My On-Again-Off-Again Relationship

I’ve been in an on-again-off-again relationship with various denominations over the span of my adult life. They have all helped me. The have all let me down. I am relieved to learn faith is not a denomination.

*****

Our communion bread was baked by local Carmelites. It was dense but soft and tasted like a thousand prayers sung before dawn.

When the priest set it on our palm, a moment of honeyed-lightness cleared the air before we were again submerged into the heady-safety-scent of incense. Years later I found myself in a parish youth group. We sang Beatles and Rent and post Vatican 2 hymns from the Spirit and Songbook. We played a lot of gotcha rounds in the gym and dated and undated each other and collected socks and soap for the poor with the Harley riding, habit wearing nun in charge of us.

Afterward, we’d drive to Denny’s with the windows down no matter the weather. Most would smoke, all would order milkshakes and quote movies until midnight. We were vagabonds and sloppy and I had a special tenderness toward this crew because I felt like they weren’t pretending and that was a faith I could get on board with.

But I saw the way our parents prostrated through mass in a familiar pew but were unchanged through the week and didn’t want any part of it. I was suspicious of the paternal wall constructed by the church. As a teen, I stared at the dried glue strands pulled between torn seem and sole on the bottom of the priest’s shoe while I confessed the sins of my body and mind to this man. Leaving the confessional in a splotchy purple of shame, I decided these are not my people after all and I broke up with Catholicism and it’s mystical traditions without experiential encounters of mystery.

******

In college while I was busy pulling all nighters talking and kissing with my one-day husband, then pulling all nighters writing passable papers for courses that I should have written better in the time I was using to talk and kiss, I also fell in love with new ways of understanding God.

A campus fellowship taught me how to analyze passages of scripture finding historical context, Greek meaning in words, repetitive urgency in syntax, and Old Testament allusions. Defining the Greek felt like a good and grown up way to quantify God. Nothing feels more official than the heft of a lexicon.

“Non-denominational service” felt a whole lot like Protestant to me where the room was dark and the band was loud and our very bones conducted additional reverb for the amp. It felt wild. It felt good.

For a few summers I worked as a camp counselor for a high profile Christian sports camp in the south. We looped chapstick on our shoelaces with hairties and spontaneously and collectively burst into chant at nearly every phrase possible. We did ridiculous stunts for each other and the kids and Jesus. Kids leading kids.

Faith came in containers of goofy skits, tactile object lessons, poignant heroes of faith stories, and prayer of salvation folding puzzle cubes. It was wonderful but also a cult unto itself and no matter how many cheers I did, I never quite grafted into this cool-kid club.

(Side story:this is also the time period when the audaciously full-frontal platonic bearhug from a guy friend in the parking lot of a Shakey’s on our night off tipped me into tears because I realized it was the first time I had been touched caringly by someone beyond the needy grabs of my cabin kids in weeks. Thanks purity culture for dehumanizing us by demonizing our need for physicality. Glad we’re starting to deconstruct that one.Un-side story.)

My concerns about cleaning the lake slide with unmeasured amounts of bleach were listened to but unchanged. My suggestion we begin recycling was met with a logistic defense of why we don’t, and when I wondered aloud if perhaps the generic chief headdress and warpaint worn by Christian white boys crossed into offensive cultural appropriation, I was labelled “that liberal girl”.

Again, I decided these were not my people and I broke up with Protestantism and the being pushed and pulled by emotions. I didn’t want to be around people smiling and focusing so intensely in worship with their hands up and eyes closed they were left little peripheral reach to see or care for the people and environment around them.

******

We walked down the diploma stage and directly to the marriage aisle before moving to another continent. My classroom was filled with collaborative projects, early literacy writings, big books, and equatorial heat. Our home was full of wall hangings and bugs and exhaustion and this felt right as I put on the title of missionary.

I followed the special rules given to us. On bad days, I became part of the problem of Western/African disconnect. On good days, even in the best of heart, it still felt that by simply being there we were perpetuating the harmful mentalities and practices of post-colonialism.

I slowly watched my husband of harmony harden and crumble while a power couple picked a fight with his character. Suddenly I understood the distrust others have for Christians based in the real pain of disappointing interactions with people in spiritual authority.

This didn’t feel like God, so I broke up with missionaries but kept the inspiration of faith from those I met from all over the globe during our time there as we came home to heal spiritual wounds and ideological rifts (and drink together while doing so).

*****

There is more to the story of returning to church, and working for church, then recovering from working for church and the need and motivation behind those seasons and what continues now. And there is so much more to each part of these spiritual timelines.

For now I want to apologize for being that girl during each of these spiritual seasons. I was learning. I was trying to be the best at each one. They gave me guidelines to understand myself and the world and what I could cling to of God. I know I was annoying sometimes.

And for now I want to honor myself for being that girl during each of these spiritual seasons. I was allowing Spirit to breathe through soul and teach me truths in spite of all the brokenness in these spiritual sectors.

The cost might be a spiritual homelessness and a continual longing for both the bread and the incense, the perky cheers and feeling the bass drum in our chest, but the gain is no longer needing defined outlines.

The gain is being assured that knowing less for sure about God at thirty than at twenty is growth in a humbly truthful direction.

The gain is recognizing that when my faith needs space, I create a wider boundary for spirituality to take root in all areas.

I don’t have to continue breaking up with denominations anymore. It turns out they never were the keepers of my faith anyway.

 

 


Since sending this post into the world many of you have messaged or texted your concerns and questions. So why stay? We stay at our church because of the people. Although they are imperfect, I’ve seen their hearts, particularly the hearts of those in leadership. They are for others. They are tiptoeing toward riskier conversations and allow difference of opinion, journey, and unanswered questions stand. 

 

 

 

 

 

Prettier With Age

My first date fell in winter when the plains states become little more than an icy wind tunnel connecting Canada to the Gulf. I wore thick white tube socks inside chunky-heeled brown on brown saddle shoes. And khakis. Lord help me, khakis. That’s an uncomfortable amount of severe tan tones off balance with the delicate rosettes outlining my collarbone in the cardigan on top.

There wasn’t a second date. It very well could have been the outfit since that sort of thing is hard to recover from as a teenager. Mostly, I think it was because we spent an excruciatingly boring evening together and a silent dinner where I realized I had just wasted a year’s worth of emotional energy pining for a guy I didn’t actually real-life want. On his end it might have been the tube socks or the speed at which I ran to my door from his mom’s borrowed minivan at the end of the night.

Now you know the alpha and omega of my high school dating career. There was also the time I went Christmas shopping with a friend who began holding my hand and I let him for a few days because I was curious if it is possible to turn the good feelings of being wanted into a reciprocated wanting. It wasn’t. Then there was the time I went to senior prom with my girlfriend under whispers of “lesbian” because I had rejected the boys who had asked that I didn’t want to spend that time with and the ones I had wanted to ask didn’t – aka the common plight of most non-Disney teenage girls.

While adjectives like “unique” or “interesting” or “nice” or (my personal searingly favorite) “the kinda girl who gets prettier with age” sound like insults at seventeen, they feel more like prophesy now in mid-thirties.

I had a birthday this week and I’m here to say beauty does get better with age because time is the great sieve of knowing ourself, knowing what matters, and knowing how to align ourself with what matters. I believe that it is in the knowing of ourself that we are able to see the watermark of the God who created us. In the intimate knowing of myself I am free to know others.

I think often we hold back in our interactions with others because we don’t want to be misinterpreted as meddling or perceived as needy. At least, that’s been me.

The older I get, the more confident  I am in the strengths I have been given, the more aware I am of God’s artistry in the every day of life, and the more desiring I am to see that energy and honesty and beauty of character be drawn forward in others.

Especially now when it feels the world’s gone dark. I think most people still want to be light and give light. I believe we need to say the things. Say all the things. Without hesitating because we’ve been labelled dominant or needy.

It’s scary to say the things. Say all the things of encouragement and kindness and affirmation to others without being weird.

Back in those highschool hallways teaming with Chuck Taylors and Rocket Dogs, I walked the linoleum tiles shyly in my vintage thrifted saddle shoes anticipating big things ahead. Big things indeed happened and, for the record, I wish I still had those shoes today.

That’s the other gift of your thirties. You get to own your style and it not only doesn’t matter it’s unlike everyone else’s, it’s awesome and it’s needed.

Could possibly the biggest thing that’s happened yet since high school be growing confidently into my own beauty so others like my children and friends and social media strangers are allowed to stand in theirs?

 

 

The Bike Ride

Do you remember that adolescent feeling when the stirring to interact with your world is bigger and wilder than your means to actually do so? Had we been in our twenties, it would have been a day for letting the car lead us, windows down and hair whipping to wherever the road and winds of inspiration intersected. Since we were fourteen we took our only option – the mountain bikes.

For a split second in the mid nineties I lived in northern California. No, no San Fran. Higher. Nope, not Chico. North, north. A little place time left untouched in the Sierras where the corners of valley stretching for sunlight are wrapped up in mountain peaks. One with the profile of a chief and headdress for alluvial fans flowing to the north and one a formidable feat of granite to the south.

There was a gala tree at the corner of our yard near the fence where fermenting apples and my teenage ideas gathered in heaps. An entire year of my life can be accounted for straddling splinters on that fencepost, looking down the hill into the valley below, singing classic showtunes and the folksy yodels of an up-and-comer; Jewel.

One year minus a few hour window when my new best friend and I entered the valley floor. The sun invited us into an unusually warm spring day, stirring our teenage boredom beyond bearability. We had to be a part of it. Hence, bikes.

Gears shifted, wheels whirred over asphalt as we passed pastures of wild grasses and the occasional cow. It would have all been very free and invigorating had it not been for the panting of the Pathfinder grinding out five mph behind us.

Yes, mom was there redefining hover before “helicopter parenting” was a thing. At some point after saying yes to our request to bike the valley but before saying yes to rationality, she allowed anxiety to overcome. She tracked us. Like a panther she persisted, following with the hazard lights flashing and an occasional honk and holler for good measure.

After a certain mileage we waved the white flag. A teenage psyche can only overcome so much. We loaded bikes on the rack and PAH-RAY-ED none of the (very small town very limited selection of) cute guys saw us with cycling helmets, let alone with this lady leaning out the window shouting at us to “push to the shoulder”.

Recently both my mom and friend-who-endured-the-bike-ride-of-shame asked if I remembered this day. (Thanks for hanging in there to be friends the day after, by the way. Not to mention nearly two decades more.) The answer to which is, of course!

It is a memory to be pocketed and revisited when my own daughter is fourteen and feels the crosshairs of independence and a need to interact with her world stir loud and unavoidable within.

I will want her to climb down from her fence feeling permission to engage in adventure. I will want to watch the freedom unfold. And yes, I will probably be totally terrified and want to offer her the experience while still controlling every aspect with my hand readied on the horn to honk warning and my head tilting out to holler cautionary reminders along the way.

Instead, I will rub this memory between my thumbs with the frenzy and familiar smoothness of a worry-rock and repeat the maternal mantra of each new generation of mothers – “don’t do that thing your mom did to you”. But we will because teenagers dream and sing and adventure and moms of teenagers worry. Just each generation a little less than the one before.