Lent-ills

Easter has always been my least favorite Sunday to go to church. I’m sure that as a child my distaste was mostly due to the custom of dressing up more than usual. I resisted any efforts my family made in that department. I once wore my California Raisins t-shirt for a week and was quite miffed at having to change. That was last year. Just kidding. Maybe. But it’s not the dressing up that gets to me anymore. It’s the fact that most of the Easter services I’ve attended in the past few decades have felt like high school pep rallies.

I liked high school pep rallies. What wasn’t to like? We all got pumped up to cheer on the football team for the inevitable win that night. My high school’s football team didn’t lose my junior or senior year. I didn’t play on it, so I can’t take much credit, but I did paint my face a few times, and my senior year I even made a joyful noise with a bass drum as part of our drumline.

The principal of my elementary school (the years I wasn’t homeschooled) told us we should be as excited about Jesus as we were about our favorite sports teams. Granted, the bar was set pretty low. It was the ‘80s in Georgia. We didn’t exactly have to fight the crowd at Braves games. But even that was a tough measure for me to reach, and my apparent apathy was especially poignant during Easter services.

All these people around me seemed genuinely moved by “Up from the Grave He Arose.” And why wouldn’t they be? We were singing about the resurrection of Jesus, the triumph of life over death, and the key to our salvation. My elementary school principal was right. This was a big deal. But I just couldn’t get into it. So, I did what any good, Christian boy would do. I faked it. God forbid the people around me have any sense that I wasn’t rejoicing in the central event in Christian theology!

I was pretty paranoid that someone would find out. My entire identity was predicated on being the best Christian anyone knew, and, other than the fear someone would find me out, I was completely emotionless on Easter Sunday. For years, as I sat in various church pews, hoping resurrection jubilation was contagious, I wondered why. It occurred to me that the simplest explanation was that I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe Jesus actually rose from the dead. I put that thought out of my mind as best I could, going so far as to proselytize to others, hoping concern for their salvation would take my mind off my own. It didn’t help. I was terrified.

I’m beginning my fourth year of my longest continuous therapy, and something powerful is happening. I’m becoming increasingly aware of how angry I have been and the exhausting work my mind has done to keep it under the surface. I have not been explosive. I have not lashed out at people. Instead, I’ve just been tired. I’ve learned to shut down to keep any “negative” feelings away because I’ve been so afraid of what might come out. So, I’ve just been numb. It’s been impossible for me to engage fully in any meaningful work or relationship because it’s felt too dangerous to be fully present. I have been that full of rage.

So, back to Easter Sunday after Easter Sunday, sitting in church, singing words I want to believe to songs I don’t care about, wondering why I can’t feel anything….and I think I finally get it.

My father died when I was 9 years old. As is normal in any loss, at first it didn’t seem permanent. I expected my dad to come back, and my young mind invented all kinds of elaborate fantasies around his return. It’s been nearly 29 years now, and he still hasn’t come back. I still don’t know exactly what I felt when he died or in the years soon after. What I suspect is that I was incredibly angry. I now know that rage is a natural response to both helplessness and loss, and those two words pretty much sum up what I tried so hard not to feel back then.

Our religious culture taught me to eschew “negative” emotions. It further taught me that emotions are wholly unreliable. What we have is The Truth. It’s in black and white and sometimes in red. Those words are what we can know, what we can trust. They are what we BELIEVE. And those words say that on the third day Jesus rose again. Good for fucking Jesus. My father sure didn’t.

After all these years, I’ve come to believe that celebrating the power of God in the resurrection of the dead without being able to verbalize my own grief about my father’s death was torturing my mind. If God was so powerful…? If death was impotent…? I was SO angry. But I wasn’t allowed to be angry, so I just shut down. I just sat there, cold and lonely, while the people around me cheered for a team I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on anymore.

Am I ok?

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”—Talmud

In the spring of 1995 I attended Youth Legislature through the Tennessee YMCA. We had moved to Franklin, TN the fall before, and I was a sophomore in a new school. As part of the conference, we attended lectures on “hot topics” in Tennessee politics. With some of my classmates, I attended one on gay and lesbian rights. The presenter, a lawyer who identified as lesbian, talked about some of the current legal issues around sexual orientation. At the end of 45 minutes, she began to take questions. I’ll never forget one of those questions because I asked it: “What do you do with the fact that God hates homosexuality?” The presenter responded, “I don’t think God does, but if you’d like to talk more, I invite you to come speak with me at the end of the hour.”

I took her up on her offer. I don’t know what I was expecting—horns, books about devil worship, 666 tattooed on her wrist, etc.—but what I got was ten minutes of grace from a kind woman who had recently been informed (I’m sure not for the first time) from the ignorant asshole standing in front of her that people with her sexual orientation are shunned by God. She gave me her business card, and told me to call her if I ever wanted to talk more. I did…eight years later.

But that’s another story. This one ends with me going up to watch some proceedings in the senate balcony, sitting by one of the junior students at my school, and telling her about the lecture. She said, “I know! Isn’t that just gross?” I’m not sure how I responded. I was shocked. Were people around me anti-gay because they were prejudiced? I assumed we were all on the same page. We weren’t personally offended. We were just proclaiming God’s Truth to the world. But the “Truth” we identified wasn’t handed down from the heavens, leather-bound and inked in black and red. It was fought over by men whose vision and understanding were limited by their cultures, their prejudices, and their agendas.

Sometimes I still wonder why I felt the need to stand up and ask that question. Outwardly, of course, I was “defending the faith.” But now I think about what my life was like at that point. I was obsessed with thoughts of heaven and hell, who was going and who wasn’t, including me. I thought I was evil, and I’ll write about that in another post. But I think the central question of my life was a very basic one: am I okay? To the extent that I could proselytize and criticize others, I could work to keep my own demons at bay, but at my core, I doubted very seriously that I was lovable or acceptable to God or anyone else.

The church of my childhood employed the Bible to create very distinct lines between us and them. Of course, growing up I’d been part of the former group, but I could feel myself changing and doubting the beliefs of my childhood. I was miserable. And no one knew because I knew that doubt, confusion, anger, depression, etc. are not “of God.” So, I suffered in silence while projecting my anxiety onto everyone else. I wasn’t asking how the speaker dealt with God’s rejection of her; I was asking how I could deal with God’s rejection of me. I don’t know what she knew about me in that moment. But what she offered me was something maybe no one else could have. I needed to know that God was bigger than my prejudice because at that time I was incapable of believing that God could love me.

A sort of introduction

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” “Think before you speak.” These are admonitions most of us have heard more than once in our lives. There’s even a biblical precedent: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11, ESB). There’s a much larger point beyond “watch your mouth” to Jesus’ words, and I’m grateful for that verse for helping me move beyond my “shellfish crisis,” but mostly they served as another prohibition against speaking freely.

The premise for this blog is that ideas and ways of being meant to be life giving can have the opposite effect, especially if those ideas are so rigid and constraining that they stunt healthy emotional development by insisting on inauthentic representation of the self. We all need structure, and limits provide safety for people of all ages. Children, especially, need to be able to push against boundaries in order to orient themselves and move forward in the world. But we can go so far as to dismiss human uniqueness which is as messy as it is beautiful.

I think it’s important to say something about the blog’s title. I’m pretty sure the most obvious meaning doesn’t need clarification beyond that it serves to reject the rigid constraints of verbal piety. Secondly, the title is meant to set the stage for discussion introduced in the second paragraph: dogma, ideology, and theology can be at least destructive as instructive. But in the spirit of redeeming “what comes out” of us, the title is more of a triple than a double entendre. As humans, we produce what we are. And we are complicated. Rejecting the shadow side of our natures is like dismissing our need to defecate. So, this blog is also meant to alleviate spiritual and emotional constipation.

In my professional work as a therapist, I am never surprised to discover myriad complications and suffering induced by our attempts to make ourselves “clean” by rejecting our parts. Too many of us have been told implicitly or explicitly that this or that side of us is not welcome. In my personal life I have been gratified by the graciousness of those willing to put their shadow side on display. Rather than diminishing their beauty, their wholeness radiates invitation to participate authentically in a more abundant life. Their honesty is contagious. And I hope ours is too. We will speak openly about our own experiences in and the disastrous effects of a toxic system of being. And we welcome your own holy shit.

A Loving God?

I was doing step work with my sponsor last night and we were working on step three.  For those of you who are not familiar, step three is “(We) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him”.   I have always had a love/hate relationship with AA and the God issue in particular.  Much like Christianity, there is the potential for AA groups to have a fundamentalist bent. I naturally recoiled at the thought of turning my will and life over to God, particularly in the beginning, for several reasons.  Number one, the God I knew from my childhood was judging, vengeful, and capricious, and I had long since decided He was not someone / something I would entrust with the guidance of my life.  Number two, I have always felt like I had to do everything on my own and it is incredibly difficult for me to ask for help to this day.  So faced with these prejudices, step three was and is difficult for me to navigate.  When I initially went through the steps ten years ago, I was so desperate that I honestly cannot remember my thought process at the time.  I just knew I was willing to do anything to stay sober.  This time, however, with a new sponsor, I was once again faced with this dilemma.  With a clearer head and years of sobriety under my belt, I found myself being quite resistant once again to the idea of asking God for help.  My new sponsor had me write on one side of the page the characteristics of the God I was raised with, and on the other the traits of the God I wanted to believe in. As we sat in his truck and I faced the page in front of me, I wept.  I wept because it was still so hard for me to accept that maybe the concept of the God I grew up with was wrong, and that I could at least entertain the possibility that there was actually infinite love for me to tap into instead.  Even after all these years away from the church, the ideas and beliefs I internalized as a child still have at least a tenuous grip on my soul.  I wept for the child that had to endure this indoctrination, and I wept for the years of depression, addiction, and even sobriety spent feeling so alone and spiritually disconnected.  I am still not sure exactly what I think about the whole God idea… But I am so grateful I have moved to a place in my life where I have a community of friends and family to support me as I redefine my spirituality apart from fundamentalism.    

Holy S**t!  Stories of recovery from fundamentalism.   

For a while now, my family and I have talked about writing a book about our experiences with, and subsequent recoveries from, fundamentalism (Christianity in our case).  This site is a “rough draft” of those stories.  Our hope is that those who may be still caught up in and those who have escaped from fundamentalist belief systems will find hope and comaradarie in these posts.  As always please feel free to comment, but do so in a respectful manner as no doubt many will find the topics we cover to be controversial at times.  Any reposting or copying of these posts is only allowed with the consent of the authors.  

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