Recover (From) Faith: Christmas Letters

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So when I arrived home after the holidays this year, I found a Christmas letter from a friend with a personalized note for me. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while but I’ve held off to see if anything further developed on the story before I did. It’s possible it still will, but it’s seeming less likely and I’ve decided to just go ahead.

This friend is someone that I met at my former church. She and her husband (we’ll call them Mary and Joseph just for fun) are extremely kind people, in fact I would say they are examples of the best that evangelical Christianity has to offer in many ways. They are extremely openhearted and warm, they bring people into their lives quickly, they love those around them with great sincerity. Their faith is an integral part of their lives. When I met them I was at the tail end of a relationship with my parents and they were both very kind to me. Mary in particular took me under wing in a very sweet way and that meant a lot to me. I very much needed someone to mother me at the time.

When I realized I no longer believed, she was one of the people I emailed. It was awkward? We talked about it a little but not a lot. In the last couple of years we’ve fallen into a strange place — kind-of how I had always imagined how things would be with my parents if I had parents who were more just everyday Christians and less narcissistic and abusive in their reactions. We mostly just avoided it. We talked about a lot of other things. I could always tell she was uncomfortable and I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable but I also didn’t want to not talk about my life… it was just difficult. Needless to say, I haven’t seen her as much in the last few years.

So the note she sent me basically said that she had really enjoyed seeing me over the summer but that it was awkward. It was awkward because there was a lot she wanted to say to me but never did, that she felt like God had been presented in the wrong way to me and she wanted to do it better, that she kept hoping I would see the error in my ways basically. She sent me an article by Rachel Held Evans and hoped maybe I would read it, and maybe I would read her book and we could talk about it.

I had a lot of conflicting feelings about this note. On the one hand, I honestly thought it was quite brave of her to be so open about her feelings like that. It’s not easy to talk about those things. Also it made me realize that considering where we stopped talking, there was probably a lot she didn’t know. After all, when I first sent out those emails I just didn’t have it in me to say “I just don’t believe in God at all anymore.” I wasn’t sure that was true. I wasn’t sure what was true exactly. So from how I phrased it at the time, it did seem like maybe it could be a phase. I could see that.

On the other hand, it is so frustrating. It’s so frustrating to have my experiences discounted. It’s so frustrating to know that she is convinced (and very possibly always will be) that the only reason I left the church were because of bad experiences or because my parents sucked. It’s so invalidating, even when I know that she means well.

It’s true it started out that way. When I first ran, I was just running. But I wasn’t just running away, I was running towards things. And I found things, a lot of things. It’s hard because of course my background has contributed heavily to what I want to do and what I am interested in. But I don’t feel like I am damaged or broken. I feel like I found good things, like I had experiences that were wonderful and those are what shaped my current life. The bad things contributed but, like I’m sure is true for a lot of people in any system of belief, it’s really the good things that make you stay and push forward.

So I wrote her an email back. I tried to be loving and kind, because she is a loving and kind person and I care about her and she deserves that from me. I tried to explain what maybe I hadn’t said before. I tried to explain that this wasn’t on her shoulders, that I didn’t not believe in God because she had failed to show me something. I tried to be firm, to make it clear that I wasn’t coming back to the church but to leave the door open for conversation. I’d be happy to talk. I’d be happy to communicate. I’m happy to have discussions about this, even if they’re hard. I still love you. You’re still important to me.

I said at the end of the email that she could write back whenever she felt comfortable. It’s been a month now and she hasn’t. She still could, of course. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. But I do feel the window is starting to close.

I am not angry at her, or even really hurt. I feel like our relationship has been stalling out for so long at this point that if it was over I could accept that without too much grief. But I am disappointed. There’s only one person from that life who I’m not related to that I’m still friends with, and she’s definitely what my parents would disdainfully call “a liberal Christian.”

So we’ll see. I’m not expecting anything anymore. It’s just sad and disappointing to know that this really was the breaking point for multiple people. I honestly didn’t think that would happen.

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Leaving the Tribe

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This last weekend I went to a party. Some friends of mine celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, which is insane and very impressive by pretty much any standards. They had a big shindig and I went, of course. They are lovely people and have been in my life probably four or five years now. I’m grateful for them. They’ve been as supportive as they can be, even though it has been challenging for them as I’ve made significant life changes. We met in my old church and my move away from faith put a strain on our relationship. But they are extremely kind and loving people and we have all worked hard to maintain our friendship. I value and admire that tremendously about them, along with many other things.

So of course I went, to celebrate their life and marriage and to show my support for them. They were glad I was there and I was glad I went, but it was a strange experience all the same.

I knew when I walked in the door it was going to be awkward. Anyone there that I recognized were people from my former church and I don’t know many of them terribly well. Certainly not well enough that we would like hang out and catch up. I wandered around for a little while looking lost until the husband of a good friend of mine ran up to say hello, which was very nice of him. I was extremely happy to see him. Sadly, my friend wasn’t there and he was in the band. Even so, having someone happy to see me made me feel better. I sat myself down at a table and watched everyone for a while.

It’s a hard experience to describe. Like an incredibly overwhelming sense of deja vu in some ways? I felt 14 years old again, being dragged to another church bbq or picnic or potluck. I feel like I have been to hundreds of them. All of these people look the same. I honestly don’t even know what everyone talks about. Based on what I overheard I would say children, grandchildren, home repairs and church business. In high school I would go hide in a corner somewhere and write angst-ridden poetry but that hardly seemed appropriate now.

I mean, the obvious truth is that I didn’t even feel unhappy or trapped the way I used to in high school. Because clearly I wasn’t. I could walk out at any time, nothing tied me to anyone or anything here except my choice to come and my choice to stay. What I felt was just a sense of complete bewilderment.

I was once prepared to make this my life.

I really can’t imagine it now. I can sit at a table now and watch everyone and know that in a few hours I go home. But once upon a time, I assumed my future was full of these. I did not think I would ever fit in, because I could not imagine that. I did not think I would be able to talk about home improvements or the latest church meeting or children with these people. Who would I have to become for that to be the case? No, I did not see that happening. But I assumed I would keep showing up, as I was supposed to. I assumed I would spend my life, sifting through people, looking for the few who might understand me and enjoy my company, looking for kindred spirits in the system.

It did not occur to me that you could build your own system. 

It’s hard to describe how strange it is to realize that everyone relies so heavily on what boil down to tribal signals. Two different people asked me what church I went to now and, when I said I didn’t go to one, they were at a complete loss for words. One woman actually leaped up and said she had to go get a drink.

I felt inherently right and comfortable in my own skin, and so much more aware of how uncomfortable I had felt most of my life. Yes, this was an awkward social situation, but it wasn’t because there was something wrong with me. Nor is there  anything wrong with them as people (although I have many problems with the tribe). It’s just a bad fit. It was always a bad fit. That’s okay.

During the ceremony part, there were a few worship songs. I miss singing with people. I think it is probably a true thing to say that I miss singing with people more than I miss worship particularly. But worship is a separate thing and a part of me misses that experience. I’ve talked about it before. They invited everyone to sing along who knew the words. I knew the words, of course. Knowing and remembering songs after one or two times through has always been one of my pointless talents. But I also knew I wasn’t going to sing. That’s a tribal marker. It’s a ritual, it belongs to them. I didn’t believe in going through the motions before and that hasn’t changed now.

I know some people noticed. That’s okay too. I didn’t bow my head for prayer either. I was there for my friends. I’m glad they take comfort and solace in their faith. I know it is meaningful for them. Personally I see two people who have made it 50 years and I think that is amazing. I think that is amazing without bringing any other being into it. I wish God didn’t get all the credit for the good things, because my friends are amazing and have been amazing in my life and I think that is because they are wonderful people and they deserve that credit. But I’m glad I was there.

Sometimes you have to go back to the tribe to realize how far outside of it you’ve wandered, and how good that ultimately feels.

Losing Friends

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Overall, my transition from religious to not religious went relatively smoothly. In the middle of so many changes, letting go of my faith was in many ways the most liberating and the least confusing. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that it took so long.

When I realized what was happening, I told my friends, because that’s what I do. This was a major thing for me to tell people. I was frightened of how they would react. I was nervous about having to defend my choices, when they still felt so new and raw to me. I could understand why the few Christian friends I still had left might feel any number of things. They might feel betrayed or deserted, they might feel shocked, angry. I didn’t really know. Big changes are hard to cope with.

But I live my life more or less all in a single piece. If you know me, you know all of me. I’ve gained a few more layers over the last few years. There are a few things that maybe only certain people know, and maybe even a few things that I keep to myself, but for the most part I expect this will always be true. Being my friend is being a part of the journey I’m on. I don’t really know what TMI is and I can easily divulge what seems like very personal information without actually being all that personal. I process by talking. I can show you my thoughts without showing you my feelings. It allows me to say a great deal and sometimes not actually be saying that much. But that’s not what this was.

To tell my friends about what had happened, I would have to tell them about my feelings. I would have to tell them that I was nervous and afraid. I would need to explain but they would need to know more than my thoughts here. It seemed only fair.

I agonized over it for a few weeks, maybe close to a month. For me this is essentially forever. I had a group of people who needed to know. About 8 people in all. Most of them got emails. The only ones who got face to face conversations were my brothers, and they had to wait longer before I was brave enough for those.

For the most part it worked out okay. A couple of my friends had a harder time with it than others, but we’ve hesitantly worked through it. Sometimes when I go to dinner it’s awkward but it’s okay. Most of my friends were amazing and supportive and wonderful. Overall I found out what wonderful people I had in my life. But there was one thing I didn’t see coming.

I lost two friends.

I really never thought that would happen. And understand, it wasn’t angry or an immediate writing me off. Initially I just got awkward emails back. They were “concerned about the emotional risks” in my current romantic relationship (a concern that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, given that it seems like you run an emotional risk in any relationship, whether it’s monogamous or not). They admitted they were surprised. That it would be hard to adjust to because, after all, our previous relationship had been so based around this. And that was true. Because they were my former pastor and his wife.

It is hard for me to over-state how much I owe to J. & R. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that I would never have been in a position to be where I am now with David (and the Superhero) if it wasn’t for them. They were both incredibly supportive of me when I was a complete mess. I sent them horribly disastrous emails, I cried in their home. When I went to get on meds for the first time, R. came to the doctor with me because I was so scared. J. was the first pastor that I ever actually trusted, and he was very kind and patient with me. Beyond just being the first pastor (although that had a significance of its own), he was one of the first men that I trusted just saw me for a person he liked and not an object in a sexual, or potentially sexual sense. It was a tremendous gift. They let me play with their kids, they let me come to their home often. It was in their house that I got an idea of what it might feel like to be safe. To not be a danger or in danger.

They moved when J. got accepted at a school in the middle of the country to get his Master’s of Divinity. He wanted to be a full on pastor. He believed that was his calling. I even went to visit them once, only six months or so before everything changed. It was a good week. I had a great time. It felt like home. I was planning on coming back maybe around Christmas. I had no idea that everything in my life was about to be turned over.

The thing is that I also never would have imagined that anything could cost me that relationship. I knew our previous interactions had been primarily Jesus-centric but I thought that they would be willing to enter into this with me. I was still me, after all. We could talk about this like we had talked about everything else. It never occurred to me that being part of the tribe was a pre-cursor on our friendship.

As I said, there was nothing violent about it. I would email, and only J. would email back. The emails weren’t the same. They were distant, they were friendly but not engaged. I saw the two of them once when they were back visiting. We went out for lunch. We didn’t talk about anything but movies. Eventually I just stopped emailing. I knew that once I stopped, neither of them would reach out. It didn’t hurt at the time when I was right. I had David and the Superhero. My life was good and I was happy.

My life is still good and I’m still happy, more now than then, in fact. But the whole situation leaves me hurt still. I wish it didn’t, but it does. J. posted today that he’s accepted a position in Ohio, and when I read that I realized – I always expected them to come back. Initially their plan was to move back to somewhere in this area after he finished school. They’re from here and they like it. But they must have decided that God has another plan. And reading that, it hit me that I will probably never see them again. I’ll probably never get to tell them that it wasn’t really okay what happened. I know life happens and I know that all of us got really busy. Distance is hard to deal with. But that’s not what happened here. It turned out there was a line I couldn’t cross. And not a line of harming someone or even myself, but a line of leaving the tribe.

I think I wanted to say that you missed out. We all missed out. I was 29 years old, struggling with this brand new life and you could have shared it. I don’t think I’m actually being arrogant when I say it’s been a good ride. I am so happy and so much better than I was when you knew me. It started because of you and you should have been around to see it play out. You should have been around to wrestle this through with me. It would have been good for all of us. There were a couple of other Christians who did stick by me and that helped a little but you pulling away left a scar. It could have been different. I think it should have been. I can’t say I’m not still angry or that I’m not still hurt. I’m still both of those things. You owed me better than that. At the very least, you should have been more honest. And if someone in the future comes to you and says they can’t stay? I hope you treat them better.

Sometimes you can’t keep everyone when you make the choices you have to make. That doesn’t make them choices not worth making, but it also doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. I’m still grateful for much of what happened in those relationships, but I hate that how things ended made me question things. Tonight, I just needed a minute to be honest about some of that.

Recovering (from) Faith: Waking Up Redeemed

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I’ve been thinking about my mother dying. From all I can determine, that’s probably not morbid, so much as realistic. She’s not doing awesome and she’s apparently just not taking care of herself. People… make choices, I guess. I’m not even particularly fussed over that. She’s going to do whatever she’s going to do and I’ll deal with what happens. But I was thinking about heaven.

I’m not really sure heaven is a concept I believe in anymore. One of the funny things about growing up evangelical is that there’s a lot of vague talk about heaven and a decent amount of pretty specific talk about hell but we’re supposed to really be working towards that heaven thing. There’s are probably lots of reasons that evangelicals don’t have much to say about heaven but one of the reasons might be that the Bible doesn’t give them much to work with. There’s a few weird images of pearly gates, there are a couple images of judgment day, a great supper. Jesus says that there are a lot of mansions. There’s a lot of singing, apparently. But very little attention is given to what you actually do there, which is funny because you’re supposed to be there FOREVER.

I actually had a period of being really interested in this during my days as a Christian. I figured that you had to still be learning and growing in heaven because otherwise, what was the point? We couldn’t just be stagnant forever. I mostly figured this because the idea of being stagnant forever and not learning and growing seemed like about the worst fate I could imagine. I decided there was no reason there wouldn’t be art in heaven, after all, God was very creative and supposedly inspired creativity so probably there would be very great art. Maybe even movies, or something even cooler than movies that I hadn’t thought of. I have to admit that I spent a lot of time confused over what we would tell stories about in this new world that would apparently lack conflict. How do you make good story arcs in a literally perfect world? But I brushed over it, I figured that somehow God would work it out.

But there was something I never gave a lot of thought to that I find myself giving a great deal of thought to now and that’s the day you show up in heaven. See, the general concept as I’ve always understood it was that we would go to heaven and wake up perfected before God. If things went well, we would hear the “well done, good and faithful servant” which is the thing we were supposed to get super excited about. I guess if you were not quite as faithful you get a dressing down and feel properly ashamed before being let in but just barely? Whatever. We all know if you prayed the prayer and were a Real True Christian, then Jesus said “yeah, I totally know this person” and they let you into heaven. But there’s a part of that that no one ever seemed to focus on. What does this waking up totally redeemed look like?

When my mother dies, if she was totally right about all her beliefs and she dies and comes face to face with her God, then according to her theology, she wakes up a different person. She wakes up unrecognizable. My mother has had over 60 years of choices that have led her to the extremely miserable place she is now at… and none of them will mean anything. Rather than being the miserable, cruel, manipulative, possibly abusive person that she is now, she will be someone else entirely. Apparently she’ll be who God always intended her to be. But what would that mean, what would that look like? How could our minds, redeemed or not, possibly cope with such an extreme change?

We are creatures of process. If there is a God up there, he or she seems to have designed us that way. We do not change overnight or in a “twinkling of an eye.” Some of us have had incredible experiences that changed our lives but even those moments are not truly moments. We did not wake up a different person. We still had to battle all of those past things, we still had to work through that process. Because that is a natural and good part of being human. We earn the change we get. We fight for it or else we allow things to happen to us and we spiral.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Great Divorce that is much beloved by many Christians. In it he posits a view of heaven in which you don’t just show up at the gates, you have to decide to walk there. C.S. Lewis was actually an annihilationist, he didn’t believe in hell so much as that people winked out of existence if they didn’t go to heaven (evangelicals do not emphasize this part of his beliefs because they love him and that counts as heresy). In this story, you could choose to stay behind, you could choose not to journey towards the mountain. The road was hard and the closer it got, the more real everything became, it hurt to walk on the grass, it hurt to move forward because you were not as real as the things around you. You had to choose to give up things in your life that were not worthy of the goal in front of you. It was a long journey. It was a hard journey. Not everyone made it. People really love this book, but of course even Lewis himself writes in the introduction that there is nothing biblical about the interpretation. But I cannot help but think that people are drawn to that story because it makes sense. Certainly more sense than the idea of waking up in a foreign country as a different person. Certainly more sense than the idea of having “every tear wiped from your eyes” and never crying again, even though you know that those you love are burning in hell as you sing praises.

I used to dream that someday my father would wake up in heaven and he would understand. He would see how he failed me, how he didn’t love me like he was supposed to, how he screwed up. But that would be my father waking up a different man. He would not have earned that, no processes followed, nothing would have made that real. So in this strange reality, someday I as a completely different person and my father as a completely different person could reconcile for his past wrongs. Strangely, that thought doesn’t exactly hold the comfort it once did.

The idea of being redeemed back to who I was “meant to be” does not hold appeal for me. I have fought for my life. I love my life. The choices I’ve made have been hard and they’ve been complicated. It is cruel and absurd to me to say that none of those choices have any value or meaning except one – whether or not I accept that a man was tortured to death in my place 2000 years ago. I think the choices we make matter a great deal. I’ve seen healing and beauty and incredible things in the lives of people I love. I’ve seen them here and now. I don’t believe anyone wakes up perfect and I take no comfort in the thought. I think that we do the best we can with what we’ve got and I think that’s no small thing.

Recovering (from) Faith: Never Going Back

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There was a point fairly soon after everything fell apart that I knew I would never go back. I remember laying in the grass outside and thinking about what was expected of sheep returning to the fold. See, when I first left I didn’t really know what I was doing. And in the emails I sent to a few of my Christian friends I didn’t have the courage or total conviction yet to say that I was done with this. So I said that “the only way out was through” and I left open the possibility that this was me exploring something that I couldn’t leave alone anymore, left open the possibility that I might come back. Part of me wishes I hadn’t done that but at the time the idea of leaving it all behind entirely was so incomprehensible that I couldn’t really face it. And I certainly couldn’t face them with it. What I could say was that for now I had walked away. I did not explain how I felt like I could breathe for the first time in my life or how the world seemed like the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. I was contrite. I only showed my fear, not my exhilaration. I wasn’t looking to hurt anyone.

But there I was, lying in the grass and thinking about it. I thought about how much I had learned in only the few weeks or a month since I had taken those steps and what a different person I felt like. I thought about how I loved David and The Superhero and how much that relationship already meant to me and how much I knew I had left to learn from it. And I thought of my mother and in that moment I was sure I could never go back.

It’s not that I couldn’t be welcomed back after this – I absolutely could be. The truth is that the evangelical church loves a lost sheep returned and the more lost the better. My story would be sensational. A history of abuse, sex with multiple partners of both genders, I could probably up the drinking if I really wanted to. Look, we hear a lot of testimonies. People who claim that sensationalized ones aren’t more interesting are lying. I would say that almost anyone who claims they never felt the competition to have a better one is probably lying. Even Jesus didn’t spend much time talking about the 99 sheep who never left the fold; he talks about the rejoicing at finding the lost one. But there’s something implicit that you have to give up when you give your testimony. You give up the value of what you gained.

God pulled you out of hell on earth and sin. It’s a really confusing message if hell on earth and sin gave you anything positive and meaningful except how great God is and how not great you are.  Those are the lessons you are permitted to learn. Everything else was a lie from Satan. But I knew then and know even more now that that is quintessentially and demonstrably untrue. I am a different person than I was a year ago. My friendship/poly relationship with David has been one of the most challenging relationships of my entire life. I am a better communicator, I am a better friend. I am far more aware of my areas of weakness. I have worked harder on these things than at any other point in my life and nothing could ever make me stand up in front of anyone and say that was a lie. I have met incredible people this year and I know I will meet more. I have challenged myself in ways I never thought possible before and I am moving forward. Nothing could make me say that was wrong. I am a better person now than I was in June of last year. I refuse to say that God magically made “good come out of evil,” that the beautiful and amazing things I have experienced in the past year were bad. I knew I could never go back and say that the best choices I have ever made were mistakes. This would be called pride by most Christians I grew up with (and perhaps that contributes because I am proud of myself and think I deserve to be) but I primarily call it honesty.

You might wonder what this has to do with my mother. While my mother’s life and experiences have been extraordinarily different from my own, I still cannot help but see her as a hard line example of this. In her late teens and twenties, my mother was an alcoholic. However, I can only presume she was also other things. I know she had friends, I know she had a life. Maybe occasionally she even had fun. I say maybe because I know almost nothing about my mother’s life during that time. When she got clean and became a Christian she cut everything out of her life. She stopped listening to secular music, as far as I can tell she stopped seeing her friends. She never talks about it, except for bits I occasionally pulled out of her. She believed that what she learned from that life was to forget everything about that life. I know this is not the same, I am well aware that the life of an addict is not a happy place and that there may be a lot that my mother wants to forget. But I argue that forgetting has not made her happy, in fact it has done the opposite.

We are the same people. We learn from everything we do, whether we admit it or not. No matter how hard the line is we draw, we cannot shut out what happened to us. We can only make it meaningful or meaningless. “I found my way back to God” is not enough meaning for me. It is not tangible, it is not real. I have tangible, real things, things that I can point to and document from this past year in my life of “sin” and I argue that forgetting those things would make me so much less of a person.

This is not a hard argument that I could never come back to God for any reason under any circumstances. I don’t know that or what that means. I don’t feel highly motivated to pursue it at this point. But it is my case that I can never come back to the evangelical church. They don’t want my story and I’m not interested in being pulled back. There’s too much to do.

Confessions of Petty Crime

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For a year or two or maybe more (I’m honestly not sure how long) I stole a fair amount of money from my employer.

Until this last week, I never told anyone this. I think I mentioned in passing I had stolen some money but certainly not the extent of it or the details of it. I didn’t think about it much and I definitely didn’t want to talk about it. After a while I sort-of forgot about it. But since this spring I’ve been working for the same fast food restaurant that I stole from (the same chain anyway; not the same store) and I have been thinking a lot about how different I am now.

As I said, I’m not sure how long it went on. I don’t remember when it started, although I know it continued until I left my job there. I worked there for over five years but it didn’t go on the entire time. You see, at some point I realized that there was a $2.00 margin of error on every till. That wasn’t news, that was something you learned when you got your job. I was very good at counting change and I knew I was never anywhere near that mark so it occurred to me, what if I just took 75 cents out of every till I was on? I would never be written up for it, it couldn’t even really be commented on because it was below my margin of error. Who comments on 75 cents? And it’s not like it was ever exactly 75 cents. I would never be exact, of course and I kept careful track of everything. I generally knew exactly where I would be at by the end of the day.

Perhaps ironically my manager’s dedication to managing money well gave me a great deal more access. My till was changed every time I went on my lunch because we had had problems with people stealing larger sums of money in the past. I also occasionally gave people ten minute breaks and we did not change tills for that. On average I had access to a minimum of three tills per day. $2.25 per day, 5 days a week. It doesn’t sound like much but if you multiply that by 52 weeks, it’s $585. That’s not exact, of course. There were holidays and I occasionally took days off but it isn’t far off. For several months I was a manager on an overnight shift, which meant it was my job to count down all the tills from the day. 7, 8, 9 tills. I can’t remember the exact number but it was a fair amount. Figure the low end and that’s quite a tidy extra sum just during those few months. No one ever questioned me or caught me. As I said, who would question 75 cents? It’s too low to track.

Truthfully I think it’s possible that it wasn’t caught just because my manager liked me. I thought it even then, which did make me feel bad. I was a very reliable employee and I got along well with everyone. I had a number of problems as an employee (aside from my rampant stealing :P) which I may talk about in another post but in a fast food place showing up pretty much every single day on time counts for a lot. I find that has not changed a number of years down the line.

The reason I wanted to talk about this though was because of how I felt about it. It’s because of why I didn’t tell anyone all those years and why I don’t mind talking about it now. It has a lot to do with God. You see, I was very afraid of being caught. Partly I was afraid of being caught because I loved my manager and I knew she liked me and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much she would hate me if she found out. So whenever I thought about it, I dreaded that. But I also dreaded people thinking I was a bad Christian, I dreaded having to make restitution (which I was sure would be a lot, although I had pretty intentionally not kept track of how much). When my father became a real true Christian, he went back to his hometown and paid for a book he had stolen when he was in like jr. high. Because that’s the sort of thing Jesus wants you to do. I did not want to do that.

Notice what I didn’t feel that bad about? I didn’t feel bad about actually doing it. This is a recurring pattern in my life growing up. God never succeeded in making me feel bad about actually doing the sin but I’d get to the point of one step removed. In other words, I would feel bad for not feeling bad. I would feel very afraid of being caught, very afraid of the consequences, very afraid of people seeing who I was and despising me… but I didn’t feel bad about the actual act. And this is a complicated pickle. You can’t repent for something you don’t feel truly sorry for. But how can you be a Christian if you don’t repent for your sins? Many of the things I grew up doing, particularly while I lived at home, were sins of survival. I did not feel bad for them and that seems exceptionally reasonable to me even now. I believe we have core instincts that go much deeper than we realize until our backs are against the wall. But this was not a matter of survival. I didn’t use this money to buy food, I used it to buy Buffy DVD’s and Anne Rice books. I did this because I could. It had a compulsive element to it. I feared being caught but not enough to stop. I felt smart, after all no one else had thought of this.

Then one day I quit my job. I found a new one that didn’t have that margin of error. When the opportunity wasn’t there, I stopped and I think the most I’ve stolen since then is a package of razors one time from my work in a medical clinic. For about a year or so after I left the job I would think about the money sometimes and I would feel very afraid. Not because I was afraid of being caught (I knew that was not a concern) but because I was afraid that the only way to be a good Christian was to go back and tell them exactly what I had done and offer to pay it all back. Otherwise God would someday hold it up as why I didn’t really know him, didn’t really care about him.  And maybe he’d be right. But eventually I stopped thinking about it. I never told anyone. I haven’t thought about it at all until these last few months. What I find myself thinking is that I would never do that now. And it has nothing to do with God at all.

I grew up being taught what baby Christians are always taught. “Without God there is no morality.” The simplified version of this is truly disgusting; it basically boils down to that atheists have no morality whatsoever because they don’t have God in their lives. There are people who update this out of necessity (you know, so they have an argument to give people who actually have contact with someone outside church walls) and the updated argument is that atheists may have morality but it still comes from God, they just don’t know it. This is an obnoxious argument. But what I can say for my own life is that God never succeeded in giving me any sense of morality at all. Religion told me a great many things that were right and wrong and I learned all of the dos and don’t’s but they were tangled in a lot of confusion and shame and expectation. I began to very much want to do the right thing the day I realized that I believed people were good and were not evil as I had always believed. The moment I believed that it became imperative to try to do the right thing because we were all in the same boat.

With or without God, we were all here, actively here. We are all we’ve got. As Angel says “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.” In a lifetime of faith, nothing compelled me like that.

I no longer feel any particular need to make restitution. My managers are long gone from the corporation and I don’t worry about the company suffering or a god weighing me in the balance. It feels like another lifetime and I suppose in a way it was. I am very relieved to be in this one. I don’t believe it’s wrong to steal because of a book. I think it’s wrong to steal because we’re what we have on this planet. I think that the things that are wrong to do are wrong because we are connected and those things hurt all of us. But I didn’t know that until I stopped looking fearfully up and started looking at what was actually in front of me.

Recovering (From) Faith: Semi-Truck at the End of the Spectrum

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to one of our parenting support groups and it was really exceptional. There is something really genuinely amazing to me about watching parents who are being intentional about being parents. Being open and honest and talking about what worked and what didn’t and what is so very difficult and what they’re scared about and how do you deal with those things and what does talking with your kids look like? Those are the sorts of things that give me hope for the world. I also feel like watching the group gave me a much better idea of how feminist counseling could be used in a group setting and that I would really like to work in group settings as well as one on one and those were all really exciting things to think about.

While the facilitator was talking about parenting, she was talking about discipline. She started by talking about the purpose of discipline vs punishment. The idea that discipline is about teaching your child life skills, so it needs to be consistent, it needs to be about finding out what motivates them, what moves them forward. It needs to be intentional and thoughtful and also individual, because you’re working with your specific child. These are important concepts. Not things I’ve never heard before but not how I feel I was raised and they always strike me. But then she said something else. She said “On the other hand, there is a spectrum. Sometimes safety is an issue. If your child is running in front of a semi-truck, you’re not going to stop and think about what life skills they’re going to learn. You’re going to do whatever it takes to stop them because if you don’t, they won’t learn anything ever again.” Now, that’s super sensible and it may not sound like something that would stop me in my tracks but it totally was. See, there’s really only one place I’ve ever heard anyone use that analogy before – it’s about God.

I literally could not count the number of pastors I have heard use that analogy when talking about hell. God is our father and he is saving us from the oncoming semi-truck of hell. Sometimes it’s a car, sometimes it’s a bus. It’s something big enough to crush us. They appeal to the parents in the audience. “If your child was running in front of a speeding car, you don’t pause to reason them out of it, you do whatever you need to in order to get them out of the way!” Now this has two problems but I find one of them interests me a lot less than the other. The one I find less interesting is about God. Because obviously there are problems with this. I mean, it’s all fine and good to pull your child out of the way of a car, but what if you put the car on a track to run into your child to begin with? What if you’re also driving the car? What about the idea of a hell that is not discipline and teaches nothing but is just eternal torture signifying nothing? The truth is that I don’t really care about that though, which I’m pleased about. I’m glad I’m not worrying myself over the theological inconsistencies of a God I’m not sure exists.

There’s a much more present problem with this teaching – it’s what it taught you as our parents. It’s the parents I want to talk to, not about. I feel like we’re all a family that’s been broken and the lines are fractured here. If I could wish anything, it’s that you could hear me. See, it’s not just God pulling the kids out of the way of the car, it’s you. What if your child is in sin? What if they are heading directly to hell? How are you supposed to save them? As parents, it is literally not possible for you to love them and not save them. You have to pull them out of the way, you have to at least try. Now, I know there are different versions of this. There is at least lip service given to the idea that only God can save. Some people believe that more than others. But it’s your child. Just trusting God to save them from eternal torture is a bit of a tall order, you have to admit. So you have to do something. I understand that, I really do. But where does this leave you? And I ask that sincerely. See, one of the key things about what she said is that parenting is a spectrum. Pulling your child out of the way of an oncoming semi is at the most extreme end of that spectrum. But what if everything is the semi? What if every sin is the same? What if hell and eternal damnation are a real part of your everyday existence and it is your job to save your child from that fate? Suddenly your normal parenting could very likely, very understandably, become the extreme end of that spectrum. It can make it very hard to be intentional about their day to day emotional skills in this life, and what is this life compared to eternity in hell or heaven? There is not a lot of room for a spectrum, there’s not a lot of space for individual parenting when you’re parenting with only one vital and unshakable goal – to make sure your child is safe forever.

Existentialist therapists believe as one of their core principles that death is one of the key things that gives our lives meaning. If life just went on forever, there would be no sense of urgency, no reason we had to get things done. It is the perspective death offers that gives us an ability to create a full and meaningful life. But as many kinds of Christian, you can’t believe that. Because focusing on this life is secondary to the afterlife. What good is the “blink of an eye” that is this life in comparison to an eternity we can’t even grasp? Of course it’s possible you’ll make some mistakes in that fervor. But you are doing it for their own good. You’re doing what you believe is the best thing. And it’s why, when your children try to talk to you about it, try to explain the hurt that came out of it, you are angry. How could you not be? You were trying to save our souls, not something as transitory as our minds and bodies. It’s not that those things don’t matter (depending on which tradition you’re in) but they have to matter less because they don’t last. But we’re still here, your children. We’re here, in the flesh, our minds and our bodies and we feel that we were broken and hurt and abused and we cannot just let it go because you meant well or because you were doing your best, even though many of us believe you.

I spent years running that exact hamster wheel. How could I be angry when I know they were doing what they believed to be right, what they believed was the best thing? How can I be upset when I know they loved me? It’s not fair. It’s not fair that so much of the time you didn’t know better. It’s not fair that you were tricked. It’s not fair that you were lied to. Because make no mistake, there are still Christian leaders pounding the pavement telling these same lies every day, stirring up hatred and fear and aggression. Except now so many of those things come down on the heads of us, the children who turned out wrong. Some of you were more susceptible to this than others. Some of you were already scared, were already hurt, were already abused and you wanted answers. You wanted a way to raise me and my siblings and the thousands of kids out there like us that was a guarantee. You were promised something by leaders who lied to you. I want to say that leadership should be intentional just like parenting, there are consequences just like parenting and as I look out and see major Christian leaders falling like houses of cards, some part of me wants to hope that consequences are coming, that a difference will be made, that this culture is crumbling from the inside. I don’t know if those men knew what they were doing, if they lied knowingly, if they drew you into this with eyes wide open or if they too were somehow dupes in this trick. If they led in fear of the semi-truck and taught you to parent on that same spectrum. I don’t know.

But I know that people were fooled, people were hurt. And it’s a particularly cruel joke if you believe, as I do now, that the semi-truck never existed in the first place.

Recovery (From) Faith: Church Community and Safety

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This week I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Leaving Your Religion by James Mulholland. It is a particularly excellent blog for anyone who has experienced walking away from faith. He is thoughtful and very kind to anyone in the midst of that decision or having made it. It is definitely one of the most thought-provoking and soothing things I read most weeks. This particular week he was discussing how for most people one of the most difficult things about walking away from their faith is leaving their community behind. The idea of having that group of people who supported you through difficult times and just fulfilled so many different roles in your life.

He had a lot of really interesting points that made a great deal of sense… but this was one of the few times that I have to admit I did not resonate with any of them. Leaving my faith community was a tremendous relief to me. The church was not a source of support and love for me, more than anything it was a source of stress and danger.

Understand that of course the church was never a place I chose. It was a birthright. I started coming the week I was out of the hospital. It was one of the only consistent places in my life besides my home. Since I never went to school, it was my only source of teachers who were not my mother, it was pretty much my only experience with adults who were not actually related to me. It was the slightly larger world outside of the one I spent most of my life in. As such, I did spend a lot of time there. If you spend most of your life in a tiny cage, a slightly bigger one is going to seem exciting. When I became a teenager, I was allowed to select other churches. I still had to go with mom and dad on Sunday mornings until I turned 18 but I went to a different church for youth group on Wednesday nights and yet another church that had services on Sunday nights. I went to pretty much every youth event. I attended Bible studies and small groups and camp every year (camp is probably a minimum of one whole entry all by itself). I was involved and invested. Because it was the only thing I knew.

Just because I was invested, just because I knew all the right things to say and argued them fairly articulately for my age (which is to say not that articulately most of the time) does not mean that I felt safe or accepted or at home in church. I did not. Pastors would be the first outside people I would hear talk about modesty. Church was where I was told that my dress was “causing someone to stumble.” It was in church that I was literally walking down the hall hand in hand with an abusive boy for weeks, as “friends”, a boy three years older than myself, a boy no one trusted, a boy whose own mother believed the rumors that got started that he had raped me… but no one would ever say anything to me about it except that our relationship was “inappropriately close.” Do you know what inappropriately close meant? It meant that I was doing something wrong. It meant that I as a 14, 15 year old girl, was sending him mixed signals. It seemed very reasonable to assume that they were correct. When he pushed I did not push back. How could I? I was a bad girl.

It was in church that I had the reputation of being a “bad girl.” I made life difficult for my parents. I was cutting myself, I was sneaking out with older boys. Not once was I ever asked by an adult what was happening. Not once did anyone ever ask me if I was being forced, if I was being pressured. No one asked me a single question at all, as a matter of fact. Well, except maybe one.

“Don’t you know what the Bible says about disobeying your parents?”

It was in church that I learned that my parents were good people, had to be good people. I learned I was the problem, I must be the problem. I was a bad kid, I was broken and screwing up and this was my fault. After all, what 15 year old talks about fighting with her parents and is taken seriously? They were not beating me, they were not touching me and there was food on our table. And I will be completely honest with you, if they had been doing any of those things, I do not necessarily think that the scenario would have been all the different. People loved my parents. They were leaders in our church, they helped with committees and teaching Sunday school and running small groups. I was a problem, they were good people. The rules were so simple and I learned I couldn’t follow them and I did not know or understand why. I deviated wildly between hopelessness and depression to rebellion and semi-reckless behavior because of this knowledge.

When I was assaulted at 17, I did not even have the context to recognize it for what it was. I was a bad girl. I was engaged in a sinful relationship. It doesn’t matter if you fight back at that point, not when you already said yes. It would literally be almost 10 years before I would recognize that it mattered. I would be almost 20 before it even crossed my mind in a serious way that I had a right to say no, at any point in an encounter, not just that if I didn’t right at the beginning I had doomed myself. No one ever told me. No one ever talked to me. They knew who I was. And because they were so sure, I knew too.

My father used to tell me, as I got into my 20’s and began struggling with all my many issues with the church, that the church was just made up of people. I couldn’t be so critical. I had to give grace. That’s what grace means. You allow people to get away with murder or rape or things. You accept that they are human and flawed and sinful and that is our natural state. But God is making us better. You just have to trust that God is making us better. I fought against that concept so hard. It was not enough. It was not enough. It was not enough for me and it has not been enough for thousands like me.

The church is not a safe place. You can say that it is full of flawed people and that is true. All organizations have flaws. But I am going to say that I think that the church, overall, if you looked at it as a whole, is a less safe place than many other places. It is a place that is becoming more and more known for intolerance and hate, a place that is becoming known for not just passivity but an active will to cover up abuse and harm that comes to people. The church is not willing to be honest and that has had devastating consequences and will continue to do so. The American church, when faced with things like a stupid reality tv star saying horribly racist and homophobic things will not say “this is not who we are.” Instead they will scream horrific things defending what they believe is a right to privilege. I literally could not even link to the hundreds upon hundreds of sexual abuse scandals in the church, even the ones that have only come out in the last six months. And do you know what they have in common? Almost every single victim who was brave enough to come forward was revictimized, was told she (or he) was making things up or should brush it under the rug or brought it on themselves. They have protected rape of children and beatings of women and the prolonged mental, physical and sexual abuse of who knows how many because it is comfortable, because they are ignorant and because too many of them want to stay that way. Because it is easier to sweep victims under the rug than to deal with the ugly truth of the world, than to admit that they have not stayed apart from it, it is in their leaders and their friends, it is next door and it is inside their house.

I know amazing Christians. People who truly care about the church, people who truly, genuinely care about people. People who want things to change. I value those people. I hope they can make changes, I do. There are always exceptions, when you are talking about something as huge and sweeping as “the American church” you cannot assume you are talking about every person in it. But they are not enough. They have not been enough to protect the people in their walls, they have not been enough to change the tide of their movement, they have not been enough to even quiet down the increasingly vitriolic hatred from gatekeepers who are terrified to lose an ounce of what they consider rightfully theirs. This does not make them any less incredible people, in fact it might make them more incredible. They probably don’t agree with my perspective, they might even be hurt by it. I hope that isn’t true. I love them and I love what they’re willing to do because I love anyone with passion and vision for something beautiful and right and this belief doesn’t change that to me.

I have a lot of hope for people in general. I believe the world is capable of change, I believe people are capable of change. I don’t think the church is exempt from that, even if I don’t intend to be part of it. I built and am ever in process of building a new community that is full of more amazing people, some of them that I met in that exact place, some of them I met outside of it. I hope someday the church becomes known for something else. Right now I watch and sometimes cry and rage, because you never truly leave your past entirely. But no. I don’t miss the church. I think leaving was one of the most important things I’ve ever done.

Recovering (From) Faith: Easter Sunday

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You know, I never liked Easter. I know I was supposed to. Like really, really supposed to. For Christians it’s supposed to be like the pinnacle of our faith, the day when we celebrate what quite literally made our faith. On other holidays sometimes people would point out that it was not as good a day as Easter. I always wondered if they really believed that. Did other people feel that way?

I found Easter profoundly uncomfortable, I can’t remember a time I did not. I was usually dressed in something I was physically uncomfortable in, until later when I stopped dressing up for it and then I felt like people looked at me funny. All the songs were so joyful and excited, they weren’t songs I liked much or found any connection with. I was rarely that happy on the day but I felt like you had to be, on this day even more than other days you had to fake it. I remember my mother coaching me in the car on the way to church with a certain level of intensity “Now when someone says to you he is risen, what do you say?” Sigh. “He is risen indeed.” They gave you daffodils to go put in the cross. It’s strange, I usually liked tactile traditions like that, especially as I got older but these seemed too bright, too disingenuous.

You see, I liked Good Friday. That was actually my favorite of all the Christian holidays except Christmas and, if I was really honest, none of the reasons I liked Christmas ever had much of anything to do with God. But Good Friday was great. I didn’t go to a church that was into celebrating it until I was an adult really, but the first Good Friday service I went to was basically my favorite. It was dark and quiet, all the songs were introspective and sad, it was okay to be quiet and calm and not talk to each other. In fact, it was expected. There were candles and everything felt warm and safe. Good Friday was the service I looked forward to every year and I knew that wasn’t right. I knew I was supposed to be excited about Easter, that Friday was the bad day, that “Sunday’s comin'” was the mantra.

But the truth, if I was really honest, was that I didn’t live in this pretend Sunday. This amazing place where God had apparently made everything okay again and Jesus was alive and I was supposed to be joyfully glad about that? I didn’t live there. I was depressed much more often than not. The world, in case no one had noticed, was an awfully fucked up place and Jesus didn’t seem to have done much about it. I was conflicted and hurting and although I went to a church that insisted you come as you are and should be genuine, there was extra pressure on Easter – this is a day of joy, good Christians smile today because this is what we’re happy about. And I wasn’t happy. And it was hard to smile. I just wanted to go to Good Friday service and stay there, stay with my head down and the guitar playing and be honest about being sad and confused. I’m not sure I can say that I feel like God was there with me, sometimes maybe I did. But I know that I felt more honest, less torn. I’d take communion and feel genuine. And then I’d have to come Sunday and smile and lie.

I worked all day this Easter, it was pretty much like any other day to me. But it was such a relief not to have to do it anymore. My mother texted “He is risen!” to me at 8am. I didn’t text back. It was the happiest Easter I’ve ever had.

Recovering (From) Faith: Not Missing God

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I thought it would be a lot harder, a lot more traumatic. I thought it would be like falling off of a cliff forever but it wasn’t. The truth is that I was never a very good Christian. The truth is that the things that I miss are way more about my place in a world that I knew than they are about God. I don’t know really what that means. In some ways, if I’m honest, it makes me feel bad. Which is strange, it shouldn’t matter. What difference does it make now if I was a bad Christian then? Obviously it all ended up as nothing in the end. I guess I feel like it was more of a waste. I want to say that I dedicated my life to this and that it was all a waste of time but the truth is that I didn’t. Honestly I just coasted in the reality I was in.

I can’t escape it even now. I know that I may believe in evolution but when I think about the beginning of the world, on a core level I think of Adam and Eve. I know that I think Noah and the flood as a literal story are kind-of nonsense but I believe it. Some strange, tiny part of me believes it. Maybe always will. I don’t fight that. I don’t see a reason to. We are who we are. The stories that shaped us stay with us, they’re the dna that formed our world. I don’t always need my stories to make rational sense, they just need to resonate on some other level. I don’t even mind that those stories directly conflict with the things that matter most to me. I have other stories, new stories, and I think someday those will probably burrow deeper. It takes time.

But the point is that I thought all of this would hurt more. I don’t talk to God anymore. I did for the first couple of months, occasionally. Not even like asking him to say something, not begging him to ask me to stay, just… out of habit. I don’t know if God is there. I think if there is a God there, it’s not the one I was raised with. I’m not afraid of him or her anymore. I think they’d understand. But you know. It was supposed to matter. Do you know how many hours of my life I spent on this? Because I don’t. I’m embarrassed to admit that maybe it wasn’t even passion, maybe it wasn’t even need. Maybe it was just habit. Maybe it was just the sheer force of programming. When I said I didn’t believe in God anymore, that I didn’t believe in these things it seemed like the bottom fell out of my world but it was just a framework. It wasn’t really God. I had to struggle to regain my equilibrium not because I was missing anyone in particular but because I had identified as something for so long and now I didn’t. I still struggle with that sometimes but it doesn’t hurt.

I read blogs about people leaving faith. I read a lot of turmoil and I’m fascinated by it. I’m empathetic. I also feel like I’m doing it wrong. Or, more likely, that I was doing it wrong. They miss their faith because their faith mattered more to them to begin with. They left something that was more real to them, they felt like they left someone. It was a death, it was a loss. I have lost a lot of things in the last year or two. I’ve lost some friends, I lost my parents, I lost whatever community I was part of. But I don’t feel like I lost God.

People told me it would be different. I mean, partly I assumed that it had to be a disaster because how can giving up something that central not be a disaster but also people told me that it would be. I was told that they hoped I found my way back to God before I hit bottom and was alone, I was told that they just didn’t want me to get hurt, that this would end badly. Always there was this sense of impending doom. It had to be a really huge deal. I didn’t realize, at least not for a while, that the reason it had to be a huge deal may not have been entirely about me at all. I believe people were genuinely worried about me when this happened, that there are people who still are. It’s just that maybe some of that is about them, not about me.

But on that note, do you know what I hate most about this? Because I know how this goes, even though this is not the point and shouldn’t be the point at all. I hate knowing how certain people would interpret this experience. “Oh. Well. She was never really a Christian to begin with.” And that would make them feel better. That would be the explanation for why I did this thing and that would somehow make it okay. I don’t want it to be okay. In truth, there are people I know my story makes very uncomfortable and I want them to be uncomfortable with it and I hate that this gives them an out. I mean, there’s a split of course. People who believe you can lose salvation vs. people who believe you can’t. But no matter what camp you’re in, it’s a lot easier if you believe I was just never “saved” to begin with. If you look at my life and say well, it’s very sad she wasted all that time, maybe God will still get to her. It devalues my experience, it’s a way to write off the genuine things that happened. But unfortunately you can’t stop other people from trying to define your experience for you, especially if that experience makes them uncomfortable.

I don’t miss God. I feel better than I ever have. I feel like I should feel differently but I don’t. And I guess people will interpret that however they need to.