In which I will probably sound a lot like Lauren Dubinsky, who is usually right about this stuff.

The credits were rolling on the Disney princess movie. I was in a swoony-moony eight-year-old’s post-Disney euphoria, soaking up the soundtrack swelling as I leaned back on my elbows on the living room carpet.

I don’t remember which parent said it or the exact words, but what I heard was something to the effect of

“Now, Hannah, we know that this is a good story, but the Bible teaches us that following our hearts is bad, and you can see how she made choices that hurt her family and friends because she was being selfish and followed her heart.”

This little moment was followed up later by years of Bible memory drills and post-spanking lectures:

The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

This verse was later reinforced by SGM teachings drawn from various bits and pieces of reformed theology.

  • You are the greatest sinner you know. 
  • I’m doing better than I deserve. 
  • I just don’t know if this is a good choice, because I need to pray and discern my motives. 
  • This is how this situation makes me feel, but I need to pray about it, because I might be reacting wrongly, because my heart is fundamentally evil, you know.

This was my justification for faith: people do bad things even if they want to be good. So T.U.L.I.P. and the SGM gospel had to be true. They were logically sound.

If you grew up like I did, you know what I’m talking about. And I’m not here to argue the logic of the theology. I know it “works” but I also know that it takes a toll on the heart, and that room for the miraculous and the impossible and the creative grace of a vastly loving God are so much more important to sane orthodoxy than systematic theology.

So I believed this. I doubted myself. I tried to act on reason and Scripture. If you look at my prayer journals (because talking about my feelings wasn’t okay, in my mind, unless I was “praying” about them) from when I was dating my ex, you’d see me agonizing about issues in our relationship (that never got better), and then you’d see me talking myself out of being worried about them because of reasons like: God is Sovereign, and God Led Us Here, and Love Endures and Hopes All Things. And I shoved red flags into a “hard things I can live with” pile.

I did this with everything, not just dating. Actually, I probably did it MORE with other parts of my life. I didn’t aspire very high with my college options, because I thought I should go to a Christian college so I’d have accountability from other Christians in authority over me, because, obviously, my heart was deceitful and college is a time when people explore, which naturally leads them into sin, so. Don’t follow your heart. Stay safe. Stay in authority structures that will keep you safe from you.

I chose to not make an issue about moving to my ex’s hometown when we got married, because I wanted to respect his preferences and he wanted to be near his family. I didn’t even make an issue out of the fact that I was the one who wanted to go to grad school and had definite ideas about what career I wanted. And later, we talked about grad school options, and assumed he’d “go first” and then I’d do my schooling later. Even my job choices were dictated by practicality and security, not passion.

Choice after choice after choice was pushed and nudged and bumped into place by systematic self-distrust and self-effacement in my head. I don’t regret the choices I made, not really. How could I? These choices have made me who I am. But they took a toll on me.

I stopped doing things I loved. I stopped being creative. During college, I didn’t do anything creative–I just did school and spent time with friends. I wrote a little poetry, but mostly for creative writing class. I painted and drew one semester, but again, for a class. I was happier than I’d been in a long time, but I still did it for the grade. I didn’t dance much. I didn’t cook or bake much. I didn’t write fiction or draw. If I was dying for creativity to stay sane, I’d indulge and make a batch of cookies or go for a walk. But it wasn’t a healthy habit–it was loosening the cap on a high-pressure container to let a little gas out so I could screw the lid back on, tight. So I could keep going, being productive, achieving goals, looking ahead.

And yes, I got shit done. But big changes happened to me, and I’m realizing I don’t know who I am now. What does “new” me like? Is that what “little me” liked? Were these things I identified with in the height of my fundydom really part of me, or just part of the alternate self I created to stay sane and fly under the legalism radar?

On Saturday I sat out on a slab of concrete above the James River in Richmond and started to make a list of things I knew about me. Trying to reintroduce myself to myself, in a way. I got overwhelmed pretty shortly after starting this list, because, shit, my life and choices don’t really give me space to breathe and be me. I’m not feeding myself, the breathing living creative soul-self. And I can’t just shove that aside and give it attention every few months to keep it from dying. I can’t just make choices for the sake of “balance” when my creative self is atrophied and disoriented–there is no balance without health in all parts.

Fighting fragments of evangelical Gnosticism keeps getting stranger and stranger. It’s not just the body we’ve forgotten, but the heart, too.

If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does following my gut leave me more rested and healthy and satisfied than constant self-control and vigilance in rational, Church-people-approved life choices? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why do I love beautiful things? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does caring for myself allow me to care for people better? It can’t just be the one thing. It much more likely to be both/and.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, 1662]

***

Edit: Here’s why this is a big deal. Go find a QF daughter or a woman who has spent significant time in either a legalistic church/family situation or a hyper-reformed group and ask her (if she’s still “in”) if she knows what her strengths are. Ask her what she likes about herself. Ask her what she wants her legacy to be. And if she’s “out,” ask her what she would have said when she was “in.”

I bet it’ll be really hard for her to say.


I’ve been busy elsewhere!

I was really honored to have Rachel Held Evans ask me to guest post for her on SGM a couple months ago, and she was patient with me as I kept pushing it off to recover from crazy life stuff. I finally got her a draft, she pared it down from it’s original [ridiculous] 8 pages of text, and goodness. What a response. Thank you, folks. 

From the post:

If you’ve believed the lie that your worst day is better than you, the sinner, deserve, if you’ve identified yourself with the name of Sinner for so long it’s inseparable from your self-confidence, let me dare you to believe that you are worth more than that. The New Testament overwhelmingly refers to those who love and follow Jesus as “believers” or “brethren” or “saints.” Not sinners. Saints.

If your experience in SGM was negative in similar ways to my story, please hop onto the comments and tell SGM pastor Stephen Altrogge that my story isn’t unique. I’m not surprised at his response — as a man and a pastor in SGM, you are insulated from the insanity and instead become a cog in the system. Help him see his blind spots?

Thank you, Rachel, for hosting this. Your support of survivors of spiritual abuse is heartening.

***

Back in April, my friend Kristen posted on Facebook that she wanted some models for her StoryTime workshop students to practice on. I had the day free, so I volunteered. I didn’t expect what happened next — I met the smart, sensitive, and delightful Megan Luckeroth, and we went exploring the Farm Park in Gaithersburg after talking for nearly an hour over coffee. We found flowers, horses, amazing trees, and got rained on. I loved it. She posted the shoot on her blog this week, and WOW. If you need a photographer in the Baltimore/DC area, she’s your gal.

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(c) Megan Luckeroth

 


I don’t know where to start.

A few weeks ago, I was at dinner with a friend in DC, and tried to make a list of all the crazy things that have happened since …I guess since I last posted. It’s been dizzying, and not all good. I feel like I want to go hide somewhere without people for three days just to try to make sense of it all, to write and think and breathe.

I haven’t been writing much, here. Telling stories for others instead of myself is a safe way to hide. I don’t really want to write much about my life here–I don’t want “messy life processing post-divorce” to define me. Here. At all.

But in another light, that stuff, the depression and awkward gestures toward healing, the gangly relational in-between as I grow into myself and my new life all over again, that is all part of my story. And to not write about it, for me, is a little bit of denial. I want to keep it all tightly private and hide it from all but a few close, safe friends, and then let you see the butterfly rebirth later. But that due date keeps getting pushed back and it’s a process that’s out of my hands and just so painfully slow and natural and un-time-able.

So maybe, maybe, I’ll try to straddle the divide and stay safe but let you see me a bit more. After all, I can’t be the only one whose post-courtship-ideals life fell apart. I can’t be the only one whose parents initially edged close to “I told you so,” and didn’t seem to understand that their involvement couldn’t have prevented things from going badly [but may even have made things worse with their attempts at “accountability”]. I can’t be the only CP/QF daughter whose marriage fell apart for reasons unrelated to courtship or parents, but possibly tied to the hurry and seriousness parents and courtship pressure forced on a nascent relationship. We’ll see if I can or will write about these things. I’m not sure yet.

I feel lonely a lot. I think that’s okay, though it’s hard. I keep wanting to react to it by creating busyness or change, by looking at job listings in California and New York, by committing to a flurry of projects. That’s not healthy, and this week I’ve done what I keep finding myself having to do with every element of this transition: go out alone and sit with it. Breathe into the stretch as it burns in the deep tissue of my soul. Feel not just the edges of the pain, but press into it and find the center.

Right now I’m living with good people who took me in and gave me a room. I saved up–finally got myself a car (despite no credit history!), working on getting an apartment, found a roommate, making plans. Things are coming together, I keep saying.

But even with things coming together, I’m going to be in transition for a while, I think. Filing for divorce in the DC area is really complicated, since there’s not a no-fault option in MD or DC. Being the organized one doesn’t really make my life easier, either. I’m really ready for that to be done and over, but I’m also stuck with the social stigma of “not-yet-legally-divorced” if I want to date casually or meet new people. I’m not quite a social pariah, but it’s uncomfortable.

Trying to keep some things stable, I’ve been gardening a lot. My host family has been so kind to let me use a couple of their garden beds, and I’ve got lettuce, cilantro, carrots, broccoli, peppers, garlic, squash, zucchini, mint, sunflowers, cosmos, poppies, alyssum, and bachelors buttons. I’ve recreated happy memories with these selections, pulling pieces of California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and buried them in the ground and watched them sprout, weeded and watered and thinned and harvested. It’s so healing.

I just finished the last day of Sunday school class, which I’ve been teaching weekly since last fall. This too has been a constant and a place where my life-mess doesn’t walk in the door with me. We sit around the table and fill out worksheets and talk about Jesus and the Israelites and the early church and ask questions and decide we don’t know everything, but we like that Jesus loves us.

Friendships have shifted, in all of this, and I’m not sure why (it’s not directly caused by people rejecting me because of the divorce), but it’s tangible and uncomfortable and strange. A lot of it is me changing and others not, and not being sure how to relate, how friendships work for this same-but-different self. I’m more introverted, more emotionally exhausted by social interaction. I like the slower pace of this, but it’s also awkward in general.

Expectations are low. I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be like, how I’ll deal, what promises will be broken, what to do with trust cast off and thrown back at me, what to do with my constant need to withdraw and protect myself. I haven’t been writing much. I feel like when I do, it will be a long slow process of telling myself my own stories and then reintroducing myself to myself, the new version who embraces her new identity and is moving forward.

I’ve been reading bell hooks a lot, again. All About Love: New Visions has been a lifeline to sanity. Similarly, Runaway Husbands by Vikki Stark (I may do a review of this one here soon). And I’ve been plunging into a lot of novels, novels that don’t have much to do with my world. Escapism isn’t wrong when you don’t have time to rest sometimes, right?

So hi. Maybe I’m back again. And if I’m not back as frequently as before, know that I will be again, after I’ve sat on the floor and breathed into the stretch of this season over and over again until I can tell you how it feels without falling to pieces.

Posts that resonated with me recently:

When Too Many Things Are Happening
How to Weather June


Dear readers. You’ve been following Jennifer’s story, here and here. You’ve rallied with gifts and notes and advice on the best tools for this budding graphic concept artist.

I thought we’d be doing really well if we raised $300 for her.

Today the count totalled just over $10,000. Most of that was donations of $5-15–individuals giving what they could, writing notes of encouragement and sending it on to Jennifer with love and goodwill. And then we got a couple very generous gifts from extraordinarily kind individuals, one of whom wants us to start a trust scholarship fund for Jennifer’s college tuition.

We’re still working out the details, but we’re hoping to find a church that will manage the fund for her and use the funds (less $1,800 designated specifically for her laptop and a portion of that earmarked for replacing her lost clothing) for her college tuition. Once that’s established, I’ll let you know so that if you still want to donate, you can send it directly to the scholarship fund at the church that we end up working with.

I cannot tell you how amazed Jennifer and her sister are at your overwhelming kindness. It means so much to discover that regular people like and care about you for you–and you all have really made that tangible with your generosity.

So, on behalf of Jennifer: thank you.


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.


A couple weeks back, it was 7:45 am and I was grumpy. My good friend Mark was arguing with me in the car on our way to the metro. We’ve been carpooling every day since Christmas, and he’s a morning person. And he likes to argue. Mark is one of my favorite people, but I’m not a morning person, not these days. Fortunately for both of us, he got smart and made me coffee on this particular morning. So I was enough of a person to keep up with his thoughts and wasn’t just smiling and nodding this time.

The subject at hand was how I tell stories on my blog. He was bothered, because he knew there’s a post I wrote where I told a story about a guy who told me that God told him that I was The One. What he knows is that it’s not just one story, but two or three similar stories, cobbled together to eliminate identifying details and avoid highlighting just one person. I did this because I wanted to use the story, the particular line “God told me you were the one,” without being unkind to the person(s) who used that line. But it’s my story — it happened to me. So I know I have the right to tell it, but I want to be judicious.

His objection is that cobbling the stories together isn’t true and so he was telling me that I shouldn’t have told the story at all if I wasn’t going to be faithful to tell exactly how it happened.

We ended up agreeing to disagree, but I keep thinking back to this conversation. I still think what I did was fine, but there have been some instances lately where bloggers have appropriated the stories and experiences of others they know in order to make a point later on in the post.

There’s a formula for this, and it goes like so:

  1. Great Quote For Hook
  2. Full Anecdote In Longer Story Form With Tweetable Soundbites
  3. Transition About How Blogger Reflects On Story/Event/Moment
  4. Bible Verses And Some Explication
  5. Full Point of Post, Driven Home
  6. Catchy Close-Out Lines, Usually Tweetable

It works well for blogging, and though I will probably continue to wryly jab at it in private, I use it sometimes myself. It makes sense — the story and the soundbites are palatable, quick, and engaging. It’s the same method used by the devotionals our mothers kept in the powder rooms of our childhood homes. It’s not quite storytelling and it’s not quite theology and it meets the layman’s need for a quick wisdom story snack in a pinch.

But it’s bad theology and bad art, most of the time. It’s the writer’s Thomas Kinkade — not technically talented, not true to life or true to truth. It makes you feel good and think on nice things for a few minutes, and then you leave it, largely unchanged.

No, no, you say. Your favorite bloggers have changed you! They are good writers!

Yes, they can be. I’ve been hugely influenced, challenged, healed, moved by deep and heart-full blog posts, had my understanding of theology shaken and made strong by fantastic theological posts, and have witten my fair share of attempts at thoughtful stuff here.

But the best bloggers either let story have full reign and use the power of the narrative to make a point without telling you what it is at the end, just to make sure you get it. This is why Deeper Story has been such a huge thing for the Christian blogging community. They tell stories for the sake of the story, because it moved them, changed them as Christians. But they let their readers do the legwork of connecting the dots, respecting their intelligence and prizing the power of a good story told well.

And this is why bloggers like Rachel Held EvansDianna Anderson, Libby Anne, and Peter Enns have been so successful, too. They write layman’s theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. on their blogs, and they respect their readers and the craft of writing. I see this when they don’t rely on cheap story hooks or anecdotes to grab their readers’ attention, when they don’t make every line purple prose or tweetable, when they treat their readers like smart, thinking adults who want to practice their faith (or lack thereof) with intellectual integrity.

But then you get post’s like Preston’s this morning on Deeper Story, which lectured instead of telling a story. And posts like mine, with the cobbled-together details of three events in one to make a point. And posts like Emily’s on Prodigal, which hurt so many people with her flippant aside about her grandmother’s suicide.

And there’s something there worth saying, worth telling. It burns in our bones until we write it. Preston’s post was good and timely for a host of reasons. People responded overwhelmingly and positively to mine. Emily’s written a follow-up post about her grandmother’s suicide, telling more, trying to tell it better.

But we need to know when to tell a story and when to write an essay. Blogging is too quick, too easy, sometimes. Slowing down, picking the right genre and the right platform for a piece can make the difference between choosing the good or the best.

***

I’d like to respond a bit specifically to Preston’s discussion of how we tell stories and how we preach here, on our little corners of the internet. As I said, it’s a good post. But all these thoughts about stories and how we tell them got stirred up by it, and I have some problems with what he said (as well as with his choice of platform).

I agree with him in essence. When you’re telling stories for a didactic point, your theology matters, because otherwise you’re prostituting story to make a theological argument, and the story is a manipulative tool to open the heart of the reader to the follow-up message.

Christians are particularly prone to this type of narrative, the story-moral-go-therefore. We like to have a good story because we’re human. But because we’re Christian and Everything Matters Because Of The Gospel, we crave that tidy conclusion or moral. We want the platitude, the answer, the systematic theology. We are just like the two housewives in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.” We have a platitude for every situation in life and we want to tell you about it. No life event, no personal story, no heartache is exempt.

But it doesn’t work like that. You can’t have good art with a platitude at the end, you can’t tell a story and have the story be good if you’re trying to tie it down to a moral-shaped chair. It will wriggle and writhe and resist, and you’ll start chopping off limbs to make it fit just so, and soon you have the bleeding stump of a story, lying still and interesting and ugly, all nicely fitting on your platitude-shaped chair. This is what happened with Emily’s post and her comment about her grandmother. It sort of fit the point she was making, so she trimmed it down to size for effect, and voila! You have a hook. But it’s bad art and bad art usually means bad theology. Respect the form of the story, the craft of argumentation and rhetoric, and you’ll have good art. Don’t bastardize it for your platitude.

Good theology can be captured in a story, but the story has to be dominant and the metaphor cannot be stretched to unnatural places that bend the story out of shape and out of sorts.

***

I have one other problem with Preston’s post: not everyone can go to St. Andrews college and sit under N.T. Wright and devote their lives to theology. Not everyone has time or resources for exegesis, learning Greek well, or examining the pre-Nicean fathers. I have friends who do these things and I am so excited for them because it’s needed and good and sacred. And, quite frankly, I wish I was able to do all these things, too. And maybe I feel a bit helpless because my life situation doesn’t allow me to be in that season or that place, studying theology and Church history the way they deserve to be studied. And I feel like a bit of an academic beggar, craving a bit more information, a bit more depth, the crumbs from the table of our best seminaries. (Not to mention the myriad of posts I could write about how this makes me feel as a post-QF woman who grew up being told women couldn’t be pastors or argue theology well if their male headship said it wasn’t so.)

I am happy for Preston. Deeper Story and readers like me benefit from his immersion in the world of academic theology. It’s really cool for him and good for us. I hope he doesn’t stop blogging.

But he’s also the beneficiary of educational privilege. And, quite frankly, it’s not fair to expect that everyone study theology as well or as thoroughly as he is able to. Writers of your average Christian-issues-intellectually-thoughtful blog aren’t scholars. We have day jobs and commutes, children and husbands, life drama, depression, PTSD, church commitments, etc. We are the Body. We have different parts to play.

So, yes. We need to be careful to pick our genre correctly, to use integrity in our storytelling, and to take care with our theology. We need to learn our limits and not try to tell stories that aren’t ours or write essays we’re not qualified to write.

Yet, yet. It’s okay to be messy and make mistakes and accidentally write a heretical post and have to take it back later when we realize we’re wrong (one of my favorite things about the bloggers I read is that they’re not afraid to write apology posts and say they were wrong). Let’s try to be realistic about our expectations.

[But when you all start writing books and have proper editors and academic resources, all bets are off, my friends.]


There’s a poem that’s stuck with me, become part of me, since I first read it as a junior in college. It’s a sonnet from the novel Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers (just read it. Lord Peter is fantastic.), and after some frustration over not having my copy with me, I found it online. Here you are:

That Still Centre
Here, then, at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone through dizzying circles hurled,
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that we upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying, so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.

At one point, this picture of marriage is what I hoped to live out with my ex — I craved to have that tension and stillness, to dwell in a stable core of life in the middle of a whirling crazy world.

Obviously, that didn’t really happen. But what I have begun to discover is that still point, the fixed center of my experience of life, isn’t dependent on who I’m with or what I’m doing. (And honestly, I’ve been discovering that since this time last year when things started disintegrating, but as usual, I write about what I learn about a year after I walk it out.)

The still center is something I have to fight for at times, but it’s some unspeakable core of me, grown together with my sense of grace (it’s got me and I’m stuck), my constant struggle to make for myself a place, and a growing self-awareness of who I am and how I am and why. I know it sounds self-preoccupied, but when you grow up with codependency and party-line positions as defining norms, this is a big deal. Knowing who I am and liking it and not accepting the hurtful things other people have said about me or to me if they don’t ring true with this core-of-me is liberating.

And everyone keeps saying that this is defined by my identity in Christ and that is true in a sense, but it’s more helpful for me to see that inverted: I can be comfortable in my own skin because this is how I was made to be. I’m not absorbed in Christ, but a creation of his. And he called it good.

But in the busyness of responding to the over-50 emails and Facebook messages I got last week (thank you, everyone. So much kindness.) and the face-to-face conversations where I have to tell my story again because I love this person and owe them that, and the busyness of my real life day job that keeps me on my toes, and so many ideas (Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week! Grad school! Career ideas! Writing a novel! Writing poems! Writing ANYTHING! READ ALL THE BOOKS!), I have been having to fight to protect myself from myself, from saying yes to everyone and everything that is good. I’m so bad at this. I am too curious about stories and ideas and want to absorb it all. It’s not obligatory commitment guilt, it’s can’t-turn-off-the-curiosity overkill.

However, it’s been good for me, in other ways. Structure, ideas, creativity — these things keep me from lingering too long on things I shouldn’t give into, and I am thankful for that. But this is partly all to say: I love everybody but if communication is slow or I’m not able to see you in person, please be understanding. Be patient with me?

Today’s a snow day, so I’m playing catch up and working from home and enjoying the slower pace. Not commuting for 3 hours gives me a lot of my day back!

Today’s office

 

In the meantime, here’s my current reading list for kicks and giggles. What’s overwhelming you this week? What are YOU reading or writing about?

  1. Dangerous Angels, Francesca Lia Block — happy light reading for my tired brain, thanks to friends who understand. And Weetzie is darling.
  2. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen — picked this up at Kramerbooks on Friday, and started it on the train home. No verdict yet.
  3. The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris — Oh my word, this book is balm to my soul. I read this most mornings on the train and her meditations are the perfect way to start the day. I have lots of thoughts about her discussion of celibacy and the virgin martyrs. Anyone else want to talk about this? It’s really good. My grandmother foisted it on me over Christmas and she knows everything.
  4. Theology of the Body for Beginners, Christpher West — Not a Catholic, but super curious about JPII’s magnum opus as theology of the body (er, lack thereof) is one of my favorite Evangelicals-are-missing-something soapboxes.

There are others I’ve started and neglected sitting around my room, but these are my buddies for right now. And I’m starting to really miss having the rest of my books out and with me. How do other transient reader folk deal with this issue?


So, there’s this lawsuit against the denomination (or in their lingo, the “movement” or “family of churches”) that founded the cult-like church I grew up in, where the leaders are being accused of deliberately obstructing justice and preventing sexual abusers of children to live without consequences while making the children “reconcile” with their abusers.

I wish I was making this up.

Now, Christianity Today is running a piece with a quote from the current SGM spokesperson from back in November, essentially expressing that the leaders are affronted that someone would dare bring this lawsuit against them, because it undermines their authority and reputation.

Here’s the quote:

“SGM believes that allowing courts to second-guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse,” Tommy Hill, SGM’s director of administration, said in a November 14 statement.

They argue that they didn’t need to report these abusers to the law, because the knowledge they had falls under a protection established to preserve the trust of a parishioner/confessor relationship. The problem is this: the abusers didn’t confess initially to the pastors. The parents of the victims and the victims themselves were the ones bringing the report to the pastors. The pastors then proceeded to take what they considered to be appropriate action: in most of these cases (and any other cases of this nature that I’ve ever heard of in my ten years in SGM) the victim was asked about his/her sinful desires which might have caused this situation to start (translation: did you want it? were you asking for it? your heart is deceitful–you might not have been aware of your secret sinful desires. No exaggeration of content, just tone.), and then eventually attempted to conjure a “reconciliation” between the abuser and the victim. Often this entailed apologies on both sides and the expectation of a hug to show goodwill. And while the perpetrator might be, say, removed from helping in Sunday School, he/she would be allowed free range at their home church, in the community, at Bible studies, and at church conferences. And no one outside of those present for the “reconciliation” would know about what had transpired.

This is fucked up. That’s pretty obvious, from a basic human standpoint, let alone a legal or “biblical” one.

I don’t like writing about SGM stuff often. But I think I need to now, because I was in SGM for 10 years and I get how the system works and why this has happened.

Here’s the thing that most outsiders won’t understand: this sort of interaction is objectively wrong, but when you’re immersed in the all-consuming culture that is your average SGM church, you can’t tell.

Let me walk you through the mindset a bit? It’s hard to understand, and I won’t go so far to say you get brainwashed, but you definitely become numb to certain things: lack of appropriate boundaries, pastoral manipulation, guilt trips, performance-based social approval, etc.

You stop thinking critically, because questioning things is ever-so-subtly frowned upon. It’s welcomed, objectively, but you feel slight displeasure or get sidelined because of suddenly busy schedules (because, obviously, if you have questions, you’re asking your pastor to help you understand things better, not studying on your own, because they have slowly, subtly made you dependent on their approval for your confidence in your discernment and spiritual maturity). You get asked to save your questions for after care group, or referred to Systematic Theology (which will probably not answer your question), or be assured that this is really a common concern, and they plan to address it in a sermon series in the fall. Just wait.

So, the mindset.

You arrive at a SGM church. You’re starving for genuine believers who want to talk deeply about their faith and personal struggles and you’re welcomed to the local church with open arms and dinner invitations and suddenly you’re finding that these are really, really nice people. And they seem so happy.

So you start attending their care group. And the material they are studying is heavy in theological terms and discussions of sin, and God’s glory, and God’s sovereign plan. You feel excited that you have found believers who take their faith so seriously and seem to be growing in the Lord.

And you enjoy the sermons and the Sunday morning music–they have a great band, the songs are meaty and not Jesus-is-my-boyfriend-and-4-chords, and the pastors are funny, self-deprecating, and they talk in-depth about verses and reference commentaries and historical context and you feel excited, because this is intellectual AND heartfelt, and they seem so genuine. The pastor seems so humble and tender. You can see yourself “getting plugged in” here for the long-term.

Then, as your first year or two passes, you learn about other things.

The women’s meetings where there’s a joke/illustration about how the godly mom the speaker admires doesn’t even have a junk drawer, she’s so organized. That’s so hospitable of her, to keep her home welcoming and clean! This honors God!

There might be a care group meeting where you’re asked to look back on the last year–where did you fail? Where did you see God “growing you”? Where do you want to grow in your faith this next year? Who is going to keep you accountable to it? And the idea of accountability groups is introduced: a biweekly meeting of 2 or 3 church members of the same sex, where you ask each other “hard questions” about spiritual disciplines and growth–where have you been “struggling” lately? what do you need to repent of? how can you make it right with person you sinned against (they may not even be aware of it!)? do you have any “observations” for me?

You feel encouraged. Areas of weakness are being exposed and you’re getting support from your friends to try to grow and work on them! You have strong Christian friends who really care!

And other things happen. You are urged to be faithful with your giving, so you splurge and give generously to the building fund. You are compelled by someone’s example to go get involved in Sunday School. You want to grow in the feminine, biblical virtue of hospitality, so you have some friends over for dinner once a week. You help make food for care group. You plan baby showers, surprise birthday parties, trips to the movies (where everything is pre-screened via Rotten Tomatoes to make sure that no one will be made to “stumble” because of temptations in the movie related to their sins they’re currently working on). You get really excited when the senior pastor’s daughter-in-law asks you to babysit for her kids one evening–what an honor! You do it for free. You and your husband are hoping to improve your marriage to grow in ways you see the older couples living out godly marriages, so you study books like The Complete Husband, and urge him to make sure he’s got accountability partners for his struggles with lust (because he’s a guy. Duh, he’s always lusting. We know this.), and you schedule yourselves a weekly date night and you try not to have too many expectations for it, so there’s a chance of a deep conversation.

If you have kids, you ask the older moms for wisdom and so they start giving you input. This input morphs into regular unsolicited critiques, and you realize you have to be really serious about spanking the right way, and not letting disobedience on the first issue of a command slide anymore. Your kids need to learn not to interrupt adults, not to be angry or fussy, because you’ll get an observation from some other mom if they see you struggling to control the tone of your family. Oh, and you’re a stay-at-home mom, because that’s God’s best plan and highest calling for you as a woman.

You offend your friend by snapping at her one day over a nothing when you’re stressed, and she writes you a long email later, offering her concerns for the pride and anger residing in your heart. She cares about you, so she’s going to point it out! But you really need to repent and work on that. Maybe have longer quiet times and do a study on peace and gentleness? You wonder if she’s right, or if it’s just that you were overtired and hungry, and that’s not normal. You ask your husband to keep you accountable, and you show the email to your care group leader’s wife, who urges you to take it seriously and to pray about trying to reconcile with your friend. Later your husbands may meet for lunch, to discuss how to handle this reconciliation. They schedule a double date, where you apologize to her (you’re probably crying, because this is sin and it’s serious and you feel terrible because this sort of thing is what put Jesus on the cross for you. You are such a vile sinner!), and she welcomes the  apology, and then tells you that she spoke with your care group leader and his wife, too. They have some concerns about your pride, because you didn’t seem to be very receptive to the rebuke at first. Maybe you should meet with them as three couples and talk about it? You’re mortified and want to make it right, so you agree. Your husbands probably don’t say much. Your friend hugs you and tells you how she loves you and is praying for you and really wants to help you grow–that’s all!

The three-way meeting with the care group leader will be the end of this, if you are meek and receptive and don’t argue or question their input. This will end with a time of prayer, and much thankfulness will be expressed over your humble, teachable spirit!  Sunday’s sermon is about how you are supposed to make it easy for your pastors to care for you by being teachable and transparent to them, and you feel encouraged. You’re finally on the way to being purified, and man, are you thankful for the cross! Jesus must have suffered a lot to save you. So amazing.

…and then live that way for ten years.

You have the perfect storm for socially quick, manipulative personalities to rise quickly in the ranks of the church leadership, for the depressed and hurting to beat themselves up for their sins and keep accepting any critiques of their attitudes or actions, and the insecure to always, always second-guess their own instincts and instead choose to follow the advice and corrective teachings of those in authority over them.

It’s not brainwashing, but it’s a social immersion into a culture where you lose your sense of self, your boundaries, your privacy, and your ability to reason independently in a slow fade to submissive SGM church member, fiercely loyal to the great people and genuine culture of faith there.

It’s insane.

And so, in that world, your child tells you that so-and-so at care group touched their private parts. You are furious. You confront this person, you tell your care group leader. Your care group leader tells you that he’s going to bring this up with your pastor and get back to you (because no one thinks to call the cops yet), and the pastor wants to meet with you (maybe you’ve never had any one-on-one time with your pastor before, so you feel affirmed and like he’s taking it seriously)…and then you’re angry in the meeting toward your child’s molester, and you get confronted about your anger, and, and, and…

Suddenly, the SGM sin-confrontation system has kicked into high gear, and the child abuse has take a back seat (because, it’s only on the child’s word, and children are so sinful and need to be trained to love Jesus and not walk in their flesh)…

And it never gets reported. And your child is made to hug his/her abuser. And the abuser is seen as repentant and restored, and you think, well, maybe it’ll be okay. That process of rooting out sin is really thorough. And they have so much accountability–from their accountability partner and their care group leader and from the pastor.

And nothing is done about it.

Until now.


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.