Tag Archives: fear

I come from women

I come from women who have found themselves with child

and carried on, surprised and terrified,

waiting for the feeling of delight.

I come from women who dig into the dirt

for comfort and make things grow

perennially.

I come from women who know a darkness

who speak of it in shadowed ways,

or not at all.

I come from them, I am them.

We who walk away from crowds and conversations,

we who talk about sunsets with charisma, we who return from

time spent on big warm rocks, skygazing,

with a new strength.

We who must learn, again and again

just how much we need other people.

I come from a religion of planting flowers.

Always, there were tangled vines with purple-blue

buds opening into a burst, climbing up the

criss-cross of wire fence,

beautifying, complicating, every spring and summer.

I come from places I cannot name well,

but I know them well.

I will plant my seeds too, and revere

the beauty

at the end of the tangles.

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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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A Force Stronger than Fear: A Book Review

I downloaded my copy of blogger Elizabeth Esther’s memoir Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future on Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning, I had finished the whole thing. This is not common (or even possible, usually) but her words were so riveting that I snuck moments in whenever I could. Throw in a load of laundry, read some, put the baby down for her nap, read some more, build train tracks with my toddler, read again.

The Girl at the End of the World

In her first book (and I hope there will be more) Elizabeth Esther tells the story of her childhood in a spiritually abusive fundamentalist cult called The Assembly, founded by her grandfather, and her slow escape from the cult as a young mother and wife. It’s not easy material to take in–I cried more than once and even stopped to beg-pray at one point. God, help me not to take advantage of the power I have over my children’s view of You. Please.

Power and fear are major themes in the book. At a young age, we see Elizabeth enduring “discipline” from her elders, and nothing but contrite submission and total surrender is accepted in return. She suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks related to her fear of being left behind if the rapture should happen and she hasn’t properly confessed all sin. Her family doesn’t accept mental illness as a reality though, so she never receives treatment. She believes, because she has been taught, that The Assembly is the way to God–and essentially this means that her grandfather and his followers are the way to God. The only empowerment is unquestioning obedience, because it will get her to heaven–even if it means her earthly life is miserable.

The motif of mothers and daughters is woven skillfully throughout the book. Tender and impulsive, Elizabeth learns to keep a safe emotional distance from her grandmother and her mother, as they are responsible for what seems like the majority of correcting her “character flaws”. She endures daily spankings–reminders that she’ll never be good enough.

Adulthood offers no freedom. Elizabeth marries a kind young man named Matt. The relationship offers some solace because the two are friends, and because Matt isn’t domineering, but Elizabeth soon realizes even their relationship isn’t safe from the scrutiny of The Assembly. Ultimately, they don’t have the power to make decisions about what their life together will look like.

I pray until Grandma is satisfied. She thinks I am weeping for my sins, but I am weeping because I finally realize that I will never be free.I see life stretched in front of me, and I weep for all the dreams I’ll never fulfill and for the children I will bring into this oppression. I weep for naively hoping my marriage could be different from all the other marriages in The Assembly. (Kindle ed, p. 127)

It takes motherhood to give Elizabeth the courage to leave, even though it doesn’t happen right away. In a pivotal scene, she’s expected to spank her daughter on her first birthday, a punishment for reaching for a bowl of chocolate. Children are trained to obey to the point that they won’t reach for sweets or toys without their parents’ pre-approval. Her mother dutifully fetches a wooden spoon, her grandmother looks on approvingly. Elizabeth shuts herself and her baby girl in the bathroom, torn between her own maternal intuition and the powerful pull of the cult’s teachings on child discipline–a misnomer because the purpose is to coldly break a child of any notion of preference or individuality.

She stares up at me, smiling and innocently unaware of what is happening. It is her first birthday. She is my baby, and I am doing this to her. I am training her the way I have been trained. Indeed, to break her will, I’d begun spanking Jewel at six months old.

Oh God. Help me. Help me now. I wait, the tears still coursing down my cheeks.

And there it is. A small shift. The tiniest point of light breaking through my darkness. It is revelation. You don’t have to break your daughter the way you were broken. (p. 137-138)

In this moment, the trajectory begins to shift. It’s the slow gathering of courage through Elizabeth’s relationship with her oldest daughter that builds into a new kind of strength over the years. She and her husband confront her grandparents for multiple abuses of power and finally leave the cult. They spend years acclimating to the outside American culture and trying to find a new way to worship and connect with God. She’s drawn to the safety and beauty of Catholicism, even though she strongly disapproves of it at first.  She finds strength through Mama Mary, explaining that when she couldn’t find Jesus, she went looking for his mother. She gains the strength to parent according to her own conscience, to be gentle with herself and seek the treatment she needs, and eventually even the strength for reconciliation with her parents.

As I read Elizabeth’s story, the goodness of God became more and more evident. I was reminded that we’re drawn to the Divine in many different ways, and what matters is that we bravely seek as we are led to. As she puts it so well:

God is big enough

This book shook me up, I’ll be honest. I’ve felt emotionally raw ever since I finished it. I think this is a testament to Elizabeth Esther’s ability as a writer to transfer her real life experiences to the page. Her voice is warm, candid, devastating, and at times hilarious (love me some King James-flavored humor) and left me feeling grateful and hopeful for the power of love.

It’s stronger than fear. Praise be to God.

You can pick up a copy of this book herehere, OR leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy, on me! You can just say hello, or share a thought on this post, or maybe tell me about a time you were brave in your spiritual journey. I’ll pick a winner on Monday.

*UPDATED: The winner of the book is Erica B, who left a comment on my Facebook page. Congrats Erica! Look for more reviews and giveaways soon.*

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