I feel like Stuff Christian Culture Likes is the comedy version of my Immodesty Rail pieces. If you don’t know Stephanie Drury‘s work yet, check it out. Her best work may be her themed Twitter search-and-retweet moments.

So, along those lines: stuff Christian culture likes [to do]:

Demand inappropriate justification for deeply personal decisions.

Maybe this is also a Southern culture thing. But if the South is Christ-haunted, the culture there is certainly also very inbred with church culture.

For example: when a divorced Christian (or a Christian dating a divorced person) is asked by another Christian if the divorce occurred on “biblical grounds” (or a similar question). You think you’re supported by someone, you think your trauma (if you’re the divorcé[e]) or joy (if you’re dating one) is safe to share with this particular person, and then you get hit with the icy water of presumption and judgment. And in that moment between the asking and the telling, you know that your ability to be vulnerable with this person ever again is dependent upon your answer. You are on the defensive, and you have to prove to the other person that your choices are worth their respect, that your decisions are good enough for them to take you seriously–either just as a mature adult, or as a “true” Christian.

It’s kinda traumatizing, and it’s irrational. It’s the milder, more benevolent version of that same sort of thinking that leads people to ask a rape victim if s/he was asking for it.

And I don’t think Christians mean to be so hurtful and oblivious–the discourse of most American Christian culture is premised on the assumption that love looks like challenging each other to be our best selves (in some way or another), instead of loving each other as if we were our best selves. The burden of hope should be placed on the possibility of being one’s best self, not on the act of achieving that possibility. It’s basic Works vs. New Identity in Christ stuff.

When I first told people what had happened, what my ex had decided, someone close to me asked me “What’s your theology of divorce?” and I was just devastated. Compassion and care and offers of support and help should have been the first response I got from this individual, not a one-line request to justify my actions (or, really, my ex’s actions). 

Similarly, demanding to know if there were “biblical grounds” for a divorce is like asking if a rape was legitimate. You don’t do it.

The concept of “biblical grounds” itself is flawed in the same ways that the idea of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is flawed–cultural norms are interlaced with the textual directives and you cannot draw a simple, direct parallel across the ages and say that the Bible’s most direct standards for grounds for divorce are culturally appropriate today. There is definitely ethical overlap, but the framework must be contextualized for the sake of interpretational integrity.

Beyond that, the thing that most people who haven’t personally experience a divorce (and even some who have) overlook is this: it’s more common for people to take the decision to go through with a divorce much, much more seriously than they do the decision to get married. They just don’t jump into it in a rush, eyes blinded by emotion. Some do, naturally, but it’s legally much easier to get married than to get divorced, and there’s a usually whole lot less incentive to change the status quo by ending a marriage. It’s hard to untangle two lives, it’s hard to go through the legal process and emerge intact, and it’s socially much, much harder to tell your friends and family that you’re divorcing than it is to tell them you’re getting hitched.

Black and white assumptions never help anyone. Compassion is an act of the imagination, at its root, and so before you go and ask if a marriage ended on “biblical grounds” or “who was at fault?” take a moment and put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what it must be like to be in that place.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

[for some good voices on divorce and healing, check out: Natalie Trust, Letters From Scarlet, and A Christian Girl’s Guide to Divorce]


I think it’s silly how so many of us took to the blogs when the Church gatekeepers wouldn’t listen to us, and how so many of us are now so invested in policing each other.

To counter that, I’d like to talk about this year. This year has been terrible, you all know that. My going away gathering in DC before I moved to LA (appropriately) was one where my friend strung a banner over the doorway that read “Fuck 2013.” I loved her for it.

a room full of reasons why I actually love 2013

a room full of reasons why I actually love 2013

But the other thing about this year is how beautiful it’s been because of the good people who have been there for me. I’ve gotten to meet so many of my blogging friends, I’ve lived out this year almost entirely in other people’s spare bedrooms and on their couches, and I have not lacked anything.

Do you remember those Xanga posts people used to do where they’d write a post with five little somethings to five different people, without naming those people? It’d be like: Things I Wish I Could Say To You! and then they’d write out those things and just leave it open to interpretation who they were talking about. [Probably all of Taylor Swift’s songs started this way, let’s be honest.]

I’d like to do that for Thanksgiving, but as a thank you, not as a bitter-ex-friend-message. If you’ve been touched, healed, held, changed, loved, heard, supported by good folks online, real-life friends, authors (or even books, articles, movements, or movies you found through the blogosphere), join me for a link up on Friday where we don’t name names, don’t patrol the borders of our favorite community, and don’t judge each other if we realize someone is thanking a heretic, a misogynist, a politician, or an Autostraddle author. Everyone’s journey is different, and we each have things we’ve learned and been grateful for that may have originated in odd or socially non-Kosher places.

Here’s a sample of what I want to see, a real-life thank you to someone who’s been a huge part of this year:

Thank you for letting me cry in your kitchen, for dragging me to your in-laws, for buying my favorite beer and sharing your ice cream, for giving me space when the noise in my head got too loud, for letting me say all the most inappropriate things that popped into my head, for helping me pack and unpack at least three times, for picking me up at the Metro in the cold and rain when I called at the last minute, for venting about the internet with me, and for always answering the phone when I needed you, even if if was after you just had a car accident. Thanks for your real friendship when we were both reeling from years of charades. <3

Join me on Friday and let’s link up together to each share at LEAST five unidentified thanks to those who have made 2013 a better, more whole, and more healing year for us.

There’s no limit on who or what you can thank. But let’s take a moment to appreciate the good that this community is capable of doing for a hurting soul.


tumblr_lit34l7Xvj1qg205no1_500

source: pinterest

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

“I know, but I hear you,” I thought.

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naivety is both endearing and infuriating.

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

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

Apparently everyone is a little bit lost at 25.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.]

 

 

 


Day 3 : Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

I write here is because it’s my way of processing, owning my story. I write so that other people’s narratives don’t drown out my own. One of my coping mechanisms with stress is to block out emotions after something’s happened, so accessing the memory becomes just actions and no feelings. So writing my story and writing how it’s affected me emotionally and spiritually has been a huge part of reclaiming it for myself as my experience, not just something I was there for but allowed others to narrate for me.

This has become a place of healing for me. It may always be necessary, but it shouldn’t.

Pastors, you bear a heavy burden of responsibility. You have good intentions.

Parents, you bear a more intimately heavy burden of responsibility. You have the best of intentions.

But we’re still writing. Spiritual abuse is still something that we need to raise awareness about. We still have to forge for ourselves emotional permission to speak up about how we hurt.

This past week has been all about that. Giving ourselves permission to tell our stories. In a way, we’ve been writing with ourselves as the audience.

But we’re writing for you, too. We started Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week to try to open the discussion about what we’ve lived through in a way that doesn’t frighten those who haven’t been hurt. Reading about spiritual abuse is scary for those who haven’t lived it or seen it. It scares you into second-guessing your church and your parenting: could this be us? no, it couldn’t–could it?

The unfortunate truth — and one thing that I really hope you will remember — is that it could. It could be you. It could be your church. It could be anyone. The best intentions and good doctrine don’t necessarily protect us against our own human impulses to control and dominate others.

Here’s some basic things I’d encourage parents and pastors to try to be aware of in hope of ending this cycle:

  1. Study the Shepherding Movement and how they used religious guilt and shame to control people. American Evangelicals have pretty much all been influenced by this movement in one way or another.
  2. Watch your legalism. Being right and being “good” never, ever, ever trumps Jesus’s love for his own, exactly as they are. No one is your personal project. If you ever feel that way, back off now.
  3. Watch your Gnosticism. Separating feelings/body from the mind/spiritual is dangerous and heretical. Don’t push people to act one way in hopes their feelings will follow.
  4. Create and respect safe places. Boundaries are good. Intimate community is good, but it’s protected by healthy boundaries and respecting each other’s limits.

***

Thanks to everyone who participated! If you wrote for this week and didn’t get to link up, please connect me to your post(s) in the comments! 

Elora and I have been discussing making a free ebook available with a collection of all the posts — this would serve as a resource and a reference tool for those writing about this or interested in learning how spiritual abuse works and how to prevent it. It would also help educate the Church about the needs of survivors. If you have a strong preference either way, please let us know. We’ll be in touch with those who have posted to solicit permission to use the materials. If you have something you’d like to submit to this in the spirit of this past week’s synchroblog, feel free to get in touch with either of us to discuss that option further. Thank you!

***

Resources:

Day 1 link-up
Day 2 link-up
Day 3 link-up

The Rebel Diaries

Rachel Held Evans’ “Into the light” series

A post I wrote before in a similar vein is here: When you haven’t been hurt (how to relate to those hurt by spiritual abuse).


Hi. I’m tardy. But that’s okay, right? We’re all messy here.

You wouldn’t believe this week. But I’m going to rest this weekend. It’s so needed. 

Tonight I offer you my post for SAAW day 2! I’m going to write this SAAW response now, and then write the day 3 response tomorrow, if I can. There might be naps or Buffy in between.

***

Day 2 (March 20) is hosted by Joy Bennett of Joy In This Journey

Day 2: Your journey and consequences of spiritual abuse

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

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

On Wednesday, I was returning to the office after running downstairs to Illy for coffee (it has been such a sleep-deprived week. You have no idea.) and I got into one of the six elevators and pressed the button for the 5th floor like I always do. The elevator creaked and sighed its way up and then hovered and rested softly at the landing. The doors shuddered, then stayed shut. I was trapped. I pushed the “door open” button several times, then the button for the floor, and then I realized it wasn’t going to open.

I paused, sipped my coffee, and eyed the emergency call button. I took another sip. Then I began hitting buttons again, but nothing happened. I wondered about what it would be like if the elevator dropped, and tried one more time before making the emergency call.

The doors slid open, and I stepped out with a deep breath and headed back to my desk. I didn’t feel panicked and I should have called maintenance about it, but I didn’t. It should have been scary, but it wasn’t.

Spiritual abuse combined with my intense childhood years in a big family leaves me a bit odd. I am numb or too okay in situations where I should be experiencing an emotional reaction, yet other things which should be fine and easy are instead crippling and laced with fear.

I won’t freak out in a scary situation where I’m alone or feel like I’m responsible for someone. That has been drummed out of me–I’m the oldest, I’m the responsible one, I fix things, don’t make it worse. But if I’m with a male I subconsciously see as an authority figure? FREAK OUT. I let myself be “weak” out of habit, almost as if I’m trying to manipulate him into taking charge. I may be a functional egalitarian, but my subconscious sometimes won’t let me shake off the hierarchy of complementarian gender roles.

Because I had a particularly bad instance of translation in the NASB used against me in a damaging way, I find myself really struggling to not snark or react strongly to the use of that translation.

When the ESV is used, I hear the voice of the senior pastor at my old church, reading Ephesians, Galatians, Nehemiah, Jeremiah. And I can’t hear the beauty of those books without the layers of legalism and sin-obsessed guilt he laid upon those passages as he preached his way through them, while I took scrupulous notes.

The phrase “do unto others” makes me feel suffocated. It’s a good truth, but we heard it so often in our family that it became a tool to guilt each other into compliance.

“She’s such a/you’re such a blessing,” “by the grace of God,” “thank God,” “I just feel a check in my spirit,” “I felt the Spirit leading me to,” “thank you for serving” — all these phrases make me cringe. I deliberately avoid these phrases (although sometimes, like on Sunday night, I really am led by the Spirit to do something and then my language gets flustered), because these are the things said in SGM to frame discussions, decisions, and limit the scope of reasoning to a simplistic universe. These phrases are stifling, and lack descriptive inspiration, and I refuse their loaded SGM meanings any place in my world.

When I meet a gregarious, smart, thoughtful man in authority, I have to check myself against either completely distrusting him or completely accepting him, because of the pastors I was under and the loyalty they demanded.

When someone is 100% happy with choices and ideologies that would have perpetuated the spiritually abusive patterns I lived under, I have to hold myself back to keep from judging them or feeling like they’re fake. What may have been damaging for me might not be damaging for them, and if it is in fact damaging, they may not be able to recognize that yet, and I can’t fix them or rush them to change. It’s not my place. It’s not my decision.

I get impatient and uncomfortable with “contemporary worship music”–it feels like a performance of “worship” and it drags me back to when how you behaved during the Sunday morning song set in church was a performance for those you hoped would notice and think you humble and godly. And similarly, long sermons with any theologically questionable roots (or a too self-assured pastoral tone) make me really twitchy.

The worst though, are sermons about things like the prodigal son, about God’s unconditional fatherly love for us, his constant love and acceptance and grace. These are the best sermons, but the worst days. If I can’t sit through it, I usually end up crying in the hallway somewhere until I can see straight and go back in time for communion.

These are my scars, the ones most obvious to me. I am healing. I am strong. But these have become part of me, too.

This is part of a series on spiritual abuse. The post from day 1 is here, and the link up for day 2 is here.


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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe, relax, cry, and heal.

 ***

 

Caleigh blogs over at The Profligate Truth.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let my cry come unto Thee.


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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I complied. Or tried to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.