Visiting Church Again

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I walked into church with David and it was like coming home. I don’t mean that in the sense that phrase is usually meant. I mean it was like coming to my home. I was surrounded by people giving me looks I have gotten ever since adolescence. How do you describe how well you can know architecture you’ve never seen? Because after all, it doesn’t matter. It’s all built the same, the pews are the same as a million places I’ve been in my life. Most of my churches had chairs but somehow they are also the same. We sat in the balcony overlooking the audience and I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this was every church I had ever been in at every time I had ever been there. That if you transplanted any church congregation here, switched them out with any other, it would not matter. They would all look exactly the same. The same teenagers being quietly bored, the same elders listening with intensity or kindness, the same Baby Boomers looking on, mourning the next generation.

A couple of songs are sung, I know them both and refused to sing. Because once upon a time this meant something to me, once upon a time I loved to do this and I will be damned, and take that as you will, if I am going to stand and sit and sing on queue anymore. I won’t pretend. People shook my hand and greeted me before and after and with a couple exceptions they were so generic to me I could not pick them out of a line-up. These are church people. They are kind to me right now because I am new blood and because it is their job. You can see it in their eyes and smiles and it is intensely familiar to me but also extremely meaningless. They are hoping to save me.

I remember with a clarity that is hard to describe the way it felt to walk into the room as an adolescent. People giving me kind and mostly understanding looks. I walk in now, an adult but with my hair dyed and my skin pierced and tattooed and I know that they know me. They have marked me and seen me and I feel the box around me before a word is spoken. They know who I am and there is nothing I can say that will make it better. I remember what it feels like to not be taken seriously, to know that I am pushing the wrong buttons and wondering the wrong things. I remember why I spent so much of my life feeling not smart enough, knowing I was doing it wrong. I am a thirty year old woman but one walk into this room and I am sixteen years old all over again. Home is where my voice can’t be heard.

I sit in that balcony and I listen to the preacher talk of death and destruction and murder, I listen as he calmly explains the necessity of the torture of the end for those who don’t follow this God’s path. I look out over everyone and I see nothing. There is no reaction. He tells us we will all be swept up into heaven while billions of people burn and there is a murmur of joy. I am sick, I am quiet, I am cold. I can’t judge because I know exactly how they feel. I know that just as I was once trained to sit in these pews, I was trained to not think about the phrase “billions dying.” I was trained to believe in hell but never think about it too deeply, trained to read Bible stories and never see the brutality as anything but God’s will, as necessity, as kindness even. It’s deadening and it strips you of your empathy.

You see, someone told me I was evil and I believed them. It’s impossible to explain to you now what it’s like to sit on the other side and hear the rhetoric now. What I hear now is not a message of love but a story of a sadist and our justification for him. It is not a message of grace or love or justice, it’s a story of capriciousness, of a being who commits murder and torture and every other evil under the sun with impunity in the name of love. And I am the most horrified to hear it now and realize I wasn’t horrified before.

I find myself wondering about the realistic possibility of safe spaces in this place. I wonder if it is even possible to create them when you’re coming to the table with so much baggage, when to judge is a moral imperative. A couple of these people seem genuinely kind and I appreciate that, but there are numerous things I could say that could change that interaction. I’ve been attempting with a comical lack of success to find girls to sleep with for a while now, for example. (Sin – harder than you think.) Or perhaps,  I am in a poly relationship with one of your former congregants. Those are just a couple, the biggest of my most obvious things are sexual at the moment, but I’m sure closer conversation would uncover dozens more. I just am not sure how you create safe and open environments when one party believes that the wrong decisions are sending you to eternal damnation, or at least annihilation (Adventists don’t believe in hell, which is one point in their favor, but being burned to a cinder is not actually the most awesome fate either). There’s no space at the table to listen when one side is already convinced.

I’ve become so accustomed to fighting for safety, to discussing open conversations and ways to make those involved feel secure. That never ceases to be a beautiful thing to me but it is not as miraculous as it once was when I was first feeling the world opening up. I got so used to the insulation I was born in, I was astonished when I discovered there were places in the world that were so kind and so open and so caring. I walked in and I felt like I was coming home. And I remembered every reason that I left.

Homeschooling and Anger

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My brother posted this article on Facebook yesterday. It’s long but worth a read if you’re interested in homeschooling or some of the cultural effects of it. I started reading it and I was completely astonished. I was homeschooled my whole life. I was part of this subculture, pulled into this life against my will but somehow I never knew that there might be thousands of us who had done what I did. It never occurred to me that there might be a movement of kids raised across a spectrum of abuse or neglect simply because no one was watching. Not all of this article applies to me. A great deal of it doesn’t. We were raised in a strange in between place. My parents didn’t try to keep pop culture out of our lives, they didn’t believe they were inviting Satan into our homes if we watched a movie. They loved movies, they loved books. Our watching and reading habits were strictly controlled, of course but it wasn’t about Satan, it was about political agendas and what was “appropriate.” I didn’t grow up culturally unaware. I loved culture, I spoke the language fairly fluently, especially by the time I got into high school. Although questions of modesty and shame weredefinitely on the table a great deal of the time, they never took the form of denim skirts or how long my hair needed to be. My parents considered themselves to be pretty reasonable Christians and, compared to some that I knew, they were.

There’s a lot in this article that I could talk about but the thing that really stuck out to me was several paragraphs in.

James Dobson would become the most persuasive champion of homeschooling, encouraging followers to withdraw their children from public schools to escape a “godless and immoral curriculum.” For conservative Christian parents, endorsements didn’t come any stronger than that.

I was startled to read that. I don’t know why. Like a lot of things, it seems naive. I knew that it had been my mother’s idea to homeschool us. My father had not initially been on board but she had convinced him and he says that now he’s very glad she did, in spite of the fact that it’s one thing that all three of the kids seem to agree is not something we’re grateful for. For some reason it just never occurred to me to ask where my mom got the idea. It never crossed my mind that someone gave her marching orders. I was surprised at how angry I found myself.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to unravel my mother, figure out who she was. While we’ve never had much of a relationship, I think I’ve managed to get a pretty good picture of what things were probably like for her when she was young (my age), getting married, having children. My terrified, insecure, closed off mother. Who as far as I can tell has always been overwhelmed with fear of everything. Of being a bad mother, of her past, of her future, of being close to people, of losing people, of being open. Of the huge world outside full of bad things that could suck her back in, that could destroy her children. I can so clearly picture her listening to or reading Dr. Dobson telling her that this was the thing, this was the fix. If you homeschool your children, you can protect them from the Very Bad Things. This will keep them from the evil schools, from the terrible agendas. This will guarantee that you raise good children, happy children. Moneyback guarantee, you will have perfect godly children. This is how you ensure you don’t screw up your kids, this is how you keep everyone safe from all those Terrible Things. That’s my mother’s language. Playing on her fears, playing on everything she believes lives in the dark. It’s knowing those things are there that she thinks keeps her safe. For years those things were the only things I knew.

And you see how it works, don’t you? You see how it falls apart, how cruel of a joke it is? My mother, who was never cut out to be a teacher, who was never cut out to have children around her 24 hours a day, sets off to do the thing. She sets off to teach us because the point isn’t in what you give us, it’s in what you keep us safe from. It’s everything she had, the only thing she had was her fear and her certainty and she threw herself into it. She would protect us from the wolves. It’s just that it was hard. It’s just that we were so demanding and 24 hours a day was so much. It’s just that she wasn’t prepared for a daughter, wasn’t prepared for how it would remind her of herself and how that would break her. She just started pulling back. She taught us to read and write and tried desperately to teach us math. Hours and hours of screaming and crying at a table and why was she failing? Why were her obviously smart children refusing to learn what was so easy for her? Her daughter rebels, just like she was most afraid she would but not in the ways she thought and there’s just nothing she can do. She pulls back and pulls back. Her children grow up and become liberals. Her daughter stops speaking to them. Do you see? She did everything right. She did everything exactly as she was told, she sacrificed so much and it didn’t work. What is the only conclusion to draw from that? When you are already broken and you’re already so certain you are a failure as a mother and a person? You’ve failed even more. You broke the fool-proof thing. Your children are lost and it’s all your fault. She learned the wrong lesson. It’s like a lifetime of learning every single wrong lesson. And my brothers and I are the ones who pay for it.

I am bad at being angry. Bad at expressing it, bad at feeling it. I know that what Dobson did doesn’t take away my mother and father’s responsibility. They still made their calls, their own decisions. But I still feel a lot of rage thinking about it. How dare he? What made him think he had the right? He stood up there and played on people’s fears and told scared and hurting people to make their children afraid, to hurt them more. I know he wouldn’t see it that way. I know he believed he was doing what God wanted. But how do you take the ear of that entire subculture and encourage that radical of a move and not think before you speak? My story is mild compared to what a lot of people suffered. Ongoing abuse, serious neglect. I’m not saying that these kids would have had amazing home lives if they went to school but there is at least a chance that someone might have noticed. It’s the isolation that kills you, sometimes more than all the rest. It’s not having any way of knowing that there’s anything outside of this tiny square and the walls are closing in and if you fight, if you kick or scream or tell anyone, you lose everything. You lose the people you love, you probably will go to hell. Hell is a real place and it’s reserved for gay people and Wiccans and people who walk away from their parents. Telling someone can literally put your soul in jeopardy. There are few more compelling guns to the head than that. That’s assuming you even have the ability, the words or the voice to tell anyone. The only thing you know is always the only thing you know. Normality is relative and finding words to explain that you’re suffocating is not nearly as easy as you’d think. I was in my 20’s before I could say out loud “my dad was not a good dad.” The simplest things make the world fall apart. Homeschooling is a part of what makes the world so much smaller.

So I’m angry. I haven’t really been angry at my parents for this for a while, it just seemed so pointless. But I’m angry at the idea that someone played off their worst fears to make them crazier, to make them hurt more, to drag us all down into this. And apparently, according to this article, I’m not alone. There are thousands of us.

Reacting to Words

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So before I wrote and posted the blog entry I ended up going with, I started working on a much more difficult one. I wrote out about 3 paragraphs and sent it to E, asking if I had made sense, feeling like I hadn’t connected my dots. It was a post all about how much the phrase “used by God” bothered me on an intellectual level, how we should think about the words that we use. Words matter, after all. I absolutely believe that and I do think that sometimes the language Christians get caught in is problematic. E started doing a totally helpful thing – he gave me all of the counter-arguments to what I was saying. I went back and forth for a little while and finally I got to the point. I wasn’t trying to win an argument. This wasn’t actually about that. I make things into intellectual (or pretend intellectual) arguments when I’m hurt and don’t want to talk about it. This was just about me saying I was hurt by a phrase. And it was very sensibly pointed out to me that maybe that’s what I should be writing about.

So here’s what I’ll say, even though my instinct is to go a whole different direction that feels safer to me. I know this isn’t about theology and I know it isn’t about really even sensible things. It’s a reaction and I hate admitting pure reactions. (okay, okay, this is the part where I stop talking about it and just say it) I hate the phrase used by God. Or any variation of the phrase. I hate that it’s something you’re supposed to want. It makes me twitch when I hear it and, even when I was supposed to want it, I don’t remember ever feeling particularly good about it. The truth is that, as someone who spent the vast majority of my life feeling like I was an object, feeling like it was my only real purpose to be used by practically anyone, hearing the phrase “used by” is not a great thing. Replacing “by guys” with “by God” doesn’t actually make it feel better. There’s something deadening about the entire concept, something that makes me feel cold. God loves us unconditionally and, once we love him back, he gets to use us. Again, I’m really not arguing theology here because I do understand the points that combat these theories but this is where it takes me, not just mentally but kind-of physically to hear those kinds of phrases.

I hate admitting that because I don’t like admitting I’m still in that place. I don’t like admitting I still shudder and tense up at certain things or that I’m still that likely to just switch off when I perceive a (real or imagined) threat. I don’t like admitting that I’m not always sure which ones are real or imagined. I don’t like being the victim and I have fought pretty hard these last few years to build a new identity. Still, you can’t undo everything at once and some things are sewn a lot more tightly than others. One of my favorite writers, Jacob Clifton (who you should all go Google immediately) says that every problem started as a solution to something  and they stop being solutions when they start keeping you from moving forward. I’m still sorting out what are problems and what are solutions. Some days it seems like both. I just know that feeling safe is still a place I work towards. It’s no longer an imaginary place, it’s not an impossible dream but it’s still something I fight for. And it means that I have to accept that certain language can hurt in ways that may not fully make sense but is still True. I guess it’s a process.

Look, I’m far from the only person who feels this way or has felt this way. I feel uncomfortable writing this entire post because I don’t want to admit these kinds of things but then I think maybe that’s exactly the reason I should write it. There is a lack of safe places in this world. I’ve been lucky enough to find a few. I believe there are people and groups of people out there who genuinely want to provide safe spaces and simply don’t understand the damage that they can do with words they don’t even think about. There’s a danger to cultural shorthand and there are plenty of people who have reasons to get skittish around it. Making those kinds of changes is a process too but I’d at least like to suggest that it’s one worth thinking about.

Shit to Get Done

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I am looking for the holes
The holes in your jeans
Because I want to know
Are they worn out in the seat
or are they worn out in the knees?

Do your politics fit between the headlines?
Are they written in newsprint, are they distant?
Mine are crossing an empty parking lot
They are a woman walking home, at night, alone

(Looking for the Holes, Ani DiFranco)

Until very recently, I was a Christian. I don’t really know what I am now – I haven’t settled anywhere and I’m okay with that. Right now I’m just wherever I am, doing the same thing I’ve always done, which is mostly trying to be honest. I’ve grown up my entire life in “the church.” Not just in the church but in the Conservative Christian Church. For those of you who grew up in that world, you know what I’m talking about and you know that, no matter what they claim, the order of those C’s is important. I spent most of my life very firmly in the Conservative camp in part because I believed you had to be. They were championing the Important Things, after all. Pro-life, that was a major one. Sanctity of marriage, that was obviously vital for the protection of our… homes and stuff. It got a little fuzzier the further down the line you went. It started getting more difficult (although not impossible) to explain why exactly it was important to Jesus that we fight for no additional taxes for the wealthy or against any kind of gun control at all costs. Somehow it all had something to do with the precarious balance we were always maintaining. This was God’s Country and we were keeping it safe for him. All of this played into that. Good stewardship meant we would fight to combat the rising tide of liberals and feminists and homosexuals and who even knew what else who wanted to take this country over. That was our job and it mattered. For the record? It does feel good to matter, even when you’re delusional.

I always had friends on both sides of the political fence. I liked people who challenged me and, to be honest, I was always more drawn towards liberal people than conservative people. I liked to discuss things. I was certain I was right, of course, but I liked to talk about it. I got more and more uncomfortable as the years went on and there were things I couldn’t reconcile. Whatever the issues were, they got a lot messier when it was people I was looking at, people I loved. I started reading more liberal Christians and, over the course of about a decade, my politics began to shift incredibly slowly. I read Donald Miller, Brian McClaren, Madeleine L’Engle and a number of others I’m not thinking of right now. I read many of them and shared them with my father and he expressed concern that they were focusing on “love at the expense of holiness.”  I found this to be such a curious concern. I had spent my entire life seeing the damage that seemed to be being wreaked by people focusing on holiness at the expense of love, surely our natural tendency was clear? Surely we had to be fighting towards love. I got more and more frustrated.

Here’s the thing. What I’ve discovered over the last year or so is that I’m essentially pragmatic. I like theology up to a point, I find it interesting. Regardless of what my beliefs are now, this is all a part of me and I can’t walk away from that entirely and I wouldn’t. But I want to know what’s going to help people in the here and now. There’s so much to do. Have you seen the statistics on poverty in this country? On racism? Have you looked at our sexual abuse and assault statistics? Do you understand that all it takes is for a family to have one medical crisis and, if they’re not one of the lucky ones with great healthcare, they can lose absolutely everything? Did you know a man in Montana was sentenced to 30 days in prison for repeated rape of a 14 year old girl, who later killed herself?

Guys, there’s shit to get done.

In the middle ages, people actually died over theological arguments (and realistically that still happens in the Middle East today). But people die every day in this country while we argue about taxes and health insurance and things like whether or not racism still exists while young black men get gunned down in the street and continue to make up the vast majority of our prison system. It’s a bit tiring. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important that we work out things like the details of budget. I understand that money has to come from somewhere, I really do. It’s just that the details seem less important when confronted with the realities of people dying. Or at least they damn well should.

The truth is that I find I feel the same way about the church much of the time, about God. I don’t know what I think, I don’t know what I believe. And I find that not knowing makes absolutely no practical difference in what needs to get done. Whether or not God exists, whether or not everything I grew up believing is true does not change a single thing that is in front of me. Not one of the things I debated so furiously really helped me help anyone else. It’s all what you make of it. I have nothing against it, I don’t think it’s bad. It’s just that all of the things I most care about are here, everywhere I look, and it’s not getting me there. I am not convinced it truly makes a difference if you believe in Jesus or Mohammed or nothing at all. There’s so much to get done and I just want to know I’m on the team that’s doing it.