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The Journey Back, and Forward: My August Confession

And the starlings, they were flying earlier today

Doing their maneuvers, clouds of feathers on display

Makes me want to kneel in prayer, but I’ve forgotten what to say

I’ll just name all the birds in Ohio.

-Over the Rhine, All Over Ohio

August is a month of perseverance. People wait for drawn-out change: for school to start back up, for the heat to break, for one season to wind down and another to begin. In many ways September feels like the start of a new year, more than January.

In early August, we drove across the country. We took a new route, and went slow, stopping at most of the places we wanted to along the way. A freshly vacuumed, wiped and organized van gave way to chaos and crumbs and stickiness. Energetic parents slowly lost their steam. Kids came up with more energy. This is how August goes.

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We crossed Ohio and sang along loud with Over the Rhine, in honor of their home state, with the added goodness of rain on the windshield.

We slipped down into Missouri and spent a few days in St. Louis, gazed at the view from the top of the Gateway Arch, splashed in the fountains at City Park, ate gooey butter cakes from Park Avenue Coffee and chugged gallons of water to keep up with the humidity.

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We played the audio version of Little House in the Big Woods in preparation for a trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Mansfield, Missouri. I stepped through her house, which we learned was built over seventeen years, beginning as a one-room cabin with no windows, and enjoyed all the expressions of beauty throughout. How did people come to know that if you embroider a red bird on your pillowcase, it will add value to your life? Or that a well-placed window can change the course of your day?

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The kids would not have any of my slowness as we toured the property, so I took it all in quickly and tucked it away, and ode to some of the magic of my childhood. The tour guide mentioned that Laura, at least in part, probably had such skill in describing things because she had to be her blind sister’s “eyes and ears” from the time she was a young child onward. I think she also probably learned the value of beauty, which requires paying attention, from her parents. Visiting her home felt like a sweet pilgrimage, and I remembered listening to the words of all of her books in my mother’s voice, all of us propped up on pillows at bedtime. Some books are more than stories; some books shape how you see the world.

After Missouri came the drive across Kansas. I expected it to be long and tedious but it really wasn’t. The rolling grass and repetitive cornfields were comforting and even, beautiful. The sky took up more space than before.

Then, down into Colorado, for a visit with my brother who’s stateside now and starting a new chapter of his life. It is a joy to watch him be an uncle to my children. They have fun, and I just stand back and watch, and it’s good. I can’t imagine a more perfect place than Colorado for him. He introduces me to good beer and talks about his many outdoor adventures, and I am happy to see him this way.

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After our visit, it’s down down down into New Mexico. The forests get scrubby and the terrain gets rough, and we need shoes on our feet now because the weeds fight to protect themselves. Grass is pokey, but it finds a way to survive on very little water. We meet friends for lunch in a park in Albuquerque and talk about all the new things that are happening.  We crawl into the driveway of Ricky’s mother’s house late that night, met with hugs, kisses, beds and cold water. The kids are thrilled about having a pool in the backyard and use it almost every day.

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In the days to come, we have to find a place to live, make final arrangements for schools, and try to adjust to the sun’s brightness (this still hasn’t happened, completely). Nicky begins fourth grade; Silas and Aimee both begin preschool. We wake up early, drive an hour and a half to drop everyone at his and her school, Ricky finds a place with WiFi to work (homes of generous friends, mostly). This is a whole new world, and it includes mornings to myself. It occurs to me that I haven’t had any consistent, predictable time to myself in over eight years. It feels odd but I have no complaints.

Even with errands and the usual moving headaches, I have more time to be still. I start coloring and sketching out mandalas, inspired by a friend’s beautiful work. My freehand mandalas are for my eyes only (mostly they’re bad) but I enjoy seeing how they take form. I buy an instructional drawing book, and start making my way through the lessons. Nicky and I do this together a lot; it becomes a ritual I look forward to. We surprise ourselves with good drawings and with really bad ones, too. I learn about proportion; I am just beginning.

There are a lot of “I’ve always wanted to” ideas floating around right now. There is the fleeting newness and sense of possibility that fades and so must be used while it is there. We find a charming adobe house for rent downtown, walking distance to many things. I go to the gym and stop by friends’ houses for lunch. Ricky signs us up at the food co-op and talks about hiking. I see him riding his bike one day, coffee cup in one hand, and he doesn’t see me. This sight makes me happy, makes this feel right.

Moving back was a hard decision, one I’ve second-guessed many times in the month of August. The desert is so much brighter than I remember. I borrow very dark sunglasses from my mother in law, and that helps my headaches. We are tired on many levels, but we lie down under fans in darkened rooms, and that helps. Ricky and I sneak out for ice cream after the kids are asleep, and the night air helps too. The daily beauty of mountain and sky and greened-up desert helps, and the feeling that we’re all in this together helps, and dreaming about what we will do here helps.

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And, naming helps. All the trees in my backyard, all the people that I love, all the mountain ranges I see, all the shades of blue in the sky.

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Definition: My July Confession

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

-Rumi, 13th century mystic

This year (and so this hodgepodge of confessions) is now past the halfway point. I wonder how it will be, to look back at this year’s journey and see the shape of it better, from the other side. At this point, a little past the middle, I see that this is about a slow letting go, about giving myself time to be at peace with a monumental shift.

Some ideas take months to name, years even. Slowly, they take on a definition, over late nights and angry outbursts, apologies and silence, wine-softened conversations and stolen moments to think while driving, books devoured and stories heard.

I wrote the sentence I am walking away from Christianity in January, just to see how the words felt. I looked at the screen and couldn’t say that I meant the words completely. So I saved them in a draft and wrote instead what was honest and true right then.

That sentence brings up enormous questions, the kind you can’t answer without the perspective that time brings. What does it mean, to leave Christianity? Which one? I left fundamentalist, apocalyptic, demon-exorcising, repent-or-burn Christianity a long time ago, moving on to a lighter, evangelical, more in-the-now version. It was a relief to focus more on feeding the hungry and teaching children that God loved them, and less on who might be going to hell or how the devil might be trying to trick me that day (let’s just take a moment to laugh about that one). More compassion, less fear-mongering. That worked for a season, but then came the culture wars, or at least my increasing awareness of them.

I was dismayed to realize that even though I thought I had left fundamentalism behind, it was alive and well in churches that looked and felt a little more progressive. This is the part that still breaks my heart. I couldn’t, in good conscience, stay. I sought a new home in a progressive mainline church, in liturgy, in bread and wine and ash. These folks, I found out, are comfortable with questions and silence, and have a long tradition of welcoming LGBT, agnostic, and other marginalized people that evangelicals don’t seem to know what to do with. The pastor was slow to make declarations, thoughtful, faithful to the old rhythms while cultivating a mind that matched the times we live in. For the first time in my life, I heard the words I don’t know in a sermon where they weren’t immediately followed with a platitude. Just I don’t know. I think, if I didn’t have all the baggage from the other forms of Christianity, that I could have stayed and served there. I would have loved to. It was a short, sweet season, followed by a necessary break from all things church-related. I had begun therapy by then, and with it the discovery that I was responding to my spiritual past in the same way that people respond to major trauma. To my brain, there was no difference. This work took all of my energy. The pastor and I exchanged emails, and he surprised me by saying that perhaps what I really needed was to take a break from church, maybe temporary, maybe not. There was no pressure to stay or go. In a completely non-patronizing way, I feel like he gave me permission to leave, gracefully.

Perhaps this was the most Christian thing to do, in the quaint old-fashioned sense of the term, used when someone takes care of a neighbor.

Something has become more and more clear: with each shift to a different type of Christianity, more of my black and white beliefs fell away, and the emotional intensity of my beliefs lessened. The good news, for me, was that I no longer had to believe in hell, that I didn’t have to divide humanity into categories based on one of many religions, that I could talk to my friends without the formerly ever-present agenda of evangelism, that I didn’t have to try to reconcile conflicting Bible passages and ideas of God’s nature anymore. It has been such a relief to shake these weights off, one by one.

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As a teenager, I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith, which contains an account of his interview with Charles Templeton. Templeton was a co-evangelist and friend of Billy Graham who gradually believed less and less of what he had once preached fervently, until eventually he left Christianity altogether.

Strobel writes of his surprise when Templeton, an agnostic, then in his 80s,, breaks into tears while talking about great his love for Jesus:

I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.

“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I . . . I . . . I . . . ,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him!” . . .

” . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes . . . yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus….’

“Uh . . . but . . . no,’ he said slowly, ‘he’s the most . . .” He stopped, then started again. “In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”

That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”

I remember sharing Strobel’s surprise when I read this. I get it now.

Does a loss of belief mean a person has a hard heart, or a lack of emotion? Does it mean a person forgets the world within a world that he inhabited for years and years? Does a person forget what she used to believe with all her heart? Does a person forget the words of the hymns she sung as a child, or the feeling of peacefulness after prayer, or the thousands of other memories accrued?

Of course not. It is all there, intertwined with first kisses and essays on Milton and The Periodic Table and how to play chess and the time she almost threw up on her prom date and skinned elbows and early morning band practice and the moment she gave birth to her first child and her husband sobbed.

It’s all part of who I am.

If anything, a loss of belief shows how soft a person has let his heart be. It comes on the heels of serious consideration, the agony of deconstruction, the exhausting task of trying to find a way to make it all work and make sense again, perhaps repeated over and over. For me, this process has taken the better part of ten years.

Templeton remained a full human being, religion or no religion, as do I, as do the many people who find themselves unable to believe what they once did. He had his grief and he had his conscience, and it seems to me like he chose to go where his conscience demanded.

There are incredible folks, dear friends I know in real life and people I only know from their written words, who have found a home in various streams of Christianity. I continue to watch them and read their words with great interest, even with the sense that this particular path isn’t for me anymore. I admire how they are trying to affect change from the inside, and applaud their creativity. I still care about how Christianity navigates its way through different seasons of thought. There are so many good, precious people, and I never want to forget that. I never want to reduce something as wide, varied and rich as Christianity to less than what it is and has the potential to be.

There are no sides–there is humanity and the quest to make things better for all. There is kindness, and there is cruelty. There is hunger and there is food. There is ignorance and there is education. There is the trap of poverty and the hope and struggle for ways of escape. When humanity moves forward, away from a stubborn insistence on our differences and toward a realization that we have to take care of each other, that is truly good news.

I admire the kind of Christianity that participates in this process.

I have much to learn from Christianity still, as well as other systems of faith. I remember many things with tenderness and gratitude.

But.

I sleep more soundly now, and pay greater attention to the world around me, and feel things I didn’t have space to feel before. I put trust in my intuition, and I’m more comfortable affirming myself and my children than before. I feel more connected to the rest of humanity. Doesn’t it make sense, that when you suspect this life may be all we have, that you savor it all the more, that you want to make the most of it, that it becomes of greatest importance that your people know of your great love for them?

There is sadness, but oh, there is relief.

I have to think more deeply and look more closely and feel more uncomfortable feelings. There are no pre-packaged explanations. There are unknowns, waiting to be known. I feel like I have to use a set of muscles that I didn’t even know existed until recently, and I notice that they are getting stronger.

Am I saying that I’m no longer a Christian? I suppose I am, in a plain and surface sense. But not to the extent that I no longer admire or learn from the life of Christ or the love of his followers. Not to the extent that I deny the part of my humanity that longs and aches and hopes for more. The part that wants to be connected to every living thing and see its purpose. The part that must kneel and kiss the ground, that must extend thanks to the great, wide out there. And most importantly, the part that recognizes that very same thing in my fellow human beings, whatever faith they practice, and longs to sit with them at one big table where there are enough seats for everyone.

That person? She has existed all along. I am only now discovering more of her.

(Your story, however it looks, is welcome here, in case you are of the mind to share it.)

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Expansion: My May Confession

Possibility is oh-so-surprising, isn’t it? The thing you silently swore to yourself you wouldn’t do is now the thing you consider with caution, then reserve, then openness, a smile slowly forming on your lips. You think about your family as a whole, about having a big wide open space to invite others into. You remember the sky, the softness of the dirt sifting up around your ankles, the warmth of the rocks, the mountains rising up at the end of the horizon. And the place is beautiful again.

Of course, it always was.

It holds pain. Home always does. You get just about as far away as you can, and you breathe for awhile. You take in some new things; join your tributary with others and wind into the larger body. It’s easier to see, from a distance, how we’re all really the same. We all want, we all disappoint, we all find ways to get back up, we all hope.

So you align your hope with an old place that may become new. Maybe.

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You’re getting better at considering. Consider the potential of Sundays outside of the world you knew. Consider parenting differently. Consider–imagine–a world for yourself that looks different, better.

Life is for creating.

Pause, heal, reflect, consider,

create.

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When you were dating, there was a book that suggested adventures were for men, and women supported those adventures. A good number of people raved about it, thought it profound. It sent shivers down your spine and thankfully, down his spine too. You threw it on the proverbial fire and said nope. We will both have our adventures. We will be support beams for each other. We will be open to dreams.

You didn’t know then, but more and more and more things would make you uneasy. You would them on the fire too, sighing with relief. You didn’t think you’d ever want to go back to the space that held all of that, associating the two so closely.

But now, you see that there is more.

In this new life, there always seems to be more. It makes you swell like a cloud about to burst in July, puffing out into the azure width of sky, unapologetically dramatic against cliff against spine against rushing water, defying the dry. There is so much more.

You let go, and it all gets bigger.

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Peace: My April Confession

April comes to a close. It is a month of light and lightness.

So many of the fast, nervous streams of thought in me have calmed.

The best things: kids getting bigger but maintaining a baby space just for us. Nicky crawls into the space between us in the bed, quick to laugh and share all the things that matter to him. We strive to listen. Silas asks, delighted, “you’re going to watch this with me?” when I plop down next to him on the couch with a pile of clean laundry. Aimee runs up to me and sticks out her hand, and we walk together.

We sit next to each other, listening to this couple make music, still going after 25 years. They talk about sustainability. We’re learning. We lean against each other in the dark.

Everything’s coming in green. This is the easy time of year. Windows open, feet bare, giant bees hovering gently around our heads, sunlight for the way in and way home from work. Everything lightens in April. I turn thirty-two. I have a good feeling about this year.

I still dream about expanding my life, while at the same time so grateful for my life just as it is. This is peace.

There are declarations I feel like I can make, but I’m not making them. I’m simply enjoying the lightness of this new place. I used to put a whole lot of emotional energy into things that I don’t see the need to anymore. The energy goes to other things now. Things of my choosing. The here and now.

Peace. There are different ways to come to it.

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The State of Things: My January Confession

“It’s hard to capture it in one word,” I say, chewing on my lip. This is an ongoing conversation with myself, with my husband, with a few friends who know this terrain well, and with her.

“Instead of one word, can you describe it with a group of words?” she presses, gently.

I try. Every other week, for almost a year now, I am in this room, paying attention to my state of being. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. We talk about a lot of things in this room–parenting, childhood, marriage, dreams and goals, grief, my evolution from fundamentalism to evangelicalism to progressive Christianity to whatever it is I’m doing now.

Humanist? Post-Christian? Atheist? Post-Evangelical? Progressive/Emergent? Naturalist? Person of Faith? Believer? Unbeliever? Spiritual? Agnostic? Recovering Fundamentalist?

I’d like to be on a path to greater clarity, if not certainty. To that end, here’s my confession for the month of January. I’ll be back in this space at the end of each month this year, doing my best to honestly evaluate where I am on this journey.

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I still believe that Sundays are for vulnerability and soul-searching. I still believe in sacred spaces, in a regular centering practice, in confession.

I find myself outside of the boundaries of Christianity, and I’m coming to terms with it. The ability to believe many things has simply left me, and this has been a source of both great relief and great pain.

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long. It’s been heavy for the better part of ten years. And yet, some of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever known (personally and historically) are/were devout Christians. This thing just isn’t simple. I feel steadier and healthier outside of it all, but it absolutely saves some people; it absolutely has made the world better in some cases.

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My faith was never bland or obligatory for me. It was the frame of reference for everything. I fell head over heels in love with Jesus somewhere around age three, and continued to do so for years and years. What was real? What is real now? I keep saying goodbye and then taking it back.

A Lutheran pastor I’ve spoken with here, who has encouraged me greatly in this journey, makes the point that there are two different Jesuses. There is the historical person, and there is the Christ figure, which is what people constructed (and what we continue to construct) from the historical person. I find some comfort in this idea–that I can continue to appreciate so many things about Jesus, even as my ideas about him have changed, and probably will continue to change. There is so much more to explore there. I can’t face it all at once, but there is this: all of the good things his life has represented to me remain. A lot of good remains. I choose to believe that the Jesus story matters in the greater human story. He remains beautiful to me.

It’s not lost on me that these words will cause pain. That makes me hesitant to share them, but then I think of the private messages I get sometimes, in response to what I post here. Me too. I feel the same way. I haven’t had to do this alone, and I don’t want anyone else to.

I’ve always felt refreshed on a spiritual level when I’ve spent some time alone in nature. Maybe it’s just that stillness is the goal, and nature encourages me to be still in a way that nothing else does. Before I had children, and there were Sundays I just couldn’t stand to go to church (I imagine my cognitive dissonance began many years before I was aware of it) I went out into nature by myself. That is an instinct I’m paying closer attention to now.

So what’s the plan? Now there’s a question. I have a husband with his own mind, on his own journey, and we have three amazing children to raise. Right now, what I want for them are lessons that are easily taught in church: generosity, kindness, humility, elevating The Other. Community, looking out for the needs of others. Love, honesty, self-control.

I want other things for them, too–values they may or may not get from church.  Reason, curiosity, critical thinking skills. The ability to go to their classes and simply listen without an agenda–to love learning for itself.  Open-ended questions, fresh perspectives. Wonder. Gentleness, understanding, joy. I don’t want them to ever think there’s only one source for good things. Good things abound if you don’t have to make everything line up a certain way.

I’ve thought of God in metaphorical terms for something close to a year, desperate to see universal connections. Now? I don’t know. The jury is out. I am still overcome with wonder and gratefulness on pretty much a daily basis. I still say my thank-yous out loud.

So this is the state of things. I’m thinking, more and more, that it’s all going to be okay.

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