The clouded lens of faith

Why is it that my heartrate increases and my breathing become jagged when I come across evidence of a previous version of myself — that is, the one that wholeheartedly committed to the Pentecostal evangelical way of doing faith?

I feel so many things when I hear the jargon, see smiling people worshipping together, come across songs I used to feel a lot. It’s almost a feeling of what I called “conviction” – a little emotional ping that told me that I was temporarily out of bounds and needed to repent, find something wrong that I was doing, and get back in line.

I measured my “success” in my relationship with God in early-morning bleary-eyed Bible study, or a worship service where I was moved to tears (read: every single one), or the feeling that I was being prophesized over, and that that prophecy was for me at that moment.

To be clear: I don’t deny many of my experiences. I don’t deny many of the relationships I built with other people during this time. I don’t deny the musical and spiritual growth I made from playing with worship bands for a decade. But now at this point, I feel a certain grief over the “believer” I was. The beliefs I unequivocally adhered to. The people I hurt over disagreements about theology, intentional or unintentional. The people I excluded because I did not agree with their “lifestyle.” The people I thought I had a right to convert to my way of Christianity when I had no business doing so – in their country, no less. I grieve the power I gave over to others in the name of “accountability.”

There is so much now that I don’t know. I have a lot of doubts. I thought I had come up to the top of the hill already, but recently I think I came just to a plateau, and now I have resumed climbing. There is so much to uncover, so many beliefs to examine. The more I continue in this journey, the more I think that this is part of the human condition.

I had a deep insecurity throughout those years spent in conservative Pentecostal evangelical churches. I was young, married, without a lot of money, spending a lot of time away from my new husband, with whom I “sinned” before marriage. The insecurity also came from experiences where extroversion was valued and even seen as godly. I am not an extroverted person.

Sometimes I can tend towards that end of the spectrum, but in general about my faith (and most of my life in general), I am introverted. I like to turn things over in my mind and heart before I express it to others as my truth. Instead, I was encouraged to just take a leap and the Holy Spirit will catch me. I was encouraged to put myself out there, that the person I was would be made better. Which also infers that the person I was wasn’t good enough. Good enough for God? Or good enough for other people?

My heart hurts. I never could have foreseen a grief over a time in my life related to my faith. I really and truly thought I had it all figured out – about sin, about God, about salvation, about heaven, about hell, about Roman’s Road, about mental illness as a Christian.

It all started to unravel when I learned of emotional abuses committed by pastoral staff, and how they were allowed to be perpetuated mostly because no one else really knew. The victims of this abuse had no power to respond. And not just in one church by a couple people, but in completely different areas of the country to many people. The unraveling continued with our unsuccessful journey to having children and the refusal to pursue parenthood. The latter seems to be a covert affront to American Christian culture.

I do have hope, however. I have hope because of many, many people I know from all over the country who claim to follow Jesus and their actions match. I have hope because I have had some wonderful pastors from different backgrounds and of different ethnicities who attest to the one-ness of God. I have hope because I’ve seen many of my predecessors for whom God and faith were real, and they practiced it.

Through living in different parts of the country and encountering all sorts of Christians, I have hope. The faith I practice is not contained in one type of building with one type of music and one type of preaching in one type of vernacular. It extends far beyond where I can see, beyond time and space and language. It’s in nature, in the air, in the clouds and birds and animals, and especially in domesticated ones. I see it in a shared meal with friends and through created traditions. I see it in fresh food pulled from the oven and in books I read by lamplight. I see it in the compassion and humor of my students, still teenagers trying to figure out their place in the United States, and the world at large.

I want to look forward instead of looking behind. There are new spiritual experiences to be had with new contexts and new interpretations of our shared texts. That there is a “successful” way to practice faith is an American fallacy. Adhering to any faith, no matter what it is, is not about reaching the top of the mountain finally. I think it looks like a constant push-and-pull, sometimes a tug-of-war.

…being people of faith isn’t as much about being right as it is about being part of a community in restored and restorative relationship with God.

In “Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans

Religion & faith in context: The Book of Longings

Let me start by saying, Wow. I was blown away by this book by Sue Monk Kidd, who also wrote the best-selling Secret Life of Bees (which I have not read). The Book of Longings was really a book I have needed in my life for a long time, though it was just released. It was my first finished book of 2021, but one that will be on my mind for a long time.

Here is a link to my review (spoilers).

Beyond the review of the book, I can say that I think I know why my therapist might have recommended this to me. She often recommends literary fiction, some of which I have read to the end, some of which I have DNF’d, and some which I have avoided, like Book of Longings.

I have been on a faith journey my whole life, beginning from the time I was four years old and our neighbor Anna Rushford invited my family to church, the church right across the alley. It happened to be a United Methodist church, and this faith tradition was heavy on both sides of my family. I had even been baptized in a different Methodist church when I was only 2.

Fast forward to now, when I’ve been a Christian for 30 years, having been a member and at times heavily involved with different kinds of churches, all the while with questions in my mind about who God is and what his relationship to me looks like. I also recently have been questioning where Christians get some of the ideas they do about the Bible, and then decide that what they have learned is the only way to interpret it, and THEN use it to degrade, judge, ostracize, and ignore others. That I’m angry about.

Besides the religious aspect of Book of Longings, I thought a lot about the plight of women rich and poor in the first century. Though my life looks quite different than women of that time, I can relate to so much. What I can’t understand because of my own time, place, and privilege, I can imagine. No matter the social station of different phases of life of our main character, Ana, she experiences tragedy and silencing of her voice. She has deep emotions and desires that are often in conflict with each other. Her experience showcases many aspects of the general human experience.

I did cry at a point in this book, and if you’re not familiar with the story of Jesus or if you haven’t read this book, stop reading! I saw Jesus’ betrayal and death through new eyes, but really, eyes that might have been there. I knew there was a group of women including his mother and Mary Magdalene, but never in my life had considered that his wife would be there, nor that she might have just barely made it back after a long absence to see her own husband put to death. For some reason, witnessing that momentous event through new eyes had a profound impact on me.

I know what love is, and I know what it looks like in the context of my faith. I believe that two people can be brought together for not only love, but for companionship and the betterment of the world. And I know what it feels like to be separated from that person for long periods of time. I know what it feels like to just have to get my voice out – that’s why I write. But I write on a screen, not on papyrus.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s all connected. For a long time, I have compartmentalized many things: my relationship with God, my experience as a woman, my sexuality, my wants and desires for life. But it’s really all related and part of my human experience. I think just as the Trinity – Father God, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit – cannot be separated, our body and spirit cannot be separated.

This union of elements for me has been a new experience, and one I’ve desperately needed as I find my way in the world as a woman with a body and a soul and as a woman without children. When I go places, I take both my body and my soul with me, always. When I experience happiness, it flows through my mind and also my body. I first learned about what the world was like through my body (attachment theory). How then can my body be separated from my mind or soul?

Today we still return to our roots in times of crisis; we look to the stories of our origins to make sense of things, to remember who we are.

In Inspired by Rachel Held Evans

Returning to my roots is not an option for me – I must do it. That means returning to the stories that shaped my childhood and my first views of the world – the stories of the Bible. For several years I have been the absolute worst scholar of the Bible, and maybe it’s just as well. The scholar hat really isn’t fitting well, and that’s okay. I just have to come at it from a different angle. I’ll get back there with time and care. It cannot be forced.

In all, The Book of Longings did something for me that I have needed – it has given me a context for understanding Jesus in a way that I can understand and relate to on a visceral level, in a way that can easily bypass my brain and all its questions – through the love of another human.

Hymn’s come home

If I were to choose a playlist of songs to make up the soundtrack to my biography, at the very top of the list tied for first place there would be classic rock and Methodist hymns. The top artists would be Heart and Charles Wesley. The former as a nod to the music I was raised and the latter as a testament to the music that played over and over in my head after church on Sundays. Both formed my spirituality.

I owe so much of my literacy development and my mad sight reading skills to having to read out of a hymnal in church. From the tender age of five I was singing along to hymns in church accompanied usually by the organ. We sat in the third row towards the center, so I generally wasn’t within the proper angle to see the organist plugging away at her work, but I was mesmerized nonetheless. If I remember correctly, I sat between my grandma and my mom. Or sometimes between my grandma and my sisters. If I remember correctly. But for sure I knew that my grandma was on my left, at the ready with Mentos or Winterfresh gum.

We would mark the hymns ahead of time with little ribbons by looking through the bulletin. I remember the anticipation of singing a hymn I loved. I adore hymns for so many reasons, only one of which is how beautifully the chords move through their progressions and carry a swelling and then fading melody. Then of course how many verses rhyme. I especially love the way that it’s easy to harmonize – the only question for me is which note I start on. To find this I hum along while the introduction is played and that usually sets me straight. I love to be a sole chorus of altos in a sea of sopranos and tenors and basses. I love hymns so much that I may have swiped a hymnal from the church I grew up in, and still have it on my shelf to this day. Truthfully, I probably borrowed it to practice songs on the piano and then forgot to give it back.

Hymns were my prayers, and some 30 years after beginning my formal journey in organized religion, I realize that. In the fine print below each hymn, you can see from where and when the words and music originated. My favorites are the ones where the words come from a translation of Latin from the 9th century (like “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) or when a hymn was written during a pivotal moment in history like the Civil War. But it doesn’t have to say “written during the Civil War”; I know that the years of 1861 through 1865 bear significance. It meant a lot to me that I was also singing the same choruses as my spiritual predecessors from ages ago.

I often committed words and music of hymns to memory. This will happen after you sing something so many times. Not only does repetition play a huge part, but so does the context in which you sing the hymn. We know from modern brain science that the body remembers first – whether an event was traumatic or not. It makes pathways from sights and smells, warmth and cold. This is how I made memories with hymns. I know that “For the Beauty of the Earth” is usually sung in the spring, with spring banners and colors adorning the church, trying to decide if I would wear a raincoat to cross the alley to church or just run for it. Memories of Christmas Eve hymns like “Silent Night” are laced with the scent of tiny candles blown out, and during the late service my belly would be full from a dinner with family.

Just like Scripture I’ve memorized (which by the way, isn’t much: I kind of suck at memorizing just words out of context), hymns will come back to the forefront of my mind at different times. During this time of Advent, the song “O Come O Come Emmanuel” plays in my head over and over. I find myself searching for the newest renditions by artists like Piano Guys and Gungor. I listen, and satisfy that craving for a comfort that’s enveloped in a minor key, Thys and Thous, and a predictable rhythm. I also find nuances I’d never noticed before and appreciate the song through fresh ears.

Many years after my first foray into church, I decided to begin attending a new church of a very different denomination than the one I grew up in. This church did not sing many hymns during their worship services, and if they did it was accompanied by drums and lights and not a lot of harmonies. To my knowledge, the only organ was a small one that hid in the corner of the platform, collecting dust.

In that tradition I learned many different types of music and worship that were much more “extroverted,” or so it seemed. Hands raised, voices crying out, sometimes even with non-English and non-other-known-language utterances. Lots of repetition of the same phrase became a very emotional thing, and as a teenager who had always been moved by music (apparently I was rocking to the beat by 8 months old) I took it all in.

However, it was odd to me at first. I never felt so much emotional while singing in church before, not unless it was at a funeral. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t emotional about God, however, or didn’t care as much or wasn’t as “saved” as my new fellow congregants. I know that now.

I slowly picked up on the culture of the new church – one of valuing extroversion, that revered people’s willingness to pray out loud in front of people. We held hands, and I learned to pray out loud very long prayers. With lots of Lords and Gods and Jesuses. I think I prayed like that because to some extent I was being authentic and I wasn’t afraid to do it, especially if I felt comfortable with the group. It was my way of being like the leader I’d been in my Sunday School classes, being the teacher’s pet.

But I also think I prayed like that because it’s what was valued and seen as “real” prayer. For some reason I began to think that all the praying I’d done before wasn’t good enough, or sincere enough. And God surely would answer prayers were I was bold enough to speak out loud to a group. Apparently praying in my head just wasn’t enough anymore, and that was the beginning of my turning away from what I grew up with into a new denomination that would dominate my ways of thinking and being and interacting for about a decade.

What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe?

in Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have since returned to the tradition I grew up in. When we moved cross-country and returned to civilian life, I needed something different. I have a lot, lot more to say about my experiences in right-wing evangelical church. It turns out many people do But in unpacking the hurt and shame and uncertainty and division of my spirit and my body, I have found that the prayer I have felt comfortable doing is the right prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer prayed out loud with my church family is the right prayer. The Apostle’s Creed recited aloud is the right prayer. The brief silent prayer after communion is the right prayer. The “graces” we pray before meals in my house are the right prayers. The prayers I follow along with during a virtual service while also cross-stitching or crocheting are the right prayers.

I have also realized that the hymns I sang and memorized were prayers. I was actually praying so much when I was singing. And if part of meditation is sitting on a line or song or idea for awhile, then I was meditating too.

I’m sad that for many years I taught myself to reject the faith and mode of worship I developed as a child into adolescence, that I inherited from both sides of my family, that I celebrated in basements of country churches. I learned to look down my nose at my supposedly unenlightened friends and family who just didn’t have enough of the Holy Spirit… yet. I told myself I was better than they were because I prayed out loud and sang loud songs with drums and electric guitars and listened to sermons that were 45 minutes, not 15. And I had extreme guilt if I couldn’t “convert” my friends and family, who had a faith and belief of their own, to my new way of thinking. However, as Rachel Held Evans writes in Faith Unraveled, “We are saved by a restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time.”

I’m also kind of angry at the leaders and people in those churches (yes, I attended more than one) for encouraging the elitism, whether they knew it or not. They preached that their version of Jesus is the only Way, and also that the way we worship Him is the only Way. If you disagree with the sermon or theology presented, or think about Jesus in multiple historical contexts and perspectives, there’s probably something you need to be sorry for during that really emotional song that’s played after communion.

When I rejected my original mode of faith I also had to grieve it in context. I missed old creaky pews and hazy sunlight streaming through stained glass. I missed old hymnals and pipe organs. I definitely missed short sermons and the simplicity of a hymn, which if you study them, you will find that so many are much more theologically sound and linguistically complex than they are given credit for.

What a comfort to know that this loving and merciful God will not be disappointed, that his word falls over the earth like rain, covers it like snow, and nourishes it for an abundant harvest. What a comfort to know that God is a poet.

in Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans

I don’t think everyone gets the chance in their lives to “come home” to the faith they had as a child. I think many people didn’t have a faith home to begin with, which is fine, or their home was unstable and emotionally manipulative or even abusive. But I had a really great home of faith and religion in my formative years. I had many healthy experiences that taught me about the Bible but also about being in community with others. In the process, I gained a large understanding of literacy and musicality. I was taught so much by loving and reliable Sunday School teachers.

Fortunately I was able to come “home,” and it was the right choice for many reasons. I wasn’t sure what I would find among creaky pews and old-church-building smell and the organ and hymns and robes and seasons like Lent and Advent, but I knew it was a good place to start.



We are who we’ve always been

I have read a lot of good books lately – twenty so far in 2020. I recently finished The Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas and I can say that I had a book hangover for a good couple days. I also read another fantasy book, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, for a book club. (Check out the cover – beautiful artwork!) Yes, I am part of a book club where non-nonfiction books are read by yours truly. I’ve been channeling my energy throughout this past month of isolation into all the things I pursued pre-adolescence… reading, sewing, crafting, cooking – all the things that bring my joy and comfort and are simply me.

Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron caught my eye at the library. You know, the day I went and loaded up on books before it closed for an undetermined amount of time. But I saw the title in the “new nonfiction” section and thought, Hmm, welcoming the unwelcome… sounds like my life. Let’s get that one too.

It’s a gem. I’m almost halfway through and it seems every sentence is quotable. But here is one of my favorites:

The wonderful irony about the spiritual journey is that we find it only leads us to become just as we are. The exalted state of enlightenment is nothing more than fully knowing ourselves and our world just as we are.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

This has been so true for me. The longer I delve deep into the core of my soul, the more I see myself, actually. The unencumbered 4-year-old Elizabeth is there. The 12-year-old Elizabeth beginning to become unsure about her new body is there. The 30-year-old Elizabeth devastated by infertility is there. And the soon-to-be 34-year-old Elizabeth is there. And she’s the same and different all at the same time.

I think this phenomenon is something I also see in the protagonists of these books I’ve been reading, nay, devouring. Searching for something new but seeing themselves as a result. Having gone through some crazy messed up shit, but ending up seeing the same face and soul in the mirror, just changed, a new version of themselves.

I hope that when we come out of this “new normal”, we can all find the same soul in the mirror – farther along in our spiritual journeys.