then a guy saying he’s heard from God and “hey, babe, you’re the one for me!” puts her in a difficult position. Even though he’s not yet married to her or her spiritual leader, he has a position of greater spiritual legitimacy and authority, and so if she thinks differently, she has to first question his spiritual authenticity and then question the validity of complementarian hierarchy to defend her own spiritual discernment of God’s will. Most girls won’t think this through and will either go with their gut and shut the guy down, or realize they’re up against a system where their spiritual voice is less valid, and go along with dating the guy for a while to “give it a shot” and see if maybe God’s actually in it.

This is utterly inappropriate. A girl should be allowed to say no without playing the God card, and if she has to play the God card, it should be valid independently of “gender roles” in the church and which gender is supposed to lead and initiate.

[Where this line of thinking leads: What if a girl is dating a guy and they’ve talked about engagement and plan to get married, as long as things keep going well, and he says that God told him that should have sex. He says it’s okay because they’re going to get married anyway. He also argues that, since Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” and that was considered the same as being married in the Bible, it’s biblical! So then the girl goes along with it and has sex, even if she’s not ready/doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with it, because he “heard from God” and he’s her “spiritual leader,” since they’re “unofficially engaged.” This is basically manipulation, devaluing her comfort zone and her spiritual authenticity, and pressuring her into sex. And I’m not making this up — it happens.]

4) Girls are constantly given cultural messages that their feelings and opinions are always questionable because they might be “irrational.”

My first problem with this: this is a post-enlightenment concept which privileges reason over intuition. This is fine in the sciences, but the whole universe of human interaction doesn’t work on the basis of logic and we really can’t treat it like it does.

My second problem with this: If a girl who is sensitive and kind seriously desires to honor God, she will feel very pressured to avoid following her emotions or gut instincts on something. Because of this, I felt like my reasons (which were: I wasn’t attracted to him, I didn’t have any romantic interest in him) weren’t valid because they were intangible, intuitive gut feelings. He was perfect for me “on paper” — he matched the silly list I had made up once upon a time, my dad liked him, he had a solid career plan and no college debt, he was disciplined and spiritually mature (relative to my experience at that point),  etc. But I had this gut feeling that I shouldn’t pursue it, and I couldn’t explain it because God hadn’t “spoken to me” and I didn’t have a rational, deal-breaking reason to give him.

This is a false gender stereotype/expectation. People are rational and emotional. Reasons for relational boundaries are valid whether or not they make complete sense, are wholly emotional, or are wholly logical. People deserve respect, whether or not we agree with their reasons. But I couldn’t stand up for myself in this, because I was still buying into the idea that my reasons were invalid because they weren’t logical.

If you want to have biblical support for this idea, look at the teachings of Paul, where he urges believers to care for each other’s weaknesses and not make them stumble. He urges the Corinthians: if your brother is uncomfortable with the origins of the meat you’ve got for dinner, respect that and don’t serve it to him. It’s not wrong according to the gospel, but it makes him struggle in his heart. Be kind.

Likewise, if she doesn’t feel comfortable dating you, leave her alone. Don’t turn into a stalker like every chick flick male lead and “pursue her” until you’ve finally worn down her defenses. Let her be. Let her feel safe. Boundaries are healthy. Love her where she’s at: not okay with dating you!

***

I’m really glad that most people I know have matured and grown past this silly idea  that it’s okay to tell someone “God told me to date you/break up with you/marry you.” I’m not saying that it’s impossible for God to actually act that way, but it’s highly unlikely, given a quick survey of his history of acting in the course of human events. Yes, your love life and decisions are important to him because you’re important to him. But they’re probably not of such earth-shattering, instant significance that he’s going to you “look, she’s the one” without bothering to tell her that you’re the one for her, too.

Even if we don’t like someone’s reasons for saying no and feel they’re irrational, it’s not our place to push them into something they’re uncomfortable with.

 

 

 

 


As much as I have been hurt by pretenses of care by Christians, as much as I am cynical about church ministries and the level of care they actually give, I must observe something.

I am surprised and delighted to discover: all those things we’re supposed to, pretend to do? Sometimes they happen organically, spontaneously. Sometimes the body of Christ takes hands and lives in your friends, listening, helping, caring, praying. And my cynicism melts, and I am truly thankful.

People toss around “blessed” and “blessings” like “Good morning” and “I’m fine.” It usually doesn’t mean anything and sounds banal. But sometimes it’s real. I am blessed. These people have blessed me.

Real grace really can be passed on from one member of the Body to another in hurt and loneliness. For those who are truly being the Body out there, without playing favorites or currying favor: thank you. You are blessed.

 


[This is one of the promised posts about why I chose the name “Wine & Marble.” Communion has been a huge part of my spiritual life and binds me to Christianity in a way I can’t really understand or explain. I’ll tell my story and perhaps begin to work it out.]

Sometimes I wish I could shut off the part of myself that subconsciously breathes in and out scripture verses memorized long ago, the part of myself that is perpetually mulling over questions of faith, the part of myself that is bound to the idea of Jesus. For some reason, it’s indelibly part of who I am. I can turn most of that part of me and my experience off if I need to (it’s right there next to the “pretend you weren’t homeschooled/aren’t ignorant about pop culture” switch in my head), but the sacrament of communion has made leaving or forgetting my faith complicated and impossible. If it weren’t for this, I think I might have left the Church for good, long ago. But the offering up of the Body and Blood every week for my crooked self’s physical and spiritual renewal is stronger than my apathy and I am transfixed by it.

When I was a small child, my desire to “be right with Jesus” (the idea was vague, but I understood that it was essential to ending nightmares and live without fear) was united and inextricably joined with a craving need to take communion. I wanted to take the cup and eat the bread with a desire that is still the deepest of any I have yet experienced. I was only four or five, but I had a powerful need to be right with Jesus (which is a whole other topic–in the evangelical culture there’s a lot of fear-based pressure on little children to say the sinner’s prayer) which was centered on this assumption: I couldn’t take communion until I understood and could explain to my parents what it meant and had said the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus “into my heart.” Conversion and accepting Jesus was a way to get to communion and there was nothing I craved more than to participate in that ceremony.

Every Sunday I watched the communion ritual with awe and desire. I wanted that and everything it seemed to be about.

When I was maybe 5 or 6, I remember visiting my grandmother’s Episcopal church for the first time. The candles, the hush and reverence, the prayers and the kneeling–these were new elements of my church experience, and I felt both delighted and annoyed. I liked the loud praise band and worship dance of our Vineyard church, but this new mood was better suited to communion, and the beauty of it enchanted me. I remember how tender the priest was with the elderly parishioners  bringing the chalice and the wafers to their seats, blessing them right where they were. The body of Christ was brought to his people, and it was fitting.

Shortly thereafter, communion was served at our own church one Sunday. I don’t remember if they did it once a month there, or twice a year, but it was infrequent. And it was a big deal in my mind, though [obviously] not in the minds of those leading that church. I asked my mom if I could take part, and she pulled dad and me out of the service into the foyer. Dad told me that I couldn’t take communion until I could tell him what it’s significance was and why it was part of the church practices. [The thought of this amuses me now.] I told them what I could grasp: it was representing Jesus’s body  and blood after the cross and we took it to eat and drink because it reminded us of how he saved us. This was satisfactory, and I took communion for the first time that Sunday. I was baptized about a year later. [Again, how odd.]

***

A few years later, I was in Awana and was inundated with Baptist guilt-trips that caused me to fear for my salvation over and over again. I told myself that I had first believed that day I took communion for the first time, but fearful of my own anger with my younger siblings and losing my salvation over it, I walked the aisle again. Twice I prayed in fear, ashamed and wondering if God would be angry at me for trying so many times to “get saved.” Once was at a Billy Graham crusade event–my dad was with me.

“Let’s go down,” I said.
“You’ve already been saved!” he said.
“I need to do it again,” I said, and started walking, not looking back to see if he was following me.
“She’s rededicating her life to the Lord,” the older woman whispered to him when he joined us on the football field a few minutes later, as Crystal Lewis began to sing over us.

***

In the middle of these years of fear and shame and walking the aisle again, as I questioned my salvation nearly weekly, I found myself becoming callous to the ceremony of communion. I needed it, and it happened once a month at the church we attended at the time, and I was glad to participate and receive it. But the bread was a sweet, eggy bread made by some dear soul in the church, and I was always stuck late after the service while my family helped take down the sound equipment. My friends and I were all at that rowdy age where you’d catch us sneaking down forbidden hallways, climbing onto roofs, hanging upside down from trees, begging the teenage boys to let us play chicken on their shoulders, etc. And we were hungry after a long 11am service.

So we stole the bread, bit by bit. Nibbled it under the bleachers, giggling in the streams of dust-filtered light. “It’s for us, anyway!” we said. “And we’re hungry–Jesus wouldn’t mind.”

After several weeks of doing this, we got caught and reprimanded by the pastor. He spoke of eating and drinking wrath upon ourselves and told us to ask our parents for snacks, instead. So we stopped.

But maybe we were right, after all. It was for us.

***

Later we moved across the country for a church, and I was 12 and lonely and hungry to understand more about the faith I professed. I wanted to make it my own and I read and talked and asked questions.

At this church, they did little different from the others–communion once a month or less frequently, little cups of white grape juice passed in trays (white to prevent stains in clothing), little pieces of matzo or water crackers, broken in a basket on a napkin.

More organizational structure at this church and fewer spirit-led moments or maybe just the absence of California chill caused me to feel stifled, and communion began to hold no power. It was something that happened, and when it did we were prompted to meditate on the gore of the cross, on the agony of Jesus and his separation from the angry Father. Mood lighting was introduced, synthesizers were played. The first year or so I was truly moved by these things–they were new then. But month after month with no script change and no shift in focus away from the cross the rest of the time, and soon the potency of the moment was drained. The cross, the cross, the cross, the cross. Pull your chairs in circles, meditate on your sin. Pray for forgiveness with each other. Eat the bread. Drink the cup. Raise the lights. Sing about how you love the cross.

There was no resurrection hope, no advent, no saints rejoicing in new life. Only your sin, the cross, his death, your fault. Meditate on your sin.

Not knowing better, I found myself attending a similar sort of church for the first two years at college. Communion was every week there, and while it felt more genuine as we went through a corporate confession and received a pastoral benediction and sang hymns that celebrated new life, I was still numb. My Sin and The Cross were my blinders and I was only moved when I felt particularly filthy or like I had something truly awful to pray about during the confession.

***

And then. And then. 

I found myself caught up in a different church through my social group. It was an Anglican church with communion every week and grace preached from the pulpit like a relentless storm.  The sermons alone were the perfect antidote to the legalistic naval-gazing of SGM teachings, but the communion was really what brought me back every week. I couldn’t resist it. It called to me, I needed it. Like when I was small, this was a source of life and I found myself craving it all week long. It wasn’t particularly remarkable–wine in a chalice, pita bread torn to bits, lining up pew by pew and walking forward to receive it, recessing to a hymn led by some barefoot student playing guitar.

But the mood was set by the fixation on grace, on healing, on acceptance. And I felt little shards of healing tear me to pieces every time I processed and accepted the gifts of Jesus given for me. Grace was being made real by the physical act, and it knew my name.

Shortly thereafter I went to England for a short class trip in January, with the rector of that church and a professor and an armful of books on the Inklings. Our focus was on Epiphany–the season, the writings on it by these authors, and the Anglican church teachings focused on it. Our study took us to an evensong service almost every evening, and we were immersed in the Book of Common Prayer every day. We visited Salisbury, Ely, Canturbury, St. Paul’s, Westminister, St. Mary’s, Christchurch, and Little Gidding. We took communion every day. It was sustaining and beautiful and holy, and I let the rhythm and art of the BoCP prayers become part of me, journaling them, twisting them into my poems every night. And despite the daily ritual of it, I found myself shaken by it every time. The Eucharist was breaking me, healing me, stripping me of old lies and fears and letting me relearn how to open up and welcome the burning love of Jesus.

***

After college, after getting married, I was at a small church. My husband was obligated to attend as part of his job in the church office, and I went with him. But the observation of communion there was as bad as the soulless communion experiences I had in the nondenominational churches I grew up in. They did it infrequently, saying things that seemed like they were trying to remember how the Anglican service went, but not really sure of the right order or phrases. There was a lot of emphasis on the death of Jesus, a lot of emphasis on remembering. But it all turned from harmless to sour for me when the pastor said that communion was a memorial service for Jesus, like a memorial service we might have after the death of a friend. Nothing more. Just: he has died, let us remember him.

That’s when I took my Harry Potter books to read outside in the sunshine during communion Sundays thereafter. Sometimes we squeezed in an early morning service at a friend’s Episcopal church. “So we can have real communion before we go to our church,” my husband said. When he left that job and we were free to find our own church, I was very glad.

Since then, we’ve been at an Episcopal church near home, where the Eucharist is celebrated with reverence and joy. The priests exude tenderness and love for the congregation, and I am again finding myself soothed and healed each week by confession, communion, absolution, and the washing of the Word.

Last Sunday I came to church emotionally drained and fragile. It had been a rough week and painful things were raw and in my face. The words of joy in the hymns (Advent hymns are almost all about promises of hope and joy) were biting, rubbing the hurt. And when I realized that this service was lessons and carols (which doesn’t usually involve the Eucharist), I fell to pieces and had to leave.

Why? I’m not entirely sure. But I know this: a church service should not be about a teacher or a leader (the focus should not be on the sermon, meaty though it may be). The heart of the gospel is fully encapsulated in the Eucharist, and this should be the focal point. It’s about God meeting us in the flesh, healing us where we’re at, sustaining us in his love and self. I need the physicality of it. I need the mystery and the healing of Emmanuel. It’s everything.

[and it won’t let me go]


Sometimes I wonder how I sound to the rest of the evangelical world, to those who weren’t subjected to fringe patriarchal teachings from grace-forgetting complementarians, those who never fought the fear that comes with legalism from your pulpit, those who don’t have to shake the guilt hangover from their childhood churches or Christian communities. Those from idyllic, happy homes, where brothers and sisters didn’t have to be guilt-tripped into showing compassion, where you were always accepted and loved, no matter what.

I try not to sound angry when I write. I try not to sound bitter. Sometimes I am a firecracker when talking about these things in person, but those emotions shouldn’t really bleed through here, where I seek to analyze, to process, to examine the larger trends which ended up creating or influencing my experience in homeschooling communities, in churches, in my family and others. I don’t tell my story to point fingers or to throw a pity party on the internet. I write because I have found that I’m not alone in my experiences, and we’re all processing very similar things, and it’s easier if we can do that together. If we can talk about it and name the things that hurt us, it becomes smaller and we don’t walk around holding our pain close to our chests, burning us up in silence. I write because I believe wholeness is possible. Because I know that grace is real. Because those in authority over us weren’t malicious and didn’t understand the fallout from their teachings.

But it must look strange and be somewhat perplexing to those who haven’t grown old early as the oldest child in a big family, who didn’t have to question God’s goodness because of a church twisting the scriptures, who love freely because it’s easy and safe. And it must be confusing for you to know how to love us, when we say things like “I need to take a break from reading the Bible” (What! Are you abandoning God?), “I need to take some time off from church to detox” (Is your church bad? Don’t neglect the fellowship of the believers! Christianity can’t be lived out alone!), “I just want to have a good relationship with my parents, but it’s so hard when we disagree on these issues” (Wait, can’t you just agree to disagree? or They’ve hurt you a lot! Just step back from them–it’s a toxic relationship.), etc. And it must be very perplexing when you say any number of these or similar things . . . and we react by clamming up, or tell you long and upsetting stories, or get defensive and angry. It’s exhausting and frustrating for both of us.

So, how can you love someone who is recovering from spiritual abuse? How can you show us Jesus and love and understanding, without making us feel afraid or pressured into an emotional wholeness we don’t yet possess?

Be patient with us. Chances are, this is going to be a long process. It’s likely we could be “recovering” or “deconstructing” or “processing” (whatever word we happen to use for this healing process) for years. We may not ever be whole again. Church will be hard. Family events may also be hard. Don’t get impatient if it takes a long time.

Allow us the freedom to set boundaries. Don’t pressure us into things we aren’t able to do–you never know when you might accidentally “trigger” a flashback or that voice inside our heads that wants to keep us trapped in fear, guilt, or self-loathing. Most of us never knew to say no to things we weren’t comfortable with or weren’t sure we liked. Often we’re trying to build healthy relational boundaries from the ground up, and it’s a huge deal for us to be affirmed in choices that fly in the face of our past fears or guilt-trips. Examples: saying no to over-committing to serving at church or community volunteer stuff; saying no to things we were taught to be guilty about for no good reason (those burned by modesty and courtship teachings, especially); trying out new things that were socially frowned upon (short hair! piercings! tattoos! dancing! normal alcohol consumption! TV shows!); doing drastic relational overhauls to cut out negative or triggering relationships. It may be weird or hard to understand, but it’s a fundamental part of recovery. Read up on codependent relationships to understand some of what we’re reacting against and why boundary setting is so vital.

Listen. Therapy is great and we probably all need it, but we need our friends, too. We need what I like to call “a normal radar”–someone who will listen to us rehash where we’ve been and tell us “no, that’s not normal/healthy” or “yes, most people feel that way! You’re not alone. It’s not wrong.” Sometimes we’ll talk and talk and it won’t make a ton of sense, but just having someone willing to listen and be kind to us is a really healing thing. It tells us we’re not crazy and we’re worth caring about. We need that.

Don’t judge us/correct us/freak out if we’re angry. This goes along with boundary setting. Basically, most of us were in situations where unhealthy boundaries were practiced and we let a lot of people manipulate us. We didn’t know better then, but we’re starting to realize how wrong it was, and it’s normal for us to have a lot of retroactive anger, at ourselves, at the pain we have to work through now as a result, at those who taught us the things that damaged us.

Let us experience healthy familiesIf we’re estranged from our families because of disagreements over the past/our church experiences (a lot of parents feel personally rejected or attacked if their adult kids start making life decisions based on different interpretations of scripture or personal values) and you have a particularly healthy, happy family, include us! But don’t make us a “project,” because we can see through that and it makes us feel patronized. On the other hand, happy families may be too hard for us to interact with, because of the personal contrast. If we want to stay away and create some space, it’s probably because we’re not ready to go there yet.

Buy us books. Recommended books for those coming out of spiritual abuse are:

I’ll take reader recommendations for other books like these in the comments section!

Don’t lecture. Kind questions to make us think things through more deeply will be helpful, but please don’t try to talk us into conforming. Not yet. If we’re in this recovery process, it’s likely we’ve been worn out with well-meant lectures from parents and pastors, and we need some space to figure out what we believe, independent of authorities telling us how to think. As part of the boundary-setting process, we’ll probably end up rethinking what we believe about issues like homosexuality/gay marriage, abortion/pro-life movement, inerrancy of scripture, etc. We have to learn to believe things for ourselves. Give us the grace to ask hard questions, to doubt God and faith, to investigate the terms of our moral compass, to change our minds.

Go with us to visit other churches. We may want to visit different types of churches, but we’ll probably be too self-conscious to go alone. Offer to be a church-shopping buddy, and be the best friend who gives us a call to rescue us from a date gone bad–be confident and help us leave if the service is upsetting.

Watch your lingo. Christians often have some form of dialect, riddled with clichés and catch-phrases from our church culture. We say “blessed” and “hedge of protection” and “joy” and “thankful” and other similar things, and it’s pretty normal inside of Christian groups, but it sounds weird to the rest of the world. When we’re recovering from spiritual abuse, these phrases can carry emotional connections to bad experiences, guilt trips, or just a suffocating environment. Say that you’re happy, not joyful. Wish them good luck instead of blessings. Tell them you’re glad, not thankful. All those things may be true, but you’re not really compromising anything by making your language slightly more neutral. And you’re probably going to become aware (in a healthy way) of ways you’ve become lazy in your speech and relied on clichés rather than descriptive phrases.

Distract us. Sometimes we’ll get so wrapped up in sorting through memories and experiences that we’ll forget how to relax and have fun. Help us loosen up and find balance, not allowing the past to dominate our emotions today.

Encourage us to write. For some of us, journaling and writing can help us get things out and think things through. It can be very cathartic.

Readers! What else has helped you? What do you wish your “normal” friends understood about this process and how to relate to you?